Why would anyone like Thor? Marvel super heroes are known for being more grounded than their DC counterparts; oftentimes they are people with tragic origins or who find their powers become more of a burden than a blessing. Spider-Man can’t balance crime fighting with his real life, Iron Man is a deeply flawed person under his armor, Bruce Banner has little control over the Hulk. But Thor (at least the contemporary incarnation of the character) is different. He is a supremely powerful, immortal, god(-like alien). Where do you go with that? What’s the appeal?
England, The Dark Ages. A massive Saxon horde lays siege upon a pitiful British army. Desperate knights plea to their king, a man named Arthur (Liam Garrigan, who also plays King Arthur on Once Upon a Time), but he insists they must hold the line and wait for help from their sorcerer. They are running out of time. Cut to: Merlin (Stanley Tucci, not reprising his role from Age of Extinction) a goofy charlatan giving a jokey speech into a massive mechanical structure. A transformer emerges, gives Merlin a staff, then turns into a dragon and murders the Saxons. We’re back.
Pan’s Labyrinth is known for being the best-reviewed movie of the 2000s, which sets it apart from the rest of the more low key famous films we’ve covered about this month. It’s director, Guillermo del Toro, is also well-celebrated on this blog and everywhere except in Hollywood executive offices. My point is that I don’t have a lot to add at this point, especially in comparison to other insightful critics who actually made the time to watch this film more than once. So instead I’ll share one of those, check it out after the jump.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a homeless man barely keeping himself alive. He sneaks around a mall food court, stealing scraps from abandoned trays. When he takes a seat to eat his pitiful meal, he overhears a woman call him disgusting. In that instant, his attention shifts to her and she collapses in terrible pain. Cameron runs, sparing the woman’s life, but he’s pursued by trenchcoated goons. Just when it looks like he’s about to escape, he’s tranquilized. He is awakened by a scientist called Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who explains to Cameron that he is a “scanner” a psychic with the powers of telepathy and telekinesis!
I remember someone, I think it was Roger Ebert, patron saint of Mildly Pleased, discussing once the idea of star ratings. Specifically, this person was explaining that when critics rate a film, they rate it based solely on its potential. If The Accidental Tourist gets four stars and School of Rock gets four stars, it does not mean they are equally good, but they are both as good as Ebert could have imagined them being. I bring this up because Dressed to Kill is stylish and pulpy, and watching it was easier than Straw Dogs and certainly not an equivalent torment to Salò. But I would never recommend this movie to anyone.
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated housewife who uses fantasies to get through being so romantically bored with her husband. One day, after discussing her situation with her therapist (Michael Caine), Kate goes to a museum and starts playing a game of cat and mouse, chasing and being chased by a man there. They leave together and she awakens that night satisfied and goes to leave a note, only to find out that the man had VD and never told her. Horrified, she hurries out of the building, only to remember at the last second that she left her wedding ring. So Kate gets back in the elevator and a blonde woman appears and slices her to death with a straight razor.
This start is the first of many obvious homages director Brian De Palma makes to Hitchcock’s Psycho (Hitch himself called it a “fromage”), to the point where it may be better to call Dressed to Kill a remake. After the murderer escapes, the story shifts its focus to the only witness: a prostitute named Liz (Nancy Allen). Liz picked up the murder weapon, so even though the detective in charge (Hill Street Blues/NYPD Blue detective guy Dennis Franz) doesn’t think she did it, he still says he’ll arrest her in a few days if they can’t find another lead. Bizarrely, she ends up teaming up with Kate’s genius son (Keith Gordon) to solve the case.
It ends up being the case that the blonde woman is actually the therapist played by Michael Caine. The way Dressed to Kill explains it, being trans meant that she had both genders living inside of her, and her male side would not allow her to undergo a gender reassignment operation. So when she becomes aroused, her female side takes over and she murders the object of her attraction. That’s why she killed Kate, because her talking about being bored and horny turned her on too much.
A lot of movies, maybe especially in the horror genre, punch down. People of color, the sexually promiscuous, the mentally ill, the awkward, and the weird are all common victims of the monsters that dominate this type of story. And I’m aware that, as a Psycho homage, Dressed to Kill was probably going this way. However, that character in Psycho is presented as a multiple personality, the fact that one is female doesn’t matter. Moreso, I worry movies like this, whether they intended to be transphobic or not, are dangerously normalizing of bigoted attitudes. This character probably wasn’t meant to stand in for all trans people, but that’s hardly an excuse for purposefully misunderstanding and misrepresenting. Plus, this movie isn’t particularly great to women or people of color either. In this case, Criterion, I think Dressed to Kill should have stayed in the dresser.
I asked John to put Straw Dogs on the list for this marathon because I didn’t understand what it was. I hadn’t seen anything by Sam Peckinpah before, but was aware of his reputation for uncompromising, gritty, revisionist films, which made me interested in checking his movies out. The synopsis of Straw Dogs makes it sound like good folk horror, the story of a civilized American taking on a village of drunken monsters. Unfortunately for me, this is a film that has little interest in the concept of fun… or good… or taste.
I hope you’re not too superstitious, because today we’re doubling down on bad luck. Not only is it Friday the 13th, but we’re we’re making matters worse by talking about a movie called Kuroneko, or “Black Cat.” It’s the second film in this marathon from director Kaneto Shindo, who also made Onibaba. Kuroneko is also a return for a few of the stars from that film, as well as its brutal treatment of humanity. What sets it apart? Way more flips.
A woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are living together after her son is dragged away by a war – that sounds familiar right? Except this time, a band of soldiers happen upon their home and quickly steal their food, rape the women to death, and burn the house down. After the fire dies down, a black cat appears and licks the charred corpses. Soon enough, the women reappear as ghosts, dressed in fine clothes. They start leading samurai, one-by-one, into the woods, where they seduce them in an expansive, ghostly manor and finally maul them to death.
Meanwhile, a young man (Nakamura Kichiemon) kills a massive man in a battle that leaves him the lone survivor. The man returns to his governor, Raiko (Kei Sato), who is pleased with him enough to make him a samurai and give him the name Gintoki. Gintoki gets cleaned up and heads back to his home, which he discovers has been burnt down. What’s worse, he can’t find any trace of his mother and wife. He returns to the governor, who assigns him to kill the ghosts that have been murdering samurai.
You get the idea, right? The ghosts have vowed to kill every samurai, which includes Gintoki. Gintoki has vowed to kill the ghosts, but soon after he meets them, he realizes that they’re his dead wife and mother. So he doesn’t really want to kill them either. Like a lot of horror movies, there’s not going to be a happy ending here. But who’s going to break first? And what does this all have to do with cats?
It’s hard to say what the answer to that last question is. The Japanese title for this film is “A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove,” which might be a reference to the famous Japanese short story In a Grove, and is sort of an idiom for mysteries that are hard to solve (you might know that short story for its film adaptation, Rashomon). What’s not ambiguous is how well Kuroneko creates a beautiful, eerie atmosphere and simply revels in it. This is more of a horror movie than the other Shindo movie I’ve seen, and for that reason, probably an easier movie to recommend. But maybe watch ’em both and have yourself a real bummer of a double feature.