American Hustle

Out of the Furnace (2013), directed by Scott Cooper

American Hustle (2013), directed by David O. Russell

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Double-Shot Review (or a review at all, really. My apologies.) but I’ve recently been inspired by a couple of films featuring the occasionally-great Welsh actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire).

They’re two films which really have a lot to say about what it means to be American, so I find it ironic having a Welshman in there, but maybe that’s just me.

Out of the Furnace is the type of film I find extremely frustrating to watch because all the elements are there for what could be a really whiz-bang, gritty revenge film, as the trailer made it seem like it would be, but it all simply goes to waste.

First you have a great cast of rough and tumble character actors with some meaty roles. Just tell me you have a film starring Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard and Woody Harrelson in which a steel mill and illegal boxing figures heavily and I’ll gladly wait in line opening night.

Which brings me to the subject matter. Some people, David Edelstein for one, don’t have the same affinity for dark movies about small-town violence bathed in Southern gothic themes as I do. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a mill town, maybe it’s because I watched Five Easy Pieces too many times as a teenager, I don’t know. All I know is you give some actors a Southern accent, throw them a few guns and tell them to argue about meth and, again, waiting in line.

Some call it “poverty porn.” It may be. There’s certainly nothing truly glamorous about welfare and substance abuse. But isn’t all cinema exploitation? At least most of these style of films genuinely want you to care about their characters.

But I digress.

My point is that even with all of these ducks in a row, Out of the Furnace still manages to be an absolute bore.

It’s got a good setup, with Bale’s brother (Affleck) back from Iraq and getting mixed
up in the wrong crowd as he deals with some mid-level PTSD. You know he’s going to get in trouble and Bale’s going to have to bail (eh?) him out. We know the main baddy, played by Woody Harrelson, is a psychopath from the prologue, and the movie poster tells us Bale is going to be holding a rifle at some point, so it seems all good.

And then the movie starts in with this rambling, meaningless cross-scene of Bale hunting and Affleck boxing, and Bale going to jail for no apparent reason in terms of plot arch, and then when you think the movie is finally getting to the climactic violence it puts on the brakes and heads for home, and then when it does hit its peak it involves a lot of walking and talking in a field etc.

I get that the director is trying for something more here but, son, when you have the elements in place and the eye for a gritty 1970s-style revenge film, you go for it. The Deer Hunter is an obvious inspiration here, but The Deer Hunter this film is not, and a lot of people even look back on that nearly-forgotten film as a rambling mess. (I love it, for the record.)

Get the brother killed, put a rifle in Bale’s hands and let’s go get us some meth heads. Because even with the moody ramblings, that’s exactly what this movie still ends up doing. So why not have some fun with it?

Far less frustrating is American Hustle, which in terms of setup and execution is the complete opposite of Out of the Furnace. With Furnace we have a film with a few strong basic elements which it stretches out and completely fumbles. With Hustle we have a film with so many elements in play only a truly impressive directorial touch manages to spin them into a solid, legible and highly entertaining movie.

This partially-true (“Some of this is true” reads the screen before the film) take on the Abscam bust on the late-1970s is a dense film. It has, ostensibly, four main characters, a notably complicated conman plot, fast dialogue, complicated personalities and at any time seemingly dozens of things going on all at once.

And yet Russell manages to make it all work.

What he’s doing here is going for the Scorsese approach. (We’ll see who does it better when The Wolf of Wall Street comes out on Christmas.) While watching American Hustle kind of made me miss the magnificent cohesion Scorsese manages in an incredibly complicated film like GoodFellas, Russell almost hits that same swirling high.

Like Scorsese, Russell brings out all the tricks: swooping camera movements, an attention to detail for the period of the film, gaudy costumes, rockin’ soundtrack, quick cuts, fast talking. He’s good with them too and American Hustle captures that wonderful combination of dizzying and captivating.

While GoodFellas was clearly about the temptation and ultimate trappings of a life of crime to a low-level nobody, American Hustle is pretty much about just a bunch of absolute morons, let’s be honest.

Which may be the point in and of itself. The film seems to be asking who isn’t a conman? We get actual conman Irving, played by Bale, but we also get the FBI, politicians, the mafia and regular ole people, with everyone lying to everyone else, not to mention themselves.

I don’t know if any of it comes together for any sort of profound point, but it is a scathing peek at the pathetic trappings of modern America.

More than it is important though, American Hustle is entertaining. It’s shockingly funny and full of wonderfully energetic performances, particularly from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, reunited with Russell after Silver Linings Playbook. The film races along with an invigorating pace. It has a kick ass soundtrack.

And so, so much side-boob, if you go in for that sort of thing. I know that sound juvenile, but just watch the film. It’s all I heard anyone talking about after it let out.

It falls into a few traps, including some painfully unnecessary narration and occasional meandering, but in general American Hustle is, like all movies, a great con. I doubt it will crack my Best of 2013 list, but it wouldn’t be far behind.

Sorry I didn’t really have much so say about Bale, despite the lede. I get distracted. You know, side-boob.

Out of the Furnace and American Hustle are in cinemas now.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), directed by Francis Lawrence

For all the contact I’ve had with The Hunger Games and how much it seems I liked the first movie, going by my review, I have a hard time getting excited about it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting tired of hearing it. Maybe it’s because I only thought the books were pretty good and not much more in the first place. Whatever it is, I wasn’t exactly shaking in anticipation to see Catching Fire.

Which might piss some people off, seeing as I ended up getting to see it before the damn thing even opened. Sorry, Hungerers. Or is it Hunghards? That just sounds wrong. Someone work on this and get back to me.

So, Catching Fire, part two of the saga. Here we go.

Not much has changed since the first go round, despite Katniss and Peeta pulling off a surprise underdog win at the Coke-a-Cola Presents the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Sure, they have nicer homes and are less likely to starve, but just outside the gates of their drab new subdivision is the same old drab mining town with people in drab clothes, moving about like worn out old drab coal miners.

It’s like England, basically. Right?

People have been talking about how hard it is to pull off a good middle series of a trilogy, but I’m not sure that’s true. For that argument is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Iron Man 2 and Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (very disappointing). On the other hand you have The Empire Strikes Back, The Bourne Supremacy and Police Academy 2: The First Assignment.

By my count it’s about 50/50.

Well worry no longer folks because Catching Fire officially belongs in the latter category. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say it’s better than the first film. GASP. I know.

The main difference surely must be the change in directors. While Gary Ross brought some pedigree to the job (it’s a Seabiscuit joke), his initial outing turned out rather mediocre, without much in the way of deep emotions or even tense excitement. And he insisted on a near constant use of that damn shaky cam technique that’s all the rage right now.

Francise Lawrence isn’t exactly God’s gift to Hollywood (although I did rather like I Am Legend) he seems to be a good fit here, with a skilled sense of pace and production. He also seems to own a good tripod, which probably got him the job.

Catching Fire is a tough cookie because in some ways it’s kind of more of the same from the first film, and that does slow it down a tad. But the fact it does the first film better than the first film did makes it worth your while. Just like Rocky 2 (howzat?), I enjoyed watching how these character’s are functioning after the fame of the games and Katniss’ struggle with wanting to run away but finding herself the up and coming leader of a revolution.

Jennifer Lawrence handles Katniss really well in this sequel, and I really think it’s in this film she fully inhabits the role. There’s a bit more to grip on to here, with this inner struggle becoming even more tearing and a lovely amount of conflict with a great number of people. Everyone wants a piece of Katniss and she doesn’t know who to go with.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also added to the mix, at his mischievous mumbling best. I liked him, and he helped an old indie film fan like myself find an entrance point into this tween world.

Despite my enjoyment of this film, I still think the series as a whole is slight. I still groan at the thought of having the third book broken up into two movies spread out over two years. While I see the appeal, I have the unfortunate vantage point of experience. I grew up with other distopian futures (Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Death Race 2000) and already know the dangers of fictional totalitarian rule.

This isn’t to say I’m above it all. I’m not. I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire. But I’m not losing my head over it. For those who are though, this should hit the spot.

May the odds forever be in your flavour. I like chocolate peanut butter.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens today in cinemas.

Halloween II

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Halloween II (1981), directed by Rick Rosenthal

Halloween II is kind of an oddball movie, because it has every right to be good, but manages to be absolutely, unequivocally dull.

I say it’s odd because there are not too many sequels which pick up exactly where the original film ended. Halloween II goes so far as to even back track a tad, and then continue on with the exact same Oct. 31 night in Haddonfield we have already become familiar with.

So, being a more-than-direct sequel from the first movie, it seems to have much potential, seeing as the first is one of the best slasher films ever made.

Yet it’s sort of mind bogglingly boring.

I have a few ideas as to why.

First off, the obvious: John Carpenter didn’t direct it. He wrote it, along with Debra Hill, just like the first film, but said he wasn’t interested in directing the same movie twice. Fair enough.

While he still has a hand in the film, Halloween II is really a testament to the talent Carpenter has behind the camera. Some of the best moments in Halloween come from the little flares Carpenter’s style adds to the movie: holding the shot of Myers watching Laurie walk down the street for an intentionally long time; his use of light, especially in the closet scene; his use of foreground.

While Rosenthal takes some cues from Carpenter, notably the 1st person Myers shots, his film just doesn’t have the flair, the attention to detail, the atmosphere of its predecessor. It feels rushed and perfunctory. The obvious joy Carpenter lavished on his original is not there.

Another reason it didn’t work for me is it doesn’t have the buildup which is so essential to a good horror film. While the original Halloween is a slasher, it’s also just a great suspense movie, precisely because of the buildup to the violence and mayhem of the last half hour.

The sequel kicks off in high gear and never really lets up. It does slow down and the build up to the ultimate pay off in the hospital, which is perhaps the best part of the movie, but by that time any chance of setting us up to knock us down is long past. We have seen The Shape, we know what he’s capable of, all we can do at that point is wait for him to do it some more.

There are other obvious reasons, such as the old Jaws/Alien argument of what you can’t see is scarier than what you can. Also the added blood and gore does make the sequel more of a classic slasher than the first film, and while I love a good slasher, the atmosphere of the Halloween films lends itself better to suspense than pure bloodletting.

Another thing, knowing Myers is indestructible really takes away from his scariness, or at least from the movie’s ability to get you worked up over whether or not the hero is going to be able to take this guy out. And also maybe it’s just me. The idea of a normal old human being as an emotionless killer of pure evil hits deeper than when you start throwing occult stuff into the mix.

Okay, that being said, what works? Well, some of the slasher moments are great set pieces on their own. When Myers puts his arm around the woman in the sauna, oh man. And the end explosion and its lead up with Loomis and Laurie trying to get out of the room as it fills with ether and oxygen is pretty epic.

But beyond that, I couldn’t help but find myself getting bored.

The first Halloween, which I rewatched last night, is a classic horror film, one of the greatest, because all of the elements work just right. It has a great, senseless, frightening villain, it has a perfect buildup, the quintessential music, the right balance of suspense and violence, and a few of those gasp-inducing moments to take the whole affair to the next level.

Halloween II never even has the chance to find that balance, so it’s not entirely to blame for its inferiority. Nonetheless, even as a standalone film, it’s a bore which gets bogged down in its own desire to be violent and non-stop.

Maybe if you marathoned the two films the second part would work better. But I doubt it.

So that’s it for another year of Horror Pledge. Boy will my girlfriend be happy. She can’t watch horror movies, so I’ve been holed up by myself for this. I didn’t get a chance to write about them all (I also watched Bubba Ho Tep, Slumber Party Massacre, Jennifer’s Body and the new Carrie), but I did find a couple of gems, namely The Burning and Candyman.

Until next October folks, stay spooky!

Halloween II is available on home video.

Machete Kills

So I’ve been going to see movies, I swear, but I’ve been having trouble finding time to write about them. I know, poor me, but life, she gets busy, no?

So in the spirit of not having much time, I proudly present:

CineFile’s Half-Assed Capsule Review Roundup!

Lucky you. Here we go!

Machete Kills (2013), directed by Robert Rodriquez

While I enjoyed the original Machete movie I don’t think I’ve thought about it since it came out and I’ve certainly had no real desire to see it again. It’s just one of those types of movies.

Well the sequel is even less of one of those types of movies. I saw it about two weeks ago and already I can remember very little about it other than how silly it was and also how tame it seemed to the first one.

One thing I liked about Machete was how it didn’t hold back on violence or nudity or whatever. It embraced it like a good exploitation movie should. It actually seemed like a rough alternative to glossy Hollywood action.

Well Machete Kills is more action comedy than exploitation knockoff and it suffers for it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some funny moments and some enjoyably over-the-top performances, notably from Demian Bichir, who really stole the show as the demented former-cartel leader turned radical. He’s seriously fantastic.

But overall the film is so ridiculous there is nothing to take away from it. It tries for nothing other than laugh-at-it type jokes. There’s no truly fantastic kills or set pieces, everything is set up to look throwaway and jokey. Which is fine, but I need something more, and we all know Rodriquez can do better.

don_jon_xlg

Don Jon (2013), directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

It got kind of lukewarm reviews, but I actually really enjoyed Don Jon and found it to have a pretty refreshingly frank take on modern sexuality, porn and relationships.

It’s no masterpiece, but Gordon-Levitt’s Jon character was an interesting man to watch, because there’s probably a little bit of Jon in all of us modern men, whether we admit it or not. And it had a nice idea for comparing the reverse fantastical corruption of romcoms.

Maybe some older critics might not have personal connection with these issues, but for those of us who grew up with the Internet, there has to be at least a little recognition of these as real issues. And it’s a touchy subject right, because it has to do with pornography and sexuality and things we still don’t like to talk about very much.

So I like that the film had the guts to take on the topic, but also to do so in a lightly entertaining way, so everyone watching can relax a little and just let the issues trickle into the brain a little. Spoon full of sugar, that kind of idea.

I’m just saying if James Franco had made this, God bless him, none of us would have gotten anything out of it because none of us would have known what the hell he was driving at.

Anyway, it’s a breakthrough performance by JGL and the film shows he has chops behind the camera as well, and something to say, which is kind of rare.

Kid’s got promise.

Gravity

Gravity (2013), directed by  Alfonso Cuaron

It seems a shame to throw this one into a series of capsule reviews, seeing as most people seem to be losing their minds over this 3D extravaganza, but you know what? I think it’s kind of fitting.

Because to me Gravity was a slight film.

Settle down.

Listen, visually it is incredible, nobody is arguing against that. I went to the 3D IMAX showing and my eyeballs gave it five-out-of-five and two retinas up. They’re still talking about it.

My brain and my heart, on the other hand, have been arguing with my eyeballs about it ever since.

For all the visual splendour, the characters and the story seemed like afterthoughts. I get it, they’re out in space doing whatever, but then everything goes insane in some way I never really understood. Something to do with blowing up a satellite and it taking out every other satellite in orbit.

It’s not explained very well because it doesn’t matter. All that matter’s is the astronaut’s plight to find a way back to Earth.

And that’s fine too, except they turn Sandra Bullock’s character into a Hollywood fluff cliche about a woman who lost her child and now drives around listening to the radio all night. Why couldn’t she just be a normal astronaut who wants to get home? Why the cheesy, heart tugging back story? Seemed unnecessary and trite to me. It took me right out of the movie.

All I could think about during Gravity was how good Apollo 13 was. It’s a similar concept, only it’s a true story and finds its power in the reality of the situation and not in a series of preposterous extravagances. Ron Howard’s movie is clinical, grounded (so to speak) and tense. Gravity is mostly ludicrous. Beautifully ludicrous, but ludicrous none the less.

You another movie which does more with similar themes?

All Is Lost

All Is Lost (2013), directed by J.C. Chandor

Here we have another film about the will to survive but instead of highfalutin speeches and massive set pieces, Chandor leans primarily on silence and the steadfast, logical determination of his central character to create his tension and turmoil. And it’s captivating.

All Is Lost is a fantastic film, largely free of dialogue and with a late-career highlight of a performance from Robert Redford as a sailboater (is that the right term?) up the Indian Sea without a paddle. And a hole in his boat.

This is another film where the possibility of death permeates every decision made. And in this film you really feel the weight of that decision because of the filmmaker’s grounded approach.

Knowing less about Redford’s character made the film all the more powerful, because by doing so he becomes an everyman. We have no idea why he is out sailing. We never learn if he is married or has kids or what he enjoys listening to on the car radio, primarily because it doesn’t matter.

The heart of the matter is that Redford is a human being with an instinct to survive. Watching him try to figure out how to is the entertainment of the movie. Watching him fail and succeed and seeing the emotions he goes through throughout it all is the power.

Maybe it comes down to the personality of the viewer, but I would take a film like All Is Lost over a Gravity any day, as much as I love grand, ambitious movies. All Is Lost is perfect at what it is trying to be, while Gravity gets lost in trying so hard to throw on a bunch of extra bells and whistles.

Characterization is always stronger through implication than explanation. Show, don’t tell.

All Is Lost tells nothing and is the stronger film for it, one of the best I’ve seen in some time.

Okay, there’s a couple more, but I might try to do a Horror Pledge 2013 roundup, which would include Carrie, and I might try to tackle Escape Plan on its own. Because, you know, Sly.

All of these films are in cinemas now. Except maybe Machete Kills, which disappeared almost immediately.

The Burning

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The Burning (1981), directed by Tony Maylam

Nowadays when people talk about slasher movies they speak about them as silly, formulaic nonsense for naive movie audiences of the 1980s.

We can thank Scream and Cabin in the Woods for this attitude, among others.

While I don’t mind a new take on slashers, when you get down to watching an original, earnest one you begin to realize what made them popular in the first place, before they got self-consciously silly and aware.

Sure, a lot of people never liked them, finding them lurid and worthless. Most famously, Roger Ebert despised them, believing they appealed to the worst in us while offering no cinematic joys.

Well, sorry Roger, but I for one rather enjoy a well made slasher film. The first two Friday the 13th movies, for instance, are great fun to watch, and have some legitimate scares (Tween Jason coming out of the lake? Come on.), and of course Halloween is one of the all time great horror movies.

The Burning is another classic slasher film from the year of the slasher, 1981 (The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th Pt. 2, Halloween 2). This is before Michael Myers turned into a joke, before Freddy Krueger started making one-liners before every kill and before Jason Voorhees went to space.

There’s a certain mindless candy fun to a well made, earnest slasher film and this honestly has to be one of the best. Sure, it’s a clear cash-in on the success of Friday the 13th, which came out the year before. It has a similar setup, what with the summer camp setting and the psycho getting revenge on the camp counsellors plot, but in some ways it’s a little more straight forward.

For one thing I really enjoyed how the killer in this one is clearly human and clearly still alive. It’s not the classic he disappears for years and then he’s back and is he a ghost or a zombie or a mutant or what?!

In The Burning he’s clearly a human, albeit a badly burned one. It’s great how you get to see this guy recover and go through terrible rehabilitation and all the consequences of what the teens did.

For one thing, you end up sympathizing with him. It was pretty awful to burn him like that. I’d be pissed too. I’d like to think I’d take a different route to retribution, perhaps the courts, but at the same time I’d probably at least think a little bit about picking up those garden shears over there and taking it into my own hands.

So even though, like most slashers, part of you is rooting for the killer, in this case you have a pretty decent reason to.

But the camp kids are fairly personable too, even if they have some serious problems around camp safety. I’m not camp specialist but leaving children unsupervised for the purposes of running off to have sex in the woods is surely against some sort of rule. But it seems reasonable that that kind of things do happen.

And then there’s the one creepy kid who likes watching people have sex. He’s an interesting character. It’s funny how most of them just write it off as some quirk of his. “Oh Alfred.”

The cast also has a young George Costanza, er, Jason Alexander, proving that, yes, he once did have hair, and that, yes, he has always played annoying loudmouths.

Holly Hunter is also in it in her first role, but I have to admit I didn’t spot her. So there you have it.

And the ending is epically fantastic and overkill, literally. You know this mf isn’t coming back anytime soon.

So listen. I liked The Burning a great deal. It had a classsic setup, some gnarly kills, a real good pace and tone to it, some great effects and mostly enjoyable characters. If someone is ever looking for a straight up, original slasher movie I think this is the one I would send them to. Maybe Friday the 13th Pt. 2.

The Burning is available on home video formats.

PS Sorry about the shortage of Horror Pledge 2013 entries. I do this all out of passion on the side of my desk and unfortunately the front of my desk has kept me rather occupied lately. Plus I’m getting ready to go to this camp on some lake. This old dude at a gas station warned me not to go, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Candyman

Candyman

Candyman (1992), directed by Bernard Rose

I remember seeing commercials for Candyman when it came out and I was about eight years old. I remember it looked terrifying to me.

Of course I didn’t get to see it at that age, nor would I have wanted to at the time. But as my fear of horror movies grew into a strong desire to scare myself and test my limits with them, I knew Candyman would eventually be on my viewing list.

After all, I had survived watching A Nightmare on Elm Street a couple years ago, even though Freddy Kruger had been the Number 1 most terrifying figure of my childhood, despite never having seen any of his movies.

So Horror Pledge 2013 brought me to Candyman.

What an odd, captivating, perhaps brilliant but also bizarre movie Candyman is. I expected a decently made slasher flick, but I didn’t expect the social commentary level of the film.

I liked how the film worked on a couple of levels, what with the blood and nipples and all, but also with a black villain and a fairly honest (I imagine) depiction of life in a housing project and its exploitation by a couple of well-meaning thesis students.

Because even though you usually root for the slasher even if you shouldn’t, in this movie it’s kind of OK to. I mean, here are these privileged college girls, one of which is white and has zero street sense, wanting to poke and prod around the lives of poor black people in order to write a thesis on urban legends, in this case that of the Candyman.

It’s kind of a dick move, is all I’m saying.

Maybe I’ve just seen The Wire too much, but even as a white townie who really has no idea of what life is actually like in impoverished African-American neighbourhoods…I would have listened to the friend and stayed the hell away. Yes, because it’s dangerous, but also because it’s not my place to be there if I’m told not to be.

But the film also knows not to beat you over the head with its point. I liked how the filmmakers made one of the students black. She warns Helen about the dangers of the projects and leaving well enough alone, yet she’s still determined to go along with her research. She’s a nice balance of the power positions at play here.

But beyond that it’s just a pretty imaginative and surprising slasher flick. I loved the whole framing her for murders attack method by the Candyman, and how it just keeps escalating. The first one you think maybe she could explain her way out of it but then as more people start getting f’ed up around her she just keeps getting deeper and deeper into the bloody mess.

It’s a lot of fun.

It’s also just a strange movie, which you would expect from the mind of Clive Barker (Hellraiser). Candyman is not exactly your typical horror villain. He has a recognizable face, he’s black and his only schtick is giving people the old Captain Hook. While I enjoyed something different, I can understand why the character hasn’t gone far in terms of a franchise, there’s only so much you can do with him.

And the whole angle of people needing to believe in the Candyman in order for him to have power is a nice twist. Cause he does exist. So how are you going to stop believing he does? It’s a tricky one. And it also ties into the theme of urban legend and myth, and the importance of tales which, though perhaps not literally true, serve a purpose in keeping people out of harm, like most fairy tales do.

But what if the fairy tales are true? Even worse.

Anyway, I doubt it will become a repeat viewing favourite of mine but I did thoroughly enjoy conquering my childhood fears and finally watching Candyman. Not that I’m going to be saying his name into a mirror anytime soon. Uh-uh, hell no.

Candyman is available on home video formats of many kinds.

The Lords of Salem

Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem (2013), directed by Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie is such a contradictory figure in the world of horror.

I mean, all people my age knew him as a weird metalhead with that one pseudo-hit that everyone knows. And then he decided to become a horror film director, which sounded like a bizarre and perhaps laughable idea. Then he made House of 1000 Corpses, which was weird and pretty hardcore and had a distinctive throwback style, all quite enjoyable.

And then he made The Devil’s Rejects, which carried on from 1000 Corpses but upped the ante in terms of both intensity and quality. It’s a genuinely raucous and kick ass horror movie which I regard as one of the best of the century, thus far.

But then he got caught up making subpar Halloween remakes and kind of fell off the radar. I’ve never seen all of his Halloween remakes, only bits of both, but what I have seen has been enough to totally put me off watching them in whole. I don’t need Michael Myers to have a detailed psychological backstory, I simply don’t. Maybe I’ll brave one for Horror Pledge, just so I can write about what’s wrong with them.

Basically, one of the banes of modern horror reboots has been trying to add psychological depth to villains, when the very heart of their horror was their faceless, mindless carnage. Leatherface, Jason Vorhees, Myers, all the classics, don’t need explanations. That’s the point.

But I digress.

Well, Zombie is back on the originals train now with this year’s The Lords of Salem. Unfortunately, it’s an utter disappointment.

The movie follows a nerdy cool radio DJ who receives a strange record from a group calling itself The Lords. Not a bad band name really, when you think about it. I’d check them out. Plus with Lorde now so popular, they could sponge off some cash on name recognition alone.

But I digress.

Anyway, DJ plays the record and starts seeing visions of a disturbing nature, likely rated R by her dream rating board. Blood and carnage and witches. That sort of thing.

Then of course it all starts to get too real and ends up with her standing on a pile of the dead bodies of most of the women from the town. As happens.

The main problem with The Lords of Salem is that is simply doesn’t work as a movie. As a series of beautifully crafted shots, I guess it has some value. Zombie, despite the ridiculous handle, is actually quite a skilled director visually (or at least he knows how to hire a good DP, in this case Brandon Trost). But as a storyteller, lately he seriously leaves something to desire.

The Lords of Salem commits about the worst sin a horror movie can commit: It’s boring. While I get what Zombie is going for, namely tension through pacing and some sort of ethereal gothic dream final product, for anyone other than the person who first saw this stuff in their head it’s painful to wade through. And not in the good way.

Frankly the whole movie feels like a series of buildups to a few set piece shots which maybe would have been better simply as staged photos. The rest is contextual atmosphere.

Because there’s little else to tickle our interest here. Heidi, played by Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife, is a dull character and is really going it alone for most of the movie. The weirdos around her, such as her landlords, provide the something wicked this way comes type of feel, but they’re nothing more than devices for the movie to get its strange on.

And the “it’s just a dream!” thing got real old, real fast.

The whole movie needed a shot in the arm of some of the energy and off-the-wall craziness which made The Devil’s Rejects such a horrific blast.

I wanted to like it, I really did. Generally I like Zombie’s 1970s grindhouse approach to horror and I am on board with his desire to push limits, to weird the heck out of us. But without a little virility, his approach falls completely flat.

Oh well. Horror Pledge 2013 continues in search of a hidden gem. Or at least a bit of fun, Rob Zombie.

The Lords of Salem is available on home video.

[REC]

REC

[REC] (2007), directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza

Maybe I’m jaded folks.

Maybe in the six years since the release of [REC] I’ve just seen too many found footage horror movies to give a damn anymore. People were excited when this movie came out and it still gets talked about as one of the better modern horror movies.

With great respect, I disagree.

This is the first entry for Horror Pledge 2013, wherein I do my darndest to watch as many horror movies I haven’t seen before in the month of October to try and unearth some new favourites.

For instance Horror Pledge 2012 helped me to find and fall in love with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Dead and Buried, two damntacular movies.

Obviously, this year I’ve had a late start but SOMEBODY didn’t think about Horror Pledge 2013 when they scheduled the Vancouver International Film Festival AND my holiday time. Way to go, jerks.

I didn’t actually know [REC] was a found footage film going into it.

I did, however, know it was foreign, hence the confused look on my face when the default DVD settings had me watching it dubbed in English. Which I can’t stand. Who would honestly rather hear a dubbed voice than be able to hear the voices of the actual actors and read a few subtitles? Really, let me know and tell me why, if so.

Anyway…

While I will defend The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 to the bitter end, I am now finding myself firmly seated on the Sick to Death of Found Footage Films train.

Maybe in 2007, in a cinema, expectations pounding, this one would have shaken me to my core. Watching it on my TV with my cat on my lap in 2013 didn’t take.

The film is about a Spanish news crew spending a night with the local fire department to see what an average shift is like for them. The department responds to a call about an elderly person stuck in her apartment, perhaps injured. The TV crew gets excited about the action, the fireman shrug it off as routine and they all head out.

Only thing is, and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t qualify as an average night, the old lady in the apartment bites out the jugular of a cop.

Next thing you know, the building is sealed off from the outside by the department of health and all, firefighters, TV crew, apartment residents alike, are trapped inside with some neck-biting zombies.

It’s an OK setup, not exactly anything original now, but, again, back in 2007 this stuff was probably blowing minds and taking names.

But for me it felt like old news (pun intended). Without anything resembling characters or really anything to elicit some kind of emotional response, the film barrels through a series of found footage check marks (camera recording a scared face, camera seeing something the characters don’t, etc.) with no real paydirt. Also, the only person you maybe should care about, the TV reporter, plays the typical screaming idiot character, which didn’t endear me to her cause.

The only thing I liked about this found footage film over others: the camera is a hell of a lot more steady. And it makes sense, because it’s supposed to be a professional cameraman filming it, so he would have good equipment and know how to shoot things without it looking like you just jumped out of a third story window. Whoever played the camera man should be hired to shoot Hollywood action movies.

Some of the effects were cool too, like the use of the camera light in the dark apartment, and when the little girl snaps and turns deadly. I don’t know why a small child seems so much more frightening as a zombie than an adult, but they do. Really, just grab their forehead and your good as gold, but they freak me out. Small hands.

[REC] would go on to spawn two sequels, with another in the works, and an American remake, Quarantine. I haven’t seen that either but I’m in no hurry to, clearly. The original movie still has a 96 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which baffles me. Apparently y’all found something special to like in it. I’m happy for you. I’ll be moving on.

The search continues.

[REC] is available on home video. And from the library, where I got it.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The Vancouver International Film Festival Top 10 (Out of 10)

Well, I hit the big time this year. The jackpot. I managed to get a media pass to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I threw some names around. Don’t worry about it.

This is, of course, the major festival for the West Coast of Canada, sort of the older sibling to the Victoria Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, etc. When I went to university in Vancouver and lived there for four years I would go to VIFF every fall, spend some money to see a few flicks. Always had a blast.

Changes happen, seasons came and went, ashes to ashes and all that, and although I don’t live there anymore, I made sure to book my holidays for when it would be going on and got hooked up with the media credentials. So with my press pass clutched eagerly in my paw, I filled a rucksack and headed off, a country film fan in the big city.

Unfortunately, what with a regular job and limited funds and personal relationships to keep up and all that junk, I could only go for three days. But in those three days I saw 10 films. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of VIFF (Out of 10):

1) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery

While much of the rest of the world has seen this film already, thanks to a heavily staggered release schedule, us West Coasters had yet to have the chance. It caught my eye because it looked as though it had that Terrence Malick, Texas Southern Gothic feel going on and, as I have stated many times in the past: that’s my jam.

And boy, was I not disappointed. Lowery’s first film does have a Malick influence going on, what with beautiful shots of Texas wheat fields and big skies juxtaposing the crowded lives of the characters below. But more so it feels like the film of a new voice, one who revels in the past but has his own take on it, his own perspective.

Director David Lowery attended the screening and talked about how he tried to make the movie feel like a folk song, in its portrayal of characters and the way in which the tone of the film comes across through pacing, music, etc.

He has succeeded and it’s what stands Ain’t Them Bodies Saints apart from lesser films it could be compared to. In some ways it’s the opposite of a film like Lawless, which was essentially an exploitation film about the South. That film didn’t work partially because its characters were caricatures and hard to care about. Lowery cares about his characters and it’s their choices, their desire to do the right thing, their escape from the tropes of the genre, which makes the film work so well.

The tone of the film is hypnotic, the cinematography beautiful (particularly its use of natural light), but above all else it’s the characters, and the actors portraying them, which make this a great film. And it is a great film, the best at VIFF (out of the 10 I saw).

2. Whitewash (2013), directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais

I have to say, I saw a lot of bleak, violent movies at VIFF. Lots of themes of despair, helplessness, and, perhaps above all else, solitude. Many of the films revolved around a single character seemingly taking on the world all on his own (I would say ‘or her own’ but I have no examples of that).

Of these films, Whitewash was the best, and the purest. This film captures the very core of being alone: a man, out in the wilderness, hiding, fighting the elements and, best of all, by choice. There is actually a gas station and hardware store not far away from where Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) is living out of his stuck snowplow. But he stays away.

For one thing, he is being looked for by the authorities. He went missing the same time a man who had been staying at his house went missing. And he has something to do with it. So it’s best, for now, if Bruce doesn’t have much contact with police.

But he’s also getting away from his life. His wife died and left nothing but boxes of marble doll eyes she hand painted to remember he by. He drinks, which has cost him his driving licence and his job. He hasn’t got a lot going for him. So when he finds himself stuck in Quebec woods, his incentive to leave is not strong.

Church’s performance is the highlight of a film which is at times tense, at other hilarious. It’s a dark tale, both in location and themes, but it doesn’t fail to come off as enjoyable in the end, despite its lonely core.

3. Grand Central (2013), directed by Rebecca Zlotowski

Starring current French film stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Les Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Grand Central is a look at the seemingly disposable lives of the workers at a nuclear power facility and the love triangle that arises out of the tension of living close to the edge.

I enjoyed the performances in this film and the juxtaposition of the detail-oriented work versus the messiness of the character’s personal lives. A decimal point on a radiation reader can be the difference between safe and in danger of “a dose” inside the walls of the plant, but outside it is alcohol, sex, fighting and speed which typify the lives of these lost souls.

The film is stunningly directed, with a great use of colour and scale, and the affair at the centre of the film is appropriately charged (pun intended). It’s simply a unique story, one which raises questions over the meaning of life, and the cost of consumption, while never being heavy handed or cliche.

4. 11.6 (2013), directed by Philippe Godeau

Another French film, 11.6 is a neo noir of sorts, and one that manages to be high in tension while minimal in action.

French Dustin Hoffman, Francois Cluzet, plays Toni, a security guard with a armoured car service, who is up to something. He’s bought a Ferrari, is creating a false wall in the back of a rented storage unit and is treating his girlfriend with unusual disdain and distance.

What he has been planning, and what plays out, is a caper more impressive for its simplicity than its carnage, and yet as tense as any shootemup Heat-style snatch.

While the ending is a little baffling, 11.6 is a compelling thriller and with more depth of character than one usually expects with this sort of fare. Nerve-wracking and exciting.

5. The Past (2013), directed by Asghar Farhadi

In Farhadi’s followup to the fantastic A Separation (2011) he again looks at the effects of a marriage torn in two, but with a more obvious dramatic flair than his previous work, which for me diminished the power of what is otherwise a magnificently wrought film.

Farhadi is best at his simplest and for my money is one of the best actor’s directors working today. There is nothing flashy in his style, but in his ability to wring superb performances from his actors he is superb.

The first half of The Past carries on this tradition, with simple delights and empathy found in watching his characters interact with one another, their words and body language conveying all the complexities of human relationships. It’s far more captivating than such a simple film has any right to be.

From there, however, the film turns into a series of dramatic reveals and a whodunnit investigation into, well, the past. It’s all quite intentional, but whereas Mike Leigh understood in Secrets and Lies that the past is merely a detail of the present, Farhadi gives it a legitimacy which is hard to care about.

By the time the film finishes tying up all the loose ends it has created, it has overstayed its welcome and lost the grounded appeal which makes the first half, and his prior film, so powerful.

6. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2013), directed by Sam Fleischner

Following the journey of an autistic teen who spends over a week lost in the New York City subway system, Stand Clear… is almost as much an experiment in perception as it is a harrowing story of a mother’s search for her son.

Ricky isn’t running away, he is merely following his instincts, oh and a pair of sneakers he really likes. As he rides the trains he thinks his own narrative to himself while observing and occasionally interacting with other, sometimes strange, sometimes mean, riders.

Fleischner’s use of the camera, his attempts to capture the disjointedness of Ricky’s thought process visually, creates a captivating juxtaposition between the downtrodden lives of the characters and the vibrant world inside his mind. Tying the adventure in with the socioeconomic state of the family and the flooding of New York also gives the material a weight beyond its own story.

7. Heli (2013), directed by Amat Escalante

Steven Spielberg loves lesbian sex and violence. That was the word coming out of Cannes this year, when the Spielberg-headed jury picked a couple of shockers as big trophy winners, including Heli, which won the award for directing.

Quite frankly I’m surprised ole E.T. phone home, doe-eyed Spielberg could tolerate the level of sadistic violence in Heli, a film about stealing from Mexican drug cartels. I nearly couldn’t.

While, yes, it is incredibly well directed, and, yes, provides an unflinching look at an important topic, Heli is the kind of film you can respect but never love, it is just too hard to watch.

I’m still trying to figure out how the filmmakers even accomplished the special effects behind some of the horrendous torture seen in the film, and the outcome of the entire affair is as bleak as the desert terrain it is set in.

This is probably a great film. But I’d rather not see it ever again.

8. Another House (2013), Mathieu Roy

I started the festival off with this Quebecois drama and it really set the tone for what was to follow: pure, unadulterated sadness.

In a film about family, Roy follows the lives of two brothers attempting to take care of their elderly father, who has dementia. One of the brothers, Gabriel (Roy Dupuis), is a well-known journalist with many commitments, while the other, Eric (Emile Proulx-Cloutier), has the time but perhaps not the mental stability to provide care.

This is a fine film, with great performances, especially from Marcel Sabourin as the father, but my is it bleak. The selfish, self-destructive Eric is painful to watch as he pushes everything decent out of his life. Gabriel is more interesting, especially when on assignment, but the film as a whole is more hard to watch than insightful.

While much of the cinematography is a pleasure and the acting is top notch, I had a enough hard time trying to tolerate Another House, especially Eric, to be able to get much out of it.

9. Closed Curtain (2013), directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi

Perhaps I didn’t know what I was getting into, and perhaps I missed some tremendously brilliant point, but I could not get into Closed Curtain. Granted I have yet to see This is Not a Film and I was a walking, sleepy zombie after a day of movies, but to me Closed Curtain was dull and pointless.

This is the latest from Panahi, who is under house arrest in Iran and therefore can only make movies within the confines of his property. There are no exterior shots here. The only views of the outside world are seen through windows. And yes, there are closed curtains.

This is an art film, and all that means. It has a purely abstract interest in perspective, in the effects of authoritarian control, in spaces. The narrative of the story is one which dissolves as the film goes on, breaking down into theory over practice.

In another mood I may have taken more away from this film, but as it was I had no time for it. While many hail Panahi as a brilliant fillmmaker, I found little of interest in this claustrophobic exercise.

10. A Long and Happy Life (2013), directed by Boris Khlebnikov

Another film with a strong start leading to a disappointing finale, A Long and Happy Life isn’t terrible but it lost me enough to make it my least favourite of the festival (out of the 10 I saw).

While I understand the film wants to convey the spirit of a Western, I wish it hadn’t been so literal about it. The shootout ending comes out of left field and makes no sense for the character or the tone of the film. I get how it is supposed to be an interesting turn of events, considering it was only the “ignorant” villagers who before spoke of turning to violence. But I never believed Alex’s quick trigger finger, his descent into violence.

The rural scenery is beautiful, some of the acting is decent, I really liked a lot of the setup but then it took its turn and completely lost me. Shame.

 

So there it is. After all this violence and misery I’m in need of a good comedy. Or a late start on Horror Pledge 2013. That’ll do.

The Vancouver International Film Festival continues until Oct. 11.

Prisoners

Prisoners

Prisoners (2013), directed by Denis Villeneuve

First off, I have to apologize for the lack of reviews. Not sure if anyone reads these anyway, but I hope you do, and I’m going to try to get back at it here. I have the usual excuses: busy with my primary work, new column for Monday Magazine to write, I was arrested in a medium-level Ponzi scheme which has landed me in some hot water with the courts.

But blah, blah, blah, everybody got ‘em, am I right? (The last one isn’t true, for the record. I beat that wrap.)

Prisoners is the first English language film from Quebecois darling child director Denis Villeneuve and the first film seeing him pair up with some known actors for a genre-type flick. Villeneuve’s French-language films Maelstrom, Polytechnique and, most of all, Incendies brought him to the attention of film buffs (Incendies also earned him an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film) but now he’s looking at the limelight. I’m talking wide release.

Prisoners is a great crossover film for Villeneuve because it taps into the tension which typically permeate his films but adds new challenges of scale and genre. I don’t know, but there’s probably some out there who think Villeneuve going “Hollywood” is lamentable, and to an extent it is, but personally I love well made, thoughtful American cinema, so I’m glad to see such a talented director throw his hat into the ring.

There have been few films recently to hold me as captivated as Prisoners did. It is a hard movie to watch at times, but even harder is to look away. It tackles obsession, revenge, evil; some of the darkest corners of the animalistic instinct buried within all supposedly civilized humans.

Some have called it a revenge film, but I don’t see it as such as it does not revel in the revenge. A true revenge film is something like Rolling Thunder, where you cheer for the vengeance and it feels cathartic in some sick sort of way.

Nothing about Prisoners feels cathartic, in fact most of it makes you long for the burning hot shower one of the characters is forced to endure. It is a dirty piece of business. And it’s not revenge. It’s survival. It’s doing what you have to do to protect your children, which above all else is what we’re hardwired to do.
Performances are of course a standout in a piece like this. While Hugh Jackman is fascinating to watch as the Christian survivalist uberman, his character has a few too many “things” about him, and comes off as a bit of an actor’s representation of what a man like this would be like.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, on the other hand, is rather remarkable. He is often cast as cops, he has a face which suggests toughness and vulnerability at the same time, and he can stare pensively like no other. These are all traits I assume are looked for in new detective recruits. In this film, especially when looked at beside a similar role in the fantastic Zodiac, we see Gyllenhaal as a man of obsession but also as a man of action.

I appreciated his character’s tough position, of being in charge, but of not being able to produce results quickly enough for a panicking family. Neither party truly understands each other, of course, and I think Gyllenhaal does a great job of portraying how difficult it is to be walking the line he must walk, and the toll it takes on him. Like all great performances he relies on body language, a nervous blink, that inward stare of his, to reveal the heart of his character.

While Prisoners is a masterfully directed film, full of ominous silences, subdued tones and heavy tension, if it falters anywhere it is in the plot, which unfortunately cannot sustain the action it sets in motion. The big reveal, or whatever, is skimmed over because it doesn’t make much sense and, the filmmakers would argue, probably doesn’t much matter.

But for a film so grounded in realism, to have a plot which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and is so reliant on coincidence and larger-than-life motives works against that end. Such a plot might work for a stylish film such as Se7en, but here it removes the viewer from the experience and weakens the overall impression.

That being said, Prisoners is a riveting watch. I wouldn’t recommend it to parents necessarily. It might be a bit much to handle. Just saying. But if you think you can, and for anyone else, Prisoners is a fine film. Villeneuve proves his talent by taking a great genre, procedural crime drama, and lifting it to something close to a masterful film.

Bon chance, Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners is in cinemas now.