Saturday, February 27, 2010

Capsule Review: Star Wars (1977)

PhotobucketWhile Jaws ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, a year later the special effects extravaganza took hold with the release of George Lucas' Star Wars, after which film (and film marketing) would never be the same. The story – heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress – it's an entertaining sci-fi yarn about a farmboy who gets to save the universe with the help of a roguish smuggler and an assortment of odd creatures and robots, but the characters – particularly the evil Darth Vader – became immediately iconic. Even with re-releases and revamps, prequels and sequels, the original Star Wars is a captivating and exciting piece of pulp that is packed full of memorable characters and images, and is still plenty of fun.

Capsule Review: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

PhotobucketMalcolm McDowell gives the performance of a lifetime in this adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ tale of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.. Stanley Kubrick designs a rather terrifying vision of the future, with smatterings of science fiction and an attention to detail that makes the sometimes dated visuals still feel strangely possible. Featuring some astounding set pieces, particularly the ‘Singing In The Rain’ rape scene which is still dark and disturbing even in this desensitized age. Making great use of color and sound – exemplified by Walter/Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack – the film still divides audiences but remains unforgettable to all who see it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bloody Nightmares #20: Terror Toons (2002)


Compared to most of the films in the Bloody Nightmares collection, Terror Toons is actually fairly well known. While only recieving a Straight To DVD release, it was available in most large video outlets, and - to this date - has two sequels. It also is rather packed with special effects of varying quality, and actually has two actors that I recognized in the cast. That I recognized one from this very collection (Beverly Lynne, who starred in The Bewitching) and the other from porn (Lizzy Borden) is besides the point. Your ability to enjoy this film is probably directly connected to your expectations going in, so let me adjust them appropriately: this is a bad movie. But, it's the sort of bad that is rarely boring, and - at 75 minutes - barely has time to wear out its welcome.

The credits - which feature a main theme very reminicent of Danny Elfman's Beetlejuice soundtrack - are prefaced by a gruesome scene where an apparent young boy (played by someone quite older, which is a running theme) is tied to a slab while the nasty Dr. Carnage (wearing a giant, immovable Halloween mask) does various cartoonishly nasty things. It ends with Carnage pulling out the unlucky victims internal organs (which come out in one ridiculously long stream) until his skull pops out at the end. All of this purports to take place in "the cartoon dimension", represented by intentionally cartoony greenscreen backdrops, with various slide-whistle sound-effects. Your reaction to this introduction will likely give you a good idea of whether this film is for you, as most of what you're about to see is just more of the same - a ton of cheap looking effects mixed with extreme violence and some very bad acting.


In the non-cartoon dimension we're introduced to Candy (Borden, who is disturbingly playing a pre-pubecent with gigantic fake breasts) singing "Rubber Ducky" in the tub, which I can't imagine Jim Henson would be ok with. She, along with her sister Cindy (Beverly Lynne) and Cindy's friend Amy (Kerry Liu, who is particularly awful) are home alone for the weekend, and have been forbidden by their parents - the mother being played by quite the manly transvestite - to have any boys over. While Candy entertains herself with a DVD full of (live action) cartoons, the older gals get some male friends over and have a game of strip-Ouija. Yes, this happens. Soon, the characters in Candy's cartoon - including Dr. Carnage and the insane gorilla Max Assassin - escape into the real world and start slaughtering folks with toon-like implements, including some giant shears, a pizza cutter, and (worst of all) disco music. Cindy is eventually transported to the Cartoon Dimension where she discovers that the toons are actually being created by.. Satan! Yeah, it was Satan all along, and he explains himself with typical verbosity before, realizing that she now has the powers of the cartoon dimension, Cindy transforms herself into a super-hero and takes out the two main baddies.

Terror Toons benefits greatly from an understanding (and embracing) of its various limitations, though the film obviously has a slightly higher budget than the no-budget films mostly encountered in this set. It's definitely super-cheap, but the significant amount of props and surprisingly effective gore show a significant amount of planning went into making the film look and sound the way it does. That how it looks and sounds is generally irritating is almost to be expected. It never quite manages to grasp onto the manic inventiveness of actual cartoons, relying mostly on oversized implements of death and ridiculous sound effects to carry the load. The only actual animation in the film consists of two or three frames, which may be the minimum amount of movement to actually constitute as animation.


While ostensibly a horror film, director Joe Castro doesn't seem very interested in anything but killing off his disposable cast as rapidly as possible, so therefore any suspense is secondary. The film relies heavily on bluescreen work, but the compositing is quite poor with blue halos very visible around cast members. Aside from that, the film looks fairly good, with competent lighting and sound compared to the shot-on-DV effforts that litter the collection. Camerawork is mostly static, and the editing is servicable.

Acting is a mixed bag, with Beverly Lynne surprisingly game in the lead, but the other victims being less than convincing. Surprisingly, despite the semi-disturbing nudity at the beginning, there's not a hint of any skin for the rest of the run-time, and that includes a protracted game of strip-ouija. Jack Roberts is quite good as The Devil, bringing a decent amount of gravitas to some difficult (and generally nonsensical) dialogue. Matty Moo as Dr. Carnage and Scott Barrow as Max Assassin only have to mug incessently to the camera, and do this quite effectively.


While the bluescreen special effects and animation are less than impressive, the actual gore in the film is very well done. In particular, a scene where one of the characters is scalped, has his skull-cap removed and his brain, um, tickled is dementedly revolting. Organ meat is regularly on display, and there are enough decapitations and ladies being sawed in half to keep any gorehound satisfied. The creatures look quite good, though the giant rubber masks look more like something out of a GWAR concert than proper movie costumes.

The film is presented in fullscreen, and the competency in the production means that it's free of the muddy, dark scenes which plague a lot of other features on here. While the music (by J.M Logan) is limited, and quite derivative, it's still a step up from similar productions, and usually appropriate to the material. Dialogue recording is inconsistent, but at least it was recorded with a mic.

Once again, no special features of any kind. Though, the closing credits does include a few amusing bloopers. David Lynch would appreciate the lack of chapter stops.


While hardly a ringing endorsement for its quality, Terror Toons is a fun, often tasteless mix of comedy and gore that is appropriately lacking in substance. Castro certainly seems to know the tone he's going for, and while things meander significantly in the mid-section, there's enough gore to get a non-discriminating film fan through the slow bits. I've yet to check out the sequels, but there's enough flashes of inspiration here to make me not dread the idea of someday checking them out. Mild recommendation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Love Exposure (2008)

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Sion Sono’s movie is four hours long. Four hours. Seriously. So, there’s that.

Providing a synopsis, or even an introduction, to a four hour movie provides some challenge, which I’ll try to meet. The movie focuses on three teenagers: Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), an innocent pretty boy; Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), the troubled girl he loves; and Koike (Sakura Ando), a young recruiter for a cult known as the Zero Church. Those are pretty superficial descriptions, but they’ll have to do. The three have a lot in common, aside from proximity: each has a (very) problematic relationship with his or her parents; each one has problems with sex and sexuality; and each one has a problematic (there’s that word again) relationship with religion.

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OK, but what is it actually about? It goes something like this: Yu’s Catholic mother dies when he is very young, leaving him with a confused and complicated idea about love that might simply boil down to a good ol’ Oedipal Complex. Yu’s only real memory of his mother is her praying before the Virgin Mary, and telling Yu that, some day, he’ll have to introduce his own Mary to her. Yu’s life-long ambition becomes finding his “Mary,” his one true love (I might as well just tell you it’s Yoko). Yu’s father reacts, well, oddly to his wife’s death, and becomes a Catholic priest. He then becomes embroiled in a love affair, gets even more confused, and begins sadistically forcing his son, Yu, to confess his sins, at length, every day. And they better be good ones.

And there’s the problem. Since Yu is such a nancy boy, he has no sins to confess. So, he joins a gang, and becomes a pervert. He is mentored in the ways of taking peek-a-boo, upskirt panty shots. Utilizing some form of advanced Kung Fu, Yu snaps pictures of girls’ undies with style and panache; once his talent is discovered, he begins working for a porn company, and becomes known as the King of the Perverts. All to impress his dad in the confessional.

During Yu’s perverse odyssey, he encounters, first, Koike, who is the film’s chief antagonist. She decides to manipulate Yu, since she loves him (I suppose), and her love is unrequited. Koike hates men in general, and works for the Zero Church, which gets its money through charitable donations and from kidnapping the families of church members, presumably selling their stuff. Her primary goal in life becomes keeping Yu separate from Yoko, his “Mary,” the one woman he truly loves.

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Jesus, this is getting long. Anyway, Yoko is another teenager, whose hatred for men only excludes two examples: Kurt Cobain and Jesus Christ. Yu first sees her when she is being beset upon by a gang of hooligans, who she is all-too-eager to fight. But here’s the complication: though Yu immediately recognizes her as his one true love, he can’t really act upon it, since, due to a forfeit from a pervert competition, he’s currently in drag. And not just any drag: he’s dressed up like the protagonist of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films.

And then shit gets complicated. Koike throws a monkey wrench in things by pretending to be the real Miss Scorpion, and she and Yoko begin a love affair, excluding Yu from the mix. Throw in an ass-ton of heavy-handed Catholic imagery, lots of perverts, Manga-style editing and action, some Kung Fu, and plenty of panty shots--plus more melodrama than you can shake a stick at--and what you end up with is four hours of Love Exposure.

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What’s really incredible about Love Exposure is that it even exists. I mean, it’s a four hour epic romance about perverts and cross-dressers and Kung Fu. What the fuck. I couldn’t help but think of Tarsem’s The Fall; both are clearly a labour of love, and their very existence defies the logic of the marketplace and the current status of global cinema. It should also be pointed out that, while four hours hardly fly along (and you should distrust anyone making such a claim), the film hardly seems onerous or dull. And that’s quite an achievement.

One major issue I have with the film, though, is that I feel, in a way, it wimps out. For four hours, the audience gets an inside look at perversion, from incest to lesbianism to voyeurism to cross-dressing, etc. And Yu makes the point, again and again, that “perverts” are perverts for a reason. They’re shown sympathetically; in fact, they’re shown as the norm, with the straight, monogamous heterosexual relationships almost always being represented as dysfunctional. But, in the end, Yu gets the girl; Love Exposure ends up reinforcing heteronormativity, making the long haul through the rest of the film seem like a long (and perhaps tedious) diversion through juvenile perversions, only to end up with a more mature heterosexual monogamy. And that’s a shame, since it effectively undercuts the subversive intentions (or at least the subversive direction) of the rest of the film. I can’t come down too hard on this ending, though, since it doesn’t betray the film’s other major theme: Catholicism. The crucifix and the Virgin Mary are among the first images that appear on the screen, and recur throughout, adding more complication than clarification.

Sion Sono’s Love Exposure is a hell of an achievement. But does that mean it’s worth seeking out? I … don’t know. I’ve seen the film, and thought about it a great deal, and I can’t tell if it’s genius, or if its boosters are confusing it for genius based on the size of its undertaking. It’s something unlike any film I’ve ever seen before, though, and that’s certainly an accomplishment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Capsule Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

A group of friends travelling to a relative’s house in Texas pick up an odd hitchhiker who acts out violently. Shaken up, the five travel to the abandoned house where they soon run into a psychotic family of cannibals – most memorably the human skin-wearing Leatherface . Tobe Hooper made some good films after this, but never again came close to maching the quality here, which is really the final word when it comes to 70s exploitation horror. Terrifyingly real- though not quite as based in reality as the John Larroquete opening narration would have you believe -  the film remains surprising in its lack of onscreen violence, but the combination of unique, affecting sound effects and startling images linger in your mind long after the film ends. Followed by multiple sequels and a remake, none of which come close to touching it.

Capsule Review: The Godfather (1972)

Perhaps the most influential crime film ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather has been endlessly imitated and parodied but has lots little of its ability to astound and transfix audiences. Many scenes – the horse's head in the bed, the murder of Sonny Corleone, and almost everything said by Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone – have entered into the public’s collective consciousness, and the epic subject matter is matched by the quality of the performances onscreen. Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and a supporting cast that all rise to the occasion. Iconic from beginning to the end of its epic running time. Followed by a sequel that may even be better.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Capsule Review: M*A*S*H (1970)

Quietly innovative in the way it approached improvisation and overlapping dialogue, Robert Altman’s MASH became a blueprint for his filmmaking style for decades afterward – including most of his greatest triumphs. While taking place during the Korean war, the exploits of surgeons desperately trying not to crack up while surrounded by madness and violence is clearly supposed to represent the climate and feeling on the ongoing Vietnam war. Furiously antiestablishment, and arguably misogynistic, the film manages to avoid the three act structure but is still able to fit in a raucous football game climax to bring things to an appropriately manic end.

Capsule Review: Patton (1970)

The opening scene, visualized by writer Francis Ford Coppola, of George C. Scott as General Patton standing on a stage in front of a gigantic American flag, giving a speech composed of actual Patton quotes, is so memorable that people often forget how wonderfully epic the film that follows actually is. Director Franklin J. Schaffner portrays Patton as a flawed man of odd seeming contradictions, but one born on the battlefield with a keen sense of history and a poet’s perspective. Entertaining no matter what your political convictions are, Patton is a rich and visually impressive war film.

Capsule Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

As someone who has on many occasions enjoyed the fruits of cinematic bloodshed, I gladly raise my glass to Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch which raised the bar when it came to the age old themes of violence and anti-heroism. But the film is more than an opportunity to show squibs exploding in slow motion, it’s an examination of the end of the American west, about innocence and corruption, about honor and doing the right thing even when you’re the wrong guys. Honor among thieves was – and continued to be – a regular theme for Peckinpah and his followers – John Woo among them – but his collection of tough guy actors – William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates – was rarely matched. The orgy of violence which caps the film might be the only appropriate ending for a film that gladly embraces the last gasp of the American west.

Capsule Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Sometimes a strong film doesn’t require a tremendous amount of artistry or visual flair, sometimes it just takes a fun, clever script, and absolutely pitch perfect casting – personified here by the immaculate teaming of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. With a combination like that the rest of the elements, the iconic Burt Bacarach music, Conrad Hall’s cinematography, simply become icing on the cake. Barely aiming for historical accuracy, the story of the bickering train robbers remains the great buddy film of the era, and a milestone of action-comedy.

Capsule Review: The Great Escape (1963)

Some films have the capacity to be nearly endlessly entertaining, and those that succeed usually have a charismatic cast and arresting story. Well The Great Escape might hold the record for the most perfectly cast film – Charles Bronson as the tunnler, Richard Attenborough as the British Squadron Leader, James Garner as the collector, Donald Pleasance as the forger, and of course Steve McQueen as “The Cooler King” Hilts. Brilliantly paced and directed by John Sturges, and based on a rather amazing true life story, The Great Escape is the epitome of an all star war film.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bloody Nighmares #19: Before I Die (2003)


Anthology films are actually quite popular in the world of no-budget filmmaking, and it's not hard to see why. One of the biggest problems with many of the films in the Bloody Nightmares collection is that there simply isn't enough plot to carry a ninety minute run-time, which leaves most of the productions feeling padded. An anthology lets a director, or a collection of directors, create short films (usually linked by some sort of surrounding piece) in which to show off their respective skills. Unfortunately, anthologies are also terribly difficult to pull off effectively. The shorter running time forces the directors to cut to the chase early, and there's apparently an irritating need to include a last second twist which – if not up to snuff – could leave the audience groaning. Before I Die amasses quite a collection of semi-recognizable low-budget talent, but the actual stories are barely worth telling and include few surprises for anyone raised on Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt.

This time out we get three stories, with a framing tale consisting of an author dealing with a case of writer's block and looking desperately for inspiration. The first story, called “Time For Dessert”, is about a rather plump woman (M. Catherine Holseybrook) who takes random men back to her hotel room for apparent sexual relations. After being rebuffed, a potential suitor starts to stalk her incessantly, before discovering that – wait for it – she's actually some sort of spider creature that eats men. The final reveal of the “monster” is really the only highlight here, besides some of the awesomely bad declarations from the spurned beau (“I'm so hot for her!”).


In “Last Resort”, a couple (David Lee and co-director Dawn Murphy) find their honeymoon resort totally abandoned upon arrival. While they enjoy the privacy at first – it allows them to have sex in every available body of water – strange ghostly happenings begin to make the two rather nervous about their stay. It turns out – wait for it – that the resort was actually once owned by an Amish couple that murdered each other in 1918 before the resort had a chance to actually open. Also, the Amish couple looked just like the newlyweds! SHOCK! HORROR! SURPRISE! Keep your eye out for Murphy also playing the travel agent in the bookends of the section, though those sections are honestly painful to watch. This section is the only one having anything resembling production value, and i'm actually rather shocked that the directors were able to get that much use out of a resort. Good for them. Not good for anyone watching.

The final, and worst, story is “Someone is Sleeping in My Bed”which features an escaped lunatic stalking a young woman who likes to lounge around either naked or semi-naked in her new apartment. After watching her watch TV, attempt to shower, nap,watch more tv, change the fuses, and attempt to shower once again he finally strangles her to death. Pointless.


All three segments are shot-on-video and have various technical issues – usually sound related – which would make them less than palatable for the average audience member. It's the more substantial problems – repetitive dialogue, predictable twists, often terrible acting – that made watching this such a difficult proposition for those with thicker skin. The first film's trick ending is telegraphed in the first two minutes, and – though directed by low-budget "legend" Joel Wynkoop – simply looks cheap. While some of the humor is obviously intentional, the central idea of a fat woman literally eating the men she picks up is seriously corny. Also, there's a brief blowjob scene with sound effects that may give me (bloody) nightmares for years to come.

“Last Resort” is probably the best of a bad bunch, though is stretched out to interminable lengths by multiple (oddly skinless) sex scene montages. There is actually some nice photography of the Poconos, but the supernatural activity really only involves hearing random whispering, having bedsheets pulled off when a character is trying to sleep, and another character almost drowning after seeing a ridiculous, superimposed head. Comically, when faced with these frightening occurrences, the couple simply leaves and return home. Not exactly terrifying. The acting really isn't bad for most of this section, but the travel agent scenes are painful.


The only thing truly notable about the final story is that the main protagonist has a poster for the Chevy Chase comedy Funny Farm on her wall. While possibly a misdirected attempt at a comedic reference to the mental patient killer, I was simply distracted in wondering why a framed poster for that film even exists. Nancy Felicians as the victim looks fine in the buff, but has trouble showing emotion even when being strangled to death, and this whole segment seems like a throwaway. It does tie into the framing story – apparently the writer actually killed his wife (also played by the robotic Felicians) in order to inspire himself to write the short stories which comprised the tales we watched. The idea that any of these tales could comprise successful short stories might be the hardest thing of all to swallow.

Obviously sourced from a video tape, there are a few tracking issues and the sound drops out occasionally, the film is presented in really pixelated fullscreen. Blurry and usually significantly underlit, it's hard to make out much detail and that's probably a good thing. Sound issues are present in all three sections, with edits often being marked by significant changes in ambient sound. Music is generally of the John Carpenter repetitive synth variety, but does its job. It would take more than creepy music to wring any suspense out of this material.

It's the Bloody Nightmares collection, so there are no extras. Not even chapter stops. Lame.


A silly and generally pointless collection of tales unlikely to scare (or amuse) anyone, Before I Die has a couple of clever moments that are far outweighed by the sheer ineptitude of the productions as a whole. More time spent scripting each segment might of made a world of difference, particularly with the awful twist endings which will leave most audience members groaning. An anthology format could have been a nice opportunity for those involved here to show off their individual talents, but instead only show why no-budget features have such a stigma attached to them. Not worth your time.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: The Crazies

It doesn't really surprise me that not too many people realize that this movie is actually a remake. George Romero's 1973 film really flopped at the box office.

Romero blamed it on poor distribution, but the original version of The Crazies was a little too smart for its own good..

The way it wagged a rather campy, paranoid, and accusatory finger at an inept U.S. military was tad grating on the nerves perhaps, but the beauty of The Crazies was that it was 100% believable. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that mankind will end up sealing his own fate with a weapon of his own design.

Vampires? Werewolves? Sure, you can sit safe in your home with the knowledge that you'll probably never have to run scared from some monster born of myth and legend.

Catastrophic release of a nerve agent that could end up destroying an entire population by inducing mass psychosis? Yeah... I'd start stocking up on firearms, ammo, canned goods, and bottled water tomorrow if I were you.

Most discussions about the original version of The Crazies usually center around the project being the dress rehersal for Romero's more successful zombie movies and I believe there is some truth to that.

Romero's Dead films found a harmonious balance between proselytization and scaring the bejeebus out of you and I can't help but think that if The Crazies had spent a little less time satirizing and a bit more time terrifying, we'd be heralding it this very day as one of the great landmark movies of horror filmdom.

The remake seems to be departing from the "evils of an uncaring government run by stupid people" angle to the more traditional "mysterious bad shit happening to innocent people for no good reason" angle that we've seen so much lately and that is fine by me. I don't think that this new re-imaging will suffer from shedding a theme or two, unlike Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake which had all of the zombies but none of the charm of the original film.

As long as this film is as relentless, brutal, and unapologetic as the trailers makes it out to be, I'm sure I will leave the theater satisfied.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Capsule Review: Touch of Evil (1958)

While rightfully praised for its long opening shot, which introduces many of the main characters as a car – with a bomb planted in the trunk – maneuvers around the U.S./Mexico border, Orson Welles is actually fairly restrained as director compared to some of his earlier work. However, he gives one of his best performances as the massive, corrupt cop Quinlan – wearing padding and a fake nose to transform himself – while the supporting cast (including Janet Leigh and, in a virtual cameo, Joseph Cotton) are wonderful. Even Charlton Heston manages to make his performance as a Mexican police officer fairly believable. Long available in a confusing, truncated format, a 1998 restoration based on Welles’ notes is worth tracking down.

Capsule Review: The Searchers (1956)

Everything great about American westerns can be found in John Ford’s The Searchers, a regular candidate for one of the greatest films ever made. John Wayne plays Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, a racist, cranky bastard who has to deal with the death of his brother and sister-in-law –murdered by comanches – before tracking down their kidnapped children along with his part-indian companion Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Their journey unfolds over a period of years, and monument valley becomes a character in itself, gorgeously realized by the director. It’s the performances, particularly Wayne who balances his characters heroic and hateful sides brilliantly, which linger with the viewer. The final shot with Ethan framed in a doorway as he walks away may be the most imitated in history.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Frozen (2010)

As the infamous line in the movie, Airplane, goes, "Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes."

There is currently a winter storm bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard and naturally, my fellow Virginians are in a complete state of panic. And what should arrive in theaters last night to help spur on the mad dash to grocery stores in search of bread, water, and toilet paper?

A surprisingly tidy little thriller called Frozen directed by Adam Green.

I say "surprising" because to be honest, the most recent crop of Screen Gems motion pictures hasn't been all that great (Untraceable, Vacancy, Legion, ugh...) and I wasn't terribly fond of Adam Green's last horror outing, Hatchet. However, this time around it appears that Mr. Green has learned from the failings of Hatchet and gone back to the drawing board to revisit the most important facet of film direction: how to tell a story.

Interestingly enough, Frozen starts off more like a character study or a docu-drama rather than a suspense film. Camera angles are tight and frame the scenes rather cleverly in preparation for the claustrophobia to come.

During the early moments of the film, we meet Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore of X-Men fame), Parker O'Neil (Emma Bell), and Dan Walker (Kevin Zegers); three skiers trying to get in one last run before the resort closes for the week. The dialogue is intimate and feels absolutely genuine as we learn about Joe's former relationship with Parker, as well as Parker's irrational fears about the welfare of her pet should she die.

The atmosphere soon turns from carefree to deadly serious. The lift breaks down and suddenly the trio is faced with the predicament of somehow getting to safety from a ski lift car suspended in mid air or risk freezing to death. Green takes full advantage of the familar sensation that fear causes seconds to tick away like years and successfully justifies the 93 minute runtime for a brutal snapshot in life that may have lasted only fifteen minutes in real time.

At times when lesser horror films would turn to the obligatory shower scene, buckets of blood, or red herring jump scares to keep the time rolling, Green stays with his closely cropped stage and never pulls away from the human suffering placed right in your lap.

Arguably, Green could've made the scenario even more tense with frequent wide angle shots of the icy surroundings in order to further magnify the absolutely lethal situation Parker, Joe, and Dan are in by exploiting more than just one primal fear.

Instead, Green keeps his characters on center stage and relies on rosy cheeks, chapped lips, and frost covered eyebrows to communicate just how dire things are. This Open Water inspired route made me feel so wonderfully uncomfortable and uneasy that I almost begged for panoramic cutaways. The level of empathy I had with the characters was off the charts and I felt absolutely helpless as I witnessed what could be their last seconds of life painfully tick away.

If there is a flaw in the work, it is the gaps in story found in the early prefacing. You know from the trailers what you are getting yourself into, but Green is especially light on early details and leaves it up to quick dialogue blurbs to clue in viewers that the trio isn't exactly staying at the classiest of winter resorts, so it doesn't dawn on the audience until midway through the film that there is a perfectly logical reason why the snow patrol isn't combing the mountainside for our unlucky vacationers.

Even so, Frozen is a refreshing step in the right direction for Mr. Green. It will be interesting to see his next project and find out if continues to improve, or if another big budget project will cause him to falter once again and send him back to the learning tree.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Outfit (1973)

"You hit my brother and you came after me, that's no good. The Outfit's gonna pay me money for my trouble. I figure $250,000 to make things right."

THE OUTFIT doesn't waste time. As a 70's revenge thriller of the highest order, it sets about its premise quickly and ruthless. Nothing stylish. Nothing fancy. Motives are given and acted upon. Violence is dispensed. Vengeance is served. Characters are dispatched swiftly and brutally. Though nothing truly satisfying comes of it. For a bunch of hard cases like Macklin and Cody, a good laugh at their getaway and some extra cash in their wallet is the only highlight. Those they've hit will soon hit back.

THE OUTFIT takes place in a hard lit, low-rent world full of hustlers, drifters, con-men, and criminals. All jockeying to see what the score is. All afraid of a man like Macklin for whom revenge is the only answer, so long as he profits by it. This is not a sentimental man. He mourns his murdered brother, broods over the contract on his head, wonders if he is finished as a criminal, but never once deviates from his purpose despite having plenty of opportunities to do so. He wants payback. And he wants to get paid for it.

THE OUTFIT is based on the novel of the same name by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). It is the third novel in the infamous Parker series, which also gave us a novel called "The Hunter" which has been made into multiple movies, including POINT BLANK. It was also recently adapted as a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke (with a version of "The Outfit" on the way).

Westlake wrote his Parker novels under a pseudonym because, compared to his other novels, they are hard-boiled to the extreme. He was also very protective of his character. In none of the film adaptations is the Parker character actually called Parker. The tone of the character is usually off too, though THE OUTFIT comes closest to bringing the amorality and cool- headedness of Parker to life through Duvall's portrayal of Macklin. The scene below, where Macklin heists a poker game, is one of my favorites...

The film also features Joe Don Baker as Cody and Karen Black as Bett. Both of whom are totally bad-ass. Baker stirs some humor in with his grit as an ex-criminal gone legit and Black gives one of her better performances as the protective gun moll whose strained relationship with her family forces her to continue along with Macklin despite many misgivings. Rounding out the cast is a veritable who's who of former film noir stars, including Jane Greer, Marie Windsor, Emily Meyer, Timothy Carey, and Elisha Cook Jr. Robert Ryan also turns up in his final film performance as Mailer, the weary mob kingpin whom Macklin keeps hassling.

THE OUTFIT has never been issued on DVD. There are bootleg copies floating around. VHS copies demand a pretty price, though the quality of the VHS print is below-average at best. I have seen streams as well, though sometimes they are of edited television broadcasts that have been recut into absurdity. Only TCM rebroadcasts the film uncut so catch it there if you can.

I was lucky enough to see THE OUTFIT at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. It was part of a great series of currently unreleased 70's thrillers, including another John Flynn film, the exploitation masterpiece ROLLING THUNDER. Both films deserve to be on DVD.

THE OUTFIT (Flynn, USA, 1973)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

On a surface level, there is plenty that I really like about UP IN THE AIR. It's tailor-made for the star, George Clooney, and a lot of what he does here demonstrates how far he's come as an actor. Jason Reitman handed Clooney one of the best characters and most entertaining to watch on screen this year. In a lot of ways, this is probably the definitive Clooney performance- there's the charm of Danny Ocean with the edge of Michael Clayton. Clooney is supported by a cast that brings their A game to material that they know is good and that gives them equal weight. After watching the miracle she performed by making ORPHAN a sorta-watchable movie, is it wrong how excited I am to see Vera Farmigo get good work? Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are great as the main female leads. I would be elated if Kendrick could steal the Best Supporting Actress award away from Mo'Nique this year. The scene where she first fires someone via computer killed me. So well acted on both sides, it is absolutely gut wrenching. Watching this gives you hope that all young actors can escape poor material (in Kendrick's case, the TWILIGHT flicks) and get at least one good role during their careers that makes all the crap work that preceded it worthwhile.

The look of this film is fantastic. The quick cuts of Ryan Bingham's (Clooney) routine, the overhead shots of cities from the air, the familiar ambiance of airports, airlines, and hotels. It is so slick.Every line of dialogue and every shot by Reitman is coming from an assured, confident place and the director and actors involved know exactly the kind of movie they want to make.

Unfortunately, the underlying themes are too weak to support the film they are supposed to support. The consistent question throughout the film is, "What's important to you in life?" It points out multiple times that some people can find their nests in life and some are destined to always be in flight. The movie didn't strike a chord with me nearly as much as it has with everyone else. I liked the movie, a lot even. But I didn't love it. I enjoyed the emotional journey that Clooney's character goes through. That being said, I would go so far as to say the similar IN GOOD COMPANY is a better movie than this. Reitman tries to combine the dark, frank comedy of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and the emotional strength of JUNO, but ultimately fails.

Reitman did not get enough credit for his direction on JUNO. The buzz was mostly about Ellen Page's performance or the love/hate for Diablo Cody's script. As usual, the Academy is overcompensating for past errors by pushing the victim's next project too hard. It's not like the Academy shies away from well-made but hollow films. It's practically in their charter.

UP IN THE AIR strikes me as one of those movies only bogged down by the Best Picture conversation, and a film that will probably play a lot better a couple of years from now, when it doesn't have to compete against other dramas and can be as slight and breezy as it wants to be. The film deserves some degree of praise, but the Best Picture nomination is more symptomatic of an off year than anything else. It may squeeze into a few top ten lists for the year, but it should never be #1.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Long Good Friday (1980)

"For more than ten years there's been peace - everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past - I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption. It's like fuckin' Belfast on a bad night. One of my closest friends is lyin' out there in the freezer. And believe me, all of you, nobody goes home until I find out who done it."

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY does a great job of taking a relatively simple story and elevating it to a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. Harold Shand, a deeply flawed and violent man with little control over his impulses, has clawed and sacrificed his way to the top of the London underground by sheer dint of hard work and determination. He's sowed peace for ten years between the warring factions, bought councilmen and police detectives, established a corporation with the aim of legitimizing his enterprises. And now he's about to seal the deal of a lifetime, a sweeping real estate venture to revitalize the London docklands in preparation for a 1988 Olympic bid. Here, at the cusp of legitimacy, his powers at a pinnacle, with both the American mob and the European Union looking to finance him, it falls apart -- rapidly and violently -- in less than 48 hours over $5,000 of palmed cash from a suitcase intended for the IRA.

From here THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY could easily have devolved into a simple revenge thriller but it has more ambitious things to say, as a character study, a crime film, an examination of late 70's British values. London was undergoing rapid change at the time. Men like Shand were being pushed out by major corporations in the London interior and immigrant drug dealers in the boroughs, places like Brixton, where Shand has to grit his teeth to bear the changes he sees. Shand is smart, stay with the times, legitimize, get corporate. But his own personal failings lead to his undoing -- trust in the wrong people, an unchecked ego, tendencies toward rapid violence. It's funny, we know all along who the traitors are but not what their motives were. The suspense comes not from the mystery of who did it but why they did it and how Harold is going to salvage it. That the whole thing implodes over $5,000 would almost be laughable if it weren't so believable.

The performances here are across the board sensational. Bob Hoskins owns Harold Shand, filling him with a depth of complex emotion: explosive rage, surprising tenderness, layered guilt, inflated ego, short-sightedness and delusion. It is a masterful performance, particularly in the closing shot of the film where the camera just hangs on Hoskins face as we see him mentally work through the last 36 hours, seeing all mistakes and recognizing all possibilities. There is time for regret, anguish, anger, but no despair. Harold is a man who always knew his end would come from the point of a gun.

Helen Mirren absolutely dazzles as Victoria, a high-class lady slumming with a gangster in the hopes of bringing him up to her level. She is intoxicated by his common roots and extraordinary power. She revels in the touch of class she brings him and knows that the ultimate control of his legitimization lies with her. Only she can handle his extraordinary temper (as evidenced by that amazing scene where he emerges, blood soaked from the boat screaming for vengeance, and she stops him, slapping him fiercely and clutching him tight, wrestling and reasoning him into a more intelligent solution). Her handling of the American mob men is delicate yet powerful. Her rejection of all outward advances by other men is firm. She, like Harold, is not to be fucked with. Mirren reportedly worked hard with the screen writer to ensure that Victoria was an equal partner to Harold, a fully developed character and not a typical gun moll. The film is certainly better for it.

Eddie Constantine gets a lot of flack for his portrayal of Charlie. His acting does seem a bit stiff at first but I actually think it works. Charlie is Mafia gone legit, uncomfortable with the implications of dealing with Harold, who he sees as unable to cope with legitimacy. He is also superstitious. I think Constantine does a great job bringing across Charlie's inherent awkwardness coupled with a corrosive seriousness. Stephen Davis is also fun as Tony, the slimy snake-oil lawyer Charlie brings with him. One of my favorite scenes is Shand's evisceration of Charlie and Tony as cowards: "The Mafia? I've shit 'em." Harold Shand takes shit from no one.

The film is loaded with great British character actors like P.H. Moriarty as "Razors" and David King as "Parky" (it felt like Shand took his head off with that vicious backhand) both of whom deliver impressively in their small but vital roles. Derek Thompson does a great job dealing with Jeff's guilty insecurities, the sense that he doesn't belong in this world because he's smart and easily scared. God, he meets a brutal end. This is one of the grittiest, most violent films I've ever seen. But its not excessive. Not exploitational at all. Each violent act has a purpose to it, a method, a major contribution to the story. That said, at the time, it certainly deserved this rating:

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (MacKenzie, UK, 1980)