Archive for the ‘Thriller’ Category

Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)

Of all the scenes that comprise this incredible performance by Nick Nolte, the ones that affected me the most and burrowed the deepest under my skin to give me chills were those between his small-town cop Wade Whitehouse and his young, quasi-estranged daughter. We meet them in the car as he has her for a limited time over his ex-wife, driving to a Halloween school function. As he consistently tries to convince her to go to this school, and later tries harder and harder to ingratiate himself with her, he doesn’t quite become overtly hostile, but nevertheless, something is very wrong with this man and his behavior. He seems far too desperate to get on his daughter’s good side and be a cool dad, or a loving dad, a task that proves hopeless, particularly in a late, disturbing scene in a café in which he snuggles up to her and baby-talks her as if she’s a toddler (before he assaults the proprietor, but that’s a whole other matter of a movie’s worth of plot development…). This poor girl must bear the brunt of this woefully damaged man who’s trying desperately to compensate for his crippling insecurities and emotional scars. Something bad happened to Wade in his past, something that’s now making him scramble, in cringingly exaggerated fashion, to be a good man, or convince himself that he’s a good man, or give off the facade of a good man. He’s in the fight of his life to, if not be someone he’s not, then to not become a figure he knows too well. He’s an ideal addition to Paul Schrader’s long line of insecure, self-loathing anti-protagonists from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Yukio Mishima to John LeTour to Jesus Christ.

As it turns out, he’s trying to be the father that his father wasn’t. As played by James Coburn in an Oscar-winning role, Wade’s father Glen is a drunk and a brute who gets off on inflicting as much physical and emotional abuse as possible on his wife and children, and you can see how any son would try to emotionally divorce himself from such a monster. Ultimately, however, Wade cannot. It’s just a shame that Schrader relied on clichéd spousal/child abuse-centric flashbacks to introduce us to Glen and his cruelty and the clear reason for Wade’s present-day flaws. Watch Nolte and Coburn act together in this film, watch their pitch-perfect, terrifying chemistry (or whatever you would call the polar opposite of “chemistry”), and you’ll see how those flashbacks are simply not needed to get a full sense of how Glen has ruled over his son for decades and inflicted permanent and cruel psychological harm. A health care professional could have a field day simply watching these two characters interact, in scenes that are as subtle and complex as those flashbacks are unoriginal and over-the-top. For better or worse (much worse…), Glen is the most important figure in Wade’s life – not his incredibly patient girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek), not his quiet and measured brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Wade will try to separate himself from his tyrannical father, sure, whether through his daughter or through investigating the suspicious accidental hunting death that rocks his quiet town. As the details of this case envelop the plot of the film overall, the speculations over the “accident” and the possible motives of possible murders concerning Real Estate and what-not, the movie started to lose me, as Wade gets lost in the case. I suppose this is the point, that Wade so fully immerses himself in this one maybe-crime to dull decades of emotional pain, to dull the Glen inside him, to feel like a semi-important, semi-useful man rather than the mostly-useless man-child his father has made of him, that the details of the case become so complex and nonsensical and out of control as Wade becomes more obsessed, but I dunno, a little too much focus on this formulaic mystery and not enough on how it affects Wade.

Of course, we eventually learn that the mystery isn’t so formulaic after all, via Rolfe’s narration (an unexpectedly weak moment in the narration, by the way, explaining everything like in that intelligence-insulting final scene in “Psycho”, when in fact the true nature of the death, and by extension Wade’s mindset, are rather obvious long before the story’s tragic conclusion) – narration that was excellent, as Rolfe’s detached, monotone voice contains the slightest hint of distaste and he acts as the audience’s stand-in, judging the sad players of this tale with both pity and scorn. I actually wish it was used more than it was. The differences between the two brothers, raised by the same monster, are downright alarming. Rolfe somehow found the ability to get the fuck out of dodge, while Wade, try as he might, cannot (at least until an infected tooth and a can of gasoline have their say) escape this vortex of nature and nurture, cannot draw himself away from this dance with the monster who begat him.

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The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)

I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?

Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.

Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.

The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012)

If there’s a way to perfectly translate the feel of a cheap, trashy novel sold in a drugstore with the cover torn off into a film, Lee Daniels has found it. The bright colors and lighting, the jagged yet stylish editing, the period music, it all gives this the feel of a low budget B-movie from the 70s, while more importantly evoking a sense of (lurid) place to glorious excess. When sweat pours off of John Cusack by the bucketful as he bends his wife over a washing machine and fucks her, we feel it. When Zac Efron awakens one morning and comments that he stinks, after his jellyfish-stung face was pissed on by Nicole Kidman, we smell it. When Cusack’s backwoods uncle and possible alibi nonchalantly guts an alligator while being interviewed, entrails splashing onto the ground, we taste it. By watching this movie, you are transported to this shitty Florida town circa 1969, and you will want to take a shower.

And by the way, this wonderfully revolting barrage on the senses happens to have some great characters with great motivations as tangible as the humidity, sweat, piss, blood, cum, and swampwater that the camera delivers to you. Or, at least when it comes to the main character. Zac Efron’s Jack, the champion swimmer-turned-college kickout tagging along with his newspaper reporter older brother to investigate a possibly innocent man on death row, is a desperately unfulfilled loner, who needs to latch onto anyone or anything, as long as it gives him a sense of purpose or at the very least engages his senses for a minute or two. That he falls head over heels for Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte, the pen pal-turned-betrothed of the man on death row, is therefore unsurprising. She happens to be beautiful, she happens to be flirtatious, she happens to be there. Nevermind, to him at least, that her outward personality and mannerisms are, to put it nicely, pretty much in line with someone who would fall for and marry a crude, cruel prisoner based solely on words on a paper. Jack’s reasons for falling for such an ostensible loser, other than out of sheer loneliness or boredom, remain vague, and that’s just fine; it’s all about subjectively experiencing that longing from his point of view, rather than objectively deducing the reasons for it. This is where those audacious song choices and jump cuts and shots and poses that make even the most vile aspects of this time and place attractive and appealing (quite a feat) make their mark. That this hyper-subjective music and editing and slow-motion and what-not are used in a striking fantasy sequence as Jack imagines Charlotte exiting her apartment in a wedding dress, and then too in the periphery of the decidedly non-fantastical image of Jack getting pissed on by his foul-mouthed love at the beach, this style seems to both accentuate Jack’s inner world of romantic, whimsical machismo, and ironically comment on his grimy real life. Reality and fantasy seem to be blurring, namely Jack’s imagination-enhanced muse vs. the white trash she actually presents herself to be.

Really, the only other character with any kind of depth is Macy Gray’s Anita, the housekeeper for Jack’s family. Not only is she literally the narrator, but we arguably see the story through her eyes even moreso than through the supposed protagonist Jack’s. Just as was the plight of anyone daring to have black skin in those days, Anita is invisible to her employers on a good day, or downright belittled on all the other days. All the while, the ever-present look of disdain on her face and her snarky commentary tells us that she’s just simply watching, and judging, the players in this unseemly morality play that’s unfolding around her. We may be able to see the world as Jack sees it, but make no mistake, Anita is the audience’s stand-in. It makes sense, then, that the relationship between the two of them is the most warm and human in the story, one that’s lovingly contentious and ultimately of mutual respect in a world where respect towards oneself and others is as foreign a concept as taking a shower. I just wish everyone else was, if not a pure stereotype used to fuel the setting, then just glossed over, namely Jack’s brother Ward. Ward’s motivations for finding the truth about the prisoner Hillary Van Wetter, and in fact anything about him really, remain vague until late in the story, which is a shame as Matthew McConaughey plays him as an outwardly confident and affable investigator who clearly has searing inner turmoil and pain bubbling within, but to have that turmoil explained away in one shocking encounter in a hotel room was a letdown. True, it’s wise to maintain Jack’s point of view, thereby making Ward something of an enigma, but, eh, I dunno, more could’ve been done with him, because instead of any kind of insight into Ward, we get an overabundance of commentary on racial issues in 1960s Florida, namely when it comes to Anita and to David Oyelowo’s Yardley, Ward’s black, British colleague also investigating Hillary’s incarceration. Many dirty looks and cruel comments by the white man a la “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” later, and the point becomes old, fast, in a story and setting that’s otherwise too thrillingly trashy for such messages to be so outwardly espoused (although one late reveal about Yardley’s true nature, further driving home the racist society angle, is very funny and unexpected…). Much of the storytelling around this is sloppy, sometimes for good, sometimes, most prominently in this particular regard, for bad. John Cusack’s Hillary is just as underdeveloped and caricatured, but at least with him it’s wholly appropriate. From the start, Hillary is little more than a hard-breathing, sweaty, violent, cruel monster, truly an ogre keeping the princess locked away in the tower, or in this case the musty swamp, without a shred of humanity or characterization. He is, then, the utter personification of the sights, sounds, and attitudes of this over-the-top story and setting: every fear and insecurity brought on by this place that Jack must overcome is embodied by this man, in a terrifying finale that feels like so much more than rescuing the damsel in distress. In the end, “The Paperboy”‘s lessons are as messy as its narrative: not so good a thing for the latter, utterly vital for the former.

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

**SPOILERS**

For its duration, even as the focus not-so-subtly transitions completely from Rooney Mara to Jude Law, this is an unnerving, uncomfortable portrait of depression, and to a lesser extent a critique of our miracle pill-popping culture. Lesser, because the film deemed it necessary to shove it down its audience’s throat. Granted, the main players in the story are cogs of this industry, so obviously they’d be talking shop, but when every other word out of the mouths of Jude Law’s Dr. Banks and his colleagues in both medicine and the business side of pharmaceuticals concerns this funny-named antidepressant or that, the point is driven home early on, and the rest is monotonous overkill. But, when that critique of an industry’s over-reliance on a tiny pill becomes embodied by Rooney Mara’s depressed and suicidal Emily, we get Soderbergh at his very best. Muffled sounds, muted colors, and claustrophobically close and low-angle cinematography box this woman, her husband newly-released from prison, their previously-affluent lives shattered, into an stifling prison cell as invisible as her husband’s was visible. This is a deeply sick person, who any half-competent person will tell you cannot be cured with a simple dose of Ablixa, and one knife and blood-strewn apartment later, that point is driven home.

And then the last 15 minutes happened.

A lot of people will despise the big twist, most likely for its utter implausibility and how it practically undoes the aesthetically dynamic portrait of a mentally damaged woman. The biggest problem is its implausibility, how 7093274320987432839 things had to go right for this dastardly scheme of greed and lust to work out, and that Law & Order: SVU, 11th hour revelation-esque implausibility does to a degree distract from an overall message the film is trying to put across. But, if it does indeed completely alter Emily at the snap of a finger, if anything it’s even more of a testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker, to so convincingly depict the mental agony of a character through simple filmmaking techniques, only to find out that Soderbergh, and Emily, fooled us the whole time. You could even argue that it was a necessary 180 for the character, a final step in completely transitioning the flawed protagonist role from Emily to Dr. Banks. Before we know the truth about Emily, Dr. Banks’ search for the truth is a draining one for the man, as embodied by his increasingly-visible stubble, increasingly-invisible home and professional life, and simple things like Jude Law’s hunched posture when being grilled by both the cops and the powers-that-be in the psychiatry field about his treatment of Emily. Even before the truth totally comes out, and particularly afterwards, it’s hard to deny that Dr. Banks’ obsession is more about his own self-preservation than the fate of his maligned patient, yet we’re still drawn into his plight, in a wouldn’t-YOU-want-to-save-your-own-skin? kind of way. This is one of Jude Law’s best performances, as a man who’s initially well-meaning but ultimately tangled in the flaws of his branch of medicine and his own very human desire for a quick solution and money, and ultimately fixated on saving himself above anyone else, with just enough of a twisted desire to see justice done to make his shoes big enough for us to fit in.

I think the plot twist’s ultimate benefit is its greatly expanding the scope of the film’s message. What began as a critique of legal drug culture, right down to those shrill and insulting TV ads, becomes a critique of the entire psychiatry industry surrounding those drugs. As a seemingly manically-depressed woman murders a loved one while in a drug-induced stupor, an industry’s lazy and profit-driven over-reliance on a quick fix has failed one whom it has sworn to help. As it’s revealed that that manically-depressed woman is actually a sociopath who has gamed the system and won a ticket to a mental facility, safely ensconced with the Get Out of Jail Free Card that is the double jeopardy law, so too has that industry’s failure extended to our legal system. Ultimately, that plot twist beckons us to go back and watch the whole thing again, both to pick up on clues like the camera focusing on the cop’s nametag, and to see how much Soderbergh screwed with us in general. If this is indeed his final film as he claims, it’s unfortunate we’ll never again see something new from the man, but at least we’ll have an opportunity to watch something a second time and find something new after all.

Oscar Round-up, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies).  I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened.  Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view.  There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins.  I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone.  Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright.  Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be.  Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch.  Those titular beasts were stupid, though.  Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.

Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever.  My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother.  Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old.  One step forward, one step back for the genre.

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current).  I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death.  Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject.  To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore.  Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes, “If you care about strong stories, don’t bother. Hardly anything happens here in conventional movie terms…”.  I disagree.  Although its narrative certainly isn’t conventional, as it’s told entirely from the first-person perspective of Tokyo-bound drug dealing/abusing American Oscar, both living and dead (though from the back of his head when glimpsing flashes of his past), the story of his life, death, and afterlife is told in a way that I feel covers a lot more ground than a more conventional narrative.  The first segment, a sort of day-in-the-life – style glimpse of Oscar’s life in a squalid apartment with his stripper sister Linda, doesn’t tell us much about this kid, but enough to intrigue.  After his death at the hands of trigger-happy cops, the collage of flashbacks and then what is presumably Oscar’s spirit drifting through Tokyo, overseeing the people he left behind, we’re presented with subjective, deeply personal information that a more objective, traditional narrative wouldn’t be privy to.  A different film would let us know that Oscar and Linda were deeply scarred by the car accident that gruesomely killed their parents, but Noé’s disjointed narrative, going back and forth through Oscar’s past as you’d imagine one’s life would flash before his or her eyes at the moment of death, repeating and emphasizing certain images like the accident, tell us just how much they were scarred.  The little snippets of past, presented in no real chronological order, give us just enough background and foundation into the story and the lives of the characters to make the present much more relevant.  Sure, the incestuous desire between Oscar and Linda is played up ad nauseam to the point of tedium, but nevertheless, the moment in which Oscar’s noncorporeal spirit enters the back of the head of the sleazy strip club proprietor / Linda’s employer while he’s screwing her, so that both Oscar and we are essentially screwing his very sister from the first person perspective, is a disturbing but psychologically captivating one, as Oscar, now dead, can finally fulfill his forbidden desires/fantasies without consequence.  Ironically, once Oscar becomes a silent, invisible, flying camera lens, his deepest fears, desires, and instincts become that much more tangible.

The psychadelic finale, with lots of people having lots of sex amongst lots of neon lights and mystical crotch-auras, may be overkill, despite being a technical marvel (and takes a page directly out of Spielberg’s Minority Report), but that sequence, as well as what immediately precedes it as Alex’s spirit/eyes transition between reality and a light-filled void, could represent his slipping further and further from our reality and into what lies beyond.  This certainly was not the 2 ½ hour completely non-narrative, drug-fueled, Brakhage-esque light-and-color fest I was expecting, as the busy-as-hell camera, flamboyant purgatory of Tokyo, and disintegration of the major players in Oscar’s life allow us to attach our own subjectivity to the silent camera that is the first-person perspective of Alex’s spirit, making our subjectivity his, and thus making an otherwise unexceptional story of a druggie’s death and how it affects the other losers who associated with him a lot more interesting than it ought to be.  This will be an incredibly divisive film, no doubt.  Those it doesn’t click with could hopefully, at the least, admire it as a technical marvel, despite its (literally) dizzying repetitions, both storywise and camerawise. For everyone else, this could be the future of cinematic narrative storytelling.

9/10

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

This was the first film I’d watched after I finished reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, so naturally it unfairly became that movie in which I’d inevitably look for all of Campbell’s factors of shared myth.  Sure enough, they’re there – the mythological hero (Ree, setting out from her common-day home (her run-down home and destitute, but good-hearted, younger siblings) being called or lured into an adventure (the need to find her bail-skipping father lest her family lose their home) and crossing a threshold into the wild and frightening unknown (the secret world of meth cookers), often guided by a helper or mentor (her uncle, the rough and often mean but streetwise (or meth-infested hell-wise) Teardrop), facing off against gate-guarding monsters / ogres (the terrifying old man and his (inbred?) group of hillbilly meth heads, Garret Dillahunt’s slackjawed and useless sheriff), and finally the gaining of a boon, in this case the atonement with the father (quite literally in this case, as Ree’s whole purpose is to atone with Jessup, whether he’s living or dead), which physical boon and the enlightened knowledge that comes with it can be used to restore the non-mythical ordinary world from whence Ree commenced her journey (again, her threatened home).  If I misread either this film or Campbell’s thesis in general, sue me, but regardless, the film certainly has a mythic journey quality, which while adding a level of excitement to an otherwise impossibly depressing setting, perhaps was the very reason why it didn’t click with me as much as it could have.  It just seemed like the lines between good and evil were too delineated, too apparent (with the exception of Teardrop, played wonderfully as an outwardly stoic yet undeniably conflicted man by John Hawkes) – Ree is the hero you can’t not cheer for (how she grows to be such a responsible and morally virtuous young woman in that living environment is beyond me, which may contribute to my problem in and of itself), while the meth heads, obsessed with mutual silence and weird semi-familial bonds, she must wrestle information from, both literally and figuratively, are the evil monsters she the hero must do battle with who you couldn’t find an admirable quality in with an electron microscope.  Despite Ree being an incredibly admirable and determined protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence displays a maturity much, much beyond her years in her performance), intelligent and headstrong, perhaps to a fault with how it often gets her into incredible danger, I would’ve liked to see more people and less archetypes overall.  Nevertheless, the cinematography and muted color palette of this wasteland are INCREDIBLE, and a wasteland it definitely is, like what you’d imagine the Ozarks would look like after Skynet used the world’s nuclear arsenal to destroy the world.  But no, this is the present day, and if this is really what this significant portion of America is like, with long-rusted over cars strewing the countryside and its inhabitants living by this extreme code of silence and territoriality, I have to get my head out of Joseph Campbell’s myths and face reality.

8/10

Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971)

Pretty terrifying, and almost exclusively because of Jessica Walter’s acting. An Ally-like obsessive psychopath to be sure, but I like how little to no effort is made to explain, say, her past or any other reason for that madness. All we see is a quirky but cute girl who mixes an impossibly innocent/childlike smile and laugh with terrifying verbal outbursts and a surprising sexuality that contrasts completely with that innocence at the drop of a hat, all of which gradually descends into outright mania when she becomes more and more obsessed with Eastwood’s radio DJ Dave the more he pushes her away. The mystery as to why she’s so crazy makes the crazy that much more interesting. Eastwood doesn’t do his film any favors with his acting, with the same whispery/raspy voice as his Man with No Name just not really fitting in contemporary California, other than seeming custom-made for a radio show. However, look for instance at the odd little Adam and Eve, Roberta Flack interlude that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the Jessica Walter-centric suspense, as Eastwood and his girlfriend feel safe at last and make love in the woods. The whole time during this long, drawn-out sex scene, I was expecting Clint to lean his head down and kiss his girl, only for him to lift his head up and for us to see that it’s suddenly Jessica Walter, and then he wakes up all sweaty in his bed. That never happens, which arguably makes this scene out of nowhere seem even more out of place, but at the same time, I applaud Eastwood for refusing to use the long-unoriginal it-was-all-a-nightmare gag. In fact, that I was expecting something terrible to happen in this scene of utter idyll is testament to how Clint, directing a film for the first time, was able to combine a truly creepy performance out of Jessica Walter and a simple yet incredibly effective air of suspense (combining ‘is she watching him just off in the distance?’ stretches with sudden moments of jarring, shaky-camera, exploitative violence) to keep your attention from start to finish. Eastwood’s transition of power from the front of the screen to behind it made a great beginning here.

8/10

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)

I guess it does live up to the hype, the proof of that being that after it was over, I went to get my laundry out of the dryer and found myself shoving it into the basket and hurrying out of my dark basement as quickly as possible. So it certainly got under my skin, this despite an incredibly patternistic and predictable formula of ‘exposition by day, scares by night’. Despite that, though, such a defined pattern may have actually helped its status as a successful horror film, as you’re trained rather quickly on when to expect to be scared. When the lights go out and you’re watching Katie and Micah sleep, you’re expecting something spooky to happen, and for those events to get progressively spooky as the film progresses; your senses are so heightened during these night scenes, you’re paying so much attention to every little thing in the frame, wondering ‘did that picture frame move an inch or two? was that sound a rusty pipe or an otherworldly presence walking across the floor? did that bedspread really just blow upwards as if by a supernatural wind, or was I just imagining it?’, that when the obligatory jump moment happens, it scares the shit out of you that much more because you’re so tuned into the image and the silence before you. A rather ingenious use of the bomb-under-the-table formula, helped by a pleasantly surprising lack of those jump moments, so that their effect doesn’t become saturated and diminished. Unfortunately, it could’ve been so much better if I had actually given a damn about the two people being terrorized by this unseen demon, but that’s pretty much sabotaged by how generally annoying Kate and Micah are, Micah in particular for how his douchebaggery really knows no bounds. Fine, he’s supposed to be the reads-no-instructions, asks-for-no-directions sort, but it gets old after a while. So what, Katie, the source of the demon’s boner, needs her asshole boyfriend’s permission to call an exorcist? But I digress… I’m complaining about a lack of believable character behavior taking me out of a film’s supposed realism when this is a film about a couple being haunted by an invisible demonic force. Point is, in an age where ‘horror’ = ‘gory remake’, this was refreshingly simple.

7.5/10

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

It was very refreshing to see a “vampire movie” (emphasis on the ” “) that didn’t have fangs, or neck-biting, or seductive and beautiful ever-young people, and was largely devoid of cliché of the vampire variety of otherwise, which by now I’ve come to expect from the largely unique and cliché-free Guillermo del Toro (shame he dropped out of “The Hobbit.” That would’ve been cool :( ). Not since “Nosferatu” perhaps has a vampire film really, really focused on what a curse, not a blessing, it would be to be granted immortality by unnatural means. As the kindly old antique shopkeeper Jesus Gris becomes more and more immortal after being ‘bitten’ by the Cronos device, his thirst for blood at a most inopportune time during a black-tie New Years’ party and being chased by a dying, despicable industrialist and his bumbling nephew/henchman (Ron Perlman is one ugly motherfucker…) are the least of his worries. As his skin rots and falls off, his wife and everyone else in the world except his mute and adoring granddaughter believe him to be dead, and sunlight becomes poison, it becomes obvious to both Jesus and us just what a curse this is. He never asked for this fate when he found that metal scarab inside the statue in his shop, and yet here he is. That he, a good and previously unassuming man, must suffer everlasting youth in mind but certainly not in body, and not the greedy industrialist and now Jesus’s mortal enemy who certainly deserves such a fate, brings out the tragic aspects of that kind of immortality that much more, in that our sympathy is added on to the gruesome bodily decay. That del Toro pits old man against old man (hardly an expected protagonist-antagonist pairing in this day and age of fantasy/horror), uses a scene of a flamboyant mortician proudly dolling up a mangled body in stark detail for comic relief, and doesn’t exactly depict Jesus as the most innocent of victims, as he in fact revels in using the violent Cronos device for a time, certainly make this one more unique than you might think. When you consider the idea of the body wanting to die and the brain just not cooperating with that desire, there may be a fate worse than death after all.

8/10