Archive for September 2011

In the Mood for Horror: Atmosphere over Fright

I've watched so many horror films that haven't scared me I couldn't even give you an accurate count as to how many times it's happened.  For the most part, horror movies never frighten me.  Not to put too fine a point on it but, for Pete's sake, I'm a grown man so the jump scares and demonic hobgoblins just don't do shit for me, so don't get too disappointed if I've got a blank look on my face.

But here's the thing.  This is how many times a movie not scaring me has affected whether I liked it or not:  zero.

There are those who like horror because it scares them.  Plenty of people, in fact.  Others go for the gore and the jump scares.  I wish them all the best and wouldn't even try to persuade them against it as changing the heart is a difficult thing to do if that's where the heart leads you.  But for me, it's mood, all the way.

I like atmosphere.  No, screw that, I love atmosphere!  Atmosphere gets me through and that's why, for the most part, whether a movie is demonstrably scary or not doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot to me.  If you've visited here long enough, and read through enough Octobers, you've seen my mentions and write-ups of City of the Dead (aka, Horror Hotel).  And if you're groaning, thinking, "not again," don't worry, I'm not going to go back into it except to say that it's the "thick as mud" atmosphere that sells me every time.  It's not just a favorite horror movie, it's a favorite movie, period.

Recently, I wrote a post on TCM about my semi-addiction to isolated locations in the movies.  In it, I mention both The Wicker Man (1973, of course) and Don't Look Now as two personal favorites.  Both of those movies have horrific, even supernatural elements to them and that makes it easier to provide a dense, foreboding atmosphere.  It can be done with drama, but an isolated landscape in a drama, like Stroszek (also mentioned in the post), gives off a whole different feel than horror.  In drama, the feeling is more of the despair of hopes and dreams.  In horror, it's more about the dread of the unknown.  And that dread is what pulls me in, every time.

It's why the Universal classics work so well for me, because of their command of atmosphere and mood.  I don't watch Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein because I want to be scared.  I watch them for the mood they set, a sense of dread, of creepiness and foreboding.   And all of the horror films I love, from Old Dark House and City of the Dead  to The Shining and The Thing (horror/sci-fi), have a true command of atmosphere.

But great atmosphere need not be a product of big studio financing.  As often as not, it's something that can be obtained on easy credit with no money down.  Take a look at Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity to find great cases of atmosphere done on the cheap.

So when I hear someone complain that a horror movie isn't scary, frankly, I get a little irritated.  The horror genre's sole purpose is not to scare but to deal with horrifying elements, usually, but not always, in dramatic form.  Something can horrify us but not necessarily scare us (Freaks, perhaps).  The two are not synonymous.  It can do both, one or the other or neither.  The horror movie deals with that which is outside the realm of most people's normal experience.  To get those kinds of stories right, the first thing a director has to do is establish mood.  Only then can he hope to scare us.  To paraphrase the old saw about real estate, in the realm of horror, the three most important things are atmosphere, atmosphere, and atmosphere. And when it's done right, it's like the air that you breathe.

Record Club #5: Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

The fifth discussion for the Record Club takes place today, and it is hosted by Jamie Uhler at the multi-author blog Wonders in the Dark. Jamie has picked the album The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, and he has written a fine introductory post as part of his long-running series "Getting People Over the Beatles." Now it's time to join the conversation in the comment section. I hope to see you there!

October, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

If you're not ready for October, you might as well be in Dubrovnik.

October is almost here and it truly is my favorite time of the year. Fall and it's grey skies and multi-colored leaves tumbling to the ground just makes me feel good. A love of classic horror does the same and all month long it's what I watch and write about. This year won't be any different in that respect except possibly, as mentioned in the previous post, a bit scaled back. I'd like to re-examine some ideas from October's past. Not reposting old entries but reintroducing their ideas. There are things from, say, three years ago, discussed with a whole other set of commenters that I wouldn't mind plunging into again, or that I have some new thoughts on and would like to hear yours (or, read yours, as it were). I'd like to talk a little bit more about sci-fi as well, a genre that often directly crosses over into horror (Frankenstein, Doctor X, The Thing, etc).

 And, mind you, I don't like the scaling back but other writing keeps me busy. One thing I've started to use more often is twitter. It's funny; the 140 character limit seems ridiculous at first and the fact that there isn't really conversation (not without tagging the person whose attention you want to get) makes the whole endeavor seem pointless. But damned if it doesn't suddenly open up a world of magical possibilities when you've got no time and a desire to put something out there; a link, a thought, a judgment, a recommendation or just an obscure reference. And Facebook's a good outlet, too, when time and opportunity are infrequent acquaintances.

 But once the fall arrives, everything feels fresh again even if I know by February I'll feel like giving up on everything after three solid months of low light. No matter. Fall is when my AFI attendance picks up and this October they've got plenty of Vincent Price to keep me busy. My wife and I are going to take the youngest to see The Raven on Halloween. We've all seen it before, all love it and look forward to a big screen viewing before trick or treating begins in earnest. And I look forward to another October here, and my first at TCM with the Morlocks. So make sure you stop back in both here and there so we can watch, talk about and celebrate horror (and sci-fi) all month long.

Required Reading

The fall season is synonymous with the word new -- new entries in theatre and film,  television and of course, the September fashion issues that weigh more than Oliver, my Maine Coon cat. And it also means new books. Below are a few of my movie-related must reads and be sure and scroll down to Bookperk for a few book related goodies. Now turn off CSI or the Housewives of Beverly Hills and read a book. And don't forget to Tivo.

Movies From the Silent Classics of the Silver Screen to the Digital and 3-D Era
Phillip Kemp
October 4, 2011

1,000 stills can be found in this illustrated book making it the ultimate cinephile's delight (that would be me). The book traces the evolution of cinema from the Golden Age to film noir to 3-D and films of every genre. Can't wait to order here on Amazon.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion
Sarah Gristwood with foreword by Hubert de Givenchy

Has it really been 50 years? And does it get any better than this? And will I ever hear Moon River or see Cat being tossed out of the cab without crying? Enough said.

This book has it all - behind the scenes photos, costumes, script, poster art and everything for the ultimate fan of this timeless classic. Available now on Amazon.

Then Again
Diane Keaton
Random House
November 15th

Not just the typical star biography, Diane Keaton's memoir includes the story of her loving yet complicated mother Dorothy Hall. The Academy Award winning actress of Annie Hall, Something's Gotta Give and Reds fame (just to name a few) culled through Dorothy's eighty five journals for a portrait of mom, daughter and an American family that spans four generations and the lessons learned. You can pre-order on Amazon here. And no word yet if she spills the beans on Woody Allen or Warren Beatty.

The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History
Gregory Paul Williams
BL Press
October 1st

800 vintage photographs from the author's personal collection accompany the stories of   stars and the land of broken dreams and how Hollywood transformed and revolutionized society with the entertainment business. Available on Amazon.

The Garner Files
James Garner and Jon Winokur
Simon & Schuster
November lst

For those of you too young to remember, James Garner was the Robert Pattinson of his generation. He shared the screen with everyone from Doris Day (Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling), Steve McQueen (The Great Escape), Julie Andrews (Victor, Victoria)  and enjoyed a long run on the small screen in Maverick and The Rockford Files. Devastatingly handsome, he was and is one of the nicest people in Hollywood. His bio is available on Amazon.

Spencer Tracy: A Biography
James Curtis
October 1st

The bio of one of the cinema's most prolific actors covers his twenty six year partnership on and off the screen with Katherine Hepburn and his work from Broadway to Inherit the Wind, Boys Town, Woman of the Year, Captains Courageous and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Available on Amazon. And quite a cool cover.

Harry Potter: Page to Screen - The Compete Filmmaking Journey
Bob McCabe
Harper Design
October 25th

For those of us who cannot get enough of all the machinations of Hogwart's and everything Harry Potter, it's all here. Behind the scenes stories and the artistry of the making of the Harry Potter series is featured in this 500 plus page compendium. Many images are never before seen photographs from closed film sets. You can pre-order here on Amazon.

From the clever marketing department at Harper Collins (and my publisher I might add) comes Bookperk, a site that offers all sorts of books (many of them autographed) with perks in the form of merchandise and sold in a timely flash sale fashion. Below are a few of the items on sale:

What's Your Number? by Karyn Bosnak was made into a movie that premieres on Friday, September 30th. Purchase by October 4th and receive a free signed poster by actress Ana Farris.

In this economy, it may be the only/last Chanel bag you own/buy. Tote bag available with purchase of Justine Picardie's book Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life. Available through October 3rd here.

Fans of Susan Lucci and/or mourners of the deceased soap All My Children will want to jump on this deal immediately -- an autographed copy of Susan Lucci's All My Life: A Memoir by La Lucci herself. The deal expires October 7th and you can purchase here.

You can sign up for Bookperks newsletter and see more deals at their website.
Happy Reading!

Photo Credits: Rizzoli, Harper Collins, Harper Design, Simon & Schuster, BL Press, Random House

San Sebastian/Donostia Roundup

Sorry for the delayed update but I hit the ground running straight after landing and haven't had a moment free since. Enough excuses. I attended this year's edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival (or Donostia Zinemaldia in Basque) for its 59th edition, as a guest of the CinemaLab programme, which seeks to create better links between European exhibitors and distributors and Latin American films.

It was my first time at this Festival but not my first in San Sebastian, a city not too far from Bilbao, where my father is from and where I attended University many moons ago - essentially I am half Basque.

I was only in town for 3 nights, and had two meetings to attend, so the filmgoing was sparse. But I did get in six films altogether. Four of those were titles from Cinema en Construccion, the movies-in-progress strand of the festival which focuses on Latino films. The quality was high, and I saw real gems. But it's not fair to review unfinished films. The two others were competition features, and both were excellent.

RAMPART, starring Woody Harrelson in an Oscar-worthy performance, is about a corrupt police officer in the infamous Rampart district headquarters of Los Angeles, home to a lot of the evidence-planting, police brutality and other naughty stuff the LAPD was up to. Harrelson, a terrific performer who has been underrated and underused in the past, takes what is a fairly generically-filmed movie and turns it into an epic character study that is complex, funny and terrifying all at once. This will get Awards buzz.

LE SKYLAB is the third feature from actress (and now director) Julie Delpy, best known for BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET. A hilarious French family comedy like only the French could produce, it's sprawling, with over 20 speaking parts, all of them performing at top notch level. I saw this in the Teatro Victoria Eugenia, a Belle Epoque palace turned into a cinema for the night, with a 4K projector beaming crisp-clean images onto a giant screen. A fantastic film and an amazing screening experience.

San Sebastian is one of my favorite film festivals (I've been to six this year) because it doesn't have a huge amount of corporate sponsorship, it's situated in an amazing city by the sea, all the venues are within walking distance of each other, and as a class A fest is has access to top notch competition features and juries. Just popping into bars in the Old Town I ran into Catherine Deneuve, Michael Fassbender and Rita Wilson (?!).

This is the end of my Festival tour for the year - it started with the Berlinale in February, and took me to Toulouse in March, Pula/Sarajevo in July, Venice in August and finishing in San Sebastian last week. Now on to focus to my own Festival, the Cinecity Brighton Film Festival, starting 17 Nov!

Everything Old Is New Again

Unless you have been living in a cave (or never watch tv), you know the premise...three women (recently coined "gorgeous babes" by the Comcast marketing department) graduate from the Los Angeles police academy only to find themselves relegated to desk jobs and directing traffic. They are hired by a never-before-seen-head of a detective agency, get their orders weekly via a speaker phone and solve high action crime cases parading in a variety of non-feminist roles from roller derby girl to beauty pageant contestant. 

The Original Cast
The wildly successful series (1976-1981) launched the careers of Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith and paved the way for future angels Cheryl Ladd, Revlon model Shelly Hack and model Tanya Roberts as eventual replacements. (Only Smith remained on cast for the five year run). Actors John Forsythe of Dynasty fame played Charlie Townsend, head of the agency while David Doyle played the trusty liaison "Bos."
The show was a huge phenomenon and the women appeared on everything from the cover of Time Magazine to dorm-room posters and lunch boxes. While critics and feminists hated the show, ratings went through the roof as female audiences loved to see women embracing their power while the men loved the "T&A" aspect. What can I say, it was the seventies.

Original cast with Cheryl Ladd (center)
In a classic case of everything old is new again, the Angels made it to the silver screen not  once but twice in 2000 (aptly named Charlie's Angels) and 2003 (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle). This time around Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz portrayed the celestial trio with Bill Murray as Bosley (and the late Bernie Mac as Bosley in part two).

Liu, Diaz and Barrymore above and below

ABC resurrected the series (with executive producer Drew Barrymore at the helm so be on the lookout for lots of Cover Girl ads) as part of their new fall lineup. The show gets a bit of a revamp as the girls are edgier from the original version (a socialite turned thief, a cop on the take and a street racer) and marks the first African American angel in the franchise.

Shot in various resorts and yachts with Miami as a backdrop, the girls essentially kick butt in Manolos and Prada and it's pretty much a complete hour of escapism with great clothes. Think of it as a remake of a remake of a remake and while we are not talking Masterpiece Theatre here, the premiere made me want to take a second look.

Actresses Rachael Taylor, Minka Kell and Annie Ilonzeh 

Ramon Rodriquez as a much younger and sexier Bosley

Victor Garber as the voice of the conference call - you know him from Broadway and Alias
Charlie's Angels airs on ABC Thursday nights at 8/7 central.

And a special thanks for set decorator and interior designer Lydia Marks (Sex and the City fame) for the nice Cinema Style mention. You can read her blog Marks and Frantz with business partner Lisa Frantz here.


The neat trick of Gore Verbinski's Rango is the way it wraps some rather adult themes (and adult references) around a pretty basic kids' movie structure. The film follows the titular chameleon, voiced by Johnny Depp, as he falls out of a moving car and stumbles into the desert, where he encounters an adventure right out of a spaghetti western. The film is packed with hip references, like an early blink-and-you'll-miss-it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas visual gag, and more notably the obvious influence of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" trilogy. Those films loom large here, as Rango arrives in a dusty frontier town populated with various grizzled species of anthropomorphic animals. Rango, who inhabited a lively fantasy world to stave off loneliness in his small tank, now presents himself as a wandering mercenary hero, ready to help the townspeople, who are suffering from a drought that threatens to eliminate their water supplies. The plot combines the Leone films with, improbably, Roman Polanski's Chinatown and its schemes over water rights.

The plot, however, is not the film's strong point by any means. Despite the sophisticated reference points, the film's narrative is a bit of a jumble, and Verbinski leans too heavily on cliché when he's not nodding to his more venerable influences. When one mid-film action sequence devolves into a noisy, silly war film parody complete with "Ride of the Valkyries" — probably the most tired musical choice it's possible to make in a movie these days — it underscores how rapidly the film veers between clever pastiche and rote regurgitation.

It's easy to forgive and forget the more unimaginative stretches, however, when Verbinski packs the fringes of the film with such a wealth of visual wit and interesting ideas. When Rango first arrives in the desert, he encounters an armadillo (Alfred Molina) who has been run over on the highway but is somehow still alive and talking as though nothing has happened. This is especially disconcerting because there's a giant truck-tire-sized cutout in the animal's midsection, but the armadillo simply wants Rango to push the two halves of his body back together again. It's a disconcerting image, particularly for a movie supposedly made for kids, and an image that suggests the twin poles of surrealism and mortality that will serve as important motifs throughout the film.

Indeed, Rango is curiously obsessed with death. A trio of musical birds provide the vibrant, Morricone-esque soundtrack for the film, while also appearing onscreen as a Greek chorus narrating Rango's adventures. From the beginning, the birds suggest that this is going to be the story of the life and death of a hero, and they begin to seem strangely disappointed when the hero continually faces death and fails to die. At one point, the birds even deliver their grim predictions while hanging from nooses. The film's biggest threat, the tremendous, vicious Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), claims to come from Hell, and his fiery eyes and seeming willingness to kill suggests that there's some truth to the claim. The grislier aspects of the film sit uncomfortably against its sillier moments and its concensions to kids' movie conventions, like the plucky love interest (Isla Fisher) and the unbearably cutesy kid (Abigail Breslin) who does pretty much nothing and serves no purpose, throughout the movie, besides saying cute things in a cute voice and batting her huge eyes.

There's tension here, because the film sometimes seem to want to offer little more than this kind of predictable, jokey entertainment, but sometimes it seems to want to tell a much more serious story. It's a story about loneliness (on the personal level for the misfit Rango, a lifetime loner who creates his own entertainment with imaginary friends because he's never had real ones) and about the costs of modernization and the impotence of common people faced with powerful political and economic interests. The latter story, the big picture social story that's derived from the example of Chinatown, crops up periodically, most powerfully perhaps when Rango discovers the body of the town's bank manager, killed and cast aside in the rush for progress. Like all the best Westerns, this is a film about the West facing its end, about the push to tame the frontier. But the theme is never fleshed out very much, so that even at the end of the film, the exact nature of the plot cooked up by the film's obvious-from-the-start villain, the turtle mayor (Ned Beatty), is somewhat unclear, and he's left to spit out rote expositional dialogue to emphasize his villainy.

If the film's plot is sometimes less than coherent, broken up by embarassing digressions like the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene, Verbinski compensates with other pleasures. Rango's first night in the desert is visualized by a charmingly surrealist dream sequence populated by a talking windup goldfish and a disembodied Barbie torso, his only "friends" from his solitary existence. Later, in the film's best and most memorable scene, Rango actually meets the Man with No Name himself, a cartoonized Clint Eastwood (actually voiced by Timothy Olyphant) dressed in the distinctive poncho he wore in his Leone films. It's a wonderful meta moment, an explicit acknowledgment of Rango's affectionate tribute to the Leone/Eastwood collaborations. Eastwood's appearance provides a good example of the film's animation quality, too, since the caricature is instantly recognizable as the iconic actor, his face deeply lined and worn like a grizzled, aging Western hero, squinting and sneering as he dispenses advice to the tiny lizard he's inspired.

The animation is generally gorgeous in general. Not all of the character designs are as expressive and satisfying as the depictions of the Man With No Name and Rango himself, but the animation is unceasingly lovely, and all of the characters are textured and detailed so that they never seem like molded plastic (as, for example, the highly praised Pixar's human figures often do). There are plenty of visually sumptuous moments along the way, brief sequences where the action pauses to simply admire the scenery. A posse ride through the desert is particularly jaw-dropping, as the sunset desert scenery looks simultaneously realistic and colorfully stylized. The iconography of the Western is lovingly referenced in the visuals, from a shadowy figure appearing out of the shimmering heat haze of the desert to a group of riders galloping against the huge orange half-circle of the setting sun.

Rango is in many respects an interesting, if somewhat schizophrenic, work with the ambition to marry some big ideas to a rather conventional underlying structure. At its best, the film is visually dazzling, witty and a tribute worthy of the spaghetti Western influences it wears on its sleeve. At it's worst, it's cloying, overbearing kiddie fare, and those two sides of its personality are never quite resolved. Still, the film has enough ambition, smarts and style to make it a mostly enjoyable entertainment that occasionally reaches for something more.

There's an App for That

Let's face it, many of the films we often go to are for the fashions, the location, a favorite actor or to escape reality for 120 plus minutes (and make that 145 minutes if you catch the previews). I have always enjoyed Greg Kinnear's work, would watch Pierce Brosnan eat a bowl of cereal, and can't wait to see what Sarah Jessica Parker will wear next so of course I caught I Don't Know How She Does It (Weinstein Company) over the weekend. 

Based on Allison Pearson's best selling book, Sarah Jessica Parker plays Kate Reddy, a high powered Boston investment manager who balances work and career with her architect husband (Greg Kinnear) and two children. She pitches a proposal to the head honcho of the New York office (Pierce Brosnan) and of course drama ensues until Reddy figures out the formula for working motherhood.

Dressing Kate as a career woman and mommy (and an actress who audiences recognize as the fashion obsessed Carrie Bradshaw) fell to costume designer Renee Erhrlich Kalfus. "Sarah Jessica knows that the right costumes will inform the character," she notes. "Kate's a mom and a very distracted dresser. Clothes aren't her first priority, so she has things that she kind of grabs and will throw together. At the same time, she gravitates towards feminine pieces that will work in a corporate environment." The character's wardrobe also needed to appear 100 percent off the rack.

Recognizing audiences will no doubt want to copy SJP's looks in the film, the studio created an Iphone/Ipad app where you can get some of the "inspired by" looks via the online shopping site Hautelook. I also curated a few luxury and moderately priced items from a few of my favorite looks and trust me, you will want to go coat shopping after this movie....

And is it me or do we all need another phone just for the apps? I am waiting for one to scramble my morning eggs, clean the litter box and solve the world's's just a matter of time. Until then, happy shopping and see you in the popcorn line at the local cineplex.

Lurex Striped Drape Sweater at The Loft 69.50
Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker and a great handbag
Mulberry Alexa bag in patent 1200.00

or you might choose the Chelsea Flagship Leather Satchel by Coach 798.00
SJP with Mad Men's Christina Hendricks

Michael Kors Hamilton Large Black Tote 348.00

Kingwater Camel Belted Cashmere Coat by Burberry on Shopstyle 1605.

Diane Von Furstenberg Acanthi Blouse on Bluefly 147.00

And any of the bow tie blouses at Tory Burch would be perfect for the office.
Shown here is the Waverly Blouse at Tory Burch 425.

Burberry Brit Long Sleeve Jacket 895.00

Calvin Klein Double Breasted Trench at Nordstrom 168.00

Olivia Munn stars as Kate Reddy's ever so serious assistant

Louis Vuitton Alma Bag Epi 

Burberry London Double Breasted Skirted Coat at Saks 1395.00

Irina Platform pump by Pour La Victoire at Jildor 250.00

I do not recall seeing this dress in the film but love the emerald color --
Brunettes need not apply as unfortunately it's only a color
 for blondes and redheads but looks great on Kate below!

Diane Von Furstenberg Maja dress in Lawn color 398.
This was also a favorite of Kate Middleton as she wore it on the royal couple's recent trip to Los Angeles

Would love to locate this blouse!

Buy the book on Amazon

Photo Credits: Craig Blankenhorn/Weinstein Company