Friday, November 10, 2017

Shame / **** (2011)

We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.

When the observation is made by his sister late in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Brandon’s pride restricts him from reflecting on their relevance. Perhaps that’s because he is dealing with a sibling whose own caustic tendencies are far more obvious, displacing the necessity to contemplate his own. Perhaps he has no mirror to gauge a comparison. Maybe he lacks an understanding of them. Or maybe, just maybe, he has descended so deeply into his own precarious indulgences that he can’t make the distinction between self-respect and personal destruction, especially when it comes to a thinly realized addiction like sex. Then the point is further layered by the implication of the statement: what, indeed, was the catalyst in these two lives that allowed them to become lapsed versions of themselves? Should we be allowed to know, or would that only be superfluous? It is somewhere in this narrow emotional passage where this sad and powerful little film finds its devastating center, in a story where getting off is not so much a physical pleasure as it is an escape from a life that is otherwise directionless and isolated.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Belko Experiment / *1/2 (2016)

I may be going out on a limb when I suggest that “The Belko Experiment” has been manufactured by motivated filmmakers. Clearly molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series – where the scares are brought on by social and political unrests – here is a film that so agonizes over the effort to marry its violent nature with discussion-worthy contexts that there is little reason to contemplate skepticism. Someone high up, be it Greg McLean (the director) or James Gunn (the writer), was tapping into the most pointed trend of the times. But if I was paying attention to, say, a random soliloquy in one of the great Shakespeare tragedies, does that also mean I’m a fluent practitioner of the language? Can I turn around and recite the famous words of Hamlet while understanding the metaphorical nuance behind the conviction? A horror movie may not be in the same league as Shakespeare, of course, but there’s just about as much divide between those comparisons as there is between the concept of this movie and reality of those it imitates. A greater genre endeavor about the political ramifications of its terror will drive the point down to the guts of an issue, leaving one to contemplate the argument as their senses recover from an assault. What goes on in the frames of this film plays like an understanding of procedure but nothing of soul.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

It Comes at Night / ***1/2 (2017)

All that stands between them and the unknown is a red door. It is the sole entry point to a house isolated in in the wilderness, presided over by a man obligated to protect his family with obsessive conviction. What he – and therefore the others – fear beyond the boarded windows is referenced in whispers but never certainties, creating ambiguity when the narrative restricts their movements to a small space beyond the danger. Then, just as they lay to rest their grandfather after he contracts what appears to be a contagious disease, a stranger emerges in the darkness. Who is he? What is his agenda? How did he find their home, so far off the beaten path? A stand-off ensues, leading to an unnerving test that might reveal a critical detail – namely whether he, too, is afflicted with the sickness they dread. “It Comes at Night,” one of the more profound of recent horror films, contemplates a conclusion only out of necessity; it is about how fears blind us to the truth, the lengths we go to protect those we love and how compassion becomes lost when the horrors of a silent world lead us astray from the value of human grace.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Irreversible / No Star Rating (2002)

Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” breathes the misery of its characters with the relentlessness of a voyeuristic conviction, invariably setting the audience up for a rather complex moral test: can you defend any film, artistic or not, that extends no restraint in the violence imposed on the living? Fifteen years after it pierced the membrane of our comforts, we remain distant from the possibility of consensus. Not one to shy away from the more volatile experiments of the modern cinema, I first shared in that journey with a handful of film enthusiasts who, too, could not initially process what they had seen. But in those early days of the movie’s notoriety I was also rattled by another noteworthy detail: a strange, throbbing murmur of a synth that loops over the critical second scene, during which a man’s skull is destroyed with a fire extinguisher. Is he the depraved individual responsible for the rape of another earlier that night? Is his victim now in a coma because of his deplorable actions? Do the responses of her friend and lover become necessary as vigilante impulses? Somehow my attempt to reason with the material was blurred further by this single chord of noise underlining the violence; it has a grizzly, chilling effect on the moment that haunts me even now, long after the senses have reconciled the horror and my mind searches for a thesis.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Sleepaway Camp / *1/2 (1983)

Of a plethora of tenacious relics that persist with some level of notoriety in the dead teenager formula, few have been as puzzling (or as maddening) as Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp.” Cut from the same blood-soaked cloth that gave birth to the “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” franchises, here was a picture heralded in the margins of filmgoing as an audacious blend of macabre visuals and social underpinnings, inevitably casting it in a light that far exceeded the expectations of its class. Others were content to regard it as harmless (if violent) fun, and those sorts might have been the first to develop long-term hindsight; better films would eventually come along to inform their palettes and diminish the lesser pleasures. But like an open wound with a relentless sting we are forced to consider this thing in the sweep of horror film history even now, despite that far more ambitious movies have drifted deeply into the annals of cinematic myth and legend. Its strange endurance, at best, emphasizes the dichotomous standards of the populists, who usually sneer in protest at a standard that freely robs the ideas of the masters while displacing their tonal conviction.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Annabelle / ** (2014)

One of the most exhausted devices of supernatural horror is a creepy-looking doll with murderous tendencies wreaking havoc on its owners. Long before Chucky there was a homicidal clown in “Poltergeist,” and before that was Talking Tina, one of the prominent menaces of “The Twilight Zone” – their commonality was that the victims always were oblivious to dangers until far too late, perhaps because no one involved could really believe a small toy had the capability of causing great harm to others. That is the first mistake of the characters in “Annabelle,” who are given enough warning signs to facilitate the dread: the emphasized arrival of said doll, its strange facial expression, an ambush by satanic cultists who die with it in their possession (one of them bleeds into the doll’s eyes), creepy noises from around corners, and rocking chairs that come alive by themselves even when no one is nearby. Then there is a moment where the husband, granting suspicion to his paranoid wife, throws the doll away in a garbage can. Shouldn’t it amount to something startling, then, when it then appears packed away in a box, as if no such decision transpired? If there were a persistent sentiment amongst the demonic spirits that inhabit them, it’s that you always have a chance to endure if you find yourself in the home of flyweight suburbanites with only a dozen functioning brain cells between them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

It / ***1/2 (2017)

At some point an adult ceases going to horror movies to be scared and simply accepts the ride as a gesture of showmanship. Our hope for the elaborate psychological exercise is replaced by a voyeurism for technical skill, and what once caused an emotional recoil becomes a sensational exhibit kept at arm’s length, however unconsciously. Those are not necessarily pessimistic observations about films themselves, but more about the desensitized nature of an aged mind; the attitude reflects a hardening of the soul brought on by greater horrors in the real world, where they undermine the more elaborate gimmicks of filmmakers seeking to penetrate the core of individual resistance. Consider this insight thoroughly when it comes to “It,” the new film adaptation Stephen King’s famous novel, and you may be surprised to discover a contradiction to that sentiment. Certainly our attendance may be dictated more by the neurosis of current horror trends than by mere nostalgia, but what occurs here is in the milieu of a long-forgotten attitude – namely, the idea that a menacing force lurking plausibly in the shadows can cause great harm to those ill-equipped to confront it. This is a film in complete isolation of the modern standard, passing beyond the conventions of aesthetic and fashion to exploit what is left of our deepest nightmares.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Black Dahlia / 1/2* (2006)

In the murky fringes of old Hollywood glamour are the faint whispers of the forgotten and exploited, of ambitious young faces who came to find their calling amongst a generation of would-be entertainers and instead discovered a world designed to devour them. Though some lived to tell the sad tales of their experiences, others were less fortunate (although their names were usually buried in the annals of historical footnotes, a consequence of knowing more than they could keep to themselves). The hardest of pills to swallow was perhaps necessary to endure: the fact that heads of studios and their most prestigious stars rubbed elbows with dangerous mobsters, whose money influenced as many of the early industry trends as the expectations of eager moviegoers. And somewhere in the chasm created by the cognizant and the naïve is the mysterious legend of the Black Dahlia, a woman whose enigmatic presence looms like a painful reminder of the cruelty of the hills, where big dreams often suffered the irony of nightmarish deceit.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker / * (2017)

“Fifty Shades Darker” descends thoughtlessly into a web of intrigue spun with blender-like accuracy, primarily to move its characters, yet again, from one orgasm to the next with minimal interruption. More perceptive romances, even the more vulgar ones, might at least see this as a ploy to harness some level of plausible dramatic tension, however thin. But for the people behind the latest in a growing fad of seductive literary cheese aimed at the lower end of the payoff pool, it plays like a clothesline for the writers to hang their one-note fetishes on, concealing them from the greater realities of chemistry and foreplay. Is this what the concept of movie eroticism has come to? Have we finally abandoned the almost cheerful adolescence of human behavior and turned it into a cold scheme to reach climax? Centering on four primary catalysts to frame the impending affairs of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the minds behind this highly-anticipated follow-up prove, if nothing else, that a lack of understanding in conflict resolution means squat when all one shows up for is the lust. After watching it I imagined Catherine Deneuve sobbing quietly in a dark room for the future of adult fantasy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Basic Instinct 2 / * (2006)

Sharon Stone so persistently owns what she does on screen in “Basic Instinct 2” that one is likely to find her conviction admirable, even if she is basically a PR agent selling a defective product with a straight face. Far lesser sorts might have inspired a sympathetic gesture, but this is a woman in no need of such pity – with every wince of her stern gaze and gurgle of a monologue she sneers confidently back at the camera, as if fully aware of the punchline before her writers have formulated the joke. In some regards that allows many of her more sub-par pictures to rise above their mediocrity, if for nothing more than for the assuredness of her presence. But that also means we must test ourselves with the limits of witless screenplays and be willing to ask: how far is too far when descending into such lopsided mind games? Here is a film in which all those involved, even the ones who may be ambivalent, are contracted to enslave us in the grip of patronizing hogwash.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Alone in the Dark / zero stars (2005)

I should be issuing warnings to those who may encounter “Alone in the Dark” but instead find my words guided by a greater urge: to maul the film in the same vicious, unfiltered manner that it contaminates the movie screen. Here is an endeavor (if you dare call it one) so utterly bereft of the simplest morsels of intelligence that it inspires a wrath within that I have rarely recognized, leaving me in an elusive predicament – how do you savage something this pathetic, this completely unbothered by the basic concept of passable composition? Those who stood behind the camera weren’t just making a lazy movie, they were allowing themselves to undermine the basic desire of going to the theater. Usually hidden behind all the pomp and circumstance of something superfluous is a motive that at least intends someone to have a good time, and we can cut some bad movies slack when we understand (and accept) those aims. But not a soul involved here is capable of passive intentions, much less a rational thought. Their purpose is to deliberately rob innocent filmgoers of precious time, without anything to show for it beyond regret and empty wallets.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"Last House on the Left" Revisited


In some underhanded way a horror film has the capacity to contemplate one’s destructive tendencies just as it does to abuse and torment the souls of the innocent. More perceptive directors discover those possibilities not by holding out optimism in bleak scenarios, but usually by looking through the cracked mirror of passive acceptance. That is the sort of wisdom that informs many of the early Wes Craven pictures, several of which were made with a distinction that raises them above the more sensationalized Hollywood gorefests of later times (even his own). To most they possess the foresight to see a purpose beyond the astonishing violence, and to regard them is to understand that there are some terrible side-roads one must walk before the fates can restore light to an obscured path. But what is one to make of “Last House on the Left,” his nihilistic debut, which by all indications ought to have been one of those endeavors forever lost in the wastes of oblivion? Like a painful secret it persists achingly through the minds of those who discover it, often to a point of mystification; decidedly outside of conventional standards and made quickly and cheaply in a span of weeks, little was there to announce it as anything other than just another trenchant exercise in the murderous tendencies of the disturbed. And somehow that was far more than enough.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Piranha 3DD / 1/2* (2012)

“Piranha 3DD” is a textbook case of low-aimers confusing camp with cornball excess, in which an audience expecting silly thrills is subjected to nonsensical ramblings that bear no weight towards humor or amusement. If only there was some sense of irony to underline that prospect, but no such luck; those standing behind the camera are looking on here with deadpan conviction, perfectly content in the realization that they are in this, more or less, for financial benefit. I despise the very idea of that motive – it is an abuse of the medium, a counter-culture impulse in the guise of innocent entertainment at a time when the Hollywood machine needs less cattle and more instigators. We could at least have a good time, however disposable, at a film that ebbs low if it aims there, or at least contains some sample of wry awareness. Think of “Snakes on a Plane” as an example. But a movie this shameless, this grotesque in its assessment, only permeates the desperation of the mindless grab. Earlier incarnations of the “Piranha” franchise – including a remake that precedes this one – knew they were about the stupid possibilities of the genre and enjoyed reveling in the exercise. Here is a follow-up that could not be any more clueless if it had been conceived in a void.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christine / ***1/2 (2016)

The key observer in “Christine” is not the title character but her perceptive colleague, a woman named Jean whose distance would never be great enough to remain neutral from impending emotional traumas. She wanders passively in and out of newsroom conferences, sometimes engaged, sometimes quietly, but almost always with some facet of concern; among her peers is a female news anchor whose ambition is undermined by a crippling sense of self-doubt, and few others see the warning signs. Jean has known this instinctively since the early scenes, though there are few words exchanged that call attention to those realities. So paralyzing is her subject’s insecurity, in fact, that when there is an attempt to offer support, her kindness goes entirely unnoticed. But whether these details really did occur in the brief life of Christine Chubbuck is not so important as the conviction that puts them there. This is a movie about the prison that is depression, as experienced in lives removed from an awareness that might have changed an unspeakable outcome. And at the end of it all stands a kind young woman whose greatest crime was offering a gentle gesture when no others would, forever cursing her to the shadows of an eyewitness’ pain.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Devil Inside / * (2012)

What an ordeal it must be when you’re among the ill-fated bystanders of a handheld horror film. As targets of influences that disobey the most fundamental laws of survival, they slog their way through a plot’s devious conventions with little time to react against the stampede of conundrums they encounter, as if their suffering is merely at the service of confusion. That’s because their hands possess cameras that facilitate the need for wall-to-wall uncertainty, most of which is driven by the conceit of filmmakers intoxicated by the endlessness of a scenario rather than the choreography of them. In most normal films we can at least expect the potential victims – however deep or shallow – to experience some reprieve from the terror long enough to deliberate their fates, or at least react in a way that opens narrow possibilities of endurance. But those endeavors of the “found footage” genre have usually abandoned those possibilities in favor of visual nihilism, no doubt because their characters are predestined to die out rapidly in a universe where the only survivor needs to be the lens of a cameraman.