A Killer Best Left Inside?

After two days of reflection, a few hours spent on research and about 20 rewrites of this entry, I'm finally posting about a recent viewing of director Michael Winterbottom's controversial adaptation of author Jim Thompson's 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me. I had a hard time deciding how to write about it. It's a very difficult work to get your head around, which led me down all sorts of sometimes-conflicting interpretations and possible misreadings of the film, a recurring point I'll come back to. For a number of reasons, but mostly one big one, The Killer Inside Me polarized audiences when it ran on the festival circuit last spring. Many were repelled by sequences in which the film’s small-town antihero graphically beats two women to death. At Q&A sessions after the screenings, the director was assailed by angry audience members who berated and lambasted him on grounds of feminism, humanism, violence in the pop marketplace, and taste - all completely understandable complaints, but just as possibly focused on all the wrong issues.

I think the key to understanding this film boils down to how much credit you're willing to give Winterbottom (and co-scriptwriter John Curran) in their interpretation of the novel.

Possibility #1. They got it.

Jim Thompson's original novel is an exceedingly dark expose on the deepest recesses of the human mind and the film’s unrepentant nastiness was right there in the book all along. Winterbottom simply put a famous pulp novel, complete with all the lurid sin and the ugliness of mid-20th century mainstream repression, up on the screen. Thompson envisioned a nice, young Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, who behind his shades and yes-ma’am exterior is a seething caldron of psychosis. This is a monster story that you’re either on-board with or you’re not. The violence is brutal as it should be, considering the dark themes and twisted protagonist at the centre of the story. If anything, Winterbottom's version is less overtly explicit than the book, but, and this is a big but, there’s a difference between prose, where the reader can indulge their imagination as much or as little as they feel comfortable with, and film, where someone else has interpreted the events and the only option is to look away.

One way to approach Winterbottom's film is to see it as an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of the modern movie audience's increasing taste for whitewashed screen-violence. As controversial as the choice to film certain scenes with such horrific clarity was, I think the reason they resonate and disturb so deeply is they're accomplished without a hint of irony. On this level, Winterbottom achieves a sort of honest realism, successfully repositioning the violence well away from the fanboy-fare mayhem of movies in the Tarantino-vein (with their baseball bat beatings, accidental beheadings and roasted Nazis funhouse-veneer), and places it instead, right in front of you. It's completely uncompromising and a long-overdue cinematic corrective from the near monopoly tongue-in-cheek cartoon-violence has had on film of late.

Possibility #2. They didn't get it.

The novel that The Killer Inside Me is adapted from is a first-person account of a murderer's own inner dialogue. This is fairly evident early on (and for anyone who has read the book) and knowing it isn't any kind of spoiler. It could be argued that this adaptation crucially fails to convey this important fact with any coherence. They seem to have excluded the possibility that the narrative stems from a wholly unreliable source and that what he tells us might not be true. Winterbottom and co-scriptwriter John Curran's version seems entirely too literal an interpretation of a novel layered with such ambiguity and uncertainty. In Thompson's book, for example, the main character's ongoing relationship with the town sweetheart is ultimately revealed to be an entirely fictional construct. This knowledge would have helped to put the violence in some context, had it been translated onto the screen somehow. As it is, some of the flashbacks don't make a lot of sense because the narration is presented as accurate, when in fact, it might not be. The tension created in the book stems from the play between Ford's narrative accounts and what really happened, something that isn't well-handled in the film.

The Killer Inside Me is a film that suffers from an entirely unsophisticated misreading of the source material. There is little room left for the important and necessary reading-between-the-lines of Thompson's original story. Even though much of the spoken dialogue is lifted directly from the novel (perhaps too much, in fact), it doesn't compensate for an oversimplified rendering of such a complex and constantly-shifting narrative. As it is, the film seems a little like a photocopy of a masterwork. It looks the part, but is missing the subtlety, nuance and mystery of the original.

Possibility #3. They shouldn't have tried.

The trouble with this film is either of the above-noted possibilities are entirely plausible, defensible and reasonable... even though I'm personally leaning to the second and wrote them both. Winterbottom's decision to treat the violence so bluntly is both a blessing and a curse on the film. While it may have served to effectively communicate the sadism and misogynistic-horror of Thompson's Lou Ford, it also serves to deaden the underlying ambiguity of the novel's dark, nightmarish plot and lend credence to claims that the film is nothing but sexist and exploitative. The question that I'm tempted to ask is how would you write a first-person narrative about a misogynist sociopath that doesn't come off as misogynist itself? Not once does Winterbottom try to show Lou Ford in a sympathetic light. He's presented as a cold, calculating monster who destroys nearly everything and everyone around him – most notably, the ones who actually care for him.

I'm tempted to call this film a failure, in spite of the fact that they got so much right. The most specific problem I can point to has little to do with the script itself. Despite the fact that Thompson's novels have been adapted to film numerous times (The Getaway, The Grifters, Hit Me, Pop. 1280, etc.), I'm not sure that this particular story lends itself to the constraints inherent to cinematic story telling. Inner dialogue rarely works on screen (just ask David Lynch or Terry Gilliam) because in literary fiction, so much relies on the reader's imagination and interpretation. The biggest problem with The Killer Inside Me might be that there isn't a mystery at its core. The murderer is revealed in the opening act and the balance of the story is spent waiting for him to get caught. It inverts and shuffles the typical pledge, turn, prestige order most crime film plots rely on.


In the end, this film is possibly best-described as a series of concentric circles of misunderstanding. The script is a possible misreading of the original text and the audience's negative reaction, a likely misreading of the director's intent. As a result, The Killer Inside Me comes off as one of the most interesting and experimental films of the year, partly because of what it is, partly because of what it isn't, but mostly because it probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.

I'm placing it exactly half way between a must-see and a must-avoid.



God Spede ye Plough, and send us Korn enow.

Making every effort to avoid going on another rant here, I watched two documentaries this weekend, one on Tom's recommendation called Collapse and Videocracy, a new doc about Italian pop culture and its connection to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media empire. In order to stay positive and not succumb to my natural negative vibe (you know, the “we're fucked” one), I'm going to reverse the order in which I watched these and tackle Videocracy first.

Videocracy is an intriguing and disturbing film from director Erik Gandini that paints a nightmarish vision of contemporary Italy. For a country that produced so much beauty during its long history, it may come as a bit of a shock just how garish, crass and horrible a huge swath of modern Italian culture has been reduced to. Gandini makes a strong case that under media tycoon/prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's ancient cultures and customs have been supplanted by a stunning circus of cheesey celebutainment that makes the worst of U.S reality TV programming look like a Bergman film. If you ever wondered how mainstream American TV could get any worse, look no further than the Italian television landscape where Mr Berlusconi's company, Mediaset, owns three TV stations and indirectly controls two of the three publicly-run stations.

A quick glance at the trailer of Videocracy gives a taste for the traffic-accident-horror that awaits the viewer. It's mind-boggling just how low the bar gets set in this cultural limbo dance to the death.

But I said I was going to remain positive and that's where the second film comes in. Collapse is a talking head documentary with a single talking head, Mike Ruppert. Ruppert is a possibly-insane, chain-smoking retired L.A. cop who takes the viewer on a end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it odyssey that connects declining oil reserves with the collapse of everything we know. According to Crazy-Mike, nothing will be spared – food production, transportation, energy, politics, housing, jobs, populations, economies and society are all on the brink of catastrophic implosion because we're on the back-slope of easy oil recovery. The low hanging fruit has been picked and it's about to get a whole lot tougher to do anything and everything. Ruppert is a completely fascinating character, part modern-Nostradamus and part immensely-articulate madman, I'm just not sure how much of each.

If he's right and we're all heading into a prolonged head-first, free-fall into the shitter, one of the important upsides is Italian schlock-TV will cease to broadcast and the scumbag Robini Hood from the above trailer will be broke, making the world (and particularly Italy) a much better place to live. We'll all be so busy trying to figure out how to yoke the oxen that nobody will have time to watch 6' blonde Italian chicks with big boobs prance around a glittering stage for 8 hours every day.

How's that for looking at the bright side? There's always a silver lining, even in the end of mankind as we know it.

Does anyone know any Mennonites?



Show me the money.....

Alex Gibney is an American documentary film director best know for a couple of films; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (nominated in '05 for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards) and Taxi to the Dark Side (and winner of the '07 Oscar for Best Doc). His latest work, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, chronicles the rise and fall of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Gibney is an interesting and talented director/producer, quite different from the likes of say, Michael Moore. The material he assembles for his films is generally presented in straightforward, chronological order, making certain that the audience is clear on how and where all the puzzle pieces fit together. As a result there tend to be fewer “aha!” moments in a typical Gibney documentary, but also a lessor inclination toward debatable assumptions and dubious juxtapositions which can sometime undermine the work of directors like Moore. The downside of this template is Gibney's tendency to sometimes drift into info-barrage territory. Too many news reports, talking-head opinions and anecdotes, archival audio and video footage, and dramatic recreations can seem a little overwhelming at times. More factoids that basically say the same thing don't necessarily serve to advance the central theme.

Casino Jack is about the vast gray area where U.S. political lobbying and big money intersect. It's about an inherently flawed political funding system that funnels cash from various interest groups into the pockets of politico's who make and break government policy. It's about systemic bribery and how the lucrative business of K-Street lobbying has fundamentally undermined the nation's democratic process. It's about what happens when you introduce unfettered and uncontrolled free market principles into the political realm. It documents unconditionally how these forces have created the conditions whereby immoral and unethical practices are seen as natural and positive influences by the practitioners. It's enough to make you sick.

One of the architects and greatest proponents of the practice of political/financial lubrication was a man named Jack Abramoff. The first third of the film is devoted to contextualizing Abramoff's near-fanatical idealism by connecting his early-'80s rise to the leadership of the College Republican movement (alongside other conservative ideologue-nutjobs Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist), his fondness for action movies, and his orthodox Jewish faith and conservative values with the man who would ultimately sit at the centre of a network of questionably-legal, but unequivocally-unethical bribery schemes that extended to the very heart of the Republican Party, Congress and the Bush Whore House. The middle third of Casino Jack is devoted to detailing Abramoff's upstart years, his growing network of associates, his formidable work on Capitol Hill stealing money from and/or funneling money through offshore sweatshops, Indian casinos, gambling cruise ships, shady Russian conglomerates, and other assorted dubious ventures. The final third documents how the whole sordid affair came undone.

To say Abramoff was the ringleader of some shadowy star chamber of graft would be incorrect because all of this took place in the light of day.....actually it's pronounced “DeLay” for Tom DeLay, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who represented Texas's 22nd congressional district from 1984 until 2006. As the GOP House Majority Leader from 2003 to 2005, Delay was the king of reckless deregulation, influence peddling and money laundering in Washington during Jack's tenure as the cash-king of the lobbying circuit, the man where the buck temporarily stopped before being allocated to the politicians who played ball and towed the line-item-vetos. Between them they were the J.J. Hunsecker and Sydney Falco of campaign finance sleaze. If there's a big fish that needed to get fried in this fiasco, DeLay was it, but the investigation that led to Abramoff's arrest and conviction on three criminal felony counts of defrauding several American Indian tribes and the corruption of public officials, never included the Delay... just about everyone around him, but not Tommy himself. Delay was indicted in 2005 however, on unrelated criminal charges of conspiracy to violate election laws in Texas in 2002.

By the end of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, after 122 minutes of absorbing meticulously-researched detail and irrefutable evidence on the nature and scope of this immense conspiracy, it's difficult not to be left with an acute sense of disillusionment and despair. A few of the most egregious perpetrators ended up in jail to be sure, but mostly because they self-documented their crimes almost daily in endless emails to one another. Let the record show that these bozo's wrote the text that ended up proving they were waste-deep in a criminal conspiracy. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Guilty as charged.

I went into some detail about the film here because I doubt many of you will watch it. In the cynical time that is our own, Gibney's film might suffer a little from stating the obvious. We've become so jaded and insular in recent years that most will just shrug at the egregious crimes exposed in Casino Jack and who can blame them? With corruption, sleaze and a lack of empathy pervading nearly every level of society and its institutions, what's yet another story about political rot gonna change? At pretty much any other time in recorded history, these clowns would have all been sent to the gallows and publicly executed, but these days....?

Tom Delay's retired and ended up on Dancing with the Stars last year. The charges against him in Texas were dropped in August 2010. Jack's in a halfway house, having served half of the 6 years he was sentenced to. He's a free man come December. Grover Norquist is president of the taxpayer advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. Ralph Reed lost his bid for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Some said he wanted to use this office as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate or even the White House. He continues to plot ways to return to the halls of power.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Midnight Madness 2010: That's a Wrap!

At the risk of trying your MM bloggage patience, Kris and I have one more post about the fest until next year.  Thank you all for reading - the films were almost as much fun to write about as they were to watch.  Well, some of them.  Anyway, quickly, here's my ranking, from first to worst, of the films we saw:

1: Stake Land
2: Fubar 2
3: Super
3: Red Nights
3: Bunraku
6: The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman
7: The Ward
8: Vanishing on 7th Street
9: Fire of Conscience
10: Insidious

And a special mention must go to The Legend of Beaver Dam, the short which preceded Fubar 2.  Tons of fun.  And a three way tie for third! I really just couldn't pick which of these three should have been in the three spot, which in the fourth, and which in the fifth, so I did the next best thing: COP-OUT!  1-6 are all certainly worth watching, and films I hope to see again, whether theatrically or on DVD; 7 I'll probably watch again on DVD, maybe, if in the right mood; and 8-10 I hope to never have to soil my eyes with ever again.

Well, we barely survived (again), and I certainly wouldn't have if not for Kris' support and love.  And his forcing me to get the Fessenden pic.  Until next time, "Filter in, filter in", "EMMA? EMMA?", "Hopping Mad, please".  I can't wait until Midnight Madness 2011..

-the coelacanth


It's been about a week since TIFF and Joe and I's endurance run through Midnight Madness ended and I'm just started to feel sane again.
Doesn't mean it wasn't an absolute blast. This years TIFF was a dizzying journey that I can't wait to repeat next year with my partner in crime.

Personal TIFF 2010 highlights: "It's not warm!", Ron Pearlman, a pile of rocks I almost rode into on Dundas St., Larry Fessenden, Liv Tyler, Sasha Grey DJing at The Drake Hotel, C'est What's Bison Burger, "Filter in! Filter in!", booing at the Cadillac ad before every film and finally, the free black gum we received in line for Super.

Of course, it wouldn't be a film festival without the films! So, here's how I rank 2010's Midnight Madness program.

1: Stake Land - "... I prayed, I prayed to God to save me. When they finally came for my blood, I gave it to them willingly and was rewarded for my sacrifice..."

2: The Legend of Beaver Dam - "Who's afraid of Stumpy Sam, the one-armed ghost of Beaver Dam?"

3: Fubar 2 - "...hump dumpers on lube tube."

4: Super - "Touched by the tip, of the tip, of God's finger."

5: Bunraku - "I'm the product of a fucked up generation"

6: Red Nights - "You really are quite pretty..."

7: The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman - "I'm dead!"

8: The Ward - "What happened to Alice?"

9: Fire of Conscience - "I was born in the year of the dragon. Dragons are in luck this year."

10: Vanishing on 7th Street - "The only thing that has kept me alive the past 3 days is my will to exist."

11: Insidious - "Dalton has gone to a place... a place I call... 'the further'."

There you have it. Another year, another midnight madness accomplished.

Thank you to everyone who followed our reviews. To Scott for helping us out with that last review and egging us on through the whole run. To Geddes for selecting some absolute gems this year. To my partner Joe, without you... there would be no way. To Sasha Grey for smiling at me. And finally, thank you secret washrooms at the Ryerson theater... you made my festival.


Ferrous Bueller's Off Day

As big-budget superhero movies go, the first Iron Man was a huge financial success and almost more importantly, a modest cinematic one. Robert Downey Jr. was a fine casting choice and beyond some in-your-face American jingoism, the movie was pretty entertaining and not completely stupid. While this may smack of faint praise, that's about as good as it gets from me regarding the overblown superhero genre. It wasn't completely stupid.

Iron Man 2 however, is... completely stupid. Not Spiderman 3 stupid, but close. As a matter of fact, the only thing stupider than Spiderman 3 is me, for taking the time to watch all of Iron Man 2. Robert Downey Jr. has gone from charming and playful to completely obnoxious in the space of one movie, the plot is slight and uninteresting, the heroes and villains too many by half, and the whole affair appears to have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of a longer, smarter movie. In fact, it felt like one long commercial for the next dozen or so Marvel film projects rather than a movie unto itself. From the perspective of this franchise, Iron Man 2 seems chiefly intended as a bookmark for the next few sequels.

I took one interesting thought from the film though. Does anyone better personify the modern devolution of American pop culture better than Mickey Rourke? Here's an actor who, 25 years ago, briefly held the torch for American cinema acting excellence and then dropped it. Two decades later, his return to the spotlight as a chemically-enhanced, artificially-coloured, tattooed freak-show has made him once again, a Hollywood force. Beyond the Wrestler, a fine movie that drew obvious parallels and inspiration from Rourke's own life, the balance of his recent roles have been similar to the villain he plays in Iron Man 2 - a collection of circus geek portrayals that I can't help but view with a certain sadness. Rourke has morphed into a near-perfect manifestation of a bloated, surreal society unconcerned with how the facade is acquired, just that it is. America's outward projection, be it via her entertainment industry, nation politics, Wall Street or WalMart corporate-sameness is a sham... an illusion. Countless Wizards of Oz are furiously pulling levers, adjusting the volume and tweaking the set to convince everyone otherwise, but I think most are beginning to understand that this emperor has no clothes.

If you look at Mickey Rourke long enough, it all starts to become clear.



Herzogian Pretzel-Logic.

Having recently got underway with the 2010 year-end Review, I was revisiting some best-of-the-year candidates and began reworking a writeup for Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: New Orleans, a film that will surely rank amongst them, if for no other reason than its 8 word, 3 section title. Coincidentally, Tom's review of Herzog's new TIFF-screened documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, coincided with the arrival on DVD last week of his latest feature film (and some say, sort-of companion-piece to The Bad Lieutenant), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

...what have you done indeed, Werner?

The first clue as to what lay in store for the viewer occurs in the opening frame; “David Lynch presents a film by Werner Herzog”. It's a little like reading “Gary Busey presents Mel Gibson and Andy Dick in Conversation, Music by Brittany Spears - mad intriguing, but terrifying all the same. A cult producer, a cult director, and a cult cast (Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Michael Pena (not normally culty, but he is here), Loretta Devine, Irma P Hall, James C. Burns, Candice Coke and Brad Dourif) have, not surprisingly, created a film only cultists and fanboys could love. Fans of mainstream film need not apply.

All said, this is decidedly minor work from Herzog. As he did with the traditional neo-noir themes in The Bad Lieutenant, Herzog feeds the typical police hostage drama into his patented Wernerlator and what came out the other end is a unique, unconventional, thought-provoking and at times overly-bizarre quasi-horror film. Go figure.

I'm not sure if it matters whether it's any good either because My Son, My Son is a different kind of film than the batshit-crazy, but eminently more-watchable Bad Lieutenant. It's more experimental and while, much like The Bad Lieutenant, it remains distinctly absurdist, it's also entirely more difficult to give yourself over to. On the upsides there are terrific turns by Dafoe, Kier and Michael Shannon, an engaging actor I know nothing about, save for the fact that he also appeared briefly in Bad Lieutenant. He might just have the best face in Hollywood right now and looks like a cross between a younger Dafoe and a deranged Marty Feldman. There's also a dwarf in a tux (probably a funding condition from Lynch), pet pink flamingos and Satan runs an ostrich farm. I mean, what's not to like?

Simply impossible to recommend, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is part hostage drama, part decent into madness, part Peruvian-kayaking-adventure-meets-Aguirre filming autobiography and part unhinged, surreal, horror flick. Who else but Lynch would have agreed to fund Herzog's foray into the Peruvian rain forest to film a movie about a hostage negotiation in San Diego?

Perhaps the first film that absolutely requires the running commentary track by the director to even begin to understand what's going on.


...and lastly, is it just me or has William Dafoe not aged at all in the last 30 years? What's that all about?



Twitch, Variety, Ain't It Cool News & Joe


A nod to Joe's stellar Stake Land post from the production company's website.

Nice one, Coleslaw!


Zidane on Blu-ray

Thanks to the unerring eye of our FBE crew chief Coleslaw, an all-regions Blu-ray copy of the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait arrived in the KRK box last week. I hadn't noticed it was available and as a result, stole it instantly. For whatever reason this French-Icelandic feature-documentary has never received a DVD release in North America... even though it would seem a good fit for the growing legions of football fans on this side of the Atlantic.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait has been hailed as “a vital portrait of a modern athlete”, “a celebration of the body in motion” and “skillfully realized” by a number of critics. Shot during the April 23, 2005 match between his Real Madrid team and Villarreal, the film makers utilized 17 cameras trained exclusively on the soccer legend for 92 minutes, roughly the length of the match itself. The audience is witness to Zidane's singular actions throughout rather than the match itself, which makes for an unusual mix of sports movie and art film. Instead of telling a story with an arc of triumph or loss, the film makers seem more intent on capturing the ambience of the experience. The roar of the crowd accompanies the varied high-def visuals, underscored by a minimalist musical soundtrack by the composer Mogwai (?) and a few subtitled quotes from Zidane himself.

Based on what I'd read about this film over the years, I'll admit to having some pretty high expectations of it, but I still wasn't fully prepared for the profound effect Zidane would have on me. It was, without a doubt, the most mind-numbingly dull, consistently annoying and unsatisfying wastes of time I've ever sat through. Watching a single athlete for the duration of a game might have been an interesting concept in theory but in execution, it's fucking excruciating. The opening 5 minutes is a nauseating pixelated visual nightmare that simply won't end. It just wouldn't end.... The music by Mogwai is a new-age aural assault that would likely give Bill Frissell an aneurism. Quite frankly, I'd rather listen to 10 hours of whale-song than hear another Mogwai composition. Zidane himself is nearly expressionless throughout, making the whole concept a giant waste of time. Surely to God somebody noticed this during the year-long editing process. Anyone? No? Is it just me, or is this monumentally  boring? That had to have come up.

I should acknowledge here that most art-installation video work (which is probably a better description for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait than the term “film”is) will find its champions and detractors lining up in opposing camps. With enough weed, I'm sure you could get into the rhythm of the piece, although in hindsight, I'm thinking two to three hits of acid might be a better choice. That said, I could also get into an episode of So You Think You Can Dance provided I was stoned out of my magic gourd, so that's hardly an answer. Zidane was just too pretentious an undertaking for my craw to absorb. I nearly leaped out of my chair the few times that Zidane's face cracked and spent the rest of the time grasping for anything that would quell the never-ending, repetitive tedium of 92 minutes spent staring at another human whose face has the emotional range of an Easter Island statue.

Thanks to Zidane, I have a splitting headache, despise the French, and hate soccer again. It's a stupid sport where fuck-all happens. As you can see, the Blu-ray has “The Greatest Film About Football Ever Made” festooned all over the front cover, which reminded me of a Coleslaw comment about another film from about a year ago.

I'll trade you back for the Graphic Sexual Horror DVD and throw in the Elvis boxset I took in August Joe. Please?



Midnight Madness 2010 day 10: Fire of Conscience (2010)

There's really not much to say about Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience, the closing film of Midnight Madness 2010. Which is too bad, It's always better to go out on a bang rather than a whimper.

The film is a Hong-Kong cop drama/thriller that follows a detective who has taken a vigilante-esque stance on crime after his pregnant wife was killed by a purse snatcher. He collaborates with a higher ranking officer on a case to catch a cop killer.
While the first half hour held great promise the plot becomes murkier and murkier as twists come at you in rapid fire. Following the complicated plot wouldn't be such a hassle if you genuinely cared for the characters.
This lack of care results in an anticipation of action sequences to help keep you going, sadly, the ones on display are loud and realistic but are much too short.
The film fails as an action and as a drama. When our hero is delivering a baby in a burning garage by the third act you are laughing at the mundaneness of the whole ordeal and hoping for a quick cut to the end credits.
While there is much promise here coming from director Dante Lam, it's the script that lacks emotionality and cohesiveness. Turning what should be hard hitting into straight to dvd fodder.

Why this was a Midnight Madness pick is beyond me, a film already distributed in North America getting a slot at a world reknown film festival? Was it to help the director get a festival selection credit under his belt?  Or maybe it was because the film really did fit with the theme of the festival and was great.... yeah.

If TIFF screens films we already have available for rent, then why not get a print of something real classic? A real crowd pleaser to go out on. That would have been better than this mediocrity.

And with that the festival ends on a low note, but it isn't all bad news. Joe and I caught some really excellent stuff over the past 10 days and now we can finally get some sleep.


It's a shame that after nine days of some wonderful cinematic delights (and a couple troubled productions), Midnight Madness 2010 had to end on a low note, but that's exactly what happened with last night's screening of Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience.  Lam, hailed as the successor to the Jon Woo/Johnnie To throne, has over a dozen films under his belt, and I've not seen any of them save for last night's effort.  And if Fire of Conscience is any indication, Lam has a long way to go before he fills his mentors' shoes.

Fire of Conscience has a few different concurrent storylines, but the way they are tied together is too convoluted, and the pacing of the film, while quick, is uneven.  There are a couple of decent action setpieces, but they are too few and far between.  I don't know if, after nine consecutive nights of staying up until 3:30 AM, my body was finally failing me, or if the film was really that boring, but about 20 minutes in, my eyelids started to droop, snapping open only two or three times in the remainder of the film.  If there's one thing a Midnight Madness film should NOT do, it's put you to sleep.  I really don't understand why this film was included in the program, as it doesn't benefit from being seen with a crowd, and certainly didn't (for me, at least) fit the description of a "midnight movie".

Not to mention that, with a modicum of effort, you can track this down on DVD in Chinatown (legit, not bootleg, as in, it's already been released), or, even easier, at The Film Buff West on Blu-Ray.  Being available in a format other than 35 mm should not necessarily preclude a film from being shown at MM, but if the film is to be shown, it must be a film that is tremendously enhanced by viewing with a rowdy crowd, which Fire of Conscience certainly was not.

Lam certainly has chops, but he needs to tighten everything up and lose a lot of unnecessary dialogue.  The best part of the film were the opening 5 minutes, shot in frozen black-and-white, that show us a tableau of a crime in progress, which then bleeds into colour as the action comes alive.  Thrilling, impressive stuff.  The characters may have been written strongly, but it seemed like the actors who played them didn't really buy it, and thus, we as viewers don't either.  The characters' motivations seemed weak.  Not a complete dud, but because of its inability to engage, and it's meandering script, Fire of Conscience will likely land near, if not at, the bottom of my list.

-the coelacanth


AND.....for those of you who've stuck around, you get a SUPER-BONUS, UBER-INCISIVE, APRES-CREDITS third review, courtesy of our very own La Sporgenza, who wasn't in attendance at MM, but checked out Fire of Conscience a month ago on the aforementioned DVD.  Without further ado, Sporgey:

A trip to Chinatown's only legit DVD shop about a month ago netted a Blu-ray copy of Dante Lam's latest Hong Kong actioner Fire of Conscience (2010), which coincidentally closed the Midnight Madness series Coleslaw and Dropkick have been so faithfully chronicling in recent posts. For perhaps the first time, I've actually seen one of the titles in the MM series before the lads and wondered if the environment the film was seen in might  have generated a different response to it.

As a long-time fan of the Hong Kong policier, I think it's probably worthwhile to put Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience in some sort of historical context. The Asian crime genre is about as clear-cut a film category as exists, coming into existence in the mid-'80s and continuing with films like Fire of Conscience today. The cycle was strongest in the earlier days with directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johhny To and others regularly delivering poetically-tinged, action-melodramas that quickly found an international audience. After the Asian financial crisis, which dried up traditional sources of film finance as well as the local audiences' disposable income, the genre fell into period of extended decline. Exceptions existed to be sure, but a combination of factors weighed heavily on the Hong Kong film market throughout most of the 1990's. Overproduction, the exhaustion of overused formulas, and most importantly, the problem of rampant video piracy throughout East Asia, drained the industry of money and talent. From 2000 onwards the HK crime drama might have vanished entirely were it not for the efforts of a trio of directors; Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak and Johnny To. The Infernal Affairs trilogy from Lau and Mak and To's Election, Election 2, Exiled, Mad Detective and others heralded a return to form for Hong Kong cinema.

Dante Lam is a product of this post-2000 resurgence in the Hong Kong film industry. His breakout film, The Beast Stalker (2008) was a well-received, but tawdry kidnapping/action film currently unreleased to DVD in North America. I've got a Chinatown burn if anyone wants to see it. Fire of Conscience, beyond extending Lam's proclivity for terribly-titled movies, isn't really much of an advancement over his earlier works. While it sports loads of action, some grimly graphic violence and clips along at a furious pace, I found it noisy and unfocused, lacking the gravitas an actor like Simon Yam or Andy Lau might have brought to the picture. The two leads played by Ritchie Ren and Leon Lai just didn't come off as believable. I couldn't tear my eyes off Lai's wispy Inspector-Clouseau beard. It just looked ridiculous. The sole exception to the uninspired acting was Michelle Ye as the female detective, May. Her character in Fire of Conscience is a rarity in HK crime films, a bona fide female character who isn't just window dressing. I'm almost certain that most North Americans will find the goofy baby-delivery in the flame-engulfed garage near the end a tad over-the-top, even though it kind of suits the movie. I've yet to see a film from Hong Kong where something along those lines doesn't happen. It's a staple of the genre that Woo started with all his stupid doves flying around. Birth-Death-Rebirth motifs have always dominated the genre.

Fire of Conscience seems to me a strange pick for the Midnight Madness series, particularly as the program's closing-night flick. It's just too pedestrian compared to the films that preceded it. A much better choice might have been Pou-Soi Cheang's Accident from 2009, a flawed, but very inventive film (and one that, to my knowledge, hasn't received any notices outside Asia). Cheang represents a slightly different kind of upcoming HK filmmaker, one who seems less intent on simply out-To'ing and up-Woo'ing his predecessors and is instead seeking ways to expand the genre. If the Midnight Madness series is intended to be a showcase for films that cut against the grain, Fire of Conscience, like it's silly Babelfish title implies, seems hardly worthy of inclusion.

With apologies for budding into the terrific series of posts you guys have pulled together over the course of the program... I'm kinda glad to be a part of it, if only vicariously.


Cave of forgotten dreams @ TIFF '10

I've had really high hopes for 3D since Avatar impressed me last year but have only ever been disappointed since. All this retro fitting, remakes and flickering action sequences has really started to bug me. So, when a few months back I heard Herzog was working on a 3D documentary film, I couldn't help but grin. Finally, I thought, a 3D film that isn't going to be a bloated blockbuster.
This films subject The Chauvet Cave in southern France was only discovered in 1994. It contains the most extraordinary array of cave paintings dated from between 23,000 to 30,000 years ago as well as fantastic calcite formations, stalagmites/stalactites and ancient bones of creatures long migrated from the continent. The cave was apparently sealed by a landslide many millennia ago which has preserved everything perfectly. It's really something special to see and the sense of great privilege is conveyed by Werner early on in his very proud introduction. He is the only filmmaker to ever have been allowed access to the cave and throughout I couldn't help picturing everyone at the BBC and Discovery Channel shrugging jealously.
The picture starts with some really beautiful shots of the French vinyards and mountains near the cave. It's presentation is what we've come to expect and it's instantly engaging. Long roving shots from a remote flying camera, hand-held POV's up mountain paths. The problems only start when we get inside the cave. Werner explains that the equipment that they could take in has to be very limited and they use non-professional camera gear. This isn't necessarily the problem though, we can take it with a pinch of salt. The real problem is in the 3D.
First of all there is little light in the cave and so the gain is pushed into the camera signal and there's a lot of digital noise, especially in the dark areas, of which there are a lot. Now, noise/grain is always forgivable, until it starts dancing around in 3D, then it gives you a terrible headache. A lot of the shots are lit solely by a moving torch light and the constant re-focussing of your eyes only strains them further. However. the cave is quite amazing and we get to see it in detail. Later in the film some much better lit 3d shots are shown that really should have been used throughout. Footage of the cave is interspersed with interviews with various characters. The decision to use a rather generic voice over in place of subtitles for these interviews was certainly a small misstep and dries it up a touch, but the film is not without it's moments. There are a couple of hilarious exchanges where Werner has typically cut someone off too early or left them hanging when they have finished. I do get the sense that he has become self aware and when chuckles are raised as Werner describes a cave painting as “Proto-cinema” I detected at least a hint of self parody, which I don't mind at all.
The film winds up with the most spectacularly detailed shots of all, they do linger on a bit too long and I think the back half of the film would benefit from a cut of about 10 minutes. Having said all this, despite the technical distractions, the film is a semi-triumph in the way Encounters at the end of the world was. Some really great personal touches and a fascinating subject, but for god's sake see it in glorious 2D.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes was a bit of a surprise victory at this year's Oscars, bagging Best Foreign Film and beating out co-favourites The White Ribbon and A Prophet. I've yet to get around to watching Hanake's White Ribbon, but found Jacques Audiard's A Prophet riveting. I’m not fully convinced Campanella's victory was justified, but The Secret in Their Eyes is a structurally solid, splendidly acted romantic thriller that achieves what it sets out to.

The story is set in 1999 and opens with a recently-retired District Attorney named Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), trying to write a novel about an unsolved murder case he was involved with 25 years earlier. After struggling to commit his memories to paper, Benjamin visits a former colleague (and past object of desire), played by the stunning Soledad Villamil, to share his frustrations about the writing project. In flashback, we are transported back 25 years, where we see the original crime scene and are introduced to a variety of characters including the victim's grieving husband, Benjamin's alcoholic partner Pablo, and the newly-arrived female D.A. Irene (Villamil), who is his immediate superior. As his head swims with theories and uncertainties, Benjamin opts to pursue the case once again, hoping to find the truth after a quarter-century of nagging doubt.

Well-composed and smoothly paced, The Secret in Their Eyes is a true director's film. Campanella displays auteur-like confidence deploying his characters with great precision on a cinematic chessboard. The story unfolds without the typical histrionics Hollywood would likely have shoveled onto a similar script and as a result, some might find the proceedings a little dry at times. Despite the title, there aren't really any lightning bolts flying around here. For the most part, the film's emotional content is underplayed, sometimes a little frustratingly so, but it remains engaging throughout. This is a reserved mystery with several plausible suspects that focuses more on characterization than the seedier aspects at the heart of the story.

There are some moments of film-geek bravado however, chiefly an unbroken six-minute-long chase sequence where Benjamin and Pablo first encounter and arrest the primary suspect during a boisterous soccer match. It’s a neat puzzler of editorial trickery and CGI that also serves to lift the midsection of the film and give it a little pizzazz. Before I get into spoiler territory here, I should stop. Rest assured that the resolution of the story is completely satisfying, advancing the idea that justice need not be a act of simple vengeance, but can be something entirely more personal. The film closes on a nearly pitch-perfect note of salvation, blended beautifully with a faint shot of hope, an emotion long just-out-of-reach for these characters.




Fessenden Q&A

Coleslaw deity Larry Fessenden on whether Wendigo is a proper horror film or just an art-trash experiment in visual trickery using a bad elk suit.

Midnight Madness 2010 day 9: Stake Land (2010)

Kris doesn't have access to a computer today, so his review will be delayed a bit, and I will add it here when it comes through.  For the time being, here's my take on Jim Mickle's Stake Land.
So, this year's version of Midnight Madness is winding down, but one of the films that I'd been most looking forward to was screened last night, and lo and behold, did it ever deliver.  Jim Mickle's Stake Land shows us an America perhaps in the not-too-distant future wherein vampires have begun to dominate, and society has essentially been splintered into small bands of survivors, with two clear cut camps: religious fundamentalists and the sane.  In these days of Tea Party hysteria, this is all too uncomfortably familiar.  More a road movie than a vamp flick, Stake Land reveals that, in an age of fanaticism and intolerance, vampires are the least of our worries.

The story has a man ("Mister") and a boy ("Martin")joining forces in order to get to a safe haven in the north known as New Eden.  However, it is unclear if this refuge will even provide solace, as the boy is warned by a store clerk that they'll need to watch out for the cannibals one they arrive there.  Along the way, Mister and Martin pick up a ragtag band of survivors, whose only link is that they share a respect for human life regardless of race or creed.

All of the actors, to a person, do a fantastic job of creating realistic characterizations out of what could very easily have been caricatures.  Kelly McGillis' nun, "Sister", is particularly affecting, for even though she wears the cloth, she is not so lost in fundamentalist beliefs or irrationality to realize survival trumps all when belief and urgent pragmatism clash.  Nick Damici, who wrote the script for Stake Land (as well as Mickle's previous film, the wonderfully grimy and similarly humane Mulberry Street), plays Mister, a brooding antihero who softens over the course of the film, and becomes more and more compassionate, learning that looking out for number one may keep you alive, but it will ultimately have the more damaging effect of total alienation.  Martin doesn't have much to say, but provides the voice-over narration that nudges the story along at an easy pace.  Sean Nelson, Bonnie Dennison, Danielle Harris, and especially Michael Cerveris as Jebedia Loven, the personification of the idea of Christian Fundamentalism taken to a terrifying extreme, all contribute solid work in slightly smaller roles.

The pacing of the film needs mention, as it is neither fast nor slow, but sort of flows like a languid river, free and easy, never slowing or hastening, and always staying the course.  The whole thing felt very natural, very real, and even tangents in the plot acted more like swirling eddies rather than highway off-ramps, deviating for a brief moment of pause before once more giving in to the pull of the water.  In fact the whole film has a very naturalistic feel.  Kris mentioned before the film that he had been speaking with one of the MM programmers and was told that Stake Land was like if Terrence Malick had shot a vampire film.  That idea stuck in my mind as I watched the film, and it is not a poor description at all.  Shades of Malick, David Gordon Green's earlier work, Lance Hammer's Ballast, and, to come full-circle, fellow Glass Eye Pix alum Kelly Reichardt's disarmingly real films.  In particular, I saw similarities between Stake Land's characters and the small, touching and very human interactions in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy.  Pretty deep stuff for just another "vampire" movie.

But that's just the thing - much like Glass Eye Pix founder, Stake Land producer, and renaissance man extraordinaire Larry Fessenden's own Habit, Stake Land is really a vampire film in name only, using the vampires as a vehicle to deliver a more important message, a message that perhaps would be criticized as being ham-fisted if it had been wedged into a traditional drama.  However, that is an area where horror excels - because of the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoying the films, an urgent message can be the driving force of a film and not come across forced.

The camera work is stunning in Stake Land, and for every gory money shot, Ryan Samul's camera lingers over wintry landscapes, reeds, rushes, trees, streams.  There is a very familiar sense to these landscapes, the purple and blue hills of the Catskills and beyond, not only because I've traveled through them, but because the frosty woods and icy brooks mirror our very own landscape.  This familiarization of the setting helps to drive the message home, but I don't think it would isolate viewers from a different geographical region, though it might make the film a slightly less personal experience. 

Jeff Grace contributes a compelling score that draws as much from symphonic work as it does from early Americana and Smithsonian Folkways recordings.  Mickle spoke of how the score moved backward in time, almost as if the characters were heading back into pioneer days, evoking old ghosts and decaying dreams.  In fact, the film felt very much like we were witnessing a societal de-evolution, a return to primal needs and fears, where survival is not a right, but a privilege, and the score at times reinforces this idea, and at times juxtaposes it, all to great effect.    The score acts almost like another narrative device, in the same way that the camera, the narration, and the plot all have us floating down the river at the same pace.  The way that all these elements seamlessly mesh and play off each other is nothing short of cinematic excellence, and really showcases the power and importance of the "director".

Back to Malick - Mickle mentioned in the Q&A that he was heavily influenced by Days of Heaven while shooting Stake Land, and it shows.  From the child-like voice-over narration, the score and the naturalistic cinematography - even the small group on the run - Days of Heaven is prevalent here.  Which, I suppose, is why Stake Land comes off less like its similarly themed but completely different feeling contemporaneous celluloid peers Zombieland and The Road, and more like, well, a good film, a piece of cinema rather than just a movie.  Stake Land, while having the potential to be overly sensationalistic, is expertly helmed by Mickle and the fine production touches by the Glass Eye Pix crew bring it all home.

So I must say bravo, to all involved, and to Colin Geddes for getting this film for the Midnight Madness faithful.  Stake Land is certainly an 11th hour contender for my MM top spot.  Stake Land is one more addition to the super solid Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix stable, and everyone involved has every right to be very, very proud of what we saw last night.

Also, I want to give a big thanks to Larry, ever the gentleman and awesome guy, for posing for a photo with a huge fan.  Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know my respect and admiration for the man, and I'm still a bit star-struck for having been in the presence of one of my cinematic heroes and long-time champion of powerful independent film.  And, really, that's one of the coolest things about MM - unlike the big galas at TIFF, you might find a director or actor in line next to you, waiting with the same anticipation to see something new and exciting.  And often you can simply walk up to a legendary director, put your arm around him and smile like a big, dumb kid.

-the coelacanth


Midnight Madness 2010 day 8: The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman (2010)

The Butcher, The Chef, and The Swordsman is a highly entertaining comedy set in ancient China.
Before the film, director Wuershan humbly told the audience that many jokes may not cross over in translation and he's sorry if we don't enjoy it.
He had nothing to worry about as the whole theater was howling within the first 5 minutes.

The story is a Tarantinoesque romp following different characters and related back stories that all focus on different aspecst of the human psyche. For example, one story opens up with the title card; "greed" and what follows is the story of The Swordsman and his desire to become the greatest swordsman in history. The one thread that keeps the stories tied together is a meat cleaver that was forged from the finest black iron. This cleaver changes hands throughout, the character brandishing it has great power yet unlike Spiderman most forget the great responsibility part.

Visually the film is quite striking; the colour scheme changes with the story and frequent dream sequences are kaleidoscope like visions. There is also a sense of childish imagination implemented to the film, a feeling that anything is in the realm of possibility. For example nearing the conclusion of the story the end titles start to roll, however the butcher is not satisfied and cuts the credits apart demanding a more satisfactory ending for himself. What follows is video game fight taken right out of Mortal Kombat, complete with health bars and special moves. The Midnight Madness crowd screamed their approval.

The Achilles heel of the film is the high number of jump cuts used in the editing, especially during fight sequences. The film has several fights peppered throughout yet none are actually shown. Using a series of quick cuts and splashes of red images we piece together the details of these bouts ourselves which is fine if executed a couple of times in one film but not for every fight sequence. Nearing the end of the film the edits began to feel disorienting.

The Butcher, The Chef, and The Swordsman is an entertaining crack up of a film that doesn't have much substance to it. An endlessly fun and fast paced picture that lacks discipline in some aspects of its storytelling, but then again, this is one of those films that doesn't really care what you think.


Ah, such tasty delights were offered up last night at the Ryerson.  In MM's first mainland China screening, we were treated to song, dance, martial arts madness, top notch physical comedy, and food, glorious food.

Wuershan's The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman was, quite simply, an absolute treat.  The narrative follows a powerful meat cleaver made out of the melted down iron of the five most powerful swords that links the three titular characters, but beyond that, TBTCATS kind of defies description.  I know, I know, that's a huge cop-out, but at this point, that's all I've really got to say.  The one problem I had with the film was some of the editing.  I swear the editor must have been on some heavy speed during the first 5 minutes, shit was literally getting cut mid-sentence.  I was getting kind of frantic, thinking, "if the whole movie's gonna be like this, I don't know if I can take it..."  Thankfully things calmed down a bit after the frenetic intro.

If you liked the zany genre mash that was Happiness of the Katakuris, you'll find something to latch onto in TBTCATS.  If this ever makes it to DVD (doubt it will hit theatres, but you never know...), just watch it.  Trust me.  You'll love it.  And then you'll want to head straight to Chinatown to feast.  Kris and I hungered for some Chinese delicacies after the film, but eight crazy nights of staying up waaaay past our bedtime were starting to take their toll.

- the coelacanth


Midnight Madness 2010 day 7: Red Nights (Les nuits rouges du bourreau de jade) (2009)

Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud are two french men who call Hong Kong home. For the past decade they have together been writing scripts for Chinese films. The most notable being Johnnie To's Running Out of TIme.
Now the two have made their first feature Red Nights a French/Chinese thriller with a taste of the erotic.

Being both French and Chinese the film feels distinctly like two films running at the same time and as such I'll review both parts separately:

The French version
The film follows a French woman who is wanted for the murder of her boss/business partner. Trying to make the best out of an unfinished deal her and the late boss were in the middle of finalizing she decides to continue alone. She quickly finds that all previous business partners don't trust her, now on the run from both police and criminals she must prove that she's not to be messed with. Very reminiscent of Le Samurai (for one, she wears the woman's version of Alain Delon's trenchcoat) this portion of the films is all guns, cigarettes, and money.

The Chinese version
The film follows an artistic wealthy Chinese woman who has an extreme fetish for death. When a deal she had made with a previous partner falls through due to his death she decides to steal what she was bargaining for from his assistant. This artifact is actually a poison that she believes belonged to the Jade Emperor's executioner. It's a poison that paralyzes your body while intensifying all your nerve endings, so that pain is beyond extreme and a kiss feels like an orgasm. She intends to use it on her self but not before she uses it on some unfortunate souls she comes across first. Being a ruthless, eccentric criminal has it's price as police and rival thugs start to close in around her.

Together the film is a mix of styles and genres from across Europe and Asia. Thankfully, the conflicting styles work very well together, arriving at something that feels like what Melville would have delivered if he had shot Sex and Zen.

The big issue is that this film is screaming to be longer. The 98 minute run time doesn't do the story or characters any justice and turns a well paced film into one quickly trying to tie up loose ends. If only this was at least two hours long, it may have been the masterpiece it wanted to be.



Last night, MM gave us the bewitching Red Nights, which, for my money,  may wind up being one of the sleepers of the whole programme.  Directed by two Frenchmen living in Hong Kong (and go-to screenwriters for masters Johnnie To, Tsui Hark and others), Red Nights is a bold vision which leaves an indelible impression in the darkest furrows of your mind.  Vague plotlines aside, the film creates an insular, whispery world of intrigue, kink, and dread.

Unlike day 6's film, Red Nights slyly incorporates its influences into a refreshing, unique whole, and the references come off as nods rather than direct rips.  Even the DePalma-stroking split-screen scene plays wonderfully well, and is used to create a palpable tension rather than simply for cheap gimmickry.  There are a few scenes that don't "make sense" in the traditional sense of the term, but work because of the visual aesthetic and atmosphere they give the film.

Best viewed as a stylish, sexy, dream logic thriller, something that given different circumstances might have been the product of a collaboration between David Lynch and Dario Argento, Red Nights is a night time run through the streets of Hong Kong, neon everywhere, plastic, sound, colour.  Oh, colour!  The film really, uh, gets under your skin. 

A terrifically menacing ambient score from Seppuku Paradigm ties the package up neatly with a bow.  A feast for the eyes and ears, Red Nights is a wonderfully chilling mood piece, and while a credible plot certainly does exist here, I feel it's best to simply let the film wash over you, absorb you, tempt and seduce you into its dark, terrifying world.

- the coelacanth


Midnight Madness 2010 day 6: Insidious (2010)

James Wan, director of Saw showed off his new film Insidious last night at Midnight Madness. Prior to the screening the director himself claimed the film was a throwback to The Shining and Poltergeist and would deliver "no fake scares" too bad he forgot to mention the film would also be light on delivering real scares.

The film starts off as a haunted house story. We follow a family moving into a big old house and weird things start to happen. As soon as this concept starts to settle in the inevitable stereotypical couple fight about the house begins wherein the wife moans about feeling unsafe and the husband pats her on the head like a dimwit and tells her it's just in her head. However in Insidious the husband instead feels sympathy for his wife and decides to move.... ok.... so maybe this isn't a haunted house film.

When their son slips into some sort of coma that defies medical science they call on some goofy paranormal professionals to figure out what's going on. It's explained that their son has slipped into "the further". Oh god! Not the further, anything but that! What is the further? I don't know and quite frankly, I don't want to know.

When the film first mentions this concept of "the further" - some distant realm you reach by pushing astral projection too far-  your imagination makes up what the place might be like. Something horrifying beyond human comprehension was what i was thinking. I was also thinking it was too bad this film didn't have the budget or the chops to show this place off. Well, didn't I eat crow as ten minutes later the husband is floating around "the further" which to my surprise looks the same as everything around you only in blue tint.

The saving graces of the film are the strong performances from the two leads, especially Rose Byrne. The strong soundtrack by Joseph Bishara is a classic example a terrific horror score, too bad it wasn't in a better movie.

Insidious is a film with an identity crisis. It doesn't know what it wants to be and while they are sequences of great promise, the whole ordeal feels uneven. This one's a renter (from us, of course).


Fear is one funny motherfucker.  What scares one person might make another laugh, and for every person up late at night with the lights on, there is another soundly dreaming.  If you go by Twitter, last night's screening of James Wan and Leigh Wannell's Insidious was PURE. FEAR.  If you go by me, it was anything but.

Wan (director) and Wannell (writer) shot to notoriety with their very decent microbudgeted debut feature Saw, which launched a horrible franchise.  Next up for the duo was the troublesome but ultimately underrated Dead Silence, which provided a decent handful of good scares along with a menacing atmosphere.  Wan went it alone (well, sort of - he had help from Death Wish author Brian Garfield for the source material) for his next effort, the minor cinematic achievement Death Sentence.  While that film lacked the emotional heft of the Bronson original, it was a competent product that deserves to be seen, if only for the masterful nearly two and a half minute single take in the multilevel parking lot and for John Goodman's scene-mastication.  Now Wan and Wannell have rejoined forces for haunted house chiller Insidious, which perhaps would have prepared me better had it been titled Insipidness.

Both gents brashly boasted before the screening that it was a real throwback to old school horror (hmmm, I'm starting to see a theme here), and cited works such as Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and The Shining as key touchstones and influences on their new film.  Bull. Shit. Bullshit.  The main difference between the new film and those now established classics of the genre is that they were SCARY, and this is not.  I mean, yes, there were a few SCARES, but the film WASN'T SCARY.  Big difference.

The movie starts out promisingly enough, and I was digging the pacing and the slow build, and then, everything gets dumped on its head (and not in a good way), conventions are tossed by the wayside (and not in a good way), and the plot takes two or three completely unseen left turns (AND. NOT. IN. A. GOOD. WAY).

Copping badly from Lucio Fulci's The Beyond and from the aforementioned screamers, and with a Demon that was less frightening that the one in the faux-religious tv adverts in James Gunn's Super, Insipidness is a mess of a film.  Quite frustrating, really, given the promise of a haunted house film from two of the genre's bright stars.  I so, SO wanted to love this one (the premise and the leaked stills from the flick are right up my alley), but I just couldn't force myself to.  I said that there were some scares, and yes, there were, and some genuinely creepy moments, but they were too fleeting, and were all but enveloped by the seething mass of cheese that was the film's second half, in which:

After a boy falls into a coma, some sort of psychic is brought in and informs his parents that their son is some kind of child prodigy and can astral-project.  The child's parents (the Yogi Bearers) are in disbelief, but after the psychic conducts a gas mask-clad seance, and some fucked up "otherworldy" events happen, they start to believe.  Then the father (Patrick Wilson) learns from his mother that as a boy HE TOO WAS ADEPT AT ASTRAL PROJECTION! GASP!  And the only way to get the son back into his corporeal form - and to stop these pesky demons from trying to inhabit his son's otherwise uninhabited husk of a self - the father must astral project once more in order to pull the son out of the shadowy netherworld known as "The Further".  But, but...if it's so "further", why does it resemble the house in which they live, and why does the main demon's lair look like it is a set from Pee-Wee's Playhouse decked out in accoutrements from Martha Stewart Living's Halloween Issue?

At this point I had lost all interest in the film, and my mind kept wandering to the impending long bike ride from the Ryerson back to Parkdale, and I simply wished to get home ASAP so I could crawl in bed and go right to sleep.  But again, if Twitter's anything to go by, Insipidness kept a lot of people up last night.  Like I says, fear's a funny thing.  So far, the three "horror" films that have screened have been the weakest of the lot; a bad sign for the future of the genre, or simply programming conflicts?  After all, A Horrible Way to Die, Cold Fish, or Miike's new film would have slotted in nicely.  But I guess you can't please everybody, all of the time...

-the coelacanth


Midnight Madness 2010 day 5: The Ward (2010)

John Carpenter returned after a lengthy hiatus last night with The Ward. A genre film that evokes a sense of a simpler time when horror movies relied more on psychological scares rather than CGI ones.

The story opens with a woman (played by the beautiful Amber Heard) setting fire to a house. She is subsequently arrested and put in a psychiatric ward with four other women. Feeling she doesn't belong there she attempts to break out only finding a conspiracy of missing patients that leads her to uncover something much more sinister that is at work in the ward.

While certainly far from being a masterpiece The Ward is a great looking film with a good cast. The music is stellar, rings true with 70's and 80's classic horrors; John Carpenter co-wrote it so you know you're in for some great sounds.

This one falls short of Raimi's return to form with Drag Me to Hell, instead it fells like a completely tolerable early 90's horror... it's just too bad John Carpenter hadn't made this one back then.
I give it a pass but, it'll probably get torn to shit when it hits wide release.



Last night I was incredibly excited for our MM film, John Carpenter's The Ward.  Less so for the film, and more for the opportunity to be in the presence of and hear speak one of the directors I admire most, John Carpenter.  The man is a living legend, and his films have helped shape me into the horror-fiend I am today.  So you can imagine my dismay when it was announced during Colin Geddes' intro to the film that Carpenter could not be with us because he had been called for jury duty in L.A. God motherfucking damn.  The rest of the cast was in attendance, and they all looked lovely in their short skirts with legs that went from the ground to the neck.  And Carpenter provided a very funny video intro to the film, but it was all cold comfort for something I had been anticipating for so long.  Kris even had on his Fright Rags They Live t-shirt and was in the front row, camera in hand, ready to throw his love at Carp like that overly-amourous prisoner in Silence of the Lambs, but alas...

Anyway, onto the film, which at this point seemed like an afterthought.  Funny thing is, it wasn't all that bad.  Actually, it was kinda sorta decent.  The Ward stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young girl who we first see running through the woods, then setting fire to a farmhouse.  She is promptly arrested and tossed into the titular institution, wherein reside half a dozen similarly pretty young things.  We soon learn that all is not right in this ward, and that there may or may not be malevolent forces at work as girls start disappearing.  Is it the work of experimental psychiatrist Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris)?   Perhaps a vendetta job on the part of surly Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney, in a role that gives Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched a run for her money)?  Or is something more sinister, more supernatural, at work?

Carpenter mentioned in his intro that this was "an old school horror film from an old school director".  He must have been referring to the '80s as old school, and not the '40s (Geddes mentioned in his Q&A after ther film that it hearkened back to the works of Val Lewton, but I didn't see that at all.  At least it didn't remind me of any of the half-dozen Lewton films I've seen).  In any case, Carpenter keeps things practical, and the visual effects provided by the team of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (genre fans might recognize those names) were super effective and creepy.  The story, and the scares, had a very '80s/early '90s feel as well, and what we have here is essentially the same template that Carpenter applied to Halloween, or, as Geddes referred to it, "a reverse The Thing".  Regardless, the film wasn't the disaster it could have been.

Carpenter hasn't made a feature film in nine years, and his last works - not counting his two enjoyable TV episodes for the Masters of Horror series - were Ghosts of Mars and Vampire$, not without their charm, mind you, but a far cry from the master's halcyon days.  It's reassuring to see a director whose glory days are gone but can still deliver the goods, even as many of his contemporaries fall into laughable self-parody irrelevance (cough, darioargentogeorgeromero, cough).

The Ward isn't groundbreaking, isn't great, but it is a solid, well-crafted film, nicely shot and with a score that recalls Carpenter's own superlative work.  Toss in some fun scares and creepy atmosphere, and you've got a solid little Friday night pizza and beer scarer.  I saw parallels to recent films Shutter Island, Drag Me to Hell, and, as Kris mentioned afterward, Identity.  I think it will ultimately be remembered as one of Carpenter's minor works, but that fact that it was not a complete failure is a success in and of itself.  It may sound like I'm being a Carpenter apologist, but that's not really the case.  While it is not yet safe to say that Carpenter is "back", it's reassuring to know that the old boy still has a few tricks up his sleeve.  With The Ward, Carpenter cautiously re-enters the cinematic realm and the genre, not with a bang, but with a sly grin to knowing audiences, issuing a concise statement declaring, "I ain't dead yet..."

- the coelacanth

Nice job.

Kudos to Joe and Kris for their excellent ongoing coverage of the Midnight Madness program at TIFF. The posts come so fast and furious that it's hard to provide the positive comment they warrant. I look forward to them everyday and wanted to pass along how much I was digging them.

On a side note, I was going to suggest fewer photos, or at least doing them as smaller thumbnails so they didn't take up so much blog real estate. Panning down past them all is boring for us “readers”. That said, one of the photos from the Vanishing on 7th Street post probably better captures the sheer, unadulterated banality of TIFF and the cult of celebrity better than any snap I've ever seen.

It's an accidental masterpiece of colossal disinterest. You can almost hear the B-cast's inner dialogue on their faces.... Please God, kill me now.

Hell, even the little kid is bored out of his fucking mind.

A seriously brilliant photo.

..and keep up the fabulous posts boys. They're a treat.


Robin Hood: Prince of Queens

In a complete departure from Dropkick and Coleslaw's fascinating Midnight Madness posts, I've been trying to catch a few films that made the “most-watched” list in a blog entry Withnail started a few months back. For whatever reason, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves made the list 3 or 4 times and again for reasons that I can't explain, I never saw this Costner version of the Robin Hood story back when it came out in 1991. A good call as it turns out.

At the risk of wasting time and energy over-analyzing a nearly 20-year-old popcorn epic, this version of Robin Hood is so spectacularly awful as to demand at least some effort to put it in perspective. First things first... in 1991 Kevin Costner was Hollywood's crown prince. He had just won his Oscar for Dances with Wolves and had chalked up a string of All-American doofus roles that had made him a box office darling. Costner used his new-found currency to produce and star in a series of bombs that remain positively stunning in retrospect. In the space of a few years, his fall from the highest echelons of Hollywood royalty would be complete.... and it all started right here... in Sherwood Forest.

The Knights on Broadway
Robin Hood Prince of Thieves struggles in every department and falls apart in most. The script is monumentally hackneyed and banal. The direction is truly uninspired. The bizarre acting so over-the-top as to suggest the entire cast was fucking with us, trying to prove we'd watch anything, no matter how ludicrous the characterizations. Morgan Freeman... Morgan Freeman!... is awful as a sort of spotted Moorish Chewbacca to Costner's Hans Solo-hood. Alan Rickman plays the Sheriff like he's a supervillian from the '60s Batman TV series, made up to look like an evil Barry Gibb. It's like Shakespeare meets the 3 Stooges. Based on his performance here, Christian Slater would have been finished in Hollywood were it not for a return to form a couple of years later in True Romance. His Will Scarlet is a giant whinging cock. And the HAIR.... Jesus Christ... it must have taken 6 hours to blow dry everybody before shooting could commence. It often seemed as though Glass Tiger was fighting Bon Jovi in the woods.

But the biggest problem with Robin Hood, and that's saying something, is Costner himself. He plays Robin Hood as a gooey Californian liberal, a veritable extension of his Dances with Wolves character. What Costner lost track of was what made him a star in the first place....and that was being a big doofus. He was best when he played the slightly-dimwitted, mid-western American slacker with loads of charm and not much going on upstairs. He simply can't pull it off a British aristocrat and forest civilization architect. Mel Brooks would have a field day a few years later dialing up everything that's wrong with this ridiculous movie and calling it Robin Hood: Men in Tights. If ever a pompous, overwrought movie needed a fast Brooksian skewering, this is it. Rickman could have pulled off the identical Snidely Whiplash role in the later satire and nobody would have been the wiser. I miss Mel Brooks and can only imagine what he'd have done with Avatar.

The gay subtext of this Robin Hood seems so obvious that it's hard to imagine it wasn't intentional. There are simply no moral ambiguities here, not even in the post-feminist figure of an armour-claded Maid Marion played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. She observes our fairy lad showering under a waterfall and proclaims at regular intervals that the only things she needs to defend herself against the wolves dancing in the woods are her dagger and her uber-butch nanny. It isn't a problem that Marion has a bigger dick than Robin, since howlers like "Save it for the ladies" followed immediately by "Give the man some meat", coupled with some seriously-puzzling editing choices, suggests that Robin has company enough in his all-man, tree-fort forest commune-club.

A truly spectacular film in the so-bad-it's-almost-but-not-quite-worth-watching kind of way. As for the other masterpieces on your lists that I haven't seen yet, I think it'll just have to stay that way.

I don't think I could do another of these anytime soon.



Midnight Madness 2010 day 4: Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

Brad Anderson's newest film, Vanishing on 7th Street, is a somewhat post apocalyptic horror. When everyone in the world simply vanishes, leaving behind only their clothes where just a moment before they were existing, four survivors find each other in a dive bar and attempt to justify what is happening around them. It becomes apparent that the only thing keeping them from becoming "vanished" themselves is their proximity to sources of light. Whatever is taking people seems to be in the shadows, or possibly is the shadows themselves.

The film has an extremely eerie atmosphere to it. Anderson uses wide shots exposing the recently vacated landscape and while scanning the background you may see evidence of  life that must have been there seconds earlier. Say like a wheelchair gliding into frame and slowly coming to a stop. Almost every shot features shadows and there are two different entities that linger within the unknown. There is the impending shadow that moves like an ink blot on paper trying to smother all light it can grasp and then there are shadows of the people that should be existing but are not. The film's sound design is covered in whispers and calls, putting hope in sound in this situation is a big no no. The shadows call to the survivors, sometimes talking forms of lost loved ones while at other times it seems like the shadows are strangers doing nothing more than observing always echoing whispered sentences that end in "... I exist"

While the film is worth the watch just to immerse yourself in this situation, the character driven story is problematic and feels weak. For the first half of the film the writing is very awkward and stiff yet, by the time the pace quickens the snags seem to work themselves out. This is not due to the performances, everyone here does a great job including Hayden Christensen who I have yet to forgive for Star Wars. There's just no way to say some of these lines and not have it feel awkward.

Also a big wag of the finger to once again having a film where a kid does something frustratingly stupid putting the lives of others in peril. Kids in post apocalyptic scenarios are just bad news. If the world was fucked and you are luckily enough to survive and come across a child, i don't care how long it's been since you've seen another human being, shoot them. They'll only bring you trouble.

Overall, Vanishing has a terrifically terrifying atmosphere and has some great existential ideas. The script could have been smoother, and the children could have been non-existent. A good, not great, film that plays like a better Twilight Zone episode.


Well, I suppose it had to happen.  It was merely a matter of time.  Last night was the first film in the Midnight Madness program that didn't leave me completely satisfied.  An ok - not great - film from director Brad Anderson.  What is perhaps most frustrating is that Anderson's career trajectory has thus far been ascendant.  Recall Session 9, in my top 5 (if not 2 or 3) North American horror films of the oughts.  Then came The Machinist, a super taut and unsettling work of psychological and physical horror. Transsiberian was next, and while it didn't really break new ground, it was a decent, if unspectacular little thriller in the Hitchcock mould.

His latest film, and the one we saw last night, is Vanishing on 7th Street.  It stars Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, Thandie Newton, and newcomer Jacob Latimore.  There is a power outage early in the film and pretty much everyone goes missing, the only remains are the deflated clothes that people were wearing at the time of their vanishing.  Like the characters in the film, we are kept very much in the dark (excuse the pun) as to the wherefore and why of the mysterious and menacing disappearances.  What we do know, is that the days are getting drastically shorter, batteries are draining, and if the characters find themselves engulfed by the darkness (which itself seems to always be oozing toward them, grabbing with inky tentacles at them...soul?  existence?), they too will vanish, becoming a part of the darkness itself.  Creepy.  And the film was.  Creepy, I mean.

In what is essentially a zombie-less zombie film, the 4 characters remain holed up in a generator-powered bar, the last bastion of light in the darkness.  They don't know if day is ever going to come again.  With Leguizamo concussed, Christensen hobbled, and the other two characters crippled by youth or religious convictions, the group is going to have a tough time surviving.  But the trouble is, not much happens - we get the menacing darkness, and there is much in the way of each character's attempts to rationalize the vanishings to his or herself.  However, no one is really compelling, and cryptic references to the Roanoke Colony that are supposed to be forboding instead kind of fall flat.  In fact, many of the intended "scares" don't really work (although there are tow quite effective ones, the better one being ripped almost comically directly from Session 9).  I think this is less Anderson's fault and more that of scriptwriter Anthony Jaswinski.

There is a good sense of eeriness in the shadows themselves, but overall the film left me wanting.  Not a horrible film, but not great either.  The open-ended and ambiguous aspects of the film are intended to make the works more mysterious, and we were told afterward by Anderson that you can basically project whatever you want onto the thing.  Ok, that works sometimes, but here is just smacked of laziness, or a kind of cop-out.  If the director doesn't care about what happens to the characters, why should we?  Anyway, hopefully this is a minor blip on Anderson's CV, and he recovers with his next film.  John Carpenter tonight!!!!

-the coelacanth

fotos copywrong Kris