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The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

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Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, out on Blu-ray January 24, is a strange, sometimes successful cross between a straight sci-fi and an art installation. The film attempts to incorporate pretty much everything you might expect from both forms of art, mixing perception, dreams, reality, and drug-induced hysteria into a plot that doesn’t so much arc as hover slowly to different ethereal planes.

What little plot there is concerns Thomas Newton (David Bowie), an alien from a drought-stricken planet who arrives on Earth to bring water home. He immediately acquires great wealth using the technology from his home planet, bringing him power and increased scrutiny. He falls in love (sort of) with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid and bellhop in a rundown hotel, who introduces him to booze, sex, and religion (and cookies). With the help of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing scientist who guesses at Newton’s alienness, Newton hopes to construct a spaceship to return him home to his wife and family.

Of course, The Man Who Fell To Earth can’t do something as easy as tell a coherent story about a stranger in a strange land. Newton’s rise and fall is interspersed with a complexity of images, sounds, and scenes as he flashes back to (or dreams about or has foreshadowings of) his home planet and the family he left behind. His experience of Earth is likewise informed by media, as he absorbs everything from TV to music in a smorgasbord of sensory experience. Never having had alcohol before, he becomes an alcoholic; never having experienced human sex, he becomes a nymphomaniac. Yet he’s also curiously distant, unable to make real connections with those people around him.

The problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely certain what it’s trying to do, or why it’s trying to do it. Whole swathes of time are covered in single scene changes, while other scenes drag on and on, for no clear reason. While I never argue about a naked David Bowie, I could have done without seeing Rip Torn bed an ever-increasing number of ingenues. Nor is it clear what, if anything, these scenes are supposed to accomplish. The Man Who Fell To Earth is too linear to be surreal, but too scattered to tell a coherent story. It seems to be desperate to say something without having much of a clue about what it wants to say.

Bowie is the weirdly comforting center of all this, his beauty as ethereal and mesmerizing as ever. While he gave better performances in his acting career, he would never step into a role that suited him as closely as playing a gentle alien who just wants to go home. His moving performance attempts to articulate his experiences to human beings ill-equipped to understand them, and keeps the film from vanishing into its own personal black hole. Newton stretches out for contact that he’s not capable of, trying to express love or connection in a way that he can’t accomplish. There’s a sadness to Bowie’s performance that makes the viewer feel that we’re truly watching someone desperate to connect who doesn’t have the means or the language to do so.

This Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Man Who Fell To Earth is a gorgeous one, and offers the film in a beautiful 4K restoration, so that one may experience the Thin White Duke in all his multi-hued glory. The extras on the disc itself consist of new interviews with the costume designer May Routh and producer Michael Deeley, a multitude of archival interviews with Bowie, Candy Clark, Roeg, and writer Paul Mayersberg, and a “Lost Soundtracks” featurette, detailing the sound design of the film and what might have been. Although the interviews are interesting, they don’t entirely clarify the meaning behind the film and fail to reinforce it for anyone who might be unconvinced as a fan. The inserts in the pack are great, however, including a 72-page booklet, art cards, and a mini-poster with Bowie front and center (and which now adorns my wall).

The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that’s interesting as a curiosity and provocative for what it doesn’t quite succeed at doing. It’s an incoherent film, but it’s an interesting incoherent film, one that doesn’t entirely fail despite it’s incoherency. It aspires to the photographic beauty and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the emotional resonance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, and seems to forget, at times, to just be a film.

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The Love Witch (2016)

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Every once in a while, a film comes along that defies audience expectations, even when the audience is more than prepared to indulge in whatever it offers. The Love Witch, from writer/director Anna Biller, is such a film: a gleefully malevolent celebration of thrillers and horror films from the 1960s and 70s…and so much more.

The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch who leaves San Francisco after the death of her ex-husband to start life anew in a small California town. Her project? To find a real man, one who embodies all that (she believes) masculinity should be. To do so, Elaine has elected to use “love magic” to become every male fantasy, to embody every dream and desire that an individual man wants, to fulfill his every wish. And she does, seducing a local college professor (Clive Ashborn), a friend’s husband (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and police detective Griff (Gian Keys). The problem is that Elaine is just too good with her love magic, and the bodies begin to pile up with every lover Elaine takes.

Summarizing The Love Witch oversimplifies it, though, and ignores the extreme aestheticism and referentiality that the film relies on for its ideological outlook. The Love Witch is spectacularly subtle in its lack of subtlety. Elaine waxes eloquent about her philosophy surrounding love and witchcraft, much to the dismay of her friend Trish (Laura Widdell), who finds her attitudes strikingly anti-feminist. But Elaine’s speeches, like The Love Witch itself, conceals a deft sleight of hand as it reinforces and then punctures the male ego. Men are treated as almost childlike, slightly boring, basically useless, whose inability to look at women as people is a failing that they can’t overcome and that will ultimately destroy them. As Professor King sobs about never being able to find a woman to match his fantasy and his pain in remaining unfulfilled, the film punishes his view of women as objects simply by indulging him to the fullest extent.

Elaine’s deceased husband, remembered in voiceover, berates her for not losing weight, for not keeping the house clean enough, for not getting dinner on the table fast enough. In attempting to fulfill his fantasies of what she should be, Elaine ultimately kills him. She internalizes her husband’s psychological and emotional abuse, reconstituting herself as the ultimate female monster. Elaine’s extreme femininity destroys men by fulfilling their desires, by establishing an extreme gender binary in which they will never be “man enough” for the woman that they’ve created. She is a sort of female Frankenstein’s Monster, a creation of masculine hubris, who turns upon her creators and offers them everything they want.

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It soon becomes apparent that all the women of the film are struggling under the weight of male expectations. But the women gain power in taking possession of their own objectification, rendering it a source of strength and directing back towards the dull (and singularly unattractive) men who demand so much from them. The male fantasy is reconstituted as a female one, the finding of a “real man,” with punishment meted out to those who do not fulfill that fantasy. Elaine is not a cypher or an image. She is a full person, wrapped the trappings of seductive femininity – thick makeup, a long black wig, garter belts and stockings – and is fully at home and invested in those trappings as part of her identity. She seeks a man to fulfill her fantasies, to provide her with the completion that men demand from her.

The Love Witch coats its complex battle of the sexes in a lush, referential mis-en-scene. Everything from costuming and makeup to the striking color coordination of its interior design, lighting, and photography interacts so as to produce a sense of a film out of time. While borrowing some of its aesthetic from numerous 1950s and 60s Technicolor films, The Love Witch produces a complex dialogue among those films, undermining their often anti-feminist bent by taking some of their arguments to an extreme.

Direct visual references abound: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds appears in the rear-projected driving sequences and the arrival of a “witch” in a small California town, a la Melanie Daniels. The plot nods to Bell, Book, and Candle, the 1958 film starring Kim Novak as a Greenwich Village witch who uses her powers to entrap Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo is another visual and thematic reference point: Elaine fulfills male fantasy in much the same way that Kim Novak’s Madeleine is forced to. But The Love Witch twists the theme, giving Elaine and her fellow witches the power in the relationships, becoming male fantasies only to exact control over those ideals. The shaping of a woman to masculine desires becomes a source of female power, not enslavement. Where Madeleine is punished for her deception, Elaine evades punishment, taking full possession of her sexual and emotional identity.

The Love Witch is a dark and sumptuous film that demands a viewer with a certain experience of retro cinema. It interacts so much with a very specific past that its cinematic antecedents – and therefore its meaning – may easily be lost in the shuffle. It is the male gaze, male control, that brings destruction and death. Elaine becomes every image of femininity, and by controlling that image, destroys the men who demand it. The film has a cinematic purity, so conversant with its own influences, yet so different from all of them that it manages to transcend the labels of pastiche, nostalgia, and parody. The Love Witchmuch like Elaine, both is and is not exactly what it appears to be. And there are very few films that can lay claim to that.

Evil Eye (1963)

*Evil Eye is available to stream on Shudder.

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Continuing my probably unhealthy love affair with the films of Mario Bava: Evil Eye, Bava’s 1963 film that combines psychological horror, sexploitation, and some stylized horror to become the first true giallo. The Italian title is La ragazza che sapeva troppo, or: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and that actually makes more sense than the American title tacked on, I suppose, to give the film more supernatural horror credentials that it doesn’t really have. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is very much in keeping with the film’s underlying satire on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is referenced a few times with tongue quite firmly in cheek.

Evil Eye opens with Nora Davis (Letícia Román) traveling to visit her ailing aunt in Rome. Nora’s obsessed with murder mysteries, turning her life into a romanticized pulp novel. After a rather nightmarish experience at the airport, she arrives at her aunt’s house to find the old lady seriously ill in bed, attended by the good-looking doctor Marcello (John Saxon). During a terrible storm that night, the phone and electricity flickers out just as Nora’s aunt goes into cardiac arrest, leading Nora on a desperate run through the rain down the Spanish steps to contact Marcello at the hospital. She’s mugged and knocked out, and awakens just in time to witness the violent stabbing of a young woman.

Nora spends the next few weeks going in and out of consciousness, attended by the kindly Marcello, who tells her that there was no murder victim: she must have been hallucinating. More or less recovered but still convinced that she witnessed a death, Nora attends her aunt’s funeral, where she runs into Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese), a friend who lives in the Piazza di Spagna, right where the murder occurred. Rather than cutting Nora’s trip to Italy short, Laura offers to let the young American stay in her house. A series of somewhat confused events prompt Nora to believe that she’s still being pursued by the shadowy murderer she saw the night of the storm. She enlists Marcello’s help in tracking down the killer and possibly saving her life.

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Evil Eye certainly earns its title as the first giallo – not overly bloody, it’s still a bizarre, nightmarish film, full of extreme emotions and stylized cinematography. The imagery emphasizes the psycho-sexual pulp of the details while not being fussed with developing a particularly coherent plot. The film wanders from point to point, introducing weird characters – like a doctor who convinces Nora that she has second sight – who suddenly vanish. Nora’s parade of bizarre experiences have a comedic edge to them, as Bava proves himself aware that this story is really just a ridiculous piece of camp.

The humor is the most unnerving element in Evil Eye. Nora’s hysterical terror is played partially for laughs, as in a scene where she prepares an elaborate trap to catch the killer. She’s also quite right to be scared, as the viewer knows, but Bava punctures some of his own stylization by calling attention to just how silly it all really is. Evil Eye, like Black Sabbath, bears more than passing resemblance to Corman films of the same era, taking the terror seriously while simultaneously allowing the audience to delight in the camp.

Evil Eye is a bit boring spots, especially the transition between Nora witnessing the murder and becoming convinced that she’s actually in danger. The secondary romance with Marcello, while amusing, takes up too much time, as do the pair’s endless investigations into the possibility that Nora actually had a vision of a murder that occurred ten years ago. The meandering, dream-like nature of the film might place it in the giallo tradition (anyone who has watched enough Argento knows that those films aren’t exactly coherent), but unfortunately that doesn’t make it altogether interesting.

I was told that Evil Eye was secondary Bava, and I’ll certainly go along with that assessment. While interesting for those of us who want to trace the foundations of Italian horror traditions, it’s not compelling enough to warrant a second viewing. Still, the combination of humor and the horror is so weird that I found myself giggling about the film long after I’d finished it. That’s as good a recommendation as any.

Evil Eye is streaming on Shudder, so there’s no excuse not to give it a shot.

Friday the 13th (1980)

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October may be over, but my reviews of horror films are not! Next up is one of the seminal slasher films of the 1980s: Friday the 13th, the movie that introduced the world to Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Voorhees (kinda). Along with its fellow creep-outs Halloween and Nightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13th (and its sequels) are responsible for setting the standard of slashers.

Friday the 13th opens with the murder of two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, in 1958. Shot from the POV of the killer, the two counselors get caught in flagrante, naturally resulting in their bloody deaths. Fast forward many years and Camp Crystal Lake is about to be re-opened for the summer, with a whole new crop of nubile young people to violently slaughter. The group of counselors show up to help get the camp into shape – despite the dire warnings from townsfolk of a horrible curse – and bodies begin to pile up, as the shadowy killer dispatches our young heroes one by one.

The problem with Friday the 13th is that it’s just not a very good slasher film. The set-up itself is strong enough, and the murders appropriately gruesome. But the characters are too sparsely drawn to be interesting – they’re interchangeable faces that could be ranked by degrees of annoyance. The Final Girl (whose role you can guess pretty quickly) is laughably inept at escaping once the killer’s identity has been revealed.

While mulling over why the murders just didn’t up the tension at all, I came to realize that none of them are discovered until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. The surviving counselors don’t know they’re in danger at all, and so calmly wander around in the rain and the dark, unaware of an insane killer lurking in the shadows. And because no one else in the film is scared, the audience has no reason to be scared. We know that pretty much everyone is going to die; it’s just a question of how.

The same goes for the killer, whose backstory is never even touched on until an extensive exposition scene nearing the end. The local legend about the camp being cursed is introduced and then rapidly discarded, with nothing to flesh it out. While killers like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers have fairly intricate backstories that draw out their monstrosity and give it life, the killer of Friday the 13th has no mystique at all. (And there’s little doubt that both Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were directed by very talented horror maestros, while Friday the 13th…wasn’t).

I’ve been informed that the better Friday the 13th sequels wind up outweighing the original, but I admit I don’t much care. I’ve got this film under my belt, and I’m OK with letting it rest at that.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of the more surprisingly funny comedies to come to cinemas in recent years. A Spinal Tap for the digital media age, Popstar makes use of internal references and celebrity cameos while not solely relying on them, producing a comedy that will, I think, stand the test of time.

Popstar takes the format of a tour documentary covering the rise and eventual fall of Conner Friel, or “Conner4Real” (Andy Samberg), a combination of Justin Bieber and Macklemore with the ego of Kanye West. Having just come off of a massive worldwide tour, Conner goes back into the studio to record his sophomore album, only to have it – and his subsequent tour – flop big time. The film takes us the behind-the-scenes of Conner’s eventual meltdown, introducing us to his roadies, managers, hangers-on, and former bandmates from The Style Boyz (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone), at least one of whom has not forgiven Conner for going solo. The film is a mash-up of styles that does more than just parody Bieber – it creates a recognizable character in his own right, driven by ego and a desperate need to be liked by everyone, as he comes to the realization that he was happier making music with his pals.

Samberg is weirdly sympathetic as the delusional Conner, a talented kid who has bought into his own hype. He’s horrified to learn that the fleeting nature of celebrity means that the beloved superstar of one minute is the derided YouTube flop of the next. While the faux earnestness of every minute threatens to grate, Samberg gives his character an underlying likability where he might otherwise have been repellant. By the time we get to his inevitable downfall and desperate attempts to revitalize his flagging celebrity, we feel more sympathy than not for Conner. We root for him to get back on his feet and rediscover the things that he loved, with the friends he should have valued.

Popstar is a mashed-up parody of pop music and cultural trends that eventually transcends simple referentiality. Celebrity cameos from the media world come in and out of the film without derailing it – it’s amusing to watch Usher, Adam Levine, and Ringo Starr wax eloquent on the influence of Conner and the Style Boyz, while Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, and Tim Meadows play it straight for some of the biggest laughs. The expert handling of the cameos is one of the elements that lifts Popstar above what it could have been – a bargain-basement parody – by creating a believable world for Conner and his bandmates to inhabit. Conner is integrated into this universe, rather than a commenter on it.equal-rights

Then, of course, there’s the music. Popstar has the heavy musical talent of Lonely Island evident in every track. One of the funniest is the Macklemore parody Equal Rights, in which Conner advocates for gay marriage while loudly proclaiming that he’s definitely not gay. Like the best of Weird Al (who also has a cameo), the songs are entertaining and hilarious even if you’re unaware of the internal references, and actually catchy pieces of music beyond their parody.

This Blu-ray release boasts a host of special features, including a series of deleted scenes that flesh out some of the secondary characters, including Joan Cusack’s epic turn as Conner’s mom. It’s a shame that some of these were cut out, especially as they provide a showcase for a number of the talented female comedians who are reduced to mere walk-ons in the actual film. Sarah Silverman and Maya Rudolph both get their moments in the sun, while several of the other characters – like Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager – receive greater character development.

Further special features include “Fun at CMZ!”, the brilliant TMZ parody spots peppered throughout the film that at times hit a little too close to the reality of tabloid coverage. A gag reel – too short, but hilarious – outtakes, extended scenes, and an extensive filmmaker commentary round out the disc. A series of full-length music videos provides even more Lonely Island, if you just want to get your fix.

Despite a strong critical reception, Popstar didn’t do the business at the box office that it might have hoped for. But this film has staying power. It succeeds at both being a commentary on contemporary celebrity culture, and an entertaining comedy unlikely to get tired. Put the Blu-ray on your shelf next to This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. And remember to never stop never stopping.

The Faculty (1998)

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The 90s were a time of some high quality horror movie…somethings. I hesitate to say parodies, because that conjures images of the Scary Movie franchise, so let us say horror movie metas. The first Scream film hit cinemas in 1996, bringing with it a simultaneous celebration and critique of the slasher subgenre, and of the movie brat culture spawned by a generation of fans who knew just a little too much about genre. In Scream’s wake came The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez’s delirious salute to alien invasion films that engages with sci-fi tropes in much the same that Scream did slashers.

The Faculty hits the ground running. We open on Herrington High School during football practice, where Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) loudly abuses his team and flips a table. That’s about all we get to know about the coach, because he’s immediately possessed by a weird alien lifeform. A bit of a bloodbath later, and the opening credits actually roll. The rest of the film hits first on all of the typical high school movie tropes before we return to the aliens: we meet the captain of the football team Stan (Shawn Hatosy), the clever geek Casey (Elijah Wood), the bad boy drug dealer Zeke (Josh Harnett), the bitchy head cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris), and the goth girl Stokes (Clea DuVall). As the film goes on, each trope is carefully subverted, fleshing the characters into existence outside of their generic markers. It’s a clever conceit in itself, but one that couldn’t be sustained without those aliens and some good body horror to back it up.

As more and more faculty members fall prey to the parasite, our small band of clichés must come together to defeat the alien menace. A good part of this is figuring out the rules by which the parasites operate, which is where Stokes comes in: a sci-fi geek, she knows everything from The Thing to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the books on which they are based. With her guidance and a bit of luck, the students navigate the changing school and try to suss out how to kill the aliens…preferably without killing everyone else in the process.

While the notion of rules is more thoroughly played out in ScreamThe Faculty is all that it sets out to be. There’s a healthy dose of body horror, indulged in with all the delicious glee that one expects from Rodriguez. The plot certainly borrows heavily from the films that it’s referencing, but that’s to be expected: if you go into The Faculty with the expectation that it will fail to fulfill generic expectations, you will be disappointed. The actors are all game for their roles, but the adults appear to be having a lot more fun than the young people. If you thought you didn’t need Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie as a tag team of malevolence, you were very wrong – they’re delightful. Bebe Neuwirth, Jon Stewart, and Selma Hayek all get in on the action, with Famke Janssen’s mousey English teacher finally letting go in a scene that probably most put-upon professors have dreamt of once in a while. The Faculty gleefully lets the teachers take revenge against bullying students, and then gives the students their chance as well.

While never quite rising to the heights of its meta-movie counterparts, The Faculty succeeds in its project to make an alien invasion film with a difference. It’s simply entertaining, an enjoyable diversion that hits all the right notes. I might not have finished it with the same sense of exhilaration that I did the Scream franchise but damn if it wasn’t fun getting there.