Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

As we near the end of the year, and the ongoing glut of award season entries, some smaller films are flying under the radar and into your local Cineplex. For the weekend before Thanksgiving, 21 November 2008, here are a few of the said unsung films in focus:

Let the Right One In [rating: 9]

It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact.

When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life - at least, temporarily.  read full review…

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [rating: 6]

Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.

As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.  read full review…

Splinter [rating: 7]

If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise.

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.  read full review…

House (2008) [rating: 6]

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma.

It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life - at least, temporarily.

Oskar is a pale, frail little Swedish boy barely into his teens. Hopelessly tormented at school by a bully and his lackeys, he longs for revenge. One night, a young girl named Eli moves into the flat next door. Instantly curious, he keeps an eye on his new neighbor and her elderly guardian. After a few confusing conversations, Oskar and Eli become friends. In the meantime, her caregiver goes around Stockholm killing innocent people and draining their blood. Eventually we learn that Eli is a vampire, forever stuck in a child’s body. Yet Oskar is not afraid. Instead, he senses the power she possesses, and wonders how he can utilize it for his own, less than noble needs. Elsewhere, the locals are starting to suspect something evil is in their midst.

With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.

Alfredson has a very unique style - call it the slowburn calm before the terrifying torrents of chaos. Much of Let the Right One In plays out in long, silent takes, the camera covering personal details as we wait to see what happens next. Suddenly, the director will offer up some explosive bit of horror - a violent confrontation, an animal attack, a post-sunrise personal immolation - and we definitely understand the aesthetic choice. Let the Right One In wants to lull us into a sense of sobering everyday complacency, focusing on the terror of a young boy being bullied more than the presence of a possible vampire. Yet once the supernatural stuff begins, we get the clear connection between the two.

Pain is at the center of this film - Eli’s physical sickness and need for blood as well as her overriding desire for simple human connections. The issue of immortality is often explored within the genre, but Let the Right One In finds simple, dignified ways of explaining the solemn sadness of living forever. In Oskar’s case, we get the more basic boyhood trauma. With a mother that smothers him and a Dad who apparently passes his time doing drugs (and his male friends), this is one kid getting the full blown dysfunctional family mixed message treatment. He can’t confide in either parent, and as a result, sees Eli as a like minded youth who uses silence acceptance as a way of understanding his plight. She’s also very strong, and blessed with a killer instinct.

If this kind of misery loves company companionship sounds like dozens of other formulaic family fare, Let the Right One In is guilty. However, thanks to Lindqvist’s novel approach to the material, the decision to set everything within the stark cold realities of a Swedish winter, and Alfredson’s way with tone and talent, we wind up with something quite extraordinary. Of course, it takes capable child actors gifted enough of bringing this material to life, and in the case of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, we have totally believable,  completely unmannered individuals. As the first film for both, we can sense a slight streak of amiable amateurishness in their open, honest performances. In each case, the untested attributes work wonderfully for them.

Since they have to carry the film almost exclusively, the rest of the cast kind of fades into the woodwork, and that’s crucial for Let the Right One In to succeed. We don’t need to know more about the group of drunkards frequenting the local hangout, or the cat man living near the scene of a gruesome killing. We could care less about the bully’s far more evil older brother, or the sloppy, slutty woman who becomes an unwitting part of the plot. The main focus of the film stays on the growing infatuation and interlocking need between Oskar and Eli. Everything else is just wicked window dressing. Even better, Alfredson doesn’t skimp on the gruesomeness. The fate of Eli’s first “handler” is illustrated in graphic, gory effectiveness. And one fiend in the making gets a pair of particularly nasty comeuppances.

Indeed, Let the Right One In is almost perfect in its execution and expanse. It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact. It’s the kind of experience that stays with you, growing more and more meaningful as your distance from it dictates. Naturally, Hollywood has stepped in and is currently planning an Americanized remake, complete with CW level talent and, more than likely, a happier, far more upbeat ending. But like other foreign films given over to the unnecessary Tinsel Town treatment, Let the Right One In might survive the translation. If it managed to make it through the literal wasteland that is the vampire genre, it can probably endure anything. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.

While on an anniversary camping trip, young couple Seth Belzer and Polly Watt run into some tent set-up trouble. Looking for a motel for the night, they fall prey to desperate girl Lacey and her killer boyfriend Dennis. These fugitives from the law need a vehicle, and Seth and Polly become both transporters and convenient captives. A stop off at a local gas station seems normal enough, that is, until Lacey runs into a corpse covered in spines laying on the bathroom floor. After it attacks her, she too becomes a rotting, reanimated monster. Soon Seth, Polly and Dennis are holed up inside, fighting off an onslaught of creatures who want to slaughter and consume their quarry. Even after being mangled and partially destroyed, these beings keep coming - and there doesn’t seem to be a way of stopping them.

If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise. Directed with an excellent sense of style and suspense by F/X artist Toby Wilkins, what could have been another beast with a bad attitude effort combines the best of zombies, shapeshifters, feigned victim machismo and ample arterial spray to become a minor masterwork. Sure, Wilkins still needs to work on his pacing, and spending too much time with characters who we end up hating more than indentifying with can have an adverse impact on your shivers. But when the overall effect is this gloriously ghastly and unrelenting, you just have to give in to the terror.

Of course, you will have to overcome the advanced wussiness and everpresent whine of Paul Costanzo as Seth. Playing the typical intellectual untouched by the call of nature, this know-it-all nebbish becomes as irritating as a rash once the monsters start showing up. He’s incapable of anything remotely resembling heroics and is constantly upstaged by his strong, centered gal pal. Toward the end, when the threat is becoming a bit too much, Seth grows a pair and starts showing some mantle. But until then, he is the most unlikeable character in the entire film. And for something that has to use every possible cinematic element at its disposal to overcome some definite low budget leanings, this doesn’t help.

Luckily, the rest of the cast steps up to the plate and delivers in evocative and effective ways. Shea Whigham has the mostly thankless role of playing the gun toting bad guy. Yet thanks to some last act reveals and the strength of the performance, we accept his angry young manliness. Rachel Kerbs is also a test as Lacey, but she goes ghoul so quickly that we don’t really mind the momentary lapses into dope addict antics. But it is Jill Wagner who steals the show as Polly. She’s the kind of companion who is as capable of taking a punch as delivering one. At several times throughout Splinter‘s storyline, Wagner has to stand where the men won’t venture. She does so with defiance and a Ripley-like resolve.

And then there’s Wilkins. Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing and adding in a little of his own old school scare tactics as well, the first time filmmaker shows a real skill at making the mundane seem incredibly scary. During a pre-credits sequence, a gas station attendant is attacked by a seemingly rabid animal. Thanks to editing and shot selection, what could have been silly comes across as ferocious and quite foul. Equally disturbing is the nature of the beast. Even with bodies badly broken and brutalized, these beings keep coming - and Wilkins isn’t afraid to highlight the physical atrocities involved. Gorehounds will absolutely love him for it.

Yet Splinter is not perfect. It’s got the single location standoff down pat, and when the blood starts flowing, it can’t be beat. But Wilkins also seems stifled by the decision to downsize the scope. There is a bit too much time taken up in repetitive conversation, and financial issues keep the creature effects from being utilized sufficiently. In most cases we want more, more, more: more monsters; more attacks; more ass kicking; more action thriller mechanics. This may be the first film in which the polished professionalism of everyone involved becomes addictive - especially in light of its heavy reliance on the trappings of the genre. But money does change everything, for good and for bad. If Wilkins had a few more bucks, maybe Splinter would have suffered for it.

As it stands, this is a solid little gem that should be sought out by anyone who loved the allure of Aliens, the austerity of Assault on Precinct 13 (the original), and the moment when a member of McReady’s crew turned into a upside down spider head. While some may see it as nothing more than a small scale experiment that succeeds more often than it fails, Wilkins work behind the lens suggests something much meatier and more satisfying. With Halloween almost a full month behind us, it may seem like bad timing to try and sell a scary movie. But something like Splinter is so desperate to transcend the type that when it barely manages to do so, we have no choice but to pay attention. It’s definitely worth such a look. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.

Jack Singleton is a writer who can’t get over the death of his young child. Stephanie Singleton is his rising country singer/songwriter wife, and the person he blames for his daughter’s drowning. While on their way to a marriage counselor, they come across an accident. The local sheriff directs them to a shortcut, but soon our couple is hopelessly lost. Stranded after a run-in with some random debris, they make their way to a rural mansion/motel run by Betty, her suspicious son Pete, and the mysterious maintenance man Stewart. They also meet another couple, psychologist Leslie Taylor and her businessman boyfriend Randy. Unfortunately, everyone soon discovers that a killer named The Tin Man is in the area, and he has one small request - a dead body before the sun rises, and everyone else will live. Without the sacrifice, they all will die.

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma. No, it doesn’t fudge faith to fit some eccentric approach to God. But it does lack the bravery to put the Big Guy out there and up front. Under the guidance of stylish journeyman Robby Henson, what could have been a dark and demanding meditation on forgiveness and the power of Christ instead plays like a limp episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. There are moments of intriguing atmosphere and the performances support the attempted suspense and dread. But when you want to make a movie about angels battling demons for the souls of some obvious sinners, do we really need so much faux fright film finagling? Peretti and Dekker are trying to use the genre as a means of making a bigger point. Apparently, someone forgot to inform the rest of the production.

It’s a common problem with Christian entertainment. The balancing act between beating people over the head with the power of the Messiah and the need to tap into that secular pile of mainstream cash creates quite the dilemma. House talks a good game at first. We get foreboding, foreshadowing, and flashbacks that offer disturbing (if clichéd) character conflicts. The trio of twisted innkeepers come across as Addams Family odd at first, with only their true disturbing intent coming across later on, and while we don’t particularly like the quartet of guests shacked up for the night, the narrative doesn’t dwell on their selfish, senseless indulgences. Heck, we even buy the whole “Tin Man” element of the story, up to a point.

But once House goes Saw, meaning once it turns on the moldy green cinematography and traps everyone in an ethereal “game” of going back in time and confronting your past, the movie goes off kilter. The drowned child storyline has some initial intrigue, even if it is filmed in an annoying, greenscreen as dreamscape manner. Here, Herman isn’t too obvious in his aims. But when Leslie is given over to her Something About Amelia rants about a pedophilic Uncle and the “pies” he brought as seduction aids, we lose all patience. It’s not because House hamfists this material. Instead, the notion of childhood sexual abuse is turned into a trick, a gimmick to get us to the next sequence of supposed scares. It feels manipulative and mean. 

The same is true regarding the introduction of trapped “child” Susan. We know she’s not real, the film treats her as a fiction, and yet Jack is so desperate for a daughter substitute that he’s willing to risk everything to protect and defend her. The random Satanic symbols mean nothing to him. Nor do the moments when Betty, Pete and Stewart start spewing black smoke. His obsession with the gloomy Goth girl is so disorienting (and so beyond the boundaries of basic horror movie survival norms) that we begin to doubt our interest. When the Tin Man finally arrives, in the persona of one Michael Madsen, the expected showdown never materializes. Instead, there are a few scripture-ish invocations, some semi-successful CGI, and that’s it.

And again, that’s the biggest problem with films like House. When you place God against the Devil and ask for them to bring it on, the results need to be as apocalyptic as that sounds. Or if you can’t afford an F/X epic, at least be honest with your commercial constituency. Audiences will buy almost anything as long as it is proffered with a far amount of polish and determination. Here, Herman tries for something spectacular, and then pulls back, fearing a fundamentalist backlash. Light banishing dark just ain’t gonna do it. We need the literal flames of Hell licking at the fence posts of the Pearly Gates. House can’t handle this. Instead, it turns tail and runs. Up until this point, it’s an above to only average journey into terror. Once religion gets pushed into and then back out of the picture, the movie can’t man up - and that’s a shame.

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008

As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.

When his father is promoted inside the Nazi party, Bruno and his family are forced to move from their comfortable manor in midtown Berlin and out into the distant, isolated countryside. From his new bedroom window, our hero can see a local “farm”. There, dozens of people go about their daily drudgery wearing nothing but their “bedclothes.” When he asks his mother about this fact, she is livid. Bruno is never to go near the place, ever. But the kindly acts of a “servant” named Pavel, also always wearing said “pajamas”, keeps him interested. Finally, Bruno finds his way to the location. There he meets Shmuel, a little boy who informs him that where he lives is not a farm, but a prison, and soon, the pair becomes uncomfortable friends. Naturally, neither sees the tragedy that is brewing behind the scenes.

When you hear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is going to focus on concentration camps and the German genocide of World War II from a child’s perspective, visions of Roberto Benigni’s awful Life is Beautiful instantly come to mind. While not a comedy (thank god), Mark Herman’s take on John Boyne’s novel has all the same trite trappings. We get intense suffering filtered through a family-oriented fallacy, no direct assessment of the atrocities offered, and a surreal ending in which the Nazis, not the Jews, are meant to garner our sympathies. This is not meant as some revisionist, regressive take on history’s most horrendous crime. There’s no denials here, just a literary take on the material that can’t quite survive the big screen translation.

Indeed a lot of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas appears to play better on the page then on film. Bruno’s youthful unease, his need to satisfy his sad boy curiosity, has all the trappings of a fascinating read. By the time he gets to the “forbidden” back garden, with its maze like walls and lack of a legitimate egress, you can feel the faux adventure tale looming. But Herman (best known for such interesting tragic-comedies as Brassed Off and Little Voice) takes everything so literally that all the potential magic goes missing. Even worse, once we meet up with the depressing little boy on the outskirts of the camp confinements, the movie goes flat. Bruno and Shmuel don’t really become friends. They’re more like individual objects of mutual fascination.

Indeed, the most irritating aspect of this movie is the lack of a larger perspective. Keeping things at a kid’s level may make the subject matter a little less unwieldy, but that doesn’t mean that the realities of the Holocaust need to be shunned, or at the very least, saved until the calculating, mawkish ending. Shmuel is seen as easily avoiding the guards, capable of long stretches by himself without supervision or suspicion. Similarly, Bruno can lounge outside the camp for hours on end, nary a sentry or prison perimeter inspection to be seen. Certainly there are aspects of the narrative that must be taken as fictional givens. All film works that way. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas definitely pushes such credibility gaps.

Then there’s the basic story in general. The Nazi family, with the slightest exception of the Hitler Youth loving daughter and bound to duty Dad, are portrayed as uncomfortable in their role as ethnic cleansers. While the newly appointed Commandant never shirks from his responsibility, he does spend a few pensive moments seemingly doubting his decision. And yes, Bruno’s big sister Gretel appears poised to take up the Aryan cause at the drop of a propaganda poster. But she also is given a more normative, adolescent reason for her newfound interest in the fatherland - a blond himbo in uniform named Lieutenant Kotler. Of course, once she learns of the realities surrounding her family, mother goes from strong to strung out, desperate for some relief from the guilt and casual culpability.

Yet, oddly enough, we are willing to accept some or all of this approach until the last act contrivance that finds Bruno running around the camp trying to help Shmuel find his missing father. This is again an issue that works well within the confines of the mind’s eye, a place where anything is truly possible. But Herman has a hard time making the logistics work. It’s as if the carefully laid out characters we’ve see throughout the first 80 minutes of the movie disappear, replaced by rigid, non-reactive robots. Desperate to leave her own sort of prison, Mother makes a bid to get her children out of the area. But she then allows Bruno to slip away, suspiciously, without a legitimate motive. Similarly, when he goes missing, the camp appears to be the last place anyone thinks of looking.

At this point, even the consistently fine performances from David Thewliss (as the father), Vera Farmiga (as Mother) and little Asa Butterfield (as Bruno) can’t salvage the schmaltz. Tuned in film fans will know where this storyline is going the minute our lead decides to put on a prison uniform to help with the search. As we wait for the denouement, Herman upends 60 years of history, turning the plight of the Jews into a mechanism for Bruno’s familial comeuppance. Perhaps in print the finale felt like just war crime desserts. Here, it’s either devastating or completely inappropriate, depending on your take. It’s the same rub aimed at Benigni’s ballsy, “it’s just a game” routine. Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

// Announcements

"PopMatters is on a short summer publishing break. We resume Monday, July 6th.

READ the article