Archive for May, 2012

Posted: May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

More new stuff for Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

First off, a qualification : if you’re a lifelong (or thereabouts) fan of Dan Curtis’ classic Dark Shadows TV series, I can understand why you would hate Tim Burton’s new film of the same name. It’s many things, but old-school Dark Shadows isn’t one of them. Feel free, with my full blessing (whatever that’s worth), to absolutely despise this flick right down to a molecular level if you fit into this category of viewer. But if you don’t —

— then seriously, where is all this vitriol coming from? I’m not saying it’s a tremendous or important movie by any means, but it’s brainless, entertaining, heavy-on-the-camp fun that’s pretty solidly constructed Burton-by-the-numbers.

And maybe that’s the problem. Tim Burton’s work has, indeed, become almost relentlessly formulaic by this point : de-fang horror/gothic/50s-era sci-fi concepts to make them palatable to mainstream family audiences, concentrate heavily on the visuals, strenuously avoid even…

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I’ve always said that if Mrs. TFG and I ever have a son, I’m naming him after Alan Moore. Although Moore himself would probably hate the idea and (rightly) tell me to come up with something original, the urge to pass on the greatness inherent in that name would just be too much and I don’t think I could resist doing it.

Moore is so much more than just a comics writer, you see. In fact, he’s so much more than the greatest comics writer of all time. He’s also one of the most complex, interesting, challenging, and insightful intellects on the planet. Not just in this day and age, but probably ever. And it’s been my pleasure to follow the trajectory of his career as not just an author but also an occultist and thinker more or less from the beginning.

Well, nearly the beginning, at any rate. I started reading his legendary run on Swamp Thing when I was about 12 years old, and he was already a good few issues into it by that point. Since then, though, even during periods when my interest in comics in general waned (as it has currently), I’ve eagerly snapped up and immediately devoured anything with his name on it. Watchmen. V For Vendetta. From Hell. Lost Girls. Hell, I even read all his works for Image and Awesome like Supreme, 1963, Violator Vs. Badrock, and Spawn : Blood Feud — none of which were all that great, but all of which were head and shoulders above anything else of that admittedly bleak and, frankly, stupid ilk.

So yeah, Alan Moore is da man in my book. Always has been, always will be.

So it’s nice to see him get his due and just expound, generally in free-form, stream-of-consciousness style, on anything and eveything of concern and/or interest to him in front of a camera, and that’s exactly what documentarian DeZ Vylens (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, and no, I don’t think it’s whatit says on his birth certificate) allows the Warlock of Northampton to do in his shot-in-2005-but-released-a-few-years-later effort, The Mindscape Of Alan Moore.

Over the course of 78 densely-packed minutes, Moore holds court on everything ranging from the comics industry to pornography to his continuing forays into the occult to politics to social and economic class divisions to the nature of time, reality, and consciousness itself. Needless to say, it’s a fascinating ride every step of the way and contains more concepts ready-made to blow the pedestrian mind than pretty much anything else you’re ever going to see.

But — and it’s a big “but” — if you don’t go into the film with some foreknowledge of,  if not outright admiration for, Mr. Moore, then there’s nothing in here to grab you since it’s less an introduction to the man and his work than it is just an opportunity for him to preach to the choir. Lamely-staged (although give Vylenz points at least for trying, especially since it’s evident he had more or less no budget to work with here) re-enactments of key scenes from Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and V For Vendetta don’t help matters much, nor do the student-film-quality CGI effects that Vylenz chooses to include in order to emphasize key points that Moore is making in his various diatribes. In short, while Vylenz’ stated goal was not to have just a “talking head” documentary here, it would be better and frankly more effective if he had, indeed, gone that route.

Still, for those already on the Moore wavelength, this is a real treat. The two-disc DVD set from Vylenz’ production company, Shadowsnake Films, is jam-packed with extras (some of which are infinitely more interesting than others) including a “making-of featurette, on-camera interviews with Vylenz and the film’s chief FX man and music composer, deleted scenes,  a scene-specific director’s commentary track on key points of interest, and interviews with various Moore collaborators such as Melinda Gebbie (who’s also his girlfriend, by the way), David Lloyd, Dave Gibbons, etc. — which are of special interest to dedicated Moore fans given that he’s currently not on speaking terms with several of them these days due to disagreements with them stemming from Hollywood’s handling of their various co-creations.

Final verdict, then — if you’re even modestly interested in Moore’s works, either artistic, occultic, or both, this is absolute must-see viewing and one of the most thoroughly engaging and consistently enthralling documentaries you’ll ever see, and you’ll wish it was twice as long (at least) as its way-too-short run-time — but if you really have no knowledge of the man and don’t care to possess any (your loss), then The Mindscape Of Alan Moore won’t hold your attention in the least.

Me, I’m about to pop it back in and watch it again, just to fully grasp the richness of some of the ideas Moore elaborates on, and frankly because even the second time around some of this shit is, I have no doubt whatsoever, still powerful enough to blow my mind.

Some things are tried and true because, goddamnit, they still work. Take a cast of unknown young-twenty-somethings, throw them into an unfamiliar, possibly haunted locale, give us enough information to grasp the basic set-up but be utterly dumbfounded by anything else that happens, concentrate a lot more on what’s unknown (and leave it that way for the most part, even when you show it) instead of what we do know, amp up the isolation and paranoia, and you could have the recipe for a pretty decent scare flick.

Oh, sure, it might suck if the director’s incompetent and the actors are so bad as to be completely unconvincing, and plenty of films following more or less this exact same blueprint have sucked, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason an audience still can’t be entertained by this kind of thing.

Director Brad Parker, the guy behind the newly-released Chernobyl Diaries (working from a script by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Shane and Carey VanDyke), knows what he’s doing. His film employs many of the “hand-held” visual trappings of the like find in films from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to Quarantine to Apollo 13, but wisely does away with the tired plot contrivance of having to explicitly point out that this is a “home movie” or “found footage” of some sort. He just apes the look to give the unsettling locale of an abandoned town within spitting distance of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant an even more alien, ominous feeling — and while it may be a cheap trick, it does the job.

The script itself is pretty solid, too — it doesn’t dwell much on explanations, but ratchets up the tension at a precise, well-orchestrated rate. Each character, from the American asshole-older-brother-living-in-Kiev-for-reasons-never-explained to his heart-of-gold younger brother to younger brother’s girlfriend to the young couple joining the “extreme tourism” journey into the radioactive (but apparently sort of safe in certain places if you don’t hang around for too long) post-meltdown wasteland are given just enough personality to make them interesting and semi-involving without toying with the standard,  by-now-archetypal images of folks in these kinds of films too much, and the perils they quickly face are plausible enough to maintain some semblance of “holy shit I can sort of see this happening” without being pedestrian enough to veer into the territory of actual narrative plausibility. In essence, you can believe their predicament without being able to directly relate to it.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen online so far of Chernobyl Diaries is that it’s totally beyond the pale to somehow suggest that people would be stupid enough to pay good money to tour an abandoned, radioactive ghost town. On paper, that seems like a reasonable point. For all of about one second, until you remember that there are idiots out there willing to fork over their hard-earned cash to bungee jump off cliffs and zip-line across fucking canyons. One person’s idiocy is another person’s adventure, after all, and if there were tours like this actually offered, ya know what? Just about every day there would probably at least a few folks foolhardy enough to go. So there’s that gripe out the window.

And without that, there’s really not much to dislike here. The Serbian and Hungarian filming locales utilized by Parker look an awful lot like any former town right next to the biggest nuclear disaster in history would look, the acting is all perfectly competent, the scares (even the cheap ones) are fun, the dialogue is consistent with what you or I would probably be saying under the same circumstances, the actions of the characters run the gamut from “that seems sensible” to “dear God, what the fuck are you thinking doing that?,” and the overall atmosphere is one of tight, accelerating foreboding and dread. It certainly doesn’t take any risks — hell, the characters even die in more or less exactly the order you would predict (although it does adhere to Joe Bob Briggs’ classic rule of good drive-in cinema, namely that it at least seems like anyone can die at any time) — and it doesn’t break any new ground, but since when did a horror film need to do those things to be good? If you just want a movie that does a good job of delivering exactly what it sets out to deliver, then you could do a whole lot worse than Chernobyl Diaries. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s fun standard stuff that should leave a smile on the face of the average genre fan, even if they can’t specifically remember any special reason why within a few hours of having seen it.

Okay, I admit it : I still like Richard Linklater. Always have and, at this point, probably always will. I dig the hell out of 90s classics like Slacker and Dazed And Confused. I thought A Scanner Darkly was one of the best sci-fi and best animated films in years. And yes, I even enjoy Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (especially the first one). Heck, even School Of Rock is pretty fun stuff all these years later. Sure, my guy Richard was overthrown in a silent coup as the coolest filmmaker working in the Capitol city of Texas some years ago by Robert Rodriguez (or so I’m told), but he’ll always be “Mr. Austin” in my book. And you know what? It pleases me to report that his latest directorial effort (for which he also co-wrote the screenplay), Bernie, shows him to be in fine form.

This little slice of low-key near-perfection centers on the true story of one Bernie Tiede (Jack Black in a phenomenal performance that sees him absolutely inhabiting the character, and also gives him numerous chances to showcase his singing voice on-screen for the first time in years), the more-than-likely-homosexual assistant funeral director of the only mortuary in the small East Texas town of Carthage who seems to take a rather unwholesome interest in comforting the sorrows of the elderly widows he naturally makes the acquaintance of in his line of work, particularly the wealthy ones. He hits the jackpot, so to speak, with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, who we just flat-out don’t get to see enough of anymore, and who ably proves she hasn’t lost a step at all here), the less-than-grieving inheritor of the local bank, who everyone in town seems to regard as a grade-A bitch. Hell, her own siblings, children, and grandchildren don’t even have anything to do with her.

She takes a liking to Bernie, though, who proves more than willing to step in and essentially handle all her affairs, both business and personal — but eventually, of course, she proves too much for even a guy of his apparently infinite patience and courtesy to deal with. The Bernie-Marjorie relationship is a complex one, certainly not romantic in nature (that would be too simple), but miles away from the expected gigolo-and-his-mark pairing that you would expect in a film about a guy who kills the old woman he’s living with shortly after she bequeaths him all her assets in her will (I guess I should say “whoops” at this point, but I honestly don’t think I’m giving anything away here). Instead, what we’ve got here in an evolving personal partnership that goes from “get the hell out of my face” to genuine acceptance to warm companionship to the kind of mental and spiritual cruelty and barely-disguised contempt that only over-familiarity can engender. Marjorie goes from wanting nothing to do with her too-damn-friendly would-be best friend to liking him enough to have him accompany her on all her travels to trusting him enough to take care of all her financial dealings to jealously monopolizing all his time and cutting him off from everyone and everything he loves (he’s big into community theater and being everybody in town’s best friend) so she can set him to work on the most trivial and dehumanizing of tasks.

So, yeah — eventually Bernie snaps and shoots her four times in the back before putting her body in a meat freezer and going around pretending she’s still alive (and spending her money) for as long as he can. Eventually the gig is up, though, as hard-charging, publicity-hungry, ultra-homophobic DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, for once not trading on his looks at all and clearly relishing the chance to tackle a role 180 degrees away from his typicalfare) digs in his heels when he smells a rat with Bernie’s “she’s had a stroke and is in a rest home” stories and decides to throw the book at the guy when a search warrant of her home finally reveals Marjorie’s gruesome final resting place.

There’s a catch, though — even though he confessed almost immediately to the murder, the townsfolk wither actively don’t want to believe that Bernie could do such a thing, or they just flat-out don’t care. He’s been recklessly foolish with the old widow’s money, after all, financing the construction of a new addition at the local Methodist church, buying up struggling businesses, treating people to new cars, spoiling their kids with expensive gifts, etc. — so naturally, they all love the guy more than ever. And they never had much time for old Mrs. Nugent in the first place.

It’s in capturing this dichotomy of “normal” life in a hick town “behind the Pine Curtain” followed by how desperate these simple folks are to maintain that sense of normalcy once the balance of their entire collective reality has been upset that Linklater really shines, even utilizing many actual Carthage locals to do documentary-style  interview bits talking about how much they still think the world of Bernie no matter what he might have done. Hell, many still desperately cling to the notion that he’s absolutely innocent despite his own hardly-coerced confession.  It’s a pretty quietly amazing thing to behold, and is handled with an unforced naturalism that retains sensitivity for the town’s situation without ever crossing the line into syrupy sentimentality. In short, Linklater treats this material, and the people involved with it, with the respect they deserve without ever once going to any extra lengths to make them look either quaint, folksy, or stupid. They just are who they are, and this flick is what it is. Sure, it’s a heavily-dramatized script that probably takes a few liberties with the facts, but it feels utterly authentic and he lets  both the story and its players speak for themselves. That may not make for the flashiest of films, but it’s a refreshingly honest one, and in the midst of all the half-billion-dollar CGI-effects-laden soulless blockbusters currently polluting our screens, a quietly engaging piece of cinema that values its own integrity above all else makes for a very refreshing change of pace indeed.

Posted: May 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

New stuff I wrote for the website Through The Shattered Lens —

Through the Shattered Lens

Well, since my less than glowing review of The Avengers (not that it was all that negative — I just said it was an okay superhero flick, not the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of the world, as some were claiming) didn’t get me tarred and feathered, I thought I would avail myself of the opportunity that this site provides me to take a look at some other films that I don’t get around to reviewing on my own site, https://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, all that often because they just don’t fit in with the overall ethos (there’s my pretentious asshole bit out of the way) of what I try to stick to (for the most part, at any rate) over there.  Our erstwhile semi-empress, Ms. Bowman, assures me that pretty much anything goes around here, though, so without any further  ado I’m going to start up a little on-again/off-again…

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Say what you will for the Paranormal Activity films (and I happen to rather like them myself, but that’s neither here nor there), but one thing they’ve done is make it acceptable to tell a good, old-fashioned ghost story again. And old-fashioned is the key word (well, okay, key compound word) here, because writer-director-editor Ti West’s 2011 indie horror offering ( I understand it was given a limited theatrical run, but it sure never made it to my neck of the woods) The Innkeepers is definitely a throwback in many ways.

For one thing, it’s pretty light on the gore and heavy on the atmospherics (and for atmospherics you simply can’t beat a story set in a real New England bed-and-breakfast-type establishment, in this case Connecticut’s Yankee Pedlar Inn, on its last weekend of operation before the owner shutters the pace for good) and character development, with a heavy dose of light-hearted comedy thrown in for good measure. The back-and-forth banter between lead characters Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two college dropouts turned bellhops/front desk attendants/luggage porters/whatever else the inn’s absentee owner needs them to be who decide to avail themselves of the opportunity to become webcam ghost hunters before their supposedly haunted place of employment closes its doors to the public is consistently fun and engaging throughout, and the end result is one of the most truly personable horror flicks in far too long. You genuinely find yourself caring about these people and not wanting anything bad to happen to either one of them.

The other principal person of interest here is one Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis —yes you can officially stop asking “whatever happened to —?”), a washed-up sitcom actress turned new age “mystic seer” who might know more about the restless spirits wandering the halls of the Yankee Pedlar — but then again, might just be full of shit. Her interplay with Paxton’s star-struck Claire is likewise engaging and pitch-perfect from start to finish and never feels either forced or belabored;  the two just seem to have a natural chemistry together on screen that’s downright, dare I say it, even infectious at times.

So — small cast, simple set-up, ratchet up the tension incrementally to take us from slacker-duo-comedy to pleasantly-creepy haunted hotel story, throw in a few cheap scares, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a 70s-style winner on your hands. In one of the two commentary tracks on Dark Sky Films’ newly-released DVD/Blu-Ray  of the film (there are two, one featuring  Ti West with various members of the crew, the other pairing him with stars Paxton and Healy — the other extra on offer being the requisite “making-of” featurette, in case you were wondering), West mentions how he wanted the opening credits sequence, featuring time-lapse photography of the inn throughout the years, to have an old-school, made-for-TV horror-movie feel to it, but in truth the entire production maintains that exact same aesthetic from the word “go,” and brings back fond memories of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot network mini-series, Dark Night Of The Scarecrow, and (the original) Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. Groundbreaking? Hardly. Fun? Oh, most definitely.

All of which isn’t to say that The Innkeepers doesn’t have its flaws, some of which are even pretty glaring — the ending, particularly, feels a bit rushed and frankly falls pretty flat in its attempt to send chills up the spine, and a couple of the plot “revelations” are about as surprising as a combo meal lunch at McDonald’s, but that’s not the end of the world — it’s comforting familiarity that West (whose previous effort, The House Of The Devil, really didn’t impress me in the least) is aiming for here, a love letter to the kind of TV tales of the supernatural he undoubtedly grew up with, and in that respect he hits all the notes on his admittedly derivative, but nevertheless quite pleasing, song-sheet more or less exactly right.

In summation, then, while it’s certainly more than fair to say that  we’ve seen all this done before,  it’s been a long time — hell, too  long — since anybody combined these familiar ingredients together  so successfully. The Innkeepers is a rare beast indeed — a horror movie that leaves a wide, beaming smile on your face as the end credits roll. Sure, it’s a new film, but it feels like you’ve just spent a pleasant evening catching up with an old friend — one you didn’t realize how much you’d missed until you saw them again.

With  a review title like that, you probably think I’m writing this thing from the back of a VW “party wagon,” as I lounge on some thrift-store cushions behind one of those beaded doorway things with a lava lamp churning away in the background and a black-light poster of Jerry Garcia staring down at me from the ceiling.

Alas, that’s not the case, because I’m not talking about the same “Dead” most folks who honk if you love ’em are talking about. I’m talking about the recently-released (although apparently it was shot in 2010) indie horror mini-sensation The Dead, the debut feature from the British directorial (and authorial) sibling team of Howard J. and Jonathan Ford — not that you’d immediately guess that this was a British product since it was shot in various locations in western Africa, including some rather unforgiving parts of the Sahara, and the two main stars are American and African, respectively. But hey, that’s just how things work in today’s hyper-globalized world, right? And anyway, as the old — and pretentious — tagline for the Landmark theater chain used to say, “the language of cinema is universal.”

Honestly, though, in this case that pithy little phrase does indeed apply. To be sure, this tale of a zombie outbreak on the so-called “dark continent” does have its flaws — it’s rather slow to get moving, for one thing (even though it starts with a plane crash),  it’s not exactly a breakneck-paced drama even once it does pick up some steam, and some very glaring questions (like, say, how this particular undead plague got started in the first place) are never even really brought up, much less answered, but good horror almost always relies more on atmosphere than it does on logic or continuity, and Los Bros Ford are serving up atmosphere aplenty here.

Really, the idea of a zombie flick set in Africa is such a no-brainer that’s it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before, and while the basic plot here is of the standard “road movie” variety so common in this genre these days (Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), the only survivor of a doomed evacuation flight, and his unlikely/somewhat uneasy ally, Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oseia) are journeying across the desert together, Murphy to find a way off the continent, Dembele to find his missing son), transposing that by-now-common “old chestnut” to a new — and gorgeously-shot throughout — geographical location breathes more life into the undead (lame pun completely intended, and yes I apologize) than one would rightly think possible.

It also means, unfortunately, that The Dead is something of a one-trick pony that probably doesn’t stand up especially well to multiple viewings. After all, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, it just shakes up the lucky 8-ball a little bit and lets the familiar pieces tumble around for awhile and rearrange themselves in new ways.  Still, the first viewing is so enjoyable — hell, even breathtaking at times — that I’m in no no real mood to be nit-picky about the fact that it’s probably pretty easy to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, the third or fourth time through.

This film was recently released, after a brief and very limited theatrical run, on DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay. Widescreen picture and 5.1 surround sound are both, as you’d expect from an essentially brand-new flick, pretty much pristine, and extras include a “making-of” featurette and a very solidly involving full-length commentary track from the Ford Brothers. Probably more worthy of a rental than a purchase, The Dead nevertheless makes for interesting and at times even compelling viewing. There’s a lot to look at even when there’s not much happening, and when there is something happening you absolutely can’t take your eyes off the screen. Honk! Catch ya on the flipside, dude!