Monday, November 30, 2015

On The Big Lebowski and The Coen Brothers

John Goodman and Jeff Bridges star in The Big Lebowskithe Coen Brothers' great 1998 neo-noir / male buddy comedy. 

It is strange that I have made it over two years into my film-blogging career without discussing the work of the Coen Brothers at length. I love the Coens' films and regard the fraternal filmmaking duo as one of the greatest American writer-director-producer teams working in the contemporary era.

Earlier this year, a friend asked me on Facebook to comment on The Big Lebowski (1998), doubtless the most cultishly favored film in the Coens' ouvre. While I have seen Lebowski so many times that I am perhaps too familiar, even bored with it, on the whole I love it very much and rate it as one of the Coen Brothers' top three or four movies. I will therefore use Lebowski, a movie I know well, to launch a discussion of the Coens' work more generally.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, the Coens are known for meticulously planning and extensively storyboarding their films, engaging in a labor-intensive pre-production process that allows them to keep production costs down and to produce consistently excellent quality films. The brothers, Joel and Ethan, have one of the best track records in all U.S. cinema history, cranking out only a very few pictures (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading) that have been less than jubilantly received.

The Big Lebowski, like all Coen Brothers movies, is a postmodern work, which means that it conveys most of its meaning via references to other, earlier films, film genres, and literary traditions. As Lee Weston Sabo writes, "the Coen brothers have [spent] the bulk of their career turning proud American genre films — the western, the film noir, the gangster thriller, the screwball comedy — into dark, ironic mockeries." In the case of Lebowski, the most important referents are hardboiled detective fiction and film noir, with some elements from Westerns and buddy movies -- and one Busby Berkeley dance number -- tossed in for good measure.

Despite its light, comedic tone and its bearing little aesthetic resemblance to a film noir or neo-noir, Lebowski nevertheless abounds in noir tropes, character types, and plot structures. The Dude is our morally ambiguous detective-protagonist, working to solve a mystery that ultimately has more to do with his personal life than the case at hand. Walter is Moose Malloy from Murder. My Sweet, the likeable if dimwitted "muscle" who helps our detective out of as many jams as he creates.

"You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole!"

The Big Lebowski's title is a riff on The Big Sleep, the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel whose 1946 Howard Hawks-directed film adaptation looms large in the cycle of classic films noir.* Indeed, many of Lebowski's key characters are direct homages to extremely similar characters in The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep's wheelchair-bound millionaire Mr. Sternwood . . . 

. . . is the inspiration for The Big Lebowski's Mr. Lebowski (though not visible in this shot, the two characters even wear similar lap blankets). 

Similarly, The Big Sleep's Vivian Rutledge . . .

. . . provides a general analogue for the Coens' Maude Lebowski. 

Besides the film's titular allusion and various structural parallels to The Big Sleep, the Coens slip in some not-so-subtle yet highly amusing winks toward film noir just to make sure we know The Big Lebowski's intentions are parodic. One example is The Dude's increasing self-awareness of his "detective" role, evinced in his discussions of "the case" with Lebowski and Brandt in the back of the limousine and much later in the film with Maude.

The most overt (and entertaining) inter-textual film noir element in Lebowski is Da Fino (Jon Polito), a sort of parallel figure to The Stranger (Sam Elliott), who represents the Western genre. Da Fino is a 1940s-ish noir gumshoe (though his 1970s Volkswagen is a reference to Blood Simple) who follows The Dude around, ostensibly to track down Bunny Lebowski on behalf of her distraught midwestern parents. But his more significant function is to remind us that The Big Lebowski knows the genres from which it draws and is having a grand old time messing about with and satirizing film noir conventions.

"Brother Shamus" Da Fino (Jon Polito) expresses his admiration for The Dude's detective work. Da Fino "visits" the 1990s world of The Big Lebowski from a 1940s noir, as the music playing on his car radio during this scene makes clear.  

What finally makes The Big Lebowski great fun to watch is not necessarily its witty inter-textual references or deft bricolage of the conventions of several prevalent film genres -- though, as I say, the Coens' genre mashups in Lebowski are, as nearly always, extremely elegant and artful. No, the deepest pleasure to be had from Lebowski or any Coen Brothers film is the incredibly high level of cinematic craft on display, the attention to detail and nuance on every level, the excellent characterization, the obvious love of movies and of the foibles of humanity that shine through even some of their darkest films.

As one of the Coens' lightest and funniest films, The Big Lebowski repeatedly demonstrates their ability to make the technically difficult look natural and effortless. Of course it doesn't hurt that starting one film earlier, with Fargo, the brothers began working with Roger Deakins, one of the greatest living cinematographers. Yet Joel and Ethan, who write, produce, edit, and direct all their films as a collaborative team, are meticulous and extremely well-thought out in how they stage and shoot scenes. There are several long-take three shots of conversations between Dude, Donny, and Walter at the bowling alley that are a marvel to behold. The length of the takes, the fluidity of the camera work, and the sheer confidence of the film's stellar performances really make these scenes shine, but in a way you might not notice at first. The Big Lebowski rewards repeat viewings on the level of formal film craft alone. It is also quite funny and delightful.

If The Big Lebowski has anything "serious" to say, it may be about what kind of masculinity is most needed in troubled times like "the early '90s." In this sense the film belongs to the slacker cycle of buddy comedies that swept through the 1990s decade, stuff like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Dazed and Confused (1993), Clerks (1994), Mallrats (1995), Swingers (1996), Dude Where's My Car (2000), and arguably the commercial apex of them all, American Pie (1999).** These comedies centralize white masculinity, which is problematic, yet they do celebrate slackerish values such as being sensitive to others and favoring peaceful negotiation over violence. "The Dude abides."

Along with Lebowski itself, I would nominate these other films as being among the Coens' very best, maybe approximately in this order (though that's hard to decide):

Steve Buscemi gives a career-topping performance as Carl Showalter in Fargo.

Fargo (1996) is my all-around favorite Coen Brothers film at present, or else it is tied for that honor with A Serious Man. On one level, Fargo is simply a deliciously twisted and darkly comic rural film noir. Yet it is so beautifully realized, and so rich in its characterizations, that it comes across as one of the Coens' most mature, profound, and humanistic works.

has the best soundtrack of any Coen Bros. film -- in fact, Fargo's is one of the great film scores of all time, period. Along a similar line, moments like Marge Gunderson's (Frances McDormand) discussion with Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) in her police cruiser and Marge and Norm's quiet talk that closes the film represent the Coens at their warmest and most soulful. When they want to, the Brothers Coen can really land scenes like this. Both the "Donny's funeral" scene at the end of The Big Lebowski and Fargo's concluding Marge-Norm conversation make me tear up every time.

In short, Fargo is probably the Coen Brothers' objectively best film, so if you only see one Coens picture, make it this one or one of the noirish ones like Lebowski or Blood Simple.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man.

I love A Serious Man (2009) for many of the reasons discussed in Lee Sabo's article about its Jewish-centered humor. Man is one of the Coens' funniest yet most sincere films, a more personal and absurdly sublime work than any other Coen film to date. As Sabo writes,
Fear and laughter are close cousins. I find Friday the 13th unintentionally funny and the lightweight documentary Spellbound positively horrifying, and I know people who thought Fargo was hilarious but stifled their laughter the first time they saw it because other people in the room thought it was “serious.” The Coens hardly see a difference between horror and farce, and if they do, A Serious Man has them in such balance that it’s impossible to separate them.
Indeed. Its near-perfect balance between dark comedy and truly horrific tragedy make A Serious Man the most refined example of the Coens' cinematic worldview. Bleak yet humanistic, alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, Man is an absurdly Kafkaesque comedy. Indeed, Sabo accurately identifies A Serious Man's Larry Gopnik as a
Kafkan hero, a man who, for reasons never explained, suddenly has horrible things happen to him one after another, with everything getting worse and worse until his life is destroyed. In Kafka’s novels — and the finest adaptation of one of them to the screen, Orson Welles’s The Trial — this typically involves a descent into a surrealistic nightmare world that’s not only as hysterically funny as it is unbearably frightening, but funny precisely because it’s frightening. This is the basic format of A Serious Man (Barton Fink is Kafkaesque, but not as wholly).
Yet all this serious talk does not capture the wry and zany humor that pervades A Serious Man. Ultimately it is a very funny and humanistic film.

Nevertheless, much as I love A Serious Man, I must limit my recommendation of it to viewers who have checked out some of the Coens' other genre pieces first. Serious is a nuanced and ambivalent work, and it is easier to appreciate once one has some familiarity with the Coens' absurdism and dark-comic vibe. Sabo captures this essence when he writes that "the Coens are individualists to the point of eccentricity, but the blunt honesty of A Serious Man makes their earlier work seem insecure and slightly neurotic."

M. Emmet Walsh delivers a standout performance in Blood Simple as unscrupulous private detective Visser. His presence hails back to Walsh's role as the police chief in Bladerunner and his Volkswagen Beetle foreshadows the appearance of Da Fino in The Big Lebowski

Blood Simple (1984) is one of my very favorite Coen Brothers movies, a lean and mean neo-noir set in rural Texas. John Getz is fine in the male lead, and Frances Dormand rocks as always, but the real scene-stealers are Dan Hedaya as sleazy club owner Marty and especially M. Emmet Walsh as the delightfully unscrupulous Visser. The great cast, plus razor-sharp plotting and striking use of visual motifs (Dead fish! Lighters! Ceiling fans!) make Blood Simple a pulse-pounding noir thrill ride. Most highly recommended.

No Country for Old Men (2007) is a powerful late-career work from the Coens, a darker spiritual successor to Blood Simple. I like No Country's bleak Texas setting. The first half of the film is amazing and, despite some draggy parts once Llewelyn Moss crosses the Mexican border, the movie retains pretty high re-watch value for me. Yet a lot of what makes No Country work is its remarkably chilling central performance by Javier Bardem. I love Josh Brolin's and Kelly Macdonald's work here, but Bardem's portrayal of Chigurh is the greatest highlight of this movie.

Chigurh's narrative centrality in No Country for Old Men is like if Fargo was reworked to focus mainly on Peter Stormare's Geaer Grimsrud. And if the psychopathic Chigurh is Grimsrud 2.0, then similarly, No Country's Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is our Marge Gunderson figure. No Country can be seen as a reworking of Fargo in which Grimsrud winds and Marge Gunderson loses.

"What business is it of yours where I'm from, friend-o?"

Tonally, No Country is more brutally violent and less well-rounded than Fargo. I highly recommend No Country, but I place it just a nudge behind first-ranked Coen Brothers films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and A Serious Man.

John Turturro as Barton Fink in Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991) is one of the Coens' most abstract and arty films, yet it also captures their spooky Gothic side better than any other effort. Visually, Barton Fink is most like Miller's Crossing or possibly True Grit, featuring a rich and dark period setting with lots of grit and grotesquerie. Ostensibly about a New York playwright (John Turturro) who moves to L.A. to work as a screenwriter in Golden-Age Hollywood, Fink and the decaying hotel in which it is principally set are both metaphors for something else entirely. By the third act, when an unusual acquaintance of Barton's (John Goodman) goes on a rampage, the line between narrative reality and pure visual symbolism gets very blurry indeed. It is a hard film to explain. But it is also one of the Coens' very best movies, kind of like their Vertigo, a haunting, perfectly interwoven masterpiece that only they could have made. Barton Fink may not be for everyone and probably isn't an ideal first Coen Brothers film to see, but it is an essential one. I highly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the Coen Brothers' work.

If the films discussed so far constitute the top rung of the Coens' best films, the next-highest rung consists of Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), and O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Gabriel Byrne as Tommy in Miller's Crossing, the Coen Brothers' darkly comic 1990 gangster film. 

Miller's Crossing was the first Coen Brothers film I ever saw, in the theater no less, and so it will always hold a special place for me. Despite a noirishly convoluted plot, Miller's is at heart a gangster movie, with larger than life characters and outrageous violence. The cast is all simply terrific, with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jon Polito as particular standouts.

Raising Arizona is clever and funny and even touching at a couple points, yet it is not, for me, among the first tier of the Coens' work. Arizona, a screwball comedy about various folks contending over a kidnapped baby, features uniformly excellent performances, a very amusing soundtrack, and lots of audacious camera work, some of which will remind the Sam Raimi-savvy viewer of the kinetic camera movement in key shots of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II.*** Yet I have never placed this one very high on my personal list of faves. I recognize its greatness and can say nothing concrete against it, it just doesn't speak to me as much as some of the others.

Along similar lines, I enjoy O Brother Where Art Thou? well enough but find it to be less nuanced and interesting than the films that immediately precede it, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. The soundtrack's great, the cinematography is great, and Clooney is fun, but O Brother is not a personal favorite for me.

Then there are the two strangest entries in the Coen ouvre, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) and True Grit (2008). The thing that makes these two films so unusual is that they are more or less straightforward examples of the genres to which they belong, the film noir and the western respectively. The usual Coen Brothers tendency to mash-up and even parody the genres in which they work is more or less absent in these two films. They are very well made and enjoyable but are the least overtly Coen-esque films the brothers have made (that I've seen).

Lastly, while every Coen Brothers film is surely worth watching at least once, the titles that have recieved the least repeat viewing from me include The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Burn After Reading (2010). I appreciate what they're going for in the former yet the upbeat, Capra-esque vibe of Hudsucker just doesn't mesh as well with the Coens' dark-comic style, and its Moses figure (Bill Cobbs), a magical negro, is extremely racist. Burn After Reading is funny and fun and contains some great individual performances by Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney, but overall it's a little too thinly developed and ultimately unmemorable. Sabo calls Burn the Coens' "worst film," arguing that it is not funny or humanistic enough:
Burn After Reading chucks [the screwball comedy's] gleeful optimism out the window in favor of the brothers’ more typical penchant for watching their idiotic characters suffer hopelessly. When Burn After Reading‘s plot does a tumble, it falls off the boat and dies horribly.
I might enjoy horrific, bleak comedy more than the average viewer, but I cannot disagree with Sabo's assessment or place Burn After Reading any higher than third-tier in the rankings.

I have never seen Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004), or Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). I don't plan to see either of the former two, but the critically beloved Llewyn Davis is one I plan to see in the (near) future.

Brandt sez: "That had not occurred to us, Dude."

* There is much debate over what exactly counts as film noir, some even suggesting that it is, at this point, less a film genre than a mode or style that exists not only (or primarily) in film but across what James Naremore calls the "noir mediascape." (More than Night p. 255). However, there is credible consensus around the idea that the "classic" American film noir cycle begins with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in 1942 and ends with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958. Anything made after that is referred to as neo-noir (Naremore p. 262). Probably the best succinct rundown of what constitutes film noir (historically and aesthetically) is Paul Schrader's short article "Notes on Film Noir." For those who want a more in-depth treatment, I highly recommend Naremore's terrific More than Night (U. California Press, 2008). It's one of my favorite books!
** Those readers interested in the historical rise and ideological consequences of the geek/slacker comedy cycle should check out "Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity" (co-authored by me and Kom Kunyosying) and my follow-up article "Team Apatow and the Tropes of Geek-Centered Romantic Comedy."
*** A direct line of influence extends from Raimi to the Coens: Joel Coen worked with Raimi as an assistant editor on Evil Dead (1981) and Raimi is said to have helped out on the set of the Coens' Blood Simple.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Four More Directors to Watch Out For

This is a sequel to a 2013 post I wrote about five of my favorite directors. This time I talk about Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, Harmony Korine, and Noah Baumbach.

Michael Mann
I glancingly mentioned Mann at the end of that earlier post as one of my favorite action directors. It's true. I have reported before that I love film noir and moody urban (or rural) crime films, and in the contemporary era, Mann is one of the undisputed masters of the genre.

I have written elsewhere about my deep love for Manhunter (1986), so let me focus here on a couple other of Mann's best films as a means of explaining his appeal. (Remember, however, that as Nathan Ditum has written, Mann's career is quite varied and rife with "medium-hopping" variety.)

Neil (Robert de Niro) and Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, Michael Mann's dramatic crime thriller masterpiece.

Heat (1995). My God, Heat. Heat is so goddamned good that I hardly know where to begin. This accurate appreciation does a good job of summing up the film's (and Mann's) many strengths, stating that Mann
traffics in established loner-pro genre archetypes, walking a fine line between character psychology and pulp myth. Mann’s underworld thrillers — Thief, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and the recent, unfairly maligned Blackhat — blend fantasies and realities of crime. His screenplays are notoriously wordy, but play as minimalist on screen, with paragraph blocks of novelistic detail used to inform single gestures. He collects psychologies and reams of off-beat technical information and transmutes them into archetypal stories. 
[In] the two decades since its release, Heat — a film that was very well received, critically and commercially — has only grown in stature, and come to be regarded as a modern classic and a point of reference for genre filmmaking. Newness depreciates in value over time, but craft and expression remain. Most of Mann’s movies — quite a few of them flops — have become more highly regarded over time. Mann’s perennial problem, it seems, is that his plots are too old and that his movies look too new.
I couldn't say this any better. If you like smartly scripted, visually eye-popping urban crime films, then you simply must check out the films of Michael Mann, especially Heat. All 170 minutes of Heat's pleasurably grandiose running time are absorbing and tension-packed; the movie never drags. Its two leads, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, give career-high performances, backed by a supporting cast par excellence: Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, and Ted Levine. Filled with exciting, well-choreographed action set pieces interspersed with deliciously atmospheric L.A. film noir moments, I simply cannot recommend Heat strongly enough.

The post-heist shootout in the streets of L.A., one of the most exciting and expertly constructed scenes in Heat and in Mann's filmography writ large.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sits outside Mann's "usual" mode of the tough, urban crime film and yet in many ways it fits right in: it is about tough, manly, resourceful men caught in extremely precarious circumstances. I re-watched this movie a few months back and was blown away by how well-made, exciting, and compelling it is. All this plus Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role equals, as Ditum calls it, "a period winner."

I also emphatically recommend Mann's Thief (1981), Collateral (2004), The Insider (1999), and the aforementioned serial-killer classic Manhunter. Furthermore, despite its decidedly mixed reviews (some positive, some middling, some negative) I plan to see the recent cyber-thriller Blackhat on the strength of Mann's good name alone.

Action thriller director Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. 

Kathryn Bigelow
As this sharp writeup of Hurt Locker-era Kathryn Bigelow argues,
She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.
Yeah! I agree. Bigelow's films are consistently good -- I have been thrilled and entertained by every single Bigelow film I've seen, and a few, like Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are truly great. Probably the best way to approach her work, like that of Nicholas Winding Refn, is to see her films as a series of revisions of and experiments with different genres. MoMA's Jenny He accurately writes that Bigelow
boasts an accomplished oeuvre of engrossing and exhilarating films that are unified in their defiance of genre expectations, their sensual and visceral imagery, and their examination of societal mores and individual psyches.
Indeed. Let me further explain Bigelow's greatness via some specific comments about a few of her key movies:

The Loveless (1982). As the writeup from this 2011 retrospective explains, The Loveless "is a study in Americana that evokes influences as varied as Walker Evans, Kenneth Anger, Edward Hopper, and Douglas Sirk." Willem Dafoe is simply great as the lead, Vance, in this film (when is Dafoe not great?). Yet Vance's oscillating attitude -- between bemused detachment and mildly angry ennui -- is indicative of the overall tone of The Loveless. It is a fascinating genre study and entertaining in a downbeat, existential way, but it is also just a warm-up to the bolder and more innovative genre experiments to come.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan in Blue Steel

Blue Steel (1989) is one of my all-time favorite Bigelow films -- it's the one I've seen the most times. It is both an exciting and suitably hyperbolic 1980s crime thriller in its own right and a subtle deconstruction of the gendered assumptions that usually accompany that genre.

Film scholar Christina Lane notes that the "first five sequences of [Blue Steel] represent a series of reversals in which Bigelow toys with gender expectations that are embedded in the genre." My favorite of these reversals is the second one Lane analyzes, about the close-up tracking shot over the gun in the opening credits sequence:
Rather than impart the point of view of the bullets going into the chamber from the outside in, she presents the insertion "from within," perhaps suggesting a point of view that is gendered female. Exaggerating the fetishism of this phallic symbol, a fetishism common to the cop genre, the film defamiliarizes conventional connotations of the gun, asking us to examine the relation between the whole and the parts (i.e., the theory of phallic power and the practice). Also, during this caress of the gun, Bigelow frames the spinning of the chamber as though it were a movie reel, linking the phallic discourses of weapons to those of the cinema.*
In other words, Bigelow points out the masculine, phallic nature of the image of the gun while simultaneously reversing that gendering -- feminizing the gun -- visually. Clever! Lane continues:
In Blue Steel, Bigelow may stay within the terms of the cop/psychothriller genre, in which the gun is fetishized and women present a sexual threat; however, she reverses its terms, exploring what happens when the governing symbolic imagery changes due to a female presence which oscillates between femininity, masculinity, and androgyny (that is, to say that Megan takes up various positions throughout the film). Bigelow refuses to suggest that a mere substitution of a woman in a man's role - and one who is masculinized at that - ultimately reverses male power structures. Rather, she privileges the slippage between gender codes and modes of power, entertaining the possibility of disrupting those structures.**
Very well argued, I completely agree. Blue Steel doesn't just plop a female heroine into a masculine film-world and plot structure, as do Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Kill Bill (2003 and 2004), but rather it disrupts and renders ambiguous the gender codes of the typically male-centered action genre.***

Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) in the downbeat final scene of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 action masterpiece. 

I re-watched Point Break (1991) quite recently. Prior to that, I hadn't seen Bigelow's high-octane cops-and-robbers actioner since the late 1990s. In my hazy memories, I remembered it as being too over-the-top for my tastes -- a strange perception, damn hard to account for given that I was still heavily into mid-career Schwartzenegger movies like The Running Man (1987) and Total Recall (1990) at the time Point Break came out.

Point Break constitutes a remarkable achievement in action cinema. Its bank-robbery, sky-diving, and chase sequences are tautly directed, with effective, visceral touches like the use of steadicam in the amazing mid-film foot chase between Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and a Reagan-masked Bohdi (Patrick Swayze). And while the breathtaking, ever-escalating action set pieces are the main reason to take this ride, Point Break's surfing sequences and character development scenes are shot really beautifully, often in depth, with copious slow motion used for dramatic effect. Bigelow is great at directing action yet is unafraid to include some long takes and just soak in the mise-en-scene of things from time to time. The film's attention to detail makes the southern California setting, and the whole milieu in which the story takes place, feel lived-in and real. Much as I dislike the term for its recent overuse in film criticism, "gritty" is the perfect word to use here. Despite its fairly breakneck overall pace, Point Break is far more thematically resonant and visually gritty than I remember it being.

Point Break's Bodhi, in Reagan mask, torches a getaway car. I love this image. 

Seeing it again now, I am inclined to place Point Break in the upper echelon of great '80s and 90s L.A. crime films, a group that includes William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Mann's masterpiece Heat (1995). Is some of the dialogue and its delivery (especially by Reeves) a bit cringe-worthy? Yes. Yet does it work as a piece of brilliantly crafted action fare? Yes, absolutely. Highly recommended!

Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero in Kathryn Bigelow's terrific neo-noir Strange Days.

Strange Days (1995) is a well-made neo-noir with slight science fictional trappings, that is, a noir set in a dystopic near future much like Bladerunner. Ralph Fiennes gives a terrific central performance as harried low-level street operator Lenny Nero, and the supporting cast, including Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, and Richard Edson, is remarkable. As usual, Bigelow takes a familiar genre -- in this case the film noir or crime thriller -- and then slightly turns it on its head, especially along gender lines. I do not wish to give away spoilers, but suffice to say that Nero, our ostensible "detective," gets proven wrong on one key matter that gives the lie to his need to protect his ex-girlfriend Faith (Lewis). Plus the "real" badass of the film is not the somewhat effeminate Nero but rather Bassett's Mace, a limo driver with finely honed fighting skills and an unswerving loyalty to Lenny. In sum, Strange Days is a terrific psychosexual thriller that presents near-future L.A. in a very different yet nearly as haunting a way as does its most obvious influence -- Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. Well worth seeing.

K-19 The Widowmaker (2002): First, a caveat: Das Boot is to submarine movies what Jaws is to shark movies. It's the absolute peak of the genre, with no other film even remotely in its league. In the case of shark attack films, even other solidly enjoyable ones like the Jaws sequels, Deep Blue Sea (1999), the Sharknado films, and The Reef and Open Water form a distant second tier behind Jaws, that one superior specimen of the genre. Likewise, all other submarine warfare films fall distantly behind Wolfgang Petersen's incredible masterpiece Das Boot. 

So in order to place Bigelow's clunkily titled K-19: The Widowmaker in its proper context, we must compare it to other second-tier military submarine adventure movies, alongside stuff like Destination Tokyo, The Hunt for Red October, and U-571. And compared to films like these, K-19 is pretty good. The movie takes a lot of rightful heat for Harrison Ford's abysmal "Russian" accent, though if you can look (listen?) past that flaw, his performance on the whole is pretty damn good given how late in his career we are talking about. Also, the supporting cast, including the always-great Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard, is uniformly excellent, though mostly consisting of lesser-known performers.

K-19's greatest strength, however, comes from its relative seriousness of tone and its grounding in a historically true series of events. I know this is a Hollywood film and I am not saying I believe the film is historically accurate, of course not. But the whole tone of the film, especially its tragic, tear-inducing final scene, gains power from the story's link to reality, however tenuous that link my be (I have never extensively researched the real history of Soviet nuclear submarine K-19). Set in 1961, K-19 is an historical period piece and therefore not as contemporary feeling or as "ripped from the headlines" as The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Nevertheless in many ways K-19 is a warm up to Bigelow's subsequent Iraq war dramas. As a meditation on the personal cost of serving the state and maintaining state secrets, K-19 specifically foreshadows the themes of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain gives a harrowing performance as beleaguered CIA operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's espionage masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty.

While I like The Hurt Locker and am very happy in general that Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director at the 2009 Oscars for it, I nevertheless maintain that Zero Dark Thirty is a superior film and may even mark the highest point in Bigelow's directorial career so far. I won't spend time elucidating its many strengths -- taut action and suspense, full-tilt performances from all players but especially Jessica Chastain, pitch-perfect cinematography -- but simply urge you to see it and take in all its espionage-movie excitement, investigative breadth, and grim beauty.

The main issue that comes up for most people around Zero Dark Thirty is its relationship to its real-life subject matter. We know all biopics and historical pics and films "based on a true story" are filled with inaccuracies and fabrications, but some films seem to draw more heat for exemplifying this ubiquitous truth than others do. Zero Dark has taken a lot of criticism from viewers who think its depiction of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture) by U.S. military intelligence personnel is inaccurate and inappropriate. For myself, I fully agree with Roger Cohen:
Watching torture is profoundly unsettling. But Bigelow and Boal have done an important service in setting before a wide U.S. and global audience images of a traumatized America’s dark side. This happened: the waterboarding, the sleep deprivation, the sexual humiliation, the cruelty. Not exactly as depicted, but yes it did.
By graphically depicting actual U.S. torture methods, Zero Dark exposes a truth many Americans would not like to face: that the U.S. does not occupy moral high ground in the global conflicts in which it is embroiled. The reality that the U.S. tortures captives in violation of the Geneva Convention is, in the context of this film, more important than the specifics of real-life torture's efficacy or inefficacy. That torture is ineffective in reality does not erase the truth that it happens.

Thus Zero Dark Thirty is justified in integrating graphic torture scenes into its narrative, in part because it is a work of fiction and a work of art. As Cohen further explains, "while reality is the raw material journalism attempts to render with accuracy and fairness, it is the raw material that art must transform." This resonates with film director Werner Herzog's notion of cinema's "ecstatic truth":
Cinema, like poetry, is inherently able to present a number of dimensions much deeper than the level of so-called truth that we find in cinema verite and even reality itself, and it is these dimensions that are the most fertile areas for filmmakers. I know that by making a clear distinction between 'fact' and 'truth' in my films, I am able to penetrate into a deeper stratum of truth most films do not even notice. The deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically and mathematically correct.†
Starting with its opening audio of the real 9/11 attacks over a black screen, Zero Dark Thirty means serious business in terms of conveying the full emotional impact and consequences of the events it depicts. It artistically deploys the facts in the service of reaching a deeper, ecstatic truth. Cohen rightly concludes that "the charge of inaccuracy is a poor thing measured against the potency of truth. Zero Dark Thirty is a truthful artistic creation, one reason it has provoked debate." Very well said.††

The sublime last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, which conveys the personal cost of serving the state and implicitly questions whether or not the hunt for bin Laden was worth it.

Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine, like his German idol Werner Herzog and his Danish counterpart Lars von Trier, is an enfant terrible, a talented provocateur who crafts his films and public appearances in such a way as to tease, provoke, and mystify his audiences. Take, for instance, this bizarre 1997 Letterman interview segment:

Is Korine really this crazy? Or is this whole appearance some kind of performance-art type of stunt? We'll never know, and part of the fun with Korine is that the line between who he might be as a person and what he wants to accomplish with his art is pretty heavily blurred.

As Korine himself says in this interview, responding to a question about the capacity for some of the images found in his films to shock viewers:
It's nice to know that people haven't become so completely desensitised to things that there's still a way to get some type of extreme reaction. But that's why you make films; to provoke some kind of discourse.
I think that quotation is key to understanding Korine's over-arching project, and it says a lot about him that when asked directly in the same interview about that controversial appearance on David Letterman, he replies:
Well, you know, it's interesting, because this has become such a thing now, when it's something that happened 15 years ago! I know what happened. But… I don't want to really say, because I like the way it exists in the way it does now.
That is, Korine would rather preserve the mystery, leaving things open to interpretation, than to spoil it by explaining himself. In this way he reminds me very much of David Lynch, who also steadfastly refuses to explain or interpret his films or creative motivations to interviewers. Frustrating though this may be for some of us, this refusal tells me that Korine, like Lynch, trusts and respects his audience. He wants us to decide for ourselves.

None of this impishly maddening public behavior would matter if Korine's films weren't some of the best crafted and most ideologically insightful works being made in the early 21st century.

To start with, Gummo (1997). Gummo is my personal favorite Harmony Korine film -- I assume it will always loom large on my list of all-time favorite movies. Gummo tells a loose "day in the life" type story, albeit in a multi-strand, non-linear way. The film features a true ensemble cast, with no single protagonist unless it is Tummler (Nick Sutton), the younger of two boys who kill neighborhood cats, selling the meat to a Chinese restaurant to earn money. The movie episodically follows several neighborhood characters, gradually creating a penetrating if carnivalesque portrait of mid-1990s white American poverty.

Is Gummo thinly fictionalized "poverty porn?" It's a legitimate question. Korine surely immerses himself in the low-income worlds he depicts in Kids (1995), Gummo, and julien donkey-boy (1999). And his films do both critique and exploit the genres in which he works.

Like Herzog, Korine likes to look unflinchingly at bizarre, unusual, even grotesque things, somehow making the viewer see their abject beauty. Alternately painterly and grunge-documentarian, Gummo's visual style is something very unique and special, consisting of beautiful images of unbeautiful subjects.

Gummo is an absolute must-see if you are interested in American independent cinema, or even if you just want to see one Korine film only -- make it this or Spring Breakers (2012).

Then there's julien donkey-boy (1999), Korine's Dogme '95 film. This is for serious Korine enthusiasts and may not be an ideal first Korine film if you are new to his work. More narratively coherent than Gummo -- it has a clear protagonist, Julien (Ewen Bremner), and features fewer central characters, focusing only on Julien's immediate family -- julien donkey-boy is nevertheless more thematically extreme than its predecessor. Both Julien and his father (played by Werner Herzog) seem to be mentally ill, and the film's plot centers on the anticipated birth of Julien's sister Pearl's (Chloe Sevigny's) baby, whose father's identity I cannot spoilerishly reveal. There's some intense shit in this movie. It's very good and I recommend it highly if you like Korine's stuff but you've been warned.

I already discussed Spring Breakers at length when I named it my favorite film of 2013, and I have not yet seen Trash Humpers (2009). Beyond that, Korine's feature filmography consists of Mister Lonely (2007) and the film he wrote but did not direct, Kids (1995). Mister Lonely is a gentler, more upbeat film than any other in Korine's filmography (even though one major character does commit suicide by the end). Depicting the exploits of several celebrity impersonators, including Michael Jackson (Diego Luna) and Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), this slice-of life piece aesthetically foreshadows Spring Breakers, being much glossier and a bit less arty and abstract than his earlier works. I enjoy Mister Lonely but it is the Korine film I have returned to least. I recommend neophyte Korine viewers skip it in favor of seeing the more visually accomplished and thematically incisive Spring Breakers.

Harmony Korine's cameo appearance alongside star Chloe Sevigny in Kids.

Kids is must-see viewing, for multiple reasons. First, it is an early harbinger of Korine's style and themes, focusing on the lives of several (mostly delinquent) youths over the course of a single day and night. It is shot low-budget style with street photographer Larry Clark directing.

Second, Kids is a key work of the 1990s American independent cinema boom. As this retrospective interview and this oral history make clear, Kids is the kind of film that could be made during the mid-1990s indie film heyday, but simply could not be made today, now that the indie sphere has been more or less completely taken over by the multinationals that run the major film studios.

Lastly, Kids, sensationalized though it may be, deals frankly and truthfully with underage sexuality and drug use, shining a light on the interconnected dangers of AIDS and urban poverty. In this sense I see it as another precursor to Spring Breakers, which also investigates white youth culture's obsessions with drug use, crime, and imagined blackness.

UPDATE 11/14/2015: A friend recommends that those interested in hearing a Harmony Korine interview with less "performance art" weirdness should check out this podcast with Marc Maron.

Noah Baumbach 
I have been a fan of Noah Baumbach's work ever since I saw The Squid and the Whale (2005) on home video circa 2008. That is a remarkable film, still my favorite of the director's. It is an intense coming of age drama centering on the travails of Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) as he deals with the divorce of his parents.

The Squid and the Whale is one of Baumbach's most psychologically incisive films, though Margot at the Wedding (2007) is also pretty intense and I've heard Greenberg (2010) is totally warts-and-all too. In any case, Whale displays all the key hallmarks of Baumbach's style. It is well-shot, well-paced, and its focus is on the nuances of its hard-to-love characters and their interactions. Whale and Margot are the two most emotionally harrowing Baumbach films I've seen, bleak tales of interpersonal fragmentation and raw family relationships. The lightness and comedy that infuse Baumbach's later works is present only sparingly in these two superbly crafted dramas.

Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in the final moments of The Squid and the Whale.

Baumbach is an excellent director of actors and he always brings forth real, lived-in performances from his cast members. Take, for example, Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding or Ben Stiller in While We're Young. These two guys both have clearly identifiable schticks -- JB's is rooted in his theatrically hyperreal Tenacious D persona, Stiller's is that of a tightly wound, geeky underachiever -- yet Baumbach brings roundness of character out of these two, mellowing, deepening, and therefore defamiliarizing their usual personas.†††

Ben Stiller as frustrated Generation-X filmmaker Josh in While We're Young.

One of the most accurate general assessments of Baumbach's work is this one, provided by AV Club's Mike D'Angelo:
Baumbach isn’t a great stylist, but he does think visually, especially considering how talky his films tend to be.
Very well said. Baumbach is no show-off, not even in his fairly clever dialogue. No, he places the characters (and by extension the actors) first. I think this is a fine principle by which to direct films. It seems to drive Nicole Holofcener's work, too. And surely Robert Altman's. This is good company to keep.

Amanda Seyfried, Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of While We're Young

Baumbach's strength as a director of actors is on display in Frances Ha, his upbeat female buddy comedy I discuss briefly here. While Frances Ha isn't my personal favorite Baumbach film -- I prefer his darker, edgier stuff -- I highly recommend that delightful gem if you haven't seen it already.

To conclude, I urge my readers to check out this delightful interview with Baumbach conducted by Jonathan Lethem around the time of Squid and the Whale. In it, Lethem says something of that movie that applies to Baumbach's film work as a whole:
it had that homely humanity to it. There was breath and impulse and life.
Yes indeed.
Nicole Kidman as the emotionally turbulent title character in Margot at the Wedding.

* Christina Lane, "From The Loveless to Point Break: Kathryn Bigelow's Trajectory in Action." Cinema Journal 37.4 (Summer 1998) pp. 70-1.
** Lane p. 73.
*** According to Kevin L. Ferguson, Blue Steel also reworks the "yuppie villain" trope in its bizarre depiction of obsessed serial killer Eugene (Ron Silver). Ferguson argues that the film "simultaneously sustains and critiques the new trope of the yuppie devil" in his fascinating analysis in Jump Cut.
† Paul Cronin (ed.), Herzog on Herzog (Faber and Faber, 2002) pp. 239-40.
†† Those interested in both sides of the debate over Zero Dark Thirty should check out Cieply and Barnes for the pro and Steve Coll and Peter Maass for the con. You may also want to read this Time Magazine interview with Bigelow, in which she addresses the Zero Dark controversy.
††† I think Black's part in Margo at the Wedding constitutes his second-best "offbeat" career performance after his starring role in Bernie, which is his career-best performance bar none. I like him in Orange County but I consider that to be one of his "core persona" performances. All that said, I basically like Jack Black's core persona, especially in School of Rock and the HBO Tenacious D shows.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Carter's Top 60 Films (November 2015)

Every so often (about annually it looks like) I compose a list of my top fifty or so favorite films. Here are the lists from November 2013 and August 2014. This time, as always, I have tried my best not to overthink the process, instead to go from the gut and write down the first fifty-ish titles that pop into mind. This list of sixty took me about fifteen minutes to get down:

Leviathan (2014)
Gummo (1997)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Jaws (1975)
Duel (1971)
Heat (1995)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Slacker (1991)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The Terminator (1984)
Alien (1979)
Bladerunner (1982)
Chinatown (1975)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Touch of Evil (1958)
The Third Man (1949)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Holy Motors (2012)
Melancholia (2011)
Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1979)
King Kong (1933)
King Kong (1976)
Cure (1997)
Memories of Murder (2003)
Mother (2009)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Zodiac (2007)
Nashville (1975)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The Shining (1980)
Walkabout (1971)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The Last Waltz (1978)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Videodrome (1983)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Heiress (1949)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Das Boot (1981)
The Sting (1973)
When the Levees Broke (2006)
Now, Voyager (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Vertigo (1958)
Shampoo (1975)
The Parallax View (1974)
The Babadook (2014)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949)
Election (1999)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Chuck&Buck (2000)

Randall Adams sez: "Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line got me off death row. No shit!"

Notes, thoughts, comments:

The last five entries were added a few minutes after the initial fifty-five. The last three were added AFTER I looked back at the August 2014 list -- I had to be "reminded" of my love for Election, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, and Chuck&Buck. The first fifty-seven titles were written down very swiftly without any peeking at my previous lists.

The main criterion for a film's inclusion is: Is this a movie I get excited to watch at the mere mention of its name? And: Is this a film I have watched several times with ever-increasing returns?

Or, as I put it in 2014:
Remember, this is NOT a list of "must-see" classics provided by a film scholar or "expert," but rather a slapdash list of my "favorite" films at the present moment, the main criterion of value being how much pleasure I take from viewing and re-viewing these particular movies.
Noteworthy omissions:

First Blood nearly made the list again this time, but the truth is I haven't watched it in a few years. I have been thinking about it a lot recently though so maybe now that fall is here I should to give it a spin . . .

No Lynne Ramsay films made the list this time, nor any Coens, although I re-watched A Serious Man a couple of months ago and loved it even more than previous viewings. So that one and Fargo probably belong up here too. Actually, a friend asked me for my thoughts on The Big Lebowski several months ago and I have slowly pecked away at a Coen Brothers post ever since . . .

I was tempted to put Nightcrawler (2014) on here, but chose to wait to make sure it passes the test of time.

The Terminator sez: "I'll be back . . . with more movie lists!"

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

Wow! Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is one of the best films I've seen this year, deserving of placement alongside The Babadook and What We Do in the Shadows as one of the three best horror-themed releases I've seen recently.

I say "horror-themed" because Crimson Peak is really a gothic romance, just as Shadows is really a comedy-mockumentary despite some explicit gore and a few good scares. Peak is a creepy, supernaturally tinged family melodrama, so superior an example of the cinematic gothic that it must be named alongside those other two standout films.*

Mia Wasikowska as Edith, the heroine of Crimson Peak.

Plot- and mood-wise, Crimson Peak is a lot like The Woman in Black (2012), only much much better. Peak is what Woman could have been if the latter film had trusted its story, actors, and creepy tone more so and relied less heavily upon frequent jump-scares accompanied by hamfisted musical stingers.

To be clear, I am not completely against jump scares, but I do not like "horror" films that rely too extensively on the device. I especially dislike movies that emphasize and/or broadcast every scare with a heavy handed, too-on-the-nose musical cue of some kind. This is what Nigel Floyd and Mark Kermode call "cattle-prod cinema," and I find it dull, pointless, and nerve-wracking.

Nigel Floyd sez: "We like horror films that build up a sense of suspense that is built into the narrative."

No, give me instead what film scholar Daniel Martin calls "restrained horror," a subgenre consisting of films "more suggestive than graphic" that "treat their subject with utter seriousness, jettisoning the [overt] humor that defined the postmodern cycle [of films like Scream.]"**

While the restrained horror films Martin talks about like Ringu and The Blair Witch Project are not the same as Gothic films like Crimson Peak, they may be close cousins. Both restrained horror and the Gothic prefer the slow burn over the easy scare. And surely, the use of deliberate restraint to provoke sustained terror, what Nigel Floyd refers to as "cumulative dread" in the video, creates a tone central to the Gothic. As this excellent review explains,
part of what defines the gothic is how paradoxically trusting it is; it relies on audience familiarity for much of its atmosphere and emotional power. We know the girlish innocent will be terrified in the great dark house; we know the gentry are hiding a terrible secret; we know what happens when you unlock Bluebeard’s closet. The gothic isn’t a genre of surprises, it’s a genre of dread, and to dread something, you must first know what it is.
Of course, I would argue that all genres are "trusting" of their audiences and exploit our familiarity with certain tropes and traditions to generate pleasurable effects. But I agree that as an exemplary specimen of the Gothic, Crimson Peak marshals its generic conventions and intertextual references in the service of cultivating dread, and that it does so especially brilliantly and effectively.

My girlfriend, an expert on the British Gothic, tells me that Crimson Peak falls into at least two related traditions. She calls the movie "Victorian gothic meets country house ghost story," a hybridization of elements from literary works including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817).***

Film-genre-wise, Crimson Peak belongs in a class of movie that includes The Others (2001), The Innocents (1961), The Shining (1980), and Rebecca (1940), as well as several film versions of the novels listed above. 

Crimson Peak's inquisitive detective-heroine Edith . . . 

. . . is like Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) from The Innocents, one of the best gothic ghost-story movies you'll ever fuckin' see. 

Similarly, Peak's intense, enigmatic Lucille (Jessica Chastain) . . . 

. . . is a lot like Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) from Hitchcock's Rebecca.  

I will not get into spoiler territory, but I must briefly mention Peak's breathtakingly lush sets and production design. The manor house to which Thomas takes Edith is an amazing feat of set design and construction. One of the most ingenious features of the house is a ragged hole in the roof that allows rain, mist, and snow to penetrate the very air of the main hall, enhancing the atmosphere of decay.†

The film's greatest visual achievement is probably its climactic scene in the snow, an amazing battle set among the various fixtures of Thomas' mining machinery. There isn't much graphic gore in Crimson Peak, but what violence occurs is brutal and believable, as this scene exemplifies.

And god, the performances. Mia Wasikowska is a particular favorite of mine, but all three principal cast members are superb here. I have never seen Tom Hiddleston, playing the mysterious pretty boy, do anything better. As I learned from this article, the original casting was going to be Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas and Emma Stone as Edith. As I watched the film, I remembered this casting factoid and thanked the universe that the production instead landed Hiddleston and Wasikowska for these roles. And the supporting cast is great too, especially Charlie Hunnam as Alan and Jim Beaver as Edith's father.

This review sounds hazily disappointed that Crimson Peak isn't scarier, yet what does one expect from del Toro? Crimson Peak marks a return to the, well, peak works of the director's early career, the gothic masterpieces The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006).†† Maybe the more appropriate adjective to describe these films is unsettling -- yes, Crimson Peak is unsettling in a slow-burning, emotional, violent, twisted, and melodramatically satisfying way. Or, as AV Club's Genevieve Valentine puts it:
The film isn’t very scary, because it trades so carefully on scares we’ve come to expect. It isn’t very scary because its ghosts aren’t antagonists; they’re a manifestation of generational guilt, sure, but they aren’t here to haunt Edith—they’re here to save her. And the movie’s visual markers—so pristinely devoted to its ancestors in the opening acts—sidestep the ghosts altogether by the climax. Edith stands victorious in the snow, blood-red clay on her white hem and blood spattered across her gown. She’s closed the loop on the vampire narrative, all by herself.
All this plus amazing set design with lots of freaky red ooze. Definitely go see this movie.

Guillermo del Toro sez: "Okay guys, for this next take, both of you will be fully immersed in horrid red filth."

UPDATE 11/5/2015: As the last line of my closing Genevieve Valentine quotation suggests, Crimson Peak solves Dracula's "Mina problem." This past summer and fall, my girlfriend and I watched several film adaptations of Dracula, including F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula (1958), Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979), and even the "sexy" Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella. One thing we noticed again and again is how every single film version of the tale sells out Mina, diminishing her role in what is, in the source novel, a victory brought about by her research, record-keeping, and diligence. In the novel, Mina is an investigator and a writer, like Crimson Peak's Edith. Yet no film version ever allows her to play that central a role, instead handing off the investigative and vampire-hunting functions to Van Helsing and/or Jonathan Harker.

The closest any film version comes to empowering Mina is Herzog's Nosferatu, in which she at least serves as the sole figure who recognizes Dracula's threat and takes steps to stop him. However, Herzog's adaptation ends with Mina sacrificing herself to the vampire rather than destroying him through direct action. The film ends with Harker, now a vampire himself, riding off across the plains in daylight, perhaps emphasizing the monstrously adaptable and therefore unstoppable nature of vampiric patriarchy but nevertheless doing the deceased Mina no favors.

While Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of Nosferatu ridicules the narrow-minded inefficacy of Harker and Van Helsing, positioning Mina as the only character who comprehends and takes action against the Count . . .

. . . it nevertheless kills Mina off, allowing Harker, himself now a vampire . . .

. . . to escape and presumably wreak havoc on the world. I read this as a critique of the relentless destructive power of patriarchy, yet the film makes this critique at the expense of its only significant female character's life.

As Valentine writes, "It’s notable that the blood-soaked ghosts of Crimson Peak are nearly all women, and all they ever do is communicate sins to help Edith avoid danger" -- indeed! Peak also tells the story of a battle between women for the love of a man. I am surprised I didn't think of this angle when I was initially writing this review because I am a feminist and I enjoy female-centered films. Yet there is so much going on in Crimson Peak from a genre perspective that I got lost in that aspect. I only later zeroed in on the "subversive," feminist implications of Edith's arc and the way in which the film "closes the loop on the vampire narrative" and solves the problem of Mina's longstanding defanging.

* Some of my readers may wonder why It Follows is not included in my brief list of top-notch horror of the past year. There is much pleasure to be had in It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's delightful retro homage to late-1970s and early-1980s horror. It Follows takes a Cronenbergian premise -- pretty much the same "sex-as-virus" metaphor that drives Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) -- and shoots and paces it like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Shot on location in Detroit, the movie has become something of a phenomenon in film-critical circles this year, earning the number two spot on AV Club's "The 25 Best horror films since 2000" list. I think it deserves all the acclaim it gets. It is a generally excellent horror film. But it just isn't as haunting, memorable, terrifying, or thematically audacious as, say, The Babadook or Crimson Peak. (In fairness, while film genius A.J. Snyder concurs with my feeling that It Follows is mainly "a collection of other people's ideas," this reviewer disagrees with me, arguing that "It Follows is no knockoff.")
** Daniel Martin, "Japan's Blair Witch: Restraint, Maturity, and Generic Canons in the British Critical Reception of Ring." Cinema Journal 48.3 (Spring 2009) pp. 39, 36.
*** The Jane Eyre connection is especially neat-o since Mia Wasikowska played the title role in a superb film version of Jane Eyre in 2011. And Peak's Dracula-ish vampiric themes take on additional resonance given that Tom Hiddleston starred in Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013.
† The sets, settings, and costumes are very important in a Gothic melodrama like this. One of the core concepts underpinning melodrama is that the emotions on display are too great to be captured in mere performances or words, so elements of the stetting including props, costumes, and nonverbal gestures do much of the symbolic work to convey meaning and feelings.
†† If I had to rank all the Guillermo del Toro films I've seen -- not easy since he moves between genres quite a bit -- then Pan's Labyrinth would surely be #1, and The Devil's Backbone would constitute a close second place. Next would be Crimson Peak, perhaps sharing the #3 spot with Hellboy (2004). Pacific Rim (2013) would be #4, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) #5. I have not yet seen his earlier films Cronos (1993) or Mimic (1997).