My Weeks in Movies: Oct. 27 – Nov. 2

This’ll be my last My Week in Movies post, at least for a while. My real-life schedule has kept me too busy to give it the time it deserves, and while a Halloween vacation allowed me a chance to catch up, this week is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, aside from the daily What I’ve Watched updates (which is essentially a personal list-diary neither requiring much effort nor affected by a lack of same), business is going to slow down for a while ’round here. I’ll still likely crank out a feature article or two each month, but nothing on a regularly scheduled basis. Things will possibly (maybe) pick back up in the new year. Until then, enjoy these final mini-ramblings.

A Place of One’s Own (1945) It’s the oddest, darn near politest ghost story I’ve ever seen. Set in turn of the century England (with a young James Mason inexplicably made up as an old man), a wealthy couple buys a country manor only to find it haunted by the woman who died there decades earlier. And by “haunted,” I mean it rains during a party (shock!), jewelry found buried in the garden later turns up mysteriously cleaned (gasp!), and a woman is possessed by a spirit who improves her piano skills (horror of horrors!). It’s an elegant drama with the supernatural sprinkled ever so lightly around the edges; the film is more interested in social satire, its characters a little too caricatured as they gossip and whisper about old secrets and “new money.” But such commentary is too dry to fully work, while the horror elements fail to make up the difference. Rather than achieve the slow burn spooks the film attempts, we mostly get a lukewarm fizzle.

Fun Size (2012) I’d love to know the full story on how something like Fun Size got made. What could have been a memorable “one crazy night” teen comedy reeks of tinkering and dilution at every stage – did Nickelodeon water down the raunch to make it fit their demographic, and if not, why include the raunch to begin with? Was the choice made to mute the more bizarre comedy or to add bizarre comedy into a muted tweener romp? It’s written like a Savage Steve Holland tribute yet directed and edited with an urge to steamroll flatness onto the Holland-esque bumps. What we’re left with is a great idea terribly executed, with some solid supporting performances and a few decent one-liners crushed under an increasingly sloppy production.

The Craft (1996) What I always viewed as a portrait both of outsiders and of teen girl culture taken to extremes, my daughter saw as a morality play. She was fascinated by the karmic retribution discussed in the film and found the neutrality of witchcraft (as explained in the movie) to work as a sort of catch-all for life itself, which you can ride to goodness or badness, but the consequences will fit. (Her optimism has yet to encounter the truism about no good deed.) Either way, the movie’s aged incredibly well and remains one of my favorite sorta-horror efforts of its decade.

They (2002) One of my favorite horror efforts of the following decade, meanwhile, is They, a movie which didn’t get much love upon its release, let alone eleven years later. A masterful study of the fear of the dark, They works so well because of how it sets its mood – the performances are slightly cold and distant, while the story offers zero reprieve from the increasingly oppressive darkness. Everything takes place at night, or in the rain, or in dimly lit corridors and dingy apartments where faulty florescent bulbs flicker and strobe ominously. You might as well call the film Dank. The complete lack of vibrant daylight weighs down on the viewer and tightens the claustrophobia. Add to this a haunting, highly inventive otherworldly aspect to its supernatural elements, and we’re given a story that uses the full energy of cinema itself – an art best experienced in near-total darkness for increased sensory immersion – to become a sort of walking nightmare. Watch it, naturally, with the lights off.

Hold That Ghost (1941) Another favorite, this one my fave Abbott and Costello picture. The whipcrack comic pacing, the clever gags (many repeated in later Bud and Lou films; the famous candle sequence from Meet Frankenstein started here), the great supporting cast (including the lovely, brilliant Joan Davis), and the wholly unnecessary yet endlessly entertaining musical bookend scenes, guest starring Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters (!).

Warm Bodies (2013) So this was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting something between a snarky pseudo-remake of My Boyfriend’s Back and an unbearable tweener melodrama that might as well be called Twilight, but with Zombies. Plus, it serves up more walking dead, and I grew tired of more walking dead quite some time ago. It was nice to be proven wrong, however – Warm Bodies breathes fresh life (ahem) into a tired genre. The self-awareness is held mostly in check, replaced with a fascinating attempt at a zombie resurrection-as-romantic awakening metaphor (with some bits about slackerdom and society thrown in for good measure). The romance is quite intelligent and moving, the characters sweet, their conflicts engaging. So, you know, not Twilight at all.

Donovan’s Brain (1953) You’d think Atomic Age scientists would know better than to keep brains alive after the fact, but noooooo. Donovan’s Brain is probably the best of the brain-in-a-jar bunch, a nifty thriller where the titular organ telepathically controls those around him, mainly turning them into corporate swindlers. (Hypnotized into becoming Republican – now that’s scary!) The movie’s best feature is a supporting turn from Gene Evans as an alcoholic surgeon; the performance is nuanced and real in a way you don’t often find in B pictures.

Burke & Hare (2011) Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as 19th Century corpse thieves, in a black comedy directed by John Landis? Yes, please. The movie is solid all the way, but most of all it reminded me just how deeply I’ve missed Landis, who makes this his first movie in twelve years. That’s twelve years too many.

House on Haunted Hill (1959), House on Haunted Hill (1999), ParaNorman (2012), and The Thing from Another World (1951) This year’s lineup for my at-home Halloween mini-marathon. ParaNorman is my new tradition, The Thing is my old one. The Haunted Hill double bill was a bonus.

Dark and Stormy Night (2010), The Faculty (1998), and The Thing (1982) The darnedest thing – due to some nasty weather on Thursday, my neighborhood moved trick-or-treating to November 1, which meant I got an extra day of Halloween. Which meant a second mini-marathon, including a chance to catch up with that other version of The Thing. Not a bad way to spend the holiday.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) In which style makes up for lack of substance. The screenplay for Die Hard Goes to Washington is a formulaic lump of overly predictable action beats that takes itself far too seriously, but Antoine Fuqua and a pretty darn good cast work overtime to make up the difference, adding a slickness and a sense of big-boom fun to the proceedings. There’s a craftsmanship here that keeps us engaged despite the lack of surprise. Being called “serviceable” isn’t the best compliment for a movie, but it’s just that – even as we roll our eyes, we thrill to the fight scenes and the ever-increasing tension. It gets the job done, and that’s enough.

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