Saturday, June 24, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer / * (2006)

Life began as a cold and desolate void for Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born in a moment of passive biological routine on the floor of a fish market, his cries of uncertainty were a sound unknown to an emotionless mother, who previously birthed four other children that were all stillborn. Confusion in the moment lead\ passers-by to assume the worst of his strange arrival, and soon his poor mother was sentenced to hang after others mistakenly assumed she tried to kill him. Fate then reduced his purpose to mere existence – first at an orphanage where young boys attempted to smother him, and later at a Tannery where 16-hour work days were interlaced with physical abuse – and all indications suggested he would die out well before his time, another lowly statistic in the unforgiving shadow of French poverty. But destiny seemed to intervene just as fortune evaded him, offering talents so precious they could have, quite substantially, given him the power and prestige to command a generation of thinkers eager for sensation. It was just that pesky notion of murdering women that would louse up all those lofty agendas as the years rolled on.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant / *** (2017)

If H.R. Giger’s most famous creation has lingered as a symbol of interest in the minds of movie audiences over the last 40 years, it perhaps has less to do with its anatomical ambiguity and far more to do with the relationship it carries with a growing ensemble of dimwitted human bystanders. Think long and hard about those it has encountered and you begin to sense the irony. Here was a being who emerged from the shadows not because it was destined to, but because it lucked out with the misguided curiosities of those who chose to wander too close to investigate. And once it emerged in the full splendor of a dangerous chase, it became the target for which an upper tier of even more foolish sorts hoped to harvest its abilities for some vague military agenda. Only one among a plethora of screaming ignoramuses had the foresight to sense the impending catastrophe, and it was an instinct so precise that she became the sole survivor through several separate bouts with the alien – so convincing as such that when she selflessly took her own life for the endurance of mankind, they were dumb enough to resurrect her for more misguided encounters.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

31 / **1/2 (2016)

Horror films have so thoroughly grappled with the homicidal psyche that it’s little wonder they would come to celebrate murder as a sporting event. Rob Zombie’s “31,” molded in the image of the recent “Purge” series, supports that theory with the conviction of a bloodthirsty showman. That this is the same filmmaker who discovered the deviants of “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Lords of Salem” is hardly a surprise, especially to those who will be quick to spot their stylistic parallels, but a certain morbid humor lifted those endeavors into different spaces of reasoning. So is not always the case with this film, however, in which a host of carnival workers are kidnapped, imprisoned and sentenced to 12 hours of life-threatening obstacles as a series of psychotic killing machines are sent off to hunt them down. “The Purge” at least saw that premise from a relevant political subtext. As I watched Zombie’s latest, however, I was less convinced that he was dealing with powerful philosophies (much less a tongue-in-cheek awareness) and more apt to believe he was trapped on the hamster wheel of his own overwrought artistic values.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 / *** (2017)

There’s a moment early on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” when the camera loses sight of a fight between the heroes and a slimy villain, opting instead to focus on Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing energetically near a portable stereo just beyond the main action. Music plays an integral part of the tone of these films, but so does the direct humor of its characters – a gathering of colorful and offbeat men, women and creatures that are charged with the protection of life in a plethora of space-bound danger zones. For the audience, it’s almost customary to assume that the humorous details will win out over the doom of a big moment. But what about those of us who want to see more of the exchange in a conflict that will ultimately pave the way for the film’s story? Is little Groot’s distraction – amusing as it is – worth that sacrifice? However you feel about the shift will come down to what you expect out of the material. For all its innocence, that moment underscores the attitude of filmmakers who are content to let their flashy showmanship dictate the direction of their pictures, usually without the benefit of a dynamic plot to underline the whimsy. The first “Guardians” film excelled at accomplishing both, make no mistake, but now we must deal with this, a sequel that has charm and uproarious laughs but doesn’t seem at all interested in doing much else with the personalities it assembles.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Mist / *1/2 (2007)

Movies anchored in deep mysteries depend just as much on their endings as they do a gradual momentum of tension, otherwise cynical audiences begin to question the motives of their filmmakers. Getting caught up in the thrill of a chase or the grind of an ambiguous device comes with a certain amount of excitement, certainly, but rarely does one walk away satisfied if it is all used to a point that undermines the experience of jumping during the key moments. Something, perhaps, about an inconclusive explanation (or worse yet, a ridiculous one) undercuts the meaning of having a good time, even for something as innocent as a Saturday popcorn matinee. Take Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” as a prime example. Here is a film pitched at a median aesthetic, made with competence and skill, and played by actors who seem to be far above the roster normally attracted by such stories. By all measures we should be eating an opportunity like this up with great enthusiasm. But the last 30 minutes play like a dismissive ambush, leading to a final scene so utterly misguided that I wanted to hurl obscenities at the screen.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"The Exorcist" Revisited


“The movie is one of the greatest and most hypnotic ever made, a work of sheer genius from the first frame until the last.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “The Exorcist”

So well-known and influential are the underlying devices of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” that few among modern filmgoers now remember the power of their source. Perhaps the most notorious of all horror films, it was the product of a time still concealed in the facade of restraint when it came to visiting the devious corners of a filmmaker’s mind. Shock was always possible – as had been most apparent by Hitchock’s “Psycho,” or Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left” – but rarely did it stick so persistently in the mind, invariably undermining one’s sense of individual control. We could rationalize how to get away from a crazy killer or how to avoid a menacing threat lurking around the corner, but how did one evade being possessed by a demonic entity? What sense of recovery would have been palpable? Some argue that implication can singlehandedly be credited with changing the trajectory of the entirety of the genre, which by that point had been dominated by homicidal minds or ambitious monsters in lurid fantasy. Here was a movie about real people, real situations and real considerations of faith, in which an innocent teenage girl became the unknowing victim of spiritual violence that stretched beyond existing moral implications. Few among those early viewers can say they walked away from the picture unchanged by the experience, and those that claim otherwise may not be the sorts you prefer to keep company with.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

It Follows / *** (2014)

Two of the most elusive lost values of horror movies are mood and social commentary, a detail that rises to prominence in the very fascinating “It Follows.” They both converge spectacularly in a climax that most other films would find dreary or out of place, but for the framework of David Robert Mitchell’s endeavor fit comfortably among a plethora of unorthodox sensations. To see them is to sense the filmmaker removing himself entirely from the populist agenda of his genre; what exists on the screen is not a straightforward scarefest or even an experiment in teenage endurance, but a silent meditation on the horrors they impose on themselves. These are characters seemingly so alienated by the mainstream way that they only have their isolation to comfort them. But that also makes them fertile hosts for a wide variety of horrific possibilities – legitimate or self-imposed, who knows? – and when one such girl runs away to the beach in an early scene before being brutally murdered by an unseen predator, it’s not what she sees or what happens to her that anchors the audience’s engagement – it’s the fact she is aware at all of what is coming that rattles all perceptions.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Last Circus / 1/2* (2010)

“The Last Circus” begins with a haughty conceit, an insinuation of profound moral challenges in which our enthusiasm is incited by striking images of a cheerful circus and the soldiers of political revolution converging in the shadows. The year is 1937: war-torn Spain faces uncertainty in a violent transition of power, and the threats of rebels seem to inspire desperation in the minds of fighters, forcing them to turn to the likes of mere entertainers for numbers among their crumbling ranks. “Don’t take off your makeup,” a general says to a newly drafted clown. “You will scare them more that way.” And so he does, roaring through a mess of violence and chaos carrying only a machete, all while a sadistic grin anchors the horror of the moment. The slaughter is swift and merciless, and inspires the disquieting respect of the opposition. When he is captured after the massacre, they don’t even bother with an outright execution – what would be the relevance? And of course that would undermine the more direct focus of the film: a small child lurking in the dark who is destined to replicate the clown (his father) in equal measures of cynicism. When the two share a moment after the battle is waged, in fact, the advice he receives goes to the core of more promising cinematic visions: “Become a sad clown. Ease your pain with revenge.” Forty years later, that child instead becomes the adult plaything of filmmakers who are bankrupt of basic tonal conviction.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

House of the Dead / zero stars (2003)

The utterly dreadful “House of the Dead” wages war against the enthusiasm of moviegoers by asking a dangerous key question: can filmmakers be as stupid and irresponsible as the characters they exploit? Five minutes into the picture and I felt my inner child weeping for the future of the industry. That’s not to say this is an endeavor made with dubious intentions; on the contrary, I’m positive everyone involved legitimately thought they were participating in something amusing, at least on a professional level. But that makes their associations all the more damning when one contemplates them in the context of the final result, a film so inept that one can only gaze on it with relentless confusion. What possessed the director, Uwe Boll, to orchestrate his maddening opus with the hands of a clueless lunatic? What nerve did these writers (if you dare call them that) have in pitching a screenplay that most college students would be embarrassed to submit as a first draft assignment? And what of the designers of the game it is based on, who will no doubt look on at these images and find themselves inflamed with outrage that their source will now forever be disparaged by this stain of an incompetent adaptation?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Cinema Soul

Life as I know it began in the fuzz of an old television screen. Through it I gazed into what felt like projections of dreams, images frozen in a procedure of motion that meant we were free to imagine, to wonder, to long for adventures outside of the monotonous grind. Sometimes those realizations came out of old cartoons, other times sitcoms, and other times old Atari video game cartridges. But movies were something more. They seemed to withstand the erosion of time, of earthly cruelties meant to wither and decay all that was necessary to inform our futures.

I sensed this the first time I saw “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the most important live action film of my youth. For me it was as current as the visual of my schoolmates running across the playground, and made more profound by the belief that those peers could sprout wings and take off midflight if they felt inclined. That, I believe, is one of the primary strengths of a timeless picture: if its images could reach you in a way that blurs the lines between worlds, then they slip past the notion of mere escapism and become extensions of personal experiences. For what seemed like years after I would often reflect on Dorothy’s adventures – in film and in book – and how my own would seem had that cyclone come and carried me away instead. And Oz, as whimsical as other worlds come, felt like the hidden fortress of a backyard daydream that could become tangible with just the right squint of a young eye.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hell or High Water / **** (2016)

The opening scenes of “Hell or High Water” establish the broader intentions of this story: a failed system against its most hardened victims. The latter are a pair of brothers, aged beyond physical measures, forced into personal decisions that reflect a cynicism birthed by grief and poverty. They arrive at a local bank in the heart of small-town Texas wearing ski masks and holding pistols, but undertake a robbery of unorthodox specifics: they will only steal small bills, allowing them avoid the obligatory tracing as they repeat the dangerous routine over a series of unsuspecting stops. As they progress, so do the confrontations; nervous sorts quickly become replaced by more audacious observers, leading to shoot-outs that acquire the attention of the Texas Rangers division. What are they doing this for? What is their destination? The sarcastic but perceptive Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) has a good grasp on the situation but not much of an understanding on motive – no doubt because in the barren isolation of the Texas desert, motives become incidental to the authorities that are after them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Manchester by the Sea / ***1/2 (2016)

A good hour of somber exposition passes before the most important emotional current reveals itself in “Manchester by the Sea,” invariably setting us up for a stampede of dramatic traumas. Until those events of the past are unearthed, our perceptions are measured by fascination in the more literal realities, where characters seem to pass through spaces in a removed context of their existence. This knowledge is reflected further by the strange, almost distant relationship the camera shares with its locales. Nearly every shot of the film is staged in static fashion, usually with the subjects standing a few paces away or on the edges of the frames. The interiors of houses, hallways and public settings are all muted and sterile, as if to imply others only use them to house the sleepwalking vessels they use as bodies. And then a key memory drops us into the deeper crevices of this story, and suddenly we are jarred awake from the more outlying observations. What we are experiencing in those moments is not an attack on the senses or even a point of clever manipulation, but a testament to the power of deeply rooted stories of ordinary people. These are characters we would scarcely keep company with beyond a few fleeting moments of intrigue in the real world, but what they have gone through behind closed doors is a pain too unfathomable to turn away from. Their struggle becomes a test of questioning one’s own personal endurance: on the long road of paralyzing realities, do you ever regain consciousness from the waking nightmare of grief?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2016)

Prior to a chance viewing of the new documentary “Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary,” it had escaped my notice that any sort of significant fanbase existed for Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of the famous Stephen King novel, about a burial ground that curses its victims to evil undeath. Even as a teenager, easily amused by the audacious antics of the most leaden horror films, here was a movie that had no sort of power or prominence; it seemed to lumber around on screen much like many of its awakened monsters, half-dead and lacking a conclusive goal beyond bleak undertones and ordinary bloodshed. But that experience of a viewing, I freely admit, had come during an onset of more exploitative genre values, when I was less interested in the straightforward pitches. Was I simply missing something that others were freely savoring? The implication of a revisit stirred deeply as I observed the case being mounted of its great power over a plethora of devoted followers, many of whom turn out to pitch their product in ways that ought to make enthusiastic Hollywood promoters envious. Here is a living document about people who treasure this lost little film so deeply that they never once reference the poor reception that came after, which is suggestive of one of two prospects: either the early audiences were too out of touch to comprehend its value, or those who adore King’s menacing yarn are doing so out of a devotion that makes them oblivious to cinema’s conventional measurements.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Great Wall / * (2017)

“The Great Wall” adopts a philosophy that all famous wonders must be rooted in the legend of absurdist yarns, and that their endurance apparently comes at the expense of sacrifices too great for the respect of modern civilization. Of course, no one involved contemplates the scientific practicality of that suggestion, but no wonder – movies of this vain are far more devoted to their underlying cynicism than they are focused on creating believable worlds, even in the context of their rather elastic suggestions. But for the sake of getting through a basic plot description, let us suspend, for a brief minute, the disbelief that comes when we contemplate this ridiculous premise. Thousands of years ago, China’s great wall was constructed as a barrier to keep enemies away from the empire they hoped to dismantle, but the greatest of those threats was not human at all: it was a horde of ravenous beasts resembling alligators on stilts, who moved with ferocious speed, attacked with evolving precision and seemed to feed from the psychic energy of a queen who, I guess, desired to conquer all mankind in some karma-ridden crusade. The human characters regard this war with military precision and unsmiling focus (as they should), but it never dawns on anyone involved that maybe, just maybe, a future that must be saved from the dangers of an alien reptile onslaught may not be a future worth facing in the first place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vicki Cristina Barcelona / ***1/2 (2008)

Romantic interests are rarely as simple as an act of affection or a passionate gesture, though few of the more na├»ve movie fantasies freely dissent from that assumption. To their directors, it’s easier for a story to coddle the complexities into a neat package of hopes and desires rather than descend into their paralyzing mysteries, though that may be of a great disservice; once we become wise to the sensations we grow to resent the idea of unrealistic happy endings. On the other hand, an exhausting discussion about contradictions can lead less experienced sorts astray from taking risks, because we are not easily programmed to tolerate a constant barrage of mistakes and arguments, especially if they may lead to damaged connections. In some strange way, both perspectives are dealt with at arm’s length by the characters at the forefront of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” which tells of two female friends vacationing in the Spanish countryside who walk into the lives of people who may expand (or even tarnish) their views of human relationships. Woody Allen is hardly foreign to the concept of these kinds of spirited discussions, of course, but rarely has he taken them this far, or been so perceptive about the discoveries he makes in the company of his focused actors.