Tag Archives: debut

May – Review

30 Sep

With October being right around the corner, I can finally say that the Halloween season is upon it. I love this time of year just as much as I love watching all kinds of horror movies, so it makes sense to celebrate one with the other. I got this year started with a little horror flick by Lucky McKee that I’ve never seen before called May. It was a movie that always looked interesting to me and after hearing about the cult following it had, I was even more curious to check it out. Now that I’ve got around to seeing it, it definitely wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, in fact it was better than what I was expecting. May is an underrated gem of a horror film that left me laughing and cringing all at the same time.

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Ever since childhood, May (Angela Bettis) has had a tough time making friends and just interacting with people in general, with a large reason being a very noticeable lazy eye. This has led her to be a loner as an adult with a strong desire to just make one friend that isn’t her doll that her mom gave her for her birthday when she was a kid. One day May notices a mechanic, Adam (Jeremy Sisto), at work, but she takes special notice to his hands. With some newfound confidence unwillingly given to her by her coworker, Polly (Anna Faris), May tries to start a relationship with Adam, which works for a time, but ultimately and horribly fails. With this failure happening after coming so close to touching the sun, May realizes that if she can’t find any friends, she can make one instead, so she sets out to find the perfect pieces she can use to make her new companion.

So I really had no idea what this movie was all about or what its style was or anything for that matter. Much like what May is trying to do with creating a new friend, the movie May feels like an homage with references of its influences stitched together to form a whole. There are a lot of references to Argento films and giallo horror movies, which is appropriate because the look, story, themes, and atmosphere feel very much like a giallo film. I get this feeling especially from May’s room which is painted red and has dolls in various states of disrepair all around the room. I also see inspiration from movies like Frankenstein and the Universal films to Stephen Kind and his story Carrie. While there are plenty of references and inspirations to choose from, McKee uses them respectfully and has created a psychological horror movie for horror movie fans, and I certainly appreciate that.

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While May could have been just a straight up horror movie, there’s some creative bits that turns it into a little something more. Amidst all the scares and creepy atmosphere is a very sad, dramatic movie that also succeeded at making me laugh at times. There’s a lot of really funny, dark humor that is almost so pitch black you have to look and listen hard enough to even notice it. May’s character is such an innocent and naïve person at first, and some of the things she says are so outlandish, and that’s just hilarious at times. As for the other end of the spectrum, this is where the movie sort of reminds me of Carrie. May is just such a different and misunderstood person for a large part of the movie, and it’s sad to see people walk all over her. I in no ways condone her actions in the later part of the movie, but because of how upsetting it is seeing her get bullied or mistreated, or at least how she perceives that she is, there’s more depth to back up her actions and give them a point.

None of what I’m saying would mean anything if the character of May didn’t work, and thankfully Angela Bettis has scary control over her. This is a fantastic performance and one that I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by. It’s rare that a horror movie has a performances that’s as great as this, which makes this one all the more memorable. Her small ticks in her hands and her face and even some of her vocal inflections indicates a character that is fully realized and is then brought to life on screen. This makes every laugh and moment of sadness all the more effective since I firmly believe in her character.

I gotta say, May really surprised the hell outta me. It works great as a stand alone psychological horror film, but also does a great job at honoring the classics and showing that without those movies, we wouldn’t have some of the modern day horror classics that deliver the chills when we need them the most. Other than the horror, this film has a great sense of humor, true life drama, and a lead performance that is under appreciated even though it is startlingly realized. For those reasons and maybe some that I haven’t realized yet, I absolutely love this movie.

Final Grade: A

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Fear and Desire – Review

14 Apr

Anyone who knows me knows that I practically worship Stanley Kubrick. He had, and still has after his death, one of the most powerful and unique voices in film. Like all great directors, even he had to start somewhere. After making some short documentaries and being a photographer for Look, Kubrick decided it was time for him to tackle a feature film. This first feature film is an anti-war movie called Fear and Desire. This is by far Kubrick’s weakest film, and that’s completely understandable. The best reasons to really watch this movie are to see techniques that Kubrick would later perfect and also to admire the effort put into making a movie so independently.

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During an unspecified war between unspecified countries four soldiers are stranded 6 miles behind enemy lines. Their commanding officer, Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), decides their best bet would be to build a raft and wait until nightfall to ride it downriver to safety. After a while, a local woman (Virginia Leith) stumbles upon them building their raft and must be held captive so she doesn’t alert enemy soldiers. As the day goes on, the youngest soldier, Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky) begins having a breakdown and slowly goes insane. Things get even more complicated when it is discovered that an enemy general is lodged in a cabin right near the river and, as soldiers, it is their duty to eliminate the threat. All of these factors stacked up make it seem like these four soldiers may never get out of there alive.

Before I even start, that has to be one of the most inaccurate theatrical posters I’ve ever seen. That’s not with this about, so I digress. It’s almost hard to call Fear and Desire a feature film because it’s only an hour long, and being just an hour long it doesn’t really have much of a story. There’s a couple different things that happen to the soldiers and their main goal is to escape enemy territory. It’s completely fine if a movie is light on story so that it can explore certain themes and development, but there’s never much time to do that. The most interesting character is Pvt. Sidney since he has some real tragic development, which in turn supports Kubrick’s stance on what the evils of war can do to a normal person.

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For all the shortcomings this movie has, it’s very interesting to watch and see certain things that Kubrick would later utilize in his other movies. First of all, the overall anti-war message and its effects on people can clearly be seen in his later war films Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. The violence in this movie is also pretty unflinching. Of course it isn’t as graphic as later movies, but there’s nothing glamorized about it. Wanna people are shot, they don’t really fall like they’re in a movie from the 1950s. They hit the ground hard and without any kind of dramatic flair. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but that’s what I feel. There’s also strange close ups and angles that seem to distort reality, which is a trick that Kubrick was known for using at length in films like 2001: A Space OdysseyA Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. Stuff like this make Fear and Desire fun to watch.

As the years went on, Kubrick came to hate this movie and it wasn’t until the last few years that it was made readily public. He described it as a kids drawing that you hang on the refrigerator, and I think that’s a pretty harsh sentiment. He made it his mission to destroy the copies that exist or lock them away, which was the case for a very long time. This movie didn’t do very well at the box office when it was released which meant that Kubrick had to take on the job of making a short documentary called The Seafarers for the Seafarer’s International Union, which is also now available on the Kino release of Fear and Desire.

Fear and Desire is most definitely Kubrick’s first film, and I don’t mean that because it’s a historically accurate statement. I’m saying it because it has all of the makings of a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it just hasn’t all been fully realized yet. This is an interesting movie in the sense that it’s the beginning of an amazing career. The movie itself is pretty lackluster and not too memorable, but there are some pretty intense scenes that don’t seem like they belong in the early 1950s. Any Kubrick fan sort of has to watch this movie, but if you’re looking for a war movie that will really hold your attention, stick with Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket.

The Element of Crime – Review

15 May

Well, here we are again. I really can’t seem to stay away from the works of film making extraordinaire and 100% grade-A nutcase, Lars von Trier. This time, like I previously did with Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies, and videotape, I’m going to be looking at von Trier’s first effort at a feature film. While having done some short films before this, this is the one that introduced his odd style and uncomfortable atmosphere that would be present in most of his movies. So, let’s take a trip back to 1984 with The Element of Crime.

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While in Cairo, Detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) goes to see a psychiatrist due to completely losing the memory of his last case. While there, he undergoes hypnosis, which unlocks the part of his mind that is hiding the information he desires. This memory is of a dystopian Europe, where poverty, anarchy, and violence rule the streets. After visiting his mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight) and discussing his book on solving crime, he is called to investigate a murder perpetrated by the “Lotto Murderer.” In order to solve the case, Fisher employs the method that Osborne wrote in his book “The Element of Crime,” and that is to get into the head of the murderer until you finally understand them. As Fisher delves deeper into the case, he soon finds himself losing touch with himself and finding more in common with the murderer.

Like many of von Trier’s movies, The Element of Crime is very big on style. The only problem is that it lacks in just about every other department. The entire film is tinted yellow or orange, which gives it a very distinct look. What makes it even cooler is that there will be splashes of blue thrown in, whether it’s the static on the tv or the lights hanging overhead. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that looks like this one, and that’s still a pretty high complement when movies tend to look like other movies. The dystopian Europe is shown through such a horrific lens, that it will be hard to forget moments of this movie and its overall style. Still, that isn’t enough to make a movie great.

 

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I challenge anyone who’s watching this movie for the first time to tell me what’s really going on. If you can, than you’re a better person than I’ll ever be. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose goal is to confuse the audience, but there should always be some sort of payoff. The Element of Crime simply makes no sense. I get that it’s about a police detective that’s getting too deep into the mind of a killer, but that’s about all I really get. The acting is all fine and a lot of the dialogue is actually very smart, but it doesn’t really amount to anything much since I had no idea what was happening.

The Element of Crime is the first part of a thematic trilogy about dystopian Europe. The other two films are Epidemic and Europa, which I have previously reviewed. I haven’t seen Epidemic, but The Element of Crime is really nothing when standing up against Europa. Still, you have to give credit where credits due, and this debut film was important in showing what Lars von Trier was capable of creating, if even just giving a glimpse of it. It put him on the spotlight and since then, his style and skill have only been improving.

As far as debut films go, The Element of Crime certainly isn’t the best, and the reason why it’s included in the Criterion Collection sort of remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s just the fact that it’s the first feature film for von Trier, and they can’t really seem to stay away from him. In my opinion, this is a pretty shallow effort that looks gorgeous on the surface, but there’s not really anything backing it up. This is only a film to see if you’re a huge fan of Lars von Trier’s work, but even then I guarantee that you’re going to be disappointed.

Fresh – Review

6 Feb

I remember sitting in my friend’s basement one night and we came across this movie playing on t.v. called Fresh. We had no idea what it was, but it seemed interesting enough. Little did we know that this movie was going to get seared into our minds and stick with us to this very day. There are plenty of movies that explore urban life, but none of them I think have come close to this debut film by Boaz Yakin. It’s gritty, emotional, and just really packs a punch that anyone who has seen this will agree exists.

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Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a 12 year old kid living the best way that he can on the streets. When he’s not in school, he can be seen running drugs for low level kingpins Corky (Ron Brice) and Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito). He can also be found in the park with his estranged father Sam (Samuel L. Jackson) who teaches his the strict rules of playing and mastering chess. Fresh is a smart kid, way too smart for the situation that he’s in, so when he witness a tragic shooting at the local basketball courts, Fresh begins concocting an elaborate game of “street chess” complete with his own human pawns, sacrifices, and ultimate victories. If he’s lucky, this will get him and his drug addicted sister (N’Bushe Wright) off the streets and safely hidden away.

This movie smacks you in the face harder than you could ever expect, but it also has a really intriguing story behind it. It’s not hard to find an urban movie about adults trying to survive, but finding one where it’s all seen through the eyes of a kid is much more impactful. Not only is he a kid, though, he’s a kid who’s way smarter than everybody else. It’s awesome seeing this kid stay one step ahead of the adults who are slowly but surely leading him to the grave. Then when you think of the movie as a real life game of chess, things get even more fun because you can sort of see the moves that he would be doing if it were on a board and he was in the park playing with his dad.

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Another really cool thing about Fresh is how immersed into the environment you can become. Every location is chosen to perfection to illustrate all the different aspects of life in the city, wether it’s in an upscale neighborhood, deserted landscapes, or the projects. As Fresh moves about the city, I felt like I was exploring different areas along with him to the point where the city almost becomes a character in the movie. When the environment in a movie can make you feel such emotion, it’s a clear sign that you’re watching a well made film, and Fresh is a perfect example.

One thing I will say about this movie is that it may not appeal to everyone. This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, in fact the first time I saw Fresh I felt pretty uncomfortable myself. What this movie has to offer is, what I think, a very realistic look at some really terrible things. Yes, this movie is violent, but it isn’t violence for the sake of violence. It’s handled in a very matter of fact yet startling way, and that’s what really makes the film so powerful and memorable. When movies exaggerate, it’s easy to remember that you’re just watching a movie. When a movie takes steps to be as realistic as possible, it’s much easier to get completely sucked into what you’re watching.

Fresh is one of the most memorable movies I’ve seen, and I’m surprised it isn’t recognized as a modern day classic. When it was first released, it was met with critical acclaim across the board, but now it seems to have sunk back into obscurity. This is a fantastic movie with images and scenes that will not be forgotten, at least for a very long time. If you feel like you can handle some realistic depictions of terrible things, I’d check out Fresh as soon as possible.

Bound – Review

29 Jan

Well with a new year comes new movies, and one that I’m really gearing up to see is the Wachowski’s newest film Jupiter Ascending. I don’t know if it’s gonna live up to my excitement, but what better way to get ready for it than talking about one of their earlier movies, their directorial debut in fact. When The Matrix arrived on the scene in 1999, it blew audiences into the stratosphere, but before that was a little, yet critically acclaimed, film called Bound. I didn’t know what to expect going into this movie, so my I went in not expecting too much, but what I got was a fantastic neo-noir film filled with sex, violence, and tension that forces you to the edge of your seat.

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Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con and professional thief, has been hired to renovate an apartment that just so happens to be down the hall from mafia launderer Caesar (Joe Pantaliano) and his girlfriend Violet (Jennifer Tilly). The job starts innocently enough until Violet begins taking interest in Corky and the two begin a relationship behind Caesar’s back. Finally getting sick of the lifestyle, Violet confides in Corky that she wants out and to start a new life with Corky, and the only way to do that is to steal $2 million of stolen mafia money right from under Caesar’s nose. Corky soon concocts a plan and the two lovers set it into motion, but it soon begins to go very wrong when suspicions arise and bodies start piling up, literally.

To me, the Wachowskis are almost too cool. The Matrix movies (and yes, I mean all three) are some of the coolest examples of film making that I can think of. Cloud Atlas was an incredibly ambitious film, but I can’t really offer my thoughts on Speed Racer since I haven’t seen it. Now I can add Bound to the list of really cool work that the Wachowskis are responsible for. Like I said before, I really had no idea what to expect going into this movie, but what I got was a claustrophobic neo-noir with some of the tightest writing I may have ever seen. It’s not rare for the suspense of a movie to make me excited and tense, but the suspense in Bound didn’t seem to end at a certain point, and not only that but it was paced so well. It kept me needing to see what happened next by stretching out certain scenes, but I never felt bored during the entire two hours this movie was on.

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Like Danny Boyle and Kevin Smith both did so well in their debut films, the setting of Bound, for the most part, takes place in two apartments. Of course it reminded me of Shallow Grave a lot more than Clerks, but what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need a lot of set pieces and locations to make an intense movie. I don’t want this review to turn into a film essay, but it’s such an interesting choice to keep the action and story in such a confined place. Just think of the title of the movie: Bound. The characters are not only bound to each other and the plan they concoct, but also the small area of their apartments. This also just goes to show how excellent the writing is in this movie. It’s easy to have big shoot outs and chase scenes to create suspense, but creating suspense out of silence and confinement takes talent.

I feel like the word to describe this movie is simply just “cool,” which makes sense because noirs are traditionally thought of as being a really cool style of film making. Bouncing off the excellent screenwriting comes excellent dialogue that are, at the risk of sounding redundant, performed by a really cool cast. Like his characters in The Matrix and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Joe Pantaliano proves once again that he’s really good at playing a scum bag. It’s fun to hate Pantaliano’s character, but it’s also fun looking down on him and laugh at how pathetic he is. The real focus of “cool” in this film revolves around Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. I love seeing badass women in movies, but seeing two badass women as leading characters in a noir film is just a dream come true.

Bound is one of the most impressive debut films I’ve ever seen, and as I mentioned before can join the ranks of debut films like Shallow GraveThe Following, and Clerks. It also reenforces the idea that less can often be more in creating a suspenseful and intense film. The cinematography combined with the stylistic camerawork and exceptional screenwriting makes me wish that in some alternate universe, I made this movie. It’s almost intimidating. The bottom line is that the Wachowskis are two very talented film makers, and solid evidence can be seen at their first attempt at a feature film. It’s almost too awesome.

Cronos – Review

18 Nov

Guillermo del Toro is the man. That’s been firmly established with Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, and Pacific Rim. There hasn’t been a film that del Toro made that I really haven’t liked, so I was more than ready to check out his debut film from 1993, Cronos. This is a vampire story with a kind of twist to the genre that only a film maker like del Toro could make, in fact I’m sure that he’s the only one who can make something like this. It’s an amazing debut film.

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Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique’s dealer who mildly spends his days in his shop with his granddaughter who seems to never leave his side, Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Things change when he finds a mysterious device inside a statue of an archangel that latches itself to Gris’ hand so hard that it draws blood. This begins changing Gris into a much more invigorated man who has acquired an unquenchable thirst for blood. This draws the attention of the dying businessman Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) who sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to retrieve the device, but Jesús isn’t willing to give it up, especially after discovering what it really does.

Let me get this out of the way, if you’ve seen any other movie by Guillermo del Toro, you know pretty much what this movie is going to feel like. Think of Pan’s Labyrinth and how it mixed reality with fantasy in a way where it felt like a fairy tale is coming to life. That’s what Cronos ultimately is as well: a fairy tale. It’s also not a very overt fairy tale, which really makes the movie feel special. The word “vampire” is never even used in the movie once. It’s simply alluded to through the images that we see and the prior knowledge that we already have about vampires. It also recreates the myth of the vampire through the alchemical device inhabited by an insect.

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So, since there’s vampires in the story of Cronos, it’s pretty fair to label it as a horror movie. There are some pretty icky gore effects with the device digging into skin or flesh being peeled off of the body. Those scenes work very effectively at the body horror that del Toro does very well. Still, this is more than a horror movie because there is so much more to it than that. It’s a movie about dealing with age, facing death, and the importance of family. Gris’ family is close and a model of happiness while Angel is miserable being in the same family as Dieter. There’s also the paranoia of dying, but the reminder that death is the natural order of things and eternal life may not be so pleasant if the body can’t support itself.

I kinda wanted more out of Cronos since there was so much in there to love. Sadly, the story kind of begins and ends. I’m one to complain if a movie’s run time goes too long, but I was so into this one that I wasn’t ready for it to end. I felt like there was a lot more to be explored, especially when the resurrected Jesús comes home after escaping from his own cremation. There were a lot of places the film could’ve gone from there, but instead that’s when the movie begins moving towards the ending. The make up looked awesome at this part too, and the bond between Jesús and Aurora also got a lot more interesting at this point.

Guillermo del Toro said that the most important movies in a film maker’s life are their first film and their last film. His reasoning is that the first film sets the stage for what they will be making throughout their career and the last film is the one that closes the book on their work. Cronos perfectly set the stage for del Toro’s career, even though it’s a minor entry into his filmography. Vampires would come back to del Toro when he made Blade II, and his take on fantasy can be seen in almost all of his movies. This is a really beautiful and relatively quiet look at vampires and horror that may not have the most prestige or biggest budget, but is obviously superior to many other vampire movies being released now.

Ratcatcher – Review

18 Aug

Back when I was just starting college, I took a class called “film and video analysis” where we would watch a film and dig deep into how it was made and what the entire point of the movie actually was. Amongst a few others, one that really stood out to me was Ratcatcher, a film that is really nothing like it sounds. Over the years since I took that course, I haven’t gotten a chance to revisit the movie until just recently, and I was pleased that it still had the same effect on me as it did when I first saw it. This is a somber yet poetic movie about the loss of innocence in an environment where only certain people could survive and even fewer escaped.

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After accidentally causing his good friend (Thomas McTaggart) to drown, James (William Eadie) is left to suffer with his guilt while trying to make the best of life in a poor section of Glasgow during garbage strike of 1973. Trash and pests litter the streets and backyards of James’ town, which causes him to dream about life outside of the city. James’ parents George (Tommy Flanagan) and Anne (Mandy Matthews) are doing what they can to provide for their children and be relocated to new developments outside of the city, although James’ relationship with his father is strained by alcoholism and a severe lack of any other connections. James finds solace in visiting the new housing projects and making friends with neighborhood girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen), who is tortured by the local teenage boys.

Ratcatcher is a very episodic movie without a really strong conflict holding the entire movie together. What really holds the movie together is the thematic mood that writer/director Lynne Ramsay has created. The style of this movie is very similar to British Realism, and Ramsay’s particular film making techniques reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s (Fish TankWasp) technique. While Ratcatcher takes place in Scotland, it is a British and Scottish production, so similarities in style makes sense. This works perfectly well for this movie, and I would consider it one of the most honest films I have ever seen. There is no sugar coating or inappropriate optimism here. It depicts a difficult life for a most difficult child.

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That picture right above this really summarizes the mood of the film. I have to give major props to the child actors in this movie, but especially William Eadie. His role is extremely difficult, and it’s surprising that he manages to hold it all together so well. He comes across as very intelligent but just as naïve. The weight of this role really should be more than a kid his age could handle. He’s up there with Catinca Untaru from The Fall. Another excellent performance can be seen in Leanne Mullen, who plays the role of Margaret, the tortured neighborhood girl. I read one review that compares her facial acting to Maria Falconetti and her performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This movie, especially with its roots in British Realism, wouldn’t have worked without the performances of these young actors.

Something else that Ramsay really succeeds at is painting a portrait of the time period and the setting that Ratcatcher is trying to portray. This is a dark side of Glasgow in the 1970s during a most unbelievable conflict concerning the trash men. It’s amazing that people lived this way for a while with rats and garbage piled up and dead animals laying amongst it. Ramsay’s uncompromising portrayal of this deserves a round of applause, especially with everything she had to go through to get this result. She even went so far as to dig a new canal for filming purposes. That is dedication that payed off in the end.

Ratcatcher is a thought provoking coming of age story that I still can’t quite get a grasp on. Is it a commentary on the lifestyle of the time or is it simply about loss of innocence in the most extreme way possible? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Still and all, I was pleased to see that this movie still amazed me even after the time that I haven’t seen it. I remembered a lot from when I watched it in school, but there were parts that still surprised me. This is a disturbingly poetic film that tells a wonderful story about a damned childhood. Definitely a must see.