Archive for October, 2013

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Maniac (2012) (directed by Franck Kahlfoun)

So why didn’t I see it in the theater?  Well, quite frankly, I didn’t have any other choice.  It had been on my radar forever but never came to Austin.  Hell, I even bought the soundtrack to kill the time before it was finally released.

So why did I buy the DVD?  I’d heard nothing but good things.  Elijah Wood rarely goes dark but I remembered his turn as Kevin in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City which was nice and creepy.  Plus, as you may well know, I’m a goon for horror.  This one was a no-brainer.

So was it worth it?  Definitely.  As mentioned earlier, I had bought the soundtrack after hearing rave reviews about it.  It was like the bastard love child of Tangerine Dream and Goblin and is easily my favorite score of the year.  It painted a picture of what I would eventually see in the film.  That the Blu-ray was released during October played well into my month-long horror movie marathon and I was excited to finally sit down to watch it.  To say it was worth the wait would be an understatement.

So what’s it about?  A remake of the classic 80’s grindhouse slasher starring Joe Spinell, this film changes coasts and offers a unique and disorienting first person perspective to deliver a cracker jack horror flick that dares you to sympathize with its sociopath ‘protagonist’.  Elijah Wood steps into the role of Frank Zito, the proprietor of a third-generation family store that restores antique mannequins.  At night, he finds himself on the streets of Los Angeles stalking those unfortunate women who’ve caught his eye.  We see him trying desperately to make a human connection but he is haunted by the ghost of his mother, a neglectful woman who was more concerned with her own lascivious desires than the well-being of her child.  His best efforts are doomed to failure and would-be paramours fall like dominoes to the madness that eats his beyond damaged soul.  A glimmer of  hope presents itself in the form of Jessica, a photographer, who happens upon his store and sees a beauty in Frank’s work.  She’s wants to use some his mannequins in a photo exhibit she’s putting on.  The two strike up an odd friendship.  But Frank wants so much more.  And Jessica’s inability to see the monster that lies beneath the artist she admires might doom her.

So what’s my grade?  A very solid and well-earned A.  Elijah Wood is strong in a role in which he is very rarely actually seen.  All of the action is shot from a first-person perspective.  The viewer is quite literally experiencing the movie through the eyes of a crazed killer.   When we do see him, it’s most often in mirrors, a clever effect that never betrays the conceit.  We see his sunken eyes, his desperate hope, and his unhinged fury.  Occasionally, the camera pulls away from Frank’s perspective and shows him in action.  This most often happens when he is extremely happy or extremely enraged.  It’s used sparingly and to great effect.  Genevieve Alexandra is Jessica.  She is alluring and a bit coquettish and ably embodies the type of woman who could set a man back on the right path or knock him hopelessly off course.  Their roles are the centerpieces of a great film.  Throw in that wonderful perfect music by French composer Rob and you’re in horror geek nirvana.

 

Maniac is available on Blu-ray, DVD and on Netflix Instant.

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Gravity (d. Alfonso Cuaron, w. Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron)

Grade:  A+

You’ve seen the commercials.  You couldn’t avoid them.  They were everywhere leading up to the release of the film.  You know the stars, they’re only two of the biggest names in Hollywood.  Maybe you’re familiar with the director.  Alfonso Cuaron is the man who directed the most enjoyable of the Harry Potter films, The Prisoner of Azkaban.  He also directed one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years, Children of Men.

But with his latest, and almost certainly his greatest, Cuaron has cemented his reputation as one of the best filmmakers of his era.

Two astronauts, veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are on a routine spacewalk to install new hardware on the Hubble telescope.  A missile strike by the Russians on one of their own satellites starts a chain reaction with devastating effect.  They soon find themselves in an impossible situation with no clear course for escape.  Their only certainty is that another wave of destruction will be speeding its way through orbit at catastrophic speed.

In a brief 90 minutes (a refreshing change from the overwrought, overdone blockbusters of the summer,) Cuaron delivers what is basically a two person stage production set in space.  It features some of, if not THE, most impressive visual effects I’ve ever seen.  The films opens with what appears to be a seamless 15-20 minute shot of the shuttle crew as they complete their mission, blissfully unaware of what is to come.  They exchange in small talk and banter with mission control (voiced by Ed Harris in what is perhaps a nod to the similar role he played in Apollo 13.)  It is here where we first see the steely, professional swagger of Clooney’s Kowalski on his last mission before retirement.  Bullock’s Stone is nervous and overwhelmed when faced with the infinite void of all of creation.  The two really carry the film and provide the emotional depth beyond the visual splendor.  Beyond the visuals and the acting, the subject matter  resonates with the viewer because we know something like this could happen.  I’m old to remember the Challenger disaster.  And I certainly remember the Colombia disaster of 2003.  I recall seeing the footage of the shuttle breaking up as it entered our atmosphere.  That imagery is reflected in shots in this film and it is sobering.

This is a movie worth seeing as big and loud as you possibly can.  Of course there is no sound in space (a fact the film reasserts in a brief written intro) but here there is a propulsive score by Steven Price that heightens the ever-increasing jeopardy of the astronauts.  Hell, I’ve already bought the soundtrack.  It’s wonderful.  On the presentation side of things, It’s rare for me to recommend 3D or Imax but this is a film one should see in its intended format.  The larger screen conveys the vastness of space and shows just how small we are in the grand scope of things.

Big, bold and beautiful, Cuaron reaffirms the power of cinema.  He reminds us that movies can still be magical.  The least anyone can do is take an hour and a half to appreciate what he’s done.  I highly recommend you do.

The French, as Groundskeeper Willie once famously intoned, are a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, their rifles made of rubber so that they might bounce back into the empty hands they’ve thrown up in certain defeat.  Their cuisine is confusing.  Their language rolls off the tongue like a razor blade.  Their personal grooming and bathing habits are suspect.  Yet despite all these terrible qualities, this otherwise hopeless country has managed, like a blind squirrel finding a nut, to get at least one thing right:  Horror.

In the new millennium, a group of talented French filmmakers unleashed a new wave of horror that would make even the most jaded of gore hounds take pause.  Filled with unfortunate souls in unfortunate situations, these films are often bloody, frequently bleak, and almost always morally nihilistic.  They are not easy to watch but they are well made and well worth your time.

Here are some of my faves!

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5.   La Horde (The Horde)

A group of dirty French cops invade a tenement high-rise under the control of the vicious drug gang that was responsible for the death of their colleague.  Their quest for vengeance is thwarted in a vicious gun battle leaving casualties on both sides.  Before the surviving gangsters can dispatch their enemies, an unexplained zombie apocalypse lays waste to the city.  Trapped on the top floor of the building, now surrounded by the undead, the two forces join sides to navigate their way to a parking garage that serves as their only avenue for escape. Along the way they must deal with their fallen brothers, now risen and hungry for flesh, and their distrust for each other.  The flick is relentless.  From the cops siege of the building to a final showdown in the garage with the few survivors and hundreds of zombies, the pace never lets up.  The final shot is so perfectly depressing and so very French.

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4.  Haute Tension (High Tension)

Two young college girls get away for the weekend to the country house of one of their parents.  After a nice meal with the family, they settle in for the night.  The visiting girl, Marie, is still awake when she hears someone at the door.  Her friend Alex’s father answers.  And all hell breaks loose as a madman is unleashed on the unprepared family.  As the killer stalks through the house, Marie hides under her bed just as the killer enters.  Finding no one, there he moves on.  She comes downstairs just in time to see the vicious predator dragging Alex into his truck.  Marie sneaks into the truck before it drives off setting up an ultimate confrontation with the killer that will decide both her and her friend’s fate.  There is an ill-advised third act twist that almost derails the whole flick but one can forgive it for all the goodness that comes before the big reveal.

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3.  Ils (Them)

What’s up with the French and their fear of the countryside?  Several of the films on this list involve isolated folks surrounded by malicious forces with emergency services not readily available.  Here, a young nurse leaves the big city returning to the country home she shares with her boyfriend.  Their evening is interrupted by strange noises and music coming from outside.  They investigate and see someone drive off in their car.  They return to the house only to find that they are no longer alone as unseen parties begin tormenting them.  The film is short and economical with no fat on the bone.  It conveys with brutal effectiveness the couple’s realization that their lives are in jeopardy.  The film is all the more disturbing because it seems entirely plausible made even more so by the reveal that closes it.  Highly recommended.

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2. Martyrs

This film is not for the weak of heart.  It is unflinching and brutal in the depiction of its subject matter all the while taking sudden turns that keep the viewer guessing just what the hell might come next.  It opens with a young girl escaping captivity from an abandoned warehouse and briefly follows (through videotape footage) her recovery.  It then jumps to a typical family enjoying a simple weekend breakfast…in the country (See?!?)  A doorbell rings.  The father answers.  A cold, dead-eyed young woman, Marie, is at the door.  And she is about to unleash hell.  Her motives become clear as she exacts bloody and indiscriminate revenge.  Her accomplice, Anna, another woman abused in her youth, is shocked at the level of violence, almost sympathizing with the victims.  Soon, Anna won’t have time for sympathy.  The film bravely asks whether violence and pain serves a purpose.  More bravely, it answers that question.

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1.  A l’interieur (Inside)

I was fortunate enough to first catch this film at a horror con that came to  town a few years ago.  That viewing continues to be one of the most visceral and nerve-wracking theater experiences I’ve had in my 40 odd years.  As the lights went up in the theater, my body unclenched from the terror to which it had been subjected the previous 82 minutes.  I let out a deep breath knowing I’d been exposed to something special.  The story is simple:  A widowed mother-to-be, alone in her house on Christmas Eve and scheduled to have labor induced the next day, is set upon by another woman who wants what the protagonist must treasures:  her child.  The lengths this total stranger will go to claim her prize know no bounds.  The film’s violence is almost operatic, escalating by the minute as the antagonist lays waste to anything in her way.  It ends on an image so profoundly heartbreaking it will test your soul.

 

These fine films are but a sampling of the great offerings France has had to offer in the last decade.  The French New Wave has slowed down a bit but the product that has made its way overseas speaks for itself.  It’s not for the squeamish or for those who get morally outraged.  Because, remember, the French have no morals.  Such a dastardly people.  And cinema is all the better for it.