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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Last Few Films I Saw, September edition

I've got to get out of these cinematic doldrums of late. Is it just me or have the last few months been lacking in interesting films?

 1. The Sacrament (2014)- I really like Ti West. His low-fi horror film "House of the Devil" will probably become annual Halloween viewing. This one is a found footage experiment concerning a Jonestown-like cult investigated by three journalists. It's decent. The "found footage" wall is continually broken as it winds down (who exactly is supposed to be shooting this footage now?) and it ends predictably. I couldn't help but think back to Gareth Evans' strong entry in "V/H/S 2" for the best cult-horror-found-footage film in years... if such a genre exists. Amy Seimetz as the sister of one of the journalists who leads them to the cult is very solid as usual.

2. God's Pocket (2014)- One of the last Philip Seymour Hoffman flicks also displays him on virtual auto-pilot as a down and out Philly hustler dealing with the shit of urban Philadelphia.... which means local hoods, stolen meat packaging trucks, a dead son-in-law and getting to screw Christina Hendricks. Based on a book by Pete Dexter (whose work is so rich for further films), "God's Pocket" is just too much of the same urban malaise.

3. The Drop (2014)- Urban malaise is done more acutely in Michael Roskam's "The Drop", namely because, unlike "God's Pocket", the secondary characters (especially Matthias Schoenaerts) feel alive and three dimensional. There's also novelist Denis Lehane's strict adherence to forgiveness and Catholic guilt that propels the basic moral complexity of the film. As the low-mannered and quiet barkeep caught up in the middle of underworld robberies and spent lifestyles, Tom Hardy scores again in a role that could have become rote. He makes it work. The relationship with equally damaged woman Noomi Rapace is sensitive and genuine as well. A very good, low-key atmospheric crime film.

4. Falling Point (1970)- Robert Hossein directs and minimally stars in this thriller about a group of men who kidnap a rich man's daughter and extort him for money. What's unique about this film is that it jettisons the usual action and focuses on the psychological attachment that develops between captor (Johnny Halladay) and captive (beautiful Pascale Rivault) as they wait in a lonely beach cabin. Basically a chamber piece, "Falling Point" is great for the way Hossein (as usual) exerts so much through little dialogue. The eyes of Hallyday say everything about his doubts and reservations when the time comes and the shootout on the sandy dunes harks back to Hossein's love for the western. Hard to find, but well worth the hunt.

5. The Green Berets (1968)- It would be easy to dismiss John Wayne's Vietnam film was gung-ho Americana, but that's too easy. It's much better than that. Dealing with the war at the height of its volcanic temperament both here and abroad, "The Green Berets" satisfies its anti-war clique by addressing their concerns in the beginning and then embedding a liberal reporter with Wayne's group as they try and defend an outpost in the Vietnam jungle, questioning many of the film's attitudes towards the event. The war scenes are admirably filmed (except for a few model/dummy explosion scenes that are straight B-movie stuff) and even my lackluster admiration for Wayne as an actor is subdued by the rich characterizations and easy sentimentality.

6. This Is Not A Film (2012)- Jafar Panahi's self exploration documentary shows what's best about Iranian film making- the ability to turn 'meta' at any moment and transform fiction into stunning reality. The first hour of the film documents Panahi's secluded lifestyle in his apartment- forbidden to make films and awaiting his final appeal decision from an Iranian court where he's facing 20 years for anti political film making. He acts out scenes from an unfinished script.... talks to his lawyers... deconstructs his own films he shows on TV... and then a casual meeting between the building custodian outside his door turns into an opportunity for Panahi to invest his time in someone else.

7. The Tit and the Moon (1994)- Bigas Luna's childhood fantasy film about a young boy's obsession with the breasts of a traveling circus woman (Mathilde May) after he becomes jealous of his newborn sibling. Like Luna's other 90's films (especially "Jamon, Jamon"), "The Tit and the Moon" is an elaborate soap opera where lust, fantasy, childhood and adulthood swirl around in high style. It's entertaining, but ultimately forgettable.

8. Johnny YesNo (1983)- Short film about a man (Jack Elliot) searching the neon streets for the woman of his dreams. Filmed in grainy black and white and featuring a weird soundtrack by the cult band Cabaret Voltaire, "Johnny YesNo" is like a Sex Pistols inspired film noir.

9. Play Dirty (1969)- Andre deToth's hard nosed, nihilistic war film stars Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport as renegades sent into the African desert to destroy a German oil depot. The scene where the men drag their military vehicles over a mountain and especially the ending are top notch sequences in a genre full of top notch sequences.

10. Lucy (2014)- Luc Besson's grrrrl power update of "La Femme Nikita" stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman infused with a drug that allows her to utilize 100% of her brain potential. Naturally she becomes the Terminator. As goofy and ludicrous as it is, I still found myself hugely entertained and even moved by "Lucy". There are a few scenes- namely Johansson's phone call to her mother and the downright weird ending- that linger in my mind.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Yoshitaro Nomura Files: Stake Out

The title sequence of Yoshitaro Nomura's debut film, "Stake Out" (1958) lays its claim to the tradition of hard boiled cinema through its full screen display of one man's eyes, intently staring off into the distance, with the film's title scribbled across the image. It's an opening worthy of Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich. But the rest of the film is specifically Japanese... and completely in line with Nomura's penchant for 'proceduralism' coupled with the devastating personal consequences that law and order often bring upon the individual.


But, in the hands of Nomura, that devastation is parceled out carefully and distinctly. After a lengthy opening sequence in which two men travel by train through an oppressive heat to an unknown town, we begin to piece together the reason for their journey. They find a house where a seemingly non descript woman is sending her children off to school. The two men discover the perfect vantage point of the woman's house across the street in a hotel and take up residence where they begin to watch her activities every minute of the day. Through a parallel narrative, we find out the two men are detectives, sent to the town in hopes that a wanted fugitive will reacquaint himself with the woman who was his lover years earlier. The first two-thirds of "Stake Out" is just that.... the two cops watching, observing, note taking and following the woman as she goes about her daily routines and walking to the market. But there are subtle moments that raise the tension level profoundly. Nomura frames the first half of "Stake Out" from the men's high vantage point across the street. Mailmen and stumbling drunks become chess pieces in a mounting puzzle of suspicion. When will the fugitive show up? Is this seemingly normal woman a red herring? Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window", the frame of spying becomes an intense visual metaphor for our own viewership and expectations on the genre. And then something does happen and "Stake Out" spirals into another direction... one that had me rooting not for the cops but for the woman caught up in the middle.



Like Nomura's later masterpiece, "The Castle of Sand" (1974), "Stake Out" uses the police procedural genre to touch on larger themes in life. In that film, the body of an unknown man uncovers a disastrous history of one family. In "Stake Out", the damnation is more intimate to one person. Without giving too much away, Nomura certainly emphasizes this drama in the way his camera collapses down as the woman does the same in the penultimate scene. After a series of images caught up in the perspective of watching and being watched, its an acutely personal moment that realizes there are personal consequences to all this.