Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bloody Disgusting Views From Hallowed October

House of the Devil

After just a couple of years, Ti West's low-fi scary old house shocker has become a Halloween favorite around the household. Not only does it toss out some great, funky 70's vibes courtesy of the opening credits, but it's a horror film that understands the logistics of good terror can be found in the quiet spaces and simple camera moves in and around the frame. The first 45 minutes, as a woman accepts a job to house sit and roams around the house, listening to music and orders pizza is only establishing the grounds for the hell that's about to be released. I so look forward to West's next film, "The Innkeepers".

The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle)

Richard Loncraine's mid 70's psychological thriller is more "Repulsion" than "Rosemary's Baby", which its ultimately linked to since Mia Farrow again stars as a woman wrestling with the sad vagaries of motherhood. This time, her daughter has died and her marriage is failing when she moves to London and becomes a cipher for something evil lurking in her house. It does take a while for the film to get rolling and it relies more on atmospheric scares than outright screams, but its worth the watch as an intelligent take on the old ghost story. And it should join "The Changeling" and "Insidious" as films that show a creepy seance!

Exte: Hair Extensions

It should be noted that filmmaker Sion Sono works in the perverted margins of cinema... and I do really enjoy a majority of his films I've been able to see. With "Suicide Club" and the even more adventurous "Noriko's Dinner Table", he took the J-horror wave to abstract places with head-spinning veracity. And his '06 film, "Exte" is probably his way of saying screw you to the horror genre in general. A female ghost holds that ever present grudge against the living and uses a coroner with a hair fetish to spread her evil through the lives of several hair shop employees around Japan. Gory at times and with Sono's themes of child abuse and voyeurism overtaking the central narrative, "Exte Hair Extensions" is a unique and pretty crazy idea of death through rapidly growing hair. I doubt its meant to be taken seriously, yet its hard to shake some of the film's images.

Prince of Darkness

Just look at the run director John carpenter had for a couple of years: "Big Trouble In Little China", "Prince of Darkness" and "They Live". In fact, a good majority of the stars in "Big Trouble in Little China" pop up again in what I feel is Carpenter's most fascinating film, "Prince of Darkness". A group of scientists and grad students meet to study something evil swirling in the bowels of an old church and come face to face with the evil powers of Satan himself. Compositionally, "Prince of Darkness" is near perfect and the scares- especially the demonic sounding voices of an old homeless woman and a murdered scientist propped up by bugs later in the film- send chills down my spine no matter how many times I know they're coming. Just an all around great film that never gets much attention.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Michael Winterbottom Files: Forget About Me

Besides being one of my very favorite filmmakers, British director Michael Winterbottom is a true chameleon.... one of the closest things we have today (along with Steven Soderbergh) of the studio boys back in the 40's and 50's who were able to parlay an extensive list of films together over a number of years, weaving in and out of genre and styles with ruthless efficiency. At the heart of many of Winterbottom's films lies an inherent respect for the serendipitous moments that people discover with others throughout their daily hustle and bustle. "Wonderland", "The Claim", "The Trip", "Summer in Genoa" all bracket a human drama against the wild tonality of a road movie. Winterbottom also loves his rock music, as evident in "24 Hour Party People" and "9 Songs". Both of these tendencies are at the center of his debut 1990 debut film "Forget About Me". Starring Ewen Bremner and Brian Mccardie, "Forget About Me" begins as a road as two soldiers in training take their Christmas leave and travel to Budapest to see their favorite band, Simple Minds, perform. Along the way they pick up a beautiful hippie girl hitchhiker named Czilla (Zsuzsanna Varkonyi) and they lay over in her Hungarian hometown where they're introduced to local culture, the girl's shifting affinities for both boys and Hungarian death metal.

Financed by British television and gaining some exposure on the festival circuit in early 1990, at first glance "Forget About Me" feels like an airy, insubstantial piece of love triangle drama. On a second viewing, the awkward moments between the two soldiers and Czilla and Winterbottom's handheld camera capture uniquely moving flutters of emotion and feeling. In one scene- and one of the first where Czilla turns her attention towards the more mild mannered Broke (Ewen Bremner)- her playful advances come as he's shaving in the mirror. They chase each other around the room for a minute before the tension sets in. In another, Czilla and Broke run away from a party where her rocker ex-boyfriend Attila (Attila Grandpierre) has picked a fight with Bunny (Mccardie) and the two end up in the middle of family dance party at midnight. It's a magical little moment where no words are exchanged and the mood of a vibrant, surreal foreign country sets in perfectly. In description, this type of independent, hippie road movie seems hackneyed to say the least, but in 1990, I'm sure it felt otherworldly and a bit ahead of its time. Bottom line, "Forget About Me" owes more to the loose French nouvelle vague then the sometimes over hyped Alexander Payne 'search films'.

In addition to establishing many themes later revisited by Winterbottom, "Forget About Me" also marks the first time Winterbottom and friend/screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce would work together, later collaborating on such diverse films as "Code 46", "Welcome To Sarajevo" and "Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story". The script for "Forget About Me" is simple, relying on the elusive, natural beauty of female star Varkonyi and the wild-eyed innocence of Mccardie and Bremner as they experience life for the first time. And the ultimate irony of the film? When the two lads finally do get to attend the Simple Minds concert they've traveled over 400 miles to see (and which is shortly filmed, possible leading to the reason the film has never been released in any home video format), Bremner wanders off into the night unable to cope with the crushing effects of a grown up romance. It all feels a bit biographical, and perhaps Boyce and Winterbottom were these two lads at some point.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Movies and All

The Ides of March

The actor Clooney is quickly becoming a cerebral director with this taut political tale that pushes into the foreground the three-card-monty act that enshrines the gamesmanship behind every political campaign. While assuming the role of Governor Mike Morris, a seemingly wholesome figure in a tight Ohio Democratic primary, Clooney is good, but "The Ides of March" has the gusto to create a film not about him, but the various campaign directors and interns that tirelessly work behind the scene. Bottom line, if one goes to see Clooney, than they may be sorely disappointed. In another terrific performance, Ryan Gosling is the real star, bouncing off legendary character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright as the election becomes embroiled in sexual innuendo, territorial back-stabbing and the leering press. Through it all, Clooney maintains a steadfast classicism that has become his directorial earmark. The most flashy moment- and probably the film's most invigorating moment- is a decisive scene which plays out in silence as the camera slowly pans in towards a car from across the street. Not only does "The Ides of March" hit the right notes cinematically, but the various twists and turns create a compelling drama that stands as one of my very favorite films of the year so far.


Joseph Levine's "50/50" is a fair representation of the Apatow brand- films that confront adult themes with a very childish sense of humor- and then about 30 minutes in it, "50/50" changes into something completely unexpected and overwhelming and smashes that brand to pieces. It's that good of a movie, led by a stunning, genuine performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt who deserves a nomination for his work here. Writer Will Reiser and director Levin ("The Wackness" and "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") know exactly how to frame a story around real emotions, allowing the Seth Rogen style of humor to compliment the touchy prospect of a cancer-ridden comedy while maintaining its austerity to life and survival. There's so much good in "50/50" that I dearly hope its marketing as a raunchy comedy will not dissuade adventurous viewers. Strong supporting performances, especially from Anna Kendrick who has become so good in that uptight, purse-lipped manner of comedy, only heighten the comedy-drama and ground the more romantic elements of the film. With a film so encumbered by the air of death, its a completely life-affirming revelation of a young man's wide open future.


And the accolades just keep on coming here on this blog. Cindy Meehl's documentary on the real life horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, is a gentle thing of beauty. Picking up with Buck as he currently criss-crossses the country, teaching horse classes 9 months out of the year, we slowly learn of his tragic childhood past and the things that keep him living today (namely his wife and daughter). Brannaman himself would have been a singular idea for a documentary with his childhood fame and descent into familial terror, but "Buck" concentrates on the good that emerged from those dark times, namely a serene ability to understand and calm troubled horses. We know its coming the whole movie and when the twenty minute scene where Buck 'talks' to an aggressive colt, it's a shattering moment that only the best documentaries enable.

Essential Killing

Jerzy Skolomowski's tale of survival could be called simplistic killing. It's sparse narrative- about an escaped Afghani (Vincent Gallo) and his single minded efforts to stay alive in the harsh cold wilderness- doesn't overlay a ton of political analogies. It is a bit much to ask an audience to sympathize with a possible terrorist, but "Essential Killing" never really gives us the chance with a darting, handheld camera that barely contains Gallo in the frame and resists the temptation to give meaning to anyone. It's also a dissonant work.... barely any dialogue is spoken (and not a single word by Gallo), much of the audio is derived from chatter on the military radios as the soldiers hunt their prey and the centrifugal force of emotion is given only at the last second as Gallo's eyes make a decision to kill or run. Technically, "Essential Killing" is riveting, but its overall impact is muted.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Top 5 List: Those Troubled Teens

5. Suburbia

Penelope Speerhis' early 80's drama feels like the blueprint for every other emo-punk rock film to come after. It's Los Angeles setting, populated by landscapes of suburban redundancy and barren graffiti riddled flophouses, fits the nihilistic attitude of its protagonists well. Featuring a cast of no-names (except Flea.... yes that Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers), "Suburbia" follows these youth through endless days spent robbing from the open door garages of neighboring houses, going to punk rock shows, and tattooing the symbol of "TR" (the rejects) on their arms. And when the film takes a detour in slow motion as a pack of wild dogs runs through the neighborhood, Speerhis effectively transitions her experiment into something like an apocalyptic disaster film. If the feeling of being smothered by the sneering kids in "Suburbia" is your choice of a good time, then this film is for you. For that alone, it deserves a spot on this list.

4. A Clockwork Orange

Probably the seminal film about teen anomia (although all the actors portraying these teens were well into their 30's), Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel remains a riveting exploration of sex and violence.

3. Less Than Zero- Cheating a bit here since this 1987 film features college age kids, it's just hard to leave any film derived from a Bret Easton Ellis off the list. The guy just invents such perverted, self absorbed and loathsome characters... yet his films earmark many high points of the last three decades including the outright crazy satirical masterpiece "American Psycho". I do hold a soft spot in my heart for his 2002 adaptation "The Rules of Attraction".... but back to "Less Than Zero". Released in 1987, not only did the film help solidify the rising star status of diverse talents such as Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader, but I can't remember a film exemplifying the empty nature of sex, drugs and moody nightlife quite like this film. In retrospect, "Less Than Zero" is a zeitgeist film that embodies the 80's in so many ways. And no imagines the creepy aqua blue lights that reflect off a pool at nighttime quite like Ellis and director Mark Kanievska.

2. kids

Like Easton Ellis, one could have their pick from the films of Larry Clark for this list, but its his 1995 debut, "kids" that takes the cake. While "Bully" and "Ken Park" (which I finally managed to track down recently) observe the same dead-end, sexually promiscuous teens in slightly vulgar and uncomfortable ways, "kids" was his breakthrough effort and a film that has grown in admiration over time. Upon release, "kids" was downright shocking, both for its seemingly documentary take on an aimless group of New York kids and its themes of underage sex, violence and complete absence of parental supervision. Watching it today, it still shocks and confounds.... which ultimately is what a good piece of art should probably do. And I had no idea that was a young Rosario Dawson!

1. Over The Edge Raise your hand if this 1979 film- about a sleepy Colorado town whose juvenile delinquents decide to violently overtake the high school during a PTA meeting- didn't scare your socks off. In the early days of HBO, I must have watched this film about a dozen times behind my parent's watchful eyes, not quite understanding all the undertones but equally enthralled by the angry subtext. Starring a young Matt Dillon, "Over the Edge" represents the best of the teenage rebellion genre.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Last 10 Films I've Seen #2

When I go missing as I have for the past couple weeks, one can always blame life, work and postseason baseball. While all this has encumbered me lately, I have seen some good stuff. Last 10 films I've seen:

1. Drive(2011), Nicholas Winding Refn- People say its flashy and moody and all style over substance, but I call it the best film I've seen yet this year, pulsing with quiet emotion between Gosling and Mulligan and ferocious bouts of violence. I've seen it 3 times in the theater and its still not enough to satisfy my craving.

2. Everything Must Go (2011), Dan Rush- It's nice to see Will Ferrell dial down the comedy to a steady two or three, but this precocious film still manages to be treacly and a bit mundane.

3. Catching Hell (2011), Alex Gibney- See the Chicago Cubs implode during game six of the NLCS in 2003 and then watch as the crowd shifts blame to one unlucky spectator. Gibney's documentary about the Steve Bartman incident is insightful, perceptive and even manages to wrap its moral around a Biblical anecdote. Terrific stuff for baseball fans and humans in general.

4. Moneyball (2011), Bennett Miller- Insular to the baseball fan, denying the big game climax and staying focused on the intellectual meanderings behind the scene, one has to give Miller's film props for staying so true to the book. Not the masterpiece its being projected as, but ultimately a very good film with a strong Brad Pitt performance as Billy Beane.

5. The Four Times (2011), Michaelangelo Frammartino- Heartbreakingly simple in its prime conceit- the transformation of a soul from person to animal to object- Frammartino's film is a wonder to behold, especially its long, long single shot that ranks up there with the best physical comedians of Keaton and Chaplin. And the image of a baby goat freezing to death under a tree is a seemingly innocent image that I cannot shake.

6. Hobo With A Shotgun (2011), Jason Eisener- The bottom of the barrel. Not only does the film take its faux 70's approach to the very edge of tolerance, but its over-the-top violence and student acting pushes things way beyond the bearable.

7. Downhill Racer (1969), Michael Ritchie- Auteur Ritchie does it again by taking an ordinary story of skiing competitors and crafts something hugely original. Scenes end at just the right moment before the 'big acting moment' lending a downtrodden aspect, the camera roves around Robert Redford's chiseled good looks with dexterity and the film ends on a magnificent moment.

8. Contagion (2011), Steven Soderbergh- Another competitor for best film of the year, Soderbergh's terrifying- and for a 'germaphobe' like myself, I mean terrifying- disease film takes a bit of the procedural from "And the Band Plays On", steals a bit from Michael Crichton, but soon becomes its own immersive experience. The first hour is cold, analytical and propulsive.

9. Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), Paul Mazursky- The life of several bohemian young 'uns in Greenwich Village during the 1950's is not one of Mazursky's shining moments. Indulgent and uninvolving, it lost me pretty quickly.

10. Party Girl (1958), Nicholas Ray- I understand why the French Nouvelle Vague love this film so much. Ray's camera practically makes love to Cyd Charisse and she does her slinky best to give it right back. Almost too sumptuous at times, the film becomes kinetic during her dance scenes and then settles into a pretty damn good gangster flick with windows and doors opening up to splendid painted backdrops. I'm so looking forward to TCM's Nick Ray tribute this month!