Tuesday, August 20, 2013

You're Next (review)

             Home Alone is a subjectively terrible slapstick comedy that represents the last gasp of success from writer John Hughes.  It also sparked countless playground discussions about the physics of the Rube-Goldbergian booby traps MacCauley Culkin sets for the bumbling burglars.  The best horror film of the year puts a stop to those debates with an axe to the face.
            Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is not just scary, but offers a boldly comic approach to its hyperviolent content.
            A retired weapons manufacturer celebrates his anniversary with his wife (horror icon Barbara Crampton) and his grown children in a remote mansion.  Each child has brought along a significant other, only adding to the awkward family tension.  All of this comes to a head during a dinner shortly before an arrow goes through an actual head, shot by an unknown assailant.  Soon the family is under siege by heavily armed, masked invaders.  Unbeknownst to the killers, however, one of the guests (Sharni Vinson, approaching the Ripley role with vigor) has expert, homegrown training in self-defense tactics.
            The sub-genre of home invasion thrillers has had a successful box office comeback with recent hits like The Purge.  Even Joel Schumacher got in the game, though wholly unsuccessfully, with the loathesome Nicolas Cage-starring Tresspass.  So it’s high time You’re Next get a large theatrical release after working the festival circuit for the past two years, most recently playing Montreal’s Fantasia Fest earlier this month.   
            But unlike many horror films of the new millennium, Next’s invaders have a good, old-fashioned motive.  Old-fashioned, but not well-worn, as even the motive has a refreshingly ironic twist.  Without spoiling too much, it’s important to remember the family’s patriarch is a weapons mogul.  The film’s second half twists into a tale of blood money for blood money, without ever getting on its soap box or becoming heavy handed.
            The aforementioned dinner scene grows increasingly funny with the help of mumblecore staple and actor Joe Swanberg, who improvises a long, insulting rant aimed toward a pretentious documentary filmmaker (fellow horror director Ti West, in a cameo).  Swanberg is a standout, chewing scenery as the blowhard of the family. 
            It might not feel like anything particularly new or groundbreaking on the horror scene, but what it lacks in originality, it more than compensates with in tightly directed set pieces.  It’s less a re-invention of the genre than a mild, albeit impressive, adjustment.  All the laughs and scares work impressively well in tandem, leading toward a perfectly nihilistic conclusion.

            You’re Next opens in theatres Friday, August 23rd.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Things To See 3: Body Snatchers (1993)

Though Roger Ebert praised this film as the best adaptation of Jack Finney's novel Invasion of the Body Snaters, I much prefer the 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy.  What's so incredible about this series of adaptations is that it's been adapted so many times, if not ripped off.  It's the one idea that I support remakes of, even if they're atrocious, because they're always prescient.  

'56 With it's communism/suburanite americana   (only eight years after Levittown, where Bill O'Reilly grew up).

'78 With it's brilliant subversive take on the me-generation.

And we come to Body Snatchers.  It's very good, but it's not flawless.  Originally, the script by Stuart Gordon involved a community just outside an army base.  The film sets itself on the base itself (which, interestingly, is a place where everyone is supposed to act the same anway). A young Gabriel Anwar ( Scent of a Woman, Burn Notice) stars as the girl who starts to feel alienated in a place where it's necessary to do so.

I don't love it, but Abel Ferrera's Body Snatchers is well worth a look.  It's brutal and unforgiven, with a great turn from Meg Tilly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okW2UfLNaJc

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Things To See 2: The Hidden (1987)

It took far less than 48 hours after the theatrical release of 48 Hours in 1982 for the buddy-cop genre to become exhausted.  After all, the black cop/white racist cop routine had been done far more seriously in 1968's  In The Heat Of The Night.  After 48 Hours, however, a series of knock-offs followed.  Beating Alien Nation (a film James Caan still talks about how much he hates) to the punch by a year, The Hidden was the first buddy-cop film to feature an alien and a human.

Directed by Jack Sholder, best known for his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2, The Hidden features a body-jumping alien parasite that loves fast cars, fast women and fast music.  When the body it inhabits outgrows its ability to sustain itself on awful 80s culture, it seeks a new host.  It's like Corey Haim, Corey Hart, Corey Feldman - all the Coreys fucked and gave birth the perfect Reaganite child.  And there is nothing more horrifying or timely, than a perfect, Reaganite baby that doesn't grasp any concept of politics.  Toward the end of the film, the alien inhabits the body of a senator running for President and, in a terrifying Romney-esque platform, utters to the press one talking point:  "I want to be President."

Tracking down the alien is cynical cop Michael Nouri and mysterious FBI agent Kyle MacLachlan (at his most MacLachlaniest, meaning he's both mysterious and yeah, come on, you already know, he's the good alien).

After watching interviews with Jack Sholder for Elm Street 2 - a film so full of gay that Jack Sholder didn't know he was directing a movie about gay people (despite the fact that the main character must run from the arms of his girl to his buff best friend, only to turn into killer Freddy once things get too intimate) - I've come to the unanimous (you agree, trust me) decision that he's an idiot.  And I doubt he knew what he had on his hands here.  It's a perfect action-sci-fi thriller with brilliant subversive undertones.

Interestingly, this was one film that was not released on DVD until a few years ago, however it was re-released on VHS in those few, sad years when VHS was still trying to put up a fight against DVD (picture that little cartoon character with his fists in a kangaroo boxing pose - "put 'em up, put 'em up, I'll fight you with my eyes closed....").  I happen to possess a copy of the re-release, with a second VHS tape that includes features that the DVD does not include.  I have yet to find them anywhere else, though I wouldn't be shocked if this one got one hell of a Blu-Ray release in the coming years.  It comes with my highest praises.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjCpE-nb0HU

P.S. Look for a young Danny Trejo (probably fresh out of prison) saying the movie's finest line, "Hey, what kind of dude are you?"


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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The War of The Worlds' Fair: A Fantasian Exploration of Orson Welles

            On October 30th, 1938, much of America tuned into a radio broadcast of the popular NBC show Chase and Sanborn Hour.  15 minutes into the broadcast typically marked the end of the first Charlie McCarthy sketch and the beginning of the first musical number, at which point many people would idly scan their radio band.  Then they’d hear it – first reports of a strange meteor crash in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
            Something came out of the meteor.  A tripod.  And within a half-hour nearly the entire population of Grover’s Mill had been disintegrated by a Martian heat ray.
            Over a million listeners never tuned back to Chase and Sanborn.  Some ran, some rioted.  Farmers grabbed their shotguns. 
            Such was the lunacy inspired by an elaborate prank by a then 23-year-old Orson Welles and his troupe of Mercury Theatre actors.  According to PBS’ The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles timed his radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds so that the first reports of invasion would coincide with Americans playing radio roulette between acts.  Of course, how much of that is true and how much can be attributed to serendipity, only Welles knows.
            Montreal’s Fantasia Festival offered an in-depth look at Welles’ Mercury Theatre production and its aftermath last night during War of The Worlds: Welles and Wells, hosted by Cineclub’s Phil Spurrell.  Opening with a ten minute sampling of the original radio broadcast, the presentation also touched on Montreal’s own connection to Worlds during the Expo 67, followed by a screening of the rare 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America.
            Though further investigation has chalked up much of the reported public reaction to the broadcast as drummed-up  Yellow Journalism,  it’s easy to see how  some, when confronted with panic from a relatively new medium, could have over-reacted (National network broadcasting had only begun a decade earlier).  For the first two acts, the play unfolds much as a developing story on a 24-hour news network would today, with tiny tidbits of new information meted out in between commercials and musical interludes. 
            Spurrell accurately described it as a testament to the genius of a 23-year-old master of entertainment, but it’s also quite refreshing to examine a relic from a less cynical world – a prank believed largely due to the public’s willfulness to lose itself in a medium.  In an age where the equivalent ambition is an intern’s desire to get a newscaster to say “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Ho Lee Fuk” on live television, it is an exhibit of what unbridled talent and ingenuity sounds like; a reminder of an idealized era when wielding power and even exploiting ignorance could be harmless fun, but still articulate.
            After the broadcast sampling, Spurrell screened footage from Montreal’s Expo ’67 of re-edited scenes from the 1953 adaptation of the novel.  The footage was reconfigured to be displayed on multiple screens and rear-projected, so as to demonstrate how several events could play out instantaneously.  The 1967 Expo, Spurrell said, was “sort of the birthplace of the IMAX.”  It, in fact, was where director Richard Franklin got the idea for split-screen sequences in the 1968 film The Boston Strangler, starting a late-60s fad for the technique frequently utilized by directors like Brian De Palma.  The footage had not been seen publicly in forty years.
            If the Welles broadcast is best looked at as a relic, ABC’s The Night That Panicked America is a fascinating curiosity of its time.  Never released in theatres or on VHS, the film is a dramatization of the broadcast and the public reaction.  It’s a time-capsule of oddities wrapped in a fairly generic TV movie.  The late Vic Morrow leads a cast that includes a young John Ritter,  Tom Bosley, Cliff De Young, Casey Kasem and  Eileen Brennan (who passed away just last week).  It also falls weirdly into place of director Joseph Sargent, whose oeuvre includes one of the best seventies thrillers (The Taking of Pelham 123) and a film that is featured on nearly every “worst of all-time” list (Jaws: The Revenge). 
            The in-studio depiction of the broadcast is as captivating as it is accurate, reminiscent of the 1982 early television comedy My Favuorite Year and Joe Dante’s cold war-panic farce Manitee.  Though the depictions of panic in small town America – from Ritter’s eager-to-fight-the-Nazis farmboy earnestness to the bourgeois wealthy having the wool pulled over their eyes by their mistreated butler – plays out with the kind of trite hackery for which television is often criticized.
            Still, as a novelty, it’s a joy to watch. 
            Cineclub plans to re-screen the film and the rare footage sometime closer to the 75th anniversary of the original radio broadcast sometime in October.  Check http://www.cineclubfilmsociety.com/ for updates.

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