List: Pre-Code Horror – the 9 Films That Didn’t Make the Cut

Anyone who has experience with Pre-Code films knows how much fun they are. A treasure trove of gems waiting to be discovered with plenty of iconic works to be found, as well as plenty that remain underrated. For anyone who does not know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.

A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.

I watched a lot of films for the first time for this list and there is a reason I wanted a blog post entirely dedicated to the films that would not be making the cut for my Top 10 Pre-Code Horror list. Film history tends to centralize itself on a select group of key films that have been analyzed and iconized to death. I don’t mind great films being discussed to the point of overkill, but it means a heaping pile of works get very much ignored altogether. The attention paid to horror films during this time period focus almost, but not quite, exclusively on the Universal films. You will find that three of the films many would expect to make the top ten actually show up here.

My opinions on the films that did not make the cut have a wide range from the enjoyable to the ghastly. Many of the films here are not very good, but I wanted to bring all Pre-Code horror into the spotlight and not just focus on my favorites. Indeed, there are films in here I would whole-heartedly recommend, that I tried hard to get on the list. There are films on here with fantastical moments that alone make a viewing worthwhile. And there are a couple of duds.

Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, these are not in order and, as with every list I make and post, a declaration of subjectivity. I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.

The Top 10 list will be posted before Halloween.

All summaries are taken from the Internet Movie Database

Doctor X (1932, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: A wisecracking New York reporter intrudes on a research scientist’s quest to unmask The Moon Killer.

The two-toned Technicolor Doctor X cannot shake some necessary table-setting in its first half or its unfunny and uncharismatic reporter character played by Lee Tracy. It is largely saved by a surprising second half that goes in unexpected directions and contains a scene that preludes Carpenter’s The Thing, by having a scene that gathers its suspects and renders them frantically immobile as Doctor X seeks out the Moon Killer. Fay Wray gets to display some sass, even if her character is incapable of defending herself in the most basic way, as shown by a scene that has her being choked. Doctor X is worth watching but it really slogs through its first half too much.

Pre-Code Goodies – When the killer is revealed, we get to see his use of synthetic flesh as he rubs it all over himself in a genuinely WTF scene.

Dracula (1931, Browning)
Studio: Universal
Summary: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.

Here is the first of the ‘biggies’ not to make the cut. Truthfully I have always found, despite being a fan of Browning’s, this version of Dracula dull, hokey and overrated. Browning is no stranger to creating good atmosphere through his expertise gained during the silent era. He creates an appropriately heavy Gothic air, but is brought down by a weak adaptation that does not stand the test of time (can it even considered good in 1931?). Dracula is not bad; it is just difficult to separate it from the status it has gained throughout the years and feel anything but underwhelmed. Bela Lugosi can be good, but I have come to realize I am not much of a fan. While Lugosi possesses a persona that stands out, his acting ability feels too samey to register as anything but overdone; I simply do not get much out of watching him act onscreen. I have read Stoker’s novel twice and all I can see in this Dracula is a fun but schlocky lead performance that in no way scares, a multitude of unmemorable and dull characters and a notably effective atmosphere.

King Kong (1933, Cooper and Schoedsack)
Studio: RKO
Summary: A film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star.

This is another choice I expect to get slack for and also a choice that does not comfortably qualify as horror. Unlike Dracula, I really like King Kongt; its reason for not making the cut is as simple as there being ten other films I prefer over it. I also count myself as one of the few who resolutely like Jackson’s 2005 remake more; seeing it three times in the theater is proof of that. What satisfies about King Kong is its inventiveness in plot, ambition in scope, and the technical spectacle of it all. Not to mention Fay Wray, who is always wonderful. The characters manage to pop within their archetypes and the decision to make Kong a victim more than anything else is a kind of ambiguity that is not often found in early cinema; all the more impressive that this is accomplished through innovative effects.

Kongo (1932, Cowen)
Studio: MGM
Summary: This remake of West of Zanzibar made four years later tries to outdo the Lon Chaney original in morbidity. From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.

To say Kongo is a horror film is more than a stretch, but I defy anyone who has seen it to decry its inclusion on this list. I would absolutely urge anyone and everyone to seek this out. It remains to me an even more shocking film than Freaks, if only for its subject matter and the direct way it is presented. There may be much better films, but this needs to be seen to be believed. This is a sweaty, grimy, slimy and emphatically uncomfortable film that is loaded with sin, torture and elaborate revenge decades in the making. If only it had not been a stiff and stagy experience. More than a remake of Browning’s earlier Chaney collaboration, this is an adaptation of the stage play Kongo with Walter Huston reprising his role as the despicable ‘Deadlegs’ Flint.

Kongo takes place in an isolated and distorted environment within the used sets of Red Dust. The natives think he is a king with mystical power. He has a greased up lover named Tula played by Lupe Velez whose costume stays on her for reasons unknown to me, outside of a fuzzy theory I have relating to sheer tightness. Lula sleeps with every man on the island and almost has her tongue cut out with wire. Yep; that is what Velez gets to work with here. We’ve got a drug-addicted doctor whose schizophrenic nature ends up being filtered into romantic lead material. Who knew? Only in Pre-Code folks. We’ve got stereotypical gullible black natives up the wazoo; there really is no shame here.

The really shocking stuff (as if the above weren’t enough) comes with the Virginia Bruce character who gives a remarkable performance. She plays the daughter of the man who crippled ‘Deadlegs’. He has custody of her, spends eighteen years allowing her to grow up in a convent and then upon her visit, changes her life radically for the sake of it. The film uses passage of time in a notable way. We expect to see her initial visit with ‘Deadlegs’ after a scene that introduces her character within the boarding school before she goes to see him. We then skip years ahead and see Bruce; she is trapped, a desperate alcoholic entirely dependent on the cruelty of ‘Deadlegs’  to get her fix. She has been forced in what can only be deduced as forced prostitution. This is subject matter American film would not touch for decades.

A third-act twist really misdirects the characters and their motivations in a false way. The film was released through the Warner Archive and is also available on Youtube. It is a film that suffers for its flaws but is more than worth watching.

Pre-Code Goodies: Too many to name, but I cannot forget to mention that Virginia Bruce’s right breast briefly pops out of her blouse in what was surely unintentional but nevertheless kept in.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Brabin)
Studio: MGM
Summary: Englishmen race to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. They have to get there fast, as the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu is also searching, and if he gets the mysteriously powerful relics, he and his diabolical daughter will enslave the world!

I could say the downfall of Mask of Fu Manchu lies in its blatant racism, but it isn’t. We are removed enough from 1932 to see the racism here as something akin to a novelty relic or an object of fascination worthy of study. It is truly offensive but in fact, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy as a sadistic father-and-daughter team who want to wipe out the white race, is the best thing about this film. Between the ludicrously reductive traits of Eastern culture represented, the outlandish equipment housed in Karloff’s abode and the aforementioned two performances, this is fun stuff in spurts as long as you don’t take it seriously.

Everything outside of these scenes falls flat thanks to a shrill heroine who is useless and badly performed with insufferable mania by Karen Morley, a lackluster pace and a host of good-guy characters it is impossible to care about.

Pre-Code Goodies: Loy in an early uncharacteristic role as sadistic daughter gets the best and most Pre-Code worthy sequence. Terry (Charles Starrett) has been captured and Karloff lets Loy do what she will with him. She has him whipped as she looks on with feverish joy shouting ‘Faster!’. It is clear she is getting pleasure out of this. She then has him taken to her room where he lays there weak and helpless and she kisses him. Who knows where that scene was headed before Karloff comes in and interrupts her? It is all too easy to assume. It’s a scene that belongs in a vault titled “Examples of what Pre-Code could get away with”. Blatantly violent sadism within a woman? Whoa now. Granted, Loy’s character is an evil Easterner, but its presence is surprising enough.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Florey)
Studio: Universal
Summary: In 19th Century Paris, the maniacal Dr. Mirakle abducts young women and injects them with ape blood in an attempt to prove ape-human kinship…

‘Murders’ has Lugosi second-billed here to Sidney Fox (presumably because of her apparent trysts with Carl Laemmle Jr…..and Sr…yikes) in a role that is successfully in sync with his hammy onscreen approach. This is a fun trek through the underbelly of 19th century Paris with soaked expressionistic direction by Florey as well as being beautifully shot by the great Karl Freund. Well worth the watch, it features a good dosage of surprising material as well as grandiose monologues from Lugosi about man and ape.

There is some lurid material here as well such as an ape assaulting a human, a body being stuffed up a chimney, a prostitute being injected with a syringe while tied to a cross. This is one of the more consistently solid films on here.

Pre-Code Goodies: Everything mentioned above. That scene with the prostitute on the cross is chilling and evocative in use of shadow, and a general feeling of raw exhaustive hopelessness coming from the actress that stands out amongst any other scene featuring a woman in peril during this time (except in one case, in a film which will show up on the actual list), in that it feels real.

Murders in the Zoo (1933, Sutherland)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: A monomaniacal zoologist is pathologically jealous of his beautiful but unfaithful wife Evelyn and will not stop short of murder to keep her.

Between the poster and the summary I know what you are thinking; this sounds awesome. Unfortunately it’s not. Despite a few delightfully grisly moments (one of which is downright shocking for its time), Murders in the Zoo is brought down by none other than…Charles Ruggles….lots of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles gets the confounding honor of top-billing instead of Lionel Atwill. He plays a public relations type who gets to do his stuttering imbecilic fool act for what feels like eternity and what is actually a significant chunk of a film with a runtime of just over an hour. Lionel Atwill does what he can with what could have been a proper scenery-chewing character. Between his screen time being monopolized by Ruggles and that the camera never successfully attaches itself to Atwill, he is a missed opportunity here.

It is a joy though to see Kathleen Burke, of Island of Lost Souls fame, in a radically different part from said film. Her exoticism and piercing gaze make her stand out. The film has an ingeniously camp concept but while it is entertaining in spurts, it mostly falls flat.

Pre-Code Goodies: The opening scene features a man with his mouth sown shut. You read that right people. Atwill himself does the job as he says “You’ll never kiss another man’s wife again”. We’ve also got a jarring matter-of-fact death by crocodile pit and we see a snake strangle a character to death. I am sorry to report that the character is not played by Charles Ruggles. The opening scene takes place immediately after a witty opening credits sequence that pairs the actors with various animals. It’s a transition filled with dark humor.

Svengali (1931, Mayo)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: Through hypnotism and telepathic mind control, a sinister music maestro controls the singing voice, but not the heart, of the woman he loves

If I could have had eleven films on my eventual list, this would have been my eleventh choice. A film that never quite gets a pace going and features dull dialogue is nevertheless a treasure of sorts. It is ahead of its time featuring the kind of low-angle shot featuring ceilings that Citizen Kane became known for doing eleven years before the fact. It has an ambitious and conscious effort to start as a lighter fare, shifting into morbid territory before a last shift into tragedy. It never becomes a horror film but contains elements of the genre. It has a performance from John Barrymore that combines his stagy background with his experience in silent film to create an expressionistic performance that matches Anton Grot’s minimalist expressionist art direction. Lastly it contains the teenage Marian Marsh, who may not be able to bring much depth to her role, but who has a certain quality with her sincere spunkiness that rivals the best of iconic screen presences.

Lastly, I cannot forget to mention a shot that takes place midway through the film. It starts on Svengali’s eyes and zooms out through the window into the miniature cityscape, whips around and zooms into the window of Marsh’s bedroom as Svengali begins his hypnotic control over her from across the city. It cannot be overstated. This is the crowning cinematographic technical achievement from any film on this list or the actual Top Ten list. This is a film that I sadly had not heard of before doing research for this list. It has moderate flaws but should be seen by anyone with an interest in early sound cinema.

Pre-Code Goodies: Through his hypnosis, Svengali makes Marsh pose nude for some artists in order to get rid of her live interest.

White Zombie (1932, Halperin)
Studio: United Artists
Summary: A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.

This is the only film on this entire list I just plain hate. Sorry folks. It is a wasteland of a film containing a memorable use of music and a few noteworthy shots. That it is considered the first zombie film is not enough. The supporting performances are some of the worst ever in film. It is rigid and awkward in blocking. White Zombie has a reputation that is staggering to me. It makes me feel like I was watching a different film entirely.


Screening Log: October 1st-15th 2011

I’ve decided to add B+/B, etc. variations to my grades. The grades are meant to be arbitrary and serve mainly as a reminder to myself how I (very roughly and reductively) felt about a film on a letter grade scale. Since I never mean them as any kind of stamp, I feel there is no harm in slightly varying up the grade options.

283. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011, Craig): B+/B

284. Martin (1977, Romero): B-

285. 50/50 (2011, Levine): B+/B

286. The Black Cat (1934, Ulmer): B

287. Inside (2007, Bustillo & Maury): A-

288. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Florey): C+

289. The Mummy (1932, Freund): B+

290. Kongo (1932, Cowen): C+

291. The Howling (1981, Dante): C

292. The Ides of March (2011, Clooney): B-/C+

293. The Innocents (1961, Clayton): A

294. Murders in the Zoo (1933, Sutherland): C+

295. The Raven (1935, Landers): B

296. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Mamoulian): A

297. Dead of Night (1945, various): A-/B+

298. The Tingler (1959, Castle): B+/B

299. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011, Tsui): B/B-

300. The Golem (1920, Wegener): C-

301. Shotgun Stories (2007, Nichols): B

302. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Curtiz): B+/B

303. Pontypool (2008, McDonald): A-

Review: The Ides of March (2011, Clooney)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 11th, 2011:

It is difficult to pinpoint why The Ides of March never quite had me in its grip. All of the elements are there with across-the-board talent working on the production. And yet while it has been overall well-reviewed, I take issue with several criticisms against it, which will be addressed forthwith. It is more than watchable and never a drag, but it is bogged down by various misgivings. These include an arguably miscast lead with Gosling’s protagonist instilling only indifference in yours truly. The story carries no impact by its conclusion, never escaping the inherent trappings of fiction and ultimately feeling artificial. The Ides of March is serviceable but forgettable, unable to establish itself in the pantheon of political thrillers outside of nicely showcasing the influence of those that came before.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young and ambitious Junior Campaign Manager, who happens to truly believe in Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Governor and Democratic dream candidate full of lofty and grand statements (he comes complete with overt Shepard Fairey inspired artwork). The film takes place in Ohio as time closes in on the Democratic Primary. Morris competes with an Arkansas senator for the slot. When Stephen gets a call from the opposing candidate’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who wants to meet with him, he grapples whether or not to go and whether he should tell co-worker, Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man with a fierce streak of loyalty. Meanwhile, a budding romance with young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) has consequences of its own. Stephen’s choices allow him to see firsthand that nefarious backstabbing, betrayal, hidden agendas, manipulation and deal making are just an everyday occurrence in the world of politics.

Clooney’s Lumet-like directorial approach values logically streamlined presentation. He smartly focuses on the interplay between characters that are rooted in history, feeling lived-in with all-encompassing cynicism radiating from all the major players. The writer of “Farragut North”, the play The Ides of March is based on, and screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov, make sure we feel the years entrenched between people who know how the game is played. Paul and journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei) are ‘friends’ but know that they will turn on each other at any second for any reason. Not only can you not trust anyone, but all the years of hard work are bittersweet because in this world, you are instantly replaceable. Our understanding of this is what transfers to the audience more than anything. Considering one of the film’s major purposes is to showcase the ‘behind-the-curtain’ interplay in politics, it is the highlight of the film.

Some are annoyed that the political corruption in the film is meant to be revelatory, stating that we are meant to be shocked when it is revealed that—surprise!—politics are dirty. The Ides of March never struck me as meaning to be revelatory. The film is advertised as a political thriller (somewhat misleading but the point remains). Blaming a ‘political thriller’ for posing revelatory through corruption is like chastising an action film for daring to showcase something as predictable as a car chase. The film presents corruption as very matter-of-fact and its job is to keep us engaged even though the audience senses the kinds of tropes that will likely come into play. This is where the film fails to deliver.

While The Ides of March is not meant to be revelatory, it is meant to get the audience to feel the cynical reality of its world like a punch in the gut. Yet because the plot feels artificial, it ends up being inconsequential. The turns the film takes should not, in theory, have been a hard sell. The story treks along, and goes where it needs to go, but the twists and choices being made never click. It always feels strung along in a paint-by-numbers way, where things merely happen because the script says they have to. What the film does want to have it gravitas and it only does when Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti are on screen. Only when these two appear does the film feel like it has the weight the loftily epic title suggests.

The film rests on Ryan Gosling’s shoulders and a combination of miscasting, lack of believability and uninteresting protagonist are large contributors to this film not quite working. Performance wise, it is difficult to believe Gosling as a doe-eyed idealist in the beginning, making it hard to care about his arc, which brings him to some surprising places. The second half of the film demands from him a wide teary-eyed panic stare of disbelief in scene after scene which becomes tiresome.

All in all, Stephen is just not very engaging and the audience caring about his transformation is essential. The choice to have his arc forgo a gradual process, favoring a 180 degree turn in one scene has a lot of potential, as long as the film can make the audience believe it. Since the prelude of Stephen’s journey does not resonate, how can we care about the severity of his survival-mode choices we suddenly see him making?

There are several issues involving the Gosling character that undermine the film’s plausibility. The first is that the decision Stephen makes early in the film to meet with Tom Duffy rings absolutely false. In Hoffman’s speech on loyalty (the film’s best scene), he speculates on why Stephen made what he so precisely calls a ‘choice’ as opposed to Stephen’s claim of making a ‘mistake’. I do not buy into his speculations. Stephen is not some new kid on the block. He is an experienced up-and-coming campaign manager. When the opponent’s campaign manager calls up and asks for a meeting, you simply do not go. There is nothing we see of Stephen before this decision is made to make us understand the choice. This event sets everything in motion, and since it rings false, as a result the whole film rings false. Let’s not even mention that the entire film takes place within around three days.

The Ides of March features wonderful support from all. George Clooney’s small role carries the right levels of elusiveness in an eerily appropriate bit of self-casting. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are both excellent, particularly Wood who does a lot with somewhat constricting and unbelievable material.

Another complaint that keeps popping up in reviews is the lament that the films dialogue was not characteristic of Mamet or Sorkin. I do not know when it became necessary for a film’s dialogue to need an auteurs streak in order to be smart. The dialogue taken on its own is quite strong, and it is characteristic of Clooney’s Lumet-inspired desire to not have any distracting style whether it is in directorial choices or writing and so on.

Despite smart dialogue, sleek succinct direction and a bevy of noteworthy performances, The Ides of March feels inconsequential. Between an air of going through the motions and a protagonist whose choices ring false from the get-go, headlined by a performance that feels inappropriately distant, the film never gets past serviceable.

Poll Results: Most Anticipated October Film Release

The poll results are in and there are definitely several strong contenders that voters seem to be most eagerly anticipating. I have a few planned posts coming up this month that I would like to shamefully advertise. The first is a review for The Ides of March which will be posted within a couple of days. October is always an exciting month for me as I love horror films. Every year I’d like to post a couple of horror related pieces. Hopefully next year I will feel somewhat ready to post a massive list of personal genre favorites. This month I will be focusing on Pre-Code horror. There will be a list including blurbs on all the films that do not make the cut. Something I have noticed in my viewings is that while the product as a whole tends to underwhelm (in some cases), there are always moments and/or aspects that stand out. The second horror related post I will make is a fun list of potential double features featuring pairs of horror films that I think would compliment each other in some way.

Without further ado, here are your results. Surprised? Pleased? Appalled? Share your thoughts!



8 votes – 23% – The Ides of March
7 votes – 20% – Martha Marcy May Marlene
5 votes – 14% – Take Shelter
5 votes – 14% – The Skin I Live In
4 votes – 11% – The Rum Diary
1 vote – 3% – The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
1 vote – 3% – Sleeping Beauty
1 vote – 3 % – Real Steel
1 vote – 3% – The Thing
1 vote – 3% – Texas Killing Fields
1 vote – 3% – Johnny English Reborn

0 votes – Dirty Girl, Footloose, Fireflies in the Garden, The Big Year, Trespass, Margin Call, Retreat, Le Havre, The Three Musketeers, Anonymous, 13, The Double, In Time

Poll: Most Anticipated October 2011 Release?

October has arrived. There is a lot coming out this month, so take a second and vote on the film you are anticipating the most this October!! Results will be revealed on the 10th!


Short Review: Red State (Smith, 2011)

Red State (2011, Smith)

Trying out something new, on some level, is always worthwhile. In filmmaking, when we come to expect one type of movie from a director, it can pigeonhole them. In the case of Kevin Smith, whose affair with public speaking tends to get more press these days than his films, he has carved out a foul-mouthed slacker niche that has invariably worked through the present. His new film Red State is a serious foray into horror. That he tries something new does not go unnoticed; if only the film were any good.

The big problem with Red State is that it feels like a fuzzy manifestation of one of Smith’s rants. His conceit has potential; some of the religious extremism that exists in this country is downright shudder-inducing and disturbing. But to throw his views onto the screen in the form of broad caricatures with no inkling of thoughtful execution is too reductive to be either scary or meaningful. As seemingly lazy as these portraits get, he throws in a ten-minute monologue that brings the film to a halt, destroys any sense of suspense and is painful in the sense that Smith clearly sees this as being a show-stopping moment. No; it is just uninterrupted pontificating.

As the film starts, three teenagers find themselves in a lethal situation when their quest to simultaneously have sex with a woman leads them into a trap set by religious extremists.

We endure misfire after misfire as we work our way through the challenge of caring an ounce about the three teenagers in turmoil.  Then Red State switches gears entirely and becomes a siege film in its last third. These drastic shifts in genre could have worked had any of its purported conviction materialized into anything lucid. Instead, it just feels like several different films and none of them are noteworthy. None of the characters stick, even Abin Cooper, the Fred Phelps inspired villain played by Michael Parks. Parks makes what he can of the character, but what should be a juicy role is undercut by Smith’s misuse of the character’s onscreen time. Melissa Leo overacts in a one-note performance while John Goodman is a pleasure to watch but this is entirely because he is John Goodman.

The last few minutes really shine some light on the film’s potential, making me wish Smith had regrouped and reconstructed the film as a pitch black satire. These moments late in the film do not feel earned; they feel like cheap shots. If the film had more of a backbone to its rage, it would have meant something.

Smith does a notable job in making the film feel and look scummy; it is present but not overdone and has its invisible effect on those watching. He also plays around a lot with expectations involving character deaths which give the film an air of unpredictable vim. And to make it clear, the general idea that Smith has here had potential; he has every right to fume about the issues at hand. What is unfortunate is that he was unable to take that ever-present anger that he always instills in his films through comedy, and do that with horror. The ambition is appreciated but this one is a non-starter.

Screening Log: August-Sept. 14th

247. Wings of the Dove (1998, Softley): B

249. Win Win (2011, McCarthy): B+

250. Of Gods and Men (2011, Beauvois): B-

251. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Furman): B-

252. Cedar Rapids (2011, Arteta): D+

253. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011, Flender): B

254. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2011, McCall): C+

255. Captain EO (1986, Coppola): What do you give something like Captain EO? I’ll go with a C. It’s awful, but its too irreverently fun to give a lower grade.

256. Pump up the Volume (1990, Moyle): B+

257. Matador (1986, Almodovar): B

258. Law of Desire (1987, Almodovar): B-

259. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990, Almodovar): A-

260. The Flower of My Secret (1994, Almodovar): B-

261. Cul-de-Sac (1966, Polanski): B+

262. Live Flesh (1997, Almodovar): A-

263. Contagion (2011, Soderbergh): B

264. 28 Up (1985, Apted): A

265. 35 Up (1991, Apted): A

266. Bridesmaids (2011, Fieg): B+

267. They Live (1988, Carpenter): C-

Review: Contagion (2011, Soderbergh)

Contagion (2011, Soderbergh)

You know nobody is safe when even Hollywood’s biggest A-list thespians are dropping dead. In Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ latest collaboration, virus film Contagion, the element of human contact is the source of fear. In a time when people should theoretically be coming together to help each other, this scenario pushes humanity apart. Contagion is not interested in the sentimental or the personal; that can be left for the majority of this ‘disaster’-like brand of filmmaking. Soderbergh hauntingly and clinically delivers a film about process that juxtaposes the constant forward-motion of the virus and the apparent helplessness of civilization at its mercy.

Contagion takes a cue from other multi-narrative films including Soderbergh’s own Traffic, by tracking the virus’ impact via assorted characters and storylines. The only thing connecting these people is the virus, as you see how it affects them and the part they play in attempting to live and contain, identify, cure, or even propagate hysteria amidst the pandemic. Among them is a father (Matt Damon) from Minneapolis whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the virus’ first victim immediately followed by their son. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer to Minneapolis to investigate and contain the outbreak. CDC scientist Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) attempts to define the virus and thus a possible antidote. Using his influence to amplified hysteria, Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) claims to know the cure, resulting in riots for a pharmaceutical product known as forsythia. Marion Cotillard plays a WHO epidemiologist who goes to Hong Kong to track the virus’ possible origins.

These are only some of the characters; beyond the star power of the film, it is a fun time seeing people such as John Hawkes, Josie Ho, Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould and Enrico Colantoni pop in for a spell.

Instead of using the virus as a background or excuse to explore interpersonal family dynamics, Contagion does the opposite. Its style and focus creepily align themselves with the virus. Character development is essentially non-existent here because, realistically, it would and should be all about the virus. The hyper-realism approach makes the film feel eerily conceivable and thus, unnerving.

When taken individually, the stories do not resonate. They are not meant to. Most multi-narrative storylines are bound together by theme and coincidence, where they mean something together but could theoretically function as their own coherent story. The storylines in Contagion are bound together by the virus. It is a formal treatment and must be taken as a whole. Characters drop in and out unexpectedly with an inconsistency in rhyme or rhythm. This feels natural; the characters do not feel too manipulated by a pressure to entirely follow through on each thread.

It may not be an issue for the threads of the film to work individually, but it is a problem if they cannot work as part of the ‘big picture’. Marion Cotillard’s storyline is dead on arrival because it does not feel consequential enough. Did it really have to be there? While her final scene sticks, it would have meant a lot more had her previous scenes been more compelling and of value both within the entire framework and on its own.

Too much time is spent with Damon’s onscreen daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron). It allows for the perception of her father’s grieving, but mostly it fails in its humanistic excuse of a portrayal of an inside look at the average citizen’s ordeal. Her scenes with Damon work well; anything by herself feels like a waste of precious time for an ambitious film that only clocks in at 100 minutes. We could have gotten more from Damon’s character with those minutes.

The film takes up too much time tidying up towards the end and undoes some of the controlled disorder that came before. It gets itself back though, ending with a sequence showing the origin of the virus that remains distressing in its mundaneness.

Some are up-in-arms about the nefarious blogger played by Jude Law. His storyline has been the individual thread provoking the most discussion. At first, I had an assumption that his story would be about the effort to enact change where it is so desperately needed, but even with the tools of social media at his fingertips, he is unable to transform the situation. Oh boy was I wrong. His name is Alan Krumwiede; he sounds like a villain out of a Roald Dahl book. He comes complete with snaggletooth, a smarmy walk and a constant spouting of conspiracy theory drivel. He is the only character here invoking active damage to everyone around him. He is a commentary on the revelation that, with the internet, anyone can have influence. In a pandemic scenario, the internet would be a major player in the spreading of false information, rumor, fear, panic and paranoia, surely invoking mass hysteria. In this way, Burns’ commentary is shrewd; for all the good that technology does allows for the people in Contagion, all it takes is one person and some trusting and desperate people to counteract the positive.

It is the character of Krumweide that elicits objection and why not? He represents blogging and social media, and it’s a pretty sad sight. Caricature, broad generalizations and reductive problems aside, Law’s scenes were the most engaging to take part in. It is a joy to watch Law reap in the sleaze and the mannerisms. Burns uses him to poke fun at the kind of grandstanding we come to expect in film speeches. It feels purposely overt from costuming, makeup and dialogue. He is the most conversational element of Contagion, and thus the most stimulating.

This is some of the best editing and cinematography of the year. Soderbergh’s camerawork, under the moniker Peter Andrews, feels like a petri dish. It feels both sterile and microscopically infected in its naturally bleak tones. The film is shot and edited in a brutally matter-of-fact manner. Stephen Mirrione is largely responsible for the audience’s discomfort as shots showing the minutiae of everyday human contact and ordinary objects acquire deadly connotation. Mirrione’s smartly placed edits allow him to depict death as no-nonsense in its being.

Contagion is admirably to-the-point; all about process in content and all about presentation in form. It wastes little time, as if consciously attempting to keep up with the virus’ life cycle. It is clear by now that it is a film that unnerves because our recognition of its possibility. Contagion never approaches hopelessness; to the contrary, but it does recognize our strengths and weaknesses as a grouped people. Amidst all the seizures, bodies, autopsies, riots and blame, it’s the plausibility that impacts us most. Kate Winslet’s speech about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is the scariest thing you will see in a film all year.

List: Top 30 Anticipated Films of Fall 2011

Fall Movie Season has arrived again. Hello folks! It has been a while. Between a trip to Korea that I will forever cherish and getting settled into my 2nd semester at Simmons, I have not had time to review or post anything here. While grad school will likely take up most of my time, I will be posting reviews in the upcoming months. This weekend I am seeing Senna, which ranked in my top 5 most anticipated Summer releases. There will be a review up next week.

Fall Movie Season is always jam-packed with hyped prestige releases and this year is no different. There is a lot of releases in the US to look forward to in the upcoming months. From a director’s perspective, new films from Steven Soderbergh, Lars von Trier, Kenneth Lonergan (yes, after more than a few years, Margaret is finally getting released), Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Gus van Sant, Pedro Almodovar, Beat Takeshi, Sion Sono (Love Exposure finally getting official release in the states!!!!!), Tsui Hark, Tomas Alfredson, Roman Polanski, David Fincher, Lucky McKee, Steven Spielberg, Lynne Ramsay, Nicolas Winding Refn, Clint Eastwood and David Cronenberg are expected to make waves. And that’s just a taste. Listed below the Top 30 are the other films this Fall I would like to see. I tend to include films I am indifferent to on this list. Any film that instills a reaction of “yeah I’d see that” can be found there. Thus, there are films I am genuinely excited for in that long alphabetized list (The Descendants) and films I don’t care about but would see (Machine Gun Preacher). The only films not on the list are the ones I really have no active interest in. Films like Bucky Larson, New Year’s Eve, Happy Feet 2 and I Don’t Know How She Does It are the kinds of films not present here.

Which films are you most excited for this Fall? There are a lot to choose from! I will keep this list updated with films that secure distribution dates after this list is posted.

30. Coriolanus

29. Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

28. Restless

27. Love Crime

26. Pariah

25. Albert Nobbs

24. The Artist

23. Outrage

22. The Muppets

21. The Ides of March

20. In Time

19. Margaret

18. The Woman

17. Contagion

16. J. Edgar

15. Carnage

14. Sleeping Beauty

13. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

12. The Monk

11. A Separation

10. The Skin I Live In

9. Drive

8. A Dangerous Method

7. Tyrannosaur

6. Take Shelter

5. Love Exposure

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

1. Melancholia

The Rest:

The Adventures of Tintin
American Teacher
Apollo 18
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
Being Elmo
The Big Year
Burke and Hare
The Catechism Cataclysm
The Descendants
The Darkest Hour
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Dirty Girl
Dream House
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Factory
Genius on Hold
Hell and Back Again
I’m Glad my Mother is Alive
In the Land of Blood and Honey
The Iron Lady
Killer Elite
Like Crazy
Machine Gun Preacher
The Man Nobody Knew
Mission Impossible IV
My Joy
My Week with Marilyn
Paul Goodman Changed My Life
Pearl Jam Twenty
Red State
The Rum Diary
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
The Sitter
Straw Dogs
Tanner Hall
Texas Killing Fields
The Three Musketeers
Three (Drei)
The Thing
Thunder Soul
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
War Horse
We Bought a Zoo
We Were Here
The Whale
Young Adult

Screening Log: July

222. Happy Together (1997, Wong): B

223. Bound (1996, The Wachowskis): A-

224. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Demy): B

225. Le Boucher (1970, Chabrol): A-

226. Rififi (1955, Dassin): A

227. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Pontecorvo): B

228. The Tenant (1976, Polanski): A-

229. Biutiful (2011, Innaritu): C-

230. Cold Weather (2011, Katz): C-

231. A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003, Im): A

232. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002, Hong): A-

233. The Ward (2011, Carpenter): D+

234. Crying Fist (2005, Ryu): A-

235. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011, Yates): A

236. The Chaser (2008, Na): B+

237. The Isle (2000, Kim): A-

238. Insidious (2011, Wan): B-

239. Rango (2011, Verbinski): A-

240. A Town Called Panic (2009, Aubier & Patar): B+

241. Thumbsucker (2005, Mills): C

242. Super (2011, Gunn): B

243. 3-Iron (2004, Im): A

244. Sucker Punch (2011, Snyder): C-

245. Winnie the Pooh (2011, Anderson & Hall): B

246. Your Highness (2011, Green): D+