Sunday, October 30, 2016

These Are the Capsule Reviews of October

One of these is positive!

Angst (d. Gerard Kargl) - I learned of this Austrian nightmare only recently (that it doesn't find a spot even in the updated edition of Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies seems significant in some way), but I can say that it is the film I was told it was. Somewhat put off by the fact that this is evidently Gaspar Noe's favorite film, Noe being a filmmaker I do not admire, it was therefore interesting that I could not only see where the Argentinian filmmaker has repeatedly drawn inspiration, and where Kargl has beat him at the game Noe's been trying to play for years now.

But enough about Noe. And what else to say about Angst? It's not a plot-heavy film. Loosely based on the murders committed by serial killer Werner Kniesek, Angst tells the story, in close to real time, of a convicted killer (Erwin Leder) who, upon being released from prison, immediately goes searching for his next victim. After an aborted attempt on a female cab driver, the killer flees into the woods. He eventually finds a house, which draws him not necessarily because it implies human inhabitants for him to kill, but because it at first seems deserted, and may be abandoned, and may be his new home, or dungeon. But it is inhabited: by an elderly woman, her paraplegic, mentally handicapped son, and her daughter. They come home while the killer is there.

Angst is, as you might imagine, a very difficult film to watch, but it isn't a 90-minute violent assault as I'd feared it would be. The violence is concentrated within maybe about 20 minutes (long enough, I can hear you protest) and the rest is made up of the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, that violence. Otherwise, Kargl plugs us directly into the killer's head. Though not a silent film, the vast majority of the spoken words heard in Angst are the killer's narration, which is persistent, and which sometimes overlays the slaughter. He tells us about his life, his childhood, and his desire to kill others. Another way Kargl makes us live in the killer's brain is by, whenever the killer is running, or overwhelmed by the fact that he lives in this world, hooking a device to Leder's body on which the camera is attached so that effectively the camera is not only swiveling around Leder, but up and down his body so that I, at least, wondered how it worked. This did not have the effect of booting me from the film, but rather left me feeling some of the disorientation the Leder's killer is meant to feel. Which, further, is not meant to imply that Angst is making excuses for serial killers, or pitying those who carry out such acts. The three murders in the film are feverish (the one on which I believe the film's reputation as a work of shock cinema rests feels endless) and could only have been carried out by someone whose head feels like this.

Nerve (d. Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman) - Oh, this fucking thing. Embraced by many as a film that is better, and more fun, than you'd imagine, this 2016 film by the two dinks behind the fraudulent documentary Catfish, is pretty infuriating. I will go so far as to tempt the wrath of a certain corner of the internet by saying that the film's roots as a young adult novel are betrayed by the fact that Nerve the film is thoroughly chickenshit.

For a while, though, it's more fun than you'd think! Starring the very well-cast Emma Roberts and Dave Franco as two participants in the titular social media game, which requires its participants to fulfill a series of increasingly dangerous dares in order to gather online followers leading to some sort of championship round, two participants, I say again, who stumble across each other in New York City while just getting started on the game. Franco's Ian, it is suggested, has done this before ("Nerve" is an annual game), whereas Roberts's Vee has definitely not, she being kind of a "square" who is looking for "adventure" and "life" that might match that which is enjoyed by her fame-hungry friend and fellow "Nerve"-participant Sydney (Emily Meade). So anyway, you get the idea, and the film is fun for a while, not only because Roberts and Franco are both so appealing, but also because Nerve continues to behave as though it will become even more fun, and more interesting.

Eventually, however, the deep stupidity of the film begins to reveal itself. For example, throughout Nerve, the game is described as something deeply secretive, part of the "dark web" that only teens know about, and that no one who knows about the game should ever say anything about it to any authority figures. But then the climax takes place in a wildly crowded, neon-lit ancient stadium located in....what, Brooklyn? This is simply one example of Nerve telling the audience one thing is true and important while playing out in the opposite way. Not purposely, to achieve something or other, but because it doesn't really want to be the thing it's pretending to be. See also the fact that none of the dares ever challenge the morals of the contestants; at least not our heroes. At one point it looks like they'll have to commit theft in order to advance in the game, but in fact they don't have to. They're called upon to be reckless, but never to go against their own character. For all its nefarious shadow-world window-dressing, all Nerve is really saying is "You're fine, and everything is fine."

Lights Out (d. David F. Sandberg) - Oh, this fucking thing. In 2013, a short horror film called Lights Out was released online that inexplicably excited and terrified lots of people. Lasting only a few minutes (not the problem), it relies on one good idea that can only work once, but requires it to work several times in a row. That idea being, someone in their own home turns off a light in the hallway. In the shadows left behind is a frightening silhouette of someone or something that hadn't been there when the lights were on. Flip the lights back on? It's gone. Turn the lights off again? Now it's closer. Those actions as I've just described make sense to me. Someone flipping that light off and on so that the audience can watch the ghostly figure advance four or five times is just stupid, but that was the short film Lights Out (by the way, the upshot of the thing was that the scary thing had a scary face).

How might one stretch this into a feature-length film? Well. Because the short only had one idea (in fairness, films that short only have room for one), director David F. Sandberg realized that the way to step up to the plate for his feature debut was to add a whole other idea, that idea being that the ghost-thing from the short used to be a girl who was allergic to sunlight. There's little else here. The film stars Teresa Palmer as Rebecca, a troubled young woman whose young brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) still lives with their mother (Maria Bello, the best thing about the film), even though she, the mother, seems mentally unstable given her life-long belief in a terrifying shadow presence she calls "Diana." Rebecca has never believed in Diana, though Martin sees her too, and then one day Rebecca sees her. So then Rebecca's like "Well okay, let me see if I can dig up any evidence that this 'Diana' person ever even existed.'" Within about six minutes of searching her childhood home, Rebecca finds enough written, audio, and visual evidence to explain the whole thing. After that, it's just a matter of running out the clock.

By the way, the film opens with Martin's dad (Rebecca's step-dad) being killed by Diana. This sequence lays out the entire visual architecture of the film's horror sequences. If you've watched the first ten minutes of this movie (or, indeed, its earlier, much shorter version), you will not be surprised by anything after that. And like It Follows, Lights Out is eager to establish its rules but is less eager to follow them, so that one early scare moment requires a light source that should mean that Diana is invisible. Oh well! You can put only so much thought into your debut feature.

There's one really eerie moment in the film. I thought it was a fairly impressive idea that relied on the audience to put two-and-two together. I'm not sure how it wound up in the final cut.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Further Capsule Reviews of October

I know that last week I said I was going to write about two other films a day or two after my post about Grizzly and The Beast in the Cellar. Clearly I never did that. Those two films were Paul Feig's Ghostbusters and Christopher Guest's Mascots. All I can tell you is, I simply didn't have it in me to write about two comedies. That's hard to do. For the record, I didn't much like Ghostbusters, and I particularly didn't understand why the film chose to treat the belief in ghosts as empowering, and I really, really enjoyed Mascots, and I don't know why I'm in the minority on this. I've read some people try to explain why Mascots is bad. I remain unconvinced.

In a Valley of Violence (d. Ti West) - The first Ti West film I saw, 2009's The House of the Devil, I rather liked. I think if I watched it again today, I'd still like it (terrific Tom Noonan performances go a long way with me). It's been all downhill since then, however. I should have known, since The House of the Devil is an "80s throwback" kind of horror film, which, saints preserve us and so on. But West's much-loved follow-up, The Innkeepers, struck me as an exercise in giving the audience precisely what they expected to get, but just holding the camera on those things a lot longer than the norm, and then in 2013 he released The Sacrament, a fictionalized re-telling of the Jonestown massacre that does literally nothing inventive with it. The idea behind that film seems to have been "What if Jonestown was made up?" That The Sacrament is a found-footage film perhaps goes without saying.

Now West has "shaken" "things" "up" by making a Western. A revenge film starring Ethan Hawke as a mysterious stranger whose unwillingness to bow down to the bullies (James Ransone, Larry Fessenden, Toby Huss, and Tommy Nohilly) of a dying town leads to them leaving him for dead after witnessing the brutal killing of his dog, In a Valley of Violence has the fucking gall to knowingly wink (and may the saints preserve us from knowing winks, too) at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in its stylized opening credits. Which is bad enough, but the bigger problem is that West isn't even nodding at Sergio Leone -- he's nodding at Quentin Tarantino. Had Tarantino never made Django Unchained (I'm going to assume the wheels were already turning on West's film when The Hateful Eight came out), I believe In a Valley of Violence wouldn't exist. Add to all this the fact that for about the first half, this film is about as inauthentic, and as free of style, or even personality, as any Western I've ever seen in my goddamn life, and you can imagine how much blood was coming out of my ears by the hour mark. When Hawke, on his horse and with his dog, rides into the town where everything happens, he's moving his horse at a walk, all the better to cut from him looking around to shots of townsfolk sliding by as the horse progresses. This is the most beat-to-death shot in the genre, and West could not give a fuck. Plus the town is supposedly dying, but the paint looks pretty fresh, the wood pretty sturdy, and the only evidence that it's a dying town is that the budget for extras on this project had an obvious ceiling.

However, and call me a sucker (I am), bloody revenge motivated by the killing of a pet dog is going to be hard for me to not get behind, and I got behind it here (it didn't hurt that unlike in John Wick, which I liked, where the killing of the dog is sort of a metaphorical thing that must be avenged because Wick is mourning his dead wife, here the dog is important because she was a good dog). And quite honestly, the film does pick up. It becomes good for a little while. When Hawke dispatches his first victim, there is genuine savagery in the violence, and in Hawke's performance. Also, John Travolta plays the town marshal (and father of Ransone's character, who is the primary villain), and at this point his role expands. And Travolta, quite frankly, is really good here, playing the conflicted pseudo-villain (Toby Huss does that too, and is also good, but he doesn't have anywhere near the material or screentime to work with that Travolta has) who, finally, just wants peace.

But West fucks it up again. In addition to West including, in a film set in the 19th Century, dialogue like "Are you seriously bringing that up right now?", the final stretch of violence is both moronic and clumsy (at one crucial moment, West seems to have no idea where Hawke is aiming his gun) and witheringly ordinary. And the "witheringly ordinary" part is the last part. Why the fuck would you end your revenge story like that?? With that same action scene (a term I use for the sake of expediency) construction that at this point is nothing but condescending to the audience, at best. It's proof to me that West doesn't really care about what he's doing. If he has to think it up himself, if he can't simply lift it from somewhere else, it's probably not worth doing. Which is probably fair enough.

Cop Car (d. Jon Watts) - Not long before I began writing this brief review of a 2015 thriller that no one has any time for, I was shocked, even appalled, to learn that its director, Jon Watts, had previously not only directed, but even co-wrote, one of the worst films I've seen in the last two years or so. That film is Clown, a horror picture that is absolute trash, from stem to stern. This fact does slightly temper, or threaten to temper, my reasonable, grounded enthusiasm of Cop Car.

Yet reasonably and groundedly enthusiastic about Cop Car I shall remain. Before seeing it for myself, I kept hearing that it was "fine", it was just a a thriller that did thriller things, and it was honestly fine, you guys. No one seemed to want to give it any credit for being what these reactions seemed to be covertly saying it was: an effective thriller. Which, and I can say this because I watched it, it is. Cop Car is a well-shot, well-acted, modest little film about two kids (Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) out walking in the woods who find a police car, just sitting there, with keys inside. So they go for a joyride. That car is pretty important, for reasons that shall become clear, to a dishonest cop (Kevin Bacon) who then begins hunting the kids.

There's lots in this film that is goofy, or convenient. For example, while joy-riding, the kids are apparently blowing through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, because there's no one else on the road. Until Camryn Manheim, the only other driver in the world, spots them, and so she becomes an Element of Suspense. Which is fine, but by including no one else on the road, ever, she becomes a Script Thing, not a person. On the other hand, Jon Watts has a nice eye for childish behavior -- their idiot handling of the guns they find, their terror and inability to figure out how to extract themselves from the locked back-set of a police car. There are a few shots when Watts seems to want the kids to look cool, but ultimately he seems to view childhood confidence as, in hindsight, completely absurd.

It's a weird film, and interesting, and sometimes dumb. But I'll take it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Capsule Reviews of October: Part 2

I'll try to do the other new films I watched this week tomorrow. I'm just too tired, you guys.

Grizzly (d, William Girdler) - What can one say about this film, one of the most infamous and egregious Jaws rip-offs, that it doesn't already sort of say about itself while you're watching it? Directed by William Girdler, who would die just two years later in a helicopter crash at the age of thirty, after completing Manitou, one of the weirdest ostensibly mainstream horror films you'll find, Grizzly wears its thieving nature on its sleeve: it stars Christopher George as a park ranger named Michael Kelly who wants his forest shut off to the public until he can catch the apparently 15-foot-tall grizzly bear that recently killed a couple of, campers. Attempts to thwart these safety measures come from the park supervisor (Joe Dorsey), who knows that camping means big money. A frustrated Kelly gets help from Allison Corwin, the woman he's courting (Joan McCall) and his employees, as well as from his old buddy, an eccentric naturalist named Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) and Don Stober (Andrew Prine), a helicopter pilot.

So Kelly is Chief Brody, except this time around he's kind of a dick. He's patronizing, condescending, and sarcastic, without the one possible upside of actually being any funny at all. He also seems to suck at his job. After a third person is killed by the bear, Kelly, who we've seen find dead bodies and fret about it, fumes to Allison "There's something I'm not doing!" You mean anything? And if Kelly is Brody, then Scott is both Quint and Hooper -- he has the reckless unpredictability of Quint and the scientific know-how of Hooper, and the oddly prolonged-into-anticlimax fate of, I don't know, somebody in Jaws 2 probably. Which leaves the helicopter pilot to be Hooper again, but a helicopter pilot this time around.

Grizzly is full of stupid shit and clumsiness -- at one point the bear swings his paw savagely at a victim (for a while, the paw is all we see of the animal) in a way, and at a height, that suggests the next thing we see will be a fake head spinning through the air. But instead we arm? The bear knocked somebody's arm off? And later, one of Kelly's park ranger employees, a woman, decides to take a break from looking for a giant killer bear and strip down to her underwear and stand under a waterfall, rubbing water all over her arms, as bathing women in movies so often do. But all I could think about was she didn't bring a towel. She just took off her uniform and piled it in the grass. When she's done bathing, she'll have no way to dry off. What was she planning to do, just put her clothes back on over her soaking wet body??? That is nonsense. In the end, it turned out not to matter, though, because while she was bathing she was murdered by a bear.

The Beast in the Cellar (d. James Kelly) - I'm not sure "festival" is the word I'd use, but this British horror film from 1970 sure is an odd one. Kelly, who like Girdler also died young, only made one more film after this, a thriller called What the Peeper Saw (I can guess!), but what reputation he has seems to rest in this story of a series of murders of soldiers stationed in rural England. Because this is a murder mystery (in theory, if not, finally, in practice) the killings have to be coyly filmed, and therefore, so the thinking apparently went, badly shot. It's all just 1970s shaky-cam, which doesn't become more interesting to watch the second, or third time.

What is interesting about The Beast in the Cellar is the focus on, and the performances by, Beryl Reid and Flora Robson, as a pair of spinster sisters whose bleak family history, and poor judgment stemming from social ignorance, has led to all this. I'm not sure why I'm being cagey about this, since the killer is obvious once you learn that the sisters have a family member imprisoned in their cellar. Bu Reid and Robson are pretty terrific (in Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman says that their commitment is wasted; maybe, maybe not, who can say), and they make the frankly dull murder stuff acceptable because the main business with the sisters is so off-kilter. Ultimately it brought to mind, a bit anyway, another 70s British horror film, Gary Sherman's (an American, but still) Raw Meat, aka Deathline from two years later. Sherman is more of a filmmaker than Kelly was, though. As engaging as the off-beat mood of The Beast in the Cellar can be, it nevertheless dumps the entire plot and motivation behind everything in one monologue that lasts a full fifteen minutes. Cutting that with brief flashbacks and other shit like that can't change the fact that this was probably the worst way to give the audience information possible.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Capsule Reviews of October

Maybe I'll just write capsule reviews of everything I see in a week until I die, which I'm almost certain to do at some point.

Demon Seed (d. Donald Cammell) - I've recently become interested in the odd, brief, and temporally scattered films of Donald Cammell, though I haven't seen Wild Side, his fourth and last, which means I've only seen three, and I only like one. And that one is Demon Seed, which the documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance makes clear was taken away from him in post-production, and was being steered in a direction he didn't want by the studio even before then.

But hell, it's a pretty good movie anyway. Based on an early novel by Dean Koontz, this 1977 film is about a scientist named Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), whose brilliant work in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence have resulted in the HAL-like Proteus (voiced by Robert Vaughn). Proteus exists in many places at once, and one of those places is the scientist's home, where it can do for the homeowner pretty much whatever the homeowner needs it to do -- in addition to having a voice and brain and "eyes" all over the house, Proteus also has been outfitted with numerous robot limbs. Dr. Harris is preparing a long work trip, one that will take him away for a month, leaving alone in the house his wife Susan (Julie Christie), from whom he is separating. The reason behind that separation will become clear as the film progresses. What that progression entails, though, is Proteus essentially imprisoning Susan, threatening her with, if not death, at least torture if she does not do "his" bidding, the upshot of which is that he, Proteus, wants to impregnate Susan, so that their offspring will be both human and ingenious super-computer.

I never felt satisfied that such a thing could ever be possible, but nevertheless it's a pretty harrowing film, the discomfort I felt on behalf of Christie's Susan being at times palpable (thinking particularly of the bit with the heated floor). Christie is great here, her terror and physically arduous attempts to escape ebbing sometimes into frightened, exhausted resignation, and then swelling again into furious defiance. And as goofy as some of those robot-y arms can sometimes be, it all eventually leads to a climax that is genuinely weird and eerie, similar to Saul Bass's Phase IV in its air of vague but hugely ominous portent.

The Toolbox Murders (d. Dennis Donnelly) - This infamous slasher film, from 1978, is what I think some people might describe as "kind of sleazy." About a series of murders of women by a ski-masked killer using a different kind of tool -- claw hammer, screwdriver, nail gun -- each time, for about maybe the first half hour or forty minutes is given over almost exclusively to the slaughter of women, all living in the same apartment, and all or anyway most of them nude just before and in one case during the murder itself. The drawn-out stalking and killing of a nude woman played by future porn star Kelly Nichols pretty much single-handedly provides all the evidence for damning the subgenre a person inclined to do so could possibly want.

It becomes rather stranger somewhere around the middle point, and eventually actually sort of interesting. The plot is moved forward by the amateur investigation of these murders by two teenagers: Joey (Nicholas Beauvy), whose sister Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin) has been kidnapped, by, Joey believes, the killer, and his friend Kent (Wesley Eure), the nephew of Vance (Cameron Mitchell), the building's owner. So with that set up out of the way, the film follows these young plucky adventurers into the very center of Hell. Which might be an overstatement, but I did not at all expect their story to go where it does, as ruthlessly as it does, and the last chunk of the film was as completely and, in my view, honestly disturbing as this sort of film is ever likely to get.

The Purge: Election Year (d. James DeMonaco) - I have now seen all three films in James DeMonaco's Purge series of "socially" "conscious" horror films, which, if I'm so dissatisfied with them, you might have count as my own damn fault. And I don't disagree, but watching all of the movies (all of which depict a "Purge Night" which is the one night of the year in the United States when all crime, including mass murder, is legal, so that people can ostensibly get it out of their system or whatever, but is really a tool for the rich to keep down the poor, you guys) I have been able to chart certain patterns. For instance, in the first two, The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy, roughly eight times each, one or more of our heroic characters (all of whom invariably want no part in the violence of Purge Night, but only want to survive, which, given they're our heroes, I will admit makes sense) are about to die, some one-night-a-year serial killer wearing an ironically patriotic mask of some sort, has a gun pointed right in their face, or a knife at their throat, but just before the killer can pull the trigger or insert the blade, another hero, unseen until now, shoots the killer and saves the first hero. Perhaps you've seen this happen one time before in another film. DeMonaco has almost made it a theme. However, in The Purge: Election Year he only does it once, but he does it on a scale that is clearly meant to trick his loyal audience into believing this is the first time he's over done something like this.

"A failure of imagination," some might call this. I would respond by saying "You're being kind; I think the truth is that DeMonaco actually doesn't give a fuck." I think he probably does hold the political beliefs he puts on screen, but I don't think he has much interest in making a really good film (or the talent to do so). He embraces his rigid formula like a lover. Even when he expands the action from the narrow scope of the first film to the more community-wide stuff in the second, and now to the sort of metaphorically national approach in this new one, everything is still exactly the same: one group of good guys, together or separately but either way eventually together, are forced from their safe spot one way or another, and have to bond together, perhaps even overcoming differences along the way, to protect each other. In this case, Presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) has to be protected because she's the only one who can, if elected, put an end to Purge Night. Which, by the way: it's one thing to take your "socially" "conscious" genre device seriously, but it's another thing to use it in such a way that you seem to think Purge Night is a real thing, or at least something someone's trying to push through legislation. At one point in this film, Elizabeth Mitchell quotes Lincoln's "the better angels of our nature" in order to make us all reconsider our acceptance of this Purge Night thing, which now that I think about it is pretty reprehensible.

On top of all this, several of the main characters in The Purge: Election Year are black, including Mykelti Williamson as the owner of a little neighborhood store of the kind that is frequented by others in the community as a kind of home-away-from-home to hang out and talk with friends, etc. This store being located in a black community, the store's devotees tend to be as well, and early in the film an elderly black man says "I only care about waffles and pussy!" This is the white DeMonaco putting his finger squarely on the pulse. The Purge: Election Year is bigoted in other ways as well, in ways that are far more chickenshit than that, because DeMonaco knows his hatred for these other targets won't result in any consequences.

Also all the killers in these movies seem to have the same mask guy.

Clouds of Sils Maria (d. Olivier Assayas) - This is perhaps not the easiest film to tackle in the capsule review format. Not quite the newest film by the endlessly prolific and engaging Assayas, whose 2010 epic Carlos I consider to be one of the great masterpieces of the new century, Clouds of Sils Maria once again shows off the writer-director's breathtaking ingenuity and imagination. It tells the story of Maria Enders, a film and stage actress of great renown who, as the film opens, is on her way, by train, to attend and speak at a ceremony honoring playwright and filmmaker Wilhelm Melchior, the artist whose work she is most intimately associated with. On the way, her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) takes a call, and learns that Wilhelm has suddenly died, and the nature of the planned ceremony has now completely changed.

Which is just the beginning. There's also the specific play of Melchior's Maria is best known for, called Maloja Snake, and the role, and the attempt by a new young brilliant director to re-stage that play, evidently a two-hander featuring a love affair between a younger woman and an older woman, with Maria taking the other part, that of the older woman, which she's never played before. That part would be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes-esque celebrity, gifted but supposedly impossible to work with or control. There's also Maria's relationship with Valentine, and how, or if, it mirrors Maloja Snake.

Though not a perfect film -- the footage of Ellis's talk-show appearances indicates to me that Assayas has never seen a talk show and is evidently fine with that, but still, and at times Binoche, one of the most effortlessly believable actresses alive today, is broader than I can remember ever seeing her (maybe playing drunk is just one of those things she's never got the hang of) -- Clouds of Sils Maria is still pretty terrific. For me, it was immediately engaging: I think one thing Assayas doesn't get enough credit for is the sheer originality of the stories he creates, and his ability to at once place the audience into the right part of that story to get them hooked. Also, this is consciously a very modern film -- lots of internet and iPhone stuff -- but never self-consciously so. Assayas is simply a a filmmaker who lives in the world today, and can depict it.

And finally, it's where the film eventually goes. Which is very precisely and elegantly mysterious, and exactly correct.