Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Movies Batch 1

Somewhere I got the idea to watch 31 horror movies in October. Not one a day because that's not possible and in fact 31 is quite implausible - I'm really shooting for about 20. It's not just the limited time but the other stuff that's around - the DVD for Carlos just arrived, wanted to start that Kurahara set, new TV season started and of course a flood of books. So:

Deep Red (Dario Argento 1975) - Thought I'd already seen this but after watching it (inspired by a clip in Trailers from Hell) there's nothing familiar so probably I never have. This is Argento's peak period since nearly everything from about 1980 forward has been quite pointless. But this has a tinge of genuine surrealism (the giant set looks like De Chirico and includes a parody of Hopper's "Nighthawks" and an almost-parody of classical sculpture) alongside the kind of ambiguous, spooky dream-logic that animates some of the best horror films. The story jumps around from psychic premonitions to bird attacks to an old dark house and tosses in a bunch of odd characters such as a witch girl that have nothing really to do with the main narrative. The film is a tad long (I saw the full version not the US edit) but generally doesn't flag.

Day of the Dead (Steve Miner 2008) - I'd heard that this quasi-remake of the Romero film was pretty much unwatchable so it's a small surprise to find that it's a fairly effective zombie film, routine in its focus on survival and escape but managed efficiently and with a decent twist or two. Considering how many genuinely bad zombie films have flooded out in the past decade I don't know where this got such a negative reputation but it's not deserved, not necessarily recommended but certainly not a disaster.

The Vampire's Ghost (Lesley Selander 1945) - A somewhat odd Republic B that places a vampire tired of (un)life in a small African town where the natives seem to know what's going on but the colonials don't. I was reminded from time to time of the Lewton films and though this is nowhere near that league (but what is?) it's certainly above the run-of-the-mill outings. Selander was a hugely prolific director often in Westerns but this has an effective use of shadows and framing that makes me wonder if the film is a one-off possibly inspired by the theme or a collaborator or his other works have anything to offer.

Seven Mummies (Nick Quested 2006) - I heard about this film in a call for papers for an academic conference that may have been something like "Undead in the West". I suspect they just grabbed the title out of a keyword match because while it may have something to do with undead (the story is pretty confusing) it's also a very bottom-of-the-barrel effort. The cinematographer appears to have just made a career change considering how often it's too dark or too washed out, too blurry. Some of that is possibly deliberate - the director did music videos before - but considering that the story barely makes any sense I don't know that they get much of the doubt. It starts well enough with several convicts escaping from a crashed van and trying to make it to the Mexican border. Danny Trejo plays an Half-Mad Old Man Who Supplies Backstory (why do these HMOMWSB always laugh so much?) and inspires the convicts to head for some lost gold. None of them seem to think it odd that they turn up in an Old West town and from there bad stuff happens but it's a little unclear who or why - the mummies barely appear at all or maybe I'm confusing something else with them. By the end it's hard to care.

Vampire Circus (Robert Young 1972) - A late Hammer that slides into decadence with full-on nudity, explicit violence, clumsy script and incredibly ineffective special effects. How many other films from the 70s would frequently use jump-cut disappearances? There's a small town in what seems to be early 19th century Germany where the residents killed the local vampire. Years later a mysterious circus shows up and guess what? Odd things happen! No it's true - odd things! So let's see there's a clown dwarf, a panther man, twin acrobats, a naked cat lady (none of the locals raise an eyebrow at this), a laughing gypsy woman, a silent strong man (Dave Prowse who in a few years would be Darth Vader) and in one tent a mirror that's a portal to the vampire's tomb. Actually it's all kinda fun in a shoddy badfilm way.

Levres de Sang (Jean Rollin 1975) - About a third of this is prime Rollin, ambiguous and dream-like with almost (but not quite) a painter's eye for composition. But a third is people chatting and a third people walking and walking so I guess we just take what we can get. There's not much of a story beyond a man who sees a ruined castle in an advertisement and thinks it has something to do with a childhood incident that may have happened or may have been imagined. Actions seem almost arbitrary - he gets locked into a room for unclear reasons and when he's freed he doesn't bother to question anybody who frees him. And yes there are vampires promised more or less by the title but this barely qualifies as a vampire film. The ending though is like something out of an absurdist drama.

The Ghost Goes West (Rene Clair 1935) - "Slight but charming" is probably the tagline. The script is so blunt that the main characters might as well be named Boy and Girl since they show no personality other than what the actors bring. But as with so many films of this era it's the rest where the real attraction lies - supporting actors, set design, off-hand gags. Eugene Pallette may be the real star and in smaller parts the group of annoyed creditors or a bored butler who has about one line but also the funniest part of the movie. The British idea of America in this period is presented as rapacious businessmen and guns-blazing gangsters but then again this is a comedy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Netflix streaming

So when Netflix first launched streaming I gave it a shot and wasn't too impressed. Apart from having to sit at my computer watching something (two-hour WoW raid no problem, two-hour movie different story) Netflix determined what quality image based on the connection and you couldn't force a higher one as with most streaming media. And there were lots of pauses, pixellation, etc.

But with the new Netflix rates I decided to test it again on my actual TV before dumping it and the test was surprisingly effective. I set up a network so I wouldn't have to haul my modem around and after several days I'm pretty much hooked. The image is usually DVD-quality or close enough to not matter and I've consistently received almost perfect streams. The only image problem I've had from the streaming was one film with some compression artifacting but it was not only a very low-budget effort but filmed fairly indifferently and I suspect that the transfer was shoddy as well. Over these days I've only had a few pauses but they were under a second and all happened during the same hour so I think it was a connection issue.

The only consistent issue has been some subpar originals. Watched a minute or two of Ophuls' Caught and it was VHS quality and fairly indifferent VHS at that. A 70s Christopher Lee film I sampled was also blah quality and most likely a TV print. On the other hand the 1945 Republic B The Vampire's Ghost had an excellent transfer. So most of these other titles not on DVD have been a mixed bag.

In fact it's these extra non-DVD films that have been the hook for me. There's a surprising number of 40s musicals that not only have I never heard of but I've never heard of the performers. Plus many 50s crime/quasi-noir films, several poliziotteschi (English-dubbed of course), a lot of 60s spy and adventure films, 50s British comedies, etc. Plus oddities like Bogdanovich's notorious At Long Last Love, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, the Malick-scripted Deadhead Miles, Altman's early The Delinquents, Tashlin's It's Only Money and so forth.

Of course some of the stuff that's streaming-only at Netflix actually has DVDs but the company is definitely clearing out or not replacing many titles on disc and not always the obscure ones. The days when it had most DVD releases are long gone and today it's not even pretending (though you can't tell from the press releases). There's still not as much streaming as you might expect given that Netflix is pretty literally betting the company on this - out of their Top 100 list there are maybe a handful streaming and most big current releases don't show. I suspect this is one reason the interface is so clunky - make it hard to navigate and it creates the impression of lots of stuff where if we could easily see just a title like the DVD queue then it's clear what's missing.

Another bonus has been the TV shows. I'm hooked on Warehouse 13 and this lets me finish the second season without constantly waiting for DVDs. Even better I can sample shows I was curious about but never felt like putting into a DVD queue - Parks and Recreation, Damages, Breaking Bad, Thriller, MI-5. Or to check out Farscape since people have raved about it and the descriptions sound like my kinda show but the first ep I watched didn't grab me. Now I can check a bit more. Plus older Doctor Who and my current guilty pleasure Psych. And Netflix resolves one problem I always have with TV which is remembering what I've seen. It stores where you left so when I pull up say Warehouse 13 it's ready to start the next ep.

And did I mention just a ton of MST3K?