Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cinema Obscura: Lion's Den

Pablo Trapero's "Lion's Den" is a unique prison picture. Formatted virtually around the hard (but equally beautiful) face of actress Martina Gusman, the film is an unrelenting portrait of a woman confined to harsh surroundings desperately clinging to a small strand of real life. That slice of real life happens to be her baby boy, who she gives birth to in prison. The 'lion's den' in question is an Argentine prison that Julia (Gusman) is sent to after an oblique and sparsely explained opening crime. Placed in an all-female ward, Julia soon finds out she's pregnant and moved to a section of the prison where the inmates roam freely, breastfeeding their children and walking them to kindergarten. The law is that the children stay with their mothers in prison until the age of four. Trying to appeal her sentence, Julia soon encounters other forces outside her control that threaten to take her child away. Detailing the squalor of the prison with an unflinching gaze and perfectly timed long takes, "Lion's Den" expresses a ferociously moving point of view, none more so than the primal emotion that emerges from Julia when her son is initially taken away from her. It's a magnificent performance from Gusman, made all the more poignant by the way Trapero documents the children playing inside the prison, swinging on the bars and disappearing behind locked doors that echo with a loud thud as if they were mingling on a playground.

Watching "Lion's Den" just a day after seeing Lucretia Martel's masterful "The Headless Woman" makes for an interesting double bill. Both films, made by Argentine filmmakers, tackle a specific theme with brilliance and sure hands. And both films present women in peril (physical and psychological) with an unwavering sensibility that seems lost in most other films. While Martel's lead woman falls into a state of amnesia after (possibly) murdering someone, Trapero's punished woman claws and scratches with all her life, burning with the memory of her child to keep herself sane and focused on the goal of eventual release. Both women take divergent paths, yet both films analyze sections of Argentine life that rarely receive any attention. "Lion's Den" ranks very high with the prison picture as a genre (made by a man or woman) and it deserves to be seen. The most harrowing message, though, lies in the quiet scenes of the children lingering behind bars. The mother committed the crimes, but the children are paying for them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Better Way To Say Happy Holidays....

....then with one of those kick ass retrospectives of the year in movies? Enjoy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Wrath of God

Just look at that poster. Need I say more? Robert Mitchum stars as a priest traveling through a South American country caught up in turmoil and public executions. Along the way, he meets up with an Irish hooligan (Ken Hutchison) and British gent (Victor Buono) also trying to escape the political civil war. They're snatched up and given a unique proposition. Since all three men are certainly not what they seem to be, "The Wrath of God" becomes one of the those great 70's motley-men-on-a-mission films. Their target- a villainous land owner named de la Plata-played with wide eyed insanity by Frank Langella. Yes, that Frank Langella. I know he's Italian, but nonetheless.

Directed by Ralph Nelson, who previously made "Lilies In the Field", he turns that film's Christian goodness message on its ear with "The Wrath of God". Dressed in priest's clothing, Mitchum hides some deadly skills under that robe. At times looking like he's bored with the whole thing, I wouldn't call it a great Mitchum performance, but a fun one. The real star is young Langella, tormented by a hidden secret, plagued by his do-gooder mother (Rita Hayworth!) and determined to kill any religious figure who sets foot in his town. "The Wrath of God" segues into a pseudo western action film as the trio of 'hit men' attempt to carry out their mission, and Lord do the bullets begin to fly. In the world of 70's 'B' movies, it fits in nicely between Bava's "Rabid Dogs" and "The Guns of the Navarone".

Thursday, December 17, 2009



Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” is, above all, an actors feast. Drafted and remade from Susanna Bier’s excellent 2004 Danish film of the same name, I found myself less interested in this remake due to 1) the film’s trailer that illuminates and exhales some of the film’s most juiced up moments and 2) the fact that Bier’s film was so damn good in every aspect that a basic retread felt like watching an instant replay. Still, if there’s one great thing about Sheridan’s humanistic touch, it’s his ability to draw naturalistic performances out of young children. Like the twin daughters in his previous work, “In America”, youngsters Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare avoid the shrill kids role and seemingly invest real fear and emotion. And there’s a scene at a dinner table during a birthday party that slowly evokes tension with precise care. “Brothers” is by no means a bad film, just another in a long line of movies that raises the question of ’why do we need it’ after such a remarkable original effort.

Red Cliff

Cut by over 100 minutes and unceremoniously dumped into theaters with little advanced buzz, John Woo’s “Red Cliff” still deserves to be seen for its eye popping visuals and rapt attention to battle strategy. Though one can feel some of the subplots between its characters were obvious victims of the lopped time, what remains is, essentially, an hour of sweeping battles wrapped around protracted segments of strategies and back story. Though it takes a bit to get organized with the myriad of characters, Woo adroitly overcomes that through entertaining examples of antiquated strategy, such as the easiest way to draw an encroaching army into a dust storm ambush or the cringe-inducing effects of psychological warfare through the methods of shipping typhoid infected bodies to your enemies. And then there are the battles, which Woo serves up in hyper stylized slow motion and overhead tracking shots as if he were filming a ballet company in full swoon. It all coalesces magnificently into grand entertainment. I’m searching for the full 5 hour version now.

Up In the Air

I don’t know if anyone could be as indifferent to Jason Reitman’s previous film (“Juno”) as I was. Well, going into the heavily hyped “Up In the Air”, I was reticent about the whole thing. And a strange thing happened. I loved it. Razor sharp in its emotions and with nary a spare word of dialogue, the film unfurls with utter truth and honesty. As the traveling warrior whose job it is to fire people, Clooney again takes a simple role and embellishes it with gentle grace. There are life changes, and some big speeches, and some very tender moments with a similar soul (the always game and beautiful Vera Farmiga), and “Up In the Air” nails each and every moment. A really good film.


Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” contains both a compassionate plea for world peace and the idea that sport can unite a country despite its racially charged background. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that message and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon play their roles to the hilt, but “Invictus” plays it too safe. It’s placement for social consciousness is telegraphed throughout every scene. With films like “Mystic River” and “Changeling’, Eastwood waded in some morally murky waters with startling results. There are some nice touches, such as the echo of the television set’s final World Cup match continually juxtaposed against the various ethnic backdrops, but too much of “Invictus” feels tonally schematic.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #26

First, anyone else think it's kinda cheap for Netflix to charge $4 more a month for Blu Ray releases?

1. A Tale of Sorrow- Just like Takashi Miike, Sejun Suzuki films are continually released on DVD with little fanfare. Maybe it's because both of these guys deal prolifically in demented sex, surreal ideas and maniacal colors. This film from 1977 is a "cat-and-mouse tale that traces model and pro golfer Reiko's (Yoko Shiraki) encounters with the dark side of celebrity after she wins her first tournament, lands a TV gig and acquires a bizarre stalker -- her nutty neighbor, Mrs. Semba. The crazed woman is privy to a dangerous secret and forces Reiko to submit to a series of increasingly violent demands. Little does she know that Reiko will fight when provoked."
2. The Insect Woman- I'm very excited to see this film from Shohei Imamura that was put out in a triple pack of previously unreleased films.
3. I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar- French filmmaker Philip Garrel has his admirers. While I did like his poetic, three hour black and white meditation on the '68 student protests "Regular Lovers" (which featured two or three exquisite long takes), some of the other things I've seen from him border on the tedious. This film from 1991 again deals with his ongoing theme of burgeoning and lost one-time love (said to be rock singer Nico).
4. Edge of Darkness- Already halfway through this BBC mini series, this has been remade as a Mel Gibson thriller releasing early next year. With a wonderful, stone cold performance by Bob Peck and an amusing turn from Joe Don Baker, "Edge of Darkness" is a convoluted trip through nuclear politics, British spooks and hit men that has kept me guessing. This goes to show that the BBC were way ahead of their time in the mid 80's with stellar original television programming.
5. Three Brothers- Franceso Rosi's early 80's Italian classic has been cited as an influence on Scorsese and Coppola.
6. Scott Walker; 20th Century Man- This documentary has been floundering on my list for over a year now, so I recently moved it up. I know very little about musician Scott Walker, but the raves attributed to this film a couple years ago has me very interested.
7. Une Femme Marie- I think I've seen this mid 60's Godard film, but can't be sure. Still, this is way before his radical (and alienating) period, so by all means I'll probably adore it.
8. Local Hero- For whatever reason, Bill Forsyth is a filmmaker lauded by so many movie fans and one that I've yet to experience. "Local Hero" is spoken of very highly as a tiny miracle of a movie.
9. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes- I had no idea Billy Wilder made in film in 1970 that shows Holmes as a cocaine addicted, sexual deviant. Sure to be bolstered by the upcoming Holmes film with Downey Jr, I'm very curious to check out this oddity.
10. The Hit - I'm sure I've seen Stephen Frears breakout hit starring Terence Stamp, yet I can't remember a thing abut it. Time for a revisit, since it's recently gotten the Criterion treatment.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top 5 List: Great Performances of 2009

With a few marquee names still to come in films this month (i.e. Morgan Freeman, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges), here's a rundown of the 5 performances that made an indelible mark so far this year, in no order:

5. Peter Capaldi

As the vitriol political spin doctor Malcom Tucker, every scene with Capaldi is a masterwork in verbal violence and aggressive body language. Every time he walked on screen in Armadno Ianucci's highly entertaining comedy "In the Loop", one could feel the audience tense up with anticipation and guarded laughter. This is the stuff of real acting... a performance that manipulates and titillates.

4. Carey Mulligan

Not the best known secret in town anymore, young Carey Mulligan embraces every scene in "An Education" with intelligence and warmth. As noted by many, "An Education" is a terrific film not only because it eschews the pitfals of the genre it places itself within, but Mulligan's clear eyed performance is genuine and makes one really care for the outcome.

3. Emily Blunt

Probably the biggest surprise of my movie-going year so far is Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning". I expected very little from this small comedy-drama out of Sundance, yet it resonated strongly. Emily Blunt- beautiful beyond belief- really makes me love this film even more. As the younger, more complex and off beat sister to Amy Adams, the duo organizes a crime scene cleaning business. The film goes to some very unexpected places, and I doubt I'll see a better scene in any film this year than the moment when Blunt takes her new friend (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to the train tracks and releases some pent up sadness.

2. Vera Farmiga

Another stone cold beauty with some serious acting chops, Vera Farmiga is quickly becoming an actress I devour anything she's in. 2009 saw her taking on two diverse roles (with another yet to be seen): first, as the blown CIA operative in Rod Lurie's "Nothing But the Truth", Farmiga steals the movie with a couple of scenes, namely one where she tries to appeal to the softer side of reporter Kate Beckinsale before retreating into corrosive governmental threats. Secondly, in a more typical role as the distraught mother in the over-the-top child horror movie "Orphan". Her sexiness, nerve, and strong command are on display in both movies and I can't wait to see what she does in "Up In the Air".

1. ensemble cast of "Summer Hours" (a bit of a cheat)

Like the best of Renoir or Rohmer, Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours" captures something autumnal and heartbreaking about the large family. Setting his film around the death of a family's mother and then trying to settle her estate afterwards, every actor in this multi-generational cast embues their role with subtely and beauty. And it ends on a perfect note as the young grand daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) slowly wanders around the large estate grounds as the mortality of the film's events finally hit her. A stunning moment and film.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Last Couple Weeks at the Movies

The Box

When one admits to liking a Richard Kelly film, one had better compile a lengthy reading of the “whys” and “hows“. To this day, I readily admit that I don’t understand half of what’s going on in “Southland Tales”, yet it still strikes me as an audacious, moving and consistently entertaining meta-movie that burns with far more ideas than it probably deserves. “The Box” is just as much a head trip, except this time I’ve got an opinion on what it’s about, why it works and just why its stuck with me for so long. Weaving through layers of religious allegory, time travel (again), and some even farther-out-there-thoughts, “The Box” packs a walloping cerebral punch as the nuclear family (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) agonize over the decision whether or not to push the button on a mysterious box left by a stranger (a wonderful, lurking Frank Langella). Needless to say, Kelly exhausts the possibilities, wrapping them around an almost suffocating air of claustrophobia and paranoia set in the wintry holiday season of Virginia circa the late 70’s. Few images this year will stick with me longer than Marsden’s trek through a library, being followed by a gang of wide eyed men and women or the black figures that populate in the corners of a snow covered field. The common complaint- that Kelly makes indecipherable genre pictures with far too many ideas scrambled together- could be applied to “The Box”, yet it ends on such a savage and well structured concept that I think Kelly knew exactly what he was doing all along. I look forward to seeing this again.


A film I don’t look forward to seeing ever again, however, is Lee Daniel’s “Precious”, a thoroughly ugly and sledge hammered film that tries to eek human resiliency out of amateurish zoom pans and handheld immediacy. I respect that the events actually happened to someone, but “Precious” in no way instilled a sense of shared concern or empathy with its characters. The small moments- the performance of Paula Patton as a caring teacher or Mariah Carey as a social worker- were continually overwhelmed by the wanton moments of independent cinema grand moments (i.e Mo Nique) and over-the-top acting that continually overshadow the basic connection just beginning to form for Precious (Gabourey Sidibe). Less is often more, yet “Precious” tramples on subtlety.

The Road

John Hillcoat has already carved a splendid little career out of visually devastated landscapes and roughneck emotions, and his faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalypse novel to end all apocalypse novels “The Road” excels in relentless grit and grime. As the father (Viggo Mortenson) and the boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) traverse the landscape, Hillcoat’s vision of snow covered wastelands lit only by far-away fires is compelling and realistic… and its certainly done the novel’s poetic descriptions justice. Every corner of this film is loaded with debris, broken trees and technological wreckage. The one real diversion from the novel- fleshing out the character of the mother played by Charlize Theron in flashback- feels like the right decision as it provides Mortenson and McPhee with purpose and heartbreak. And when the truly chilling moments arise, such as the emergence of a band of rovers from a dark tunnel or the grisly and disturbing discovery in a house cellar, “The Road” rattles around before your eyes like a one-of-a-kind horror film.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I wish I could raise more enthusiasm for Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Yes, this is just like watching any other Wes Anderson movie, complete with father-son discord, quick one-liners and a carefully composed wide angle lens set ups, but this time its decked out in a stop-motion style of animation that looks and feels unique. I had a good time with it, but ultimately not much has stuck with me. As always, those three stars films are the hardest ones to write about.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hi Defness: Heat

If any filmmaker was destined for HD, it's Michael Mann. I can remember not understanding the complaints leveled against him when he went completely Hi-def with "Collateral", "Miami Vice" and (most recently) "Public Enemies". People who did not see these films shown on a digital projector were certainly missing the visual boat. Mann is a filmmaker who uses the fluorescent city to his extreme advantage. The aerial scene in "Heat" (pictured below) as the camera begins on a long shot of downtown Los Angeles at night, then slowly arches downward to track one lone van crawling through the industrial section of town, is a feast of light and dark. Until watching it on Blu Ray over the weekend- when I let out an 'oh my god' after seeing how much detail is present in the transfer- I'd never realized the glorious potentials of Blu Ray. Granted, my HD-DVD choice about 15 months ago was the wrong one, but Blu Ray seems to trump even that format in clarity and sound. I certainly don't remember my sparse copies of HD-DVD movies looking/sounding this terrific.

So back to the aforementioned scene. It's the little details that Blu Ray accentuates in "Heat". Only having seen this film on standard copies before, the array of colors picked up at night is startling. As the van moves down the street, one can see green lights in certain doorways and blue lights in other portions of the frame. Whereas the image before had been flat, this HD transfer vividly calls out the obscured lighting that (probably) had no intention of being noticed before. For a film geek such as myself that revels in the details, I'm in cinematic heaven.

The other noticeable difference in the Blu Ray version of "Heat" is the way this new format defines the human body. In the picture above, as Det. Hannah (Pacino) talks on the phone against the backdrop of downtown Los Angeles, his figure looks and feels set apart from the background.... something that standard DVD is just unable to differentiate. The shadow of Pacino's body (and every other actor) flows into the rest of the image. In HD, depth is revelatory. For the 3rd time, "Heat" has served as my introductory choice for a new technology. This time, my anticipation is matched by pristine quality. I may never leave the couch again.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Landfall of Lists

Not only will us bloggers get the chance to dole out our annual best of the year lists in a couple months, but there's something called a decade that's about to end as well. Some folks are getting a head start with this type of thing here and here. While I'm not quite ready to compile those just yet, I am having fun at The Auteurs on the message boards throwing around music lists. With nothing more than a cursory flip through my cd's and the ones that jump out at me immediately, I listed 25 albums from the decade that have given me the most pleasure. Listed below for discussion.

A few mentions, after the first 5 or 6, the rest are devoid of any real order:

1. Radiohead “Kid A”
2. Mars Volta “Francis the Mute”
3. Sigur Ros “Takk”
4. Broken Social Scene “You Forgot It In People”
5. The National “Alligator”
6. Radiohead “Hail To the Thief”
7. The Twilight Singers “She Loves You”
8. Mars Volta “DeLoused in the Crematorium”
9. A Silver Mt. Zion “He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms”
10. Mogwai “Mr. Beast”
11. DeVotchKa "A Mad and Faithful Telling"
12. Beirut “March of the Zapotec/Real People”
13. Explosions In the Sky “How Sudden, Innocence”
14. Explosions In the Sky “All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone”
15. M83 “Saturdays=Youth”
16. The Antlers “Hospice”
17. Radiohead “In Rainbows”
18. Modest Mouse “Good News For People...”
19. Smile, Smile “Blue Roses”
20. Arcade Fire “Funeral”
21. The Appleseed Cast “Peregrine”
22. Black Tie Dynasty “This Stays Between Us”
23. Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova “Once” soundtrack
24. Interpol “Turn On the Bright Lights”
25. Beck “Sea Change”

Even after typing this, I started to squirm. Is Sigur Ros "Takk" really better than their others? Why did I leave the latest from Mars Volta off the list, which I feel towers over a few of their other albums? Shit.. I completely forgot to list anything by The Strokes, The Killers, Tom Waits or My Morning Jacket or Muse. If my decade film list is going to be just as difficult, I don't know if I even have the energy to begin!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DVD Shout Out: Eye In the Sky

Remember how great the scenes of Gene Hackman nonchalantly tailing suspected drug lord Fernando Rey were in "The French Connection"? Stretch that tension out to 90 minutes and one gets the sense of excitement conveyed by Nai Hoi Yau's 2008 policier, "Eye In the Sky". With a stripped down premise- a group of elite detectives whose job it becomes to perform surveillance on a group of suspected jewelry thieves- Yau's little seen film is full of great moments. Our entrance to this technologically savvy and intelligent world of body language and casual street tactics lies in the role of newbie Kate Tsui as she's promoted to the surveillance unit, led by father-figure Simon Yam. Along the way, we understand how important it is to observe clothing and street names as well as the understated hand movements that signals danger to fellow police officers. "Eye In the Sky" is just as educational as it is entertaining. The target of the investigation is master thief Chan (Tony Leung), whose just as efficient and well-versed in his chosen trade (crime) as the cops trying to track him. But the real crux of the film lies in the relationship between Tsui and Yam. He's tough one moment because she needs to learn the job, then gentle the next (especially in a riveting moment when he cajoles his tired, bored surveillance crew with a long joke through their hidden earpieces).

Yau, longtime screenwriter and collaborator with Johnny To, who produced this film, evidently learned his craft from the best as well. Filmed with simple setups and an eye for sharp editing that doesn't jumble the images up, allowing the viewer to completely understand where everyone is in relation to their prey, "Eye In the Sky" fits neatly into the Milkiway/Johnny To subsection of compact, energetic and consistently well executed genre films.

Friday, November 20, 2009

An Appreciation: Fritz Lang

A few months in the making. Enjoy.

Spiders (1919) **½ - Third film from Lang and the first surviving one. While the story is pure comic book serial (something about an Indiana Jones type character getting caught up in Peruvian gold mountains and ocean sirens) the basic ideas that Lang would toy with throughout the rest of his career are present- a secret group of powerful men and women who try to bring about death and destruction, the innocent and good people caught in the middle and a strong eye for expressionistic visuals.

Destiny (1921) *** - Here Lang's attention to the striking visual image begins to take shape, especially in the stark visage of Death wandering into a small town. Melodramatic to its core, I also understand this is the prototype for so many films.... its 1921 for crying out loud! A woman pleads for the life of her lover taken by Death and he tells her three stories, tempting that if love rules, she can have her lover back. The ending reaches magical proportions and it's easy to see why so many modern filmmakers have cited this film as a major influence.

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) ** - I completely understand this film's place in history, but at four hours and ten minutes it can be a crushing bore. As usual in the Lang canon, there are two or three riveting set-pieces, but the film feels out of control and confused at times. As later proven by the subsequent sequel ("The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse") ten years later, Lang can create a Mabuse film that reaches perfection at half the running time.

Metropolis (1927) ***½ - German expressionism meets dystopia in Lang’s well-renowned science fiction classic. Imitated many years later from a wide variety of filmmakers including the Coen Brothers, Joe Dante and just about every proceeding dystopian sci-fi flick, it’s a film that’s certainly stood the test of time. Created as an allegory of its time- notice the communistic uniforms worn by everyone in the film- “Metroplis” is also still a dazzling display of storytelling and heart.

Spies (1928) **½ - If there’s one theme that Lang enthusiastically embraced in his early filmmaking career, it was the idea of a pervasive evil corrupting all walks of life. With Spies, Rudolph Klein-Roegg again takes on the Mabuse-like role of a bank owner secretly pulling the strings to an underworld of criminal activity. As the title implies, there are double and triple crosses involving the retrieval of a document signed by the Japanese. Not a completely successful film but the visual tropes (doors, alleys and spatial divisions) clearly become pivotal.

Woman In the Moon (1928) ***½ - Though it takes its time getting to the actual moon, Lang’s 3 hour epic about the collision of ideas and love in space is still a remarkably good early sci-fi affair… and one that you rarely hear mentioned. It features a wonderful closing moment as well.

M (1931) **** - An applauded outright masterpiece, “M” was Lang’s first sound film and probably a beneficial recipient of this transition. Visually, “M” is striking- the quiet pans across the faces of a mob, the long shots that take advantage of the newly created dolly shots- it all feels experimental but perfect. And while text titles were they key to relaying information in his previous silent films, Lang takes advantage of that style and creates images disassociated from sound. For example, as Detective Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) reads the possible summation of the mob’s attempts to break into an office building, Lang intersperses the destruction and devastation as he reads the letter. For 1931, this all feels like especially heady stuff. And then there’s the chilling performance of Peter Lorre as the pedophile child killer… and that final 20 minutes as he pleads for his life in front of a ‘kangaroo court’ that’s raw and electric in its sheer emotion. I really can’t imagine a more perfect film.

Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) **** - Third film in the Mabuse series, this one concentrates on the stolen identities and cribbed maniacal ideas of the Doctor as he's locked away in a mental institution. There are two or three brilliantly conceived set pieces here- one of them an assassination conducted on the street in traffic and the other an escape from a locked room that Stuart Rosenberg cribbed for his own film, "The Drowning Pool" years later. And, Mabuse's (and Lang's) deranged thoughts about chaos and an "empire of crime" are even more relevant today as they pop up in another crime blockbuster named "The Dark Knight". I think someone owes Fritz Lang lip service as the real creator of the Joker and his madcap plans for domination. A truly trend-setting film that hasn't lost its spell in over 70 years.

Liliom (1934) *1/2- Escaping Germany and finding work in France, Lang‘s “Liliom” feels like a film borne out of chaos and uncertainty… and I don’t mean that in a good way. After a series of dynamic films, this one (following an abusive cad played by Charles Boyer) looks flat and uninspired. In addition, its hard to feel anything for the Boyer character as he wanders away from a good, loving relationship to a life of petty crime. The third act- which replays a theme from his earlier silent films such as “Destiny”- ventures wobbly into fantasy territory as Liliom pleads for his life in front of a heavenly judge. For such an abrupt genre shift, there’s little empathy built for the lead character which ultimately makes “Liliom” the director’s first real bomb.

Fury (1936) ** 1/2- Lang’s first American film, and his feet are put to the fire immediately with a cast that includes Spencer Tracey and Sylvia Sydney as a couple separated when Tracey is accused and innocently jailed in a southern town. To aggravate matters, the town decides to take justice into their own hands and lynch the supposed criminal. The ideas within “Fury” (personal justice vs. moral complicity) seem like recycled themes for Lang, and “Fury” could definitely be seen as an inverted companion piece to “M”, yet the film fails to really grab hold. One can feel Lang adjusting to the American (i.e. studio) manner of filmmaking though.

You Only Live Once (1937) *** - From its mundane title comes this solid story of a former criminal trying to go straight despite the unjust obstacles of the world. Henry Fonda injects the film with a sense of humanity that Lang’s previous American male actors couldn’t produce. As in “Fury” and many of his German works, the theme of a man stranded in judgment takes a bitter and sordid turn as Fonda and his best dame (Sylvia Sidney, again) turn their world upside down and become the criminals the world wants to make of them. A prison break-out in encroaching fog and several quiet long takes reveal that Lang was becoming more comfortable as an American filmmaker.

You and Me (1938) ** - Part Ernst Lubitsch romance comedy and part social expose with a bit of musical flourishes thrown in for good measure, “You and Me” is a slap-dash mixture that feels awkward and unsure of itself. There are two or three great scenes though- such as Sylvia Sidney turning the tables on the crew assembled to rob a department store and a highly stylized gathering of criminals that morphs into a musical number of very weird proportions. Playful at best. Not on DVD.

The Return of Frank James (1940) **1/2 - The first of two westerns Lang would make for 20th Century Fox, this is the better of the two. Henry Fonda returns for a second helping with Lang as the brother of Jesse James seeking revenge on the Ford Brothers. Lingering over-the-top performances (from his 1930’s period) mars any real dramatic tension, but “The Return of Frank James” is essentially an agreeable film made for commercial purposes. It succeeds as that, but probably deserves nothing more than a mention on the resume of Lang.

Western Union (1941) ** - Built and shot with little flair for the dramatic, Lang’s second western is agreeable, if not uneventful, serial entertainment. From an auteur, I wanted a little more than the usual cowboys and ‘injuns stuff. Not on DVD.

Manhunt (1941) *** - Evolving into a fairly benign (and quasi) British noir towards the end, the opening moments of a sniper rifle’s scope pointed at a lounging Adolf Hitler serves as very intriguing alternative history. For 1941“Manhunt” is an incredibly brave film.

Hangmen Also Die (1943) ***1/2 - Part two of Lang’s aggressive posture against the NAZI Party in his homeland of Germany, “Hangmen Also Die” is the story of a man’s successful assassination of a high ranking German official (known as the Hangman) in Prague by a member of the Resistance. Lang clearly has subterfuge anger against his home country, displaying the Nazi party leaders in the film as reptilian and oily figures, going so far as to mark one of the leaders with a noticeably large pimple. But camp aside, “Hangmen Also Die” is an adept and entertaining look at not only the prevailing force of the German SS in occupied territories- who hover at the edges of the frame with sinister glares and B movie mobster ruthlessness- but of the internal workings of the Resistance as well. For a flavor of the melodramatic Hollywood, there’s a relationship between the assassin (Brian Donlevy) and a young lady (Anna Lee). Intriguing on just about every level and with a script aided by Bertolt Brecht.

Ministry of Fear (1944) - Odd, but highly effective. The first half of this film plays like a 40’s David Lynch movie- including a suburban carnival that takes place at midnight, an eerie entrance for a blind man on a train and a séance sequence that ends in murder. Once the plot (concerning Ray Milland being mistaken for a spy and hunted by a shadow NAZI organization) is defined, “Ministry of Fear” becomes a little more commercial in its second half. Still, “Ministry of Fear” is enthralling, and by providing its main character with a back story as lurid as being released from an insane asylum in the first three minutes, the whole film could be seen as a crazy (and unreliable) adventure. Not on DVD.

Woman In the Window (1944) ***1/2 - One of the early noirs, Lang again sets a blazing trail with this thriller about a scholarly innocent (James Cagney) whose life jettisons out of control after he meets a beautiful lady (Joan Bennett) and falls prey to murder, deceit and blackmail. The scenes involving the clean-up and disposal of a body are magnificently paced. Watching this film today garners even more enjoyment in the way Lang toys with our expectations and then goes in a completely different direction. And, if in the end, “Woman In the Window” feels like a feverish morality dream, there’s good reason.

Scarlet Street (1945) *** - Straight forward gangster tale with a bit of psychological compulsion as Cagney and Bennett re-team. Interesting thing about this film- the scene in “Goodfellas” where Jimmy (DeNiro) violently chides his heist mates for appearing to flash their money around was taken directly from a scene in “Scarlet Street”. Not on DVD.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) ** - More “Masterpiece Theater” than James Bond, “Cloak and Dagger” suffers from several dead patches as a scientist (Gary Cooper) is asked to go gallivanting around Europe to figure out just how close an old colleague is to creating the atom bomb. Still, there’s one great silent fight sequence as two men battle to the death in the hallway of an apartment house alongside a busy street- shades of the kitchen fight scene in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” and the outstanding brutality of Matt Damon’s fight with an assassin in a sunlight tinged apartment in “The Bourne Identity” abound. If anything, “Cloak and Dagger” shows that even in the late 40’s Lang was conducting magnificent set pieces that still resonate with artists today. The rest of the film, on the other hand, is relatively lifeless.

Secret Beyond the Door (1948) **- Long out of print on any home video format, Lang's perverse love sory is probably one of the odder films of his career. A woman meets a man on vacation and they get married, only for her to find out that her new husband's hobby is collecting identical recreations of rooms in which great murders occured. The shadows and portentious camera moves are present, but "Secret Beyond the Door" really failed to make a connection with me.

House By the River (1950)*** - A (sort of) return to his silent expressionism days, “House By the River” follows a writer who accidentally commits murder and then spends the rest of the film walking around in a glorious self important daze as if he’s one of the impenetrable characters in one of his novels. Lit with stark shadows, staged with a lot of silent screen frontal views and featuring a delirious paranoia, “House By the River” feels like Lang is having fun. And the opening image of a dead animal floating by in the river reverses into a morbid psychological reminder later in the film. Fun to watch.

Rancho Notorious (1952) **** - There’s so much going on in this seemingly benign western, that it’s a crying shame it’s one of the few Lang films not on DVD. Beginning as a tale about a lone man (Arthur Kennedy) with an overbearing desire for justice (insert Donald Westlake influence here) on the outlaw who killed his girlfriend, “Rancho Notorious” soon evolves into a bawdy tale that continually re-invents the mythologies and legends of the west. Marlene Dietrich (oddly, the first time she worked with Lang even though both were huge stars in Germany after World War 1) is Aldar Keane, ex showgirl who now runs a hideout for outlaws. Once Kennedy becomes embroiled with the outlaws at their cozy hideaway, Lang transposes a lot of the noir genre onto the western as the man essentially goes undercover to find and execute swift revenge. Among all these fabulous undercurrents is Lang’s slowly tightening camera that conjures up some iconic images including a bloody, curled hand and a fist fight that most certainly employs one of the first semi-handheld camera approaches for a sense of anger and immediacy. A true under appreciated Lang masterpiece. And, “Blazing Saddles” fans will surely see a bit of Madeline Kahn channeling Dietrich here.

Clash By Night (1952) ** - Essentially a dry run for the much better “Human Desire” a year later, this film finds Barbara Stanwyck playing a destructive whirlwind force in the lives of a coastal man (Paul Douglas), his father and friends (including Marilyn Monroe). Eschewing the real noir elements, “Clash By Night” stays straight on the melodrama path with a script by Clifford Odets as Stanwyck oscillates between Douglas and his best friend Earl (Robery Ryan). Tormented emotion ensues. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the means… just a predictable and safe one.

The Blue Gardenia (1953) **1/2 - Solid but ultimately trifling tale of a recently dumped woman who may be suspected of murder after a few too many cocktails. Lang’s use of noir tropes- a shattered mirror and long shadows- only emphasize the baroque mode he seems to be operating with in the early 50’s.

The Big Heat (1953) ***1/2 - I place this right up there alongside Sam Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” as a sort of turning point for the crime film. Both are violent and angry examinations of crime and punishment that seem to slowly step out of the mannered style of 50’s thrillers and present some harsh realities. In “The Big Heat”, as soon as middle level henchman Lee Marvin tosses hot coffee in the face of dame Gloria Graham, effectively deforming her, all quaintness is left in the dust. The rest of the film, starring Glenn Ford as a suspended cop trying to find the murderer of his wife, is just as ruthless. This film deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Human Desire (1954) *** - Gloria Graham oozes sexiness and danger in this odd three-way love triangle. As the black widow who hates her husband (Broderick Crawford) and lures young train conductor (Glenn Ford) into her clutches, “Human Desire” looks incredible and Lang weaves sweaty innuendo throughout the film. Even though all the characteristics are there, it’s a bit off the pace from the usual noir which works in its favor. Not on DVD.

Moonfleet (1955) ** - In the first 30 minutes, “Moonfleet” lingers on some mysterious and unsettling images- hanging bodies, a demonic looking statue, a hand clutching outward from an open grave. This proves Lang would’ve made one helluva great Hammer horror film. The rest is pretty standard adventure yarn stuff filmed in vibrant color Cinemascope as a young boy (Stewart Granger) hunts for a lost gem. Not on DVD.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) *1/2 - One of the worst of Lang’s “late period” works, this seemingly deconstructive courtroom drama plays out like a lazy episode of Matlock. A writer (Dana Andrews), goaded on by his liberal minded editor, decides to fake the circumstantial evidence around the murder of a burlesque girl in order to be convicted of the crime and prove the death penalty is wrong. Lang’s direction is static. Gone are the mesmerizing set pieces and probing camera when the tension gets high. Instead, everything is medium shot and serious as if there’s no energy behind the camera. A disappointment.

While the City Sleeps (1956) *** - Alternating between the serial killing rampage of a confused mama’s boy and the structural downsizing of a local newspaper, “While the City Sleeps” shows little difference in the savagery of either one. Competently structured, but with a few off-center ideas (especially the casting of Vincent Price as the paper magnate whose attention the four main characters are vying for), this again feels like a less spirited venture by Lang. Not on DVD.

Indian Tale (1959)*** - A career full circle, with Lang returning to Germany to film this 4 hour tale from an idea by scriptwriter Thea von Harbour who wreot emany of his 1920's silent films. The story of a British engineer fighting carnivorous tigers and stealing beautiful Indian women is straight out of a B novel, but the lavish production design and bright CineScope colors make this an entertaining crown on am illustrious career.

Unable to view: Hari-kari, The Moving Image, Four Around A Woman, Siegfried’s Death, Kriemhild’s Revenge, 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

Monday, November 16, 2009

Produced and Abandoned #4

1. The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952)- Sadly, there's not a whole lot of Roberto Rosselini on DVD for some reason. Made after his international success with films like "Paisan" and "Open City", this film sounds intriguing as it details a demon who gives special powers to a man's camera and the ability to "smite" people from the Earth with it. I can only imagine the greatness that Rosselini rings from this tale.
2. Yol (1982)- Turkish film that was celebrated at Cannes, this was one of the first foreign movies I got a chance to see outside of my introduction to the French New Wave about 15 years ago. Yilmaz Guney's extraordinarily moving tale, the film features a group of prisoners who are granted leave to visit their family. VHS copies exist, but it's never been released on DVD. In fact, alot of groundbreaking Cannes Fest winners have yet to make it to DVD.
3. Phobia (1980)- Not too many good words are out there for John Huston's early 80's psycho-drama about patients who receive some pretty screwed up advice from their equally screwed up therapist. I'm about to begin a look at many of John Huston's films, so I'll be trying to track down a copy soon.
4. Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)- Another filmmaker sorely lacking on DVD (or at least his later career) is Robert Aldrich. This film from the late 70's stars Burt Lancaster as a general who takes over a missile silo and threatens the President of the United States. C'mon... we deserve a chance to see that, right?
5. The Horse Thief (1986)- Not only is "The Horse Thief" routinely mentioned as one of Scorsese's favorite films, but it's also regarded as one of the milestones of Chinese cinema that helped to kick start the Fifth Generation filmmaking crowd.
6. Doc's Full Service (1994)- Out of all the films on this list, this is the one I truly doubt I'll ever see. The last film by Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell, it's never been released on any video format. Routinely written about as a full-on mess (as its director was drunk half the time), it has no real stars and documents the ramblings of a group of people around a small gas station. If anyone has any ideas on where this can be found, I'd love to hear it.
7. The Prowler (1951)- Talked about in length recently on Glenn Kenny's blog, it sounds like a fascinating and overlooked gem in the career of Joseph Losey.
8. Ipcress File (1965)- So many good spy films, so little time. Michael Caine plays agent Harry Brown for the first time in a story of brain washing and political skulduggery. I understand there are Region 2 Russian copies out there for a hefty price.
9. Capone (1975)- If Warren Oates' version of John Dillinger can see the light of day, then there must be an audience for the John Cassavetes version of Al Capone. Directed by little known director Steve Carver who made a living with this type of cheapo gangster film (see "Big Bad Mama"), there has to be some value here.
10. The Carey Treatment- Blake Edwards' dark, dark drama about a doctor who ends up being tagged for murder and the peer (James Coburn) who searches for the truth. Part noir and part social commentary, this is a great film that twists and turns with surprises and allows Coburn to play out his own version of the laid back, sarcastic Philip Marlowe type made humorous a year later by Elliot Gould in "The Long Goodbye".

Friday, November 13, 2009

On "An Education"

Lone Scherfig's "An Education" takes a prominently well-spun idea and turns it into something aching and real. The May-December romance (this time with a 16 year old schoolgirl and a suave older man) plays out with sincerity, mostly due to the very strong acting by newcomer Carey Mulligan. In just a few lines of dialogue, "An Education" sharply brings into focus the canyon of differences in lifestyles, world views and knowledge between the wide-eyed youngster and her well versed suitor. When David (Peter Saarsgard) asks her what her plans are on Friday, Jenny (Mulligan) replies with the naive answer of "I'll be in school". David smiles and says, "I meant Friday night". The gulf of experience that so many films spend 90 minutes trying to explain, writers Scherfig and Nick Hornby dispense with naturalism in 90 seconds. The rest of the film- as we watch Mulligan become introduced to some hard choices in life- simply soars from there.
In the tradition of stuffy, 1960's era British family dramas, "An Education" adheres to the formula. It's not a flashy movie, but one that opens itself up through wonderfully acute performances and textured reaction shots. I wouldn't bat an eyelash if every actor in this movie received an acting nomination of some kind. Already mentioned in breathless quotes throughout the film scene, Carey Mulligan as Jenny steals the show. But it's the secondary characters who provide dimension to the film. From Alfred Molina's overly protective and single-minded father (who pulls his character out of shrill territory with a moving monologue towards the end of the film) to Sally Hawkins (who only pops up in one 2 minute scene, yet runs circles around most everyone else in the film), "An Education" positions itself as a character study of the highest order. This is precisely the intimately made little film that keeps me going to the movie theater in search for something redeeming.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

It's Amazing....

....how much this show cracks me up each week.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On Antichrist- spoilers

My auteur bunch is really failing me lately. First, there was the head-scratcher from the Coen Brothers and now Lars vonTrier generates this controversial and altogether hokey semblance of... a Bergman film?.... an avant garde horror film?... or is he just having another big laugh? I won't deny that there's a strange power to certain segments of "Antichrist" (namely the final sequence with a horde of faceless women climbing a mountain), but overall, von Trier's latest left me cold.

There are two ways one can read "Antichrist". Taken seriously, it reads something like this: Like some of the best work of David Lynch including "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire", von Trier's "Antichrist" exists somewhere between reality and psychological breakdown. With the lines blurred, it allows the director to fade in and out of naturalism, surrealism and, in the case of the talking fox in "Antichrist", outright absurd ism. Re-watching the Lynch films mentioned, I certainly see a link between some of the hidden references in both films. If you pay close enough attention, you can almost tell where the fissures inside Naomi Watson's character breaks open into la-la-land. There's a distinct purpose in alot of the visual and aural madness. With "Antichrist", I don't know if repeat viewings will substantiate any thoughtful undercurrents. Honestly, I don't have the energy to try. If we relate the violent and unsettling events in "Antichrist" directly to the grief-stricken, fractured mind of the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), then von Trier can mix up a huge cocktail of irrelevant images, stifled emotions and confusing analogies in the hopes of labeling his film as a psychotic exploration of a deteriorating mind. In short, this gives a film the license to be pretentious, awkward or passionately non-linear. Art students have been doing that for years. But strangely, out of the two possibilities of reading this film, it works the best in this light. The whole film very well may exist only in the head of Gainsbourg, and that succinctly explains the talking fox and her overwhelming desire to squash her husband's penis then drill a concrete block through his leg. For the sake of world cinema, this type of silly symbolism plays like gangbusters.

Secondly, "Antichrist" could be just another litmus test for American audiences. As a huge von Trier admirer until the early 00's, he seemed to go off the deep end around 1999, after the smashing success of "Dancer In the Dark". Though some of his subsequent films have its ardent admirers, "The Idiots", "Dogville", "Manderlay" and "The Boss Of It All", require loads of patience. The synopsis of "The Idiots"- a film in which a group of people run rampant around a city, babbling incoherently and disrupting its way of life- seems to be the cinematic mantra of von Trier. With "Antichrist", he's upped the ante with name stars and some CGI effects, but he's still the proverbial bull in the china shop. I can easily see "Antichrist" being fired up in circles for years to come, playing as a comedy. Hell, there's already a t-shirt.

"Antichrist" is not the worst film of the year, or even close. It's one of those meh 2 star things that picks at you because it's from the creative hand of a director you once greatly admired. Yes, Dafoe and Gainsbourg act their hearts out with the conviction of really tormented people, and it features a stunning prologue and epilogue in shimmering black and white that immediately sets the tone for something great. And while the visual trademark of von Trier for the past decade has been the hand-held jerky thing, catching images on the fly and cutting after every sentence spoken by the actors, "Antichrist" is compellingly static for the most part. His camera has meaning in certain parts. One of the most striking shots in the entire film is the subtle moment as the camera virtually sits atop the casket of their dead son, peering out the back window as man and woman walk in grief behind it. Gainsbourg falls to the ground and the camera makes a wild little verge to catch her, then rests back atop the casket. In a film chock full of wanna-be-horrific images, this small moment has stuck with me the most. If everything in "Antichrist" had been handled with this emotional intellectualism, then maybe I'd be talking about the latest von Trier masterpiece.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Nasty Remains: More Horror Film Capsules


I really have no excuse why it’s taken so long to watch Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 precursor to the now prolific J-horror wave, “Kwaidan”. Less about outright scares and more concerned with the slow-burn atmosphere and mood that surrounds the age old ghosts stories that the compendium film tells, “Kwaidan” is also visually sumptuous. Told against the artificial backdrop of lively painted sets, the film features tales with ominous names such as “The Black Hair” and “The Woman of the Snow” that center on the scorn of betrayal within relationships. Each one of these four tales have roots in mythic storytelling and they’ve been done countless times over since, but watching the original source is still entertaining.

Dead Snow

Taking two of the most successful genre types of the recent years (the bad Nazi and the zombie picture) and merging them into a blood-splattered, playful exercise seems like a can’t miss formula. And for the most part, Tommy Wirkola’s Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” succeeds. His penchant for self reflexive humor is obvious (and a bit much at times as the characters want us to know how hip they are by referencing “The Evil Dead” and quoting Indiana Jones), but this is certainly not a film for strong character development. The 7 med students who travel to a snowy mountaintop cabin and find themselves sitting on a box of dead Nazi gold are nothing more than ciphers for the bloodletting. The make-up is especially inventive and creepy. And as the final (insanely bloody) 30 minutes rolls, the parenthetical homage to Raimi and Peter Jackson are quickly matched. Fun stuff.

The Unseen

When one of the main stars of a film is the portly and weird Sidney Lassick, the bar isn’t set very high. So as it is with this 1980 film about three reporters who become trapped in the house of a deranged brother and sister… and with something evil lurking in the basement. There’s no subtext at all here. The idea of female empowerment ala “The Descent” or a trip into true madness are both avoided here. Instead, “The Unseen” is a pretty boring and harmless 80’s oddity.

Near Dark

With several high profile credits to her name- and a potential Oscar run on her hands with this year’s “The Hurt Locker”- 1987’s “Near Dark” remains, for my money, Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Merging the western into a type of gothic horror (oh how pretty those sunlit Texas plains quickly turn into darkness as a Winnebago stalks across the landscape), Bigelow upped the ante on the modern vampire flick and created something very naturalistic and frightening. The sexual tension between Mae (Jenny Wright… what happened to her??) and Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) sets the framework for a tragic love story filled with blood, gore and broken mythology. I watch this every year and damn if it doesn’t get better and better.


A cerebral zombie picture of the highest order, Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is an effective one set character piece that dazzles and elates with words and ideas rather than gore. The picture I chose as the screen cap below is grossly overselling the bloodletting. As a Don Imus like radio DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) stumbles into work one day and is plunged directly into an apocalyptic catastrophe as it builds in the outside world. Trapped inside the small Canadian radio station with Mazzy is his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Julia Ann (Georgina Reilly). Broken cell phone calls, unintelligible babbling from callers and off-frame noises slowly integrate the evolving madness upon the isolated radio station. “Pontypool” is a revelatory zombie picture, although writer Tony Burgess and McDonald are careful to avoid the use of the word zombie at all. The virus spreads through the use of the English language, which in and of itself poises just as many questions as the film answers. It’s all heady stuff, to be sure, but immensely pleasurable and challenging.

Dinner With A Vampire

The first 45 minutes of Lamberto Bava’s “Dinner With A Vampire” eschews the cheesy Italian horror genre by playing with the ideas of showmanship and successfully copying the black and white eeriness of Murnau’s “Nosferatu”. The second half becomes, well, a cheesy Italian horror film complete with bad dubbing, confusing scene changes and continuity errors (a female wearing stockings one scene, bare legs the next, then back to stockings!).

Thursday, October 29, 2009


1. Check out these twisted photo art things for a taste of Halloween. If they don't creep you out a little, then you're surely a stronger person than I.

2. Lots of solid 80's goodness going on at This Distracted Globe.

3. Don't forget to find Coast To Coast on your radio dial this weekend. Their Ghost To Ghost special is always good for some weird, scary and entertaining listener phone calls.

4. And finally, if you're not watching, I can't urge sports fans enough to tune into ESPN's 30 For 30 documentaries every Tuesday night. A partial TV schedule is here. First class filmmakers (Barry Levinson, Peter Berg, Albert Maysles and others) tackle some obscure and soulful subjects. Levinson's portrait of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band and Maysles' never-before-seen footage of the Larry Holmes/Muhammad Ali fight in 1980 are better than 90% of the films I've seen this year.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Witching Hour: Horror Film Capsules

House of the Devil

Ti West’s “House of the Devil” is a definite step up from his previous genre riffs, “The Roost” and “Triggerman”. Shrouded in a great 80’s funk (with the tone set immediately by the big yellow block credits and a Cars-like knock off tune), it tells the story of a broke college student (Jocelin Donahue) who takes on more than she can handle when she accepts a baby sitting gig at a cavernous house in the country. Populated with distinctive and eerie faces such as Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the house’s owners, the film builds slowly. The first 2/3 is all atmosphere, mood and formalism as West sets up the exploration of the house with carefully framed static shots and slow, portentous zooms. Then the last part accelerates into a frenetic, freaky ride with some terrific shock cuts. It’s ideas are a bit derivative, but “House of the Devil” remains a strong genre effort that deserves a large midnight audience.

Demons 3: The Ogre

So apparently I’m one of the many who fell for this misrepresented movie. Made for Italian TV by “Demons” director Lamberto Bava, money-grubbing producers only added the “Demons 3” part to suck in any fans of that great series of horror flicks. Instead, we get a guy in a rubber suit dressed up as an ogre (and who seems to originate from a colorful plasma pouch hanging from the ceiling of a castle basement) scaring the daylights out of a woman and her family. There is some good atmosphere, but overall the film plods along with very few scares and even less gore. The enjoyable parts? The way the film changes from night to day with little sense of time (like all good Italian horror films do!) and the orgasmic screams of its female lead whenever she’s in trouble. That’s about all I can say for this one.

Trick R Treat

Michael Doughtery’s gestating-long-on-the-shelf anthology horror film is wild, energetic, gory and completely engrossing. Taking place over one Halloween night in small town Ohio, “Trick R Treat” has a deceptively simple throwback feel to it as it weaves together such disparate characters as a serial killer, ghost children, cranky old men, vampires and a demonic little thing with a pumpkin bag over its head. It does delve into its fair share of nastiness, but overall, “Trick R Treat” smartly juggles its zig-zagging story lines with humor and surprising outcomes. If nothing else, one can tell that Doughtery loves and respects horror movies.

Burnt Offerings

Another take on the demonic house genre, “Burnt Offerings” deserves little mention in this genre other than that. I suppose part of the fun in watching horror movies this time of year is discovering the great ones, and suffering through many of the bad ones. Oliver Reed and Karen Black play the couple who rent an old, spacious house for the summer and struggle as the house slowly invades their dreams and behavior. The house makes Black dress up in 1860’s style clothing and drives Reed to continually work on the lawn and pool, apparently. Filmed and released in the late 70’s, it definitely serves as a relic of its time…. soft lenses and all. At times, I thought I was watching one of those 70’s Emmanuela films. Skip this one.

The Hidden

Ok… more of a sci-fi film than an outright horror, but Jack Sholder’s 80’s cult item is still an entertaining ride. Fresh off his stint on “Blue Velvet”, Kyle McLaughlin remains in catatonic weird mode as an FBI agent joining forces with an LAPD office (Michael Nouri) to track a parasite that takes over ordinary people’s bodies and turns them into heavy metal listening, fast car driving killers. A dash of Cronenberg here and William Friedkin there, “The Hidden” is probably best viewed after a couple of drinks. Worth it just to watch how the parasite travels from human being to human being, though.


The psychological plight of new mothers has been a prevalant- and particularly nasty-theme for several years now and Paul Solet's "Grace" adds a new dimension to the genre. It would make a nice double bill with Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's splatterfest masterpiece "Inside". As the mother to new baby Grace, Jordan Ladd locks herself away in her house and discovers her daughter isn't quite right. We discern that pretty quickly when the baby is pronounced dead in the womb after the effects of a violent car accident, but is born alive. Solet doles out information slowly, keeping the bloody actions just below the camera lens which serves to heighten the questions we develop about the mother. Is she imagining it all? How does the 'new age' aspect tie into the story? Solet does answer the questions and even leaves the possibility open to a sequel.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On "A Serious Man"

It's hard to formulate thoughts about the Coen Brothers' latest film, "A Serious Man". Visually, their flare for precise framing and point of view is firmly intact. Carter Burwell score is quiet yet haunting. The sound design (especially a scene on the roof of a house and the almost cosmic way Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" floats in and out on the soundtrack) is tremendous. The laughs don't come as loudly as in "Burn After Reading", but their sardonic wit opens up a ton of small, amusing moments mostly in body posture and slow reaction shots. Still, there's something very hard to crack about "A Serious Man". Perhaps it's the almost oppressive air of 'Jewishness' about the film. I know very, very little about this style of religion, so the film's opening- some type of Jewish parable about a dybbuk visiting a couple in what I'm guessing to be Biblical times- immediately threw me for a loop. I'm still not completely sure how this ties in with the rest of the film. Other parts of "A Serious Man" are just as head-scratching, partly due to my own knowledge-incompetence and partly due to Joel and Ethan Coen's playfully oblique way of doling out information. I should, after all, be used to the Coen Brothers and their startling methods of presenting comedy and drama by now, but this is a film that probably deserves multiple viewings. Still, their track record for sucking the air out of the theater with a supremely anti-climacic finale has found its way into their third successive feature and will surely crank out just as much discussion as "No Country For Old Men".

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Random Halloween Suggestion #4

A bit cliche, yes, but a helluva lotta fun in a sold out screening. Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity" gave me quite a few goosebumps through its ingenious design and smart timing for scares. It's all pretty basic (stationary camera set up in the corner of the room) but it elicits some uncommon emotions (forcing your eyes to search the edges of the darkness, trying to anticipate where the movement or sound will emanate from). This is the type of thing Kiyoshi Kurosawa does best. While I'm not saying it's in the same league as Kurosawa's mind-bending efforts, "Paranormal Activity" does push some of the right buttons of mood and atmosphere.

Even if one doesn't completely buy the repertoire between its non actor couple (Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat), "Paranormal Activity" is more about having fun than building up strong character development. I couldn't help but laugh, though, when during the screening I saw, someone shouted out "time to go, niggas!" after the third or fourth night of strange occurrences. An apt description indeed. See this one with friends and have a good time on Halloween.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Kids Aren't Alright: Afterschool and Home Movie

Taking a break from the ghosts and haunted houses this Halloween season, I went in an entirely different direction and, seemingly, ended up with results just as terrifying. The homicidal, demonic impulses of children. Given the fear factor and creepiness of so many bad children movies lately, I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised. "Afterschool", the debut feature of NYU student Antonio Campos and "Home Movie" by Christopher Denham, share a common theme of modern technology documenting and informing the awkward self-growth of confused, screwed-up kids. And while neither film is a complete success in my opinion, they are exciting examples of independent film making pushing the envelope of technique and visual aggressiveness.

In the case of "Home Movie", director Denham opts for the messy aesthetic of a home video camera to document the slow-burn evolution of two siblings Jack and Emily (Austin Williams and Amber Joy Williams) from passive aggressive trouble makers to young serial killers-in-training. Mostly shot by Lutheran preacher/father David (Adrian Pasdan), we soon begin to wonder when anyone will notice the dangerous underpinnings of these twins... such as how they quietly appear without notice carrying blank stares or their grotesque fascination with the torture and dismemberment of the family pets. But as any faux-video camera movie lover knows, we have to work our way up to the sadistic shots, which "Home Movie" eventually conjures up in the final disturbing few minutes. To make matters even more ironic, the household matriarch (Cady McLain) is a child psychologist who tries to self medicate her children into bliss. While "Home Movie" does feature some creepy moments (whose shock edit is to visually collapse the first-person video shot with colored static and jump right into the next happy family moment) the fault of the very short film is its underwhelmed parent character development. How long will they continue shooting the macabre events after they figure out their children would put The Omen kid to shame? Enough for another 30 minutes of film, obviously. "Home Movie" is a nice experiment, but I wonder if a more traditional approach (i.e. careful camera compositions and less enthusiastic, unnatural parent reactions) would have gleaned just as many scary truths.

Likewise interested in the slow bridge from awkward adolescence to something a bit more demonic is Antonio Campos' "Afterschool". The better of the two films, Campos does choose calculated camera positions and a shrewd sense of editing to jolt the viewer out of our hazy submission when the violence does occur. Robert (Ezra Miller) finds life at an upstate New York prep school unfair. With few friends and a drug dealing roommate, he recedes into the world of online violence (You-Tube like clips of girls fighting) and amateur porn. While filming a documentary for his AV class, he records an empty hallway when two popular and pretty twin sisters emerge from the school bathroom in mid overdose. He runs over and sits with one of them as she dies. What follows is a scathing, absurdly funny and highly caustic examination of Robert's life as he deals with the trauma and tries to engage his emotions through the static window of the world he's absorbed online. And it features a final shot that re-imagines the entire film in scary and horrible ways.

Campos films "Afterschool" with a stationary camera that observes most of the action head-on with a blurred depth of field. People and images are often blurred until they walk up close to the camera and begin their conversations. It's as if we're watching this environment through the widescreen window of an observation room. And it fits the clinical approach Campos seems to harbor for his characters. Robert does find love (and sex) in muted, off-center moments with girlfriend Amy (Addison Timlin) but "Afterschool" eschews any coming-of-age gestures. This is nasty and sociopathic stuff.

It's impossible to deny the influence of Michael Haneke on Campos and his effort. The way video images are toyed with, "Afterschool" continually challenges the viewer to discern what's a recorded sequence and what's actually happening in narrative order. The opening shot of Haneke's masterpiece, "Cache" for example, has been his provocative style since day one. While Campos isn't quite in this territory yet, "Afterschool" does prove he has a knack for manipulating point of view into a twisted ideal. Campos even includes a wink to the audience in the final scene after we're exposed to the real nature and obstructed action done by Robert in that hallway observing the two girls die. But for me, the real triumph of "Afterschool" is young Robert's cut of the "memorial" video for the girls, quickly shuttled away by the uptight head master (Michael Stuhlbarg) after seeing the twisted images he put on-screen. I couldn't imagine a more fitting visual representation inside the head of a troubled kid than that, home video camera or otherwise.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Random Halloween Suggestion #3

Michael Winner's 1977 horror film "The Sentinel" is all kinds of crazy good. Going back and reading some of the reviews floating around for this film about a woman who moves into an apartment building that exists as a gateway to hell, and one doesn't find much love for it. Sure, it's a bit campy at times- such as when Burgess Meredith shows up holding a cat and a parakeet on his shoulder- but the film does a good job of maintaining an eerie tone throughout. And when the finale does intensify and the grotesque denizens of hell are unleashed, "The Sentinel" becomes genuinely disturbing.

Besides a very delectable Cristina Raines as the lead character who thinks she's going insane, "The Sentinel" is definitely one of the most star populated horror films of the 70's, even if a few of them were yet to be known. Burhess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, Chris Sarandon, Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, John Carradine and Beverly D'Angelo (in a very surreal turn) all turn up as people mixed up in the eternal struggle to keep hell from making New York its stomping ground. And no matter if you're prepared for it or not, the scene where Raines ventures upstairs and a white figure darts in front of her is continually discomforting.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

DVD Shout Out: Sugar

If Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham" is the comedic take on life in the minor leagues, then "Sugar" levels off and presents something a bit more realistic... where getting to "the show" is a daily grind that seems to crush the life out of every wanna-be major leaguer. But in hindsight, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's intimate portrait of Sugar Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) and his search for a spot on a professional roster is less about baseball and certainly more about the compounding confusions that overwhelm a non-English speaking immigrant plopped down in the middle of America. And isn't that what the greatest sports movies do? Which is to say they present grand human emotions and self discovery against the ordinary facade of competitive sportsmanship. "The Natural" and "Tin Cup" says more about growing old than "Grumpy Old Men". And dare I even mention "Hoop Dreams" which packs more truth in every frame than any NBA game shown on television. "Sugar" deserves to be mentioned in that rare category of a sports film that tells a universal story with subtle flare and a discerning eye for the details in life.

As "Sugar", Perez Soto is a quiet force. From the opening, where we see him bounce back and forth from an American run baseball camp in the Dominican Republic to his cluttered small town and large family, we're immediately on this guy's side. With a searching camera that zooms and darts back and forth, rarely missing a small detail or change in some one's eyes, "Sugar" embarks on an unexpected ride as Sugar is signed to the minor leagues, shuttled to Iowa where he lives with a very white-bred family and deals with the pressures of everyday life in the minors. Submerging the viewer into the same disorienting experience that Sugar feels here- including a revealing long take as he walks through the lobby of a hotel and into a loud video arcade- directors Fleck and Boden make sure their film slowly evolves into a character study of unique proportions. Then, the rug is pulled out from underneath us and the film's third act takes a compelling avenue that sorta creates the magical effect of the overall film. The relationships that Sugar forms and the coda, where real life immigrant players speak directly to the camera and say their names and drafted teams, etch out a beautifully realized film about life on the edges of a dream.

With their previous film "Half Nelson", Boden and Fleck have risen to the top as strong independent filmmakers who document messy, complicated lives in flux. There wasn't a single mis-step in that debut film with Ryan Gosling as a drug addicted teacher trying to reach bright student Shareeka Epps. Fleck and Boden have a knack for subverting expectations in conflicts, and the moment where Gosling approaches drug dealer Anthony Mackie plays out in the opposite manner in which we expect. Likewise, in "Sugar", Santos falls for the religious daughter (Ellary Porterfield) of the family he's staying with and their relationship develops in awkwardly truthful ways as well. There's also the great moment in "Sugar" where he and his girlfriend meet a friend on the corner and we learn he used to pitch for the Yankees minor league system. Fleck and Boden's camera catches a glean in his eye before he averts his look down to the ground and a flush of remorse covers his expression. Whether that moment is scripted or not, Fleck and Boden wisely capture these glimmers of human nature with ease. For the entire running time of "Sugar", it also feels like they've captured human nature in motion.

Bonus: the stirring scene in "Half Nelson" where Epps makes a drug delivery to a hotel room and discovers her teacher's private life, told in sound, image and utterly honest eye contact.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Random Halloween Suggestion #2

I was first introduced to Peter Medak's 1980 film "The Changeling" for the first time earlier this year. I've since watched it again, and come to really love its quiet build-up and classic 'dark old house' tale about a man (George C. Scott) who rents an old mansion and becomes embroiled in bumps in the night, scary child noises and a seance. Medak, a director who dabbles in several genres, clearly understands how effective the edges of the frame can be. And silence... which makes the loud bumps and shakes all the more impressive when they do resonate. All around, "The Changeling" is a fascinating and scary horror whodunit.

The highlight has to be the aforementioned seance scene, which pretty much wrote the book on filming these types of things, including first showing the phenomenon known as automatic writing. If you haven't already seen it, rush on over and send it to the top of your Netflix queue now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quick Capsules

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” takes on an incredibly dull subject- mid west chemical company involved in possible price fixing- and throws in loose comedic swipes with a toupeed and slightly chunky Matt Damon doing his best to shed any Jason Bourne stereotypes. Unfortunately, not a whole lot livens this movie up. Retro music is keyed at the right moments and stream of conscience voice overs lull the viewer into a state of perplexity. Gradually, “The Informant!” shows us that our main character (though seemingly doing the right thing and turning government informer) is just as corrupt and maddening as the system of greed and negligent conduct he’s trying to extinguish. Soderbergh is a director I highly admire. On paper, his other film this year titled “The Girlfriend Experience” should have been the real clunker. Instead, that film’s visual experimentation and abstract ideas run circles around the more polished and safe “The Informant!”.

Sin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” is a vibrant debut film. Full of haunting images both violent and humble, Fukunaga’s camera eeks out beauty in the most unexpected places- such as the shadowy figures of people lumbering on a top of a train, the way blood darkens the water around a body and especially the final image of a young girl (Paulina Gaitan) bathed in sunlight as she talks on a pay phone. Taking as his protagonist a dead-head gang member who runs from his past and finds redemption in the sweetness of a young girl “Sin Nombre” makes emotional leaps with little effort, mainly due to the magnetic performances of its two leads. This guy’s going to be good.

The Burning Plain

Early on in Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain”, I begin to wish for less of his non-linear storytelling style. But after the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, the film would probably lose some impact if told traditionally. Charlize Theron is a damaged woman living in Portland. A man (Jose Yazpick) seems to be following her. In a more sunny environment, Kim Basinger is having an affair with Mexican Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). Her daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) suspects the worst. Frenetic editing and jumbled time lines round out Arriaga’s gloomy parable of crossed generations and mixed culture attractions. And even though Arriaga relies on the heavy handed usage of things like scars, “The Burning Plain” does succeed as another potpourri of crashing story lines and damaged relationships- something he’s become very comfortable with after films like “21 Grams”, “The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada” and “Babel”.