10.31.2010

Best Foreign Film of 2010: Winter's Bone

Based solely on the act of watching Debra Granik's excellent Winter's Bone I've decided to add Missouri to the list of places I will never ever go, not even on a bet. That makes two this year, the Ozarks and the area between Scotland and France where the Red Riding trilogy is set... I think it's called “England”, but have to check with Tom to confirm that.

Winter's Bone is a stellar film, an intensely bleak mystery set amongst toothless Missourian meth-heads and abandoned trailer homes. The story is based on Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name and stars Jennifer Lawrence in what must rank as the performance of the year. She is never short of brilliant throughout. The story follows dirt-poor 17-year-old Ree Dolly (played with quiet desperation and defiant pride by the aforementioned Lawrence) and her search for her meth-cooking daddy Jessup. Seems old Jessup missed a court date and has left his family in a bind. He used the family homestead to cover his bail and it's about to be turned over to the friendly neighbourhood bail-bonding folks. Left in charge of her two young siblings and nearly-catatonic, batshit-kooky mother, Ree has no choice but track down dear old dad to keep a roof over their heads. The search for Jessup leads Ree from one bad-ass Ozark outlaw to another, each a little bit creepier than the last.

The subculture of this region is simply unimaginable and to catch a glimpse inside it is a real eye-opener. It makes the east end look like Paris (the nice part of Paris, that is). Donna had no idea what to make of any of it. It was simply too foreign a world for her to get her head around. I had rather the opposite reaction to Winter's Bone. I kinda dug the anarchy and weird social order that sprang from this godforsaken place. I mean I'm not going to fry up squirrel for dinner anytime soon (depending, that is, on how fucking long this Roncesvalles construction lasts), but I must admit that the Lord of the Flies pecking order in Winter's Bone seemed about right. The film itself is just about perfect.

A top-5 ranked movie for me this year.

Sporgey

War Films, Part 1

Executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' 10 hour miniseries The Pacific (HBO, 2010) is primarily based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Together with Guadalcanal Medal of Honour recipient John Basilone, Leckie and Sledge are the focus of the series. Unlike the Spielberg/Hanks 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers, which concentrated on the members of a single platoon, The Pacific traces men whose paths cross only sporadically during the war, spinning several story threads that weave in and out of the 10 episodes. It's a departure from the formula of the original series, but serves this story well.

Like Band of Brothers, The Pacific is spectacularly-polished and full of moments of great technical prowess. The battle scenes are brutal, exhausting, realistic and graphic, the casting superb, and the direction mostly impeccable. The series strikes a slightly different tone than Band of Brothers, one that both separates and defines The Pacific as a stand-alone piece. The brutality and racially-charged nastiness of the Pacific campaign is particularly jarring, as is the vulnerability of the Marines we follow through the series. The Japanese soldiers are portrayed as almost alien, relentless warriors who reside in the shadows and whose ferocity and willingness to sacrifice their lives for the empire unquestioned.

There are a couple of episodes devoted to the life away from the battlefield and while they might slow the series down a little, the relentless savagery of the Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Okinawa and Iwo Jima battles are so grueling, that these interludes come as a bit of a relief if you're watch multiple episodes in one sitting. The Pacific remains focused on chronicling the lives of Marine Privates and NCO's with apparent realism and accuracy. The terrifying and horrible Pacific theatre in World War 2 and the extraordinary courage and bravery of the men who fought in it gives one pause to reflect on how incredibly fortunate we are to live in the time we do.

But that's all it does and I'm not sure that's enough, particularly given the latitude a 10-hour, $250M should have provided the filmmakers. The Pacific fails to offer much beyond the oft-repeated “war is hell” mantra at the heart of most contemporary films about war, a charge that might be inappropriate given the quite-likely-intentional decision to limit the scope of the series. Much like the other major war-themed films released to DVD this year, including the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker, The Pacific displays the same underlying structural flaws that undermine most films in the genre. We already know that war is hell. The problem with this mantra is that it is statement on which everyone already agrees despite what side of the political divide - dove or hawk – you sit on. By concentrating on the personal experiences of the hapless soldier protagonist while avoiding the broader context of war's sociopolitical causes, these works end up becoming something less meaningful, more action flick than war film. The genre has become increasingly depoliticized as filmmakers attempt to achieve some sort of false-impartiality. Quite frankly, neutrality is just about the last thing we need in films about war.

I'd like to suggest like that as films in this genre have become progressively more adept at accurately portraying the utter brutality of war from the soldier's perspective, that there's been a trade off in terms of sociopolitical, introspective and and insights into causality and culpability. The micro-analysis of the soldier's existence that is the focus of most modern war films has come at the expense of addressing macro issues surrounding conflict and the decision to wage war in the first place. Films about the “justness” of military action are few and far between. It should be said that The Pacific never promises anything beyond documenting the experiences of the individual marine, but to avoid even mentioning the questionable strategic value and incredible cost in terms of human life associated with engagements like the Battle of Peleliu (the 1st Marines lost 1749 of approximately 3000 men, for example) taking an island whose airstrip and geographic location was of little value for future operations, seems to smack of perpetuating the myths surrounding war, valour and heroism.

War films are typically organized thematically into one of three modalities – the pro-military film, the anti-war film and the home front film. Movies in first category tend to glorify military actions without questioning their motivations, while anti-war films typically focus on the immorality and cruelty of warfare. Home front movies typically concentrate on domestic events as dutiful wives and families await the return of the husband, or news of his death. Movies about soldiers struggling to reintegrate into society also fall into this category. At first glance, most of the recent examples in the genre would seem to fit into the anti-war modality, however, on closer scrutiny it becomes difficult to separate them from the first category. Deliberate or not, in the absence of any larger sociopolitical context, these films can serve to depoliticize the genre and let causality off the hook. War is invariably waged as an extension of a nation's international policy. The structural causes of the U.S. decision to invade Vietnam (capitalist imperialism) for example, is given little thought in films about the war, even the great ones (films like Apocalypse Now '78 and The Deer Hunter '79). The recent wave of “War on Terror” films (The Hurt Locker '09, Brothers '09, Lions for Lambs '07 & Stop-Loss '08) also focus predominantly on the “war is hell” mantra and offer little more than representing warfare as a personal nightmare to be survived. Once again, the structural causality of the decision to wage war in the first place (oil) is avoided and the systemic flaws that gives rise to a foreign policy that deems preemptive military intervention to be acceptable extension of this policy are freed from charges of culpability.

The Pacific is decidedly not about the “War on Terror”, but its production during the ongoing U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan complicates matters. Neither the filmmakers nor the audience can avoid drawing parallels to their contemporary equivalents. Whether we care to admit it or not, the influence of present-day events bleeds into both the creation and consumption of cinematic representations of the past. The Pacific succeeds in representing the wide-eyed innocence of mid-century America and how soldiers were motivated to acts of extreme brutality and horrific cruelty to simply survive to live another day. Six decades later, one could argue that demonizing other cultures in support of military motivation to wage war at ground level hasn't changed substantially. Our collective awareness of the “war is hell” mantra, reinforced by dozens of films and series produced about different wars and military engagements over the last 30 years, hasn't seemingly translated into a desire to avoid waging it, and that begs the question: Why are we still doing them the same way each time?

As you can see, what started as a quick review of The Pacific quickly morphed into a larger piece, one that I intend to return to with a followup post on a recent film that was universally dismissed on its initial release, but one that I think speaks far more effectively to the larger sociopolitical issues that films in this genre tend to avoid.

...to be continued

Sporgey

Larry Sanders The Complete Series (HBO 1992 to 1998)

Gary Shandling's surreal mock-talk show, The Larry Sanders Show, was one of the pivotal television programs in history. Without it, subsequent shows as diverse as The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Six Feet Under, 30 Rock, and The Office might never have been made. Larry Sanders was instrumental in ushering in a new era and style of TV show. It also put HBO on the programming map and proved that the cable networks could go toe-to-toe with the big boys. For reasons that completely evade me, The Larry Sanders Show was only released in bits and pieces to video (Season 1, followed by a “best of” compilation a few years ago), an oversight that has been finally rectified with the arrival in the FBW of the complete series on DVD this week. The FBE couldn't afford a copy because Joe blew $13,000 on euro-horror films in the 3rd quarter.   

Larry Sanders basically invented the ironic, self-referential sitcom. While it has it's roots in programs such as Martin Mull's Fernwood Tonight and took it's cues from the real world of late night talk shows, Shandling built the show around a completely original idea. The show's guests were real, playing themselves on the show, while the off-stage elements were fictional. Larry (played by Shandling) was a composite of, among others, Carson, Letterman and Leno and the late night talk show he hosted ran up against real program of the day like Arsenio Hall. Jeffrey Tambour plays Hank, Larry's Ed McMahon-like sidekick. Rip Torn plays the show's producer Arty and a host of actors who would go on to bigger things played various staff. It was one of the first programs that featured rather-unlikeable people in all the major roles. Larry was neurotic and shallow and only found his comfort zone while the show was on. When the lights went up and the audience and guests went home, he was lost. Hank was a giant self-serving asshole who envied Larry's success, but would always play second fiddle. Arty was the closest thing Larry had to a friend and played nursemaid to Larry's endless whining. He also had a ruthless shive-you-while-he's-smiling quality.

Larry Sanders never found much in the way of mainstream success. It remains a cult phenom that came and went with few realizing just how influential it was. It blazed the trail for much of what followed and remains extremely watchable, in spite of being nearly 20 years old. Winner. 
 
Sporgey

10.24.2010

Four great haunted house movies

The "haunted house" is one of my favourite subjects in the realm of horror.  Ghosts, madmen, torture, dark secrets; all are contained within the dank stone walls of these particularly troubled mansions.  What follows is (quite obviously) not a complete list, but a small sampling of some of the best the subgenre has to offer.
 
The Haunting (1963)

Robert Wise's interpretation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is considered by many to be the granddaddy of all haunted house films.  And with good reason, I now see, after first viewing it just last night.  I'm not sure that this film can be topped for its class and restraint, its lack of reliance on visual cues, and its study not of supernatural phenomena and ectoplasmic occurrences, but rather of the ghosts of the mind and the soul.

While featuring all the usual trappings of the haunted house picture (dark corridors, forbidden rooms, cobwebs, and things that go bump in the night), The Haunting is a study of psychological and emotional frailty, where one's greatest fear isn't some wispy apparition, but the very real fear of being forgotten, unloved, of dying alone.  That I found Julie Harris' Nell to be both annoyingly martyrish and shrewy as well as heartbreakingly lost and desperate for something to cling onto is a testament to the actress' craft.  Russ Tamblyn's unbelieving frat boy, Richard Johnson's tea and tweed paranormal researcher, and Claire Bloom's Sapphic-leaning clairvoyant all round out the solid cast.

What gets me about The Haunting is that there is actually very little in the way of your typical "haunting".  And you have to think that Wise was a fan of Hitchcock's Psycho, released three years earlier; if Harris' "stolen car" sequence near the beginning of the film, replete with scared, uncertain voice-over, is anything but a tribute to the master, it is nothing at all. While I wasn't as taken with The Haunting as I thought I might be (unrealistically high expectations have a habit of doing that), it is a very, very good film, and one any horror/haunted house fan should see if they haven't already.


The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

What we have here is almost the exact opposite of The Haunting, filled with deliciously exaggerated acting and cheap frights.  Where The Haunting might be likened to being lost in a slowly darkening forest, The House on Haunted Hill is akin to a carnival spook-house.  But that's not to say it is any way the inferior film, and in many ways I preferred the William Castle gimmickry and the hammy acting of my lord and saviour, Vincent Price as Frederick Loren.  And there are a few genuinely dark moments, and at least one sequence where I actually jumped, even though I knew exactly what was coming.  Effective stuff, indeed.  The best of the cast here (other than VP, natch) are Spider Baby's Carol Ohmart as Price's conniving, cold-hearted bitch of a wife Annabelle.  So, so great.  Elisha Cook's scared souse Watson Pritchard bookends the rest of the group, all hoping to collect the $10,000 promised them for simply spending the night (and surviving) in Loren's home.  Great, light fun.




The Changeling (1980)

"How did you die Joseph?  Did you die in this house?  Why do you remain?"

This Canadian classic is not only one of my favourite haunted house films, but one of my favourite horror films period.  George C. Scott is terrifically cast as a pianist mourning the recent freakishly accidental death of his wife and daughter, and has holed up in a chilly, isolated mansion in order to lose himself in his work.  He soon realizes that there is something else in the house with him.  What follows certainly ranks among the most spine-tingling ghost stories ever to be filmed.  Haunting, elegiac, moving, and at times, blood-curdling, The Changeling is a bona fide classic.  Melvyn Douglas provides great support as a senator with a dark past.  If there is one film on this list that I must insist you watch if you haven't, it is this one.




The Legend of Hell House (1973)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, The Legend of Hell House is a true treat. Do yourself a favour and check it out.  A giant of the genre.







So, what are your favourite haunted house flicks?

10.23.2010

I'm Uncertain....

Uncertainty (2009)

Well this was certainly a strange one - part thriller, part drama and split into two separate story lines that, for most of the film's running time, don't seem to have anything to do with each other. Uncertainty is exactly what I felt when I finished it last night. I've always liked Joseph Gorden-Levitt and he's good here as well, but performance alone does not necessarily make for a worthy film experience. I popped online today to troll for reviews, wondering if I'd missed something. I read exactly two, which follow and match pretty well the theme and gimmick of Uncertainty.

From DVD Verdict, Daryl Loomis wrote a fairly positive review about the film. Chris Long from DVD Town took a dimmer view of the proceedings. As I read through both reviews, the fact that each critic took an entirely different view of the exact same film started to mimic the split story of the film itself. I thought it'd be interesting to post a few excerpts from both reviews and compare them paragraph by paragraph.

The review lead-ins are simply descriptive...

DVD Verdict
Heads or tails? Simple choices like this have complicated consequences in Undecided. McGehee and Siegel use a strange gimmick to spin an entertaining cross-up of a thriller with a family drama. The world diverges considerably based on the simple decision of where to go on a bright and sunny Independence Day morning. The director team intelligently weaves their two worlds together to get deep into the hearts of the two lead characters. Each story begins with the lovers finding something, a cell phone in one story and a dog in the second. These discoveries represent very different things, but they are instrumental in the plots that follow.
DVD Town
A coin flip sends a couple running in opposite directions on a bridge. Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins) race away to meet… each other. From this point their stories, color coded as Yellow and Green to help the viewer keep track, diverge into completely different genres.

Loomis and Long diverge pretty quickly afterward though...

DVD Verdict
In the Manhattan story, the phone serves as the MacGuffin for the thriller, but it also gives us a window into the characters.
DVD Town
Yellow wastes no time plunging the couple knee deep into an utterly absurd thriller involving a found cell phone with secret information, murder and lots of chases through Manhattan´s Chinatown.
DVD Verdict
The writing and the editing play a part in the success of Uncertainty, but it is largely thanks to the performances from Gordon-Levitt and Collins. They exhibit a great chemistry together, playing off of each other and working together to make both stories happen. McGehee and Siegel employed an odd scripting tactic here. They wrote great detail into the action for each scenario, but left the dialog virtually blank. They put it on the leads to feel the scene and speak the dialog that comes naturally to them, and they are excellent from start to finish. 
DVD Town
McGehee and Siegel only outlined each scene and let their actors improvise the dialogue with decidedly mixed results. Collins in particular isn´t up to the challenge and as a result the couple´s relationship, intended as the uniting force between the two intercut storylines, isn´t very convincing. She and Gordon-Levitt stumble awkwardly through several scenes that fail to create any sense of emotional depth.

Their conclusions...

DVD Verdict
Uncertainty may feel gimmicky at times, but it is nonetheless is a well made and ultimately satisfying film. The dual stories offset each other nicely and serve to give us a clear picture of this relationship while staying interesting and entertaining throughout.
DVD Town
It´s difficult to fathom the purpose of the experiment. Perhaps the stray dog they find with its half-torn collar is part of a spy plot. When that cell phone rings, maybe it´s that Dmitri jerk from Yellow accidentally calling Green Bobby. But this possibility of osmosis between the parallel narratives soon dissipates as both stories limp to a tedious finish. Yellow is so absurd, and Bobby and Kate become so increasingly stupid throughout it, that I´m inclined to think McGehee and Siegel made it this ridiculous on purpose. But if they´re trying to highlight the silliness of a Hollywood high-concept thriller, they don´t provide a more convincing alternative with the subdued but still inert Green storyline.

...and there you go, two looks, two entirely unique takes on the same film.

10.20.2010

EOne to the Rescue!

Caution: Film Avalanche on this Tuesday October 26th!

The Tattooed Girl Whom Played with the Fire Dragon, Part Deux – I prefer the original Swedish title Flickan som lekte med elden, but as you can see, Bablefish's Swedish to English translation works pretty well too. Hottie hacker Lisbeth and journalist Mikael investigate a sex-trafficking ring. Lisbeth is accused of three murders necessitating the dawning of tight fetish clothes to excape and torch some Bimmers in. Mikael works to clear her name because he verkligen vill knulla henne, and really, who wouldn't? BTW If you're wondering, Pigen der Legede med Iilden is Norwegian for Flickan som lekte med elden.

Winter's Bone - "An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father while trying to keep her family intact." (IMDb.com). Hmmmm.... Sounds like Virginia.... West Virginia that is, not our own Virginia.... although she has a missing drug-dealing Dad too. Weird eh? It's actually set in Missouri(able).

Wow! Watched this tonight - Review will follow. What a stunner.


I Am Love – Tilda Swinton stars in this Italian festival darling from director Luca Guadagnino, whoever that is. Egbert Rogers had this to say about it.... "I Am Love is an amazing film. It is deep, rich, human. It is not about rich and poor, but about old and new. It is about the ancient war between tradition and feeling" ...Sounds like something Spock would say.

Top marks from all the arthouse critics here. Tilda learned Italian to play the role, but with a Russian accent. Now that's committment. Looking forward to this one.




You Don't Know Jack. Hoo—ahhhh! Al Pacino brings "Dr. Death" to life in this HBO Films presentation directed by Barry Levinson, whoever that is. It got decent reviews. Apparently, people's opinions split across the film based on their position on euthanasia. Really? Ya think?

As Kendall once said of Michael Moore's films - "The people that watch his films don't need to and the people that should, won't."

I'm guessing the same applies here.




Please Give - Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a couple living in New York City who specialize in vintage furniture - which they buy on the cheap at blah blah blah up at their trendy Manhattan blah blah blah. Kate and Alex have a teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele) who has image problems and their apartment is starting to feel a bit small for the three of blah blah blah ...and Alex own the unit next door to them, and once the flat becomes vacant, they plan to knock out a wall and blah blah blah, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), their tenant, is an elderly blah blah blah doesn't seem eager to go anywhere blah blah blah, and it's occurred to Kate ….oh, fuck it. I've forgotten the name of this title three times since it arrived at 2pm this afternoon. Girls will love it.

Sex and the City, Squared - Really? Was this necessary? Come on.... Surely we've been down this vapid, slack-jawed, chick-porn road enough times already? I Photoshopped Tom's face onto Kim Cattrall's, but she/he looks exactly the same. How strange is that?

Still, a pretty decent week all in all.

Sporgey

Greenberg

Every year around this time, I start getting nervous that a best-of-the-year list isn't coalescing in my wee brain. 8 weeks from now, the year-end Review needs to hit the counters and I've got no idea what's going to be in it yet. I've got no top movies list for this year ….a few likely candidates, but certainly nothing that could be called a semi-comprehensive summary of 2010's best offerings. So, like clockwork, in mid-October I start playing the catchup game, visiting and revisiting the candidates released to DVD over the past ten or eleven months.

I went into Greenberg with this in mind. Here was a film that split audiences, but received generally solid reviews. I was hoping writer/director Noah Baumbach's third film might pick up where the excellent Squid and the Whale left off. It didn't. It's not that Greenberg didn't have moments, just that it didn't have enough of them. In spite of the fact that I never once forgot it was Ben Stiller up on the screen, he plays the part of Roger Greenberg in a relaxed, direct and confident way. Ditto for Greta Gerwig, an actress I'm not sure I've seen before but liked immensely. Gerwig does her best in what is clearly an underwritten role. To be fair, Baumbach tends to make movies about unsympathetic characters (and Roger Greenberg definitely qualifies as one of those) so expecting much in the way of the standard indie feel-good fare was unrealistic. I think this is a movie that requires a certain forgiveness from the audience... because it becomes obvious fairly early on that Greenberg isn't going to go where anyone wants it to.

I can't put my finger on what's exactly wrong with Greenberg, but something didn't ring true. The script suffered from a little ….droopiness? Sorry, but a better word doesn't come to mind. Perhaps it was entirely intentional, but the characters are mostly assholes and airheads and they kinda got what they deserved... which for all I know may have been Baumbach's point. The whole preening bourgeoisie/lost generation thing just didn't work for me though.

Which brings me to the interesting divide critics and viewers seem to have about Greenberg. The film seems to split about 50/50 with about half suggesting it's a brilliant, state-of-the-moment zeitgeist character study and the balance feeling like they've sat through a horrible narcissist's convention. I desperately wanted to belong to the first group but found myself frustrated by the film – it took a very promising concept and then didn't seem to know what to do with it.

It seems entirely reasonable that sooner or later the central social issue of our time - that our society is simply overflowing with self-absorbed buffoons would be the subject of a truly great modern film. The topic seems, however, something of an elephant in the room with this generation of filmmakers. Greenberg has a few moments where it elevates to social commentary (the adult party overrun with children, for one), but it retreats to the safety of odd-ball-outsider territory almost every time. Baumbach has Dumbo in his sights time and time again but can't quite bring himself to pull the trigger.

What Roger Greenberg reminded me of was Larry David's Curb character, but without the gloriously-sunny disposition that makes that character bearable. There's a fine line in cringe-comedy writing between whingeing humour and the simply painful ..... and there's entirely too much of the latter in this film. It’s all very well giving us insights into a troubled soul, but Greenberg gets lost in the stifling unpleasantness of the lead. As it is, it's too uncomfortable to be a comedy, not meaty enough to be a drama and not brave enough to be a satire.

Strike one from the candidate list.

Sporgey

Bela Lugosi is dead

Born in Hungary on October 20, 1882:




10.17.2010

Terminal City Ricochet on DVD

I would have completely missed this DVD release were it not for a recent post on Borderline. Terminal City Ricochet is a cult film I'd heard about years ago, but had long since forgotten. It was made for Canadian TV (!) in the early '90s and then promptly disappeared after a few late night broadcasts. This is the film's first video release.

From what I can gather, TCR is a dystopian comedy/satire about government, television and rampant consumerism. It stars Peter Breck (best known from the '60s TV show The Big Valley with Babs Stanwyck) and Jello Biafra (the former lead singer from The Dead Kennedys), not a pair you'd expect to see in the same film. TCR was directed by Filipino-Canadian Zane Dalen, whose credits include episodes of The Beachcombers, 21 Jump Street and the wildly underrated Expect No Mercy (1995) starring Billy Blanks. Not convinced yet? Well, TCR also stars DOA, the famed Vancouver Punk band and several other BC Punk luminaries from the era. Sold!

Joe – this is listed on KRK and I ordered one for the FBW. You may want to do the same. I gotta say, I'm really looking forward to it. I'm hoping it's worthy of the cult status bestowed on it. Sure sounds like it.

Nice find Stoney.
 
Sporgey

A Deal with the Devil

There is an sad irony to Richard Linklater's film Me and Orson Welles. It's a film set in 1937 when Welles' newly-minted Mercury Theatre mounted their first production, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Welles is played with uncanny realism by Christian McKay, who roars around the theatre oscillating equal parts berating bully and charming genius. McKay is a joy to watch. He captures so much of Welles – his mannerisms, voice and gestures, that it often felt as though I was watching the great man himself. It doesn't hurt that he's the spitting image of him either. Me and Orson Welles simply soars when Linklater concentrates his considerable directing talent on the man at the centre of the stage.

But unfortunately, the first word in the film's title also happens to be the focus of picture. “Me” is played the super-bland, dull-as-dishwater-pretty-boy and High School Musical star Zac Efron. Efron is a dead weight around the neck of what is otherwise a brilliant little picture. He has about as much depth as a puddle of piss, although it's not entirely his fault because the role is both badly conceived and woefully underwritten. The problem is, without Efron's star power, this picture likely wouldn't have got made, a testament to how utterly fucked Hollywood is these days.

Still, if you pick your smoke, pee and snack breaks carefully, this is a terrific film. My advice is every time Efron looks like he's about to say something.... leave the room. Most of his scenes, while plentiful, are mercifully short so you've got about 5 minutes to wander the house looking for something to do until McKay/Welles grace the screen again. If every the DVD chapter points needed to be synchronized on a performance, it's for Me and Orson Welles. I would have preferred a Zac-less 19 minute cut of the film as a menu choice, but they didn't offer one. It would have been called “...and Orson Welles” in my fantasy De-Me'd DVD version.

Given the choice between living at a time when Orson was celebrated as a hugely-talented star, but 5 years of hellish World War 2 lay just off the horizon -versus- living at a time when Zac Efron is considered to be his modern day equivalent.... sign me up to fight the godless Hun.

Sporgey

10.15.2010

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

Where to even begin with this one?  Written, directed by and starring the inimitable Jose Mojica Marins, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is the film that kickstarted the Coffin Joe franchise.  And what a franchise it is:  roughly 15 films featuring Coffin Joe, with the majority of them played by Marins.  Earlier in the year I ordered the handsome PAL box set which contains eight Joe films plus a documentary entitled The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins (the NTSC set, which contained three films, is long OOP, but we have them at the FBW).  How can you not love it?  Along with that, I picked up the most recent Joe film, Embodiment of Evil, sadly as-yet-unreleased in NA.  But enough about my acquisition fever, let's get on to the film itself.

AMITYS is such a strange trip.  The plot concerns a small town's sadistic gravedigger who is obsessed with finding a woman to bear his seed and continue his bloodline.  But the plot is neither here nor there - we get an evil witch, the walking dead, and a truly trippy vision of vengeful ghosts mixed with all kinds of supernatural strangeness.  Coffin Joe is the highlight, of course, and anyone who defies him is dealt with brutal, graphic violence.  There are a few scenes sprinkled throughout the film where Joe truly gets to lay bare his bleak world view - there is no life after death, there is no God, there is no Satan, there is only LIFE.  And in this one life, Joe has chosen to live it exactly as he desires, indulging in all earthly pleasures.  Wine, sex, violence, power; Joe swims in it all, fears no one or no thing, and laughs in the face of religious cowards.  Joe is a non-believer, or rather, a believer in the here and now, whatever he can experience through sensual means.  Quite simply, Joe is a hero for our times.

The sound mix on the film is incredibly muddy, although there are some near supernatural moments that sound like the actors are delivering their lines inside an echo chamber.  Spooky stuff.  The cinematography is lurid, but the black and white tones are starkly stunning.  This is crude filmmaking, in the very best sense of the word - raw, unrefined, pure.  Not much actually happens in the film - between the taverna, Joe's house, the graveyard, and the windswept woods that connects them all, locations and scenarios are limited, and we find ourselves watching a fairly repetitive film.  None of it matters though, because Joe is so deliriously over the top and fun to watch that you forget the film's shortcomings.

Marins conveys a singular vision that is in no way diluted as the series rolls along - something that can be said of very, very few horror franchises.  Coffin Joe may not be as recognizable a name in the horror canon as Jason or Freddy, but he has every right to be.  You'll have a hard time finding a more consistently sadistic, evil character in horror cinema.  I'd recommend any of the Coffin Joe films, but AMITYS holds a special place in my heart as it was introduction to the Coffin Joe and has left an indelible imprint on my mind.  All hail Jose Mojica Marins!

Sole Survivor (1983)

Not to be confused with the made for TV William Shatner vehicle, or some Kensington cobbler, this Sole Survivor is a subtle, eerie portrayal of guilt, depression and confusion, and the very real "horror" that those emotions suggest.

In keeping with the quiet, creeping dread of earlier films like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls or Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz' Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor tells the story of Denise (Anita Skinner), the - wait for it - sole survivor of a horrible plane crash, of which we are shown the grisly aftermath during the film's opening scene.  The rest of the film plays out very much in Final Destination mode (albeit with much less gratuitousness and spectacle), with death sending his minions to collect what should have been rightfully his.

Helmed in a workmanlike fashion (but with a strange, austere artistry) by Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet), Sole Survivor is one of those forgotten jewels of the VHS era, only recently exhumed by Code Red.  And for that, we can all be grateful, as what we have here is a compelling film that is better off in your DVD player than in a Blockbuster delete bin.

As Denise, Skinner is an incredibly sympathetic character, tough and fragile at the same time, trying so very hard to keep a smile on her face and her head held high, but we get the sense that somewhere just beneath the surface, cracks have formed and are beginning to take hold.  What makes the outcome of the film all the more shocking and brilliant is that following her crash, she has found love, and things are beginning to look up.  Oh dear, she couldn't be more wrong.

Skinner authors a very complex character in what could have been a much less touching role.  Her nuanced performance makes the film and elevates it from a forgotten also-ran to a rediscovered gem.  Making this all the more remarkable (and - if you'll play along with me - a touch creepy) is the fact that this is one of only two of Skinner's film credits.  She had a role in the 1978 film Girlfriends, then poof, right off the map.  A cursory internet search turned up nothing else as to what she did next, or her current whereabouts.

Sole Survivor offers up an icy, crawling horror that comes from the slow realization that the impossibly terrifying is not only possible, but probable, and that more often than not, there are no happy endings.  I watched the film three days ago and it's stuck with me in the way the best horror does - it doesn't seek to shock, but to disturb, to burrow its way into your unconscious and lie there for a spell, reminding you every once in awhile that everything is not as peachy as it seems.  Highly recommended.

Dagon (2001)

One of the few good things about being suddenly, unexpectedly (temporarily, I hope) crippled is that I've had a chance to catch up on my film viewing.  I've had Stuart Gordon's Dagon more or less near the top of my "to watch" pile for over a year now, and with yesterday's torrential rain and general gloominess, I figured it was time.

Gordon again turns to Lovecraft as his inspiration for this tale (actually a conflation of two Lovecraft stories, "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), in which a young couple is stranded in a small Spanish fishing village after a boating accident, though it soon becomes very apparent that all is not bueno in this seemingly sleepy town.  When Barbara (the fetching Raquel Merono) goes missing soon after their arrival, Paul (Ezra Godden) tries to track her down only to be overcome by a horde of garish fishmen.  Or rather men who are slowly transforming into piscine form, including all that transformation might entail (hobbled walking, garbled speech, and grotesque physical mutation).  After a chance run in with Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), Paul learns the terrible secret of the town, one in which the denizens relinquished their faith in God when fish stocks ran low and turned to an older, more powerful deity, Dagon, who blessed the town with untold oceanic bounty and gold and treasure, but left them cursed with their current plight, the offspring of all his untold trysts with human women being the current crop of fishmen.

First, the good: Gordon succeeds in creating a oppressive and chilly atmosphere where rain and darkness are the norm, and twisty, cobbled streets mirror Paul's own confusion.  The makeup effects are stellar, and the briny disciples of Dagon look as alien as they do human, and embody both of these aspects in their speech and actions as well.  The largely Spanish cast do excellent work as the lurching, slimy humanoids from the deep, minds filled with a singular, murderous intent.  And the small Spanish village of Combarro that was the location of the shoot provides a delightfully damp and depressive tone.  Looks like a nice place to visit, though you'd probably want to stay away during the rainy season.

There are some terrific practical effects, the most notable the scene in which Ezequiel is strung up and has his facial skin stripped from his body.  Again, Gordon looked to the locals for makeup duties, and they come through in spades.  Tentacular appendages and probing probosci simultaneously repulse and delight.

And now, the bad:  I know I must sound like a broken record by this point, but the CGI employed in the film is worse than awful.  Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus provided a better sense of reality than some of the VFX in Dagon.  I think this is an unfortunate side-effect of the year in which the film was made.  2001 had filmmakers excited about the possibility of CGI, even though the technology wasn't quite there to back up the boundless visions of some of the brighter directors.  The technology was in a dangerous nascent phase that allowed directors to employ it without it being fully developed, to the overall detriment of their final vision.  Granted, it would probably have been prohibitively pricey for Gordon and crew to build a massive model of the enormous mer-god Dagon, but he could very easily have taken the route John Carpenter did in In the Mouth of Madness, his Lovecraftian puppet-beasties sprang from the screen and seemed much more menacing than some green-screened squid.  Or even do what he had done earlier in the film and suggest (a la Val Lewton) the kraken-king through creative camera angle and actor responses.  The poorly done CGI is all the more glaring when juxtaposed with the expertly done practical effects, and the whole thing becomes jarring and takes you out of the film.  Regardless, barring the visual let down of the climax and a couple other ill-advised effects throughout, Gordon does a credible job overall capturing the mood of the Lovecraft original.

The casting of Godden as Paul also strikes me as a strange choice - I mean his type is right, but the actor himself can't seem to decide whether to play the role as camp or straight-up, and his wavering between the two leaves the performance wooden.  There isn't a great chemistry (read: none at all) between he and Merono's Barbara, either.  Really the only good thing about his wholly unlikeable persona was his Miskatonic sweatshirt, a sly wink by Gordon at observant Lovecraft fans.


Overall, Dagon is worth a look, for sure, but falls somewhat shy of the best cinematic Lovecraft adaptations.  If you're looking for a Lovecraft-on-film primer, seek out the superior gallows humour of Re-Animator and the ultra-weird, candy-coloured From Beyond (both by Gordon as well), or even older fare such as The Shuttered Room.  I'm not generally an advocate of remakes, but I'd love to see someone (even Gordon himself) take another stab at the Dagon story, either with the complete use of practical effects or prudent use of updated CGI technology.  Let's hope Guillermo del Toro heeds these guidelines when bringing the epic At The Mountains of Madness to the screen in 2013.  Huge fingers crossed on that one, though del Toro has yet to disappoint.

10.12.2010

Asylum (1972)

Another day, another anthology.  This time it's the intriguing Amicus joint Asylum starring basically every British actor ever.  No?  Okay, how 'bout this: Peter Cushing, Barry Morse, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland (oh man), Patrick Magee, Charlotte Rampling (oh MAN!), and a bunch of other people you've probably never heard of but would recognize if you've watched anything from Amicus/Hammer from the '60s/'70s or essentially anything on the BBC from that time.

The setup for this one is a doozy - Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) sets off from London to take a new job at an asylum for the incurably insane, although the doctor who greets him (Magee) is not the doctor who summoned him there in the first place.  No, Magee's Dr. Rutherford informs Martin that Dr. Byron has himself gone mad and is now confined upstairs with the other patients.  And if Martin can figure out which of the patients is Dr. Byron, Rutherford will consider him fit for the position.  And off we go...

Rutherford is greeted by the orderly, from whom he tries to extract clues as to the personage of Byron, but the orderly knows better - the game is afoot!  From there, we are taken into each of the four patients' rooms, each with a different story of how they came to be there in the first place.  And for once, the framing narrative is actually just as, if not more, compelling than the individual stories themselves.  Not to say that they are inferior to other Amicus anthologies, but they do at times seem to drag.

The first story (Frozen Fear) concerns Bonnie (Barbara Perkins), who was conspiring with adulterer Walter (Richard Todd) to bump off his voodoo-obsessed wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) so they could go on the make together.  Well, as one would expect from this EC-styled segment, Ruth bites it, and is hacked to pieces by Walter.  However, the body parts (presumably aided by some sort of voodoo powers) arise and destroy not only the unfaithful husband, but also gets to Bonnie, who, in an attempt to save herself, hatchets away at her face to remove the disembodied hand clinging to it.  And we're brought back to the asylum, where Bonnie shows off her scars, rather delightedly, to Martin.  Is this Byron?  Martin is unsure, which takes us to the next patient...

Behind door number two, we find Bruno (Morse), who at first gaze appears to be fashioning the emperor's new clothes, complete with invisible needle and thread.  What has caused this madness?  We find out, in The Weird Tailor.  Bruno is an old-school tailor who is behind on the rent, and his displeased landlord gives him until the end of the week to come up with the cash or find new digs.  Bruno is at a loss: how to get the money?  Ah, but lo and behold a very distinguished and somewhat mysterious gentleman enters the shop as if to answer Bruno's prayers.  Mr. Smith (Cushing) commissions a suit made of a strange glowing fabric (Hypercolour FTW!), with very strict specifications that the suit only be worked on between the hours of midnight and 5 am.  And the handsome sum of 200 pounds is promised to Bruno upon the suit's completion, more than the tailor needs to settle his rent.  All week Bruno toils in the dead hours of the night and finally completes the suit.  Upon delivery to Smith, he discovers that dark purpose for the suit that involves raising the dead.  He also discovers that Smith has no money to pay him.  Anyway, things turn out real crazy and a mannequin in the tailor's shop on which the suit is placed ends up coming to life and nearly destroys Bruno.  At least it destroys his mind.  Martin is still unconvinced that he has met Byron, and asks to see the next patient, the ravishing...

Barbara (Rampling).  Barbara is the first to seem sane, at first.  Then comes her story (Lucy Comes To Stay), which is weakest of the bunch, but makes up for it by featuring both her loveliness and the swingin' sexpot styles of Britt Ekland (naked Wicker Man wall-hump, anyone? Start at 1:15).  This one isn't really worth recounting, but it involves a scheming older brother trying to get his hands on Barbara's inheritance by proving she's either insane, addicted to pills, or both.  At the end of the segment, I didn't really care, I just wanted more Rampling/Ekland action.  I think the producers knew that this story was the weakest of the four, and compensated by upping the pulchritude power.  Martin is getting antsy at this point, thinking he's being strung along by Rutherford, and asks to see the final patient, in what is the shortest and most gonzo of the tales...

Which brings us to Dr. Byron's (Lom) room, for the segment Mannikins of Horror.  Byron seems sane enough, but soon reveals he's out of his gourd by showing off his collection of miniature robots with very lifelike human faces.  Each of these, he informs Martin, represents a different real life person, and is exact inside down to the very last detail.  His latest creation is a tiny robot in his own likeness, which will soon be given life through "the power of concentration"(?).  Thank you, says Martin, I've seen enough.  He and the orderly make their way out of the ward, and Martin returns to Rutherford.  Martin exclaims that he will not choose and does not appreciate being subjected to the whimsical games of the doctor.  While they argue, we see cuts to Byron's room, where he lies in darkness, eyes focused on his little doppelganger, concentrating life into the little guy.  Well, goddamn, it works!  Through a series of improbable (given the robot's lack of great mobility) events, the robot enters Rutherford's office and stabs the doc in the back of the neck with a scalpel!  This segment is just so bizarre it needs to be seen.

Directed by the venerable Roy Ward Baker (who helmed countless Hammer and Amicus films, and who sadly passed away just a week ago, aged 93), and written by Robert Bloch (Psycho), Asylum is a fun little romp.  The actors all pull off their roles with great aplomb, and while some of the stories are weaker than others, the whole thing is kept interesting by the overarching narrative.  Which, it must be said, is fairly easy to figure out (I guessed correctly at the conclusion five minutes into the film).  If you're a fan of anthology horror, mysteries, Charlotte Rampling and/or Britt Ekland, check it out.  I'm not going to say it's a "must see" because, frankly it's not; however, you won't feel like you've wasted your time when it's all said and done.  Don't rabidly track it down, but if you see a lonely copy gathering dust at your local independent video store, give it a whirl.  You won't be disappointed.

I'm Beginning to Look a Lot Like Halloween




10.11.2010

Adribyn!....Adribyn!

So it seems the General of our Eastern Army decided to do a little face-skiing during maneuvers on the weekend, but is OK and recovering. His tongue apparently slips out of his mouth because there are no teeth to keep it in place and he whistles when he talks now, but otherwise he looks pretty much like he did last Halloween.... which isn't great.

We all hope you're feeling better soon.

Sporgey.  

10.09.2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)


Let me be frank, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is one of my favourite films of the year.

Directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz/Spaced) and based on comic books by Toronto local artist/writer Bryan Lee O'malley, SPVTW is a dizzying adventure that's visually stunning, gut-busting funny, and full of heart. It's a Hollywood caliber film shot entirely in Toronto where for once, Toronto is actually suppose to be Toronto. The film opens to a narrator saying "Not so long ago, in a faraway land called Toronto, Ontario, Canada." Funny enough I find this to be the most Torontonian film I've ever seen even though it's not made by a Canadian.

The Scott Pilgrim story is generally a simple one. An early twenty something Toronto slacker falls in love with a super cool New York girl. There's only one thing standing between him and his sweetheart; a league of 7 evil exes. In order to claim the love of his young life he must defeat these 7 evil exes in battle. See? Simple.

The Scott Pilgrim books are riddled with video game references (mostly from 80's Nintendo era) which explains the formulaic plot. However, the books are also heavily rooted in the Toronto independent music scene as Scott himself plays bass in a local rock band called Sex Bob-omb (see! A Super Mario reference).

Luckily for fans of the books and the uninitiated alike, Edgar Wright took immense care with the original stories infusing the best parts of the comics with his penchant for over the top genre nodding film-making.
An average evil ex battle in the film will play out like watching two skilled players play Street Fighter 2 at a place like A&C Games, yet at the same time no two evil ex battles are alike which only adds to the ingenuity of the film.
As for the music, lovers of the comic book can rejoice. Although hilarious lyrics were written out on the page one always had to imagine a tune, but not anymore. Wright commissioned no one other than Beck to write the tunes for the fictional band. I feared the music could really hurt the film if it wasn't up to par, however Beck has written some of the most bad ass garage rock tunes heard for sometime on this side of Lake Eerie.
So, the original comic is great and the director of the adaptation is more than competent enough, now how does the film stand up on its own?

Well, for one it's one of the sweetest films I've seen in years. Between salivating for the next jaw dropping battle, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World features a surprisingly emotional story on youthful love. Obviously the metaphor of a league of evil exes is for how one's past can make you feel inadequate in a relationship and what you must do to overcome those doubts. Scott's journey isn't one for his love, Ramona Flowers, but instead for Scott. He has to realize he isn't fighting these evil exes for her but rather for himself. It's not a fight for love at all actually, it's a fight for self respect.
Within that story is sprinkled all those dramatic relationship scenarios that plagued many of us throughout high school and beyond. Scott starts dating Ramona without first breaking up with his current girlfriend (a sin I'm ashamed to say I've committed once or twice). Scott's friend starts dating his ex which leads to some awkward moments. One of Scott's best friends is a girl he dated in high school that holds a grudge against him for past transgressions. etc, etc, etc.
Basically it plays like my high school relationship resume, complete with immaturity and lack of self respect. The sweeter moments like Scott and Ramona walking in the snow and sitting on swings in what looks like a high park area playground are immensely dreamy and nostalgic. Not to mention they feel like they were ripped directly from my life.

The pacing of the film is fast and furious, always having another battle to look forward to keeps the film moving briskly. Although truth be told as the fights started to dwindle I found myself saying "please don't end."

The cast is just marvelous. An absolute gem of an ensemble with Michael Cera really shinning as Scott Pilgrim. Alison Pill (Milk) as disgruntled drummer Kim Pine of Sex Bob-omb is a highlight as well as Kieran Culkin doing a fabulous turn as Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells delivering some of the films best laughs.
As for the evil exes every performance is a real treat. My personal favourite being Chris Evans' Lucas Lee. An ex pro skater turned action movie star extraordinaire who lets his stunt doubles do the fighting for him (the character is loosely based on Jason Lee). A close second would be the head of the league Gideon Graves who is played to slimy perfection by Jason Schwartzman. Another ex worth mentioning is Roxy Richter played by Mae Whitman who also played Michael Cera's girlfriend Ann in Arrested Development. Obviously, this connection is intentional and for fans of AD you'll get a hoot out of watching George Michael and Ann battle it out.

The soundtrack, mostly written by Beck, is the first movie soundtrack I've purchased in years. It plays like a terrific rock record with tunes from Canadian and international talents. It perfectly depicts the atmosphere of the film, especially during the more dramatic scenes. However, every rock performance by Sex Bob-omb is also fantastic.

Sorry to bring Roger Ebert into this again, but I watched a shitload of At The Movies growing up. I recall his review for 2001's Ghost World, (which was also based on an independent comic book) where he gave the film full marks starting off by saying "some times you watch a film and feel like it was intentionally made for you. That's how I feel with Zwigoff's Ghost World...". I enjoyed Ghost World but in no means did i find it stellar and I think that's the deal with Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
I personally feel the film was made for me. Not only scenes and scenarios ripped right from my life but every reference to video games, tv, film, music etc. were nods to things I love. While the locations the characters frequent around the city are places I at one time or another hung around a lot, say like Lee's Palace or the Pizza Pizza located at Bathurst and Bloor. A surprise cameo by my favourite male actor of all time, Tom Jane, only proved the point further.
"I Just want my kids back"

While certainly not a film for everyone; the "hip" kids will scoff at this one for getting the Toronto art scene completely wrong and over exposing Toronto to the International stage. Others will find the film alienating, either because the references will go over their heads or the the film over exposes Toronto's "hipster" scene which they find despicable.
Granted, I went into the film expecting to grind my teeth at the portrayal of all these cool pretty young Toronto musicians and artists but instead I felt welcomed like a friend.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World didn't do so well in theaters in North America. It did however do well here and is still playing in first run cinemas, a rare thing these days after two months of release.
Universal Studios didn't sweat what many people wanted to call a box office bomb, you know why?
Japan.

That's right, Universal made their money back in the Japanese market where it's a rousing success.

The DVD and Blu-Ray hits our shelves November 9th. I highly recommend picking up a copy and getting lost in this most "epic of epicness".


Run Away!

I know I'll be exposing myself to endless ridicule here but District 13: Ultimatum is the best action film I've seen this year. Period.

Yes, it's corny. Yes, it's silly. Yes, it's outlandish and goofy. No, it's not a great piece of art..... I'll grant you all those things right up front, but what I will say is this; D13U is a nearly perfect antidote to the things Hollywood action filmmakers have been getting wrong for the past decade. It has a decidedly French flavour and even sports a little politics on its sleeve... when the action slows down enough to care. The bad corporation at the heart of movie is named Harriburton...so, as you can see, subtlety isn't a strong suit here. There's a Le Pen bad guy that runs a shadow government agency named DISS with aims to clear some D13 territory for new development. There's a decent man in the President's chair, but he's surrounded by a nest of vipers. The good guys are blanc and the bad guys are noir and ….none of that really matters.

As most will know, D13U is the sequel to District 13, the 2004 Luc Besson written-and-produced French film that introduced parkour to international audiences. Parkour, the free-running “art of flight” technique that has people leaping through the air from rooftop to rooftop and rolling out to minimize broken ankles and crushed vertebrae, made an unmistakable mark on films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum, qualifying it as one of the decade's most influential action movies. I also love the fact that it's basically the martial art of running away. Now that's my kind of fighting style....   


I'll skip trying to make any sense of the sequel's plot because it mostly doesn't. Bad guys want to nuke a walled ghetto on the outskirts of Paris. Good guys align to stop them. That's really all you need to know going in... or coming out for that matter. What is fascinating, however, is just bloody cool the overall vibe of the movie is. The score is a terrific collision of French, Arab and African hip hop that dovetails nicely with the immigrant gangs ...Gypsy, Asian, Arab, Skinhead and African...that run things in District 13. French Supercop Damian Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) teams up again with buddy and D13 denizen Leïto (parkour progenitor David Belle) to convince the gang leaders to join forces to stop the capitalist pigs.... and nothing gets the old Gaelic blood flowing quite like an old-fashioned neo-con cookup.

D13U is two parts Escape from New York, one part Ong Bak, ten parts D13 (after all, it is a sequel) with a sprinkle of Le Haine for political good measure.. When it's firing on all cylinders, it's a bad-ass action film that doesn't take itself too seriously. The camera work and editing is that annoying sped-up/slowed-down style from the action-films-for-dummies school of cinematography, but it somehow works here. It helps that the film runs at just over 100 minutes... although truth be told, it could easily have been cut to 90 minutes (or 30 minutes for that matter). There are enough cliches floating around to make a dozen movies and it's a bit of a shame that Besson and director Patrick Allessandrin couldn't find more important roles for the excellent non-Caucasian actors that pepper this movie. Any number of these supporting players could have been written bigger parts and the fact that they're relegated to margins, blunts the film's aspirations to inclusiveness. Minor quibbles though, because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

On a final note, D13U's R-rating seems a little inappropriate given the fact that it's essentially an anti-gun movie. Leïto and Tomaso glide, jump and bounce around the ghetto mostly relying on their wits and sheer physical prowess to move around freely in the lock-down police state of D13. Notwithstanding the many ass-kickings on display here, the use of a gun represents distinctly unsportsmanlike conduct and signals weakness or evil intentions, a welcome respite from the dreary and endless gun battles at the centre of most PG-rated Hollywood action flicks these days.

Winner.... and I now love French hip hop, especially Alonzo. He can really bust a groove.

Sparkourgy.

10.08.2010

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

As made for TV movies go, 1981s Dark Night of the Scarecrow is as good as it gets.  Previously available only on a long OOP VHS, VCI recently released a stunning looking DVD of this horror/revenge minor classic.

Starring the venerable Charles Durning and Larry Drake (Darkman, L.A. Law, Dr. Giggles), Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a slowburn, quiet creeper, less gratuitousness and more skin-crawling tingles.

Bubba (Drake) is the village idiot, and after a girl is attacked, postmaster Otis (Durning) and his cronies make a rash decision to take vigilante justice on the presumed guilty Bubba, and after a tense hunt, they find Bubba hiding in the fields as a scarecrow.  Helpless on the cross, Bubba is gunned down in cold blood by the rage-blinded men.  Soon after, they discover that Bubba had actually saved the girl's life, and their decision to take a man's life was in vain.  However, because of a grudge held toward Bubba, this action doesn't seem to weigh too heavily on any of the men's souls...until they start getting picked off by an unseen force, one by one.

The cast is better than it has any right to be, but Durning is especially sterling as his usual mealy-mouthed, greasy, conniving self.  Drake is wonderfully sympathetic in a sort of Frankenstein's monster role.

The pacing of the film is terrific, and the sense of vindication in the viewer grows alongside the fear felt by the perpetrators of the heinous crime.  There aren't any "cheap scares", and every fear that the antagonists hold is played out in agonizingly long detail.  The last five minutes are truly something to behold, filled with a creeping dread that is so regrettably absent from most modern "horror".  With thumbs up from Vincent Price, Ray Bradbury, Stuart Gordon, and me, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a much appreciated resurrected gem that can be appreciated by the dyed-in-the-wool genre fan as well as Scott.  Watch it.  I'm gonna wear my Fright Rags DNOTS t-shirt (funnily enough, now itself OOP) tomorrow.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)

"You're all the same, the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes.  Drugs, sex, every sort of filth.  And you hate the police, don't ya?"
"You make it easy."

Aka The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, aka Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, aka Don't Open the Window, Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead, aka Zombi 3, aka at least half a dozen other titles depending on the country in which it was released, Jorge Grau's zombie opus Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (the title on my Blue Underground DVD) has an international pedigree worthy of its plethora of monikers.

Directed by a Spaniard, starring a half Brit-half Italian (Ray Lovelock), a Spaniard (Cristina Galbo), an American (Arthur Kennedy), and a host of Spanish and Italian character actors in minor roles, and shot mainly in the English countryside around Manchester and Yorkshire, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a strange and wonderful horror film.  Taking cues from Night of the Living Dead, the Manson murders, environmental fears and generational unrest, it is shocking to realize Grau's film presaged Romero's Dawn of the Dead by four years.

We begin with George (Lovelock) locking up his London curio shop and goin' up the country for a weekend of R&R.  An ill-fated gas station encounter with spacey Edna (Galbo) leaves the two of them traveling together, not by choice, to Edna's sister's house.  A couple wrong turns and an unfamiliar landscape soon see the pair among markers such as rolling hills, oaks and streams instead of signs for Leicester Square.

As they stop to ask for directions, Edna is attacked by a man with blood red eyes (this is, coincidentally enough, 28 years before the rage virus induced similarly scarlet orbs in 28 Days Later...) and a like thirst for the crimson stuff.  George, who was over the hill asking a farmer for directions, shrugs off Edna's hysteria as a mixture of fatigue and the possibility of her exaggerating an encounter with a tramp.  Later that night, Edna's sister's husband is killed by the same man who attacked Edna, and as the police get involved, there is an immediate friction between the inspector (Kennedy) and George.

The anti-authoritarian, long-haired, bearded and hiply-garbed George doesn't go over well in small town England a mere five years after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and nor does the inspector's hard-headedness and bigotry sit well with George.  As bodies begin to pile up and the dead begin to rise (highlighted in one chilling scene at the...uh, the Manchester Morgue), the two poles of George and the inspector pull further apart and we see the clash between rational thought and blind belief taken to the extreme.

Having more in common with Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man than, say, Lucio Fulci's Zombie (though there's enough graphic grue on display to please the gorehounds), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a smart, well-acted, moody (owing largely to the chilly, grey, misty English countryside) horror film in which the director's reach does not exceed his grasp.  There is a terrific one-two punch of an ending, but be warned - Blue Underground released two versions of this within a year of each other, the regular titled Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and the special edition titled The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.  If you pick up the latter (which we have in stock at the FBE), please ask a staff member to help you find it and be sure not to look at the DVD cover, as it contains a MAJOR spoiler.  I guess BU assumed everyone buying/renting this had already seen it, but still...that's weak.
Anyway, if you count yourself among the zombie faithful and have yet to see this one, move it to the to the top of your pile.  Highly recommended.