Archive for February, 2011

So, the Oscars are tomorrow night. And Winter’s Bone isn’t gonna win Best Picture. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t gonna win Best Actress. And the venerated Academy, as always, will totally blow it. While Natalie Portman is up there taking her bows for Black Swan, just know this much — she didn’t deserve it. And when The Social Network or The King’s Speech is crowned the year’s best film, know, likewise, that they didn’t deserve it.

Did you see Winter’s Bone? Because you really should. I’m going to mention that time and again here, so get used to hearing it. The marquee at the Uptown theater here in Minneapolis billed it as “The Ozark Third Man,” and truthfully that’s a pretty apt description. While not wanting to give too much of the plot away, let’s just say that a story comparison with the Welles classic is pretty much inevitable since it revolves around a hell of a lot of intrigue and so-thick-you-can-cut-it-with-a-knife-suspense as teenage accidental-head-of-household Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, in a seriously incredible performance) searches for her lost father who disappeared into the underworld of crystal methamphetamine manufacture just as his family’s Ozark lean-to faced foreclosure and the inevitable sheriff’s sale.

Ree’s mom is a basket case that doesn’t know up from down, so it’s up to her to both find her old man and somehow keep it together for her mom, herself, and her younger siblings. It’s not an easy task, to put it mildly, and her only “assistance” comes from her seriously creepy uncle, another meth-head named Teardrop (John Hawkes, in a killer role that absolutely drips with bad karma) who looks like he might just kill our intrepid young heroine at the drop of a hat in spite of the fact that we keep hoping against hope that there’s some drop of human decency buried inside him somewhere.

Anyway, Hawkes is great, but this is Lawrence’s show all the way. I’ve never seen her in anything before, but we’re sure to see her again and again the years to come, because she flat-out owns both this role and, more generally, the film itself. She’s brave and vulnerable, steady and anxious, fearless and terrified — and delivers it all with more subtlety and nuance any of her more celebrated peers are capable of on their best days.

To be sure, director/co-writer Debra Granik and her screenwriting collaborator Anne Rosellini deserve a lot of the credit here for authoring such a compelling character and constructing such a taut narrative around her(and cinematographer Michael McDonough earns a serious tip of the hat for his capturing of the dark majesty of the rural southern Missouri locations so well —and by the way,  a great many of the bit-part players and extras on display here are genuine locals), but Lawrence is really asked to carry an exceptionally heavy load here and she more than succeeds in that task.

As each layer of this mysterious onion is peeled back we’re left with ten new questions for every answer we get, and you know things are bound to get only worse before they get better, the only real question is just how fucking deep this whole mystery goes and what finding the answers out is really going to mean for Ree and her family. You won’t dare turn away, I’ll tell you that much.

And that’s about all you’re going to get out of me, to be frank. Winter’s Bone is a film about which the less said, the better. You literally can’t bear to give anything way to someone who hasn’t seen it. I just hope my sparsely profuse (okay, I know that’s a contradiction, but give me a break, will ya?) words of praise are enough to whet your appetite to get up off your ass and see this flick ASAP. And if you’re still not sold on it, then how about if I tell you that there’s a cameo appearance from Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, as well? That oughtta do it.

Winter’s Bone is available on DVD and Bluray from Lionsgate as well as on demand at Amazon and on most cable and satellite systems (which is how I saw it so I can’t really comment on any specific DVD extras or technical specs, sorry). How you choose to see it, though, is less important than just plain seeing it, and doing so as quickly as possible.

Let’s face it — we, as a species, are completely, hopelessly, unequivocally, irrefutably fucked.

You know it. I know it. And Michael Ruppert sure as hell knows it. And while we may not have the guts to admit to this basic truth in polite company, Mike’s got no such hang-ups.

Ruppert is a former LAPD narcotics unit detective who was run off the force when he refused to play along with CIA drug running into his district in the early 80s. Thus began a remarkable exodus of sorts for Ruppert that lead to attempts on his life, homelessness, and finally, independent investigative journalism.

Documentarian Chris (American Movie) Smith ran across Ruppert when researching a project on The Company’s involvement in the crack cocaine trade, and eventually abandoned that project in favor of Collapse, an 82-minute soliloquy wherein Ruppert sits down in front of the camera, chain-smokes, and lays out the whole score on everything. Prepare to be scared. Damn scared. In fact, Collapse is easily the most frightening film of 2010, and probably the flat-out scariest movie we here at TFG have thus far reviewed.

It’s also as close to an absolutely essential piece of filmmaking as you’re ever likely to witness.

According to ex-detective Mike, as well as countless geological experts, the oil on planet Earth is running out, and at a rate much more rapid than our leaders are willing to admit — even though they certainly damn well know it. And that’s essentially the cause of every major geopolitical grand scenario we say playing out before us today, from 9/11 to the turmoil in the Middle East to the economic meltdown to — well, you name it.

Oil, you see, is about a whole lot more than oil itself. It’s also about transportation, food, jobs, and the underlying social order itself. Notice how at the stores these days it’s not just the price of gas that’s going through the roof? I paid nearly six bucks for plastic trash bags the other day. What’s plastic made of? You got it — petroleum.Even more importantly,  what’s the key ingredient in most pesticides and fertilizers that enable mass food production? You got it. Petroleum.

When the price of oil goes through the roof, as is the case these days, the price of food goes up, the price of  transportation of any and all goods goes up, the price of everything goes up. Welcome to the end, my friend. Pull up a seat and catch the show.

Ruppert doesn’t pull any punches in this interview-cum-monologue, and frankly he says exactly what we all need to hear. We’re hopelessly hooked on oil for the very survival of our civilization, and pretty much none of the alternatives are going to work, even if we got way more serious about implementing them than we apparently have the political will to. Ethanol’s a joke. Hydrogen’s a joke. Hydroelectric’s a joke. Wind and solar have some potential, but on the scale we’d need them to be up and running it’s already too late. Nothing will replace oil because nothing can. It’s the most public secret in the world, but it’s one nobody’s got the guts to face. It’s so damn scary to contemplate that we just plain can’t do it.

And therein lies the rub — because if we want to survive, we’ve got to. Plain and simple. Ruppert lays out an interesting comparison between two countries that were completely dependent upon Soviet oil imports, Cuba and North Korea, both of which ended up SOL when the “evil empire” collapsed. North Korea had no plan in place and as a result, they’re still completely fucked. Cuba, on the other hand, didn’t exactly have a plan, but adapted on the fly and, after a few rough years, not only survived, but thrived. The grow food on every piece of arable land. They practice sound crop rotation. They save driving for absolutely essential occasions. They decentralized, and localized, their food production and economic trade. And so far they provide the only possible model of success for society as a whole to build on in the trying times to come.

There’s just one rub, though — Cuba is an isolated, self-contained island. On the other hand, there are over six billion of us out here, all dependent, to one extent or another, on oil for our survival.  It’s not gonna be pretty when it all comes down, folks, especially for those of us that live in major metropolitan areas. Ruppert lays out some potential strategies for long-term survival for those of us willing to listen, but frankly, there are no guarantees, and all bets are off.

Collapse got some limited theatrical burn, but if you missed it, now’s your chance, since it’s just been released on DVD from MPI Media Group. While the only extra to be had is an updated interview with Ruppert on his life since the film’s release, the fact is you’ll be so shell-shocked after watching the main feature that you won’t care about silly things like DVD extras anymore. You may not want to face up the reality of what our guy Mike’s got to say, but your one overriding thought from start to finish while watching him go at it will be “Holy shit, this guy’s absolutely right.”

Ruppert boils down his message to humanity in stark and simple terms — it’s time to either evolve or die.

What’s it gonna be?

"I Spit on Your Grave" (2010) Movie Poster

Well, here it is. The remake of the mother of all rape-revenge films, and one your host had been looking forward to, sure, bu I don’t mind admitting that my eagerness was mixed with more than a little trepidation. Turns out I needn’t have worried — at least not that much.

Our story’s essentially the same — young up-and-coming New York City novelist Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler — don’t ask me why the added an S to the end of the character’s last name here)  heads to a quiet cabin in the country in order to find the peace and solitude she needs to write her next book. Along the way, she draws the unwanted attention of some local redneck yokels at a gas station and these guys find out where she’s staying and use the excuse of trying to pop their mentally retarded buddy’s cherry as the pretense for a night (and day) of brutal gang rape. Things get ugly. Damn ugly. They toss her in the river and figure she’s dead (a solid plot derivation from the original wherein they just sent their slow-witted friend in there to finish her off and he, of course, can’t do it, but tells the fellas he did). She’s not, though, and spends te next month or so surviving on her wits in the forest and plotting her revenge.

And what a revenge it is. Frankly, the way remake director Steven R. Monroe (who’s got a very solid knack for visuals and pacing, by the way, and brings out some strong performances in his central cast, particularly on the part of Ms. Butler, who delivers and extraordinary turn in the lead role, and Jeff Branson, who plays leader of the pack Johnny) and screenwriter Stuart Morse structure this new version makes a hell of a lot more sense than Meir Zarchi’s original — the gang-rape sequence is not nearly as drawn out, yet it’s (perhaps paradoxically) even more psychologically disturbing than it was the first time around. And the emphasis is squarely on the revenge aspect of the story, which, while certainly creative, always felt a bit slapped-together in the original (she didn’t even bother to save the ringleader of the gang for her last victim in it, for instance — although admittedly he did suffer the most gruesome fate).

Some of the more visceral horror of the first, though, is frankly missing. Sitting through the entire extended gang-rape in the original is admittedly a very tough proposition, but you really do feel like the bastards had it coming (and then some) when they get theirs. Here, it feels like she’s paying them all back with more than sufficient interest because the (admittedly quite expected, given the day and age we’re living in) Saw-style torture-porn scenarios she concocts to exact her pound of flesh upon her perpetrators (especially the last one) are seriously depraved and feel more thought-out (because they obviously were). This isn’t bad, per se, but the end result is to make Jenny Hill(s) feel more like your standard cinematic calculatingly revenge-obsessed  killer and less like an unpredictable force of naturally righteous anger.

On the whole, though, it works, so I’m not complaining, and the decision to add the local sheriff (Andrew Howard in yet another of this film’s terrific performances) into the mix as well adds an extra layer of horror to the proceedings, as does the time the filmmakers spend showing said sheriff’s apparently happy domestic life. It shows that monsters may indeed lurk amongst us and these evil bastards are, in fact, good to other people — something only vaguely hinted at by Zarchi.

The end result is a more mature and sophisticated work of horror cinema, and a more violent one to be sure, but one that lacks a little bit of the sheer visceral energy and power of the original. It’s both more creatively realized and more horrifying in many respects, but lacks some of it’s predecessor’s harrowing, soul-shattering fury. For fans of the original I certainly recommend it without reservation, and it’s a damn site better than almost all of the other horror remakes out there, but dues to the (entirely understandable) shift in emphasis to be weighted more heavily on the revenge side of the equation, and its (again entirely understandable) nod to modern horror conventions, it’s a different viewing experience. Just as shocking, to be sure, maybe even moreso, but on the whole maybe just a touch less powerful than that which came before it.

Given that this flick never made it to my native Twin Cities during its extremely truncated theatrical run, I snapped it up off Netflix the second it became available on DVD, and Anchor Bay has done a really nice job on that front. The wide-screen picture and 5.1 sound mix are great, and the extras include a making-of featurette, the full theatrical trailer as well as a “teaser” trailer, a radio spot that evidently ran in the San Francisco area, and a full-length commentary from director Monroe and producer Lisa Hansen that gets a little bit pretentious at times but on the whole is very involving and well worth a listen.

I Spit On Your Grave (2010) , while taking the story in some directions I approve of and others I’m not so hot on, is a more than worthy heir to its groundbreaking source material and is a gut-wrenching and important entry into the annals of horror cinema. If this kind of thing is, in fact, your kind of thing, you’d be doing yourself a massive disservice if you don’t check it out.


Adam Green's "Hatchet II" Movie Poster

It hasn’t been too terribly long since we took a look at the first Hatchet flick around here as part of our 2010 Halloween 12-pack, but as the sequel, Hatchet II (properly referred to, I guess, as Adam Green’s Hatchet II) just came out on DVD from Dark Sky Films (who also handles its — admittedly limited — theatrical run), and the second movie picks up exactly where the first one left off, we might as well jump right in and review it right it straight away.

So Marybeth (Danielle Harris) escapes the clutches of murderous deformed psycho Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder, everybody’s favorite Jason) and after finding no shelter with a backwoods survivalist (horror EFX legend and occasional director John Carl Buechler) high-tails it back to Reverend Zombie (the Candyman himself, Tony Todd)’s cut-rate French Quarter voodoo shop in the hopes that he’ll have a strong enough conscience to decide to go back and try to retrieve his boat, look for what’s left of his tour guide, and maybe even help her rid the world of the Crowley menace once and for all.

To her (and let’s admit it, our) surprise, the not-so-good Reverend agrees and after assembling a crew of local yokel quasi-fortune hunters to help him in his daring mission, it’s back to the swamp they all go. Marybeth just wants to find the remains of her family members and give them some semblance of a proper burial, but Reverend Zombie, of course, has slimy ulterior motives galore for agreeing to help our young damsel in distress out, and naturally, this being a sequel and all, along the way we’re made privy to some new wrinkles in the Victor Crowley origin story that give him a more firm connection to our intrepid heroine than we’d previously imagined (but no, she’s not his long-lost sister — thank God).

Yup, folks, this is old-school slasher-style horror amped up to the Nth degree again, with more blood, more guts, more kills, more thrills, and more laughs. It’s really not even a sequel so much as a direct continuation, and if you watched both Hatchet films back-to-back (as I admittedly ended up doing later), what you’ve basically got here in one solid three-hour-plus story. And your humble host has to say that it’s a pretty damn good one.

Writer-director Green knows he’s not mining any new ground here story-wise and the only way he can top himself is by going for the jugular more directly, so the violence is more spectacular (and spectacularly funny), the characters are more OTT, and the whole thing just takes on the atmosphere of a straight-up slasher party flick. As always, I’m more impressed by a movie that knows its limitations and just tries to do a damn good job of what it sets out to do than something that’s bury reaching for a goal that’s well beyond its grasp. Hatchet II doesn’t fuck around — it knows why you’re watching it and it sets out to serve you up a heaping helping of everything you love.

My only real beef with this movie, honestly, is that it was show on HD instead of good old fashioned 35mm, but that’s a small gripe — apart from that, everything here is spot-on and it more than fulfills its worthy mission of  bringing old-school horror to an appreciative audience of old-school horror fans. It’s not for everyone, of course, but if your idea of a good time is watching a guy get strangled by his own intestines or a young lady fuck (or getting fucked by, depending on how you look at these things) a dude who gets his head hacked off mid-coitus and she keeps bucking back on him anyway until she figures things out, this is is the movie for you.

Dark Sky does a nice job with the DVD, too — the picture and sound are great, as you’d expect from a new release like this, and it’s loaded with some nice extras including the theatrical trailer, a making-of featurette, and two full-length commentaries (one cast, one crew) that are both a lot of fun(my favorite part being where Green points out all his horror-director friends that he got to e extras or take on minor parts in group scenes,  just in case you might be a horror geek like myself who wonders what some of these people look like) if a little bit in-jokey at times.

Anyway, Hatchet II — it’s exactly what you think it is, on steroids. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

"The Roommate" Movie Poster

Just when PG-13-rated teen horror looks like it might be finally — and, at this point, mercifully — on the way out, some Hollywood suit thinks there might be some life in the old dog yet and a second-tier outfit like Rogue Pictures or, in this case, Sony’s Screen Gems division, decides to inflict one more of them, like The Roommate, on us for what we’re sure just has to be the last fucking time.

And, of course, it never is, because bored fools like me with nothing better to do on a late Saturday morning decide “ehhhh — what the hell?” and plunk down five bucks to see it even though we more or less know beyond any shadow of a doubt that all we’re doing is wasting not only our money but about an hour and a half of our lives that we’re never going to get back.

So, yeah, I’m stupid. I freely admit it. And so are hundreds of thousands of other people, apparently, because this rehashed pile of shit was number one at the box office a week or so back.

Want the rundown? Okay, since you asked for it. Nice little Des Moines farmgirl Sara Matthews (Minka Kelly) wants to make it big in the world of fashion design and enrolls at the fictitious Los Angeles University (LAU for short), where her dorm (and by the way, these are the most unrealistic college dorms you’ll ever see — the common areas especially look more like something from a luxury high-rise) roommate, Rebecca (Leighton Meester — Jesus the names of these late-teen stars-in-training  are brutally pretentious and/or insufferably lame) makes a good impression at first but in due course turns out to be a possessive, psychotic bitch.

Seen this before, anyone? Sure you have — it was called Single White Female and it wasn’t very good at the time. It’s even worse, however, “updated” and filtered through a collegiate lens (see? I can be pretentious too, it takes absolutely no effort). There are, however, a few key differences besides the age gap between this film and the one it was pretty much ripped off from completely. The girls don’t take in a stray dog that psycho-roommate later kills, they take in a stray cat. Psycho roommate doesn’t just disguise herself as nice roommate and then fuck nice roommate’s ex-boyfriend, she disguises herself as nice roommate and then fucks and kills nice roommate’s ex-boyfriend. Psycho roommate doesn’t have a sister who died in early childhood, nice roommate has the sister who dies in early childhood. Nice roommate doesn’t have a gay male best friend, she has a gay female best friend. Nice roommate isn’t hit on by a lecherous, perverted work boss, she’s hit on by a lecherous, perverted college professor (played by Billy Zane who I, and I’m sure every other rational human being on the planet, hoped had just gone away for good, but apparently he hasn’t). Oh, and nice roomate has, of course, a nice frat-guy boyfriend who’s in a band and treats her better than you’d expect a guy in his position would (played by Cam Gigandet — another stupid-ass name).

So you’ve seen this before, quite literally, it wasn’t any great shakes then either, and it’s even worse now. It’s directed by some guy named Christian E. Christiansen and his name is about the only thing of even passing interest that he adds to the proceedings. You now have in your grasp all the information you could possibly need to know about this film, and probably quite a bit more. Life is short. Go make the most of it. Even if the weather’s shitty (which it is here today).  Anything you can do with your time is better than watching this. You’re either gonna thank me later or wish you’d listened to me if you decide to ignore my advice — the choice is yours.

"The Rite" Movie Poster

Okay, I admit it — I’m a sucker for exorcism flicks. Always have been, always will be. Ever since William Friedkin’s original The Exorcist burned itself indelibly into my memory as a kid, I’ve never missed a movie about some hapless schmuck in a robe trying to drive demons out of people.

And there sure have been a lot to choose from lately, haven’t there? Midway through the decade just passed it looked like this once-sort-of-mighty horror subgenre had finally run out of gas after the two different versions of The Exorcist prequel bombed at the box office, but now it’s  come roaring back with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, last year’s indie-horror mini-sensation The Last Exorcism, and now this latest Anthony Hopkins starring vehicle, The Rite.

Of course, you don’t go into a movie like this expecting anything new per se (or at least you shouldn’t), the only question is whether they’ll serve up a familiar dish well. I’m pleased to report that for the most part, director Mikael Hafstrom and co. get the recipe right. And eating seconds (or thirds, or fourths, or fifths, as the case may be) isn’t the end of the world if the dish itself still tastes pretty good.

I haven’t eaten yet today. Can you tell? And I probably should, but before I do let me just say a few brief words about The Rite because an in-depth cinematic analysis really isn’t all that necessary here, just a glossing-over the relevant points so you can decide whether or not this is worth a handful of your hard-earned dollars a couple hours of your life.

First off, Hopkins is solid. As Welsh exorcist (can’t be too many of those around)Father Lucas Trevant he’s pretty much mailing it in for the first two-thirds or so of the film, but once he gets demon-possessed in the final act (whoops, gave something away there) he really pulls out all the stops and delivers one of his signature blood-curdling performances. Fun stuff all around.

The other nominal lead, young (and dubious, and reluctant — of course) exorcist-in-training Michael Kovak, is handled by an actor I’m unfamiliar with named Colin O’Donoghue. He’s got all the charisma of three-day-old pizza and if you give a flying fuck about him you’re engaging in a serious bit of charity, because there’s just nothing notable about his performance whatsoever, but you’re not going to this to see him (if you’re sane) so I guess in the grand scheme of things his painful lack of acting ability hardly matters all that much.

Hafstrom, who seems to have a pretty solid visual eye as a director and keeps things stylishly bleak and mysterious without venturing too heavily into music-video territory  or anything like that, has assembled a respectable little supporting cast that includes the always-awesome Toby Jones as the headmaster (or dean, or Father Superior, or whatever they’re called) of the seminary Kovak is nominally still attending (he’s trying to quit), Ciaran Hinds (last seen around these parts in Todd Solondz’ Life During Wartime) as a second-tier Vatican priest/functionary, the rather fetching Alica Braga as Kovak’s European fellow student-exorcist (evidently the Vatican is willing to go co-ed in this field — who knew?)/sort-of love interest, and Rutger Hauer, who it’s just plain always great to see in anything,  as Kovak’s mortician father.

The plot, such as it is , concerns our intrepid young not-really-sure-he-wants-to-be-a-priest going to Rome to learn the ins and outs of exorcisms in a last-ditch attempt to, frankly, have some faith scared back into him since his meter’s running pretty low in that regard, and along the way he teams up with Father Lucas and learns that all this demonic possession shit is for real and a nasty demon entity migrates its way from a young girl into Lucas himself (I gave that away already, so no need to shout at me twice or anything). Basic stuff, supposedly “inspired by true events,” since the old standard disclaimer of “based on a true story” is probably a bit too much of a reach in this case.

Have you seen it all before? Of course. Have you seen it done better? No doubt.

And frankly, in recent years, you’ve seen it done a lot worse, too. The Rite isn’t out to shatter your view of reality or leave you with indelible nightmare images of a world you’d rather not face or anything of the sort. At least I hope that wasn’t the film’s  intention, because it sure falls well short of the mark as far as that goes. It seems more likely to me that it’s just out to do a solid, competent job of telling a story we’ve seen dozens of times over and are sure to see dozens of times again. It succeeds well enough in that regard, and since that’s the absolute most I was hoping for anyway, I’m prepared to give it my — uhhmmmm — blessing.