Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On "Flight"

Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT.
Photo by Robert Zuckerman. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
From The Dispatch:
At nearly two and a half hours long, the film tends to drag a bit in spots and never quite justifies its length, but Washington's tremendous performance is compulsively watchable. His portrayal of a man in a literal and metaphorical tailspin is the stuff Oscar nominations are made of, and he is surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast including Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo and a scene stealing John Goodman as Whitaker's good-natured cocaine dealer. James Badge Dale also makes a strong impression with only one scene as a cancer patient with a love of cigarettes and a unique perspective on life and death. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Fear and Desire"

Kino Lorber's blu-ray release of Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire is without a doubt one of the most significant home video releases of the year. While certainly not a great film, Fear and Desire is important in film history for introducing us to one of our most legendary directors for the first time.

Released in 1953, Fear and Desire was the first feature film Kubrick ever made, and was such a guerilla production that Kubrick nearly served as a one man crew. In has later years, Kubrick all but disowned the film, actually moving to have screenings of it blocked in some cases (much like he did for A Clockwork Orange in Britain after being appalled by the gleeful reactions he witnessed in theaters). While the film is nowhere near his best work, it clearly shows the roots of greatness, and its availability on home video for the first time ever is doubtlessly something to celebrate for all film enthusiasts and fans of the director.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
The film follows a group of soldiers who have crash landed behind enemy lines, and are trying to build a raft to carry them back to safety. But along they way they stumble across an enemy base containing a high ranking general, and hatch a plot to assassinate him before returning home. Things begin to deteriorate for them as their psychological state begins to degrade, and the capture of a young peasant girl threatens to send one of them over the edge.

Having seen the majority of Kubrick's filmography before watching Fear and Desire, it's interesting going back and seeing the roots of Kubrick's fascination with descents into madness. From 2001 to A Clockwork Orange to The Shining, it was a theme that would continue to pop up throughout his career. Fear and Desire bears all the hallmarks of a first time filmmaker working behind the camera - it's stiff, the performances at times amateurish, and the narration is woefully miscalculated. But it also has great use of light and shadow and an almost Soviet style editing technique that recalls the work of Eisenstein and Kirsanoff (there's even a visual reference to Kirsanoff's Menilmontant). Kubrick would go on to direct the superior Paths of Glory four years after Fear and Desire, using many of the same ideas to better results, but the potential is clearly there. The blu-ray transfer, taken from a 35 mm restoration of an original print from the Library of Congress is nearly pristine. The Kino disc also includes Kubrick's documentary short, The Seafarers, which will be of interest to Kubrick diehards as well. While Fear and Desire may not be an essential piece of the Kubrick canon, it is certainly an essential piece of film history. For the first time ever, the roots of one of cinema's great masters is available on home video for a wide audience to finally discover.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Classics.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On "Cloud Atlas"


From The Dispatch:
On the one hand, it's refreshing to see such a unique vision on the screen. Hollywood so rarely takes chances that a film like this should be something to celebrate. On the other, hand, it's a fatally uneven train wreck just as often as it is a magnificent work of art. Tykwer and the Wachowskis clearly aimed for the stars, and while the final product ultimately falls short, there is still quite a bit to admire in the failure of their epic folly. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 19 - "The Shining" (1980)

No list of the greatest horror films of all time is complete without Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. While it was the only pure horror film that Kubrick ever made, nearly all of his films contained some element of it. Few directors have ever been so adept at creating unease as Kubrick, and from 2001 to A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick could unnerve like no other.

Based on Stephen King's novel (and it remains the greatest King adaptation), The Shining follows Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), a writer who agrees to be the caretaker of a massive mountain hotel during the winter months while he writes his new book. What follows is a slow descent into madness that is one of the most harrowing in cinema history. Is the hotel haunted? Or has Jack lost his mind? Or both? It's an utterly terrifying experience, and remains so to this day. It is one of the few great horror films that is also a great film, period. Kubrick had an uncanny habit of making masterpieces, and The Shining is another shining example. The scene in which we finally realize that Jack has completely snapped, with the pages of his novel filled only with the immortal line "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy" is a perfect demonstration of Kubrick's cinematic mastery.

It's impossible to watch this film and not feel something - terror, revulsion, shock, unease. It's a true roller-coaster ride, and a haunted house movie that never once feels hokey or false. The Shining is a veritable textbook on how to do horror right.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review | "Simon and the Oaks"

Simon is a special boy. Never one to roughhouse with the other boys or make many friends, Simon would rather sit under the old oak tree outside his home in Sweden and tell it his innermost thoughts. The tree is his best friend in the world. His father, on the other hand and wishes Simon would do something more conventional. He wants to to run, to play, to learn how to fight. Simon would rather learn, his parents' resistance, he finally convinces them to allow him to attend a prestigious boarding school.

The year is 1939, and the Nazis are on the rise in Europe, as is anti-Jewish sentiment in Sweden. Simon befriends a young Jewish boy named Isak, and the two become fast friends. But as the Nazi influence in Sweden grows, Isak's family begins to fear for their lives. Unbeknownst to Simon, his own parents are hiding a secret, that he is actually adopted and his actual heritage is Jewish. It is a secret they must not only hide from Simon but from the world, lest the Nazis learn his true origin.


After the war ends, Simon and Isak remain close friends, but their lives continue down convergent paths. Upon learning the secret of his past, Simon becomes determined to discover who his real father was, and the source of his passion for art and music. It's a very "literary" film, and that's not surprising given that it was based on the novel by Marianne Fredriksson. Director Lisa Ohlin surprisingly does not delve into the inherent drama of a young Jewish boy posing as gentile during the Nazi occupation of Sweden as deeply one would expect. In fact that's only a small part of the big picture. Ultimately, Simon and the Oaks is a film about discovering ones roots and discovering life's unexpected and beautiful connections. And in some ways that's a bit refreshing. Ohlin doesn't push the film into directions that feel false or contrived. It feels like an unfolding novel, but never feels unfocused or incohesive. It's just simply a good story. There's a certain charm about its relaxed and unhurried pace.

Ohlin allows the story to unfold gradually and organically. It's a gorgeously mounted production, and I'm honestly surprised this was not Sweden's official foreign language entry to the Academy Awards. This is absolutely the kind of thing the Academy goes for. While that may sound like a backhanded compliment given Oscar's recent track record, Simon and the Oaks is actually a thoroughly engaging film. It's no groundbreaking masterpiece by any means, but its well made and likable, a handsomely produced coming of age tale told with plenty of heart and visual pizzazz. There is certainly a place for such traditionally structured prestige epics, and this one stands apart from the pack with its completely unironic sense of earnestness. It hits all the right notes amid potentially cliched elements, adding up to a film of beguiling skill with a surprising emotional punch.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SIMON AND THE OAKS | Directed by Lisa Ohlin | Stars  Bill Skargård, Jonatan S. Wächter, Helen Sjöholm, Stefan Gödicke, Jan Josef Liefers, Karl Linnertorp, Karl Martin Eriksson | Not rated | In Swedish w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC. Opens today, 10/19, in LA.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Gotham Awards Announce Nominations

The always idiosyncratic Gotham Awards announced their nominations today, and they are just as outside of the box as we have come to expect, if not more so. Is this a signal of a very strange awards season to come? With no clear frontrunner having established itself, we could be looking at the most exciting Oscar race in years. Here's hoping.

THE MASTER

BEST FEATURE
Bernie 
Richard Linklater, director; Richard Linklater, Ginger Sledge, Celine Rattray, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Matt Williams, David McFadzean, Judd Payne, Dete Meserve, producers (Millennium Entertainment) 
The Loneliest Planet 
Julia Loktev, director; Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Helge Albers, Marie Therese Guirgis, producers (Sundance Selects) 
The Master 
Paul Thomas Anderson, director; Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, producers (The Weinstein Company) 
Middle of Nowhere 
Ava DuVernay, director; Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes, producers (AFFRM and Participant Media) 
Moonrise Kingdom 
Wes Anderson, director; Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson, producers (Focus Features) 

DETROPIA

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Detropia 
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors; Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Craig Atkinson, producers (Loki Films) 
How to Survive a Plague 
David France, director; Howard Gertler, David France, producers (Sundance Selects) 
Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present 
Matthew Akers, director; Jeff Dupre, Maro Chermayeff, producers (HBO Documentary Films and Music Box Films) 
Room 237
Rodney Ascher, director; Tim Kirk, producer (IFC Midnight) 
The Waiting Room
Peter Nicks, director; Peter Nicks, Linda Davis, William B. Hirsch, producers (International Film Circuit) 

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
Bernie 
Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey (Millennium Entertainment) 
Moonrise Kingdom 
Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban (Focus Features) 
Safety Not Guaranteed 
Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, Mary Lynn Rajskub (Film District) 
Silver Linings Playbook 
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher (The Weinstein Company) 
Your Sister’s Sister 
Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mark Duplass (IFC Films) 

Zaj Batmanglij on the set of SOUND OF MY VOICE

BREAKTHROUGH DIRECTOR
Zal Batmanglij for Sound of My Voice (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky for Francine (Factory 25 and The Film Sales Company)
Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin for Now, Forager (Argot Pictures)
Antonio Méndez Esparza for Aquí y Allá (Here and There) (Torch Films)
Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Quvenzhané Wallis in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

BREAKTHROUGH ACTOR
Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk with Me (IFC Films)
Emayatzy Corinealdi in Middle of Nowhere (AFFRM and Participant Media)
Thure Lindhardt in Keep the Lights On (Music Box Films)
Melanie Lynskey in Hello, I Must Be Going (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

BEST FILM NOT PLAYING IN A THEATER NEAR YOU 
Kid-Thing 
David Zellner, director; Nathan Zellner, Producer 
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty 
Terence Nance, director; Terence Nance, Andrew Corkin, James Bartlett, producers 
Red Flag 
Alex Karpovsky, director; Alex Karpovsky, Michael Bowes, producers 
Sun Don’t Shine 
Amy Seimetz, director; Kim Sherman, Amy Seimetz, producers 
Tiger Tail in Blue 
Frank V. Ross, director; Adam Donaghey, Drew Durepos, producers 

Also, for the second consecutive year, IFP is proud present the euphoria Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Filmmakers ‘Live the Dream’ grant, a $25,000 cash award for an alumna of IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs. This grant aims to further the careers of emerging women directors by supporting the completion, distribution and audience engagement strategies of their first feature film. The nominees are:
Leah Meyerhoff, director, I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS
Stacie Passon, director, CONCUSSION
Visra Vichit Vadakan, KARAOKE GIRL

31 Days of Horror Day 18 - "Freaks" (1932)

"Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?" Asks the original advertising art for Tod Browning's brazenly un-PC 1932 shocker, Freaks. Made just one year after his most famous film, Dracula, Browning's Freaks was banned in several countries for upwards of 30 years after its initial release, and effectively ended the director's career.

His use of actual circus "freaks" remains controversial to this day, and indeed Browning toes the line of exploitation by using people with actual medical problems as a source of horror. Ultimately, however, the "freaks" turn out to be the heroes. It is the so-called "normal" people who are the real monsters, and therein lies the point of this gleefully subversive film. The tale of a trapeze artist whose affair with a midget is actually just cover to get his money while she dallies around with one of the circus' strong men, Freaks is a revenge movie disguised as a horror film. By the time the "freaks" discover what this woman really thinks about them, wheels are set in motion, and the privelege of the "normal" people is about to come crashing down. It's an interesting allegory, still relevant today, as Browning contrasts the camaraderie of those society has forgotten against the cold, unfeeling arrogance of the privileged at the top of the food chain. Browning slyly asks us "who are the real freaks here?"

It's a shame that Freaks turned out to be Browning's last major film. He made a few piddly B-pictures afterward, but his career was never the same. Freaks destroyed it, but is widely (and rightly) regarded today as his masterpiece. Even though far fewer have seen it than Dracula, it has nevertheless worked its way into the popular consciousness with its immortal chant of "one of us!" which has been referenced in films as disparate as Bernado Bertolucci's The Dreamers, I, Robot, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Spy Kids. It's one of the greatest, and most unfairly overlooked, horror films in history.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 17 - "The Descent" (2006)

Movies don't really scare me anymore. They just don't. I've seen too many films and become far too jaded for movies to really affect me in that way. But in 2006, a very rare and very special exception to that rule was released in American theaters.

Neil Marshall's The Descent is a rare breed, a great modern horror film that never panders to its audience and has the guts not to overplay its hand too soon. The film tells the story of a group of women who decide to take their mutual friend on a weekend getaway to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina to go spelunking, after her husband and daughter were killed in a tragic car accident. But instead of a well explored cave, they decide to tackle an unexplored cavern never before seen by human eyes. Or so they thought. As they descend into the darkness, the terrain becomes more and more dangerous, and their options for escape become even more limited. It soon becomes apparent, however, that something is lurking in the darkness. Something deadly and primal, and their carefree vacation becomes a terrifying bloodbath.

What makes The Descent so incredible is that it doesn't introduces the creatures until an hour or so into the movie, instead relying on the inherent clausterphobia of the cave to create a palpable atmosphere of dread. In fact the cave almost becomes its own character, and is in many ways the main villain of the film. It's actually scarier than the monsters that come out of it, and the creatures are pretty scary (and frighteningly believable) on their own. Marshall masterfully ratchets up the tension until its almost unbearable, and then hits us with the hammerblow of the appearance of the creatures, making them all the more shocking.

While the American version features a truncated, less bleak ending, the original British cut is the most widely available on home video and remains the definitive version of the film (even though it's billed as the 'unrated' cut in the US, it merely reinstates the haunting, minute long epilogue that turns the ending upside down). The Descent reaches levels of such primal terror that it shakes its audience to the core. It's the scariest movie of the 2000s, and possibly of the last 20 years.

On "Sinister"


From The Dispatch:
While the film doesn't seem to know how to end itself, and comes to a somewhat disappointing conclusion, up until that point it is a truly unnerving experience. Hawke's performance is strong, and he lends the film a strong emotional center amidst the scares. Bughuul is perhaps one of the most terrifying horror villains in recent memory, even though he has relatively little screen time. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 16 - "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)

When it comes to zombie movies, they don't get much better than George Romero's 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Often credited as the film that started the zombie craze, this low budget, black and white B-movie turned out to be an unexpected horror masterpiece.

There had been zombie movies before it (Jacques Tourneur's undead Jane Eyre film, I Walked With a Zombie, from 1943 is a notable example), and there were certainly plenty after it, many from Romero himself, but none have become so iconic or were so influential as Night of the Living Dead. It's certainly a chilling tale. A group of survivors of a zombie plague hole up in an abandoned farm house that is besieged by flesh eating zombies. Our only information comes in ominous radio reports from the outside world. They are isolated. They are alone. And the world is falling apart around them.

The film also has one of the bleakest endings in horror history, one that rips audience expectations right from under our feet. Unfortunately, due to a paperwork lapse, Night of the Living Dead lapsed into the public domain, and Romero has never made a penny from it. The copywrite oversight has also led to the market being flooded with substandard prints of an otherwise stellar film. And in some ways, that grainy black and white quality makes it all the more frightening. It's amazing just how effective the film still is today. It never once feels hokey, and the gritty cinematography actually lends a terrifying realizim that is hard to shake. It actually feels like the end of the world, and provided the model for decades of zombie movies to come.

Monday, October 15, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 15 - "The Golem" (1920)

Cinema history is full of unique movements and styles that have popped up from time to time. From French Impressionism to the Nouvelle Vague, from Surrealism to Dogme 95. But my favorite of all the cinema movements is perhaps one of the shortest lived - German Expressionism. Born out of Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (more on that one later in the month), German Expressionism was characterized by its bizarre, dreamlike set design and stark black and white contrasts that often evoked madness or evil, and continued to be influential even after the movement ended. Films such as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Fritz Lang's M contain subtle elements of Expressionism in their designs, leaving the almost subconscious impression on the audience that something is a little off.

After the success of Caligari, along came Paul Wegener's The Golem. Based on an old Jewish legend, The Golem tells the story of a rabbi who turns to sorcery to conjure a creature out of clay to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.

A clear precursor to Frankenstein (the old myth actually served as an inspiration for Mary Shelley's original story), The Golem features impressive special effects for its time, but its most impressive aspect is its stunning design. While lesser known, The Golem is up there with Caligari and Metropolis in terms of its set design. And even though the Golem itself looks a bit goofy by modern standards, it actually manages to conjure up a pretty palpable feeling of unease. It's one of the very best examples of early horror.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 14 - "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984)

By 1984 the slasher genre was in full swing. Michael Myers had begat Jason, and a whole slew of cheap, Halloween knock offs that never came close to John Carpenter's classic achievement.

Then along came Wes Craven, who had cut his teeth on much nastier, less main stream horror films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and gave the world Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, giving the already tired genre a much needed shot of adrenaline. More than just a man in a mask chasing co-eds, Freddy Krueger was a wicked, knife-fingered child molester who haunted the dreams of children. And in your dreams, there is nowhere to run. It was just the twist the genre needed, and Robert Englund's leering Freddy is one of the greatest villains of modern horror.

A Nightmare on Elm Street also spawned perhaps the strongest of the slasher series. While Halloween will always and forever be my favorite horror franchise, the Nightmare series easily has the best continuity and the most sustained quality. The only real duds are the bizarre, unintentionally homoerotic Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and the utterly abysmal Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. Otherwise, the filmmakers who carried Craven's torch continued the story well without ignoring what came before it the way the Halloween series did. While Freddy eventually evolved into more of a murderous jokester, in Craven's original Nightmare he was terrifying indeed, and continues to haunt the nightmares of a generation.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 13 - "Dracula" (1931)

While not the first film to be based on Bram Stoker's novel (F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu beat it by about 9 years), Tod Browning's Dracula was the first one to be authorized by the Stoker estate, and has become the most enduring and popular incarnation of the legendary tale.

No one inhabited the role of Count Dracula better than Bela Lugosi. His curious cadences and piercing eyes became synonymous with what it meant to be a vampire. The role is so recognized by his performance that Lugosi was actually buried in his Dracula cape.

Of all the Universal monster films, Dracula is by far my favorite. There's something so distinctly chilling about its gothic production design and Lugosi's seductive performance that it's impossible to resist. And while I enjoy Philip Glass' recent score on its own merits, I prefer the film in its original form, without music. There's something almost more haunting, more dangerous about it when surrounded by deadly silence.

While Nosferatu is, perhaps, the superior film (Dracula sort of ends abruptly), no other Stoker adaptation has become so legendary, and no performer has embodied the role with such singular power. It's a horror classic that truly deserves its status, and is an essential piece of any horror collection.

Friday, October 12, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 12 - "Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers" (1988)

Released 10 years after John Carpenter's original Halloween changed the face of modern horror as we know it, Halloween IV had the task of re-establishing the Michael Myers narrative after the unfairly maligned Halloween III: Season of the Witch had abandoned the original concept completely. This was the point at which Carpenter exited the franchise for good, but the result, surprisingly enough, is perhaps the greatest slasher movie sequel ever made.

It's not exactly a very competitive field, certainly. The sequels to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th are a mixed bag at best (although some of the Friday sequels are a marked improvement over the lazy and uninspired original). But there's just something about this fourth Halloween outing that sets it apart from the pack.

Set 10 years after the original, the film centers around Jamie Lloyd, the young daughter of Laurie Strode, who was killed in a car crash several years before (a plot point that would later be totally ignored by a series for which continuity was never a strong point). Michael Myers, now a patient at a mental institution once again, escapes upon learning of the little girl's existence, and sets off to finish eliminating every member of his family. He is pursued once more by Donald Pleasance's ever more crazed Dr. Loomis, the Captain Ahab to Myers' Mody Dick. It sounds like more of the same, and in some ways it is, but by casting a young child in the lead role, it becomes much more about childhood fears of the boogeyman, a theme touched on the original but probed with greater depth here. The searing finale, which sets up young Jamie as Michael's heir apparent, is swept under the rug by its rather bland successor, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, but for one shining moment, the series stepped up with something brave, daring, and new that set it apart from the competition once again. It also contains a chilling opening sequence which perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween in a way few other films ever have. It's a surprising oasis of quality in a field crowded with posers and banal retreads. Halloween IV got it right. If only other slasher sequels had been this good.

On "Argo"

JOHN GOODMAN as John Chambers, ALAN ARKIN as Lester Siegel and BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez in "ARGO," a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with GK Films, to be distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

From The Dispatch:
Buoyed by a remarkable supporting cast, including a veritable who's-who of excellent character actors, the film is both light on its feet and endlessly engaging. It's even quite funny at times. It's essentially the whole package, one that is both a riveting spy thriller and an emotionally engaging piece of historical filmmaking. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 11 - "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980)

It has become a time honored marketing ploy for a film to label itself controversial. Few of these films are ever actually as controversial as they like to think they are, and fewer still have the right to claim to be the the "most controversial film ever made." But none of those films got their directors arrested because the death scenes were so graphically realistic that authorities thought he had actually murdered them for the purpose of the film. That distinction belongs to Ruggero Deodato's infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which may very well be the most controversial film of all time.

Serving as the prototype for the "found footage" genre as we know it today, Cannibal Holocaust is mostly made up of footage shot by a group of documentary filmmakers who went missing in the Amazon after going to study a native tribe. We are meant to suspect that the natives killed and ate them, which is true, of course. But as the film unfolds the horrors that the white visitors brought down upon them becomes clear, brutally raping their women (with spiked rocks), burning them alive and having sex on their ashes, and we are left to wonder who the true monsters really were.

Much like The Blair Witch Project would 18 years later, the principle actors went into a sort of hiding after the film was released in order to give it more of a sense of reality, but after Deodato was arrested, he had to produce them in order to prove that they had not, in fact, been killed on film. Still, 32 years after its initial release, Cannibal Holocaust remains perhaps the single most brutal, graphic, and nauseating film ever produced, controversial not only for its human violence but for the animals that were actually killed on screen in agonizing ways. One has to wonder what value such a film has, with its nearly relentless onslaught of shocking, depraved, and degrading violence. But unlike films such as The Human Centipede II, which felt like it was being disgusting just for the sake of being shocking, Cannibal Holocaust feels different, because it feels so real. It is not a perfect film by any means, but it's no mere exploitation picture either. It actually conjures up a legitimate feeling of tension and dread, creating such a realistic atmosphere that we actually believe what we are seeing is real. The "documentary" footage is so raw, so gritty, that it's easy to see why authorities believed in it to the point they thought they were witnessing actual murder. As such, that makes Cannibal Holocaust one of the most terrifying cinematic experiences it is possible to have. For those who can stomach it, it's an experience like no other, one so visceral and disturbing that most will probably never want to have it again. Everyone else should give it a wide berth. Those that make it all the way through will be part of a proud few who have experienced something in film history that is both influential still today, and unlike anything else that has ever been seen, or is likely to be seen again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 10 - "Psycho" (1960)

There are few horror films as legendary, or still as thoroughly effective, as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Still every bit as haunting and unnerving as it was 52 years ago, Psycho is a master class in suspense. Hitchcock practically wrote the book on how to effectively keep an audience on the edge of its seat, and after Psycho, the movies were never the same again.

The story remains timeless. A woman on the run, Marion Crane, stops at the small, run down Bates Motel, after stealing a large sum of money from her employer. There she meets the lonely innkeeper, Norman Bates, who she befriends. But their friendship raises the ire of his overbearing mother, who murders her in the shower in one of cinema's most memorable and dazzlingly edited sequences. It isn't long, however, before her sister hires a private detective to get to the bottom of her disappearance, but their search will lead to a shocking discovery that culminates in one of the greatest twist endings of all time.

Hitchcock loved to toy with expectations, and here he upended them completely by killing off the "star" of the film early on. It was a bold move, and it payed off. We soon begin to realize that the real star of the film wasn't Marion at all, but Norman, and that the strange little innkeeper is hiding much more than we suspected. In true Hitchcock form, the layers are slowly peeled back (complete with sexual and psychological issues), details revealed bit by bit, but he never shows his full hand until the very end. The infamous shower scene was certainly shocking by the standards of 1960, and remains so today. Hitchcock uses editing techniques gleaned from the Soviets (Eisenstein would have been proud) to craft one of the most visceral and unforgettable moments in cinema history, and has made generations afraid to go in the shower. In the battle for horror movie dominance, it is quite possible that Psycho tops them all.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 9 - "The Iron Rose" (1973)

French horror director Jean Rollin's films were often marred by studio imposed erotica from producers out to make a quick buck, but his masterpiece, The Iron Rose, is perhaps his purest work because it is the least tampered with.

The film centers around a young couple who goes for a walk in a cemetery and becomes hopelessly lost, unable to find their way out. As their panic grows, madness sets in, and Rollin's most surreal, least supernatural film reaches heights the director never would again. Containing none of his trademark vampires and few of his usual gratuitous sex scenes (save for an early tryst in a crypt), The Iron Rose is something truly special indeed. Rollin turns the cemetery into its own character, and while there is never anything lurking behind the headstones, no monsters, no ghosts, it is the cemetery itself that becomes so terrifying. Rollin lets the audience's mind fill in the blanks, and just as the couple becomes their own worst enemy, so too does the imagination of the viewer. It's a brilliant achievement, something wholly unique in the annals of horror, at once lyrical and terrifying. And now thanks to a fantastic new blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, Rollin's work lives again for a whole new generation to discover.

Monday, October 08, 2012

71 Countries Vie for Foreign Language Film Oscar

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the list of 71 submitted films that are eligible to compete for this year's award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in AMOUR.
Photo by (c) Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
This year saw a record number of eligible films, some from countries that are submitting for the first time, such as Kenya, who submitted Nairobi Half Life. The list will be weeded down to nine, before the final announcement of the five nominees.

Here is the full list of films.

  • Afghanistan, "The Patience Stone," Atiq Rahimi, director;
  • Albania, "Pharmakon," Joni Shanaj, director;
  • Algeria, "Zabana!" Said Ould Khelifa, director;
  • Argentina, "Clandestine Childhood," Benjamín Ávila, director;
  • Armenia, "If Only Everyone," Natalia Belyauskene, director;
  • Australia, "Lore," Cate Shortland, director;
  • Austria, "Amour," Michael Haneke, director;
  • Azerbaijan, "Buta," Ilgar Najaf, director;
  • Bangladesh, "Pleasure Boy Komola," Humayun Ahmed, director;
  • Belgium, "Our Children," Joachim Lafosse, director;
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Children of Sarajevo," Aida Begic, director;
  • Brazil, "The Clown," Selton Mello, director;
  • Bulgaria, "Sneakers," Valeri Yordanov and Ivan Vladimirov, directors;
  • Cambodia, "Lost Loves," Chhay Bora, director;
  • Canada, "War Witch," Kim Nguyen, director;
  • Chile, "No," Pablo Larraín, director;
  • China, "Caught in the Web," Chen Kaige, director;
  • Colombia, "The Snitch Cartel," Carlos Moreno, director;
  • Croatia, "Vegetarian Cannibal," Branko Schmidt, director;
  • Czech Republic, "In the Shadow," David Ondrícek, director;
  • Denmark, "A Royal Affair," Nikolaj Arcel, director;
  • Dominican Republic, "Jaque Mate," José María Cabral, director;
  • Estonia, "Mushrooming," Toomas Hussar, director;
  • Finland, "Purge," Antti J. Jokinen, director;
  • France, "The Intouchables," Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, directors;
  • Georgia, "Keep Smiling," Rusudan Chkonia, director;
  • Germany, "Barbara," Christian Petzold, director;
  • Greece, "Unfair World," Filippos Tsitos, director;
  • Greenland, "Inuk," Mike Magidson, director;
  • Hong Kong, "Life without Principle," Johnnie To, director;
  • Hungary, "Just the Wind," Bence Fliegauf, director;
  • Iceland, "The Deep," Baltasar Kormákur, director;
  • India, "Barfi!" Anurag Basu, director;
  • Indonesia, "The Dancer," Ifa Isfansyah, director;
  • Israel, "Fill the Void," Rama Burshtein, director;
  • Italy, "Caesar Must Die," Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani, directors;
  • Japan, "Our Homeland," Yang Yonghi, director;
  • Kazakhstan, "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe," Akan Satayev, director;
  • Kenya, "Nairobi Half Life," David 'Tosh' Gitonga, director;
  • Kyrgyzstan, "The Empty Home," Nurbek Egen, director;
  • Latvia, "Gulf Stream under the Iceberg," Yevgeny Pashkevich, director;
  • Lithuania, "Ramin," Audrius Stonys, director;
  • Macedonia, "The Third Half," Darko Mitrevski, director;
  • Malaysia, "Bunohan," Dain Iskandar Said, director;
  • Mexico, "After Lucia," Michel Franco, director;
  • Morocco, "Death for Sale," Faouzi Bensaïdi, director;
  • Netherlands, "Kauwboy," Boudewijn Koole, director;
  • Norway, "Kon-Tiki," Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, directors;
  • Palestine, "When I Saw You," Annemarie Jacir, director;
  • Peru, "The Bad Intentions," Rosario García-Montero, director;
  • Philippines, "Bwakaw," Jun Robles Lana, director;
  • Poland, "80 Million," Waldemar Krzystek, director;
  • Portugal, "Blood of My Blood," João Canijo, director;
  • Romania, "Beyond the Hills," Cristian Mungiu, director;
  • Russia, "White Tiger," Karen Shakhnazarov, director;
  • Serbia, "When Day Breaks," Goran Paskaljevic, director;
  • Singapore, "Already Famous," Michelle Chong, director;
  • Slovak Republic, "Made in Ash," Iveta Grófová, director;
  • Slovenia, "A Trip," Nejc Gazvoda, director;
  • South Africa, "Little One," Darrell James Roodt, director;
  • South Korea, "Pieta," Kim Ki-duk, director;
  • Spain, "Blancanieves," Pablo Berger, director;
  • Sweden, "The Hypnotist," Lasse Hallström, director;
  • Switzerland, "Sister," Ursula Meier, director;
  • Taiwan, "Touch of the Light," Chang Jung-Chi, director;
  • Thailand, "Headshot," Pen-ek Ratanaruang, director;
  • Turkey, "Where the Fire Burns," Ismail Gunes, director;
  • Ukraine, "The Firecrosser," Mykhailo Illienko, director;
  • Uruguay, "The Delay," Rodrigo Plá, director;
  • Venezuela, "Rock, Paper, Scissors," Hernán Jabes, director;
  • Vietnam, "The Scent of Burning Grass," Nguyen Huu Muoi, director.

The Academy Award nominations will be announced January 10.

31 Days of Horror Day 8 - "High Tension" (2005)

In 2005, the world was introduced to French horror maestro Alexandre Aja with a nasty little piece of work called High Tension. Aja would go on to direct the excellent remake of The Hills Have Eyes, as well as the gleefully over the top remake of Piranha. But while Aja may have become succesful (and recognizable) through his high profile remakes, it was this French horror film that put him on the map, and with good reason.

High Tension remains his best work, with a major caveat. It's the story of a girl who witnesses the family of the friend she is staying with brutally murdered by a maniac in the remote French countryside. Bloodied and terrified, she stows away in the back of his vehicle to try and find help, and the bloodbath continues everywhere she goes.

The film is aptly named - it's an intense experience, constantly building to a fever pitch that never seems to break. But then it all goes downhill. High Tension goes from perhaps the finest horror film of the decade to a huge mess in one of the most frustrating and nonsensical twist endings I have ever seen. Everything leading up to the end is absolutely top notch horror. But those last 15 minutes really kill it. Ignoring the ending and taking the film on face value (without the ridiculous twist), what we have here is awakening of a brave and fresh voice in horror. Aja is perhaps one of the most wicked and cruel horror directors working today, constantly dreaming up ever more gruesome and horrifying deaths for his characters. High Tension is filled with ghastly and disturbing images (at one point the killer rapes a severed head), and as such is only one of the handful of films to have ever received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (for strong graphic violence), a rare occurrence for a film with hardly any sexual content. But unlike other films to have come from the "splat pack" of modern horror directors such as Saw and Hostel, High Tension doesn't just rely on blood and guts to make the audience uncomfortable. Aja has the raw talent to back up his thirst for gore, and as a result High Tension is a lean, mean, scaring machine - a true work of terror and suspense that unfortunately succumbs to a completely ludicrous twist ending.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 7 - "Vampyr" (1932)

The third of the first three vampire films, after Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr is an important film in the director's career for two reasons - it was the director's first sound film, and it was the first film he made after directing his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928.

Those who know me know that I consider The Passion of Joan of Arc to be the greatest film of all time, so Dreyer certainly had set the bar very high for himself. It is the only horror film in the director's canon, and is something of an oddity for cinema historians and enthusiasts. Vampyr may be minor Dreyer when compared to his towering works like Joan of Arc and Ordet (The Word), but its nevertheless one of the greatest and most unique vampire films ever made. Despite its status now as one of cinema's supreme achievements, Joan of Arc was a flop upon its initial release, and Dreyer needed a hit. Dreyer saw potential in the horror genre for something more, the chance to create something artistically sound but popularly accessible. Certainly the most impressionistic and dreamlike of those first three horror films, Vampyr is an unusually beautiful piece of gothic horror, filled with haunting images and an eerie sense of disquiet and dread. The film centers around a student of the occult who arrives in a small village outside of Paris to investigate strange goings on, and loses himself in a search for a mysterious vampire who is preying on the locals.

Interestingly, the vampire ultimately has little to do with the film, and is rarely seen. What sets it apart from its genre brethren is that the vampire is actually an old crone, not a male preying on innocent women as is often seen. That opens up a thinly veiled lesbian subtext to the film, which while not as prominent as it is in "Carmilla" (the Sheridan le Fanu story on which it is based), still gives the film a jolt of sexuality that stands in stark contrast to other early vampire films. It's almost a silent film, retaining the aesthetics of the silent era (including intertitles) and as such feels like a silent film even though it really isn't. Its unnerving imagery (shadows that move independent of their sources, souls emerging from the body) give the film an air of surrealism, and its quietude, informed by Dreyer's overal distate for sound, make Vampyr an utterly unforgettable experience. There's simply nothing else like it in the genre, and in the hands of a master like Dreyer, it becomes a meditation on death and life after (a longtime fascination for the director) in addition to one of the most beautiful films of its era.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 6 - "Eyes Without a Face" (1960)

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's seminal Psycho, Georges Franju's eerie Eyes Without a Face is perhaps even more shocking for its time. While much of its horror is done through suggestion and atmosphere, much like Psycho, Franju lingers on moments of such gruesome detail that it is surprising that the film was released in 1960.

While not a "gory" film per se, it's still quite shocking, most especially because its subject matter. The film centers around a mad surgeon whose daughter's face is destroyed in a car accident, leading him on a wild quest to successfully remove the face off another woman and transplant it onto his daughter. After countless failed experiments, the bodies begin to pile up, all with similar looks, all missing their face, and the authorities are soon on the lookout for a serial killer.

More than anything, what makes the film so creepy is the masked visage of the daughter, hidden by a blank, expressionless mask that nevertheless seems to convey every emotion in the spectrum. The performance of Edith Scob as the daughter Christiane is remarkable in that we never actually see her face, but always seem to know how she is feeling at any given moment.

Franju lingers on images of the gruesome surgical procedures, which sets it apart from films of its day, but it never feels as if he is showing too much. He knows just what to show, and just when to hold back, making Eyes Without a Face a truly unsettling experience indeed. It helped turn crime stories into their own horror genre, later informing such films as The Silence of the Lambs and The Skin I Live In. It remains an unnerving, haunting experience that stands toe to toe with any other great horror film of the era.

Friday, October 05, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 5 - "Blood Feast" (1963)

Blood Feast may be one of the worst films of all time, but it's also one of the most influential. It has the distinction of being the first gore film, a genre dreamed up by one of cinema's supreme hacks, Herschell Gordon Lewis. A huckster of the first degree, Lewis was willing to do just about anything to get butts in seats. Cutting his teeth on "nudie cutie" exploitation films in the early 1960s, Lewis exploited the relaxing film standards on "educational nudity" by taking place in non-sexual nudist camps in order to titillate an audience unused to bare breasts on screen. By 1963, Lewis was tired of the nudie cuties, and ready to find something else to exploit, and he landed on the idea of blood and guts.

Blood Feast is a bizarre piece of work indeed. A strange tale of an Egyptian madman named Fuad Rameses (Mal Arnold, in a truly off-the-rocker performance he believed was brilliant) sacrificing nubile young women to in ritualistic sacrifices to Egyptian gods, the film is chock full of over the top gore effects and clearly plastic dismembered body parts. The sound is shoddy, the acting laughable, and the cinematic technique is poor at best (Lewis' mise-en-scene is downright painful). But no one believed in what he was doing more than Lewis, and as such he became a kind of Ed Wood by way of P.T. Barnum.

Lewis would come to be known as the "Godfather of Gore" (a title he shares with Lucio Fulci, who, let's face it, he's not even in the same league with), and would go on to direct other, similar films such as One Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red (which collectively became known as the Blood Trilogy). None could match the singular weirdness of Blood Feast. There's just nothing else like it. No one will ever mistake it for a great film, but with every Saw and Hostel we are still feeling its influence today. Herschell Gordon Lewis may have been a smut peddler, but he was a gleeful smut peddler, and this, his "masterpiece," is a work that simply must be experienced.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Review | "Chicken with Plums"

As someone who has great respect for Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's animated wonder, Persepolis, the prospect of  not just a new film from the pair, but a new live-action film, was certainly something to look forward to.

Persepolis was a deeply personal look at Satrapi's Iranian childhood, based on her own graphic novel of the same name. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (it lost to Pixar's Ratatouille), the film was a strong contender in a very strong year for film. Sadly, their latest film, Chicken with Plums, falls short of the promise of its predecessor.

Also based on a graphic novel by Satrapi, Chicken with Plums tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a world famous Iranian violinist living in France whose life falls apart after the destruction of his favorite  violin.

Left to Right: Golshifteh Farahani as Irâne and Mathieu Amalric as Nasser Ali.
Photo by ©Patricia Khan. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
After trying violin after violin, to no avail, Nasser realizes that life no longer holds any passion or luster for him, and decides that it is time to die. Sequestering himself in his room, Nasser goes on a trip down memory lane, recalling the events of his life that lead him to this moment. As the film unfolds, we discover the love story that informed not only his love of music, but the secret of the violin whose destruction robbed him of the will to live. It's a tragic story told with a sense of whimsy that elevates it above its inherent sadness. The problem is that it is hard to identify with a character who so willingly abandons his family over a broken violin. Granted, all is revealed by the end of the film, but by that time it's too little too late. In those last 15 minutes or so, Chicken with Plums finally hits its stride, discovering an emotional resonance that eludes it for most of its running time. Had the rest of the film been more like its heartbreaking denouement, and sustained that kind of emotional power, it would have been a much more successful film than it is.

Instead it plays out like Amelie-lite. While the film borrows heavily from Persepolis' distinctive use of light and shadow, it also borrows quite a bit from Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It's undeniably beautiful (mixing live action with animation in an occasionally breathtaking way), but it also feels awfully familiar, with the lighthearted mix of comedy and melancholy veering closer to Jeunet's territory than Satrapri's singular wit. Their are moments when her voice shines through, but they also rely too heavily on their stylistic inspirations. As a result the film feels disjointed and unbalanced, its flashback structure leaving the audience cold rather than involved. There's certainly a charm about it that reflects from Satrapi's wry sense of humor, but it never adds up to a cohesive whole until its final moments, by which time it is too late to fully enrapture its audience the way Persepolis did. Satrapi remains a unique talent, but Chicken with Plums is not exactly the best showcase of what she does best.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS | Directed by Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi | Stars Mathieu Amalric, Edouard Baer, Maria de Medeiros, Golshifteh Farahani, Eric Caravaca, Chiara Mastroianni, Isabella Rossellini | Rated PG-13 for some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday at the Park Terrace in Charlotte, NC.

Win a Copy of "Dark Shadows" on DVD!

Are you a Tim Burton fan? Want to win a copy of his latest film, Dark Shadows, on DVD? From the Front Row is pleased to offer a copy of Dark Shadows courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures to ONE lucky reader! All you have to do comment below or tweet (@Matthew_Lucas) what your favorite Burton film is and why, and take the Are You Creepy Enough quiz in the app below.




Contest ends Thursday, 10/11/12. Open to US residents only.

31 Days of Horror Day 4 - "I Spit On Your Grave" (1978)

During the 1970s, a strange horror subgenre appeared that perhaps turned stomachs more than any other before - the rape exploitation film. Spurred on, perhaps, by the success of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left in 1972, a series of knock-offs began to appear (almost all of which, strangely, starred David Hess), including films such as The House on the Edge of the Park and Hitch-Hike.

 In 1978, however, a film came along that put them all to shame - Meir Zarchi's infamous I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman). No other film (except for perhaps Cannibal Holocaust...more on that one later this month) has portrayed the act of rape with such painful, gruesome realism. In fact the first half of the movie is basically one extended rape sequence that is so graphic and emotionally wrenching that it takes a very strong stomach to watch. While it has often been accused of being degrading and offensive to women, it has also been hailed as a feminist masterpiece. I tend to side with the latter camp (although both sides have a point). What sets the film apart from its exploitation brethren is what it does next. After dragging us through the muck and filth of a truly disgusting rape sequence (which actually included multiple rapes), our heroine comes back for revenge. Soon she is slicing and dicing her way through the flesh of her assailants in the ultimate feminist psychosexual revenge fantasy.

I Spit on Your Grave is a horror film in every sense of the word, because it is one of the most genuinely horrifying films ever made. So much so that it's not a fun movie to watch. How one reacts to it will depend greatly on their own point of view. Is it exploitative? Perhaps. It spends a great deal of time wallowing in the degradation and pain of its heroine. But never once are we asked to sympathize with or cheer on her rapists. Her nudity is not pretty or arousing in anyway. Zarchi treats the subject with the appropriate amount of horror. What we cheer for is her revenge. What makes this such a unique and interesting film is that it actually confronts us with such heinous violence and asks, "is this justified?"

Upon the film's initial release Roger Ebert wrote - "Sick, reprehensible, and contemptible. This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures." And while the film could certainly be interpreted that way, I think the younger Ebert missed the point. I Spit on Your Grave is not a film about a victim. It's a film about a woman who stood up and said "enough." That is one of the many ways this film went where few other horror films have gone before.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Lincoln" - Unite

A new trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln appeared tonight during the debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And it's quite a bit more dynamic than the first trailer.



Lincoln opens November 16.

On "Frankenweenie"


From The Dispatch:
"Frankenweenie" finds Burton squarely in his element. This is exactly the kind of passion and flair that has been missing from his more recent films. Without his usual crutches, he seems more loose and inspired than he has in ages. While it may not quite be up to the standards of his early work, it's still good to have him back where he belongs. 
Click here to read my full review.

31 Days of Horror Day 3 - "Zombie" (1979)

With the resurgence in popularity of zombies over the last decade or so, it is somewhat surprising that the films of Lucio Fulci have not been revisited in the same way as George Romero's have. Whereas Romero is, in some ways, a one trick pony, Fulci was arguably more of an artist. He wasn't always a successful one, but his films carried a kind of personal passion that is somewhat lacking in Romero's later work.

 1979's Zombie (or Zombi 2, as it was known in Italy, where it was marketed as a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was known as Zombi in Italy) is perhaps the ultimate zombie movie. Considered by many to be Fulci's masterpiece, it is an odd film indeed. Zombie mixes the two zombie subgenres, plague and voodoo, by chronicling an outbreak on a small island where natives fear the experiments going on in a nearby lab. After a boat turns up in New York Harbor carrying an undead passenger, an investigation is launched, with disastrous results.

 Fulci's creativity is on full display here (the infamous eye-gouging scene is one of horror's most singularly horrific effects), but the limits of his budget are clear. Fulci reuses several shots during the climactic zombie attack, and the haunting final shot of zombies marching on Manhattan was done on the sly without a permit (as was the opening in New York Harbor). It is almost more frightening, however, because of its low budget aesthetic. The film also contains the best single zombie of all time, whose horrifying visage graces the film's iconic poster with the tagline "we are going to eat you!" It's also the only film you're likely to see in which a zombie fights a shark. And yes, it's a real actor wrestling a real shark. Fulci didn't play around. Parts of it may seem hokey now (the bizarre island music is laughably bad), but when that eerie main theme starts playing (up there with John Carpenter's Halloween theme as some of cinema's scariest music), you know you're in the hands of a horror master. It's one of the most terrifying zombie films ever made.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

DVD Review | "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

One of this summer's most prominent art house successes, John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is one of those pleasant, wholly inoffensive specialty films that its hard to fault for being what it is.

You could certainly nitpick it, of course, and I guess that's my job as a critic, even if deep down I really like the film.. It's a tad overlong, it tends to take character and narrative shortcuts when its convenient, and spends a bit too much time trying everything up in a neat little bow, even when the character motivations don't always add up.

That being said, it's also completely charming, and the wonderful cast of British actors keep the film afloat. It's hard to resist any film starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy, no matter what the film around them is like.

Judi Dench as Evelyn and Celia Imrie as Madge star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL.
Photo by Ishika Mohan. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
In this case, the film around them deals with a group of elderly Britons, all from disparate backgrounds, who decide to retire to India to a retirement home known as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. When they arrive, however, they discover a run down old hotel run by an eager but inept young man (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel). Each has their own story and each has their own destiny. Dench is a widow looking for a new lease on life by writing a blog about her travels. Smith is a racist old bat with a Cockney accent who needs a hip replacement. Nighy is looking for adventure while his cranky wife (Downton Abbey's Penelope Wilton) merely wants familiarity. And Wilkinson is a gay retired judge who has returned to India to find his former lover, after they were separated years before when the discovery of their relationship brought shame upon their families.

Taken on their own, each story is compelling in its own right especially Wilkinson's, which deserves much more screen time than it receives. The story of Patel and his girlfriend, however, seems more like a distraction, and the need for a younger romance to anchor the story. It comes off as unnecessary, and while in the end it my help to unite everyone in the hotel, it just doesn't carry the same weight. Despite a lack of development time, the film boasts fine performances and an overall beguiling atmosphere that makes it thoroughly enjoyable. If only it had embraced the substance of its story (most importantly its themes of "outsourcing retirement") rather than merely glossing over it, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might have been something very special indeed. Instead, it's merely a mildly entertaining time-passer that will mostly please fans of the actors, who will no doubt find plenty to like behind its charming facade.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL | Directed by John Madden | Stars Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae | Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

"Lawrence of Arabia" Returns to the Big Screen for One Night Only

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, David Lean's epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, will return to the big screen where it was meant to be for one night only on October 4.


Digitally restored, the film will screen in 630 theaters across the country before its new blu-ray release on November 13. The event will also include newsreel footage of the stars on the red carpet at the film's original premiere 60 years ago.

For more information visit www.fathomevents.com.

31 Days of Horror Day 2 - "Cat People" (1942)

Horror producer Val Lewton could have easily gone down in cinematic history as just another B-movie huckster, as studios handed him sensational titles such as I Walked With a Zombie and Body Snatchers and expected some cheap, throwaway horror films in return.

Instead he gave them compelling psychological and romantic dramas that transcended their B-movie roots and attained something much greater. One of his best was Cat People.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People tells the story of Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born artist living in New York, who falls in love with American Oliver (Kent Smith). Things begin to go wrong, however, when Irena begins to believe that she is responsible for a series of deaths linked to a large panther. Is the ancient heritage of witchcraft and cat-worship linked to her people to blame? Or is she slowly going mad?

Beautiful and atmospheric (with a haunting musical score based around a Serbian lullaby), Lewton and Tourneur play their hand close to the chest, reserving the horror elements for just the right moments and keeping the audience guessing to the end. It's first and foremost a love story, and that's what makes Cat People so unique. It takes what could have easily been a silly idea (a woman who may or may not be turning into a cat at night and killing people), and imbues it with a sense of urgency and tragedy that is completely unexpected.

View the trailer here.

Monday, October 01, 2012

31 Days of Horror Day 1 - "Let the Right One In" (2008)

I've decided that I am going to write-up a different horror film every day in October until Halloween.

For my first entry, I chose what is perhaps the finest horror film of the last decade, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In. While it was given an excellent American remake in the form of Matt Reeves' Let Me In in 2010, the original remains the most elegant adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel.

Twilight may have dominated the vampire landscape of the aughts, but Let the Right One In is vampire romance done right. At its heart is a tender love story between a bullied 12 year old boy and the enigmatic vampire girl that moves in next door. I've always been a sucker for puppy love stories, but this one isn't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a dark, violent tale that doesn't shy away from the inherent horror and tragedy of its subject. Even its seemingly happy ending is overshadowed by the vision of its future we saw in the relationship between the young girl and her mysterious father figure.

While the film downplays the homosexual undertones of the novel (although not quite as much as its remake, Let Me In), where Eli is actually a castrated vampire boy who is mistaken for a girl, the subtle suggestions remain. No matter how you interpret the story, however, it's still a haunting tale of unconventional, forbidden love wrapped up in ancient vampire lore and adolescent angst. Few other horror films in recent memory have been so beautiful, and yet so horrifying.

Seth MacFarlane to Host Oscars

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tapped Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to host the 85th Academy Award ceremony on February 24.


MacFarlane also directed and starred in the comedy hit, Ted, this year, but is something of a surprising choice. It's clearly yet another play by the Academy to draw in a younger demographic, but those attempts have tended to backfire on them, with the generally poorly received performances of hosts Chris Rock and the double team of Anne Hathaway and James Franco. I tend to prefer it when the Oscars embrace old-fashioned glamour rather than modern edginess. I enjoyed Ted, however, so I'll reserve judgement until Oscar night.