Autodidact: self-taught

Aug
21
2014

Wonder Boys

by V. L. Craven

Wonder Boys

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve seen it close to a dozen times and it makes me laugh every time. The screenplay captures the feel of the book, I think, and that’s something, because I really loved the book.

And how could I not? It’s about a professor, it’s about writing. It’s about a writing prodigy. And many mad-cap adventures of a rag-tag bunch that’s throw together of a weekend. The book is profound and lovely and funny and human and the film handles all of that beautifully.

Wonder Boys is about middle-aged professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) whose wife has left him, again, though this time it looks like it’s going to take. His previous novel was a smashing success, but that was several years ago, and his editor, Crabtree, (Robert Downey Jr fresh out of rehab, this was 2000) really wants his follow-up novel. Luckily, it’s the weekend of Word Fest, where visiting authors and literary types descend on the Pittsburgh university, giving him all the reason he needs to show up. It’s also the weekend that Tripp’s most gifted but morose student, James Leer, (Tobey Maguire) decides he’d rather hang around his professor than go home. Crabtree is all right with this, as he takes rather a shine to Mr Leer.

During all of this Tripp is trying to deal with his crumbling marriage, as well as the fact that the student who rents a room from him (Katie Holmes) has a bit of a thing for him, all the while fending off his editor’s questions about the next book. And then Tripp gets some news from his girlfriend that probably isn’t going to go over so well with her husband… And the weekend just keeps on getting better.

And, as if going for some sort of trifecta–the film also has one of my all-time favourite soundtracks . Including two of my favourite songs by Dylan.

When I was doing research for this review I came across this review that compares Wonder Boys to another professor-has-midlife-crisis-in-Pittsburgh film Smart People. It’s a good review–give it a look.

 

Jul
10
2014

Russian Ark

by V. L. Craven

Russian Ark

At the beginning of Russian Ark , you wake up, somehow transported to … someplace unfamiliar. You discover you can speak Russian, though you’ve never spoken it before. Before you, you see a group of boisterous people alighting from horse-drawn carriages. They’re in elaborate dress on their way to some sort of party. And they cannot see or hear you. Perhaps you’ve died.

Then you are joined by someone else, visible only to you and dressed in clothes from a different century. ‘The European’ guides you through the rooms of this grand palace, commenting on various pieces of art. The palace, though never named, is the Hermitage Museum  and the European is meant to be the Marquis de Custine , who was quite the critic of Russian culture.

Each room or section of the film depicts a different era of Russian history, though not in chronological order. Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas II and his children all make appearances. It has the feel of a European dream-state novel–I often felt as though metaphors were sailing past my head, but then another piece of art would come into view and it wouldn’t matter.

The film itself is sumptuous. The art is beautiful, obviously, (there’s a wonderful 360 close up shot of The Three Graces by Canova) and the hundreds of costumes are breathtaking. Shot in a continuous 96 minute take and featuring over 2,000 actors and three orchestras, with an opera and an elaborate dance sequence it was no small technical feat, either. The documentary about the making of Russian Ark is called In One Breath (it’s available on the DVD, the first part of five is here  on You Tube) and it’s worth the watch to see how they did it.

The more you know about Russian history the more you’ll get out of the film (which I admittedly know very little) but it’s still gorgeous to look at and is probably the closest I’ll get to visiting the Hermitage. So I highly recommend it. 5/5.

Jun
19
2014

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

by V. L. Craven

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

 

Carl Panzram  was arrested for murder and confessed to an impressive number of crimes including thousands of robberies, larcenies, arson, 22 murders and over 1,000 instances of sodomy on males. This was in 1928, when that level of depravity was simply unheard of. How could anyone be that evil?

This documentary is partially about Panzram himself, but it’s largely about the penal system, and its failings. Panzram got his start with the U.S. justice system very early on when he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School when he was twelve, where beatings to the point of bruises and blood were the rule of the day. He ran away on more than one occasion and was always punished with much vigour upon being caught.

Several experts weighed in–one of whom was Katherine Ramsland , a professor of forensics psychology. She pointed out that often serial killers will blame their behaviour on other people–Panzram blamed his poor treatment by his parents. Ramsland points out Panzram had several siblings who all turned out all right, intimating that their childhood could not have been so bad. Perhaps she wasn’t taking into account his brain trauma, which is a key part of the triumvirate of causes of sociopathy. (The other two being extreme abuse and mental illness.) Or that he was severely beaten and humiliated at school, which his siblings weren’t? Or that the siblings of serial killers don’t generally turn out to be serial killers themselves.

One of the other people consulted was artist  Joe Coleman , who is something of an expert on the man, having done an intricate painting about his life. Coleman’s pieces are always painted with a paintbrush with one hair. His contribution to the film was a highlight.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

A large portion of the documentary is about Panzram’s memoirs, which were written with the help of a guard in one particular prison. The guard brought pencils and paper and would take them away again once he had filled the pages. If either had been found out they both would had been in trouble. One more than the other, though, obviously.

One of the most striking (and disheartening) features is how little the penal system has changed in the decades since his imprisonment and death. People are put into a dehumanizing system and are then expected to behave like model citizens. Panzram’s thoughts on this are particularly eloquent.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was an interesting enough documentary about one of the U.S.’s first well-known and most brutal serial killers and the way the criminal justice system has (not) changed. I’d rate it 7/10.

May
08
2014

The Act of Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Act of Killing

 

Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.

In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use  a lot of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.

Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.

When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.

Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone.  And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.

His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?

One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.

In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.

Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.

If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.

And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.

The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race.  How they ‘tamed’ the land.

If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.

If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.

I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.

Apr
24
2014

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

by V. L. Craven

Countess Erzsebet Bathory  (1560-1614) is remembered by popular culture as the female version of Vlad the Impaler–a feminine Dracula. She’s thought to have tortured and bled servant girls and maidens from her lands in order to bathe in their blood in order to remain young and beautiful. Apparently it’s not as straightforward as all that.

In 2008 and 2009 there were films made about the Countess that take slightly different views on the matter.

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

Bathory was the first of the two films–released in 2008 and starred Anna Friel. The Countess was released in 2009 and starred Julie Delphy (who also directed), as well as William Hurt.

Both are narrated by men. Bathory is narrated by someone who titles himself a ‘fool’ and The Countess by her lover, Istvan Thurzo, and the son of her greatest enemy, Gygory Thurzo (Hurt). They both admit that history is written by the winners, in this case, the people who sealed Erzsebet’s fate.

Bathory begins with Erzsebet’s betrothal to Ferenc Nadasdy,  the son of another family for political reasons at 8 or 9 [Wikipedia says this happened when she was 12] . She is portrayed as knowing nothing about sex–asking her new husband how it was supposed to work.

Likewise, The Countess begins at the very start of Erzsebet’s life and betrothal to Ferenc, but it is at her christening, when Nadasdy is a young boy that this is shown as happening. In this film she is knowledgeable about sex–sleeping with a peasant and bearing a child before her marriage at 15, which is taken away from her.


Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

In Bathory, Erzsebet takes a lover–an artist–while she’s still married. In The Countess, she doesn’t take a lover (the aforementioned Istvan Thurzo, played by Daniel Bruhl) until after her husband has died. Thurzo is much younger than she is and this is when she begins to obsess about her looks.

In Bathory, after Erzsebet is accidentally poisoned she is saved by a woman who is said to be a witch, Darvulia (Deana Horváthová). In The Countess the character is portrayed as much younger and as a much dearer friend and companion, where she’s played by Anamaria Marinca. In the former film the character doesn’t come into Erzsebet’s life until later on, but in the latter film, she’s been in her life from very early on. They also meet drastically different ends.

Both films agree that there was a great deal of political motivation behind the accusations levelled at Erzsebet–the King owed her a great deal of money for one–but we’ll probably never know just how many peasant girls were tortured and killed.

Bathory painted Erzsebet in a much more sympathetic light. It felt like more of a historical drama than anything else. There wasn’t much blood shown but our woman was certainly not portrayed as a kind and loving saint either. It was a bit slow-moving. I’d recommend it for people interested in Erzsebet Bathory or Hungary during the 17th century, but it would probably bore people who were looking for something titillating. There is a rape scene near the beginning of the film, as a trigger warning. It’s brief and not graphic, but it’s there.

The Countess was closer to what most people have heard about Countess Bathory. There is definitely more blood and torture shown (but not even up to standard horror film levels though there is one bit that’s wince-worthy). Delphy’s interpretation is interesting because though this version is much more sadistic she still has a human side. She could have played the character as a two-dimensional, cold-blooded lunatic, but she didn’t. This one I would recommend for people interested in non-stereotypical psychopaths, along with those who like period dramas, Bathory herself, etc.

Apr
03
2014

Vampires in the Cold

by V. L. Craven

Vampire films, as a genre, don’t particularly hold my interest. Immortality seems boring–humans would whine about the same problems every century–and having sex with a room-temperature body (vampires are corpses) is stomach-churning, so their sex appeal is similarly lost on me. I’m not against watching a film about vampires, but there has to be some other draw.

In this case, it’s cold climates–the beauty of a frozen landscape will get me to watch a lot of things. So this week’s film review is a comparison of two films about vampires in cold climates: Let the Right One In and 30 Days of Night.

Vampires in the Cold

Let the Right One in is based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist and is about a boy who befriends his unusual new neighbour–a girl of twelve. The girl advises him to fight back against his bullies and even offers to help. Much of the story is about the budding friendship between the two young people and the boy learning to stand up for himself.

The backdrop to all of this are the horrific killings that have been happening–one man was found upside down, drained of blood; and another was attacked and murdered in front of a witness, who swore it looked like the attacker was a child.

This film is much more atmospheric and subdued than most vampire films, which was refreshing. There was also very little blood and onscreen violence, considering the trend of horror films in general. Several tropes common to vampires were handled cleverly–trusting the intelligence of the audience rather than relying on special effects. I would recommend this to fans of vamp flicks who were looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, as well as to people who simply liked a good story. I’ll definitely watch it again.

Vampires in the Cold

The premise is that the town farthest north in the U.S. experiences thirty days of darkness once a year and someone (or something) has cut them off from civilisation even further by stealing and destroying all the mobiles amongst other things. Once no one can get in or out or can contact the outside world, things start picking off the humans. Yummy, yummy humans. 

I’m going to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this one. It looked like pretty standard fare so I just came for the pretty scenery. However, some genius in casting had Danny Huston as the lead vampire. And he had a sidekick who rather looked like Marilyn Manson, which amused me greatly.

Vampires in the Cold

‘Why do people keep asking me to sing Beautiful People?’

This one was better than I was expecting, but I’d only recommend it to people who like vampire films. It had plenty of blood and action and one very cool shot of the town that (along with Huston) made it worth the watch.

Feb
27
2014

Seven Psychopaths

by V. L. Craven

Seven Psychopaths

 

Hans (Christopher Walken) and his associate, Billy, (Sam Rockwell) ‘borrow’ dogs and give them back to their grateful owners after they’ve posted lost dog posters with rewards offered.

Marty McDonagh (Colin Farrell) is a writer working on a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths . The problem being that he only has an idea for one psychopath and that one is a Buddhist who doesn’t like violence. With the help of his good friend Rockwell he changes the idea to include, you know, seven actual psychopaths.

Farrell still has the problem of only coming up with other psychopaths, though. His buddy has a plan–he’s the sort of person who always has a plan. These people are really best to be avoided.

That would make for a boring film, though, so through his friend’s rather questionable methods, Marty meets psychopath no. 6, Tom Waits, who is just as spectacular as you’d expect.

Then psychopath no. 7 (Woody Harrelson) loses his beloved Shih Tzu, Bonny, to psychopath no. 3. It’s never a good idea to take the sweet doggy of a lunatic with a penchant for guns and henchman like Kevin Corrigan and Zeljko Ivanek.

Meanwhile, someone is killing criminals and leaving playing cards in his wake. Dun dun DUN.

From the first scene you’re drawn into this dark, twisted comedy (the best kind). The dialogue is sharp and witty (the real Martin McDonagh deserves a slow clap), the plot genuinely surprising with layers that will give the viewer something to think on days afterward. This is the kind of film you quote with your friends and watch when you need cheering up. Highly recommended. 

Feb
20
2014

Some Guy Who Kills People

by V. L. Craven

Some Guy Who Kills People

Ken Boyd (Kevin Corrigan) has recently been released from a mental hospital and his best friend has helped him get a job at an ice cream parlour. One by one, Ken’s enemies–the one’s who tortured him when he was younger are suddenly being knocked off in gruesome ways.

The sheriff (Barry Bostwick) is dating Ken’s mother and, as goofy as he is, isn’t a complete doofus, and begins to suspect Ken of the murders.

During all of this, Ken’s eleven-year-old daughter (Ariel Gade) from a one-week fling shows up and moves in, hoping to get to know her father. And a new woman, Stephanie (Lucy Davis) shows an interest. Perhaps Ken’s life is getting back on track.

So it would be something of a shame if he was  Some Guy Who Kills People . On the other hand… bitches gots to pay.

This was definitely a fun one. Well-written, well-acted, an all-round good time. John Landis was the executive producer and it shows–it’s a blend of horror and hilarity perfect for fans of Shaun of the Dead and Tucker & Dale vs Evil.

Feb
13
2014

Threads

by V. L. Craven

Threads
In 1984, after rising tensions between the Americans and Soviets nuclear war breaks out.  Threads is a documentary-style film about the events leading up to the warheads, the chaos during, the nuclear winter and rebuilding efforts afterwards in Britain.

The plot initially revolves around a couple in Sheffield, Ruth and Jimmy, who have decided to marry after accidentally falling pregnant. It then expands to include the emergency operations staff, which has been sent down into a bunker.

The real story is about what would actually happen prior to and after a nuclear attack, should you survive. The writer (Barry Hines) clearly did his research–every step taken by the government before and after seems terrifyingly likely. The list of people consulted includes Carl Sagan, as well as loads of other very smart people so I’ve no doubt it’s as accurate as possible. Which makes this all the more terrifying.

If you’re looking for a horror film that has a very real basis in reality, then here you are. You may want to have something by Pixar in the sidelines for afters, though.

You can watch the entire film here  for free and I highly recommend it. It’s grim as hell, but thought-provoking. I’m glad I watched it, but will not be watching it again.

From the Wikipedia page:

[The director Mick] Jackson later recalled that unlike most BBC productions, which once finished airing would immediately result in phone calls of congratulations from friends or colleagues, no such calls came after the first screening of  Threads . Jackson later “realised… that people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk.”

Dec
26
2013

Misery

by V. L. Craven

Misery

Christmas was a special kind of hell for me as a child. I was expected to socialise for extended periods of time with lots of loud people who wanted to hug me and be in my personal space. As a young, raging introvert , severely lacking in the ability to express my feelings, this was not something I relished. So in 1990, when I saw the teaser poster for Misery:

Misery

I laughed and thought, ‘ Every Christmas there will be misery.’ Then I bought the poster.

The film is based on a Stephen King novel of the same name . It’s about a writer. I wanted to be a writer so that captured my interest straightaway. It had a woman named Kathy Bates in it. I hadn’t heard of her before, but I thought someone with a last name like Bates was perfect to play a psychopath.

Misery

I mean, right?

So Annie Wilkes (Bates) is a delightfully balanced woman whose favourite writer, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), is in a car crash and she nurses him back to health and isn’t at all obsessive or terrifying.

Misery

I mean, is that the face of a pure sociopath? I ask you.

Yeah, no.

Actually, she finds him after the car crash because she was stalking him in the first place. Then, while she’s taking care of him–he has multiple broken bones in his legs and a broken arm so he’s not going anywhere–the final book in the Misery Chastain series is released. When she reads it and discovers he’s killed off her favourite character she’s rather…displeased. Considering that her mood swings wider than an articulated lorry the man was lucky to survive her initial reading. After forcing him to burn the novel he’s just finished (because it has too many swear words in it) she has him to write another book in the Misery series that she loves and that he absolutely despises.

So, there’s mental and physical torture. Just like my Christmases.  This film spoke to me on such a level, I can’t tell you.

Then there’s, you know, the scene.

Misery

And now, Ms Bates will demonstrate the key features of the latest in our line of sledgehammers.

Certain scenes stay with you forever. That’s one of them.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film–Bates does an interpretive dance with the sledgehammer and a four by four. It’s remarkably moving and entirely unforgettable. Bring a tear to your eye, it will.

From what I’ve heard about James Caan, there were probably more than a few people in Hollywood who would’ve liked to have swung that hammer themselves. You know, in interpretive dance.

There’s also a deleted scene where Annie kills a policeman by running over him repeatedly with a lawnmower, but it was cut, as Rob Reiner thought it would make people laugh. Apparently Bates was disappointed by the removal of that scene, and holy moly would I love to see it.

Anyway, this one wasn’t so much of a review as a One of My Fav Christmas Films and Here’s Why. But you should see it.

I know today is the day after Christmas– Boxing Day in Commonwealth countries (which has nothing to do with pugilism)–but if you’re sick to the back teeth of your relatives for one holiday season, then pop this one on and laugh and laugh and laugh.

And think of me when you do.

Dec
19
2013

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

by V. L. Craven

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

If you’re not a huge fan of Christmas films then  Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale  may be the sort of thing you can stand. It’s about the real Santa Claus, who was from Finland and was captured by angry villagers (he kept killing the naughty children because Old Saint Nick used to take the ‘naughty’ part of ‘naughty or nice’ hella serious.) Once captured he was frozen and buried in a mountain.

In the present day, some Americans come along and get him out to bring him back to the States because America. This goes about as well as you’d imagine.

Three reindeer hunters go after their source of income only to find something else has got to it first. One of the hunter’s sons, Pietari, knows what’s going on, but no one listens to him because he’s a kid and because adults. Once the bizarre occurrences begin piling up (all of the radiators have been stolen for one), Pietari’s father takes him more seriously. He’s the one who has to save Christmas, by dealing with the real Santa Claus. And the real Santa Claus don’t play.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Pictured: Not. Playing.

Based and filmed in breath-taking Korvatunturi  in Finland, the setting is a character in itself. And for good reason. From the Wikipedia page:

Korvatunturi is best known as the home of  Father Christmas  (or  Joulupukki  in Finnish). According to Finnish Folklore, this land is the location of Father Christmas’ secret workshop, where toys, trinkets and gifts are made and eventually wrapped by  gnomes . Known for their good natured demeanor and their role as guardians of homes, these gnomes are also responsible for analysing weather patterns for the yearly gift-giving trip around the world.People have also said that the ear-shaped structure of the fell allows Father Christmas to hear the wishes of every child on Earth.

For post to Father Christmas Korvatunturi has postal code  99999 Korvatunturi , even though all post sent to this address will actually be carried to  Santa Claus Village  at  Rovaniemi .

So there you are. Google Earth didn’t need to go through the trouble of inventing Santa’s workshop at the North Pole, because it’s actually in Finland.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Still so incredibly Not. Playing.

Though there is definitely an overall sense of uncertainty of what’s going to happen, and kids are in danger at times, it’s still a Christmas film and it’s safe for kids to watch. Ten and over, I’d say, perhaps even eight and over. It is still darker than what American audiences are used to at the holidays, which is why I liked it (and I would have loved it as a child.)

If I had children, this would be a tradition in our house, definitely. Mostly because there are great moments of laugh out loud humour. At times, it’s only a few paces away from an Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film. I’m usually against English-language remakes, but if it does happen, that’s the team that would make me grumble least. So you guys have at it.

Dec
12
2013

Becoming Santa

by V. L. Craven

Becoming Santa

No, you’re not on the wrong site. Do not adjust your monitor. This is a non-ironic, non-horror related post about Christmas. Just occasionally, something that would touch a Normal makes it through and gets me. Fear not, tis but a blip. But what a wonderful blip it is.

Becoming Santa  is a documentary about Jack Sanderson who decided to be Santa for one holiday season. He grew out his hair and beard and dyed it white then had a suit specially made. He attends  Santa School  to be certain he’s doing it right. That section is hilarious. A great portion of the documentary is laugh out loud funny. Sanderson himself is very personable and insightful (if you’ve ever wondered what Phillip Seymour Hoffman would look like as Santa, here’s your chance to find out.)

After the physical preparation, Sanderson takes various gigs (not jobs, because it’s all volunteer) on the Polar Express, and at a surprise (to him) tree lighting, and being a rock star in a parade. He even does a few ‘sneak and peeks’ where families have him put presents down and they wake up their kids to see Santa in the house.

Another big part of the film is the history of Santa Claus, which is presented by various authorities on the subject and is interspersed between sections of Sanderson’s transformation process and Santa gigs around the country. They even get into Black Pete  which somehow  still exists in 2013.

One of the authorities is Ernest Berger from Santa-America , which is a fantastic organisation that provides highly-trained, committed Santas for unhurried visits to children with autism or in hospice or in other complex circumstances. Check out their site. They do good work.

Another group that came up later was Letters to Santa , which takes all the letters in a certain city that arrive at the post office addressed to Santa and helps kids get the gifts they need. One child asked for a special needs wheelchair that cost $20,000, their family couldn’t afford it, but the organisation put an ad in the paper and the next day they had the chair for the child for Christmas. The group originated in New York, but several other cities participate now, as well. The link above will tell you how to help if your city has one or how to set one up where you live.

I genuinely enjoyed it. At the very end some onion cutting ninja broke in for a bit because it reminded me of being small. When you’re young enough to believe in Santa you’re also young enough to not see all the things wrong at home, and for me it was just before my brain chemistry went doolally. So he signifies happy ignorance (which is generally happy, but go with me). I miss that sometimes. The expression on some of those kids’ faces, man… they’ll remind you. They are looking at the embodiment of happiness, of sheer joy and it shows on their faces. And if you’ve experienced that for yourself it’s difficult not to relive it when watching Becoming Santa. The experience changed Sanderson more than he expected and it’s easy to see why and how that happened. It would have changed even me.

Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

Nov
07
2013

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

by V. L. Craven
Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Ichabod Crane, Respectfully Dedicated to Washington Irving by William J Wilgus (1819-53)

There’s a new show based on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. I was going to give it a miss, but then I found out they shoot it where I live and it’s always fun to play spot-the-location. My introduction was a cartoon, which I’ll get to, but I wanted to compare some of the adaptions (cartoon, film and TV series) and realised I hadn’t read the story. So that came first. It’s available from Gutenberg  for free.

Irving’s writing is incredibly atmospheric and he captures nature beautifully. The characters are two-dimensional, though, and not likeable–particularly the protagonist and his crush, Katrina van Tassel. Typical of a short story, there isn’t a great deal going on–the descriptions and atmosphere are the selling points. Oh, and prepare yourself for the casual racism. This was written in the early 1800s. It’s pretty minimal compared to other things I’ve read written during that time, but it’s still there. Be warned.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

This was the only scene I remembered.

As mentioned, my introduction to the story was the Disney cartoon , made in 1949. Which, upon, re-viewing, was rather disappointing. My young mind had glossed over the romance, greed, and singing and paid sole attention to the spookier aspects like the headless horseman and chase through the woods. The singing, however, does happen in the story. In fact, the cartoon is holds very close to the source material. They leave out the racism, thankfully, and they cut down on the general spookiness, but overall it’s quite accurate.

What was odd was that I could have sworn there was a bit where Brom Bones and his friends had pulled the prank where they chased Crane, pretending to be the Horseman. Because I was expecting it in the Burton adaptation. I have a very clear memory of this happening. The way the brain works, wow.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

‘I swear, I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed on… DAMMIT’

Many years later (as in decades) Tim Burton remade the tale with a bunch of spectacular actors, including Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. This will probably always be the definitive version for me because it’s Burton, whose aesthetic pleases me greatly, and because of the aforementioned cast. He changed…nearly everything. Except he made two very minor characters mentioned in passing in the story into important characters in the film.

Burton’s version is visually dark–it’s Burton, what do you want?–though the story happens in Autumn in New England when everything would have been reds and golds and oranges. Ichabod was, indeed, a wimp, so that remained the same, but Katrina became a witch (something that would carry over into the TV series), rather than the vacuous flirt from the story and cartoon and there was blood and a real horseman. Something that’s left up in the air in the story and cartoon.

Sleepy Hollow and Its Various Incarnations

Eventually spring will come to Sleepy Hollow…that won’t be spooky…

So then Fox announced they were making a television show called  Sleepy Hollow  and I was sceptical. How could they take a short story and make it into a series? But after reading this review  I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did.

The first two episodes were the set up and people getting to grips with their roles in the battle with the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The third episode felt like the first ‘real’ episode, if that makes sense. The one where they work out who a baddie is and take it down, Buffy-style. The entire show is very Buffy-like–dramatic and supernatural and occasionally laugh out loud funny. They’ve already renewed it for a second series, which I’m very glad to hear, particularly since our landlord’s daughter is now working on the show.

And I get to pretend I live in a city like Sunnydale, but I’m not one of the stupid people who gets killed on a regular basis. Seriously, that place must have had a ridiculously high death rate.

 

 

Oct
31
2013

The American Scream

by V. L. Craven

The American Scream

Each year in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, three houses are turned into Haunts, where average people make their own haunted attractions that draw in hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors. The American Scream is about those three households.

There’s the father of two who loves spooky DYI, but who didn’t get to celebrate Halloween growing up and who has, perhaps, overcompensated by going overboard every year in October. His decorations are incredible, his spirit contagious, his family supportive even when the stress of trying to make everything perfect begins to wear on him.

Then there’s the everyday Joe who just likes to have fun with it. If it looks good and it’s scary it works. He adds things each year, but doesn’t go crazy and doesn’t get too stressed out.

Then there’s…the third one. Which really has to be seen to be appreciated. There’s a ‘specialness’ about the third family that’s difficult to describe. It’s a man and his dad. And they have their own peculiar take on what’s frightening. And they are not wrong–their decorations are unsettling, but more in a, ‘Have I just stumbled into the backyard of a deranged individual,’ than, ‘Clearly, this is a haunted house made for my amusement,’ sort of way.

All three people do what they do because they love it. They look forward to October the way some people look forward to Christmas, a sentiment I can absolutely identify with.

The documentary itself is well done enough. It’s really about the people–there are some excellent, human moments. I highly recommend this one–it’s on Netflix, if that’s available to you. And if any of you have been to any of the houses I would love to hear your stories.

Oct
03
2013

Stoker

by V. L. Craven

Stoker

After high school student, India Stoker’s, father dies suddenly her uncle, Charlie, arrives out of nowhere. He endears himself to Evelyn–his brother’s widow–straightaway, but India distrusts him. It’s odd that she’s never even heard of the man until her father’s funeral. However, the longer he’s around, the more intrigued she becomes. Other people are equally wary of the man, as well, but their objections aren’t heard, as they all seem to disappear rather quickly.

You want dark secrets? You can have them. You want a tense what-the-hell-will-happen atmosphere? Here you are.

Stoker  is sort of American Beauty for psychopaths.

The script is by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from Prison Break–it’s his first writing credit, as well–nice one.) The cinematography is gorgeous and the visual effects are stunning. The sets are appropriately elegant and the soundtrack is a perfect complement.

Both Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman are good, but Mia Wasikowska’s India is fantastic. She reminds me of a cross between Wednesday Addams and Darlene Conner in all the best ways.

If you liked The Bleeding House you’ll probably like this and vice versa.

And the posters were great. Have another.

Stoker

Emily Wells’ ‘Becomes the Color’ is the song that plays over the end credits. I’m in love with it just a little.

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