Sunday, October 30, 2011

Take Shelter and Sarah's Key

 This paranoia drama, from Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols, has been getting a stack of praise lately. Michael Shannon, excellent as always, plays Curtis, a blue collar family man whose grip on reality slowly loosens when he begins dreaming of fatal weather events. The dreams eventually become his reality and he becomes a danger to himself and others.

Nichols builds a certain amount of tension, but because we know fairly early on that Shannon is imagining everything, the suspense is just: When will he snap?

For me, it was too slow and protracted. It's a thirty minute idea (a 'Twilight Zone' episode) stretched to two hours. The length wouldn't be a huge issue if the climax was worth the wait. It isn't. In fact, it's quite a cinematic whimper, a big So What! moment. The 'Twilight Zone' would have delivered a socko ending. This fails to.

The paranoia stuff was standard, so I took some enjoyment from the relationship Shannon has with his friend and work colleague Dewart (Shea Whigham). As Curtis gets crazier, the relationship fractures, and Curtis attempt to protect his mate from the fallout of a dodgy scheme involving work equipment. Whigham acquits himself very nicely in this role, as does Jessica Chastain as his supportive wife Samantha.

Could have done without this film.

I had a little more love for Sarah's Key, a French flick about French Jews who were betrayed by some of their own people during wartime. Kristin Scott Thomas, a journalist, uncovers a story in which a a little boy is left behind (in a closet) by his sister and parents when they are sent to Auschwitz. The girl (Sarah) escapes and harbors a hope that she will be able to save her brother. Not surprisingly, things don't work out so well.

Problem A: Although the above is dramatic and tragic and interesting, there's not enough of it to fill a movie told this way. Clearly, the producers recognized this issue, so they added Thomas's journalist storyline to the drama to fill out the running time. Unfortunately, it doesn't work because we see many of the events before Thomas learns about them. Her role is superfluous. Problem B: Sarah, the most interesting person in the movie, gets sidelined after the sad events of her childhood. Because we learn what finally happened to her, it's clear she blamed herself for her brother's tragic fate. What riveting viewing it would have made to see her struggling with this terrible guilt. We don't see it. Instead, we get Thomas uncovering this detail and that detail and discovering a personal connection with Sarah's family. Who cares?! Problem C: Point of view. The film should have dispensed with Thomas and told its story from Sarah's POV. That would have been much more interesting.

Why the Thomas character? Financing? She's a name and Sarah (Melusine Mayance in a terrific turn) isn't. Perhaps. A case of compelling story, wrong angle of attack.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Art To Live For

Three amazing pieces by three extraordinary artists:

1)Toshio Saeki; The Early Works;  Editions Treville, 1997

2)Carlos Yamazaki; The Last Freak Show; All Misemono, 1997

3)Trevor Brown; Li'L Miss Sticky Kiss; Editions Treville, 2004

Appropriate Adult

   The lurid lives of Fred and Rosemary West have been documented in half a dozen books including 'Happy Like Murderers' (Gordon Burn), 'The Corpse Garden' (Colin Wilson) , 'Fred and Rose' (Howard Sounes), and 'An Evil Love' (Geoffrey Wansell), my favorite of the bunch. The British thriller, Mum and Dad, was an impressionistic take on elements of the story. It focused on the couple's psychopathic dynamic without directly identifying them.  Several documentaries have been doing the rounds on the telly and on youtube. Now and then, authentic Fred audio leaks out to interested parties, of which I am one. As far as 20th century criminality goes, the West story is right up there with Manson, The Moors Murderers, The Monster of the Andes (Pedro Lopez), Gacy, Dahmer, and more recently, the Jaycee Dugard/Phillip and Nancy Garrido case, and that of Austria's Joseph Fritzl, who imprisoned and raped his daughter for decades (and fathered children with her).  Considering the depth, breadth, and lengthy time frame of the Wests' crimes against women, children, and the unborn, there is a mother lode of perverted drama to draw on for filmmakers and writers.

Britain's ITV has broadcast a take on the story from an "appropriate" point of view. Appropriate Adult is an example of how you do Fred and Rose on TV without offending 99% of your audience. A truly literal movie would be closer to Tim Roth's The War Game mixed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deep Crimson, and Serbian Film.  You'd also need to weave in some of the most extreme Euro porn from the 70's such as Kilroy Was Here (one of Fred's favorites) and the German Violence and Slave Sex series. I'd also suggest, just for tone, you toss in some live action 'Antoine Bernhard' (look him up on this blog). In today's tender market, where something like Serbian Film is being banned and cut around the world, a graphic tale of Fred and Rose West is likely to remain the untold story.

 The producers of Appropriate Adult were clearly aware of all of the above, so, still determined to tell the story, chose an interesting point of view.  In Britain, if a person is being charged with a crime, and it has been determined that that person has learning difficulties and may be unable to comprehend what they are being charged with, an Appropriate Adult (AA) is assigned to them. In Fred's case, the AA was Janet Leach (Emily Watson), a woman whose previous experience was academic only. Needless to say, her time with the serial killer became a fiery baptism.

 Taking Janet's point of view, we only see what Janet sees when Fred is being questioned and charged,  but we also get to hear what Fred shares with Janet when the cops are out of the room or distracted. It is what Fred shares discreetly with Janet that provides the film with its more incendiary drama. Janet develops a strange, somewhat dependent relationship with Fred while he appears to be smitten with aspects of her that remind him of his true love, Anna McFall -- I say "appears" because we're never quite sure whether Fred is playing Janet for a fool or is sincere in his affection for her.  This ambiguity keeps the drama bouncing.

Although there are some visits to the house where Fred and Rose lived, loved, raped and murdered, this TV movie is mostly set in a police station and prison. Although it's quite talky, it's never less than fascinating in its limited way because West (played with enormous subtlety by Dominic West) is a compelling character, a man of contradictions who elicits both sympathy (at times) and hatred. We get to see the charmer who managed to charm the pants off the women he ultimately raped and killed. And, although it's not covered in this extremely abbreviated version of almost thirty years of mind-boggling events, West also charmed the police into believing that accusations and suspicions thrown at him were a bunch of hysterical hogwash. He was accused of raping and kidnapping years before close to a dozen charges finally stuck, but he always weaseled his way out of anything serious and happily carried on as a devoted husband to Rose and father to a brood of children whose numbers he was personally reducing in his basement.

Naturally, Appropriate Adult soft pedals Fred's true nature to easily offended TV viewers, so a rather distorted, milky picture of him emerges. The truth is, he raped his daughter Heather for most of her lifetime, and would accuse her of being a lesbian when she attempted to reject his advances. Heather's body was also shared by Fred with his brother John, who happily took Fred's rape baton. He was eventually charged. The majority of Fred's children were sexually abused or forced to witness the abuse that was commonplace in the West household, a household that was closer to a Sadean brothel than a home sweet home.  Fred was also obsessed with corpses and raped his way through the ones he created, often playing with and souveniring body parts. Because none of this is covered in Appropriate Adult "(Don't mention the war or the corpses!") , the picture we get of the man is extremely controlled and not a little inaccurate. What service such sanitization of character provides is a little uncertain to me, and this is where I found Appropriate Adult problematic.

If you want to tell a story about a shocking crime, is it appropriate to underplay the shocking aspects of that crime when it is the shocking aspects (and their implications) that made it notorious, and extraordinary, in the first place? To me, it's a little like having your cake and eating it, too -- you exploit the public's hunger for horror to reel them in, but you refuse to indulge their appetite for it when you've got them in your hand. It's the old bait and switch. I know the commercial reasons for it, but commercial reasons for anything have nothing to do with what may be right. 

 Because I know the Fred and Rose story inside out, I felt a bit cheated by the Fred and Rose Lite we get here. Although Dominic West (playing Fred) and  Monica Dolan (chilling as Rose) are totally convincing, and, yes, the production is a handsome and well written one, I wanted to see so much more, especially how Fred and Rose interacted as a couple before they were imprisoned and separated. That, to me, is what's interesting. But there is little here of  that 'Evil Love', that special connection, that inseparable partnership in which they experienced crazy love as husband and wife, parents, killers, rapists, and sexual adventurers. What kind of love survives that? What kind of love is strengthened by that? That's what's truly fascinating. That's the untold story so far.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Get the ZOMBIE Blu-ray or Die, Fucker!


I don't know why, but the idea of Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) being interviewed at the Cinema Wasteland convention for the Zombie Blu-ray got my engines whirring this afternoon. It was like fantasy becoming reality.

 The man who immortalized "The boat can leave now, tell the crew," is interviewed on this superb disk.

Al Cliver, too. He's also interviewed.

Does it get any better?

Hell, yeah!

Guillermo del Torro goes nuts over Zombie!... and shows us he's a big fan of on-screen nudity, too. Kudos to him for his honesty and passion.

Cinematographer Sergio Salvatti speaks, and he gives us a true sense of the love he brought to this movie. That love imbues every frame! Behold the new transfer. Finally, we can appreciate Salvatti's fine work. 

The writers reminisce, too. Dardano Sacchetti, in particular, discusses the script at great length, and demonstrates his affection for Fulci.

Even producer Fabrizio De Angelis shows up for a great interview. Keep in mind that this bloke produced Violent Naples, The Beyond, Zombie Holocaust, The New York Ripper, and The House by the Cemetery, to name just a few. He gets plenty of respect from me.

This new Blu-Ray from Blue Underground, with stellar technical production work from Red Shirt Pictures (great audio and lighting on the interviews, boys!) is a fucking goddamn revelation

It gathers the creme de la creme of the folks who brought this classic to the big screen, and asks them all the right questions -- even Fabio Frizzi, who composed a theme that I've hummed and whistled and played in my car more than anything else I can remember.

 So what's the transfer like?

Incredible. The wooden shard in the eye has never looked better or more beautiful.

The fat zombie's first appearance on the boat has never looked this awesome, or been quite this impactful.

Salvatti's night cinematography of the zombies shambling down the center of the village has never been more atmospheric or richer.

It's like a Haitian nightmare springing to life with its toasty golden sheen and swirling, dancing fog.

The rotting bastards feasting on the innards of Olga Karlatos has never been redder, more garish, and clearer.

The ripping of flesh, the throwing of zombies at the church doors, the zoom in to the bloody ear of the shambling dead man... these sequences have never looked so brilliant... or felt so damn right.

Zombie did not look this good at the drive-in. Not through a dirty windscreen, anyway.

What about the shark? What about about the shark???!!! WHAT ABOUT THE FUCKING SHARK???!!!

It's absolutely incredible. The images of Mexican stuntie Ramon Bravo wrestling that shark and taking a bite out of him have never looked more pristine, more dangerous, and  more surreal. Bravo, Fulci, you nailed it, son!

And that teeny weeny bikini of Auretta Gay is even sexier on Blu-ray, and you just wish you could rip the damn thing off and start feasting on what it almost fails to contain (Zombie-style, of course, without the teeth!).

Unfortunately, the Blu-ray won't help you to do that, but you can sure enjoy this horror classic on Blu-Ray like you've never enjoyed it before... or not since you saw it on its first run at a hardtop or a drive-in.

If you don 't buy the Zombie Blu-ray, you might as well kill yourself... because life without the Zombie Blu-ray is just eating, shitting, and dying.

John Saul

John Saul, whose first thriller, Suffer the Children, was published in '76, doesn't get much blog press -- not favorable blog press, anyway. I Googled him recently and found a lot of venom directed at his work (37 thriller novels plus another 10 non-thrillers written prior to '76 under other names). That puzzles me because he can be a really commanding storyteller.

Mainstream success does shine a great deal more light on an author, so he/she ends up being more widely read and, therefore, more widely criticized or praised. I haven't liked all of his books, which is par for most courses, but I have found some quite haunting and atmospheric. I recall vividly, at 17, reading his Cry for the Strangers, and feeling terribly uneasy.  I didn't know how he achieved it, but he managed to instill fear in me.

The first book I read of Saul's was Punish the Sinners (I love these early titles!), a tale of a medieval curse visited on the pretty girls of a small desert town in Eastern Washington. Fast-paced, hysterical about the subject of Evil, slightly perverted -- I enjoyed it. Like many early Saul books, it opens with a description of a horror from the past, then re-locates to the present day where that same horror rears its ugly again.

Many have criticized Saul for writing the same book over and over. They assume that because the first five  titles -- Suffer the Children, Punish the Sinners, Cry for the Strangers, Comes the Blind Fury, When the Wind Blows -- had the same ring to them, he's recycling.   It's really not true.   Obviously, these early titles were a marketing decision, and they must have done their job. Saul sold millions, and continues unabated to this day.  But the books are all significantly different.

Innocence perverted, curses exacted, children paying for their parents' sins, and undying evil are themes that  clearly rock Saul's boat. He enjoys the small town setting, favors the coast, and usually opts for an historical subtext. Is that a sin? Most writers focus on themes that interest them, that fire off their creative pistons. It's each authors' themes that make that author unique.

Does Saul's writing achieve greatness? For me, it achieves commanding readability. I'm not smart enough or well read enough to judge the greatness of anything. What's great to me is a pile of shit to the guy next door. Keep in mind that one of my favorite novels of all time is Pierce Nace's Eat Them Alive, a super-gory, super-ridiculous book about a castrated gimp and his army of vengeance-seeking prey mantises. To me, the book is beyond great, and that's the important part. When it comes to films and books, your own reaction is all that matters. The man or woman who ventures into the unknown with an opinion poll in hand is a pathetic creature indeed.

I started this blog to share the stuff I love.  I love it so much that I want to give others the opportunity to try it. That's my mission. Nothing more than that. I love to be pointed towards stuff I don't know about myself. I figure you might enjoy that, too.

Today, I felt the need to sing the praises of Mr. John Saul. He's been punching the typewriter keys for more than forty years. Telling stories still gets him out of bed in the morning. I respect that.

Give him a go!

I recommend Suffer the Children, Punish the Sinners, Cry for the Strangers, Comes the Blind Fury (such a beautiful evocative title), The Right Hand of Evil, The Black Stone Chronicles, The Unloved, Black Creek Crossing, Nathaniel, When the Wind Blows, and The Homing.

Read my rave about Eat Them Alive here:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Last Circus

I had a good feeling about Alex De La Iglesia's The Last Circus. That feeling did not leave me as I experienced it for the first time. That feeling became a great feeling, and I felt myself being transported to a familiar place that echoed Todd Browning's Freaks,  Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, Cardiff's The Freakmaker, and Schlondorf's The Tin Drum. It was a pleasure to visit that milieu again. I felt like I was home.

What we have here is a tale of crazy love tucked into a Spanish Civil War macro. It's a cautionary fable of how crazed one can become when one loves so much. Javier (Carlos Areces), a Sad Clown, finds a reason to be happy when he meets the acrobatic Natalia (Carolina Bang), the wife of Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a Happy Clown who stands in for Franco in our macro. Javier rushes to Natalia's side after she takes yet another brutal beating from her husband, whose happy face turns sad when he drinks. Javier's love for the abused circus performer robs him of discretion, and it isn't long before Sergio learns of the illicit affair.

 Sergio's anger at being cuckholded ignites a string of violent reprisals and grotesque disfigurements. These signal a dramatic escalation in the narrative, and put a leering smile on my face, inspiring me to celebrate the audaciousness of The Last Circus.

The wonderful Santiago Segura (Torrente!) plays the father of the film's Sad Clown.

Iglesia's latest (he's made many) is a rich, ruddy-colored  explosion of passion that sometimes feels like a bloody, undiscovered Fellini film. It possesses the Italian master's love of the large and the lewd, and it doesn't retreat when it starts heading towards a Grand Guignol resolution. Although it's boisterous and operatic, it's also delicate, especially in its early scenes where we learn of Javier's background (a wonderful cameo with Santiago Segura) and share beautiful intimacies with Javier and Natalia.  

 More than any other film that he's directed, Iglesia gets the balance mostly right with this one. I've often found his films -- Accion mutante, for example -- lacking in contrast, or guilty of damning their greatness -- Perdita Durango -- with a little too much of a good thing. Customarily, he throws in too many elements so you're left with a kitchen sink full of junk. I wasn't a fan of his 800 Bullets, although I admired it,  but I really enjoyed The Perfect Crime, a 2004 comedy that smelt like Almodovar but tasted like Iglesia off the drugs (figuratively speaking). Although the last fifteen minutes of The Last Circus gives us frosting on top of frosting, it retains its dignity, nevertheless, and left me sated.

Spain's economy may be in the doldrums, but it's cinema remains alive and innovative. 

 The U.S. Blu-ray, from Magnet Releasing, is a more than adequate presentation, and also features a making-of documentary and some trailers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Refn Gives Good Cinematic Fuck

Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive is a synthesis of gold. Its influences are things of beauty. Heat. Goodbye,Uncle Tom (the stunning song 'Oh My Love'). Le Samourai. Thief. Walter Hill's The Driver. Takeshi's Hanna-Bi. Lynch's Lost Highway. Blue Velvet, too.

There's a love story there about a caring man who wants to do right for someone who deserves it, someone who's revealed no hidden, shabby agenda. His motives don't seem selfish. They seem pure. Ryan Gosling plays him with a quietly incandescent serenity. Carey Mulligan, harboring a beautiful spirit, plays the girl. She exudes a tone that many men seek, but few can avoid adjusting.

The use of light and shade will recall Bullitt and Heat for cinephiles. For those less exposed to cinema's treasures, it will feel fresh. For mine, the influences are like velvety collisions in the dark. The styles mesh and form a truly hypnotic whole. As in a Takeshi Kitano film, the brutal emerges organically from the beautiful and serenity is briefly interrupted by violence before it dominates again. Refn's style IS the film's protagonist.

 The plot is as simple as it needs to be for the tenor the film wants to achieve. There are no contrived detours. The threads knit comfortably together, forging a taut structure.

Albert Brooks plays a bad guy who was probably once good. He lost his focus. Took a path of least resistance.  Ron Perlman, looking stunningly grotesque, plays a badder guy who never struggled with good. He exudes the exact opposite of Mulligan. He is metal distortion driven so far into your ears your eyes bleed.

Few directors resist the urge to shoot car chases as jigsaws of chaos. Refn does. One car chase, not particularly lengthy, rears up at us like an angry animal and feels like two panthers in pursuit of one another. It is staged in glorious wide shots, and we never lose track of what's where and what's being done to whom. The use of sound in this sequence is the smartest since Cobra. It blew me away.

It's a film you feel and surrender to. The elements -- music, cinematography, lighting, silence -- marry and masturbate our senses. We're being fucked beautifully. Rising and falling. Nothing else exists. As it should be.