Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween Horror Recommendations (2016)

Changing gears a bit from the usual format, today I'm going to list my recommendations for what to watch on All Hallow's Eve.  I'll try to give you a good mix of classic and contemporary horror films, not an exhaustive one mind you, just a few of my favorites along with the finer ones I've seen.

Here goes.

Classic Ghost Stories:
The Others (2001)
The Orphanage (2007)
The Innocents (1961)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
The Haunting (1963)
The Shining (1980)
The Old Dark House (1932)
Haxan (1922)
The Changeling (1980)
Kwaidan (1964)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Session 9 (2001)
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Poltergeist (1982)
The Fog (1980)

Creature Features:
The 1930s Universal Monster Cycle (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Bride of Frankenstein)
Freaks (1932)
King Kong (1933)
The Thing (1982)
The Howling (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Blob (1988)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
The Fly (1986)
Videodrome (1983)
Alien (1979)
Cronos (1993)
Demons (1985)
The Mist (2007)
Martin (1977)
It Follows (2014)
Near Dark (1987)
[Rec] (2007)
In the Mouth of Madness (1997)

Slashers and Gore Hounds Only:
The Evil Dead (1981)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
House (1977)
Deep Red (1975)
Tenebrae (1982)
Maniac (1980)
Thesis (1996)
Ichi The Killer (2001)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Peeping Tom (1960)
The Bird with Crystal Plummage (1970)
Hellraiser (1987)
The Devil's Rejects (2005)
Halloween (1978)
Cemetery Man (1994)
Suspiria (1977)

Horror Comedies:
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Dead Alive (1992)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
The Monster Squad (1987)
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Fright Night (1985)
The Stuff (1985)
Ernest Scared Stupid (1993)
Frankenhooker (1990)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)                                                      
The 'Burbs (1989)'
Waxwork (1988)
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Dead Snow (2009)
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombieland (2009)
Bad Taste (1987)
Re-Animator (1985)
Beetlejuice (1988)
The Frighteners (1996)
Hiruko The Goblin (1990)

Too Real to Deal:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Angst (1983)
Audition (1999)
Dahmer (2002)
Stuck (2007)
Zodiac (2007)

Again not a comprehensive list, just some I think are worth watching this time of year.
Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Night of the Demon (1957)

Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957), retitled Curse of the Demon for its U.S. release, is a stylish supernatural horror film.  The story begins one night as Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) drives through a shadowy forest to the mansion of Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis).  Harrington agrees to call off his investigation into Karswell's satanic cult, if only Karswell will reverse the curse he's put on him.  Karswell says it's too late, Harrington won't survive the night. Harrington rushes home, as he closes his car in the garage, a mysterious cloud of smoke appears.  It billows out toward him and in the smoke stands a giant horned demon, come to collect his soul.  Harrington panics, jumping back in his car, backing out of his garage and straight into a set of power lines.  The power lines crash down on the car, sending sparks flying beside the driver's side door.  With the demon coming ever closer, Harrington has no choice but to climb out.  He does so falling into the power lines and being electrocuted to death.

Meanwhile, John Holden (Dana Andrews) flies to England to assist his friend Professor Harrington with the investigation into Karswell's supposed black magic cult for an international conference on the subject, not yet aware of Harrington's untimely death.  When Holden arrives at his hotel he meets with fellow men of science from the conference, Mr. O'Brien (Liam Redmond) and Mr. Meek (Reginald Beckwith) who inform him of Harrington's death.  Holden being the biggest skeptic of them all sees nothing strange in the circumstances surrounding his death, even though the rational O'Brien and Meek do.

Holden encounters Karswell in the Reading Room of the British Museum, as he pores over the books Harrington used for his research.  Karswell tries to persuade him to stop his investigation, but Holden won't budge.  Karswell leaves his card.  Written on the card in cursive is "In Memoriam of Henry Harrington, 2 weeks allowed", but when Holden hands the card to a stranger the writing is gone.  He chocks this up as a trick, but later when the card is tested by a laboratory it's found to have no trace of chemicals of any kind.  At Harrington's funeral, Holden bumps into Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the Professor's niece, who believes Karswell is responsible for her uncle's death.  The pair team up to get to the bottom of things.

The film shows us supernatural and/or unexplainable occurrences from Holden's point of view and then reveals them to be false, leaving the viewer to question what's real and what's imagined.  Is Holden really cursed or is he going mad?  This is a common movie trope today, but in 1957 it was a novel idea, perhaps being one of the earliest instances of this theme on film.  Jacques Tourneur was known for his ability to make the most of a low budget, (see his films for producer Val Lewton, Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), for proof).  With the great Out of the Past (1947), perhaps his best film, already under his belt he had developed a unique style of emphasizing the unseen, the darkness and the shadows, allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks of the story with their own worst nightmares.  It's this style which elevates Night of the Demon beyond your average demon schlock picture.  That combined with the great performance by Niall McGinnis as the affable, yet devious, Karswell (an obvious stand in for England's real life master of the occult: Aleister Crowley) and a standout single-scene-performance by little known British character actor Brian Wilde, as Rand Hobart, a farmer who managed to escape Karwell's curse of the demon, the shock leaving him in a catatonic state.  Wilde is convincing as hell, committing to the role with an intensity uncharacteristic of the period.  The screenplay written by Charles Bennett was based on a short story, "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James, an English author famous for his ghost stories, who's since had many of his stories adapted for British television.

There was some dispute between producer Hal E. Chester and Tourneur as to whether they should show the demon at all.  Tourneur opting for the less is more approach and Chester campaigning for the opposite.  Allegedly Chester shot additional footage clearly showing the demon and inserted it in the opening and closing scenes, without the consent of Tourneur, Bennett or Andrews.  While I can see how the film would play better without a definite answer as to the existence of the demon, I still enjoyed the film a lot and thought the demon was pretty awesome looking.  I'd like to see a version without the demon footage, but alas none exists.  There are two versions of the film: the U.S. release (82 mins) and the UK release (96 mins.).  I saw the U.S. version, but from what I've read the UK version isn't much different, only incorporating some extended and deleted scenes with no alterations made
to the demon sequences.

My Rating:  4 Runes out of 5

P.S. the film is available for streaming on  I recommend checking them out, they've got a good selection of horror films.


The Haunted Strangler (1958)

Criterion Cover
The Haunted Strangler from 1958 stars Boris Karloff as James Rankin, a novelist researching the case of a serial killer known as 'The Haymarket Strangler' in Victorian era London.  The killer would strangle, then slash the throats of his victims.  However, Rankin believes that Edward Styles, the man hung for these crimes, may have been innocent.  He finds that a Dr. Tennant performed all the autopsies on the Strangler's 5 victims, and that he abandoned his practice immediately after Styles' hanging, later turning up as an inmate at an asylum.  From there the trail goes cold, it appears that Tenant escaped from the asylum with the help of a nurse who'd fallen in love with him, and the two fled never to be heard from again.

But Rankin is determined to ascertain the true identity of the killer to be sure another innocent man doesn't end up on the gallows.  In doing so, he discovers more than he bargained for.  Insinuating there's a plot twist, which there is and it's a good one, especially given the time in which the film was made.  But I won't spoil it for you.

The film is based on a short story by Jan Read, written specifically for Karloff, with a screenplay by John Croyden and direction by Robert Day, who Karloff collaborated with again later that same year on Corridors of Blood (1958).  Here they capture the 19th century feel of London by gaslight with rich black and white cinematography.  Nothing too flashy though, just a solid story giving a strong foundation for Karloff to work his magic in another great performance.  The makeup effects, or lack thereof, are a testament to the man's talent.  At 80 minutes, it's a tight little flick to watch after the witching hour.  If you're in the mood, enjoy some old-fashioned black and white horror.
The Great Boris Karloff
My Rating:  4 SCALPELS OUT OF 5

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Tetsuo (1989), aka Tetsuo: The Iron Man, is the breakout film by Japanese director Shin'ya Tsukamoto.  He made a handful of low budget films before this, however this was the one that gave him international recognition and a cult following.  Tsukamoto also acts in most of his own films, this being no exception, as well as those of other directors, having a small role as one of the scientists in Shin Godzilla which I just reviewed and also Scorsese's upcoming film Silence.

Tetsuo opens on a man, known as The Metal Fetishist (played by none other than the director himself, Tsukamoto), walking through a junkyard, collecting pieces of scrap metal.  He returns to his hut, cuts open his leg and sticks a piece of metal inside.  The name makes sense now, right?  Maggots get into the wound, so he freaks out running frantically into the road where he's struck by a car in a hit and run.

Original newspaper ad
Later, Tetsuo (Tomorowo Taguchi) the businessman who was driving the car, cuts himself shaving, a small piece of metal sticking out of his cheek.  He touches it, spraying blood all over his mirror.  His girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), who was him during the hit and run, calls saying she's felt strange ever since.  He assures her they have nothing to worry about.  Then in the subway, Tetsuo sits down next to a woman in glasses (Nobu Kanaoka).  The woman sees a smoking pile of metal on the ground, which she touches thus becoming possessed by the Metal Fetishist.  She chases after Tetsuo, metal growing from her body, trying to kill him.  He narrowly escapes, but not without being infected with this crazy metal growing disease.  From there things get weirder and weirder, I can't really explain it, you just have to see for yourself.

At a mere 64 minutes, the film is packed to the gills with bizarre imagery and outlandish ideas making it feel longer than it is in the best possible way.  Shot on grainy black and white 16mm film, it has a rough and gritty feel with all the actors drenched in sweat. The locations utilize the industrial corridors of Tokyo with giant clouds of steam billowing from their factories.  There's a pulsing and pounding score by Chu Ishikawa which ratchets up the intensity.  Tsukamoto also makes brilliant use of stop motion special effects to show the metal consuming people and hyper lapses to communicate a kinetic passage of time.  The cinematography by Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara gives a claustrophobic feel to the film, making great use of odd angles and lightning fast camera moves.  Tetsuo is a potently fresh and original film, though the influences of David Cronenberg's body horror and David Lynch's obsession with all things industrial are certainly present, Tsukamoto absorbs those inspirations and moves in his own direction creating a masterpiece.  For those looking for something different, it's an absolute must see.

My Rating:  5 out of 5

I'll leave you with a quote from the man himself,
"It's strange.  Part of me loves a city like Tokyo, but part of me would quite happily destroy it." - Shin'ya Tsukamoto

The Trailer:

Monday, October 24, 2016

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West's latest film, In a Valley of Violence (2016), stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a drifter headed for Mexico.  This is Hawke's second western this year, the other being the big budget The Magnificent Seven remake, (which while enjoyable added little to a story whose best incarnation was and always will be Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1984)).  This film being the better of the two.  Wearing its spaghetti western influences on its sleeve--note the zoom in first shot, the animated opening credits sequence, and the score--it explores a much darker western world than that of any blockbuster.

Paul drifts along through the desert on his horse with his dog trailing alongside him, bound for Mexico.  Fleeing from what?  We don't know, but certainly something in his past.  A shifty-looking preacher (Burn Gorman) flags him down, explains that his broke down mule impedes him from spreading the word of God to the sinners of Denton, the town lying just over the next hill in the valley below, and then attempts to rob Paul of his horse.  This does not go well, and it is quickly apparent Paul is no stranger to violence.  He takes mercy on the preacher and continues on to Denton, with a certain apprehension, but it being the most direct route he sees no reason to go out of his way.

Once in Denton, a virtual ghost town, Paul finds a sign hanging from the door of the General Store reading 'Be back in an hour'.  At a loss for how to kill an hour in this nothing town, he spots a saloon and heads over.  Inside a traveling salesman presents his wares to Gilly Martin (James Ransome), the local blowhard and son of the town Marshal (John Travolta), and his half-wit companions (played by Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, and Tommy Nohilly).  Gilly needlessly intimidates and emasculates the salesman, strutting around like the Big Bad Wolf.  Inevitably his glare comes to rest upon the stranger at the bar.  Paul tries to ignore Gilly's provocations, but eventually the two come to blows and Gilly gets laid out.  Then the Marshal (John Travolta) being as diplomatic as possible, knowing his son's temperament, tells Paul to leave town.  And so he does.

That should be the end of it, but of course some men don't know when they're beat, least of all men like Gilly.  Thus a classic western revenge drama unfolds.

With little dialogue Hawke emits a silent intensity, carrying the film in a great performance.  Ransome is perfect as the blustering Gilly, grating on everyone around him with his overconfidence and false bravado.  Travolta gives a good turn as the Marshal, the only character with sense enough to see the threat that Paul presents, attempting to avoid a confrontation.  This is a rare foray out the horror genre for West, primarily known for films like The House of the Devil (2009), Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), but a welcome one.  He brings those gruesome skills to bear, making the deaths especially bloody and violent.  The score by Jeff Grace evokes those Ennio Morricone composed for Sergio Leone.  The cinematography by Eric Robbins along with West's editing combine to create a precise and economical pacing that keeps the film running like a Swiss watch.  My only criticism is Taissa Farmiga's performance as Mary-Anne, the girl who works in the local hotel and takes a liking to Paul, trying to help him on his journey toward revenge.  Her performance felt a bit forced and with such a small cast, it stuck out like a sore thumb.  Other than that and a few scenes toward the climax which I think slowed the pace and seemed superfluous, I really enjoyed the film.  All in all: a great, fast-moving modern western.  Check it out.

My Rating:

The Trailer:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"The Boxer's Omen": the definition of batshit crazy or how I learned the secret badass nature of Buddhist monks

Mo aka The Boxer's Omen (1983) is the penultimate film from director Kuei Chih-Hung, perhaps the boldest filmmaker to work in Hong Kong at the time, and this film is nothing if not bold.  It belongs to the Chinese Black Magic genre, which had it's hey day in the 1970s and 80s, a genre I was totally ignorant of until watching this, but undoubtedly one I plan to explore in the future.

We open on a kickboxing match between a Hong Kong fighter and a Thai fighter (played by Bolo Yeung, who you may recognize as the villian from the Jean-Claude Van Damme films Bloodsport (1988) and Double Impact (1991)).  The Hong Kong fighter wins the match, but before they can officially announce the winner, the Thai fighter blindsides him and since there's no rules in kickboxing apparently, the Thai fighter wins the championship.  How's that for sportsmanship?  The Hong Kong fighter is left crippled and his gangster brother, Chan Hung (Phillip Ko) vows revenge.

In the following scene, Chan goes to meet some gangland buddies of his for a deal of some sort, but it's an ambush and he finds himself on the wrong end of a beating.  Then suddenly everything goes dark and a strange spirit appears dispatching the thugs and saving Chan.  Not knowing what to make of this, Chan hauls ass out of there and goes back to his apartment.  Leading us to an odd sex scene where he rails his topless girlfriend up against a window, but hey boobs are boobs, who's complaining?  Not me.  Anyways, afterwards Chan wakes in the middle of the night and that spirit from earlier returns, showing him visions of a temple.  He takes this as a sign that he should embark for Thailand to kick the shit out of Bolo Yeung.

In Thailand, Bolo Yeung that Thai prick enjoys a hero's welcome, flashing his championship belt in front of a crowd like he's Muhammad Ali.  Chan crashes the party and challenges him to a fight, the Thai fighter accepts of course, and it's on.  They don't fight right there, that would be too dangerous.  No, they're going to settle the score at a later date, in a sanctioned kickboxing match, which we've seen is tantamount to a street fight.  Good idea, guys.  So far, this seems like your run of the mill kickboxing revenge flick, right?  Wrong, here's where things take a turn for the weird.  As Chan rides a boat upriver he passes a Buddhist temple, recognizing it from his vision he goes inside to check it out.  Much to his surprise the monks there say they've been expecting him, turns out Chan is the spiritual twin of a great monk who was on the verge of reaching immortality, before a black sorcerer poisoned him.  The great monk will die soon, along with Chan, that's what happens when you're spiritually connected according to the monks.  Unless, Chan trains with the monks, learning their badass ways, and kicks that black sorcerer's ass.  Then maybe he can save the great monk and himself.  He sets out to do exactly that, in a classic training montage of the monk variety.

Now I'll dispense with the plot and talk about all the crazy shit going on in this movie, because it is full of crazy shit.  The black sorcerer uses all kinds of creepy crawlies to do his bidding, at one point cutting himself to bleed on a bat skeleton and resurrect it, regurgitating his lunch in order to create other creatures, and raiding a room full of skulls in jars, with brains still intact.  There's also that scene when Ko gagged in the bathroom till he vomited a live eel.  Read that last sentence again.  Another scene features an orgy of regurgitation like nothing I've ever seen before.  Three of the black sorcerer's disciples perform a sickening ritual to reanimate a dark sorceress.  They stick a corpse in the belly of a giant alligator, cut themselves and bleed on it, then chew up various foods, throwing them back up and passing them onto the next guy for him to eat and spit back up, then retching this mush on the corpse, leaving it to marinate for a while, before it ripens and the dark sorceress regenerates.  Need I say more?

If you're looking to take the road less traveled by, look no further.   Mixing horror, kung fu, and some gratuitous sex, The Boxer's Omen exists on some plain beyond good and bad.

My Rating:
So good it's bad, so bad it's interesting, so crazy you've got to see it.

Notes on the filmmaker:
Kuei Chih-Hung
Kuei Chih-Hung (1937-1999) was a Chinese writer and director who worked his way up through the ranks of Shaw Brothers Studios, well known for their kung fu films, though they dabbled in many different genres.  Kuei had such a passion for filmmaking that as kid he made films with discarded film stock and built his own projector out of a shoe box.  After studying filmmaking and stage production at university, he worked as an assistant director for several years before getting the chance to helm his first feature film in 1970.  The studio was pleased with the result and his career was off and running.  Kuei was one of the first filmmakers in China to shoot on location, capturing the gritty realities of Hong Kong's underclass, unheard in the Chinese film industry at the time.  He also pushed the boundaries of sex and violence, making mostly genre fare with an exploitative, yet insightful style.  He's been called the 'Hong Kong Cult Film Meister' and for good reason, directing such titles as The Killer Snakes (1974), Killer Constable (1980), Hex (1980) and Corpse Mania (1981).

I'll be writing about more of his stuff down the road, for sure, he's piqued my interest.  Can't wait to work my way through his filmography.  Corpse Mania is next in my netflix queue.

Where can you watch it?
- DVD: there's a bare bones edition on amazon for $11.99
- Also available on youtube:
(Heads up: English subtitles are embedded in the video, but there's also two dialogue tracks playing simultaneously, one in Cantonese and the other in Mandarin, I assume, which is extremely distracting.  I had to watch it with my headphones on, putting only one headphone in, to make it through the film)

Check out the trailer, it'll give you a pretty good idea of this film's brand of batshit:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla (2016), is Toho's most recent entry in the Japanese Godzilla series, their first in 12 years.  It's a complete reboot of the timeline with Godzilla first appearing in present day Japan.  No time is wasted setting the story in motion, which is refreshing compared to the prevalent cinematic style of late to linger far too long on things.  A boat is adrift in Tokyo Bay.  The Coast Guard goes to check it out, finding no passengers, only signs of them.  Then the boat is attacked by some kind of giant unidentified creature, which turns out to be Godzilla.  Duh.

Various government officials assemble to strategize with the Prime Minister and get a lid on things in a series of scathingly satirical scenes where each meeting leads to another meeting in a different conference room and then a private meeting in yet another room followed by a press conference and so on.  It's a comedy of bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, Godzilla comes ashore doing what I can only describe as a chicken walk, smashing into anything that doesn't get out of his way, obliviously leaving destruction in his wake, while the powers that be still haven't come to a decision as to what to do about it.

From there a ragtag group of scientists, politicians and government officials are gathered to stop the beast, followed by some classic destruction and many more under-the-gun, backroom strategy meetings on how to handle this 'thing'.  A ticking clock is introduced when Japan submits to the UN's decision to evacuate the country and drop a nuke on Godzilla's ass, providing an interesting link to the original film given its inspiration was drawn from the atomic bombing of Japan during WWII.  Refusing to let their country be decimated for a second time, our team must race against time to try and defeat Godzilla using brains rather than brawn.

There are some great Japanese character actors in the piece that you may recognize like Jun Kunimara (Hard Boiled (1992), Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001) and the Kill Bill films) and Shin'ya Tsukamoto, a great director in his own right, among others.  The few english-speaking actors in the film give painfully stilted performances, while somehow the Japanese actors that slip into english here and there manage to maintain the integrity of their performances.  The creature design is really cool, with Godzilla's unevolved form having giant gills in his neck, googly fish eyes, and a doofus expression slapped across his face (which I'm sure sounds dumb but is actually hilarious, in a good way) and his final form with craggy seaweed-black skin glowing red underneath, and badass lasers emitting from his mouth and dorsal fins, not that they're anything new, but they're still badass.  It's neat watching Godzilla evolve throughout the film.  At 2 hours it feels a little long, though for a film of this scale it's definitely shorter than it could be, still three-fourths of the way through as the scientists are deciphering Godzilla's molecular structure and gathering the necessary resources for their attack things could have been streamlined.  All in all, it's absolutely better than 2014's Godzilla, and worth a watch.

My rating:

4 Wrecked
Out Of 5

Check out the trailer:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Cassavetes Aesthetic

John Cassavetes has long been known as the father of independent filmmaking in America.  In an art form founded on providing popular entertainment via manipulative means, Cassavetes was totally uninterested in popularity or entertainment, or manipulation for that matter.  His films defy categorization and pride themselves on their openness.  Most filmmakers develop their style by indulging in a sort of carnivorous cinematic feast, devouring any movie they can get their hands on, integrating their favorite bits, and synthesizing those with their own themes and obsessions to create their unique, but derivative, brand of cinema.

Cassavetes found himself most drawn to the astoundingly simple and universal themes of love, and the backwards ways in which we set out to get it, our roles in life, father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, club owner, dentist, writer, actress, studio executive, etc., and the conflict between society's rigid stability and the risk of emotional vulnerability, or vulnerability in general, society being constructed on the precepts of minimizing risk, though risk being our only means of growth as human beings. (This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor does his work lend itself to such a list, but only the subjects I find to recur throughout his filmography).  In a desire to explore these themes, absent of pretense, Cassavetes effectively rejected the established cinematic language, or "shorthand for living" as he called it, and sought a fresh approach.  He wished to confront audiences with characters as rich and flawed as any they might know in real life.  No heroes or villians, no easily defined patterns of behavior, and no stock movie plots.  His films find story springing from character.  If his films do contain heroes and villians, they inhabit one body, as we contain within us our own best and worst selves.  Our struggle is an inner one.

Now, most films depict something akin to this inner struggle by correlating it to an outer struggle, or action, tied to a plot, for example Hitchcock would often have a voyeuristic protagonist, a passive character by implication, witness something terrifying, like a murder, with the plot then following their attempt to solve the murder, forcing the protagonist to overcome their character flaws in order to do so.  That's a formulaic reduction of  a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock, and I'm not knocking Hitchcock here, but that type of storytelling puts the audience at a remove from what's happening on screen because they know what the problem is and how the protagonist must go about solving it.  The audience in essence becoming more like a cheerleader for the hero than a participant.  While the hero too, in most cases, knows what must be done, though having a certain reluctance to stand up and face his own troubles in order to solve the film's central problem.  This presupposes a lot of knowledge that most of us just don't have in our day to day lives, along with a structure that usually isn't there.  I don't know about you, but I've never witnessed a murder, not that I haven't seen countless films on the subject, and wished for the thrill of danger and excitement that comes with a macabre adventure of amateur sleuthing, but alas it's never happened.

Cassavetes saw film as a medium for telling the truth about life, not escaping it.  He eschewed this intellectual, and distancing, style of filmmaking, opting to employ a cinematic style which constantly knocks the viewer off balance, and keeps them there.  He throws out plot in any traditional sense, and along with it those self-aware characters that can sum it up, and presents us with characters who are terrific and terrible from one moment to the next, in the way that real people are.  He follows these people, sometimes odd, sometimes tragic, a little crazy but always human, on their journey to reach a shred of enlightenment.  Often coming nowhere near the point of conquering their demons, but at least being able to look them in the eye and acknowledge their existence.  His camera, ever searching, looking for a foothold, peering around corners, over shoulders, sometimes missing the action, but always seeking to get a grip on what's happening, puts us in the middle of the action with no frame of reference to cling to, no flashy shots to admire at a distance, no exquisite shot compositions to marvel at, casting us adrift on a rough sea of handheld camerawork.

Because of that we're right there in the mess with those people up on screen, we definitely don't know anymore than they do, in fact we probably know less.  We can't shout up at them to not open that door or to pick up the gun and shoot the son-of-a-bitch, because we are lagging behind the characters just trying to keep up and besides those don't seem to be the type of situations they're in.  No, these people are at home, or in bars, or working mundane jobs, they're in places we know but struggle to recognize up on the screen because they're not presented to us in the traditional grandiloquent manner of Hollywood.  The locations are not standing in for anything, they're far from glamorous, their grit and grime is real.  And the problems are slippery, you can't quite wrap your head around them.  You pick up bits and pieces, here and there, fragments.  You witness moments of revelatory emotion, then the characters clam up again, hide behind convention and politeness or fall back into a prescribed pattern of behavior.  You see, his people know how crazy it might look if they were really honest about what they were feeling, they know the great risk they take in expressing themselves, and how most people will look down their noses at them, taking refuge behind their own superiority.  He understood how we disassociate from one another, how much we think we know and how little we actually do.  His films look down into that schism between what you want and what you really get, the schism that can exist between two people and the emotional nakedness they must risk to reach across and connect with each other.

Notes on the filmmaker:
Cassavetes paid the bills and funded his own projects by acting in other films, the standouts in my mind being The Dirty Dozen (1967), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and the underseen Marvin &Tige (1983), among others.  I must confess I've never seen a performance of his that wasn't captivating.  His first film as director was Shadows (1959), born from an improvisation at Cassavetes' acting workshop which he taught with Burton Lane, the film was pitched by Cassavetes off the cuff on a late night radio talk show in New York hosted by Jean Shepherd called Night People.  Donations starting coming in bit by bit from people all over the country and eventually they had enough money to go ahead and make the film.  (A note on improvisation: despite their improvisatory feel, Cassavetes' films were all scripted, though he allowed his actors the freedom to interpret their roles as they saw fit, meaning while their dialogue was written their performance was not required to follow any predetermined course in terms of emotional expression)  After Shadows was completed, offers came in from Hollywood and Cassavetes made two pictures in the studio system Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963), neither particularly noteworthy and both artistically unsatisfying for their creator, this failure to fit into the studio machine made him turn back to independent filmmaking.  His next film Faces (1968), shot on 16mm using his own house as the primary set, garnered 3 Oscar nominations and made good on the early promise of Shadows.  He made 12 films in all, 8 of which I would describe as essential: Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977), and Love Streams (1984).  His wife, Gena Rowlands, gave some of her finest performances in his films and their pairing as actor and director goes down in the pantheon of cinematic collaborations.  John Cassavetes passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989, at the time still largely dismissed by critics as a sloppy and incomprehensible filmmaker, only after his death were his films given the respect they deserved.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Possession (1981) - "You know, when I'm away from you, I think of you as a monster or a woman possessed, and then I see you again and all this disappears."

Possession (1981), written by Andrzej Zulawski and Frederic Tutten, and directed by Zulawski is an absolutely insane piece of cinema, possibly the most insane piece of cinema I've ever seen.  I was lucky enough to see an uncut, restored 35mm print of the film at a midnight screening at the Music Box.  The film had been on my radar for the last year or so, I'd read about it here and there, and also heard Max Landis rave about it on Trailers from Hell, ifyou're not familiar, it's a webseries where Joe Dante (Director of Gremlins and The Howling) gathers various filmmakers together to provide commentaries for trailers of films they're passionate about, it's worth checking out.

Needless to say it was high up on my list of films to see, unfortunately it's ridiculously tough to get a hold of, Netflix doesn't have it on disc or instant and I don't believe it's streaming on any other platforms, with the exception of a drastically cut, cropped and vignetted version uploaded on youtube.  Luckily a new Special Edition Blu Ray has recently been released by Mondo Vision, but to the point.

(Isabelle Adjani)
Possession takes as its subject the crumbling marriage of Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani).  The film opens with Mark returning home to Berlin, before the wall cam down.  From what it seems he's been away for quite some time on business, it is implied that he is a spy of some sort.  Right from the get go things are on shaky ground, Anna almost immediately asks Mark for a divorce and subsequently admits to sleeping with other men.  Upon hearing this Mark is overcome with rage-fueled jealousy.  Anna then begins drifting in and out of their shared apartment, disappearing for days at a time.  Leaving Mark to care for their young son, Bob.

The pair meet in a cafe to discuss matters, their discussion quickly turning to bitter argument, soon boiling over into an unanticipated outburst of table-flipping and chair-throwing hysteria.  Mark calls one of Anna's close friends and coaxes her into revealing the name of Anna's lover: Heinrich.  Mark pays a visit to Heinrich, gets his ass handed to him, discovering in the process that their affair is old news.  The truth behind Anna's mysterious comings and goings is perhaps far more ominous.

I don't want to give too much away, though frankly it doesn't matter what you know going in, this film will surprise the shit out of you.  The events unfold in an utterly unpredictable manner. Things start off at a fever pitch and they just keep slopping on the crazy until you sit slack-jawed in your seat, staring up in total bewilderment.  At least that's what happened to me.  Isabelle Adjani performs with such intensity and commitment that no other performance can compare, save for maybe Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.  There is an infamous scene in the subway, which I won't ruin for you, but MY GOD.  I won't even attempt to describe it, you'll have to see for yourself.  And the ever brilliant Sam Neill (who stole the show in this year's Hunt for the Wilderpeople which I just reviewed) has never been so manic and desperate on screen.  All the performances in this film are ratcheted up to 11.  And Bruno Nuytten's constantly roving camera, which makes incredible use of the Steadicam, mirrors the frenetic pace set by the actors.

(Zulawski directs Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill)
Possession is a cinematic masterwork given to infinite interpretations, as all great art should.  It is at once a stark look at the savagery of love, jealousy and the possessive nature of human relationships, a surreal horror film about an insatiable monster created by an unsatisfied woman and a political thriller about a spy coming back to the war at home.  Though I think all of these elements serve to underline the severity of feeling one experiences during the death of a romantic relationship, the surreal qualities of the story allowing for a more stylized depiction of the characters' emotional upheaval, this film is one to be experienced and as such will invariably leave each viewer with something different.

Notes on the filmmaker:
Andrzej Zulawski begin making films in his home country of Poland in the 1970s, but his second film The Devil was heavily censored and his third project On the Silver Globe was confiscated by the government, (over a decade later the film was released with additional footage and narration).  After this experience, Zulawski immigrated to France.  Possession was his only film in English.  Zulawski was going through a rough divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek while writing the script, this of course influenced the story.  Upon its initial release, the film was lauded at the Cannes Film Festival with Adjani taking home the Best Actress prize, but in America the film was distributed by a porn company who hacked out 40 minutes and shot some additional schlock and gore footage, splicing it in to emphasize the horror elements, needless to say this helped contribute to its cold reception.  In the UK faring little better, the film was given a brief theatrical release before finding itself on the video nasties list, leaving it largely unavailable until 1999.  Zulawski continued his filmmaking career in France making 9 more films, his last being Cosmos (2015), before passing away in February of this year.  Though I've only seen two of his films, Possession and his directorial debut: The Third Part of the Night (1971), I must say he is a filmmaker of truly unique vision and style.  The Cinema Gods lament his passing.

P.S. if you want to check out his other films, three are available on youtube with english subtitles:

The Third Part of the Night (1971) -
Diabel aka The Devil (1972) -
On the Silver Globe (1987) -

Check out the trailer below:

And Max Landis' Episode of Trailers From Hell:

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople - "I didn't choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me"

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) is Taika Waititi's fourth feature as a director and a spectacularly funny and touching film.  (Waititi also co-directed and starred in the fanatastic and hilarious "What We Do In The Shadows" with Jemaine Clement, from 'Flight of the Conchords' fame.)

Based on a novel by Barry Crump, the film tells the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) a rebellious orphan who is adopted by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, Hec (Sam Neill).  We quickly realize that despite his gangster posing, Ricky is a good kid and after a few days settling into his new home he couldn't be happier.  Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Bella dies, leaving Ricky alone with the taciturn Hec, who Child Services deems unfit to care for Ricky.  At the end of the week he'll be taken off to an orphanage to await placement with another foster home.

Ricky refuses to go back, instead trekking out into the bush to live as a mountain man, er, boy, but Hec's not far behind tracking him through the bush to keep the kid from starving to death and bring him back home.  While they're gone, the media concocts a story of kidnapping, suggesting Hec dragged Ricky out into the bush rather than relinquishing him to Child Services.  Given their new fugitive status the two band together on an epic journey to elude the authorities and live by their wits.

I must say it's great to see Sam Neill front and center in a film again, and he does not disappoint for a moment.  Julian Dennison is hilarious as Ricky Baker, an unknown young Kiwi who has a bright future ahead of him, that's for sure.  The film is laugh out loud funny while maintaining a heart at its core without veering into the overly sentimental.  A must see.

P.S. Taika Waititi is directing Thor: Ragnarok, while I didn't care for the initial Thor standalone film and skipped Thor: The Dark World entirely, with Waititi at the helm I will absolutely give Ragnarok a watch.  It's either going to be the best Thor movie ever or the worst.

Check out the trailer below:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino's eighth film (if you don't count Death Proof, his half of the Grindhouse double feature and weakest film to date), The Hateful Eight traps a rogues' gallery of archetypal western characters in Minnie's Haberdashery, a way station on the road to Red Rock, in the middle of a blizzard and begs the question who's who and what's what.

With a blizzard on its heels, a stagecoach carrying John "The Hangman" Ruth (a brilliantly gruff performance by Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) makes for Red Rock, so that Ruth can collect the bounty on Daisy and watch her hang, as his nickname suggests.  On the roadside they encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who is stranded with three bounties of his own, albeit all dead, and Ruth reluctantly allows Major Warren to hitch a ride with them.  Along the way they encounter yet another wayward traveler, Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), also on his way to Red Rock.

Seeking shelter from the storm, these strange bedfellows meet four more suspicious characters at Minnie's Haberdashery, General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Bob (Demian Bichir), what follows is more a locked room mystery of the Agatha Christie variety than a western.  Nevertheless, a compelling and well written mystery which reaches all the way back to the origin of racial tension in America: the Civil War era and explores the subtext of our current tensions involving unarmed blacks being killed by police officers every other day within that setting.  It's also damn entertaining.  With the exception of a certain scene where Major Warren describes in great detail the humiliation he subjected General Sandy Smithers' son to before killing him, which I think is a hallmark Tarantino overindulgence, especially in a film that clocks in at over 3 hours, I can't help but recommend this film.

P.S. It's too late now, but if you had the chance to see the 70mm roadshow version, then you saw it the right way.