Friday, August 22, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet | 2007 | 117 min | US

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play Andy and Hank, two brothers who possess veneers of success and failure, respectively. Both are in serious financial trouble, however, and when Andy devises a plan to get them out of their holes Hank seizes the opportunity. But what is intended to be an easy insider job results in the death of their mother, and the shock waves that follow irreparably change the lives of everyone around them.

Though not a perfect film, it is a solid effort. Sidney Lumet proves capable, of course, although the stylistic flourishes of Devil seem slightly out of touch. Jumping around the timeline seems like an attempt to keep up with current film, though it is unnecessary, slightly clumsy, and not so current at all. The story ultimately follows a linear progression, and we learn nothing more by being thrown back and forth along the way. Another issue with the pacing is that the ending feels strangely truncated. There is a wide and obvious gap begging for closure while another thread is closed up neatly. A bit of an irritation.

Hoffman turns in his standard rock-solid performance as the "successful" son who's addictions have begun outpacing his lifestyle. He elevates the material and those around him considerably. Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney do terrific work, and even Hawke seems back on point playing opposite Hoffman. The story doesn't allow any big surprises (the biggest shock is in the opening minutes of the film), but the film is even and assured, despite a couple stylistic missteps. The performances are what push Before the Devil Knows You're Dead into the company of very good contemporary crime films.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Death Race

Paul W.S. Anderson | 2008 | 89 mins | USA

P.W.S. Anderson (i.e. the bad Anderson) has been a king of high-octane mediocrity for years, but this one takes the cake. I can’t honestly recommend this film to anyone, but if you saw and enjoyed the original Death Race 2000 (also reviewed here by me) then please do yourself a favour and avoid this lame remake at all cost.

For some reason, the director and producers of this film decided that it would be an awesome idea to take a fun sci-fi action comedy and turn it into a gritty and deadly serious action thriller. Even worse than that is the fact that the rollicking ‘70s comedy version of this story is a considerably more risky, daring, outrageous and incisive political satire than the remake. What was the point of making this film serious if all the bite was going to be taken out of the script?

Here’s a point by point summary of bad decisions:
1. Turning a cross country race into an in-prison track race makes it duller to watch. I guess there were a lot more machine guns, but is that really enough?
2. You can’t have a hilarious blonde bombshell Nazi driver now that it takes place in a men’s prison, but replacing her with a downplayed good ol’ boy whose confederate flags are barely visible on his oil smeared uniform is a shitty cop-out.
3. Explaining everything about Frankenstein in some ham-fisted expository dialogue at the beginning of the film makes him unmysterious and uncompelling. Oh, and then they give him a little baby back home to pine for. You could drown in the emotional depth here.
4. Last but not least, the new version has NO PEDESTRIAN DEATHS. BULLSHIT. Way to take no risks at all, Anderson!

The only dim rays of hope in this otherwise depressing world are two characters who didn’t exist in the original - Joan Allen as the pinched, mega-bitch prison warden and Ian McShane as “Coach”, the lovably philosophical mechanic who heads Frankenstein’s pit crew. Tyrese Gibson is pretty good as the reimagined Machine Gun Joe, but not even action-darling Jason Statham can save it. Just wait for Transporter 3, honestly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Changeling

Peter Medak | 1980 | Canada | 107 min

Why did I wait so long to watch this?! I've long been a fan of Peter Medak's crime offerings like Let Him Have It, The Krays, and Romeo is Bleeding, but I have avoided his work outside that genre. This is possibly due to his name having been attached to un-crimey fare like Species 2 and Pontiac Moon. However, long before any of that, Medak was proving his mettle with this old fashioned haunted house film. Old fashioned, but perfectly paced and thoroughly chilling.

George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a famous composer who has moved across the country and into a stately historical mansion to start life anew following the tragic accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. It takes only short time before things in the home start feeling amiss and the bumps-in-the-night begin. Russell is led to boarded up room in his attic where he begins to piece together the story of a boy who was murdered there in 1909. As Russell tries to uncover who was responsible he becomes embroiled in both a larger conspiracy and the difficult reminders of losing his own family.

Despite a grander plot than traditional haunted house films, The Changeling never strays far from it roots. It is a taut story and rife with good scares. George C. Scott seems an unlikely choice, but he does a great job countering the traditional screaming lead as a man who is essentially just pissed off that his home's spectre is preventing him from getting on with his life. To be fair, though, that kid's ghost was an impossible to please fucking brat.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Manchurian Candidate

John Frankenheimer | 1962 | 126 mins | USA

There are some movies that I feel a bit ashamed to admit I haven’t seen yet. Classics, all-time favourites, 1st year film class must-haves, that sort of thing. Until last night, The Manchurian Candidate was one of those movies. Well, no more!

The story concerns Raymond Shaw, an insufferably no-fun soldier who’s just returned from the Korean War to receive a Congressional Medal of Honour. He's a bit put off by all the attention (or maybe he's just a prickly guy) and attempts to escape the hype immediately by moving to New York to work for a newspaperman. The hoo-ha is largely drummed up by his domineering, ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury – who knew the delightful old lady from Murder She Wrote could be so perfectly grating?) who tries to use him to help her puppet husband’s political campaigns.

Meanwhile, Shaw’s C.O., the charming and handsome Major Marco (Frank Sinatra, who is just so much dreamier in his serious roles) has been having some strange nightmares, in which their platoon is being held at a bizarre garden party, watching a brainwashed Shaw murder their colleagues and follow orders from an array of Russian Generals.

Are the nightmares a fantasy or a glimpse into the grim reality of what really happened in Korea? That’s the question, and Frankenheimer answers it very heavy handedly, but not without some skillful twists and turns. This film is, in case you didn’t glean it from my description, ABOUT COMMUNISM. You can make up your own mind about what’s more sinister, though – the covert communists secretly lurking in our midst or the ones who walk openly among us, disguised and undetected!

Side note: I had no idea till I happened upon it on IMDB today that Jonathan Demme remade this film in 2004. That was a retarded idea, Jonathan Demme.

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant | 2007 | 85 min | US

Gus Van Sant does some serious channeling of Harmony Korine's youthful verve for this picture in an attempted return to relevance. And it works! We follow a young skateboarder named Alex around his involvement with the accidental death of a security guard. At the film's start Alex is being interviewed by a detective who knows little more than the guard was hit by a skateboard near an infamous skate park and squat. It's a crime story in that it is centered around a criminal act, but Paranoid Park is captivating in how it weaves through adolescent awkwardness and guilt.

Park is loaded down with non-actors, which sometimes works wonderfully and sometimes fails miserably, often within the same scene. The first time you hear the voice-over you will wince, but in the context of a sixteen-year-old uncomfortably reading thoughts from his private journal, it makes perfect sense. The gracelessness forced into the picture is exactly the kind one would expect from teenagers trying to navigate love lives, family break ups, and other events out of their control.

Playing off of the turbulence of the characters is some gorgeous direction and sound design. The extended slow motion skate scenes shot in a Portland park and unlikely song selections from Fellini films turn the discord of the story on its head. Van Sant introduces several moments that allow for breaks in the stress while impressing on us the romance of a teenager just becoming involved in a new subculture.

After a bit a break from "good" it looks like Van Sant is back on his game. The world of Paranoid Park is gripping, beautiful, and authentic.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Curse of the Werewolf

Terence Fisher | 1961 | 91 mins | UK

Let me preface this review by saying in no uncertain terms that I believe Oliver Reed is, even at the very worst of times, a compelling delight. His charming mug, big moony eyes and drunken swagger made me fall in love with him when I first saw that creepy/sexy fig scene in Women in Love as a ten year old, although I admit Alan Bates gave him a serious run for his money in that one (and, truth be told, his drunken swagger was quite roped in).

At any rate, even for non-fans, a Hammer Oliver Reed is a thing to behold. His portrayal of Leon Corledo – the lonely, misunderstood werewolf who yearns for love but cannot escape his violent nature – is perfectly overwrought. The poor cursed creature is the child of a mute (and busty) servant who was raped by a beggar while being held in the evil and appropriately named Marques Siniestro’s dungeon. The girl escapes and is taken in by a kindly man and his maid, only to die in childbirth on Christmas Day – apparently an affront to the lord, and the reason for young Oliver’s lifelong curse. The young man nearly escapes his tragic fate with the help of a young woman’s love, but alas, werewolves just aren’t meant to find happiness.

By today’s standards, Curse of the Werewolf is exceedingly slow. The first three quarters of the film, at least, are a detailed and nearly violence-free account of young Leon’s origins – from his mother’s unfortunate stint in the Marques’ castle to his childhood of sheep killing, to his tentative steps toward adulthood as he gets a job, finds a pal and falls in love. We don’t even get to see the scary makeup pictured above until the movie’s nearly done.

I’m not sure I can recommend this to the thrill-seeking portion of the horror fan audience, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a Hammer film, then you’ll probably really enjoy this one. It’s a bit plodding, but in the service of High Melodrama!

Bonus factoid: I’m almost certain that the industrious and prolific Hammer Films reused the exact set that served as Dr. Frankenstein’s lab in this one, as Leon’s workin’ man living quarters.

The Evil of Frankenstein

Freddie Francis | 1964 | 84 mins | UK

In perhaps his most famous role for Hammer Film Productions after Dr. Van Helsing, Peter Cushing returns in this (third of seven, I think?) Frankenstein film as the Baron himself. Destitute and penniless but as debonair as ever, the Baron has been kicked out of yet another town for stealing cadavers and decides to return to his old haunt of Karlstaad to see if any of the precious belongings in his chateau can be sold off to fund his further experiments. He finds the chateau (more of a castle, really) looted and left in total disarray, but not so uninhabitable that he can’t start up his old lab again, thank heavens.

When he and his loyal helper have to flee the town after an altercation with local officials, they end up taking shelter in a nearby cave, generously shared with them by a sexy local deaf-mute girl. Lo and behold, Frankenstein’s long lost monster is found to be trapped in an icy crevasse in the cave, just waiting to be dug up, thawed and reanimated.

At this point, assorted corrupt local politicians and a shady hypnotist named Zoltan get mixed into the muck while Peter Cushing tries to keep his terribly sophisticated head above water.

The Frankenstein makeup isn’t stellar in this film, and the monster is not so much scary as “there” – a dull but necessary reminder of why it is that the townspeople are supposed to be so scared of Baron Frankenstein. His icy disregard for their petty morals and foolish rules about what’s to be done with the dead are more chilling by far!

Monday, August 04, 2008


Anders Morgenthaler | 2007 | 80 min | Denmark

EKKO opens with Simon, a policeman and loving father with his son, Louis on his shoulders, walking towards a beach house. When they arrive, Simon tells Louis to go try and find an open window to sneak into. When asked if he doesn't have a key, Simon says that of course he does, but it's more fun if they pretend to be burglars. It's clear instantly that he doesn't have a key. While Louis looks for a window, Simon starts to pick at the lock. Louis then startles him from inside by throwing himself at the glass door, sending Simon reeling back onto his ass. Yes, he's on edge because of breaking into a house he shouldn't be, but there's obviously something else.

We soon find out that this seemly gentle and caring father has kidnapped his son after a court ruled that he was to have his joint custody taken away from him. This last bit of time with Louis is the most important thing in the world to Simon. We slowly discover that allthough he does love his son and wants to spend time with him, it's partly out of selfish reasons that he's brought Louis to the abandonned beach house. Simon needs to prove to himself that he's a good father. That he's not the same as his father was, and that he can look after his son without letting his past overwhelm him.

Directed by Anders Morgenthaler, the director of Princess, he's again made a film with an innocent child and its conflicted guardian for main characters. EKKO isn't as outwardly violent as Princess, but suppressed hurt and anger bubbles just below the surface.

Shot beautifully by Kasper Tuxen, and anchored by a very believable father/son rapport between Kim Bodnia (Simon) and Villads Milthers Fritsche (Louis), EKKO is a film that would have been great if it weren't for some misteps. The introduction of Simon and Louis and their time spend in the house alone is as touching and realistic a father/son bonding sequence as recent years have produced. As soon as the film starts to introduce characters other than Simon and Louis though, their isolated world feels rudely intruded upon. What's worse though is that while clearly conceived as a drama-turned-horror-film by Morgenthaler, the way he's externalized Simon's demons doesn't quite work. He would have done much better to rely on the performances and the subtletly of things unsaid. When things get loud and ugly, the film unravels.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Guatemalan Handshake

Todd Rohal | 2006 | 96 min | US

The Guatemalan Handshake suffers from a fatal case of Burger Phone Syndrome in which the director wrongly presumes that merely having unusual items on screen is the same as writing actual jokes. It is not. Rohal's feature debut is another movie that is so in love with how cute and quirky it is that the development of the story and characters quickly take a back seat in favour of showing them doing supposedly amusing/weird things.

It is a shame. The opening scenes of Handshake are inventive and beautiful, then totally forgotten. What seems to be the introduction of a plot is only the set up for kookiness. Around ninety minutes of the aggravating business follows. In that time we learn about a roller rink employee who is lactose intolerant, a couple of delinquent boy scouts, an elderly woman looking for her dead dog, a pregnant woman who's estranged father angrily coaches a host of future gymnasts, a ten-year-old girl, and a bunch of other losers. All of their paths wonderfully converge one magical day at a demolition derby. All of their names are Mr. Turnupseed or Ethel Firecracker or Spank Williams or Turkeylegs. Fuck that.

Even the trailer is wacky.