February 28, 2013
February 23, 2013
One of the most interesting arguments about movies, at least to me, is the one that compares movie viewing to addiction. Most addiction theories talk about how an addict buys in to a high, but it's a high that decreases over time. The theory says that the high is greatest at first, but later in the addict's life the tolerance builds up and they can never reach that same feeling again. The theory makes sense there, and, unfortunately, occasionally makes sense with movies too.
If you're a horror fan like me, then consider that time when you were a kid and were first really scared by a movie. You probably thought it could happen to you and came up with safe guards to prevent yourself from the movie and all kinds of silly kid things. Some people don't, but I know I did. Heck, I thought there might be something under the bed till I was 18. Did I get picked on and bullied in school? Sure I did. But it was a for a good cause.
Time, however, reveals all things. The more horror we watch, the more we become accustomed to the tricks, the more we start to recognize the twists, and the more we become cynical toward what we see. That first time you saw someone jump out from behind someone in a horror movie sure made you scream, but now think of the 437th time you saw it happen. Did you laugh? I probably laughed. Doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, but it does mean that I didn't feel the same shock.
Which brings me to Dark Skies, a new horror movie full of old horror movie tricks. It follows in the footsteps of successful films from the same producers - as noted by the poster it's clearly riding the coattails of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, not to mention last year's creeper Sinister - which means it uses a lot of the same moves that we've already seen. The lighting, the music, and even the settings are entirely familiar to anyone who has seen those films. And it's not like those flicks were the first to use bump-in-the-night tactics to get audiences' attentions, which makes the film even more familiar to horror addicts. It's hard to really be shocked by anything contained in this film, whose biggest flaw is existing in the wake of literally thousands of films that have the same style.
Now that I've gotten my old man horror rant out of the way (And, good lord, it took me long enough!), here's the kicker - Dark Skies is a pretty competent little horror film. The plot follows the same arc that we've seen in the previously mentioned films, with the major tweak being that demons or ghosts have been replaced by aliens. This is sure to draw skepticism from plenty of viewers, and some of the reveals are a little silly. Yet the film never fully goes off the cliff of realism and manages to keep its feet as it moves through this battle with an increasingly problematic adversary.
The film gets most of its strength from the two actors in the lead. Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are the married couple who, along with their two children, are terrorized by visitors and both give grounded and interesting performances. Russell is the bigger name and the one who is given the most screen time to uncover oddities and react with unease, but the character written for Hamilton is a truly interesting twist on the usual. Films of this sort often miss with the male character (i.e. - Mee-kah in Paranormal Activity), but Hamilton's character is never completely skeptical or distant from the proceedings. It's a fantastic addition to the film when we see this man go through a human range of emotions without being one note, and it cements that Dark Skies isn't just a cash in on a formula.
Of course, the fact that Dark Skies follows a formula I've seen a plethora of times doesn't discount the film for those who don't know the formula. As I watched the film tonight, a family of four with two pre-teen daughters sat across the aisle. Did one of the daughters scream loudly about 20 times during the movie? Yes, yes she did. Did I smile every time? Yes, yes I did. It was those moments, in which a young horror viewer reacted to the same kind of things I used to react to, that made me appreciate everything Dark Skies has to offer, both on its own and as a member of the horror family. The film works on the simplest level of horror, which should grab the viewers with a low tolerance, and offers new twists like the well-written family dynamic and some surprising dream sequences for the high tolerance folks like myself. Dark Skies will never go down as a revelation in the horror genre, but I'm pretty comfortable saying it does enough right to make it worth a viewing.
Kind-of genre icon Michael Biehn (it's hard to argue against the Terminator/Aliens/Abyss trifecta) stars in his own directorial debut as a reclusive gruff guy who becomes the center of a survival picture. A bad girl (Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's real world wife) evades the men who just killed her friend (horror fave Danielle Harris) and holes up with the resourceful character in an attempt to fend off the killers.
Biehn keeps the whole thing moving at a quick pace, with well-placed flashbacks to show Blanc and Harris' plight. The goal was obviously to remind us of grindhouse thrillers of the past, and The Victim does a pretty good job of getting the tone right as it focuses on sex and violence. Biehn is excellent in the lead, and the acting is sufficient across the board.
There are a lot of positives, but the picture never really has a spectacular moment and the villains are one-note and dull. An abrupt conclusion implies a neat twist but doesn't close anything, leaving the small film feeling like a good attempt, but not a total success toward its psychosexual goals.
Items of Note: Two sex-related deaths. One extended sex scene between real-life couple. Plenty of flashbacks of Harris strutting her bad girl stuff. Three deaths. Bizarre picture credits that include most of the crew. Biehn starring as Kyle, which just makes me think of Kyle Reese from Terminator. Se7en mimicking. One impressive mustache.
The Score: 3 Angry Biehns out of 5.
February 22, 2013
February 21, 2013
Yeah, I'll admit it - I kind of put Cosmopolis on the back burner when it came out. Cronenberg's last film, A Dangerous Method, left me a little disappointed, but the main reason I ignored this movie was because it starred that Twilight guy. Look, I'm on the internet a ton and I hear people talk and I've picked up that it's not cool to like Twilight - which is great, because I've never given the series much thought - but I should have poo-pooed that bias and seen Cosmopolis in the first place.
And so it came to pass that I was in the video store last weekend and looked up at this strange trailer that was playing on one of the TVs in the store and was instantly like "WHOA, what the frank is that crazy looking, good looking movie?" And the answer was Cosmopolis. And I remembered how good Cronenberg can be when he's good. I'm not saying I made a beeline across the store, but I definitely made it a priority and didn't go home without it.
(I'm also not gonna lie about one other thing - the moment in that trailer when i went from "I kinda wanna see that crazy looking, good looking movie." to "I GOTTA see that crazy looking, good looking movie!" was when the trailer showed the name of Kevin Durand, known forever to me as 'The Goonest Looking Guy in The World" as one of the stars. That guy is awesome.)
Which brings us to me actually watching Cosmopolis, an experience that quickly became a great one. I'm not necessarily sure I can tell you the movie is a great one - I saw it like four days ago and it's still rolling around my head and bouncing off of questions, usually without finding answers - but I can tell you that it works on a purely bizarre plane of cinema where nothing makes sense and every next scene is a mystery. The plot, in its basest form, follows millionaire businessman Eric Packer (played by Pattinson) who sets off across the city in his bright white limousine to get a haircut. Sounds like a boring plot, no? Well, you're in luck because the city in question is in an unpredictable state of political and financial turmoil, which means there's a metaphorical bullseye on the lead's head - which becomes literal when threats on his life are received by his chief of security (the awesome Durand, who looks as goon as ever, even in a suit) and riots break out throughout the city.
As Packer makes his trip across the city, perched in an eerily throne-like back seat and surrounded by a rotating troupe of associates, doctors, and prostitutes the film occasionally resembles an incoherent crackbaby parented by Ferris Bueller's Day Off and David Fincher's The Game. Packer interacts with those around him using stunted means of communication, having incredibly personal dialogues with others while using as few words as possible. We learn a lot about the man - about everything from his business empire to his marriage to his prostate - while never really getting too close to feel like he's much of a human.
As such, the pale and uncomfortable Pattinson is actually a perfect fit for the lead role. The actor seems to be very aware of himself in the role and never flinches despite the bizarre things going on. Growing up around football coaches, one of the lessons that has always stuck with me was that a consistent commitment to the cause and a "buy in" to the goal at hand is often much more important than talent - and I feel like that's where Cronenberg and Pattinson were working here. I'm sure that Cronenberg - who has had films focused on talents like James Woods, Jeremy Irons, and Viggo Mortenson - could get almost any actor he wanted to play a lead that is on screen for nearly every minute of this film - but the marriage between he and Pattinson is the marriage that the film needed. It's gutsy casting, but I think it pays off.
The film also brings an all-star supporting cast to the table, even if most appear for only one sequence. Notable names like Juliette Binoche, Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti show up for a sequence each, and each brings something useful and interesting to the discussion. One of the more attention grabbing segments features Emily Hampshire as a business associate who meets with Packer as he's also getting an exam from his doctor, and this early film segment might be the first real clue that this journey is going to go off the rails as the day goes on. The two people who show up alongside Pattinson most often in the film are Durand and Sarah Gadon, who might be the film's most fascinating mystery as Packer's new wife and the object of his desires. She is - not coincidentally - one of the few reasons he ever leaves the controlled environment of the limousine, and the cold of the character when interacting with the equally distant lead character really fits perfectly within the film's odd tone.
I'm not going to sit here and try to make sense of the bizarre film - on one hand it's quite straight forward, on the other it's batcrap insane - because that's a task for someone much smarter and more eloquent than I am. But I am going to recommend Cosmopolis to those who are interested in abstract cinema, because what Cronenberg has put together here is certainly the right kind of cinematic trip. There's some rust around the edges and the film never really becomes profound, but it's ambitious and different and (most importantly) interesting. This isn't quite Cronenberg at his best, but it's a step in the right direction and a movie that is worth thinking about.
February 15, 2013
February 12, 2013
Sleep Tight is a very simple thriller that makes itself great through very extraordinary methods. The obsessed stalker subgenre has been an American favorite at times - particularly around the late '80s and early '90s - but this Spanish chiller dares to take risks that many filmmakers would avoid. The result of those risks is a film that kind of blew my mind.
The story primarily follows two characters - Cesar (played by Luis Tosar), the concierge at a pretty decent apartment building; and Clara (played by Marta Etura) a twentysomething tenant who is young, beautiful, and the object of Cesar's lust. In fact, we learn very quickly that Cesar spends most of his evenings hiding under Clara's bed and waiting until she's asleep and he can sedate her.
Now, I'm willing to bet that any female reader who just considered the possibility of a man hiding under their bed and waiting to pounce just freaked out. That's the natural, and probably correct, reaction to the premise. Director Jaume Balaguero - who knows a bit about apartment based horror after co-directing the first two [REC] films - doesn't waste any time setting up Cesar's role as aggressor, and the first act of the film does more than enough to make us uncomfortable with the man.
The thing about Sleep Tight - the thing that I think is truly amazing - is that it's not that easy to really hate Cesar. I feel awful saying that - I don't support stalking and raping, obviously - but Balaguero focuses almost all of the film's attention on Cesar, and the obsessed man is never painted as a one-note psychopath. Many films of this sort add scenes that are entirely there to make us think the perpetrator is a total freak, but Sleep Tight takes Cesar's side in the story more often than you'd expect. I couldn't help feeling like there were moments when Cesar was more like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief than Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and I feel kind of crazy admitting that.
I won't say that I was rooting for the creeper, nor will I suggest that you should. But the real treat of Sleep Tight is that it doesn't settle for the simple approach to this story. Cesar is a troubled man, not a representation of evil. Clara isn't built up as the representation of everything that's good, either. We have plenty of reasons to know that Cesar is a bad guy and Clara is a victim - the most obvious of which is common sense - but Balaguero knows how to create drama in any situation. I am still kind of shocked that I found myself worried about how Cesar would escape being found out in so many situations, but the film is so engaging that I just couldn't help it.
Sleep Tight will certainly go down as one of the most impressive and memorable horror films of recent years for me. It's got a truly Hitchcockian tone, a marvelous lead performance, and enough creepy moments to make most films of its type jealous. Balaguero will be returning to the [REC] series soon to bring more hyperactive horror to us all, but Sleep Tight should put genre fans on notice that this is a filmmaker who can control a film in many different ways. I've been thinking about it for days, and can't recommend it enough.
(P.S. - Why is everyone in Spain listening to music from America? Only thing that confused me about this flick.)
February 9, 2013
February 8, 2013
The snuff film is back with Gut, a psychological indie thriller that aims to draw us in with a deep focus on death. It's not entirely successful in this regard, but it does leave an impression as a unique addition to the horror genre.
The film follows a family man, Tom, and his co-worker and friend Dan. The two men live a relatively boring life, working in a boring office and eating lunch in a boring diner and reminiscing about the good old days - which sound like they were boring except for watching horror movies. The thing is that Tom is Mr. Serious Married Man now and has little interest in those olden days, while Tom just wants to hang out and watch horror movies like Return of the Living Dead 3.
Since Tom is embracing the boring, the only way Dan can get his attention is by upping the stakes - which means he starts ordering gonzo horror flicks that seem to consist entirely of stomachs being cut open - and which also seem to look extremely real. I'm not entirely sure this type of film appeals to me - then again, I have spent plenty of time watching YouTube videos of animals being vaporized by vehicles with friends - but Tom and Dan are soon enamored and trapped in the path of whoever makes these sadistic pieces of torture cinema.
The resulting events lead the characters into madness and violence, which you can bet makes their lives a little less boring. Along the way we learn that neither character is very wholesome - let alone very interesting - and we see their relationships with others quickly fall apart. There's some commentary about the people who chase violent thrills to be had here, which is probably the best thing to focus on in the film. If you can avoid getting too caught up in the acting (Jason Vail, who plays Tom, is especially wooden) and pacing (plenty of shots seem to hold for far too long) and get caught up in the mysteries of what is going on and why it's having such a dramatic effect on these men, you might not mind checking out Gut.
I'm not sure the whole film works. It's raw, but it's raw in a bad "we're being way too deliberate" way and not a good "we're bucking trends and making our own rules" way. The idea is interesting, and it's one of those stories that could be fleshed out more with more interesting characters and more intrigue. Worst of all, the conclusion is incredibly disappointing, wrapping up with a previously teased confrontation that doesn't answer most of our questions. Part of that problem is on the actors - again, I just couldn't get past the stiff performance by Vail - but it's also a problem that the film gives us so much information and so little conclusion.
Gut has plenty of problems but, as I said in the opening, it at least leaves an impression. The snuff-ish sequences are definitely unsettling, and the sequences that surround them - as we watch the male characters become increasingly enamored in them - provoke a lot of thought. The whole product isn't fantastic, but it at least has moments that show a lot of promise. I'd be fascinated to see what writer/director Elias has up his sleeve in the future, because Gut feels like a starting point for an intelligent horror director's career - if he can get the right people around him. Gut is worth keeping an eye out for if you're a fan of human horror, but to me it ended up as more of an interesting attempt than a winning success.
For more info on Gut, head on over to the official site or Facebook page. The film is available for rent on plenty of platforms, details of which you can find at those links.
February 5, 2013
I first encountered the work of Dom Portalla and Ken Flott, the men behind the short feature Nicky, in the fall of 2010. Portalla had directed the ambitious low-budget thriller The Darkness Within (which came to me via longtime friend of FMWL Cortez the Killer over at the rockin' Planet of Terror), which featured a key side performance by the attention grabbing Flott. It was a good little film that piqued my interest in the folks at Door Eleven Productions, and that interest has thankfully led me to a pretty fantastic short film today.
As a bit of an obsessive nerd, I remember a lot of weird things that I hear on the internet. Back when I was checking out that flick, I remember a tweet or interview or podcast or something featuring Portalla where he was talking about some kind of difficulty with the film's story and was resigned to admit something like "Thankfully, we had Flott." I remember being taken aback by the frankness of the director, who seemed unwavering in his confidence that this man was a one-of-a-kind talent. Seeing what they've done now, it's easy for me to understand why.
Which brings us to Nicky, which is directed by Portalla, based on a short story by Flott, and co-written by the duo. Look at the poster and you will literally see three lines of credits that feature only these two names, plus Flott as the top billed member of the cast.This is by no means a two man show entirely - the 30 minute short has more characters and settings than you'd expect based on its length - but it is a showcase for Flott, who moves through the film and commands our attention at every turn.
The story follows Flott as a nameless man who is searching for his little brother, Nicky, who vanished years ago without a trace. We learn a lot about the man through an inner monologue that plays as narration - not to mention his brief conversations with his unconventional best friend - and it's not hard to see where the plot is going as we watch this man move through his life. But, as he did in The Darkness Within, Flott demands our attention and makes the character fascinating.
His journey goes to dark places, which makes Nicky a trip down an unsettling rabbit hole. There's violence and there's foul language and there's even the obvious statement about human trafficking, but there are also some truly unsettling moments that go beyond the expected. The appearances of young Charles Everett Tacker as the title character - usually accompanied by a beautiful score by Danielle Samson - add an air of mystery to the film and push us to that great spot where we're not quite sure what to believe. The end result of these scenes will surely be some conversation about what happened or didn't happen, what was "real" or "not real".
Nicky is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It's put together well by Portalla, well acted by Flott and company, and - most importantly - unique and engaging. It left me wanting more - it's easy to see this story blown up to feature status with all the questions that remain and the characters that are being established - but it also left me satisfied with what it is. The Darkness Within seemed like a fun diversion, the kind of flick a bunch of talented friends make when they're just seeing what they can do. Nicky seems like the next step in the evolution of Portalla and company as filmmakers, and I'm willing to guess that anyone who meets Nicky won't soon forget it.
For more information on Nicky and Door Eleven Productions, make sure to head over to their official site or hit the film up on Facebook. And, of course, check out the trailer below.