Thursday, December 10, 2009

‘Precious’ Full of Pain, Hope and Incredible Performances

The unreal reality and disparaging tale of Clareece Precious Jones begins with an affliction of Precious’ diluted view of life. “I want to be on the cover of a magazine,” says the 16-year-old girl. “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with good hair. But first I want to be in one of those BET videos.”

New talent Gabourey Sidibe plays the obese and illiterate Precious in the Oscar-buzzing film directed by Lee Daniels. Saddling up alongside Sidibe to make for one impressive female-led cast are Mo’Nique, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey.

It’s hard to recall a film carried by its acting as much as Precious is. Sure, the story, based on a novel by Sapphire, is dark and unrelenting and that alone makes for an effective drama, but the performances turned in by likes of Sidibe and Mo’Nique carries the film to a whole different quadrant of impactful storytelling. The extreme pain of the characters is felt alongside an unmistakable sense of reality, which is a combination proven time and time again to hit audiences the hardest.

And while Precious might end up as one of the toughest films to watch all year long because of the emotional performances coupled with content such as sexual, physical and mental abuse, there is a somewhat deeply-rooted sense of hope that exudes out of the tale of the struggling 16-year-old girl named Precious. Her admittance to an alternative school and the role that institution plays as a gleaming beam of hope gives the film a slight feel-good vibe you absolutely wouldn’t expect after the film’s opening sequences.

It’s easy to see why Precious has been stunning audiences at the various film festivals it has been shown at. The jarringly painful and intimate performances, especially Sidibe’s lead performance and the rather surprising and Oscar-deserving turn from Mo’Nique as Precious’ abusive mother, are all jaw droppers. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think Mo’Nique had this kind of performance in her. With a round-up of acting credits that includes Phat Girlz and Soul Plane, you can’t blame me, but I’m glad to be proven wrong.

Even Mariah Carey adds to the dramatic mix with her solid performance as welfare worker Mrs. Weiss, a key character in the discovery of the revelations of Precious’ painful life. Paula Patton, as Ms. Blu Rain, Precious’ new teacher at her alternative school, gives the most inspiring and hopeful performance as Precious’ ticket out of her personal hell.

And as you study these characters a little more deeply, you find that each adds its own purpose to the story and to Precious herself. They’re more than simple characters with a name and a face. Precious herself is a puzzling character, she often sees herself living a different life, perhaps one of a slender white woman, and even though she might want change, shows a fear to engaging it. Her mother is her hindrance, Ms. Rain is her gateway to salvation and Mrs. Weiss is her personal diary. The final two characters are the undeniable sense of hope I make reference to.

Precious won’t win awards for cinematography, as the jerky handheld cam is unbalanced at times, but it should take home something for its acting. A female-led film such as this doesn’t come around that often and the achievements should be recognized.

Precious is a must-see film. While it is a bit of a tear-inducing film typical of the Oscar season, it leaves you feeling an overall sense of optimism and does so remarkably with its realistic grasp on life boosted by a round of great performances.

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Swimming with Sharks' A Dark, Absurd Journey

Remember that job you once had with the unrelenting and insulting boss? Well, Guy (Frank Whaley) does, and it’s why he’s decided to take Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) hostage.

Swimming with Sharks is the unforgiving, unapologetic, aggressive and darkest of dark comedies that tells the story of how Guy got to be throwing hot sauce in Ackerman’s open wounds.

This rather bleak look at the studio system in Hollywood is a scalding hot piece of comedy, a deeply hysterical albeit sad piece of social commentary on the business behind the pretty facade.

What makes this foul-mouthed film work so well is Spacey’s comically brilliant performance as true asshole Buddy Ackerman. A man who’s on the top of it all at Keystone Pictures, Ackerman uses and abuses Guy on all fronts, from stealing credit of his work to yelling at him in front of the entire office over a packet of Sweet‘N Low.

And on the other side, Whaley plays two versions of Guy. The more quiet and timid youngster looking to make a name for himself in the world of film and the berserk, near-psychotic man that storms into Ackerman’s house to hold his boss hostage and torture him with salt and paper cuts.

The film’s narrative is one of the huge keys to the film, as it supplements the present day events of Guy torturing Ackerman in his own home with the abuse and hostility Ackerman sprayed towards Guy during his time as his assistant. Jumping back and forth from past to present really allows the viewer to get a different sense of the events. It’s certainly an experimental way to tell a film of this kind, but I think it works much better than the straightforward start to finish narrative that could have been used.

And when I say that Swimming with Sharks is the darkest of dark comedies, I truly mean it. There might be films darker than this that dash comedy in here and there, but I have to admit that I didn’t get the film I expected when I read the critic comments of “Hysterical!” on the back of the DVD case. Writer and director George Huang offers so much bleak light into the life of Guy and the Hollywood system it’s unbelievable. The outcome of the situation is even more disparaging. If not for the humorous approach, Ackerman’s snide and ruthless bouts of yelling and the all-around foul-mouthed nature of the film, I’d have a hard time calling it a comedy.

But now that I’ve seen Swimming with Sharks I have a problem wondering why this film isn’t more beloved. It’s certainly not far from a brilliant total package, a working together of comic mischief and unabashed ruthlessness. The film isn’t afraid to point at dark, touchy subjects while maintaining a light sense of humor on the side. Think Glengarry Glen Ross had it been about holding your boss hostage.

Wrap Up of Films Watched in November 2009

Nope, I didn't forget this feature, I'm just late. November was a pretty weak month from my part. The year is drawing to a close and the energy is growing low. I only watched 13 films this month. Here's the tally and awards.

256. 11/3 – Easy Rider*
257. 11/6 – The Men Who Stare at Goats*
258. 11/6 – (500) Days of Summer*
259. 11/6 – Whatever Works*
260. 11/14 – The Boat That Rocked*
261. 11/14 – The Limits of Control*
262. 11/14 – Swimming with Sharks*
263. 11/17 – Moon*
264. 11/20 – Naked Lunch
265. 11/20 – In the Loop
266. 11/21 – The Hangover
267. 11/25 – Wise Blood
268. 11/29 – Thirst*

Best Film (New Viewing): Moon
I loved absolutely everything about Duncan Jones' isolated science fiction thriller, from the extraordinary visuals to the stellar acting from Sam Rockwell. This is one of 2009's best films and a must-see film.
Runners-up: Easy Rider, Thirst, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): In the Loop
The best film of the year (so far)! Watch this, dam you. And then watch The Thick of It from start to where it's at right now. You won't be sorry. I just wish the Oscar buzz train was rolling for Peter Capaldi.
Runners-up: Wise Blood, Naked Lunch.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): None.
Sorry, but I enjoyed it all this month. So don't tell me "Oh, something has to be the worst!" That isn't the intention of this slot.

Most Surprising Film and Most Underrated Film: Swimming with Sharks
Yeah, it wins both of these, so to save space and time I'll condense it to one slot. Swimming with Sharks was a $2 blind buy for me at Big Lots and I couldn't have been happier with the outcome. I'll be posting my "Netflix It" piece I wrote on the film for The Recorder shortly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: Nov. 24 + Dec. 1

More excuses, Thanksgiving weekend shook me up. But I'm back. I'm gonna start blogging more consistently once school is done with in three weeks.

November 24th

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season 4 [DVD]

Because everybody loves a little Hitch, even if he didn't direct the majority of these thrilling episodes.

Funny People [DVD][Blu-ray]

Funny People is a great film, just not in the way it was advertised. Judd Apatow's name certainly leads to audience members expect one thing, but they received different. Drama comes first in Funny People, but the film isn't without it's comedic moments. Check this one out, just don't expect Superbad or a number of other Apatow flicks.

Gomorrah [Criterion DVD][Criterion Blu-ray]

The amazing 2008 Italian gangster film Gomorrah gets the pristine treatment with this new Criterion release of the film. I loved it. Couldn't say enough good about it in my review. I need to pick this up eventually.

The Monster Squad [Blu-ray]

Already having been released on standard Blu-ray, The Monster Squad comes back to us on Blu. This great film might dig up some nostalgic moments for some. Don't be turned off to the slight "kiddie" vibe the film has, it's really a treat. And a bargain at that.

The Golden Age of Television [Criterion DVD]

The other important release from Criterion this week was The Golden Age of Television, a collection which features the kinescopes of some of the finest television dramas of the 1950s. The set includes Marty, Requiem for a Heavyweight, No Time for Sergeants, Bang the Drum Slowly, Days of Wine and Roses, A Wind from the South, The Comedian, and Patterns. This seems like a neat time capsule.

Mad Dog Morgan [DVD]

The latest out of Troma's vault is an early Dennis Hopper film titled Mad Dog Morgan. This film is entry #5 in the Tromasterpiece Collection, a series I happen to own all of. The releases are consistently thorough and give these classic but sometimes lost films the treatment they deserve.

Three Monkeys [DVD]

Three Monkeys is the terrific neo-noir/crime drama that came out in Turkey in 2008. The film is a dark and poignant tale and is expertly captured. I reviewed this one around the same time as Gomorrah, funny they should see release the same exact day.

What else comes out this week (Nov 24.): Angels & Demons, Shorts, The Maiden Heist, Angel Heart [Blu-ray], Cujo [Blu-ray], Frailty [Blu-ray], The Way of the Gun [Blu-ray], Ink [Blu-ray], My Bloody Valentine (Original) [Blu-ray], Silent Scream.

What to stay away from: Zac Efron - The Ultimate Idol. This doesn't need to be explained, does it?

December 1st

Terminator Salvation [DVD][Blu-ray]

A film that didn't deserve the scorn it yielded, McG's Terminator Salvation was an above average action/sci-fi flick. I really felt the film got the heat mainly because it was the fourth installment in the iconic franchise. But then again, it wasn't as bad as the putrid third film. Yes, it should have been rated R, just for continuity sake, but whatever, deal with it. But as I mentioned in my review, the film was a fun and enjoyable watch. Christian Bale was decent and Sam Worthington was outstanding.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVI [Limited Edition]

Much like the above Zac Efron comment, this doesn't need to be described either. But for good reasons. Cash in on some more MST3K fun.

A Christmas Tale [Criterion DVD][Criterion Blu-ray]

Criterion strikes in back to back weeks. This week sees A Christmas Tale getting the dual DVD and Blu-ray treatment. And much like last week with Gomorrah, A Christmas Tale is also a 2008 film, something that isn't so common with Criterion's releases.

What else comes out this week (Dec 1.): Snatch [Blu-ray], The Green Mile (Blu-ray Book) [Blu-ray], Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels [Blu-ray], Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season, The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray], Paper Heart, Silent Night, Deadly Night III, IV, & V [Box Set], Gremlins [Blu-ray].

What to stay away from: Ben 10: Alien Swarm. I'm not really sure why, it just looks stupid.

That's all. Clearly the week of November 24th was better, possibly to push their products off shelves on Black Friday. So long.

Friday, November 20, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: Nov. 10 + Nov. 17

Sorry folks. November is the time when college classes practically control your energy. But some great titles have come out in the past two weeks and I wanted to make sure I got the chance to speak briefly about them. Let's go!

November 10th

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut [DVD][Blu-ray]

This is the current grand daddy of Watchmen releases right now. I can't imagine something more comprehensive being released anytime soon. For those who waited, your patience has been reward. But even still, this might be too much Watchmen for most to handle. This contains the longer but much superior extended cut of the film interlaced with the extra content that was released on standalone DVD months back. This is for the serious fan.

Heat [Blu-ray]

Who wouldn't want to see Michael Mann's classic in high-def? Especially that killer shootout. This crime classic is a must for Blu-ray owners.

Up [DVD][Blu-ray]

The acclaimed Pixar film saw its released by way of a 4-disc Blu-ray set and the standard DVD release. I haven't seen this film yet, but I have it queued up and ready to go as far as my must watch list is concerned. Expect some comments on this and whether I think it's Oscar worthy shortly. As a precursor I'll let you know I wasn't exactly blown away by Wall-E last year.

The General [Blu-ray]

The General is one of those films I should have seen already. Hell, Buster Keaton is an artist I need to watch more of. Anyways, I picked this because anytime a film from 1926 is remastered and released on Blu-ray it's worth mentioning, especially one as well-regarded as this one. I just hope I get to make a post about Metropolis and its Blu-ray release sometime soon.

What else came out this week : Monsters, Inc. (4-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray], The Ugly Truth, The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 7: 1952-1954, Godzilla [Blu-ray], Near Dark [Blu-ray].

What to stay away from: Make the Yuletide Gay. Just taking a wild guess on this one!

November 17th

Star Trek [DVD][Blu-ray]

One of the best science fiction films of 2009 hit shelves earlier this week. I saw this beauty twice in theaters and would love to see it again. It's a visually astonishing movie and easy to swallow space opera all in one clean and fun package. A lot was accomplished with this flick.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Its A Very Sunny Christmas [DVD][Blu-ray]

Gaining access to the Fox Press website has its perks. I was able to watch this special episode of Always Sunny more than a month ago. It's a funny episode, much more crude than the beyond funny television episodes that we've all come to love over the years. You can do more with the free reign of a DVD release than you can with cable TV, and it shows. Recommended as a must for any fan of the show.

Fight Club [Blu-ray]

A week after one significant 1990's film (Heat) saw release on Blu-ray comes another. This time it's the wildly beloved Fight Club. I was this film for the first time about a year ago. Yes, much later than the rest of you cool folks out there, but whatever. I still enjoyed it.

Bruno [DVD][Blu-ray]

The gayest film of the year! All joking aside, Bruno is more of the strange social satire/commentary from Sacha Baron Cohen that's had him riding to the top of the charts in comedy. He did it with Da Ali G show and still doing it now as he completes his trifecta of characters. If you're a homophobe, you won't like this film. If you have any sense of humor and don't want to shoot every homosexual you see with a shotgun or send them to hell by the power of God, you'll get a huge kick out of Cohen's absurd and outrageous brand of humor.

Thirst [DVD]

One of my most anticipated films of the year is Thirst, Chan-wook Park's vampire film. Park is best known for directing the "Revenge Trilogy", a series consisting of Oldboy, Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, three films connected only in mood and the factor of revenge. Park struck gold in all three of those films and I thought he carried that hot streak very well into his offbeat romantic comedy I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, an impressive and genuine film. One can only hope Park keeps his pace up with Thirst, a film I'm dying to see.

The Limits of Control [DVD]

In a most Lynch-ian effort, Jim Jarmusch returns to the big screen with The Limits of Control, his most minimalistic and perhaps most strange work yet. The film follows a cool and quiet assassin (common Jarmusch actor Isaach De Bankolé) country to country on his assigned mission, something the audience rarely learns about. The film is aided by the characters he meets, played by some great accomplished actors such as John Hurt and Bill Murray. For fans only, The Limits of Control is a whole lot of slow-paced action that ultimately doesn't give a huge payoff. But still, I found it to be an impressive film, just not overly satisfying.

Downhill Racer [Criterion DVD]

I don't know much about this film, other than the fact that Robert Redford and Gene Hackmen star in it and it has to do with a
U.S. downhill ski team. But hey, Criterion put it out, and I'm sort of a slave to them. If they say it's good enough to release, it must be good enough to watch.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape [Blu-ray]

Oh my god!! I really need to get a PS3. Steven Soderbergh's ultra-successful independent film that helped change the landscape of the American indie film is now on Blu-ray. Words can't really describe this strange film. See it for yourself.

What else came out this week: Gone with the Wind (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray], The Professional [Blu-ray], Galaxy Quest [Blu-ray], Working Men (Rush),
Is Anybody There?, Clerks [Blu-ray], Chasing Amy [Blu-ray], Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954.

What to stay away from: Easy choice. NHL: Montreal Canadiens - 100th Anniversary Collector's Set. Haha, why would you want to watch a complete DVD box set about the 100 years this franchise has been in existence?

Anyways, that's all for this week. Don't get mad that I didn't include photos for all those titles. Cya sometime soon, I hope!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

'Pirate Radio' An Ultimate Ode to Rock & Roll

Once director and writer Richard Curtis sets the sails of Pirate Radio and turns its rocking volume to 11, he never looks back, making sure that this is the undeniable film that rocked.

Pirate Radio tells the fictitious tale of the infamous people aboard Radio Rock, a pirate radio rock and roll station floating in the North Sea, much to the chagrin of the British government.

A film that is carried as much by its terrific ensemble cast as it is by its undying love for rock and roll, renowned writer Curtis’ second directorial film is one of the most uplifting and spirited films of the year. A production that will leave fans of 1960’s rock and roll feeling as good as they hopefully came walking in.

There is almost way too much to love about Pirate Radio. But the best thing about the film is its cast. Each actor does his or her part to add to the melting pot of funny Curtis has created. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh and Rhys Ifans are only a few of the talents associated to this rather international cast.

It’s hard to pick a few out of the bunch that do it best, but a special nod must be given to Hoffman, who not only turns in a funny performance, but also a genuinely good one, the kind he is expected to be able to give. As superstar disc jockey The Count, Hoffman plays up the ego as he goes head-to-head with the even more egotistical disc jockey Gavin (Ifans), the returning “king of the airwaves.”

And then you have the incomparable Kenneth Branagh back on land trying to shut them down. Best remembered for his many Shakespearean performances, Branagh plays a rigid but coldly funny minister in the British government attempting to get the pirate radio off the air in whatever way possible. He’s opposed on ship by the terrific Bill Nighy, whose character Quentin plays father and leader to the entire team of radio hosts.

But all these absolutely spirited performances and well-written characters pay reminder to the changed landscape of both rock and roll and radio. A system that is now so corrupted by corporation and money that some might yearn for the simpler days of similar broadcasts. Good luck turning on the radio these days to find a disc jockey with not only as much personality as these guys but also an undying love and knowledge of the records they’re spinning.

And a constant mainstay for the film is its toe-tapping soundtrack. Aided by the likes of The Turtles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and The Beach Boys. The film is practically a who’s who of 1960’s rock and roll and its result will leave any music lover feeling absolutely fine.

Now yes, the film revels in it history of drugs, sex and rock and roll and maybe so in a too glamorous light. And really, the plot is saturated with impossible and magical occurrences. But I think at the honest heart of this lovable and heartfelt film, there is really nothing more than a love letter to rock and roll. With all the doom and negativity in the world so often focused on in film, an endearing story like the one of Pirate Radio is something absolutely welcomed by me.

The true value of Pirate Radio is in its incredible ability to make you smile. You’re just about guaranteed to love and grow attached to at least one character in Curtis’ deep cast of radio superstars, much like the folks of England were as the team’s broadcasts continued. There’s just so much love, happiness and relentless groovin’ happening on this boat that you won’t want it to ever end.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Clooney, Bridges Brilliant in Bizarre Goat-Staring Experiment

At a certain point in The Men Who Stare at Goats, the entire ensemble cast of George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and yes, Goat, comes together to form a troupe of actors that makes everything about the offbeat film feel right.

And the absurd and ridiculously beyond belief yet still more true than you would want to believe story that leads up to and culminates in the uniting of these mega actors is a fine tale of journalism, politics and army experimentation of a different kind, best served with a hint of dark satire and a dash of farcical screwball comedy.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name, is a look inside the attempts of US military forces to adapt and use psychic powers such as remote viewing and invisibility. More specifically, the film follows reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) as he stumbles across an ambitious story when he meets special forces operator Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who agrees to take Wilton along on his bizarre mission.

As attractive as Goats is, it’s a film that takes a little brain muscle from its viewers to be liked. The film develops slowly, following Wilton and Cassady around parts of the Middle East while interjecting flashbacks featuring the characters of Bridges and Spacey to help tell how exactly Cassady ended up where he is. Because of the intermittent disruptions the film doesn’t find its absolute bearings until a little more than halfway through the film. But once the film does develop and retain its lovable satirical style the eventual payoff is huge and redeeming.

And as much as any film of its kind, Goats is a film that absolutely relies on its ensemble cast. Similar to how Joel and Ethan Coen’s spy farce Burn After Reading used its cast of actors to gain an advantage, so does Goats. Even with a witty and smart screenplay from Peter Straughan, the right actors are needed to help turn that subtle, strange and offbeat humor into something that works. And can you think of a better actor to play a hippie-like army lieutenant versed in the studies of New Age army techniques than Jeff Bridges?

This perfect casting is what gives Goats its absolute strength during its bouts of laughter and moments of idiocy. Clooney, much like with Burn After Reading, gives an outstanding comedic performance of the paranoid kind. And the usually more serious Spacey turns in another one of his brilliant comedic performances. Tied together by McGregor and small roles from the likes of Stephen Root, Stephen Lang and Robert Patrick and you really have a cast that is absolutely perfect for the goofy screwball type of humor that Goats truly is.

The Men Who Stare at Goats has all the makings of being a cult movie. There’s really a market of people out there that’ll love this film. Conversely there’s a market that won’t really want to have anything to do with it after seeing it. It isn’t the flashiest of films, it isn’t the funniest and it isn’t the most remarkable, but it makes up for all of that by being a well-acted and strangely satisfying comedy carried by its bizarre moments and strong comedic cast.

With inspirational lines of dialogue relating to one’s destined path such as “So Anne Frank wants to grow up and be a high school teacher? Tough titties!” and the supposed origin of the creation of the Army’s slogan “Be All You Can Be”, The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those special films that will strike numerous chords with its intended crowd. It was evident from the beginning with its silly trailer and mocking poster art where it displayed the goat as one of the film’s stars that this film didn’t care about being taken seriously. And that’s a good thing, as it continues and succeeds at the ever-increasing style of odd, partly dry and satirical humor seen in films such as Burn After Reading and The Informant!, a type of humor I hope sticks around.

Friday, November 6, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: Oct 27 + Nov 3

My trip to Austin got me a little behind as far as updating my weekly picks DVD and Blu-ray is concerned. So I decided to turn the two past missed weeks into one. I'll only be touching on the really super cool stuff here.

October 27th

Night of the Creeps [DVD][Blu-ray]

I already made comment on this terrific 1980's campy b-movie that blends horror with satire and spoof. Night of the Creeps finally gets its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray release, and is really an essential edition to anyone's collection. Even if you haven't seen this film, just go buy it. If you love the genre you'll love this too.

Orphan [DVD][Blu-ray]

I missed seeing this in theaters because my friends collectively thought it was stupid. Ever since its theatrical release, I've only heard good things from fans of horror about this title. I meant to watch it during the month of October, but time didn't allow for it. It's on the top of my list.

Whatever Works [DVD][Blu-ray]

Been waiting on this one for awhile. Whatever Works is the collaboration between Larry David and Woody Allen. What perfect timing as I watched this today. It's a different style of humor. David is able to successfully separate his character from the one seen on Curb Your Enthusiasm all the while staying true to a similar form of social comedy that everyone loves out of him. Well worth watching.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue [Blu-ray]

I could have sworn this film had already been released on Blu-ray. First known to me by its alternate title of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, this is one of the unheralded zombie classics. Of all time. It has a slow-moving pace like most other European zombie titles, but the complete package is totally worth it. Increase your zombie experience with this title.

Z [Criterion DVD]

Z gets a reissue by Criterion. Add this to the list of films I've meant to watch. That is all.

The Sam Fuller Film Collection [DVD]

Boy did I pick a busy week to skip. A new collection featuring the films of the great Sam Fuller has been released. Gotta love Sony and what they've been doing lately. This collection includes: IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD, ADVENTURE IN SAHARA, POWER OF THE PRESS, SHOCKPROOF, SCANDAL SHEET, UNDERWORLD USA. Sorry about the caps. Blame Amazon!

What else came out this week (Oct. 27): Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Monty Python: Almost The Truth, Nothing Like the Holidays, Tales from the Darkside: The Second Season, Luis Bunuel's Death in the Garden, Black Devil Doll, 42nd Street Forever 5: Alamo Drafthouse Edition, Sauna, Messiah of Evil: The Second Coming, Il Divo, Tinto Brass Collection, Vol. III
Stan Helsing, Fear(s) of the Dark, The Asphyx, Night of Death!.

What to stay away from (Oct. 27): Two things. One for quality. Stan Helsing because it's one of those stupid spoofs from one of the seven writers of Scary Movie. The other for stupidity in packaging. Adult Swim in a Box, while containing quality television programming, is a baffling collection. You get random seasons of some of the best shows. Season 2 of Sealab 2021, Season 3 of Space Ghost and so on. So unless the stars align and you need those exact seasons, this would be a strange way to begin an Adult Swim collection.

November 3rd

North by Northwest [DVD][Blu-ray]

The real treat with this new release is the Blu-ray. North by Northwest is probably the film that made me fall in love with Alfred Hitchcock. I've only seen one film of his that left a bad taste in my mouth (Topaz). Hitchcock had one of the most remarkably consistent careers of any filmmaker. His worst is best than some director's best. North by Northwest is an especially alluring film for its epic sweeping of the country. It's a grandiose adventure unlike anything else the master of suspense created. Fans should look to eat up this beautiful new release and Blu-ray transfer. And to save space I'll mention this here. Also released this week is a collection of four Hitchcock classics. In TCM's continuing series of budget releases, Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man and I Confess are packaged together in one affordable collection of Hitchcock goodness. Strangers on a Train is probably the best film here, but all four are some of his best work.

Wings of Desire [DVD][Blu-ray]

One important service of these blog posts are to remind me that there are artists out there that I personally haven't checked out yet. I probably would have seen Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire had it not been out of print back when I searched for it on Netflix. Now Criterion has pulled another miracle and given the film its supposed due with a DVD and Blu-ray release. I gotta check this one out.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol 1. [DVD]

I'll own this set one day. I'm only familiar with Fritz Lang's The Big Heat out of the collection of five films. Included are (The Big Heat / 5 Against the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract / The Sniper). What this set does great is bring some hidden gems out of the woodwork and gives them great transfers. The Sniper is an especially appealing film from Edward Dmytryk, one of the more unheralded film noir directors of his generation. Look into this set, noir fans.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Album review: Pelican - What We All Come to Need

I find it somewhat difficult to express how I really feel about Pelican. Instead, the four-piece instrumental band from Chicago prefers to constantly make its post-rock sound laced with metal collide with my senses, leaving me with no room to function.

What I really love about Pelican and their sludgy, sometimes droning, but always engaging music, is how it absolutely always cuts to the chase. There is no fooling around here, no need for an unnecessary and sometimes anti-climatic buildup technique other prominent bands inside the post-whatever genres make use of. And the band’s fourth album What We All Come to Need is one of the best examples of this yet.

“Glimmer” opens the album, grabs you, and makes a point that it isn’t going to let go of you. All four members of this band are simply incredibly competent in letting their instruments do the heavy speaking. Sibling rhythm section of Bryan Herweg on bass and Larry Herweg on drums keeps the music flowing consistently while the band’s dual guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Larent Schroeder-Lebec place biting and harsh riffs on top of it all.

“The Creeper” and “Ephemeral” stand out as two favorites of mine. They both have this uncanny hooking ability thanks to the quartet’s ability to work and feed off of each other. The rest of the album is simply more of the same.

Before all is said and done with the pulsating eight track album, diehard Pelican fans will be hearing something different on the eighth and final track. Fans might be surprised to hear vocals on “Final Breath”. It’s true, you aren’t hearing things. Ben Verellen of Harkonen provided vocals for what is the first Pelican song to ever feature vocals, and the experiment avoids disaster.

Not much more can be said for a band like Pelican. You’ll either love it or hate it. There’s no catch to their straightforward sound, but at the same time it ends up being satisfying and addicting. They might just be the most accessible band inside the many post-rock genres, and What We All Come to Need is more proof of that claim.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wrap Up of Films Watched in October 2009

Well here it is. I'm reaching the end stretch. 255 total films have been watched. I viewed 23 in October, with only one not being a horror film. Here's the recap. * denotes first time viewing.

233. 10/1 – Summer School*
234. 10/1 – Drag Me to Hell
235. 10/1 – Laid to Rest*
236. 10/1 – The Sentinel*
237. 10/2 – Zombieland*
238. 10/6 – The Hills Run Red*
239. 10/6 – Jungle Holocaust*
240. 10/7 – Fright Night*
241. 10/8 – MST3K: Zombie Nightmare*
242. 10/10 – Trick ‘r Treat
243. 10/10 – Splinter*
244. 10/13 – Where the Wild Things Are*
245. 10/15 – Children of the Corn*
246. 10/16 – The Ruins*
247. 10/16 – Cat People (1942)*
248. 10/18 – The Poughkeepsie Tapes*
249. 10/21 – Paranormal Activity*
250. 10/22 – Night of the Creeps*
251. 10/22 – Ghostwatch*
252. 10/23 – Shock*
253. 10/23 – From a Whisper to a Scream*
254. 10/23 – Theater of Blood*
255. 10/24 – Basket Case*

Best Film (New Viewing): Zombieland
I really do believe that Zombieland was the champion of October. The film is so much fun and simply gets it right. Read my review for more.
Runners-up: Where the Wild Things Are, Paranormal Activity, Night of the Creeps.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): Drag Me to Hell
There weren't too many repeated viewings. In fact, both repeated viewings from the month of October were two of my favorite horror films of the year. Drag Me to Hell edges out Trick 'r Treat here though. Sam Raimi's return to horror is one of the absolute top highlights of film in 2009.
Runner-up: Trick 'r Treat.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): Zombie Nightmare
Hands down. An absolutely terrible film. The MST3K riffing of it was brilliant, but this Adam West film is a laughable attempt at the zombie voodoo genre.
Runner-up: None.

Most Surprising Film: Splinter
I expected solid things from Splinter, but I got so much more. The film was an intense portrait of four people trapped inside a gas station while an unheard of parasite-like creature stalks them from the outside. The film grips viewers and doesn't let go.
Runners-up: From a Whisper to a Scream, The Sentinel.

Most Underrated Film: Theater of Blood
Among all of Vincent Price's classic, I think this one gets the least admiration. I'm not sure why either. Price turns in a signature performance as a Shakespearean actor set on killing all critics who did him wrong. One by one by way of deaths seen in Shakespeare's own plays. Terrific fun.
Runners-up: Cat People.

And so my dedication to horror films is done. I won't stop watching them, but it feels nice to not have to feel compelled to watch one every night. I have two months left to hit the 300 mark. That means 45 films must be watched between now and January 1st. Stay tuned.

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Final Results

Okay, so I had a pretty bad showing this past month compared to the past couple of years. But I have my excuses. Lots of hockey was to be seen, the Yankees are having a great playoff run and I took four days out of October to head to Austin, TX for a college journalism and media conference. All pretty worthy reasons for not watching horror films. I finished with only 21, a total that ranks as fourth in the five years I've taken part in the contest. Here's the last stretch of films watched and a mini review to go along with.

October 21st
15. Paranormal Activity (2007)*
October 22nd
16. Night of the Creeps (1986)*
17. Ghostwatch (1992)*
October 23rd
18. Shock (1977)*
19. From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)*
20. Theater of Blood (1973)*
October 24th
21. Basket Case (1982)*

Paranormal Activity: If you already read my review on this film, you'll know I absolutely loved it. If you haven't, maybe you should, because I said more about it there than I can say here. Highly recommended.

Night of the Creeps: This is the ultimate 1980's campy horror film. I was lucky enough to have DVD Pacific get me my copy of the film's long-awaited DVD release early. It was a blind buy, so in turn my first viewing. And WOW, was I blown away. What a classic. Highly recommended.

Ghostwatch: BBC put this fake ghost hunter broadcast on back in the 90's and scared the crap out of some viewers. Played like a real ghost hunting newscast, the faux documentary used some of the same tactics Paranormal Activity used. It's a very effective piece of entertainment. Recommended.

Shock: The great artist Mario Bava's last film. This isn't the best results from the master, but it's still much better than some artist's best. It's a neat and chilling story, with a memorable child performance. Recommended to fans of Bava.

From a Whisper to a Scream: Vincent Price acted as the mood setter in this horror anthology film. The stories here are all so different, all so grim and all so entertaining. One of the good ignored horror films of the last 25 years. Recommended.

Theater of Blood: Staying with Vincent Price, I went straight for this film. Price plays a Shakespearean actor who exacts revenge on critics who gave him negative reviews over the years. The catch is, Price's character does so by killing them based on Shakespeare's plays. A dark but humorous film with a classic performance from Price. Highly recommended as I found it to be such an enjoyable and unique film.

Basket Case: Inside that brown basket is not a picnic lunch. It's a fucking malformed monster-like creature that'll fucking kill you. And it's so fun to watch. This is one of the essential b-movies of the 1980's. Check it out. Recommended.

So 21 films, and mostly all of them were new viewings. I had no time for my favorite horror classics this month. Sorry Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Bay of Blood.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paranormal Activity vs. Saw VI: An Update

My last blog post before leaving for Austin (which was a great deal of fun) had to do with the importance of Paranormal Activity beating Saw VI at the box office. And now I'm sold.

This past Halloween weekend, the $15,000 budget Paranormal Activity grossed $16,387,32716 in an expanded role, leaving the film with a $84,627,372 total gross. Saw VI floundered, dropping four spots and only ending up with $5,270,794 in its pocket. Still, the film has made $22,534,749, good enough to double the film's budget of roughly $11 million. And even though Saw VI got beat hard, it's still considered a profitable success. The film will likely yield more money come DVD/Blu-ray release.

But to end this quick update on a positive, I'll announce victory on behalf of horror films across the world! Saw VI was defeated.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Importance of Beating Saw

Like the film or not, horror fans must be happy that Paranormal Activity beat Saw VI in this past weekend's box office standings. The psychological horror and torture porn horror films went toe-to-toe in a battle of wits, with Paranormal Activity coming out on top with a weekend earnings of $21,104,070. Saw VI finished second with earnings of $14,118,444.

This says a few things about the state of horror films in this country. America is ready for the goods to be delivered. While I personally think the Saw series wore out its welcome a couple films ago, the series still had a decent enough backing to survive on its miniscule budgets. But the recent buzz and hyping of Paranormal Activity by way of Twitter, Facebook and has helped lend to the takeover atop the box office charts.

And the rise of Paranormal Activity hasn't been short of amazing. The film has accumulated a grand total of $61,580,588 in its five weeks in theaters. These five weeks include instances where the film was only being shown in as little as 12 theaters. In its first week the film managed to average $6,489 per theater. The film then expanded to 33 theaters, 160 theaters, 760 theaters and finally 1,945 theaters this past weekend.

What shouldn't go unmentioned in that beating of Saw VI is that fact that Paranormal Activity was shown in only 1,945 theaters while Saw VI was put into a whopping 3,036 theaters the same weekend. Paranormal Activity averaged an outstanding $10,850 per theater to move to the top spot and beat the sixth film of a dying series.

But this race is far from being over. With Halloween coming on a Saturday this year, this coming weekend should prove to be the finally telling point in the competition of two brands of horror filmmaking. Did people put Saw VI off for Halloween weekend, or will more people hop on the Paranormal Activity wagon and ignore Saw VI once again? If next weekend's box office numbers are similar to these latest ones, I'll be more confident in calling it a knockout.

And even though Saw VI finally felt defeat, I'm still not sure the series is completely over. I wouldn't be surprised if I kept having to see a new release each October. Because the films are cheap to make and because there will always be that core group of fans that actually find the films entertaining, they always make a good size profit for Lionsgate in just its first week of release. Even though the film ended up in the second spot behind a different horror film, it still made just about $3 million more than it's $11 million budget. Look for a good chunk of change to land in Lionsgate pocket after this coming weekend as well.

This year has certainly been a kick in the butt for the horror genre. Sam Raimi made a brilliant return with Drag Me to Hell and the great Trick 'r Treat finally made its DVD debut. Spain saw the release of [REC]2, a film diehard fans of [REC] are begging to see in the states sometime soon. Lars von Trier's Antichrist added a little depth to the horror genre with his atypical film and Sorority Row put the fun back into campy slashers. A myriad of other quality titles, such as The Haunting in Connecticut, Orphan, the terrific Zombieland also saw release. These, coupled with the upcoming limited release of Ti West's House of the Devil, a return to horror by Wes Craven and a brand new zombie film from the lord of zombies, George A. Romero, made for a year that gives me hope for a revival of sorts inside the horror genre.

I always knew the Saw films would take a nose dive. It was just a matter of when. But much like all the other horror franchises that became mega-popular over the last 20 years, I'm certain Saw will continue to see films added to its mundane legacy. They might not even come on a year-by-year basis, but they'll still be there. I'm just wondering how long until they remake the first Saw.

Monday, October 26, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: October 20, 2009

Habitually late again, let's cut to the chase.

The William Castle Film Collection [DVD]

A great new box set was just released featuring some of the great and gimmicky horror filmmaker William Castle. Best known for The House on Haunted Hill, Castle made a living off of inserting numerous gimmicks into his B-movie's theatrical experiences to bring in the crowds. Examples of such are buzzers that would "shock" the audience during certain parts of the film and a 3D-esque piece of viewing equipment to help audience members spot the ghosts in the film. All very campy, all very goofy and all very much lost in the recent commercialism of film. This Castle set looks very nice but is a bit too pricey for me at this point. I'll hold off just a bit. The set includes the following films: 13 Frightened Girls, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Strait-Jacket, The Old Dark House, Mr. Sardonicu, The Tingler, Zotz! Check out the video below for an example of Castle's gimmicks.

Monsoon Wedding

More Criterion this week in the form of Mira Nair's 2001 film Monsoon Wedding. Nair just saw the release of her latest film, Amelia, into cinemas and this release completes her busy week. Nair also directed the beautiful and touching 1988 film Salaam Bombay!, a terrific expose of being young and without family in Bombay. It's certainly nice to see more female filmmakers get a few nods of respect. Wouldn't it be sweet if Kathyrn Bigelow's latest masterpiece The Hurt Locker was given the Criterion treatment?

Spaghetti Western Bible Presents: The Fast, the Saved & the Damned [DVD]

Let's forget for a second that the cover art of this new release of old spaghetti western films is a ripoff of the packaging of the Sergio Leone collection released awhile back. A few Spaghetti Western Bibles have been released already. There's been Sartana Saga: Spaghettie Western Bible 2 and Grindhouse Experience Presents: Spaghetti Bible. And even though the quality of these prints and transfers are sometimes lousy, fans of the genre have still got to love these types of genre compilations. A lot of these films would probably never see a remastered single release in a million years, so it's nice to get them somehow. I have a few similar sets for the film noir and exploitation genres and they're more than acceptable for extra viewing. Includes in this collection are the following films:

- Blindman (1971) Ferdinando Baldi
- Minnesota Clay (1965) Sergio Corbucci
- 7 Dollars on the Red (1966) Alberto Cardone
- Massacre Time (1966) Lucio Fulci
- Price of Power, The (1970) Tonino Valerii
- Beast, The (1970) Mario Costa
- They Call Him Cemetery (1971) Giuliano Carnimeo
- Bounty Killer (1972) Angelo Pannacciò
- One Dollar Too Many (1968) Enzo G. Castellari
- Apocalypse Joe (1971) Leopoldo Savona

Don't look for much greatness, but there are a few good names in there. For example, Lucio Fulci, who made a few off the beaten path westerns and adventure films went on to become one of Italy's most accomplished horror filmmakers before eventually becoming labeled as one of the godfathers of gore. Enzo G. Castellari directed the original The Inglorious Bastards. Fans of the genre should want to check this collection out.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [DVD][Blu-ray]

I skipped on seeing this in theaters and am in no rush to check it out. But I figured there might be a few of you out there you love your Transformers. Don't get me wrong here, I don't have anything against the Autobots or whatever they're called. I just have things against Michael Bay. I don't care how many times you blow things up, it doesn't mean your film won't be excruciatingly painful to watch.

Jethro Tull: Live at Madison Square Garden - 1978 [DVD]

Biased, yes, because I love me some Jethro Tull. But you should too. Or at least try to. Ian Anderson made the flute look badass and did it while turning Jethro Tull into one of the giants of the progressive rock genre. They've left their mark and continue to play as a band to this day. This set has both a DVD of the show and a CD to go along with it for maximum Tull value. "Thick as a Brick", "Aqualung" and "Locomotive Breath"? Count me in.

What else comes out this week: Blood: The Last Vampire, Peanuts: 1970's Collection, Vol. 1, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Those Aren't Pillows Edition), Black Adder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition, Easy Rider [Blu-ray], The Tournament, Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection, Escaflowne: The Movie [Blu-ray], Fados, Black Rain, 100 Feet [Blu-ray], The Crew, They Killed Sister Dorothy, P, Last of the Living.

What to stay away from: Personally, I already said I'm staying away from the latest Transformers film. If you don't want to stay away from that, I'll suggest keeping far from 2012: Supernova. Just wait for Roland Emmerich's ridiculous film for your end of the world fix.

So long.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Minimalistic 'Paranormal Activity' An Old School Horror Sensation

Less is more is the mantra carried out by director Oren Peli throughout his debut film Paranormal Activity. The mockumentary style horror film has been making noise, creating buzz and scorching up the box office charts ever since its initial limited release in September.

And it’s easy to see why a film such as Paranormal Activity can frighten and excite audiences so easily. With no suffocating glitz of a typical Hollywood horror film or thick wall of fake installed to separate the audience and the characters, Paranormal Activity is a realistic, believable and modern take on the haunted house genre.

A lot of the believability and realistic tendencies of the haunting of couple Katie and Micah come from the minimalistic nature of Peli’s film. Leaving some of the scare unexposed and inside the mind, the film encourages audience imagination. In a time where the horror genre is saturated with films whose intentions are to expose as much pain, terror and grief as possible, Peli shows he understands that the opposite of that method can be just as effective, if not more.

The most macabre films of the 1940’s and on made their way into spooking audiences through atmosphere and terror of another kind, not by seeing how many pounds of intestines they can show moviegoers. And with Paranormal Activity there is a sort of rousing of this old school style found in those more classic types of horror films. With a miniscule budget of $15,000, Peli faced that same sort of barrier an older film with no means for extravagance might have, but one he overcame and seemed to most certainly welcome. Peli’s methodical film is a reminder that the lost art of making truly terrifying cinema isn’t so lost after all.

In full, Paranormal Activity is a toxic mix of the techniques of The Blair Witch Project and the spooky happenings of Robert Wise’s classic 1963 horror film The Haunting. And I say all that as only to shed some light where the inspiration of this film comes from, not to imply any sort of “been there, done that” attitude. And even though there are striking similarities to the BBC’s faux news program Ghostwatch that was broadcasted on Halloween in 1992, this is somewhere horror fans simply haven’t been yet. This is the rare little film that could, breaking through all conventions of the genre seen in the more modern years.

Peli’s grassroots direction is both deliberate in nature but oh so vicious and intense at climax. Peli creates what can only be described as textbook horror suspense. The film is a constant cycle of buildup and slowdown, separated by day and night. And even when you know and can feel that something is about to happen, the film still manages to place you on the edge of your nerves, even to a point where the most frightened viewers of the film will fear night and the darkness it brings as much as the haunted Katie does.

Many words are fair game in describing the scares brought on by Peli. Freaky, creepy and disturbing would rank on the top of that list. Whether the film will truly frighten you both in theaters and later that night at home when you turn the light off is completely subjective. Those who feast on the terror will be reeling from the excitement of it all, while those most susceptible to fright might find themselves in over their heads. It isn’t my job to tell you if you’ll be scared by this film or not. If you’ve been scared by a horror film before, chances are you’re in for something here, as the film has the capability to unsettle even those most steel-nerved horror fanatics. But Peli’s film will only be effective on those who allow it to be. I can’t stress enough how necessary it is to let yourself into the film and truly want to be scared by it. On that level is where Paranormal Activity is most effective.

And if anyone has trouble placing themselves inside this film it might be due to the interaction between Katie and Micah, the two that combine to make for one irritable couple. They don’t act like they’ve been dating for three years, and Micah’s constant desire to not listen to his partner is almost as disturbing and unlikeable as the demons haunting their nights. I found this to be really forgettable and forgivable, as Peli has already said that the dialogue was “natural” because there was no true script to the film, just situations to set off improvisation. But in a strange way, Peli’s course for natural dialogue pays off, as it hides the rather amateurish acting of both Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston. Just don’t go looking for any sort of character development.

While I’m pretty sure Paranormal Activity hasn’t made me afraid to sleep with the lights off, it’s most certainly a wonderful case of how sometimes a genuinely haunting atmosphere and perfect suspense building combined with a believable style of storytelling can make for some of the most effective and unnerving moments the horror genre has seen in years.