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Once Bitten

Once Bitten

1985.  Directed by Howard Storm.

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Howard Storm’s only feature film, and Jim Carrey’s first leading role, Once Bitten is a libidinous romp through 1985 Los Angeles.  Featuring riotous levels of sexual camp supplemented by a surprisingly fresh take on the male coming of age convention; this is ’80s cult trash of the highest order.

Carrey plays a good natured teen desperate to consummate his relationship with his longtime girlfriend.  Relationship frustrations send him and his friends on a nightclub crawl in which he encounters a ravishing 400 year old seductress with designs on his virgin blood.  The script bounces between the comedic irreverence of the decade, the inevitable sexual changes of puberty, and the ramifications losing one’s virginity.  Carrey’s odyssey, punctuated with subtle makeup effects by Richard Arrington, uses Vampirism as a simulated STD while commentating on how the loss of innocence serves as a transition.  Once Carrey’s Mark is in the Vampire’s grasp, everything, from his wardrobe to his relationships changes, and Carrey does a remarkable job at harnessing the subtleties of the plot and the slapstick antics of the action.

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Adam Greenberg’s fluid camera work captures the gothic interior of the vampire’s lair with sweeping shots of whitewashed rooms that are offset by the vibrant colors of the city.   Lauren Hutton’s turn as the sultry Countess boasts some memorable lines; however she is eclipsed by Cleavon Little’s turn as her dapper Renfield, Sebastian, bringing a genuine laugh every time he’s on screen.  Jill Ohannsen’s costume design is the highlight, showcasing the vampires in gaudy black ensembles and the humans in abysmal conglomerations of the MTV era.

There are cringe-worthy moments of pure machismo that may offend sensitivities, but these are sprinkled throughout a film that generally wants to have fun with its material.  The film was critically maligned by most upon its release.  Thankfully, the years have been kind, with Shout Factory doing a stellar blu ray release in 2015.  Once Bitten is a unique film because it hovers just beneath the excess of other sex comedies and never slips into the violence of other ’80s vampire films that would become icons of the genre.

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Available now on STARZ streaming or on blu ray from Shout Factory, Once Bitten takes a simple premise and revels in its absurdity, exploring serious themes of casual sex, disease, and social expectations and twisting them into the realm of melodramatic satire.  If you’re looking for a fun trip down memory lane or merely looking to waste some time with a low commitment comedy that boasts a handful of hilarious sequences and a scene stealing performance by Little, Once Bitten won’t disappoint.

Recommend.

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-Kyle Jonathan

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Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

2005.  Directed by George Lucas.

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The final entry into the often maligned prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith is a Shakespearian tragedy interwoven with a sly exploration of the cultural phenomenon of the Star Wars universe.  Featuring one of the greatest duels in cinematic history, refreshingly dark subject matter, and evocative visual compositions, this is Lucas’ swan song.

The final episode chronicles the downfall of the Jedi at the hands of The Emperor and a pre-Vader Anakin Skywalker.  On the surface, Lucas’s script features everything you would expect.  Corny romantic dialogue and puzzling character decisions abound, however, Revenge of the Sith is an epic story that aims to overcome the space opera camp of its origins through exploration of seemingly just actions and their unforeseeable consequences.  Lucas conceived the story during the Vietnam War and the inner turmoil of a nation undone is everywhere; from the dying Republic to the stagnant Jedi temple.  Lucas weaves threads of political domination throughout the final chapter of the Jedi, creating a noose of self-destruction out of their carefully constructed mantras.  At its core, Star Wars is a story about extremes, both the presence of extreme passion with the Sith and the extremities of stoic servitude of the Jedi.  More so than any other film in the franchise, Sith dissects this concept, never shying away from the ultimate results of good natured hubris and the power of personal tragedy.

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These concepts are given finality in a thrilling confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  The saga has always been about families, fathers and sons and how these relationships color the search to find ones place in the universe.  Revenge of the Sith comes full circle, meeting Luke’s loss of Obi-Wan with Obi-wan’s loss of Anakin, forcing the viewer to confront not only the deaths of their favorite characters but also the myths that pervade the innocence of childhood that are conjured with every reference to the trilogy to come.  Revenge of the Sith darkens the lightsaber parable, presenting Lucas’s magnum opus as a digital fury of kinetic action and near hopeless defeat.  David Tattersall’s unbelievable cinematography harnesses the film’s impossible scope with intense close ups and breathtaking shots of the aftermath of the fall, scenes whose ramifications would not be fully appreciated until years after their inception, with the highlight being a funeral procession in the final act.

Peter Russell’s art direction houses the events in a plush mixture of digital voodoo and sublime practical effects.  Trisha Biggar’s costume design returns to the glory of The Phantom Menace, while Nikki Gooley’s makeup design continues the franchise’s gold standard of extraterrestrial presentation.  Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen work well within the confines of Lucas’ often derided dialogue, dancing around one another’s secrets until the blade becomes the only option.  The original trilogy is a fixture of the American subconscious because it created a world of approachable wonder.  Dinged and dirty, broken and forgotten, Star Wars is a universe populated by dusty rogues and second hand samurais that grabs the imagination with its deceptive candor and larger than life personalities; all of which made by possible by the downfall of the republic. Lucas recreates the end with a focused, almost cathartic presentation that ultimately is a love letter to the legions of fans and the dreams of a new generation that will inevitably find these films and treasure them in a way both familiar and alien to those of us who lived through their creation, the ultimate legacy for one of the most iconic generational stories ever conceived.

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Available now for digital rental, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is George Lucas’s finest film.  While it does not eclipse the sentimental hold of A New Hope, it is a film that displays an artist who has honed his craft, lovingly ending on the highest notes of a storied career.  Unparalleled sci-fi visuals blend with a classic story of the student versus the teacher amidst a backdrop of galactic oppression to remind the fan (both old and new) that movies are made not with big budgets, sound, or fury; but with magic.

Highly Recommend.

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-Kyle Jonathan

Ronin

Ronin

1998.  Directed by John Frankenheimer.

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One of directorial icon John Frankenheimer’s final films, Ronin is a supercharged action thriller that moonlights as a commentary on the plight of the ghosts of a post-cold war world.  Featuring some of the most ambitious car chase sequences ever filmed, an uncanny amount of environmental control, and a suave ensemble playing off David Mamet’s script, Ronin delivers a wily mix of intelligent tradecraft and white knuckled set pieces.

A group of operatives come together to fulfill a contract for the IRA.  Their mission is to obtain a case that is highly coveted throughout the intelligence community.  Competing interests and fair weather alliances test the unit’s loyalties as high octane pursuits and fully automatic conflicts flood the crowded streets of sun washed French locales.  Robert DeNiro stars as Sam, an ex-patriot CIA operator who teams with Jean Reno’s Vincent.  Watching these two fierce talents bond is a thing of beauty.  Mamet’s trademarked dialogue works as the glue, drawing each man into a fraternal cycle of comradery and violence that repeats itself throughout the terse narration.  One of the film’s best scenes involves their characters sitting in a cafe pondering their next move.  Mamet’s deliberate refusal to impart motivation or glimpses into the subconscious would fall flat with subpar talent, but Reno and DeNiro seize on the Spartan approach, slowly walking the viewer through their professionally trained thought process.  This is foreshadowed during an intense and endlessly quotable scene in which the crew argues about how to conduct their mission.

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They are supported by Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, Natasha McElhone, and Jonathan Pryce.  Skipp Sudduth has a role as the crew’s getaway driver and he performed almost all of his own driving.  The chase sequences involved hundreds of stunt drivers and Frankenheimer supervised each of the complex scenes directly.  Ronin is a prime example of how a director’s ability to not only grasp the concept, but to control it is essential.  Mamet’s script deftly avoids explaining the McGuffin of the case, leaving only a world of characters and action.  While the cast is able to engross with their shady underworld tactics, it is the action, more specifically the chases that complete the picture.  Filmed on location across France, Ronin features a Big and Little Dipper pairing of automotive mayhem.  The first involves a heist, in which the team is positioned throughout the target’s route waiting to ambush.  Robert Fraisse’s color-drained cinematography captures the chase with a frenetic rhythm made possible by quick-fire editing and the use of handheld cameras, giving the events a sense of urgency while keeping the material pleasantly in the vein of the 70’s classics which inspired it.

The crown jewel involves a chase against the flow of traffic, with the actual cast members in the vehicles.  Sound editor Steven Livingston recorded each individual car used in the sequences to ensure that they would sound authentic in the final version.  Sound, both the edited effects and Elia Cmiral’s pulsing score are essential ingredients in Ronin’s rubber banding cadence of flashing lights and gunfire, in between which lies pockets of rigorous world and character building.  This is an actor’s action film, in which the shallow plot becomes an inconvenience rather than a force of coherence.   Within seconds, after the film’s methodical first scene we all know why we’re here.  The magic is that Ronin not only delivers with respect to jaw dropping pursuits and 70’s chic gunplay, it has a non-handholding sense of respect for the viewer which makes its rogue protagonists even more endearing.

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Available now for digital rental, Ronin is a slick piece of film making and a surprisingly smart action film.  While its lack of a traditional pay off may underwhelm some, its vintage aesthetics, outstanding performances, and adrenaline fueled chase sequences are more than enough to propel this film into the upper echelons of the genre.

Highly Recommend.

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RAW

Raw

2017. Directed by Julia Ducournau.

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Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film masquerades as a cannibalistic horror thriller while exploring the psychological extremes of its protagonist’s sexual awakening in the dog eat dog erotic playground of a medical college.  Substance abuse and the curiosities of casual sex are blended with the sins of the parent to present a bloody parable about the dark side of nascent pubescent desires.

Justine is a vegetarian who is in her first week of veterinarian school.  After being forced to consume raw meat, she develops a taste for human flesh that sends her on a macabre odyssey of self-discovery.  Ducournau’s script is a brilliant convergence of conflicting themes that never overshadow one another.  From the first chilling scene, the viewer is drawn into Justine’s lucid daydream where the wonders of collegiate freedom are soiled by tides of animal blood summarily thrown onto the freshman by their social superiors.  What begins as a hazing ritual organically transforms into a culture of comradery and primal excess, punctuated by an animalistic sojourn made by the freshman as they crawl towards the neon Heaven of a vodka soaked soiree.  Justine’s transition to reluctant predator unfolds through a loosely structured morality play in which she defines her rivalry with her sultry older sister and her budding romance with her roommate.

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Sexuality, identity, and control are all on display, but Ducournau sidesteps the simple implications of these concepts through intense compositions and ominous colors.  Ruben Impens’ cinematography floods the night life of the campus with electric reds to highlight both the passion and disquiet of youthful hedonism, while using rustic blues and greens to simulate the adult world beyond the campus.  There’s a remarkable shot of Justine washing body paint off in the shower that acts as a bridge between the apparent danger and the undeniable power of self-acceptance.  Garance Marillier’s performance as Justine harnesses the potent elements at play to communicate a formidable aura of blossoming femininity, symbolized by an uncomfortable dance sequence involving a mirror.  Marillier is supported by Elle Rumpf as her confident sister and their chemistry is the heart of Raw, pinballing between violent rivalry and intimate confidants.

Ambiance is an essential ingredient.  It begins with Impens capturing Justine under the covers, itching and convulsing in a suffocating denial of tranquility and then briskly moves to Justine wandering lonely red corridors while Jim Williams’ creepy score oozes through the campus’s institutional aesthetic.  Laurie Colson’s art direction supports by presenting the school as an otherworldly place, caught between the liberty of self-absorption and the cold realities of adulthood.  There are moments of comedy sprinkled throughout, but even these are false sanctuaries, reminding the viewer that the beast must ultimately be fed.  This concept is first explored in the opening, and then later Ducornau “shows the monster”, explaining the nefarious details of a hunting ritual and its wanton casualness is a horror lover’s ambrosia.

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In theaters now in limited release, and coming soon to digital on demand, Raw is a truly unique entry into the thriller genre.  It would be easy to categorize Raw as a traditional horror film; however this is a disservice to Ducournau’s work.  In the veins of Lynch, Ducournau elects to focus on the terrors of everyday life; the undeniable fears associated with the plight of a young girl becoming a woman.  This dovetails with a telegraphed commentary on the fool’s errand of parents who desperately try to keep their children from repeating their mistakes, which is delivered via a deliciously patronizing final line, cementing the film’s satire of the female’s plight in polite society

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

2015. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

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The romanticizing of the Western has become a low hanging fruit that films have been attempting to deconstruct for years.  While a handful manage to succeed, the majority of these films fail to present any semblance of resonant ideas, let alone understand the concepts they seek to undo.  S. Craig Zahler’s harrowing debut feature, Bone Tomahawk begins in an attempt to distance itself from this camp, using a profane marriage of glacial pacing and unrelenting acts of violence to produce a singular, unforgettable film.  However, it is this dark design; a seething meditation on masculinity and the Western’s self-aggrandizing of its heroes that completes the cycle, firmly cementing Bone Tomahawk as an near perfect masterpiece of the genre.

Four men set out to rescue a group of townsfolk who have been kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe on the frontier.  The posse features an atypical grouping of gunslingers, one of the many details of Zahler’s potent script that hints at the depth beneath the dusty surface.  Each man is representative of the male ego at different stages in life.  Patrick Wilson portrays an injured man whose wife has been taken.  Young, in love, and fiercely devoted to his wife, Wilson, who is the weakest of the pack if only for screen time, communicates the vibrancy of youth through his labored delivery while courageously displaying the self-doubt that can plague a relationship at its inception.  Icon Kurt Russell plays the town Sheriff, a violent, but noble man with an ailing wife.  Russell brings his expected level of grit to the role, but it is his candid bravado that elevates his performance to the upper tier of his fabled career.  Sheriff Hunt is a man who lives by order and the gun; a willing participant in killing when needed, who has managed to come through a life of gunplay with a grim understanding of the darkness, but also an appreciation for love and the simplicity of life.

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Russell is contrasted by Matthew Fox who gives the performance of his career as the town’s mysterious gunslinger, Brooder.  Where Russell’s sheriff was able to extricate himself from the darkness, Fox’s gentleman killer has embraced it, wrapping himself in the coldness of death.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when the façade of bravery slips; revealing the broken souls behind the mask of machismo and Fox’s understanding of this is a thing of tragic beauty.  Prolific character actor Richard Jenkins rounds out the heroes with Chicory, the town’s venerable deputy.  Jenkins steals virtually every scene and his exchanges with Russell are a ray of light in the endless darkness of the story.  There’s a scene in the bloody final act in which the heroes are in grave peril and Chicory begins to ruminate on the reality of a flea circus.  He is joined by the sheriff and both Russell and Jenkins’ intimate understanding of death becomes reflexive of the journey, even more so than the act itself, a feat made possible by Jenkins’ towering performance.  He takes what is obviously the comic relief and turns it into a grounded, vulnerable exposition that becomes the surrogate for the audience’s preconceived notions of right and wrong.

Bone Tomahawk’s central theme explores various notions of time.  Zahler takes the Western framework, especially The Searchers and separates the story from the hook by grinding the narrative to a turtle’s pace, forcing the characters to become flesh and blood before summarily ripping them to shreds.  Where the main characters represent the masculine life cycle, the simple, yet unforgettably brutal story is not only a plausible tale from the past; it is painful reminder that monsters are very real.  The pursuit itself is dictated by time, with Wilson’s injured combatant serving as a constant reminder of not only the very real danger but that fate ignores such temporal constraints, dictating death and clemency in an instant.  Violence is the medium through which these bleak truths are explored, both in its commission and in its aftermath. The movie is at its best when the guns are holstered, both in the philosophical maze of the second act and the terrifying climax.  Men facing creatures outside their understanding is nothing new, however it is Zahler’s understanding of the central conceits of the genre that make this undertaking an uncomfortable itch that the viewer is powerless to not scratch.

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Benji Bakshi’s digital cinematography presents an interesting conundrum.  The crisp digital shots bring a sense of cleanliness to a dirty world, framing the exterior locales with sweeping wide shots that keep the harriers in focus, offset by blistering oranges and burned browns that hint at the danger that surrounds them.  The interior shots, particularly in the beginning have a wooden quality that leaves the eye eager to return outdoors, however, this only lasts for a few previous moments of set up.  Chantal Filson’s rigorous costume design is the final piece, using period vintage in creative combinations to solidify the symbolic representations of the gunmen and contrasting them with the sparse, totemic appearances of the cannibals.

Available now on Amazon Prime, Bone Tomahawk received Independent Spirit Award nominations for Zahler’s screenplay and Jenkins’ performance.  This is a vicious film that will frustrate some viewers with its fatigued pacing and downright nasty portrayals of violence.  If you can get past these two issues, there is a wealth of splendor underneath the gory veneer.  If you’re of strong stomach and are interested in a unique Western film that will follow you into your dreams, Bone Tomahawk is the experience you’re looking for.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Elle

Elle

2016.  Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

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Films are a complex gathering of essential ingredients, with each piece of the production working in concert to communicate a story and elicit an emotional response from the audience.  Rarely, a film will come along where the central performance is so overwhelming, so relentlessly powerful, that the other elements at play vanish into the ether.  Isabelle Huppert’s seminal performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is such an animal, the elusive white rhino that haunts the boundaries of the medium, conjured into existence by an emotionally resonant and devious embrace of the material.  Using an uncharacteristic understanding of the pathos of victimization, Huppert delivers one of the most unforgettable performances in cinematic history before vanishing back into the void where the legends of film roam pathways of the soul.

 

Elle is a film that does not work without Huppert.  Her notorious style of risqué abandon harmonizes with Verhoeven’s explosive style to weave a thunderous tapestry of woe and desire.  Lesser talents require long scenes of exposition with quotable dialogue, to implant their personas within the viewer’s mind, a feat Huppert accomplishes with a mere glance of disdain.  At its core, David Birke’s script is about power:  Power in the workplace, in relationships, and in sexual encounters.  Huppert’s Michele is a victim, enshrined in the armor of an intimidating, sexually empowered executive who has built an empire of illusions around her.  The revelry is shattered when she is brutally raped and in the aftermath, casually goes back to her ruined kingdom, refusing to make the incident anything more than an apparent inconvenience, despite the concern from her friends and lovers.

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Verhoeven flirts with ideas of a victim’s revenge, but this is merely the surface of Elle’s harrowing intent.  As Michele attempts to bolster her surroundings, she understands her powerlessness, using the perceived weakness of her situation to an advantage, finding an advantage where none should exist.  This is a dark story that is definitely not for the casual viewer.  Aside from the disturbing depth of the story, there are brutal sequences of sexual violence along all of Verhoeven’s hallmarks.  His film is about a woman who finds strength in her victimization and chooses to embrace it, finding pleasure in the freedom of the idea of losing the basest notions of control, but yet never actually surrendering.

 

Stephane Fontaine’s suffocating cinematography keeps everything at the ground level.  Every look and each transgression of the flesh are on full display, peeling back the falsities to reveal the casual awfulness of everyday people which, when contrasted against the sexual deviancy at the center, appears almost worse.  This is the sheer brilliance of Elle.  Verhoeven sprinkles comic relief in the darkest corners of the narrative while flatly refusing to shy away from the discomfort.  Just when you think you’ve exhausted your tolerance and understanding of Michele’s plight she delves further into the darkness and you willingly take her icy hand, eager not only to explore the basement of the soul but ultimately, to decide where Michele’s limits end and yours begin.

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Verhoeven is notorious for violent exploitation with charm and Elle is the crown jewel in his gory pantheon of excess.  Every interaction is a negotiation and every scene of lust is a whispered rumor of scandal, overseen by a brooding and accusatory score by Anne Dudley.  Perhaps the best surprise of this sexual parable is that in the end, both the viewer and Michele find hope in her predicament, a wry admission that things that break us also strengthen and define us, a point that could only be made by Huppert’s flawless, tour de force performance.

 

Available now for digital rental, Elle is one of the best films of 2016.  Huppert received an Academy Award nomination for her performance, which given her fabled career is perhaps Elle’s greatest trick.  If you’re willing to explore a pitch black world of desire and control, in which the only escape is through self-acceptance via personal empowerment, Elle is an essential experience.

 

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Power Rangers

Power Rangers

2017.  Directed by Dean Israelite.

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2017’s first genuine surprise is here.  An outright refusal to slip into the creature comforts of the spandex universe, Dean Isrealite’s Power Rangers doesn’t redefine the superhero film, it makes it actually matter.  An intense, self-aware script plays to the strengths of a refreshingly diverse cast to deliver a crowd pleasing experience that is both playful and serious, mimicking the coming of age experience by telling a tale about self-acceptance and the importance of friendship.

Five misfits find mystical colored coins that turn them into the Power Rangers, a legion of larger than life soldiers who are charged with defending life.  They begin training in an attempt to unlock their “morphs”, powered armor that not only protects them, but uses their mutual bonds as a weapon against the ultimate evil, a fallen Ranger with designs on Earth.  John Gatins’ outstanding script checks every box on the list for a film like this, but rather than simply hitting the note and moving on to the next fight sequence, the story remains grounded in the plight of the young adults at its core.  Featuring the first autistic and LGBTQ superheroes and a wonderful mix of campy and somber themes, Power Rangers takes it time, making you care about these personas as they discover who they really are.

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Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography, particularly during the first two acts is sensational.  It begins with a dizzying car accident sequence that sets the tone before transitioning into crisp close ups of the stunning and beautifully imperfect cast.  These are real heroes, not pristine statues and the camera masterful captures their inner struggles while keeping the fantastical elements of the story present, but in the background.  There’s an inverted underwater sequence offset by slick lighting that is the standout, a telling whisper that the genre can be so much more than what it currently is.  There are moments of horror sprinkled throughout, with Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa obtaining gold in unspeakable ways, which is a reminder of the narrative’s refusal to be categorized.  The pacing and gliding between themes may be a turn off, however it is indicative of the comic book brand.  Many films of this type double down on the gritty or lighthearted side of the action, while Power Rangers asks “Why not both?” and it mostly works.

Sadly, the final act devolves into the standard destruction of the city/world ending scenario in which the heroes must save the day, but the fact that there is essentially only one fight sequence is astounding, and it doesn’t transpire until well over 90 minutes into the story.  Isrealite’s faith in the material and his cast is evident in every scene.  The matter of fact acceptance displayed by each character when confronted with their mortality is the centerpiece.  Where other films chronicle the journey of a flawed hero to greatness, the Power Rangers use their flaws to strengthen their bonds through self-love and mutual respect, with their intimate knowledge of their compatriots being the key to their survival.  Brian Tyler’s synth score encapsulates the teenagers vs. weirdness experience with pulsing tones and mysterious rhythms, touchstones to films where wonder and imagination are the real weapons against oppression and greed.

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The CGI is well done and the lack of fight scenes allows it to not overstay its welcome.  The television show involved big robots fighting big creatures, concepts that beg for this kind of treatment and the film delivers, not only showcasing interesting vehicles, but using slick editing to allow the viewer to actually comprehend what is happening once the mayhem begins.  Banks’ villain is underdeveloped, which is a hallmark of the genre, but her presence is menacing to the point that the final confrontation will have your attention, if only for her dedication to the melodrama.

In theaters now, Power Rangers is a welcome injection of fun and maturity to the blockbuster experience.  It’s not a perfect film by any means, but its patient storytelling, exceptional camera work, and perfect cast more than compensate for its expected shortcomings.  The studio has a six movie arc planned and if this film is an indicator of the possibilities for the franchise, viewers can expect great things if it succeeds.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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