Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Blog Month: My Favorite Horror Films

          My relationship with Horror is tricky. While it's a genre I particularly like, I usually walk away feeling cheated and angry. Horror has a way of playing to the lowest common denominator. This means that Horror is usually, on a maturity level, about even with anything from the Happy Madison production company. But when I find that diamond in the rough, that rarest of precious stones, the good Horror film, I cherish it for years and years.

Here are ten Horror films I can usually rely on. For list purposes, I'm leaving out The Exorcist, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby, Carnival of Souls, and Night of the Living Dead. You've seen them, I've seen them, we've all seen them. We all know they're good. My number 10 is a little iffy too. But hey, here it is:

10) Evil Dead 2
          Sam Raimi's fantastic Horror/Comedy sequel is one of the most crowd-pleasing of all crowd pleasers. This movie gets better and better every time you see it. The camera work, the acting, the writing, the crazy effects. It all works. Army Of Darkness is also highly recommended. While the film isn't really all that scary, it makes up for it with the amount of fun it has with the genre.

9) [Rec]

          [Rec] is one of those Horror movies that sneak up on you. What at first feels like a pretty standard "found footage" flick becomes an immensely frightening, and surprising, real-time pot-boiler. It begins with a woman trying to find something interesting to film for her after-dark news series. When she decides to follow some firemen to a routine rescue, she quickly finds herself in a dangerous quarantine zone.

             The film's use of its set design is truly mesmerizing. The apartment complex becomes a character in itself. There was an American remake of this film recently that did an okay job of recreating the magic of [Rec], but there's just something about the end that doesn't compare to the Spanish-language original. The last five minutes are truly frightening.

8) Trick'r Treat
          Trick'r Treat is one of those rare short film anthologies that actually work. The films congeal. They are the separate limbs of a tree. Too often, these short film anthologies feel too disjointed and tonally dissimilar to be tacked to one another. When Trick'r Treat was brought to my attention last year, I couldn't help but feel like the movie would disappoint. Its distributor had decided to pull it from a theatrical release, last minute, in order to send it straight-to-DVD, the writer and director, Michael Dougherty, hadn't really proved himself in any significant way yet, and the overall story (plus marketing) are pretty dreadfully displayed.

         However, despite all of this, I found a way to really dig this movie. It knows what it's all about. There is a strange tone to it. It is a very funny Horror movie, but it's not really a Horror/Comedy. The stories work together to create this wacky Halloween film that exists in its own special world. As if Raising Arizona were made into a Horror film, but kept its zany logic intact. I'm going to make this movie a yearly event.

7) The King of Comedy
          Martin Scorsese's often overlooked masterpiece is also often overlooked as a comedy. While, yes, the film does use the word comedy in its title, have Jerry Lewis in its cast of characters, and center on a stand up comedian, the movie is really only kind of funny. The humor is dark, twisted, and mean. Robert DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin is only funny in that he doesn't really exist. Jerry Lewis' version of Jerry Lewis is only funny because we all know that Jerry Lewis truly is a mean, narcissistic comedian.

         In reality, The King of Comedy is a much less optimistic version of Taxi Driver. You read that correctly. While Taxi Driver has that little bit of redemption at the end, what does Rupert Pupkin have by the end of King of Comedy? The movie is a dark portrait of a man who wants nothing more than to be laughed with. He wants to be in on the joke, but he is always the butt of it. DeNiro's performance is sad, pathetic, terrifying, and, yes, a little funny.

       I recommend you check it out immediately. It should be more popular than it is.

6) The Devil's Rejects
          Something happened to Rob Zombie between House of a 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. While the former film seemed rambling and adolescent, the latter film feels like an absolute explosion of raw talent. The key word here is raw. The Devil's Rejects is, admittedly, totally disgusting, but it is also kind of charming. The characters are full and dynamic. They love each other. They have senses of humor about their day jobs. You come to truly care for them. And after you see the kinds of things they do in this movie, you really come to appreciate the level of skill Rob Zombie has as a director.

        I will be the first to admit that Rob Zombie is a horrible screenwriter. But what he lacks in his writing talents he more than makes up for with his casting, direction, and music choices. This movie has a killer soundtrack. And when the actors say their terrible dialogue, they do it with such conviction that you can almost believe it. There's just something whimsical about this film that Zombie has not been able to capture in his other efforts. It's so off the cuff, so unpretentious, so totally raw, that it is hard to find fault with it. It is one of the truest expressions of Horror filmmaking I've seen in some time. It's not for everybody, that's for sure, but The Devil's Rejects is definitely better than it needs to be.

5) Martyrs
          The hallmark of any good horror film is its ability to cause discomfort. There is the cheap route, where gore and violence become a quick way to make moviegoers barf, and there is the effective route, where the film takes its time to prove itself. Where it makes you fall in love the characters and fear for them. A good Horror film stirs something inside of you. It takes your fears and turns them against you. It forces you to question disturbing topics.
            Martyrs is in the latter category. While it is true that Martyrs has some of the most disturbing images of gore I have ever witnessed, it is not reliant on that gore to manufacture its scares. Martyrs is a hopeless film. It is about a girl who escapes abuse and makes it her lifelong goal to find retribution. When she finally does get her revenge, a half hour into the film, the audience wonders where the film could possibly go from here. And it goes to a place you never would have expected. The film is beautifully shot. The acting is superb. And the scares genuinely unnerve you. No matter how many "serious" critics dismiss the film as nothing more than a torture porn trifle, there really is something to Martyrs. In a way, it is a beautiful film. But it is also nihilistic as all get out.

          Martyrs is for the brave. Be warned.

4) Inland Empire
          I think I've said enough about this movie, but I'm going to say some more. If you let it, Inland Empire can really, really terrify you. Lynch takes almost every film convention and turns it on its head. He intentionally edits scenes of dialogue so that the moments of silence stretch into an eternity. He takes the convention of character continuity and spins it by making names and faces almost never match up. The visuals are fuzzy and unclear, breaking our HD-centric times. The film plays like a bad nightmare. It never fully makes sense. Its characters suffer and we don't know why.

         And then there's that horrible shot of Laura Dern running toward the camera, her makeup running across her face, screaming.

       Good luck.

3) Don't Look Now
          You'd be hard-pressed to find a more atmospheric Horror film than this one. Nicolas Roeg's strange, hypnotic psycho-Horror about a married couple's slow descent into madness after the death of their daughter is truly a masterpiece of film editing. The entire film plays like the worst therapy session of your life. The film succeeds because of its truth. These are parents who are struggling with a very real fear. The characters are honestly and accurately portrayed.

           The Venice setting adds another layer to the madness of the film. Its thousands of small alleyways and canals make the very setting something of a Jungian maze.

         And that ending, my God, that ending.

        Don't Look Now is not only one of the best Horror films I've ever seen, but one of the best films period.

2) Audition
          Now that I've told you that Audition is a Horror film, it is much less likely to scare you. But don't let that fact deter you. This is one genuinely disturbing flick. What starts off as a kind of sweet little art film about an old man's search for love turns into a sort of poor attempt at a RomCom, which then turns into an excellent attempt at terrifying Horror masterpiece.

            Takashi Miike does something amazing with Audition--he somehow combines an interesting, thought-provoking arthouse film with a Horror film final act that doesn't suck. While a lot of Horror films seem to fall apart and lose steam as they reach their conclusions, Audition only gets better and better. If you haven't seen this one, definitely look it up. I believe it is available as Watch Instantly on Netflix.

1) Benny's Video
          Benny's Video is, without a doubt, the most disturbing film I have ever seen. This is because the film does not ever, at any time, ring false. Michael Haneke's direction is straightforward. At no time does the movie go out of its way to be theatrical. It merely is. And the bleak picture that it paints is enough.

             The film is about a young man, Benny, who obsesses over violent videos in his bedroom. There is one video in particular, one where a pig is slaughtered, that he watches repeatedly. In a time where literally any form of violence can be found on the internet, this film is even more true, and even more bleak, in its representation of disillusioned youth.

          Benny's obsession with the video leads him to make his own. He invites a cute girl over to his house, watches the video with her, sets up his own camera, and kills her. The shot is long. We watch her die and fall onto the ground. Benny cleans up his mess, hides the body, and watches the tape again.

         The film makes a point to be untheatrical. It just exists. The shots last for several minutes at a time. The acting is incredibly minimalist. There are no consequences in the film. It is truly the bleakest, most disturbing Horror film I have ever seen. And it is also the best.

Honorable Mention
         Santa Sangre
               This film defies genre. But it is mostly Horror. It is on Netflix Watch Instantly. I suggest you just look up and watch it. You won't regret it.

What are some of your favorite Horror films? Let me know in the comments section or on Facebook. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween Blog Month: Modern Horror Vs. Modern Horror Fans

                                      (Note: This is the bloggiest blog I've ever blogged)

         Modern Horror is all about butts in seats. But let's be honest, Horror is a genre's genre, and most of the people who produce it are in the field because they love dem seat butts. There is a formula, people. And that formula is easy for hacks to follow in order to make a quick buck. When people talk about the state of Horror films, they mostly speak from an "All is lost" perspective. The great Don't Look Now's of yesteryear are lost to buckets of blood and graphic torture. Where is the suspense! Where is the mystery! I've written a couple of blogs on the subject myself. And for a movie lover like me, it is painful to see other cinephiles scoffing at Horror films like they are the lowest form of entertainment. Even if they are.

       Of course, when a Horror film does turn out to be good, its genre is always transferred to thriller. The Sixth Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist--all now widely written about as thrillers. Why? Because the very word, Horror, is demeaning to the film.

        It reminds me of a joke from 30 Rock, where Alec Baldwin's character tries to stop Tina Fey from calling a man Mexican. "No, Lemon, don't call him that. That can't be what he wants to be called."

       The fact is, Horror has always been a dead genre for film. Going as far back as Nosferatu, true cinema lovers often wonder why any intellectual would want to feel such a "feely" feeling as fear. Certainly tragic catharsis is the only true emotion an intellectual can have. But Tolstoy claimed that Comedy is for the intellectual and tragedy is for the commoner. Furthermore, an interesting thing about comedic films is that they are structurally quite similar to Horror films. Their purpose is similar as well.

        I suppose I could write about the difference between the Saw franchise and the Paranormal Activity franchise as two ends of a Horror spectrum. One side being too gory and up-front, and one side being too slow expecting too much from too little. I suppose I could talk about Kevin Smith's newest film, Red State, and how it's trying to satire the very genre it becomes--and not very well. But I'm going to talk about something else instead. You've heard enough about these other things.

       I want to talk about Horror fans.

       More specifically, I want to talk about The Human Centipede (Full Sequence). Not because it's disturbing, disgusting, revolting, blah blah blah, but because it is extremely aware of the state of Horror fandom. And in this way (and, I promise, in this way alone), Tom Six's film is...kind of brilliant.

     The first Human Centipede is a pretty standard torture porn film. It has the annoying young women, the creepy older villain, the gross-out shots of mouth-to-anus surgical binding. The usual suspects. Six's film is by no means the most repulsive movie I've ever seen (I'm looking at you Martyrs), but it is certainly in the same camp as something like High Tension or Inside.

     The full sequence, however, is another beast altogether. It stars a man named Martin, fat, alone, sad, and the biggest Horror nerd you've ever met. He becomes obsessed with the original Human Centipede film and decides that he is going to attempt his own sequence. The film is shot in glorious black and white (to add an extra level of artifice) and uses unknown actors.

     While the film kind of turns into one long poop joke, I can certainly appreciate what Tom Six is doing with the material. But I am also extremely upset by it. He is taking the common stereotype of a Horror nerd and putting him in the situation that the media absolutely loves to cover. This is the guy who shot his classmates because of Grand Theft Auto. He is the weak minded, highly malleable superfan that horror is famous for. He is the extremist.

     Which brings me to my problem with the genre. Horror has some of the most devoted fanboys imaginable. When Horror films are released, they are sold to this demographic. The trailers are cut to please the guys and gals on the forums and fanboards who religiously say things like *Most Boring movie EVER UGH*. These are the most vocal supporters, and detractors, of any Horror franchise.

     But what about the people who don't want franchises? What about the people who don't spend all of their time on forums? I suppose we just have to accept the extremes of the spectrum. Do I want to throw up when I go see Saw or do I want to fall asleep during Paranormal Activity 3? I don't want to do either, really. But, as politics has been split into extremes, so has Horror. We have liberal and conservative, and the moderates are the ones who suffer. Again and again.

     It's not often that we get good Horror. It's sad really. But we can thank the few extremists who ruined it for everybody else.

     Speaking of good Horror, I suppose I should let you guys in on my favorite Horror films of all time.

    That's next in line, folks.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

         Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis's bestselling book of the same name, is another one of those feel good sports movies about the drama of competition and the rewards that great sacrifice can bring. Except not really. Actually, Moneyball doesn't really make you feel that good. And it's not really even about sports. It's about creativity and adaptation. It's about having a bold vision and then following that vision until the end. Of course, that said, Moneyball is still the most exciting sports movie I've seen since Friday Night Lights.

         In a way, Moneyball is a spiritual sequel to last year's great Social Network. Not only because Aaron Sorkin wrote both screenplays (Screenplays that Sorkin may win back to back Oscars with), but because they are about recent events that shook how we view our culture. While Social Network is about creative ownership and how we interact with one another in the twenty-first century, Moneyball is about adaptability and how creative, critical thinking can redefine a way of doing business.

       The basic plot is this--Billy Beane (in one of Brad Pitt's most believable roles) is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. They have a tenth of the budget of the New York Yankees. He has just lost his best three players, and he has one season to save his job and the reputation of the team. At first, Beane counts on his scouts' old way of finding athletes to help find replacements for his top players. However, Beane finds out quickly that the way scouts find recruits feels more like a beauty contest than a search for raw athletic talent.

      This is where Peter Brand comes in. Brand, played here by Jonah Hill in the absolute best, most subdued performance of his career, is an economics major from Yale who has created a formula for finding the most undervalued (i.e. cheapest) players in professional baseball, and using their abilities to get runs for the advantage of the team. At first, Brand's theories are labeled as ideological and naive. Like Mark Zuckerberg, Brand is young, brilliant, and totally misunderstood by the veterans surrounding him. However, Billy Beane is desperate for some new ideas, and he, much to the irritation of his peers, puts his full confidence in Brand's ideas. What results is the greatest winning streak in professional baseball history.

      The film, directed by Capote's Bennet Miller, somehow makes guys sitting around talking the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking I've seen all year. The performances are understated and nuanced, allowing the audience to understand these men as a strange combination of professional gambler and businessman. Billy Beane is not played as a crusading genius, but instead as a broken, hopeless loner searching for a way to keep his job. When he isn't sitting quietly in his office, he is erupting in rage at whatever object he has around. Beane is terrified by Baseball, by his team, by his own ideas, and by Peter Brand's youth.

      Brand, in turn, is terrified of being wrong. Although his ideas seem to be sound mathematically, he has a hard time feeling confident that the formula has a real-world application. This fear is amplified when the team, in the beginning of the season, has trouble finding its footing under the management of Art Howe, played by a thankless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unlike Jesse Eisenberg's characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, Hill plays Peter Brand with with a completely opposite fault. He cares too much about those around him. He doesn't want to step on anybody's toes, and by empathizing too much with others, he has a hard time committing completely to his unorthodox ideas. Hill plays the role with a sort of hesitant politeness. He is quiet, always saying please and thank you, and is constantly moving out of other people's ways. The Jonah Hill you have come to love (or in the case of most people, come to hate) has made a total personality transformation for this film. His voice never rises above a whisper.

      However, despite the excellent Sorkin screenplay and the excellent performances, Moneyball is truly Bennet Miller's film. From the opening shot of the film, it becomes quite clear that we are in the hands of a masterful filmmaker. The film is shot with a steady hand, only utilizing camera movement when it is of the utmost importance. The visual style, in its total lack of dynamic movement, is directly contrasted by the film's amazing use of sound.

     There are hundreds of voices in Moneyball. At any one time, the voices of several sportscasters can be heard on the film's soundtrack. From the opening shot, the film is narrated by the voices of Baseball games. Voices act as the Greek Chorus here. In every major scene, over twenty voices speaking simultaneously can be heard over the somber image of Brad Pitt's face as he runs on a treadmill, listens to the radio, paces in his office. The voices represent the world's opposition of Billy Beane's ideas, and their omnipresence in the film lend to its unbelievable suspense.

     Moneyball is an excellent film and I suggest you go see it as soon as possible. I challenge any of you to find a more compelling sequence in any film this year than "The Streak" sequence in the final act of the film.

I give Moneyball 9/10 well-behaved Jonah Hills.