Film Review – Red, White, & Blue

Red, White, & Blue (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Noah Taylor, Amanda Fuller, Mark Senter

British director Simon Rumley seems intent on shredding every last ounce of emotional energy I have. As you can read in my review of his 2006 film, The Living and The Dead, he is able to present a psychological horror film unlike any you will ever see. Here too, in Red, White, & Blue, Rumley takes the revenge/gore film made popular in 1970s and still alive and strong today, and goes down avenues no mainstream picture would ever think about. The result is another film that hammers itself into your mind and squeeze every ounce of composure from your soul. The last fifteen minutes left my heart pounding and my head feeling dizzy, shocked at the level of physical gore and psychological torment.

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Film Reviews – Amer and Sheitan

(2009, dir. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani)

Sheitan (2006, dir. Kim Chaprion)

I happened upon two very different, but equally stylish French horror films recently and these really show up the dull slasher flicks that American horror cinema has devolved into.

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Film Review – The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956, dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
Starring Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, Henry Jones

Contemporary audiences would probably be bored and not find this film scary. Contemporary audiences are dopes on the whole, though. This piece of pernicious, regressive cinema is one of the tightest horror pics I’ve seen. What makes it such a juicy little piece of evil is the context. Its the repressive Red Scare 1950s where wholesomeness and purity is slathered on suburban streets like whitewash. Children especially are angelic and your neighbors can pop in when ever they choose.  This is also the height of psycho-analysis, where Freud’s phallic fantasies are holy and it becomes acceptable, and encouraged to visit the shrink. Into this tense situation, we’re given Rhoda Penmark (McCormack), the sweetest little blonde in pigtails you ever did see. Rhoda is absolutely perfect, her parents and teacher agree. But Rhoda doesn’t like having what she wants withheld and she will take it, no matter the cost.

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Film Review – Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

With Darren Aronofsky you know you will get something ambitious, whether its ambitious in its drama (Requiem for a Dream), its scope (The Fountain), or its simplicity (The Wrestler). Are they always winners? Nope, but they always bring forth a completely unique vision and experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky is bringing together elements from all his previous work. You have the severe schizophrenic breakdown of a character, you have a hallucinatory transformations, and you have the destruction of the physical body for the sake of one’s art. The film also breaks the boundaries of genre by being both one of the best dramas and one of the best horror films of the year.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of the many dancers that perform at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prima ballerina of the company (Ryder) is on her way and out and the manipulative director, Thomas (Cassel) is looking for his new “little princess”. A re-interpretive staging of Swan Lake is in the works and Nina finds herself in competition with the new girl, Lily (Kunis). Lily works against the conventions of the ballerina, staying out late, dropping ecstasy, and being very laid back with her work ethic. Nina must also contend with her mother (Hershey) who is babies her daughter and attempts to mold her into the dancer she failed to be. Nina is suffering from strange abrasions on her back and is beginning to have intense nightmares about the ballet. All of this is leading down a dark and destructive path….or is she merely fighting against those who have constrained her since she was a child.

Everything about this film clicks, the performances are pitch perfect and the direction from Aronofksy hits on all cylinders. There is the return of the shaky handheld cinematography of The Wrestler that adds that vérité feel to the story. In direct contrast to the realism of cinematography there is amazing use of makeup and CG effects. The films does a great job in balancing the psychological horror, and will make you question deeply what events actually happen to Nina and which are the product of a fragmented mind. I was most impressed with how Portman manages to infantilize Nina’s behavior in very subtle and nuanced ways. She doesn’t babytalk, but the way she interacts with her mother and her director bring out her childlike mentality. Her rebellion against these forces of control is played naturally and its horrific outcome resonates in the mind for a long time after.

Wild Card Tuesdays – The Living and The Dead

The Living and The Dead (2006, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Roger Lloyd-Pack, Leo Bill, Kathy Fahy

It’s very hard for me to write about this film after having just watched it today. It affected me in a deeply emotional way that very few films are able to. After cinema becomes a daily occurrence, you are naturally numbed to the typical emotional tricks of filmmakers. I was aware of this film first as a horror picture. The director, Simon Rumley came out of nowhere with this small picture that made the festival circuits. It never really the mainstream venues, instead traveling to the fringe horror festivals. I am very curious as to how it was received because more than anything this film is a deeply disturbing, yet also sensitive, portrayal of the pain of severe mental illness. The film achieved something very few have in recent years, it made me cry. There is a scene in the last third of the film that is so emotionally devastating I can’t see how anyone could watch it and not break down.

The former Lord Donald Brocklebank must leave his dreary estate in the middle of the English countryside for unknown reasons. His wife, Nancy is suffering from cancer and his son James is severely mentally challenged, requiring daily pills and injections to keep his delusions in check. Donald instructs James that Nurse Mary will round to tend to Nancy. However, James forgets his injections and decides to prove he can be the man of the house by locking Nurse Mary out and trying to tend to mother himself. It’s painful to watch James descend into madness while unknowingly hurting his mother again and again. The film makes a sudden major shift in the narrative about half way through that really cements the idea that we are seeing the story through the mind of a mentally ill person. And the finale is just jolting and ambiguous enough that I believe this film will stay with you for years.

Leo Bill should have received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of James. His face is recognizable as that of Darwin in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, as well as the arranged suitor of Alice in Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland film. Here is firing on all cylinders, delivering a performance that is so powerful and unrestrained. Even now, just thinking about certain scenes I feel my gut in a knot and heart breaking all over again. James is both terrifying and sympathetic. I thought of the prayer of Christ on the cross, crying out “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” That is exactly how we and the other characters in the film inevitably have to view James. His reality is a different plane of existence than ours and he can hurt people while believe he’s simply giving them a hug.

I can’t emphasize enough what a profound piece of cinema this is. While labeled “horror” I would argue that there is no human monster in the film. The monster is mental illness and the shattering pain and emotional trauma we humans are forced to bear. I don’t know if I could ever watch The Living and The Dead again, much in the same way I am unable to revisit Requiem for A Dream. Both movies are so effective in getting across the helpless pain they want to portray that, while we acknowledge them as masterpieces, our psyches are too fragile to confront them again.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 1

This month I will be looking at my favorite moments in movies. These are not necessarily the best ever in films, but they are my personal favorites. In no particular order, here we go:

1) Let Me Out (Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks)

Gene Wilder is at his best when he goes from calm to frantic in a split second. His red-faced blue blanket tirade from The Producers is a gorgeous moment. This one however goes up there as one of my all time faves. Wilder as the nephew of Victor Frankenstein shines. In this scene we see him go from calm, to manic, to desperate, and finally to confident in his macabre heritage.

2) Mike Yanagita (Fargo, 1996, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Two actors here who deserve a lot more credit. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for her role of Marge Gunderson, but this scene also showcases the chops of Steve Park. Park is able to create a three dimensional character in a single scene of this film, its amazing what he does. Its hard not to imagine the life of Yanagita after watching this. A powerful example of what happens when good writing and acting are paired up.

3) Oh, Are They? (Rushmore, 1998, dir. Wes Anderson)

The film that really broke Anderson out and still one of his best. Max Fischer (Schwartzmann) turns a post opening night dinner into a farce when his love interest invites her male nurse friend along. Would be nice if Anderson tried to go back to his more comedic roots, not that his current work is bad.

4) Binary Sunset (Star Wars, 1977, dir. George Lucas)

It’s a short scene, but it says a lot. The dual suns reinforce the alien nature of this world, the lighting sets the perfect tone as Luke Skywalker stares out across the vast landscape of Tatooine, and the music gets across his desire to explore. Simple and perfect.

5) Come Play With Us, Danny (The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

A perfect horror movie scene. The music and cinematography are in perfect unison and there isn’t much more to say other than, experience the scene yourself.

Wild Card Tuesdays – Someone’s Knocking at the Door

Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009, dir. Chad Ferrin)
Starring Noah Segan, Ezra Buzzington, Andrea Rueda, Elina Madison

You should probably not watch this movie. By that, I don’t mean this is a bad film, but it is definitely not a movie for your casual filmgoer. This exists in a very specialized realm of film, grindhouse, but even still it doesn’t strictly adhere to the tenets of that genre and even openly plays with the conventions. This is not to say the film is some masterpiece. It’s very cheap and very gritty, and that’s what it has to be to do what its trying to do. If you decide to see this movie, and can track it down, you’re going to discover a very disturbing, very funny, and in the end oddly moving low budget horror flick.

The first scene of the film features a young man shooting up with some strange drug and then being raped to death by a demonic looking man. Flash to the young man’s friends, a group of med school students who react with coldness towards news of his death. The only one who seems to feel anything is Justin (Segan), the most drugged out of all of them who has a dream/hallucination where his dead friend appears in a morgue blaming him for his death. The kids are called into the police station for questioning where its revealed a few nights prior to the murder they had been poking around the basement of a records building on their campus. Justin discovered files on John and William Hopper, a husband and wife serial killing duo who would rape their victims to death. The two were on an experimental drug which Justin finds a vial of and shares with his pals. It appears that the drug has somehow broken down a barrier to Hell, and now the Hoppers have returned in demonic form to wreak havoc.

While the film follows many of the tropes of grindhouse, particularly  beginning with a big horrific scene, then slowing down until one more final climactic act of grotesque, it also throws some new ideas. There are a lot of jump cuts, particularly when focusing on Justin, which serve the purpose of showing how his drug addled brain is processing things. Sound is also used in an incredibly effective way, sound being an element that is normally overlooked. In certain scenes, instead of hearing the dialogue, we can see that the characters are talking but the soundtrack is overtaken by ambient static. There’s a reason in the plot for this, but just in terms of atmosphere it gives an otherwise mundane scene an air of creepy surreality.

There’s a lot of explotative sex, as you would expect in a grindhouse styled film, and this film definitely goes places with it you wouldn’t expect. If you thought A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween was a crudely disguised warning to adolescents to refrain from sex and drugs, this picture will blow those ideas out of the water. The two supernatural killers of the film possess…*ahem* macabre transformations of their genital regions that render them brutal and demonic. William Hopper in particular has a very unique method of killing his victims. I absolutely loved how evil the villains in this film were. I don’t believe a studio horror film would ever allow a director to go as far and as horrible as Ferrin takes the Hoppers. At the end though, the film has a strangely sad and poignant. Though once again, I warn you to not watch this film unless your brain is truly ready for the horror.

Newbie Wednesday – Daybreakers

Daybreakers (2009, dir. The Spierig Brothers)
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe

Vampires are on the brain of many a Hollywood screenwriter these days. From the Twilight franchise to CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries, the sanguine are a hot commodity. The vampire is one of those monsters that seems to have a couple different interpretations. You have the elegant sex object popularized by Dracula and the Anne Rice novels, you have the eerily inhuman humanoid seen in the classic Nosferatu, and then occasional we see a completely bestial form. What’s interesting about Daybreakers is that it touches on each of these forms; and while the film is high concept, does it live up to the ideas it presents?

In a world where humans were overtaken by vampirism about a decade earlier, humans are becoming extinct and without a steady blood supply, the vampires are experiencing a secondary mutation. The blood deprived vampires end up feeding on each other, poisoning their systems and becoming more animal than human. Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a corporate hematologist seeking to synthesize a blood substitute and tests are less than successful. He’s overseen by his intimidating boss (Neill) and army grunt brother. Eventually, Dalton crosses paths with the human resistance movement and their leader, Elvis (Dafoe). Elvis was once a vampire but through a random circumstance he reverted back to human. Dalton sets out to figure out why and see if he can cure humanity once and for all.

The film is chock full of amazing ideas. Life is lived at night or in a series of interconnected tunnels beneath the city where there are copious little cafes or newspaper stands. Life is fairly similar to our own, except for the whole needing to feed on blood part. It was also refreshing that there would be select vampires who retained empathy that outweighed their biological needs to feed. There’s even a senator featured on a news program whose big issue is humanity rights and wants to remove humans from being used a cattle. The cinematography is also very clean and sharp. The directors definitely know how to set up a stylistic shot and their previous special effects works comes through.

On the flip side, the actual story of the film is complete and total mess. The transformation of Dafoe’s character never gets a comprehensible explanation and seems to be boiled down to wrapping yourself in a wet blanket and being exposed to sunlight, literally. This is the elusive cure for vampirism. The twists and turns the plots takes are either incredibly forced with no real reason behind them or simply an excuse to show people being torn limb from limb. Its apparent early on that the actors in this film are better than the material they are working with, and they most definitely don’t raise it beyond its mediocrity.

Asian Cinema Month – Thirst

Thirst (2009, dir. Chan-wook Park)
Starring Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-Kyun Shin

What if Double Indemnity was a vampire flick? That’s part of the premise going on in this visually startling South Korean horror flick. I’ve only seen one other Chan-wook Park film (Oldboy) and now after Thirst, I know I need to see more. No other country in the South Asian region produces films that excite me as strongly as South Korea. Unlike their neighbors, South Korea seems to find a perfect balance between the craftsmanship or artsier fare and the dynamic storytelling of Hollywood films. So how does this vampire noir stack up?

Father Sang-hyun is living in a world infected by the Emmanuel virus, a plague that behaves like a sort of super leprosy, affecting only men. Sang has grown tired of seeing the patients of his Catholic hospice dying and volunteers to be a guinea pig for vaccine tests. He ends up being the only one of 500 test subjects to survive, after receiving a life saving blood transfusion. Sang returns to his parish only to be greeted by a throngs of devotees believing him to be some sort of savior. Sang has doubts but nevertheless comes to the hospital bed of a cancer patient. As fate might have it, the patient is Sang’s childhood friend Kang-woo, who is married to Tae-ju, a girl they both fancied years ago. Along with this, Sang has developed an unnatural thirst as a result of the transfusion, he now craves blood. First, he gets it from a coma patient in his hospice but the hunger grows stronger and after ending up in a illicit relationship with Tae-ju it is obvious things will not end well.

The first thing you’ll notice about this feature is the strength of the visuals. No matter what anyone thinks of the quality of story and character development, you have to give up for some crazy and inventive camera play. In many ways Park is disciple of the Tarantino-aesthetic. The camera will maneuver in ways that are not physically possible, yet Park is able to hide the CG trickery in a way that never takes you out of the film. Thirst is also not short on gore, but more in the sound department than visual. When Sang suckles on an IV or an open wound, the noise of his slurping swallows up the screen. There is a lot of blood and some moderate subtle gore, but it will be the sounds that linger with you.

The two main characters, Sang and Tae-ju are perfect counterbalances to each other, a sort of Korean Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Sang is contemplative and worried about his condition while Tae-ju is desperate and manic about exploiting his vampirism for her own gain. The film balances its horror with some comedy and the mix of the two is very disturbing. A great piece of counter-programming to Twilight and would be an awesome double feature with Let the Right One In.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Girly

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969, dir. Freddie Francis)

If you never heard of this film, I can’t fault you. It is an obscure little British horror-comedy that has strong genetic ties to The Addams Family, but more macabre. Full of murder, mayhem, and some very unnerving incestous overtones, Girly (for short) is one of the funniest black comedies I have seen in awhile. In the US we tend to put the crazy killers of our films at the bottom rung of the socio-economic class and basically kick the poor while they’re down. The wonderful thing about the UK is the intense dislike of the aristocracy, even by a lot of the aristocracy themselves. Thus, a film as wonderfully insane as Girly can come about and skewer the 1950s nuclear family unit.

Somewhere on a palatial English countryside estate lives Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly. Though Sonny and Girly are obviously in their twenties, they still dress and behave like schoolchildren. Sonny and Girly also have a rather queasy relationship that is hinted at but never made explicit. Also in the mansion live the Friends, homeless men and free love hippies lured to the house and locked up for the sadistic pleasure of the quartet. The introductory friend finds he is unwelcome when he can’t follow the rules Mumsy has set up to run her happy home. As a result he’s decapitated. But into their lives comes New Friend, a gigolo who through a series of gruesome circumstances ends up trapped. Unlike previous Friends, New Friend is a conniver and begins his quest to tear about this happy homicidal home.

Girly was the project of acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Francis, the lens behind such films as Tales of Hoffman, the Gregory Peck Moby Dick, and The Innocents. Francis transitioned into directing in the early 1960s and went on to helm some cult British horror films and established him as filmmaker who brought a lot of visual flair to his pictures. Francis would eventually return to working the camera and was responsible for the cinematography on such films as The Elephant Man, Dune, Glory, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Girly was originally a stage play (you can feel the more theatrical moments in the film). The premise of the film is a lampooning of the “traditional” family unit at the hands of the 1960s counter culture.

The film is very fun, dark fare. It’s never truly horrifying, just the kind of violence that gives off a creepy vibe and elicits laughs more than gasps. The middle of the picture meanders a little bit, becoming a bit of a struggle to work through, but the way New Friend begins to tear apart the four members of the family by turning them on each other is enjoyable to watch. Definitely an odd, incredibly obscure picture worth a watch.