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Dreams I Have Had About Pregnancy

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Welcome to My Nightmare

Slasher movie sequels don’t generally have high standards. As original ideas morph into long-lasting franchises, the tendency is to slip into autopilot and retell the same story; after all, if it was good (or at least profitable) enough the first time, why not again, and again, and again? This is why A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is so refreshing. It’s not exactly groundbreaking or profound, but neither is it boring or lazy.

Directed by Chuck Russell (later of The Blob [1988] and The Mask [1994]), Dream Warriors is thoroughly competent,  but has occasional  flashes of great imagination—like when the balls on a Newton’s cradle float apart to signify a dream sequence, or when Freddy’s skeleton comes to life à la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). So yes, much of its awesomeness derives from its special effects and creatively unsettling violence, but the writing is also unusually sharp for a Part 3. (The involvement of The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont may account for some of this.)

The film’s teenagers aren’t exactly well-rounded characters—each of them gets only a couple of attributes, like “was addicted to drugs” or “likes to make puppets”—but they’re nonetheless plausible and, more importantly, they care about each other. Stuck together in a mental hospital under the dominion of the Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer), the Dream Warriors are reliant on their own camaraderie and teamwork in order to overcome Freddy—as well as the mentorship of Dr. Gordon (Body Double’s Craig Wasson) and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who fought Freddy herself in the first Nightmare movie, and has now returned as an intern.

Dream Warriors further expands on series mythology by introducing Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who has the ability to drag others into her own Freddy-plagued dreams, enabling them to fight him together. Shared dreaming? Yeah, it’s Inception 23 years before the fact and with weirder dreams to boot. They’re dreams where Freddy takes the guise of a sexy nurse, and then uses his own tongues to bind one of the kids above a fiery pit; where he terrorizes the disabled Will with a giant, spike-covered wheelchair; and where he can appear in a dozen mirrors at once. The film’s dreams are unpredictable, irrational, and sometimes terrifying as Freddy potentially looms around every corner.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Dr. Gordon wrestle with a subplot that involves a mysterious nun (OK, she’s actually the ghost of Mrs. Krueger) and the need to bury Freddy’s remains in hallowed ground, all of which leads back to Nancy’s dad (John Saxon), who helped kill Freddy in the first place, and to a gory junkyard showdown. Throughout all of this, the film isn’t quite good enough to transcend its dated genre trappings, but it’s still a curious mix of the slasher formula with team-oriented adventure, surreal visualizations of teen angst, and a dose of comedy—both intentional and otherwise. And it’s definitely better than the first two Nightmare movies.

So if nothing else, Dream Warriors is good for the same reasons that it’s odd: it crosses genre lines while capitalizing on the narrative potential of the Nightmare series’ deadly dreams. The Dream Warriors don’t just fall asleep, one by one, and get hacked apart; they work together through their nocturnal trials, even experiencing moments of real wonder as they share their (sometimes goofy) dream powers. (“In my dreams, I’m the Wizard Master!” says the hopelessly nerdy Will.) And if all that’s not enough for you, Dream Warriors co-stars a young, hot Laurence Fishburne as a sympathetic orderly.

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Chutes and Ladders (and Demonic Hallucinations)

[This post is part of the 30 dAyS oF cRAzY blog-a-thon happening throughout September at Blog Cabins; you can also read it there.]

Strangely enough, the most obvious place to start with Adrian Lyne’s paranoid horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is with the ending. (Consider that your blanket spoiler warning.) Because for most of the moviegoing public, myself included, that infamous twist is the movie’s hook: “So it was all a dream!” But, as I was happy to discover when I watched it recently, there’s much more to that dream than just some icky hallucinations and mind-bending ambiguity. Those are present and accounted for, certainly, but the real delight of Jacob’s Ladder comes from seeing a daily routine infected with spurts of diabolical terror. It’s a very uneven, somewhat disjointed movie, to be sure, but it’s made extremely watchable through this scattered handful of wonderfully horrifying moments.

Jacob Singer, played by a scruffy-haired Tim Robbins, is a Vietnam vet and postal worker who’s dealing with some intense PTSD, as well as some back problems. He’s divorced from the mother of his children and is living with the loving, alluring Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) in a New York City apartment. One day he falls asleep on the subway, has a nightmare about Vietnam, and when he wakes up, things don’t seem quite right. An old lady stares at him blankly when he asks if they passed his stop. A vaguely human thing is sprawled across two seats, its face covered and what looks like a charred penis wriggling between its legs. When he jumps off at the next stop, he can’t get above ground, and has to hop back across the tracks. Another train nearly mows him down; as it passes, a host of blurry phantoms leer down at him from the windows. Only after all this is he able to get back home for some steamy shower sex with Jezzie.

Taken by themselves, these few minutes could make a damn good short film. The subway scene is so creepily suggestive and so without context that it successfully drags the viewer into Jacob’s head. We’re now willing to buy into the figments of his imagination, because his hell is our hell. And his demons… well, they’re really fucking creepy. Lyne gives us quick flashes of the entities persecuting Jacob, but never enough to really get a visual handle on them. He doesn’t get the dignity of a personable, face-to-face attack; instead, they pop out from around corners and disappear before you can tell what, exactly, they are. You start wishing it were just some guy with a chainsaw, because Jacob’s enemies are so vague and ethereal that they could be anyone. Or no one.

The movie’s first act really fulfills the promise of those first few minutes, as Jacob sinks deeper and deeper into the film’s infernal vision of city life. In a way, it’s like a quieter, more subdued version of After Hours – one where Scorsese’s nighttime hysteria has been replaced by the painfully bright slog of mid-morning. Jacob’s persecution complex takes its toll on his job and his love life, and Jezzie’s rationalizations, blaming his fears on perfectly normal urban phenomena, just make everything worse. If this is normal, then what’s bad? Jacob goes to see his old doctor at the VA clinic, but a cranky receptionist can’t find his file. Then, in a truly disturbing moment that comes out of nowhere, her little cap falls off… revealing a little bony growth on her scalp! Eww!

But these freaky intrusions into Jacob’s boring everyday life can’t go on forever, alas, and we must start the slow, awkward transition into conspiracy theory/spiritual metaphor territory that dominates the film’s second half. You see, apparently Jacob’s old doctor died in a car explosion. This’ll have greater repercussions later, but first it’s time for a sexy, hallucination-filled party that ends with Jacob consumed by a life-threatening fever. In a strobe-lit dance floor sequence, we get indistinct visual intimations of seduction, metamorphosis, and demonic possession as Jacob watches Jezzie uneasily. Somewhere in their relationship is a juicy core of psychosexual anxiety that the movie doesn’t fully exploit. But we can’t worry about that now, because we’ve got some mindfucking to do.

And what a mindfuck! Inception has nothing to compare with the moment when Jacob wakes up next to his ex-wife and starts recounting the nightmare he just had… only for us to realize that he’s talking about the entire preceding movie. Has the future folded in on the past? Is each of his lives the other’s dream? Maybe. Maybe not. After saying good night to dead son Macaulay Culkin, though, Jacob wakes up and is back in his real real life (or maybe the real dream), being cared for by Jezzie. Got that? Good. Lyne moves between his realities with admirable versatility, but unlike, say, a David Lynch (as in Mullholland Dr.) or Luis Buñuel (take Belle de Jour), he doesn’t really have anything to do with them. They’re just there, being confusing for its own sake. It’s still good, mindfucky fun, but it’s done in the services of the film’s sappiest, most hackneyed subplot, which is pretty disappointing.

Soon thereafter, Jacob gets a blast from the past: an old Vietnam buddy is experiencing similar symptoms! They meet for drinks, only for that buddy to also fall victim to a car bomb. At the funeral, Jacob chats with the surviving members of his old platoon, and it turns out they’re all suffering these hallucinations. So before you can say “They did something to us in there, man,” they’re off to the offices of Jason Alexander, attorney-at-law, to file suit against the U.S. government. This part of the movie is basically The Deer Hunter meets The Manchurian Candidate, and the filmmakers have no problem with just recycling every cinematic cliché about the Vietnam War, with no new insights of their own. Some government thugs drag Jacob into their car, but it’s way less powerful than the paranoia that consumes the film’s first half, because it’s so much more concrete and, frankly, obvious. The horror of Jacob’s Ladder gets derailed by its own back story.

This becomes even clearer during the last great hallucination sequence, which is a doozy. After jumping out of a moving vehicle and getting mugged by a Salvation Army Santa Claus (admittedly a nice touch), he’s brought to the hospital and, the doctors say, needs to be brought downstairs to be X-rayed. But to get to the X-ray room, we have to take a little detour through Crazyland, followed by a quick shortcut through WTF City. All the mutilated, glassy-eyed cast-offs of humanity are creeping beside – or even hovering above – the stretcher as Jacob’s pushed further along the worst hospital corridor of all time. Then it turns into a slaughterhouse, and the stretcher bumps into some bloody hunks of meat. Then Jacob’s in a fucked-up operating room and is politely informed, “This is your home. You’re dead,” before an eyeless doctor sticks a syringe right into his forehead.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a fantastically executed scene that plays out like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on amphetamines. It’s also a horrific illustration of a hospital patient’s lack of agency. But it also highlights the failings of the movie around it. It gives you the impression that Jacob’s Ladder is more a series of horror set-pieces loosely linked by some plot buzzwords (haunting past, war trauma) than the Chinese box dream narrative it would purport to be. In other words, it’s more Shutter Island than Inception. Jacob is delivered from evil by his chiropractor, an angelic Danny Aiello, who monologues a lot of peculiarly on-the-nose advice at him and sends him on his way. Then we get another revelatory monologue, this time from a one-time drug maker/dealer who was recruited by military brass during ‘Nam to concoct a formula that could heighten aggression. Apparently it was this miracle drug, “the Ladder,” that caused Jacob’s comrades to turn on each other, and that explains his flashbacks!

How can an explanation be so thorough, and yet so dissatisfying? Maybe it’s the gratingly self-righteous way the ex-hippie delivers it. Or maybe it’s in how Jacob’s Ladder insists so strongly that it’s a Vietnam movie that it tricks itself out of being a really good movie, especially since the overarching government conspiracy ends being a moot point. No, it turns out Jacob just went through all this so he could make his peace with dead son Macaulay Culkin and resign himself to his own imminent death. And then he dies! Still in Vietnam! Maybe if his dream hadn’t been so sprinkled with red herrings, then the twist ending could give us an interesting new perspective on the rest of the movie. But let’s not dwell on the many disappointments of Jacob’s Ladder. Instead, let’s dwell on the great, creepy moments! Like that growling voice that says, “DREAM ON!” Or when Jezzie’s pupils get all big and she howls at him! Or those distorted faces looking out the back of that car! Those were seriously creepy.


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RIP Satoshi Kon, anime dream master

Last night I learned, tragically, that anime director Satoshi Kon has died of cancer at age 47. Kon was the creative force behind some of my favorite (non-Ghibli) feature-length anime films of recent years, specifically Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003, pictured above), and Paprika, a dream-hopping adventure I saw at MSPIFF when it premiered in 2006. He also directed the thriller Perfect Blue and the complex 13-episode series Paranoia Agent, both of which I have yet to see in their entirety. Suffice it to say that Kon’s life was cut short near the peak of his creative output, and there’s no telling how catastrophic a loss this is to the world of film.

I’ve been meaning to write about Kon for a while; I’m just sad that these have to be the circumstances in which I do it. I wrote a short piece on Millennium Actress a couple years ago; it’s none too insightful or well-written, but it’s a useful jumping-off point, so I’ll reprint it here:

One film whose existence was only made known to me recently is Millennium Actress (2001). From Satoshi Kon, director of great anime like the series Paranoia Agent and the film Paprika, it’s infused with his unique brand of surrealism, but put toward a more coherent purpose: deconstructing the life of a reclusive Japanese actress, as seen through the eyes of an admiring documentary filmmaker. The narrative intermingles her memories of 20th century Japan with images of her film career (including pastiches of Throne of Blood and Godzilla), and concerns her relationship with a political prisoner, who gives her the key “to the most important thing.” As it traces the actress’s struggle to find her lost love, it also examines the connection between real life and the dream lives portrayed in film, leading to a bittersweet finale. Between its multifarious animation styles and compelling subject matter, I find Millennium Actress just as beautiful as the much-praised works of Miyazaki.

This snippet hints at some of Kon’s inimitable strengths: he could blend an acute cultural awareness and a slightly wacky sense of humor with faith in the infinite (and phantasmagoric) capacities of animation. I’ve only seen Paranoia Agent‘s first episode, but even that lone half-hour displays Kon’s extensive talent for unpacking dense narratives with both impressive (sometimes disturbing) visuals and extreme, sometimes painful psychological detail. Although renowned for his forays into dream imagery (most explicitly Paprika), Kon always maintained an intense focus on those dreams’ emotional underpinnings and his characters’ rich internal lives. At the end of a summer so dominated by Inception, it’s refreshing to look at a dream-weaving director whose characters had personalities and a pulse.

Tokyo Godfathers, which I watched a few weeks ago, was a delightful surprise and demonstrated Kon’s sheer versatility. Although much of his work consists of probing, stylized peeks into the psyches of fragile individuals, Godfathers proved that he was equally adept at marrying urban drama with broad comedy. In American films, homelessness is too often the substance of saccharine, Oscar-baity melodramas; Kon, however, sympathetically observes his poverty-ridden (but still dignified) characters – a grizzled, middle-aged man, a flamboyant trans woman, and a teenage runaway – as they form a strange but functional family unit, interacting naturalistically and coping with hardships that range from hunger to tuberculosis to their dirty, hidden pasts.

Kon deftly balances the gravity of their collective situation with the lightness of their madcap chases and slapstick collisions (as when an assassin accidentally prevents one of them from making a potentially fatal mistake). And although the film indulges in a number of anime clichés, they never threaten to constrain it, since it’s always buoyed by its fundamental soulfulness and self-awareness. Tokyo Godfathers is volatile in mood and style, but Kon handles these rapid transitions masterfully. It’s a film that’s integrates cartoonish extravagances with Tokyo’s physical realities, and a must-see for any fan of Kon’s other films.

However, I think Millennium Actress is Kon’s best work, and possibly one of the best animated films from any nation. It’s so alive with the power and history of cinema; how could I not love it? (For Ozu lovers, its title character is also loosely based on the enigmatic Setsuko Hara.) I’m sure Kon’s critical legacy will be hotly debated over the coming years – and as we debate it, we’ll be mourning the future films he could have made. He did leave an unfinished film, The Dream Machines, at his death; perhaps it’ll be visible someday. In the meantime, here are a couple of helpful Kon-centric links: 1) an extensive interview with Kon from around the time Paprika was released and 2) Film Studies For Free‘s round-up of resources and academic papers on Kon. Or else you can hit YouTube and start watching Paranoia Agent.

Addendum: While glancing through this retrospective on Kon’s career, I saw a description of Tokyo Godfathers as “saccharine melodrama.” Clearly I disagree (I think Godfathers is pretty underrated); still, the piece by Grady Hendrix of the New York Sun has a lot of great insights and is very worth reading.


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Upsides and downsides

[Note: I am really sick right now. So for added humor, imagine me saying all of this with a stuffed-up nose and sore throat.]

Part of being a film critic (or whatever it is I am here) is reevaluating your own opinions. Because none of us exist in critical vacuums, so of course we’re constantly exposing ourselves to the critical discourses surrounding one movie or another. And we factor in these arguments as we reshuffle our thoughts, and… well, what I’m trying to say is that the art of criticism is complicated as fuck, and I’m still learning it. And since I’ve written recently about two movies – Inception and Southland Tales – one of which I liked and the other of which I disliked, I want to look at the flip sides of my opinions. Both of these movies are important, I believe, when you’re looking at 21st century American cinema thus far. They both have sundry strengths and beauties, yet both are significantly flawed. So here’s the other side of the story.

With regard to Inception, I wrote, “Nolan one-ups just about all [dream-centered movies] by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story.” This is probably the weakest claim in that entire review, because Nolan doesn’t really have the same hold on actual dream logic that makes movies like Eraserhead or Paprika so enticing. He does, however, have an incredibly strong hold on his own inorganic, sometimes arbitrary, but always fun conceits. Inception is made out of rigid, rational science fiction (cue the word “Kubrickian”) rather than the free-wheeling, unhinged fantasy/horror of, well, dreams. It’s about embattled interior states being realized as unstable cityscapes, yes, but only in accordance with Nolan’s disciplined plot structure and ultramodern design aesthetic – and this goes right along with my complaint that “the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script.” Nolan’s neo-noir vision is so fully in control here that neither the characters’ personalities nor their dreams get any breathing room.

None of this, however, prevents the movie from being twisty, action-packed, cerebral, and fun. But Nolan’s virtuosity leaves little room for idiosyncrasy. This also takes its toll on the film’s psychological aspects; the Cobb/Mal conflict is a great hook that bypasses the onslaught of narrative curveballs, but it feels more by-the-numbers than, say, Leonard and Natalie’s compelling interplay in Memento. And despite all of Cillian Murphy’s acting talent, beauty, and blue eyes, the inner turmoil of the Fischer dynasty felt more like a placeholder or a template than a real, lived-in father/son relationship. It was only in the movie to be manipulated, and it shows. Thankfully, what Inception lacks in terms of spontaneity or humanity it makes up for with cool ingenuity. I don’t regret the morning-after enthusiasm of my review; I still maintain that Inception is the best “Borgesian action movie” out there, and I suggest that you describe it as such whenever possible. But I do want to counterbalance that nerdy zeal with some weeks-later critical honesty.

Similarly, I want to balance out my pessimism about Southland Tales by pointing out its hyperactive, muddled glints of genius. No matter what else I say about it, I insist: Southland Tales is, all in all, a bad movie. But it’s bad in a fascinating, explosive, catastrophic, occasionally insightful way. It’s bad in such a way that I feel like I need to keep writing about it. I was recently glancing through an old issue of Film Comment (November/December 2009, to be specific) and I found an article entitled “All Fall Down: Thinking inside Richard Kelly’s ‘Box'” by Nathan Lee. Much of it deals with The Box, which I haven’t seen, but Lee touches several times on Southland Tales and, I think, he takes the right approach in defending it:

That’s the funny thing about Southland Tales, and the reason I no longer care about its many haters: what I admire in the movie doesn’t run counter to accusations of crap acting, unintelligibility, pretentiousness, shameless pastiche, overweening ambition, etc., but alongside them. For it’s precisely everything awkward, ill-formed, garish, tawdry, and clichéd about Southland Tales that enables it to so brilliantly embody, and thus parody, its moment. Less Lynchian than Tashlinesque, at once diagnostic and symptomatic, Southland Tales is the Showgirls of D-list celebrity sci-fi satire.

I don’t know if I’d say that Southland Tales does anything “so brilliantly,” but I’ll confess that in the film’s dystopian framework, frenetic pacing, and ensemble of self-concerned would-be superstars, you can distinguish traces of a scathing, self-conscious attack on Hollywood and the Bush administration. But saying that Southland Tales is scathing or self-conscious gives Kelly far too much credit, especially given how much of the movie he spends dwelling on Southland Tales‘ supposed profundity. I love many pieces of this movie, like how brashly it posits its Orwellian setting and how it wields some of its stars in unconventional, if miscalculated, ways. While watching it, I quickly realized that Southland Tales was exactly the kind of movie I would’ve dreamt up when I was 14, and I can still appreciate that now.

But so much of the movie is sunk by the flourishes of Kelly’s outsized ego and by his refusal to extend even the slightest olive branch to his audience. Because by the film’s climax, Kelly’s sci-fi twists and turns are about as arbitrary as Nolan’s dream rules, but they’re not followed as consistently or to nearly as much effect. Southland Tales is a mess, and while it may be a gorgeous mess, it’s also a self-cannibalizing, gorgeous mess. It’s successful as a paean to junk culture, but unsuccessful as sociopolitical commentary. I definitely recommend at least one viewing if you’re at all curious, and don’t worry about expecting too much. Because “too much” is exactly what Southland Tales has to offer.


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