Archive for October, 2012

The Man Who Wasn’t There – Joel & Ethan Coen – 2001

Posted in 00's with tags , , , , , , , on October 31, 2012 by bookofdread

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I think The Man Who Wasn’t There is riotously funny. I watched this film at the Dobie Theater when it came out with a few friends and nobody in the theater was laughing but me. Was I being cruel? Was this film not absurd? With each turn of the knife I found myself chuckling at the fate of the barber. Was it not his wife who was cheating on him?

Billy Bob Thornton gives what might be an all time great performance. He is so dry and removed it kills me. At one point he says he’s going to take the hair from the floor and mingle it with common house dirt. Brilliant.

Ed married into his profession and lives a carbon copy life on a suburban street, content to have a driveway, a roof and a hot wife who asks him to shave her legs. The barber is a man who lets life happen to him, he never takes matters into his own hands until he meets the dry cleaning man. Seems like a good deal to him. So why not blackmail the doofus banging your wife?

Gandolfini as the doofus is great. He’s an all talk goofball later outed as a clerk during the war. He’s not in the picture much but he’s good. His wife, Anne Nerdlinger, she has one of the best scenes. She confronts Ed at his home and reveals the intimate details of how Big Dave had been abducted by aliens. Ed’s non-reaction is priceless.

Similarly, a county morgue official tells Ed Doris was pregnant when she died and Ed tells the man he and his wife had not performed the sex act in many years. He truly isn’t rattled. And I find that the Coens choose to flaunt this grotesquerie in the face of the viewer funny.

The film is dark and tragic, serious and sober. All the while it continues to provide a sleek cautionary tale about not being in control of your life. Ed has all he has because of his wife and he lives and dies by his attachment to her. If he had found a woman who liked him for more than the fact that he didn’t talk much, then maybe he’d not have been a cuckold.

When Ed does try to make a difference, he takes a short path, blackmail Big Dave and give the pansy Dry Cleaning cash. He’d make money as a silent partner, no work involved. Nothing ventured, nothing gained Mr. Crane.

Frances McDormand is typically excellent. Doris is a fairly awful woman who treats Ed as little more than a grooming cigarette lighter. She is an alcoholic and a cheater. Ultimately she hangs herself a resignation to both her own infidelity and the death of the dream.

This film is a true tragedy in that whenever the characters reach out and try to achieve for themselves they are only met with failure. The Pansy never starts his business. Big Dave is stabbed in the neck. Doris fails at her affair. Riedenschnieder never gets to win the unwinnable case. Birdy fails not only at her piano audition but also in road fellatio. And poor Ed, stares up out an open prison door into the night sky to see the UFO hovering above. Ed gives the spinning craft a knowing nod. The universe is much larger than one little Barber and his little problems. Crane sighs and turns inward to face his demise.

Ed’s failure to act is the failure of the 1950’s, a decade of resting on laurels and sitting back, trying to make the easy money. But deceit and troubles live as easily in the squarest of ages, in the depths of suburbia as they do a world away at war. Man always finds some way to let his own ambivalence destroy him, but that wasn’t really what killed Ed Crane. It wasn’t his Zen-like commitment to nothing in particular. No, it was greed and spite. He did not have to blackmail big Dave, he just wanted money and a wrong righted. And in trying to take justice into his own hands, he sealed his own demise.

Like I said at the beginning, this film is hilarious!

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Flesh + Blood – Paul Verhoeven – 1985

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2012 by bookofdread

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Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood a fully formed filmmaker with star intact. So far his work Dutch work with Rutger Hauer had been dynamite so they were hoping to bring their magic blend of nihilism and joy to American audiences. Flesh and Blood is a rousing adventure tale centering on the love triangle of warrior Martin, princess Agnes, and Prince Steven.

Martin is a mercenary who has taken up with a band of misfits after the King has used them and then taken their spoils and chased them from the city. Now, these homeless gypsies follow Martin on his exploits, which include seizing a castle from its’ owners and living like fatcats until discovered by Steven.

Tom Burlinson plays Steven, the prince who must find his bride to be, after his father has been mangled and defeated. Steven is not a very likeable character and he frequently does awful things out of spite. For example, he throws the plague meat in the well. When he meets Agnes for the first time he is quite rude, and I mean, seriously, this is Jennifer Jason Leigh and she is amazingly beautiful. What a dick.

Agnes is really the most compelling character in the story, in that she acts as a kind of moral pendulum, swinging back and forth based on what she thinks is right or what she sees she has to do for survival. And yet, Verhoeven doesn’t plainly spell out her motives each time so we, the audience, have to evaluate in each of her decisions whether she is acting out of spite or self-preservation. JJL plays this woman so delicately.

I love the scene in the beginning where she and the prince eat from the mandrake root to fall in love. The scene is both sexy and gruesome. It establishes a linking between Agnes’ love, and death. The final frame of that shot where she and the prince kiss under the decomposing hanged men is incredible. Her witchy behavior is a precursor to what is to come. She ends up the worst monstrosity of the story, a two-faced devil-snake willing to seed chaos with the thinnest of motives.

Rutger Hauer’s Martin is a bold, handsome soldier and the gypsies follow him for his obvious strength. Verhoeven can’t resist pissing on the church a bit. Martin manipulates a Cardinal in to convincing the crowd that it is God’s will that they follow Martin. Honestly, it seems that this guy gets screwed from the beginning of the film, when the king betrays his forces.

The scene where Martin rapes Agnes is one of the craziest rape scenes in the history of cinema and is certainly not for the faint of heart. But Martin’s true colors come through after Agnes asks him, “Only you”. He throws her to the other to have their way with her, but then kicks a torch into curtains, setting the camp on fire, and keeping Agnes safe from their advances. This man has some kind of code, he just doesn’t want to loose face with his comrades, not yet.

Martin is ultimately a man constantly betrayed by nobles and their progeny.  Sure, he gets to bed Agnes, and play King for a few days, but for what? At the end of the story it seems to me he must be poisoned with plague from his time in the well, but who knows? Verhoeven stages his escape so heroically, that perhaps Martin lives again, a bit wiser.

The film revels in sex and violence. It is well designed and the performances are great across the board. It is a love story, a home invasion tale, a kick at the church, an ugly portrayal of the dark ages and an exciting adventure story. Even if it is a bit glum at times, I wish more adventure films were so dark and adult.

Crocodile – Tobe Hooper – 2000

Posted in 00's with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2012 by bookofdread

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One of my favorite things about most Tobe Hooper films is he tends to cast interesting looking people and makes stories about growly folks doing growly things. Imagine my surprise when a bunch of slick faced young actors populate the film Crocodile. Now, they aren’t bad actors, they just really, really look like actors.

The film has a decent plot, kids go down the river on a party boat. Giant Crocodile eats kids. Not too complicated right? Except I cant really remember any of the characters. There’s fat dude, skinny dude, slutty girl and less slutty girl. Who knows? I know I was ready to watch a giant Crocodile eat these kids. Some of them eventually get eaten and it is in these moments that the film really shines, well, glimmers?

The problem is, as lame as these kids are the film champions them instead of the beast. I wanted to be rooting for the monster the whole time, cause these kids suck big time. But instead the screenplay pushes for some sort of romantic redemption between the jackoff protagonist and his girlfriend and even his boyfriend.

See, Tobe Hooper films, like TCM, Lifeforce and Eaten Alive are all incredibly bleak and cynical horror films. There is no redemption, only horror. Those characters in those films were ten times more interesting than these college crocodile bait jerks. But still 3(three) of these kids survive the film. What the heck? In a great horror film you might have no survivors or one survivor with impending doom. Give me a break with this happy ending horseshit.

Harrison Young and Terrence Evans give good relief to the homogenized blandness of the twenty somethings with their fun if all too brief portrayal of the sheriff and Shurkin the Croc-Master. These actors provide the only pathos and humor in the film.

The star of the film is Flat-Dog the Crocodile. The effects are pretty great. There were lots of giant models built so that the creature could actually eat the kids, so what this film has going for it are the bar none best close up shots of college kids being eaten by a giant crocodile. Simply the best.

The gore is also top notch. The problem is too few attacks, too little gore. At the end of the film after the best friend has been eaten and he start getting into some love story melodrama, the croc vomits up the friend and exits, leaving us with 3(three) survivors. Geez. What a kick in the face. It’s like taking back a kill.

I’m a big fan of Hooper’s and I really only recommend this to fans of Killer Crocodile movies. 

Sinister – Scott Derrickson – 2012

Posted in 2010's with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by bookofdread

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I love the idea that films can suck up and corrupt youth. It’s a scary thought. I don’t really believe that people do evil things because they saw something in a movie, but what if that was the case? What if something you saw in a film made you do something as horrific as kill your family? It’s this question that Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill are investigating in the interesting and moody Sinister.

The film examines medias real life exploitation of true violence. Ethan Hawke is a true-crime writer who moves his family into the house of a horrible crime. Chasing another hit a decade after his first best seller, Kentucky Blood, he figures he can solve and unsolved mystery from ground zero and make a mint doing it.

Right here we get to one of the more compelling aspects of Sinister. It is a film about a man, an artist if you will, and a detective, trying to solve a crime for profit. Not only does he want to make money, but also he’s actually really into this shit. Hawke’s character is a perverse voyeur, a magnified image of someone seeking horror in film. In effect you can’t help but relate to him as he watches these horror films, he’s you, the audience member, getting a sick kick out of the mystery before him.

The film challenges logic a few times. Like, why doesn’t he watch all the films at once? It doesn’t detract too much. Derrickson keeps the film rolling and dribbling out tidbits of mythology about Mr. Boogie and Baghul the demon as Skyped in by Vincent D’Nofrio. This stuff is pretty good, and the puzzle fits together nicely.

The films, the six murder films in the movie are pretty great, especially the extended cuts we see at the end. Very simple devices give way to massive chills and thrills. But the simplicity of the murders and the title Mr.Boogie are hints to the riddle solved.

I found the ending both awesome and problematic. I love the metaphor. I love the idea that something seen in a film can grab and possess an individual. I love the harsh direction that the film goes, incorporating children into the violence. You don’t see that too much, and it’s tough stuff. However, all the poltergeist activity, the reappearing of boxes of films, all of this stuff doesn’t make any sense. The film makes no attempt to explain this stuff, but eh, I kind of rolled with it.

I liked the movie. It had some good scares and nice atmosphere. I think making a horror film about how horror films corrupt youth is kind of biting the hand that feeds you, you know?

Vampires – John Carpenter – 1998

Posted in 90's with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by bookofdread

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I have a feeling that in any John Carpenter film that isn’t quite up to snuff you could replace one actor with Kurt Russell and all would be well. This is certainly the case with Vampires, a film I once reviled but have come to love nearly completely. If only Kurt Russell had played the Daniel Baldwin role, man this could have been one of the greatest Vampire films ever made. As it stands it’s a gory, sexy delight with all the most classic Carpenterisms.

James Woods plays Jack Crow: vampire slayer. In typical Carpenter fashion, he works for the Catholic Church who has been lying to the world about the existence of the undead for centuries. Not only are they hiding them, they are responsible for the first vampire as well, apparently.

Woods is a riot as Crow, with his every word cracking me up. He grins and spits and smokes and beats up a priest. Hilarious. When he asks the priest if he got turned on while he was kicking his ass back in the dirt back there…. that’s some funny shit.

So Crow and his team go vampire fishing and then at the celebration afterward, the big bad comes and kills everyone but Crow and not Kurt Russell. There is an amazing scene where the Vampire goes down on the prostitute. It’s quite shocking and sexy. These guys take the girl from Twin Peaks with them and get out of town.

Crow buries his men while Daniel Baldwin is munched by the vampire whore. This truth is hidden for most of the picture. So we have a compromised man who never leaves Woods behind. Daniel Baldwin in what should have been a much richer performance barely gets by with his lines. He seems to be in a completely different film than everyone else, and it’s pretty hard to get over.

The film is extremely profane, the joke being that Crow works for the Church and he has not a lick of respect for them. Much like Snake Plissken, he is trapped in his role in the world, a capable asset to be exploited.

Carpenter never lets the great imagery slow; he frames the whole story like a western, even using many desertscapes and the iconography of New Mexico throughout. There is an amazing scene of vampires coming out of the dessert earth at dusk that gives me chills every time I see it! The film has it all, a fun hero, an evil church secret, an awesome villain, tons of gore, some great sexuality, and another killer John Carpenter score.

What makes this film great is its filmic sense of fun. John Carpenter never forgets he’s making a John Carpenter film and there are scenes here that would be as easily found in Prince Of Darkness or Escape From New York.

Vampires is a classic, fun and violent. Just imagine if it had been Kurt Russell turning into a vampire at the end of the film and driving off with the lady. Imagine James Woods telling him he has two days before he chases him down and kills him. Ah, well, it’s pretty great all the same.       

The Game – David Fincher – 1997

Posted in 90's with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by bookofdread

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The opening image of David Fincher’s The Game is that of a father and son standing together, side by side, then the film washes out and the frame is filled with light. The severance of father and son is a deep destruction, and this sadness is at the heart of this deeply underrated thriller. We move then to a party, a welcome starting point for any tale. When we see people celebrate we know much about them from their social status to what they find worth celebrating.

In this case it is a boy’s 10th birthday. The party is set behind a giant mansion and we see the man from the opening image intermittently, alone, smoking. We see the boy holding his baby brother up, proud of his little sibling. This image is inverted later in the picture as Conrad “saves” his older brother Nicky.

We see the father walking toward the house and then he notices the camera. Once seen, he stops and turns, clearly not wanting to be seen. The camera has this power, and Fincher magnifies it in this tiny shot. We are not willing to do what we might alone when others are watching. We cut to a girl alone at a table, oblivious of the camera. She is fat and stuffing her face with cake. The greed and lack of awareness of the little girl is indicative of the inverse of the man walking to the house. Since she is unaware, she keeps stuffing her face, like an investment banker fleecing his clients behind closed doors.

Again we see the image of father and son, this time the image recedes into darkness. This party was both the high point of Nicky’s impression of his father, and as we will find out later in the picture, the lowest as well.

We cut forward in time to Nicholas Van Orton’s 48th birthday. He lives in an opulent house and has a housekeeper who serves him breakfast. She mentions his ex-wife and he’s really a dick to her about it. We instantly do not like this guy.

At work a woman wishes him a happy birthday and he has someone else fire her. He receives a lunch reservation for two by Seymour Butts. He takes it. It turns out to be his long lost brother Conrad, who has returned to give Nicky his birthday present. A profound life experience courtesy of CRS is what the card says.

Fincher is going fairly deep here, both exploring a brother’s obligation to save his sibling’s soul and to what extent one can even crack the avaristic surface of someone as black hearted as an investment banker. Conrad peaks his curiosity because the product is obtuse, different every time, impossible to explain. That the rich could even have such a service is ridiculous, but Fincher uses CRS, ultimately, as a catalyst powerful enough to humanize a snake of a man.

We see Nicky on the phone answering to whoever he is beholden too. An unseen figure on the phone that is never identified gives resonance to the theme of detachment throughout. A man like Van Orton is sufficiently separated from even his bosses and clients that he has no need for what most of us understand as the social contract. Do unto others is a thought that clearly never passes through his entitled little skull.

We flash back to an image of his father standing on the roof.

Nicky gets a call from his ex-wife. We learn that his father was 48 when he committed suicide, apparently at his son’s birthday. So both birthdays and the 48th year are bound to be sore spots for Nicky, though from all we’ve seen, the guy is just one big sore spot. He cold to his wife and hangs up while the television discusses health care for small businesses, a cause he could not care less about. Again, the words on the TV act as a counterpoint to Van Orton’s worldview. He is a whirlpool, only taking in, never giving back like the tides.

When Nicky goes back to work he discovers a CRS office in his building. He goes in and takes the psych tests. They subject him to a series of violent images in a cinema to see how he will respond. This scene is crucial to to the douchebag investment banker watching the film. Hey shithead! This is you! Are you watching the film? Do you have principals or a soul? When CRS calls and tells you have been declined is it going to rattle your existence to have someone tell you no?

The film is basically a brilliant morality play about having the amazingly affluent hit rock bottom in order to discover humanity and basic empathy. Through his own curiosity, Van Orton, is tricked into a vain game that will ultimately place him at the mercy of his fellow man and force him to re-evaluate his worldview.

This theme is revisited in more detail in Fincher’s follow up, Fight Club, a film whose basic theme is the reinvention of a man’s purpose.

Once the game has begun, the media, (Van Orton’s) TV begins the belittling assault by calling Nick a bloated millionaire fatcat. We are presented here with the idea of an omnipresent surveillance. In that the game changes Van Orton to a more civil man by the end of the story, Fincher makes the audience complicit in the idea that an eye on everyone could hold even the worst of us accountable. But the idea that a second party could easily infiltrate even the richest individuals home should give one pause. I’m not sure that Big Brother is necessary for moral action.

From this point on the film presents Nick with various moral tests from a choking man in the street to having a waitress fired to dealing with his own brother’s paranoia. Fincher expertly ratchets up the tension while raising stakes and humanizing Van Orton one scene at a time. At one point Nicky receive s a letter that says, “Like my father before me I choose eternal sleep.” This basically begs the question what does one live for. Nick begins to form values and live by them.

Conrad returns and is an active participant, both in the middle and at the end of the show, showing a true commitment to his brother. He is after nothing less than salvation and he is the only one that can give that to his brother. If you see your brother’s plight and can help him, should you? Are you obligated? The Game suggests that is the moral high ground and in the end it seems Nick is saved.

After Nick is driven off a pier, and forced to use his survival instinct for the first time in his life and ultimately left in a Mexican grave he is forced to sell his fathers watch, that keepsake that both immortalizes time and timelessness in order to escape his fate. He begs in a truck stop for a ride back to San Francisco.

Upon his return, his world is empty; he is filled with paranoia and trusts only his ex-wife. In the end his faithlessness leads him to shoot a gun at an opening elevator, shooting his brother, his salvation, and ultimately he takes the short road, like his father, leaping to his doom.

And as he brushes away the breakaway glass and the stunt cushion deflates, we are left thinking, is this what it takes to infuse the greedy men of the world with a soul? Some fictional recourse, impossible in reality? Is it enough for the film to exist to let them know what soulless pricks they are? In the end, it is revealed that CRS has control over any aspect of your life perceivable, and only through an extremely elaborate ruse can a destroyed man find salvation. I honestly hope it’s less complicated than that.

The Game is thoroughly enjoyable and only rarely challenges my notion of what is possible in the world, (most notably false machine gun fire), but the message remains, investment bankers are douchers in need of a swift kick in the ass. God help us all.

Hellraiser: Bloodline – Kevin Yagher – 1996

Posted in 90's with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2012 by bookofdread

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How long can a horror franchise go before it burns out? I say four films in a row is a pretty high number and the first four Hellraiser films qualify. This fourth one, the one I’m going to discuss is the least of them, and the director disowned it, but so what, the film ended up pretty good with some damn fine moments and some sweet contributions to the Hellraiser mythology.

Lets start with the good. The framing structure includes segments of future, far past, present and future again. This works pretty well, except that the France and Space segments are much, much cooler than the segment from 1996. It helps that we have one actor playing all of his own ancestors in the film and I’m always reminded of The Fountain and wonder if Aronofsky doesn’t owe the tiniest debt to this film.

The space segments at the beginning and end of the film are well designed and we even see a robot trying to open a puzzle box. A military crew discovers the ship all but abandoned except for LeMerchant, the future generation of the man who designed the original puzzle box. Desparate to finish his work this man must justify his strange rites to these mercenaries, and thusly we are whisked back to France.

These scenes are the best in the picture. Merchant takes the newly finished puzzle box to his patron who demands it be used. There before his lover and Merchant, the box is opened and both Pinhead and the demon Angelique emerge. The patron is slain and the lover beholden to Angelique and given only one directive. He man have all that his heart desires so long as he does not stand in hells way.

In the present the immortal lover does just that when Angelique seeks out the descendant of Merchant. The lover is slain by the demon as she pursues Merchant the architect and threatens to kill him and his family. These scenes in the present are quite soapy and cheap looking. Honestly they are the least of the film. Due to three related but separate protagonists, we are never very attached to any one and therefore lack the needed empathy to take us through the whole picture caring.

Nothing less than the fate of the universe is at stake in this picture, but the filmmakers do a pretty poor job establishing the stakes. We know there is a threat because we are told, not because the film illustrates the threat. Future Merchant needs to finish the rite in order to create the mirror box, a source of never-ending light that can trap the demons, and while this entire plot is cool, the story lacks cohesion.

What is most relevant about this film is its anachronistic narrative structure. Starting in the future then cutting past, present then back to the future is a clever device. And following a bloodline throughout is quite nice. Unfortunately, this device was cooked up as an afterthought band-aid for an unfinished film, and while it makes the film considerably better; it never really works on its own.

Hellraiser: Bloodline is an excellent example of the death throes of a franchise. Still hanging on to its mythology and villain to keep it interesting. It is clear the series is running out of steam. After this the films become unwatchable.  Maybe someday if Clive ever gets around to publishing the Scarlet Gospels, we will get the movie version of a sequel to Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions. Until then, this is a worthy if deeply flawed contribution to the tapestry that is the Hellraiser tale.

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