Sunday, October 26, 2014

Terror Trimmings #2

Requiem For A Vampire

 
 
Two schoolgirls (and yes, they're dressed in school girl garb the entire flick) become titillation fodder to lead victims to a vampire's castle. Often cited as one of the more accessible Jean Rollin films, it does have its moments, but ultimately it feels strikingly devoid of that Rollin "charm"... whatever that's come to mean nowadays.
 
 
The Day of the Beast
 

 
The appearance of the devil is always ripe material for a horror film, and Alex de Iglesia's "Day of the Beast" takes that material to hyper real, twisted places. A priest (Alex Angula) believes he's decoded an ancient text that predicts the coming of the anti-Christ in Spain on Christmas Day. Believing he must be a sinner to fight the being, he enlists the help of a satanic-music-loving shop keeper (Santiago Segura) and a TV show occultist (Armando de Razza). Part black comedy, part head film, "The Day of the Beast" is highly original, even finding room for sly political commentary.
 
 
Mulberry Street

 
Ah, New York City. If it's not terrible traffic, it's the idea that sewer-dwelling rats can suddenly inflict a mutant pandemic on the population. That's the premise for Jim Mickle's "Mulberry Street". Starring Nick Damici as the pugilist everyman who tries to save everyone in his apartment building from the human rat syndrome, "Mulberry Street" is fun. It's also pretty grotesque and an excellent blueprint for Mickle's universe where no character is safe from the swift, unforgiving and brutal violence that would reach its apex with the wonderful "Stake Land" a few years later.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Fury

David Ayer’s “Fury” takes a surprisingly fresh approach to the World War 2 war film- the psychological and physical hell of wartime in the belly of a tank. Unfortunately, that’s the only surprising thing in this leaden, hugely disappointing film. As the tank leader lunging forward through Nazi-infested Germany, Brad Pitt fails to register as the tougher-than-nails fatherly figure of his motley crew. For the first time in a long while, I couldn’t get beyond the “Brad Pitt-ness” of his performance. In fact, the only one that rises above his cliché ridden outline is Shia LeBouf as the religious minded gunner. His performance is quiet, introverted and wholly human. Jon Bernthal (playing unhinged machismo), Micheal Pena (the token minority) and the viewer’s identity into the film via the role of Logan Lerman (freshly minted typist-turned-soldier) lunge across the screen with such war film ‘generic-ness‘, its deafening. Ayer makes certain to hit every checkmark on the personality test. Saint Pitt drives his men hard then saves some shivering German women. Check. Forces the newbie to commit an atrocious act and then chalk it up to life lessons. Check.


“Fury” also establishes casualties in its confused wartime morality. While rarely painting its American soldiers as honorable or even honest (which is certainly not a necessity of the great war films… history tells us differently about both sides), “Fury” spends a majority of its time elevating the nastiness of its German foes while ultimately bowing to a third act reprieve so egregious, it reeks of strained revisionism. “Fury” is the worst type of propaganda. It walks a straight line between John Wayne-like imperialism one minute then shifts to new age Hollywood liberalism bullshit the next, all the while pretending to be a stout history lesson. But then again, I suppose a tank full of guys led by Brad Pitt is fiction enough for anyone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Terror Trimmings #1

Next of Kin


 
Not to be confused with either the Patrick Swayze revenge-fest or Atom Egoyan's indie calling card, this 1982 Australian film features retirement home horror. It sounds kooky, yes, but the film excels in some stylish direction from director Tony Williams- including one very DePalmaesque slow motion overhead shot when the shit hits the fan- and a strong lead performance by actress Jacki Kerin. When the young woman inherits her aunt's retirement home, she moves in and begins to slowly lose her grip on reality as past and present blur together. A bit of a slasher film in its third act, the first two-thirds is atmospheric and absorbing.
 
 
 
Arcane Sorcerer

 
Often cited by director Guillermo DelToro as a major influence on his work, Pupi Avati's mid 90's seventeenth century chillfest deserves its accolades as top notch slow-burn horror. Taking place during the eighteenth century, a young priest is exiled by the church after impregnating a woman. He begins working for a writer in an isolated part of the countryside and is exposed to shades of the occult and black magic. Splendid production design, articulate cinematography and a genuinely unnerving narrative all create a wonderfully lurid experience. And its a film full of eyes. Since its often said eyes are the window to the soul (and the stakes are for someone's soul) it all makes perfect sense.
 
Grapes of Death



 
Jean Rollin's "Grapes of Death" is certainly more nihilistic than many of his films, yet its still complete with beautiful women, lush French countryside and that aura that one only gets with a Rollin film. It could also be called a precursor to the now popular eco-terror film. After a group of men spray a vineyard with a new chemical, people begin turning into skin melting homicidal zombies. Young Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) just happens to be traveling back to the infested area to meet her boyfriend and becomes embroiled in the melee. Infinitely more gory than many of his previous work, it does begin to run out of steam towards the end, but its still a terrific Rollin film. If you like his work, its a must see. It also features a great WTF moment as a blind girl comes stumbling into the film, wandering around alone in what has to be the rockiest part of the French countryside ever. You gotta love Rollin for such ludicrous moments.
 
 

Hands of the Ripper

 
Early 70's Hammer horror film that posits the idea of Jack the Ripper possessing his young daughter and carrying on his killings through her. Enter aged psychiatrist Eric Porter who feels he can study and 'cure' her. Not really an out and out horror film, but more of a slasher film where the killer is exposed in the first ten minutes.
 
 
Here Comes the Devil
 

 
I was disappointed in this one. While the shocks are subdued ([artly due to the budget constraints I'm guessing) it never really created a believable atmosphere. When brother and sister go missing, parents Laura Caro and Francesco Barreiro become basket cases. The children re-appear the next morning safe and sound. But its only later that mom begins to suspect her children are not acting normally. This sounds terrible to say as a good, staunch Catholic, but devil films always seem to get under my skin. One of the surprisng joys of the new "Annabelle" film is the re-occurance of that especially nasty horned devil thing from the "Insidious" films. In "Here Comes the Devil", the scares are hinted at with little follow-through. The most terrifying thing about the film are the lengths the parents go to exact their own special brand of revenge in one scene. 



Thursday, October 09, 2014

70's Bonanza: Bite the Bullet

Think of the madcap all-star race films of the 1960's ("Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World") transposed to the American West with a bit of 70's melancholy and that's exactly what one gets with the Richard Brooks film "Bite the Bullet". Starring James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Jan Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman and Ben Johnson, the film takes place over the course of one week as the various riders race across 700 miles of tough terrain and barren desert. Along the way, they find their feelings for each other, mend old wounds and generally lament about the passing of the Old West... all stalwart topics in the highly revisionist era of the woozy 1970's. Yet "Bite the Bullet" overcomes its oft cliches and ambles into a deeply entertaining, consistently moving exploration of people against nature and the choices we make, good or bad.

Brooks, a filmmaker of great clarity and purpose, made "Bite the Bullet" towards the end of his career after major hits such as "The Professionals" and "In Cold Blood". At first glance, "Bite the Bullet" looks like a gimmick. All those Hollywood stars, dirtying themselves and flying across the screen on horses at breakneck speed. But its the quieter moments that resonate and reveal the film to be something more. Ben Johnson, as the eldest of the riders, easily embodies the 'death of the west' with his world weary gait and seen-it-all-expressions. Hackman, saddled with a bitter past and even more complicated relationship with fellow female competitor Candice Bergen, is the conscience of the film, holding the others riders in check and, eventually, crafting the film's most perfectly imagineable finale. But it's James Coburn who remains as the soul of the film.... his deep voice always spouting reason and uttering the film's most pungent one liners. "Bite the Bullet" (whose title is a bit of an in-joke within the film) might have been assembled from the Hollywood factory as a method to cash in on the various high profile persona, but it far exceeds those superficial beginnings and becomes something terrific on its own.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Consequences of Pop: Olivier Assayas and "Disorder"

Olivier Assayas' "Disorder" (1986), which marked his formal entrance into the film making world after several short films and a celebrated stint writing for the esteemed French film magazine Cahier du Cinema, holds the best attributes for a debut. Not only does it pantomime so many of his future themes and shooting style, but it denotes the strong voice of an artist struggling to capture the naive and halcyon days of youth... something he's been chasing all these years. It's also very Gallic. His young threesome of lovers (2 males and 1 female) begin in an idyllic sharing relationship and then discover the oscillations of time, society and their own careless decisions continually tug and pull them apart. All of this against the backdrop of a bustling 80's pop music scene and "Disorder" lives up to its raucous title.

Opening on the three young lovers in a car during a rainstorm, their open relationship is immediately established as Anne (Anne Gisel Glass) leans into the font seat and kisses both Ivan (Wadeck Stanczak) and Henri (Lucas Belvaus, himself a future filmmaker). The trio break into a music shop, hoping to steal some instruments for their band. Little do they know, the owner is still in the building and catches them in the act. In an impulsive moment, Ivan kills the shop owner and the three make their escape. Anne is confused and devastated by the action, but Ivan and Henri attempt to go on with their lives. It's not long after, though, that their guilty conscience eats away at them. Anne decides to choose only one of them as her lover, and she chooses Henri. Unable to cope with her complicity, she eventually leaves both of them. Henri and Ivan try to carry on with their band, earn a studio contract and navigate the tempestuous relationships that come with a struggling band. Drummer Xavier (Remi Martin) loses his girlfriend to band member Gabriel (Simon de Bosse). Ivan falls in love with their manager's girlfriend, Cora (Corinne Dacla). Studio contracts come and go as the band can never find stable footing together. In typical Assayas fashion, "Disorder" is a merry-go-round for flirtations, break-ups and longing phone calls that yearn for simpler, quieter days. But that's the beauty of his cinema. The first ten minutes of "Disorder" sets the viewer up for a Bonnie and Clyde style thriller with the lovers on the run. Yet, not a single police officer shows up. The tension lies in the psychological storm that brews in the heads and hearts of Anne, Henri and Ivan. Like Christine (Virgine Ledoyen) in "Cold Water" (1994) and so many other Assayas protagonists, they're fragile embodiments... prone to depression, confusion and rambling, searching for happiness but finding only bitterness.
 
As a first film, "Disorder" isn't without its faults. The few scenes of the band performing don't give any insight into why they seem so popular or even merit a studio contract. In the annuls of bad 80's synth/guitar rock, they don't even seem to earn a place there. Some of the secondary characters feel less inspired and motivated than in future Assayas films. And, at times, even Ivan and Henri seem to be scarcely drawn caricatures of alienated French youth. Still, "Disorder" overcomes these precocious attempts in its final act as Henri, Ivan and Anne have grown up a little and developed in the real world over time. There's the omnipresent Assayas personal disaster to overcome, but "Disorder" creates a tender order in the final minutes as Anne makes a phone call to Henri and we fade to black. If nothing else, "Disorder" reveals that Assayas has that quiet knockout ending in him from the very beginning.




Monday, September 29, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.7

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Scott Frank’s brooding “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a step above the other rote Liam Neeson action vehicles out there as of late. The film does set itself apart right from the beginning, as its title sequences are displayed against a stark backdrop as Neeson walks towards the camera down a flight of steps after committing the film’s opening act, which will haunt him more than we can yet guess. But for all its ambition, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” left me a bit cold, especially in its detective angle. My personal attachment for the procedural in crime films is well documented, and while “A Walk Among the Tombstones” will certainly impact those looking for a deviant serial killer flick, I wanted something a little more cerebral. Neeson’s Detective Scudder seems intelligent, yet Frank’s screenplay barely registers more than a minute or so on the actual progression of finding the killers. It’s all given in quick edits of eye witnesses succinctly describing a certain aspect of the murderers and the crime scene. It all felt a bit compact, rushed and too easy and, ultimately, disappointed me.

The Skeleton Twins

 Shame on the trailers for ruining would should have been the incandescent moment in Craig Johnson’s stellar “The Skeleton Twins”. Fortunately, the rest of the film is just as good as the impromptu lip sync between Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig that centerpieces the promotional marketing. And what’s even more surprising about the film are the performances from Wiig and Hader as estranged brother and sister who reconnect after Hader’s attempted suicide and spend a few weeks together. Both have deep familial issues they’re working through, and both actors reveal a stark humanity within cliched ‘indie’ paradigms. “The Skeleton Twins” excels at pretty much everything… even the secondary characters portrayed by Luke Wilson as Wiig’s husband and Ty Burrell as a past figure in Hader’s complicated love life. The emotions and repertoire stirred up throughout the film consistently reveal how messy, imperfect and, ultimately, affirming the curve balls of life routinely are.

The Equalizer

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer”. This is quite possibly the worst film of the year. Feeling (and looking) like a throwback to the terrible action films of the 80’s- for goodness sakes the finale takes place in a Home Depotesque retail building that turns into the grounds for World War III- “The Equalizer” is dumb, loud and pretty much insulting to even fans of the action genre. Denzel Washington is the titular bad ass, brought out of bad assery retirement when a girl he befriends (Chloe Grace Moretz) becomes a punching bag for the Russian mafia. Oh yes, those Russkies with their full body tattoos and twirling black mustaches. He becomes untouchable, dealing his own brand of justice and befriending a chubby security guard along the way, teaching him the ways of life and destroying half of Boston without a single person noticing. “Then Melissa Leo shows up with husband Bill Pullman to utter lines like “he didn’t come here for forgiveness. He came here for permission!” “The Equalizer” is humorless, condescending and antiquated in just about every respect.