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.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's Not for the Children

I recently had a conversation, the result of an opinion I had about a particular film, that boiled down to being a question about violence in media and it's effects on children. On the one hand, the person I was conversing with was pointing out that people model the behavior they see, especially the behavior they see repeatedly and often. This is a fair point, and often true. He was suggesting that because children are probably going to be exposed to it, that it's irresponsible to create things, film, television, and fiction in general that depicts violence.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2013)

In the 1980's, John Hughes came along and gave a generation of kids an iconic voice that many of them believed understood them. Hughes, at his best, was warm, funny, insightful and at the very least, had a grasp on the kind of confusion and sense of isolation that accompanies many kids through adolescence and all through high school.

It's understandable, in thinking back on his films, that they were as popular as they were with middle class kids who essentially had their whole lives ahead of them and for whom high school quite possibly was the hardest time in their lives. There were certain problematic cultural and social aspects to his films, but from a story and artistic standpoint, given how well he did tap in to those less enjoyable aspects of adolescence, the largest problem with them was that they were ultimately fantasies. They tended to present a kind of epic victory, which only coincides with reality on the most rare occasions. The real victories for most people who experience adolescence as a very painful period of existence, are much more subtle, and many of them only come later, after the pain of the initial experience has dulled somewhat and we can gain some perspective on that experience, what it taught us and what happens when we choose to shape how it effects who we become.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, is in many ways a much less superficial and fantasy generated John Hughes film. It's a much more honest film, that doesn't look away from the ugliest aspects of being an adolescent or that it's an extremely complicated period in life in which the more horrible aspects of human behavior and social interactions begin to come crashing down and threatening to create the parameters in which one may define themselves for the rest of their lives. It doesn't attempt to ignore the fact that it's a period of new freedoms, and with those freedoms sometimes come emotionally bruising and horrifying discoveries. It's an honest and, dare I say it, beautiful film, in that it's also not completely overtaken by those darker aspects of its story. The good, great, bad and ugly are all given equal attention, and become undercurrents, instead of signifying moments on which the entire plot turns. None of them is so particularly dominant as to define it as a whole. It is at the same time a somewhat hopeful film, but without having to resort to outright fantasy and the kind of epic victory Hughes installed at the end of basically all of his films.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

When I first started seeing the marketing images for Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, I was wondering exactly what James Franco was doing jumping into the seedy pool of the celebratory ritual that is the "spring break film" or really any youth oriented sexualized exploitation. Franco definitely doesn't seem to want to play by anyone else' rules, but so far, he seems to be relatively thoughtful in choosing his roles, and it just didn't fit. Was this maybe some kind of attempt to give the middle finger to some perceived image of him as someone who wasn't willing to go against the grain of "political correctness"? I wasn't sure. It wouldn't completely shock me, as Franco has resisted almost all attempts to corner him as anything other than an actor who can carry a film.

Then, I realized it was a Harmony Korine film, and the state of confusion only deepened. I've seen Kids and Trash Humpers. Nothing in the marketing made any sense in connection with what I understood of Harmony Korine's films. Did he just get tired of languishing in relative obscurity and decide he was going to go for the big money? His films have almost always been in complete opposition to what the trailer and marketing were suggesting. He has no trouble dealing with tough, controversial material, presenting things with complexity and even when he's not at his best, he's still never produced anything that any amount of consideration can call exploitation. I had to hope there was something else going on here.

Luckily for all of us, there is.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Frankenstein Theory (Andrew Weiner, 2013)

In the last decade, the found footage sub-genre has suffered from it's own success. Most famously, the Paranormal Activity franchise became a Halloween behemoth. Spawning three sequels of varying quality, the little found footage indie that could became a bonafide phenomenon and then suffered the inevitable consequences visited upon anything that gains any degree of popularity these days, including a backlash against the genre it's a part of.

The entire sub-genre owes a debt to The Blair Witch Project, a film that although it's still controversial, proved there could still be inventive, crowd pleasing ways to approach familiar stories and icons, and succeeded in scaring audiences out of their wits. Had it not become the most profitable independent film of all time (before Paranormal Activity stole that title), found footage wouldn't be a sub-genre at all.

The Frankenstein Theory is a film that is intimately familiar with the sub-genre it belongs to, and it's best elements result from that understanding. It takes the things in other found footage films that have worked and uses them well. It also avoids some of the common problems of found footage through it's cast, location and script. Most notably, it uses the aspects of The Blair Witch and The Last Exorcism that were most effective and avoids most of their mistakes. Some of the creative team behind The Last Exorcism (definitely among the better found footage horror films) are also involved with The Frankenstein Theory.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Theatre Bizarre (anthology, 2011)

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

Do you like Lovecraft inspired horror? How about kinky, body horror? Are you into horror with a slightly more metaphysical aspect to it? What about psychological horror? Maybe the kind of art house horror that goes all out weird and truly mind boggling is more your taste? Are you into gore? What are your feelings about the emotionally disturbing kind of horror that reflects on childhood? How do you feel about creepy Udo Kier?

If you’ve answered postively to more than two or three of those questions, The Theatre Bizarre is for you. If you can’t find one or two segments that you enjoy in this film, you probably hate horror films.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dark Skies (Scott Stewart, 2013)

The home invasion thriller, the possession film, the haunted house genre, and alien abductions make up the mix of what Dark Skies is attempting to be. Starring Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, with J.K. Simmons in a supporting role, it centers around a family experiencing strange phenomenon that turns out to be alien activity. All of this is highlighted in the trailer, so it's not giving anything at all away to describe that much here. Scott Stewart, whose previous directing credits include Legion and Priest, has written a script with a much more condensed cast and a much less epic variety of story here.

Walking into the theater and sitting through the film, I had no idea that Scott Stewart was the director. Had I known that, and had I known that his other directing credits were Legion and Priest, I might have been more well prepared for exactly what Dark Skies is. If you've seen those two films or even one of those, it won't come as a shock to you that Dark Skies ends up being supremely silly. There are a few decent ideas, and one or two good jump scares, but overall, it just comes off as laughably silly. As if that point needed to be driven home, in the moments that most definitely should have been more creepy or frightening, most of the audience in my theater was laughing. It wasn't a nervous laughter either.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

Storytelling is an art and film making is an illusion with storytelling as one of the aspects of that illusion. When the two come together, it becomes something that reaches a height beyond which either could by themselves. Brick, the first film from writer/director Rian Johnson took the usual structure and tropes of a noir and put them in a high school movie. It was done with essentially no money and it is, without doubt, the film to which the latest incarnation of Joseph Gordon Levitt's career can be attributed to. It's fun in the great way old noir could be, tense in the way old noir could be and for those who saw it, was the announcement that there was a deeply talented young writer/director with a promising career ahead. If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth a viewing.

His second film, The Brothers Bloom, does very much the same thing Brick did. Instead of using the noir tropes and structure though, this time he's using basic ideas and structure of a con film. Instead of taking all of those things and putting them in a high school movie, this time he's taking them and putting them in a romantic comedy. That description isn't something completely unusual. We've seen that film a number of times before, and they're so often mediocre that if I were reading it, I'd probably just roll my eyes and move on. Rian Johnson takes those elements and brings out the best in them to end up creating a truly entertaining, intelligently sentimental, emotionally effecting, but not corny or sappy while also being a metaphorically interesting film.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Excision (RIchard Bates Jr, 2012)

It's no surprise that so many horror films feature adolescents and that they are the audience the films are meant for. Unless you're the most fortunate of individuals, the kind who won all of the lotteries of fate, granted the genetic ticket to have grown into someone that matches societies description of physical beauty, a materially comfortable and secure home, a relatively well adjusted family, and the confidence that comes with all of that, chances are adolescence is not going to be an easy, simple time in your life that doesn't involve stress and confusion that you're barely capable of handling.

Horror films are a great outlet for that stress and tension, and many of them are created by people who understand that experience from a very personal standpoint. The best of these kinds of films distill that combination of sheer terror, youthful energy, and the hope that somewhere, somehow the confidence and capability the world seems to value are going to available. In the case of horror films, they usually aren't available to the characters until after some horrible, terrifying experience has threatened their physical safety, their immortal souls or something else your average teenager finds of great value. It's not a mistake that for decades, horror films were based on a lone survivor having watched their entire circle of friends unceremoniously massacred by a maniac wielding a variety of different weapons. It represented both the connection to community that many teenagers experience and fear losing and the degree of competition in that community. As budding adults, teenagers and adolescents are basically new converts to the adult experience. They haven't quite gotten there and don't have the acceptance that an adult does though. As with any other new convert in any other subset or society, they're also the one's who are going to most forcefully enforce group norms as part of the insecure need to feel they belong and deserve their place, and in doing so, they end up creating a hyper competitiveness, which comes out in horror films as the inevitable whittling down of the community or competitors to one lone survivor, who has survived because of some combination of traits they've drawn on either purposely or by chance, that the others lacked.

Excision explores many of those same ideas from a perspective that couldn't be more different from your standard horror film. After seeing it to the end, few people would argue that this isn't a horror film, but it doesn't deal with it's characters or it's content in the way audiences generally expect a horror film with an adolescent as the central character to deal with them. It's instead presenting a view of that experience and the kind of hyper competitiveness that comes with it from the perspective of someone who is more or less experiencing it from the outside and not as a member of a small community of friends.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

One of the unfortunate truths about American movie audiences is that they just aren't going to go to the multiplex to see a documentary. Anyone making a documentary film has to resign themselves to the fact that they are therefore attempting to reach a smaller audience than your average narrative film. Among the many reasons that's unfortunate is that films like The Imposter exist. They are documentaries, and they can provide the same degree of suspense and skillful storytelling that any narrative can provide, and as importantly, they are generally concerned with presenting a much more realistic perspective on things that do or have actually happened or existed in the real world. They aren't works of fantasy by their very nature.

To that end, if it weren't already relatively well publicized and easy to research, I don't think the majority of audiences would believe that The Imposter is actually a real story. It's too weird to be real, and too strange to be fiction, but it's true. There are points in the film that would be impossible to believe if it weren't being relayed by the people who are actually at the center of the story. All of the major players in the events the film is depicting are interviewed in the course of the revelation of the story. It not only gives the story credibility, it also adds to the sense of suspense and it adds to the power of the final destination on the journey the film is guiding the audience on.

The Imposter is the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a twenty three year old French citizen who impersonated a missing child from a small town in Texas, and the family who took him in under the auspices that he was their missing child. It's a compelling, shocking and brilliantly told tale about the nature of identity, trust, belief, desire, and perspective. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013)

Guillermo Del Toro has reached a place in his career that allows him to not only take on the full plate of projects he's attached to (and he's constantly attached to a large slate of upcoming films, whether they end up being made or not), but by attaching his name to a project as a producer, he can allow young directors their chance at making a full length feature. He's done this previously with The Orphanage, a stylish and spooky fright flick released in 2007 and directed by then novice film maker Juan Antonio Bayona. It was a film that bore a resemblance to Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, not so much as imitation, but as spiritual kin in that they both drew from a long, rich history of traditional ghost stories and an old time era of horror films. Both films relied on suspense more than shock and imbued their stories with a healthy bit of the kind of tragedy that has been missing from horror films for a few decades.

Now comes Mama, director Andrés Muschietti's first feature. Having only previously directed a short film of the same name, Muschietti is very much an unknown quantity and without the weight of Del Toro's name would never have been able to secure either a budget of the size Mama obviously has (by no means a blockbuster budget, but still definitely of a larger variety than most any director with one short film under his belt would usually be able to secure), and even more importantly, a nationwide distribution deal.

Shocking both the horror community and Hollywood, Mama succeeded in burying the competition in it's opening weekend. Not insignificant among those ranks was Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to the world of action films, Last Stand. There's some question about whether or not that's due to the change in the landscape of cinema since Schwarzenegger's exit from cinema to take up politics or audiences just having lost interest in him, but regardless of all that, Mama was a surprise hit. Also, a mostly positive word of mouth didn't hurt the film in the least, and seeing the director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy at the top of the posters and advertisements certainly doesn't hurt. The question is, did Mama and it's director just settle under a lucky star or is the film good enough to have accomplished all this on it's own?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Dies At The End (Don Coscarelli, 2012)

Don Coscarelli has had a unique career. He came to be a prominent writer/director among horror fans in 1979 following the release of Phantasm. He also went on to direct it's many sequels and is the man who wrote and directed The Beastmaster series, which has it's whole own cult following. In case you aren't familiar, the Phantasm series follows a boy who upon discovering the local mortician is actual a being from another dimension doing rather dastardly things with the bodies, sets out to stop him. After making this discovery, the series of films follow this young man, and his friend Reggie the ice cream man, as they battle the forces from this other dimension that are attempting to take over earth. I understand how that sounds, but at the very least, the original Phantasm is worth seeing because it is mind bogglingly original. It matches some real scares with some deeply funny moments and shockingly surreal imagery.

The Beastmaster is something else altogether. It's also a piece of fantasy fiction, but it's extremely different than Phantasm. Much more along the lines of a sword and sorcery variety of fantasy, it follows a warrior who can communicate with animals on an epic adventure, the third film in the series also involving time travel. It is a joyfully silly, fun adventure film in the best traditions of sword and sorcery films.

Those are the films which put Don Coscarelli safely in the hearts of horror and fantasy film fans the world over. He had fallen off the radar for a number of years though. He didn't release a film between Phantasm IV: Oblivion which was released in 1998 and his next film which was released in 2002. That film, was a howling ball of weird hilarity mixed with a healthy dose of horror genre tropes. Bubba Ho-Tep announced Coscarelli's return in a way that made horror fans and fans of the surreal and absurd sit up and cheer like a pack of wild hyenas that have just broken into a slaughterhouse. Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame) plays a man in a nursing home who may or may not actually be Elvis Presley. That's the easy part of the story. The rest is that there's a mummy roaming around that is killing the inhabitants of the nursing home, and when Elvis/Sebastian figures this out, he enlists the help of John F. Kennedy (played by Ozzy Davis). Yes, you read that right. Don't worry, if you actually see the film, which you should, you'll understand and it will make sense.

Needless to say, Don Coscarelli is making very different movies from 99% of the other film makers alive today, and when he's been gone from the landscape of cinema for ten years, many people notice the absence. To his credit, he's made all of these films, and a few others, with the absolute least amount of money he could possibly have at his disposal and is still creating incredibly fun and entertaining films. He is more consistently willing to take chances and try to be actually creative, in the sense of doing things we've never seen before, than most other writers and directors working today. What he isn't, is making movies with serious content even though he's serious about being creative. His films are one hundred and ten percent about being fun, entertaining and original. John Dies at the End is no different. Based on the book of the same name by David Wong (which is itself a pseudonym for a former editor of Vice magazine, Jason Pargin), John Dies at the End, fits into Coscarelli's filmography perfectly, and might just be the high point for his career to date. It's an insane film, barreling at the audience at 250 m.p.h, laughing maniacally, spewing guts and not bothering to slow down and ask whether or not you're keeping up or getting out of the way.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zero Sum Controversy

2012 had it's fair share of controversy spilling out of the film press and into the more mainstream news. The Dark Knight Rises was lambasted as both a communist plot to indoctrinate youths and inspire them to overthrow the wealthy and as a propaganda tool of the 1% in an attempt to convince the pleebs that they actually have our best interests at heart. Both things could or could not be true. Overall, the film got sucked into a larger social/political discussion that I don't think it meant to include itself in. I think the fact that the script was finished almost two years prior to going into production supports that. Also, it's a movie about a guy running around at night dressed up like a bat and beating people to a pulp with his bare hands, another guy who sounded like Sean Connery if he'd had a few too many highballs and someone slipped him a tab of acid, and a woman dressed up like a cat caught between the two. No matter how I might feel about how well or poorly made the film might be on it's own merits, it's hard for me to take away any serious political content from it. I do take it as a good sign that virtually no one read their tea leaves to mean that the shooting that happened in Aurora Colorado during a midnight screening was somehow the fault of the film, the film makers or anyone else involved with the film. Take small miracles where you can get them when it comes to acts of maturity by our politically motivated brethren.

Now comes Zero Dark Thirty. The clashing of my worlds is happening yet again. I can't read the film press without some screed either defending or defiling the film based on whether or not the writer feels the film did or did not defend the use of torture. Let me be clear here, I have yet to see the film, and I honestly have no interest in weighing in on that debate in part for that reason and in part because I find the tenor of the entire discussion pretty ridiculous. I also can't turn from the film press to what is generally considered more "substantial news" and escape the ridiculousness of it either. Suddenly, the same discussion is popping up in places that normally couldn't care any less about film or what is happening on screens nation wide or world wide. Somehow, no matter which side a particular journalist comes down on, I want to bang my head on my desk or stick a pen in my ear.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez, 2011)

Back in 1999, there was this little film that came along and added an entirely new dimension to cinema. It gave film makers a new tool with which to tell whatever story they chose, and it gave audiences a new cinematic touchstone. Eduardo Sanchez was one of the directors and primary creative minds behind what became the most profitable independent film of all time, The Blair Witch Project. For all of the hemming and hawing about the found footage genre in the film press, it can't be argued that the existence of the genre is due to The Blair Witch Project. It was behemoth, with a sly, fun and interesting viral and completely unusual marketing scheme that added to the experience of the film and helped build a buzz that made it a sign of things to come. If you were under 30 when it was released (or just a horror geek, no matter your age), it was the film you were talking about prior to and following it's release. Paranormal Activity learned everything it knew from The Blair Witch Project and then did what Blair Witch failed to do, provide sequels that were financially successful and added successfully added to the series mythology.

At the time, Sanchez and his co-creator/director Daniel Myrick were suddenly the hottest new names in horror. Unfortunately, neither of them have replicated anything like the success of that first feature, and they have more or less fallen off the cultural radar. Marketing departments still rely on the name The Blair Witch Project when either man releases a new film, but they just don't have the power they did previously. No one is clamoring to see the next film from either man, and really, The Blair Witch Project is almost considered a piece of kitsch from a bygone era.

Lovely Molly, the latest film from Sanchez, has helped to start bringing some of that prominence back for the writer/director. It was received relatively well on the festival circuit and the internet horror film press were certainly giving it plenty of copy preceding it's release, something Sanchez films since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 haven't had the good fortune to receive. Lovely Molly unfortunately slid by with very little notice from the general movie going public, and that may be good or bad depending on your perspective. I was expecting a pretty standard haunted house/possession film, but what I got was completely different.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

I spent my late teens and early twenties doing my best to sift through the pantheon of horror films that were both "must see" and "watch at your own risk." If it was something that was either considered one of the masterworks of the genre, a film that added a new dimension to it or changed the course the genre had been going, I was trying to see it. At the same time, if a film been deemed to have absolutely no social value, to be inexplicably offensive, to be an attack on everything a civil society should be, I was doing my best to get my hands on a copy, even if it was just borrowed. My VHS collection, when those were actually the preferred home viewing method, wasn't unimpressive to a well schooled horror fan. Like so many other budding cinephiles and horror geeks, I took pride in the fact that I could recite the years of release, directors, producers, stars and inane trivia related to many of the more obscure trash horror films released between 1953 to what was then the present. I didn't understand it as such at the time, but I was using film as a way to begin to gauge what the society I lived in found to be worthy of reverence and what it found to be unacceptable when it came to art and free speech.

I've seen some disturbing shit in movies. For a time, I thought there was some kind of psychological or emotional strength gained from sitting through a film that was little more than punishment. I might not have actually been wrong about that, but I still wasn't exactly right either. What it produced seems to be a pretty deep well of tolerance for what gets created, produced, screened, marketed and what have you when it comes to the creative arts. Especially with things that are actually created to shock or to produce revulsion or distress in the audience, I have never come to the point that I've said, "They shouldn't have been allowed to make that." I certainly feel there are films which have no business being made, but even those tend to be as related to the obviousness of their commercialism as it is for the outrageous and shocking aspects of another films content. I'd rather I Spit On Your Grave exist before Battleship any day. Hit the jump to find out why, and what relevance this has to Compliance.