Saturday, February 27, 2010

Out Of The Ether 2/27/10

It's been a little while since I've posted an edition of Out Of The Ether. What with the holidays, my birthday, the attack of the repeated snow storms in sunny, warm Virginia, I haven't really made time to collect any movie news. And frankly, there hasn't been all that much worth talking about until recently. SO, now that there is, I pass it on to you.

It seems excitement for the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is growing, especially with the performance by Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island. In case you didn't already know, Haley is putting on the fedora and glove and having a go at playing Freddy Krueger. The movie's due out in April, and the newest one sheet can be found here.

In other Scorsese related news, AICN is reporting that the master has decided his next film is going to be an adaptation of a 533 page children's book named The Invention Of Hugo Cabret. I'm not familiar with the book, so if you are, get in touch and let me know what this means to you. 

This is a month old already, but I'm looking forward to it, so I'm passing it on. There's been word circling round the netz about a zombie flick set in Africa for a good while. Bloody Disgusting has the trailers..... HELL YES! 

Yet again there are rumors of a Vampire Hunter D live action film. If you've never heard of it, Vampire Hunter D is an influential anime about a character aptly named D, who is a vampire hunter in a world over run by supernatural creatures. The mix of Japanese sensibilities and gothic literary characters/ folklore was interesting and made for a pretty cool anime. It was one of the first I saw. Now there's news of another anime starring the titular D and a live action film based around the original film. Details are all here.

There were a number of films screened at Sundance Film Festival which sound interesting as well. I've grabbed up some reviews and synopsis on those for you all.

Frozen is the latest from Hatchet writer/director Adam Greene. If you hated Hatchet, this is apparently a very different film, so it seems like it would be worth a shot. If you loved Hatchet, this is apparently not Hatchet 1.5. It's in limited release right now. 

7 Days has been getting the kind of mixed reviews I look for. The only negative reviews are complaining that it's "too violent" and referring to it as "torture porn". The positive reviews happen to be more literate, and are actually talking about the movie as a whole. Needless to say, I'm interested.

One film generating an extremely strong word of mouth is Buried. There have been articles and podcasts all over the place talking about this film, and nobody has yet to say anything less than glowing about it. I've heard a few instances of this being the film people at the festival were pestering and badgering others at the festival to go see. Considering the hardened insider cynicism that's infected Sundance, that's saying something. I'm interested in this one, and apparently Lionsgate has bought the distribution rights and plans to release it sooner rather than later.

The Australian underworld sounds to have taken a good working over in Animal Kingdom. This is something I'd like to catch as well, though I doubt any of the local Richmond theaters are going to be showing it.

For something a little less sensational and a little more realistic and probably closer to home, there's been a lot of good word on The Company Men. From what I've been reading and hearing, apparently a very good film, on the more somber and serious side, but everyone is unsure of the box office possibilities for a film like this.

Then there's The Killer Inside Me. This years most controversial Sundance submission apparently had one woman stomping out of a screening and yelling that the film maker had no right to make the film. Michael Winterbottom, the films director has been taking heat since it's first screening. It apparently caused quite a stir at the European Film Market as well. There's a story on one of the commentary tracks for Se7en about two older women "who looked like school teachers" according to David Fincher, walking passed him and saying to each other, "The people who made that movie should be shot." I take these things generally as a good sign.

Lastly, there have been some great reviews floating around for A Prophet, apparently a French film about an Arabic man youth who ends up in the French prison system and begins his criminal education. Always an interesting subject, as far as I'm concerned anyway. Here's a review from the New York Times as well.

I think that about covers it for this edition of Out Of The Ether. I hope you've found something of interest here. If not, try again next time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vinyan (2008, directed by Fabrice Du Welz)

There was a time in the late seventies and early eighties during which jungle horror flicks were all the rage. Most of those were cannibal films though. Of course, Cannibal Holocaust was released during that period of time, as was Cannibal Ferox. The larger percentage of those films came out of Europe, mainly Italy.

So it's interesting to see a new jungle horror film come out of Europe again. It's not Italy this time though, it's France, which has really been establishing a strong horror tradition over the last few years. The "French New Wave Horror" is a phrase people who follow the horror genre have gotten used to seeing and hearing. If you're a horror fan, and you've been missing out on what the French have been doing for the last five or so years, you owe it to yourself to catch up.

Vinyan strays somewhat from the formula we have come to expect from this new wave of French horror films. It's not a gorefest, and there's very little violence. So, if you've been skipping the latest crop of French horror films because they are too violent and bloody, this might be better for you.

What I can't tell you is that less violence or less blood make this film any less disturbing. It's not going to make you squirm in disgust the way something like Inside or Martyrs did, but it is disturbing all the same.

It's about a couple who lost their son in the tsunami in Asia, six months prior to when the film begins. Visiting the home of a friend who is holding a fund raiser for some kind of aid foundation or charity (it's not completely clear what they do, but it's not all that important either), they're shown a video of an area in Burma which was hard hit by the tsunami. During the video, Emanuelle Beart's character, Jeanne, is convinced she sees their son walking away from the camera in the background of one of the shots. Though not completely sure his wife isn't losing her mind, Rufus Sewell's character, her husband Paul, agrees to go and look for their son.

To get to Burma from Thailand where they live, they unfortunately have to employ the aid of human traffickers. This makes for an extremely uncomfortable situation. And off they head from Thailand to the jungles of Burma, looking for a child who may or may not be alive.

Rufus Sewell gives a great performance here. As a husband, not sure of his wife's continued sanity, and at the same time, hoping beyond reason that maybe she might be right and he might find his son, there are some really heartbreaking and hard to watch scenes of him just trying, begging his wife to see reality or just trying to decide what to do. Sewell seems to only end up with roles as villains in the States, but he proves here, beyond the shadow of any doubt that he could be a leading man and carry a film on his own.

Emanuelle Beart, is also amazing here. I never doubted for one second that she actually believed her son was  alive. It wasn't a matter of being dishonest with herself about the possibilities, but an absolute certainty that he was alive. Whether or not she is losing her grip on reality, you'll have to watch and decide for yourself, but there isn't a false moment in her performance.

If you don't believe that relationship, and the dynamic between these two people, the film goes nowhere, is terribly boring and doesn't matter to you at all. Luckily for Fabrice Du Welz, you do believe it, every step of the way. Du Welz does a really great job of establishing the mood around these characters, which creates something interesting. At the center, there's this story which is really about these two people, who have lost a child, are trying to cope with it and do what they think is right, and hold on to each other. But, because of everything the story and the director surrounds them with, it becomes something very different from the films we've seen before that follow a very similar storyline. From the opening credit sequence  Du Welz establishes an unusual, creepy, alien kind of feel, that follows these two characters throughout the film. There's some really interesting cinematography here, interesting use of color and deep darks against bright lights. Filming on location in Thailand also helps to make this film really live. There are some sequences in the beginning of the film which couldn't work if they'd been using a European city as a double for Thailand, and sets would have just looked ridiculous. And the jungle photography is gorgeous. I don't care how strange and weird or unusual this film portrays the events in the jungle. I still want to go to the jungle to see anything as incredibly beautiful as the location looks here.

Vinyan is an interesting film. It starts out as what seems to be an interesting, intelligent thriller. It's well written, it's characters are well drawn and feel very real and you are interested in and want to follow them. Then, it turns into something else along the way, which I found equally interesting. I have no doubt there are folks out there who would not find this enjoyable. They feel cheated when films take a hard turn the way this one does. I've seen it done poorly in some films, but here it's done well and it changes the tone of the film, but it cuts even more directly to what's at the heart of the film, these two people, trying to understand how to deal with the pain of having lost a child. What it becomes is surreal and hallucinatory in an interesting way. The symbolism is probably a little thick for mainstream American audiences, but I think there's a part of the genre/horror community who would enjoy the kind of uncomfortable, unsettled feeling it produces, even if some of the symbolism escapes them. I have a feeling some of it escaped me, but I still enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Deadgirl (2008)

With the popularity of things like "Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From The Living Dead" by Max Brooks being a big success in the dying publishing industry, the success of Shaun Of The Dead, the overtly ridiculous nature of Planet Terror, the strangely entertaining Fido, it seems the zombie sub-genre has really run it's course. When you throw in the outrageous absurdity of a film like Black Sheep, you could come to the conclusion that there was nothing new under the vaguely cloud covered bright white moon.

You'd have been wrong. I certainly was. I thought The Zombie Diaries (which it might be time to watch again and write a review for) was a decent film, with a good strong premise, but it's been a while since I've seen something from the zombie genre which wasn't tongue in cheek, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, aren't we hip kind of comedy film making. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the films I mentioned above, but I always consider where the genre originated and wonder if anyone is ever going to be able to make a zombie film with an eye on what worked so well and was so great about Night Of The Living Dead (which I'll refer to as NOTLD for the rest of this piece). I can't say Deadgirl is on par with NOTLD, because it's not, but it does set it's sights on some of the elements of that film which the zombie genre has been ignoring for a long time.

I'm not sure what to think of that fact that Deadgirl hasn't generated more controversy. Have we reached so cynical an age that something as disturbing and subversive as this can't catch the ire of some loud, ready to be angry group of people? Or is it possibly that an idea like the one Deadgirl tackles is no longer quite so taboo and topics like masculinity, sexuality, and the way in group/out group systems work in American culture aren't really that controversial anymore? I'm going to guess that this film wasn't seen by enough people to generate controversy, and wouldn't be controversial to those who would have sought it out (like myself). Either way, Deadgirl really deserved more controversy than it received.

Before I go too much further, I want to get something out of the way. At some point in the future, someone, possibly even someone I know (most likely considering I think they're the only one's reading these reviews), is going to see Deadgirl and it is going to punch them, as hard as it can in their soft spot. They are going to be seriously disturbed, probably a little angry, and feel disgusting, in need of a shower. Then, they are going to remember that I wrote something favorable about this movie, and they are going to wonder what in hell I could possibly have liked about this movie. One part of that answer is that I know it's going to elicit that reaction from some people, and I like movies that can do that. And damn it, you should be disturbed by what you're seeing, it's good that it is disturbing, and a lot of people miss that kind of detail with films like this one.

Think about it this way, you've heard the old urban legend about the woman being raped in the alley, and hundreds of residents being able to hear her screams and no one calling the police or anything, right? The fact that there is a woman being raped, is disturbing enough by itself, but when you add on top of that the fact that no one was willing to help, and the outrage is doubled. You're outraged at the lack of outrage, and should be. Deadgirl works the same way. You should be disturbed by these characters. You should be disturbed by these events, and you should be both disturbed and outraged by their lack of either in the face of all of it.

Deadgirl has a very understated social consciousness to it that was one of the things that has helped make NOTLD a classic and which has also made it one of the most influential horror films of all time. I'm not saying this is going to be some kind of classic film, but it is nice to have a horror film who's creators were reaching for a big idea, and a big goal. This film reaches out to ideas about sexuality, masculinity, group association, growing up, brutality, and barbarism. An interesting result is that I don't necessarily know who to recommend this film to. People who enjoy literate, thoughtful films are likely to find this a little too disturbing and taboo. At the same time, there's not really enough blood in here to satisfy the gore fans. I think that if you enjoyed and appreciated the kind of territory David Lynch and David Cronenberg explored in their early careers, you might enjoy this.

I do think the "spiritual sibling" to this film would be Ginger Snaps. Deadgirl is very much about the growing up, maturing,  and so on, but it's main characters are male, and hence, it's from a much more male perspective, in every conceivable way. Some of you out there are probably rolling your eyes because you're thinking that ninety-nine percent of the films we see are from a male perspective, and you'd be right, except this doesn't necessarily glorify it or make it look all that good or anything. It's confusing and strange and brutal, many things growing up male actually are. This isn't necessarily an indictment either. It's not necessarily a "men suck" kind of movie, specifically because it's much more complicated than that.

It is a movie about two seventeen year old guys who, while skipping school and trashing a long abandoned asylum, come upon something extremely unusual in the basement. The title tells you everything you need to know about that. From there, it gets really weird. 

Shiloh Fernandez does a damn good job as Ricky, the films protagonist, specifically because there are times when you completely sympathize with him, and there are times where you absolutely do not sympathize with him, and can't possibly justify his actions or inaction. He's believable, and he does a good job selling the lack of certainty in his character. If he can't make you believe that his character is in the process of questioning some of the fundamental truths he would have automatically claimed at the beginning of the film, it doesn't work. He sells that very well. He also bares a somewhat spooky resemblance to a very young Joaquin Pheonix.

Noah Segan does a great job as J.T. as well. His character as antagonist and Ricky's best friend is probably the most well written in the film and he handles all the duties assigned with ease. I expect to see him popping up more regularly on television and in some larger films. It's a strong performance in the kind of character Hollywood really loves.

I haven't seen the original cut of the film, I picked up the "Directors Cut" on DVD at Best Buy for $14.99. This cut of the film had one particular scene of relatively extreme gore, and the rest of the film had some off screen violence with some blood being thrown on someone on screen, but it's pretty tame in the gore and violence department, which is probably good. The inclusion of too much gratuitous violence (which I'm not opposed to on principle) would have sent this film directly into cheap exploitation territory instead of kind of sleazy art house horror where it actually lands.

The lack of effects also helps to cover up the films budget. This had to have been a relatively low budget film, but it comes across well because you never really consider that very much while you're watching it. The characters are well written enough and the story well thought through enough that it keeps your attention, during a zombie movie, by focusing on story and character. That is unusual. In the majority of zombie films, you don't want to focus on story and character, because both were put together in much less time than it took to develop and prepare the effects in the film. The only thing more preposterous than the walking dead in most of those films is that the people the films center on are actually supposed to be living. In films like those you can forgive it. I give the film makers credit for never getting near that here.

Deadgirl is a film that deserves credit for reaching for the heights it does, even if it doesn't perfectly achieve them. There are moments when it loses it's tone or it's just slightly off and kind of ridiculous, but we're talking about a film which centers on a person whose corpse won't die. In itself, that's ridiculous, and hard to make into something which will be taken completely seriously for ninety-minutes. All in all, this is a film which deserves some love because it tries something different, succeeds more than it fails and is interesting to watch, and to consider after. Not for the faint of heart though, not at all. I'm looking forward to the future work from directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, apparently both graduates of the Troma school of film making. It will be interesting to see what else they come up with away from Uncle Loyd's influence.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Borderland (2007, directed by Zev Berman)

I'm not sure who Zev Berman is, but he stole my idea. Five or so years ago, maybe a little more, I read a story about a town in Mexico called Matamoros. It was a news article about a group of kids visiting a Texas town near the border for spring break. They decide to take a trip across the border to Mexico and, like hundreds of thousands of kids before them, look for an even more decadent experience. Well, one of them disappeared. In the months that followed, as Americans of different varieties, F.B.I etc. get involved it eventually comes out that this missing American got snapped up by a drug dealing, human sacrificing cult. Corruption, on a terrifying level was also at work, because everyone within tens of miles of the groups headquarters was terrified of ending up under the knife, machete, what have you. Seriously. I'm really not joking. It did happen.

I read that article all those years back and immediately started my own screenplay. I never finished that screenplay, so I'm not saying Zev Berman stole my actual screenplay, I'm not even actually saying the guy stole my idea. This has all been a round about way of telling you that the essential facts of this story are actually true.And that I kicked myself for not finishing the screenplay.

Borderland is the dramatization of that story. Because of the fact that this film was picked up by the After Dark Horrorfest, and in the three years or so it's existed, After Dark has only really picked up two or three good films, I really had very low expectations. If you're not familiar, After Dark is a traveling film festival, essentially a distribution banner for horror films. Each year, they choose eight films which haven't been picked up by anyone else, get them into limited distribution in theaters and then into the DVD/Blu Ray market. It's been at least three years so far, and they really have only gotten their hands on two or three films which could claw their way to being called decent and not horribly, laughably bad. It's become kind of like seeing Micheal Pare' is starring in a movie. Borderland has helped to convince me I should still give these films a shot, in case one of the future releases is this good.

It's relatively obvious Borderland was made with the kind of money most Hollywood films spend in food services. It becomes another example in a long list of those which prove Hollywood, really doesn't have a very good handle on what to do with their money, because we've probably seen a few hundred thousand films trying to do what Borderland does, with twice or three times as much money, and fail. It plays well, throughout, and it manages to create and keep building on a sense of urgency that drives the narrative forward, and provides a few small surprises along the way. It also has the kind of tension and suspense which  many of it's big budget brethren just can't nail down very well. It's a very well done film.

Borderlands is a graphic film, with some scenes of relatively extreme violence. The interesting thing about the film, and the violence in it, is the degree of fetishism it actually contains. One of the complaints levied against horror films for a long time has been that the violence is too fetishistic and that makes it too appealing. This, actually, makes it even less appealing. This is tough and ugly, as it should be. Especially considering the "true to life" nature of the subject matter, this is something I think works in the film's favor.

Unfortunately, IMDB doesn't have anything listed as being directed by Zev Berman after this film. He managed to put together a good small budget film, and attract some decent talent. Sean Astin turns up in the middle of the film in a role you would never have imagined, but that he seems absolutely perfectly fit for. It's not a huge part, but what is there, he does a really good job with. The same can be said for Rider Strong, formerly of Boy Meets World fame, and will be familiar to horror fans from Cabin Fever. The other two  male leads don't seem to have been in anything I recognize or have seen, and they do a decent job. The real find here is in Martha Higareda  who is great as Valeria, a bar tender the trio meet their first night in old Mexico. It's a good performance from someone unknown to American audiences. She's also a classically elegant beauty that combined with this performance is more than you often find in the "it girl", who ever it happens to be this week.

In short, Borderlands was definitely worth seeing. I caught it through Fearnet on demand on our Verizon Fios, and I liked it enough that I'll probably pick a copy up at some point in the near future. Best Buy apparently sells it for $9.99 on DVD, which I think is a good value for this film.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island (Martin Scorcese, 2010)

Martin Scorcese is Martin Scorcese, we all know this. I don't have to go into the fact that he's one of the most popular and influential film makers in the mediums history. I don't have to go into the fact that he's produced some of the greatest films in American cinema's history. I don't have to go into it, but I certain enjoy going into it.

Dennis Lehane has had other books he's written adapted for film. One by Clint Eastwood, who made the heart wrenching and deeply affecting Mystic River, and also by Ben Affleck, whose directorial debut ended up being the superb Gone Baby Gone.

Following the release of Scorsese's The Departed, I'd read that he was going to film an adaptation of Lehane's Shutter Island, I thought it could be extremely interesting. It seemed like a really great pairing of great director and great writer/material.

Shutter Island feels very much like an homage to the classic mysteries Hollywood used to make. That's not a bad thing. Bringing those classic ideas of storytelling and it's elements into modern film making can really be something wonderful. L.A. Confidential, and Brick are two great films, completely different from each other, but both employed classic, old school Hollywood film elements perfectly. Shutter Island really seems like his homage to films like Double Indemnity, Dial "M" For Murder, and even the classic Hitchcock mystery.

The thing that sticks out to me the afternoon after having seen Shutter Island, is that Martin Scorcese seems to be having more fun with making films as he's started to get older. There is something about this film and The Departed that just seem to be lighter and more fun, even though the themes are still darker and more adult, they aren't quite as dour and melancholic as say, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, or even Gangs Of New York. There is an energy here that really comes through as infectious and entirely enjoyable.

If you're not aware already, Shutter Island begins with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo playing U.S. Marshall's charged with investigating the disappearance of a patient from a federal asylum for the criminally insane. The asylum happens to be on an island, Shutter Island, shockingly. Ben Kingsley plays the doctor in charge of helping DiCaprio and Ruffalo get all the cooperation they need. Max Von Sydow shows up twenty or so minutes in, playing Kingsley's superior, which was a great surprise for me. If we as film fanatics were to begin canonizing film saints, I'd be rooting for Max Von Sydow as the first. I'm not a "hey, I need to collect every single one of this actors films in every format it's ever been released" kinds of guys, but I would go buy a ticket to any film, simply because Max Von Sydow is in it. Anyway, that's the mystery the film begins with, and the what takes us into the strange and unsettling world of Shutter Island. Being that the film is a mystery, I'm not going to say too much about the plot because half the fun is figuring it out along the way.

I was going to say this might be the closest thing we'll ever get to a Scorsese horror movie, but Cape Fear was pretty close as well. Interestingly enough, even though there are some heavy, and potentially distressingly disturbing elements here, he manages to play them just right so the film isn't wallowing in those things, it's just presenting them to you as part of the story. This could have been a much darker, much more bleak, nihilistic kind of film, and in other hands that's just how it may have ended up, but it's balanced perfectly.

This is a tightly wound story, all the elements of which are played perfectly in their time and tone. It goes for the gusto in all the right places and is more subtle and reflective in the few places that are really necessary. It seems one of the positive things about being American cinema's premier auteur is that when you ask someone if they want to be in your movie, no matter who they are, they say yes. This cast is stacked with top notch talent, not just A list actors, but really talented people who are at their best. Leonardo Dicaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, and Max Von Sydow are all wonderful to watch as men in the midst of a mental chess game, each pair suspicious of the other. That's to be expected though, even Ruffalo , who for whatever reason hasn't had his real movie star, break out role yet, is an extremely talented actor you can count on putting in a strong performance. You can count on any of these actors carrying an entire film by themselves, here, they get to play together. It's great.

It also has a full cast of supporting characters and actors who are intensely interesting to watch and who put in some really great performances. Ted Levine (formerly Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs, currently on the television show Monk) shows up as The Warden, and with a few lines proves he's one of the most underused and under rated actors in Hollywood. Emily Mortimer and the incredible Patricia Clarkson show up in small but pivotal roles and knock it out of the park. Elias Koteas puts in a quick appearance as an especially creepy individual. Michelle Williams once again proves some serious acting chops as DiCaprio's wife, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his streak of strong performances in slightly odd roles. You're going to recognize many of the people in this film, and having seen it through to the end, I think that's something Scorsese chose to do purposely.

The editing and direction aren't quite are more conventional here than most Scorsese films, which for the material, and as an homage to an earlier era of film, works extremely well. There are some more stylistic moments, but given the story and character elements involved, they are perfectly rational, sensible and probably couldn't be accomplished in any other way. It's not done in the same style as a Goodfellas or The Departed with very stylistic cinematography and editing or even Raging Bull which almost took realism to an extreme. This is what a Martin Scorsese fever dream would be like if it followed the central narrative of an old school, classic mystery film. It's beautiful to look at, shot and lit in that kind of classic Hollywood beautiful way. When it's released to the home video/theater (what do we even call that nowadays?), I'll definitely be picking this one up on BluRay. This is the kind of film I want in Hi-Def.

This is the rare film I can recommend to basically everyone. If you have even a passing interest in film, you're going to enjoy this movie. If you have a real passion for film, you're going to enjoy this movie. If acting is the thing that brings you to a theater, it's here. If directing is the thing you look to see, it's here. This is great movie making and vintage Scorsese, at a time in his career when he really seems to be in love with what he's doing. Go see it. If you're going to the movies at any point in the near future, this is the one. If you're sitting at home watching crappy TV after work one night this week. Do yourself a favor and at least go get some of the real deal, gourmet good entertainment for yourself. What I'm saying is, don't miss Shutter Island.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bronson (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2008)

That's not Charles Bronson the star of the Death Wish films, as you can see. This movie really has nothing to do with him, except that it's subject changed his name to Charles Bronson in the midst of a life which has seen him dubbed England's most violent criminal.

Bronson is a film about kicking ass. That is to say the character is interested in nothing other than fighting with prison guards. Seriously, that's it. The film itself is interested in nothing other than kicking ass in the level of quality with which it's made and the way in which it presents this extreme character. Both succeed.

Bronson is the story of a man born Micheal Peterson, who at nineteen commits an armed robbery and is sentenced to seven years in prison. As of the release of the film, he'd spent 34 years in prison, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to the film, he's never actually killed anyone. He attempted to kill a fellow inmate in an asylum though, because he wanted to get back to prison, where he could fight guards. When his victim lives, he's remanded to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he proceeds to start a prison riot. The film focuses on this man, his actions and  his drive for recognition, which is to say, he states at the beginning of the film, "I've always wanted to be famous" and that's about all the explanation you're going to get for why this guy is as completely set on fighting everything, but especially prison guards.

Because Bronson himself is the story, there isn't a very straightforward narrative here. It's also being told to us from his perspective, so to say the narrator is somewhat unreliable, is an understatement. But, there's no blame here, no self pity, none of it. Bronson is recalling these incidents or this tale, as if he would have changed none of it.  The only time it seems he's asking for or trying to get any pity or empathy from the audience is the point in the film in which he's locked in an asylum, being heavily sedated constantly, and unable to be in prison, fighting with guards, as he'd like to be. And in a way, you do pity him. Seeing this guy being reduced to a drooling pile of goo is what I imagine it would have been like to see Churchill rendered mute. Churchill had a gift for words, not only speeches, but in the many other phrases and exchanges which have become part of legend and folk lore. In the film, Bronson seems in the same way to have been made specifically with fighting prison guards in mind.

And that's part of what makes this film interesting. It's suggesting or Bronson was suggesting in writing the book it was based on, that he is a kind of artist whose canvass is violence and publicity. The way he and the film are portrayed, it seems kind of true. And if you can consider it, a feature length, well funded motion picture has been made about the man dubbed England's most violent prisoner, before his death. There does seem to be a certain PT Barnum sense of publicity to this guy.

Being treated to performances like the one Tom Hardy put in portraying Bronson is an extremely rare experience. Hardy's portrayal creates a character who is thoroughly charismatic, and potently disturbing. There's some strange combination here which bespeaks Woody Harrelson's Mickey Knox, Robert Deniro's Travis Bickle, Eric Bana's Mark "Chopper" Read, Denzell Washington's Alonzo Harris and Heath Ledger's Joker. Bronson is a madman, an anti-social maniac anyone in their right mind would be terrified of face to face, but in so many places during the film, you find yourself rooting for him, and hoping that he either gets the nothing he wants or straightens up enough to have some kind of life and do something with the boundless energy and charisma we see. There have been whispers of Tom Hardy playing "Max" in the next Mad Max film, and now I understand why. Though I'm not sure he'll ever come across a part this good again, Hardy is an amazingly talented young actor. Reams of hyperbole have been heaped on this performance since the films release, and in one of those rare cases, it's almost not enough.

Technically, it's a spectacular film. I've read and heard some other reviews and opinions about the film which fault it for being a little too stylistic, but given the subject matter, specifically Bronson himself, that seems to be exactly what it should be. There seems to be a growing tide of film loving and critical folks who find some fault with the kind of stylistic visual tone this film has, which I don't completely understand. If thematically, contextually, and so on, it gets in the way of the story or it overwhelms the characters, that's a problem. But, just because it's become something we're seeing in films more often than we did in the past, doesn't mean it's time to throw on your hipster ascot and make with the hate. It works here, to good effect, in part because the film is coming to you or being told through Bronson's perspective, and that would be an extremely stylized perspective. Scenes of Bronson on a stage, narrating events, while wearing old time vaudevillian harlequin make up, to the roar of a loving crowd, make perfect sense in the context of this character, because he is a completely bug nuts, out of his mind, showman. I could have watched those scenes alone for a long time. Whether or not you agree with director Nicholas Winding Refn's choice to make the films as visually stylistic as it is, you can't say it isn't done well. The regular shifting from deep, strong, vibrant colors, to the institutional blues, greens and grays works well, especially because there's enough texture to every shot that even bathed those institutional colors each composition looks interesting. In the short period of the film covering the 69 days (the point at which he changed his name to Charles "Charlie" Bronson, in order to sound tougher in the underground bare knuckle fighting circuit) Bronson was at one point free from prison, the art direction and costuming are excellent, providing a real sense of time and place. Technically, it's a beautiful film.

Bronson is an extremely entertaining film. It belongs right along side Natural Born Killers, Chopper, and in a kind of strange reversed sense, Fight Club. It's subversive, in an intelligently belligerent way that would have only been entertaining for a short period of time, had it's star and resulting main character not been so magnetic and charismatic you can't take your eyes off him for a second. The lines it draws between criminal and celebrity in keeping with the themes of Natural Born Killers and Chopper. The ideas about identity, violence and masculinity follow very much in line with the ideas in Fight Club, in a strange sort of way. One thing I do have to warn perspective viewers about (because we're weird about this stuff here), there is a lot of male nudity in the film. Bronson doesn't just enjoy fighting guards, he gets bare ass naked to do it, so they can't grab his clothes, and often smothers himself in paint or whatever else he can to approximate grease. If you can't see anything but cock when there is an adult male on film, you need to grow up, and you need to skip this film.  I enjoyed Bronson thoroughly, and I'm going to be going back to check out the films I think are it's thematic and characteristic brethren again specifically because of it.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

House Of The Devil (2009, directed by Ti West)

The House Of The Devil. Really? Seriously?

That's the kind of thing that usually comes to mind when I see a title like that, with a poster like this. As a teenager, I spent many, many, many, many hours scouring the shelves of my local video stores for some delectable horror treat I hadn't seen yet. I'd seen more terrible, awful, crap horror films by the time I was sixteen than most people ever see in their entire lives. Most of them had names like House Of The Devil, and had posters like this.

Interestingly enough, this is not terrible. Not only is it not terrible, it's an interesting, awesome, suspenseful, well made, entertaining horror flick. The name and the the poster both evoke the style of the early eighties for a reason. This is a film with a deep love for those video store shelf titles, and the films which were on them. It's not a dreamy nostalgia, wink and a nod homage. It's not self aware or self referential. It's essentially a period piece, but set in the 1980's as opposed to the 1880's. This could have been right there on those shelves with those films from that period. If you were to see this film and neither enjoy or have respect for anything about this film other than this, it is almost miraculous how well they recreated so much of that time period's low budget film feeling without it being cheesy. The attention to detail deserves respect, even if you were to hate everything else about this film. The Wikipedia entry, says it was actually filmed in 16mm, which in case you're not up on your low budget film history, was what low budget film was shot on for forty years prior to the digital revolution. I'll give them credit for that, just because it's geek cool..

But there's also so much more to make this film cool. There's Tom Noonan, who is AWESOME! He showed up playing a late night horror host in West's earlier film, The Roost, and played The Tooth Fairy in the first film which featured Hannibal Lecter, Michael Mann's Manhunter. The source material was made into another film much later on, named Red Dragon, and though Ralph Fienes is a great actor, he couldn't touch Noonan's work as that character. Noonan also showed up as Frankenstein's monster in The Monster Squad and a number of other films which were pretty great. Tom Noonan can be an incredibly creepy character though, and he is great here as usual.

It has more in common with Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, The Changeling, and The Entity than it does with any of the slasher films of the last thirty years. It's a suspenseful, slow build, slow burn, of bizarrely hallucinatory discomfort. I was not expecting something of this level of talent and quality when I picked it up. I've seen The Roost, and though it definitely had some interesting and strong ideas and it was obvious there was some talent there, it didn't quite come together. I was honestly expecting something so much more like that and less accomplished than this is. This movie isn't perfect, but it is damned good, and even as I was watching it and noticing some of the flaws, I was gleefully forgiving them minutes later because of the things it does right. What this film does get right, it gets gloriously right.

I honestly don't think it's going to matter how much you know about this film ahead of time, because it's well made enough to grab you anyway. Our heroine Samantha calls a number on a flier for a babysitting job because she's trying to rent an apartment and needs the down payment in short order. Upon going out to the house, things aren't quite what they seem, and even though it is a strange situation, and the people are somewhat strange, she agrees. They're weird because they're a satanic cult (a very eighties idea). I thought for one second in this movie, "You know, satanic cults are just too silly to be scary", and thirty seconds later, I was squirming in my seat.

If you were in a coma or were possibly too young to remember it, Satanic cults were the big thing to be afraid of in the eighties. Communism had just crashed, and culturally, Americans have had a big bad to face since the inception of our nation and distinct culture, so a big part of the population fixated on Satanic cults in the absence of commie's. Geraldo Rivera's day time talk show (an early precursor to Jerry Springer) was doing shows on Satanic cults, Donahue was doing shows on them, Inside Edition and Current Affair were running "stories" on them. Everywhere satanic cults were coming to get you or hiding behind the curtain waiting for you to stumble on them. Remember as well, these were the times when bands were being attacked for their music having satanic messages (even if you had to play it backwards to find it) and convincing kids to commit suicide. It couldn't have been the empty promise of a future void of meaning other than soulless consumption that the adults of the decadent eighties were exemplifying or the fact that it was the first decade in which the drive for financial success finally trumped everything else, including raising a family or finding something to do with your life that was useful in any way other than adding zero's to your net worth. . It couldn't have been the first salvo's of a culture war in which one side would attempt to convince said kids that every impulse to do anything their in group didn't approve meant they were evil, less than human and needed to be cleansed. No, it definitely wasn't any of those things.  It was definitely Satanic cults hiding in every corner of society. All joking aside, Satanic cults were practically a national obsession for a while.

It's incredible how good this film looks considering that it was shot on Super 16mm. The color palette is so perfect for the time period, it's almost eerie. Not only is the photography composed very well, there are a few shots and one or two sequences which are pretty amazing. A good deal of this film rested on the way it was going to look, because it takes place during the eighties and really is an eighties film, and because of the tone of the film. Because it is very much a suspense film, it needed to be visually interesting enough to hold people's attention, because it does have that kind of slow build, Hitchcockian suspense.

The score is also something which needs to be commended, because again, it is perfectly done for this kind of film. It's not over bearing and it's not invisible either. It is creepy without being over the top, and music is so important to a horror film like this, you can't really over estimate it.

I do have to be honest in saying I don't actually know what to make of the performance from the lead. I think I'd have a better handle on this after seeing it again. My impression while watching it was that some of the work by Joceline Donahue, was somewhat wooden. But, after having seen the film through to the end, I don't know if that was because her character is just not very interesting in the beginning of the film (especially because she's the "straight" man to supporting actress Greta Gerwig, whose character is much more fun, and whom  I've seen put in great performances in a few other interesting indie films). I also think that even if her performance is kind of poor, it doesn't hurt the movie at all. This is a film which depends on atmosphere, and if you're ever seen a film which has performances or a performance which is just ever so slightly wooden or sub par, you know it produces a kind of uneasy feeling. Now if it's just in your face terrible, you just laugh at it, but if it's just slightly off, you don't necessarily zero in on it, but you notice something isn't right, and in this film, because of the way it's constructed and the way it approaches it's story and character, that would actually be good for the film, overall. After this single viewing, I can't tell if it was just poor acting or if it's something intentional because of the structure of the film and how the director wanted the character played.

I can recommend this film to people who enjoy the older films like Rosemary's Baby, The Entity, The Changeling and so on. I can also recommend this film to people who generally like horror films. I can't recommend this if you're strictly a gorehound. It might be too slow for you, and it might take itself a little too seriously for you. If you are going to pick up a copy of The House Of The Devil on DVD or Blu Ray, make sure you watch it in a darkened room and try to watch it straight through, beginning to end. This film would probably be hurt by too much playing around with your pause button.