Thursday, September 22, 2011


I cannot say that I understood Dogtooth. That is not to say that I didn't appreciate it. What makes me appreciate it is its original idea, creative cinematography, and muted and detached mood. It was pleasant to watch (most of it) from a purely visual perspective.
But the content...
What can one say about the content?
It was difficult for me to settle into the film in some ways because it required for me such a huge suspension of disbelief.
I tried hard to think about what might motivate parents to raise their children in such a way. The father talked about protecting his children, but there was nothing rational about the way he went about it. Unless the mother and father were conducting some kind of top secret government experiment, or they were aliens or from the future, or some such. But that requires adding a layer that is never alluded to in the film.
I couldn't help but remember references to homeschooling in some of the conversations about the film when it was a Hot Topic. This doesn't connect in any way to my experience with even the most conservative homeschoolers. I may not agree with their methods or even their underlying assumptions, but at least its all held together by a worldview that has a measure of internal logic. The film didn't seem to have any of that.
So when the violence and the incest happens, it doesn't impact on more than a visual or surface level because it's not held together by anything. I didn't even find myself disturbed by it (well, the dead cat, yes) because it just all seemed so unbelievable. To clarify, emotionally vs. intellectually disturbed.
This includes the apparent inability of the "children" to recognize that things are amiss. Granted, the oldest does eventually, but the other two seem unaware that what's going on is everything but normal. Again, it's pushed to an extreme that makes it unbelievable.
There were interesting elements, no doubt. The brother over the fence, the monotone manner of speaking, the airplane business. But it didn't convince me.
Now maybe I'll go back and re-read the debate from earlier this year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Quiet City

You know that one spot in the hallway, or the corner of the room--the spot where you decided to put that little framed picture you really liked? And then once you put the picture there, you knew in that moment that the picture could never go anywhere else and that nothing else could ever go in that spot? And you don't know how you missed that potential for so long? That's what Quiet City was for me. I don't want to say anything more about it, because if you don't know about it, you shouldn't before watching it. So I hope you do watch it and let me know what you think. Lisa, I'll especially need your validation on this one (Ben, too, perhaps), because I'm not sure how the rest of the cynics and atheists in film club will interpret it. And if nothing else, maybe calling them cynics and atheists will pique their interest in the film. 

I don't want to hear it, John. I know, I know, you have a mild and grudging something-approaching-respect for mumblecore.

Dance Party USA was also a very good film, but it reminded me too much of Kids, though it wasn't nearly as depressing. Not nearly, thank God. However, if there's one kind of character I have a hard time sympathizing with, it's the womanizer. I have little to no respect for womanizers, and if one decides he's suddenly going to develop a conscience, my instinct is not to feel happy for him, and supportive of his journey towards wholeness, but to say to him, "Welcome to the f%$#ing human race, you neanderthal." Gus was far too despicable to me for the movement his character made over the course of the film to mean much to me--especially for me to think that he even remotely deserved someone like Jessica, who, rootless as she is, already knows what she doesn't want for her life, at least. Then, the other part of me kicks in and reminds me that everyone deserves a chance to change for the better. And I can appreciate Gus's visit to Kate and his desire for real contact with his friend (who, while seeming to be the more evolved of the two initially, turns out to be just as much a neanderthal, albeit one with less opportunities to indulge it than Gus). But if you disrespect women so much that you would do to one what Gus did to Kate, you've got a loooooooong way to go before I'll give you some credit for your growth. I'll admit that I am judgmental about this, and I'm not proud of it, but it's where I am.

So now I've seen two Aaron Katz films and I have to say I like his stuff better than the Duplasses' thus far. I really, really, really want to see Cold Weather now. I got Puffy Chair for cheap at Record Archive a week ago, so it looks like I'm wading deeper into the mythos and mystery of this style of filmmaking.

I also saw a Film Movement film, Fraulein, with my wife a few nights ago. It was your standard moody/heartwarming/brooding European film, which I'm typically a sucker for. But I actually kind of hated the ending, and it caused me to distance myself from Ana's character, and almost undid all the positive things the events of the film had accomplished thus far between her and Ruza--as well as among all the characters, generally speaking. There's got to be some middle ground between bleak European realist endings and syrupy American optimist endings. A few films get there, but I don't see it nearly as often as I'd like.

Oh, wait--Quiet City, anyone?

"If you like...
...gratuitous strings of vulgar language (for the sake of cheap laughs rather than honest character exploration), pseudo-science, nerd ignorance and prejudices, cheap shots at fundy evangelical caricatures, anal probe jokes, notorious product placement, hit-you-over-the-head-obvious-because-you're-stupid film and pop culture references, dumb road trip conventions, bromantic deconstructions of male friendships, cardboard characters, and a lame plot that doesn't do much to transcend any of the weakest of the above...

If you like all of those things, you'll love Paul."

John, I LOVE all those things, especially when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are participating in them! I'll have to see Paul right away! Thanks for the recommendation!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bits and Pieces

Check out Adrienne's review of DBAOTD

I want to officially recommend Win, Win. I don't know that I have a lot to say about it other than it's a great feel-good story that doesn't seem cliched or unrealistic. There are some genuinely-emotional tingly moments. Both my wife and I loved it and want to show it to the boy. It's rated R, but seems to be barely R (a lot of F-bombs). It's about an everyman lawyer who takes on an elderly man with dementia for less than ethical reasons, and ends up in the middle of a very complex moral dilemma involving the elderly man's daughter and grandson. The acting is great (Giamatti almost never disappoints me), and there's a fair amount of humor peppered in that feels very natural despite the dramatic tone of the film.

The night after I watched DBAOTD, I saw Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill. It was decent enough, but it was so late I kept falling asleep. One thing that was interesting was that the ghost was played by a girl without any special effects (aside from makeup), and she still managed to be superbly creepy.

I watched Wrong Turn with Eliza Dushku 2 nights ago. Solidly entertaining hillbilly slasher film a la Hills Have Eyes/Deliverance (but not nearly as good, as it's a lot harder to justify the hillbillies' murderous behavior--though at least there's no rape in this one). Can Dushku play anything but a tough girl? she does it well, but there's really no mystery in her performance for me anymore. Jeremy Sisto is underrated.

I read some reviews in Entertainment Weekly recently that made me interested in a few recent films that I added to my wanna-see list: Miranda July's The Future, the documentary The Interrupters, Another Earth, and The Whistleblower. Yesterday, Adrienne recommended to me Stephen Merritt's (Magnetic Fields) documentary Strange Powers.

And that is all for today.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Scary Isn't Everything, But When It Is, It's Wonderful

I don't get outright scared often at horror movies, either. Like I said, I've been spoiled by the movies I keep mentioning. And you probably won't find them scary because what you take into the theater really affects your experience. It's true for any film, but it seems to be more polarized with horror. If I go in with the wrong expectation, I can have a terrible experience. You have to be willing to let your guard down and go along with the ride to truly appreciate horror. Most of the time, I expect to have fun and get startled a bit. And I still get tense even when I know what's going to happen. I'm thinking of a roller coaster ride, actually. Do you like roller coasters, John? I'm usually pretty good at guessing what's going to be a more quality horror experience vs. a more campy one. But once in a while I get thrown off like I did last night. And it's a real bummer. So this exercise of "what's the scariest movie" is ultimately doomed to fail, because it sets you up to not be scared because you're expecting it.

You like lists, right? I'll make a list of elements that go into what makes a horror movie scary for me. It won't be exhaustive, because it's off the top of my head.

1) The characters don't make stupid decisions, one after another. In Insidious, the wife says, "we need to leave this house" and the husband says, "okay" and they leave. What? When does that happen in horror movies? It really surprised me. So I'm thrown off a bit and don't quite know what to expect, leaving me open for a good scare. Horror that relies on people making stupid decisions makes it too easy for the viewer to disconnect. It can still be fun to watch, but not necessarily scary.

This reminds me of a video I posted to YouTube a few years back about the movie Rest Stop, a classic example a film with a character that makes asinine decisions repeatedly:

2) You don't see the bad guy until the end, if at all. The reason we're afraid of the dark is because we can't see what's there. The unknown is terrifying, whether it's a monster or a job interview. If you can see something, you can kill it. Even with the best special effects and the most talented character designers, no monster will ever be scarier than the implication that there might be a monster and you don't where it is. The Others was a great film, not only because of the twist ending (which I didn't anticipate at all), but because you couldn't see anything. This is why the Paranormal Activity films work, and why I suspect they won't for much longer. I think that every horror film director wants to be responsible for the next Jason or Pinhead or Alien and finds it nearly impossible to resist the temptation to try to make their monster scarier than all the rest. But unless your monster is a human being (which are ultimately more terrifying than all the others put together), once I see it, I'm not scared of it anymore. It will still make me jump, but you know I'm thinking, "If I were there, I'd do this and this and this and KILL IT." I know the parameters, I've got some control back. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and it's because you never know what really happened there. It's also why I like The Happening, despite its flaws. I've got a soft spot for nature-is-evil horror movies. I also thought White Noise was scary, even though it didn't get great reviews. There's a scene at the end where Michael Keaton is getting thrown around by some ghost creature, and it's freaky because you can't ever quite see it.

3) A good twist of some sort, or several. I can't think of a lot of examples of this where it's done well, probably because horror tends to be predictable by nature. The Orphanage comes to mind, as does The Devil's Rejects. But it's nice to be surprised every now and then. I've probably seen more examples, but I've been interrupted a lot in writing this post, and my mind is scattered. An original premise can make at least the first half of a horror movie scary (until it comes to time to resolve everything, of course). Reincarnation and Pulse didn't work entirely as scary movies, mostly because of plot resolution issues, but they had unique ideas. The Ring was also scary for this reason, and not as good as it could have been because it didn't know how to resolve itself. It's honestly one of the biggest challenges of the genre--knowing how to finish well.

4) It knows the difference between "gory" and "scary." Slasher films are scary when the teenagers having sex in the woods are being stalked and they don't know it. Once the machete pins the two of them together, or the chainsaw grinds them to pieces, or the axe hacks off their limbs, the viewer actually experiences a sense of relief. Okay, they're dead, but the tension is over. Now, if the director decides to show in great detail the separating sinews as the monster pulls an arm out of its socket and blood is spurting and pouring out everywhere, and the dude is throwing up bile because he's in so much pain--well, that's not scary, that's just gross. A good horror director knows that scary does not equal gross. Both scary and gross can be horrifying, but a movie with a lot of violence does not make it scarier. Implied violence is often scarier than graphic violence. Not that I don't enjoy a good bloodbath every now and then; again, it's just not scary. Insert here our discussion of torture porn.

Okay, I'm going to put this thing to bed now. I also forgot to mention that I saw Winter's Bone last week, and it was excellent. Scarier than Don't be Afraid of the Dark, incidentally.

Responses to Dark

John, I agree that in another setting, I'd really like these creatures. I was actually rooting for them, hoping (I knew in vain) for there to be some sort of twist in which they slaughtered all the characters in the film and danced merrily on their broken, bloody bodies. Fantastical monsters is one of Del Toro's strengths, and you see it much more in Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies. Remember the thing with eyes in its hands? Creepy.
Chris, this was not a good horror movie. It should have had a PG-13 rating. Don't be so nice to it.
I hate to be such a curmudgeon (you guys know this is rare for me), but I was pissed that I didn't get scared. I've been spoiled by movies like Paranormal Activity 2 and Insidious lately (I know I keep mentioning them but they're really good) and was settled in for some real thrills. If my expectations hadn't been so high, I might have enjoyed it more. I'm serious about watching another horror film tonight. I'm going to do it right now. And eat a couple of ice cream sandwiches.
We want YOU! Arrrrgh!

Don't Be Afraid of This Movie

Spoilers be damned. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a colossal disappointment. First of all, it is NOT. SCARY. AT. ALL. Lisa, you may as well catch the next available showing and join the discussion, if there is much of one. After the first 5 minutes of the movie, NOBODY DIES. It takes like an hour for there to even be any more blood, and even then none of the characters clues in that all is not as it seems. The man pulled a pair of scissors (or whatever) from his shoulder. THAT IS NOT AN ACCIDENT, THAT IS WEIRD SH** GOING ON. CHECK IT OUT. LOCK THE BASEMENT. There comes a point in almost every horror film where the characters are making so many stupid decisions that you cease caring what happens to them. Since it took OVER HALF THE MOVIE for there to be any horror whatsoever (I wasn't actually looking at my watch), my apathy for the characters took longer to set in. Even the little girl, bless her heart, made ridiculous decisions that were completely out of character. You know they don't like light, so when they attack you in the bathroom, don't try the handle for ten minutes when you know you can't open the door. TURN ON THE #$@%! LIGHT. Kim, dear, when the handyman tells you to get the girl out of the house--the handyman who clearly has a history with the place--get the girl out of the house, THEN GO TO THE #$@%! LIBRARY. Yes, I know this sort of thing is standard for horror, but so much of it happened, I couldn't suspend disbelief for that long.
And the little ancient evil creatures must have been locked up so long that they were out of practice with the whole "one life must be taken" thing. They spent more time screaming and posturing (Adrienne said that the one "looked like a wrestler") than doing any actual killing. They had plenty of opportunities to take the girl, plenty of opportunities to kill Dad and Kim. And Apple Pie Granny to boot. Dad and Kim didn't have a night light. What's the deal? Get 'em out of the way. Later on, poor Kim is lying on the floor, completely vulnerable, and for some reason they leave her there to fashion a complicated rope and pulley system to get Sally down to the basement. Kill 'em both first, then drag their asses to the basement. It's a lot more economical. Oh, and by the way, it was really nice of them to detach the wire they put across the stairs before Sally came down. And it didn't occur to them to disconnect the power to the house until everybody decided to leave. These creatures are idiots. No wonder they're hungry.
Okay, I did like a couple things. First, it's nice to see Katie Holmes on the big screen. It's been awhile. Though it probably wasn't difficult for her to relate to a film that required her to be trapped in a house with maniacal screaming creatures. We have no way of knowing if these creatures jumped up and down in a frenzy on a couch on national TV, though. I wouldn't put it past them.
Also, the little buggers are pretty cool looking when they're scampering around the house, waving sharp objects in the air. We got a little too much face time with them, and they became less and less scary as the film wore on. By the end, I was thinking, "I could take these suckers. Fling a few against the wall, stomp on a few, scream right back, etc."
There is no way this movie was denied an R rating because of "pervasive scariness." Again, to quote Adrienne, "he begged for an R rating."
I'm going to read the other posts now and then go watch another horror movie to get the fix I didn't get at the theater. Then I'll eventually need to rewatch Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage to remind myself that Del Toro does actually know how to make a horror movie.
By the way, I'm not even going to get into the ending. The stupid, stupid ending. So Kim, in death, is now taking care of the poor orphaned imps? Does this sound familiar at all?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Exactly That, John

Thanks for the clarification about your status as an appreciator of mumblecore--and for the heads up about Cold Weather. I just put Quiet City and Dance Party USA on hold at my library. Bring on the film revolution! Or just some pizza and chips. I really don't feel up to it right now.

Sadly Overdue Post

I've watched a few entertaining (mostly) but throwaway comedies lately. One I expected much more from. Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses are the kinds of comedies that you don't expect much from, except a few laughs, and they both delivered on that count. Kristen Wiig's performance in Whip It is still my favorite, though. When she's playing serious, she's actually pretty good. I hate to say it, because I'm a fan, but her range of funny voices is somewhat limited, and over the course of her career at SNL, a little played out. And I really hate myself for saying that. I love you, Kristen! Rochester rules! It's not that I don't think she's talented, she maybe just needs to expand her repertoire a bit. Performance is not an insignificant part of my job, and I know what it's like to get to an acceptable plateau and then get lazy. It happens. Charlie Day was the best and funniest part of Horrible Bosses, and the two Jasons performed on par. Wiig has more range than Bateman, I'll say. Though I still haven't gotten tired of his only character. I love you, Jason!

Your Highness was a BIG disappointment. The endless string of crude jokes barely held the plot together and they weren't even trying at their English accents. I may regret saying this, but Portman looks good in medieval leather. So sue me, but I bet at least half the population agrees. It's fun watching Natalie Portman kick ass. David Gordon Green is a VERY talented director. George Washington was very compelling (from Flixster, 3 years ago: "Great storytelling. I'm interested in what Green would have done with his characters without the help of the 'dead kid' plot device."), All the Real Girls was intense and emotional, Pineapple Express was funny and original (Flixster, 2 years ago: "Danny McBride stole the show. He's worth a star all by himself. The rest was funny but the plot was disappointing. Franco was really funny too."). So what the hell is Your Highness? It looks like they probably had fun making it, anyway. They should have sent the money to Africa instead.

I would like to say a few things about Hannah Takes the Stairs. I know already that John isn't a fan of mumblecore, but what about the rest of you? I think there's something endearing about it. I love what it means: anyone can make a movie that's worth watching with a limited budget. I like the emphasis on the present in the plot, the open-ended finish, the moral ambiguity, the lack of smooth transitions between scenes. It's all very down-to-earth. But I will acknowledge that it is an acquired taste. As John knows, I was also quite fond of Baghead (thanks again, John!) and Cyrus is on my list (I'd like to see what Duplass does with a budget). Hannah herself is not really a likeable character, but you still find yourself rooting for her to get her sh** together. I liked her character less as the film progressed, but didn't necessarily blame her for her lack of self-awareness. Gerwig played the part very well. I really hope we get to see more of her (well, more roles anyway. We've already, um, seen quite a bit of her in pretty much every movie she's been in).

Very interesting and entertaining discussion about violence in horror movies. I have to confess I'm largely past my torture porn stage. There was a resurgence in the subgenre around the time Cabin Fever came out (still one of my all-time favorite horror films) and a few films did a decent job "reinventing" the style that became popular in the seventies or thereabouts, before Halloween and Friday the 13th made gory horror mainstream. I've mentioned them before: House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, Hostel, probably Wolf Creek (though it really was too much for me), and the first couple of Saw films were noteworthy additions to horror's sordid history. But it was when Captivity (2007) came out (which I didn't see) that I remember thinking, okay, this is not about filmmaking anymore. It's moved on to raising the ante in shock value. As much as Hostel is maligned, Roth was referring back to the exploitation films of the seventies, not trying to compete with the glut of torture porn films that now flitter across the screen several times a year. That's why I think it stands out. 2005 was the last good year for torture porn, in my opinion. I will probably not watch A Serbian Film or Human Centipede. I'm not sure I want to see how far the envelope can be pushed.
Antichrist, on the other hand, is not torture porn. Not even close. The violence is shocking in part because it's so sudden and extreme. The shock is as much about the contrast to the relative "quietness" in terms of physical violence to that point as it is about the violence itself. The violence in Antichrist is a vehicle more than a player, unlike your typical torture porn film.
I'm still very interested in horror, but my interest has moved somewhat towards supernatural horror, which has been revitalized by films like Paranormal Activity and Insidious--I still think it was really scary, Brandon! I'm really looking forward to seeing Don't Be Afraid of the Dark tomorrow night.