Creepiest Movies EVER for Halloween

October 30, 2008

I must tell you. Movies don’t scare me. A horror movie may make me jump, but I have yet to see the film that gives me nightmares or makes me afraid to turn off the lights. If any moviemakers see this and want to take it as a personal challenge, bring it on.

This is not to say, however, that I haven’t been creeped out by a good movie. Here’s my definition of the difference between a good horror movie and a good creepy movie. With all due respect to the horror movie genre, horror movies are not known for their writing. The scares tend to come from gore, sudden movements on camera, the lighting, and the music. When a creepy movie is good, however, it is almost always due to the story and the writing. The best creepy movies take the things that scare us the most, especially the things unseen, and fabricate stories that could happen to any one of us.

So if you want to creep yourself out on Halloween with a good movie, here are my picks:

The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988): This Dutch film, directed by George Sluizer and written by Tim Krabbe, is super creepy as it follows the path of a couple on a cycling vacation in France. Stopping at a service station for drinks, the woman goes in to the store and never comes back out. The film continuously builds tension throughout and leaves the viewer riveted. Note: Do NOT, under any circumstances, rent the 1993 American remake. You will only regret it. Pony up and live with a few subtitles.

The Shining (1980): Based on the novel by Stephen King and directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining takes the most normal of families, complete with dysfunctions like alcoholism, and examines how complete isolation might tweak those dysfunctions into madness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt (or help) that the hotel is EVIL.  REDRUM. REDRUM.

Alien (1979): A most awesome creepy film. Ridley Scott‘s Alien, written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, works as well as it does because of its close confines, relative isolation from any help from the outside world, and a threat that is all the scarier because for so much of the movie, it is unseen. And poor, poor John Hurt.

The Kingdom (Riget) (1994): I watched this Danish miniseries (directed by Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred, and written by von Trier, Tomas Gislason, and Niels Vorsel)  with my mouth hanging open for most of the scenes. Imagine Grey’s Anatomy in which the hospital is haunted, operations are botched and covered up, and Udo Kier appears. It is impossible to describe adequately, but with equal parts creepiness and black humor, it really should not be missed.

Wait Until Dark (1967): How do you defend yourself in your own home when you can’t see? That’s the premise of this very suspenseful film starring Audrey Hepburn, based on the play by Frederick Knott and directed by Terence Young.

Night of the Hunter (1955): Does anything inspire more tension in a moviewatcher than watching a blind woman try to survive? Perhaps only seeing children with a dangerous secret trying to escape the clutches of a sociopath (Robert Mitchum). This film, based on the novel by Davis Grubb, with a screenplay by James Agee, and directed by Charles Laughton, ratchets up the tension and keeps it at an almost unbearable level. Mitchum is creepiness personified.

What films have creeped you out?

Quietly Powerful: Mira Nair’s THE NAMESAKE

October 23, 2008

One of the things about being the parent of young children is that you get to be terribly discriminating about the movies you tape and then watch. Notice I did not talk about actually seeing a movie on the big screen – that’s just crazy talk. But when we saw Mira Nair‘s movie The Namesake appear on the HBO schedule, the film met our strict criteria – a director with a background of movies that we’ve enjoyed, and good reviews for the film itself.

The Namesake did not disappoint. Adapted from the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, with a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, the film follows the lives of Indian couple Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) as they marry in an arranged marriage, move to New York, have children, and raise their family. Ostensibly, the film is about their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who is the namesake of Russian writer Nicolai Gogol, who was very influential in the life of Ashoke.  But as I watched the movie, it became obvious that the story had more to say about discovering your sense of self in the world – either as a foreigner trying to merge one’s culture in a new environment, or a young man coming of age, or a mother suddenly widowed, whose remaining roles no longer fulfill her soul.

As a parent, I was deeply moved by the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima. We watch their relationship grow from shy strangers to a couple who care very deeply for one another in the quietest of ways. They are loving parents, perhaps smothering in their love, but they also remain absolutely attached to one another. At one point in the film, Ashoke asks Ashima a question:

Ashoke: There is something I always wanted to ask you, but never had the courage. All those years ago, why did you say yes to me?
Ashima: You were the best of the lot.
Ashoke: Huh?
Ashima: Better than the widower with four children or the cartoonist with one arm. I also liked your shoes.
Ashoke: Oh. Oh, okay.
Ashima: Hmm, you want me to say “I love you,” like the Americans.

What is clear is that her love is so strong it needs no words.

Having seen the film, I can’t wait to read the book.

Inspirational Banking: Grameen Foundation

October 16, 2008

Today is Blog Action Day 2008, where thousands of bloggers are banding together to write about the issue of poverty. Well, count me in.

Last year, I read a book that threw me for such a loop that one year later, I still think about it. Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Foundation, wrote a book about his work called Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. You cannot read it and emerge thinking the same way about the poor. It’s just impossible.

In 1983, economist Yunus established Grameen, against the advice of bankers, government officials, and pretty much everyone. His vision was that if credit were given to the poor, then they would be able to establish businesses that would allow them to escape poverty, maintain a living wage, and best of all, pay back the loan. Grameen Bank now provides over 2.5 million dollars of micro-loans to over two million families in Bangladesh. Ninety-four percent of the clients are women, and repayment rates are near 100 percent.

The book is amazing, pure and simple. It is written in such common sense terms that it becomes hard to argue against the logic of instituting such programs everywhere, and Yunus provides advice on doing exactly that. And with success rates like Grameen’s, perhaps bankers everywhere should be looking to them for guidance.

Is this the cure for global poverty? Probably not. But boy, it sure seems like a running leap toward the cure.

The Eyre Up There: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair

October 16, 2008

I mentioned last week feeling like I was in kind of a slump as far as ferreting out the good writing recently. Between that funk, the uplifting news about the economy, and the extraordinarily civilized state of the presidential campaign, times have called for some serious silliness. So I’m here to oblige.

Jasper Fforde‘s The Eyre Affair (2001) is a very silly book. It is a book made for former English majors and fans of Monty Python or Douglas AdamsThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, trying to come up with a succinct, comprehensible synopsis is nigh impossible. Suffice it to say, Fforde’s heroine Thursday Next works in the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network based in London. Nefarious goings-on within literary works themselves prompt Thursday to enter the novels themselves to sort everything out.

The Eyre Affair is the first, and arguably the best, in a series of Thursday Next novels by Fforde. Half the fun of these books is in the details. Fforde peppers his characters with names like Filbert Snood, Jack Schitt, and a vampire hunter named Spike. Clearly, being deep and serious is not on the agenda in these books. And while it certainly helps to have read Dickens or Bronte at some point in your life, it is by no means a requirement to get maximum enjoyment out of the book. Where the genius of the book resides is the level of detail Fforde provides about both of Thursday’s worlds; regardless of whether Thursday is pondering when her father is (and yes, I said “when,” not “where”), or conversing with Jane Eyre’s love Edward Rochester, we don’t question it for a moment.

So if you need a break from the serious, give Fforde a try and lose yourself in Swindon.

Short and Sweet: Tropfest NY 2008 Winner

October 10, 2008

Color me astonished. Thanks to friends with impeccable taste at Twitter (yes, Pam, I’m talking about you), I was led to this short film by Jason van Genderen, called “Mankind is No Island.” This film was shot entirely with a cell phone camera in New York and Sydney, and took the top prize at Tropfest NY 2008, the world’s largest short film festival.

Yet as impressive as the technical achievement of this film, the words and message contained within the film are even more praiseworthy. It is the perfect synthesis of word and art, message and picture.

Slump Days

October 7, 2008

My dear readers, I do apologize for the silence. I have been racking my brain for great writing recently and sadly, coming up empty. The new TV season, while diverting, hasn’t given me anything to shout from the rooftops about. My bedside reading has been a little ho-hum. What’s a maven of good taste to do?

Here’s what. Throw it out to you guys. Someone, somewhere, must be excited about television, film, music, or books. If so, give it up in the Comments section. We need you. I need you.

Best Paul Newman Films: Tribute to a Great Man

September 27, 2008

Every once in a while, someone famous dies with whom I had no personal relationship at all. But because of this person’s presence in my life, I still feel like I’ve lost someone. I felt that way when Jim Henson died, and I feel that way today, with the death of Paul Newman.

I have only the most tangential relationship with Newman, as a fellow alumnus of Kenyon College in Ohio. But Newman’s presence was always there; he contributed heavily to the college, making news back in 2007 with the endowment of a $10 million scholarship fund. His quiet philanthropy always impressed me, and maybe even influenced some of my own views of how best we can give back to the world. I also thought his marriage and creative partnership with his wife Joanne Woodward, at least as far as the public was allowed to see, was a role model of what a marriage should be.

But how he was first known to me, and known to most of us, was as an actor. So as a tribute to him, I’d like to give you my personal list of Paul Newman’s best films. How does this pertain to writing? Do you really have to ask? A great actor can make schlock seem palatable, and can make great writing seem like a 7-course feast. These films are the 7-course feasts, my friends.

Cars (2006, story credits by John Lasseter, Joe Ranft and Jorgen Klubian): If you have kids, you probably own this movie. Newman’s portrayal of Doc Hudson took the audience on a moving journey of watching an aging car get the recognition he always deserved.

Nobody’s Fool (1994, novel by Richard Russo and screenplay by Robert Benton): Newman got a chance to display his sense of humor in acting the role of Sully; it’s a wonderful ensemble film.

The Verdict (1982, novel by Barry Reed, screenplay by David Mamet): A carnivore of a film, Newman’s Frank Galvin traveled the road from hell to redemption, all because of a single case. One of the all-time great lawyer films.

The Sting (1973, written by David S. Ward): One of the first movies I ever saw starring Newman, and a completely wild ride as we travel the con with Newman’s Henry Gondorff and Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, written by William Goldman): Hello, boys! The respective hotness of Robert Redford and Newman as young ‘uns drew me in; the engaging story and the fun they clearly had working on the film kept me engaged.

What are some of your favorite Paul Newman films?

Congrats, Emmy Writing Winners!

September 22, 2008

And the writing Emmys go to. . . . (sound of ripping envelope)

For Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series30 Rock – “Cooter” – written by Tina Fey

For Outstanding Writing in a Drama SeriesMad Men – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Pilot) – written by Matthew Weiner

Ahem, ahem – must I remind you all that these shows were celebrated here first? Thus adding credibility to my outrageous claims of having the best taste in writing of anyone you don’t know but read on a blog.

Congrats, guys!! Well deserved.

Guilty Pleasure: Sugarland’s Love on the Inside

September 21, 2008

I have a dirty little secret. I am deeply, deeply in like with a country music album. See, here’s where I alienate any country music fans, for why should I be defensive about this, as well as lose street cred with non-country music listeners who can’t deal with the twang. But let me shoot myself in the foot a little more and see if I can’t convert a few to my way of thinking.

I first read about Sugarland in a profile written by Whitney Pastorek from that magazine chock-full of potential bad influences, Entertainment Weekly. Now, my normal musical taste runs toward folk-rock, 80’s pop (sorry – formative school years – can’t help it), singer-songwriters, and alt-country bluegrass (which is so obscure that it’s totally hip). The last country artist I bought was Mary Chapin Carpenter (who, frankly, never sounded all that country in the first place and really fell into my singer-songwriter category). But this EW article made Sugarland sound as if they’d had some of the same musical influences I’d had, so I had to check them out. And was promptly blown away.

Sugarland is currently led by two musicians – Jennifer Nettles, who sounds like Reba McIntyre on steroids, and Kristian Bush, formerly of the folk rock band Billy Pilgrim. They have an insane amount of energy that practically bursts out of the stereo. But what has kept me coming back to the songs again and again is their lyrics. There’s the rapid fire rant of “It Happens,” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Bobby Pinson) sung without taking a deep breath:

Now it’s poor me, why me, oh me, boring
The same old worn out, blah, blah story
There’s no good explanation for it at all

There are the haunting, poetic images framed in the questions of “Love” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Tim Owens):

Is it the one you call home
Is it the Holy Land
Is it standing right here holding your hand
Is it just like the movies
Is it rice and white lace
Is it the feeling I get when I wake to your face

And there’s the hilarious insanity of a tribute to “Steve Earle”(written by Nettles and Bush):

Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me
I promise I won’t take a dime when it comes my time to leave
The others wanted your whole heart
But I just want your sleeve
Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me.

If you haven’t taken a listen to them yet, go try it now. I’ll keep your secret.

SNL Palin/Clinton Skit: When Satire Hits the Bullseye

September 14, 2008

I am jumping on this bandwagon as surely as the leaves are gonna fall, but I cannot help myself. In the past 24 hours, there have been a flurry of Twitter tweets and links to last night’s Saturday Night Live opening skit, even on the NPR website itself. So, in the event that you, like I, are happily dreaming on Saturday nights like the good nerds we are, I refer to you SNL’s spot-on national address by Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler). In a Presidential campaign that seems to be deteriorating before my very eyes into mean-spiritedness and outright lies, it is so refreshing to be able to take a step back and laugh at the whole thing.

Here’s the thing about satire. In the political arena, it can be more potent as a tool to expose the truth about the fictions that the parties and/or politicians are trying to feed us than any other form of writing. I don’t know if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wrote this particular opening skit (and they well may have), but props to the writers of this address for highlighting some of the biggest absurdities of the campaign to date.