Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Something old, something new

Before I lose half my audience right off the bat, let me say that this post has nothing to do with the 2011 romantic comedy Something Borrowed.

Honestly, I just thought this would be some "clever" poster art to accompany the title I'd already chosen for this post.

I actually want to talk about the double features I watched over the past week while my wife was out of town. She left Wednesday morning and returned Saturday afternoon, leaving me control of the television in our living room on three different nights last week. I set out to watch a double feature each night. Turns out I took it even further than that, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The themes of my double features were simply this: Something old, something new. More specifically, each double feature would consist of one movie I'd already seen, and one movie I hadn't already seen.

I've been wanting to do this for some time, but I've lacked the discipline. When my wife and son went to Australia for 11 days last May, I had the crazy idea of doing one double feature like this every day they were gone. That turned out to be impractical, of course. There were days when other things I wanted to accomplish (like getting out to a baseball game) prevented me from seeing even one movie, and then there were days, specifically the weekend days, when I wanted to watch more than two movies. See, I'm anal about things like this -- it either has to be exactly two movies, fitting the exact specifications of my project, or I won't do it at all.

Three nights, however, was a much shorter and more manageable timeframe. Plus the fact that I had to stay home to babysit my son meant that I wasn't tempted to go out into the world on any of those nights. (Couldn't even if I was tempted.)

I ended up developing a bit of a theme for each individual double feature, but I'll get into that as we go along. The movie I list first is the one I watched first.

Wednesday, February 15th

Something old: 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Something new: The House of the Devil (2009, Ti West)
Informal theme that developed: Recent movies with moments of squirming intensity

Although I had some ideas for what I wanted to watch set in stone before my wife left town, I also wanted to leave some up to whim and circumstance. Both of the first night's movies were to be determined that way, in part as a result of what I picked up at the library that afternoon. As it turned out, all three of the movies (the maximum I'm allowed to check out) were movies I'd already seen. The one I knew would make it into my DVD player that night was 127 Hours.

127 Hours was the movie I ranked #1 in 2010. Since then I'd wondered if a different movie (The Social Network, #3 at the time) deserved to be in that top slot instead. So after flirting with my second viewing of 127 Hours a couple times, I finally made it happen on Wednesday night.

I'm not sure if it will have the ability to endure over time that The Social Network has, but I averaged out to liking 127 Hours about as much as I had the first time. I say "averaged out" because the first 2/3 inevitably did not strike me as much as they originally had, when the freshness of Boyle's choices caught me so delightfully by surprise. I didn't consciously like this part less, it was just the typical second-viewing phenomenon of having seen these choices before. What I found odd, though, was that I was more emotionally stricken by the ending than I had been the first time. I'm conscious of the fact that Boyle is really manipulating us at the end of this movie -- as (spoiler alert, ha ha) Aron Rolston grows closer to finally being removed from that canyon he thought would be his tomb, A.R. Rahman's score swells and increases in intensity. Yet I felt the emotions even more intensely than I had in the theater, and when the helicopter finally comes into view, it slayed me. I think it's okay to be taken by these techniques if you know they're operating on you on that level. Hey, movies are made the way they're made for a reason.

As for The House of the Devil, I'd only just added this to our Netflix queue two days earlier. On Monday I was listening to my weekly Filmspotting podcast, and they were discussing West's new film, The Innkeepers. The House of the Devil was mentioned a couple times as a point of contrast, and both of the show's co-hosts made it sound like some batshit stuff happened in that movie. I like batshit stuff. I like movies. It was on my queue 15 minutes later and in my ocular cavities two days after that.

I might be overstating how much I liked this movie, but here are two of the horror films I compared it to in discussions afterward: Halloween and Suspiria. If you don't know anything about this movie, it's basically a babysitter-in-peril movie that is styled after slasher films from the 1980s. Or so people are saying -- I actually found that the aesthetic reminded me more of the late 1970s than the 1980s, and the film never actually says the year it is set. However, the lead listens to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" on her walkman, and although the walkman was invented in 1978, "One Thing Leads to Another" was not invented until 1983. In any case, my quibbling with what style it most resembles is actually intended as a compliment -- the film looks and feels great, and its slow, dread-filled build toward [stuff I won't tell you about] is simply exhilarating.

Thursday, February 16th

Something new: Le Samourai (1967, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Something old: All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Informal theme that developed: "Old" movies that would require my full attention

The problem with watching two movies in one night, starting after your child goes to bed at 7 p.m., is that you are in serious risk of falling asleep before the second one finishes. Especially if you don't get to the first movie until the disappointing end of a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. And especially if the second is over two hours, which was the case with both of my "old" options: All About Eve and John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both of which I had absolutely adored but never revisited (and which were the other two movies I picked up at the library on Wednesday). As it turns out, I ended up finishing the second at about quarter to 2 in the morning after a short "nap," but first things first.

Le Samourai had been on my radar again thanks to Filmspotting, where Melville's movie has come up several times in connection to movies featuring "man with no name" type characters. Since I'm pretty sure it came up first during their discussion of Drive, which I did not really like, that should have been a warning sign that Le Samourai might not have exactly been in my wheelhouse. It wasn't exactly in my wheelhouse, but it's still quite a good film. Just nothing I want to recommend breathlessly to other film fans. (Without any set plan on when to watch it, I elevated it to the top of my queue and it arrived a couple weeks ago. I decided last week's project was as good a time as any.)

The story revolves around a mysterious hitman named Jef Costello (Alain Delon), who is sought by police after carefully setting up several alibis that should deflect attention from him after he completes the contract to kill a prominent Parisian night club owner. Although there is some nice atmospheric stuff involving him and his spartan apartment and the way he walks the Parisian streets looking guarded yet cool, much more of this film than I was expecting revolved around the procedural stuff related to finding the killer in this particular murder. There are some fleeting and interesting character relationships that crop up, but I guess I just thought there would be more "there" there. Still, I can't deny that it was pretty engaging and that it was shot beautifully. To make the experience more complete, I enjoyed wine, cheese, crackers and Italian salami while watching it.

As it was 10 o'clock by the time I got myself in position to start the second movie, I was moments away from inserting Treasure of the Sierra Madre into my DVD player, due to its 12 fewer minutes of running time. But then I got real with myself and decided that All About Eve was the one whose gravitational pull I was feeling more strongly -- the one I'd either almost borrowed or actually borrowed from the library on a few previous occasions. Damn that wine during Le Samourai -- it took me down for the count around 11, and threatened to throw my whole double feature schedule out of whack. Fortunately I revived in time to finish, even if it was well into the next day at that point.

I quickly remembered why All About Eve had been calling me back. The 1950 best picture winner is quite simply one of the best written films I've ever seen, primarily from the perspective of dialogue, though I also love the story. Bette Davis is terrific in the central (if not title) role, and boy can she sure deliver the hell out of Mankiewicz's dialogue. If you don't know the story, an ambitious nobody who is blessed with otherworldly acting skills latches on to a famous stage star (Davis) in order to try to learn all her tricks and eventually suck her dry. The deceptive innocence Eve (Anne Baxter) initially puts forward is terrific, as it demonstrates how you don't have to be an easily flattered stage diva to be taken in by her charms and apparent good intentions. I love how the story gets increasingly complicated among a coterie of secondary characters, and eventually culminates in that hollow awards acceptance speech at the end. Makes me wonder how many other people in the entertainment industry are thanked in contexts where they loathe the person thanking them.

Friday, February 17th

Something new: The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller)
Something old: Hardware (1990, Richard Stanley)
Quite formal and intentional theme: Post-apocalypse movies

One of the most embarrassing deficiencies in my viewing history has been The Road Warrior. I'd seen both of the other movies in that series, but never that one. But I had heard two wildly divergent opinions of it. Back when I was seven years old and it was in the theater, my parents and some of their friends went to see it while we were vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. I distinctly remember them (specifically my mother) saying how much they had loathed it, that it was violent and nihilistic (though they probably wouldn't have used the word "nihilistic" with a seven-year-old). Of course, since then my contemporaries who have seen it say it's awesome in all the right ways. They may have liked it for the exact reasons my parents didn't.

So I thought it made a good pairing with Hardware, which my contemporaries and I all loathed when we saw it in the theater. In recent years I've been wondering if it wasn't just that the movie had disturbed me -- quite possible, as it does feature a battle robot that comes back to life in the apartment of an artist and tries to rape her. I'm probably more open-minded to something dark and twisted like that than I was 22 years ago. So when I saw Hardware was available on streaming, I loaded Road Warrior into my DVD queue, and it arrived just in time for Friday night's premeditated double feature.

I guess I came down somewhere in the middle of those two opinions of The Road Warrior. I expected it to be non-stop lewd and lascivious acts from start to finish, but it really wasn't. In fact, it had more Beyond Thunderdome in it than I was expecting. (Something about that feral little kid with the boomerang just screams "Thunderdome" to me.) I loved the fast cars, spectacular wipeouts and amoral brutality ... but to be honest, I expected those elements to be present to a greater degree. I also expected Mel Gibson's Max to be a bit more depraved and a bit more of an antihero than he was. Really, he's fairly safe, as would have made sense in trying to make the movie more mainstream for a bigger box office. That said, I really enjoyed most of it, and felt like I was checking a seminal film off my list.

I didn't realize how perfect a double feature partner Hardware was until I started watching. The lead character here, played by Dylan McDermott, is actually nicknamed Max, though his given name is Moses. I couldn't tell if that was supposed to be either a direct or an indirect allusion to the Mad Max series -- the movie never really expounded on it.

It was funny how much I remembered of this movie I hated (another indicator that this movie might have scarred me in some way, which my 17-year-old brain interpreted as hatred). I actually remembered the tune of the movie's theme song, which is "The Order of Death" by Public Image Limited and includes the refrain "This is what you want, this is what you get." I don't think I've heard that song since then (although I see it was used in The Blair Witch Project), so my memory of exactly when it played, 22 years later, is really quite something.

Here's what I'll say: This movie is not good in any conventional sense, but it's a lot more interesting than I gave it credit for. The robot splatters a couple humans (including a sexual predator) in really grotesque ways, and his advances at the artist (Stacey Travis) are pretty menacing and frightening. The movie has some awkward moments where it's very poorly executed, which is probably part of what turned my uncertainty into out-and-out distaste when we were first watching it. But I also don't really think we could handle this movie back in high school. As someone who has since gone on record with my affection for depraved films, I think Hardware fits in nicely -- it's bleak, hopeless and tarnished, which I now view as positive characteristics rather than negative ones.


My "official" double feature slate ends there, but funnily, I got in two more pairings of double features that fit the old-new theme before the end of Saturday night. I might as well run quickly through those since I've already come this far:

Saturday, February 18th

Before my wife got home:

Something new: The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
Something old: Rabbit Hole (2010, John Cameron Mitchell)
Informal theme that developed: None, really -- but both were movies I could watch while my son was awake?

I won't spend too much time on these, in part because The Lady Eve is part of my Getting Acquainted series and I'm going to spend more time on it a week or so from now. But let me just say that I'm glad I was watching The Lady Eve while my son was awake, doing his little projects around the house and occasionally bothering me, rather than Rabbit Hole. I watched Rabbit Hole during his nap, and was glad I did -- I simply love this movie, and as with 127 Hours, it hit me even harder, emotionally, on the second time through. It wasn't that I wasn't a bit distracted while watching it -- I needed to take care of some last cleaning around the living room before my wife came home. But at least the distractions were of my own choosing.

After my wife got home:

Something new: Chronicle (2012, Josh Trank)
Something old: They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
Informal theme that developed: Science fiction? Unintentional comedy? I don't know.

I'm going to leave these undiscussed. If I find the time, I'm going to devote a whole post to giving Chronicle a piece of my mind later this week.

Sunday, February 19th

The pattern was finally broken yesterday when I watched only one movie, the hilarious spy spoof called OSS 117: Lost in Rio. It's from the director (Michel Hazanavicius) and star (Jean Dujardin) of The Artist.

Which, for the record, was something new.

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