Monday, October 22, 2007

Halloween Roundup '07

At long last, kiddies: the Dark Carnival is back in town, so let's start like the guilty things we are, and spend a long and terrible day in the dark, "feeding the alligators of the mind," as little Stevie King puts it. The Roundup this year is a bit Grand-er in the Guignol department--even the (relatively) bloodless Peeping Tom rubs one's nose in It a bit too gleefully--so you may need to check your finer sensibilities at the door. But Halloween comes but once a year, a Day of the Dead as worthy of celebration as precious mortality deserves, a cinematic haven for lost children and broken promises--I'll admit, mended roughly, but still, pray-tell, sometimes found.

8:00 am The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter is given a big budget, and he hands it over to special make-up effects fan-favorite Rob (The Howling) Bottin, who with ferocious recklessness extracts like recalcitrant molars all the subtleties from John W. Campbell's original story, "Who Goes There?"--and aren't we the lucky ones. Ice-cold in every sense, the movie still delivers the fun of watching everybody, including Wilford Brimley, freak out, not to mention one of Kurt Russell's patented reluctant-tough-guy performances, all the while wearing the single most enviable hat in the history of cinema, outside of a Yosemite Sam cartoon.

10:00 am The Host/Gwoemul (2006)
Whenever I find myself bowing too low in reverence of the Gothic--sniffing solemnly the Blakean "sick rose" of secret love worming its way through the night, destroying, illuminating, the final "moral tale"--I chug a dose of Pacific Rim moonshine. Not since the New Wave shook n stirred the crime picture in the 1950s has a genre been so thoroughly tom-fooled as in Asian horror films of the past decade. This South Korean picture, for instance, recognizes the slapstick beneath Armageddon--imagine Kubrick with a sense of humor (Let us not forget that he cut a piefight scene from Dr. Strangelove)--and sees gore as simply a kind of fatal banana peel in our collective paths. This movie is scary because of/despite its silliness, one and then the other, as campy as Gojira, as creepy as Ringu.

12:30 pm The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Well, depending on which way you lay your squint, so to speak, this is either a Halloween picture or a Christmas one. But I wanted something for the kiddies--while not denying King's gators--and Tim Burton/Henry Selick's sweet-salty treat does nicely. I never tire of its visual style, which owes equal obeisance to the elongated sweep of Joseph Mugnaini's illustrations for Ray Bradbury's High Gothic stories, Charles Addams' dim-corner bottom of the inkpot, Edward Gorey's crowded, cross-hatched Victorian nightscapes--and above all a kind of Day-Glo effrontery, adamant that All Is Well. And it is: After all, Danny Elfman sings!

2:00 pm Peeping Tom (1960)
The movie so toxic it killed its director--at least his career. After thirty years of beauty and grace, Technicolor generosity and black-and-white sensitivity, Michael Powell delivers a rancid Valentine to all his fans, and exposes the pathology of cinephilia as an end-stage disease, with voyeurism as a mere symptom of a much more serious condition. You'd-a thunk Dylan had gone electric, the howls of outraged sensibilities so thoroughly drowning any apologetics--until Martin Scorsese "rehabilitated" Powell decades later and, like any good anatomy professor, insisted we approach the cadaver. A picture that refuses to become less appalling with repeat viewings.

4:00 pm Isolation (2005)
Imagine if Ridley Scott were all set to direct Alien--then the budget went south. So he re-sets the film on a small farm in the middle of Irish nowhere, and substitutes H. R. Giger's amor fou shape-shifter with, um, cows. Sort of. Isolation's director, Billy O'Brien, makes a picture you can hold in one hand--if you're crazy enough. Dark as the inside of an old barn at midnight, sloppier than a mid-Autumn farmyard, this triumph of hand-made, animatronic ick plays gene-splicing hob with the viewer's need to know vs. the desire to look away.

6:00 pm 1408 (2007)
A little dinnertime fare for the squeamish. I won't belabor the point that movie adaptations of Stephen King material are more miss than hit. But every once in a while he gets actors surprisingly dedicated to the uneasy mixture of humor and depravity--with a workmanlike tragic finish--that marks his material. Sissy Spacek, Jack Nicholson, E.G. Marshall, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Christopher Walken, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins--and, of course, every single dam actor in Stand by Me and The Green Mile--have given King perhaps more than he deserves--or perhaps not; I'm still not sure--and made something happen: lasting impressions amid claptrap and clutter, performances that have as much genius as foolhardiness. John Cusak digs especially deeply here, and gives new and startling meaning to "carrying the picture." Cusak refuses to believe the movie's a thrill-ride goof--or that it is, but so thoroughly so that all lines become blurred. I've known a person or two who have felt that De Niro wasted way too much talent on a bum like Jake LaMotta; but I think great performances know this, and couldn't care less. Lucky us, John Cusak barrels along with the same kind of blissful/willful ignorance, and hooks his arms in ours for one giddily sick yellow brick roadshow.

8:00 pm 28 Weeks Later (2007)
Short answer: I have teenagers. But, if one is looking to fill the zombie-hole, this'll do. Danny Boyle's prequel is the superior picture, but this triumph of jiggy-cam splatter barges into the living room with appropriate savageness--whilst not ignoring the requisite social commentary that seems to keep afloat most contemporary mass-gore offerings. Loud and fast, ultimately disposable, but with a good clean bite. (What kind of Crypt-Keeper would I be if I didn't do that at least once?)

10:00 pm Re-Animator (1985)
I have been whistling past this garish graveyard for a number of years--extolling its "virtues," grinning in fond--albeit queasy--remembrance of its heedless excesses--but not committing to an actual viewing. Director Stuart Gordon arrives just as the most rabid period in horror films had begun to wane--and hot-shots the genre with a psychotronic spoonful, ODs for everybody, tied off nice n tight by Jeffrey Combs, who in the '80s played the I'll-get-you-for-this avenging nerd to Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead-ly cranked fratboy. A messy end to the Roundup, I'll admit, but those of us who'll watch this many horror films get what we deserve--and so none of us (belated apologies to Bill S.) will escape whipping.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rating Game Redux 17: Cereal Viewing

The latest newspaper Rating Game involves "classic" Saturday morning cartoons. Well, many of the cartoons I consider "Saturday-morning classics" actually began life during Prime Time, sometimes twice a week. Even the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1950s were presented as evening fare--"Overture, douse the lights, this is it ..." But as I made the first turn of childhood--ten years old in 1966--many of those dim but animated memories had seeped down to Saturday morning--which was already being calcified with Hanna-Barbera stopped-motion animation, ha-ha, cartoons with clever one-liners and fine voice characterizations, but whose aesthetics were pasted on like last-minute addenda to a committee meeting, bland and featureless.

Nonetheless, the '50s and early-'60s Prime Time soldiered on, scratchy reminders of the years before my second decade rolled inevitably, no turning back, and on into extended childhood. Spongebob, anyone?

Crusader Rabbit
The first TV cartoon series, a near-parody of superhero comics. Co-developed with Jay (Rocky and Bullwinkle) Ward, the series proves that, even at the onset of TV culture, kids found irony entertaining.

Jonny Quest
Best. Theme song. Ever. And a grand wish-fulfillment--for Boomer boys, at least--of life as one Ripping Yarn after another. Originally aired during prime time, it eventually made its ways to Saturday morning and immortality--The Venture Brothers notwithstanding.

Winky Dink and You
An interactive ‘50s cartoon: 1. Purchase special plastic sheet for TV screen plus crayons. 2. Draw on plastic sheet whatever Winky needed--a staircase, for instance. 3. Most kids drew right on the TV screen. 4. Winky was deeply hated by parents.

Of course, so many more, eyeballs popping, feet propeller-ing, explosions reverberating. As a kid, I had a fey love of Caspar the Friendly Ghost; all its sins remembered, I still hold a dark fondness for the cartoon that taught me that one could be sensitive and feared. Machiavelli without tears.

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