Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hallowscreams part 3

V/H/S- Anthology films are a typically mixed bag, balancing the very good with the very bad. The DIY movement’s edition of this genre, “V/H/S”, suffers from the same fate. First- the really good, including the first and last episodes, which on their own, would make for terrific feature length efforts as they both not only swirl with creatively creepy ideas, but they both seem to have a keen sense of mise-en-scene when it comes to camera placement and light and shadow. The first, called “Amateur Night” and directed by David Bruckner, features three college kids who hook up with the wrong girl at a bar and experience terrifying results, gets the proceedings off with a bang. Some of the images within this segment are truly unnerving, including the POV shot of a woman standing statuesque, covered in blood in the center of a dimly lit motel room. The final episode, directed by a collage named Radio Silence, tells the story of a group of guys who show up to a Halloween party only to find the house deserted and an occult ceremony going up upstairs. The sheer momentum of this episode, including demon-like arms reaching out of the walls, reveals a huge appreciation for the less-is-more horror maxim and positions the directorial team as an unusually creative bunch. The remainder of the episodes vary from mildly annoying (a skype episode where paranormal stuff happens every night) to the downright boring (Ti West’s travelogue that turns torturous for senseless reasons). The overall affect of “V/H/S” is also greatly diminished by its found footage style of filmmaking… which nowadays seems to imply not an actual technique, but a disguise for cheap budgets and complete lack of artistic direction. Regardless, “V/H/S” did manage to give me some unsettling moments, alone, later in the dark… and that speaks for something.

Fascination- No Halloween viewing would be complete without a Jean Rollin film, and his 1979 film “Fascination” is yet another enthralling, lurid and surreal exploit. Either one has the temperament for Rollin films or not. And in “Fascination”, he continues to disturb without a hint of special effect or bloody fang. The story, which deals with a robber hiding out in a large castle with two seductive women, succeeds through carefully modulated camera placement and a heightened sense of light and shadow. Just watch how he frames an exterior view of the castle, with the warm glowing interior light making a specter like shadow on the water below, or the insidious way he frames lips and eyes. It’s all a gothic, slow-burn treat. Something of a story does begin to take place as the two women (Franca Mai and Brigitte Lahaie) seduce, taunt and mentally toy with the criminal-on-the-lam while hinting at the arrival of devious friends later on in the night. And their arrival, filmed in dreadful long shot, is another bewitching treat. “Fascination” won’t scare you outright, but its lingering sense of madness and erotic subjugation will haunt.

El Vampiro- Fernando Mendez’s “El Vampiro” is an interesting, if not rudimentary, entry in the Dracula franchise a few years before Hammer films jumped into the fray revitalizing the classics. Filmed and released in the mid 50’s by the CasaNegra film company (which boats an impressive slate of horror titles in which “El Vampiro” is the first), the film maintains a strong visual atmosphere while transposing the Dracula story to a small village hacienda in Mexico. Arriving home after many years due to the death of her aunt, Marta (Ariadna Welter), soon becomes the target of dark-eyed Count Duval (German Robles). A lot of the film’s running time is spent explaining the vagaries of the vampire legend (its various rules and by-laws being the use of mirrors, crosses and a stake through the heart), yet “El Vampiro” also does a terrific job of visually instilling dread and horror. Long shot and close-up are used effectively and the spare black and white images of a lonely hacienda and the cob-webbed underground tunnels where the count and his clan carry out their nasty business are genre foundations done right. Released on Spanish region 2 DVD discs, I’m looking forward to exploring more of CasaNegra and their old fashioned stories.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The LIE test

My good online compadre at Lerner International Blog posted a quiz and requested that answers be put into our own blogs, so without further adieu:

1.) Favorite Warren Oates perf that’s not in a Peckinpah or Monte Hellman movie?

Bouncing off Dennis Hopper in the wonderfully under seen “Kid Blue” (1973)

2.) Favorite Spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone?

“Cemetary Without Crosses” (1972)

3.) Favorite John Ford film that’s not a Western or set in Ireland?

I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a Ford non-Western or Irish saga.

4.) Fave Zapata Western not Duck You Sucker!?

“The Professionals” (1966)

5.) Favorite Clint Eastwood-directed film that’s not Unforgiven or Play Misty for Me?

“Mystic River” (2003) because it tracks into some deep emotional territory without becoming maudlin

6.) Favorite Don Siegel film that’s not Charley Varrick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Dirty Harry?

Gotta be The Black Windmill  (1974). So many Michael Caine movies not on DVD it’s a shame, and this one is a bit weird, but still holds fast to the grimy, Euro-set crime films of the 70’s I love so much

7.) Fave Ken Russell film that’s not The Devils, Tommy or Altered States?

“Billion Dollar Brain”!

8.) Fave WWII gore/intensity/nastiness, that’s not Saving Private Ryan or Come and See?

I don’t think any film about World War 2 could be as clinically disturbing as “Sorrow and the Pity”, “Shoah” or “Hotel Terminus”. I’d even add the terrific “The Rape of Europa”. Fiction is fine, but these documentaries present the inhumanity in such startling, ordinary terms that the far reaching effects of the war seem unfathomable.

9.) Fave “Savage Cinema” that’s not the original Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left?

I’ll go with “Last House on Dead End Street” (1973) …. A truly dirty, unnerving film. For a great read on it, check out the book “Sleazoid Express”

10.) Fave conspiracy film that’s not Oliver Stone’s JFK or Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View?

How about Pakula’s “Three Days of the Condor”? (1977) The guy was so great at creating tension out of basically nothing.

11.) Fave Left-Wing director that is not Michael Moore, Costa-Gavras or Oliver Stone (not that I consider Stone genuinely left-wing; I think he’s more of a sleeper-agent selling discount rebellion to moviegoers)?

I’m not a huge fan of his films, but Rod Lurie is out there on the left wing quite a bit….

12.) Favorite screenwriter not William Goldman, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, Ernest Lehman, Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino?

Damm, with Towne off the list, umm, David Mamet.

13.) Favorite alien not designed (or based on a design) by HR Giger, or that is the extraterrestrial from John Carpenter’s The Thing?

I’m woefully in the dark on this one so I’ll guess any alien from those 50’s, Then again, I was always partial to the minimalist creature like the green fog in “Planet of the Vampires” (1965)

14.) Favorite Biker Movie that is not Easy Rider, The Wild One or The Wild Angels?

“The Loveless” (1983) from everyone’s favorite biker-director Kathryn Bigelow

15.) Favorite robot not from Forbidden Planet or the Star Wars movies?

Johnny Number 5 in “Short Circuit”!

16.) Fave “one-shot wonder” (solo directing credit) that’s not The Night of the Hunter?

Did anyone see or even remember Christopher Macquarie’s “The Way of the Gun”? A group of buddies and I saw it on opening night and just fell in love with the thing. Still do love it…. Although I see McQuarrie has directed two movies now with “Jack Reacher”. out later this year. Disqualified. I’ll go with Alan Rickman’s “The Winter Guest” (1997), a film no one but me seems to love.

17.) Fave car chase not in a Philip D'Antoni film (and not everybody chose 1971’s Vanishing Point, please!)

I could say “The French Connection” which is too easy…. How about “Ronin” (a little love for Frankenheimer) or especially another Roy Scheider film, “The Seven Ups”, whose car chase comes out of nowhere and really kicks ass.

18.) Fave religious film not based on a characters or a story in The Bible?

Edward Norton’s “Keeping the Faith”. Such a sweet, innocent film that is quite funny, tackles some questions about faith and features three great performances by Norton, Jenna Elfman and Stiller.

19.) Fave Disaster Movie that’s not The Poseidon Adventure?

“Contagion” (2011). This shit could really happen and Soderbergh traces a terrifying map of it.

20.) Favorite Spielberg film to hate that’s not Hook?

Hated, hated “Beloved” and even “Amistad”…. such earnest films whose points are thrown in our faces

21.) Favorite Giant Monster that’s not Godzilla or the 1933 King Kong? Without a doubt, Joon-ho Bong’s “The Host”. That first emergence of the creature along the canal… stunning set piece!

Bonus questions: 1) English-language movie that blows your mind, that no one knows about, that’s hard to see, that you want to get on a rooftop and shout about:

Anyone who knows me knows one of my top five fave movies of all time is “Laws of Gravity” (1992) by Nick Gomez. Came and went in early 90’s…. had a few supporters like Gavin Smith in Film Comment, was on VHS (never on DVD) and has now disappeared. Features a magnetic performance by the great Peter Greene, Edie Falco, Adam Trese and Paul Schulze about a New York neighborhood and the small-time crime the guys get into. It also features one of the most devastating endings ever….

2) Foreign-language movie that blows your mind, that no one knows about, that’s hard to see, that you want to get on a rooftop and shout about:

Any Edward Yang film, but especially That Day, On the Beach.

3) Fave “personal apocalypse” ending to a film, with the protagonist shattered, staring ahead dead-eyed: Catherine Denevue in “Hustle” by Aldrich, the aforementioned Peter Greene in “Laws of Gravity”, John Travolta in “Blow Out”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hallowscreams part 2

Blacker Than the Night- Carlos Enrique Taboada’s “Blacker Than the Night” tells the story of four beautiful young women and their experiences in a large inherited mansion. Ophelia (Claudia Islas) inherits the large house from her dead aunt and promptly movers herself and her three friends into the house. The only stipulation- they must care for the aunt’s cherished cat. We all know how that goes and once the hapless girls allow the cat to die, aunt Susana is none too happy. Released in 1975, “Blacker Than the Night” relies on old fashioned scares, and those looking for gore or violence will be sorely disappointed. But I found a great charm with the film’s pace and reliance on light and shadow to shock. Also, Taboada continually stresses the huge divide between past and modern- the girls continually call the house “full of junk” and the film’s first real jolt comes not in the antiquated house, but a modern library with a very minimalist feel. Taboadad, who contributed a large number of films to Mexican cinema in the 60’s and 70’s often worked with low budgets, maneuvering through his lack of finance with camera placement and atmosphere. Based on “Blacker Than the Night”, I look forward to his other films.

Sinister- I really, really wanted to love Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister”. The idea of a demon spirit existing in the images of 16MM home movie footage is just splendidly eerie…. And very meta cinema (which the next film in this post executes likes aces). For a majority of “Sinister”, it does hit the right notes in establishing Ethan Hawke as a questionable lead character and namely his Jack Nicholson-like “The Shining” slips of reality, but the film, ultimately, winds up as a victim of its own marketing strategy. In trying to sell the film, “Sinister’s” finest moments are telegraphed in the trailer. As the film winded down, I found myself figuring out the plot relatively quickly and my mind wandering. I do give props to the sound editing team, whose choice of musical edits and sound design render some truly unnerving moments during the “snuff” movie excerpts.

Videodrome- I don’t know if one could technically classify David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” as horror, but for my money, it’s the most terrifying film on this list. Released in 1983, the film is a virtuoso distillation of so many Cronenberg ideas he would later develop, articulate and re visit in subsequent films- especially “eXistenZ”. As a small-time television channel owner and programmer, James Woods discovers a pirated TV signal that appears to be a snuff film. Once he watches it, his grip on reality- and his relationship to those around him- slowly succumbs to hallucinations and violent episodes that borders on brainwashing. There are so many iconic images in “Videodrome”- the hand slowly pushing out of a TV set…. Woods pushing a gun inside a vaginal-like wound that opens on his stomach….and a breathing videocassette tape. Just a great film that pulses with terrific ideas on the psychological decay of humankind.

Friday, October 19, 2012

70's Bonanza: Freelance

Hustlers in the movies always have such an exhausting effect on me. Whether it's Jason Miller in the hugely underrated "The Nickel Ride" or more well known con men like Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy", I always wonder just where they find the energy and veracity to shake and move 24 hours a day when steady income could be had with a 9 to 5 job. But I digress. Francis Megahy's "Freelance" documents the troubles of yet another hustler, this time portrayed by the charismatic Ian McShane. Coming to real success only in the last decade or so due to his tremendous performance as Swearingen on HBO's "Deadwood" series, I've seen McShane in a number of his early roles and he certainly holds his own as a handsome and often tragic supporting player. With "Freelance", McShane is thrust center stage as the wheeling and dealing Brit who happens to witness a murder by the underworld and then tries to carry on his various deals while avoiding the same hit man. Of course, this complicates his live in romance with model Gayle Hunnicutt and her plans to settle down into a normal life.

"Freelance", eventually released on VHS in the United Sates in the early 90's as "Con Man", is certainly a product of its time... which means lots of Swingin' London (including a threesome between McShane, his best buddy and a waitress they pick up) and a pretty terrible folk song that lingers over the opening and closing moments. Yet, as one of those grubby early 70's revenge flicks like "Sitting Target" (in which McShane co-stars) or "Get Carter", "Freelance" more than holds its own as a minor crime film in which most of the film's pleasure is watching McShane sweat and escape from the relentless hit man trying to wipe him out. Directed by Francis Megahy (who really did nothing else of note), "Freelance" occasionally pops up on cable television. And it does feature one of the more impressive ways to break into a window that I've ever seen on film.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hallow-screams part 1

Enter the Devil- Aka “Disciples of Death”, “Enter the Devil” is a unique horror/western filmed in the Texas/New Mexico foothills. Barely released in 1972 and relegated to the drive-in circuit, “Enter the Devil” wears its shaggy, amateurish label on its sleeve proudly. Content to break some rules of narrative film making (such as the shifting idea of who exactly will be the hero/protagonist in the story), the film tells of a professor (Irene Kelly) and the local deputy sheriff who hole up in a desert inn and try to track down the source of a string of disappearances. Little do they know, an ancient Satanic cult is using the dilapidated mines nearby for their ritualistic sacrifices. Virtually devoid of scares, “Enter the Devil” is a minor footnote in Texas film making, largely thanks to the contribution of director Frank Q. Dobbs who would go onto a major career in television through mini-series such as “Streets of Laredo” and “Johnson County War”. Of little note- apparently this film has had no official home video release in the United States. The copy I managed to track own was taken from a Dutch VHS source. It was quite fun to see Texas slang translated into that language!

Penumbra- Director Adrian Bogliano received strong word of mouth here in Austin earlier this month at Fantastic Fest with his film “Here Comes the Devil”. “Penumbra”, released last year, also shows strong promise as a horror filmmaker. While initially taking its time to set up the gory final act, parts of “Penumbra” do play out like bad Mexican daytime television. Marga (Cristina Brondo) is trying to sell a loft apartment of hers and meets the prospective buyer there. Slowly, more and more of his friends show up at the apartment with devious things on their mind. Confounding the eerie presence of these visitors is the speculation of a total solar eclipse. As Marga, Brondo establishes an insufferable bitch… one that at times we root against as she gets into scrapes with homeless people and spends the first 45 minutes on her cellphone berating co-workers and decrying the fact she to spend time in a shitty place like Buenos Aries. But when the scenario turns bloody and terrifying, writer/director Bogliano manages to incur some sympathy for her only because the unwarranted visitors maintain a nasty agenda. As a midnight cult film, “Penumbra” more than stands the test.

The Moth Diaries- Ahh, the all girl school is just ripe material for psychological tales of mixed up sexuality and emotional confrontations. Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" is probably the most harrowing (and just plain creepy) version of this story in the past few years, but Mary Harron's "The Moth Diaries" does a decent job of establishing atmosphere and tension. Playing out in delicate tones like one of the late 19th century gothic novels the girls are studying in school, Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) comes to believe the new girl (Lily Cole) is a vampire as she mentally seduces and disposes of her friends one by one. Some characteristics of the film feel hackneyed- including a relationship with a teacher played by Scott Speedman and the overall fairy tale like environment- but "The Moth Diaries" ultimately goes to some complex places that, typically, delineates the emotional vagaries of young Rebecca. Don't think its "Carrie".... more of a quiet, whispy film.
Nightwish- And finally, because it seems to be hard to find pics or even video clips of this 1989 oddity online, I've included one of my favorite scary moment images- the subliminal devil cuts in "The Exorcist"... that oft imitated flash of something sinister that works in just the right places. Regardless, "Nightwish" is silly stuff (and available streaming on Netflix!). In one early scene, the (mad) scientist tells his students to "relax yourselves and welcome the unexpected". The unexpected is what one gets with "Nightwish", a horror sci-fi weirdo cheeze effort that throws everything and the kitchen sink at the viewer. From talk of aliens, to cannibals and since we're firmly in the 80's... ectoplasm, writer-director Bruce Cook sprays every horror convention for good measure. Four graduate students travel to a supposed haunted house where they carry out experiments and come face to face with their personal terrors. Logical sense, and to some extent good film making, are nonexistent, but completest fans of horror films.... or just oddball 80's cinema lovers... shouldn't miss "Nightwish".

Part 2 soon.....

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Looper

It's been a good couple weeks at the movies. After the cinematic lightning bolt that was "The Master", Rian Johnson's wholly original and compelling sci-fi/western hybrid "Looper" made a remarkable impression on me. While initially unmoved by Johnson's debut film, "Brick", I became a strong convert a few years ago after his sophomore film, "The Brothers Bloom", ranked high as one of the best films of its respective year for me. Each successive effort has seen Johnson grow stronger and more secure as a filmmaker. If "Brick" was a modern film noir diluted through the emo tendencies of teenagers and "The Brothers Bloom" was a 1930's caper film, highlighted by bubblegum aesthetics and an almost child-like attention to puppy love, "Looper" is darker, easily borrowing from both the sci-fi dystopia genre and western. And it has alot on its mind, eventually turning into a dynamic examination of violence, revenge and that sticky scenario known as time travel.

Much has been made of the (at times) distracting make-up work by young Joseph Gordon Levitt to look like his older self, Bruce Willis, and the subpar special effects, yet part of me feels that based on Johnson's previous affectations for older genres, this is an intentional thing. Going into "Looper", I expected a slick genre exercise and came out with a completely different outlook. About halfway through "Looper", perspectives and character shift and the stakes get unbearably high, anchored by strong performances from Levitt, Willis and Emily Blunt as the violence focuses away from the sci-fi universe carefully established by Johnson in the first half of the film. Basically, things get personal on many levels and the ramifications of the violence extends light years. One of my favorites of the year.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Top 5 List- Best Female Faces post 2000

5. Leslie Mann- Despite the fact actress Leslie Mann is married to Judd Apatow, giving her an exemption in pretty much all of his comedic efforts, I get the sense Mann could hold her own in the Hollywood universe. After years of bit roles in 90's Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey comedies, it was Mann's scene stealing performance as a drunk woman giving Steve Carrel a ride home in "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and subsequent starring role in "Knocked Up" that cemented her place in stardom. Yes, a majority of her roles have been comedic ones- and ones that she routinely knocks out of the park through her wry delivery and razor sharp reaction shots- but Mann has shown uncommon depth as an actress as well. Just watch the scene as she's shut out of a popular night club and the ramblings of a thirty-something come streaming out of her in "Knocked Up" And it's an understatement to say I'm excited for "This Is 40" when it hits theaters later this year. Mann co-starring, front and center, with Paul Rudd... taking a supporting role and spinning it into a lead role is a definite recipe for cult success.

4. Carice Van Houten- I suppose its downright flattery for an actress to become so encumbered in a role that one doesn't even recognize her... and that was the case with me and "Game of Thrones". Until recently, I had no idea she played the fiery goddess Melissandre in that series. Regardless, van Houten has an angelic face that would look at home in a silent film from the 20's. Just imagine her in a Murnau film! In 2006, van Houten's smash success came in Paul Verhoeven's brutal Resistance drama, "Black Book". At the time, I wrote the following of van Houten: even after being covered by a vat of human shit, stripped naked several times and one scene of pubic hair dying, actress Carice Van Houten manages to pull out of Paul Verhoeven's World War 2 thriller Black Book with finesse and grace. Not only does she carry herself like a true classic screen actress, but Houten has the emotional temperance to make her role as a German double agent highly accessible and believable.

3. Keira Knightley- A lot of pot shots have been hurled at British actress Knightley over the years... and admittedly, it's really hard when the term "beanpole" is one of the first adjectives awarded to you (courtesy of Aint It Cool News back in the day). By now, I would hope Knightley has shed the laments and proven she's more than a pretty statue. Probably the closest thing to a bonafide superstar on this list, Knightley continues to accept a wide variety of projects. Loyal readers may remember I flipped for her in this year's "Seeking A Friend For the End of the World"- a film that deserved so much better- and next we have a lushly mounted adaptation of "Anna Karenina" later this year. The intensity and sincerity she approaches each role is astounding. And my god just look at those eyes....

2. Emily Blunt- The photo here isn't the best, but I just love the contrast. From her young performance as a confused teenager in the excellent "My Summer of Love" (2004), I recognized something unique in her. Since then, she's surprised me with every new role. Her latest, in Rian Johnson's brilliant "Looper" sets a new standard for her as she slowly becomes the focus of the film and single-handedly takes control of it's swirling sci-fi universe. Blunt is on an exciting precipice, mounted to become the next big thing and dazzle us for years to come.
1. Vera Farmiga- I couldn't resist using at least one scandalous photo! Farmiga- chiseled face and intense eyes- is the total package. Intelligent, fierce and beautiful, Farmiga has already exceeded her actress expectations and turned in one terrific directorial effort as well, the under appreciated "Higher Ground" (2011). This double threat of a performer seems to own every scene. From the minute she walks into Scorsese's "The Departed", things get serious. Farmiga, like Blunt, is an untapped resource that will hopefully provide years of creativeenergies.