Monday, December 31, 2012

La femme infidèle. (1969) Claude Chabrol

Reconciling Infidelity for A&F Nominations.

"I love you," says the disconsolate husband, softly.

"I love you," whispers the unfaithful wife. She is clearly telling him the truth.

"I love you like mad," he utters, again under his breath, holding to his marital bond like an armistice.

If La femme infidèle is about the love between a husband and wife, it's also about the mad bonds that tie them together, and the lengths the two might go to preserve them.

The title says it all, for this is really a story about three people (four, if you count their little boy, and with the uneasy ramifications that will play out here, the fate of the little boy is certainly worth consideration). This is a love triangle tale. It is as messed up as Anthony and Cleopatra -- an ages-old theme, to be certain -- but it is relayed to the eye through the sheer power of autuer cinema, Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier formally giving new light to a timeless idea.

The husband, Charles (Michel Bouquet), suspects his wife, Helene (the beautiful Stéphane Audran) of spending her time in other places in the city, instead of getting her nails done or going every other day to the cinema. He hires a detective and uncovers her lover's name. Husband then proceeds to meet this fellow, and at this half way point all the characters' lives unravel while the cinematic way in which it is told springs the story to life.

The camera movement is phenomenal, at one point swooping from inside a parked car, following the husband around the corner and back into the car in one take -- in other moments slightly inebriated, reflecting the sudden wooziness in a central character's state, or with masterful tracking as we follow Charles dragging something as large as a human, wrapped in cloth, down a Parisian sidewalk. The quiet, felt tension relayed by Bouquet as the husband is actually mirrored in the movement of the lens.

Rabier's craftmanship showcases, quite clearly, a very different and unique time in cinema history -- scenes steal the show on their own, like glimpes of the inside of the Bates Hotel in Psycho, or the people in the other apartment in Rear Window. Yes, it's Hitchcock that foremost comes to mind, where the psychology of the characters is also relayed in the way we're allowed to see it. In the very movement of the camera itself -- a sense of disorientation likewise later in the wife -- we not only see, but feel, the loss of her freedom, her desire, and her need for understanding reflected in tilts, pans, zooms, and perfectly paced edits.

Chabrol even has a sense of humor, like the signature of Hitch appearing in his own film. Only here, in a nerve-wrangling scene in which husband is driving very fast down an all-too-crowded boulevard, we faintly catch a theater in the background as it passes by. What was playing in the cinema in France that day? Les Biches, Chabrol's film from 1968.

This is an amazing, masterful film in which all of the pieces come together: a fine script, decent deadpan (read: French) acting, highly artistic and expressionist cinematography, and edits that know when to cut and when to refrain and let us see more.

After watching La femme infidèle, I find myself wondering: Claude Chabrol, where have you been all my life?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Take This Waltz. (2012) Sarah Polley

"New things get old," a naked elderly woman says to three younger naked women taking a shower in a public locker room.


A drunk, who, seconds after crashing her car in the driveway, is lecturing her sister-in-law for abandoning her marriage: "Life has a gap in it... You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."


These two statements are the core themes of Take This Waltz, a film which has a few truths mixed in a bucketful of suggestions which, might also be true, and show us a way not to live -- but it's a miserable spectacle to see.

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen star as Margot and Lou, at the five-year mark in their marriage. They're a couple who care for each other, and probably still love one another, but have lost the spark and can't figure out how to reignite it.

They've lost their ability to engage (they know each other too well to converse in a restaurant), they horribly fail at spontaneity (she cries after several attempts at seducing him in the kitchen), and they've grown too comfortable with each other's presence, losing the joy and sense of fondness they once shared. It seems Margot is looking for the spark a trifle more than Lou -- whereas he is happy in the stability of his home and marriage, she wants every day to be fairies and fireworks.

Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), the new neighbor from across the street. He's a mysterious loner, a good-looking solo artist who doesn't show any of his melodramatic paintings. He is sly, and fit, and runs rickshaw around Toronto. He's broke but wears the persona of a "Fifty Shades of Gray."

At first he runs into Margot by chance, but as the film moves toward the inevitable they are constantly seeking ways to run off and hang out. They do coffee, they take walks, they condescend and harass one another to no end. There's something going on here, and Margot begins to feel a bit unnerved.

Daniel would be the "new," Lou would be the "old," -- Daniel might be the "fill," Lou might be the "gap".

A truth, hard as it will be, is at least found in Take This Waltz. Margot won't find happiness by running off with someone else. She'd be leaving not only her husband (and a good man), but a supporter with common bonds and a shared history -- and in doing so she'd be leaving many of their mutual friends as well. Her choice, should she go there, will hurt her, leaving her even more unsatisfied than before -- a fact of life depicted quite well in the miserable Take This Waltz -- depicted so well, I never want to see the damn thing again.

The truth often hurts. And these situations hurt. And all kinds of hurtful (read: truthful) questions still rise, questions which anyone who wants to grow might be prone to ask: Can any ONE person really complete ANOTHER? Is that "gap" able to be filled by another person, or is it made to be filled by something larger? (Can an individual fit into the God-shaped hole?)

"You complete me," was the dialogue-turned-pop-expression by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. But -- really? Is it even fair to hoist this kind of burden on another individual?

Like the suggestion in the phrase, "You complete me," all of the characters in Take This Waltz, but Margot in particular, come across as half a person looking to add another half a person to make some kind of Whole in the end. As if a fractured, unhealed individual might be able to add another partial person to their lives, and that together they might make a complete unit.

But in relationships, this doesn't work. If you don't take the time to work on your own self first, you are not going to be completed by the love of someone else -- nor the emotional strength, sex, or help of someone else (although it may work for a time).

I've always thought of this in terms of math. Whereas many would like to use addition, making a 1/2 plus a 1/2 equal one whole unit, I've thought that perhaps we need to look at it as multiplication. One whole times one whole equals, yes, one whole relationship.

All the truth that's found here seems like it might make for a masterful film. So many times these days we see depictions of people who seem to do the wrong thing and live happily ever after. So it's to be lauded that a director like Polley finds a way to make us squirm in our seats, to see the devastation of moral failure so clearly.

However, a suggestion at the end of Take This Waltz leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth (though it may still ring true). The suggestion is that all of these characters are lonely, miserable, untrusting, feeling used, probably slightly bitter and most definitely hanging on to some kind of resentment. That no matter who they end up with they will always want something more, and no matter who they are fucking they'll only wind up feeling fucked.

It's bitter, but it's true -- if you're planning to live your life the way these characters do.

This is a film full of truths, and suggestions that I hate, and lives that take paths that are inwardly destructive and no fun. When and if some of these characters choose to have kids, their kids will have terrible examples and will wind up on the same meds as their divorced parents.

That the film shows truth-in-action is a noble pursuit. That the film shows broken people who find wrong ways to "heal," and that the ramifications of their poor choices are clearly seen is a rare thing in a story these days.

But is it fun to watch? No. I doubt I'll ever watch this wretched thing again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gilles' Wife. (2004) Frédéric Fonteyne

Heaven turned to Hell for A&F Nominations.

Like Breaking the Waves (but with no God or grace or dialogue to offer help), Gilles' Wife can be a tough film to watch. 

It compares a married couple and the lengths they will go to in opposite extremist ways of life: the disgraceful husband who chases and cheats and emotionally browbeats his wife with the details, and the faithful and saintly wife who loves him so much she selflessly helps him in his affair.

These two, fixed in their positions, are a horrible mix for a marriage. In fact, they are a horrible mix for any relationship -- two extremists who can't meet in the middle.

This is a miserable art film, the kind that people rail against, the kind that people complain about when they complain about a certain kind of French film. The characters are punished (and even punish themselves) for their own inability to properly deal with life on life's terms, and they deserve all the punishment they end up with.

That they got what they deserved doesn't make it any less miserable to watch.

I pretty much hated this movie.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunrise. (1927) F.W. Murnau

A Silent era masterpiece for A&F Nominations.

There is little doubt that Sunrise is one of the greatest films of all-time. In 1929, the first year of the Academy Awards, Murnau's silent drama was awarded for "Unique and Artistic Production," the only time that award has been granted, regardless of the film itself being a box office failure. The National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress has chosen the film for preservation, and both the American and British Film Institutes have placed it on lists that recognize the greatest films in the history of cinema.

A few years back, it was a hard one to track down. I remember purchasing a DVD copy on eBay, for around $30 in 2003, and sending it on tour to my cinephilic friends so they could enjoy it, too. Now, in the age of Instant Viewing and more readily available classics, film geeks find it available through Netflix.

Its plot, based on the story 'The Excursion to Tilsit' by Hermann Sudermann, is simple enough, even generic in its summary: The Man (George O'Brien) has an adulterous affair with a Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), who convinces him to drown The Wife (Janet Gaynor), sell their farmhouse property, and move to the city to be with her. At the mention of drowning his bride, The Man nearly strangles The Woman at first, but even as he strangles her, his lust regains control -- he falls into her embrace and is soon enough agreeing with her proposition.

Somewhere inside The Man is a decent, faithful husband, who is now struggling between two emotional extremes. Sunrise is surely a film about an abundance of issues, an adulterous affair being its first target, but it is also about a man coming to senses with himself, coming to terms with his own inherent goodness. It is about recognizing your own faults, your own sin, and reconciling with yourself, and hoping to find good standing with the ones you have betrayed and let down.

This was Murnau's first film in America. He was brought to the states in 1926 by William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation in Hollywood. He was widely known before Sunrise as one of the key directors in German Expressionism, with films like Nosferatu and The Last Laugh catching global attention.

Expressionism is well-known for embracing the fantastic, and somewhat a rejection of realism. Think of the cinematography, outrageous acting and over-the-top nature of something like Edward Scissorhands, which is a direct allusion to these German films. But what is fascinating about a film like Sunrise is that while there is melodrama in the acting, and while it's undoubtedly expressionist in its lighting, set design and roving cinematography, even 85 years later the story comes across as a quite realistic, real enough to transcend space and time while being seen.

I think the reason for this is because of the nature of the relationships between The Man, The Wife, and the Woman From the City. This is the never ending stuff of life, these inner impulses and struggles of the heart which will always be present, no matter when a story is told. And what's interesting about a film like Sunrise is that it hails back to an earlier time in cinematic history, sure -- but through the sheer power of its camera's presence from that time we find comfort and mourning in the same elemental struggles.

We are human. We desire to love. We desire to be loved back. We screw it up along the way, and we don't always know how to love right. Even after we screw up, the desire for love remains inside us. And that is a desire that is timeless.

Sunrise is surely a technological achievement, a modern-era wonder, quite recognized as a superior product from silent cinema. But it remains on best-of lists even decades after sound and color because of the heartbeat and the values at its core. There is a pulse that continues to linger, no matter the era in which it is seen, for it is alive, fully human, with a heart made of flesh and not stone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another Year. (2010) Mike Leigh

Due to the alcoholic subtext of Another Year, as I'd read in various reviews about its characters who deal with addictive tendencies (a subject I'm prone to take obsessive interest in), I've wanted to see it since it hit theaters last year. However, I've also been a little fearful of the film because I'm no fan of Mike Leigh, the UK writer/director who never seems to realize the outrageous potential of cinema, and maybe should have worked his sullen dramas in theater instead.*

I'm not saying Leigh's films are boring... Well, OK, to be honest, I guess I am.

I do enjoy films in which character study is the most important aspect, but for some reason Leigh's other well-known films --  Secrets and LiesAll or Nothing and Vera Drake -- are the kinds where you view them and you might remember them in a week, but certainly not in a month. Case in point: I remember talking about Vera Drake with quite a few people way back when, but I have no memory of anything we discussed outside its controversial subject matter, and frankly, it wasn't strong enough to care to go back for another look.

So there is is. I find Mike Leigh films a bit of a bore. I've admitted my bias up front, and I'm willing to be taken to task for my failure. (There are circles, in Britain, where the guy is held up as a god with a small "g".)

I finally sat with Another Year when my friends at A&F began the nominating process for a list that will eventually become the Top 25 Films About Marriage, or whatever we finally call it. I am voting in that poll and want to give the many nominations their fair shake -- meaning, I want to see as many nominees as I can and follow in the discussions about why a particular film might qualify as a top film on the complexities of marriage. And I can see a decent case being made for Another Year. It is definitely a film which would suit that list quite well. The problem I'm having with it is more of the "boring" and less of the "well suited."

The film might be as boring as some of the marriages I've seen, but I found something interesting when engaging its reviews, one thing that might make Leigh a genius and prove that I honestly don't know what I'm even talking about. To get to that, let me first explain the foundation of Another Year's plot:

The story follows a happily married couple in North London, Tom and Gerri, and a year in their family and friends' lives. The year is divided into four seasons, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter. The couple is aging, but both are still working -- Gerri as a therapist, a counselor of some sort, and Tom as a very professional city engineer, which he shrugs off as being a guy who "digs holes." They are both white collar, educated, with a big house and quite a few rooms and are happy in their various roles in the marriage. They have a son in his late twenties or early thirties, Joe, who hasn't yet found the right girl (and doesn't share much with them about this part of his life), and a few friends who seem to stay over and drink too much at their house from time to time.

One of the friends is Mary, perhaps one of the neediest characters I've seen in a while. She is single, in her early forties, and says she's happy until the drink has finally excited her tongue a bit, and that's when you find out, oh, she's not so happy about being single after all. After she's been drinking a few times at their house you start to look at her a little differently. One might say she's pathetic, but you can also form feelings of sympathy for her loneliness. It's not every single person's fault that they are alone. Mary has made some sad choices over the years, sure. But the choices don't seem wrong enough to alienate her. That's just a part of her life. That's a part of her character's fate. Hence the sympathy.

A few of the characters here are interesting to watch, Mary being the first and foremost. It seems she might fall for any man to dig herself out of her isolation. But that's not quite true. There's another fellow who stays over at Tom and Gerri's place sometimes too -- Ken -- an overweight and aging smoker and drinker, another divorcee who also drops in at the house, stays over, and cries a little bit when he's drunk, too. Though Mary never sees Ken cry, she treats him with contempt. It's hard to say whether there was some sort of past that hangs between them. Mary, too old for Joe, keeps feasting her eyes on him, and when she runs into Ken, who might be a decent fit, she treats him like the plague.

If you like a character-driven drama and a story that simply watches how folks interact in the real world, Another Year can be worth your while. But for me, Leigh's genius came after the film (which I still admit is a little long winded for my own tastes), when I read about the characters and how different viewers reacted to them. This is where we look at Tom and Gerri a little differently, and begin to see that we don't always have the same perceptions about the people we meet; that our backgrounds and understanding shape our perceptions about people as much as much as their own actions.

Recently, after sitting once again with the beautiful six-hour epic The Best of Youth, I wrote a bit about how two characters can be involved in the same situation and can be moved in opposite life directions, polar extremes from one another -- but we still understand both characters and why they would choose their separate paths, even though they've been through the same ordeal.

The same can be said about alternate viewers' reactions to Another Year. Case in point: My long time A&F friend and WAFCA critic, Christian Hamaker, wrote the following about Tom and Gerri after seeing Another Year:
The married couple around whom the story revolves are wonderful people, imperfect but kind-hearted and generous. People come to them with their worries and fears, with good news and bad. And the couple reaches out to others who are hurting, who are newly widowed. They take care of their family, and their friends.
Christian goes on to say that it is so simple and obvious, and yet amazing.

I had the same sort of interpretation of Tom and Gerri (minus the word "amazing," for I don't know whether he is talking about the couple in the film or the film itself). That basically, Tom and Gerri are nice. That there really are courteous people left in the world, and that the film displays an example of that notion in this couple. Here are two people who have grown together, and from their love, which is really the driving force of the film, they feel compelled to reach out to their friends, except when their friends get in the way of their family (and essentially, that happens in Mary's later reaction to Joe bringing home a real girlfriend).

How interesting, then, to read a few other critics' reactions, and I'll just note here that this is re-printed from the same forum:

Karina Longworth, The Village Voice:Unfolding in four episodes pegged to the seasons, Another Year’s arc covers the widening gulf between Tom and Gerri’s entitled contentment, and the increasingly bleak desperation of their family and friends. Ken and Mary, envious of Tom and Gerri’s bond to one another, seem to regard the couple’s home as a safe space in which to unload—apparently oblivious to the knowing looks that Tom and Gerri exchange right in front of them. The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify: Tom and Gerri’s horrible house guests, who you can’t help but pity for their clueless concern for only themselves? Or self-appointed “Saint Gerri” and her even more self-righteous partner, whose care for friends and family is never anything less than condescending?

Glenn Kenny, MSN Film Reviewer:Tom and Jerri are cheery, comfortable old lefties who've understood that they're not in a position to change the world anymore, and have gotten to be fine with that -- there's a correlation between this picture and Leigh's 1988 "High Hopes," in which a younger (obviously), punkier, leather-jacketed Sheen played one half of far a more agitated couple in Thatcherite Britain. As for Mary, her life is one (largely invented) turmoil after another, and the couple's dealings with her frantic plaints eventually get the viewer to wondering whether these nice, settled folks are really all that nice. Mary is very clearly an alcoholic. But the A-word is never once dropped in the film. And Jerri, who's a therapist herself, never even suggests counseling, or a support group, to Mary until an almost cruel hammer-dropping scene near the film's end. Tom and Jerri are so very polite, so very indulgent, so very correct in all their dealings, all the while dispensing conventional left-liberal wisdom spiked with conventional complacent cynicism whenever contemplating a crisis, be it global or local. But it's clear that all the while, they're stifling their own strong feelings of put-upon-ness and resentment. As much as you like them -- and maybe you won't like them, (that's one of the things about Leigh's films and their characters, they're so unusually and thoroughly textured that they never seem designed to elicit a simple response) -- you have to wonder if they're so besotted by their own comfort and contentment that they can't help but act as passive-aggressive near-monsters to the people they're supposedly close to.

I guess this is one long blog post simply to say that I'm still learning, and that one can learn even from a movie that he considers slightly "boring." I'm learning about the power of perspective, still learning that there is never one absolutely right path. I'm learning that we all see things from our own (mostly wrong) backgrounds and senses of personal taste, but the human nature in every one of us needs to form some kind of an opinion anyway -- if anything, so that we just don't float and get pushed around.

I'm gonna chalk this one up as a film which didn't really bother me, but it didn't really move me, either. But its reviews and criticism gave me a bit to chew on, so it can't be as bad or boring as I originally thought.

And if ever I talk about Mike Leigh again, I'm going to try my best to not give an opinion in a sentence or two. Clearly there is a lot of craft at work here, to be able to evoke such strong, opposite reactions from well-known critics.

Is Leigh a genius? Tough to say. But he wouldn't be the first genius I don't really connect with all that well.

* That is not to discredit theater, although that's not my thing either, but it is foolish to not realize that film has more tools available with which to enchant the viewer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Best of Youth. (2003) Marco Tullio Giordana

Six Hours of Italian for A&F Nominations.

This is a sprawling, epic journey following the lives of four siblings in Italy over the span of something like forty years. One of my all-time favorite films, it's a story I wish I could live inside. It has brothers I wish I could call my own, and friends, who like in real life, I wish I could figure out.

The story pivots itself around two brothers from the Carati family, Nicola and Matteo, from the time of their early college years into their diverging adult lives. It shows how their paths are forever altered by one event they share early in the story, and how each of them manages to carve out a totally opposite path from the other -- social, political, and otherwise -- and yet they always stay somewhat connected, and neither one of them are wrong in their different directions.

One event from their youth has sent each in opposite directions, and yet we can understand why each has chosen the way he deals with it.*

When Matteo takes on a job at a mental institution in the mid-sixties, he is introduced to the character that changes them: Giorgia, a wreck of a patient, who barely speaks and refuses to let anyone touch her. Matteo begins taking her on walks as a part of his job, walks that sometimes don't turn out well due to Giorgia's belligerent nature. But when he researches into her past he discovers that she is recovering in a greater degree from her treatment rather than whatever originally ailed her. Giorgia has been given electro-shock treatment, an ineffective, incredibly damaging procedure where two electrodes are placed on the patient's temples for shocking the brain.

If you look very closely into Giorgia's eyes, you can see she might have at one time been a beautiful girl. Whatever hurt her before isn't as bad as the treatment that is hurting her now. Matteo instinctively sees this. On an impulse (the first of many for Matteo), he sneaks her out of the institution at night, and shows up with her when meeting Nicola. They were planning a vacation to Norway with some friends, but in an error of innocence, the naive young brothers decide it is time to take Giorgia back to her home to be with her parents.

Perhaps you remember some event from your life that changed you forever, or maybe it altered the course of your thinking. Perhaps you were raised to believe one thing, but experience taught you something else. In taking Giorgia back home, Nicola and Matteo are trying to do the right thing, but they will fail in doing so. And what happens on this trip will haunt them for many years to come, their psyches permanently altered.

Giorgia disappears from their lives, and there is nothing the boys can do. As we follow them over the decades, there are other characters who pop in and out of their lives, too. Quite a few times when someone disappears, the only thing left behind is heartache. Sometimes the heartache feels like it's just too much, and we get to see and understand how each of the family members deals with it. When those we love go MIA, it has deep ramifications on our other choices, too.

Plot lines weave in and out, different characters have different arcs. Time moves forward. Political movements have their moment in the sun. The Best of Youth becomes a tapestry of all the lives in and around the Carati family, what they face over the years with their spouses and their friends. Some go into the government. Some become fiercely anti-government. One, in particular, loses herself to a political uprising.

And then there is love, and destiny, and the idea that sometimes two can make it work even with the same ghost that follows them around.

The expressive nature of this Italian family makes it such an endearing work. This is a film in which Story (capital S) is front and center, and Characters (capital C) can be loved, whether in joy or misery, understanding or mystery. There is a pulse to this six hour film that makes it worth its longer length. It develops so deeply, these people become the kind of family you want in your heart.

Truly, this is an unforgettable and rewarding Story experience.

*Well, maybe. One can understand some of the choices Matteo has made, but one of the most mysterious parts about The Best of Youth is Matteo himself, and the final choice that he makes. This man is another one of the mysterious figures that drives at the heart of the story. We want to understand him. We are compelled, like his family, to somehow get to what  drives him, and yet we are left understanding many of his choices but never understanding his beautiful, emotional heart.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chrystal. (2004) Ray McKinnon

Southern Gothic for Marriage Nominations.

Raw heartache and traumatized lives are grim reality in this 2004 drama, starring Billy Bob Thornton and the now deceased Lisa Blount. A red dirt scratchwork of southern gothic suspense is the foundation on which the two deliver bold and riveting performances.

Joe (Thornton), involved in a high speed chase by a cop, nervously navigates the back wood Ozark roads with his small boy and wife Chrystal (Blount) at his side. It's hard to know exactly what is his crime (the viewer tends to think there might be quite a few), but this ends in the same sad fashion as many of these types of chases -- Chrystal's neck broken through the windshield, their child gone (presumed dead), and Joe carted off to jail for the next sixteen years.

Over time, Chrystal's mental condition erodes until only a shell of a woman remains. She is promiscuous with teens, can barely string together a sentence, and seems to care very little about moving forward. She always said that Joe was the one with the bad luck, but seeing her so traumatized, unable to find that needed healing, one has to wonder whether the bad luck was actually their bond.

Out of nowhere Joe's out of prison and back home. When she sees him she tells him it's still his place. She hasn't divorced him, there aren't even any papers drawn up, and if he wants her, he can have her, because it's nothing special anymore. She has been broken for so long that if Joe thinks he can find redemption here, he is sadly mistaken. He is a fool.

He finds work as a welder and begins to find a routine, but the past steadily creeps over his shoulder. Years ago he was known for selling the best weed. A local dealer, Snake (in a blitzkrieg performance by director McKinnon) tracks him down and makes a threat: if you intend to sell your stuff, you're selling your stuff through me. Joe has no desire to go back to breaking the law, but he's not going to be thugged around either. Between these two characters follows an incredibly real fist fight, and later one of the goofiest (again: real) shootouts one can fathom.

The film is about trauma, and a need for reconciliation, and it's about heartache and pain and the need for sorrow to just go away. Sometimes with sorrow, it's like: enough is enough. Any way I can get rid of you, even momentarily, sure, I'd be glad to do that. The mystery of their little boy, that child they lost that night in the woods, is a memory that haunts Joe and Chrystal every day. He is gone, and nothing can be done about it, and where he went is a mystery, and yeah Joe -- it's all your fault.

In this hostile, menacing place where only the strong survive and the cops can't be trusted, this feels like Flannery O'Connor, or maybe 2010's Winter's Bone. There are ruthless people to avoid and a harsh wilderness all around -- the ragged setting heaps another layer on Chrystal's misery.

The incredible thing about this mournful little dirge is the symbolic redemption at the end of the misery. It's no happy ending, I'm not sure anyone here will live in happiness again. But a genuine stab at transformation seems to leap like a ghost from the Arkansas woods. And in more than one symbolic gesture we are reminded of why children grip our hearts and touch us so much:

A few quiet scenes of a little girl in the end give us pause at how precious childhood is. When we talk about wishing we were kids again, or think back to a time when things were innocent, we aren't just looking at some kid and hoping for her best, or even watching children's lives hoping they avoid all this pain. We're amazed at the thought of innocence itself, and that to a child, healing can come, and so quickly.

There is something necessary about watching babies and children, about remembering the beauty of inexperience. They remind us of safety, of purity -- of a place we'd like to go back to. They remind us that all is not lost.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

La moustache. (2005) Emmanuel Carrère

Shaving Away at the A&F Nominations.

I first encountered this film three years ago when my ex and I were going through the initial stages of our separation. The film had a profound impact on me, and it has never left my mind. It's a film that could have been a sonnet, might have been a verse from Ecclesiastes, but is anything other than just a story.

When the fine folk at A&F recently began the nominating process for a list that will eventually become our Top 25 films about marriage, this was the only immediate nominee that sprung to my mind out of the thousands I scoured over, from the past ten years of keeping film journals.

I must admit a kind of superiority complex regarding my thoughts about the film, from my recent strolling over at the IMDB message boards. There is nary a thought there in two pages of posting that doesn't want, in some way, to read this film in a literal sense. Whether it's an alternate universe or a dimensional shift, or Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia, people tend to view it as though what they're watching represents reality, albeit a fictionalized form. But if La moustache were a square, it would never really be the square. It would be all of the beautiful space inside and outside the lines of that square.

There is nothing literal about La moustache. It is as figurative as figurative gets. Perhaps a better way to say it is that, like films like Mulholland Dr., or Reconstruction, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is as abstract as abstract gets, at least in its forward, plot-like motion. Its plot certainly references and resembles the real world, and how things work in the real world -- but this is stronger than a linear or a literal story. It's easy to fall into the trap of reading a film about a man who shaves his mustache as only a man who shaves his mustache, but to do so somewhat misses the point. A key to fulfillment with La moustache is seeing it as representational in its plot, and more literal in its themes.

So what are its themes? Loss. Isolation. And our need to be connected and stay true to our vows. The idea that love is a superior force, stronger than the problems it faces and willing to reconnect when the world goes haywire.

When Marc, known for years for sporting his signature mustache, asks his wife what she'd think if he were to shave the thing off, her first tepid thought is that she might not even recognize him. She's only known him for sporting this one particular look. For whatever reason, he immediately shaves it anyway, and when he playfully reveals himself to her she doesn't even notice.

That night at a dinner party, his friends don't see a difference, but in his disappointment he doesn't say a thing. At work the next morning Marc is blown away by his office teams' lack of response. No one is noticing this thing which seems so trivial, but the thought of it scratches at the back of Marc's mind. That night he finally blows up at his wife.

The response he gets from here on out is that he never had a mustache and she has no clue what he is talking about, which sends Marc searching old photo albums and pictures, and on a whirlwind mental ride in which slowly, other things begin disappearing from his life. Friends, family members, the house on the street where he grew up all disappear in the unraveling process. Marc slowly begins to understand that a reconstruction of sorts has begun in his life; that his memory is completely different from all evidence of nearest reality. At this notion, Marc fearfully skips town and country, and looks to separate himself from everything he has ever known.

Agnès, Marc's wife, loves him dearly but is obviously concerned. He is obsessing about his mustache, is making up friends he says they've hung out with, and he can't even remember the death of his dad last year. The unraveling process increases in strength and it's never clear whether Marc, or his wife, or the world at large is to blame. We don't know who misremembers what, even though we do know we saw Marc shave in the first few frames. Things that would once be seen as small problems begin to pile up. The issues take a toll on the once strong relationship.

It's at this point that the mind plays a trick on the viewer. Does this couple love each other? Surely they do. Agnès has heaps of love for Marc and what he is going through. Is what is happening here truly a narrative experience? Surely it isn't, at least not in this viewer's way of thinking. What are the small things that add up that lead us to separating ourselves from our most dearly beloved?

Looking at situations like this in day to day living, it might not be so small: He was unfaithful. She spent too much money. He developed an addiction. She had an illicit affair.

But what about the smaller reasons we forget about? What about the fact that he likes to squeeze the tooth paste, and she likes to roll it up? He leaves the toilet seat up and she leaves the toilet seat down? What about the dirty socks he somehow never gets into the hamper? What about the times when she forgets to feed the cat?

Two people can be in love as well as they can be in blame. And as they grow, their memories and perceptions about themselves and their significant other will differ. La moustache is a film with no real ending, other than to show us that these things can be managed if the two are willing to try. Sure, something as tiny as a missing mustache can be the impetus for leaving a marriage and a home behind, but a need to relate can help overcome some of these problems, and our differences. Relating brings healing from isolation.

La moustache is a very French film. It hails back to a tradition of films that do not care whether their structure is sound at all. In fact, structure might be seen as something conveniently tossed aside in favor of pushing the medium's limits. (Think: Last Year at Marienbad.)

There is a lot at work in this very French film, but to read it as any structure outside of its themes (of loss and change and loyalty and dedication), is to miss its focus entirely. Remember: it's the beautiful spaces inside and outside the lines of that structured square.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Blogging on Marriage Nominations.

The Arts & Faith community, a group I've been affiliated with in one incarnation or another for the past seven or thirteen years (depending on how you count), is currently working on one of their favorite endeavors -- list making. Known for their Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films list, as well as their Top 25 Horror and Top 25 Road Movies lists, the community is in the process of nominations for a list that will eventually revolve around the complexities of marriage.

I wasn't too terribly excited about this year's topic until I began seeing the titles to some of the nominated films. We're only in the first weeks of the nominating process, and some of the nominations for this theme are just plain awesome. I think this might be our best category yet.

As the nominations roll in thru early January, I've decided to see some of the films and blog them here. I'd really like to see some of what I haven't been able to get to before, and be a part of the voting process with confidence that I'm giving this vote my all.

The community itself is more than just another board discussion. These are friends of mine. Many are close friends, whom I have known for years. Most of the heavy hitters there I've met face to face, and many others are life long friends who I hold in the highest regard. Over the years, some of the most fascinating discussions (and some heated ones, too!) have shot back and forth on the walls of the A&F boards, as we wrestle together about art, life, faith, morality... and sometimes we just plain wrestle each other for fun.

My friend Jeffrey Overstreet once described the community as:

...a perpetual conversation that began in 1999. Participants at “A&F” are passionate about the art of filmmaking, and about the themes and questions that movies explore. 
Among them you’ll find film critics, playwrights, professors, parents, pastors, novelists, graphic designers, even a filmmaker with two blockbusters on his résumé. And they don’t just talk to each other; their voices have been heard in publications like Paste, Salon, Sojourners, The National Catholic Register, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Image.

I'm looking forward to blogging a few of the films that will end up on our Top 25 Films on Marriage. With this particular hodgepodge group, I'm thinking that the films and the criticism will be a great deal of fun for thinking about and further reflection.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sinister. (2012) Scott Derrickson

A Halloween Night October Chiller.

Honestly, I think this is the one to see this year for Halloween. It's a moody little chiller, with a very different kind of story involving found footage and a demon who stalks anyone who views what's found. Ethan Hawke, as always, is amazing, as a true-crime author who moves his family into the house of a crime scene. He finds film in the attic, begins to watch, discovers horror after horror on those Super 8 reels, and learns that his family is being stalked by an ancient demon, Bughuul, a creature who preys on his victims through iconography.

Bughuul, also called "Mr. Boogie," is a fascinating movie monster, and there is little doubt we've not seen the last of him at the end of Sinister. This could easily be the new Saw series, but if there are sequels to be spun I hope they leave it in director Scott Derrickson's hands. The first Saw film explored some very interesting themes and territory, only to have the following films wallow in the grime of torture-porn and the like. I'd hate to see a little mood piece like Sinister follow that path -- but I'd really like to find out more about Bughuul.

The film is getting rave reviews, and yet I've talked to a few friends about it and they aren't as enthusiastic. I guess it depends on which side of the spectrum you're on. This is not a blood and guts film. You won't find but a hint of the splatter party here (although it is fully present). It is my opinion that good horror films horrify without necessarily showing all the details of the horror, and they also boil to the surface using believable characters in tense, real situations. The Shining is a great example of this, and in a lot of ways Sinister feels like it hearkens back to a classier era when the fear itself was the fun, not the desecration of human bodies.

For the past few years, Derrickson has been a member at a forum I've been involved with for thirteen years, in one incarnation or another: Arts & Faith. He has been able to share quite a few of his views there about what it means to be a Christian, and creative, and a person unafraid of the world's horrors. This is obviously a somewhat different way to approach the faith than most. He has stood up to criticism with wit and a smile, and is always personable and congenial in his encounters on our boards. But honestly, I can't see much criticism being thrown his direction over Sinister. It's like last year's Insidious. It may be the finest horror film you'll find in theaters this year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Possession. (2012) Ole Bornedal

October Chillers continues...

It makes my job so much easier when the title is the same as the plot.

Possession movies are soooo hit and miss. We come into these films fully knowing what to expect. We've seen it all before in many a film with a priest and a demon and a script, but it's never quite as good as the first time we got the holy crap scared out of us when we were kids.

The Exorcist was the film that did it for me. I'm sure The Exoricist is the film that did it for many. Seeing the darkness slowly creep upon Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, somewhat typecast after the role) was an exercise in just enough spiritual realism mixed with over-the-top horror antics (the head spinning, the spider crawl), making the spectacle seem possible, morbidly fascinating, and scary as hell. Literally.

The Possession is a mostly decent horror film, but it has a little too much of the "antics" and too little of the "possible". That a powerful demon, in this case a dybbuk from Jewish folklore, can be trapped in a box, for anyone to open at anytime is rather silly. Genie in a bottle, anyone? And in one scene in particular a thousand moths seem to magically come out of that box and spend some time in the bedroom of the little girl pre-possessed. I don't know how to trap a fox in a box, much less a demon, and while I don't know where the moths came from I guess they made for a somewhat cool visual.

But it's a fun film to watch, and the possessed little girl here has a Linda Blair aura about her. In fact, all of the acting is solid (even Matisyahu as a Jewish exorcist!), along with excellent visuals, up until the ending, when the dybbuk makes his full, physical appearance. And even at that point the visuals are fun, theatrical, and kinda freaky. Just not very believable.

The score, classic in its feel, brings a different dimension than much of what's currently released. No sonic soundtrack with loud head banging bands; no over-the-top goth industrial. This is a classic exorcism film that wants itself taken seriously, and the score does a lot to improve its odds. But remembering the beginning from the end ("Based on a True Story") would hold it up to a harder scrutiny.

The tag about it being "Based on a True Story" makes me think a bit about my own experiences with exorcism (which I'll briefly explain in a moment), and the odds of a possession actually being real. For the record,  I've come up with four ways of looking at the possibilities:

1. The phenomenon of possession is spiritual. There is a God, and he lets innocent young girls get possessed by demons (why, in the movies, is it always an innocent little girl?), seemingly by chance, in this case, a dybbuk box - a box used in Semitic culture for holding a demon. In the case of The Exorcist it was a Ouija board, but many films of this type have their own method of introducing a creature from hell. That the object may be the method is a lesser question than whether this is actually possible, and to out-rule the notion that there is a God who lets this happen, whatever the reason, is to claim to be higher than God and to claim that we know how the Universe should operate, that our ideas are better than his. There is a possibility that He does exist, and I would never claim to be omniscient.

2. The phenomenon of possession is mental. This is a sickness, and illness of sorts. The best film example that tackles this argument is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There is no spirituality, there is only science, and this is an issue about mental health.

3. The phenomenon of possession is sociological. It is a repressed, fear-based reaction to religious group-think. I guess this would also be classified under "psychological."

4. The phenomenon of possession is for entertainment purposes only, and we'll simply never know if any of this is possible, regardless of the words "Based on a True Story."

I can clearly remember, growing up in strong Pentecostal culture, two times when I witnessed actual exorcisms. Looking back on it now, I'm resolute in my belief that this is about repression, and group-think, and a "blame it on the Devil" way of being. I can remember one young man being told to name his demon, and the words that came from his lips (and I saw this from a mile away) were, "P---P---Pornography."

Wow. If there's a demon out there called "Pornography," then half of the first world male population is possessed. A demon of that name could exist, but I rather think that, instead, many men simply have dishonorable personal qualities.

Regardless, the demon is a figure, whether mythological or not, that we'll continue to tackle in exorcism movies of this kind. They aren't going away anytime soon. So this is in some ways a typical though well crafted exorcism film. Director Ole Bernedal (known previously for the phenomenal Just Another Love Story) has a talent for creating suspense and tension in his films which build to visually explosive climaxes. He's no longer a director to watch, but rather one to follow.

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Within. (2008) Phedon Papamichael

The curses continue in October Chillers.

This is the story of Grovetown, a small "little big-town," and all its people who are religious and yet flawed, and it's a story about the majority (Christian) imposing their values (sometimes through force) on the minority (some version of Wiccan - however, having had a few pagan friends, I am certain it's more of a movie type of Wiccan, rather than the real thing).

It's an interesting film, to me, in two very different ways:

The first is because there are quite a few films out there like it: R-rated, but still aimed at the teen crowd, with a rather typical story line about a curse and the accompanying deaths that are soon to follow. Hmff. Nothing new. Still, perhaps I'm old-fashioned or not as jaded as I sometimes I think, but the idea of an R-rated movie marketed toward a teenage audience still kinda fascinates me.

But what lies just beneath the surface is the really interesting thing about From Within. If it is indeed aimed at the teen crowd, the ones who still see those R-rated films, then it might be used as pre-college curriculum for sociology, the kind that resonates with teachings on the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, like the popular bumper sticker on the back of more than a few cars:

This is the story of what happens when we fail to do so.

"This town takes care of its own," is the mantra spoken by the son of the local preacher. Words like these can either be used out of anger, or out of protection. If there were an outside force that was an actual danger to Grovetown and its people, the words might be seen as quite protective. But the words are used against a small pagan family, a family who wishes to practice their faith and be left alone.

But they can only be pushed so far. And when the mom of that family is either murdered or killed in an accident - which side of the story you get depends on which side of the faith you're on - the family's curse brings her back to life, where her ghost reeks havoc on the townspeople, one by one.

The most interesting thing about the story's intent, which is to tell us to be tolerant, which I firmly believe to be true, is how it develops in two particular characters who, about two-thirds the way through, make key confessions in revealing their own flaws, their own contribution to the curse. A character from each side admits to his own wrong actions. And both characters wish they could go back and change things. Both would rather have peace than the horror they brought down on all.

A little preachy? Yes. Does the writer here have a point and seem angry? Yes. Is it a good message? I think so. But you can still see through it pretty easily.

But even with that hidden inclusive nugget layered into the blood and the killshots and the ghosts and the gore, the writer here is still missing what I find to be the most important point:

Sometimes I think that the group that faces the most prejudice today isn't the gays or the Christians, or the blacks or the Jews. It's not the Muslims or the women or the rich or the poor. When I see so many films that make a "witch" out to be this awful, I feel sorry for the Wiccans out there who would rather be better portrayed. I doubt there are too many teenagers who have even learned about the  Wiccan RedeDo what you will, so long as it harms none.

 Does that sound like any witch you've seen in the movies lately?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Woman in Black. (2012) James Watkins

a Classic haunted house story for October Chillers.

A friend who follows FILMSWEEP recently wrote on his Facebook wall: "It's easy to shock. It's much harder to genuinely disturb. Good horror should aim for the latter."  He was putting into words my general stance on horror, the chill I enjoy as it inches down my spine.

The Woman in Black is a classic Victorian ghost story that kind of fits into this line of thinking. It's not a perfect film -- few are -- but it's a well-crafted gothic thriller that combines extended sequences of spine chilling haunt with jump scares that getcha, and a decent story to boot. It's a fine film with an eerie edge suited for adults and teens to revel in together.

Some of the best moments happen with one lone Realtor in a large, empty and cobwebbed mansion. He needs to go thru all the paperwork he can find there and sell the place very soon. His boss has laid out the facts quite easily to him: sell the property, and fast, or lose your employment with the firm. A widower and a father with obvious concerns about keeping his job, he needs to do whatever he can to get the place sold, to keep food on the table for himself and his boy.

After a few initial spooks on his first visit to the house, which he wrongfully dismisses as imagination, he returns to the place (a chilling trip in itself) to finish his work and spend the night. At which my first question comes up: Are you freaking nuts, dude? Why the hell are you spending a night alone in this cold and creepy mansion which is unquestionably haunted? Do you like the cold sweats? Do you want to pee your pants?

And I'll tell you one thing for certain -- one thing beyond a doubt -- this guy sure stayed in that house a lot longer than I ever could.

In that place, in the dark with only his candles and oil lamps to light the way, he discovers a ghost, maybe two, maybe twenty -- and then a curse, which gets him in big trouble. He has a night of terror in scenes which go on and on, and they are the most fun you can have outside an actual trip to a haunted house.

The scenes of him alone at night in this place, reading letters from the deceased, and getting terrorized by them later are thrilling horror, the kind that starts in subtlety and ends in sheer panic. These scenes go on for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, and had The Woman in Black been a short film with only this, it may have been the best short film made this year.

It's too bad that when the story leaves the mansion and deals with the curse, and the townspeople, and their children that it derails just a bit. It falls into a story that makes little sense, although it retains its gothic power again later on a return trip to the mansion's marsh to dig up a corpse.

I do love a good ghost story -- and The Woman in Black has some excellent scenes -- but it falls just a bit short when using logic to tie up its loose ends.

Still, this is good fodder for October viewing. And cruelly fun, in its ghostly and classical ways.

Watch this film with the lights out. Maybe light a candle and an oil lamp, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pontypool. (2008) Bruce McDonald

A brainy film for October Chillers.

In the beginning was the Word... And the Word became flesh... And the darkness didn't understand it...
-John 1

This is one of those films in which the idea itself is its own selling point. The writing is sometimes a little clunky, and the performances here and there are spotty, although both have their own high points at times. But the idea behind this story, it's psyche, or sub-narrative, makes the whole ride incredibly enjoyable -- feeling smart, though it may or may not be.

I'm not going to delve any further than that into the idea of the story itself. The less you know about the idea, the better. I knew nothing about Pontypool going in, only that it was categorized as a horror film and was recommended to me by a friend while I blast thru my October viewings. And I'm glad my friend suggested it, and I'm glad I knew nothing about it (and he didn't tell me anything, and I hadn't even seen a trailer for the film). Had I known anything at all, I may have skipped it, but the experience itself was rather fun.

Three people trapped in a radio station's control room hosting a local Ontario show must observe and report while the town around them crumbles apart. Fans of Romero or the popular TV show "The Walking Dead" might want to take a special interest. I'm not certain it's the same thing as those, but it will appeal to fans of that particular genre*.

This is not really a film with gore, though there are scenes of it here and there. And it's not a roller coaster ride either, where you hold on tight to its ups and downs, afraid it might derail at any moment. Pontypool is a smart film, which might actually work to its detriment. But enjoyable nonetheless.

File under "Better than a b-movie, not quite as thrilling as other horror."

*If the only way to classify Pontypool is in that particular genre, it's quite clever in how it subverts that genre as well.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lovely Molly. (2011) Eduardo Sánchez

Molly Rides the Horse for October Chillers.

Molly is that girl that got away. The one we'll never understand. The one who makes you smile, but if you look deep in her eyes there's a profound sense of longing and sadness. She's the one with a past, maybe the one with a habit. She's seen her fair share of trouble, maybe even caught a glimpse of a personal hell. She's reserved, mysterious, shifty, enticing. Many men have experienced a gal quite like Molly, but most have been confused when she suddenly slips away.

That's why we're blown away when we hear about her new man. He seems too normal. There's no way he can handle her. A guy with a normal job? A truck driver? What the hell does she see in him? He's no adventurer. He's got no silver spoon. His looks, too. He's only got two little pretty-boy tattoos, and not even a piercing on his face. She is getting married to him? This guy? What the hell?

Molly (Gretchen Lodge, in an unflinching debut performance) and her newlywed husband move into the home she grew up in, now a large empty shell of a place. The house has been vacant since her parents passed away, and might be perfectly suited for the newlyweds to begin their new life together. There are certain things, however, that took place in this house years ago -- things which Molly claims she can't remember -- and these things must have been truly horrific. There is probably a reason Molly blocked these memories.

The couple are awakened on one of their first nights in the home by the blaring of the house alarm. An intruder is in the kitchen. As they wander down the stairs from their bedroom, baseball bat firmly in his hands, they hear bumping sounds coming from the kitchen, which scares them back to their room, where they lock the door and wait for the police.

The cop, who will be called on again, is quite familiar with the house. He's quite familiar, too, with Molly, who he remembers as the little girl that lived there. He sweeps the house with ease; he already knows every room. It's probably a door left open, or neighborhood kids, perhaps. There's no way it could be anything more than that, right?

Before crashing back to sleep, Husband swears he locked that door.

When he leaves on a trip, Molly begins to hear more than just the casual bump in the night. The creaky old house seems to be coming alive, sometimes calling to her by name. She hears a little girl crying. She hears strange whispering sounds. She finds a light turned on in mom and dad's old room. Certain images are beginning to creep her out. In particular, images with horses seem to grab her attention, both the ones still hanging on the wall with the old family pictures, as well as the ones now forming in her head.

Perhaps these images are what pull the trigger that sends Molly from "lovely" to something other. Horse has been her problem, you see.

Director Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project) has constructed a film where the demon is somewhere in the mental mix. Like Pop Skull, which I wrote about yesterday, a movie in which addiction is the new Jason, drugs are the serial killer -- Lovely Molly leaves us debating the very nature of true horror. What's worse? A guy with an axe that chases half-clothed teenagers around? Or a horrifying reality -- a psychological makeup we can't decipher?

As her issues continue to build and Molly gets more freaked out and destructive, her husband and sister see it as a pure drug abuse issue, or maybe mental illness at worst. "I love her, Hannah," Husband tells Molly's sister. "I just don't know how to help her." But what they see as addiction may or may not be the genuine article here... The house is beginning to smell whenever Molly has visions of her dad.

The film sometimes feels like Donnie Darko, but darker and on a very bad trip. Or if David Lynch got to make his own demonic Reality TV show, like Bob from Twin Peaks being an awful, constant presence. It can be seen as straight story (well, kinda) or as some sort of problematic metaphor (more than likely). It's more driven by narrative than the frenetic Pop Skull, but nonetheless cut from the same thematic cloth. The performances turned in are riveting, and Gretchen Lodge as the bi-polar Molly goes in an instant from blushing bride to a hideous creature, seething and writhing in the basement.

Like the girl that got away, this is one that certainly got under my skin.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pop Skull. (2007) Adam Wingard

The drug is the spirit in this convulsive October Chiller.

The first frame in Pop Skull is a still which reads: "WARNING: The following motion picture contains scenes which may not be suitable for individuals diagnosed with epilepsy." The warning might feel like a cheap gimmick, like any still in front of a scary movie which reads Inspired by true events -- but like the warning at the end of Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone, that savage utterance that cried something gruesome this way comes, this warning is founded, and true, and describes an approaching onslaught not suited for the squeamish.

Convulsions? Hell, yeah. And I'm sooo envious of anyone who rode this ride on the silver screen.

Pop Skull is a deeply unnerving tour de force in contemporary low-budget filmmaking. With precision cut editing and the creepiest audio dynamics, it shows what a determined young filmmaker can do with 6,000 measly bucks. Like the greats in shoestring cinema (Eraserhead and Pi being the first that leap to mind), it utilizes pulsating imagery and an amplified texture of sound to push the extremes of a surrealist conquest on anyone who gets in its way.

Also similar to the three mentioned films, Pop Skull is the story of a man rattled in the head, unraveling at the seams, ready to uncork like DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. At any moment either the film or its central character Daniel could lose all ability in distinguishing between hallucinogenic dreams and nightmare reality. The title is somewhat the plot. You never know when this skull will finally pop.

Daniel (Lane Hughes, above, more recently known as Zak in V/H/S) is an over-the-counter pill popper at the end of a long-term relationship. A guitar player with no band and going nowhere fast, Daniel sits sullenly in his parents' basement, either cranking his electric and washing away in the maze of his music, or consuming and zoning out to his purchased pills. Benadryl, Zicam, Coricidin, Dramamine, whatever he can get his hands on are bought daily, while he nervously utters to himself to get out the pharmacy door. He wants what he needs and he needs to get his fix and leave -- hopefully in peace, unquestioned, left to down it all again at night.

He's exercising that right that some of us know, the one we addicts know all too well. We think it's our right to claim our own self-destruction. The mind of an addict is full of endless possibilities which steal our joy, trading a moment's bliss for the robbing of our lives. Like so many addicts, if depression is Daniel's excuse, he's drowning out the loss of his girlfriend and blaming it on her. But the truth is that he, and we, do it no matter the reason. The pills inch their way slowly into the system, and in scenes of haunted intensity, we visit with Daniel's fears, and his terrifying ghosts. Some are imagined, some perhaps very real.

As a child Daniel was told about a murder and double-suicide that took place in his back yard before he moved in. No one knows why two guys would tie up a girl, or why the night ended with the three of them dead. Either the thought of this haunts Daniel, or he is tripping way too hard, because the events seem to unfold when he's using. He is freaked and afraid, but the pattern can't stop. Daniel faces himself all alone with the spirits in his basement -- night after night after endless, horrifying night.

There comes a point in addiction where the hole in your soul becomes the crater that was once your life. The suffering inside you leaks out, only to consume you and swallow you whole. The same blackened eyes that stare into the mirror are the chasm of all that's left; everyone's gone because you pushed or you scared them away. You'll destroy yourself, whether you want to or not, and you might take your loved ones right with you. Pop Skull is very personal to me, as I've lived through many of Daniel's harrowing scenes. I am thankful today that I've found a few ways out.

There's so much truth here to the way addiction works to change our perceptions. There's truth to the visions of ghosts we encounter in our haze. There's truth to the idea that this is a road which leads to misery, with only jail, institutions, or death at the end.

If Pop Skull and its addicted Daniel aren't the very definition of horror, then I honestly don't know what is.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Requiem. (2006) Hans-Christian Schmid

A 2006 German possession film for October Chillers.

What better way to continue rollicking in Halloween horror than a dogme-like film about an exorcism, right?

Requiem is the story of Michaela Klingler, a young and devout German Catholic suffering from epilepsy. The disease held her back a year in high school, but now that she's nineteen she wants to attend University and study like any other college-aged kid, managing the disease on her own.

Away from her small town, in a city for the first time, Michaela quickly makes her first connection in finding an acquaintance from home. She also gets her first boyfriend -- along with her first drinks, her first kiss, her first physical encounter with another. So are the voices in her head and her recurring seizures symptomatic of her going off her pills, or is this demonic oppression due to her entrance into sinful living?

As the studies get harder and end of semester papers are due, life for Michaela slowly spins out of control. The voices are calling her a slut, and have told her to no longer pray or try to touch a crucifix. She wakes up in contorted positions, and feels seizures steal the use of her hands as she desperately tries to type. She begins rejecting her priests and her doctors and even her friends. Everyone's got advice, but no one can walk in her shoes. Perhaps it's easy to understand why she makes her final decision for exorcism, when she's brought home by worried friends and faced with either priests or the institution.

The film is based on the real life 1976 exorcism of Anneliese Michel, the same girl that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While Requiem feels more realist than The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the two feel like they offer similar sketches of the same story. Whereas The Exorcism of Emily Rose functions as a horror film, Requiem tells the story in more of a psychological character study. I mentioned the dogme movement before -- Requiem feels like Breaking the Waves in places. It had that strong, fluid camera work, that somber religious feel, and an incredible actress to pull the whole thing off. No special effects, no faces jumping out of the dark, no spider crawls, no backwards masking. Actress Sandra Hüller is believable simply by the way she fills the role of this troubled girl. Her physical presence on screen stands out. It makes the film.

Much to my delight, I was able to have a bit of back and forth with director Scott Derrickson when comparing the two films. That conversation is found Here.

Cleaned up and reprinted from Halloween (2010).
Requiem is available on Netflix Instant Viewing.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Amer. (2010) Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

 A freaked out October Chiller.

Horror from Belgium, Amer instantly brought to mind two reference points that might be helpful for anyone deciding whether or not to see it.

The first is Kill Bill, which is actually more gruesome and bloodthirsty with its enjoyment of arms and heads cut off and flying through the air, drenching anything close by in the red of its blood. Amer has nothing like those barbaric scenes, although in quick instances it comes close. Where Amer is similar to Tarantino's revenge epic is in its rapid eye edits, its intensely cut visuals which are fascinating as they flicker by, and in its use of unnatural and amplified sound, an incredibly eclectic audio design. When Uma Thurman spins her head or pulls out a sword in Kill Bill, the exaggerated sound effects hail back to early Bruce Lee and 70s Kung Fu flicks; in Amer, when an eye blinks or a corpse is present, or when the victim is struggling in the clutches of her killer, the sound hails back to retro horror, mostly gialli, which the visual stylings reference, too.

The second film that so quickly springs to mind is Ti West's The House of the Devil, a guilty pleasure of mine from 2009. That film paid homage to earlier horror classics in its creepy Halloween-like score, its babysitter left alone in a large house, and Satanism lurking in the back of the script. It was set in the mid-80s and built as if it were made then, using cameras from the era and edited in the exact same fashion as those slasher flicks you saw on HBO as a teen. It's the retro-chic, throwback feel that is similar to Amer, and if you've ever enjoyed a film by Dario Argento, you're destined to love Amer.

The plot is so fucked over it is impossible to coherently describe. If it has more than fifteen lines of dialogue, well, I'll eat my hat. This is a film based strictly on sight and sound. It lives by it and dies by it, and to decipher its plot is somewhat meaningless.

But I can try.

Like the panels in a triptych, the film shows three moments in the life of heroine Ana. (Anton Bitel in his Sight & Sound review wonderfully notes that her three-lettered palindromic name reflects the film's "tripartite cyclical structure.") Each Ana is played by a different actress: Cassandra Forêt as Ana enfant, a scared innocent, perhaps aged eight or nine; hottie Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud as Ana adolescente, mid-teen and ready to sexually burst and challenge (perhaps replace) the old bag mom; and the captivating Marie Bos as Ana Adule, repressed and reacting to everything the first two Ana's have already seen.

After the death of her grandfather, his corpse laid out downstairs, Ana enfant locks herself away in her room, constantly covering the keyhole through which the family housemaid, supposed a witch, gazes in with one ugly eye. Ana eventually grazes downstairs, curious about the corpse, and takes a watch from her grandfather's hand. She breaks off a finger in the process. His eyes open, the housemaid witch reemerges, and Ana is wrapped up in her black shawl, which we see through her eyes.*

Ana adolescente walks into town with her mom. Her burgeoning sexuality is pitted against the fact that her once beautiful mother needs to get the gray out. She is heading in to get her hair dyed. As Ana waits outside with a schoolboy she's too mature for, she wanders from the salon and notices a biker gang outside. She walks provocatively in front of them, her thoughts racing with a rebel teenage eros. Her mom tracks her down and gives her a biting little slap on the face. We're never certain whether her mom is being protective or jealous. The two make their way back home.

Ana Adule returns years later to the villa where all this began. The home is dilapidated now, no one has been here or lived here for years. Ana fantasizes about the taxi driver who drives her there and some locals that take her boxes outside the home's gates. The film from this place completely explodes. One, perhaps two killers are stalking Ana, and at least one will kill her by the film's end.

The film is sexually provocative, but unlike much of contemporary horror, not a whole lot of skin is shown. You might find it here or there, but it doesn't need to be shown. It's embedded into the psyche of every element.

In moments along the way, one tone of pure color stands out and is nearly blinding. Red, green, and blue are predominant, and when they're used they seem to go on for minutes at a time. I cannot describe the creepiness of these scenes, nor can I describe the alarming mood of the sound. Like Lynch at his best, Amer influences mostly through suggestion. You're on the edge of your seat and don't always know why. Then, like Rob Zombie -- but for only seconds at a time -- you are fully introduced to the spectrum of horror that abounds.

The film is excessive, over the top, overflowing with references to Italian horror, and writhing as if possessed with atonal image and sound. It is not for the faint of heart, but not prone to the gore of, say, Suspiria. There are moments that it's all just too much to take in, and I'd be open to those who said their mind began to wander.

But it is moody more than anything, and the mood is salient terror, with a suspense that builds to a tragic climax which leaves you desirous to experience it again.

*Note the three references to eyes in that paragraph. Not since Un Chien Andalou in 1929 has an eye been so fearfully relayed. (And I just realized that Buñuel's startling plot-less short could be another apt reference for Amer.)

Cleaned up and reprinted from EUFF Screenings (2011).
Amer is available on DVD thru Netflix.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein. (1935) James Whale

An Image of Human Truth for October Chillers.

Four years passed between Frankenstein and its first sequel, but the story picks up on the same savage night of the supposed destruction of the creature, in a fiery inferno sending his soul back to hell.

Then again, we 21st century media-savvy types (which is pretty much everyone, more or less) know that no creature dies in a first film, no matter how much its makers want you to believe it -- no matter how hot the burning mill, no matter how many citizens saw the structure burn to ashes. We of course know that no alien, no mummy, no Jason or Freddy or Michael will be dead when the credits have left a first film's screen. You can't have a second Creature Feature if you haven't got a creature to feature.

There is genius found in moments of Bride of Frankenstein. I love how they kept the creature alive, escaping the tormenting flames in a mote below the mill. And the final act is any film lover's delight.

I also thoroughly enjoy something as simple and fun as the opening credits, which piggyback off Frankenstein's use of "?" for The Monster, using "?" once again for The Bride. There are so many moments where Bride of Frankenstein gives its all in being just as good as the original, you've got to love it for its heart alone.

Author Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the impressionable Bride in the outstanding final chapter), sits cozily indoors with a couple of highbrow if not caricatured gentlemen, the wind whistling and the thunder crashing outside. One of the men, claiming the status of "England's greatest sinner," considers how warm and safe it is inside the house, while an angry Jehovah viciously thunders outside. "How beautifully dramatic," he says. "The crudest savage exhibition of nature at her worst without, and we... within..." He claims his head is unbowed to the thundering God outside. But who would fear a supposed God if kicking back by a comfy fire was all it took to protect you from his wrath?

The men talk highly of the creepy chills of Mary's original Frankenstein story. They narrate over images of the film (blogged about Here), a brief recap for the sake of the audience's memory from four years before. (There were no television premiers or TiVo in 1935.) They implore Mary to share the rest of the story, so she launches into the sequel, the story of the creation of the Bride. It's an almost perfect beginning to the film.

Almost, because as her story emerges there's an immediate disconnect from the original, quite noticeable within seconds. The medium of filmmaking changed quickly in four years, the times obviously persuading director James Whale to stuff oodles of musical score in the background. It's interminable presence is constantly noticeable, a never-ending standout out like a splinter in one's thumb. It nulls the tension so easily relayed without filler in the original film.

The writing and dialogue are so dark and crisp that seeing it 80 years later and complaining about the score seems unfair. But the problems don't end with the score. We're immediately introduced to a side character, Minnie, played by Una O'Connor, used mostly for comedic effect. She is agonizingly horrible, not funny for a moment. She brings camp to a film that wishes to reject her and her whiny voice and its shrieking screams. She is truly the most awful thing in Bride of Frankenstein, and watching her made me think the person responsible for casting her hadn't seen the original. Then I found out James Whale casted her.

There's but one line that may have worked for O'Connor as a decent foreshadowing to the rest of the story: "Oh what a terrible wedding night!" she cries, in regard to the botched wedding plans of Dr. Frankenstein and his bride. But after the brittle scream that escaped the woman just moments before this interesting sentence, all you wish is that the creature had killed her when he had the chance.

The film is a much bigger production than the original, but missteps like these keep killing it when it almost gains a foothold on tension.

Bride of Frankenstein desperately tries to deal with the same gripping religious themes the first film took on, and if these particular scenes were viewed on their own they might be as meaningful and powerful as they were there. But in the context here, with attempts at humor included (and a ridiculous scene of miniature royalty in jars, only there for a 1935 special effect), scenes of the creature tied to a stake and mocked like Jesus on the cross, or of him partaking in a sort of bread and wine communion with a blind old man he calls "Friend," are short-lived, momentary, mixing horror and camp horribly and accomplishing neither one.

Bride of Frankenstein follows two basic story lines until that final, superbly cinematic moment at the film's end. The first is the creature itself, captured and kept in a dungeon in shackles, easily escaping, and left to wander the countryside until meeting the blind old man. He's generally in trouble with all mankind until once again meeting up with his insane maker.

The parallel story follows Dr. Frankenstein, who at the beginning claimed to his would-be bride he'd had enough of trying to be a mad scientist: "I've been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life." But then he's lured by a colleague, the similarly crazed Dr. Pretorius, and the two carve out the ultimate plan for a race of living creations. A female version of the creature is a necessary first step, and hopefully the two will like each other.

With the grande finale culminating in the creatures, the psychosexual, symbolic gender relations and the tensions therein, I kept wondering if the film would have worked a bit better as a short film, or perhaps by simply adding this story to the original. But that is not the answer. The films each suit their length at 70 and 75 minutes respectively, and the idea of putting the bride in the original would have ruined what is already a masterpiece.

The bottom line regarding Bride of Frankenstein is that it was either over-developed, or just plain developed wrong, even though there are moments, particularly in its end, that are triumphant.

It's a mish-mash. A hodgepodge. A motley assortment that shifts between genius and utter stupidity. But it brought us one of history's most perfectly climactic moments when the Bride is finally and awfully revealed.

Sometimes you have to wade through the gunk to get to the cinematic gusto.

Reprinted from A Black and White February (2011).