Monday, April 26, 2010


While one of his earliest films, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) is unquestionably his masterpiece. Billed as science fiction upon its release, Alphaville is in reality packed to the brim with influences as disparate as Argentinian fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, American science fiction moralist Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, and the surrealist movement spearheaded by Spanish nationals turned French citizens Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel.

We fade in to Alphaville, a possibly futuristic city located (or perhaps comprising) a distant planet, located in a distant galaxy. And yet, Alphaville appears no different than Paris circa 1965, and the void of space that our hero crosses to get here resembles nothing more than a lonely highway at night. But do not be alarmed; these are not amateurish mistakes born of a shoestring budget. The similarities are quite intentional, not only to make the distinction between Alphaville and Earth (here grouped with planets of other galaxies and simply called "The Outlands") that much more difficult to grasp, but also to ground a scifi film in the more gritty banality of the French New Wave style.

From the get-go, the noir-ish feel of the film is palpable, as we are treated to not one but two voice-over monologues. One, that of our hero, Ivan Johnson, a reporter from New York sent to Alphaville to scoop a story on the city's mysterious leader, Professor VonBraun. The other voice, deep, stilted, gutteral, we soon learn is the artificial voice of Alphaville's central supercomputer, Alpha 60.

And like any good noir, the film remains almost impenetrably complex through most of the running time. What is somewhat apparent is that Alphaville boasts itself as a technocracy and logicocracy. The city is ruled by a logic of cause and effect delineated by the problems and solutions generated by Alpha 60. There is no past, there is no future, there is only the present, which is the logical conclusion to the problem of existence. Alpha 60 and VonBraun indoctrinate the populace through the strict control of language, which is the form of logic. Any illogical behavior is grounds for banishment or execution.

It is in this milieu that Johnson must confusedly make his way, and by being confused, he is of course illogical, which gets him in a whole lot of trouble with Alpha 60, which nevertheless is experiencing its own crisis of faith... or rather, logic.

Godard's film is rife with moralistic undercurrents, including obvious analogies of Alphaville's logicocracy to America's capitalism and Russia's communism. There are warnings about the folly of logic taken to extreme, and the dangers of wedding meaning to form, or constituent parts to a whole. Ultimately, Godard warns that the world is undoubtedly what we have made it, and yet, our ideologies will continue to replicate beyond our intent or control, simply because that is what ideologies do.

It would do well for a viewer to practice patience with this film. In the end, it is as dense as poetry, but as rewarding to those with the patience to understand.

Storyline & plot: 8/10
Cinematography & effects: 10/10
Music & mood: 9/10
Performances: 8/10

The Reverend says: 9/10

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker. Some might even say legendary. Through a career spanning almost 40 years and and over 30 feature films, Scorsese has solidified himself as a cinema giant, master of hard-hitting realism featuring violence, madness, and just sometimes, redemption. Scorsese has also been known to return to the same actors time and again. In his early career, his favorite was Robert DeNiro, with iconic roles in Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). As DeNiro has aged and his roles have diversified, Scorsese has turned to new blood as his pet actor. Starting with 2002's Gangs of New York, Leonardo DiCaprio has taken up the reins that DeNiro laid aside, including starring turns in The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), and this year's Shutter Island. In my opinion, this has accompanied a downturn in the quality of Scorsese's work. Let's face it, DiCaprio is no DeNiro. Not even close. I'm not quite sure what Scorsese sees in DiCaprio, because all I see when I watch him onscreen is that scrawny autistic teenager from What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), or worse, flashbacks to that monumental waste of three hours of my life: Titanic (1997).

The casting of DiCaprio is the first strike against Shutter Island. The film is set in the early 1950s and opens on US Marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on the ferry to Shutter Island, an imposing little speck of land isolated in Boston Harbor. The island houses the foremost corrections institution for the criminally insane in the United States, a deceptively garden-like facility overshadowed by the cold and massive walls of an old Civil War fort. The fort houses the most dangerous of the inmates, or as the facility's lead psychiatrist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) prefers, "patients."

The Marshals have been called in to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of one of the inmates, a woman convicted of drowning her three small children in a lake. As the investigation begins in earnest, Teddy and Chuck find themselves up against a recalcitrant staff and paranoid patients. After several avenues of investigation have petered out or been stamped out by Dr. Cawley's firm insistence, the Marshals begin to wonder why they were called in to investigate. Does Dr. Cawley really want them to find the escaped patient? Does she even exist at all? What goes on in the windowless fort housing the most dangerous inmates? And what goes on inside the island's lighthouse, surrounded by electrified fence and heavy guard night and day? As the investigation deepens, Teddy struggles with vivid flashbacks and visions, both of his time in the army at the liberation of Dachau, and of his wife, recently killed in a fire set by a man who may or may not reside as a patient within the walls of the fort.

My main complaint about Shutter Island is the predictability. Even within the first few minutes of the film, the setup might lead a viewer to easily guess the eventual twist waiting at the film's climax. And if you hadn't guessed within the first few minutes, then the use of surreal and dream-like visuals by a director known for his hard-line realism might tip you off as well. On the other hand, having guessed the twist so early, I was free to take in more of the excellent things this film has to offer, such as the incredible visuals, both of Shutter Island and its environs, and the various dream-sequences the audience is led through. The color palette in use here is wildly over-saturated, making almost everything stand out like a hallucination, an apt delivery considering the film's setting.

Despite its negative aspects, what really shined through for me was the excellent casting choices, and the great acting. With the exception of the aforementioned DiCaprio problem, the supporting cast is phenomenal. From Mark Ruffalo's calm and centered answer to DiCaprio's rage and mania, to Kingsley's joyfully mysterious Dr. Cawley, to Max Von Sydow's understated menace as an experimental psychiatrist with possible Nazi ties, the supporting roles truly steal the scene here. Also worth mentioning are Elias Koteas as the hideously scarred pyromaniac that haunts Teddy's dreams, and Jackie Earle Haley as a frightened inmate of the fort (and possibly the voice of Teddy's conscience). My personal favorite is Ted Levine (better known as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) as Shutter Island's warden. Who else could deliver this line not only with a straight face, but with a hint of mocking aplomb: "If I were to sink my teeth into your left eye right now, could you stop me before I blinded you?"

So, yes, there's a whole lot of exposition from a cavalcade of bit part players, and a whole lot of wandering around the island without getting much done. I didn't say it was a great movie, and it's certainly not Scorsese's best, but it does show that he's still got the talent to make a decent movie nearly 40 years into his career, and that's not bad at all. My verdict: skip the theater, but put it on your Netflix queue.

Storyline & plot: 5/10
Cinematography & effects: 7/10
Music & mood: 6/10
Performances: 8/10

The Reverend says: 6/10

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The House of the Devil

Easily the two most polarizing horror films of 2009 were Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity (reviewed here previously), and Ti West's The House of the Devil, a little slice of horror nostalgia about a very strange time in America's collective subconcious. An odd marriage of permutated Cold War anxiety and a burgeoning psychoanalytic movement gave birth to an entrenched national fear of satanic individuals, cults, and particularly the alleged ritual abuses they enacted. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) is the obvious early cinematic statement on the matter, but the cultural fervor lasted well into the early 1980s.

The premise for The House of the Devil is refreshingly simple: looking for some extra cash to make the deposit on a new apartment, college sophomore Samantha responds to a mysterious ad for a babysitter. Unfazed by her potential employer's odd telephone etiquette, Samantha agrees to take the babysitting job at a sprawling country home in an unspecified area of upstate New York. Little does Sam know that the job is not exactly what it appears, and that somewhere inside the Ulmans' country estate lurks a series of grisly and demonic secrets. Faced with the unsettling Ulman family, the disquieting house, and threats lurking both within and without, Sam's night slowly descends into terror.

I suspect that West's choice of an early '80s setting was initially nothing more than a plot device to eliminate the inconvenient reality of the vast and instant communication network available to us now through cell phones and the internet. Which, to many, would seem like cheating. But this simple plot device blossomed into a meticulous and fun homage to the late '70s/ early '80s horror vibe. Not only this, but West's anti-technology choice is a welcome counterstrike to a horror market glutted with thematically stale iterations of technophobia. To wit: Stephen King's novel Cell, South Korea's Phone (2002) and America's dreadful pseudo-remake One Missed Call (2008), and the Japanese Pulse (2001) and its even more ridiculous American remake of the same name from 2006. As the subtle exclamation point to his techno-bivalent statement, West inserts several telephone conversation scenes (many with rotary phones!) to serve as intermittent communication fulcrum points in a film otherwise marked by a profound sense of isolation.

The House of the Devil's detractors (and there are many) fall into two main categories: those who think the film's subject matter is misplaced for a 2009 release, and those who balk at the film's somewhat unconventional pace. It's true that modern technocratic America has very little use for fears over satanic cults. Most of these fears have long since proved unfounded. Accusations of satanic abuses were grossly exaggerated. Psychoanalysis is now met with heavy skepticism. The Cold War is over. We now have too many real wars accompanied by too many real atrocities. Why invent satanists to take the fall? Besides, Satanism is now a recognized and protected religion. Satanists are your neighbors. Satanists are your friends.

But remember: Rosemary's Baby wasn't really about satanism. It was about the claustrophobia and paranoia bred by urban living. And about the tenuous nature of trust in a new marriage. Satanism was just the supernatural icing on the cake. West just inverts Polanski's urban claustrophobia and comes out with rural isolation. And then doubles up on the isolation theme with an obviously withdrawn and lonely protagonist. Sam hates her current roommate, has no family to speak of, and has only one real friend to talk to. Critics who decry the slow pace of the film's middle may not realize that it perfectly accentuates Sam's physical and emotional isolation, all while slowly injecting a sense of profound dread. Punctuating this are intermittent slices of brutal violence, made all the more shocking by the relative silences that precede and follow. When the film's furious climax comes, it's almost a letdown, because the reality of violence is less intense than the dreading of the previously unknown.

All in all, I believe the criticisms directed at The House of the Devil are largely misplaced, but I understand that Ti West has created a film that may have a limited audience of genre fans that appreciate a nostalgic romp through old fears. Aside from a mid-movie Walkman dance sequence (that was still oddly compelling), the film stays grounded in serious filmmaking instead of reaching directly for the easily accessible over-the-top cheese.

Storyline & plot: 6/10
Cinematography & effects: 9/10
Music & mood: 9/10
Performances: 7/10

The Reverend says: 8/10

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Phenomena (1985), perhaps more appropriately known as Creepers in the US, is undeniably a Dario Argento film. While lacking the subtly complex script of Argento's debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), or the technical mastery of Suspiria (1977), Phenomena brings together many of the Argento hallmarks. The blistering soundtrack includes sonic experimentation from Argento's pet band Goblin, bombastic gloom metal from the likes of Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and Andi Sex Gang, and strange folksy interludes from Bill Wyman (of The Rolling Stones). Capitalizing on her burgeoning popularity in Italy after her film debut in Sergio Leone's gangland epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Argento secured then 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as his star and snagged veteran character actor Donald Pleasance to play her paraplegic mentor. Argento, as always, builds upon a core of giallo horror, adding his personal cinematographic touches to slowly transform Phenomena from a ho-hum Italian slasher into something quite unexpected.

American Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) is the new girl at a private boarding school buried in a little corner of the Swiss Alps. Jennifer is soon marked for death after she witnesses a murder at the school. With the aid of a reclusive entymologist (Pleasance), his trained chimp, and her own peculiar power over insects, Jennifer aims to track down the killer before it's too late.

Look, this film is nowhere near perfect. The dialogue is stilted, the English dub is poor, the editing is atrocious, and there are plot holes that you can drive a truck through. But the movie sure is fun, bursting with Argento's typical campy humor and ludicrous situations, not to mention his considerable eye for color, sets, lighting, and distinctive camera style.

What Phenomena loses with its somewhat meandering and slow beginnning, it more than makes up for with the last 25 minutes. Whatever you do, DO NOT miss the end of this film. It doesn't make sense. Don't even try to understand it on a logical level. Instead, give in to its visceral insanity, its cavalcade of bizarre, including poison pills, maggots, killer bees, underground tunnels, a pool of blood and body parts, one fucked up little kid with a monster face, a maritime explosion, a surprise decapitation, and a straight razor-wielding primate. Yeah, it just may be the greatest ending to any movie ever.

Storyline & plot: 5/10
Cinematography & effects: 7/10
Music & mood: 6/10
Performances: 6/10

The Reverend says: 6/10

Thursday, November 19, 2009

High Noon

High Noon (1952), more than most other movies, lives in two worlds. And unlike so many others, it manages to be a watershed entity in both worlds. First and foremost, High Noon is a film. And a damn fine one at that. Director Fred Zinnemann employs a little-used (for the time) crisp black-and-white palette, an excellent score, a group of very talented actors, sparse sets, and a richly layered backstory. His film rightly deserves any and all accolades it has received. Quite simply, it's one of the greatest films ever made. While often standing as the epitome of the classic Western genre, paradoxically, High Noon is also said to be a Western for people who don't like Westerns. Believe me, it doesn't matter if you like Westerns or not, you will love this movie.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the very recently married and even more recently retired marshall of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, 1876. Kane plans to take his young bride (a very young Grace Kelly in one of her first feature roles) away from the rough-and-tumble frontier town, and set up a storefront somewhere a little quieter. But Kane hasn't counted on Frank Miller and his gang, just released from prison and on the noon train bound for Hadleyville. Frank's looking to take back the town he used to run and get revenge on the man who put him behind bars, Marshall Kane.

What follows is a frantic 90 minutes (almost, but not quite, corresponding to real time), as the clocks tick away toward noon, and Kane looks for any allies he can find to help him defend the town. The best he'll find are the old, the young, and the infirm. The worst he'll find is open disgust and hostility from those loyal to the old days, when the Miller gang ran things. Frank Miller isn't the only ghost of Kane's past that will surface this day: he'll also have to contend with his fiery ex-deputy (Lloyd Bridges), and his even more fiery ex-lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). As his friends and fellow townspeople abandon him like rats fleeing a sinking ship, Kane holds out hope that his pacifist bride will fly in the face of her religion and stand by his side.

There are so many great aspects of this movie, so I'll just single out a few. The cast is incredible. We have aging stars (Gary Cooper and Lon Cheney), we have rising stars (Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Harry Morgan), and we have an amazing breakthrough performance for a foreign star (Katy Jurado). The acting is all exemplary, crowned by Cooper's quiet desperation and deep betrayed sorrow.

The character of Will Kane is unfamiliar territory for the likes of Gary Cooper, used to being the dashing, macho, easy hero. While Will Kane is a hero in his own right, there's nothing easy about him. He meets little more than apathy and hatred from the town he long protected. Betrayed, saddened, and scared shitless, he quietly awaits his doom, unable to flee for reasons he himself can't even fathom. And yet, there's no surprise in his eyes at the behavior of the townfolk. Deep down, it's as if he knew it would someday come to this. Abandoned. Left to die defending a town that was no longer his own. There is no surprise. Only a profound sadness and exhaustion.

Remember how I said High Noon lives in two worlds? You thought I'd forgotten about that, didn't you? Well, not quite. As a piece of cinema alone, it's an awesome achievement. But High Noon is not merely a movie. It's an extended metaphor for a transformation that was taking place in Hollywood at the time. It was the early 1950s. World War II was a recent memory, and the Cold War had settled on the globe. McCarthyism had taken hold of America, and the entertainment industry was no exception. Suspected communists and sympathizers were being rooted out and blacklisted, barred from making films in Hollywood. Brilliant screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman refused to go quietly, exposing many of his colleagues (including John Wayne) as McCarthyist hate-mongers. Foreman penned High Noon as a semi-autobiographical allegory, modeling Will Kane after himself: a lone man, beset by hatred and betrayal on all sides, yet continuing on in spite of it.

High Noon stunned Hollywood, and helped stem the tide of McCarthyism there, but sadly, it was too late for Carl Foreman. Producer Stanley Kramer removed Foreman's name from the credits, and shortly thereafter Foreman was blacklisted and thrown out of Hollywood by the likes of Kramer, John Wayne, and Ward Bond. Foreman continued to write, albeit anonymously or under pseudonyms, including the screenplay for 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Throughout his illustrious career, High Noon remained his boldest work, his masterpiece.

Storyline & plot: 9/10
Cinematography & effects: 9/10
Music & mood: 9/10
Performances: 10/10

The Reverend says: 10/10

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

After Hours

After Hours (1985), sandwiched as it is between the more successful films The King of Comedy (1982) and The Color of Money (1986), is an oft-overlooked gem from legendary director Martin Scorsese. As he has so many times throughout his long career, Scorsese returns here to his old stomping grounds with another tale from the Big Apple, this time mining it for black comedy.

The script from rookie screenwriter Joseph Minion is a triumph: complicated, but smooth and never forced. He keeps all the plot point balls up in the air (and there are quite a few) until the very last moment, and only then does he let them fall into place. Minion and Scorsese succeed in giving us a portrait of NYC in the waning of the 1980s: a post-punk wasteland of the scary, the gritty, and especially, the crazy. There are, of course, undercurrents of the age-old uptown/downtown dichotomy and the class distinctions underpinned by such a comparison. Scorsese has touched on such broad social commentary in previous films such as Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), but After Hours represents his most comprehensive analysis. Scorsese and Minion also explore the changing face of employment at the time, a transition to more soulless, computer-driven cubicle desk jobs, rendering After Hours a bleaker and far more subtle take than Mike Judge's classic Office Space (1999).

Social commentary notwithstanding, Scorsese largely eschews his political slant here in favor of the more personal. At its core, this film is an extended character study, not of our ostensible lead (Griffin Dunne), but of the city itself: Soho, the wee hours of a night much like any other night, filled with suicides, serial burglars, vigilante mobs, tortured artists, and lonely waitresses.

Uptown office word-cruncher Paul Hackett (Dunne) takes up the offer of a mysterious coffee shop acquaintance (Rosanna Arquette) to join her at her friend's (Linda Fiorentino) Soho loft in the early hours of the morning. Thinking it'll be an easy score, Paul readily agrees, and heads downtown with high hopes. But things take an irreversible turn for the worse when Paul loses all his money in the cab downtown. Furthermore, Paul's "date" with Marcy does not go at all as he planned after she unloads a mountain of emotional baggage. Eager to get away from Marcy and her weirdly kinky sculptress friend, Paul takes the first opportunity to bolt into the Soho night. Problem is, he's got no dough to get home. Paul spends the rest of the night bouncing around Soho, desperately trying to get home, but landing himself in the middle of an epic string of bad luck that plummets him into a surreal NYC nightmare.

The performances in After Hours are all superb. I'd expect nothing less from a film helmed by Scorsese. Griffin Dunne leads the way with a tight-wire act between composure and utter despair, maintaining a baseline of cool calm, but swinging randomly and wildly toward full-blown paranoid apoplexy in the face of the night's meltdown and very real threat of imprisonment or death. Joining Arquette and Fiorentino in a solid supporting cast are John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, and Teri Garr. The cast is rounded out by hilarious cameo appearances by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong as a very CheechandChong-ish pair of petty thieves.

If you've ever wondered just how wrong a single night can go, Scorsese gives us a pretty good idea, with a little help from influences as far flung as Franz Kafka, John Landis, and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (if Hopper had been on a coke and booze bender at the time of painting).

Storyline & plot: 10/10
Cinematography & effects: 9/10
Music & mood: 7/10
Performances: 9/10

The Reverend says: 9/10

Friday, October 30, 2009

Night Watch

The best things I can say about Night Watch (2004) are that it had some very unique and fun visuals, and a pretty good lead performance from Konstantin Khabenskiy. The rest, well.... superfluous, silly, or downright stupid. For every sweet and artistic visual (e.g., Zavulon extracting his own spine and wielding it as a bitchin' sword), there was an equally tired and lame one (the Nightwatch's utterly stupid souped up, flame-spewing yellow truck; Tiger Cub's ridiculous transformation into, well, an incredibly cheesy-looking tiger). The ubiquitous CGI crows, dark clouds, and lightning also contribute to a mood that is just a bit too laughable. The film gets pulled in too many directions and follows too many pointless plot sidetrips in favor of cramming more hit-and-miss visuals into an already overloaded visual palette. Night Watch gets stuck somewhere between epic fantasy and urban techno thriller, and the result is just not pretty.

Night Watch is the story of an ancient and epic battle (or rather, an avoidance of a battle) amongst a group of superhumans called the Others, some of whom have chosen Dark and some Light. The forces are so evenly matched that a true battle would result in total and pointless annihilation. Deciding this is a bad idea, the Others make a truce and erect a sort of underground bureaucracy wherein Light kinda rules the roost and issues permits to Dark to "legally" carry out their vampiric tendencies within certain limits. All of which makes an epic battle between good and evil about as riveting as the tax code.

We are told that every Other has a unique power that they must discover, but the group presented to the audience is pretty homogenous. The side of Dark seems to be largely, if not entirely comprised of vampire-like creatures (yawn). In Light's corner, we have two shape-shifters (Bear and Tiger Cub), who we only see in action once, and the special effects there are dubious at best. We also have two Light Others who seem to have no special powers at all: one of them just drives a truck around and the other appears to be a simple computer nerd. Wow. Stunning. Then there's Olga, who first appears as an owl, but transforms into a human-formed sort of all-purpose sorceress, all the while vaguely spouting about being imprisoned within the form of the owl for some sort of unspeakable crimes. That subplot, which actually seemed intriguing, goes where most of the scattered fragments of this movie go: nowhere. Finally, there's Anton, our hero (or antihero, if you will). I actually like Anton. Khabenskiy does a great job of bringing Anton's multi-layered, gray-area character to life. In fact, Anton is the only character that feels complete, sufficiently fleshed out, and believable. Plus, he actually has powers! He has the power of precognition, and if he drinks some delicious blood beforehand, he can kinda morph into a vampire for a short time and go hunt down some Dark side baddies.

The plot centers (well, I use "centers" very loosely here) on Anton's attempt to keep 12-year-old Yegor, a burgeoning Other, out of the hands of a crazy vampire bitch who wants to drain him in retaliation for Anton killing her lover. Oh yeah, and Zavulon, the lord of Darkness, seeks Yegor as the fulfillment of some arcane prophecy. And there's an extremely tenuously related sideplot about an evil vortex that springs up around a cursed virgin. Seriously. Oh yeah, somehow related to this is an airplane that's about to crash land in Moscow, but yet magically is okay for like 3 hours until the plot moves along sufficiently to cut back to the doomed airplane. And there's an explosion at a power plant that sends Moscow into darkness (just in time to create a great atmosphere for Anton's showdown with the cursed virgin!). The point I'm getting at here is that director Timur Bekmambetov flits around from plot piece to plot piece like a freaking hummingbird on coke. Most of this stuff is extraneous and unnecessary, and then left to straggle out into a dead end. It's sloppy filmmaking, plain and simple.

I can't recommend Night Watch in good conscience. It's the first film in a trilogy, and maybe they get better, but I just can't see mustering the desire to put myself through another one to test it.

Storyline & plot: 3/10
Cinematography & effects: 5/10
Music & mood: 3/10
Performances: 6/10

The Reverend says: 4/10