Showing posts with label drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label drama. Show all posts

Jun 30, 2020

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971)


The drug film is a hard film to watch--at least if it's done the right way. For modern audiences, the most gut-wrenching experience to come along in quite a while is likely Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a film which saw drugs tearing apart four different people in different ways, rendering their shared relationships obsolete and their futures cut very short. The Panic in Needle Park traverses the same ground, only it did so thirty years prior. Above all, its story focuses on the doomed romance (aren't they all?) between Al Pacino's Bobby and Kitty Winn's Helen, who meet randomly at a drug deal of sorts and who begin, unexpectedly, a savage and passionate romance that will see Helen fall victim to the same drug habit that Bobby claims he doesn't have. As you can imagine, it doesn't end well.

Director Jeffrey Schatzberg, who battled in getting this film made, has no romantic notions about New York City, or more specifically, "Needle Park" (a nickname for Sherman Square) where drug users were known to congregate and trade tips about who is holding, and where, and who might have the bread to get off. Settings like these, or broken-down tenement buildings, or prison-like apartments, are where the bulk of the story take place. (Ironically, the only scenes that contain any brightness at all are during Helen's pre-drug addiction scenes spent in a flat or a hospital bed where she is both temporarily recovering and suffering side effects from a botched abortion, respectively.) But as Helen follows Bobby down his drug-addled rabbit hole, the lights around them dim. Their romance changes face from idealistic, to hopeful, to dreadful.


In Al Pacino's film debut in a lead role, his Bobby is a tough-talking street hood defying authority at every opportunity while smacking gum or chain smoking cigarettes (sometimes both) in an effort to keep his mind off the fact that he hasn't used in a while and, well, he really really wants to. But the real showstopper here is Kitty Winn as Helen, whose slow transformation from innocent/fully naive to hopeless addict of both heroin as well as her boyfriend (and on-again/off-again "fiancé"), is where the sucker punch really takes place.

There's a disarming documentary quality to The Panic in Needle Park, where people interact with awkward sincerity, and where there's no happy ending in sight. Schatzberg has no qualms about letting the camera get in close to see Bobby, or Helen, or an array of the dead-ends who surround them, stick that needle into their veins and slowly inject themselves. For minutes at a time, the viewer has no choice but to watch. There's nothing else on screen they can use to momentarily affix their gaze while they wait for the needle nastiness to disperse. Schatzberg shoves this image into your eye-line because it should be shoved there. He also doesn't want his audience to escape from the ugliness, so when there isn't explicit drug-use on screen, he instead relies on the film's environment to convey that ugliness. The Panic in Needle Park takes place in the scummiest rooms and alleys and rooftops of the scummiest areas in New York City. Every interior features peeling paint or wallpaper, painted in a sickening green or a flat gray. Outdoors, we're treated to graffitied walls and litter-strewn streets. There is no escape, no matter where we go, and no matter what characters are on screen. 


Like Requiem for a Dream, The Panic in Needle Park is a film that effects rather than entertains, hewing closer to life than our happy-ending-wanting brains have come to expect, which is what makes it such a visceral experience. One could argue that the ending is a happy ending of sorts, if only for our characters and no one else. No matter the trials and tribulations they each experience, and no matter the depths they'll plunge, they always come back, and they always end up in each other's arms. Whatever battles they have to overcome, they'll find a way to do it, and they'll do it together. They are doomed, that's for sure, but doom is in the eye of the beholder.

The Panic in Needle Park is a tough film to watch, as any well-made film about drug abuse should be. And it's worth watching for two reasons, both similar and very disparate: the first would be to see Al Pacino in his film debut, who hits the ground running in an explosive performance and who is still celebrated today, but the second would be to see Kitty Winn, whose performance has been even more heralded, but who slowly disappeared from the world of acting after her turns in and The Exorcist (and its deplorable first sequel). As film's end, you won't be left feeling good, but being that was the intention, The Panic in Needle Park is a success. 

May 12, 2020

I KILL DRAGONS (2017)


(Immediate spoilers to follow. RUN.)

Its 2008 graphic novel notwithstanding, I Kill Giants shares almost an uncomfortable amount of similarity to 2016’s A Monster Calls, itself based on a novel of the same name published in 2011. In both stories, two adolescents escape into the confines of their imaginations to help them make sense of, and try to stop, the cancer that’s eating away at their mothers. Their refusal to accept what is, and which can’t be stopped, forces them to create worlds where they are strong and fearless and, most importantly, victorious. In our own dark times, we often create alternate realities in which to exist where that loved one hasn’t yet passed on, or where the person you love also loves you back. In spite of the momentary moments of comfort this can bring us, reality is never too far behind. Films like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants are allegories for the grieving process; through our young antagonists, we confront the fears of our past and the things which have brought us the most pain and we resurrect that sensation of dealing with something entirely out of our control. Both films offer hope — not for a favorable outcome, but for one where the world won’t end, and life can still go on.

Madison Wolfe (previously seen as another beleaguered character in The Conjuring 2) is a tremendous young actress; that she’s already appeared in the likes of Trumbo and True Detective also shows that she knows a good project when she sees it. All of I Kill Giants rides on her shoulders; very few scenes take place without her. And in them she’s either fierce, or stubborn, or acerbically funny. Zoe Saldana as the school’s counselor also does great and affecting work; the scenes between Wolfe and Saldana are among the strongest in the film, and Saldana provides the maternal care that seems to be otherwise missing from Barbara’s life, despite the best intention of her older sister, Karen (an excellent Imogen Poots).


Also of note: the impressive use of CGI for what is clearly a low budget affair. Given the title and concept, yes, giants are brought to life using a mixture of computer graphic imagery and animation, and it never once looks cheap or hokey. Films with similar budgets rely on CGI solely for gunshot wounds and even they manage to look extremely unconvincing. In I Kill Giants, every use of CGI looks theatrical-worthy, and it’s not intermittently used, either. The machinations of Barbara’s imagination are a near constant presence and they are always worthy of tent pole expectations.

Being someone very emotionally affected by A Monster Calls, the secret behind I Kill Giants reveals itself a little earlier than the filmmakers intended. Upon this realization, the goodwill earned up to that point deflates just a bit, but through its performances and its emotional honesty, it earns  the same amount of goodwill as its predecessor by its end. Though the former reigns supreme over the latter, I Kill Giants deserves to stand side-by-side with its spiritual counterpart. It’s still an extremely touching story with an equally important message, and what’s the harm in allowing films to share that burden beyond just the one title?



May 9, 2020

WALKING OUT (2017)

 

The father/son bond is one of film’s most explored relationships, more so than mother/ daughter/anyone else, and that’s because men are hard headed and stubborn and create a lot of their own problems. That’s hard-wired into our DNA. A father wants his son to find his way in life, whether it’s being exactly like him or nothing like him. And a son, likewise, wants to find his own way and prove to his father that he can do it. When this relationship is portrayed on-screen, it can be powerful because men are rarely given the opportunity to look vulnerable.

The way Walking Out handles it is one of the more unique approaches, in that even though Father (Bomer) and Son (Wiggins) are estranged, they are not strangers. There is a mutual love there. The son, David, might show trepidation for spending a trip in the frigid wilderness hunting with his gruff father, but it’s not the kind of conflict where that’s the last place he wants to be and therefore he’ll be a total brat about it. Meanwhile, the father, Cal, still holds a grudge against David’s mother for having left him, which may or may not be leaking out in the way he treats his son. Cal, as played by Bomer, very finely treads that line between being a likable character and one whom you wish would treat his son better. He’s hard on David in a way that’s likely (and hopefully) beyond the way fathers generally treat their sons. Cal doesn’t have a passive bone in his body, and if there’s a way he can educate his son on the fineries of hunting, but which almost always extends to life in general, he will do so — even if in the form of shaming him. Despite this, there is love there between them, and it’s a love that grows as the two end up depending on each other to escape the wintry wilderness alive — Cal with his knowledge, and David with his strength.


For 95% of the time, Bomer and Wiggins are the only characters on screen, and both of them give great performances, with Bomer’s loving but prickly Cal being a tough balancing act. Bill Pullman appears in flashback sequences as Cal’s own father, managing to echo a similarly gruff but loving exterior he would soon pass onto his son.

Walking Out is gorgeously shot, mostly on location in the woods and mountains of Montana.  It’s one of those films shot in the cold that makes you feel the cold, so between that and the harshness that Cal and David endure, it makes for a bleak and grueling watch at times — but by design. It’s not one of those films that’s designed to make its audience feel like they’ve experienced a thrilling adventure, but more like an emotional awakening. By its end, yes, it doesn’t offer the kind of ultimate experience that the father/son bonding film usually offers, but, sadly, it might be one that sometimes echoes closer to reality.

Apr 6, 2020

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2017)


I’ve yet to see every film Clint Eastwood made as a director, yet I’m still confident when I say that The 15:17 to Paris is his absolute worst yet. For the last decade, he has been on a downward slope, receiving partially undue accolades for his adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (which doesn’t hold up) and lots of ironic praise for his addition to the unsubtle “racism is bad” sub-genre with Gran Torino. If you know the filmmaker, especially in his most recent years, you know he has a penchant for maudlin dialogue and “naturalistic” characterization, neither of which transport well to the screen. Even his musical scores tend to be sparse piano or acoustic guitar pinged or plucked at random; they’re about as lifeless as the last decade of his directorial work. The minute you hear the same kind of no-pulse piano-coustic during the opening scene of The 15:17 to Paris, you should be surprised to note that Eastwood didn’t actually score this one himself, instead farming out the duties to Christian Jacob, to whom Eastwood likely said, “do the same kind of boring, rote stuff I normally do.”

With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood decided to try his hand at atypical casting, not just in casting the three real heroes from the Paris train attack (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler) to play themselves, but in also casting actors known primarily for comedies in dramatic supporting roles. Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) play a couple of mothers, Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) a high school principal, Tony Hale (Veep) a beaten down gym teacher, and — wait for it — Jaleel White as yet another teacher. (Yes, TV’s Steve Urkel.) Why? Who honestly the fuck knows, and I’d be very curious to know why Eastwood would cast such a throwaway pop culture figure in such a small role, and who does absolutely nothing of note.


As for our hero trio — and nothing against them, because they’re not professional actors — they can’t act. They try, and the minute they begin, it’s terrible, and you groan, because you know you’re going to be spending much of the film with them.

And speaking of an entire film, since the pictorialized terrorist encounter amounts to nothing more than 20 minutes tops, that means the remainder of the running time has to be filled with…something else. And that’s what you get. The trio as kids, the trio as older kids, the trio on vacation, stints in the military, and not a single of their moments is interesting. Eastwood seems to be vying for Boyhood meets Before Sunrise meets United 93 and, impressively, he botches all three. The 15:17 to Paris might as well be called Three Mini Biographies of Those Three Guys Who Eventually Took The 15:17 to Paris and Did Some Heroics.

No one would ever argue that what these three men did wasn’t brave. They intervened in a terrorist plot, subdued a would-be murderer, and saved lives. Did they deserve a movie about their efforts? I’m not sure — maybe — though not every single heroic act warrants a 90+ minute dramatization. But I do know they deserved one much better than the one they got.



Apr 3, 2020

THE UNWANTED (2014)


[For those unfamiliar with the original short story, it's best to go into The Unwanted completely blind. The beauty of the twist exhibited in The Unwanted is paramount to its enjoyment, so this review will avoid discussing it.]

Terms like "hidden gem" were created for films like The Unwanted. A film that slyly avoids disclosing the origin of the conflict at the heart of this story until well into the second act (previous knowledge of the source material notwithstanding, naturally), The Unwanted is so many things tied up into one beautifully mesmerizing package, and it's anchored by extremely brave performances by every major player involved, with the top honor going to Hannah Fierman (the "do you like me?" siren from the horror anthology V/H/S), who it isn't afraid to go, well, anywhere. What begins as a leery and awkward friendship between her and Carmilla (Christen Orr) transforms into something more, and the coming together of The Unwanted's characters results in the revelation that everyone is lying--has been for years--and all have their reasons for doing so. Genre favorite William Katt is on hand as Troy, Laura's long-haired shut-in father, who not only holds his own secrets, but holds perhaps the most dangerous of them all.


The horror genre has always used its various iconography to shine light on social issues. George A. Romero did this with his pack of zombies for sixty years, and The Unwanted is no different. With the debate over gay marriage seemingly in and out of the public spotlight, The Unwanted is sadly relevant almost all the time. With the crux of the story hinging on the love and lust that develops between Carmilla and Laura, and Troy's subsequent reaction to it, the construct of the story has him attempting to root out the "evil" that has plagued his life once before, and appears to be doing so again. What this "evil" is will remain vague to protect the uninitiated, but it's clear that despite the film's focus on this "evil," it's the union between two women--one of those women being his daughter--that he considers to be the true evil. Whatever supernatural/mythical/mystical presence that's alive between the new lovers lends itself in a hypothetical sense and attempts to put a face on this thing that for so long has been presented as "evil" in our pop culture--well, until recently, anyway. While it may be this evil that Troy is trying to vanquish, make no mistake the film has double motives, and both are explored equally and effectively.

The Unwanted lives and dies by its performances, and all involved do a wonderful job. The unusually beautiful Hannah Fierman, with her dark, wide, and slightly haunted eyes, offers a performance that's so much braver, and goes to such dark lengths, that many of her multi-million dollar-earning, A-list colleagues should feel, at the least, embarrassed, and at the most, threatened. She's as under-the-radar as the sea of other wannabe actresses working quietly on their own collection of low-rent horror titles destined for the last row of Netflix's horror section, but it's likely she won't remain there for long--she's that good. Her on-screen counterpart, Christen Orr, is equally compelling, while offering more of a profound sadness than her performance certainly hints at. Though her Carmilla is undergoing a mission to discover what became of her mother, her journey is much more about her own self-discovery than the mystery that's put her on that path in the first place. Carmilla and Laura's mutual awakening is bathed in sadness, a byproduct of each of their own ruined pasts and existences, and their coming together is just as emotionally satisfying as it is devastating.


The Unwanted deserves an audience, but the means in which its filmmaker Bret Wood chooses to tell its story doesn't lend itself to mainstream appeal. Everyone has the capacity to relate to a film in which love and tragedy is the driving point, but much like the very conflict present within The Unwanted, not all of us are capable of acknowledging and respecting that love, allowing us to be driven away by fear--causing us to be alone, which is the greatest fear of all.

If you're at all intrigued by what The Unwanted may offer you, do yourself a favor: don't watch any trailers, and don't read any more reviews. Just dive head-first into this weird, wild, bloody, sad, and sexy world and see how you react. Its intent on taking its time to build the story and establish its characters may not sit well with all viewers, but those willing to take the journey will likely be rewarded. It takes a tired and overdone horror sub-genre and explores it in the most restrained, mature, and beautiful way it possibly could be.

Feb 27, 2020

THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI (2002)


The western world has its own idea of the samurai. In this neck of the woods, samurai are sometimes blood-thirsty, meticulously trained savages who can disappear at will like wisps of smoke. They can appear otherworldly, even supernatural, suggesting that it wasn't generations of enlightenment and formal training that has led to their legacy, but mysticism and black magic. 

And then you've got nonsense like Kill Bill where old men stroke too-long beards and revel in bawdy bullshit. In this age of Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise, the true essence of the samurai has become muddied and lost. This is where The Twilight Samurai enters to shatter your allusions and change so much of what you thought you knew about this ancient culture. 


Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) has had a rough go of it lately. His wife has died from consumption, leaving him to not only care for their two daughters with little money, but he must also contend with caring for his mother, whom he is sadly losing to her increasing dementia. To support his family as best as he can, he has taken to working in an accountant's office, utilizing none of his skills of a samurai. Seibei struggles to find worth in himself in a world rapidly changing and one that he feels is consistently letting him down. 

One of the reasons The Twilight Samurai is so effective as a film is the sheer normality of it all, which sounds like an unusual point of praise, but it's exactly this normality that gives the film its power. Seibei the samurai is not a wire-flying hero; he does not befriend a westerner to fight off the advances of a nearby warring clan. He is a widower, father of two daughters, son of a sick mother; an office drone like the rest of us forced to work in a lifeless environment doing lifeless work. And in the midst of all this, Seibi finds himself living in a world where the concept of the samurai is outdated and unnecessary. He is not only contending with the drastic turn his life has taken following the death of his wife, but he is also contending with his own worth as a person, and feelings of his own irrelevance. 


Though the story of an individual examining their own worth is a timeless one, the foreign environment in which The Twilight Samurai takes place is what drives the story into unique territory. It gets a lot of mileage out of presenting a character study of this sad man who, though he bears the sword, the robe, and the tied-back hair, feels nothing like the samurai whom he has studied to be. Because of this, Seibei feels intensely human and, at times, sadly relateable. He's been dealt a shitty hand, he's barely making ends meet at a job he loathes, and his co-workers, who repeatedly ask him to come out for drinks and who are always turned down, have begun calling him "Twilight Seibei," because he always makes it a point to get home before dark so he can care for his family. They mock him for his anti-social behavior, his appearance, and yeah, even his body odor. He suffers the same indignities as your basic blue-collar 9-to-5er - it's just that he happens to be a samurai, and never has such a respected and awed-over figurehead been so castrated and dehumanized to the point of humiliation. 

The Twilight Samurai is definitely not for everyone. At a running time of over two hours, and with samurai everywhere on screen all the time, but none of whom are doing cool flips or slicing men in half or other dumb Hollywood shit, preconceived notions have the power to conflict with the story. Make no mistake, though there are scenes in which the samurai exercise their skills, ultimately The Twilight Samurai is a two-hour character study about a broken man learning to feel worth again - and that's equally compelling as any wire-fight.



The Twilight Samurai is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Nov 24, 2019

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)


Horror is subjective. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky once referred to his gut-wrenching drug drama Requiem for a Dream as a horror film. Same for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There need not be a supernatural presence, a masked antagonist, or a family of cannibals for something to be considered a horror film. Sometimes the characters within the story need to be ailing from horrific misdeeds, or actions, or turmoil within themselves. Sometimes the horror results from an act that our lead character regrets. Sometimes it results from a series of decisions that our lead makes, which set off a chain of events from which there is no coming back, and which will spell doom for everyone connected to him or her. And sometimes the horror comes from a severe religious conflict – a lack of faith by a formerly faithful person. For the second time, that first being The Exorcist, writer/director William Peter Blatty explores the idea of the loss of faith – how horrible it must be to question everything, to discount the notion that such things as “good” may exist in the world, and how hopeless it must be to feel so alone.

High in a mountainous region of the Pacific Northwest resides an old castle, which the American government has appropriated as a mental hospital – called “Center 18” – for its military personnel from the Vietnam War. A stoic and mysterious man named Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach, Road Games), a former member of a United States Marine Corps special unit, arrives at the castle for his assignment: while there under the guise of overseeing the treatment of all the patients, really he’s been sent to determine if any or all of the patients are actually faking their psychoses to avoid going back to Vietnam. While there he meets Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders, The Exorcist III), a fellow psychiatrist who will be on hand to help Kane settle into his new role. Upon meeting him, the crux of “Center 18” is explained: the confined men are allowed to indulge in their own self-created and ridiculous role-playing fantasies as a means of therapy, and Colonel Fell encourages Kane to play along. Kane agrees, and not just because as the acting psychiatrist he believes in the technique, but because, just maybe, he’s playing a role, too – perhaps he’d been playing one before he ever arrived.

As one might imagine, a cast of colorful characters reside at the castle: there’s Frankie Reno (Jason Miller, The Exorcist), a former lieutenant attempting to put together a Shakespearean stage adaptation …using a cast of dogs; there’s Spinell (Joe Spinell, Maniac), Reno’s number two; there’s Major Nammack (Moses Gunn, Roots), who can be spotted wearing a “Super Nammack” costume; and let’s not forget Fromme (Blatty himself) playing a “System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”-ish character who earns the film’s first big laugh. This film-quoting, mischief-making band of men will be the ones providing the comic relief, but it will be Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson, The Walking Dead), the former astronaut dealing with a crisis of faith, to whom Kane will gravitate, compelled by something unknown to get to the root of Cutshaw’s crisis and find a way to show him that there is good in the world. What occurs between them is an at-times preposterous ping pong game of philosophical debate, peppered with angered accusations, too-calm responses, and proclamations bordering on the absurd. (“The man in the moon fucked my sister!”) Cutshaw insists that no good – and hence, no god – exists in the world; only an instance of selfless self-sacrifice could ever convince him otherwise. Unmet demands that Kane cite just one example of such an instance seems only to bolster Cutshaw’s point. Cutshaw assumes himself to have won, but Kane won’t give in that easily. Though he shares the same jaded and depressing view of the world, he knows there’s enough goodness dwelling within it to cancel out the bad. He knows that the shepherd will sacrifice himself for the good of his flock. He just has to find a way to prove it.


The most remarkable thing about The Ninth Configuration is its blending together of multiple genres: drama, thriller, war, comedy, horror, existentialism, and for good measure, gothic mystery. It’d be difficult to point to one or two of these genres and say “it’s mostly this” because that’s utterly untrue. The film never stops being dramatic, comedic, thrilling, horrific, existential, or mysterious; instead, all of those genres work together in tandem to create the experience that is this wild, quirky, and inexplicable film culled entirely from the imagination of William Peter Blatty. At first based on an original novel called Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, it was then turned into a screenplay, which was then turned into a new novel, The Ninth Configuration. Rarely does it occur when there are two versions of the same book, by the same author, that are similar enough to be considered the same story, but different enough for those two stories to be told in such unique ways. The fate of the film, too, shares the fate of the book – several different cuts of the film have been circulating all over the world since its original theatrical debut, though the director’s preferred version wouldn’t “exist” until the 2001 DVD release by Warner Bros.

I say with distaste that the world will forever remember Scott Wilson as Herschel from The Walking Dead (and indeed, he was the best thing about it), but the actor has been a remarkable performer for nearly fifty(!) years, hitting the scene big with a one-two punch of In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood. In The Ninth Configuration, he’s given both his weightiest character and a rare lead role. Much like the dearly departed Robin Williams, Wilson retains that uncanny ability to make you laugh even as you can see in his eyes that he’s not laughing along with you. Though the most absurd dialogue flows from his mouth, there’s something festering inside him that hints at a profound sadness. His Cutshaw is haunted by the notion of being completely alone, and out there in the confines of space – the closest man will perhaps ever physically get to the perceived location of heaven – he wanted to feel closer to God. Instead, he felt more abandoned than ever. His mental breakdown unknowingly put him on the journey to meeting Keach’s Colonel Kane, a man who will prove to him that there is goodness in the world – even if he has to die trying.


Speaking of, Stacy Keach, playing “the greatest fucking psychiatrist since Jung,” is another actor rarely given a lead role, and he’s never been as good as he is here. For so much of the film, his performance is incredibly muted – almost artificially so – as if he’s just awoken from a very long sleep. But over time you will see him become reborn into something else – something more riveting, unhinged, exploding with passion. In one particular scene, he exudes such an immense magnitude of anger that his eyes fill with tears and his entire body shakes without control, and all while wearing a Nazi uniform. (It makes sense in context, trust me.) It’s an especially powerful scene in an especially powerful film. But then again, in the same film, he’s capable of delivering extremely melancholic monologues – musings on the very world to which he is trying to re-introduce his patients, but one that he himself doesn’t seem to entirely understand:

“Maybe we are just fish out of water. I just think about… sickness… cancer in children… earthquakes, war, painful death. Death. Just death. If these things are just part of our natural environment, why do we think of them as evil? Why do they horrify us so? Unless we were meant for someplace else. I don’t think evil grows out of madness. I think madness grows out of evil.”

Really, the entire cast work perfectly – each for their own parts, and as one unit of an ensemble: Jason Miller, Moses Gun, Tom Atkins, Robert Loggia, Richard Lynch, Neville Brand – it’s a who’s who of under-appreciated cult actors that should enthuse any appreciating film fan. (And let’s not forget Joe Spinell, who plays a character not present in any iteration of the literary story, but who flat-out told Blatty he wanted to be in the film, to which Blatty replied, “Well, all right,” and invited him to the set to ad-lib all his lines – hence his character’s name being “Spinell.”)

Nothing about The Ninth Configuration is extraneous or exploitative. Every scene – every exchange of dialogue, no matter how absurd – matters. It’s all urging the story toward its conclusion. One scene in particular between Miller and Keach – the “Hamlet theory” scene – really sums up the entire film. In the famous Shakespeare play, based on his eccentric behavior, there are two interpretations: either Hamlet is crazy, or he’s merely pretending to be. So the question posed to the two psychiatrists: is Hamlet crazy?

Kane says yes.

Fell says no.

Miller’s Reno smiles at them. “You’re both wrong.”


For a film in which it seemed actors had played musical chairs with their roles before finally settling on the character each would be playing, everyone hits home with their respective contributions and every one of the supporting character actors seem to be having a lot of fun. What sounds like what must have been chaos (and according to Tom Atkins, many of the actors felt stranded in the middle of nowhere in their shooting locale of Budapest, taking to drinking and fucking around to blow off steam) results in strong ensemble work where everyone plays off each other extremely well.

One of the biggest disservices in life seems to be that, except for this film, as well as the very underrated The Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty has remained away from the director’s chair. Though he continued to write until his death last year, he was an extremely focused and particular filmmaker. In a way, only the author of the source novel(s) could have been the one to bring this story to visual life. The divergent tone – comedy one minute and tragedy the next – would have sent many filmmakers scurrying, and when the dark and effective scenes were afoot, Blatty had only small bouts of limited screen time to convey his point. A man who once considered joining the priesthood, Blatty’s body of work has a strong (but not preachy) religious tone. It was Father Karras in The Exorcist (Jason Miller in the film) who was suffering a crisis of faith, even as he was looking the devil right in the face. And it would soon be Detective Kinderman in Legion (George S. Scott in The Exorcist III) as he confronted the long-dead Gemini Killer, and who was also struggling to find goodness and decency in the world. Here, it’s Captain Cutshaw (who actually appears in The Exorcist – the astronaut at the cocktail party whom Regan tells, “You’re gonna die up there”), a fractured and terrified man who has let the evils of the world overtake him and shake his sense of faith.

There are as many scenes brimming with comedy as there are those filled with intense drama and disturbing content. Kane’s reoccurring dream of his twin brother, the once-titular “Killer Kane,” having killed a young Vietnamese soldier in the midst of the war – garroting him so fiercely that he inadvertently removes the boy’s head (“I cut off his head with a wire, but he kept talking.”) – is extremely disconcerting in its staging. And though it technically takes place in another film (Blatty’s own adaptation of Legion, retitled by the studio as The Exorcist III), he crafted perhaps the greatest and most effective jump scene likely since the ending of Carrie. In fact, it’s the lame and studio-mandated third-act exorcism that handicaps the original intended finale and results in preventing The Exorcist III from achieving the same level of perfection as its infamous predecessor. But it’s one image in particular, found at the top of this article, that will become synonymous with The Ninth Configuration – another dream, this one of Cutshaw, afraid of what he might find, or not find, on his voyage into space.


Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in “live and let live.” Believe in God, a god, or many gods, as much as you want, so long as you keep your faith and devotion an exclusive part of your life. Alternately, if you don’t accept that there’s another world beyond our own – one in the spiritual realm – that’s also your prerogative. But again, that is your belief to keep, so keep it as such. At times I’ve either bore witness to or participated myself in the sporadic “is there? vs. isn’t there?” debate, and eventually threw up my hands and said “I have no idea, and neither do you.” To claim you know there’s a God reeks of just as much arrogance as to claim you know there is not. In time, we’ll both find out. Like ghosts or reincarnation or fucking Bigfoot, those questions are bigger than me, and are not for me to answer.

I bring this up for one very significant reason: there’s a strong religious backbone throughout The Ninth Configuration – not in that corny Kirk Cameron kind of way, but in a more existential and philosophical way – an “important” kind of way. Ultimately, though the film is about the tortured Captain Cutshaw regaining the faith he lost, and though the dialogue revolves around the existence of God (whom Cutshaw refers to as “the all-knowing, all-powerful Foot”), really it comes down to that age-old conflict of good versus evil. From the point of view of a decidedly non-religious person, I state unequivocally that the film is intensely moving. I recall being brought to tears upon my very first viewing of it, which was years ago, courtesy of an old tattered VHS I had found in a junk shop somewhere and brought home strictly for the pedigree of talent involved. It’s since become one of my favorite films.

Considering The Ninth Configuration is attached to the same man who wrote the novel and subsequent screenplay for The Exorcist – still cited as the scariest film of all time, a multiple Academy-Award winner, a box-office smash – one would have assumed that the film had been treated with a comparable reverence and confidence during its initial release. Far more writers are given risky opportunities by major studios these days if their previous films have been proven moneymakers. Whether it’s a changing studio system, the bizarre uniqueness of the story, or just plain old bad luck for William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration never achieved mainstream popularity, and it never will. But, in a home video market that’s dying a slow death, here’s hoping it manages to find a few more folks before retiring to that big “Center 18” in the sky (whether or not it exists).


Aug 14, 2019

FIRST REFORMED (2018)



From its very first minute, First Reformed, from the longest-working man in show biz, Paul Schrader, is never not engaging. The filmmaker responsible for writing Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Raging Bullmay not have made a film this engaging since 1997’s Affliction. It’s also very unusually made, with the director choosing a 4×3 aspect ratio, a direct call back to a primitive era of film, and very very rarely moving the camera. Except for the gorgeous opening shot, which slowly tracks from the bottom of red-brick steps to the front doors of an old Dutch Colonial church, every shot is static, and they can go on and on without a break in action or dialogue. Oftentimes, if someone calls a film “point and shoot,” that person means the film lacks identity or style, and that the director is workman-like without a sense of making the story come to life with visual flourish. First Reformed purposely goes for the point and shoot aesthetic, but Schrader uses the style to maximum effect, manifesting Father Toller’s growing indifference, isolation, frustration, and severe battle with his faith.

Speaking of, Ethan Hawke has gone from being an actor that I was too quick to dismiss to one of my absolute favorites. Interviews with him (like the one included on this release) show him to be a very pensive, thoughtful, and likable actor who enjoys genre-hopping in an effort to play different kinds of characters in different kinds of situations. For a long time I held high that his work in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was his best, but then First Reformed came along and left me in total awe of his talent. It’s his work in this that’s made me realize the actor doesn’t receive nearly the amount of accolades he deserves. His work here is staggering, and an absolute career high. The archetype of the priest struggling with his faith isn’t a new concept, but when you’ve got Paul Schrader behind that archetype’s tweaking and finessing, turning him into a somewhat of a Travis Bickle character, it absolutely opens up the character into something new. 


In a sense, First Reformed is a fantastic companion piece to Schrader’s Taxi Driver: two men, at odds with society, become seduced by the idea of shaking up that society and putting an end to the evil and sickness that plagues our world at large. Travis Bickle drives taxi cabs and Father Toller presides over thinly attended masses and is forced to serve as a surrogate tour guide for his famous Underground Railroad church, but both men suffer the same disillusionment and horror with their world and both men, perhaps not all there, want to do something about it. The film also contains aspects of Calvinism, to which Schrader subscribes, and which also appeared in a more obvious form throughout Schrader’s Hardcore. Given its religious themes, one might assume that Schrader is lampooning or satirizing religion at large, but that’s not really the case here. Schrader, instead, is telling a story similar to ones he’s told in the past and imbuing a lot of shared themes of loneliness to the point of mental detriment, but this time it just so happens to be a priest. That sounds like Schrader side-stepping a larger potential, but just the opposite: he’s smart enough to not take the easy bait.

First Reformed is very unusually made, and its very pro-environmental message, even though it has a great deal of reason to be there given its story, will probably turn off some audiences, as they don’t mind being preached to up to a certain extent. First Reformed willfully and purposely ups the preaching levels, and for dual purposes: to enhance and justify Father Toller’s descent into radicalism, and to enforce upon the viewing audience: we’re very very close to being eternally fucked. First Reformed will scare you in more than one way, and regardless of how you feel about the film by its end, it’s a long-term unshakeable experience.

Paul Schrader is 72, and has just delivered among the best films in his directorial career.



Aug 7, 2019

A WHOLE DIFFERENT ANIMAL: ‘ORCA’ (1977)


By now, JAWS is a Hollywood institution. It not only birthed the summer blockbuster, but, like any popular new idea, it inspired countless knockoffs – a trend that continues to this day. Putting aside the more infamous examples, like the Italian-lensed Cruel Jaws (yes, this is real) and Enzo G. Castellari’s The Last Shark aka Great White, both of which saw their U.S. releases halted by JAWS distributor Universal Studios due to obvious reasons, the “animals-run-amok” subgenre wasn’t actually confined just to sharks. Following the unparalleled success of JAWS, every kind of animal that could reasonably run amok ran amok, regardless if those animals had legs or not.

Even those animals (or insects) that weren’t obvious amok-runners still got their own one-word titles through which to generate “terror”: Grizzly, Frogs, Slugs, Bug, Ants, Gi-Ants, Squirm, etc.

Even automobiles got in on the action, like 1974’s Killdozer and 1977’s The Car.

It got pretty ridiculous.

Addressing the great white in the room, Orca, on its surface, could easily be written off as one of these JAWS bastards. It even takes the name of Quint’s doomed sea vessel for its title. Obviously, the similarities are profound. Sea-based killer animal? Check. Crusty, hard-drinking boat captain tasked with killing the beast? Check. A crew assembled with people of differing philosophies toward the animal and how it should be dealt with? Check. An entire town’s financial stability affected by the maniacal animal? Oh yes. And like JAWS, Orca also gets a huge boost from its musical score – Ennio Morricone’s absolute all-time best, in fact.

Long dismissed as just another JAWS clone, Orca is worthy of much more respectable appreciation – forty years after its release.


While out on a routine sharking expedition hoping to land a big payday for a local aquarium, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his vessel, the Bumpo, get an up-close and personal encounter with an orca whale during a shark attack. Impressed with the size and savagery of the whale, Nolan switches targets, deciding that the capture of a male orca – alive – would fetch a much bigger payday. But after botching this capture and accidentally killing the targeted orca’s pregnant mate (which miscarries on the Bumpo in a devastating sequence), the orca becomes incensed, ramming the vessel and then stalking the murderous captain all the way back to shore – and beyond – intent on ruining his life by any means necessary. Even from the frigid ocean waters, the orca inexplicably begins to wear down Nolan in every feasible means – physically, mentally, financially, existentially, and philosophically. (If Hannibal Lecter were an animal, he would be an orca.) Soon, Captain Nolan is left with no choice but to take back to the sea and engage in a battle to the death with his massive opponent.

Yes, Orca follows a lot of the same familiar JAWS beats, and though it pales in comparison, Orca is much better than its reputation or immediate sketchy filmic colleagues would suggest. (The opening sequence, which sees the orca kill a great white shark in a violent battle, is a not-so-subtle dig at its legendary predecessor.) Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Arthur Herzog, what sets Orca off from its unintended brethren is the amount of sincerity with which it was made, with much of the credit going to director Michael Anderson (Logan's Run) for maintaining a level of seriousness and weaving a palpable sense of regret throughout what would otherwise be your standard animal-revenge thriller. Orca is inherent with sadness and despair, from the quiet haunted life of Nolan to the vicious capture of the pregnant orca, right down to the icy finale which sees the crew being led to the unforgiving crushing ice caps and brutal cold of the Strait of Belle Isle. Not a single time during the film can the sun be glimpsed or does daylight look bright and warm. Colors are muted, and at dusk, barely present. Nolan and his crew live a shiftless life, existing only in those strange lands where their fishing work takes them. No one has any roots to speak of – the only relationships they have are with each other. All of this is purposeful; Orca isn’t out for the same kind of adventurous thrills as JAWS, nor is it only interested in cheap but entertaining exploitation thrills like Alligator. Though the furious orca kills quite a few people, it’s not done for titillation like the usual sharksploitation flick. As each character sleeps with the fishes, you feel conflicted, even if these characters have shown off their ignorance toward the dangers that their profession can have on the ecosystem. Like real people, they’re flawed but not villainous, and none of them are particularly heroic; in fact, Nolan only gets up the gumption to resolve the conflict he’s inadvertently created because the town where he‘s temporarily docked blackmails him into doing it – even refusing to sell gasoline to the crew attempting to retreat from their sins. (Heroism!)


Aiding Orca’s effectiveness is the slightly dangerous tone exhibited by ‘70s-era Italian thriller and horror films, which always had their own look and feel, and which were heightened in every sense – regardless of genre. Exploitation films were just a bit more exploitative. The infamous “cannibal horror” period was rife with filmmakers pushing boundaries – so much that murder charges were brought against Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato in response to the too-convincing fates that befell that film’s characters. This sensibility would spawn the giallo sub-genre – one that gleefully focused on the exaggeration of sex and sensuality, fluid and poetic camera movement, and, most famously, very specifically choreographed and violent murder sequences. The presence on Orca of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, a major figure during this time (and who remained so until his death; he’d go on to produce several films in the Hannibal Lecter franchise), and the largely Italian crew – from the script writers to the production and art designers – inadvertently rode that over-stylized subset of Italian filmmaking, which enhances Orca’s sense of danger and unease; it comes across as similarly loose-cannoned and willing to push the boundaries of good taste, even though, except for the upsetting whale capture scene in the first act, Orca is fairly restrained. (Though this is not at all applicable to Orca, Italian productions were also occasionally unkind to animals, which also enhances the unsettling usage of Orca’s special effects. More on that in a bit.)

Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan is a heavy figure. The fisherman lives a life of isolation, having seen his pregnant wife perish in a car accident caused by a drunk driver – one that’s already taken place before the opening credits, but which can be unnervingly glimpsed through quick flashbacks complemented by the unsettling shrill shriek of an orca. The film draws parallels both obvious (the tragic loss of a burgeoning family) and subtle (obsession leading to self-destruction) between Nolan and the orca that hunts him, and which he then begins to hunt. As life took away Nolan’s family, so Nolan took away that of the orca. They become one and the same — two lost souls navigating a cold and barren seascape; satisfying the avenging beasts within them is the only thing offering them forward momentum.


The death scenes, too, are executed differently. Unlike JAWS, where the shark attack scenes were suspensefully predicated by John Williams’ famous low-end piano and Spielberg’s paranoid shots of the water, the death scenes here are quick and brutal, and over before you realize they’ve happened. The orca lunges with a shriek, takes his target, and disappears beneath the depths. It’s not at all about suspense this time around; it’s much more focused on shock – how, at one moment, you can be sitting safely on the bow of a ship, and at the next, you’re immediately disappeared as if you never existed. Again, a film that clearly exists because of what’s come before is still making an effort to distance itself through different stylistic choices. Yes, both films feature an aquatic killer as the main threat, but each is going about it as differently as they can while remaining in the same genre and delivering, ultimately, what the audience expects.

For its time, the special effects are quite good. Granted, some of the visual tricks, like superimposing together scenes of orcas breaching the ocean’s surface, show their age, but the practical effects are extremely lifelike to the point where certain shots look downright disturbing. Charlotte Rampling sitting on the beach next to the corpse of the orca that Nolan kills during the opening moments and seeing it rock and sway in the coming and going ocean tide offers it a very sad reality. (Production on Orca was even momentarily shut down following outcry from animal rights groups after someone glimpsed a life-sized orca prop being trucked into the shooting location.) A brief shot of a pummeled great white shark floating lifelessly in bloody waters, too, looks alarmingly real. (It wasn’t; all underwater shark photography was captured by ocean conservationists Ron and Valerie Taylor, who famously obtained all the real shark footage used in JAWS.) Honestly, there are times when Orca’s best special effects even look better than some of the troublesome effects from JAWS – and for a film that would go on to inspire a multi-billion dollar franchise and a theme park ride (RIP), that’s not dismissible praise.

It’s fair to admit that Orca would not exist without JAWS, but it would also be unfair to disregard Orca as a lazy cash-grab. It has its own identity and purpose, and its own less traveled path for getting there – one might even argue that it has much more in common with Moby Dick than that aforementioned stillness in the water. Richard Harris once stated to have found the characters in its script far richer and more complicated than Brody, Hooper, and Quint, and that its label of being a mere JAWS rip-off was offensive. Charlotte Rampling, who works steadily to this day, continues to look back on the film with pride. Affirmations like these are important to preserving and fairly examining Orca’s legacy. This isn’t a case where actors, who go on to more prominent roles in wider reaching films, look back on their horror past with embarrassment and dismissal. A good film is a good film, regardless of its genre, unfair reputation, and especially regardless of its inspiration.


Jun 12, 2019

THE INCIDENT (1967)


There is a very real psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, which deduces that the more people present during an event which would normally require intervention to diffuse a violent or traumatic conflict, the less likely that anyone will do so. Basically, if two people witness something where intervention would be necessary, those two are more likely to intervene than if ten or fifteen people were at the same scene. The idea is that the feeling of responsibility for coming to someone’s aid becomes dispersed amongst all those who are present, and with everyone waiting for another individual to make the attempt, no one ultimately will. (Yay mankind!)

The Incident, which plays out as a bleak and uncomfortable combination of 12 Angry Men and The Taking of Pelham 123, is a cinematic embodiment of this phenomenon and a fascinating character study about fear, anger, racism, and loneliness. Like a Frank Weegee photograph come to life, the black and white photography not only captures the seediness and despair of a late ‘60s-era New York, it also provides every single character with an implied backstory about his or her experiences. Before they end up on that fateful subway train for an excruciating real-time 45-minute ride, we meet every single character. None of them are at particular high points in their lives: many are angry; some are victimized by their husband or wife or lover; some are excruciatingly lonely and looking for intimacy; and some are in a bad way and need help from someone waiting for them on the other side of that subway train ride. These characters bring their backstories and personalities to that subway ride and colors how they will react to the conflict unfolding within. 


Director Larry Peerce and writer Nicholas Baehr made a very New York film that is not complimentary of New York. Every single character is in a bad way; no one is happy. People aren’t just being victimized by two hoods on a train (with two audacious and excruciating performances by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante); they’re being victimized within their relationships, or by society at large, or by their own lives or desires. And on that subway train, some riders speak out against their harassers, begging them or even ordering them to stop. But some don’t. Some ride in silence, shying away from their harassers or even falling for their mock empathy. How some of these riders react to their torturers mirror how they reacted to their own partners before stepping onto that train. Likewise, those riders who exerted dominance over their own partners were soon dominated by one of the two hoods. It’s bloodcurdling yet fascinating to watch unfold — like a car wreck on the side of the road, only the audience sees it unfold in real time.

As the tension on the train car increases, the audience wants it to stop — would, also, like some of its characters, beg for it to stop. And an idea begins to creep in that there are a handful of young and able-bodied men on that train who could easily, if working together, disarm the two punks. But no one ever has that idea. Sure, as one after another they are victimized and terrorized, they trade awkward glances to other riders with pleading eyes, hoping for someone to intervene. But no one does. Everyone cowers, even behind those making empty threats to call the police — somehow, on a subway train, traveling 60 miles an hour.


For those who have never before experienced The Incident, it sneaks up on you like a sucker punch to the gut, sending you to your knees. It’s ugly, and bleak, and very cynical, and when it’s over, you walk away feeling as if you, yourself, were on that same subway train. There is very little physical violence used, beyond the very opening and the very closing of the film; throughout, however, it’s very psychologically violent, and doesn’t make for an easy watch. 

Those with strong stomachs and an affinity for challenging cinema need to ride this train. Those who don’t need the reminder that in this world it’s every man for himself need to get off at the next stop.

The Incident is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Nov 1, 2013

REVIEW: TO JENNIFER


The line between art and "hey, let's make a movie because we can!" is becoming increasingly blurred. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick bought a couple cameras, made The Blair Witch Project, and then made back most of their production budget by returning the cameras for a refund. The film cost them around a handful of Mercedes to produce and made back its budget 300 times. Several years later, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau bought a couple digital cameras, rented a boat, and shot Open Water without the support of a major studio. Unknown actors got in the water with real sharks for hours upon hours, and the filmmaking duo edited the film on their home computer. It was another box office smash. And it continued the new trend of do-it-yourself filmmaking began by the likes of Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and that damn Burkitsville witch. It proved if you had the materials and talent, you didn't need a major studio's resources or funding. 

In theory, this is great. The unachievable dream has become that much more achievable. The one-in-a-million chance for success tested and subjugated by a Michigan nerd who loved horror movies and made Evil Dead (and who currently rules Hollywood) is now the stuff of history.

Which brings us to a little film called To Jennifer, shot entirely on the iPhone 5 - a large part of the marketing platform. If it's the first time ever, I honestly don't know - but by film's end, it wouldn't have mattered if it were shot with the eye of God. 

Your main character is Joey (Chuck Pappas). His girlfriend is cheating on him, or so he thinks. So he decides to make a video about catching her in the act, so he can give it to her. I'm...not sure why. Along for the ride is his cousin (and cameraman), Steve (James Cullen Bressack, also writer/director), and their mutual friend Martin (Jody Barton). Their video diary takes them across multiple states, a failed plane ride, a couple ugly confrontations, and the inevitable and obvious twist ending.


To Jennifer
is every scene from The Goonies when all the kids shout over each other, loudly, and without mercy, only now that yelling is crammed with testosterone, profanity, and behavior that would make most people severely uncomfortable, but instead makes everyone giggle. 

Because the film is shot on a phone, any attempt at direction is, at best, limited, and at worst, non-existent. There's only so much you can do to lend the film any kind of style. Due to this, the rather no-frills production will instead have to depend on the intrigue of the story and the power of its cast.

Speaking of, most of the cast does a fine job, at least at first. Pappas as Joey depends on your sympathy as he is your lead with a lot of baggage. He is the cuckolded boy of the story and should already have at least our attention, being that we've likely all been in his shoes and we know how much it blows. As the film progresses he veers into dangerous overacting territory, but being that his character is supposed to be on a somewhat downward spiral, it's not a detriment to the film. 

Continuing on, major fucking props goes to fucking Cullen Bressack as Steve, who tries his fucking best to be as fucking obnoxious as possible, rattling the audio with his fucking bawdy laughter and his over-the-top "I'm a party animal!" demeanor. Count how how many fucking times he can cram "fuck" into his dialogue - astrophysicists can't count that high - while simultaneously being completely fucking unlikable. Watch as Joey sadly confesses that his girlfriend is cheating on him as Steve laughs. Watch as Joey has a nervous breakdown on a plane as Steve laughs. Watch as Joey lays in a hospital bed as Steve laughs. Watch as Joey gets his ass handed to him at a party as Steve laughs. Watch as Joey is clearly becoming more and more mentally unbalanced over the course of his descent as Steve laughs - hard and squeakily.

To Jennifer has an interesting concept - a sort of road movie where friends could bond and help one of their own get over a sad development - but this is a double-edged sword, because all you're seeing is a bunch of college kids hanging out and doing what college kids do: drink, smoke pot, go to parties, talk about mackin' wit girls, etc. An approach like To Jennifer should be as realistic as possible, I admit that, but it shouldn't be so realistically mundane that I begin to wonder why I'm watching these random videos on that iPhone I found at the bus stop.

But hey, what do I know? To Jennifer's Facebook page is covered in positive reviews. Perhaps other folks are seeing what I'm not. Perhaps I'm prejudiced against this next stage in filmmaking where all you need to make a film and have it distributed nationally is a cell phone. Perhaps I'm embittered because no one wants to give Don Coscarelli a few measly million to make Phantasm V, or that no one wants to fund any of John Carpenter's potential projects - you know, the man whose entire filmography is being remade and dumbed down in nearly their original order of release, to the "benefit" of the audience whose target age is decreasing year by year.

To Jennifer really could have been that next step in proving that a successful end result could be shot with something as simple as that thing in our pockets we used to use strictly for making phone calls. To Jennifer has a beginning, middle, end, actors, and makes use of available light quite handily. If your film is location heavy, intimate, and okay with the raw digital look, then this DIY approach really could be your new best friend if you're a filmmaker with a great concept and little money.

Sadly, To Jennifer seems more to be the result of kids who made a movie because they had a camera, rather than an original idea strong enough to withstand and complement its gimmick.

May 30, 2013

REVIEW: LITTLE MONSTERS


"It's like he was a toy doll that those boys stole and didn't know what to do with, so they murdered my little baby. It's not right to let them go...just because they turned eighteen. 'Happy birthday, you're free to go.' Free to kill again, if you ask me."
From its very dark opening to its equally powerful closing, the newest film from David Schmoeller (interview with the filmmaker here) represents a drastic new side to the filmmaker for those only previously aware of his minor classics Puppet Master and Tourist Trap. Little Monsters, his first feature in thirteen years and based on a true story, is the sobering story of two murderers named James Landers and Carl Withers, charged with murdering a three-year-old boy named David McClendon. The awfulness of this act is then exacerbated by the notion that James Landers and Carl Withers are themselves only children - ten years old, to be specific. The boys are caught, charged, and sent to a juvenile detention center for eight years. Upon their eighteenth birthdays, they are released into a sort of witness protection program, with new identities in tow. One is released into the care of a parole officer and set up with a job at the law firm Slausen et al. (a nice nod to Tourist Trap), and the other is placed into foster care. Forbidden from contacting their family, friends, each other, or anyone from their past life, the two now-teenagers must find a way to continue some attempt at an existence while living with the fact that they, in a moment of foolishness, took the life of a child.

Earlier I said that Little Monsters represented a new side to writer/director David Schmoeller. And that's because there is nothing quirky or cartoonish about his newest film. (If you were previously familiar with Schmoeller's filmography, then you know not to take offense.) There are no killer puppets or screaming mannequins here. There are no popcorn scares and set-pieces to make audience jumps and then smile in relief. And there is no Charles Band in sight. Instead, Little Monsters is about real-life horror. It is about tragedy, human relationships and behavior, and exploitation. It's about knowing how to recognize evil when it's staring you in the face, but then realizing to even try is futile.


During the boys' reentry into society, the film offers society's reaction their release - from parents of the victim, to parents of the murderers, to a conservative talk-show host and pair of slimy tabloid reporters. One murderer's mother yearns to hear from her son; the other tells her son she used to pray he would die in prison. Some members of society with no direct connection to the case want to see the boys punished, while others wish people would just let it lie. Smartly comprised of traditional narrative mixed with sit-down interviews featuring family members, law enforcement, and political officials, Little Monsters is presented as a docu-drama. And why shouldn't it be? The case on which the film is based is real. The kind of violence and psychosis the film depicts is real. The polarizing reactions society has about the death of one is real. We need look no further than the recent tragedy in Newtown to see that we, as people, will never be united behind any one cause, no matter how obvious it may look. Little Monsters is dark and bleak and fucking angry...but so is life.

Ryan Leboeuf as James and Charles Cantrell as Carl are tremendous in their entirely opposite roles. James (now Bob Fisher) is quiet, reserved, and struggling with the next phase of his life. He sneaks away to reference the notebooks that contain crib sheets on his new identity and shies away from the girl next door who shows him attention. Carl (now Joey Romer), however, makes it abundantly clear he is not ready to re-enter society. He is angry, but smiles his way through it, not caring if he's fooling those around him. And both young actors completely outshine their adult counterparts in every way. 


The script for Little Monsters is very smartly constructed, using the aforementioned narrative- vs. sit-down-interview juxtaposition to convey insights into our characters as well as subjective points of view from those removed from the case; you're essentially getting three stories in one: those who support the boys, those who want to see them punished...and the truth. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong all at once. Minor harm is done to the pacing of the film due to the various characters representing the media, but it isn't detrimental. Schmoeller could have easily "cheated" and kept his sit-down interviews in place without relying on talk-show hosts and tabloid reporters asking questions on the other side of the camera to justify this kind of exposition and insight (Linklater and Clooney do it), but their characters aren't entirely superfluous, either. They serve a purpose and represent different facets - a maddeningly realistic take on how the media responds in time of tragedy - but they could have been easily edited out and affected little.


A limited budget has resulted in limited flair, but the film is not without style. Schmoeller instead relies on tone, and in getting dangerously intimate with our two polar opposite characters. You become witness to their madness as well as their regret; you are forced to experience their crimes as well as their struggle to transcend their status as cold-blooded murderers and prove there's more to them than a wrong decision made by a ten-year-old's mind. But you're also forced to recognize that not everything is as it seems - that evil comes in many forms, and not all of them are obvious.

Little Monsters is currently doing the film festival thing and getting good marks wherever it travels. It is without distribution, but here's hoping that changes soon. It is a film that will challenge your idea of perception and force you to confront the power of denial.

More information can be found on David Schmoeller's website and Facebook.

Apr 11, 2013

REVIEW: K-11


You know how everyone has that one friend who, no matter what kind of story you're telling, somehow has a story even more amusing or ironic? Well, god forbid you ever begin a story with "I had the WORST day recently...!" around K-11's Raymond Saxx, because he would respond, "Well, one morning I woke up from a really fucked-up drug and booze binge, found myself accused of murder, and discovered I was locked up in a special transgender wing of a prison ruled by a deviant security guard and a tranny named The Queen."

Yeah, he'll always win with that one.

Goran Visnjic ("E.R.") is the unfortunate and aforementioned Raymond Saxx being dragged through the dingy halls of an ominous looking prison. He has no idea what he's done to find himself in such a place, but there he is all the same. After being held in isolation along with a fellow inmate named Butterfly (Portia Doubleday, the upcoming Carrie remake), he is eventually added to the gay and transgender wing. You see, the malicious and perverted Sgt. Johnson (D.B. Sweeney, Fire in the Sky) finds Raymond rather attractive, and with him locked up in his domain, he can wait until just the right time to...you know...strike.

While locked up in K-11, we meet its inhabitants: Mousey aka The Queen (Kate del Castilo), the head honcho who makes the rules; her bitch Ben (Jason Mewes, Clerks), who runs a mini drug operation; and Detroit (Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, The Dark Knight), an irreformable child molester, among many many other flamboyant characters. The prisoners of K-11 are colorful, to say the least, and though there is some drama from time to time, mostly these cellmates seem to get a long. But the arrival of Raymond has shaken the wing's establishment, both in front of and behind the locked cell doors.


K-11
's own marketing describes it as The Shawshank Redemption meets John Waters. That's a fairly accurate representation, especially when taking the former into consideration, as we have seen this kind of story before: Before Shawshank there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and before that, Cool Hand Luke. A new inmate shows up, unites other inmates thanks to his intelligence, non-conformity, and human spirit, and leaves everyone changed just from his existence. K-11 attempts the same thing; the problem is it's nowhere near the magnitude of those other films.

K-11 is, except for Visnjic's Raymond, extraordinarily well-acted. del Castillo as Mousey is scarily good. Apparently quite the heralded actress in her native Mexico, a quick glance at her filmography confirms I am not familiar with any of her past work. Because of this, having nothing previous to go on, I found her especially convincing. She seemed dangerous and intimidating, but also conflictingly beautiful. All except for the bulge beneath her tiny underwear. Alternately, Portia Doubleday's Butterfly seems simple-minded but good-hearted. Her and Raymond become fast friends, and he soon develops a paternal protection of her. But, like previously mentioned, Visnjic seems rather flat and unconvincing. When he's playing a muddled mess he does just fine, but otherwise it feels like anyone could have played the role. His character is also maddeningly inconsistent. He seems to alternate between being a drug-added sweating mess, desperate to get out of K-11 by any means necessary, to a smiling, just-fine inhabitant, taking delight in Butterfly's bubbly personality, or the prisoners' ...er...fashion show.


The most frustrating aspect to K-11 is that it's impulsively watchable. The interactions between all the characters are very good, and D.B. Sweeney is especially effective as the very slimy Sgt. Johnson. The interplay works; the everyday-life of such a place seems genuine and realistic, though at the same time surreal and foreign. The things that occur are oftentimes so crazy you almost want to believe they are real, because in all honesty, what the fuck do you or I know about the transgender prison populace? But the reason I chose the word "frustrating" is because when the movie's conclusion happens, and the film ends, your immediate question will be "so what?" If co-writer/director Jules Stewart wanted nothing more than to shed some light on such places in a docudrama fashion, then mission accomplished. But if there was supposed to be more to it - if Raymond Saxx was supposed to learn where his life went astray and become a better person for it - if his character was supposed to "grow" - it certainly wasn't earned. There was no epiphany. Whole scenes of inmate camaraderie or catharsis seem to be missing. And the film doesn't end so much as it stops happening, and it sadly makes the journey up to it a little irrelevant. 

The DVD comes with commentary by director Stewart and producer Tom Wright. It's an okay listen, but I'm surprised that Stewart didn't have more to say about her odd choice for a directorial debut. She points out a little trivia from time to time, like explaining that the color of jumpsuit K-11 inhabitants wear are purposely different from those of the general population, but we never get anything meaty or useful. The track starts off with energy, but soon devolves into "and this is what's happening now"-type observation which is audio commentary suicide.

K-11 was an interesting watch, and one I don't regret. I feel as if a curtain has been lifted on a world on which I never gave much thought - whether it exists or not - but it's a shame that this world wasn't utilized to its maximum potential. At the end of the day, K-11 feels like nothing more than a really compelling missed opportunity.

K-11 streets on DVD and Bluray on April 23. Pre-order the DVD here.