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Thursday
Mar212013

Angela (2013)

Basement Bargain

Attention aspiring filmmakers: This is how you do it! Moviemaking is a tough, collaborative art to practice. Illustrators and musicians can shrug off an unproductive afternoon, but you're accountable to a whole group of people who spend lots of time wondering what you're going to do next--precisely because they're invested in seeing themselves on-screen (or seeing their behind-the-scenes efforts realized).

For years, I've lamented the convenience and power of modern recording equipment, which gives everyone who seeks it instant "auteur" status. These cretins have no qualms about charging people ten bucks a pop to watch them go through do-it-yourself film school (or, worse yet, fuck around with their friends). I can't get excited about the indie scene anymore because one never knows if they're dealing with the next Stanley Kubrick or a middling Shane Van Dyke.

So it is with great enthusiasm that I herald the arrival of Nathaniel Scott Davis' second effort, Angela, a twenty-two-minute gem that you can watch for free, right now, on YouTube. Last year, I reviewed Deprivation, which is the spiritual precursor to this movie: by cosmic coincidence, both feature a main character named Angela, as well as a killer who watches the fictitious slasher series Arbor Day on television.

Though both movies deal with stomach-turning material, Angela is the more upbeat of the two. We meet Angela (Brooke Green), a bullied high school introvert. She has trouble relating to people--largely thanks to her abusive mother (Teresa Butler Marler)--and receives a stern slap in the face after staring curiously at one of the popular kids. Running parallel to her story is Joshua's (Austin "Monster" Wood). A hairy, obese creep who shares Angela's awkward shyness he works an office job by day and kidnaps women by night (don't worry, I'm getting to the "upbeat" part).

Ah, yes, another basement-torture flick. It seems swinging lightbulbs and water-damaged cement walls have become staples of low-budget horror--likely because Saw taught us that, given the right cast, watching two people chained up in a room can be as compelling as it is inexpensive to film. The good news is, Angela isn't as brutal as Brutal. It's not as consistently good, either, but Davis' movie has a lot more going for it than one might expect from the synopsis.

Davis teases the basement setting early on, focusing most of the film on his two main characters' interactions with other people. A trip to the boss's office following a harrassment complaint and a trip to the guidance counselor following the slap are the story's high points. Joshua's co-workers have no idea what kind of danger they're in because he's got the disposition of a wounded child. Even his monstrous id is hard to pin down: when unleashed, he's unforgivably mean, but his psychopathy appears to stem from genuine mental illness rather than cartoonishly evil intent.

Similarly, Angela feels trapped in high school, surrounded by people who think she's weird for being shy. She turns this self-hatred inward--though it's made clear later on that much of her anxiety is self-pity. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Angela's world is gray and hopeless, mostly because she's never known anything different.

It truth, I could have done without the kidnapping angle. That's not as sexy, I guess, as a horror premise, but Angela would have been just as interesting had it been about two damaged people finding each other in a way that doesn't involve bruises and the fear of death. Maybe I would have bought into it more had the action choreography been better executed, but it's so clumsy that I re-watched key scenes to figure out what the hell had happened. I still don't know if one character was hit on the side of the head, chloroformed, or fell victim to a Jedi-like hand wave that made them pass out.

And that's exactly why I love the way Davis released Angela. He's clearly getting better, but he obviously has a long way to go. Had I been asked to pay for this movie, Green and Wood's incredibly strong performances might have overshadowed their co-stars' uneven skills, but the odd staging of key moments and persistent sound issues* would have likely made me wonder why I didn't spend that money building up my blu-ray library from the ashes of my old DVD collection. As it stands, I can totally see Angela, Deprivation, and Davis' next handful of short-film sketches as extras on a truly great movie that I would have no problem recommending people pick up.

*Hey, 1261 Pictures, if you launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy the next production a windscreen, I'll gladly kick in some dough.

Monday
Mar182013

OZ The Great and Powerful (2013)

Army of Lightness

Do me a favor, before we begin: click your heels together three times and repeat, "The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist."

Look, we all love and respect Victor Fleming's 1939 classic, but appreciating Sam Raimi's Oz The Great and Powerful begins with putting everything you know about Judy Garland and singing Munchkins out of your head. A ridiculous thing to ask of a prequel? You bet.

But we're not talking about a prequel here. 

Had The Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful taken place in the same universe, then, yes, Fleming's film would be considered a sequel to Raimi's--with the "first" film being rightfully maligned by fans. But thanks to copyright law, Warner Brothers (which owns and licenses every scrap of what we remember about Dorothy Gale's concussive, Technicolor adventures) insisted that Disney stick to interpreting author L. Frank Baum's Oz novels anew and leaving their classic film alone. That's why, in 2013, we get a CGI cowardly lion, rather than a guy in a suit playing The Cowardly Lion. It's also why, I'd bet, the movie's sole musical number is cut short with an annoyed, almost cautionary "Shush!"

The average moviegoer likely has no idea of what I'm talking about, which is, I suspect, why the new Oz is getting so much flak.* Another reason may be because it's Disney handling the new version rather than, say, Dreamworks or Paramount. The Mouse House's family-friendly stamp is all over this thing, and even through the expensive 3D glasses you can see Raimi's anarchic signature being gradually erased by a puffy, white cartoon glove.

Set in 1905, the movie opens with a carnival magician named Oz (James Franco) failing to impress an audience full of Kansas rubes. Sure, his put-upon assistant Frank (Zach Braff) is great with ominous, off-stage sound effects and effectively packing the explosive black powder, but neither man is prepared for the little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who asks Oz to make her walk. Back in his tent, he's confronted by Annie (Michelle Williams), the head-over-heels local with whom he'd fooled around during his last trip through the sticks. Just as he's letting her down gently, a Strong Man (Tim Holmes) bursts in, upset about Oz having made something disappear into his wife.

Wouldn't you know it? All of this drama unfolds as a tornado rips through the countryside. Oz steals a hot air balloon to avoid a beating, and winds up getting transported to a magical land that happens to share his name. There, he meets the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed witch who believes Oz to be the savior of her land--

My God. I just realized something: Oz The Great and Powerful is a (more-or-less) family-friendly remake of Raimi's Army of Darkness. I mean, it's the exact...same...movie.

Holy shit.

Editor's Note: Please excuse me while I re-set my brain.

5...

4...

3...

2...

How did I not pick up on this sooner? The template is just about perfect: Oz is Ash, the stranger in a strange land who is called upon by the locals to fulfill a prophecy and rid the world of evil. He falls in love (or at least into the hay) with a local girl who eventually becomes (Spoiler for anyone who's not seen either film) a twisted, vengeful witch. When the people who trust him most realize he's a fraud, they turn against him, and it's only by digging deep to find some courage and nobility (not to mention an inter-dimensional ride home) that he rallies the good people to war against the forces of darkness.

From the battle prep that involves our reluctant protagonist bringing his era's technology to a primitive civilization; to the smirking sexism that would be inexcusable if it weren't so flamboyantly uncool; to the fact that Bruce Campbell appears in the fucking movie--it's no wonder Raimi wanted to jump aboard this thing.

Granted, there are a few differences between Oz and Army, most notably a couple of really strong female leads. Surprisingly, Kunis is not one of them. In fact, the moment she (Seriously, turn back if you haven't seen this movie) transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West, this typically solid actress becomes a more annoying cartoon than the one she voices on Family Guy. Everything about her, from makeup to motive to a performance straight out of Batman & Robin's deleted scenes is a Razzie-worthy embarrassment. Rachel Weisz, who plays Theodora's evil sister, Evanora, fares a bit better--mostly because she takes a back seat to the villainy half-way through the picture.

No, the leads I'm referring to are Williams and King (who also play residents of Oz: Glinda The Good Witch and China Girl, respectively). Their main role is to help Oz become less of a douchebag by giving him something to care about other than himself. Williams balances the goody-two-shoes optimism of "classic" Glinda with a determination that keeps her from being a doormat. And King's vocal performance as a broken China Doll who sees Oz as a father figure gives the film its bright, beating, emotional center. Kudos, too, to the CGI masters who made this completely digital character into as tangible a cast member as her flesh-and-blood co-stars.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Disney brand was all over this movie, and that it's a problem. While I'm glad the studio put up the budget to make Oz look and feel like the transportive wonderland it deserves to be (unlike the gaudy, chaotic garbage that was its previous such effort, Alice in Wonderland), it's easy to see the influence of studio executives who prefer length and neat visuals to great storytelling (you know, the hallmark that makes films like Fleming's Oz a classic). The sassy talking monkey (also voiced by Braff); the multiple, drawn-out action scenes that stop the story dead as surely as the musical numbers in latter-season episodes of Glee; and unimaginative 3D effects that define what most audiences can't stand about 3D effects--these all contribute to an uneven flow that keeps this Oz from being wholly enjoyable.

And that's a shame. Strip out the flat jokes and allegedly crowd-pleasing spectacle (not all of the spectacle, just the stuff that makes it reeeally difficult to not check the time), and you're left with an unexpectedly cool, unexpectedly adult version of Oz. This is just the kind of film that could use a solid, polished-edges sequel--which it kind of already has. But not really.

Note: I've read complaints about the overt sexism of Franco's character in the film, and the fact that he's still kind of lecherous at the end. Honestly, what's wrong with that? Remember, Oz came of age in a time and place when women couldn't vote and were seen as little more than baby-making machines. Plus, he's a carnival magician and not a Harvard Gender Studies professor. Short of a magical spell, it takes time and experience for a cretin to stop being a cretin, and a step in the right direction is better than ten steps in the wrong one.

*In today's marketplace, flak doesn't necessarily translate into poor ticket sales: this film is a worldwide monster. And for as much as Disney need to distance themselves from the WB version, they're counting on brand recognition to put asses in seats--seats which cost two to three times the average to sit in, thanks to 3D and IMAX 3D presentations.

Friday
Mar152013

The Silence (2010)

That Dripping, Queasy, Beautiful Angst

On the surface, watching a two-hour German drama about killer pedophiles at 3am is a bad idea. Don't get me wrong: I love a good murder mystery, and have no problem reading subtitles,* but nothing about Baran bo Odar's The Silence had me rushing to press "Play". Fortunately, the charged, stirring performances and challenging ideas bursting at this film's seams are far more effective than coffee--and oddly fun in a way that makes the icky bits (a little) easier to handle.

The Silence begins with the 1986 rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl named Pia (Helene Luise Doppler) at the hands of college groundskeeper Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen). Peer's best friend, Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), an awkward young student, witnesses the crime, but is too freaked out to step in. They dispose of the evidence and part ways, with Timo fighting guilt not just for his inaction, but also for the sexual urges he'd been suppressing in the hours leading up to the attack--which he spent in Peer's apartment, watching child pornography.

Flash forward twenty-three years. Pia's death, once the subject of a media super-storm, is now but a memory marked by a wooden cross in the field near where her body was found. But the mystery still eats at Elena (Katrin Sass), her emotionally crippled mother, and Krischan (Burghart Klaußner), the newly retired, alcoholic detective dogged by his career's greatest unsolved case. On the anniversary of Pia's disappearance, another girl is found dead, compelling Krischan to unofficially team up with an equally damaged young cop named David (Sebastian Blomberg), whose wife recently died of cancer.

If you're already feeling squeamish aboard this misery train, watch out: we haven't even left the station. The story also follows the new victim's parents (played with understated dread and battered, underlying love by Karoline Eichornn and Roeland Weisnekker), and we get a taste of the middle-aged Timo's new life--which includes an ostensibly happy wife and children.

Where most films of this kind would likely focus on the investigation's sensational intricacies or showcase boisterous performances of over-written dialogue, The Silence works its way under the skin by opting for a world view based in Naturalism. Bo Odar, adapting Jan Costin Wagner's novel, fills his movie with unhinged characters whose inner tortures contrast the relentlessly tranquil natural world in which they live. For every shot of David and Timo trying to keep their shit together, there are three fly-overs of oblivious woods and wheat fields. The only two characters to make it out of the story unscathed do so by accepting their place in a cold, uncaring universe. Like it or not, the film's hero (I use that term based solely on the winner of the Naturalism game) is a class A predator in every sense of the word; more importantly, he's a survivor.

It's not every day that I'm presented with a film that suggests the so-called "good guys" are suckers. I have to say, it's refreshing--intellectually and emotionally, too, if I'm being honest. Though there's a strong David Fincher influence in bo Odar's visuals and choice of material, The Silence is more akin to Todd Field's Little Children than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All three films tackle twisty, uncomfortable subject matter and center on deeply flawed characters. But for all its conspiracy, rape, and depravity, Dragon Tattoo ends happily. Little Children (also a movie about pedophilia) is a mostly effective drama that winds up a cartoon because its characters are either too stupid, too selfish, or too trapped in their own heads to forge better lives. But bo Odar's movie takes matters to the ultimate next level of cynicism, boldly stating that even the noblest of men is doomed to fall short of happiness as long as he aspires to control things other than his own reaction to inevitably unfair change.

I don't even agree with this thesis, necessarily, but the writer/director sells the hell out of his viewpoint. The most interesting argument comes disguised in the dynamic between Peer and Timo. The elder, the murderer, is aware that he's a monster and has seemingly made an agreement with himself to not fight what he sees as part of his DNA. Timo, on the other hand, has built such a wall of cognitive and spiritual dissonance, that we're led to believe he "cured" himself of his urges until Peer showed back up in his life. The Nature of The Silence is not the bogeyman of climate change or volatile volcanoes; it's Human Nature, a much trickier beast to wrangle--and an almost impossible one to reconcile with.

All that armchair psycho-babble is my long-winded way of saying that you should seek out The Silence at once. You bet it's tough to get through, as is all great, challenging art. It's also a gorgeous movie full of powerhouse performances and big ideas that will haunt you long after the lights come up.

Note: If you're in Chicago this week, you can check out The Silence on the big screen at The Music Box Theatre.

*Seriously, if one more idiot complains to me that subtitles distract them from what's happening on-screen, I'm going to ask about their harrowing struggles with highway billboards and TV commercials.

Sunday
Mar102013

The Evil Dead (1981)

Putting Away Childish Things

Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead is a movie for children and aspiring filmmakers--exclusively. While a ground-breaking, controversial "video nasty" in 1981, today it's the horror-movie equivalent of Stan Lee: a revered pop cultural totem that modern audiences simply can't turn to for thrilling, relevant entertainment.

It hurts to write that. For decades I thought The Evil Dead was one of the most disturbing films ever; so much so that I was unable to play the DVD without Raimi and star Bruce Campbell's lively, hilarious commentary track accompanying it. Yesterday, I revisited the movie on blu-ray and had to reconcile years of amber-frozen teenage memories with a production drowning in cheese and charm, but devoid of genuine scares.

Campbell plays Ash, one of five college kids who travel to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend party. In addition to mounted deer heads and an antique clock, they also find a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a blood-inked book bound in human flesh. On playing the recording, they learn that a researcher and his wife had discovered the "book of the dead" in some ruins and brought it to the mountains for undisturbed study. Its incantations, when read aloud, unleashed ancient demonic spirits who possess and feed off of the living.

Cue Ash's friends being lured outside by strange voices and scary noises. Cue the woods coming to life and raping Ash's sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). Cue Scott (Richard DeManincor) freaking out and trying--futilely--to abandon his friends in the midst of a crisis. Cue Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) hosting and evil spirit and singing in a creepy litle-girl's voice. Cue everything else you've seen in movies that did a better job of copying The Evil Dead than The Evil Dead did at being a horror movie.

Don't get me wrong: this film is a massive technical achievement by an insanely talented young director. To watch The Evil Dead is to receive a master class in creating innovative shots, making the most out of a limited location, and delivering an audio mix that's far more intimidating than anything that happens on screen. But you'll have to suffer through atrocious acting,* fright-makeup that alternates between mildly effective gore and droopy gray oatmeal smeared on actors' faces, and a plot that drops dead thirty minutes in.

I know people don't necessarily go to horror movies for consciousness expansion, but The Evil Dead really stops being a movie a third of the way through--mutating into a demo reel for cinematographer Tim Philo, makeup effects artist Tom Sullivan, and editor Edna Ruth Paul (all working at the maestro's behest, of course). Once the demons take over everyone except our hero, the remaining fifty minutes are devoted to Campbell freaking out and chopping squishy limbs off of mannequins. And I'm not sure if the mark of a great horror movie is pulling the audience out of the story every five minutes to marvel at camerawork or wonder how long it took to film the seemingly endless stop-motion zombie decompositions.

It's hardly surprising that Raimi and company followed up this film with 1987's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn--which is both a remake and a sequel. Watch these back-to-back and notice how the melodrama and poor execution of the first film are used as the second, more accomplished movie's comedic template. I've seen the sequels multiple times, and am amazed at how much of Dead by Dawn was lifted directly from the original (and put to much better use).

Other genre staples like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, or Night of the Living Dead can be watched and appreciated by anyone, un-ironically, without qualifiers or assurances beforehand about the great things they led to. The Evil Dead amounts to an impressive celluloid sketch that is unlikely to entertain those who don't already know who Sam Raimi is. Look past the fanboy admiration and rose-colored nostalgia and you're left, sadly, with a rather boring, well-filmed zombie movie.

This brings me to the forthcoming remake, which debuted at SXSW this weekend to mostly positive reviews. I won't wander too far into the wilderness of speculation, but when I first heard that a no-name director was being brought in to "re-imagine a classic", my eyes popped out and rolled across the floor (stopping at a dried-out, limited-edition Thing-prequel vomit bag). Horror fans have been stuck in this bear trap of mediocrity for a decade now, and it may be time to rise up against the faceless, money-grubbing pricks who won't leave horror classics alone.

But what if some of those classics aren't all that great? Could a passionate kid with a bloody homage as his calling card be just the shot in the arm our beloved genre needs? I suppose we'll find out next month, when Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead opens nationwide. For now, I can say that I'm not nearly as skeptical as I was twenty-four hours ago. In fact, I say, "Have at it".

*Remember, this was loooong before Bruce Campbell was "BRUCE CAMPBELL!!!"

Thursday
Mar072013

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2013)

Bemusement Park

Fucking hipsters. Last night, I answered a knock at my door. Slouched against the frame was a kid in his mid-twenties wearing a replica of Mr. McFeely's costume from the old Mister Rogers' Neighborhood TV show. He mumbled "Speedy delivery", and handed me a long pressboard envelope sealed with a green wax "C". In a flash, he was back on his turn-of-the-century bicycle, frustratedly navigating the icy sidewalk in a way that suggested he hadn't worked so hard all week.

The envelope contained a hard copy of the review you're about to read; several gig flyers for the nerdcore banjo group Sandy Hook Gun Show; and a Cap'n Crunch box top (calligraphed with "Vintage 1983" on the back). In lieu of a cover letter or contact info, the two ringed pages--no doubt typed on a vintage IBM Selectric with an offset "k"--ended at a glitter-pen signature and a crude reproduction of Kurt Vonnegut's "asshole" drawing.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend The Music Box Theatre's exclusive premiere event this weekend for Bob Byington's latest movie, but someone apparently got an early look and sent me the following. Presented here, without comment or correction, is "Somebody Up There Likes Me: Being the Strictest of Critical Analyses for the Most Accomplished Accomplishment in the History of Independent Cinema by D.H. Wennington-Howsforth (aka 'Crunchy')".

Love is for fucking idiots and old people (redundancy alert!). But if I HAD to love something it would be Somebody Up There Likes Me, the best English-language film of the last forty-six years. In it, Keith Poulson stars as Max, a guy who finds a magical suitcase one day that makes it so he never grows old. And I don't mean he doesn't just age either--he basically just is in his early 20ies for the rest of his life. Which is great, because he doesn't have to care about anyone the way old people do as they grow old. He's just sassy and doesn't give a shit or have any kind of reaction to anything around him. Alot of movies try to make you care about the main character, but Bob Byington doesn't care if you care, and he refuses to let Max become what the squares might call "a relatable human being".

It's about time a film spoke to MY generation. The way Byington establishes Max's girlfriend Lyla's character (Jess Weixler) as a hot doormat who eats breadsticks all the time is GENIUS because he gets rid of the antique notion that you have to define your characters or commit to doing either a farce or a comedy with something to say. He blurs the lines all over the place so that by the end, nothing's really funny or really effective--which is HILARIOUS. I watched this with a group of acquaintances and we kept looking at each other to see if it was okay to laugh. We sat through the whole movie without cracking a smile. But after the credits, we had a four-hour conversation about why the dry irony was so funny and absolutely lost our fucking minds. My roommate even doubled over when I told him that Max's snarky, above-it-all reaction to Lyla's dad's cancer diagnosis and subsequent suicide was probably the funniest thing he would ever SEE.

In other kinds of movies it would be some big, dramatic deal that Max and Lyla had a kid that Max never made time for or even seemed to care about at all--or that he had a decades-long affair with a hot chick that he eventually hires to be his housekeeper so they could be closer to the bone zone. But SUTLM knows that love is a construct invented by college professors and greeting card companies. So the characters just bounce off of (and in and out of) each other and carry on with no one ever raising their voice or showing emotion.

The only exception is Max's best friend Sal (Nick Offerman) who threatens to de-rail the whole production by interjecting what old people call "wisdom" into the proceedings. Lucky for us, Byington quickly brings him down to Max's level--having him be a pothead and a poon hound who follows Max around pathetically for the whole movie. For a second there, I thought Offerman was going to class up the show by letting his character evolve. But the director kept that shit in check.

Byington does this cool thing where he fast-forwards every five years to see what the characters are up to. This is cool because we get to see Max be more selfish and unable to cope with the fact that everyone he knows just becomes more pathetic with age. Lyla's dad leaves him and Lyla a crap-ton of money, meaning he never has to work at anything to get ahead. Even when the money goes away in a divorce he rebounds 'cause he kept a bunch of it hidden from his wife (ALWAYS a good idea if you're dumb enough to get married). There's this hilarious thing too where Max's kid is always seen wearing a blue button-down shirt and a red baseball cap--even as he grows old every five years. It doesn't make any sense, but that's why you laugh because it's so RANDOM!

The one thing I hated hated HATED about this movie is the fact that you see every girl naked except the one girl you really WANT to see naked. Clarissa (the affair chick, played by Stephanie Hunt--who for some reason begins the movie with a thick Spanish accent that goes away after one scene; again, SO funny). wears alot of bikinis and is always talking about wanting to get fucked. But we never see the goods. I guess she wants to be taken seriously as an actor or whatever, but I had a serious need to see dem tit-tahs (see what I did there?). Maybe its cause Hunt looks like a Spanish Natasha Lyonne before she got fat and crazy, but damn...

Everything else is great, though. Max keeps getting rewarded for being the world's biggest jerk, and everyone around him is a desperate, miserable idiot. The title suggests that he's leading a divinely-granted life or whatever, but that's the biggest punch line--cause Max knows (like EVERYONE who went to school) that there is no god. I think it's great that Byington made a movie that pretends to be about big issues and life changes but doesn't bother to have it make sense to anyone who's actually experienced half the things he depicts.

I had to sit through this bullshit movie once called My Name is Jerry, where this guy goes through a mid-life crisis or whatever. It coulda been awesome, except the main character was a nice, boring dude with problems. Fuck that noise! Max is so much better cause he's mean to everyone he encounters and his level of self-absorption is off the charts. Maybe "grown-ups" wouldn't give him the time of day (much less a job), but he's my fucking hero.

This movie is just like Byington's other flick Registered Sex Offender, but its better. This guy knows how to write smug assholes like nobody's business. And the day he matures as a filmmaker and comes out of his bubble where being a monster isn't something to be cheered for is the day they'll find me hanging from a skinny-jeans noose.