Movie Reviews

Movie: Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing

Jeff VanderMeer • July 16th, 2011 • Movie Reviews

One great thing about limited TV access while teaching here at Shared Worlds (Wofford College) in Spartanburg, SC, is that I’m spending my evenings reading and watching movies on Netflix. I’ve decided to go a little esoteric and catch up on some flicks that aren’t exactly Hollywood blockbusters.

Case in point, Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, starring Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel. It’s got all of Roeg’s signatures: unusual use of montage, unusual ideas about how to cut, frame, and bookend scenes. In this case, rather than at the service of a horror story (Don’t Look Now) or a SF movie (The Man Who Fell to Earth), he uses these devices to film a script about a terribly mis-matched couple—Russell plays a kind of hedonistic soul who lives in the moment, and Garfunkel plays a psychologist who is attracted to Russell but is exasperated by her lack of commitment. The movie opens with Garfunkel accompanying Russell’s character to the hospital in an ambulance, and then cuts back and forth between the past and present, often doing so several times in a few minutes without ever being confusing.

So there’s the mystery of why Russell’s character is going to the hospital, the mystery of the complexities of their relationship, Garfunkel’s connection to the military, why Russell’s character keeps going over the border into Czechslovakia…and, really, it all revolves around their personal story no matter how the film tries to throw you off with the idea that it might become some kind of political thriller.

Some scenes are absolutely wonderful in the way they exemplify why mastery of technique can result in increased emotional resonance. When a detective examines the woman’s apartment after she’s in the hospital, Roeg cuts back and forth between the detective and a scene between Garfunkel and Russell months earlier. So the detective, for example, peers around the corner of a room and then Roeg cuts to Garfunkel staring out from the bed like he’s looking at the detective, but he’s looking at Russell. And so on. It might seem artificial, but in fact Roeg is basically just operating the way memory can work, and the pointing out the ways in which we interact even when we think we aren’t. The detective might not see the couple, but he can sense the ghosts of their arguments.

Cutting a scene like that jolts the viewer out of customary ways of seeing without seeming disjointed or random. The film editing here is very sophisticated and quite frankly made me want to weep thinking about your average run-of-the-mill Hollywood drama.

Bad Timing ironically enough runs out of steam the more provocative it becomes—which is to say there’s a kind of decadent-era inevitability to what happens. Throughout Garfunkel is more than adequate, but it’s really Russell who shines here. A couple of scenes in particular are painful to watch in the sense of seeing a person who seems genuinely wanting to break out of the kind of shackling roles people are sometimes made to play, in part because of the image of them in their friends’ or lovers’ heads.

It’s not Roeg’s best film, but it’s intelligent, finely acted, and thought-provoking.

Movie Review: Carlos, Based on the Life of The Jackal

Jeff VanderMeer • June 12th, 2011 • Movie Reviews

Carlos the Jackal was most famously associated with killings, kidnappings, and hijackings attributed to Palestinian terrorist organizations, but as with many purported idealists—including cold-blooded murderers like Carlos—as the authorities closed in on him and his networks, he became more of a terrorist-for-hire. The ideology became contaminated by his own ego, his need for money and security, his contempt for women associated with various the causes, and his own irrelevance in later years. In those later years, he lost discipline, focus, and became a pawn used by various countries, like Syria, to improve relationships with the West.

At least, this is the view taken by the mini-series/movie Carlos, which uses an often pseudo-documentary style to tell this fictional story, based on the known facts, of the infamous terrorist’s exploits. The movie doesn’t balk at showing the human cost on innocent civilians of Carlos’ actions. Nor is it afraid to be wide in scope, making the excellent decision to introduce new characters with a short titled description on the screen, with name and role in either the hierarchy of terrorism/revolution or of law enforcement. The conciseness of decisions like these allows the filmmakers to focus in detail on Carlos’ rise, the intricacies of his most infamous operations, and to explore his relationships with other terrorists and revolutionaries.

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Super 8 Review by Alien Grak-Pha Teekelp

Jeff VanderMeer • June 10th, 2011 • Movie Reviews

Ecstatic Days is pleased to present guest reviewer Grak-Pha Teekelp’s review of the new Spielberg-Abrams film Super 8. Teekelp is a space alien from a planet about 1,000,000 light years from here, and thus has a unique perspective on the movie. PLEASE NOTE: The review contains spoilers.

Super 8 From an “Extra-Terrestrial” Point of View
by Grak-Pha Teekelp (approximate name)

Well, um, I certainly don’t want to criticize Abrams or Spielberg, since I recognize that on your planet they’re popular filmmakers, even sometimes considered auteurs,** but while watching Super 8 me and some of the other “aliens” who sometimes drop by this solar system had a hard time suspending disbelief.

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Negarestani and Pridham Go to the Movies: Deep Red by Argento

Jeff VanderMeer • January 29th, 2011 • Movie Reviews

One thing I like about facebook is I have really smart friends who can take a sometimes superficial status message post by moi and turn it into a fascinating discussion. In such cases, you sometimes want to preserve it in a more formal context, like a blog.

Case in point, I posted this status recently about Argento’s movie Deep Red: “The mansion scenes were very cool. Mise en scene very good. Climax not so hot. Lots of slow, weird scenes. Didn’t understand the odd intermittent dubbing/subtitles/subtitles while actors dubbed Italian while speaking English. Several continuity errors too.”

Reza Negarestani and Matthew Pridham then engaged in the short conversation reproduced below, and which I found fairly fascinating. I love the implication of a movie being haunted, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not.

Negarestani is the author of Cyclonopedia, one of my favorite weird texts of the past few years. Matthew Pridham wrote the great “Renovations,” a Weird story from the point of view of a haunted house. (That story is available online here, and I highly recommend it—unfairly overlooked.)

This discussion contains spoilers.

Reza Negarestani: What I like about Argento’s movies (aside from the glamorous 70s decor) is that, as you suggest, they are full of these weird dissonant scenes and plot holes from which I always get the impression that there should be at least one more plot brooding in the dark, that a story far more terrifying and convoluted than the actual story is behind the colorful superficial facade of his movies, something that seeps in and out on its own. And that the seamless surface is only there to dam the twists of this brooding plot which we never encounter in full.

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Movies Seen Over the Holidays

Jeff VanderMeer • January 4th, 2011 • Movie Reviews, Uncategorized

In an effort to slow down and recharge, Ann and I saw a lot of movies in the theaters, on video, and on demand over the past few weeks, in addition to some TV shows. Here, in no particular order, are thumbnail reviews of a few of them. The last, Bunny and the Bull, you may not have heard of, but is a must-see.

Community—Watching this show about a group of misfits at a community college has been one of the great pleasures of our TV viewing. From Abed to Jeff to Shirley to the character played by Chevy Chase, there’s lots of possibilities here for both humor and depth, and a commitment to a diverse cast and at the very least some surface examination of social, religious, and racial issues played against a surreal and absurd backdrop. A favorite episode involves a paintball fight. Another, riffing off of Goodfellas. Highly recommended.

IT Crowd, Season Four—We love the IT crowd, based around three lovable quirky geek losers in the basement of a large corporation. Season three was, in our opinion, the best. Now that we’ve seen Season four we can report that…Season three is still the best. The scripts for season four seemed to force situations too much, and substituted the simply unbelievable for the surreal or absurd. Lots of good set-pieces, but something’s come unglued. It felt like late-era Seinfeld.

Modern Family—I know a lot of people like this show and are happy to have a positive portrayal of a gay couple raising a baby on network TV…but the show is at best uneven. Sequences in which the gay couple keep assuming an Asian-American doctor knows everything about everything Asian just make them look like fools and are wince-inducing. The realtor dad in one of the other families is incredibly creepy—to the point of stalker-creep—and the creators of the show don’t seem to realize this. But it’s mostly the sloppy way in which the families’ jobs have been integrated into the show—almost not at all—and the kind of upper middle class suburban ease with which the characters move through the show that grates the most. These people don’t have any real problems, and so the trivial is magnified to the level of drama. Exceptions to the expected include the Colombian son, who is quirky and interesting and non-cliche. But an incident involving an accident outside a cupcake shop just shows how sloppy this show is—for the sake of a joke, the family members inside apparently don’t hear the car smash into the side of the shop. There’s a lot of second-hand observations of reality here. Often predictable, coincidental, and uneven, with a few truly funny episodes shining through.

Below–I watched this quite awhile ago, but seeing it in our Netflix history, I thought I should recommend it. This is an excellent submarine/supernatural story, well above the norm, with great editing and peformances. It holds together throughout. Definitely rent it.

Terribly Happy—Set in small-town Denmark, this classic bit of bizarre neo-noir involves a poker game of fate and a bog and dead people and a sheriff recently arrived from Copenhagen where he did something terrible. Will he solve these new crimes? Will he get too involved with a local married woman? Why the hell is that kid pushing that squeaky pram all the time? This is the real deal–a truly original and good take on the genre.

True Grit—A great Coen brothers movie that gives us a sincere and believably brave teenage girl as a protagonist and an outstanding performance from Jeff Bridges as a US lawman. The cinematography is ravishing in its desolation, every set-piece is note-perfect, the dialogue is a delight, the violence is not sensationalized, and the ending is complex, bittersweet, and perfect. (In theaters now.)

Backyard—A searing and complex fictional view of the Juarez murders and disappearances of hundreds of women. Much better than a movie on the same topic starring Jennifer Lopez, Backyard mostly uses actors little-known in the US, including a female cop, and examines the murders in the context of Juarez as a whole, Mexico’s relationship with the US re NAFTA, and much else. One of the most horrifying lines in the movie comes when the female cop tells a radio host that people care so little about the murders and they have remained unsolved for so long that basically anyone can murder a woman, mimic the crime scene details of what appears to be a serial killer, and dump her in the desert without fear of reprisal. That, by now, there are dozens of murderers. It’s grim stuff, and the filmmakers don’t hold back in their depictions of murder and brutality…but if they did, the film would feel sanitized and false.

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Monsters: Way to Get Past My Defenses, Movie

Jeff VanderMeer • October 6th, 2010 • Movie Reviews

Ann and I watched Monsters last night on On Demand—the theatrical release is in November, I think. Wow. What a surprise. Proper deployment of monsters so it doesn’t get stupid. Nice visual development of the contaminated zone. A minimum of plot holes (there are a couple.) A somewhat complex relationship, with the guy clearly meant to be a bit of a jerk, but not in the usual broad, swaggering sense. Some dialogue you don’t expect, and a few twists that aren’t really twists–it’s just you’ve seen so many movies of this sort you think you know where it’s going to go. Nice cinematography.

Um, and the alien life forms…involve both fungi and squid. Get out of my daydreams, movie! Stop plundering my brain!

Okay, off to Richmond for writer’s conference.

Ridley Scott and “Alien” Prequel

Jeff VanderMeer • April 25th, 2010 • Movie Reviews

Director Ridley Scott talked to MTV about his plans for an Alien prequel that will explain the space jockey. As Scott puts it, “Who the hell was that Space Jockey?’ The guy who was sitting in the chair in the alien vehicle — there was a giant fellow sitting in a seat on what looked to be either a piece of technology or an astronomer’s chair. Remember that?”

I read that as somewhat sarcastic, especially when Scott goes on to say, “They’ve squeezed the franchise dry. The first one will always be the most frightening, because the beast we put together with Giger and all its parts — the face-hugger, the chest-burster, the egg — they were all totally original, and that’s hard to follow.”

He’s right, of course. None of the movies that followed Alien gave us much of anything new. All Cameron did with Aliens is base his movie on action-adventure rather than horror/SF. The third and fourth added absolutely zero to our sense of the world the aliens came from, or anything about the space jockey. I mean, there is a whole alien civilization out there that pilots space ships and leaves a huge freakin’ skeleton behind, and apparently was deliberately transporting alien eggs.

You’d think that by now we would’ve gotten some new data on all of that, in the movies. Instead, we’ve gotten riffs on the same movie, over and over. And don’t get me started on the Alien vs Predator movies. (And, yeah, there are some base similarities between my Predator novel and the new Predator movie, but I’m fairly certain the movie will be much, much stupider.)

So I think I’m actually looking forward to this prequel. The thing about Alien is, yes, it was horrific. Yes, it was a haunted house movie in a sense. But it also gave us a glimmer of a sense of wonder. One of the best scenes in any SF movie is the one in which they first encounter the space jockey. It’s fundamentally about what we love about SF, and especially about subgenres like space opera…and then they didn’t follow through.

Tentacles! With Shelley Winters and John Huston!

Jeff VanderMeer • March 22nd, 2010 • Movie Reviews

Yesterday, while doing our taxes, we followed up Pandorum, Dune, Moon, and Alien with a movie on cable…Tentacles. From 1977, clear rip-off of Jaws.

I have a feeling that everyone else already knows about this D-movie, but we were just aghast, watching winters, Huston, and others do their best impression of stink-o-rama. In one scene a killer whale trainer embarks on a long monologue aimed at convincing the whale to fight the killer giant octopus.

Here’s more of it, for masochists…

Pandorum–Hidden Gem

Jeff VanderMeer • March 20th, 2010 • Movie Reviews

I’m not going to defend mutation science as applied to Pandorum, but I have to say: if you haven’t seen this film, you should. It’s twisty in the best way, horrific in a way that actually turns out to make sense, and although it uses tropes and ideas you’ve seen in lots of other deep space horror flicks, it is original in its way. I would call this film brilliant for its renovations. It’s not original, but as a renovation of tropes that have become cliche, it does an excellent job, and is well worth your time.

Nisi Shawl on Avatar

Jeff VanderMeer • March 11th, 2010 • Movie Reviews

I’ve just posted Nisi Shawl’s piece on Avatar over at Booklifenow. Go check it out. I think she liked it just a tad more than I did.