Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fool's Views (9/1 – 9/30)

Greetings, autumnal ones!

Considering how crazed I’ve felt over the past month, it’s bewildering that September allowed for as many flicks as it did. I chalk it up to the pressure of having rented most of this month’s offerings from the public library (12 in total) and thereby having an imposed deadline in which to watch them, as well as the pleasant prodding of Kicking the Seat’s Ian Simmons with whom I shared another three horror viewings. The end results included a trio of directors’ festivals (Akira Kurosawa, Peter Berg, Alex Cox) and a werewolf double feature inspired by my current onstage exploits (The Man-Beast at First Folio Theatre, opening next weekend just in time for the full moon).

But the October Horror Movie Challenge (and SCARE-A-THON 2017) looms nigh, so let’s get these in the books and head off into the cornfield mazes!

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.



The Dead Next Door (1989) d. Bookwalter, J.R. (USA) (2nd viewing)

Filmed over the course of four years in and around Akron, OH, writer/director Bookwalter (who was only 19 when shooting started) dug deep and conjured this ridiculously ambitious and spirited zombie epic on a shoestring budget of $75,000. (Although it is unclear how much “The Master Cylinder” – as he is billed in his executive producer credit – Sam Raimi kicked in to help his protégé around the final lap.) While there are any number of impressive car crashes, splattery f/x, and scenes featuring scores of shambling extras, the real surprise lies in the witty and layered screenplay that repeatedly exceeds expectations for an independent zombie movie… especially since such a term was hardly as ubiquitous as it would become two decades later.

Following in his hero’s footsteps, Bookwalter strikes a terrific balance between comedy and carnage, and his dedicated cast barrels through the gallons of gore and gags with true aplomb. Now available in a packed-to-bursting 2-disc Collector’s Edition from Tempe Films and MVD Visual, viewers can now experience the original cast’s vocals for the first time (all were re-dubbed for the original theatrical release, with several characters being voiced by none other than Bruce Campbell, which is also available on a different track), as well as a multitude of audio commentaries, archival making-of features, interview footage from then and now, and so on. Worth your time, worth your money.

It Follows (2014) d. Mitchell, David Robert (USA) (2nd viewing)

Following a sexual encounter with her new boyfriend, a young woman (Maika Monroe) finds herself trapped in a terrifying mythology where a mysterious supernatural force slowly pursues her in the ever-changing form of random human figures. If the spectre catches up to her and kills her, it then doubles back and pursues her previous lover and the cycle continues back down the line. The only way to escape her fate is to have sex with someone else, thereby passing along the curse and sending the monster down a different path. But, in addition to the guilt of condemning another partner to this shared fate, she can never know if or when the nightmare might be returning....

David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort demonstrates a level of foreboding, atmospheric dread that I haven’t experienced in quite some time, with a brilliantly uncluttered horror premise that captures the raw, pure chill of a classic urban legend while conveying a subtextual wealth of social commentary in the same breath. Having viewed it in early 2015 via studio screener, I immediately recognized and celebrated its originality and expert execution but never dreamed it would resonate for the mainstream. As such, I was legitimately surprised when it earned a wide theatrical release and, par for the course, the hype machine managed to ruin it for many fright fans, both casual (“slow, boring”) and hardcore (“pretentious, slow, boring”). But for my money, it still delivers the goods, and I’m happy to keep recommending it.

Suffer, Little Children (1983) d. Briggs, Alan (UK) (1st viewing)

The good people at Intervision have unearthed another one of those wonderful and rare SOV (shot on video) jewels from the early '80s, and for those lucky and adventurous souls willing to endure brutally inept sound recording, amateurish camerawork, impenetrable screenwriting, and clumsy thesping, the rewards are bountiful! The “story” revolves around an orphanage that inherits a brand new resident on the same day that a rock star returns to his childhood sanctuary for a benefit concert. As the Turkey Fates would have it, the new tyke is a bona-fide disciple of The Dark One and soon brings others under her sinister spell. Before you can say “swimming pool incident,” kids and adults are falling down staircases, stabbing themselves and others, and just making a general Satanic nuisance of themselves.

The hysterical (in every sense of the word) events culminate in a jaw-dropping finale that has to be seen to be believed, with a guest appearance by perhaps the only man on Earth and Heaven equipped to handle the situation. The new DVD release extras include an interview with director Briggs, and another with fanzine creator John Martin about the UK “Video Nasty” era, as well as optional English subtitles (which I guarantee you will want/need to use). Available now from Severin Films.

31 (2016) d. Zombie, Rob (USA) (1st viewing)

Kicking the Seat podcast mogul Ian Simmons approached me with the notion of checking out the latest from Mr. Dragula Himself as a means of a) kicking off the Halloween season and b) maintaining our ongoing patronage of the ever-polarizing horror writer/director. (As documented in 2013’s review of The Lords of Salem, I find myself more and more to be a fan of the artist while not really enjoying the art itself.) With 31, Zombie delivers one right up the middle, ticking off every cliché box that his presumed fanbase could ask for: A quintet of trash-talking lowlife midway rats (Sherri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson) traveling between gigs are waylaid by highwaymen (or highwayclowns, because clowns are, you know, scarier) and spirited away to an abandoned industrial compound where they are hunted down by an assortment of bizarre freaks for the amusement of a trio of upper-upper-class twats (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr).

The crude, F-bomb laden dialogue is neither clever nor realistic, which is to say that it sounds like every other Rob Zombie movie, uttered gamely by the filmmaker’s expanding ensemble of players. (At least 75% of the main cast members have appeared in previous efforts, and let's hope he invites 80s teen flick staple E.G. Daily back for more because she looks fantastic at 56 and delivers the goods.) Savagery and nihilism abound, but the biggest shock is how unshocking it all is: we’ve seen it all before in his previous five live-action feature efforts (setting aside the literal cartoon that is The Haunted World of Superbeasto, its own beasto indeed). The result is a greatest hits album that should thrill the faithful while managing not bore the rest of us. It also offers a grand showcase role to Brit character man Richard Brake as Doom-Head, the most charismatic of the assassins; his charismatic supporting turn is almost reason enough to give 31 a spin.


Blood and Chocolate (2007) d. Garnier, Katja von (USA) (1st viewing)

In the shadowy streets of Bucharest, loup garou and junior chocolatier Agnes Bruckner is the chosen mate for head werewolf Olivier Martinez, even she develops a taste for human Hugh Dancy. Loosely based on Annette Curtis Klause’s 1997 YA novel (which I haven’t read, but apparently the two bear very little resemblance to one another), this was clearly intended to lure in the Twilight crowd, filled with pop songs and montages, and focused more on chaste kisses between angsty star-crossed teen lovers than blood and fur and fangs. The oh-so-pretty transformations consist of the shapeshifters taking gigantic, balletic, slo-mo leaps into the air and landing on the ground as fully formed wolves. Gack.

Skinwalkers (2006) d. Isaac, James (USA) (1st viewing)

Lycanthropic claptrap, made all the more disappointing when one considers the pedigrees of those involved. Produced under the Stan Winston Studios umbrella and with director Isaac, who brought such a fun sense of play, visual storytelling, and creative carnage to Jason X, at the helm, this should have been a snarly, gnarly delight. Instead it’s a muddled mess of manufactured Native American folklore, smudgy camerawork and optical printing, and that hollow feeling one gets when a horror flick is stripped of its flesh and blood as a result of a “we gotta make this PG-13” mandate. Yes, we do get some practical werewolf makeups and Natassia Malthe and Sarah Carter are fetching in their fangs and crop-tops, but it’s all in service of a ho-hum story with no real bite.


The Birth of a Nation (2016) d. Parker, Nate (USA) (1st viewing)

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize at Sundance, this dramatization of a slave uprising led by an educated Negro preacher named Nat Turner is impressive for the sure-handed stewardship of its writer/director/star in his feature debut, yet the achievement is muted somewhat by its conventional storytelling and presentation. The cinematography by veteran Elliot Davis is beautiful and glossy, posing an interesting juxtaposition with the surprisingly brutal images in the final reel. (Surprising in their explicit depiction, not the acts themselves within the context of the story.) The performances are all capable enough, with recognizable Hollywood faces like Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley, but no one plays outside of their single-note comfort zone. (For his part, Parker plays Turner as a constantly boiling kettle with an 800lb lid, the steam rarely allowed to escape. It works, but no one else is allowed as much screen time for such subtlety.)

Our Brand is Crisis (2005) d. Boynton, Rachel (USA) (1st viewing)

Devastating documentary about the 2003 Bolivian presidential election where former president and returning candidate Gonzales “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada hired the U.S. consulting firm of Greenville, Carville and Strum to run his campaign, American-style. In light of recent events, the strategies of boiling down of candidates to single line “brands” and repeating untruths until they become gospel in voters’ minds is terrifying to watch, especially since the outcome in Bolivia echoes that of the 2016 election, where a woefully uninformed and out-of-touch candidate somehow succeeded to the highest post in the land, thanks to the power of buzz, misdirection, and misinformation. 10 years later, a dramatization of the same story (reviewed last month) starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton hit theaters, but it’s the nonfiction version that packs the bigger punch.


Sid and Nancy (1986) d. Cox, Alex (UK) (2nd viewing)

My lovely bride grew up loving this docudrama, depicting the volatile, passionate, and doomed love affair between Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, in his star-making role) and acolyte Nancy Spungeon (Chloe Webb) during its high-rotation viewings on HBO back in the day. So when Criterion announced that it would be releasing a new Blu-ray version, I placed my first-ever Amazon pre-order. When it arrived on the doorstep, her reaction was just as magical as I hoped it would be. It will take us a while to get through the wealth of special features, but we decided to kick things off with a couple of vintage featurettes and Cox’s and Andrew Schofield (who plays Johnny Rotten) newly recorded audio commentary.

Walker (1987) d. Cox, Alex (USA) (2nd viewing)

Blistering indictment of the U.S.’s involvement in 1980s Nicaragua through Cox’s anachronism-filled retelling of American religious fanatic/mercenary William Walker who actually served as the country’s president from 1856-1857. (For this most recent viewing, we had the great good fortune to see this on the big screen of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, with Mr. Cox in person, celebrating the film’s 30th anniversary.) Part Spaghetti Western, part period biopic, this extraordinary, bloody, funny, fearless political satire – featuring a flawlessly cast Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Rene Auberjonois, Xander Berkely, Gerritt Graham, post-Oscar-win Marlee Matlin and Santa Sangre’s Blanca Guerra – and its disastrous critical and financial reception upon release ostensibly destroyed the director’s Hollywood career. Our loss, my friends, our loss.

Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999) d. Cox, Alex (UK) (1st viewing)

Trying to cover the legendary filmmaker’s career in just under an hour seems folly, so it’s a little curious what Cox was trying to accomplish. There are a few interesting interviews with Kurosawa’s family and collaborators (including Kagemusha’s executive producer Francis Ford Coppola), but it’s akin to being given a teacup saucer and only one trip through the buffet line.


Sanshiro Sugata (1943) d. Kurosawa, Akira (Japan) (1st viewing)

Kurosawa’s feature debut, about an impetuous young judo student coming to understand discipline and respect, dabbles in (effective) melodrama as it displays early evidence of his trademark moving camera and meticulous placement.

The Most Beautiful (1944) d. Kurosawa, Akira (Japan) (1st viewing)

This slice of WWII propaganda will certainly strike Western eyes and ears as strange/discomfiting, as we are likely not used to hearing the U.S. and England being referred to as the enemy while watching Japanese factory workers double down on creating tools of destruction with fervent nationalistic pride. It definitely forces us to recognize the same formulas at play in our Hollywood efforts of the same vintage, and once we give over to the human story, the results are deeply affecting.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) d. Kurosawa, Akira (Japan) (1st viewing)

The daughter (Setsuko Hara, later to star in Ozu’s Tokyo Story) of a disgraced college professor finds herself emotionally invested in two men, both former students of her father, who fall on opposite sides of the war effort. Noge (Susumu Fujita, star of Sanshiro Sugata) who later becomes an anti-war activist, and Itokawa (Akitake Kono), a conservative prosecutor who follows the national party line. Our alliances shift and flow, but even as we disagree with the characters’ decisions, we relate and ache for them.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947) d. Kurosawa, Akira (Japan) (1st viewing)

A young couple, destitute and down on their luck, try to enjoy their day together even as they repeatedly dip into (and save each other from) despair. The third-act direct-address to the camera is a marvelous convention that genuinely surprises and affects – one can imagine audiences applauding and cheering the onscreen characters as a balm to their own battered souls.


Friday Night Lights (2004) d. Berg, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

Bone-crushing examination of Texas high school football does an interesting double duty of simultaneously celebrating and condemning the sport, its players, and the rabid fans that vicariously live and die by it. Billy Bob Thornton anchors the proceedings with a laudably low-key performance, but it’s really the kids’ story, many of whom will never leave the sleepy town of Odessa and for whom this represents the highlight of their low-profile lives. I don’t personally understand the fascination for the game, especially one with such a high physical cost to young human bodies, and it’s fascinating to me that fans and non-fans can come away from the film with completely different experiences.

Lone Survivor (2013) d. Berg, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

Based on the true story of US Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) who was pinned down under Taliban fire during a failed mission in Afghanistan – along with three other team members (Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch) – and miraculously escaped to safety. (Not a spoiler; I mean, it’s in the title.) Berg does an incredible job of sustaining tension and evoking sympathetic pain as we watch his characters fall down mountainsides, sustain multiple bullet wounds, and just generally get their asses kicked. But (perhaps more importantly), as screenwriter, he does not simply devolve into flag-waving hysterics nor dehumanization of the Afghani people – a clear distinction is drawn between the Taliban (who are, it should be pointed out, portrayed as soulless villains) and the local villagers who would simply like to get through their day without getting blown up or shot. It’s an impressive feat, one that allows fervent U.S. patriots to get their rocks off watching “Real American Heroes” while also (hopefully) getting the message that The Other is not inherently The Enemy.

Patriots Day (2016) d. Berg, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

Yep, it’s another “based on real-life events” thriller (Berg’s apparent niche these days, Battleship and Hancock notwithstanding), one that examines the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt that captured the news cycle for days afterwards. Mark Wahlberg stars as Boston PD officer Tommy Saunders, with terrific support from John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, and Michelle Monaghan, as well as a slew of excellent under-the-line journeyman actors. The sequence depicting the firefight in the streets of Watertown is worth the price of admission alone. I openly plead ignorance as to how closely the events shown on screen mirror their real-life counterparts, but as a movie, it plays like gangbusters.

2017 Totals to date: 156 films, 131 1st time views, 58 horror, 36 cinema


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