Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark is one of the rare vampire films that I truly love, and that fact is mostly due to the awesome cast and the fantastic script co-written by Bigelow and genre master Eric Red that operates as a sly contemporary Western that just so happens to involve nomadic blood-suckers. Bigelow’s visceral camera style was in full effect, as the action sequences pop with gusto, while Red’s usual brand of dark humor spiced up the already sharp screenplay, creating t…he perfect mix of humor, emotion, and scares. Bill Paxton is absolutely live-wire terrific in this movie and Lance Henriksen got a chance to be extra nasty and awesome due to the unique shadings of his character and how the story used familiar tropes but freshened them up so you’d constantly be surprised by what unfolded. Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright were solid in the “lead roles” but they were unavoidably outmatched by Paxton’s sleazy charm and Henriksen’s penchant for being casually menacing and entertainingly despicable. Red works in his love for big-rig tractor-trailers, Bigelow got to flex her muscles with some awesome shoot-outs and classically staged, non-CGI enhanced explosions, and the final 10 minutes or so have got to be some of the most intense stuff in the cinematic vampire realm, made all the more effective because we truly care about the characters and their situation. Twilight this is not! Tangerine Dream’s score is moody and sinister and all sorts of late 80’s genius, and because the subject matter is treated in a realistic fashion, the ending carries an emotional punch that you don’t get with every horror movie. I love looking at Adam Greenberg’s stylish nighttime cinematography, as he consistently played with shadow and perspective, and then you’d get an incredible day-time set-piece (such as the finale) where he’d subvert your expectations for the genre (something I’m always a fan of). And another thing — this movie is lean and mean — Howard E. Smith’s tight-as-a-drum editing leaves no fat on the filmic bones, and clocking in at a taut 90 minutes means there’s not one wasted moment. While a box office non-starter, the film was warmly embraced by critics, and has found a huge second life as a cult favorite in the years since its initial theatrical release in 1987. This is one of those vampire movies that has it all — great performances, terrific violence and gore, narrative themes which add heft to the overall scenario, and a definite love for blood and fangs and sequences of vampires going wild with angry, devilish delight.
Pathfinder is a fun, gory, beautifully photographed hybrid-movie from genre specialist Marcus Nispel, and it shows a clear affinity for the action beats and nature aspects from the films of Terrence Malick (The New World), Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans), and Mel Gibson (Apocalypto). Released in 2007, this is a unique item, a film that balances horror elements, sword and shield historical fiction, and Native American mysticism in an effort to conjure up something startling and different within the context of the period action film genre. The effectively blunt narrative sets up the action right at the outset, with Karl Urban’s monosyllabic performance in clear debt to the hulking bravado of Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (which Nispel would later update in 2011), and while the screenplay from Laeta Kalogridis typically jettisons surprise in favor of sturdy if clichéd dramatics, the star of the film is clearly the visually talented Nispel and his incredible cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl, who shoots in moody, highly textured widescreen, combining an almost monochromatic look to go along with the crimson red swaths of blood that fly all over the screen. This is a film in love with its violent spectacle, and the barbaric sights that are offered up take full advantage of the R-rating (and are even more intense in the unrated edition out on disc). Nispel clearly went to rigorous physical ends with this production (Herzog would blush at the mountain footage), which looks and feels twice as big as its reported budget ($30 million). And in this day and age of watered down, neutered action films, there’s a refreshing honesty to the carnage and bloodletting, all of which feels intensely cinematic; it’s an area that Nispel wonderfully excels at. And though his films have mostly done strong business worldwide for the last 12 years, he’s still waiting to deliver his BIG blockbuster film, and I have a feeling that his upcoming sea monster film (which has apparently been inspired by Nordic myth) might be that movie.
The 2001 drama In the Bedroom is, to my eye, a flawless movie. Maybe you can pick it apart on some level, but I can’t find any major issues. I can just imagine writer/director/actor Todd Field to be extraordinarily intense. He was the piano player during the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut for Kubrick and then made two films that the master would have greatly approved of (Little Children in 2006 being the other). We need more from this guy and fast. Tom Wilkinson is devastating in this film, Sissy Spacek kills her scenes, Marisa Tomei is heartbreaking, long lost Nick Stahl was extra effective, and this was easily William Mapother’s crowning achievement as an actor. The finale stings with violent force and amazing impact, and there’s both a touch of Malick and a dollop of Kubrick from within the aesthetic that renders the viewer helpless for just over two hours. This film focuses on love, revenge, family, and how people from within a close knit unit come together after tragedy in an effort to make sense of sudden loss that feels overwhelming to the key players in the story. Field nails the small town details, the sense of community, and the overbearing power of grief that can hit someone when they’re least expecting it. This isn’t an easy film or one that offers simple answers to a series of events that are both inexplicable yet rational, which, when you think of it, is often times what life adds up too. I’d really, really like it if Field would make another film and fast.
Released in 2008, My Effortless Brilliance was writer/director Lynn Shelton’s second effort, and within the context of her career, seems like a natural precursor to her even more edgy and provocative third feature, 2009’s uproarious Humpday. Starring the terrific Sean Nelson as an amazingly sloppy and selfish writer named Eric, Shelton’s film centers on Eric’s strained relationship with his close friend Dylan, a pensive Basil Harris, who hits all the right notes of suppressed anger and irritation. It seems that over the course of time, Eric has become a bit of an egotistical ass, and while not purposefully acting rude to his friends, it’s more as if he’s oblivious to his shortcomings. Dylan tells him off, cut to two years later, and Eric, now on a book tour, decides to unexpectedly visit his estranged buddy up at his cabin in the forests of Washington. Shelton sets the mood right away with a fidgety shooting style, with foreshadowing cutaways to the mountains the surround the guarded, wounded characters within the tight narrative. As usual for a Shelton production, there is no fat on this film’s bones, with one scene organically unfolding into the next, creating a smooth passage of content that never gets bogged down with superfluous digressions.
This being a relationship movie about two guys, Shelton astutely guides her actors (the script was improvised by all creative entities) to a point of never fully explaining the row between the two friends, because as everyone knows, men have a fight, and then just leave it there, never delving into it. They drink, they lob insults, they smack each other in the junk, and then they wake up the next day and move on. I loved how naturalistic everything felt, from the sharp and witty dialogue to the manner of speech from Nelson and Harris, to the hand-held cinematography that stressed the physical rigors of the wilderness-set production which fit perfectly with the rocky emotional content. This is an 80 minute film about people and words and their personal problems, so as such, it feels purposefully insular and intimate, and the two performances from Nelson and Harris hit all the right notes of anger, hostility, and finally, warmth. Shelton even gets to thrown in some Terrence Malick-esque shots of nature (the ants on the log was a nice touch), and as always, I’m impressed with how real everything feels in her films; she’s refreshingly free of artifice which allows the viewer to get invested in her stories in a unique fashion. Funny, perceptive, and to the point, My Effortless Brilliance is one of those tiny films made on a shoe-string budget that goes along way due to the creative integrity of all the contributors.
I really enjoyed Inside Out. It’s creative, witty, smart, and more than a little LSD inspired. I mean…seriously…when they go “abstract” – get the hell out of here! Ten sheets of blotter that was! This film felt to me like Pixar’s The Lego Movie, in that, it’s a “kid’s movie” that’s been designed almost entirely for adults (even more than Up and Wall-E), the sort of film where the tykes will enjoy the bouncing characters and bright colors and the adults will stay for the complex, emotionally layered narrative that’s both experimental and traditional at the same time. The voice work is spirited, Pete Docter’s direction is amazingly quick and light on its feet without feeling overly frenetic (Wreck-it Ralph this is not), and while it certainly dips into overtly sentimental material more than I might have cared for or expected, there’s no denying the overall impact of the message and digital artistry. But I have to come back to the trippy component to Inside Out – some of the imagery is downright acid-tinged in the wildest of ways (intentional or not), and I’m constantly amazed by the subversive elements that keep getting thrown into the best of the recent Pixar crop. There’s no shortage of imagination with this film, and while Inside Out trades off of some familiar pop-culture imagery (Candy Land, Tomorrowland, and The Lego Movie kept popping up in my head), there’s no denying that this is yet another bold step forward for Pixar, as they continue to lead the way in form pushing animated content with a soul, telling stories that are universally relatable and all the more poignant for being so. Bing Bong POWER.
Paul Mazursky’s 1978 film An Unmarried Woman is a film that works on every conceivable level, and I was particularly blown away by Jill Clayburgh’s mesmerizing performance as woman caught off guard by her husband’s sudden decision to separate, and who has to navigate the tricky waters of being a single woman after spending 15 years happily married to the man she so clearly saw herself growing old with. Everything in this film felt raw, heartfelt, and extremely direct, with Ma…zursky making repeatedly strong social comments on marriage, sex, friendship, and family. Bill Conti’s incredible score permits one to consistently play the air saxophone all throughout, and I loved the unhurried pace which allowed for moments – both big and small – to be showcased all throughout the narrative. In particular, the bit with Clayburgh dancing to Swan Lake in her underwear in the opening moments has to be considered one of the best random moments of spirited cinema that’s been captured (or at least that I’ve seen). Michael Murphy was great (his scene in the street with Clayburgh is an all-timer), Alan Bates stole every scene, Cliff Gorman had a helluva chest beaver, and each and every line from Mazursky’s well-honed script felt spot-on in terms of the naked honesty being explored by the various characters. Shot entirely on location in New York City, the unadorned cinematography by Arthur Ornitz was perfect in a naturalistic fashion, and as usual, Mazursky’s way with actors could be felt in every scene, as he so clearly valued his performer’s abilities to get to the heart of the scene with a minimal amount of fuss. And just as good as the film is the audio commentary that Mazursky and Clayburgh provided for the DVD, with Mazursky consistently ripping into the sad state of the current Hollywood bean-counter mentality, while also expressing his frustrations with the hypocritical behavior of the MPAA and the lack of nudity in modern motion pictures. Clayburgh also discusses the causal nudity that was so prevalent in movies back in those days, and it’s a further reminder of how Puritanical this country still is when it comes to sex on the big screen. For the love of Pete, they’re just nipples! Everyone’s got at least two…shocker I know! There’s no doubt that when people constantly say that the 1970’s were the best years for American cinema that they’re telling the truth.
Director Lynn Shelton has always been interested in flawed people, never content to settle for easy answers, constantly inviting drama into the lives of her emotionally stunted characters in all of her low-key and under the radar gems. Her latest film, the oddly charming Laggies with the peppy and wonderfully photogenic Keira Knightley, explores the familiar themes of late 20-something mental angst and life confusion and does so with sad humor and easy going style. And while it’s the first film that Shelton didn’t write (the perceptive script is by Andrea Seigel), all of her trademarks remain in clear focus, with equal attention paid to drama and comedy. Knightley is Megan, a directionless, sometimes unlikable woman who has just been proposed too (Mark Webber does a good job as her put-upon boyfriend) but isn’t sure of where her life is going or what direction she wants to take it in. She randomly meets Annika (Chloe Graze Moretz, on a roll), a teenager trying to score some beer for her friends outside of a grocery store, and feels compelled to help them out with their illicit purchase. She then develops an odd friendship with Annika, Annika’s friends, and Annika’s recently divorced father, a reliably awesome and perfectly sarcastic Sam Rockwell. What will Megan do with her life? How will her increasingly selfish decisions affect those around her? Knightley is fantastic here, displaying a varying range of emotions throughout the up and down narrative, nailing her “big” moments with ease and showing off that high-wattage smile on more than one occasion. She’s so perfect and at home in period costumes dramas that it’s always a refreshing change of pace to see her in modern films (Seeking A Friend for the End of the World is another favorite), and I rarely can remember her appearing this freewheeling on screen. And honestly, at this point, I could watch master scene stealer Rockwell read the phone book; this guy is always killer in every film and as soon as he shows up in Laggies, everything gets kicked up a notch. His dry line delivery is always on the money, and the chemistry he develops with Knightley is palpable. Shelton seems drawn to characters in turmoil, and it’s clear that she loves awkward humor and those squirm-inducing moments of human behavior that just seem a tad “off” for the situation. A pioneer of the low-budget, semi-improvised character based dramedy starring a group of self-effacing performers, Shelton is getting closer and closer to having her BIG breakout film in terms of large mainstream success, and I love her effortless ability of taking a simple premise, injecting it with dramatic purpose and heft, while still being able to deliver the funny in a sensible, never over the top fashion. This is a quirky, small movie made to feel “big” because of the acting talent, and while it was more downbeat overall than I expected, Shelton reliably brings her sharp sense of witty humor to the proceedings which provides numerous moments of character based hilarity. This is yet another notable title from edgy distributor A24 and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Shelton.