31 October 2009

At the movies: The House of The Devil.

When college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, working a distinctively Lynn Lowry-ish vibe) decides to flee her messy dorm room and inconsiderately promiscuous roomate, she finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. A great apartment is within reach, with a nurturing landlady (horror icon Dee Wallace) and space for studying and living and establishing herself as an independent woman.

But a looming $300 deposit makes things almost insurmountable for Samantha- until she answers an ad for a babysitter for Mr. & Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). They're wealthy ($400 for just a few hours), they're weird (apparently able to derive phone numbers without being told), and they're just delighted to have Samantha to their isolated, ornate manse so they can make the big astronomic event- a complete lunar eclipse.

As the film is called The House of the Devil, you would be right to assume that something nefarious is involved. Something diabolical, even. But be sure, this is not an evil house; it is a house to which evil has come. The meticulous joys of this film aren't in its pagan rituals, bloodenings, or SRAS-style underlying fears. The House of The Devil is a film that feels of the 80s, but never explicitly says so.

Donahue's Samantha is a truly great character and a great performance, suitable to stand amongst Heather Langenkamp, Kimberly Beck, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Ashley Laurence as great 80s horror heroines. She's pragmatic, but also has a problem with being impetuous, proving relatable for just about anyone. She even turns on the faucets in bathrooms so no one can hear her cry.

You can jettison your irony at the door to this House, as its slow-steeping spell works best in that part of the brain that understands the dangers inherent in every locked door, in every lie told through a smile.

Indie goddess Greta Gerwig, as Samantha's best friend Megan, is just marvelous- a rich girl with Farrah hair and an appetite for tasty morsels. A marvelous character, she, and like the rest of the stellar supporting cast, helping ground the more concrete aspects of the film in an indeterminate-early 80s milieu that's never jokey or obvious. It's a place out of sync with space and time, this movie, and it wears its deliberate pacing and cautionary heart with both affection and trepidation.

Currently, The House of The Devil is playing theatrically in selected markets throughout the country, though it is available nationwide through Magnet/Magnolia Pictures' VOD program. If you're in Nashville, though, it's coming to the Belcourt Theatre from November 9th through 13th, and it's $1.50 cheaper than VODing it in your own home. Get your 35mm experience on; you'll be glad you did.

23 October 2009

At the movies: Saw VI.

So let’s talk for a second about the Saw films. You know the drill, every Halloween there’s another one, consisting of a bunch of people put in horrible mechanisms that mutilate them unless they make difficult life choices. They’re a reactionary bunch of insidious expressions of how desperately people want to feel morally superior to anyone, and like some obligatory family member who only comes to visit once a year, I cannot avoid them.

Part of it goes with seeing all R-Rated Horror Films on general principle. But there is something more powerful than that at the root of these films that keeps me coming back every year (5 of the 6, on opening day even), and that’s tradition. I was too young (and also not a fan of scary movies) to have been in on the Friday the 13th tradition in the 80s of putting a new film out as often as could be done on an actual Friday the 13th, so this is the first tradition I’ve been able to be in on on the ground level.

That, in a nutshell, is why I keep going back to see these films. It’s not because of the characters, or the gore, or the traps, or whatever heinous moral logic is being spewed forth from within- it’s just the tradition of going every October with good friends.

Ideally, the Saw films would be better.

Even more ideally would be if the Final Destination series had that annual stranglehold. But obviously something appeals to audiences in seeing mutilation doled out to those who ‘don’t appreciate’ their lives. And this time, the filmmakers have decided to become- political. Our opening scene has two crooked loan officers from a bank forced to hack away at themselves in order not to have their skulls drilled into. The main plot for the film is about William (Peter Outerbridge, whom you may remember from Land of the Dead or the forgotten masterpiece Paris, France), an executive at an insurance agency who makes all the final calls about policies- including, at some point in the past, the policy of John Kramer (Tobin Bell, doing quite well for a character who died in Saw III). Which will end up being a bad mistake, as in as pandering a moment as I’ve seen in a film all year, Jigsaw indicts insurance companies onscreen for their actions.

Anyone can empathize with frustration over the organized racket that is the modern insurance industry. Anyone can derive some cheap kicks from watching an incarnation of a corrupt institution get shot, brain-bolted, hung with barbed wire, or having a nonconsensual run-in with hydrofluoric acid. But there's no revolutionary spirit to these films, no call to any sort of action. These are films built around the idea of submission to authority.

At this point in the series’ history, everyone who ever had lunch with Bell’s character in his life has somehow popped up in one of the sequels, strapped into something or shot in the face with a crossbow firing croquet mallets, and it feels like the Pirandellian structure that the writers have been trying to build has become a hermetic prison.

Costas Mandylor’s character from the past few sequels (Hoffman) is back, and he’s become the main villain of the piece because he enjoys brutality rather than earnestly trying to help people by pulverizing some extremities or by sticking a key or two inside their occipital lobe. He’s trying to take over the trap game from John’s widow Jill (Betsy “Angel” Russell, whom I’m happy to see working and who also embodies the closest thing to an actual moral principle in the entire series), and he’s putting our guy William against pretty much the entire staff of his insurance agency, having him cut the payroll in increasingly baroque and explicit ways.

But there’s a lot of blood to be shed this time around, and everyone has their own angle and some form of ulterior motive that was set up in a cutaway to what happened during a previous sequel.

A quick note, a lot of idiots like to bandy about the phrase ‘torture porn,’ which they’ll then use as a subgenre in which to link the Saw films with films like the Hostel diptych and I Know Who Killed Me. Firstly, anyone who uses the term ‘torture porn’ seriously is unworthy of your respect. Secondly, neither of the Hostel films nor I Know Who Killed Me deserve to be tarred with the Saw brush. While all three of those films do in fact depict violent acts of torture and murder, they (Hostel, its sequel, and I Know Who Killed Me) view the act of violence as something to be avoided, escaped from, triumphed over, or to be intervened in.

The Saw films have a torture fetish, and what they love is serving up big, Dr. Phil-sized servings of gore-spattered self-righteousness. The unspoken text of all the Saw films is “if you follow the rules and don’t ask questions and commit horrible acts against people who’ve probably got it coming, then not only are you better than your fellow man, but that you appreciate your life enough to carry about judgments against those around you.”

You are meant to support the killer Jigsaw, and you are never meant to give any thought to the countless victims of these films except as to whether or not they gave good splat. Even the situations that these films present in which some form of education takes place involves the suffering of someone innocent, and for these films to claim any form of moral respectability, which its producers have done, is both disingenuous and shameful.

So what we get here, after several detours into flashbacks and increasingly more ornate murderscapes, is a splattery lesson in how to turn the next generation of kids into fast-acting agents of death who mutilate without hesitation. Forgiveness is never an option in these films. We are animals built on avenging our losses, but never from learning from them. And that's just sad.

Supposedly Saw VII is being made in 3D. I suppose that’ll be enough of a factor to get me in the theatre on opening day 2010.

That, and tradition. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

22 October 2009

At the movies: A Serious Man.

Professor Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, in one of the year’s finest performances) is a man in a state of crisis. His wife wants a divorce so she can marry another, he’s on a collision course with his University’s tenure committee, his savant brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has taken up what seems like a permanent residence on the family couch, the next door neighbors are encroaching on his property, his stoner son seems dangerously unready for his bar mitzvah, and the Columbia record club won’t stop calling.

Larry Gropnik is a man put upon, and answers are unforthcoming from both human and divine. Perhaps taking advantage of the new freedoms might help?

Joel and Ethan Coen have spent enough time making enough quality pictures that their names alone bring a certain degree of interest. Though A Serious Man is considered a smaller scale film than last year’s Burn After Reading or their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, it is an achievement on par with their finest work, and the best film they’ve made since The Man Who Wasn’t There.

With critical response sharply divided between those who feel the film traffics in Jewish caricature and those who find its theologically provocative perspective revelatory, it is a film that demands to be seen and experienced on whichever theological level the viewer finds themselves comfortable with. Equally versed in theoretical physics and the mechanics of spiritual divorce, A Serious Man dazzles on so many levels that easy superlatives just don’t come.

Nothing about this film or the universe it which it unfolds is easy or simple, and its many dualities make for a cinematic and spiritual experience like nothing else at the movies this year. Strangely, A Serious Man is much bleaker than No Country for Old Men, but as funny as The Big Lebowski, and those comparisons serve the film well. The voice of the heavens belongs to Grace Slick, and there are mysteries we all must accept, both in this life and the life to come. One of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

15 October 2009

At the movies: Paranormal Activity.

Since she was eight years old, Katie has been haunted by an unseeable force. Now, in a bizarre mix of genuine concern and antiquated codes of macho foolishness, her day trader boyfriend Micah has decided to setup a mildly elaborate recording system to try and confirm visual and audible evidence of this mystery that has plagued his beloved for years. But what they capture is something not easily explainable, and what they find is something beyond logic and reason.

Here’s another case of a no-budget independent shocker that relies on offscreen sound and the power of suggestion to yield bigtime shock and even bigger dollar signs. It’s The Blair Witch Project all over again, as an insistent and well-aimed marketing campaign has turned a tiny tape of terror into a multimillion dollar event.

It’s all the industry and media can talk about, and it hasn’t even opened wide across the country yet. Hollywood dreams about this kind of success, and audiences, as always, respond to a good scare.

This film doesn't have Blair Witch's remarkable ability to imbue the widest of open spaces with the most pervasive kind of dread, nor does it have any real iconography or particular style. The former film required a vivid imagination and a sense of the overwhelming possibilities of the dark, whereas Paranormal Activity seems just a little too conscious of what an audience these days requires.

But regardless of its flaws; and there are quite a few, all coming in to play whenever the filmmakers decide to inject some narrative (e.g. psychic, Ouija board, theory and expository history of demonology), Paranormal Activity is a must-see for anyone who wants to be terrified.

All you need to know is that some truly scary stuff happens herein; things that are scary because they work on the imagination, and scary because when they do get physical and crazy, it feels unreal- not in the way that CG has desensitized us to almost all fantastic imagery, but unreal in the way that triggers the hair on the back of your neck, that triggers the heart rate, and the cold sweats, and the parts of the brain where nightmares live.

Everything that I watched on the Northeastern Excursion, Part II

Teorema (Italy-Pier Paolo PASOLINI) ***

Patrick (Australia-Richard FRANKLIN) **

Zombie Nightmare (Canada-Jack BRAVMAN) 1/2

Min Ye/Tell Me Who You Are (France/Mali-Souleymane CISSÉ) **

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Israel/US-Werner HERZOG) ***1/2

Trash Humpers (France/US-Harmony KORINE) (for Nashvillians) *** (for normal people) *1/2

Mother (South Korea-BONG Joon-Ho) ****

Precious (US-Lee DANIELS) **1/2

Kärleksbarn/Lovechild (Sweden-Daniel WIRTBERG) ****

Barbe Bleue/Blue Beard (France-Catherine BREILLAT) ****

A History of Independence (France/Mali-Daouda COULIBALY) *

Indepencia (France/Germany/The Netherlands/Phillipines-Raya MARTIN) **1/2

Altered (US-Eduardo SANCHEZ) **

The Girl in Lovers' Lane (US-Charles R. RONDEAU) **

La Momia Azteca contra el Robot Humano/The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy (Mexico-Rafael PORTILLO) -

Racket Girls (US-Robert DERTANO) *

Let's Scare Jessica To Death (US-John D. HANCOCK) ****

Funland (US-Michael A. SIMPSON) **

Prom Night (2009) (US-Nelson McCORMICK) *

The Hebrew Hammer (US-Jonathan KESSELMAN) **

Donkey Punch (UK-Oliver BLACKBURN) *

Curral de Mulheres/Amazon Jail (Brazil-Oswaldo De OLIVEIRA) *1/2

Wicked Lake (US-Zack PASSERO) 1/2

A Serious Man (UK/US-Ethan and Joel COEN) ****

Los Abrazos Rotos/Broken Embraces (Spain-Pedro ALMODÓVAR) **1/2

Soccarat (Spain-David MORENO) ****

Life During Wartime (US-Todd SOLONDZ) ***1/2

Chicken Heads (Palestine/US-Bassam Ali JARBAWI) *1/2

White Material (Cameroon/France-Claire DENIS) ***

A Serious Man (UK/US-Joel and Ethan COEN) ****

Paranormal Activity (US-Oren PELI) **1/2

Whip It (US-Drew BARRYMORE) ***1/2

La Mujer sin Cabeza/The Headless Woman (Argentina/France/Spain-Lucrecia MARTEL) ****

Couples Retreat (US-Peter BILLINGSLEY) -

The Brood (Canada-David CRONENBERG) ****

The Thing (US-John CARPENTER) ****

Toy Story 3D (US-John LASSETER) ***1/2

Toy Story 2 3D (US-John LASSETER) ****

La Mujer sin Cabeza/The Headless Woman (Argentina/France/Spain-Lucrecia MARTEL) ****

Alien (UK/US-Ridley SCOTT) ****

06 October 2009

Panic, Chaos, and the Art of Storytelling.

Picture it. A pleasantly divey bar in the east village. The personae: John Lichman, Vadim Rizov, Matt Prigge, and me. It was an absolute honor for me to be part of, taking part in an in-depth discussion about cinema with people who not only get published in high-profile venues but who are also known electronically.

I had a blast, and would love to do so again.

Listen here.

Pity it couldn't have gone on, when the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and death were under discussion.

05 October 2009

At the movies: Zombieland.

In but a few years since Mad Cow disease made the jump from cattle to humans, the world is very much a different place. The flesheating infected rule the land, and what few human survivors remain must battle both the revenants and each other to try and stay alive for one more day. As a few survivors band together (including stars Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson), they seek out whatever isolated pockets of civilization they can find. For in addition to the human spirit, certain processed snack foods and the tiniest luxuries have also survived the end of civilization. So there is some hope…

The trailers promise a snarky, almost metatextual look at the zombie film, and rest assured there are just as many laughs as there are grossouts to be found within. The recurring theme amongst advance word (and, oddly enough, rightly so) is that it’s a lot of fun but you shouldn’t read anything about it beforehand. This is absolutely correct- there’s a big surprise languidly waiting in the middle of this film, and anyone who gives it away is a jerkface.

Putting the big surprise aside, Zombieland is an impressive achievement. Using the exact same script, this could have been hipper-than-thou movie hell, so overly ironic and self-satisfied that no one with the slightest bit of humanity could enjoy it. But the cast all underplay beautifully, finding nuances and great little moments where there could have just been resounding emptiness.

Eisenberg is a great talent, and there are a few other great character turns (including a one-scene cameo from Mandy Lane herself, Amber Heard). Zombieland is gross, funny, smart, sick, and completely unpredictable. I'm truly happy to see that it's done well with audiences, but I'm also glad to see that R-rated horror is still a type of film that can never be completely counted out.

01 October 2009

I found out that my cousin died today.

I don't know what to say, or if it's even my place to say anything.

He was 36.