Monday, April 19, 2021

Best Pictures #66: 2020 (93rd) Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee: The Father

by A.J. 
Best Pictures #66: 2020 (93rd) Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee
The Father

"I feel as if I'm losing my all leaves."
An audience will generally accept whatever happens in the first 15 or 20 minutes of a movie to be true to the reality of the story no matter the genre or subject matter. This is when we are being introduced to the characters and their world. Even if a movie begins with a dream or a fantasy, it has told us what is real and what is not. The Father takes full advantage of this to put the audience in the mindset of Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. As you might imagine given the subject matter, this makes for a heavy viewing experience. The Father is that kind of movie that is well made and well-acted but cannot exactly be described as entertainment. 
The film begins with Anne (Olvia Coleman) meeting her father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), at his large, posh London apartment to tell him that she has met a man and will be moving to Paris soon, so she will not be able to look after him anymore. In the next scene Anthony finds a man in his apartment who he (and we) has never seen before claiming to be Anne’s husband. Anne returns from the market but Anthony does not recognize her. Neither do we. Now Anne is played by Olivia Williams and says she is not and never was moving to Paris. Director Florian Zeller, who, along with Chistopher Hampton, adapted The Father from his play, has us share in Anthony’s disorientation and confusion with very effective but simple techniques.
Scenes repeat and loop back on themselves. It seems like this movie takes place over the same few days again and again. The Oscar nominated production design makes different apartments look the same but also different. The cinematography finds ways to shoot a room from different angles so we aren’t sure if we are in Anthony’s apartment or his daughter’s apartment. There is a general sense of a timeline (the editing also received an Oscar nomination), but we are never really sure where we are in the timeline. Anthony often points to a painting done by his other daughter, Lucy, but then one time it isn’t there anymore. We see the faint outline that something once hung there. Was the painting removed? Is he in a different apartment that never had the painting and hung something else there?   
It will come as no surprise that Anthony Hopkins gives not just a good or very good performance but a great one. His Best Actor Oscar nomination isn’t just a lifetime achievement placeholder. Anthony’s ever-changing mood and perspective requires Hopkins to be agitated, charming, confused, calm, lucid, frightened; often in the same scene. Yet, Hopkins does not use the role just to showcase his talents. Even in the most dramatic scenes his performance is still full of sympathy; we see Anthony the character first and the work of Anthony the actor later. Olivia Coleman is a great scene partner for Hopkins and does a great job conveying her emotions while trying to hold them back. The rest of the small cast is an impressive lineup of great performers: Olivia Williams, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, and Imogen Poots
The doubling and repetition of scenes and dialogue are indeed a clever approach to dramatizing the muddled perspective of a dementia sufferer. However, with this effect having been achieved so quickly and completely at the beginning of the film, after a while these techniques lose their power and even become annoying. The movie never gives us an objective reality even in scenes of Anne alone or with her husband. I understand the filmmaker wanting to keep us off kilter to fully convey Anthony’s perspective but there are moments where the film is not from his perspective, including Anne’s dream/nightmare.
The final scene is what we presume it will be and is emotionally powerful. While appreciating The Father from an artistic and technical view, I kept wondering who this movie is for. I cannot imagine people who have really had Anne’s experience wanting to relive such devastating experiences. It is not especially grim or dour or mawkish, but it would still be a difficult watch for a movie night (definitely have something light queued up to watch afterward). There are other works of fiction and non-fiction about the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and the emotional toll it has on everyone involved, but I suppose this is the only one with an incredible performance from Anthony Hopkins. 
Nominees: David Parfitt, Jean-Louis Livi, Philippe Carcassonne, producers
Director: Florian Zeller 
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller 
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams
Production Companies: F comme Film, Trademark Films, Cine@, AG Studios, Film4, Orange Studio, Canal+, Ciné+ 
Distributor: Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics
Release Date: February 26th, 2021
Total Nominations: 6, including Best Picture
Other Nominations: Actor-Anthony Hopkins; Supporting Actress-Olivia Coleman; Adapted Screenplay-Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller; Editing-Yorgos Lamprinos; Production Design-Peter Francis, Cathy Featherstone

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Best Pictures #65: 2020 (93rd) Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee: Nomadland

 by A. J. 

Best Pictures #65: 2020 (93rd) Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee

“I’ve met hundreds of people out there and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. Let’s just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. I see them again.”
Nomadland opens with text explaining that after 80 years the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada closed and the town quickly ceased to exist. Fern, a 60ish former resident of Empire, now travels the American West living out of her modified van moving from town to town, campsite to campsite, taking odd jobs here and there. Frances McDormand gives a wonderful performance as Fern. She is far more understated than her characters in Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or even Almost Famous, but, no matter how broad or intimate the role, her great talent as an actress is to make any character that she plays feel very real. It is no surprise that McDormand has earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work here. There is a wistful, bittersweetness to Fern and her nomadic lifestyle and also to the movie itself.
As both writer (adapting Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name) and director, Chloe Zhao gives her film the look and feel of a documentary. This approach helps Nomadland in some ways and hurts it in others. It will come as no surprise that many of the fellow travelers and nomads Fern encounters and befriends are real life nomads. They do a fine job in their scenes with a two-time Academy Award winner because the movie only requires them to be themselves. A gathering of nomads in Arizona where they trade stories, supplies, and tips and advice for living on the road is the most interesting segment of the film. That scene along with the scenes of the real people sharing their stories and insights made part of me wish that Zhao had made a documentary instead of a dramatization.
Seeing the beautifully photographed landscapes of the American West from the Nevada desert to Arizona to the Dakota badlands is a treat. The Oscar nominated cinematography by Joshua James Richards captures the quiet, enchanting beauty in what seems like a desolate landscape. 
Many scenes in Nomadland are short, giving us only snippets of the lives Fern encounters and her own life as well. David Strathairn has a small but great performance as a fellow wanderer debating if he should settle down again. Their scenes together are touching moments and we want them to last and hope they meet each other again. We get a brief scene of Fern visiting her sister and an argument about the real estate market begins to brew but stops short. She moves from place to place so the film cannot help feeling episodic but it is still well-paced. Nomadland is about a wanderer, but it is never aimless. 
There is not much that feels contrived in Nomadland but at a certain point I knew what would happen in the final scene. We spend a lot of quiet moments with Fern but we also feel kept at a distance from her, not unlike the distance she keeps from those that try to get close to her. We begin the film thinking that her life as a nomad is purely out of necessity but then it seems it is by choice. Perhaps the real answer for Fern and the real life nomads is somewhere in between. Nomadland is worth watching for the glimpse at this quasi-off-the-grid lifestyle but to learn more about it I suppose I will have to read the book.
Nominees: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey (producer), Chloé Zhao, producers 
Director: Chloe Zhao
Screenplay: Chloe Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
Cast:Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie
Production Companies: Highwayman Films, Hear/Say Productions, Cor Cordium Productions
Distributor: Searchlight Studios, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release Date: February 19th, 2021
Total Nominations: 6, including Best Picture
Other Nominations: Actress-Frances McDormand; Director-Chloe Zhao; Adapted Screenplay-Chloe Zhao; Editing-Chloe Zhao; Cinematography-Joshua James Richards

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Classic Movie Picks: April 2021

by Lani

I used to scour the Turner Classic Movies schedule each month for upcoming films that I couldn’t miss and post the highlights here for your reading and viewing pleasure! It’s been a few...years, but who’s counting? (All listed times are Eastern Standard, check your local listings or for actual air times in your area. Each day's schedule begins at 6:00 a.m.; if a film airs between midnight and 6 a.m. it is listed on the previous day's programming schedule.)

After a delayed start, it is finally award season in Hollywood, which means it's time for TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" programming. Each day in April features films which were Academy Award winners or nominees and the films are being shown from A to Z, ending with Best Foreign Language Film winner Z on May 1. Coincidentally this was the gimmick in 2017, which was the last time I blogged about 31 Days of Oscar. By the way, if you don't have cable, you can stream films on the TCM app, but they don't stay available for very long after the air date, or usually find the films to stream or rent through other platforms. Here are my top picks for the month:

4/3, 9:45 PM - Carol (2015) 

I was happy to see that TCM has included several movies from the 2000s in this year’s 31 Days line-up. The canon of classic films is not a fixed list; it should always be re-evaluated and refreshed as new art is made. Carol was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, but notably not Best Picture. Director Todd Haynes combines the lush elegance of a Douglas Sirk melodrama with contemporary storytelling in this romantic drama about a shopgirl and a housewife drawn to each other, but restricted by 1950s conventions. 

4/7, 10:15AM - Gaslight (1944)

“Gaslighting” has become a ubiquitous buzzword in the last few years. But how many people have actually seen the film that gave us that term? Technically, “gaslighting” means when someone lies to you so that you begin to doubt your own sanity and then you can be committed to an asylum and your tormentor can steal your aunt’s jewels. Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for her performance as a woman driven mad. The film received seven nominations in total, including Best Picture, which it lost to Going My Way. Keep an eye out for a young Angela Lansbury in her first film role as Bergman’s maid, she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

4/10, 3PM - Hope and Glory (1987)

The title may sound generic, but this charming and warm story of British civilian life during WWII will stick with you. Told through the eyes of a young boy, the film is based on writer-director John Boorman’s own experiences during the London blitz. The film received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but did not win any awards; in fact it lost in almost every category to that year’s big winner, The Last Emperor. 

4/18, 8PM - Nebraska (2013)

Omaha-born Alexander Payne is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. His films - including Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways - depict familiar, everyday people with biting dark humor. Nebraska is no exception as the story of a cantankerous elderly man and his adult son on a road trip to collect sweepstakes winnings. While several of Payne’s films have earned Oscar nominations, 2013’s Nebraska received the most with six. Surprisingly, it did not win in any category, though lead actor Bruce Dern and Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography were certainly top contenders that year. 

4/23, 10:30PM - The Red Shoes (1948)

This film about a dancer torn between a devotion to her art and a desire for a conventional life was the 10th collaboration of the celebrated filmmaking team of director Michael Powell and producer Emeric Pressburger. It was nominated in Best picture and four additional categories, winning much-deserved awards for the art direction and the score. It is visually dazzling, particularly the ballet sequences starring real-life ballerina Moira Shearer. Anton Walbrook, a favorite character actor for Powell & Pressburger is also particularly good as Lermontov, the impresario who gives Shearer’s character her big break. 

4/28, 1:15AM - The Third Man (1949)

If you’ve never seen this one, set the DVR, get the app, whatever you need to do - just watch it. This atmospheric post-WWII noir follows an American investigating a friend’s suspicious death in Vienna. Though Orson Welles gets all the memorable lines, this is really a Joseph Cotten film. Cotten came to Hollywood with Welles as a member of Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company and after a large supporting role in 1941’s Citizen Kane, Cotten transitioned into a successful, decades-long movie career (including a role 1944’s Gaslight). The film received nominations for direction and editing, but the striking cinematography garnered the film’s only win. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

13 Nights of Shocktober: Death Becomes Her

by A.J.

Happy Halloween! The countdown is over and Halloween is finally upon us. Tonight, hopefully, you'll be relaxing, eating some candy, and watching a scary, or not-so-scary, movie. There are a lot of options for tonight and I hope I've been of some help. Here is my final recommendation to help bring an end to Shocktober:

Night 13: Happy Happy Halloween
“'Til death do us part! Well, you girls are dead. And I'm parting.”
Death Becomes Her

You’ll find few horror comedies as absolutely fun and satisfying as Death Becomes Her. This is due in no small part to the stellar performances from Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossalini and the filmmaking wizardry of Robert Zemeckis. As with the Back to the Future movies and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Zemckis mixed cutting edge visual effects with a fun story and lively characters to create a wonderful, delightful movie.
Death Becomes Her opens on a fabulous note; actually, several notes. The year is 1978 and we see fading theater star Madeline Aston (Meryl Streep) in her new play, Songbird, a disco musical of Sweet Bird of Youth. Streep is dressed in a sparkling gown and boa and surrounded by male dancers. The audience is either walking out or bored and falling asleep except for Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), much to the chagrin of his fiancé Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). The dowdy Helen and glamourous Madeline are supposed to be friends, though frenemies would be a polite way to explain their relationship. Sure enough, Madeline steals away Ernest and Helen goes in a downward spiral that includes some pretty funny scenes of her gaining a ridiculous amount of weight, being evicted from her apartment, and being put into an institution. Then, she comes up with a plan for revenge.
Years pass and image conscious Madeline can no longer hide the effects of aging. She is introduced to the beautiful and mysterious Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who provides Madeline with an elixir that will give her what she wants most: eternal youth. She also gives Madeline a stern warning, after Madeline has already drunk the elixir, to take care of her body. Madeline is indeed rejuvenated but doesn’t have much time to enjoy it since she finds out that Ernest and Helen, now thin and glamourous, are plotting to kill her and run away together. It turns out that Madeline can’t be killed, but her body can be broken and still, mostly, work. So, when she falls down the stairs and twists her head totally around, she’s still alive and feels, mostly, fine. When Madeline blasts a hole through Helen’s stomach with a shotgun, Helen is also still alive and, mostly, fine. They continue to inflict damage on each other while Ernest, shocked and confused, is caught in the middle.
The effects may have a slightly dated look now, but were remarkable for 1992. Frankly, even with the dated look, the visual effects are still impressive. It’s no surprise to learn that Death Becomes Her earned an Academy Award for its visual effects. Watching Madeline’s head spin around after Helen hits her with a shovel or water spill out of a hole in Helen’s stomach is so much fun. It’s like watching a live action Looney Tunes cartoon. As their bodies become more and more broken and they hobble around after each other, the humor goes over the top and absurd in the best way possible. It is obvious that Zemeckis loves using visual effects, computer created or practical, whenever possible. His willingness to experiment with visual effects would be to his detriment later in his career, but unlike in his later films, the effects in Death Becomes Her enhance the story instead of overtaking it.
As important as the impressive visual effects are to the macabre plot, Death Becomes Her would be nowhere near as fun or good without its killer stars: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Both actresses play their parts with total glee. They go from zero to camp and back again at all the right moments. No matter who is mutilating who, thanks to their natural charisma they are both enjoyable characters. There’s no argument that Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses, ever, but she is so lauded for her dramatic work, that it’s easy to forget just how good she is at being funny. After the wonderful misfire of the opening song and dance number, we get a quick moment of her in her dressing room rehearsing different greetings for Helen. It’s a small moment but brilliant comic acting. Goldie Hawn plays both the dowdy frizzy-haired Helen and the elegant, fabulous Helen with equal ease. It’s easy to forget that before Bruce Willis became an action star, and then a self-serious action star, he started in comedy (Moonlighting), and is really good at it. He’s fantastic as the meek and high-strung Ernest. Willis acts as an audience stand in, having the appropriate freak out reactions to everything happening on screen. Isabella Rossellini is perfectly cast as the mysterious and alluring Lisle. She wears an elaborate necklace as a top and has silent muscle-bound man servants in spandex do her bidding. Everything about her character and her performance is everything you never knew you wanted to see.
Death Becomes Her plays like a classy but still campy episode of Tales From the Crypt, which Robert Zemeckis directed three episodes of and executive produced. Despite all of the damage Madeline and Helen inflict on each other’s bodies, there’s no graphic or explicit violence, so this movie could be easily enjoyed by anyone looking for something fun to watch this Halloween. “Easily enjoyed” are the key words. Just sit back and have a Happy Halloween! 

Friday, October 30, 2020

13 Nights of Shocktober: Stay Tuned

by A.J.

This is my favorite time of year, second only to Christmas. Autumn has arrived, the weather is cooling down, and October becomes the month-long celebration of scary movies called Shocktober. So, in the days leading up Halloween I’ll be posting some horror movie recommendations to help you celebrate Shocktober.

Night 12: Spooky Fun Night
“666 channels of heart pounding, skull blasting entertainment.”
Stay Tuned 
Not long ago, when I worked the dayshift at Vulcan Video during Shocktober and needed something daytime appropriate (not rated R) to watch, I would often put on the 1992 horror comedy Stay Tuned. It usually drew amused reactions from customers. Stay Tuned has gone out of print on DVD but it is still available on Blu-ray and is currently available on some streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video. This is a very broad, goofy, and fun movie. If you’re looking to watch something light but still horror themed, I recommend Stay Tuned.
John Ritter plays Roy Knable, an average middle class man whose midlife crisis has him watching TV nonstop, even over the shoulder of his wife, Helen (Pam Dawber), while she tries to talk to him. Their marriage isn’t doing too great and she is ready to leave when she comes home and finds that Roy has bought a massive satellite dish from a travelling salesman. They don’t have much time to argue however because it turns out the salesman was an agent from Hell and the dish sucks them into a hellish TV world. The catch is that if they can survive 24 hours living through TV shows that are literally trying to kill them, they’ll be released from the contract.
It turns out that Hell is corporatized and run like a TV network complete with a broadcast control room and slimy executives. Eugene Levy is great comic relief, as always, even in his small role as Crowley, an obsequious, wise cracking executive. The whole organization is run by Spike (Jeffery Jones) who likes to ensnare souls is the most extravagant, showiest way possible. Why not make it entertaining? he says. The new intern, Pierce (Erik King), is disappointed by the lack of subtext in Spike’s methods. Spike, annoyed, asks Pierce if he is a film school graduate. Pierce then launches into his thesis on Kurosawa and Spike Lee. As a former film student, I found this bit particularly amusing.
This fun comes in Roy and Helen making their way through the hellish channels. They end up on a game show called You Can’t Win! (which Helen is clever enough to win), a wrestling match, a generic Film Noir, a western, and other Hell themed parodies of TV shows and movies. One of the best scenes comes when Roy and Helen end up as cartoon mice being hunted by a killer cat robot. The animation style and humor are in line with the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons, and at one point Mouse Roy sends away to ACME for a crazy contraption. The climax includes a montage of Roy and Spike stumbling through different channels. They end up in a swashbuckler movie, a hockey match between devils and angels, a movie called “Driving Over Miss Daisy,” a parody of Star Trek, and, best of all, a Salt and Pepa music video. Ritter is dressed in a yellow suit and turban, Jones is a DJ, and each are after the remote control, the key to Roy and Helen’s escape. The dancers, some representing good and some representing evil, pass around the remote, and Ritter tries to casually dance his way to the remote instead of just grabbing it. This doesn’t make any sense but it’s fun to watch.
At times Stay Tuned is clever, at other times it’s hokey. Casting notable TV stars like John Ritter (Three’s Company) and Pam Dawber (Mork and Mindy) is one of its clever strokes. The hellish TV parodies are pretty enjoyable even when they’re dumb: Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby, Northern Overexposure, Duane’s Underworld, Sadistic Candid Camera. There is even a parody of the Maxell cassette tapes commercial, for those old enough to remember the variety of blank cassette tape choices, myself included. One of the parodies has Ritter wearing a Hawaiian shirt stumbling over a couch with two women (one blonde, the other brunette) staring at him with a familiar song in the background (familiar, if, like myself, you’re old enough). He screams and immediately changes himself into another channel.
John Ritter had a great career in comedy and more serious roles like the miniseries of Stephen King’s IT. He was a talented physical comedian and gets to show off that talent a bit here (if you want to see more of John Ritter as a physical comedian, please watch Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed). Is this a secretly great film deserving of cult film status? Perhaps, perhaps not. Is it better than it has any right to be? Yes, firmly yes. The approach by Peter Hyams, both the director and cinematographer, and the talent of the cast are what have made this film worth watching and re-watching for me, and I hope for you too.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

13 Nights of Shocktober: Byzantium

by A.J.

This is my favorite time of year, second only to Christmas. Autumn has arrived, the weather is cooling down, and October becomes the month-long celebration of scary movies called Shocktober. So, in the days leading up Halloween I’ll be posting some horror movie recommendations to help you celebrate Shocktober.

Night 11: Vampire Night
“When I was born there were only seven planets.”
Director Neil Jordan’s approach to horror avoids sensationalism and lurid indulgence even in moments of violence and terror. His surreal dark fantasy film, The Company of Wolves, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood based on the works of author Angela Carter, is one of my absolute favorite horror films, and, in my opinion, the best werewolf movie. His adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is melancholy and overwrought at times, but memorable for its portrayal of vampires as sympathetic and pitiful creatures. Jordan’s best horror films have two things in common: they examine well known movie monsters from a different perspective while still being effective horror movies, and they are based on the work of female authors. Byzantium, written by Moira Buffini based on her play, A Vampire Story, gives us, once again, a different kind of vampire movie about a different kind of vampire, and, again, one of my absolute favorite horror movies.
“Humans need to tell stories. It’s a fundamental and uniting thing,” says the teacher of Eleanor Webb, a teenager whose aloof demeanor suggests a much older soul. Eleanor is in fact over two hundred years old. She is a vampire, of sorts. She doesn’t sleep in a coffin and can be out in daylight. She has no fangs but an unnaturally sharp fingernail to puncture the wrist or neck of a victim to drink their blood. Eleanor, played wonderfully by Saorise Ronan, may not be human but she longs to tell her story. She writes her life story down then tears up the pages and scatters them in the wind. Eleanor’s mother, Clara (Gemma Atherton), also a vampire, hides a dark secret about their origin and why they live like nomads, fleeing at a moment’s notice. Eleanor is tired of telling made up stories about herself and her mother to the people they encounter. She wants to tell someone the truth. So, she tells us.
Saorise Ronan has always possessed a preternatural acting talent and it is on full display here. She does a great job of playing a weary old soul; someone who despite her young face conveys a profound wistfulness. Still, Eleanor, not knowing all of the facts, makes foolish mistakes that teenagers often make. She hides truths in plain sight, saying things like “She got bitten by a vampire” or that she has been playing piano for 200 years, so plainly that you wonder how people could think she is joking.
Gemma Atherton as Eleanor’s mother, Clara, is very protective of their secrecy, which their lives depend on. She preys on lascivious predatory men that would take advantage of her, taking their cash and blood instead. Atherton plays the different layers of Clara with great believability. She is a determined survivor, vengeful, protective, cold, and also kind. Atherton runs after the men that have kidnapped her daughter with an unquestionable urgency and fierceness that only a mother could possess.
Clara has the opposite approach to immortality from her daughter. She possesses all of the lively youthfulness that her daughter lacks. Clara’s big mistake is one that only a parent could make: she thinks that not telling Eleanor the whole story will protect her, but instead it leads Eleanor into danger. We see in flashbacks to the late 18th and early 19th centuries that as a young girl Clara met two British navy officers: Darvell (Sam Riley), a young officer that shows her kindness and Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller), an older officer that forces her into prostitution. We also learn that, unbeknownst to Eleanor, she and her mother are being pursued by a vampire brotherhood determined to kill them for violating the brotherhood's code (i.e. not being men).
Moira Buffini’s story is greatly influenced by the gothic atmosphere and language of the stories written by Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori during the “haunted summer” of 1816 as part of a contest with Mary Shelley. The vibe of Byzantium is indeed best described as modern gothic. Lines of dialogue like “Does the light offend you?,” “Knowledge is a fatal thing,” and “She was morbidly sexy” could be ridiculous but are delivered with intrigue and casual confidence by major and minor cast members alike. 
Byzantium was released in 2012 in the wake of the angsty teen vampire-romance Twilight movies and suffered unfairly from comparisons at the time. There is a romantic subplot as Eleanor is drawn to a meek but persistent young man recovering from leukemia played by Caleb Landry Jones. Eleanor certainly qualifies as an angsty teen longing for a connection and disillusioned with the way she lives, but having lived in such a way for so long, conveyed convincingly by Ronan’s performance, gives serious weight to her emotions.
This is a brilliantly made film with poetry in its words, imagery, and music. There are a few bloody and graphic scenes but overall Byzantium has an exquisite visual aesthetic. You could pause this movie at any given moment and have a beautiful still image. The locations feel lived in but not gritty. The look of every scene is muted but not dour. This is a great horror film to watch with people that don’t like graphic or intense horror. The violent scenes are few and far between and, so, more powerful when they do occur. At certain moments the flowing blood even accentuates the poetic tone of a scene. Like The Company of Wolves, Byzantium has an ethereal, dreamlike tone. It is a dark fairytale that leaves you lying awake, haunted but deeply satisfied. I am fascinated by the “haunted summer” of 1816 that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, changing the course of science-fiction and horror forever, and John Polidori to write The Vampyre: A Tale, allegedly the first story to portray a vampire as a sophisticated seducer. Byzantium also feels like a story that also would have been inspired by that dreary haunted summer.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

13 Nights of Shocktober: Dagon

by A.J. 

This is my favorite time of year, second only to Christmas. Autumn has arrived, the weather is cooling down, and October becomes the month-long celebration of scary movies called Shocktober. So, in the days leading up Halloween I’ll be posting some horror movie recommendations to help you celebrate Shocktober.

Night 10: Stuart Gordon Memorial Night
“Now you serve Dagon.”
Earlier this year notable horror filmmaker Stuart Gordon passed away at the age of 72. He was one of the only filmmakers daring enough to tackle adapting the unspeakable eldritch horrors of author H.P. Lovecraft, with varying degrees of success. Without a doubt his most famous film is the cult classic Re-Animator, adapted from the Lovecraft story Herbert West, Re-Animator. This film mixes shock visuals, gross effects, lurid nudity, and dark, offbeat humor. Scenes involving a decapitated head that won’t shut up and the glowing green syringe of reagent, used to bring the newly dead back to life, are well known to horror fanatics. I have to admit that though I’ve seen Re-Animator a few times, it never struck a chord with me the way it has for countless horror movie fans. 
His 2001 film, Dagon, however, I found very entertaining. I can’t say it is a good movie exactly, but it is definitely an awesome movie. With its exploitative sensibilities, gory violence, monsters, and lurid nudity, it feels like the Tales From the Crypt movie that wasn’t but should have been. If you’re a fan of Tales From the Crypt, Roger Corman movies, or Stuart Gordon’s own Re-Animator, you’ll have a good time with this Dagon.
Dagon is actually based on two Lovecraft stories: Dagon, a very short story about someone encountering a strange creature on a small strange island and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, from which the film takes its plot. Dagon moves the setting from a small, isolated New England seaside village (Innsmouth) to a small, isolated Spanish seaside village (Imboca); it’s worth noting that numerous Spanish production company logos appear in the opening credits. After a storm causes a yacht to strike rocks and begin to sink, a young American man, Paul (Ezra Godden), and his Spanish girlfriend, Barbara (Raquel Meroño), seek help at a nearby village. Right away nothing seems right. The village is eerily deserted and the people they do find have deformities like webbed, claw-like hands.
Paul and Barbara are separated and as he searches for her he has a strange vision of a mermaid, is chased by a mob of grunting villagers in raincoats, and stumbles into a shed straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but somehow more gruesome. He meets an old drunk, Ezrquiel (Francisco Rabal) who tells him the dark history of the village. We see in a flashback to when Ezequiel was a boy that the village gave up Christianity in favor of worshipping the sea god Dagon, in exchange for gold and fish. When the gold stopped coming, they began offering human sacrifices to Dagon and now the villagers are changing “into the sea.”
All B-movie qualities aside, of which Dagon has many, Francisco Rabal’s performance as the old drunk is genuinely great. He died shortly after making Dagon and the film is dedicated to him. Paul also finds the beautiful mermaid of his dreams, Uxia (Macarena Gomez), though her bottom half is more squid than fish. At first Uxia seems vulnerable and helpless and Gomez does a good job playing these traits. Then she’s revealed to be a crazed mastermind and Gomez does a great job at this, going completely over the top, which just makes the movie fun. Raquel Merono gives a solid performance as Barbara but she unfortunately doesn’t have many scenes. The weak link in the cast is Ezra Godden; his performance does not break the movie but it’s carried by everything else working in Dagon’s favor. I suppose in its own way his performance fits the B-movie sensibility.
The budget is low and the visual effects look cheap but are still gross and effective. The CGI effects however look very fake. The mob of villagers is obviously people in masks and fake monster hands; it’s a good thing it was raining so they could wear big raincoats that cover everything else. There are some horrific and upsetting visuals, most notable a man getting his face flayed off in full light. It is incredibly gross but also impressive from a technical point of view. There’s also some implied offscreen horror that is very disturbing. Still, Dagon, even in its goriest, darkest moments never feels dreadful or sadistic towards the audience. Unlike the Saw or Hostel films, Dagon isn’t out to make you feel awful; it wants to leave you entertained. Dagon is a B-horror movie at its best.