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by Bill Gibron

16 Oct 2009


Wow - did we have Brad Silberling all wrong. The director of this past Summer blankbuster Land of the Lost wasn’t insane when he decided to turn the beloved Sid and Marty Krofft semi-serious sci-fi kid show classic from the ‘70s into an over-meta irreverent romp. He wasn’t misguided when he cast Will Ferrell as the heroic father figure, Danny McBride as his snide sidekick, and Pushing Daises’ Anna Friel as a decidedly grown-up female adventurer. Every oddball turn - the exploring of sexual and scatological boundaries, the surrealism by way of Stuckey’s production design, the complete and utter reinvention and perversion of every character and concept forwarded by the original - was preplanned and approved by a studio that saw nothing but dollar signs. But after it bombed, barely covering a small percentage of its elephantine budget, dissatisfied viewers still apparently have the right to question his decisions.

The answers can be found on the commentary track to the newly released Blu-ray version of the film. Loaded with the kind of self-affirming explanations that help someone sleep at night, Silberling makes one thing very clear - everything you see onscreen was done on purpose, accomplished to take his memories of geekdom over the Saturday morning show and twist them into a pure post-modern mess. For this director, perhaps best known for guiding the first (and so far, only) Lemony Snicket film, as well as Caspar and City of Angels, there is nothing insulting here, nothing disrespectful to the nature of what Sid and Marty once created. For him, it’s all about artistic choices, about allowing his actors to adlib in surefire comedy creativity. So what if some of the humor is inappropriate, or even worse, unsuccessful. It’s all part of a bigger picture production ideal, one based on paying homage to the TV treasure while dumping all over it at the same time. If you can figure that backwards logic, you will love this film. If you can’t, a pristine 1080p image isn’t going to save you.

The story finds research scientist Dr. Will Marshall as a laughing stock. With everyone from Stephen Hawking to Today ‘s Matt Lauer mocking his theories, he’s been reduced to a running joke among local grade school science classes. When a visiting Oxford gal named Holly Cantrell comes calling, she wants to know about the success Marshall has had with his hypothetical time travel device. Sadly, it’s very little. Inspired by her sudden interest in his work, our hero fashions his amazing machine, and the pair go to test it at a local “mystery” spot. There they meet proprietor Will Stanton, a crude man with an even more rudimentary grasp on reality. Suddenly, Marshall’s contraption causes a spike in prevailing “tachyons”, and soon the trio is sent hurtling down a raging rapids and through a waterfall-inspired vortex. Waking up, they find themselves in the proverbial ‘Land of the Lost’, an oddball universe filled with ape creatures, lizard men, and rampaging dinosaurs.

Take Step Brothers, remove all the sibling rivalry humor, insert plenty of pee and poop gags, set it all in a surreal backlot that’s half Dino-Lion Country Safari, half Salvador Dali product placement dreamscape, and then pump as much Ferrell and McBride at the audience as possible. Call in the Kroffts, give the old coots a paycheck, and name the creation Land of the Lost. Then, sit back and watch as audiences…well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it. This remake/reboot/reimagining of the ‘70s stalwart about a family suddenly stuck in time and space is so uneven, so scattered in both approach and tone, that you don’t know whether to laugh or wince, shudder or simply stand up and walk out of the theater. If this is what $150 million buys today, then our country is really in a complete and utter economic meltdown.

Though he denies it in his discussion, part of the blame for this overripe frat house flop goes directly to Silberling. As the commentary makes abundantly clear, he feels that the best way to handle the Krofft’s cracked fantasy realm is to simply stick smarmy actors in the middle of a glorified greenscreen and let them riff until something salvageable can be created. It’s actually not a wholly bad idea. When placed in the right realm, Ferrell and McBride can be electric. They can be and usually are funnier than numerous lame laugh-fest wannabes. But here, they do nothing but tread water - and they do so poorly. We except a certain level of irreverence from the duo. What we get instead is an attitude so mocking that it makes the whole experience pointless. If the people on screen aren’t taking things at least semi-seriously, why should we.

This is not to say that Ferrell and McBride are bad, or miscast. Indeed, they are only playing to their orchestrated strengths and to an audience ready to lap up every bit of their anger-spawned spoofing. But like Mike Myers in The Love Guru, this is a film for confirmed fans only - and even that’s a stretch, quality wise. Anyone hoping to glimpse a bit of the old Land of the Lost magic will wince when the Sleestaks are transformed into Alien rip-offs, or when beloved Neanderthal Chaka turns out to be a hopeless horndog. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking a nostalgic favorite from several decades ago (right, The Brady Bunch Movie?). But this version pisses all over the original - literally. Indeed, there is a sequence dealing with dinosaur urine that has to go down in history as one of the most pointless bits of forced scatology ever.

But the biggest mistake that this Land of the Lost makes is the total disregard for the sci-fi setting created. Nothing is ever explained here - not even when plot point Enik shows up to send the narrative careening off into heroes and villain mode. Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is cast aside with complete disregard, and the ending is given over to cheap F/X and stunt work. Yet we’d buy all the bumbling and burlesque if we just understood the rules of this particular parallel space. Why the various derelict ships (including a couple of flying saucers)? Why the old school motel with convenient pool (ready for a pointless drug dream montage)? If the dinosaurs and Sleestaks don’t get along, how did they survive each other until now? And why does everything in this particular domain revolve around feces, phlegm, and numerous man/animal bodily fluids? Of course, once we hear the reasoning (in both the alternative narrative and the endless bonus features which produce their own kind of cynical backslapping), it still makes no sense.

For those who like their satire glib, snide, and on the decidedly stupid side, Land of the Lost may satisfy. It defiantly builds up a big head of silly steam trying. But in the end, the lack of any real affection for the original series will ward off the Krofft faithful, and Ferrell’s fans haven’t actually been reliable when it comes to making his movie’s consistently successful (right, Semi-Pro and Stranger than Fiction?). Indeed, the only demographic assured of enjoying themselves are the same ADD-addled viewership that makes random hit or (mostly) miss shows like Family Guy a Fox favorite. In fact, if you didn’t see the other names listed among the credits, you’d swear Seth MacFarlane and his band of comedically challenged cronies were responsible for this hopeless hatchet job. As long as you enjoy the actors involved, Land of the Lost will mostly deliver. If you don’t, you’ll vanish into an entertainment void all your own - which might be what Silberling had in mind all along.

by Bill Gibron

13 Oct 2009


For many a devoted Talking Heads fan, 1983 was either the best year ever for their favorite band, or the telltale beginning of a slow and often painful end. It marked a break with Brian Eno, the producer extraordinaire who helped guide the group’s seminal albums More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and most importantly, Remain in Light. It was the moment when David Byrne went from wiry wizened frontman to egomaniacal despot, shaping both the sound and the visual representation of the music and its members until their break-up eight years later. They even scored their first Top Ten hit that year, “Burning Down the House” becoming a favorite among the burgeoning MTV generation and fratboys everywhere.

It was also the moment in time when the foursome expanded into a nine-piece and let director Jonathan Demme film their performance art like concerts. Twenty-five years later, Blu-ray technology is ready to reintroduce Talking Heads’ seminal Stop Making Sense to fans far too young to recall the group’s post-punk no wave reverie, or its eventual spiral into shameless squabbling and infighting. For nearly 90 glorious minutes, the band reduces the stage to a symbol-filled symposium on musicianship, craft, sonic bliss, group jams, individual acumen, and balls out greatness. It also offers enough sweat-filled dancing to inspire even the most stoic member of the fanbase to get up and shake their groove thing.

Honestly, the new digital update really isn’t necessary. From an audio and visual standpoint, nothing can beat Demme’s definitive work. Redefining the concert film for decades to come, the filmmaker manages the stage in ways that today’s modern quick cut stylists can’t even comprehend. Instead of using multiple angles and editorial overemphasis, Demme lets the lens linger. He follows certain segments of the band as a song simmers, allowing bassist Tina Weymouth or drummer Chris Frantz to steal the spotlight. Original fourth Jerry Harrison is often seen trading keyboard fills with former Parliament-Fundadelic ace Bernie Worell as backup divas Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt give Byrne a running in place rave for his vocal mania. With Steve Scales bringing the percussive noise and Brothers Johnson sideman Alex Weir working his six stringed magic, the movie is a collection of creative calling cards, skills all rolled into one amazing amalgamation of harmony and heroics. 

Byrne has to be credited for the “design” of this show, utilizing a highly suggestive structure that sees the band grow from its original minimalist art school roots (the frontman solo, followed by the gradual inclusion of bass and drums) to is then current multicultural co-op. By the time “Found a Job” arrives, we have the initial Talking Heads available, the entity that turned a hardcore CBGBs into a head scratching experience with this rhythmic preppy posing. Slowing adding more “spicy” to the mix, we eventually find all nine touring members onstage, driving such amazing songs as “Life During Wartime”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and “Take Me to the River” to stunning rock and roll heights. The highlight for many remains the infamous ‘big suit’ sequence, set to another classic workout from the Speaking in Tongues LP, “Girlfriend Is Better”. Quickly becoming the film’s most iconic image, it is also the first indicators that Byrne was bypassing the rest of the group to focus on his own ideas and image.

In fact, it’s easy to see Stop Making Sense as one man’s attempt to exorcise his celebrity demons while searching for his true ‘self’. Byrne plays many “parts” here, from solo showman to solid sideman to over the top center of attention. Each persona comes across organically and naturally, an outgrowth of the music being made and the lyrics being sung. Sometimes, Stop Making Sense is nothing more than the skill of perfect recreation. Many of the early numbers resemble their album counterparts, down to specific sequences and changes. But once Byrne is free to follow his own growing insanity, the paranoia becomes part of the subtext. Soon, as the rest of the group is headed into overdrive, he is reluctantly reduced to playing sideshow geek, given over to his insular flash dance-ability and transformed into something almost inhuman. As a journey through one man’s many mental states, Stop Making Sense is an eye (and ear) opener. It’s also Byrne unhinged and unhindered by the nature of playing nicely with others.

From a presentation standpoint, the Blu-ray doesn’t change much. The film still looks great, the slightest amounts of grain resulting from Demme’s lo-fi shooting style. The lighting was also intense (per Byrne’s instructions) leading to a loss of color throughout. No need to worry, however, the remaining imagery more than makes up for a lack of rainbow brightness. The 1080p does reveal more detail, like the copious amounts of perspiration generated by the band, or the various technical adjustments going on in the shadows. The aural reproduction is equally adept, the DTS HD Master Audio mix providing tons of dynamic display. As for added content, the new format mimics the old DVD by providing some bonus songs (“Cities”, “Big Business/I Zimbra”) and a commentary track featuring Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, Harrison and Demme (all recorded separately, sadly). The best new bit is the 1999 press conference for the film’s theatrical rerelease. Several years since the break-up, the band is personable yet tense as they take questions from an audience eager to dispel myths while creating new ones.

In fact, Stop Making Sense is the kind of concrete legacy maker that’s hard to live down. Should they ever reform - and the mountain of animosity between the band members is a hell of a range to overcome, even for professed professionals - recreating what they accomplished back in the early ‘80s would be a daunting if not impossible task. The reason this concert film remains so revered, the explanation for its lasting impact and appeal remains that clichéd concept of capturing lightning in a bottle. When they took the stage in 1983, none of the band could envision the reception they’d receive, or the fact that it would be the last time they’d perform together until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. In many ways, Stop Making Sense would come to represent the apex of the group’s appeal - both commercially and as a personal concern. From then on, things got very complicated indeed. Luckily, we have this reminder of when things were practically perfect, a rarity for almost any artistic collective. That’s the magic in Demme’s movie. That’s the brilliance of one of music most memorable acts.

by Bill Gibron

12 Oct 2009


What did Dr. Seuss ever do to Hollywood? How did the genial children’s author, responsible for many of the most memorable kid lit classics of all time turn into such a cinematic pariah? Granted, last year’s Horton Hears a Who was a wonderful CG miracle, an update of the favored tale that added just the right amount of contemporary comedy zing. But sadly, such an accomplishment remains a real rarity when it comes to adaptations of Theodor Geisel’s works. In 2003, Mike Myers urinated all over the memory of Thing One and Thing Two with his horrific hackneyed take on The Cat in the Hat. But the whole anti-Seuss vibe probably started when a then hot Jim Carrey soiled the stellar reputation of Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff when he turned How The Grinch Stole Christmas into a distressing example of star hubris excess.

By now, everyone knows the story of how a mean old monster with a hatred for the holiday season tried to steal the celebration away from the Whos down in Whoville. As with any good fable, the Grinch has a last minute change of heart, recognizes the reason for the season, and saves the day. This updated version has a terribly trite backstory which sees the character, now a decidedly freakish member of the Who clan, pining away for a cutesy classmate, later played by Christine Baranski. When he is ridiculed by his peers, he turns into a meanie, makes his way up Mt. Crumpit, and becomes the city’s resident urban legend. When little Cindy Lou Who decides to nominate the myth for a festive Yuletide award, the town balks, including the Mayor played by Jeffrey Tambor. When the Grinch accepts, and is mocked again, he decides to teach the Whos a lesson once and for all. So it’s on with the familiar Santa suit, off with the village’s many merry Noel trappings.

Someone should have stopped director Ron Howard when they had the chance. You can tell he thinks he’s making the most magical, spirited seasonal masterwork ever conceived. His intentions are so obvious, his frame so overfilled with as many eye candy confections as possible, that claims of excess become understatements. Indeed, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is so big, so bloated with unnecessary red and green froufrou, that Seuss seminal message gets lost - nay, trampled on, tossed aside, and treated like an afterthought. Even more overly complicated thanks to the new Blu-ray version from Unviersal, this hallucinogenic horror is half ego trip, half toddler night terror fodder. Between the Whos who look like shaved mice (take that, Rick Baker’s undeserved Oscar for Best Make-up) to the dogged Disney-like art design (no straight edges or recognizable geometrical shapes in this chaotic creative hodgepodge), we are treated to a craven cake overflowing with too much icing, too many nonpareils, and not enough sugar-less substance.

It’s not all the filmmaker’s fault. Howard casts his film with a group of likeminded movie minions who take the notion of fantasy to nauseating, nonsensical extremes. For every Bill Irwin, quite capable as the clown, we have Baranski, or the leaden Tambor who both believe that playing wistful requires a combination of the cloying and the creepy. It’s the same with Molly Shannon as Irwin’s wife and Clint Howard as Tambor’s Mayoral assistant. In fact, the Whos are so uninvolving and uninteresting that we could care less if their Christmas is ruined. We simply see their dilemma as part of Seuss story and wait for the plotpoint to payoff. Everything else here is narratively unnecessary. The grade-school Grinch sequence is painful in its pat psychobabble tone and the Baranski love interest is borderline sickening. Indeed, the whole concept of the Grinch is never given much clarity. If he’s not a Who, why is he treated as one? If he is, why is he the only odd looking member of the clan?

Of course, Carrey is no help. He’s his typical mid ‘90s scene stealing hog here, taking control of every moment to work through his various levels of adlib (in)efficiency. Sometimes, he scores. Most times, he misses by miles. His mountain retreat is part horror film, part theme park proposal, and his dog Max (turned into a live action cur) is less a silent Greek chorus and more canine comic relief. By the time the movie gets around to actually investing in Geisel’s moral, we’ve sat through endless shouting and shenanigans that fail to provide a single saleable laugh. Carrey is complete adrift here, doing his shtick without recognizing how ineffectual and inappropriate it is (should a children’s film really revel in shrill, softcore asides?). If the rest of the movie weren’t so distended, the former superstar would be the goiter giving How the Grinch Stole Christmas its swollen spirit.

The desire to pack in as much as possible is apparent throughout the bonus features included on the Blu-ray release. We are taken to Who School (?), shown the various details in the production and art design, witness the way in which Carrey constantly countermanded the script to exercise he proposed purposeful witticisms, and watch as the special effects give overkill a comfy new motion picture home. There are deleted scenes a’plenty (which is stunning, considering how crammed full the film already feels), a look at Baker’s make-up techniques, and a vile music video from Faith Hill. Perhaps the most telling piece of added content is the commentary by Howard. Ported over from previous DVD editions of the film, it offers no perspective on the critical consensus on the film. Instead, it plays like a pep talk, the filmmaker convincing himself over and over again that he made the right decision in turning Seuss’ legend into a spotty, slapdash spectacle.

Well, at the very least the image and sound get a much needed format update, the better to show off the senseless surplus within How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ vision. One of the worst elements of the revamp is turning buttinski urchin Cindy Lou into the voice of reason amongst a populace already clueless as to how to control themselves. Her arguments about sensing inner beauty and de-commercializing the date are so shrill, so saccharine in their cutesy pie approach, that you hope this Grinch grinds her bones to make his bread…or something like that. If you want to see what Dr. Seuss’s amazing message can look like when properly treated and translated, seek out the 1966 cartoon classic. The original celebrated the triumph of the individual spirit. This one is nothing more than a crass mainstream cash grab. Though the sentiment is apropos, the packaging is just awful.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009


Sandra Bullock is much more than her current career arc. She’s a better actress than her RomCom credentials would suggest, and when given material to match her mantle (Infamous, Crash), she can compete with any of her credited competition. Still, Hollywood continues to push her into one lackluster chick flick moneymaker after another, the most recent being the psycho-stalker abomination All About Steve. Interestingly enough, Bullock brought her appreciable A-Game to a different 2009 comedy, a far more favorable look at a megalomaniacal boss and her decent if rather misdirected assistant. A sizable hit for Touchstone, The Proposal (coming soon to Blu-ray) proved that, when put in the right setting, with a semi-sound script and decent direction, this post-millennial matron can sell even the most clichéd claptrap to an audience eager to be swept off their own wish fulfillment feet.

Margaret Tate is the cutthroat editor-in-chief for a highly successful New York publishing firm. She is feared and hated by everyone in the office - including her emasculated, subservient assistant Andrew Paxton. While he has his own motives for taking her taunts and tirades, getting a promised promotion seems more and more like a pipe dream. When the Immigration and Nationalization Service comes after Margaret for an expired visa (she’s Canadian, by the way), it looks like she will be forcibly deported, losing her job in the process.

Suddenly, she has a brainstorm - she will get Andrew to marry her, thereby giving her an out with the Feds. Of course, they are suspicious of Margaret’s motives, and so she invites herself to the Paxton home for his grandmother’s 90 birthday celebration. Arriving in the small Alaskan town of Sitka, Margaret soon learns that her ‘secretary’ comes from a very wealthy family, has issues with his father, and has sacrificed a lot to move to the Big Apple. When the Paxton’s plan a quickie wedding for the couple, it’s crunch time. Either they must go through with the ruse and risk getting caught, or realize that they are actually falling in love with each other.

The Proposal is an inconsequential little piffle, a movie aiming directly for the middle and almost always achieving its aims. Certainly, it flirts with some significantly low brow leanings (the Alaskan male stripper with a pot belly and the savoir faire of a Teamster, the nude meet cute moment between the stars), and prays it offers insight into the reasons why people fall in love. In truth, it’s just 108 minutes of innocuous motion picture archetypes. There’s the distrusting, disappointed dad, the saintly mom, the dirty old granny, the smokin’ hot ex, etc. It’s the same in Margaret’s NYC kingdom, including employees who goof off instead of doing their job, underlings who curse the very ground their bitchy boss walks on, and owners more interested in dollars signs than keeping a dynamic (if rather impersonal) leader in place.

Together with a script that follows the genre formula’s to a comfy flannel ‘T’, and a cast that does its best to enliven the often infantile material, The Proposal is pleasant if almost instantly forgettable. Instead of being emotionally engaged, we simply wait around to see if Margaret and Andrew will fall for each other, or if the morally askew big wig step will aside so that her overworked and underpaid staffer can finally be happy. Everything on the Paxton side of things - except for pissed-off papa Craig T. Nelson - seems sunny and secure. Even Andrew’s previous girlfriend, as played by Malin Akerman, comes off as the most trusting and loving former flame in the history of devastating dumped relationships. The issue with his parents is more of an independence thing than an “I hate you” happenstance. Margaret, on the other side, has a single facet to her one-note characterization. On her own since her parents died when she was 16, she’s simply forgotten what it’s like to have a family that loves her. When the Paxtons show her kindness, she’s unequivocally thrown for a loop.

It’s a good thing then that both Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are on hand to hold down the histrionics. While we never buy our bubbly lead as the kind of callous fiend who would feed a small dog to an eagle in order to retrieve her cellphone, we do feel her isolated pain. It’s especially potent during a late night confessional when she reveals some little known details about herself. Her beefy co-star is equally adept, light on his feet and quick with many of his above-average one-liners. He’s a nimble foil to Bullock’s bravado. Director Anne Fletcher also shows some improvement over her previous attempts at behind the camera creativity. The Proposal is much better than Step Up, or the horrifically ordinary 27 Dresses. Sure, the greenscreen Alaskan backdrops show through early and often (Massachusetts’s was the stand-in for Russia’s famous ‘neighbor’), but she handles the human element of the story rather well. Indeed, this is one of the rare RomComs that doesn’t lapse into illogical slapstick or forced farce every five minutes…sometimes, it takes a good twenty before the burlesque arrives.

Thanks to the new Blu-ray release, we can see just how sappy and silly this movie could have been. The deleted scenes shed light on subplots that could never pay off properly, while the alternative ending is one of the weakest, most misguided attempts at humor in recent cinematic memory (it involves the mishearing and mis-delivery of messages - no, honestly). As for the rest of the added content, there is also an interesting commentary track from Fletcher and screenwriter Peter Chiarelli that illustrates why some alternate narratives are too self-congratulatory to be much good. As for the technical side of things, the movie does look amazing, filled with a natural wonder that only stock footage of the Yukon can provide, and the 1080p HD picture is excellent throughout. Sure, the locational sham is exposed in this updated format, but like the rest of the movie, it’s an excusable flaw.

Maybe that’s why Bullock continues to pull down the big bucks. Even inside a premise as implausible and confusing as The Proposal (if Reynolds is such an amazing assistant, how did he fail to anticipate the visa debacle?), she lifts the material to her level and does her best to drive it home. With an able company of fellow finery by her side, it takes a lot to let the audience down. Sure, the finale feels plodding and unnecessarily serious, considering all the oddball eccentricity we’ve seen before (Betty White, in full Native American headdress, dancing with abandon in the woods?), but there’s still enough here to satisfy. Bullock will branch out once again come awards season, playing a snooty member of Tennessee society who adopts a homeless black teen in the true story The Blind Side. While such a move shows her range, she seems endlessly stuck in situations like this. Good thing then that, unlike other examples of the type, The Proposal is more or less acceptable.   

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009


In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider the ongoing link between cultural heritage and folklore and what we call ‘horror’. Fear is such a part of who we are personally, so tied into the very facets of our humanity and human knowledge of mortality that the fables and fairytales which fueled our youth often translate into the terrors that remain as adults. It’s all a matter of updating and contemporizing. This is especially true in countries with long standing traditions, regions more or less formed out of the myths and legends of the past. In the wonderful new film Left Bank, Belgian director Pieter Van Hees uses a modern setting to tell an ancient tale of ritual, sacrifice, and the beast that must be appeased. Within this world of cellphones, skyscrapers, and instant information, some remnants of our dark ages linger, unholy…and hungry.

Marie is a professional runner with hopes of making it to the European Championships in Portugal. Her coach has faith in her, while her mother hates how she pushes herself. When she is diagnosed with a mysterious blood disease, Marie is sidelined. Hoping to ease her disappointment, she moves in with new boyfriend Bobby. He’s a car salesman and the dean of a prestigious archery guild. His apartment on the outskirts of Antwerp (known locally as ‘Left Bank’) also has a bit of a history. The previous tenant, a woman named Hella, simply up and disappeared one day. Her fiancé, Dirk, thinks it has something to do with the complex’s haunted history. It was built on the site of a heretical church, a place where a pit to the underworld is supposedly located. Soon, Marie learns that she’s in line to be a sacrifice to the monster that lives in the basement, an entity served by many in the building - perhaps even Bobby.

Left Bank is so much more than a standard horror movie that when it starts its slowburn stomp toward a truly crackerjack ending, we tend to distrust the pacing. Few fright films use deliberate moments of silence and inactivity as a means of creating menace, especially in the newfangled formula in which everything scary is supposed to be over the top, action packed, and hyperactive. Instead, Van Hees hopes we will buy into the blatant David Lynchian nods, the sequences of dream logic surrealism that evoke something other than shivers. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the obvious last act macabre, narrative fusing the modern with the mythic to create a visceral creepshow callback, we’d swear this was some manner of Inland Empire riff. There are shots here that instantly recall the clinically controlled approach of Kurbrick, the Coens, and of course, the aforementioned Midwestern madman himself.

It’s also interesting the way Van Hees misdirects the audience. When we think of horror, we automatically assume diabolical or disturbing ends. But Left Bank may not be asking for our concern. Instead, we could be dealing with a question of implied perception. We hear words like “sacrifice” and “underworld”, see situations in which other characters appear terrified and tormented, we see a leg injury turn gangrenous and oozing, and we instantly sense something sinister. But all throughout this amazing movie, Van Hees never goes for the throat. Instead, he keeps things ambiguous, baiting the viewer with portents both evil and evocative. If we are to believe Bobby, if we listen very carefully to everything he has to say, the fate of those introduced to cellar 51 might not be all that bad - at least, within the context of what we usually associate with the realm of fear.

The cultural differences also make Left Bank compelling. The entire subplot involving Marie’s running career is very interesting, giving us insights into the character that otherwise might be missing from the narrative. Indeed, it reflects on her health food store managing mother, her overly friendly coach, and the oddly detached doctors who treat any injury like a combination of calamity and inconvenience. Superstition also rears its illogical head, residents of the apartment complex responding in oddball ways when they learn of its potential history. There’s even a small amount of socio-economic commentary at play, Bobby’s Russian buddies clearly illustrating the growing connection between Eastern Europe and Asia. That they also act both aggressive and subservient to the situation at hand offers its own clever conclusions.

Like other knowing foreign fright films, Left Bank definitely lets us in slowly and methodically. We are never overwhelmed with information, even when Van Hees turns up the trickery to add some artistic flourishes (the party scenes, complete with superbly spastic camera movements, really amplify the dread). There are many unanswered questions here - why is Marie’s father so unimportant to the story? Why did Hella disappear if our heroine was always the “target”? What is the significance of the files in the archery guild (except, perhaps, to act as a shout out to The Shining)? And when Marie finally understands her fate, what is confronting her and why does it seem so…apathetic? It’s mysteries like these that make Left Bank so intriguing. It allows a viewer to bring their own interpretation to the mix, making as much sense (or as little) out of Van Hees’ designs as possible.

In the end, Left Bank will probably be unfairly judged for its lack of gore, understated approach, and often indecipherable conceits. But when something is this moody, this given over to gorgeously composed shots of sinister inference, a lack of blood or believability is a minor complaint at best. Pieter Van Hess has created a thriller that seeps under your skin, that shocks you with its nonconformity to the written rules of terror. Instead, what we end up witnessing is one girl’s chance at a second life - albeit one drenched in the pagan beliefs of centuries gone by. How that fits within the facets of modern metropolitan life in today’s Belgium is what this movie is really driving at. As with many movies made outside the US, it’s a battle between the ways of the past and the wants of now. How said struggle ends is what give something like Left Bank its power - and its ability to unnerve.

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