Tag Archives: movie reviews

Your Film-a-Day Guide to October! Day 18: Severance

Severance (2006)

Genuinely funny and exhaustingly brutal, Christopher Smith’s British import Severance offers a mischievous team-building exercise in horror. A handful of would-be execs for global weapons manufacturer Palisade Defense are misled and slaughtered in what they believe to be a mandatory weekend excursion in Hungary to build corporate camaraderie.

Smith and co-writer James Moran’s wickedly insightful script mocks corporate culture as Smith’s direction pays homage to the weirdest assortment of films. The result is an uproarious but no less frightening visit to an area of the world that apparently scares the shit out of us: Eastern Europe. (Think Hostel, The Human Centipede, Borat.)

An epically watchable flick, Severance boasts solid performances, well-placed bear traps and landmines, a flamethrower and an excellent balance of black humor and true horror. To say more would be to give too much away, but rest assured that with every scene Smith and crew generate palpable tension. It erupts with equally entertaining measure in either a good, solid laugh or in a horrible, disfiguring dose of horror. How awesome is that?!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ4e1558QY0

Your Scary-Movie-a-Day Guide to October. Day 12: Eden Lake

Eden Lake (2009)

It’s crazy this film hasn’t been seen more. 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.

Kids today!

The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. And though James Watkins’s screenplay makes a couple of difficult missteps, it bounces back with some clever maneuvers and horrific turns.

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.

There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.

Don’t expect spectral terror in this one, though. Instead you’ll find a bunch of neighborhood kids pissed off at their lot in life and taking it out on someone alarmingly like you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkJxIqGV-cE

For Your Queue: What’s With All the Ado?

Let’s class up the queue this week with a double dose of the Bard. One of the very best films of 2013, Much Ado About Nothing, drops today. 

Writer/director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Toy Story, The Cabin in the Woodsagain shows his storytelling instincts are dead on, regardless of the genre. Shakespeare’s classic comedy about love and deception is given a present-day makeover, employing a game cast of Whedon favorites to create a playful, satisfying romp.
The wordplay is frenetic, some of the most clever Shakespeare produced, but there are also very funny stretches that rely heavily on physical comedy. The cast delivers with a gleeful enthusiasm, and Whedon adds amusing touches such as having one pivotal scene set amid snorkeling, giving it a new, Wes Anderson-esque hilarity.
Artfully filming in black and white, Whedon doesn’t shrink from the play’s dark corners, while giving the wonderfully comedic aspects a new, updated energy.

Pair that with the 2011 tribute/mystery/historical fiction Anonymous. The film takes the eons-old theory that Bill Shakespeare did not pen all those plays and turns it into a political thriller that entertains at every turn. The fact that this layered, historically savvy costume drama was directed by bombast master Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012, White House Down) may have you believing in another anonymous helmsman.

Your Scary-Movie-a-Day Guide to October Day 3: Funny Games

 

Funny Games (1997, 2007)

Michael Haneke, an amazing creator of both tension and soul-touching drama, continues to prove he is a filmmaking genius. From the creepy, mysterious Cache (Hidden), to The White Ribbon – his incandescent and terrifying pre-WWII  masterpiece – to last year’s Oscar-nominated Amour, everything Haneke has done deserves repeated viewing. This is a bit easier with Funny Games, as he made it twice.

A family pulls into their vacation lake home, and are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.

Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.

Asks the victimized father, “Why are you doing this?”

Replies the villain, “Why not?”

Haneke is hardly the first filmmaker to use adolescent boredom as a source of frightening possibility. Kubrick mined Anthony Burgess’s similar theme to icy perfection in A Clockwork Orange, perhaps the definitive work on the topic, but Haneke’s material refuses to follow conventions.

His teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains rather insist that we play, too.

Once Haneke’s establishes that he’ll break the 4th wall, the director chooses – in a particularly famous scene that will likely determine your overall view of the film – to play games with us as well.

His English language remake is a shot for shot repeat of the German language original. In both films, the performances are meticulous, realistic, unnerving. The family is sympathetic, but not overbearingly so. They’re real.

But in both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.

 

1997:

 

2007:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48s781bxWF8

SciFi of Significance

by Hope Madden

The wondrous galactic epic Gravity delivers an unmatched cinematic achievement. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuarón sets you adrift in space, and for 90 minutes he leaves you breathless at the glory of the universe, and wrung out at the drama of attempted survival.

His work will make you remember why you go to movies – to the dark auditorium with the big, big screen. It will make you remember a time when a trip to the cinema utterly dwarfed the experience of movie night at home.

To create this magnificent beast, Cuarón created tools and technology that simply did not exist prior to this film. He created what he needed to authentically craft the sense of zero gravity, utter silence, cosmic lighting – all in 3D, no less.

When it comes to the vehicle for all this gadgetry, Cuarón, along with co-writer and son Jonás, seems to understand that simplicity is his friend. He refuses to complicate the tale, and the paired down narrative allows the primal terror and exhilaration of the space adventure to take hold.

Cuarón’s camera takes us to the outer reaches, and then crawls inside the space suit, allowing us to hurl unmoored through space along with Sandra Bullock’s novice astronaut. She is a medical researcher on her first space voyage, and she is in over her head, unprepared for all that she will experience. Just like us.

A playful George Clooney tags along for camaraderie, helping Cuarón create a joyous calm before the crisis. They’re astronauts. Look how cool that is! No wonder they risk almost unimaginable peril to do it.

Though the narrative makes a misstep here and there with emotional trickery and melodrama, what errors Cuarón makes with words he more than compensates for with the overwhelming visual experience.

The action will wring you out as you curse the clumsy suits, rail against the unpredictability of gravity, strain with heroes desperate to rush in a silent calm that will not allow it. Gravity doesn’t just deliver a magnificent view of space; it also offers perhaps the most breathlessly exciting action adventure of the year.

Visually glorious does not begin to describe Cuarón’s film. More than that, Gravity is realistic – jaw droppingly so. And this is why people began making movies in the first place – to transport you someplace magical, someplace otherworldly. Few if any have succeeded in this quest quite as Cuarón has with Gravity.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

For Your Queue: You’ll Feel Fine

Proof positive that the end of the world may be just the welcome change we need, This Is The End releases to DVD today.

Wouldn’t you know it? Just when there’s a rockin’ party at James Franco’s house, the darned apocalypse has to go and ruin everything!

And by “ruin everything,” I mean turn it into the funniest film of the year. Franco, Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and an ensemble of their famous friends all play themselves, lampooning each other and the folly of celebrity culture.

It’s crude, it’s wrong, it somehow manages to work in a positive message, and it’s damn funny.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j463qtCRlxk

Last year’s party apocalypse movie It’s a Disaster! is the obvious choice for a rapturous double bill. Writer/director Todd Berger sends us to a couples brunch with Tracy (Julia Stiles) and her new beau Glen (David Cross, who could not be better). Simultaneously, the world ends. The bitingly clever, surprisingly enjoyable comedy of manners boasts a spot-on ensemble and the best gallows humor of 2012.

A Scary Movie a Day for October! Day 1: Halloween

 

Halloween (1978)

Look past the ton of weak imitations, the awful sequels and the jokes about the Shatner mask, and remember that the original Halloween was pretty effective. No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.

Sure, you’ve seen it, but from the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Agreed, there are several terribly flat lines, and P.J. Soles as a giggling, dead-eyed airhead irritates the shit out of you, but Carpenter develops anxiety well, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.

Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. For the coup de grace, John Carpenter’s minimalistic score is always there to ratchet up the anxiety. Nice.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SFmmROBUto

De Niro’s Not-So-Secret Admirer

The Family

by Hope Madden

Think of The Family as Luc Besson’s mash note to Robert De Niro.

The writer/director/Frenchman’s fondness for violence and organized crime in film is well documented. He’s written and/or directed dozens of films on the topic, including La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and Transporter. Rather than follow a single assassin or bag man, this time around Besson wades through more familiar cinematic waters with a full-fledged mafia picture.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, known to his new neighbors in Normandy, France as Fred Blake. He ratted out his wise guy connections back in Brooklyn, and now the Witness Protection Program shuffles his family around France trying to avoid a retaliatory hit. But the “Blakes” don’t make it easy.

Besson’s screenplay is based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, who’s penned some great, gritty flicks (The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips). The Family is a lighter affair, depicting good natured psychopaths who fail to fit in as another set of psychos descend on a sleepy French town.

The film lacks the action choreography Besson’s audience has come to expect. Instead, its charm lies in the director’s joyous fondness for American gangster flicks in general and De Niro’s work in particular. His odes grow evermore obvious, with callbacks to most of the actor’s greats: Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Godfather: Part II, even Cape Fear. Besson’s having some fun, and DeNiro seems to enjoy the affection.

De Niro’s chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer, playing his wife, gives the film a little heart. It’s great to see these two seasoned veterans share the screen, and Pfeiffer’s displaced and disgruntled Italian American is fun to watch.

The storyline for the couple’s two teens is weaker, and Besson seems almost disinterested in the involvement of the WPP agents, including saggy faced sourpuss Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).

It’s an action comedy that’s a little short on action. The comedy is pleasant and fun, but never truly funny. What keeps this light but violent romp entertaining is its own sense of joy and its love of Robert De Niro. Which may not be the best reason to make a film, but there are worse.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APfgBoaGdf4

Ain’t That Film Impressive

by Hope Madden

 

The screen fills with the sepia image of a bygone Texas. Sinewy lovers quarrel and forgive, then wait in a pick-up, planning a future with their unborn baby, until the third robber arrives. There’s a chase, a lonesome shack, a shoot out, and a compromise that sends the boy away to prison and the girl home to pine.

There’s good reason writer/director David Lowery’s romantic tragedy Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels so confident. The breathtaking cinematography, the fittingly artistic framing, the poetry of the language and image, the heartbreaking authority of the performances – each element fits together beautifully and benefits from the artistic coordination of a maestro. It’s because the relatively unknown Lowery has honed his craft, spending time as a casting director, crewman, writer, director, sound editor, actor, producer, and cinematographer before tackling this, the culminating effort of a lifetime spent in film.

He’s blessed with a cast that embraces his understated drama. Casey Affleck animates a career full of characters with vulnerability and confused nobility, and he impresses again here as the outlaw who breaks out of prison, just like he promised, to reunite with his girl and the daughter he’s never met.

Rooney Mara’s quiet ferocity offsets Affleck’s tenderness, and the love story they create offers a poignant center to the film. Orbiting the couple is Ben Foster’s humble police officer, torn by his affection for one and duty to the other. Each actor embodies an image of lonesomeness that makes the film ache. What’s beautiful about this triangle is that neither the characters nor the filmmaker judges anyone. Lowery and his characters accept, however sadly, the motivations and actions of all involved.

The young mother also attracts the protective nature of a retired gangster/father figure played by Keith Carradine, whose presence reinforces the film’s bluesy connection to the other great, doomed Western romance, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The film’s one shortcoming is that it does not tell a larger tale. This beautifully told story of loneliness, devotion, love and tragedy never manages to transcend its own intimacy to speak to something universal.

But it’s a hell of an effort, and one that establishes Lowery as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in decades.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars