Thursday, October 29, 2009
Beautiful and properly Tim Burtony, Sweeney Todd fits all the criteria, beginning as a fun romp through dingy, foggy London, and ending up pulling at your heartstrings. Arguably Burton’s most solid work, it's haunting in a deep philosophical and emotional way, with the added bonus of humming along to Depp’s surprising vocal talent.
The 1963 version of Shirley Jackson’s story is delicately terrifying and masterfully uses zero effects to make you afraid of the everyday objects around your house. Stay away from those air vents and the newer Liam Neeson remake!
John Carpenter is a master of atmosphere, and this film showcases his talent. The demonic Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s delicious 80’s nostalgia in a freaky, well filmed package.
“Worst film ever” for some, and greatly misunderstood sci-fi classic to others, the film takes the scarier aspects of Alien and Solaris and fuses them into a horrifying take on the perils of space isolation and time travel.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, this is the closest adaptation of the book and brings out its scariest, most thought provoking aspects. The performances are strong, as is the cinematography. As a bonus, Robert DeNiro’s monster is perfectly pathetic and misunderstood, the ideal foil to showcase Branagh’s Frankenstein's descent into madness.
I first saw this low-budget film starring David Caruso (of all actors) on Hulu. Filmed realistically on location in an abandoned psychiatric hospital (the art therapy on the walls and abandoned medical equipment are original), the setting becomes alive, but also gives the film a gritty minimalism that sticks with you beyond the run time and the somewhat straight forward story.
Visually arresting, Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy masterpiece is gorgeous and upsetting, a great backdrop for his inventive and horrifying creatures (baby-eating-eyeballs-in-his-hands monster rings a bell). If you want to avoid the Kleenex box, stick with Hellboy for equal monster quotas, Nazis, and a little more fun.
Every Cronenberg film could be classified as disturbing and Halloween worthy, but Videodrome is by far one of his best and most memorable. With an effecting performance by a young James Woods, and gross out yet fitting effects, the film creeps up on you, as technology creeps up on Max Renn.
Starring a young Adrian Pasdar (Heroes Nathan Petrelli), Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton, this vampire road trip movie through barren Texas is perfectly original, scary, sexy, and well written.
The Ninth Gate
This Roman Polanski thriller follows a rare book dealer (Johnny Depp) as he hunts down a legendary book that may or may not summon the devil. In classic Polanski fashion, the film is more psychological than action packed, and unfolds slowly as it exposes the darkness of the human soul.
Based on the Alan Moore graphic novel/historical treatise, the film is stylistically stunning, beautiful, and disturbing as it follows a Victorian detective (Depp again) on the hunt for Jack the Ripper. Throw in Masonic conspiracy, opium dens, and Ian Holm and you get a great slasher that's a bit more sophisticated than typical chainsaw fair.
Stir of Echoes
Hypnosis is supposed to be harmless. But after this thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a father who spirals into obsession when a gateway to the supernatural world is opened in his mind, you might reconsider. Although it follows the typical pattern of, “I see ghosts. What is it they need me to do?” the ride to get there is unsettling and nerve racking.
With an unknown cast, minimal set, and budget, Cube takes away the frills and focuses on the drama. The film is incredibly tense, aided by a dreadful ambiguity and indistinct mathematics that’s delightfully dangled all the way through.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Dario Argento is the Italian father of the horror and thriller genre, with fanboys as big as John Carpenter and George Romero. Although Plumage is one of his earlier, tamer films, it’s a powerful thriller that showcases his gift for subtle tension and vague terror. Who other than Dorian Gray knew a painting could be so disturbing?
Claustrophobic? Disturbed by realistic drama? Hate it when disgusting creatures ruin your innocent, lost-in-a-cave fun? The Descent is one of the scariest films out there. You won't be able to sleep, or visit any caves, anytime soon. It's primal and empowering in the grossest of ways.
Will Vinton's A Claymation Comedy of Horrors
A historical M classic, Will Vinton's Halloween Special has been a tradition at my house since it first aired on TV in 1991. Funny, silly, and inventive, it's a great watch for kids and adults alike as you follow Wilshire Pig and Sheldon Snail to Frankenstein's Laboratory.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Read more from M @What's the Use of a Book
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
One: all of the best family films appeal to all ages. I'm sure if The Wizard of Oz was made today it would be released to an uproar of overprotective parents crying foul as Dorothy wandered through a world ruled by a figurehead, terrorized by shrew of a woman with a band of incomplete projections of neighbors and relatives. Two: give your kids some credit. They're likely familiar with concepts like divorce and loneliness, and guess what? Most of them actually quite like large furry monsters. Crazy, right? Don't project your own uncertainties and views of the events in the film onto your children. They don't see what you see in the film, and they're capable of processing something other than fart jokes. Three: i'm pretty sure if you don't understand this film you've completely lost touch with what it was actually like to be a kid. This is not. I repeat, NOT, hipster posturing. Where the Wild Things Are is an honest, sad, and beautiful film that does a remarkable job adapting what a young boy took from Maurice Sendak's brief picture book for the big screen. It feels, at every turn, like a labor of love.
Director Spike Jonze has been attached to this project in some capacity since before 2005, and thank god for it. Jonze understood the delicate nature of the project, and the reverence the book is held in for the children who grew up with it. What could have, in the hands of Dreamworks animation studios or a Michael Bay megalomaniac, become a disaster of CGI antics and overwhelming schtick is instead a love note not merely to Sendak and the Wild Things, but to childhood. He takes the plight of 9-year old Max (Max Records) seriously, never trivializing the weight and repercussions of the situation in the boy's mind. We are shown the events leading up to Max's flight of fantasy, and I was moved by how relatable they felt, how many times I'd been that person or seen that happen to someone else. Every snowball fight, every accidental nose bleed came rushing back. For me, it was like Proust's madeleine, and it hit me. Hard. Yet, my personal reaction has little to do with the merit of the film itself. The movie doesn't just manage to make Max a three-dimensional character, Jonze also, as I'm sure you're well aware by now, takes the Wild Things themselves quite seriously. As possibly imaginary projections of Max's psyche, they bicker and fight, alternating between highs and lows and bursts of energy. They're hulking beasts with children's souls, unaware of the pain that they're capable of inflicting, but preternaturally aware of the injustices done to them. Carol (James Gandolfini) is prone to destructive fits of melancholic rage. He wants to keep the Things together, and doesn't know how to allow KW (Lauren Ambrose) to make room in her life for more. Judith (Catherine O'Hara), believes that everyone is out to get her, she can't deal with coming in second. Alexander (Paul Dano), suffers from a lack of self-worth. He believes that no one ever pays attention to him, and acts out accordingly. This is a new kind of storybook monster: one who isn't scary because of the size of their teeth, but who instead is worrisome simply because its ego is so fragile.
Monsters like this are difficult. They're difficult because they're real, we see them as ourselves where we would rather see fantasy. Yet, the way they've been brought to life is astounding, their physical and emotional presence something to be reckoned with. Records and the 9-foot tall Henson Company produced puppets interact in a way that's flowing and natural. Everything about the progression of events seems unforced. Records, too, is something of a revelation. He never comes across as cheeky or cloying. He's an innocent, reacting accordingly to situations as they occur. If the boy isn't actually having the time of his life on Jonze's set, he's probably deserving of an Academy Award. Here, at last, is a movie that portrays children as they are. Not as ignorant, harmless, cutesy pieces of furniture to be used for comic relief, but as small people slowly learning the ins-and-outs of being human. Nobody can be happy all of the time, and some things can't be changed with a simple proclamation. Life isn't always a wild rumpus, and while many of life's problems go away with everyone harmoniously sleeping in a big pile, they'll just return come morning. The film's emotional core is one of heartache and frustration, ultimately optimistic, but in a way slightly more resigned than it was going in.
The doubters, however, will find a foothold in the fact that the film is paced a little slowly. It's less children's movie than meditation on children, and while it's exquisite throughout, for those not content to take in the scenery, it might not be quite the wild terrain expected. Otherwise, Where the Wild Things Are has all the makings of a classic. It's a breathtaking, timeless work of art that is a tribute to the talents of all of its creators, from Sendak to Jonze to the smallest of actors. While it's sure to cause derision, let the haters hate. The people who fall in love with this film will cherish it and keep it alive for generations to come.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
The Coen Brothers, with the exception of one film (I’m assuming I don’t need to remind you of the frustrating Burn After Reading) never disappoint in the their delivery of intriguing stories, incredible performances, and hilarious comedic antics wedged in the midst of dark sadism. But with A Serious Man, they outdo even their best work, unearthing true cinematic excellence with a pervading sense of existential doom to create a lyrical masterpiece.
The trailer foreshadowed the film's tone with its hypnotic beat, a clock exponentially counting down, a rhythm present in every scene and splice of the film. The subtle tension it builds as victim and passive protagonist Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg who melts into the role) life spirals into oblivion, prevents the story from slipping into the boring or schlocky, and fully grounds the often overly zany Coen humor (at best in the Big Lebowski, at its worst in Burn After Reading).
Our recent pop culture obsession with the sixties is a powerful one. The suburban disillusionment, waning economy, and struggle with new freedoms visible every Sunday night during Mad Men, something we can all currently relate to. The Coen's play fully upon this familiarity, show-casing the starkness of the flat suburbs and the clean concrete lines of the college where Larry works. Even the Synagogue is perfectly paneled with the kind of stifling interior you’d rip out immediately if given the chance.
While the vision is bleak, it is also beautiful. The brothers skillfully mix a strong sense of mystical Jewish culture (the prequel starring Fyvush Finkel as a possible dybbuk, who I’m convinced may actually be one in real life, sets the initial tone), and find a strange reluctant splendor in the suburban Midwest landscape through brilliant cinematography. As in their previous works like No Country For Old Men, they prove again that they understand atmosphere and how it can make a movie. There is something haunting in the echo of opera through the perfectly ordered house as Larry and his mentally off brother (Richard Kind showing off his dramatic acting chops) share the living room sofa, or when his young son practices for his Bar Mitzvah with the the F-Troop on in the background. The frightening mystery of science, physics, and mathematics is also expertly woven into the religious and philosophical fabric of the film, making its punch even greater in force. No existential curiosity goes unquestioned.
Seething underneath, you can sense the primal power of God, fate, or chance (whatever you decide to call it). But despite all Larry goes through, the Coen's seem to leave the nature and intentions of that force up for interpretation.
This “show,” don’t “tell” attitude makes all the difference. As Gopnik glides through the film with only a slight neurotic unraveling invisible to his wife seeking a divorce, his religious leaders, coworkers, and lifeless children, you laugh at the disgusting hilarity of his situation, but also cringe, as the powers of the universe seem to take particular joy in destroying the short time that Larry has on this earth. As anyone whose experienced the heavy hand of said "powers that be" can tell you, that’s exactly what it feels like. There are moments of conspiracy, in which you assume that everyone but you seems in on the joke. Each step seems to lead to another catastrophe, a descent into madness that often leaves you laughing and puzzled more than angry. Like Larry you seek help, in a book or a religious counselor, in friends. You question what you’ve been doing wrong, you move forward. You wonder what the future holds. But like Larry, you never know if the cat is alive or dead, or if it even matters; a Coen message at its very best.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
At its most basic, Antichrist is the tale of a couple experiencing some marital difficulties. Yes, this is the biggest understatement of the century for a film that plunges its viewers rapidly through all nine circles of hell, but believe me when I tell you the core of the plot is remarkably simple. A married couple loses their son, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experiences intensely traumatic grief, He (Willem Dafoe) attempts to help her through it via cognitive behavioral therapy (which Von Trier himself, a victim of intense phobias, is no stranger to). In his attempts to treat her, they travel to Eden, their cabin in an isolated woods. Needless to say, his plan backfires. To the extreme. There are no subplots, no extra characters, no distractions. The viewer is fully immersed in the intense despair and emotional darkness of the situation. It weighs heavy, slowly building in tension to an explosive second half. This isn't a movie you can (or should) walk into blindly. It's also not a film most people should ever consider even watching. Seriously. If you aren't sure about it, don't watch it. Don't even start watching it.
To say Antichrist is the most effective horror movie I've ever seen is a truth, but a misleading one. The horror in this film is one governed by chaos and despair. It's a film with the potential to psychologically damage its viewer. The gore is too abundant for the average art house Von Trier fanatic, the artier elements, and severe emotional component, make it inaccessible to the average gore-hound. There's nothing fun about this film. It's emotional pornography. Graphic on all counts. Antichrist puts you through a wringer of shock and pathos. By the time [spoiler alert] Gainsbourg's deranged character screws a grindstone to Dafoe's leg and performs an epically disturbing bit of of his and her's on-screen genital mutilation, jacking off a prosthetic that spits blood and semen, you should be terrified. Not because it's especially frightening (though it's certainly more than a little cringe worthy), but because the film has established itself as existing in a world entirely without limits.
Strangely, in spite of the innumerable horrors, Antichrist is an incredibly beautiful film. Quite literally stunning. In many ways it's a spectacular achievement. The acting, unrehearsed, is electric. Charlotte Gainsbourg's portrayal of grief and madness spans far beyond basic histrionics. Her anxiety is palpable. She shakes, contorts, and fully puts herself at the mercy of the film. If she's ignored by the Academy this year in favor of that Hilary Swank bio-pic, it'll be a travesty. Additionally, Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is lush and dazzling, capturing the disquiet of nature and the eerie calm of the waking dream sequences. Slow motion hasn't been used to capture such remarkable results since Neo manipulated the matrix. Acting and visuals aside, there's something amid the madness and mythology that resonates as true.
Antichrist is a startling cinematic representation of the deepest depths of despair. It's nihilistic, brutal, and filled with the heaviest of tragedies. Of Von Trier's films, this is perhaps his strongest statement, certainly the most effecting. Where Dogville and Dancer in the Dark feel less like films than textbooks on film theory, Antichrist is a solid work, and in many ways a perversely entertaining piece of cinema. It keeps the tension up and the viewer thoroughly hypnotized. Early claims that this was the director's on-screen mental breakdown are valid, though if this is the product of insanity he should consider reaching the event horizon more often. At the Chicago International Film Fest screening I attended, Dafoe spoke of his knowledge of Lars Von Trier's struggles with depression and the director's rather wry outlook on the film. The way Dafoe sees it, any issues of the director's rumored misogyny are to be disregarded. Where the female issues presented in the film leave room for discussion, Gainsbourg's maniacal grief seems an expression aligned with the director's own psychology, not a debilitating fear of female empowerment.
An exercise in cruelty and profound despair, its been days since I've viewed the film and I can't seem to shake it. Every scene is burned into my memory. It's left its mark. I'm both in awe and thoroughly shaken. I can't recommend Antichrist to you. You have to make that decision on your own. As suggested, there's nothing pleasant to be found here, even the folkloric animals leave a bad taste in one's mouth, and for those dealing with psychological issues of their own, avoidance may be, no, is the best policy. What I can say is that the film is jarring, an impressive reminder of the power and capability of art and the reach of cinema. I've a new found respect for Von Trier's creative vision and his fearless execution of a story set so deep dangerous terrain. When the credits rolled I applauded like my life depended on it.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The film follows Mels (Anton Shagin), a university student whose life is a series of communist activities. His idea of an eventful evening is assisting in raiding hipster parties, catching dissidents while repressed leader Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya) cuts at their fancy duds with a pair of scissors. Then he meets the lovely Polina (Oksana Akinshina), a pretty young thing who outsmarts him and introduces him to the charms of freewheeling and fetishized Americana. Soon, Mels is 'Mel', he's learning the saxophone, partying on 'Broadway' with 'Polly', 'Fred', 'Bob' and the gang, taking dance lessons and shaking off bystanders who claim he's a traitor.
Hipsters is at heart a feel good movie that triumphs individualism. In this respect, it's a crowd pleaser and sure to strike a cord with American audiences. It's vibrant, endearing, consistently upbeat, and beautifully filmed all while casting a critical glance at Russia's relatively recent political past. Todorovskiy is making a profound statement in casting these misfits as heroes. In fact, following the movie's presentation at the Chicago International Film Festival he suggested that within Russia the population is still holding itself back. The people don't want to be free, they suffer from a certain amount of self-oppression. In effect, the Stilyagi still have much to teach Russia about dancing to its own rhythm. It's a rather beautiful thought, and seemed to resonate with an audience primarily of excited Russian ex-pats, including a 75-year old woman who congratulated Todorovskiy on an accurate presentation of her own girlhood.
Yet, I'm not so sure the film will resonate with a general English-speaking audience. Its spirit is infectious, this much is true. And there's no doubt it's cinematographically sparkling and the musical numbers are fun to watch...but I couldn't shake the feeling that something was getting lost in translation. The plot is a little uneven, failing to give certain characters a fair amount of characterization while hinting at the back story of others. Several plot lines don't feel effectively wrapped up by the films conclusion. Without revealing any spoilers, there's a hopeful song sequence at the end that's tainted by a handful of unfortunate events and the revealing of unexpected information. Plus, admittedly, there's always something about reading subtitled forced rhymes while listening to a song that can't quite reconcile itself in my mind. Yet...Hipsters is fun. Jumpy, yes, but fun. It's likable. And sometimes likability outweighs a little bit of logic. It feels like the most saccharine elements of Cry-Baby met the underdog gravitas of Slumdog Millionaire and had a little Soviet lovechild. Here's hoping that one day, you'll get to see more than the un-subtitled snippets on Youtube. By the way: here's my favorite song from the flick:
Michael Stuhlbarg, a relative newcomer with a series of small television appearances, puts in a starmaking performance as Larry Gopnick, a physics professor operating in mathematical proofs while his life is playing out like a test of Murphy's Law. His wife is leaving him for a serious man, his live-in brother is teetering on the edge of insanity, his son is smoking pot in the Hebrew school bathroom, his daughter wants a nose job, his student is trying to bribe him, I won't tell you the rest. It's 1967, the world is in turmoil, Grace Slick provides the backing vocals to an escalating series of calamities. Gopnick is a modern day Job, being tested and put through the wringer, forced to seek counsel and solace in a trio of nonsense spewing rabbis. For anyone with casual Judaism in their background, or with enough Jewish acquaintances, it's fully loaded with a familiar sardonic tone. A certain instilled fear of the powers that be and the reticent self-loathing created by a suburban life surrounded by gentiles.Yet, it avoids the traps of stereotyping and instead gracefully uses that which is familiar as the ground work for a story rich in characterization and heavy with sly humor. Stuhlbarg is phenomenal, playing his character with enough warmth to keep us caring. He's never a sad sack or a loser, but always a little optimistic, a little cheeky, plugging away at his life and career even as life continues to spin into rapid decline. Stuhlbarg's not the only strong suit, either. Each actor is an exemplar of pitch perfect casting. Sari Lennick, as Larry's wife Judith, is appropriately menacing. The look on her face is one of permanent icy contempt. Fred Melamed, too, is a scene-grabber. As Judith's lover Sy Ableman, he's a pompous man with a silver tongue, who inserts himself seamlessly into the Gopnick family with a bear hug and the condescending delivery of a bottle of wine. Even the kids are remarkably deadpan, carrying out their small rivalry without veering towards any sign of overacting.
I'm in the camp that enjoyed No Country For Old Men, but I will not hesitate to claim that A Serious Man is the Coen's best film in over a decade. 1998's The Big Lebowski was the last slam dunk of theirs in my book, and A Serious Man is every bit as humorous and effective. Really. This is a serious return to form marked by a cast of brilliant unknowns, a meandering approach to the metaphysical and philosophical conundrums of modern living, and (as usual) some solid cinematography. While it doesn't scream box office success, I suspect it will most certainly be taking up one of the ten spaces on the list of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
Zombieland achieves that which is perhaps most difficult in cinema: a successful blending of comedy, action, gore and brains that stays perpetually upbeat and doesn't become a victim of its own absurdity. This is perhaps first and foremost thanks to its atypical cast of characters, and the actors chosen to portray them. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is our leading man and narrator, a scrawny college kid whose life prior to the spread of a zombie plague had consisted mostly of video games and isolation. He lives his life according to a series of rules for survival, traveling light with a single suitcase and a gun at his side. Along the way he teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) a rough and tumble zombie killing enthusiast hoping for little more than the last Twinkie on Earth (believe it or not, they have an expiration date). Add to it a pair of smart-mouthed sister grifters Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone & Abigail Breslin) and you've got a movie that could have easily been a formulaic teeny-bopper story. One adult, two semi-adults, and a kid on the run from monsters. Yet, even if it didn't have gratuitous amounts of blood, Zombieland would still manage to evade the traps set up for it. The characters are survivors, not because they're unbelievably stoic or off-the-wall caricatures, but because they're clever people with realistic dilemmas. Sure there are some obvious visual gags and familiar tropes, but these aren't 2-dimensional action heroes who get off on one liners and crude puns. These are small heroes seeking a way to get by, throughout the trials and tribulations of a zombie infestation, incalculable loss, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Director Ruben Fleischer executes his first major film with exuberance and ease. There's nary a moment in its 81-minute run where Zombieland feels forced, labored, or at all dull. In fact, it's safe to say that it's as charming as it is awesome. It's a mad cap fun house, a roller coaster, the whole damn amusement park. Simply put: it's fun, not in a way that felt like empty entertainment, but in a way that's almost comforting. There's something about this particular brand of schlocky horror merged with the pleasant natures of the characters that makes me smile just thinking about it. Maybe it's a certain brand of nostalgia, maybe it's the cheery suspension of disbelief, maybe it's the brilliantly positioned Bill Murray cameo, but there's something about Zombieland and its unlikely heroes that I can unabashedly own up not to liking, but to loving.
Is it a guilty pleasure? Possibly. Though I think it's legitimately better than that. This is artfully crafted, truly solid entertainment that's paced perfectly. The zombies appear when necessarily, external plot devices are brought in for humorous effect, the opening credits are a slow-motion blood ballet, and Jesse Eisenberg's neurotic presence brings a much needed wit and wisdom to the genre. Frankly, while the weapons may appear too readily available, there's a few quick coincidences, and Stone & Breslin's characters could use just a tad more screen time, the faults of the film are minimal. It may not be a great work of art, but it's sure as hell worth dropping cash on at the theater.