Tag Archives: Kyle Jonathan

John Carpenter’s Halloween

Halloween

1978.  Directed by John Carpenter.

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Plausible nightmares are one of the most engrossing forms of horror.  John Carpenter’s legendary film Halloween, uses a simple premise, devoid of supernatural influence, to construct a muted Giallo homage that uses outstanding compositions and wonderfully understated performances to present a homespun tale of suburban terror.

On Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers repeatedly stabs his sister to death with a kitchen knife.  Michael is then placed in a mental hospital and his therapist, Dr. Loomis spends the next 15 years trying to heal the child’s fractured sanity.  On Halloween night in 1978, Michael escapes from the sanitarium and returns home to resume his unfinished killing spree.  He sets his sights on Laurie, a teenager who is having a party with several of her friends.  Loomis pursues Michael, planning to set a trap, however Michael has other plans in store for this very special All Hallows’ Eve.

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Carpenter’s direction uses artistic discretion and eerie lighting effects to masterful ends, presenting the events of the film as a possible reality in which the blurred and obscured backgrounds are filled with true evil, and it is their contrast with the red blooded American victims that is so unforgettable.  Jaime Lee Curtis does an admirable job as one of the first incarnations of the American “scream queen”, but even her role is subdued.  Carpenter outright refuses to allow anything to rise to the level of parody, imprisoning the teenage cast  in a pubescent purgatory.  Starting a long held horror film tradition of the victims being the ones to engage in substance abuse and sex, Halloween’s brilliant narrative conceit is that its killer is not overly intelligent, but simply opportunistic and inhumanely relentless.

Long time collaborator Dean Cundey’s cinematography captures the precise blocking of the cast with vivid close ups that use blurred backgrounds to present Myers as a spectral force.  Shadows and light are manipulated in such a fashion that even the most innocent looking hallway is presented as a diabolic jack in the box waiting to unleash it’s malicious payload anytime a character deigns to walk down one alone.  One of the best scenes involves a looming shot of a crowd of mental patients in a field at night, their white gowns wandering aimlessly through a rainstorm, partially illuminated by a car’s fluttering headlights, giving the viewer a taste off the atrocities that Michael endured to make him the monster that he has become.

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Made on a shoestring budget, Carpenter’s quiet mastery of every element of this film is what makes it so cherished.  From Carpenter’s iconic, character-like score to the dime store William Shatner mask that Michael dons prior to his rampage, Halloween is a film in which small, intimate details meld together into a murderous magnum opus.  Light on the blood and heavy on the suspense, Carpenter’s control is meticulous.  Considering that many of Halloween’s influences and contemporaries were exploring the boundaries of the medium and creating visual mind benders and extreme splatter features, Carpenter’s minimalist approach was the perfect counterbalance, appealing to mainstream audiences with an organic and morbidly possible story line.

Available now for digital rental, this is a film that requires no selling.  An all time trick or treat classic, Halloween is the best film ever made for the October holiday season.  A stripped down horror epic whose paramount craft is the result of its astute director, the incomparable John Carpenter.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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In Memoriam: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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The cinematic world was deeply saddened by the passing of Tobe Hooper in late August.  Responsible for some of the most iconic American films in the horror genre, Hooper’s legacy will always be remembered for pushing boundaries and using ours fears as a means of self-reflection.  This week, Ben and Kyle sat down to discuss Hooper’s masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

BEN:  Like many classics, I’m sad to say that this is yet another film that I had not previously seen. Despite it being the father to so many other films, whether horror, sci-fi, thriller or a combination there of, Hooper’s film looks every bit his $300,000 budget and even more.

KYLE: Wait, you’d never seen it until now?  Why did you wait so long!?

Ben:  I can’t honestly answer that.  I really didn’t gravitate towards horror films when I was a kid.  Even as an adult, slicing people with knives or razors still creeps me out.  Which is why the sequence in the van when they pick up the hitchhiker works so very well.  Edwin Neal played ‘freaked out’ to the hilt, but it was the close quarters of the van and Daniel Pearl’s camerawork that really make the magic happen.  And that was Tobe Hooper’s gift. His film is shot and edited in such a way that it makes you think you’re seeing more than you actually are; the mind plays tricks on you.

KYLE: Absolutely.  It’s part of the film undeniable charm.  From the first shot, you know you’ve waded into a greasy pit of hell.  I love that you mentioned the close quarters.  Paranoia is an important part of this film, both from the experience the characters endure and in how America was feeling at the time.  The country was still reeling from Vietnam and I think that is why it was so popular.  That and the outstanding cinematography and editing.

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BEN: The technical achievements aside, this film is torture porn with bits of voyeurism if I’m not being too blunt. Sally’s screams uttered from Marilyn Burns were ear piercingly jarring, but they were effective.  Paul Partain probably had the more difficult roles as a paraplegic, but his acting got on my nerves towards the end of the film.

KYLE: I like how it switches between presumed violence and voyeurism depending on the situation.  It’s somewhat tame by today’s standards and yet, it’s unrelentingly bleak without being a complete downer.  A lot of modern horror comments on the darkness within everyone where Hooper was more interested in exploring a darkness that is almost inhuman.  Again, perhaps it is a comment on the place where the nation was at during filming?

BEN:  Oh, I very much liked the framing using the graphic news clips to place you in the middle of everyday life throughout the United States in the mid-1970’s.  More specifically, the use of a grave robber was creepy enough.  Young college-aged kids were more apt to be adventurous, which is why they picked up the hitchhiker with such ease.  And yet, they were skeptical.

KYLE: That is a great point.  It’s interesting how this is the proto-slasher and yet, it has a lot of qualities that are outside the niche genre, specifically with respect to the kids being skeptical.  I also enjoyed how sexuality was underplayed.  It is part of the world, but not the focus.  While the 80’s was filled with a lot films who used sexually charged victims as bait for the underage VHS generation, this is a smart film, both in its handling of violence and treatment of its subject matter.

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BEN: Alan Danzinger as Jerry, William Vail as Kirk and Teri McMinn as Pam were effective at helping to convey the free-spirited nature of the times; it was almost like looking at a time capsule.  It helped that Hooper and Kim Henkel’s script incorporated the news clips I mentioned earlier.

Despite the marketing and the opening monologue by John Larroquette, this was not a true story. Hooper admitted that his inspiration for the story elements reflected the distrust of the government including Watergate, the 1973 oil crisis, and Vietnam. The character of Leatherface and some of the plot details were based on serial killer Ed Gein.

KYLE: This is the heart of the film and the reason I think it retains its legendary status decades later.  The best films are often reflections of their time and TCM is a great example of one of the many things that can be birthed in the midst of a counterculture revolution.

BEN: Gunnar Hansen had the unenviable task of playing Leatherface, someone who had to thrash about the frame while trying to project his character’s intentions at the same time.  One might think it would be easy to use a chainsaw to point in a direction. Without motivation, there’s no pointing.

KYLE: And the chainsaw almost killed one of the cast members!  Almost every cast member was injured during production.  Marilyn Burn’s costume was so drenched with blood it had completely stiffened by the time they wrapped.  It’s details such as this only enhances the film’s notorious mystique.

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BEN: I found it interesting that Hansen took the time to get his inspiration from special needs children, learning their movements, which Hooper keyed in on.  The house in Round Rock, Texas plays as much as role in the film as the other characters.  Who ever thought that a farmhouse with a white picket fence could be so menacing?  Robert A. Burns’ art direction added the textures that bring the house to life.

KYLE: Absolutely. The film presents an idea of a hidden, haunted American backwoods filled with all manner of horrors, all of which are human.  Fear, when distilled through our own world is the most potent brand imaginable because the audience already knows the world is a dark place.  Hooper’s masterful understanding of this and using it as a weapon against the unsuspecting is just one more ingredient in a perfectly tainted recipe.

BEN: The local Alamo Drafthouse here in Phoenix screened it, in honor of the late Tobe Hooper.  They had a DCP, but it looked like I was watching a 35mm print, it looked that good. I was surprised to learn that Hooper used 16mm film, which explains the harsher look. Massacre is a stunning technical achievement for its budget. Between the editing by Larry Carroll and Sally Richardson, Burns’ use of real rotting carcasses, and Pearl’s stunning cinematography, Tobe Hooper’s film is a tribute to the cast and crew’s dedication.  I would definitely revisit this film again.

KYLE: It’s one of my favorite films of all time because it shows that a big budget isn’t required to make an influential film that continues to hold up.  Hooper’s guerilla tactics behind the camera congealed with a thrilling ensemble and unspeakable visuals to create one of the most important horror films ever made.

Ben and Kyle would like to thank you for continuing to follow their conversations.  Join them next week as they discuss their favorite Jennifer Lawrence performances in honor of the release of Mother!.

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Jackie

Jackie

2016.  Directed by Pablo Larrain.

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America consumes its legends.  The fuselage of politics and media exposure are the cutlery, while national tragedies are the main course, with the blood and camera lights dripping from the chin of insatiable public opinion  Pablo Larrain’s daring, borderline terrifying examination of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination is a fairy tale biopic that abandons any sense of tradition in favor of focusing on the concept of bereavement as an inconvenience to the patriotic machine and the unsung defiance of a woman forced to reinterpret her existence in the face of the unthinkable.

Natalie Portman becomes her subject, shredding the First Lady veneer to expose the ugliness of circumstance.  Her embodiment of Jackie, of a woman whose entire existence was undone with a bullet, is both brutal and demure, balancing the warm embrace of depression with the repressed rage of gender misappropriation.  Poise and conviction are her weapons, filling every sequence with subtle devastation and reluctant resilience.  Within instants of the fatal shot, Portman’s Jackie is relegated to an inconvenient specter, walking the halls of the future White House, with her ethereal presence carrying the film through the spectacle of the final act.  The deft manner in which Portman glides between cataclysmic psychological horror and rebellious self realization is unparalleled in this year’s lead actress performances.

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Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography captures the conflicting nature that flows through the veins of Jackie by using a variety of lighting and sharp angles to offset the personal torment with the grandeur seen by the public.  The moments of public knowledge, such as the exquisitely recreated funeral procession, use bright reds and warm blacks in combination to both respect the melancholy underpinnings and explore the inside of a national tragedy.  It is the moments in between, however, the quiet and eerie happenings within Jackie’s solitary hell, that are the most memorable.  Jean Rabase’s magnificent art direction turns the fabled White House into a haunted Camelot, with Jackie holding a lonely court amidst smoke filled chambers, adorned in immaculate costuming by Madelaine Fonataine.  Soft pinks highlight bloodstains and bruised skin, pulling the raw emotional upheaval into the focus, locking the viewer into Jackie’s tumultuous dirge.

Mica Levi’s score is a living entity, the shadow of history that is behind Jackie wherever she treads.  Filled with ominous crescendos and sharp tonal misdirection to signify the fleeting dream of America that has become a nightmare.  Noah Oppenheimer’s script has garnered some controversy for its treatment of the Johnson’s and Jackie’s reactions to them, but when taken in the context of the situation, the acts as displayed are organic companions to the film’s core mechanic of a woman being systemically undone and this is what elevates Jackie to being one of the best films of its year.  The free world will always need a leader, and the second JFK stopped breathing, Jackie’s entire universe, both her porcelain public persona and her briskly resigned private life began to evaporate.  The conflict over the funeral serves as a means for Jackie to commit a final act of patriotic maternity that ultimately became the nation’s first steps towards recovery.

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Available now for digital rental, Jackie is ballad of pain.  A unique offering in the biopic genre that weaves threads of horror and hope into the Chanel armor of its champion, this is a one of kind of offering of poetic deconstruction.  Featuring one of the best performances of 2016, astounding technical craft, and an unforgettable score, if you’re looking for an unabashed examination of one of America’s greatest tragedies, this is the one.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK

Dunkirk

2017.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

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One of the first things that becomes clear, seconds into Christopher Nolan’s audacious thriller Dunkirk is that it is not a conventional war picture.  It may not even technically be a member of the genre.  Regardless, Dunkirk is Nolan’s crowning achievement.  A ferocious, tightly constructed tribute to one of the greatest acts of national heroism in the history of mankind.  Bordering on horror at times while exploring the darker side of survival and the effects of trauma, Nolan commands a cinematic arsenal in a symphony of destruction, balancing a pulse raising score, harrowing cinematography, and unparalleled practical effects.  These combine to form a living prison around the audience, forcing them to inhabit the souls of the combatants, both their acts of unthinkable courage and their primal need to survive at all costs.

400,000 allied soldiers are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  What follows is a nonlinear recounting of the rescue operation that inspired the world to fight back against inhuman darkness.  The point of view is split between the soldiers on the beach, civilians mounting a rescue effort by sea, and the Royal Air Force pilots protecting the operation.  Nolan’s script is a showcase on minimalist storytelling, to the point that Dunkirk often feels like a silent film homage and this only furthers the oppressive feeling that pervades every frame.  There are no Nazis present on the screen; they are wraiths coming to reap the souls of the stranded.  There is no respite, no sanctuary, and from the first ear bursting gunshots, the film drops any sense of conformity with its predecessors.

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Some have commented on the film’s distinct lack of exposition and character development; however the lack of focus on a singular “hero” is what allows Nolan’s vision to truly shine.  Who these people were is not of interest to the master auteur, it is the sum of masses that is on display.  It would be unfair, however, to ignore the work of Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance.  Both of these talented performers have scenes that are so emotionally gripping, they manage to imprint on the viewer, despite the absolute bravura of everything else that is happening around them.  This was a day where men made the ultimate sacrifice for the many and where boys became men against their father’s wishes.

Hans Zimmer, who will hopefully garner awards gold this season, has created the best score of his prolific career.  Emulating the ticking doomsday panic that afflicts the soldiers, his ominous notes are relentless, taking the narrative into the depths of despair, only to then deliver the proceedings into hope.  The sound design is impeccable.  The viewer is there, on the beach when bombs cascade across the sounds, in the surf when ignited oil snatches away all hope of escape, and in the sky, where split second decisions decide the fate of thousands.  This is a film that requires IMAX viewing, if possible.  It is not only the reason these titanic theaters exist, it is a great example of the power of the big screen.

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Hoyt van Hoytema’s pristine cinematography is breathtaking.  While the editing allows it to truly shine, there are a plethora of moments where the camera lingers on desolate beaches and aeronautical specters that enrich the three pronged approach with unflinching realism.  There are so many unique tactics employed, it seems daunting, but they flow together with a dangerous sense of truth.  While other efforts rely on tracking shots and shaky-cam trickery, Hoytema is interested in the soul of Nolan’s vicious poetry, and the result is a cold, omnipotent viewpoint that leaves everything on the table.  There are no favorites, no shining stars, and nothing but the events themselves matters.   This is a startling film, but one that is relentlessly human in its retelling and this is something that will either resonate with the viewer, or repulse.

In theaters now, Dunkirk is one of the few masterpieces of 2017, and the best film of Christopher Nolan’s fabled portfolio.  Every element of what mystifies and entices us to watch films is present.  There is tragedy and redemption, heroism and cowardice, and most importantly darkness and unyielding light.  If you see one film in the theater this year, this is the one.   If you’re looking for a traditional war film, look elsewhere.  Nolan’s masterful, tightly paced epic is an endurance test for the mind and heart.  Dunkirk is a retelling of history in a hands-off, brutally realistic manner that will leave you stunned for its duration, and long after the lights have come up.

Highly. Highly Recommend.

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Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

The Beguiled

2017.  Directed by Sofia Coppola.

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Sofia Coppola’s latest effort is an atmospheric pressure cooker steeped in sexual innuendo and madness. Fusing the Confederate origins of the original film with a Gothic, dreamlike presentation, The Beguiled presents a simplistic narrative of erotic vendetta that is enhanced with magnetic performances and ghostly cinematography that present a female focused incarnation of the iconic source material.

Wounded Union soldier John McBurney finds respite at a Southern academy for young women. In a crumbling manse enshrouded by Spanish moss, a dangerous game of amorous deceit plays out amidst a backdrop of a nation devouring itself. Coppola’s script trims every possible amount of fat from an already slim narrative to keep everything focused on the characters. Colin Farrell delivers another terrific performance as a lecherous victim of circumstance whose uses every possible advantage to ensure not only personal safety, but an unspeakable possibility. Nicole Kidman gives a restrained performance as the school’s headmistress that is the perfect counter, embodying a fierce protective spirit of lethal maternity that is not only a product of a nation gone mad, but a pragmatic force to be reckoned with.

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Kirsten Dunst gives an interesting turn as the school’s fractured teacher. She balances unrepentant desire and rigid etiquette with remarkable ease, bringing an intriguing angle to the social complexities on display. Elle Fanning does adequate work with what she’s given, however the narrative moves so quickly that the devious personalities often don’t have enough to develop and as a result, her performance suffers. This is a minor flaw that is quickly forgotten as the quiet nightmare of McBurney’s ordeal plays out in the mist. Stacey Battat’s period costume design is flawless, encasing each character in outfits that mirror the gender inequalities and high fashion of the time perfectly, which does an outstanding job are supporting each of the characters’ moments in the spotlight.

Philippe Le Sourd’s ethereal cinematography is the film’s strongest element. Beautiful wide shots of the exterior are sprinkled throughout, contrasting intrusive close-ups that dominate the bulk of the movie. Natural lighting is used whenever possible and Coppola’s intimate understanding of the material is always reflected in the muted imagery, perfectly emulating the fable-like story on display. This is made possible by understated editing and a haunting score by Phoenix that keep everything close to the chest.

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In theaters now, The Beguiled is an excellent addition to Sofia Coppola’s woefully small filmography. While the final act undoes the terse foundations of the preceding acts, the cathartic release is well earned, if a tad uneven. If you’re interested a whispered passion play that explores gender politics and spins a harrowing tale of revenge, this will not disappoint.

Highly Recommend.

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Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island

2017. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

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Sometimes you know virtually everything there is to know about a film before you view it.  Maybe it’s the title, the director’s previous films, the poster, or more often than not, it’s the trailer.  Despite these unfortunate truths of the information age, there are occasions where a film can still manage to not only surprise, but entertain you as well.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is a breath of fresh air to big explosion, big monster movie madness that has been experiencing a decline over the last year.  While there is absolutely nothing that reinvents the prescribed formula for a film like this, what it does, it does very well, signaling not only Vogt-Roberts’ love for the creature feature, but also his talent at using resources in creative ways to present a been there, done that story in a manner that consistently entertains for the duration.

In 1973, Scientists and soldiers set out to explore Skull Island, a place where monsters reputedly roam.  Their intrusion not only angers the legendary ape who rules the island, it awakens an ancient evil as well.  Tom Hiddleston stars as the tough guy navigator who is in no danger of dying.  Brie Larson stars as an activist photographer who is in no danger of dying.  They’re supported by a scene stealing John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson, and a regrettably restrained John Goodman.  There are also legions of soldiers and scientists who are sacrificed on the altar of “story”.   The real star is Kong himself, made possible by unimaginable special effects that are volleyed throughout the film’s run time.  Vogt-Roberts uses a perfect soundtrack and puts his trust into the effects team to present a monster movie that is pure abandon without being a guilty pleasure.  It’s undeniable decent and even though its plot is paint by numbers, the viewer is having so much counting said numbers, they forget to worry about the endless cliché’s and predictability of the story.

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Icon Larry Fong’s patient cinematography builds off of the Apocalypse Now ambrosia and captures the meeting of man and nature with blinding fulminations and intense colors that bloom across the screen in every sequence.  Acrid yellow smog and sunglass reflected fire are two impactful visuals that elevate the imagery far beyond the expected B movie trappings.  The makeup of tribal natives and the phosphorous gas of a battlefield combine into a potent mixture of untouched history with high powered weaponry, and it is this unholy union that pushes the film above mediocrity.  The divide between the two worlds comes crashing down within minutes of the humans’ arrival, but it is the aftermath that is done better than so many of its predecessors.  While there are rumors that this may be the first film in a shared cinematic universe, it is extremely clear that Pandora’s Box has been irrevocably opened and Vogt-Roberts embraces this with open arms.

Available now for digital streaming, Kong: Skull Island is an excellent way to spend a night on the couch, especially if you’re in the mood for playful extremity.  Large monsters, large explosions, and large guns are what await you in King Kong’s sanctum.  The best part is that nothing feels out of place and everything works in concert to achieve the most important goal for a film: to entertain.

Recommend.

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Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

1989.  Directed by Steven Spielberg.

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“You lost today kid, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

The Indiana Jones films and their architect, Steven Spielberg are household names, stitched into the fabric of modern pop culture with two-fisted pulp icons battling the forces of evil with brains and brawn, and always in a larger than life fashion.  The first two films are considered to be some of the greatest action epics ever committed to film and Spielberg chose to return to his beloved world of whips and relics with a fantastical epic steeped in themes of fatherhood and the power of knowledge over hatred.

Indiana Jones sets off in pursuit of his father, who’s gone missing while questing for the Holy Grail.  Beset upon by wicked Nazis and greedy scholars, Jones and his father must overcome their differences and believe in the power of family and friendship to persevere over the forces of darkness.  Jeffrey Boam’s script begins with a childhood flashback to one of Indy’s first adventure, setting the tone for the familial morality tale at the center of Crusade’s larger than life story.    The intimate moments between the Jones’ and the action set pieces are perfectly balanced, never overtaking one another.  The dialogue is packed with endlessly quotable lines, allowing each of the cast to shine in their particular moments.  Harrison Ford’s solid embodiment of Indy is beyond reproach, but it is Sir Sean Connery’s brilliant turn as Indy’s father that is the highlight.  His wizened dedication to the Grail is only outdone by his emotional realizations of its cost on his life and still even these moments of depth pale in comparison to his legendary beachfront confrontation with a fighter plane and his pitch perfect, boyish charm in his scenes with Denholm Elliot’s hilarious sidekick.  His monologue about the importance of the quest for the Grail is one of the film’s best moments.

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Douglas Slocombe’s robust cinematography takes advantage of the lighting in sweaty close ups only to pull back into beautiful wide shots that encapsulate the wonders of nature and the incomprehensible malice of Nazi Germany.  John Williams brings his formidable harmonics to bear with the expected triumphs previously established and then surpasses them with unforgettable tones that clearly divide good and evil.  While there are betrayals and shifting motives, the heart of the franchise has always been about right and wrong, black and white, and Williams is perfectly in rhythm with this concept.

The final ingredient is the heart racing action that is the heart of the film.  Beginning with a dazzling chase sequence featuring the late River Phoenix and then transitioning into no holds barred rescue involving a tank, The Last Crusade takes its time getting to the next explosion and when it arrives, there is nothing but excellence to feast upon.  In a time of CGI saturation, action fans will always have classics such as this to return to, a powerful reminder of the power of practical effects and inspired creativity.

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Available now for streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is essential viewing for anyone who’s ever entered a theater.  Featuring a heartwarming story about fathers and son, hilarious exchanges amidst pulse pounding battles, and a golden age presentation, this is one of the all-time greats and a perfect example of how to do the blockbuster right.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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