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.

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.