Devil Hunting for Fun and Profit

It’s been really dead around here, believe me I know.

Luckily, I do have a new guest blog entry up as part of Severin Film’s “Forgotten Severin Classics” series. It’s a deep philosophical feminist reading of…a Jess Franco cannibal film (I’m dead serious).

I’m very proud of it and I’d love it if you’d take a look. Intimate knowledge of the film’s not required. Even though I spoil a bunch of stuff, it won’t diminish the crazy, sleazy enjoyment if you wanted to go ahead and grab the DVD when you’re done reading. Severin is a great company, support them.

The article can be found right here.

Gimme That Ole Time Religion: [REC] 2

A lot of people don’t seem to take them into account but expectation and screening conditions are two of the most important variables that affect an audience member’s enjoyment of a film. We may try to remain impartial to internet buzz and critical reception, just as we can try to ignore the jackoff checking his iphone in the seat next to us: but these things nevertheless change the way we experience films.

Let me give this idea a bit of context:

A year or so ago, after the genre websites had thoroughly whipped themselves into a tizzy over it, I finally sat down to watch the original [REC] (2007) once it received a legitimate DVD release stateside. I was watching it with my girlfriend. We were watching on her smallish television and I prefaced the film with “I hear this is really great.” To which she replied “what’s it about?” Which caught me a little off guard, because I didn’t know.

I was quite disappointed when [REC] turned out to be “only a zombie movie.” This, the film that had been heralded as the “next big thing” belonged to a genre that had long worn out its welcome. The first film managed to be an above-average mashup of 28 Days Later and Blair Witch Project (the whole movie is “filmed” by a news crew). It had some nice scares and complex setups, but at the end of the night it was still a zombie movie.

Tonight I saw [REC] 2 during its three night stint at the Brattle theater. The experience I had with the film was the exact opposite of its predecessor, leading to one of the best nights of horror cinema I’ve had in years.

The film begins just like the last one, we are introduced to a set of characters (in this case a SWAT team escorting a VIP), they are given some tenuous reason for filming themselves (the team not only has a camera man, but individual cameras on their helmets), they are let loose in a quarantined apartment building and charged with getting to the bottom of the “infection.” I don’t want to spoil things, but the film takes a drastic departure from its “zombie movie” roots by giving a very supernatural reason for the infection visited on the tenants of the building.

The paranormal occurrences are introduced slowly but surely, building to the film’s disturbing denouement. By the end the film is so different that viewers of the first film would have never been able to guess where the series was heading.

As many critics have noted (I like to look at criticism after the fact, so nothing was spoiled for me on my awesome first viewing) the film borrows heavily from The Exorcist (1973). It’s true, but you would have to be one up-tight idiot if you can’t see the conscious love for the classics that co-directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza are infusing into their film. [REC] 2 is the spookfest too end all spookfests. The first-person perspective and cramped hallways ensure it’s probably the closest thing to a physical haunted house experience that cinema has ever pulled off.

The Brattle presentation did the film justice: pumping up the volume and letting the jump-scares and fake-outs really pop. It’s been years since I’ve felt that giddy “hide behind the couch” adrenaline rush that first captured my heart as a kid, but this film, at this screening, gave me that in spades.

The film has its faults: the “found footage” gag only goes so far, character motivations are hazy (why are the kids in the middle of the film compelled to sneak into the apartment?), and the dialogue (at least in translation) is iffy. But it works. It works wonders. It’s a sequel so good that it has me doubting my appraisal of the first film (the movie syncs up with the original at many points, making the most out of its temporal and physical proximity to the first film) and has me eager for a sequel. Although, I don’t doubt myself that thoroughly, I feel that the first film is like an extended preamble to this superior production (the budget is much higher this time around, as evidenced by the FX). The seed of a religious slant is planted in the last few moments of the original, but it took a whole other movie to get to the really groundbreaking stuff.

[REC] 2 may not be a classic, but it’s a very good film. When you combine this with the highly subjective factors of my own (lowered) expectations and the (superb) screening I attended: the movie completely worked for me. Fun and legitimately scary in ways that few films are anymore, I urge you to seek out [REC] 2.

Hopefully I didn’t raise your expectations too high.

Strength, Muscle and Jungle Work: Predators

Predators isn’t bad. It’s not that great either. I can’t properly articulate it but this “middle-of-the road-ness” is in someways more frustrating than an out-and-out bad installment in a long running franchise. We’ve had crappy Predator movies before, but we’ve never had a “just decent” one.

The film has a great cast, a proven filmmaker (I found director Nimrod Antal’s 2007 film Vacancy to be immensely enjoyable) and it’s shot quite nicely. What hobbles it, and I do mean a vicious Misery-style hobbling, is its generic and bland script.

The premise itself is not the problem. The idea of having a group of multicultural badasses taken from armies and gangs all over earth and having them dropped into a giant game preserve is inspired. Sure it’s goofy, but it’s the good kind of goofy that dispenses with boring exposition and (literally)drops our characters into the middle of the action. Out of the aforementioned badasses Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins (who played Shane on The Shield), Alice Braga (City of God) and Adrian Brody (The Pianist) are the highlights. There’s also a brief scene-stealing turn from Laurence Fishburne.

For those doubtful that the rather bookish looking Brody will be believable as a Black-ops mercenary should be quieted up right quick once the action starts. Brody and the rest of the cast’s awesome ham-fisted performances are easily the best part of the film. The actors (Goggins especially) take the cliche crappy dialogue they’ve been handed and try their damnedest to inject some life into it but it’s too little too late. Their lines are DOA.

One of the best parts about the original Predator was all the great quips given to the characters, they not only looked tough but they talked tough. They weren’t spouting genius, earth-shattering dialogue, but at least it was fresh and entertaining. Strip away their archetypal clothing (i.e. the yakuza in a snazzy suit, the redneck felon in his deathrow jumpsuit) and this new set of “cannon-fodder” characters are all interchangeable. Even when there is an attempt to spice things up with a joke or one-liner, it’s telegraphed and falls flat.

The film also has pacing issues, with a huge chunk of time in the beginning when the titular aliens go unseen and then a silly, clunky and disjointed climax. When it finally looks like the human characters are getting the upper-hand the whole picture stalls out and the “galaxy’s greatest hunter” goes MIA for five or so minutes, allowing everyone time to chat amongst themselves. It has no rhythm or logic to it and, worse yet, no surprises.

It may sound like I’m being too hard on the film, and maybe that’s true because there is a lot to enjoy here, but it’s frustrating to think of what “could have been” had a little more effort been taken on the page. Especially considering the obscene amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera.

For those with lowered expectations Predators is a passable R-rated B-movie and one of the better ways to spend 2 hours in air-conditioning this weekend considering this year’s lack of quality summer movies. So if you’ve already seen Toy Story 3 (yeah I know, big overlap in audience there) and there isn’t a theater playing the fabulous Winter’s Bone in your area, I would say go for it.

"What’s your favorite movie?"

If you’re a film major you get this question a lot. You get it at parties, in classes, on the subway, in taxis, at urinals. You get it every time you tell someone what you study. You don’t have to be a film major to appreciate the quandary here. Anyone who loves movies knows what a trick/impossible question this is.

I love movies: plural. To choose one raises so many questions, to choose one makes me immediately think of 5 others that I “love more.” I was just asked by one of my girlfriend’s friends “what’s your favorite movie?” I answered but in a way, I lied. I said that it was a tie. I gave her two of my “stock” answers, two films that have enough name recognition and that I love enough to rank as my hypothetical favorites. As soon as I answered my girlfriend, always the contrarian troublemaker, says : “that’s not what you said last time.”

I chuckled and changed the subject, but it got me thinking. I’ve always disliked getting this question, but I’ve never fully articulated to myself why. I’ve tried to pick a favorite, but it’s impossible. I could probably narrow it down to twenty or so, but ranking those top twenty would be impossible. The list would be a patchwork of different genres, time periods, languages and tones. All the films make me feel great, that’s all there is to it.

You ask “well, what were those two ‘stock ‘answers? Where is that hypothetical twenty?” I’m not going to give you the twenty, I’ll give you the two stock answers plus three more from the list, then I’ll tell you another secret.

“Either Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy,” that was my answer to the girl’s question. In fact, it is my go to answer most of the time. Some days, if I’m feeling especially mentally spry or have been talking to a person about a specific genre of films (Westerns, Horror, etc.) I could very well answer something completely different. It was not a lie, per se, Tax Driver and Midnight Cowboy are my favorite movies. Just not all of them.

I will now give you those five, and a (all too) brief rundown of why each one is special to me. These are all perfect films in my eyes, so order doesn’t matter, neither do exceptions.

Taxi Driver (1976), as it probably is for many young cinephiles of my generation (I’m not inferring that my list is wholly original or unique, it is simply mine), is not the film that made me love cinema, but the one that made me long to be a part of it.

It is the film that mathematically, undeniably proves the well-worn film school cliche that “film is a collaborative medium.” Taxi Driver is and isn’t Martin Scorsese’s film. The young master is integral to the film’s greatness but no more or less so than Paul Schrader’s incredible script (his first unless you count his collaboration on the Sidney Pollack film Yakuza, which is awesome but would not be on any favorites list of mine), Bernard Herrmann’s score or Robert De Niro’s performance.

I think the reason I list this film first, when asked, is its ending. The faux “happy ending” to Travis’s story is possibly the most disturbing and realistic part of this already dark and realistic film.

Further viewing: I’m sure you’ve seen Taxi Driver, but Schrader is also an amazing filmmaker in his own right you may not have seen his biopic/dark comedy Auto Focus (2002), another favorite. If you want more De Niro/Scorsese genius, sit down with The King of Comedy (1982).

Probably the most emotionally manipulative movie on the list, but not in a bad way because it is also the one most likely to move you to tears. Lots of people are familiar with Harry Nilsson’s theme from the film (“Everybody’s Talkin'”) and know the trivia bit that it was the first X rated movie to win best picture, but it seems that less and less people have actually seen John Schlesinger’s 1969 film.

For example, my sophomore year, after one of my first few film classes, I was talking to a handful of my classmates. The deadly, aforementioned question came up. Not a single one had seen Midnight Cowboy. It’s not their fault, but that just kind of bummed me out. It is a film that deserves and requires at least one viewing. If you are one of the unfamiliar: you don’t have to like it, and I have a feeling that many won’t, but you should at least give it a shot.

Further viewing: If Ratso and Joe Buck have you all cried out, relax with one of the best thrillers ever made: Marathon Man (1976) which reunites Dustin Hoffman and Schlesinger.

Say, for instance, that you were a detective, charged with figuring out my “favorite” movie by clues left in my room. Get Carter (1971) would be your first guess because of the not one, but two large, prominently placed posters hanging on my wall (one is the one pictured above and the other is a poster sized blow up of a black & white production still, Carter putting a woman into the trunk of her own car after dragging her out of her tub, not as misogynist as it sounds).

I was never much for the genre of “gangster” films. I like them alright but I certainly don’t prescribe to the college male “broski” aesthetic of plastering your wall with quotes from De Palma’s Scarface (a fine movie, but one that I believe works best as a semi-parody of the genre). That’s why I would define Get Carter as a revenge film, the person getting the revenge just happens to be a gangster.

Endlessly quotable, unbelievably scuzzy, and with one of my favorite scenes of all time (Carter finds a major clue to the puzzle to why his brother was murdered by watching a homemade pornographic loop, which we see reflected in the mirror behind him, nicely framed and Michael Caine’s performance is devastating) Get Carter is a film you will really like or absolutely despise.

Further viewing: Ever wish you could combine your love for mediocre horror movies and Michael Caine? Then Oliver Stone’s dirty little secret The Hand (1981) is for you, it may not be great, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in certifiable insanity (not a favorite, for those keeping score). Want to see the softer side of Caine instead? He also stars in one of the best sex comedies from the 80s, Blame it on Rio (1984).

Here’s the most recent movie on the list, a sprawling semi-biographical epic about the porn industry in the 70s and 80s that is also a gifted filmmaker’s meditation on movies in general. Putting aside the marvelous soundtrack, the unbelievable cast (proof that Mark Wahlberg can act, despite what he tried to tell you with The Happening), and the strong sexual content (which may be outputting to some, pffft) and you still have an expertly constructed film.

A strange film in that it is both nostalgic and brutal. We are presented with characters that we identify with and like but we also see them in situations that we can’t immediately identify with (nor would we want to) and watch as some decisions turn tragic. By the end you mourn for the loss of Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) theater-based livelihood, you curse VHS and then you stop, think about it for a second and realize that even the “good old days” weren’t so great.

Further viewing: Just so you don’t think I only like films that are over thirty years old, here are some more favorites from the last few years. No Country for Old Men (2007) I think the Coen’s are the best American filmmakers working today, this is quite possibly their masterpiece. J.S.A (2000) Korean director Park Chan Wook’s most restrained work is also one of my favorites. Up (2009) I’ve yet to see Moon or A Serious Man and I do love The Hurt Locker, but I think that if I had to “gun to my head”-it Pixar’s latest effort is my favorite film of the year.

If this is a horror blog, then where are the horror movies? I’m getting there, pipe down.

In the end of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), he inadvertently (Romero has sworn up and down that this was never directly this intention) made one of the most incendiary social critiques in horror by having his black protagonist…well you know (I still can’t bring myself to spoil the ends of movies, but if you haven’t seen NOTLD and are reading this blog, there really is no hope for you).

In his 1978 follow-up he turns up the social criticism knob to 11, has Tom Savini ride into town in an oil tanker full of blood, shoots in technicolor that makes the Emerald City look like Newark, has his buddy Dario Argento lend a hand with the music and creates the ultimate zombie movie in the process, hands down.

I recently read a discussion online (some forum or twitter or blog, I really don’t remember) where a bit of a backlash against this film flared up. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but comon fellas, are you nuts?

Some complain that it’s dated, but as someone in my early 20s I think I’m allowed to poo-poo that without running up against the “what do you know? Old man” argument that us kids are so fond of.

Further viewing: well, in my opinion, there’s really only one other horror movie that can give Dawn of the Dead a run for it’s money and that’s The Exorcist (1973). Generic, I know, but they really are my two top spots (until I think of another 20).

There you are. There are the five I promised (plus some bonuses). Debate amongst yourselves.

What’s that?

What’s the secret I was babbling about?

Well, in two years I’ll look at this list, still love the movies on it, but probably construct an entirely new one. That’s one of the wonders of cinema and the joys of loving it.