Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

It's fitting that the last two films I was compelled to write about were It Follows and The Babadook. It wasn't in any way planned, but of the films I've seen in the last few years, those two have the most in common with The Witch (IMDB page), the film I now feel compelled to write about.

When it was released, The Witch found a favorable reaction, and for good reason. There will be spoilers after the jump, the short version of this review is simple and straight forward. See it. It's extremely well made. The writing, cinematography, performances, costume and set design, sound design, and extremely limited practical effects all come together to produce something unusual in its perspective, entertaining, thought provoking, disciplined and excellent in its overall quality. Horror fans who lean toward more of an appreciation for the gory and graphic will be disappointed. Outside of that subset of the horror genre and its devotees, anyone who can appreciate great film craft should be able to enjoy The Witch.

It's definitely the kind of film that will be more effectively for people who don't know too much going in. Letting it unfold without preconceived ideas of what's going to happen will give it the best chance to have a more significant impact. Not everyone is apt to see a film based solely on either my humble opinion or the opinion of the many critics who've praised it. Below is the trailer, following that, the full review, with spoilers will begin:


Sunday, March 29, 2015

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

The unceasing sense of dread from the first to the last frame of It Follows, is something that thousands of other horror films reach for, but find beyond their grasp more often than not. Due in no small part to employing a cinematographic language grown from the bones of early John Carpenter, It Follows is successful in creating the kind of movie going experience that leaves the viewer searching the frame from edge to edge for some clue to where the danger will come next. The wide angle and long takes lend themselves well to instilling and developing the sense of dread and anxious suspense that take elements of the films narrative and express it through the kind of visual language that work on the viewers subconscious. The result is that the anxiety, tension, dread and fear that the narrative is trying to build and that the characters are supposed to be feeling is mirrored very directly by the audience.

The STD as the delivery mechanism for horror isn't a completely new invention by any means. Cronenberg's classic, Shivers, along with the very well done and unfortunately under recognized Contracted (currently available to stream on Netflix) use it, but It Follows strays away from the kind of body/biological horror the other films of this variety use and instead heads off into supernatural territory. Shockingly enough, as horrifying as they are in real life, STD's aren't an often used story element in horror or sci-fi, which works in the films favor. Heading away from the science fiction aspects that have been at the center of previous films that have attempted to incorporate STD's, puts even the more seasoned film goer at the disadvantage (or advantage, depending on the particular viewers preference) of not being able to refer to previous incarnations of the idea for frames of reference as to where the story might be going. That alone is an unusual feat and deserves recognition.

The It of It Follows is never fully explained, which is to film maker David Robert Mitchell's credit. The basic conceit at the center of the story being that one character transfers the attentions of the shape shifting It to another through intercourse. It is going to follow until It kills you. It can look like anyone and the only way to get rid of It is to give It to someone else.

This is not a film as concerned with neatly tying up it's story and plot as it is with putting the audience through the experience of It following. The success of the film and it's often unsettling and sometimes genuinely frightening moments are due to that focus. Where most other horror films are obsessed with the origin of the horror, vanquishing it and the story that happens in between those two points, It Follows leaves basically all of those tropes behind. What we're told about the thing stalking Jay, the teenage protagonist, comes from the person who gave it to her and who is very clearly an unreliable source for definitive information. This lack of concrete understanding serves to add another layer to the sense of dread the cinematography creates by putting the audience in the position of knowing no more about what's trying to kill her than she does, but always seeing it coming. The tension derived from that unknown heightens the stakes behind every decision her character makes, because there isn't any absolute. There is no magic incantation, no scientific wizardry, no definitive way for Jay to get free from Its pursuit. There is no solution, and we can see It coming.

When it does take on some of the tropes of so many past horror films, they are dealt with in a way that expresses the reality of this very unreal experience. Engaging to some degree in the "kids have to figure it out on their own and save the day" kind of story that was extremely popular in the eighties, It Follows leaves the territory of the heroic and delves directly into the relationships between the group of teenagers with a remarkable precision. As fantastic and unreal as a supernatural STD is, the relationships between the kids are very real, and very much filled with the kind of uncertainty that is a hallmark of the mid to late teens. In that way, the film is actually more real and more truthful than even most of the mainstream dramas that attempt to delve into the world of being a teenager.

As easy as it would be to read the film as the kind of puritanical trash so many other horror films trade on and use as currency, there are aspects of it that suggest something much more interesting is happening. There is a very real connection between what Jay experiences and the experiences of victims of rape, sexual assault or anyone who has experienced PTSD. Few films, even the more lauded mainstream "issue" films that attempt to address it, have been as good at conveying the feeling of constant danger, anxiety, and hyper vigilance that are the real power of the results of sexual assault that are most damaging in the long term. Other films may express the injustice and brutality of those experiences, but this film conveys the actual feelings, and it's easy to wonder if the title It Follows is as much about the experience following being assaulted or raped, because it certainly puts the audience more directly into that experience than most films would even begin to consider because most of them lack any real understanding. This isn't something the usual "sex gets you killed" puritanical garbage would ever attempt to portray. Those films lack any empathy for the victim. It Follows isn't begging for the audience to feel pity for Jay, it's trying to make them feel what she feels, and it does so damn well. Maika Monroe, who plays Jay, imbues the character with a combination of traits and emotions that makes her very real in this very unreal world, and is able to move fluidly from being a pro active agent for her own well being to being someone who can barely grasp the reality of their situation without ever stumbling into the territory of making that transition seem false, forced or without base. She can convey a kind of watchful distance from the other characters, then also convey an immediate, urgent need for it all to just stop and all of the emotional territory between in a way that makes Jay a very real, very human character that gives the audience the window into that very same experience. None of this seems designed as something Maika Monroe or David Robert Mitchell are making a definitive comment on so much as making them a part of the overall experience.

Time and setting are also really interesting parts of what make the film work. It is timeless, in the sense that the costuming and set design give no real sense of when the film takes place. It's as likely to be present day as it is to be some slightly alternative version of the 80's or 90's. As time is such an important factor in giving people some degree of mooring and context for the understanding and world view of characters and their environment, it just adds to a dream like quality that is at the outer edge of the films atmosphere. The only real indicator of time are some of the locations which fit directly into the rest of the film in that they could be now or thirty years ago, and then a preoccupation with urban decay as an indicator that there was a time before, that time is gone, and the present the film takes place in isn't nearly as prosperous. Being set in and outside Detroit, there's no lack of urban and suburban decay for the characters to wander through, and the sole conversation in the film that the main characters have is much more a description of their relationship to it as children than it is on the decay itself.

In conjunction with that, there are virtually no present adults in the film. Jay's mom is almost entirely absent, except to show that she is absent as a formative influence or means of support for her daughter. With those few exceptions, the perspective we're given on the adults comes from Jay and the few friends who are attempting to either help her or keep her from losing her mind, because they aren't all completely sure that what she is experiencing is actually real. Between the decay and blight of the past being so much a part of the setting and the narrative suggestion that the adults are dealing with their own demons, the time and setting become a part of conveying the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that contribute the sense of anxiety in the film. These teenagers seem doomed to a world that is in a state of constant decay and if they're parents are any indication, their future seems to be a struggle with hopelessness and decay, even without the addition of a supernatural force trying to kill one of them.

David Robert Mitchell doesn't seem to be making any kind of definitive comment about any of these weightier, heavier themes so much as meditating on them in a general way or using them as a way to make the overall impact of the experience of watching the film have more weight and resonance. What is interesting about their inclusion in the film is that they do mimic the way they work in real life. They are peripheral in the film, and in the lives of people who are experiencing them, they often seem peripheral and distant as they're going about the more urgent necessities of their daily lives, but as distant as those larger issues and ideas may seem, they are having an effect on daily life. Most of us are just trying to get through our days, and though we may be aware that our past experiences and our environment have some effect on us, it's not something we're objectively conscious of. They are things that muddle around in the backs of our minds while we're doing what needs to be done to live and survive. In that way, Mitchell has made a film whose emotional exactitude between the urgent necessity of the immediate situation at hand and the way the past and the environment influence it is pretty amazing.

It Follows isn't a standard horror film. Audience going to see it specifically because it's being hailed as "The scariest movie in a decade" are probably going to be disappointed. It's too unusual and too methodical for the majority of modern horror audiences. It's not preoccupied with telling a fairy tale story as much as it is providing a cinematic experience that recreates or instills it's characters emotions in it's audience as effectively as possible. It has much more in common with The Shining than it does with The Haunted, and even though The Shining is now consider a classic, must see of the horror cannon, it's less linear approach will have much less mass appeal. It's interesting, effective film making with more attention to emotional detail than to hitting the requisite plot points and it creates an incredibly effective atmosphere of dread that will be a welcome departure for more discerning film and horror buffs.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Babadook (Jenifer Kent, 2014)

In many ways, this story has been around for centuries. The basic plot of an item of some kind being a gateway/prison for something evil, parasitic and malignant isn't new. The Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Reason saw books becoming a primary carrier for these supernatural infections. That some terrible thing might be released by reading a book has been a staple of Western horror since.

The reason these kinds of stories continue to exist is that their basic, simple structure lends itself to retelling from almost any perspective. With a little ingenuity, they can still be something different than the hundreds of other versions that have preceded them. The Babadook is one of the most sharply written and directed versions of this story that has been around for a while.

It's extremely disciplined, cutting storytelling. Beyond it's familiar, simple set up lies something much heavier and carries a heavier impact. It is an encapsulation of the fears of every single parent. There are a few aspects that are probably more specific to single mothers, but any single parent would identify with the horror this film is really laying bare. They are probably fears every parent has, but would only be intensified at the prospect of being a single parent, the kinds of things that will keep people from divorce and in a bad marriage because of the fears of what single parenthood will be. In more ways than not, it's about the fears and emotional life of being a single mother, and it is in that reality that the horror of the whole story really blooms.

Pan's Labyrinthe, The Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage are all horror films that have an emotionally resonant core. Where they tend to deal with innocence and childhood, The Babadook deals with the loss of innocence that is being a single mother. It is as emotionally charged as the best of the horror films Guillermo Del Toro has either written and directed or produced, but it reaches for those emotions in a very different way. Where those films reached for them through sentimentality, adventure and discovery, The Babadook reaches for them through the very grinding world of the everyday. This films doesn't rely on turning your stomach to be the source of its horror, it relies on grabbing your heart and squeezing it while setting off every possible psychological alarm bell it can. It's creepy, disturbing and pushes some very primal buttons, but not once does it seem forced or as if it's trying to hard.

Essie Davis plays Amelia, mother to Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Essie Davis carries this film in a performance the film it needed in order to succeed. Like the storytelling, it's honest, disciplined, and displays an excellent understanding of the line between being able to reach intense emotions and being over the top. As a team, writer/director Jennifer Kent and lead Essie Davis have created something that is a deeply creepy, disturbing, intense and emotionally charged experience. What she brings to the film gives it everything it needs to work, and Jennifer Kent tells the story in a way that is efficient, but that it still has enough breathing room to feel like it's unrolling in front of you organically.

There is a sense of the extreme and emotionally repulsive that is so well honed that instead of pushing the audience out of the story and into a focus on their own discomfort, it draws them further in. Make no mistake, The Babadook has some gut wrenching scenes that are part of what the more hard core of horror fans are looking for, but none of them come from some kind of graphic physical violence or injury. It has some shocking moments, but the intention is always about more than just being shocking. All of them are coming from a kind of emotional core that makes this film anything but generic, cheap and lazy. On top of that core, it layers a creepy dread, some intensely scary moments and works its themes throughout the story with a deft hand.

The art direction and set direction are underlying components of what add to the films success. The environment is palpable but never steps in becoming a character. It's a thing lurking around the rest of the story, adding to the atmosphere the script creates, and the general tenor of each scene. The book itself is the foremost example. It is both credible as a children's book in it's use of language and its drawings and art, but deeply disturbing at the same time. In many ways, it is the best possible example of the things that make the film successful and give it a unique place in its genre. 

Jennifer Kent and The Babadook deserve to be recognized for something else. There is only the slightest dusting of visual effects. They are so perfectly used and sparingly applied that at absolutely no point do they become part of what gives the film and it's story impact. They heighten the impact when they are used. There are two very different conversations that can happen surrounding visual effects in a film, whether they are digital or practical effects. One is about the quality of the effects and the other is in how they are used. This film brings both of those conversations together by taking the idiom "less is more" to it's furthest logical conclusion. There are effects in the film. What their quality is can't actually be separated from how well they help heighten the sense of dread and creepiness. 

It's the kind of film that will be as effective for cinephiles who are looking for something meaty and smart as it will for someone just looking for a good chiller that will follow them home and give them the creeps when they turn out the lights. It's guaranteed to draw some fire from cultural critics of every possible variety as well, when they get around to finally seeing it. It's certain to be a conversation starter among more analytical audiences. With the exceptions of those who universally dislike horror films, the gorehound sect of the horror community, and anyone who just hates the idea that single parents and single mothers in particular, every other possible audience going to enjoy it. In that lies the films real genius. It never sells out and becomes something that feels generic and impersonal, but it is also able to tell its story in a way that expresses something that is as close to actually being universal as storytelling can get without becoming generic, pandering or manipulatively sentimental. Time will really tell whether or not this is the best horror film of the year, but it deserves to be in the running, and it if the decade between 2010 and 2020 has enough great films in it that The Babadook doesn't make it into that discussion, film goers and horror fans will have been lucky to experience one exceptional decade.

Similar to:
Pan's Labyrinthe 
The Devil's Backbone
The Orphanage
The Taking of Debra Logan
The Possession
Lovely Molly
The Exorcist

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Highlights of 2013*

2013 hasn't been the kind of banner year that 2007 was, but it definitely hasn't been a terrible year either. There have been a handful of great films, some challenging films and a no real shortage of good to very good films. I'm not going to say that the films on this particular list are the best films of 2013, but I can say they are the films I liked the most out of the releases I've seen this year. All of this being subjective, for the most part, I have a hard time with the "best" and "worst" titles. In fact, I generally think the "worst" lists are a waste of everyone's time, so I don't write them. As for "best", it something that can and will be argued. These were the films I most enjoyed the experience of watching or were just the most well made in relation to the things I generally care about and pay more attention to like character, cinematography and writing in general. Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2013)

Nicholas Winding Refn is without doubt one of the most exciting film makers to have hit American shores in the last decade. He exploded into the consciousness of American film lovers with Bronson, a biopic of England's "most violent prisoner," at the same time catapulting Tom Hardy out of obscurity and into the roles that led him to being one of the most sought after actors working today.

His next English language film, Drive brought him out of the obscurity of the art house/independent film world and directly into a much more mainstream spotlight as Ryan Gosling starred in the pulp masterpiece, which succeeded in being one of the most stylistically magnetic films of 2011. It also helped Gosling prove he could be more than beefcake for a Nicholas Sparks film or a romantic comedy, which has allowed him to take his career to new places.

In seeing the early trailers for Only God Forgives, I had absolutely no idea what to expect of the film. Following that, the press and reviews further cemented my bewilderment. Unfortunately for everyone with an interest in film in general or with an interest in Refn and his films particularly, absolutely nowhere was it made clear that Only God Forgives was dedicated to the great Alejandro Jodorowsky. Had this been clear, everything I'd been seeing about the film not only would have made more sense, I'd have been in a much bigger hurry to see it. The trailers suggested Refn was repeating himself in a way that would have been disappointing, but that's not at all what he was doing. The two films seem more like distant relations than Only God Forgives seems like a rehash of the things that made Drive such a compelling film.

Where Drive definitely had a fairy tale aspect to it, Only God Forgives, doesn't have a fairy tale aspect to it, it is a fairy tale, through Refn's perspective, in tribute to Jodorowsky. What that makes for is a film heavy on symbolism, style and like so many of Refn's other films, set in an underworld of fringe characters. The two films definitely have some relation, obviously have come from the same genetic material, but are also very, very different. Drive is very obviously a more commercial kind of film than this with a much more mainstream vocabulary. This film is perfectly comfortable playing by it's own set of rules and leaving the audience to figure those rules out for themselves. 

Ryan Gosling stars in the film as one of two drug smuggling brothers in Bangkok Thailand who also happens to run a boxing club. When his brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a police officer (played with a charisma that matches Gosling's previous Refn role as The Driver by Vithaya Pansringarm) then gives the girls father free reign to deal with this as he feels he wants to. Inevitably, the girls father bludgeons her killer to death. It is at this point that Gosling's mother arrives in Thailand, played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a role unlike anything she's ever done before, and begins demanding Gosling's character acquire the revenge she believes his brothers murderer so richly deserves.

That description is very similar to the ones which were in many of the reviews at the time of the films release and which is also very similar to the one that came with press releases as well. Unfortunately, that summary doesn't get close to what is actually interesting about the film, because it is nowhere near as straightforward as is sounds, nor is it anywhere near as traditional an action/revenge film as that would make it sound either. There is throughout the entire thing, Refn's obvious love for Jodorowsky and his way of approaching the kind of film making that made Jodorowsky a legend.

To make it even more interesting, Gosling has even fewer lines in this film than he did in Drive, which is a pretty courageous move for both the actor and Refn. Take one of the most recognizable and popular young actors working today, have him play a character that is at best morally questionable, and then give him almost no lines in the entire film. Whatever anyone might have to say about Gosling and the current popularity he's experiencing, he's capable of being an interesting, charismatic screen presence without saying anything.

Kristin Scott Thomas is weird and repulsive as Gosling's mother. She's also absolutely outstanding. She plays the coiled snake matriarch with a venom and ferocity that is compelling and disgusting at exactly the same time. It's an unusual role for her, like that of Albert Brooks as he was cast in Drive, and it works equally as well as casting against type did for that film. One of the primary criticisms leveled against Refn is that he's a "stylist," and whether or not that is true, he is definitely capable of getting some of the best performances of their careers from the actors he works with.

It's also an absolutely beautiful film. The cinematography is the best kind of eye candy and the neon streets of Bangkok lend themselves easily to a world of deep darks and bright, bright lights. The film is awash in beautifully lit, shot and staged scenes that recall the kind of dreamlike, symbolic quality of Jodorowsky, but also have an immediacy that the legendary directors cinematography often lacked. It has the kind of rich, deep darks and piercing lights that create an atmosphere not dissimilar to many of the old noir films, while still dealing with the complicated world of color and eschewing black and white, where that atmosphere is a bit easier to create. Cinematographer Larry Smith (a regular Refn collaborator) executes Refn's vision with damn near perfection. Hopefully this film will see him working with other top notch directors. It would be great to see this quality of camera work more often.

And like Drive, the music plays an important part of the films overall feel and impact, and again, it's excellently chosen and composed. Cliff Martinez returns as composer and again, delivers a knock out score. It has the same sense of rhythm that gave the Drive soundtrack and score such a great feel, but it definitely understands the nature of Refn's more dreamlike, symbol rich goals with this film. Beyond that, it adds depth and dimension when it needs to, but also fades away to the background completely when it needs to as well. Martinez and Refn are proving to be a powerful partnership in creating films and the music for them that compliment and elevate both mediums when they're presented together.

All in all, anyone who can appreciate a narrative style that is slightly left of center, gorgeous imagery, a brooding sense of the inevitable and watching Kristin Scott Thomas give a deliciously dastardly performance is going to appreciate this film. It is far less straight forward than Drive was as a narrative, so it's not shocking that some people who came looking for more of the exact same might have been disappointed in what they got, and the marketing for the film also failed to make clear just what kind of film it is, so the initial lukewarm reaction is somewhat understandable, but over time this film is going to find it's following, and an audience that appreciates what it is. It has some relation to Hanna in certain ways, though with a much more definite lean toward the pulp and exploitation films of the past. It's also not at all shocking that the film didn't reach and wasn't even really marketed to a wider audience after the success of the previous Refn/Gosling collaboration that was Drive. In some ways, Drive's less traditional approach to being an action drama was a much more straightforward film and overall narrative. There are aspects of Only God Forgives that would have been beyond the reach of the average, casual film goer. Having some sense of the likes of Jodorowsky and Buñuel definitely helps in not becoming completely lost in the first twenty minutes of the film.

Refn is continuing to take much more traditional kinds of narratives into interesting and engaging cinematic territory. Some of those experiments and attempts are going to work better than others, without a doubt, but so far, all of his work has at least been interesting and oddly beautiful at worst. At best, it's been engrossing and emotionally engaging while also being visually stunning. Let's all hope his work can continue to exist between those two poles.

Only God Forgives is currently available to stream via Netflix Watch Instantly. It's also available on DVD and Blu Ray (this is definitely one to see in hi-def). Links to the streaming rental via Amazon, DVD and Blu Ray will be below.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

One of the reasons I've continued writing reviews through the years (aside from the fact that it's something I enjoy) has been that I've wanted to give the people who are reading them some alternative to the kind of film geek culture that's emerged since the advent of the internet and the explosion of film journalism and social media on it. There's a lot of good film journalism out there, don't get me wrong. There's also a whole lot of what I now refer to as the "Reign of Geekdom."

Where the kind of people who tend to be obsessive about film, and especially genre film, in the way I am were the outsiders and generally looked down upon in relation to the rest of the culture at large (and within the film community) for the majority of my life, we've now become the ones who are running the websites, writing the articles, and driving a lot of the film culture. In some ways, that's great. I can't imagine what without the last ten or fifteen years worth of shift in film culture hadn't happened, something like John Dies At The End would have gotten made and/or distributed. Edgar Wright is a successful film maker. Genre film has come out of the basement in a big way.

At the same time, something kind of ugly has come out of the basement with it. The vile side of film geekery. Now we actually have popular and well respected film websites dedicated space to parsing the finer points of "fake geek girls," and the kind of bizarre, self righteous, self aggrandizing attempts at attempting some kind of geek hierarchy. It's roughly described as the kind of attitude that feels that anyone who does not share ones opinion about the quality of one piece of culture or another is somehow automatically, inherently inferior and treated as such. And really, worst of all, it can be incredibly mean and cruel. It won't take too long sifting through the more popular film sites to come across some articles that are written from this kind of perspective and it only takes a quick look through the comments section on any article on any film site to find this to be true.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Woman (Lucky Mckee, 2011)

In 2002, Lucky Mckee unleashed May. A concentrated blast of modern social discomfort and disquieted rage at the traditional female roles and portrayals, it's one of the most under rated and under appreciated films of it's generation. We've seen the awkward outcast story done with male protagonists thousands of times, but May takes a unique look at it from a female perspective and has some incredibly interesting things to say, while being a deeply compelling, startlingly intelligent film. Angela Bettis embodies the title character with all of her quirks and ticks in a way that is less about being showy and trying to gain acclaim for her talent than it is about making May human. It's not available for streaming on Netflix currently, but it is available as a streaming rental on Amazon. Click here and go watch it now if you haven't seen it, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Horror on Netflix Watch Instantly

Netflix has become the most popular streaming service. With that in mind, I put together a list of the horror films they currently have available through their Watch Instantly streaming service. This is just a list of the films that are worth watching for one reason or another. It may be that the film is particularly creepy or funny, disturbing or thought provoking, had a particular cultural impact or is just plainly well made. It just means that for one reason or another I'd suggest seeing the film. They're only listed in the order I found them, with the exception of sequels or franchise entries, they'll be listed together. I've also included links directly to the films through Netflix. If I've reviewed the film previously, I've also included a link for my original review.

Carrie (Kimberly Pierce, 2013)

"They're all gonna laugh at you."

For most American teenagers, few things are possibly as frightening to consider. Take into account the number of people who routinely suffer nightmares of suddenly being stuck in their high school or college class naked, and the fact of this truth comes home in a new way. For some reason, it seems to be almost hard wired into adolescents and young adults that embarrassment and being laughed at are quite possibly the worst things a human being could experience. Carrie, the 1976 film brought the novel to the screen and turned the phrase into a maxim of terror.

Stephen King
Cover of Stephen King
Stephen King's Carrie was a novel taking that fear to its furthest logical conclusion, but was also a morality tale about the kind of bullying that's become such a hot political topic so many years after King more or less gave readers a pretty good explanation for the kinds of horrendous acts of violence we've come to know as "school shootings." Strangely, even as King's character is portrayed as the sympathetic protagonist, whom we're meant to understand and empathize with as she slaughters an entire senior class as an act of vengeance, no one has ever attempted to link Carrie, the film or novel as some kind of responsible party for a kind of violence that could very easily be characterized as being modeled after it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

American Mary (Soska Sisters, 2012)

(Note: This review originally appeared on Truly Disturbing. I haven't had time to go through the normal formatting.)

AMERICAN MARY is an unexpected experience. With it, the Soska sisters are continuing a new generation of film makers attempts to merge the art house and the grind house. Steeped in the visual aesthetic of film noir and the tropes of the long, lurid and wonderful history of grindhouse cinema, AMERICAN MARY’s mind and soul belong to the art house. With Katherine Isabelle as their sharpened scalpel, they go about dissecting the experiences of a talented young woman in a world dominated by men. Don’t be worried though, it’s not a broad, obvious feminist screed. One of the most impressive things about the film is that it uses story, character, atmosphere and imagery in order to avoid turning into a heavy handed approach to these thematic elements. Also, to their credit, the Soska sisters give their main character a degree of complexity that’s often absent from even the best horror films that are inspired from the history of grindhouse. It may or may not have been intentional, but AMERICAN MARY would be perfect when paired with AMERICAN PSYCHO on a double bill.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols began developing a name for himself in 2007 with Shotgun Stories. The family drama took a subtle approach, and stayed away from the standard histrionics that would have plagued a studio film of the same variety. In 2011, he blew away festival audiences with the superbly written and performed Take Shelter, his second collaboration with another up and coming talent, Michael Shannon. This time, the story of a man who seems to be very slowly descending into a mad fear of a storm that will end the world, a storm he's having visions of, was also played with a perfect level of understatement, but able to expand it's scope when necessary. It was intense, disquieting, tender and frightening, at the same time.

Nichols latest film, Mud, has obviously benefited from his previous recognition and success. If in no other way than being able to attract a cast full of recognizable stars who are willing to let the film and story be the thing that are actually front and center, instead of their "charisma"and "star power." Having now made his third film, in certain ways similar to his first two, and in other ways very different, it's safe to say that Jeff Nichols is a first class film maker and storyteller. There is very little that stands out as spectacular about the film, except the film itself and just how incredibly engaging it is able to make a relatively traditional story. If he continues the streak he's on, Nichols may go down as the best pure storyteller of his cinematic generation. He takes what is essentially a kind of variation on Tom Sawyer, in a story about two boys who choose to help a man in what can best be described as a questionable circumstance that when combined with the natural course their lives are already taking, forces them on the beginning of the road to adulthood in a way they could never have seen as possible, and is able to wring every possible piece of texture and humanity out of it. It is, in more ways than not, about the things that become part of who boys are as they become men, and how the people around them and choices they make effect who they become. And it is beautifully understated and without judgement in the way it weaves those elements together.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Lords Of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2013)

 (Note: This review was originally posted at Truly Disturbing Horror.)

Rob Zombie is one of the more singularly divisive figures in modern horror. He inspires frothing anger and gleeful loyalty in equal measure among horror fans worldwide. What ever other criticism can be rightly leveled at him (and he certainly has some significant failings as a film maker), it can't be said that he's someone who is guilty of finding a successful formula and then milking it until audiences are so tired of it that they just can't stand it any more. Every Rob Zombie film is significantly different from the others, with the possible exception of the stable of actors who have now become regulars in his films, including his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie.

The Lords Of Salem is a vastly different film from anything he's done before, and with the possible exception of Ti West's The House Of The Devil, it's a vastly different film from any we've seen in a long time. There are some truly great, iconic moments and images in the film that go far beyond anything his previous films even hinted at. There are elements of the film which could have almost taken it over the line and into greatness. There are also things in the film that don't work and are reminiscent of problems with some of his previous films, but he either got very lucky and came up with a story that allows for him to rely more on his strengths than he has before or the experience he's accumulated through the years allowed him to start developing stories that minimize the parts of film making that he is least successful in. Either way, because of the nature of the story, those failings are evident, but they aren't quite as damaging to the story or to the experience of seeing the film as they have been in some of his other films.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kiss Of The Damned (Xan Cassavetes, 2012)

The vampire craze seems to have no end. The popularity of the sexy undead has probably never been any higher. As soon as someone decides to bring back the old radio dramas with a vampire show, they’ll have conquered just about every conceivable form of media. KISS OF THE DAMNED is the latest cinematic outing for everyone’s favorite nocturnal bloodsuckers. It’s generated favorable buzz on the festival circuit and with the indie horror set.

The marketing campaign for the film has been targeting horror fans though, which might be a bit misleading. If you’re a horror fan who enjoys TRUE BLOOD or Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER, the chances are pretty good KISS OF THE DAMNED is going to be right up your alley. But, if you’re looking for the kind of vicious vamps that populated films like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, this isn’t going to satiate your thirst.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)

The Evil Dead is a seminal classic in the world of horror cinema. It announced the existence of Sam Raimi to the world, became embroiled in controversy due to what was considered graphic content at the time, and initiated at least two generations of horror fanatics into the idea that a horror film could also be joyously creative. If there's one thing that drives the original film, it's the feeling that Sam Raimi was completely intoxicated by the opportunity to try many of the things that had been lurking in the back of his imagination for years, and not just in the way of gore and gross out, but even in the nuts and bolts of cinematography, sound design and so on. It was a feeling of hysterical glee, as if Raimi himself had been trapped in some unseen dimension for centuries and was finally free to pour all of his creative energy into something. It's two sequels became increasingly goofier and were instilled with more and more of Raimi's love of The 3 Stooges, but the first film is a horror film through and through, and some of the sense of danger that it conveyed was due to the audience being completely unsure of where the madmen behind the camera were going to be willing to take them. It served Raimi and the film well that it had a barely perceptible aroma of sleaze about it as well. It's the kind of film, especially at the time, that upon first viewing, truly left all possibilities open. The audience could not be at all sure they were not going to end up seeing anything they would want to "unsee." Luckily, the film hits hardest in that particular way early on and then abandons it for the rest of the film, relying on tension, creative camera work, the charisma of Bruce Campbell and it's over wound energy to deliver all of the things it does.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Collection (Marcus Dunstan, 2013)

Marcus Dunstan and his writing partner Patrick Melton came to fame on the now defunct reality show, Project Greenlight. It followed the entire production of a film that would be produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, from the choosing of the script all the way through post production. Dunstan and Melton's script for the film, Feast, was picked up in Greenlight's final season, and hilariously documented through it's creation. But, Feast, was without doubt the most successful of the Project Greenlight films (not to mention being a really fun horror/comedy). Dunstan and Melton then got to try their hand at doing some writing for the horror franchise that was the heavyweight champion of the box office at the time with Saw IV. Dunstan and Melton ultimately helped write the final four films in the Saw franchise.