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.