In the order in which I saw them.
The Rider Named Death: 2004 tale of a group of revolutionaries in pre-1917 Russia. There are some cool loping camera shots through masquerade parties and the like, but my strongest aesthetic memories of this film, from director Karen Shakhnazarov, are the lush costumes and gorgeous, jewel-toned lighting. There’s a scene where a character looks out his hotel window which captures a certain lilac-colored nighttime that I’m not sure I’ve seen in a movie before.
The storyline has Dostoyevskyan hints, as the characters occasionally debate fairly deranged ideas about the relationship of Christianity and violence, but it is mostly a straightforward story of revolutionary failure–and the slowly-growing acknowledgment that violence inevitably spreads, crossing every moral boundary you think you’ve set, and toppling, as it spreads, some kind of necessary structure in the soul.
This, btw, is available legally for free on YouTube, like the rest of the Mosfilm archives.
Arachnophobia: This 1990, aka 1989b, horror-comedy is one of my comfort watches. I resort to Arachnophobia when I’m feverish or sad. And so I underestimate it as a movie. Like this time, I was feeling low so I hit up this good ol’ classic of spider cinema, this tarantula talkie, but I thought, Is it really going to be as much fun as you remember?
And then we get that majestic opening shot of the jungle, the camera and the music just swooning in the presence of the sublime, and I thought, I forget how good this film really is. Like yes, it is from 1990, it’s about the intrusion of a species from the Land of Menacing Silent Natives into white suburbia, its politics etc are roughly “knockoff Gremlins.” But gosh, it is all done with such unnecessary skill, such attentiveness to the audience’s pleasure. The “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” scene; the web in the shower (bracketing the perfunctory grossness of the shower scene’s existence); the fantastic bit where the dog comes through the cat door… and then the cat comes through the cat door… and then the cat door slowly opens one. more. time…. Great pacing, great payoffs for all its setups, exactly enough characterization but not too much–and, of course, some giant-ass spiders. What more can you ask for?
The Name of the Rose: As I’ve been asking for recommendations of monk movies (friar films… cenobitic cinema… tonsured talkies), most of the replies have taken the form, “You’ve got to watch Of Gods and Men. Also [one of the various St Francis biopics]. And… well, there’s also The Name of the Rose.” This is basically the correct take!
Rose is a murder mystery/theological conspiracy tale set in a monastery riven by conflict about the necessity of Christian poverty (the great theological debate they’re all preparing for is basically “Resolved: Jesus did not own the clothes He wore”) and the pagan character of comedy. All the thinking is kind of underdone imho, though it’s exotic and cool to watch a movie about intra-Franciscan theological conflict. The characters are cartoons, mostly villainous ones, and the woman is The Woman. Peasants are mute touchstones who exist to reveal monks’ true character; I hope the actors got their SAG cards for these roles consisting largely of flea-eating and grunting. James Horner provides excellent music, and Dante “Salo” Ferretti does his usual phenomenal job with the production design.
Shotgun Stories: A fight breaks out at a funeral between the two families of the deceased: the drifting, impoverished sons he fathered while he was drinking, and the wealthy sons he fathered after he got his life in order. The fight sparks a feud which will lead to the destruction of one set of sons or the other.
This movie is clearly going for some kind of deeper meaning. The poorer sons are named Kid, Boy, and Son. (I think the rich ones have real-first-name privilege.) There’s a desire here to create an epic in microcosm, maybe hints of The Brothers Karamazov crossed with the Hatfields vs. the McCoys.
The thing is that the duality of the father’s character is clearly the fulcrum on which the themes turn, and yet it gets basically no exploration. There’s not much here beyond the mythologically-rich setup. Once the plot is in motion, it goes through its paces and that’s all. So in the end the things I liked most in this film were the hazy Southern cinematography and the shrill of the insects.
The Last of Sheila: Lots of people out of their usual roles in this 1973 mystery/comedy (??). The script is by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; Joel Schumacher did the costumes. The result is a deliciously nasty little bonbon, glossily and showily directed by Herbert Ross. James Coburn is fantastic, all toothy predatory irony, as the taunting widower Clinton, who gathers everyone who was at the party where his wife was killed onto his yacht for a week of malicious clue-based “games.” The games reveal some of the secrets of the company, of course. Are they also a plot to catch Sheila’s killer?
The dialogue is spoken as if it’s much cleverer than it is. But that’s really the only flaw in this creepy, cynical little puzzle-box.
Women’s Prison: This 2002 film from director Manijeh Hekmat explores life in an Iranian women’s prison from the 1980s through the 2000s, focusing on the taut relationship between the harsh new warden (Roya Taymourian) and the inmate Mitra (Roya Nonahali). This film delivers what it promises. You get plenty of exploration of the shifting level of religious severity in the prison (and the outside society), and many scenes about the ways people evade, resist, or warp themselves in response to surveillance and punishment. A harrowing scene in the 1980s sequence forms the basis of the third sequence, in which a brash young streetwise butch girl descends on the prison like a whirlwind. But this is really a movie driven, as the title indicates, not by plot but by setting.
Silver Bullet: Until the recent preachy, ill-considered, deeply subpar Werewolves Within, I had never seen a bad werewolf movie. Why that is, I don’t know, but you can run the entire gamut of Wolfen – Ginger Snaps – The Howling – An American Werewolf in London – Dog Soldiers – Howling V: Yes, I Said “Howling V,” It’s Fun! and still enjoy yourself a lot by the end. Silver Bullet has a screenplay adapted by Stephen King from his “novelette” Cycle of the Werewolf (that “novelette” tag prompted a very funny, savage reviewette you can find here). It is only okay, and because it should have been better I’m tempted to rank it below Howling V, which by contrast was pretty much supposed to suck and instead had some fun. But the good things in Silver Bullet are good enough that I think it is worth a spin for those who like mid-1980s B-horror. As I obviously do!
The bad things: The ’80s instrumental soundtrack is bland and deployed blandly. Corey Haim is good-enough as wheelchair-bound Marty, but there’s a chalky, sugary quality to his acting here, like one of those candy hearts. (This was an early picture and not his best work.) You will guess who the werewolf is very, very early, and although some disagree, I didn’t think that character or his secret identity were handled particularly well. There’s the usual thing where the local pastor is from some cinema-only Protestant denomination that has statues of Mary; this choice, like moving the action from King’s Maine to some unspecified Southern state, makes the small-town setting feel generic. Also the werewolf looks kinda dumb, but they usually do, really.
And there’s a potential theme here about the unreliability of adults, or the dual nature of the adult who is sometimes trustworthy and sometimes dangerous. Gary Busey (!!! we’ll get to him under “good things”) plays Marty’s alcoholic Uncle Red, and his tilting character could mirror the werewolf’s changes if the movie wanted to go there. I always say I don’t love the contemporary horror obsession with Theme and Meaning, the thing where an emotional problem or form of social violence is just directly translated into a monster. But if you have got a theme inherent in your story, I’d like you to know it’s there, and explore it a little. Theme can be an aesthetic layer to the story without being the point of the story, if you see what I mean. Arachnophobia‘s country vs. city thing is a good example of touching a theme just lightly enough; Us, for a recent example, does a great job of evoking a lot of painful themes without turning the film from a mystery into an equation. Silver Bullet swerves away too quickly from what could have been a frightening and powerful element of its story.
Still, the good things: Megan Follows is a scowling delight as Marty’s careworn and resentful sister Jane, and the relationship between the siblings is a realistically volatile mix of anger, helplessness, and deep love. Marty’s a stellar character, a paralyzed kid who’s nonetheless a daredevil. Busey is just fantastic, bringing a real wild, unpredictable edge to Uncle Red’s antics. And there are several powerful shots (a late shot of the villain from the legs down is particularly good) and set-pieces, especially the dream of the werewolf funeral. That scene seems to be what most people remember from this movie, and it’s worth the price of admission.