The rise of Satanic Panic in the 1990’s always seemed to permeate into Hollywood, as the collective fears of a decade often do. Devilish cinematic efforts ranged from excellent (End Of Days, Fallen, The Devil’s Advocate) to lukewarm (Stigmata, The Order) to mediocre (The Ninth Gate) but I can now say that the only one I would consider an absolutely terrible film is Janusz Kaminski’s Lost Souls. This thing is one of the murkiest, muddiest, laziest, most bizarre pieces of celluloid I’ve ever sat through shaking my head at and I found myself wondering how it got past the pitch phase with such a paper thin script like that. Here’s the ‘plot’ and the only reason I know is because I IMDb’d a synopsis, there’s no telling what’s going on by watching the actual film itself: a catholic school teacher (Winona Ryder) with an apparent personal history of demon possession is recruited by her former priest (John Hurt) and his associates to find the human avatar for the Antichrist, who will soon take earthly form. This particular human is a bumbling atheist true crime author (Ben Chaplin) who is more than a little confused at these implications. There’s also an inexplicable subplot involving a serial killer making media headlines, another rogue preacher (Phillip Baker Hall) and other dimly lit gobbledygook that makes little to no sense. Ryder is listless and meandering, Chaplin never makes a huge impression anyways. Hurt barely registers beyond looking vaguely worried and you know your film is in serious trouble when even usual scene stealer Elias Koteas is cast in an inconsequential bit part with no lasting impression. Director Kaminski is a well renowned cinematographer who has shot all kinds of prolific stuff but he probably should have stepped out of the director’s chair back into a DoP position because this looks like it was shot through a burlap sack filter. Mucky browns, grainy greys and tinny blues abound and not in a good way. The score sounds like an amplifier being dropped onto a marble floor (not in a good way either I might add) and every actor in this thing either looks like they have no grasp on the flow of the story (which is almost nonexistent) or would simply rather be somewhere else. How this thing ever got released is beyond me.
Remember that poem ‘Tiger Tiger’ by William Blake? I always loved that one in school and Burning Bright, horror film that combines several high concepts for an odd but entertaining mix, isn’t quite as poetic enough to live up to the Blake piece but works well as a kind of low grade Grindhouse SyFy deal. How do you make your chamber piece/creature feature more scary these days, or any thriller at all for that matter? Set it during a hurricane, of course. I think I saw like three movies this year alone set during a typhoon and revolving around every other central threat you can think of from bank robberies to alligators to street gangs. Here it’s obviously a tiger and the hurricane only serves to delineate that the lead characters can’t simply leave the house to escape it. This is an especially vicious and ‘evil’ tiger, or so we’re informed early on by hammy circus boss Meat Loaf as he pawns it off to no-good stepfather and ‘safari ranch’ entrepreneur Garrett Dillahunt, a perennially sinister fellow who looks like he could be Will Forte’s evil twin. His stepdaughter (Briana Evigan) and autistic stepson (Charlie Tahan, so young here!) find themselves boarded up in the family home alone with this tiger while the hurricane rages on outside. How did this happen? I won’t spoil it but you can sorta kinda sus it out from what I’ve said already. This allows for a sweaty, impressively suspenseful battle of wills against the animal, as the daughter tries to protect both of them and shelter the boy because he doesn’t quite… grasp what’s going on. This is a fun, solid film that doesn’t take its premise too far into WTF-ville or overstay it’s welcome, and although a tad aloof and awkward in spots, the scenes in the house where they face off agains the tiger are very well done, thanks to use of actual tigers over CGI. The film almost doesn’t deserve a title based on property like Blake when the story overall is so… just regular. I’d have almost preferred a surreal, dark film that just started with the kids already stuck in the house with the tiger and no setup, hurricane or sidebars, a simplistic, dreamy art piece based on the single concept. What we got is decent enough, but man the title is so much more evocative.
Emma Tammi’s The Wind, which could also be called Little House Of Horrors On The Prairie, is a nicely atmospheric, sometimes effective but ultimately muddled and frustrating horror western (my fave sub genre!) that I really wanted to be a winner. Somewhere out there in all that desolation a homesteader couple (Caitlin Gerard & Ashley Zuckerman) are doing the best they can to survive off the land, when another couple (Julia Goldani Telles & Julian McTee) take up their own property an acre or two away, making them default neighbours, and this is where the trouble begins, or maybe it does, it’s hard to tell what’s happening when because the film jump as around in time a *lot* to the point where it feels needlessly discombobulating. Both girls seemingly have miscarriages and are traumatized by it, and in one timeline Gerard’s character is stuck alone in her cabin as a sinister supernatural presence menaces her. Or does it? Attempts at subtlety and misdirection unfortunately only added to the confusion, for my part. See the thing is, life out there on the plains is so distilled into simple form that the elaborate structure of flashback/flash-forward feels unwieldy and too tangled when it could have been a linear, crystalline tale. There are some genuinely spooky moments that are very well directed, acted and shot involving Gerard dealing with the malevolent forces surrounding her, garnished with a deliciously shrill violin score by Ben Lovett, a composition that frequently feels like it’s stabbing you in the ribs with quick, jarring strings cues. Credit where credit is due and all that but this choice to tell the story in fragmented, back and forth form cripples the ambience and isn’t done confidently or fluidly, as is the twist ending that when looked back upon, definitely raises some sagebrush eyebrows. An almost.
Gary Oldman is one of my favourite actors working in the business by far and just when I think I’ve seen it all from him, experienced the most varied, gonzo, dedicated and balls out work from a master of his craft… along comes David Fincher’s Mank, an absolute showstopper of a motion picture in every sense of the word and a new benchmark for my boy Gary. In the role of hard drinking, chain smoking, socialite, diva, contrarian scoundrel n’ scallywag supreme, Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oldman not only nails the manic, often self destructive groove of the writer as an artist but cultivates and bellows out a cathartic “Fuck You” to the studio heads and political arbiters that often have more creative control over motion pictures than the artists themselves do. Set during the writing process of legendary Citizen Kane, Mank is deliberately sequestered at a bungalow in the Mojave where he begins to craft his script, bedridden after a vicious car accident and assisted by long suffering typeface guru Rita (Lily Collins) and nurse Frieda (Monika Grossman). This hypnotic setting is the home-base, the lynchpin from which we careen wildly back into the typhoon of Mank’s pickled memories of various characters and events which inspired him to write Kane including his tempestuous relationship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic courtship of Hearst’s ingenue starlet mistress Marion (Amanda Seyfried) and his cacophonously discordant professional life in Hollywood as he clashes with MGM honcho Louis Mayer (Arliss Howard), racks up gambling debt with studio CEO’s and tests the patience of his loving wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton). The film is less about the actual writing process of Citizen Kane and more about certain things from Mank’s past that he remembers, both fondly or otherwise, and how he incorporates those into his writing, sometimes subtly, sometimes with the force of a pile driver and sometimes in ways that only he understands and aren’t meant for us. Oldman is something else here, chewing on dialogue like sinewy jerky, slurring his words in drunken tirades and letting no one off the hook from the devilish wit he exudes, himself included. There are some stretches of subplot dedicated to an important election in California’s past and I’m not well informed on history enough to ‘get’ all the ins, outs and clashing opinions surrounding it but it was pretty clear to me that Mank stood on his own against the tide when everyone else compromised, and put the same sort of brittle, salt-in-the-wound intelligence and kamikaze spirit into his crafting of Kane as he did his own private and professional life. The script is by Fincher’s own father Jack in his one and only writing credit, which is staggering when you consider the levels of rich, deep, scintillating dialogue and sly drama on display here. I enjoyed this because David Fincher’s work is usually macabre, morbid and fatalistic, the guy just like to play on the dark side in his work but this is by far the most playful, lighthearted and ‘fun’ thing he’s ever done, uniting with Oldman at his best to bring his father’s brilliantly funny, deftly sentimental, somehow simultaneously dense and light-footed screenplay to breathtaking Black & White life. A treasure of a film.
I feel like one of the reasons that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has endured as one of the greatest films ever made is the beautiful ambiguity that leads every viewer into making their own sense, reason and emotional clarity out of how it ends. This is a wonderful film that would still turn heads, stir hearts and haunt perceptions even if it was released today and considering both how much time has passed since its 1941 release and how many other films have been made and influenced by it since it’s a test to the imagination and inspiration of its creators how much power it still has. On the surface it’s about a splintered, conveyer belt ride of memories tied to newspaper publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane, a character based loosely and, it now seems, rather dubiously on real life magnate William Randolph Hearst by writer Herman Mankiewicz. Maybe the reason I held out so long in seeing this film was that the description above, in itself, doesn’t sound like the most riveting film on earth. The life of a newspaper publishing giant? I mean.. thing is, that’s not what the film is actually *about*, in the elemental, essential way that matters and makes a lasting impression. Welles himself plays Kane at various stages of his life from blustery young idealist to confident middle aged man with fervent political ambition to disillusioned old codger with a ramshackle marriage, busted dreams and a giant hollow mansion atop an impossible hill where he haunts himself, saturated in a kaleidoscopic fever of memory. His final words before he dies are “Rosebud,” uttered from a twisted mask of anguish, regret and… something else, something intangible I couldn’t quite read from his expression and tone, but it’s there and it sticks with you. His final moments are tied to a core memory he has of being a young boy in the wintry country with is family, maybe the last truly carefree and idyllic recollection he has? In any case this film isn’t just a hazy biopic, character study or historical treatise, it’s something that lingers in a way I couldn’t possibly describe here, a theme and hallowed undercurrent that goes beyond the language of narrative drama. Rosebud meant something deep and personal to Kane, and the beauty of it is it will mean something different to each viewer. Great film.
I like a Hallmark film once in a while, provided it has some actors I love and it’s not too vanilla or syrupy. The Love Letter is a reasonably sweet, endearing little time travel romance fantasy thing that benefits greatly from its two leads Campbell Scott and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both hail from arenas far off from usual territory like this but for whatever reason they signed on. Remember that film The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock? Where they send letters to each other decades apart through a magic mailbox? Well I’m pretty sure whoever made that one saw this and almost totally ripped it off because they’re uncannily similar. Instead of a mailbox it’s a mahogany writing desk, owned by Leigh’s Elizabeth Whitcomb, a civil war era girl about to be forced into marriage by her father to some dude she hates. Scott is a present day dude who is engaged to another girl (Daphne Ashbrook) until he purchases the desk at an antique store and discovers that he can communicate with Leigh across the gulf of time simply by posting letters through the inside panel, and the two begin exchanging love letters in what can only be described as the ultimate long distance relationship. Now the issue with any film like this is, how would these two ever end up together for real? The film already plays around with the laws of physics and reality but it would have to completely rewrite them to unite these two as they are literally alive in different centuries. The script’s solution? Well you’ll see, I didn’t altogether buy it but it’s an admirable effort. Scott is simple, grounded and earnest as ever, Leigh is her usual sweet yet somehow edgy self, always a captivating actress to watch. The only chemistry they really have is vocal as they read these letter and briefly in some sort of.. well, you’ll see. I’m a Leigh completist so I’ve been keeping an eye out for years and finally scored a DVD at a used book shop near me. Sweet, low key, whimsical and filmed in picturesque Virginia during the fall, worth a look for its leads, Leigh especially, and a cheeky last minute ending that will either have you rolling your eyes or feeling warm and fuzzy. Bit of both for me.
I kinda get the beef with William Malone’s House On Haunted Hill, I mean it’s essentially a lazy, paper thin story gussied up by a whole bunch of spooky visual effects and fancy, baroque production design, but I loved it anyhow. Malone is the same guy who made the infamous FearDotCom and such was also the case there: nonsensical narrative made entirely watchable by pure visual artistry alone. Maybe the guy has a yet to be discovered career in music videos ahead of him. Anyways, the plot revolves around a weird looking building sat on a cliff overlooking the sea, a place which was once a freaky asylum run by a mad surgeon (Jeffry Combs with nary a word of dialogue) who murdered his patients. Half a century later it’s owned by snarky amusement park guru Geoffrey Rush and his potty mouthed femme fatale wife (Famke Jannssen). They invite several bored LA types over for the night including a faded baseball star (Taye Diggs), a movie studio VP (Ali Larter), a smarmy hotshot Doctor (Peter Gallagher) and a tabloid journalist (Bridgette Wilson Sampras). The deal is, if you make it one night alive in this place Rush will pay you a cool million bucks. You can guess what happens next. This film is very short on story and a lot of it is just characters wandering through grimly lit corridors and getting haunted by unseen terrors. The characters are hilarious though and the cast is really having fun. Rush is a gnarled hoot as the misanthropic tycoon, with a pencil moustache as precariously thin as his threshold for having tantrums. The lovely Janssen is saddled with a trashy role that’s beneath her classy talents but she’s game and makes this chick one seriously bratty, scene stealing bitch. Chris Kattan also shows up as like… the butler or caretaker of this place I guess? I had an acting teacher once tell us that every performance you give should be modelled after the physicality and essence of one member of the animal kingdom. Chris heard that and apparently decided to base every role for the rest of his career on a squirrel with a serious meth habit, because that’s what I felt like I was watching when he was onscreen. I can understand why this film doesn’t get a lot of love, it’s a remake of a no doubt cherished 60’s horror film and that coupled with its lack of a real story… I get it. However, I really enjoyed it for the set design and very freaky visual horror creations. I think that director Malone missed his calling as a full blown, thoroughbred surrealist like Lynch or Merhige because he has a real gift with abstract, otherworldly makeup, editing and FX. Some of the berserk visual stuff later is right out of a post modern video collage installation and reminded me of like Jacob’s Ladder or Eraserhead. If Malone put that talent to work in a project that would allow him to fully be taken seriously as a filmmaker he’d be the stuff of Lynchian legends. But hey, this film is super fun too, if kinda slight. Rush and his merry band of fellow cast-mates are great, and like I said it gets genuinely fucking weird right near the end, and weird is always good. Oh also, bonus points for using Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams as a kind of theme song. Oh and also: this is like one in an unofficial trilogy with 13 Ghosts and Ghost Ship as early 2000’s ensemble piece gonzo horror with metal infused soundtracks, produced by the Dark Castle label, excessively opulent special effects and bad reputations, and I love all three to bits no matter what anyone says.
“Where do we go when we die?” It’s a simple question as any, yet not so much, especially for a terminally ill father to answer when asked by his son, who is young enough to still be inundated in the unknowable, lingering perception of whatever came before his birth, a state of innocence engulfed in the abstract, the early stage of images and impressions in which we all existed before ‘words,’ ‘thoughts’ and ‘facts’ eclipsed the feelings and we forgot what it was like to be to feel rooted in the spirit realm. Mark Webber’s The Place Of No Words sets out to tell us an impossibly heartbreaking story in as uplifting, lyrical and compassionate way as possible using fractured prose, fragmented editing and the most convincing visual, allegorical and artistic expression from the perspective of a child that I have perhaps ever seen in cinema. Remember when you were young and certain key, core memories, simple in themselves, contained entire worlds of meaning and significance greater and more profound than could be described? This whole film is structured around a few essential recollections just like that, belonging to a young child named Bodhi Webber, who is playing himself in one of the most naturalistic, inherently inspired, momentous pieces of work you could hope for. Writer director Mark Webber plays himself too as does his wife Teresa Palmer, and we get to see this family unit interact in the same realistic way they no doubt do away from cameras and the result is a captivating, authentic, immersive, deeply dreamlike experience like no other. Mark (in this story) is dying of an unnamed terminal illness, while Bodhi processes, rationalizes and deals with this agonizing metamorphosis the way any child does, by conjuring up a fantasy world to exist in that serves as prism projection of everything around him he’s too young to understand. Much of the film is spent with Mark and Bodhi as two sort of Viking knights, journeying through the lush Welsh countryside on a quest to find ‘Freeka Reeka Sheeka Deeka.’ They encounter a witch, an angelic fairy princess, two wooly ‘dog’ trolls, a knight (Eric Christian Olsen) who fights himself and make their way through a swamp that literally farts and poos geysers of chocolate sludge (such is the mind of a child). What really makes this film special is the editing and overall tone, which is all over the place in the best way possible. The transitions between the fantasy world and hazy real life memories come without warning or traditional plot structure and feel just about as organically synaptic as you can get. The performances, Bodhi in particular, cut deep and the decision to use real family members is something intuitively out of this world. For all it’s whimsy and fantastical charm though, this is an emotionally crippling film and if you’ve lost anyone to illness and are still the least bit raw about it, go into this guarded because it’s downright disarming. I can’t think of another film that uses a central performance, subconsciously felt editing and intense metaphor to place the viewer in a childlike state of mind so well. Brilliant, beautiful, masterful film.
Okay so imagine Freaky Friday but instead of teenage Lindsay Lohan swapping bodies with her mom played by Jamie Lee Curtis it’s teenage Kathryn Newton swapping places with a serial killer played by… Vince Vaughn, of all people. Also just take Friday out of the title and you’ve got Freaky, a super fun, super R rated, whip smartly written horror comedy that is one in a reliable assembly line of stuff being put out by Blumhouse lately. I don’t want to imply that this is just a horror knockoff of Freaky Friday because it’s fiercely it’s own film and has genuine innovation and creativity behind it, starting with casting Vaughn as someone who has to convincingly act like a flustered teenage girl for almost ninety minutes. Let’s just say he succeeds scarily, uncannily well at doing that. An idyllic small town has been home to serial killer The Butcher for years, and one night after infiltrating a Manor filled with ancient artifacts he pinches an old bone dagger with mystical Aztec powers. After stabbing shy high school girl Millie with it, they suddenly wake up in each other’s bodies unwittingly the next morning and cause quite the dose of confusion. Millie is stuck inside the hefty, 50+ year old body of Vaughn, while The Butcher is trapped in petite, blonde Newton and everyone else has no idea what the fuck is happening. It’s a wild concept and they milk it for all it’s worth and then some. The real draw is seeing Vaughn act like a flighty teen and he hits the mark squarely, giving some of his best comedic work in years and clearly having so much fun in the tole. Newton is great too, she gets to rework the Millie character in the killer’s eyes and do this ‘dangerous dark chick’ thing with her wardrobe and mannerisms and get proxy payback against some of the folks who make her high school existence hell including a horde of rapey jock douchebags, a yappy little gossip whore who spreads cunty rumours about her and the world’s most abusive and obnoxious woodwork teacher played by (!!!!) Alan Ruck, who was Ferris Bueller’s homie and I totally didn’t recognize until I looked up the cast just now. The tone of the film is kinda slight overall and never too serious but it doesn’t feel watered down, glossed over or too lame and PG like a lot of teen horror these days, this baby owns it’s hard-R rating loud and proud. There’s a galaxy of very clever and *severely* profane dialogue, some surprisingly mature, sweet and intuitive social satire and relationship dynamics as well as a bunch of extremely gory and downright impressive kills that involve an array of scenarios including table saws, chainsaws, spears, kitchen knives, and an entire *intact* wine bottle fully shoved down some poor bastards throat and *then* smashed, which is a new one for the genre. There’s also a Jason X shoutout kill involving a literal cryo-freezing chamber and I found myself wondering what the hell would would one of those things be doing in a high school, like.. is that some weird American thing? Anyways, if you like your horror fast, furious, super bloody, smart, a smidge self aware and have always had an innate desire to see Vince Vaughn as a hormonally hysterical teenage girl, this’ll be your bag. One of the coolest flicks this year.
It took me a while to finally catch up with Stephen King’s Misery (as adapted by Rob Reiner) but what spectacularly unsettling horror film, mostly thanks to an almost unbearably intense Kathy Bates. I can picture King during the writing process of this book waking up in a cold clammy sweat from a trauma induced nightmare about some psycho stalker fan (I’m sure he’s had a few), feverishly grabbing pen and paper from his nightstand and scribbling off another chapter. Reiner & Co. capture the cold dread, deafening isolation and mounting hopelessness of the story wonderfully, as unlucky hotshot novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds himself injured, stranded and finally ‘rescued’ by super-fan Annie Wilkes (Bates), rushed off to her remote snowy cabin and nursed back to health.. and then some. The great thing about Bates’ performance is she doesn’t make Annie a complete outright monster, there are momentary flashes of something resembling humanity, albeit of a lonely, bitter, misshapen kind. She takes the maniacal behaviour to extreme heights by starting on a slow burn that has us *slightly* on edge and gradually turning the dial up to a deafening roar of obsessive behaviour, delusional fantasies and homicidal volatility. It’s a wicked sharp, playful, very somehow simultaneously in control and unhinged piece of acting, while Caan, in a difficult role, is bed ridden as he bears witness to and takes the full brunt of her tempestuous meltdown. The chilly winter setting is a huge plus, my cup of tea atmosphere indeed and the beautiful snowed in locations make for a splendid visual feast. We spend most of our time with Caan and Bates yet there is a curated supporting cast of memorable folks including Lauren Bacall, Frances Sternhagen, Reiner himself, the late great Richard Farnsworth as a charismatic local Sheriff and the also late great J.T. Walsh as the county’s most inept state trooper. I feel like King took the masochistic route here and heavily projected himself into the role of Paul, the trapped artist forced to plonk out new work on an aggressive timeline not of his own delineation. What trials and hardships is he trying to wrestle out of his mind by telling this story? The crushing doom of a publishing deadline? The vacuous, soul-eating doldrums of writer’s block? The no doubt nerve-wracking, paranoia laced burden of dealing with a fanbase of oddball horror nuts? Who can say. But this feels like a personal story for him, and it’s certainly a very well told, acted and produced film full of deeply shocking moments, icy tension and an antagonist for the ages served up by Bates who, to quote herself, is one ‘cockadoodie’ chick. Great film.