When Worlds Collide

Story of My Death

by Hope Madden

Infamous womanizer Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography “Story of My Life” became an irreplaceable documentation of 18th Century Europe. His libertine lifestyle and the age it represents come to an unusual conclusion in the hands of Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra, whose film Story of My Death introduces Casanova to another major European literary figure, Dracula.

Weird, right?

Well, it is certainly unique, as is every frame of Serra’s film. Utterly naturalistic performances, a judgment free approach to the proceedings, a painterly cinematic quality and a very loose narrative structure keep the film feeling simultaneously realistic and surreal.

Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) spends his waning years in his castle penning memoirs, then embarks on an extended journey to more rustic locales in the Carpathian Mountains.

Altaio brings something wonderfully fresh to his turn as Casanova, a performance that’s all sensuality and no smolder, no seduction. Delighted by bodily functions and enamored with every sensuous aspect of daily life, he makes for an unusual hero in a deeply peculiar film.

His Casanova is an overripe figure – something, like his era, just a bit past its spoil date. We spend fully half the film lazing about his castle with him and his coterie, slurping pomegranates (among other things!) and waxing poetic. Serra’s lighting and framing take on a magisterial quality, but all this – the flouncing, the debauchery, the balance of light and dark – develops a more brutal, sinister quality as the film moves to its second half out on the mountainside.

The daintiness of the chateau has no place in this land of the hardy. While Casanova’s behavior back home elicited nonchalance, here in Romania it finds disdain, whispers of condemnation, worries over wickedness.

Why does Casanova meet Dracula (Eliseu Huertas)? Serra’s image is less a monster mash up than a metaphor. By pitting iconic figures of the two eras, the film animates the moment that the age of reason gave way to the Romantic period, when reason took a back seat to darker thinking.

Serra’s film is never quite as simple as that, with every seemingly random and spontaneous scene nonetheless riddled with metaphors and busy with details. From concept to execution, his film is a unique piece of art that will confound and entertain in equal measure.


Brilliant Biopics For Your Queue

Ave DuVernay’s unflincing account of civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama is the most painfully relevant film of 2014. Sure, Oscar decided to ignore the director’s brilliant work as well as David Oyelowo’s stunning, wearied performance, but that doesn’t mean you should. DuVernay is a master storyteller at the top of her game and with her stewardship, Selma is a well crafted, straightforward punch to the gut.

Another underappreciates 2014 gem, Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr. Turner, releases to home entertainment today as well. While the films are markedly different, they do share some wonderful elements in common. Leigh’s approach suits the material beautifully as his painterly camera and fluid direction give the story room to breathe, while a magnificent lead performance from Timothy Spall keeps you spellbound. Both boast wonderfully nuanced turns from a large, capable ensemble and both were woefully underappreciated by the Academy. You should give them a chance.

Fright Club: Best Horror Movies You May Have Missed

We’ve spent more than a month celebrating the best horror movies of each decade, and what that made us want to do is to throw a little party for those under-the-radar gems you may not have caught. This list could go on for days, but we narrowed our recommendations down to a half dozen of our very favorite, woefully underseen horror flicks. Have a look, and if you’ve missed any of these, take our word for it: you need to see these.

6. Eden Lake (2008)

The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.

European horror tends to do a nice job with the upwardly mobile middle class’s terror of untamed young things. Kids today! The best of these films mix a contempt for proper manners and liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes.

The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Sure, the “angry parents raise angry children” cycle may be overstated, but Jack O’Connell’s performance as the rage-saturated offspring turned absolute psychopath is chilling.


5. The Woman (2011)

There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleese (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.

The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Writer Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. And director Lucky McKee, in hi smost sure-footed effort, has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see. Like most of Ketchum’s work, The Woman is lurid and more than a bit disturbing.

Nothing happens in this film by accident – not even the innocent seeming baking of cookies – nor does it ever happen solely to titillate. Deeply disturbing and absolutely not for the timid, this is a movie that will stay with you.

4. The Snowtown Murders (2011)

John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.

Director Justin Kurtzel seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.

Daniel Henshall cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.

There’s not a false note in his chilling turn, nor in the atmosphere Kurzel creates of a population aching for a man – any adult male to care for them, protect them and tell them what to do.

The Snowtown Murders is a slow boil, and painfully tense. It’s hard to watch and harder to believe, but as a film, it offers a powerful image of everyday evil that will be hard to shake.


3. Them (Ils) (2006)

Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit. Writers/directors/Frenchmen David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up.

A French film set in Romania, Them follows Lucas (Michael Cohen) and Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a young couple still moving into the big rattling old house where they’ll stay while they’re working abroad.

It will be a shorter trip than they’d originally planned.

What the film offers in 77 minutes is relentless suspense. Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.

Watch it. Do it.

2. We Are What We Are (Somos le que hay) (2010)

In a quiet opening sequence, a man dies in a mall. It happens that this is a family patriarch and his passing leaves the desperately poor family in shambles. While their particular quandary veers spectacularly from expectations, there is something primal and authentic about it.

It’s as if a simple relic from a hunter-gatherer population evolved separately but within the larger urban population, and now this little tribe is left without a leader. An internal power struggle begins to determine the member most suited to take over as the head of the household, and therefore, there is some conflict and competition – however reluctant – over who will handle the principal task of the patriarch: that of putting meat on the table.

Writer/director Jorge Michel Grau’s approach is so subtle, so honest, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror film. Grau draws eerie, powerful performances across the board, and forever veers in unexpected directions.

We Are What We Are is among the finest family dramas or social commentaries of 2010. Blend into that drama some deep perversity, spooky ambiguities and mysteries, deftly handled acting, and a lot of freaky shit and you have hardly the goriest film on this list, but perhaps the most relevant.


1. The Ordeal (Calvaire) (2004)

A paranoid fantasy about the link between progress and emasculation, the film sees a timid singer stuck in the wilds of Belgium after his van breaks down.

Writer/director Fabrice Du Welz’s script scares up the darkest imaginable humor. If David Lynch had directed Deliverance in French, the concoction might have resembled The Ordeal. As sweet, shy singer Marc (a pitch perfect Laurent Lucas) awaits aid, he begins to recognize the hell he’s stumbled into. Unfortunately for Marc, salvation’s even worse.

The whole film boasts an uneasy, “What next?” quality. It also provides a European image of a terror that’s plagued American filmmakers for generations: the more we embrace progress, the further we get from that primal hunter/gatherer who knew how to survive.

Du Welz animates more ably than most our collective revulsion over the idea that we’ve evolved into something incapable of unaided survival; the weaker species, so to speak. Certainly John Boorman’s Deliverance (the Uncle Daddy of all backwoods survival pics) understood the fear of emasculation that fuels this particular dread, but Du Welz picks that scab more effectively than any filmmaker since.

His film is a profoundly uncomfortable, deeply disturbing, unsettlingly humorous freakshow that must be seen to be believed.


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A Maria Full of Grace

Clouds of Sils Maria

by George Wolf

Somewhere between Twilight and the tabloids, Kristen Stewart began doing some real acting. She’s better than ever in Clouds of Sils Maria, and though hers is a supporting role alongside one of the screen’s major talents, Stewart pulls plenty of weight in a terrific drama with much to say.

Juliette Binoche is customarily excellent as Maria, a famous actress returning to the stage in a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years earlier. This time, though, she’s playing the older female lead, while a Lindsay Lohan clone named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz, striking just the right tone of clueless entitlement) is taking the role Maria originated.

Stewart is Maria’s ever-present personal assistant Valentine, who not only runs both errands and lines for Maria, but serves as her bridge to a younger generation.

Writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) takes the intimate psychological playground of Polanski’s Venus in Fur, and laces it with the pop culture commentary of Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Binoche and Stewart swim gracefully inside the play within a play setup, slowly moving Maria and Valentine in directions that mirror the script both characters are reading.

The actresses display an easy chemistry, never more apparent than when Valentine is trying to sell Maria on the merits of young Hollywood. In the film’s most deliciously meta moment, Stewart might just as well be telling all of us Twilight haters to get over it already.

Assayas’s script is sharp and his camera is fluid, effectively blurring the line between onstage and off. Revisiting the play forces Maria to confront her past and question her present, and Binoche reveals the various layers with a gentle, masterful touch.

The beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria lies in its subtle complexity. It offers sly insights that sneak up on you, and an exceptional cast to make them stick.




Get it Sorted!


by Hope Madden

Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando) makes a lot of arrests. Yes, he plants some evidence, keeps a little off the top for himself, and stuffs more drugs up his nose than most people could fit into the trunk of a car, but that doesn’t make him a bad cop.

Maybe it does, actually, but more to the point, it’s all catching up to Logan right now. The Turk he’d been doing business with is dead, which means he has to start all over again with the brutal Albanians. Meanwhile an internal investigation is mucking everything up.

This grey area where he lives is getting darker all the time. No need to fret. He’ll get it sorted.

The film Hyena’s success is due in part to Peter Ferdinando’s conundrum of a performance. Though the character is likely beyond redemption, Ferdinando keeps you hoping as it seems he may be hoping himself.

This is not the first collaboration between filmmaker Gerard Johnson and star. Their 2009 serial killer flick Tony proved that Johnson can find a new way to tell a familiar story, and their collaborations side by side show Ferdinando’s impressive range.

His inner turmoil is forever on display, and while you want to believe it’s his moral compass finally trying to point north, you’re at least equally convinced he’s just worried about his own skin.

Between the ride along camera and jarringly meticulous sound work, Johnson immerses you in Logan’s spinning, seedy world in a queasying way. His anxious camera makes you feel as sickly, involved and trapped in this sketchy, bloody business as Logan. His synth-heavy score is equal parts debauched party and regret-filled hangover.

Yes, there are many familiar elements: dodgy cops, Albanian crime lords, gritty crime in an urban underbelly. And it’s not really as if Johnson takes a particularly unusual perspective, or that his insight is greater, or that his film offers anything utterly unique. He just tells this particular story better than most.

The provocative ending could not have worked without Ferdinando’s conflicted, enigmatic performance.

Bad decisions and the traps they lay, that’s the bleak and bloody tale of Detective Inspector Michael Logan. His life is spinning wildly out of control and you’re invited to witness it.