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Saturday, Aug 8, 2009

Gallows humor, with its dark and often subversive nature, remains a hard sell in modern cinema. Not only does it take a certain droll oddball proclivity to truly appreciate, but the subject matter involved can often be an equally hard sell. That’s why we critics end up seeing so many hapless horror comedies. Filmmakers, convinced that macabre and merriment go hand in hand, try to balance out fear and funny business. Few succeed. 


Now imagine Sam Raimi circa Army of Darkness taking on a delirious version of a Merchant/Ivory period piece, complete with cockney criminals, corrupt priests, and enough crown Victorian flavor to turn a standard motion picture meal into steak and eel pie. That’s the beauty (and the bedevilment) of writer/director Glenn McQuaid’s goofy I Sell the Dead. Part slapstick shocker, part uneven horror romp, this tale of a grave-robber’s apprentice and his frequently supernatural travails offers some intriguing ideas. They don’t always work, but when they do, the film finds a groovy, ghoulish eccentricity.


Just hours before his execution, accused fiend Arthur Blake is visited by a kindly priest. The purpose? To record this notorious criminal’s last thoughts before the guillotine. Along with former colleague (and already disposed of) grave robber Willie Grimes, Arthur is indeed guilty of several gruesome acts. As he discusses his introduction into the body part trade (and his work for the horrific hack medico Dr. Quint) we learn very quickly of blackmail, mortuaries, missed opportunities, and a band of equally terrifying rivals known as the Murphy Clan. Made up of cutthroats, killers, and one demonically domineering father, Willie and Arthur soon find themselves battling the heinous forces of this determined family - as well as the occasional zombie. Indeed, as their business turns from the recently deceased to the “undead”, our duo discovers how profitable, and problematic, a career as a body snatcher can be.


There are times when you just want I Sell the Dead to settle down. This is perhaps the most “inertly hyperactive” movie ever made. Such a contradictory statement needs a bit of an explanation. McQuaid is clearly a fright film fan. He’s got the references and implied homages down pat. But he’s also like the 13 year old scary movie buff who is full to bursting with his own opinions and ideas about cinema - and you can see that scattered, ADD like attention span right up there on the screen. Instead of letting moments play out organically, building tension and laughs from within some exceedingly sinister material, he gets the basics down and then jumps right to the next set-up. This works during the initial scenes when Arthur explains his beginnings. But once we get to the more “monster” oriented material, the approach does some damage.


Take Arthur and Willie’s run-in with a vampire. She’s fetching. She’s voluptuous. She’s a corpse. Everything is set for a ripe bit of Hammer-era bodice ripping. Instead, the aforementioned maker of The Evil Dead is channeled, the bloodsucker appearing and disappearing in a series of silly Loony Tunes like false shocks. Indeed, the Murphys with their various superhero/graphic novel style backstorys are far more terrifying than any creature we see here. But at least McQuaid is borrowing from the best. The Raimi touches are everywhere, from weapon POVs to sly bits of Abbot and Costello like humor. As always, casting is crucial to making this work, and filmmaker Larry Fessenden and eternally Lost hobbit Dominic Monaghan are fine as the intrepid tomb raiders. Their personalities don’t dive below the fundamentals - cowardly/cautious - but they have their own brand of onscreen charisma to help them along.


Sadly, McQuaid utilizes several other quality cult stars in underwritten or little seen turns. Phantasm‘s Tall Man, Angus Scrimm himself, has a blink and you’ll miss it turn as the evil doctor demanding corpses from our heroes, and Ron Pearlman channels his Name of the Rose past playing the cockiest clergyman in the history of the Holy Sea. Yet both men feel like fanboy additions, ways for McQuaid to make good with nerd nation and the majority of movie fans who will read about this movie and want to check it out. The rest of the cast is competent, but clearly molded out of journeyman level of career. As for the main man himself, McQuaid has an interesting filmic frame of reference. Inspired by EC Comics, Stephen King, Charles Band and almost the entire ‘80 direct-to-video catalog, this Irish maverick wants to be both rebel and realist. I Sell the Dead does have a subtle satiric edge. When it goes a bit bonkers, however, things get way out of hand rather quickly.


Indeed, for its short running time and rapid fire vignette like approach, this is a movie that can feel a bit bogged down at times. While McQuaid keeps up the atmosphere and the kitschy CG backdrop dynamics, his narrative occasionally lets him down. Once we see that things are going from gruesome to Ghostbusters, the gimmick gets in the way. Certainly I Sell the Dead is never dull or disposable, offering every bit of its low budget invention up on the screen for everyone to see, and it’s clear that McQuaid, properly funded and flush with available talent, could turn in something really super. As it stands, this delightful bit of gallows humor has its high points. It also suffers from occasional stumbles. Still, in a genre that sees more misfires than masterworks, I Sell the Dead is an excellent minor example of the latter. While it could have possibly been better, fans know it could be a whole helluva lot worse. 


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Friday, Jul 31, 2009

Secrets are like seashells strewn across the beachhead of a desolate, angry ocean. Every human shoreline has them and yet few want to venture out into the cold, unyielding emotional sand and gather them up. We’d prefer to have them as decoration, elements of a psychological landscape that make us more complex than we probably are, that suggest experience when mistakes and missteps are probably the better reason for their existence. In a small town in Italy, the body of a beloved young girl starts a cynical inspector on a journey to uncover the myriad of mysteries surrounding her death. And as with most voyages of discovery, the revelations often fail to lead to anything conclusive.


It all starts with a missing child. Marta’s mother is frantic when her grade school age daughter doesn’t come home one day. In his capacity as local lawman, Commissioner Sanzio comes in from the city to investigate. Marta is eventually found safely, but she has horrific news. Local adult oddball Mario took her down to the lake, and there they discovered Anna. The star player on the town’s hockey team, the young girl has apparently been drowned, though there are no signs of struggle.


At first, Sanzio suspects the boyfriend. He is stand-offish and brash, and is eventually caught hiding several important items that belonged to Anna. Then the dead teen’s obsessive dad becomes a target. His fascination with his own offspring’s beauty sends up criminal profile warning signs. Soon, all clues seem to point to Corrodo and Chiara Canali, a recently separated couple who employed the victim as a babysitter - and it’s the death of their own handicapped child that Sanzio can’t seem to shake.


The Girl by the Lake is a stellar whodunit, a passive police procedural wrapped in the kind of communal enigma that would make David Lynch jealous. It tells a simple story - a body is found - and then proceeds to open doors and peak into closets overflowing with scandal and skeletons. For first time feature filmmaker Andrea Molaioli, the slow peeling back of evidentiary layers becomes a test of dread deferred. We keep waiting for the epiphany, the moment when Sanzio discovers the missing piece of this often obtuse puzzle. We anticipate the standard cat and mouse, cops cornering killer in a typical Tinsel town stand-off. Instead, like most legitimate police work, the conclusion comes inexplicably, lucked into via an early evening walk and a half-remembered bit of computer journal narration.


So instead of the ends, it’s the means of getting there that’s most important here, and this is where The Girl by the Lake really shines. Thanks to a terrific performance from Toni Servillo, we learn that Sanzio is his own walking contradiction. He suffers with familial issues - an institutionalized wife slowly fading from what appears to be Alzheimer’s, a daughter belligerent that her parents are passing from her life - and he uses that pain to put himself in the position of the victim. From there, he imagines motive and methodology, knowing that many of his answers are nothing more than hunches. With his sad sack face and wise maturity, Servillo sets us up to revel in the truths he uncovers.


Similarly, his suspect pool provides several other nuanced turns. Franco Ravera turns menacing manchild Mario into a pleasant pussycat, while Heidi Caldart brings a telling amount of personal resolve to Anna’s sadly neglected step-sister. The real surprise though is Valeria Golino, back in her native land (where she’s been reinventing her career for the last decade and a half) and bringing her “A” game. As a grief stricken mother, still torn by the death of her sickly little boy, she’s all pain, and all possibilities. We could easily see her as a cold, calculated murderer. Yet she also comes across as a victim.


And in that regard, The Girl by the Lake is one of those rare law and order efforts that’s not afraid to cast false witness and come to incorrect conclusions. Several times during the story, our detectives descend upon a suspect, interrogating them with professional pleasure, only to have their tactics turn up nothing but aggravation. Even more compelling, Molaioli offers up some purposefully directorial slight of hand, focusing on facets of the case that end up playing no part in the conclusion. Sure, this can seem like a cheat (many will wonder about the implied pedophilia of the opening), but it definitely adds to the arcane atmosphere and uncertain status of everyone involved.


In essence, The Girl by the Lake is a character study, albeit one guided via the need to resolve a crime. Sanzio is seen as a grumpy old man who is actually far more thoughtful and vulnerable than we think. His daughter is painting in a rather selfish, bratty light only to become more soulful in the end. From a pregnant DA to a tired assistant, our cop is surrounded by slightly off balance individuals. Even the suspects, initially offered as regular red herrings, develop into multifaceted “persons of interest.” Guided by Molaioli’s expert hand, and some gorgeous cinematography (the Italian countryside is simply stunning), we get lost in this insular world, recognizing that the truth is the only real way out.


That Girl by the Lake draws its conclusion so offhandedly, that it seems to drift to its denouement instead of building a big head of steam or suspense, might be seen as a flaw. Indeed, decades of cop and killer cinema have demanded that no investigation ends with a whimper. But just like the people who populate this particular section of the country, this mystery is indicative of its locale. As Sanzio sees it, everyone has a motive, if only because everyone has a connection. No one is completely innocent even though many have iron tight alibis. Even the victim violates several rules of the innocent. She’s not Laura Palmer, but there’s even a reason for her complicity. In many ways, she is much more than a mere dead girl found by a lake. This memorable movie is equally complicated.


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Thursday, Jul 30, 2009
A look at the most recent film from the filmmaker many have dubbed the new Bergman...

Often heralded as a successor to Ingmar Bergman due to his dark wit and humor, Swedish director, Roy Andersson has developed a niche for himself by creating poignant fables that are underscored by outlandish, laugh-out-loud comedy. In true auteur fashion, his pictures are marked by a distinctive tableau of meticulously arranged set design and cinematography, which help echo his bold (and absurd) quirkiness.


Here, in You, The Living, Andersson takes his notions of the ridiculous beyond the traditional bounds of reality – presenting us with hallucinations from vacant souls, who struggle to find ‘meaning’ in the despairing silence of the everyday. To map out a précis here however would be futile. For the filmmaker does not construct a traditional three-act narrative form, but rather weaves us into his story through emotional impulses. As such, all of the characters are ‘connected’, but unlike hegemonic movies, the players here are drawn together by their pessimistic outlook on life. The problem is of course remedied by the tragicomic ending, which sees a fleet of bomber airplanes seemingly ready to end these characters’ irreversible misery.


For those of you who feel that I may have just given away a vital plot point, rest assured. The experience of viewing Andersson’s film has less to do with this structural point, and more to do with its distinctive lighting, and its theatrical artifice – which reminds us of the sumptuousness of a Douglas Sirk masterpiece like Written On The Wind (1956) or All That Heaven Allows (1955). Unlike Sirk however, this filmmaker doesn’t mask his morbid outlook in subtext. Instead, he envelops his characters, his set (often shrouded in an eerie green light), and his camera, which on more than one occasion resides in utter stillness, almost as if waiting for the grim reaper to come and swoop these characters off to their graves.


These aesthetic choices imbue the piece with a dreamlike quality—one that is as much a nightmare, as it is a lurid fantasy. These painterly images seep into the viewer’s unconscious, hitting such a deep-set chord that by the end of the movie, I felt that I had been ‘uplifted’ from my own facade, and that I was slowly returning to it after a restless, and consuming sleep.


Besides its gloomy exterior, You, The Living is laced with some very funny instances. Old-fashioned physical gags are interspersed with inventive comic interludes. The most inspired of these examples involves a van driver, who while attempting a traditional cloth pulling technique finds himself unraveling a posh dinner party, ruining a series of antique china pieces. The driver is subsequently put on trial; where a bunch of beer-guzzling judges decide that he deserves to be electrocuted to death for his catastrophic sins. In an ingenious turn of events, Andersson executes these moments in a series of slow motion deadpan scenes, which left me hurling with uncontrollable laughter.


Another hilarious slice of comedy finds a disgruntled hairdresser reshaping an influential businessman’s head into a pseudo-Mohawk before an important meeting. When confronted by the fuming victim, the barber responds quietly: “take it easy”, explaining that a domestic tiff with his wife left him agitated, and unable to cut his hair in the manner requested. 


But despite his penchant for comedy, Andersson’s film boils with a potent political undertone, which raises existential queries. As we begin to question whether his characters are indeed ‘living’ or not, we grow to inquire about our own place in this seemingly wretched world, where we all ‘live’, merely to ‘earn’ our living, leaving behind our fantastic hopes for Technicolor in our disappearing dreams. As such, You, The Living harkens to the same hyperrealism of TV programs like Ally Mcbeal, except in a more radical and unapologetic manner. A truly visionary experience, You, The Living suggests that Roy Andersson may very well be on the brink of genius.


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Friday, Jul 24, 2009

It’s a classic “what if” scenario. You live a troubled life in a small Spanish town. Your mother hounds you over your lack of ambition (and your famed brother’s abundance of same). You spend each day within the haunting memory of a crime that was committed which has left you fragile and afraid of heights. Your menial job as a handyman only fuels your nightly need to drink and disappear into the background of the world -  and then you discover that said sanctuary is about to end. Yes, in three days, a huge meteor is aiming it sites on planet Earth. When it hits, that’s it. There’s very little you can do except sit back and wait.


For Ale, a young man living an aimless existence with his concerned mother, such an announcement leads to one inevitable conclusion - they both must go out to the country immediately and protect his brother Tomas’ children. Apparently, the absentee sibling was instrumental in capturing a notorious child killer several years before and with the sudden breakdown of society, the prison system is in disarray. Ale’s mother is convinced that the murderous maniac will come back to town and seek revenge on the family. When no one offers to help them, however, it is up to her and her ineffectual son to stand their ground.


Before the Fall, otherwise known as Tres dias in its native Spain, is a surreal kind of experience. This is an epic thriller with little or no F/X, a tale of Armageddon and its moral consequences wrapped inside a series of suspense saga homages. F. Javier Gutiérrez, making his feature film debut, melds together so many divergent elements - end of the world, family dysfunction, serial murder, child endangerment - that you’re convinced the cinematic center won’t hold. Indeed, the film plays like a series of references barely capable of coexisting. But thanks to the excellent use of mood and style, along with a couple of memorable turns by the cast, this menagerie of movies past really works.


Imagine Deep Impact combined with Desperate Hours and you get some idea of what’s going on here. The first act of the film follows Ale as he tries to maneuver his way through a reality wrought with bad memories and belittlement from his mother. Enamored of Tomas’ bravery and resulting local legend, she sees nothing wrong with throwing aside her slacker son for a chance to “rescue” the grandchildren. When she arrives at their country house to find no adults in charge, she immediately believes the worst. A late night run-in with a mysterious noise out in the woods seals her fickle, frightened fate.


Part two takes us into the mindset of Ale, reluctant uncle. Left in charge of what are for the most part four strangers, he does his best abusive dad routine, yelling and screaming only to ask for forgiveness later. Clearly he is angry about having to waste his last few hours on Earth playing nursemaid, but it is this intense interaction with the kids, from cooling raging adolescent hormones to reading a bedtime story that sets us up for part three of the narrative. When an injured stranger shows up with a broad face and a believable story, only Ale is anxious. The kids are just glad to have someone to interact with besides their dictatorial relative. Even as the intruder’s antics grow more concerning, the children seem nonplused.


Indeed, one of the most effective things Gutiérrez does is keep Tomas’ celebrated deed a secret until right before the ending. By then, the danger is all too real. Indeed, the last ten minutes play like a standard horror film, murderer making the unwilling hero finally come to the fore and defend his turf. Victor Clavijo gives an interesting performance as Ale. He goes from slacker to straggler to superman in a way that’s casual, believable, and totally without pretense. Sure, there are parts of his personality that rub us the wrong way (he is infernally lazy and relatively unconcerned about most things), but this is supposed to be part of the psychosis he lives with. Similarly, his mother is so single minded in her pursuit of her seemingly noble aims that we are supposed to forgive her rudeness, her pettiness, and her eventual slip into carelessness.


But it’s Eduard Fernández who steals the movie as the stranger. We know he is probably the killer hidden behind a façade of friendliness and fear, but we aren’t ready to buy his potential evil. It’s only later, when the true nature of his motives comes to the fore that we are faced with the same dilemma as Ale and the kids. Granted, Gutiérrez does little to endear the little nippers to our side. Only the youngest ones seem tuned into the way their world has changed in the last two days. By the time all threats become real, Before the Fall has wasted a few opportunities. While not enough to commend it, said failures keep the film from being a classic.


Sure, there are other parts of this story that don’t quite cooperate with the rest of the narrative. Ale’s love of a pregnant girl is unexplained, unexamined, and hastily tossed in toward the end, and budding teen sexuality is never a pleasant topic to undertake, no matter how carefully you circumvent the pubescent passion. With a bigger budget and perhaps an additional F/X shot or two, Before the Fall would feel much larger in scope. But Gutiérrez clearly wanted to tell an epic story in a very small way, similar to how M. Night Shyamalan dealt with an alien invasion in Signs. There is a money shot or two, but perhaps not enough to satisfy those looking for something other than atmosphere and suspense. Go into Before the Fall thinking the typical Day After Tomorrow treatment of the subject and you might walk away disappointed. Tune into how F. Javier Gutiérrez wants to handle the apocalypse however and you’ll definitely enjoy the adventure.


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Friday, Jul 17, 2009

Sometimes, a horror film is its own worst enemy. While that may sound cliché, no other cinematic genre shoots itself in the foot as readily and as consistently as the so called scary movie. From a lack of atmosphere to a horribly lame monster, movie macabre just can’t keep from ruining its own reputation. While it could be the prevalence of paranormal narratives, or the lack of skill behind the lens, fans of fright have to take the abundant bad with the infrequent good just to get their gore/ghost groove on. A perfect example of this ideal is The Uninvited. While it tries to address terrors both psychological and real, it ends up doing nothing except confusing the bejesus out of everyone involved - audience and actors alike.


Lee suffers from a strange psychological malady. She’s afraid of space. No, not outer space, or the outdoors, like agoraphobics. Her issue is much different. She can’t tolerate the distant between herself and other objects. Afflicted since she was a child, she is seeking medical help for the condition. She’s also become the subject of a documentary by famed filmmaker Nick. A year passes, and the two marry. Lee is much better, living with few side effects from her previous problem. Then things start to slowly unravel.


A strange young woman arrives at their door one day. A shaken Nick brushes off any oddness. It’s just an old assistant, he argues, looking for her final paycheck. But when she’s left alone in the house one night, Lee starts to hear strange noises. It’s not long before her condition returns, as does the mystery girl. Gun in hand, she starts screaming for her baby. Lee has no idea what she’s talking about. Turns out, there is something sinister going on under our heroine’s nose - and she’s about to meet its horrific realities face-to-undead face.


There is nothing more frustrating than a horror film that cheats - and Bob Badway’s The Uninvited (not to be confused with the equally awful remake of A Tale of Two Sisters from January) is the cinematic version of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Rafael Palmiero all rolled into one. To call it illogical would be an insult to teenage girls everywhere. Socrates himself couldn’t rationalize this ridiculous, overly complicated mess. Clearly hoping to mine the same demonic territory that made Rosemary’s Baby a success, this failed first film instead ends up looking like a dumber Devil’s Rain. While the premise of “spatial phobia” has promise, and our actress Marguerite Moreau gives it a damn good try, specious storytelling destroys what little dread there is.


Part of the problem is the underlying conspiracy. Spoiler warning in place, we are supposed to believe that Lee’s loony husband Nick has decided to sell a baby to Satanists in order to become financially prosperous. He gets extra if the surrogate’s blood is also included in the deal. Now, we are never really told this out loud. Former Man at Work, Colin Hay, hints around via dialogue that seems lifted out of a misprinted copy of the script, with the audience required to fill in the blanks through inferences made several scenes earlier. Even worse, we never really know why Lee is singled out. Sure, her malady makes her an easy patsy, but there appears to be a no real method to all this human sacrifice and baby eating (you heard right - baby EATING). Badway would probably argue that vague adds to the tension. All it does is extend the already present tedium.


Because of its scattershot approach and lack of linear connections, The Uninvited can build up a decent head of suspense. Darkened rooms pass for atmosphere and random ambient cues (infant crying, guttural growls) try to tweak the angst. But since we don’t know what’s going on, who to care about, why we should empathize, and the final fatal endgame should hubby get his way, our interest wanes. Then Badway goes a step further and finds the single most annoying supporting character is any scary movie - a suicidal wench who’s hard up for cash and quite happy to pawn her infant to a group of Demonic cannibals. As she sweats and stammers, arguing with someone who clearly has no idea what she’s talking about, The Uninvited grows increasingly irritating. At some point, we keep rooting for the man-goat himself to show up and kick this child merchant in the manifolds.


There is however one thing that does work here, a visual symbol that suggests Badway could actually make a competent fright flick. Lee’s phobia began during a horrific run-in with a spectral image in her youth. In flashback and hallucination, we revisit this terrifying event. As the shot of a neighbor’s opening window exposes a darkened room, our heroine remembers the time when she saw an eerie old woman standing in the frame. Transfixed by the visage, the ghost’s gangrenous smile sends her over the edge. Every time Badway pulls this phantom out, it’s effective. Even when she becomes part of the gobbledygook action elements, our sinister spirit brings on the chills. Too bad the rest of the film is so lame. Another run through the word processor and this could have been a decent Satanic stomp.


As it stands, however, The Uninvited (sorry about that name Badway - you will be forever tied to and/or trumped by that Elizabeth Banks stinker as a result) is too messy to recommend, too tethered to a bunch of incongruous fear factors to do much except aggravate. For all his narrative incompetence, Badway certainly has a cinematic eye. The movie looks good, the frequent fantasy sequences showing a wonderful use of exteriors and color. And Ms. Moreau is not just phoning it in. She gives a fully realized, if factually confusing performance. As with many attempts at terror, we fright fans have to put up with a lot to get a little. In the case of The Uninvited, one’s tolerances are tested - and the results just don’t add up.


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