The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, TheThief, HisWife & HerLover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – 1989

Director – Peter Greenaway

Starring – Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, and Michael Gambon

By far, the most dramatic visual statement a film can make is the use of color.  The use of color in a film, any film, immediately sets for the audience and then maintains the tone of the story throughout the rest of the film.  Amongst all of the important elements of filmmaking, plot, acting, directing, art direction, editing, etc., the choice of how to present your film’s color scheme is arguably the most immediate and subjective choice you can make.  A very washed out color palette says something completely different from say a very saturated one, or even a monochromatic one.  From the first frame the audience is instantly on board and facing the direction you’ve pointed them.

Despite all the nastiness, pain and anger this film has on display, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is such a lush and visually sumptuous exercise in color use, that a critique or review could be written solely on its use and impact alone (although I’ll try to touch on other stuff too).  Peter Greenaway, angry with the political climate in Britain loaded this film with vitriol aimed at the Thatcher government that was in power during the making of this film in the 80s.  Thanks to my limited knowledge of 1980’s England, the not so subtle symbolism and rather heavy-handed commentary on the state of his home nation was all but completely over my head.  Thankfully, however, that didn’t take away from the overall message of the film, nor on the long-lasting aftertaste it left in my brain.

To start with, I should mention that the entire film is shot in the confines of or immediately outside of a fancy french restaurant, each area of which is dressed in its own specific color.  The exterior of the restaurant is blue, the kitchen green, the dining room red, and the ladies room is white.  Not only that, but each of the character’s clothes change to match the setting when they go from one to the next. (ie: as a character moves from the kitchen to the dining room, their clothes change from green to red, etc…) Not only does this stay constant, but each color is indicative of the character who dominates that setting.  The blazing, angry gangster holds court in the dining room.  The ladies room represents a sanctuary for the adulterous couple.  The kitchen is the realm of the cook, and the outside represents the real world.  There is one exception, however.  Michael, the rather nebbish man who captures the eye of the gangster’s wife, is always clad in a rather drab brown color.  He is the exception to the color rule, he is his own constant.

The thief of the title refers to Albert Spica, mercilessly and ravenously played to the hilt by Michael Gambon.  Spica is a gangster of the most reprehensible variety, used to getting his way through intimidation, anger, and violence.  Spica dominates and controls (or tries to) everyone around him.  While I doubt very much that Thatcher and her cronies went so far as to actually spread shit on her enemies, taking what was theirs, and leaving them bloodied and broken, he apparently represents her, and her government.

His much abused, much put-upon wife Georgina, played somehow still gracefully by Helen Mirren, stands for the trampled citizenry of Britannia.  Her dutiful acceptance and depressing outlook on this relationship is indicative of most abusive relationships whether they’re between two people or on a much larger, country-sized scale.  This subservient behavior that typifies Georgina from the beginning of the film, is immediately thrown off track when she connects with a quiet, lonely soul who represents everything that her gangster is not.  To Georgina, Michael represents safety, happiness (or at the very least less sadness), and something more than simple survival.  The first half of this romance is purely visual, as it transcends the boundaries represented by the different rooms and their colors.  It is fully halfway into the film before we even hear Michael utter his first word.  As I mentioned before, his is the only characters’ color scheme that never changes.  He wears a consistently brown colored suit throughout the film, which helps exemplify the inherent stability, and staid nature of his character.

The cook, of the film’s title, acts as an overseer.  Not so much an omnipotent god as an observer.  He is privy to more information than everyone else in the film, but unlike a simple observer, he does tend to meddle a bit.  Since he has a rather strong dislike, with good reason, for the brash, un-refined gangster that has hijacked his restaurant, he helps to facilitate, and even protect the blossoming love between Georgina and Michael.  Where as Michael has limited to no ability to stand up to Spica, the Cook is at times outright defiant.  He is more than willing to poke this dangerous man’s ego with a stick, because the thing he loves most (his restaurant) has already been taken from him, and he has little left to lose, save his dignity.

The film is certainly bit heavy handed, however, I don’t think it would have had the same impact or effect if it had been treated otherwise.  Large bold strokes are required here to convey the hurt, the anger, and the sadness of this film.  It was said by another essayist that the nudity of the film isn’t so much revealing as it is exposing.  This couldn’t be more true.  The numerous sexual encounters between Georgina and Michael are equally about opening up, showing off flaws, and fear of trust, as they are about intimacy, arousal, and lust.  The glamour and sensuality of it isn’t gone really, but juxtaposed with the violence and inhumanity demonstrated by Gambon’s Spica, it has a much more comforting effect.  It makes them, and us, feel safe and connected, and what a wonderful way to use sex in a film.

With everything it has to say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover really needs to be watched more than once to glean all you can from it.  Despite the difference in tone and message, and despite the rather disparate nature of the films I’m about to compare it to, there is a definite connection between this film and something like the Three Color Trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge), by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (especially Amelie), and to a much different yet no less important extent, some of the films of Paul Schrader, especially Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters for it’s use of color, Affliction for it’s use of tone and message, and Auto Focus for it’s mixing of both of these things.  This film is defintely worthy of your attention.  I was certainly glad I gave it mine.

La Pianiste (AKA: The Piano Teacher) (2001)

La Pianiste (AKA: The Piano Teacher) – 2001

Director – Michael Haneke

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, and Benoit Magimel

Oh, Michael Haneke.  You and your sparse, harsh morality tales!  I know from the moment that I hear this particular director’s name, that I am going to be witness to an unflinching account of the baser side of human behavior. This prolific filmmakers work often comes on a tide of praise and accolades despite their typically dark subject matter. Of his films, I’ve seen Cache, The White Ribbon, and now The Piano Teacher, all of them difficult stories about fractured people, poorly relating with one another.

As one might gather from the film’s title the main character of this film, Erika, is a teacher of the piano. On her exterior, she is a rather harsh and cold woman, she harbors a deep desire for connection that she doesn’t get from her overly dramatic live-in mother, or from her pristine and rather antiseptic relationship with music.

She spends her time looking down her nose at her students and pre judging them based on their understandably timid nature around her, playing piano, oh, and she may cut herself just for laughs. One of her students, Walter, attempts to get her attention first through music, then through flirting, encountering rejection at each turn.  Next, he takes a somewhat more drastic approach by following her into the ladies room, clumsily embracing her, and forcing a kiss on her. She responds, a mite unexpectedly, by opening up to him about her desire to be dominated, humiliated and abused both verbally and physically.

Initially, Walter seems excited, expressing a desire to learn more, and stepping up his advances.  However this eventually gives way to unease and eventually to disgust as Erika outlines exactly what it is she would like him to do to her.   This time it is he who does the rejecting and she who begins the pursuit.  This trading back and forth of who has the power in this relationship is fueled mainly by his anger (with her and with himself), and her need for attention and affection (confused and misguided as it may be).  It seemed to me that her desire to be dominated mirrored in many ways her tumultuous relationship with her mother, and perhaps there have been other similarly motivated relationships that have informed her view of how men and women are supposed to cohabitate.

The acting in this film is typical of the other Haneke films that I have seen, slow in pace, severe in tone, and more than a little uncomfortable.  Isabelle Huppert pushes the role of Erika to such a point that I basically stopped liking her, and then was able to bring her back to a point where I felt sorry for her, rescuing her from the clutches of my uncaring.  Now whether or not you like the character at the end, that is a pretty remarkable feat for an actor to pull off.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Benoit Magimel had as much success, nor as much to work with.  By the end of the film, I totally didn’t like Walter at all, and it’s not as if I started off liking him a lot.  Walter seemed overly eager to me, and by extension, a little insincere and false.  I always felt like he was trying to put one over on Erika, in order to get something (most likely sex although I was ready for anything, money, a laugh, even some sort of bizarre revenge) from her.

In the end though, I felt this film to be inferior to both of the other Haneke films that I’d seen previously.  The Piano Teacher lacked the raw menace and shock that came with Cache, and it lacked the austere beauty, and hidden danger and anger that came out of The White Ribbon.  Cinematographically speaking, this film didn’t have all that much going for it.  While composed well enough, the shots seemed ordinary and almost placid, succeeding only in simple documentation of the character’s actions.  Though that may have been a conscious choice (I hope it was anyway), it’s not one that really worked for me.  The story wasn’t shocking enough to juxtapose the calm stability of the imagery, and the imagery wasn’t artful enough to keep me entertained while watching it.

Mr. Haneke has at least one other film on this list that I have yet to see, Funny Games, which was ultimately re-made by him (for english speaking audiences), also called funny games.  I’ve heard some real praise for that film, both versions of it , but also some warning of its harrowing nature, and I must say that I’m a more excited to see that film as it seems like it might have a little more to say even if it’s more disturbing.  The Piano Teacher seemed a rather light effort to me, one that certainly wouldn’t have ranked as one of the 1001 best films ever, but also one that covered similar material as did films like Secretary, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, which were in terms of craft, construction and message, leagues better than this one.

Black Narcissus (1946)

Black Narcissus – 1946

Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar

Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it.  But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.

The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the  mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens.  The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.

Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen.  Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel.  She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.

Speaking of Mr. Dean.  It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand.  Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals?  Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.

Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife.  Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.

The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace.  It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance.  Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous.  Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up.  It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.

Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear.  Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges.  It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching.  So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds

Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire.  Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular.  For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films.  The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.

When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list.  Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.

“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley

Who will survive…and what will be left of them?

So it’s my favorite time of the year…Halloween. So why not indulge myself a little and review some of the best horror, thriller, and suspense films in the book. Some of them I’m super thrilled about writing reviews of, and some are certainly popular but not necessarily my favorites. Read on to find out which is which. Enjoy!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A classic, certainly without which we wouldn’t have such staples as The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead and it’s remake, or the fantastic Shaun of the Dead, as well as a whole host of other films that have borrowed from it. The paranoia, mounting tension, and overwhelming odds of this first Zombie movie, transferred smoothly into non horror themes, such as isolation, race-relations, and fear of the Nuclear age in which we live.

L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo AKA The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In this early film, Dario Argento, arguably the biggest name in italian horror, creates a film that is more Hitchcock than it is a slasher movie. The tension and carnage that ensues is more about pacing and misdirection than it is vicious thrills, and gore. That being said, it does have its share of gore. Oh, those italians, never short of gore. While good, I actually liked his later, more iconic film, Suspiria better than this one.

Deliverance (1972)

A horror movie of a different variety, rather than use a monster or a psychopathic antagonist, this film explores the terrible behavior exhibited by humans onto one another. The group of hunters looking to spend some time together having fun, get to know way more about each other than they ever wanted to know. Normally I wouldn’t give away any spoilers, but I think most people know exactly what the “twist” to this movie is. Men raping men has never been so much fun.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Quiet, slow, and nearly bloodless apparently equals really effective and terrifying. Who knew! Despite the fact that I credit The Exorcist with being better all around (scares, craftsmanship, and acting), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty fantastic in its own right. By all means you should see the original version and relish in the grainy washed out film stock, the real locations that haven’t been over dressed or grimed up to such a degree as to make looking at them unsanitary, and the overall impact of a movie that can utilize calm as well as it does chaos. One hell of a good movie!

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

This film predates the slasher sub-genre of horror movies by close to 5 years, however it definitely shares and in some cases has inspired certain sadistic qualities in them. The movie gives us a family full of socially dysfunctional, nomadic killers as the source of our fear, an anxiety, and a nice everyday innocent family to compare ourselves to. More camp than scare. More sadism than not.

Suspiria (1977)

This film is far more surreal, and otherworldly than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the other Dario Argento film that I’ve seen. It is by far, more psychological and subtle in how it works under your skin, but also has a far less believable (read: ridiculous) set of traps and horrors for our heroine to escape. A room in a dance academy that is inexplicably filled with coils upon coils of barbed wire, is decidedly unbelievable, and therefore draws us out of the “story”. That being said, I still liked it better than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for its use of rich full color, and it’s dedication to that certain uneasy feeling.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Holy Shit! If you have managed to make it through your life to this point without seeing this movie, do yourself a favor, go buy (not rent) it and watch the shit out of it! For a movie that is so closely associated with the horror genre, Dawn of the Dead manages to be so relevent and forward facing on such a large variety of subjects. From race relations, religion, and consumer culture, to the nature of willful violence, and interaction between the sexes, not to mention some pretty outstanding makeup effects. This film has so much to offer first time and repeat viewers alike. Granted some of the makeup looks a bit bad by today’s standard, and some of the euphemisms seem a bit dated and clunky, but by and large this film has all the energy and fire of the films of the seventies, plus a pretty compelling horror story to boot. Make sure to buy the version that comes with the theatrical and directors cuts, so you can compare and contrast the values of each. (Hint: The Director’s Cut is better.)

Halloween (1978)

In terms of craftsmanship and construction Halloween is a master-class in editing and pacing. Featuring very little in the way of jump-scare type tactics, this film instead, skillfully builds the tension slowly through the use of shot composition, and editing, along with skillful acting and directing. Of course, John Carpenter is no stranger to the praise due to him from the horror fan community, including myself. I’ve enjoyed almost every single one of his films, and I only say “almost” because I can’t remember if there has been anything that I haven’t liked. Watch this!

Alien (1979)

In terms of futuristic visuals and slow building tension, Ridley Scott seemed to have cornered the market in the late 70’s and early 80’s. With films like Blade Runner and Aliens he helped to bring a living, breathing, realism to the science fiction genre that had before been absent. Where Star Wars was shiny and optimistic, Alien was concerned with the accurate depiction of its characters in a true to life setting. With Alien, he also managed to bring horror to a new level. For proof, just go watch the still terrifying trailer for the original Alien.

“The baby alien is soooooo cute! And there’s a cat!  And a butt crack!” – Ashley

The Shining (1980)

With the Shining, Stanley Kubrick made one of the finest films ever committed to celluloid (or digital mediums, I’m not playing favorites). The power and the impact of the imagery sticks with you long after the film is finished (they’ve been with me since I saw it way back when I was young.), and while the dialogue and delivery seems stilted at first, it all serves a grander purpose of creating a slightly skewed feeling in the viewer. The disharmony and discord starts to build at an imperceptible level, but once it rears its head, it is obvious that it has been around for a long while. Absolutely one of my favorite movies, and well deserving of being on this list!

“You know it’s a good horror movie if Shelley Duvall is in the film and still not the scariest part.” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A classic in my circle of friends, this is actually a movie that I came to finally see rather late (only 4 years ago or so), and I’m really glad I did.  Part slapstick comedy, part horror movie, American Werewolf in London manages to balance the two genres giving a room for the comedy to live, without ruining the scary elements.  Then there is the astounding fully lit, werewolf transformation scene, something that was nearly impossible in the days before CGI.  Definitely worthy of its spot on this list.

“Suck it CGI!” – Ashley

Check out guest reviewer Mike Petrik’s review, here!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter have, together, made a pair of my most favorite films ever, Big Trouble in Little China, and this movie, The Thing. Along with being a completely absorbing well paced thriller in its own right, it also happens to have some really outstanding special makeup effects, and puppetry. Add in to the mix a young Wilford Brimley, Keith David in all his glory, and who could forget the heartbeat of a score that relentlessly pushes us onward, towards the end of the film. Outstanding all around!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“One point for the great special effects makeup…one point for the sexy Kurt Russell beard…negative one million points for the hurting beautiful puppies” – Ashley

Poltergeist (1982)

As far as this list goes, the Poltergeist has perhaps left the smallest impact on me. All I really remember is the tiny woman with the child’s voice. She actually played good character in the film, yet still she stands out as a defining characteristic of this horror film far more than the big gauzy skeleton, the skeletons in the basement, or heaven forbid the terrifying child-sized doll that those shitty parents put in their kids room.

“Thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, I know that Poltergeists are not ghosts.” – Ashley

The Evil Dead (1982)

Despite the fact that this film revolutionized the way that horror films were shot, produced, watched, edited, and scored, The Evil Dead was, in my opinion not nearly as good as its slapstick sequels, The Evil Dead Part 2, and Army of Darkness. Definitely worth watching, but make sure you watch the other two, so you can see director Sam Raimi reboot his own film, and make it worlds better.  Give me some sugar, baby!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This was the movie…the movie that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid far more than any other movie has ever done, before or since. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t make sense why this film had such a profound effect on me, but none the less, it did. The most terrifying image in the film (in my younger-selfs opinion), comes in the first 10 minutes, and the real terror of the first watch was the anticipation of whether it would be topped in the remaining 80 or so minutes. Not to mention, the film had a rather ingenious premise of allowing the victims to be vulnerable in their dreams, a place that no one can escape. Worth the watch, but I’ve heard you should avoid the remake.

Manhunter (1986)

The best of the Hannibal Lecter movie adaptations, this one combines the visual sensibility of Michael Mann, the menace and animalism of Tom Noonan, and the depth and intelligence of Brian Cox as Lecter into a luscious, dangerous, thrilling movie. Despite it’s inclusion on this list, I feel that the more popular Hannibal Lecter story, The Silence of the Lambs, is far inferior to this film, though there are many who would disagree vehemently. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that the remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, is completely a piece of shit by comparison.  Brett Ratner my ass!

The Fly (1986)

Your standard story about a man who invents teleportation devices only to have it backfire on him when a simple little house fly gets caught in the machine with him. This film creeped me out quite a bit when I was a kid, particularly the arm wrestling scene. The Fly is a great horror movie, worthy of inclusion on this list!

Aliens (1986)

Quite possibly my favorite of the movies on this Halloween list. I grew up with this movie, so as a result, I am in capable of judging it in any way other than favorably. A great continuation of the story that began in Alien, one that manages to go far beyond it in terms of action, character development, and stakes. Where the original was effective through the isolation of its characters, Aliens succeeds by forcing them to band together to combat the threats from without as well as within.  This is when James Cameron was at his peak in my opinion (well, that or during the Terminator movies), not during the bloated gimmicky Avatar days.  Robot versus space-bug!  That really says it all.

Spoorloos AKA The Vanishing (1988)

If you’ve seen the remake of this film starring Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland, then do yourself a favor, drink a bunch of turpentine till you forget that one, and when you’re back from getting your stomach pumped at the hospital, watch this creepy-as-hell movie. Using simple tactics to inspire fear, Spoorloos is surprisingly contemplative, and deceptively calm for a list such as this. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s terrifying all the same.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. CREEPY. This mind-bending film tests the limits of the audiences perception, making us debate up until the very end whether or not we think our main character is, in fact, crazy, delusional, or correct that there are strange beings out to get him. The fantastic Danny Aiello electrifies every scene he is in, and make sure to watch out for a small appearance by Ving Rhames, too!.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Way, way over-rated. While this movie isn’t bad, the fact that it took home best picture, best actor, best actress, and best director honors at the Oscars is a little absurd if you ask me. Hopkins was good as Lector, but not nearly as menacing as Brian Cox was in the role just a scant 5 years earlier. Foster was good as well, but has been much better in better things as well. Jonathan Demme, is the exception. Though I don’t think he necessarily deserved the Oscar for his work here, this actually is the best thing he has ever done. In fact, he did such a bad job on The Truth About Charlie, a terrible remake of one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade, that he ought to have any awards and accolades stripped from him.  He actually owes me an Oscar.  Watch Manhunter instead.

Scream (1996)

I saw this movie at just the right time for me to see this movie. I saw it with a bunch of really good friends, and had a really good time doing it. The movie as it turns out was pretty good too, turning the usual conventions of the horror movie on its ear to great effect. This movie also benefited from an up and coming cast, a good soundtrack, and a rejuvenated director, Wes Craven, ready to attack the genre that he helped create in the first place.

Tetsuo (1998)

It’s strange that this is the only Japanese horror movie that is included in the list of 1001 movies, that I’ve seen, especially considering the fact that Japan seems to specialize in decidedly creepy horror movies. Tetsuo is really more of a bizarre, sci-fi-sex-fantasy with a fair amount of blood in it. Basically a man turns slowly and painfully into a machine, a process which grants him great strength and power, but also makes him a terrible monster at the same time. If you’d like to know if you will like it, base whether you see it on this spoiler-ish phrase…”Drill penis”. And there you have it.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I’m a fan of its concept, I’m a fan of the mark such a low-budget movie was able to make, but I was not a fan of the fact that it spawned a lot of cheap imitators, nor was I a fan of the movie itself. There was so much hype surrounding this movie, that it couldn’t help but fail in the eyes of a film student / horror film fan like me. You will never hear anyone say this again, ever, but I liked The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows way better.

“Ughkk…God!” – Ashley

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

My lovely wife would disagree of my assessment of this film. I thought it was an un-paralleled work of craftsmanship and genius, with a creepy/dreamy surrealistic concept that translated well to the glimmering, shining facade of Hollywood. She thought it was crap. In my humble opinion David Lynch redeemed himself after the terrible, and terribly confusing Lost Highway, to make a work that stands alongside his very best (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Of course he went right back to making terrible crap with Inland Empire, but there is no need to dwell on that here. Go see Mulholland Dr., one of the scariest movies that isn’t supposed to be scary , you’ll ever see!

“I know experimental narrative.  I like experimental narrative.  I went to film school to make experimental narrative.  You sir, are not an experimental narrative.” – Ashley

And there you have it.  Just a few of the horror selections on the list.  I don’t necessarily agree that these should all be held up and called the best of the best, but conversely, some of them are absolutely worthy of such distinction.  Good or bad, however, each has its importance in terms of the history and art of film.  Happy Halloween!

Detour (1945)

Detour – 1945

Director – Edgar Ulmer

Starring – Tom Neal, and Ann Savage

Most movies have a fairly common structure.  Introduce main character, introduce obstacle, main character struggles, main character overcomes obstacle, main character succeeds, lesson learned.  Now these steps can be repeated over and over again as needed, but generally this is the standard flow that a linear movie follows.  There is, however, always an exception to the rule that eschews this set up in favor of either of two scenarios.  The first, is that nothing happens to the main character, and they live happily ever after.  Boring.  The second is that everything possible happens to the main character.  They are so weighed down with the overwhelming  hopeless circumstances that they may not ever recover, and there is no happily ever after stage in that equation.  Detour resides in this second, depressing as hell movie category.

Everything starts out fairly well for Al Roberts (Tom Neal), he’s young, he has a job that he loves, and he has his best girl by his side.  Pretty quickly though, things begin to tarnish for him.  His girl wants to take a break from their relationship and move out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of being in the movies.  Distraught, Al plans to follow her, win her back and marry her.  So it is about this point in your standard movie following my previously outlined formula that our hero would struggle, and endeavor against all odds to do just that.  He may run into trouble along the way, but with pluck and ingenuity fueled by this goal, he’ll no doubt find a way.  So that is exactly what Al sets out to do, so far so good.

So he starts hitchhiking across the country towards LA, and towards his dreams of happiness and the future.  Of course the problems start right away, but that’s to be expected, right?  Challenge gives way to frustration, and eventually to desperation as one problem turns quickly into many.  Al is picked up by a shady gambler, Charles Haskell, who is also on his way to Los Angeles, but the weather changes, things go wrong, and the man ends up dead, accidentally maybe, but dead none-the-less.  Afraid of blame and retribution from the police, Al steals the mans identity and becomes Charles Haskell Jr.  At this point, things go from bad to worse, not only for the character, but also for the audience who is stuck watching him make the dumbest decisions that he possibly can.

In an attempt to appear normal, and change his luck for the better, Al decides to pick up a hitchhiker himself.  Enter, Vera (the very appropriately named Ann Savage).  Distrusting, brash, opportunistic, with a little touch of crazy, that would appropriately describe, Vera.  Oh and one other thing, Vera knows that Al isn’t who he says he is.  Much as I might like to elaborate, to do so would give away too much of the plot.  Needless to say the situation goes from bad to worse.  What started as simple, easily explained, accidental death, continues to spiral downward along a path of deception, greed, and desperation.

This bat-shit crazy pair of travel companions simultaneously need, and can’t wait to be rid of the other.  It’s nearly excruciating watching them make worse and worse decisions, swinging them ever closer to the final reel of the film (which by the way you can see their fate coming from a mile off).

Strangely, and tragically enough, this events of this film (Success, murder, money, double crossings, etc…) were mirrored, in a way, in Tom Neal’s (Al) real life.  Violence led to his being black-balled from Hollywood, causing him to take up landscaping work, and he ended up serving 6 years of a 7 year sentence after being convicted of manslaughter in the murder of his wife.  This knowledge of what has become of our main actor sort of colors the impact of the film, making it seem even darker, which is quite a feat considering how dark it is already.

This film, while interesting and definitely unique, is not nearly as engaging and warm as other studio system films of the same era, and as a result seems out-of-place.  Bleaker than other, similarly plotted movies, this film seemed like it was trying to alienate and shock audiences of the day much in the same way a movie like “Kids” did in the early nineties, or anything that Lars Von Trier has ever done ever.  Detour, like the film “Peeping Tom” fifteen years later, seemed to be a film that went to a point that audiences weren’t ready to go just yet.  Themes like this would later be explored and realized more fully and successfully in films of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  At that point the glow of a war winning, wholesome Americana was just wearing off and we were ready to have doubt, fear, and loathing creep in again.

“Bitch is crrraazy” – Ashley

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters – 1986

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Woody Allen,

I have a long history of not really liking the films of Woody Allen.  I feel my reasons are and were sound, and should you like to know why I haven’t liked them, you can see them explained here and here, or I can quickly summarize…Diane Keaton.  Okay, to be fair, that isn’t the only thing that doesn’t appeal to me about his films, it certainly doesn’t help them out in my opinion though.  But recently the strangest thing happened to me.  I saw a Woody Allen film that while well thought of, isn’t one of the ones that every one mentions when talking about Allen (those being Annie Hall, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the worst film ever made, Manhattan Murder Mystery).  The film in question was inhabited by real characters that actually could exist outside of the confines of New York City (although they don’t necessarily need to).  They are subject to a real emotions, and motivations that weren’t added for comic value.  Strangest of all…I liked this film quite a bit.

Mia Farrow plays Hannah, the trustworthy, dependable, and somewhat discounted anchor to her family.  Her sisters, played by Diane Wiest, and Barbara Hershey, use her as a means of support in their endeavors.  Hannah’s parents waffle between lovey-dovey, starry-eyed affection, and drunken accusations with a touch of distrust.  In an effort to hold their relationship together, Hannah is put into the role of arbitrator and peace-keeper, all the while attempting to keep her own life and marriage on track.

Hannah’s husband, Eliott, played by Michael Caine, sees her as a boring but necessary part of his life, instead lusting after her sister Lee.  The both of them enter into an adulterous relationship based solely on lust and desire, and only later confront their desires for stability, reassurance, and regularity that each receives from Hannah.  Though Wiest’s character, Holly, has a much less destructive relationship with her sister she is still constantly borrowing money which she uses for a variety of failed career ventures.

As usual Allen puts himself in the film, although this time around he relegates himself to a much smaller role.  As Mickey, Hannah’s ex husband, he plays one of the few redeemed characters in the film (not in a bad way mind you, every one in the film is perfectly cast in their roles), and the relationship that develops throughout the course of the film provides the film with a rich, tangible, and completely enjoyable center.

Though it lacks the groundbreaking structure of something like Annie Hall, and doesn’t quite provide the super iconic imagery of something like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters is by far one of Allen’s best (right up there with the aforementioned Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors).  Allen’s fascination with the existence of God and the meaning of life has never been handled better than it is here, and neither has the pay-off from such questions.  By the end of the film, my heart was singing, and my own troubles were forgotten, left for another time.

It is at this point that Allen fans could rightfully tell me, “I told you so…” (although they’d be only half right).  So consider me told.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Director – Michael Powell

Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure.  I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast.  Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry.  So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.

Blimp  follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries.  Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital.  Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage. 

The film opens a few years from the beginning of  World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War.  Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything.  Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often.  Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well. 

Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.

Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory.  Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime.  Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War.  Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon.  The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo.  Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.

Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own.  In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.

Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces.  George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million.  Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.

The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true.  Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards.  Check that out here if you are so inclined.  That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!