Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, Part 3

Welcome to the third and final installment of my week in horror.  I swear, I’ve seen more people die on screen in the past week then I usually do in an entire year. 

Thanks to everyone who read/commented on the first two parts.  I pose a question at the end of this post, and I hope you will take part.  Happy Halloween!

The Thing (1982)
After live-tweeting my distaste for John Carpenter’s apparent horror classic, people, I found out, love The Thing.  Me?  I was bored to tears.  About 40 minutes into the film, I started keeping track of all the continuity/narrative errors I found, but I soon lost count.  This is a sci-fi/horror film, which means in order to enjoy it, you must suspend some (if not all) logic.  But the gaffs in this flick were just maddening.  All, however, was not lost.  The make-up was beyond superb and Kurt Russell was good in that brooding Kurt Russell way.  But the film as a whole wasn’t for me.  Glad I skipped the new remake.

Body Count: 12

Scariest Scene: Gotta be the first time we see the titular beast, as it protrudes itself from a helpless dog.

Misery (1990)
Villainous performances don’t often merit an Academy Award, so when they do, you know you’re in for a frightful treat.  Kathy Bates is nothing short of terrifying as Annie Wilkes, the manic depressive (and utterly insane) ex nurse who, after rescuing her favorite writer from a car crash, slowly tortures him into what will surely be certain doom.

Let me put it this way, any actor who can make the line, “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!” utterly terrifying has seriously got something going for them.

With the exception of Richard Farnsworth’s Sherriff getting needlessly hasty at the end, the film has held up extremely well.  “I’m your number one fan...”  Gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

Body Count: 2

Scariest Scene: The sledging of the feet is the obvious choice here, but for me, the most brutal moment of Misery is when Annie makes James Caan burn the only copy of his latest manuscript.  Every writer can feel the pain of that one.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
I’ve spent many a paragraph bitching about the pointlessness of horror film sequels/prequels/remakes etc.  Rarely – and I mean rarely – does a sequel hold a hand to the original.  Halloween H20 is the exception. 

Jamie Lee Curtis wanted to keep everything from the original Halloween intact.  Same cast, same crew, same director, etc.  And although she didn’t get everything she wanted (John Carpenter refused to direct), she got damn close.

H20 gets it right in a number of ways.  Like its predecessor, the movie isn’t as much about the kill as it is about the suspense.  Its narrative is focused and brief (the film is a breezy 86 minutes), and its script is driven and concise.  Sure there are plot holes, but with a ferocious Jamie Lee Curtis, a remorseless Michael Myers and an ending that will drop anyone’s jaw, I feel confident in recommending H20 to any fan of the original.

Body Count: 7

Scariest Scene: There’s something supremely badass and uniquely terrifying of the sight of Michael Myers flipping tables over to uncover a scurrying Laurie Strode hiding beneath them.

Red State (2011)
I plan to expand on Red State in full soon, so I’m going to make this review a short one.  No one dislikes Kevin Smith more than I do.  Aside from two (possibly three) good movies, Kevin Smith is a no-talent hack.  Red State, his new, self-financed, self-distributed, religious horror frenzy is, however, nothing short of a schizophrenic wonder.  It reminded me a lot of Robert Rodriquez’s violent action films, which, if you’re a Robert Rodriquez fan, should serve as a compliment.

I was expecting to absolutely hate Red State.  There’s nothing better than having your premature judgments thrown right in your face.

Body Count: I lost count.  BodyCounters.com says 17, but I would guess more like 50.

Scariest Scene: I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that Red State is the kind of film that does not side with characters or the actors who play them.  If you are in the movie, you may be killed at any moment, no matter the status of your celebrity or the size of your paycheck.

Friday the 13th (1980)
After Halloween, slasher films were a dime a dozen.  For whatever reason, Friday the 13th made it, and we’ve been reaping the benefits (sarcasm) of the original’s success ever since.

Friday the 13th defines camp horror cinema.  The setting is cheap, the blood is too red, the dialogue is laughable, the acting is forced; it’s all so horribly divine.  This isn’t a particularly well made film, but the confusion on people’s faces when they discover the film’s killer never fails to amuse.

Body Count: 10

Scariest Scene: Nothing in the film is really scary.  But a naked, post-cotial Kevin Bacon having an arrow shoved through his back and then burst out through his chest is as awesome as it gets.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
The girlfriend wanted to actually see Jason, so we watched Part 2.  She was disappointed that Mr. Voorhees didn’t don a hockey mask just yet, but pleasantly amused by the film’s quick runtime and creative death scenes.  Which, let's be honest, are about the only things a Jason movie has going for it.

Body Count: 10

Scariest Scene:
Ext. Back Porch of Cabin – Night

Guy in wheelchair rolls onto back porch.  He sits idly for a few moments.  Out of nowhere, a machete slams into his face.  Blood squirts as the chair begins to roll back. 

Jump cut: Wheelchair guy is now rolling backwards down a huge set of stairs that is nowhere near the porch he was just on.  Freeze frame.  Zoom in.  Flash fade to white.  Cut to a couple sharing orgasms together in bed.  Scene continues.

Pure horror movie bliss.

Saw (2004)
I like Saw.  I really do.  I find it to be an ingenious concept that lives up to the expectations set by its many awful sequels.  And therein lies the oft dismay of rewatching a film you think you like: you see it again, and you wonder why the hell you enjoyed it so much in the first place.

During this most recent viewing, I become increasingly annoyed by its editing (it’s as if the editor was on coke the whole time), its flashback-within-flashback narrative structure, and the awful acting by screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who plays the photographer chained in the bathroom with Cary Elwes.

Saw is still a good horror movie, but just imagine if it never left that shitty bathroom.  Forget the subplots on sidetracks, stay where the story is.

Body Count: 6 (and a foot)

Scariest Scene: That final whopper of an ending.  You didn’t see it coming, don’t even lie.

Deliverance (1972)
I’m often asked what I consider to be the scariest movie of all time.  The answer for me is immediate: John Boorman’s 1972 masterpiece, Deliverance.  I know people who have not stepped foot in the ocean since watching Jaws.  After seeing Deliverance nearly 15 years ago (yeah, I was young), I have not spent one enjoyable night camping in the woods.  This is no exaggeration.  The film ruined any sense of calm that isolated nature can bring.

Deliverance is primarily known for one horribly gruesome scene.  That scene, which I don’t want to fully reveal in fear of ruining the film for fresh viewers, is by long and far the most terrifying sequence I have ever seen in a movie. Every single time Jon Voight and Ned Beatty pull their canoe up to that river bank, I think (hope, pray) that they will talk their way out of what is going to soon happen.  They, of course, do not, and the movie is off and running.

As an audience, Deliverance never gives us a moment’s rest. The brilliance of the film is that there is still much more story to be told after the brutalization occurs.  Sure, the four city boys accomplished something, but there is more river to be tread.   “We’re not out of this yet,” Voight tells Beatty late in the film.  No, they certainly are not.

Body Count: 3

Scariest Scene: see above

So my question for you folks is: what is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?  Just one.  Look forward to your answers, thanks to everyone for reading/commenting!

My First LAMBcast: The Ides of March

Last week, I was courted by my buddy Sam from Duke and the Movies to partake in my very first LAMBcast.  The topic of discussion was George Clooney’s The Ides of March, but the scope of my conversation with Dylan, Fredo, and Sam quickly broadened to the current state of American cinema, the value of film as entertainment, and, of course, the pleasure of staring at Ryan Gosling’s face.

You can listen to the LAMBcast here (I’ll figure out to embed this some damn day). Thanks to the fellas for letting me be a part of the LAMBcast.  Can’t wait to do it again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, Part 2

Last week, my girlfriend afforded me seven days to show her the best and scariest horror films I could think of.  Here’s part two of our week in horror.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Despite the fact that Mia Farrow was promised an Oscar nomination by producer Robert Evans (which she didn’t get), and threatened with divorce if she stayed on the film (which Mr. Sinatra implemented), Mia Farrow’s performance in Roman Polanski’s first English film ranks among the best in a decade filled with masterful ones.  And the fact that she was a relative unknown when she was cast only adds to the deft of her portrayal as the na├»ve, anguished Rosemary.

But the brilliance of Polanski’s film does not rest solely in its actors.   Sure, John Cassavetes is perfect as a spineless, struggling actor/husband, and Ruth Gordon justly deserved the Oscar she won for her overbearing, all-too-nice Minnie.  But the beauty of Rosemary’s Baby is that it continues to creep the hell out of people all these decades later.

Rosemary’s Baby instills the best kind of fear: that of which we create ourselves.  There’s no overt gore, no mindless killing; it’s a slow progression of a woman’s dissent into unidentifiable madness.  We get hints as to why Rosemary’s pregnancy is so nightmarish, but ultimately we’re hoping what Rosemary is hoping: that this is all some elaborate fever dream.  Think again.

Body Count: Two

Scariest Scene: If you’ve seen the movie, then you’re aware of its most infamous scene.  If you haven’t seen the movie, then, well… you have some viewing to attend to.

Audition (1999)
This is tricky to write about.  I’m aware that there are readers out there who have never seen (or even heard of) Takashi Miike’s stealthy headtrip of a film.  And out of respect for them, it’d be best not to divulge the details that make this film so memorable. 

Let me say that the first time I saw Audition, I honestly had no idea what it was about.  The cover looked intriguing, so I rented it.  A half hour in, I was enjoying the melodramatic, slow-paced romance that the film depicted.  Things, I soon learned, were not what they seemed.

Body Count: 1

Scariest Scene: One word, repeated:  “Kiri kiri kiri kiri.”

High Tension (2003)
Senseless gore and high body counts aren’t really my thing, but damn if this vicious little French flick doesn’t blow me away.  What starts as a college-girls-go-home-for-break bore very quickly turns into a crazy-guy-killing-a-family-for-no-reason bloodbath. But this isn’t your normal home invasion thriller, there’s no mindless expository dialogue to be had or extended “okay, what do we do now?” rendezvous to be discussed.  High Tension is all about the kill.


When we do finally find out why the killer is so hell bent on offing this particular family, it’s a revelation that is as artistically pleasing as it is unexpected.  High Tension is full of twists, all of which are executed intelligently.  It’s a rare slasher film that doesn’t treat its viewers like morons.

Body Count: 5

Scariest Scene: The first time we meet the killer, he’s receiving a blow job in the front seat of his car.  Doesn’t sound so scary, right?  Yeah... right.

Signs (2002)
Signs isn’t a very good movie.  When I first saw it, I enjoyed it, though not as much as M. Night Shyamalan’s first two movies, but I enjoyed it all the same.  Now, it’s just a precursor for the garbage of what was to come.  The forced dialogue, the horrendous character names (Lionel Prichard… really?), the obvious plot devices, the unsurprising twists; it’s all just so goddamn bland.

Signs does, however, carry with it a few redeeming qualities.  Showing the film to my girlfriend, who had never seen it, reminded me how freaky Signs is upon first viewing.  The shrieking music, the quick shots of alien legs, the fingers under the door; it definitely gets the job done.  Mel Gibson also has a few very solid scenes, most notably his condemning of God while trying to revive his son from an asthma attack.  “Don’t do this to me again,” he says aloud, almost instinctively.  “I hate you,” he whispers.  “I hate you.”  It’s a powerful moment that, in hindsight, feels out of place. Shame Signs didn’t take itself more seriously. Or, did it take itself too seriously?

Body Count: 1 (in flashback)

Scariest Scene: The Hess family, sheltered in a basement for the night as aliens tore their house apart, finally open the basement door and volunteer Merill (Joaquin Phoenix) to ascend the stairs to the living room.

Merill, ax in hand, cautiously walks up one step at a time, then, once at the top, turns left and walks off camera.  Seconds later, he reappears to signify a clear coast.  All is well, for the time being.

The problem with scenes like this is that they’re only good for one shot; upon repeated viewings, the tension is usually lost.  When I saw Signs in a sold out movie theater, many people jumped many different times.  But for me, I was never more terrified than Phoenix braving those steps into the unknown.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Character: Elias Koteas

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

I honestly never realized how much of a psycho Elias Koteas is.  Or rather, his penchant for playing them in movies.  His fondness for playing crazy, however, isn’t why I consider him one of the best actors currently working in film.  His effortless ability to play the everyman is what makes him so great.  If he’s a police sergeant hunting a serial killer, he’s a police sergeant hunting a serial killer.  If he’s a remorseful Army captain, then he’s a remorseful Army captain.  If he’s a sex-crazed, car-crashing nut, then he’s a sex-crazed, car-crashing nut. 

My point is, no matter the role, I never question the effectiveness of an Elias Koteas performance.  He can mold himself seamlessly into whatever character needs molding. He’s a master manipulator of his profession, one that I will see in anything, no matter the material.

Five Essentials
Crash (1996)
Vaughan
When we first meet Vaughan in Crash, David Cronenberg’s sex-and-car-crashes quasi masterpiece (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2005 race film), he is staging a reenactment of the car accident that killed James Dean.

One inch that way or this way, and Vaughan will be dead.  The two cars involved reverse to a suitable distance before taking off and colliding at the exact speed, at the exact same angle, Dean’s car did.  Once the dust settles, a bloodied, scarred Vaughan slowly emerges from his vehicle, pleasantly pleased by the success of the event.

It’s a hell of a way to introduce a character, one that will keep you on edge whenever Vaughan is onscreen.  Thankfully for us, Koteas is in Crash plenty.  It’s a manic performance of natural charm and lunacy.  Ferocious and unforgettable.

Fallen (1998)
Edgar Reese
If you’ve seen Fallen, the very mediocre, Denzel Washington-starring supernatural thriller, then you don’t forget the hysterically possessed death row inmate who opens the film.  

Tap dancing through his final walk, offering to blow the guard that’s strapping him into the gas chamber, and finally singing “Time Is On My Side” as he breathes in the fatal gas.  It’s a sensational three minutes, one that I assume director Gregory Hoblit let Koteas to go off the fucking rail with and push it as far as he wanted.  No complaints here.

Zodiac (2007)
Sgt. Jack Mulanax
When I first saw Zodiac, I suppose I was too stuck in dumbfounded amazement to remember that Elias Koteas was in the movie.  By the time he showed up as a police detective from Vallejo, it was like finding that last Christmas present stuck behind the tree; the hits just kept on comin’.

Zodiac is, more or less, spilt up into two distinct segments, and it’s in the latter portion that Koteas hits his stride.   In dealing with the obsessive Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Koteas exudes a sort of fatherly acceptance, like letting an 8-year-old watch another 10 minutes of television before bed.  The kid isn’t hurting anyone, he’s just goddamned annoying.

There’s a short scene in this film where Mulanax lets Graysmith examine some old police records.  In the records room, Mulanax asks Graysmith if he smokes.

“Once,” Gyllenhaal timidly confesses.  “In high school.”

If you watch Koteas’ face closely, it’s as if he doesn’t know what to think of Gyllenhaal’s response.  Is he kidding, or is he really that innocent?  It’s a quick moment of amusing tenderness, one that, in lesser hands, would fall dismally flat.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Monsieur Gateau
Frankly, I’m not a big fan of David Fincher’s fantasy epic.  In fact, I’d go so far as to call it Fincher’s weakest film since Alien 3.  What I am a fan of, however, are the bit roles in the film, including Elle Fanning as a young Daisy, Tilda Swinton as a partner of fleeting trysts, Julia Ormond as Cate Blanchett’s grown daughter, Jared Harris as a boat captain, and, namely, Elias Koteas as Monsieur Gateau.

Koteas’ brief segment that opens the film would act perfectly as its own five-minute short.  The story is simply that whimsical: a blind clockmaker, loses his son to World War I and as a result, creates a massive clock that runs backwards, an innocent gesture that may bring America’s fallen sons back to live full lives.  After unveiling his clock, no one hears from Monsieur Gateau, also known as Mr. Cake, again.

Monsieur Gateau is a simple, delicate role, but by far my favorite of the film.  Fincher, as well as any other director, is capable and willing to let Koteas play down a part, to the point of being nearly unnoticeable.  It’s roles like Monsieur Gateau that demonstrate Koteas’ uncanny ability to blend.

Shutter Island (2010)
Andrew Laeddis
Here we are, back to batshit crazy Koteas.  There are plenty of nutso characters in Martin Scorsese’s warped head trip, and with the exception of Emily Mortimer’s Rachel (an actress I plan on highlighting in this column very soon), Koteas’ Andrew Laeddis takes the cake.

Koteas shows up briefly in a hallucinatory scene as the pyromaniac responsible for the death of Teddy Daniels’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) wife.  Smoky and scarred, Koteas plays Laeddis as a remorseless snake, slithering in and out of view, chewing on every word.

For me, Koteas’ moment is the most memorable scene of Scorsese’s otherwise underwhelming film.  Dirty, disfigured and disturbing; perfect Koteasian bliss.

Best of the Best
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Capitan Staros
Some pretty flashy, popular roles occupy my favorite film performances of the ‘90s.  Tom Hanks, Philadelphia; Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas, Daniel Day-Lewis, In the Name of the Father, Edward Norton, American History X; Denzel Washington, The Hurricane.  A performance many people may not be aware of, however, is Elias Koteas in The Thin Red Line.

Koteas’ portrayal of the anguished Capitan Staros is, in no uncertain terms, a flawless tour de force of screen acting.  You can literally take any single moment that Koteas is onscreen and label it as masterful. 

Like most of the cast in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, Koteas didn’t have it easy.  Malick famously changed Koteas’ character from Jewish to Greek just days before the movie started shooting.  Koteas’ undoubted frustration and anguish carries over flawlessly onto the screen.  His Staros is an emotionally wounded protector, a fatherly figure that, when we first meet him, is disrespected by his men and belittled by his superiors.

Then something happens.

There’s a quiet, tender scene the night before the film’s laborious centerpiece battle in which Staros sits alone in a tent, praying determinately.

“Are you here?” he whispers.

The candle next to him flickers.

“Let me not betray you… let me not betray my men.”

There’s something about that moment that moves me to tears everytime I watch the film.  The Thin Red Line isn’t a hard film to watch because of its physical violence, it’s a hard film to watch because of its emotional intensity.  Not since The Deer Hunter has a film captured the true hell of war.  And not since Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter has a performance in a war film been as subtly harrowing as Elias Koteas’.

I haven’t even mentioned the epic verbal battle between Koteas and Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall, an exchange that could merit an essay-length post itself (kind of like this one).  I’ve discussed this before, but there’s a seemingly hidden moment at the end of that scene, in which a stunned Koteas puts his radio down and quickly, instinctively blurts out a phrase in Greek.  That, too, is something I find strangely moving. 

Capitan Staros is one of my favorite movie characters of contemporary cinema. The character is beautifully written, expertly staged, and, most importantly, perfectly acted.

Other Notable Roles
Let Me In
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The Prophecy (1995)
Gattaca (1997)
Apt Pupil (1998)
The Sopranos – “The Strong, Silent Type” (2002)
Shooter (2007)
Two Lovers (2008)
Let Me In (2010)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, Part 1

Late last Sunday night, while attempting to pick a film to cap off the weekend, I proposed an idea to my girlfriend: (at least) one horror movie a night (that she hasn’t seen) until Halloween.  She was amused and enthusiastic.  Sucker.

Basically, I have free reign to spend the next week scaring the living shit out of my girlfriend.  And really, what can be better than that?

Scary movies don’t scare me.  I’m far more likely to be forever freaked by movies that chronicle plausible situations. Deliverance ruined camping for me, The Vanishing ruined any sort of trust in strangers for me, Blood of the Beasts ruined meat for me, and so on. 

Despite my indifference to horror film frights, there are, of course, a few notable exceptions. Occasionally you get a genuinely scary horror film that is also quite well made.  Those are the ones I’m choosing to watch this week.

Halloween (1978)
In addition to being indisputably scary, the original Halloween is a very good movie.  Sure, some of the acting is conveniently stereotyped, and the production quality is heavily dated (which, to me, lends itself well to the film’s terror), but Michael Myers’ night of horror over Haddonfield, Illinois remains as scary as the first time I saw it.

As the final cords to John Carpenter’s iconic musical score came to a silence after my recent viewing, I dived into a heated rant about how good the original Halloween is, but how the fear it projects has become somewhat diluted.  Not diluted with time, mind you, but rather with mindless sequels and remakes.  Imagine how scary it would be to not know why Michael Myers was so hell bent on killing Little Miss Innocent Jamie Lee Curtis. 

You can make this argument for nearly all great horror films, but honestly, wouldn’t be nice to not see them muddled down by sequels, prequels, parodies and remakes?

Body Count: 5 (including a truck driver off screen)

Scariest Scene: The closet scene, easily. To me, this scene captures the entire essence of the film.  You have Jamie Lee Curtis terrified in a claustrophobic corner (who can ever forget her shrieking?), with a confused Michael Myers swinging aimlessly at empty coat hangers before one is directly plunged into his eye.  It’s a terrifying, iconic scene.  One that lives up well to its reputation. 

(the referenced scene begins at 0:50)

The Shining (1980)        
The Shining is remembered for many things: jaw dropping helicopter shots, REDRUM, creepy twins, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”, the innovation of steadicam, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and so on.

What I virtually had no recollection of was how effective the film’s music is to its overall creepiness.  Stanley Kubrick’s use of stock music, as was the case with all his films, lends itself perfectly to the material. The music, which sounds oddly similar to bits used in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, rarely ceases. The score, like the film itself, relentlessly builds to shocking climax after shocking climax, right up to the garden maze finale.

In addition to its score, The Shining – again, like all of Mr. Kubrick’s films – has a way of covertly sneaking up on you, to the point that you may not be aware that you’re in the midst of greatness until days later.  When I, and several notable critics, first saw The Shining, I was unimpressed with its story. Now, I consider it a terrifying masterpiece.

Most of the freaky shit in this film takes place in the middle of the day, or at least in very well-lit rooms.  Seriously, who else but Kubrick could pull something like that off?

Body Count: 2

Scariest Scene: There are more obvious choices to be had here, but for me, it’s Jack Nicholson’s cold, dead eyes staring mercilessly at his playful wife and innocent son frolicking in the snow.  Kubrick was, among other things, the master of the jump cut, a technique used no better than in this scene.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is the most disturbing horror film I’ve ever seen.  I’ll never forget how unsettled I was during the opening credit sequence.  The red hue, the rotted bones, the horrible sound effect; it’s all utterly mortifying. 

Like Halloween, the rawness of Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece suits it faultlessly.  And this is where the Michael Bay-produced remakes (in part) got it wrong: the material demands to be seen as raw and unhinged, not as flashy and gory.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is 83 minutes long, and every one of them is rooted in fear.  The fact that it starts off moderately slow (you know, minus the deranged hitchhiker with a penchant for straight razors), is ingenious.  “Maybe,” new viewers may think, “this won’t be so bad.”

Little do they know.  Honestly, has anyone ever watched this movie and NOT asked, verbally or otherwise, what the fuck is wrong with this family?  What motivates them? What happens to them.  Who knows. Exactly.

Body Count: 5

Scariest Scene: You know why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the most disturbing horror film I’ve ever seen?  Because of its final two shots, which I risk giving away to otherwise unknown viewers. Let me just say: you’ve never seen a laugh quite like this.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which I’ll dissect the horrors of Rosemary’s Baby, Friday the 13th and High Tension.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

The original Paranormal Activity produced the most mortifying experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.  No question.  At the midnight showing I attended there were screams, tears, walk-outs, vomit, you name it. People were seriously freaked, myself included.  It was a palpable fear unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  It was pure, horrific bliss.

Last year’s Paranormal Activity 2 did what most sequels do: it upped the ante; hoping more money spent would equate to more thrills achieved.  That film, while not without its fair share of scares (the simultaneous opening of every door and cabinet in the kitchen was brilliant), didn’t come close to matching its predecessor’s ingenuity.

Now we’re given the inevitable Paranormal Activity 3, an even more expensive outing of the same story using the same cheap-looking techniques.

Part one told the story of Katie and Micah, whose suburban home was being plagued by an unrelenting ghost.  Part two followed Katie’s sister Kristi’s sufferings with the same demon during the same period of time as the first film.  For part 3, we go back to the sisters’ childhood to see how it all began.

It doesn’t take long for Julie and her live-in boyfriend, Dennis, to realize young Katie and Kristi’s constant ramblings about a ghost aren’t to be ignored.  Dennis, projecting the alpha male prototype as presented in the first two films, wastes no time setting up cameras throughout the house to capture the creepiness.  The difference here is that this is 1988 and anyone who knows anything about home video cameras knows that the quality achieved by the cameras used in Paranormal Activity 3 is so far superior anything sold in electronic stores at the time, that it makes for a very large distraction.  But hey, it’s okay, Dennis is a wedding videographer, so obviously he has the best stuff around.  Solved!

Look, Paranormal Activity 3 is freakier than all hell in a sold-out theater of screaming viewers.  In the moment, you’re going to be scared.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good film, or even a worthy horror film.

There are plenty of jumps to be had (though not as many as the first two) and a neat gimmick of strapping a camera to the top of a standing fan, but by the end, I was left wanting more.

Much has been made about the film’s final 15 minutes, which are scary, sure, but not anything you won’t be able to shake the minute you leave the theater.  In fact, I found the end to be far too convenient; it takes all the mystery out of the first film, which is a damn shame.

One final topic of discussion: I bitch a lot about the dying art of the movie trailer.  If you watch the trailer for this film, it looks as though they give most of the frights away.  Not the case.  In fact, 90 percent of what's used in the trailer below is not in the final film. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that yet.

No matter, given this film’s incredible opening weekend, the Paranormal Activity saga will undoubtedly slug forth for years on end.  Just imagine what the first film would be had they left the series alone.  C

Friday, October 21, 2011

Movies My Brother Showed Me

My brother and I aren’t close.  Never have been.  We’re two very different people with very different interests.  We’ve spoken once in four and a half years, a fact that I carry with genuine apathy.

Despite our estrangement, I have a handful of pleasant memories of him.  Most of them, it may not surprise, relate to film.

If you read my Four Year Anniversary post, you know that movies have played an integral part in my life.  My fascination with film started early and has only grown since.  Growing up, I often saw movies before my brother did, which tended to annoy him, given that he’s three years older.

To make up for this, he would constantly rent movies that he thought I had never heard of.  This was done for a number of reasons, competition chief among.  He was playfully trying to find great, modern films before I could get a hold of them.  This often meant slogging through dozens of straight-to-video films that never saw the dark of a movie theater.  The movies were, by and large, utter crap.  But amidst the abominable waste, there were a few hidden gems, which I’ve highlighted below.
Me, Mickey and my brother, circa 1994
My brother is 29 today, and this is, quite frankly, the best (and only) way I know to wish him a happy birthday.  Maybe he’ll read this, maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’s never seen my blog, maybe he reads it often.  Regardless, these films have impacted my life for various reasons, which wouldn’t have been possible if my brother hadn’t shown them to me.

The Monster Squad (1987)
If I kept count of how many times my brother and I watched this movie on Saturday and Sunday mornings, it’d be in the hundreds.  No bullshit.

We loved everything about The Monster Squad.  It’s hilarious (“Wolfman’s got nards…”), it’s clever, and, to a six year old, it’s scarier than all hell. 

To this day, the old school Tri-Star intro (the one with the giant pegasus running toward the screen) still terrifies the shit out of me.  How’s that for Pavlovian psychology?

Drop Dead Fred (1991)
My brother and I watched Drop Dead Fred every Christmas Eve for 10 some odd years.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  Tradition is tradition.  At some point, you realize that ending a tradition would be far more unsettling than simply sitting through an absurd, yet absurdly funny, screwball comedy once a year.

I haven’t watched Drop Dead Fred since our tradition lapsed.  Maybe I’m afraid it won’t be as funny as I remember.

American History X (1998)
Now we’re getting to the serious stuff.  I’ll never forget the afternoon that my brother came to my room, in a silent, shaken funk, and told me that I had to come downstairs and watch the movie he’d just finished.  The next two hours were equally insightful and distressing.  We sat stunned and awestruck, like driving by a horrible car accident; we shouldn’t look, but we can’t take our eyes off it.

I remember seeing that final shot of the beach, and just sitting on the couch, staring at the ground, trying to catch my breath.  American History X makes no apologies for the kind of film it is, which is why I respect it so much. It’s honest, raw, and brutal.  And, in my opinion, essential viewing for anyone who makes judgments about others based simply on how they look.

Any Given Sunday (1999)
I’ve seen Any Given Sunday many times, but the most memorable viewing was when my brother took me to see it in the theater (it was my second time, his first).

We bought two tickets to… Galaxy Quest, I believe, and strolled with confidence into Oliver Stone’s hard-R football epic.  I was 15, my brother was 18.  It was a Sunday evening, and there were about 20 other people in the theater.  Seconds after sitting down, while the trailers were still running, we were approached by a theater usher who couldn’t have been older than 18. 

The ensuing conversation went a little like this:
Usher: Can I see your ticket stubs?
Brother: We don’t have them.
Usher: If you don’t have stubs, then I have to ask you to leave.
Brother: We had tickets, how do you think we got past the dude who tears them?  We just threw them away by mistake.
Usher: He said you had tickets to another movie.
Brother: (looking at the screen) Shows what he knows.
Usher: I’ll have to ask you to—
Brother: (interrupting) Can I talk to you outside?

Minutes later, my brother returned to the theater, sat down, and told me to enjoy the movie.  Later, I found out that he convinced the usher that we were brothers (true) whose parents weren’t around much (false) and that he was pretty much raising me (false).

It worked.  Which set up a whole new method of continual manipulation.  In fact, that’s the exact same shtick he pulled to sneak me into…

American Psycho (2000)
…a film that deserves to be credited, along with Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, as the most hilariously quotable film of contemporary cinema.  In fact, I believe American Psycho to be one of the most brilliantly sardonic pieces of American film written in the past 20 years, based on one of the most brilliantly sardonic novels ever written.

American Psycho is one of my favorite movies to show to those uninformed about Patrick Bateman.  I love watching their faces as Christian Bale moonwalks across his apartment in a raincoat, ax in hand.  Or the nervous chuckle that is often produced by lines like, “I like to dissect girls, did you know I’m utterly insane?”

So sure, showing the movie to people is always a blast, but it never tops the experience of being in the back row of a movie theater as a hysterical, jaw-dropped 15-year-old.

Chopper (2000)
A few days ago, I described in detail my fascination with Andrew Dominik’s hilariously warped character study.  A fascination that began in my childhood living room.  Sitting there with my brother, laughing our asses off at the sight of ol’ Chop slicing his ears off with a razor blade.  It was the best of times.

There’s a scene in Chopper soon after Eric Bana testifies against his former cellmate.  Instantly, with no warning, we jump cut to a slow motion shot of Chopper walking down a crowded street as a free man.  When the brief scene was finished, my brother rewound the DVD and hit pause.  “Who the fuck would let a guy like that out of prison?” he asked through tears of laughter.  He pushed play and we finished the movie, as we usually tended to do.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In Character: David Strathairn

When I’m asked who my favorite actor is, I usually rattle off names that most people have never heard of.  Once they see their face, they’ve got it, but by name alone, they’re in the dark. 

That’s the blessing and the curse of a character actor.  They’re disguisable enough so that you can identify them, but they can just as easily transform themselves into something you aren’t fully aware of (which is good for acting, but bad for notoriety).

I’ve wanted to create a new, weekly series devoted completely to character actors for a while now.  I have a page-long list of actors I’d like to highlight, and my procrastination was finally breached this past weekend, when I found myself accidentally having a beer with an Oscar nominee.  The conversation that followed with my coworker (who was sitting a few tables away) went something like this:

Co-worker: Who was that?  I know that guy.
Me: David Strathairn, he’s in town shooting Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Co-worker: Oh cool.  What has he been in?
Me: He played Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: He was nominated for an Oscar…
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: He was a pimp for high class call girls in L.A. Confidential.
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: Tom Cruise’s—
Co-worker: The dude Russell Crowe beat up?
Me: No.  He was Tom Cruise’s brother in The Firm. (pause) Meryl Streep’s husband in The River WildEight Men Out?
Co-worker: (shrugs shoulders)
Me: (sigh) He was the guy Matt Damon called from his own office in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Co-worker: Oh right!  That was so badass!

The point is, character actors rarely get the full credit they deserve.  They come on set for a few days, steal a scene or two, then vanish. 

For the purpose of this series, I’m going to briefly discuss five essential roles (chronologically) by the selected actor, and highlight their best role in particular.

This being the inaugural entry to this series, I’m not exactly sure where I want to take it.  It may evolve, it may stay in the same format.  Here’s to drawing attention to the actors who deserve more of it.

Five Essentials
Eight Men Out (1988)
Eddie Cicotte
There’s a host a fine actors in John Sayles’ baseball biopic, none better than Strathairn, who plays White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte with heartbreaking restraint. When he’s initially approached by his teammates to help throw the 1919 World Series, Cicotte barely puts up a fight, knowing that his age will soon get the better of him, and the extra cash will trump the glory of a win.

Watch Strathairn’s face when the other seven players don’t hold up their end of the bargain in game one of the series.  They’re all playing great, knowing that if the pitcher throws the game, then they will keep their public dignity intact.  Cicotte understands this, and, with pitiful sorrow, he continues to throw lousy pitches.  It’s a tough moment to convey without dialogue, and Strathairn, you’ll pardon the pun, knocks it out of the park.

Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Joe St. George
Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne, which is based on Stephen King’s novel, is not a good movie.  It’s awkwardly stylized and horribly written, but at its core there is a performance that is far superior to everything else going on.

In a rare villainous turn, Strathairn, in flashback, plays an alcoholic wife beater who may or may not find his doom at the hands of his abused wife (Kathy Bates).  Whenever Strathairn is in frame, the movie is terrifying.  It really is a shame that Hackford didn’t use his best asset to its full potential.  Strathairn’s last scene in this film is, by far, the most horrfiying work he’s ever done.  Be prepared to be seriously creeped.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Pierce Morehouse Patchett
Pierce Patchett, the pimp with rich pride.  We’ve seen it before: the pimp who makes no apologies for what he does or who he is, but I’ve never seen it as sly as Strathairn.  For most of his scenes, we actually forget how monstrous Patchett is.  He finds girls and seduces them into permanently rearranging their face and screwing rich men, just to make a quick buck.  This is achieved due to Strathairn’s insurmountable charm.  He may be scum, but he could care less if you think he’s scum.

I’ve always been drawn to Strathairn's brief role in L.A. Confidential.  It’s the first performance that I began to take serious note of him.  Devilish, charismatic, sly, cool; whatever you desire.

Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
Harrison Lloyd

Harrison’s Flowers is about a wife trying to find her Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer husband, who has been captured, and is presumed dead, in a war zone.

The film isn’t about Harrison, it’s about trying to find him, which means that Strathairn isn’t in the film much, but when he is, every second passes with perfect tenderness.

This film is about finding someone the audience barely knows.  For this to work, we have to care about the person being found.  To merely say Harrison’s Flowers works would be to understate the beauty of Strathairn’s performance.

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Arnie
Everyone has an opinion about Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights.  It’s too weightless, too glossy, too amateurish.  All bark, no bite.  I agree with that to an extent (it is definitely the weakest of Wai’s films from the past decade or so), but if you look at its middle segment, you have a great film begging to be given full attention.

The film is conveniently spilt up into three segments, with an extended prologue and epilogue.  The center, and best, segment finds Lizzie (Norah Jones) working in a dive bar in Memphis.  Usually planted quietly at the end of the bar is Arnie, a hopeless alcoholic who only finds solace in the sauce since his resentful wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) walked out on him.

Arnie tends to keep to himself, slugging back bourbon after bourbon, but everytime Sue Lynne walks in the bar, his constant grief erupts into humiliating aggression.  Wai keeps upping the ante, by showing us (in a simple yet startling scene) what Arnie does for a living when he’s sober.  Arnie and Sue Lynne’s story is so compelling, it could easily fill an entire movie on its own.  Strathairn's most devastating performance.

Best of the Best
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Edward R. Murrow
While My Blueberry Nights represents the most anguished Strathairn performance, Good Night, and Good Luck is his finest.  It’s simply inarguable.  George Clooney originally considered playing Murrow himself, but thank God he opted to only direct, write, and produce (well, that and the fact that he couldn’t lose his Syriana weight fast enough and wasn’t interested in constantly smoking herbal cigarettes), because the casting of Strathairn is revelatory.

In just 93 minutes, Strathairn became that guy you sometimes recognize, to a household name for blockbuster and indie filmmakers alike.  His unshakable channeling of Edward R. Murrow is one of the finest film portrayals of a real person I’ve ever seen.  Strathairn plays Murrow as a cool, calm and collected newsman with balls the size of Gibraltar.  For people my age, it’s difficult to comprehend the lasting effect of Murrow’s public battle with the tyrannical Senator Joseph McCarthy. 

Murrow didn’t just change the landscape of American media, he changed America.  Those are big shoes to fill, which Strathairn does effortlessly.  It’s a flawless performance, one that, in a lesser year, would’ve been capped with an Oscar.  “Good night, and good luck.”  Indeed.

Other Notable Roles
A League of Their Own (1992)
The Firm (1993)
The River Wild (1994)
We Are Marshall (2006)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Cold Souls (2009)
Temple Grandin (2010)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chopper vs. Bronson

Tom Hardy is the new hot shit, right?  He was the sole source of humor in Inception, he was perfectly repressed in Warrior and he will, I assume, be expertly covert in the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  And of course, Bane.

When people start talking about Hardy, I always steer them to the film that made him a breakout star, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson.  I’ll talk about Bronson for a little while, about its stylized violence and its charismatic yet clinically insane titular character; and after a while, I realize that I should’ve been talking about a similar, but far better, film the whole time.

On paper, Chopper and Bronson are the exact same movie, made eight years apart.  Both Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read and Michael Peterson (a.k.a Charles Bronson) were real-life criminals who spent more time in prison than out.  Both were fiercely charming, sadistically violent, lethally street smart, and very much insane.

But while Rehn is more focused on showing how amusingly batshit crazy his Bronson is, Andrew Dominik added another level to his Chopper.  He gave his man a soul.

I'm just a bloody normal bloke. A normal bloke who likes a bit of torture.

Released briefly in New York and L.A. in mid 2001, before fading to single copy-only purgatory on a hidden shelf at your local Blockbuster, Chopper was (and still is) a hidden phenomenon waiting to be discovered.

When we meet Chopper (played with ferocious excellence by then nobody Eric Bana), he is hatching a half ass plan to kill all of his enemies (i.e. pretty much everyone) in the Australian prison he occupies.  If it sounds absurd, that’s because it is.  Dominik and Bana know this, and the way they handle the (mostly) true material is breathtaking.

Everything Chopper says and does, you see, is done with wild charisma.  Whether he’s thrusting a shank into a prisoner’s face a dozen times, or being stabbed repeatedly by his cell mate, or chopping his own ears off, or firing a gun in a crowded nightclub; it’s all done with a sense of deranged joy.  The actions themselves aren’t necessarily funny (unless you have a sick sense of humor – ding ding), but the fallout is nothing short of hilarious.

Bana as Chopper/Chopper as Chopper
Eric Bana, if I haven’t been clear, is revelatory in the lead role.  Packing on a good 30 pounds and slathered in hundreds of tattoos, Bana transforms himself into Chopper.  It’s the type of performance that, quite frankly, makes award competitions irrelevant.  Bana may have not been nominated for anything, but he got the attention of Ridley Scott, who cast him in Black Hawk Down, which led to The Hulk, which led to Munich, and so on.

And despite the fact that Bana steals the show, Chopper is far from a one trick pony.  Because the film was made for next to nothing, its composition is horrible.  It is grainy and dark with a fluctuating soundtrack.  All of this, however, lends itself perfectly to the film.  The look of the film is raw, but so is the material.  If you saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then you know Andrew Dominik knows his shit.  The raw talent of he and his Chopper cast and crew is wildly compelling.

Inside, I'm somebody nobody wants to fuck with, do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson, I am Britain's most violent prisoner. 

Bronson is similar in story in that it tells the tale of a violent prisoner who took more pleasure in hurting others than he probably did from anything else.  The real Michael Peterson (who later took on the fight name, Charles Bronson) was sentenced to seven years in prison for robbery, but has only spent a handful of days out of jail since being incarcerated. 

As Tom Hardy informs us in the film, Bronson loved being an inside man.  He loved being able to hone his fighting skills on the guards that tried to restore order.  Kidnapping guards, hurting himself, refusing to eat; no gimmick was spared to make way for a little bit of beating.

I first saw Bronson at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and remember being utterly enthralled.  You had this jacked up dude beating the shit out of anything within sight, usually cut in slow motion to electronica music.  It was coolest prison movie I’d seen since, well, Chopper.
Hardy as Bronson/Bronson as Bronson
Watching it now, having seen Refn’s far superior Drive, I’m a little less impressed.  A lot less impressed, actually.

Its sense of humor is still intact, and Hardy is still demonically possessed in all the best ways, but there’s really nothing to the film.  There’s fighting and blood and punching and knives and bare asses and talking and fighting and blood and end credits.  The film is 92 minutes but its repetitiveness makes it feel double that.  If you’re a fan of Drive, you’ll enjoy seeing the makings of Refn’s genius.  Otherwise, Bronson is a film that, aside from its violence, is as weightless as air.

Here's a bloke, sitting in a cell, who can't spell, and he's written a best-seller. It's sold two hundred and fifty thousand copies. And it's still selling. And he's writing another one. And I can't even spell. I'm semi-bloody-illiterate. 

Which brings me to my final point.  Bronson is all style, no substance, whereas Chopper is high style, higher substance.  You may laugh with your friends about all the crazy shit Chopper does, but when you stop and actually think about it, you’ll find yourself staring off at a blank wall, alone with your thoughts, much like the man himself.  Chopper: A, Bronson: B-