Film

40 Nights at the Movies (in the Comfort of Your Home): The Franchise

Back by popular demand! Recommendations from "40 Nights at the Movies" will keep you, your dog and your elephant glued to the couch for months.

Literary Cinema: Kids Section - and - Vampires and Other Horrors


11. The Giver is a very good looking adaptation of Lois Lowry's teen future dystopia, and Jeff Bridges, who bought the rights 20 years ago for his dad to star, mentions that it was impossible to get funding until all the other recent teen future dystopias based on books inspired by Lowry.

He plays the title role, a gruff hermit who bears the burden of knowing history in a world where everyone takes drugs to remain on an even keel, and it's kind of like Logan's Run  and kind of like Gattaca, and you can tell his house is different because instead of a modern box it's a labyrinthine library with real books lining the walls, but they're for decorative purposes only, because the neatest thing about this future is that you don't need to read anything to learn, since you can download knowledge instantly by touching wrists.

Their world is black and white but you can see color if you stop the drugs. And Meryl Streep is running the joint with pained wisdom, and there's a chosen boy messiah who can restore universal memory by passing a boundary, so even the wrist-touching isn't necessary. I don't quite follow it either but it was enjoyable to watch, as directed by Philip Noyce.

12. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 continues a series that's not only popular and well-made but smart as well. I was afraid it was going to be a bunch of noisy battles now that it's revolution, baby, but it's more refreshing. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has known that she's valued as an image for propaganda and entertainment, and now she continues that role for the rebellion.

When the rebel president (Julianne Moore with Cassandra streak) gives a rousing speech at the end, we cut to the words being mouthed by her writer/propogandist (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which is an effective way to distance us from both the leaders and the crowd being speechified to and encourage us to approach the scene analytically. The deleted scenes show the excellent decision of cutting those without Katniss' presence, so the film hews closely to what she knows.

12. Speaking of girl-centered YA future dystopia trilogies, Divergent is drawn-out (the current standard) and less compellingly characterized than the Katniss saga, but I was never bored. This future caste system finds the intellectual-scientist elites (Erudites) chafing to overthrow the post-Chicago rulership of the selfless class of Abnegaters. (And where are the legal system Candors? Unclear.)

This fanciful notion doesn't reflect any problem in our own society, since we don't have such leadership. With ambiguous help from a high-tech sorting hat, our teen heroine (Shailene Woodley) chooses to join the rowdy gang of Dauntless, who are... the cops? Anyway they live in a big warehouse that looks like they're having a rave all the time. We don't actually see them keeping order.

During her Full Metal Jacket training, she's loaded with drugs for hallucination sequences where the real action is. There's been a wall around the city for 100 years but soon enough, like the kids in The Giver  and The Maze Runner, she's going to have to find what's Out There. Those who are Divergent, like she, have more than one admirable quality, which we're told makes them dangerous.

Ashley Judd plays her Abnegator mama while Kate Winslet plays the bad scheming Erudite leader who wants to seize dictatorship, which makes you wonder how she has so much power if the Abnegaters are supposed to be calling the shots. Maybe they really are poor leaders.

In the next film, Insurgent, the cavalry/revolution arrives at the last convenient moment while our heroine is undergoing her trial by virtual reality, for her self-analysis is the movie's true battlefield, and the set-up for the next movie is that now everyone's passing outside into the brave new world that set them up as lab rats to discover the divergent multi-tasking messiah.

Naomi Watts drops in as the long-lost mama to our heroine's hunky boyfriend. I hope you got that, because there will be a potentially fatal quiz.

13. In contrast to such drawn-out sagas, the 80 minutes (with credits) of Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day reimagines Judith Viorst's kids' book as a brisk and breezy if equally implausible entertainment about a family that likes each other, and it gets the job done with slapstick and blunt dialogue in a way that must surely please the little set and most of their stressed parents. Nor does it overplay the animal invasion at the end, complete with kangaroo and adorable wallaby.

There's pee and vomit humor, but no farting or feces (well, there is a Dick Van Dyke joke about taking a dump), so we have something else to be grateful for. Oh, and this Disney movie does have drunken teen humor and a gay incest joke--and no, I'm not kidding or reading into it--but it's all good clean fun.

Vampires and Other Horrors

14. Jim Jarmusch's contribution to vampire chic is Only Lovers Left Alive, an amalgam of cool signs. Wearing sunglasses at night, the vampires are decadent bohemians who utter quotations and hoard junk.

John Hurt plays Christopher Marlowe, whose repeated joke is that he wrote Shakespeare's plays, now residing in Tangier with his Moroccan disciple like Paul Bowles. Christopher Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve -- not quite that old, although viewers might assume so, because the deleted scenes include dialogue stating that Eve hails from a post-Stonehenge Druid culture.

Eve has the power to date anything to time and place of origin, and reads multiple languages as rapidly as Evelyn Wood. Also, she has a sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska in her third film on this list), whose trouble-making dynamic is like in Xan Cassavetes' (better) Kiss of the Damned.

Adam is holed up in dying Detroit, collecting old music equipment, guitars, mixing boards, etc., and producing anonymous underground music consisting of minimalist guitar drones. He hung out with Byron, that pompous bore, but Mary Shelley was delicious. And they're so tired, so very tired. They make arrangements about blood, but things are getting dicey because humans have poisoned their blood "like their water".

They feel like patrons and curators of a dying civilization, with Adam's gloomy despair balanced by Eve's openness. Not since The Hunger have vampires worked so hard for fashionably bored ambience, although it does feel like a personal statement.

Fun facts: The credits inform me that one of the pictures on Adam's wall (Poe, Kafka, Twain, etc.) is of French director Claire Denis, in what I assume is a nod to the disturbing, little-seen Trouble Every Day. Wikipedia tells me the title dates to a '60s sci-fi novel in which only kids are left after all adults commit suicide (wasn't that a Star Trek  episode?), and that it was mooted as a Nicholas Ray project to star the Rolling Stones! The head spins.

15. Afflicted stars its writer-directors as "themselves", Canadian buddies documenting a world trip on their website, their footage provided by lots of digital cameras with elaborate editing software in the opening reel. Wouldn't you know, one dude gets bitten by a hot vampiress in Paris and goes through a nerve-wracking transition.

While it's not credible that everything would be posted live as it apparently is (so the cops track him down several times), and much time is spent in love with the expository and declamatory form, it's a watchable cross of the found footage movie (or what I call more exactly the "diegetic camera movie") and the vampire happening. It's also unique for starring a Chinese-Canadian hero. One quibble: the vampire babe claims they can't be killed and proves it, but he never asks about decapitation.

16. Continuing the vampire renaissance, Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a widescreen black and white creation in Farsi, shot in oil-field California pretending to be an Iranian town where virtually nobody's on the streets at night.

Many forms of addiction and parasitism are here: a junkie, the pumping oil wells sucking out the earth's blood, a weary prostitute and her pusher-pimp with gangsta accessories and a swanky house, and our pompadoured male protagonist, a drug dealer (and gardener) who dresses like Dracula in a party scene. He meets a vampiress who wears a chador like a cape and rides a skateboard. The scene of their second meeting is giddy with tones, and then capped by the scene where they go to her house and put on a record.

The soundtrack of Persian artists and Morricone-like passages turns much of the film into a music video, with balletic self-consciousness and intuitive digressions in the narrative. One such moment is a semi-drag queen dancing with a balloon; the deleted scenes have more of this character who even addresses the camera and must have been cut as too unbalancing. Amirpour, in an interview with Roger Corman, says that since she lives in California and doesn't have to wear the chador, it feels like a superhero cape when she tries it on. They also discuss LSD.

Bonus: a great cat in a major supporting role.

17. If we're in a renaissance of smart, original variations on classic horror tropes, then we must also be surrounded by mediocre knock-offs, which brings us to The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. The first film's Victorian setting is moved up to WWII, where the same house that gets surrounded by tides has fallen into condemnable state, so naturally the hostile local doctor on the wartime relocation council thinks its suitable for kids being transported from the London blitz, perhaps because children have a history of drowning there or because the village consists of one gibbering blind hermit.

One sullen boy is forgetting to keep his upper lip stiff because his parents were just killed last night (literally!), which didn't change their plans to drag the sudden orphan along, but he'll learn to soldier on and get over it -- if he can snap out of his mute mood clutching the evil old doll bestowed by the house. Spunky governess wanders through predictable jumps that tap into her own secret history of childbirth. Handsome pilot keeps dropping by to hit on her while her older brisk colleague dismisses everything.

The worst aspect isn't the mixture of routine and contrived, but that the photography is tweaked so dark you can't see crap, and if not for the annoying stings on the soundtrack, you wouldn't know anything spooky was happening. Compare with the deleted scene, which is perfectly visible, and the trailer, which not only shows everything clearly but indicates some scenes had bright colors. Since the trailer tries to show everything in the movie, it made clear the content of some shots that were mystifying shades of mud while watching. Sometimes darkness is a lousy idea. Just for critical overkill, compare the scintillating clarity of night shots in Amirpour's movie, which is black and white!

18. Speaking of odd movies, the German Der Samurai is about a cute young closeted backwoods cop named Jakob (after Grimm?) who, instead of trying to catch a wolf in the local forest, is feeding it because the wolf symbolizes his repressed hungry identity. Then the wolf shifts into a feral psycho in a dress who gets a samurai sword delivered to him care of the cop and goes on a rampage to provoke said cop into admitting his proper lusts.

This is a movie where even a close-up of an erect penis is symbolic, which doesn't stop it from being an arty horror-action piece. Very Lynchian, it leans heavily on its subtext and runs less than 80 brisk minutes.

19. A Spanish horror film called The House at the End of Time is one of the year's pleasant surprises. It's dressed up like a ghost story and takes its sweet time unwinding in what seems at first a random manner in between standard ooga-booga moments, slipping between what happened 30 years ago to a wife/mother and the fact that she's now an old woman spending the remainder of her prison sentence under house arrest in that same odd mansion.

It's rescued by an amazing third act that reveals how carefully constructed the whole thing has been, and that it's a different type of story than we guessed. I won't say more, but it joins a raft of similar intriguing movies. Also, being Spanish, it's about the redemption of finding faith in God once more. Well done.

20. Oculus is a very good horror film that almost makes you overlook a flaw common to the genre: in order to get to the ending it wants and not finish after half an hour, it must needlessly complicate a basic situation: destroy an evil mirror! The heroine sets up a bunch of devices (so that more can go wrong), makes the fundamentally misguided decision to record the event as "proof", and then when she's got all the proof she's going to get, she doesn't just leave.

It's basically set in one house, and slips back and forth in time between the sister and brother today and 11 years ago, when their parents went bonkers. Eventually, the child and adult actors are sharing the same shots as each timeline hits its climax.

Today's horror films share with those of the early '70s a tendency towards an inevitable pessimistic narrative arc, which is by no means standard in other eras. It's necessary to point out that director Mike Flanagan previously made a terrific no-budget horror film called Absentia, which is better than this one.

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