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Joel

SDCC TRAILER: Timberlake and Seyfried on the run in IN TIME

SDCC TRAILER: Timberlake and Seyfried on the run in IN TIME 437 628 Joel

Andrew Niccol is that rare Writer/Director that earns the the distinction, “visionary”, hell even his failures are interesting and thought provoking like GATTACA and S1M0NE. Still those failures have been numerous and Hollywood isn’t about being interesting and thought provoking, not entirely at least; no Niccol needs to find some sort of box office vibrancy if he wants to keep making his sort of films and with IN TIME he may have cracked the code.

Filled with essentially anyone who has been on a magazine cover in the last 5 years, IN TIME merges Niccol’s sensibilities with something that feels like it was pulled out of a Phillip K. Dick novel, a new wave LOGANS RUN with a sprinkle of BLADE RUNNER. The film is written and directed by Niccol and it stars Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Galecki, Matt Bomer, Cillian Murphy, and Vincent Kartheiser. You see now what I was referring to about the magazine covers, I suppose Niccol is trying to say that the future is pretty, but also ugly, and sad, and dangerous, apparently. IN TIME premiers October 28th.

Above us is the official poster, beneath us the official synopsis courtesy of JoBlo, and below that the first official trailer thanks to IGN, it does look intriguing.

Welcome to a world where time has become the ultimate currency. You stop aging at 25, but there’s a catch: you’re genetically-engineered to live only one more year, unless you can buy your way out of it. The rich “earn” decades at a time (remaining at age 25), becoming essentially immortal, while the rest beg, borrow or steal enough hours to make it through the day. When a man from the wrong side of the tracks is falsely accused of murder, he is forced to go on the run with a beautiful hostage. Living minute to minute, the duo’s love becomes a powerful tool in their war against the system.

REVIEW – CINDERELLA

REVIEW – CINDERELLA 785 510 Joel

CINDERELLA
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter

Rising above one’s station and breaking away from unjust oppression is the prototypical fairy tale made famous by Charles Perrault’s CINDERELLA. In the years since the Disney animated classic arrived, many have put their own spin on it. EVER AFTER, ELLA ENCHANTED, A CINDERELLA STORY and even other rags-to-riches stories like PRETTY WOMAN and KINGSMAN have put forth the notion that everyone is capable of greatness. Now, in the post-modern feminist era where a man rescuing a woman is seen as a cinematic taboo, we’re given director Kenneth Branagh’s very traditional take, CINDERELLA. While screenwriter Chris Weitz has some fun showing that our heroine is no pushover, and the film fleshes out some things a little better than the animated iteration, this adaptation isn’t as unconventional and unique as those glass slippers on Cinderella’s feet.

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful, happy family in a palatial countryside estate filled with sunshine, a menagerie of animals and lots of laughter. Until one day, Mom dies, leaving wide-eyed optimist Ella (played in later years by Lily James) and her merchant father (Ben Chaplin) on their own, surviving on the mantra “Have courage and be kind.” Many years down the line, their little kingdom grows when Dad marries widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and she and her obnoxious daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera) move in. Things begin okay, but quickly turn once Ella’s father dies, leaving the wicked stepmonster in charge. Forced into servitude, the newly nicknamed “Cinderella” is reaching her breaking point. But fate has something far greater in store for her. Whilst out on a protest horse ride in the forest (as one does), she meets Kit, a.k.a. Prince Charming (Richard Madden). Since she didn’t give him any information, the Prince convinces his dying father the King (Derek Jacobi) to throw a royal ball for all to attend, hoping Cinderella will come. However, Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters set out to sabotage the reunion. Never fear, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) creates a show stopping, swoon-worthy ensemble to help our heroine find true love – so long as she gets home before the clock strikes 12.

There are things that work in this live-action version and things that really don’t. Let’s begin with the latter. Narration is incessant; it’s wall to wall throughout the first act, then relents for a while only to maddeningly return later and continue off and on through act three. Meant to be like a storybook coming to life, all it does is infuriate with its “movies for the blind” quality. We can see Ella writing in her diary about her magical night; why does the narration have to tell us that’s what she’s doing? Though the race to beat the clock sequence is thrilling, Fairy Godmother’s magical transformation of the pumpkin and animals felt like obligatory CG mayhem. Bonham Carter (who famously said in FIGHT CLUB that “the condom is the glass slipper of our generation”) looks fantastic, but goes a little too broad with the material, which up to that point is pretty straight-forward. Also disheartening is that James singing “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” and Bonham Carter’s “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” are relegated to the end credits. For a film that could have used a few transportive musical numbers to break up the flat narrative, this feels like a wasted opportunity. Though the filmmakers create a magical place that’s easy to get lost in, their additions feel a little unnecessary. Do we need a third act scheme between The Captain (Stellan Skarsgård) and Lady Tremaine? Not really, but at least it’s something different.

Branagh restrains himself, eschewing his usual shenanigans of over-the-top Shakespearean dramatics and canted angles (of which there’s blessedly only one). In their place is a light-hearted, entertaining, beguiling atmosphere where actors with pathos can shine. The royal ball sequence is absolutely mesmerizing, lovely and wonderful. They say “God is in the details,” and no one seems to understand that better than CINDERELLA’s power combo of Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume design. Locations and wardrobe come alive with their ornate details. The chinoisere that adorns the walls of Lady Tremaine’s manse oozes glamour, as does Blanchett’s wardrobe, looking like it’s borrowed from Rita Hayworth’s estate. Ella’s household feels as repressive as those corsets under those costumes. Even the way Ella’s iconic baby blue ball gown skirt twists and twirls is simply enchanting, sparkling and superb – as is James’ performance.

While I feel like the filmmakers missed a chance to put a modern twist on the old-fashioned, super girlie tale, what’s there serves as a good reminder to be nice to everyone – including your tormenters. So in that regard, this film’s blights are all forgiven.

3.5 out of 5

CINDERELLA opens on March 13.

LA FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ECHO PARK (2014)

LA FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ECHO PARK (2014) 615 346 Joel

ECHO PARK (2014)
Directed by: Amanda Marsalis
Written by: Catalina Aguilar Mastretta
Starring: Mamie Gummer, Anthony Okungbowa, Maurice Compte, Ricky Rico, Helen Slater, Gale Harold

We’ve all thought of moments left unlived. You know, where we drift off and imagine living elsewhere – like in a dream-like bubble where happiness is valued above all, where “follow your bliss” is gospel and escapism is key. But not many of you actually take the plunge and live out your dreams in real life. That’s where director Amanda Marsalis’ ECHO PARK begins.

Sophie (Mamie Gummer) is a rich, WASPy twenty-something who’s feeling bored with her life – what with the endless uptight cocktail parties and the insufferable personalities who populate them. Rather abruptly (somewhere during the opening credits, I suppose), she uproots her life and moves all the way across town to Los Angeles’ hipster enclave, Echo Park. Her life magically changes upon answering an ad to buy a couch when she meets Alex (Anthony Okungbowa, who’s best known for being ELLEN’s DJ Tony), a jingle writer who’s moving to London in two weeks. Theirs is a sweet, pure relationship that blossoms quickly. But all isn’t bliss as Sophie’s past – in the form of her harried mom (Helen Slater, doing her best Sally Field impression) and her smug, narcissist ex Simon (Gale Harold) – returns to haunt her.

Much like the neighborhood it stands to immortalize, ECHO PARK has a sweet sincerity with a relaxed, embraceable vibe. Marsalis’ beautiful lens, working in tandem with Jason McCormick’s ethereal cinematography, captures the area elegantly. Marsalis’ style is akin to Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE and LOST IN TRANSLATION, but without any pretentious meandering. She’s got a refreshing vision and voice that I’d like to see more of in the future. Music, culled by music supervisor Simone Rubi, is integral to this film as well; it helps get a flavor of the city and also acts as a siren call for Alex and his best friend Mateo (Maurice Compte). Christopher H. Knight’s smoothed out electro-pop score – similar to that of an upscale Pan-Asian bistro during happy hour – complements and augments the narrative. Around act two, it actually surpasses the rudimentary plotline. Traditionally-speaking, audiences aren’t really even supposed to notice the score, but the fact we do here shouldn’t be considered a weakness.

Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) is incandescent – think an approachable version of Gwyneth Paltrow. Though her performance is enchantment incarnate, her character wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked. Besides oscillating between two male goalposts, what’s her motor? What’s her agency? She’s got a job as a hipster handbag designer (which I presume is both vegan leather – a.k.a. plastic – and sold at a huge mark-up), but she seems to spend a majority of her time fretting about men, and not her own personal journey towards happiness. Romdramy predictabilities set in with Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s script, where the main dramatic conflict is whether or not Alex will stay in LA or leave for London. Their “excuse” to not be together is a little flimsy, even by romdramcom standards – LIKE CRAZY and THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT are prime examples of this maddening contrivance. If they want to be together, be together! Another unfortunate strike against it is that despite being written by and directed by females, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Sophie almost exclusively discusses men with her overbearing, off-color mother and the new next-door neighbor.

While some elements seem very film school-y, there are also a few unexpected surprises in this film. Though I don’t think it  will take the world by storm, I do think the director and her resplendent star should work together again on something more cohesive.

 3 out of 5

ECHO PARK played LA Film Fest on June 14 and 17.

SCREAMFEST REVIEW – THE HUNTED (2013)

SCREAMFEST REVIEW – THE HUNTED (2013) 615 346 Joel

THE HUNTED
Written and Directed by: Josh Stewart
Starring: Josh Stewart, Nikki Deloach, Skipp Suddath, Ronnie Gene Blevins

By now, we’ve seen tons of found footage horror films flood our cinematic landscape. From 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to the latest PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, there’s no place the cinematic subgenre hasn’t gone. Triple threat Josh Stewart writes, directs, and stars in THE HUNTED, a chilling found footage thriller set in the West Virginian woods. Though it doesn’t exactly blaze new territory within the genre (and comparisons to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT will be inevitable), it is 88 minutes of unrelenting terror – and the third act will have you holding your breath and hiding behind the person next to you.

Based on Stewart’s own personal harrowing adventure, the film follows hunting enthusiasts Jake (Stewart) and Stevie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) as they head deep into the West Virginia woods to shoot a pilot for the Outdoor Channel. Outfitted with a bow, a knife, and multiple cameras placed throughout the wilderness, the two have given themselves three days to capture and kill “Movie Star,” a monster buck that’s been haunting the area. But guess what?! Something else has been haunting those woods too. Before they can even catch sight of their prey, a much more malevolent force crashes their party – and it seeks revenge.

If you’ve never had the urge to go hunting, you definitely never will after seeing this film. It’s sadistically fun to see how the duo initially looks at the woods as a place of creative freedom, but once their creation sours, it morphs into a place of imprisonment where trees appear to be prison cages. Tension, tone and atmosphere build at a brisk pace and then explode into fireworks during the final act. While you (and possibly PETA) may worry at the outset for the buck’s safety, never fear, as there are only a few moments where that type of anxiety comes into play. There’s also an adequate (and very necessary) amount of tension release humor peppered throughout. Blevins and Stewart do a terrific job acting as both hunters and the hunted. Both characters represent the two opposing types of people in their audience – those, like Stevie, who’s can’t handle the scares and those, like Jake, who are much braver souls.

Walter Werzowa (who also composed the music) and John Luker’s stellar sound design comes to the forefront of this terrifying campfire tale. Snapping branches and footsteps on crackling leaves have never been more ominous and foreboding. Screams seem to travel through and, at times, surround the audience, making the forest feel inescapable. It will have you sinking deep into your seat, praying for the relief of daytime to come quickly. William Yeh’s crisp cuts also help sustain the picture’s fluidity and energy.

For a self-confessed wuss like me, THE HUNTED grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Even avid horror enthusiasts are bound to find favor with this. A pickup for distribution by Blumhouse will hopefully be a no-brainer as this is tailor-made for that company’s oeuvre and audience.

4.5 out of 5

THE HUNTED played Screamfest on October 10. For more information on Screamfest, go here.

The CARRIE Remake Currently Has Five Possible Endings

The CARRIE Remake Currently Has Five Possible Endings 1124 660 Joel

Studios have long used general audiences to test screen films prior to their release.  Achieving the right tone and pace is certainly important for all films, but they are absolutely integral to a horror film.

It kind of goes without saying that most remakes seem to be maligned by film fans.  But because the horror genre seems to be home to the majority of these remakes – few of which outdo their predecessor – the fans of the genre are often the loudest of the cynics.  The upcoming CARRIE film is an interesting project.  Yes, it can be seen as a remake, but the studio has been adamant that it’s a more accurate adaptation of the book than simply remaking Brian De Palma’s 1976 film.  Nevertheless, it still has sparked a variety of opinions since the project was first announced.  Initially many were happy with the talent behind the camera as well as the prospect of Chloe Grace Moretz playing the title character.  However, the buzz died down when the film was pushed back to October from its original summer release date and it has continued on that path as the film inches closer to its release.  Now we are just a few weeks from CARRIE’s big unveiling and many are curious if they need to ready a bucket of blood to dump on the film.

What I find most shocking though is that the film isn’t exactly ready.  I spoke to someone that went to a test screening of CARRIE a few days ago.  My curiosity got the better of me as much of our conversation was centered on the ending . . . or should I say ENDINGS.  Not one, but four different endings were shown to the audience with a fifth one mentioned in addition by the studio reps. Below, I have direct quotes from my source and detailed descriptions of each of the endings screened.  THIS IS ABSOLUTELY SPOILER TERRITORY FROM HERE ON OUT.  SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE ORIGINAL FILM AND REMAKE FOLLOW.

CONSIDER THIS YOUR FINAL WARNING  –  SPOILERS BELOW 

It should be noted that the guy that went to the screening is a big horror fan who has read the book and seen Brian De Palma’s original film.  When I started our conversation by asking if he liked the movie he had this to say:

“I go to almost every midnight screening of a horror movie, and I will definitely be there on opening night to see it again.”

He went on to praise Julianne Moore for quite awhile:

“Julianne Moore gives an award worthy performance.  I really think she deserves to be nominated.”

He spoke very little about the film’s star:

“(Chloe Grace Moretz) isn’t bad but they really gathered a realistic group of high school kids that she’s surrounded by.”

DVD Review – WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES

DVD Review – WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES 662 935 Joel

WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES
Rating: The US version usually rates TV-MA and the original is no different.
Studio: Shout Factory
MSRP: $29.93 but Amazon has it for $22.83.
Running Time: 400 mins

What’s Going On?

Adam is invited home by Sarah after a concert. When he meets her dog, Wilfred, he can’t believe what he sees: a man in a dog suit. Wilfred is determined to undermine and sabotage his relationship with Sarah, leaving Adam questioning his sanity.

Who’s In It:

Jason Gann and Adam Zwar, who created the show, also star along with Cindy Waddingham.

If You Like…:

The American remake of the series, in which Gann also stars, then you’ll definitely enjoy comparing it to the original.

Special Features:

Each of the season has its own chunk of special features. The first has a behind the scenes featurette, a trailer and a crew montage and the second has a making-of featurette, outtakes and bloopers.

The Technical Gist

Solid.

The Verdict

The biggest difference between the original version and the American is that this one isn’t quite as dark as I would have expected. While Elijah Wood’s character Ryan in the American version is suffering from depression and it’s arguable that Ryan sees Wilfred because he’s died or because he overdosed on drugs, Adam is brought into Sarah’s home and there’s no particular event that would lead to him seeing Wilfred. For me, that made things a bit less credible.

However, Gann is still great and the show is still utterly charming and quite funny. Fans of the series should definitely QUEUE IT and the uninitiated can watch the first season of the American version on Netflix Watch Instantly.

INTERVIEW: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, J.A. Bayona, Sergio G. Sánchez, Belén Atienza & Maria Belon Talk THE IMPOSSIBLE

INTERVIEW: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, J.A. Bayona, Sergio G. Sánchez, Belén Atienza & Maria Belon Talk THE IMPOSSIBLE 600 399 Joel

Most of us remember 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami from the round-the-clock news coverage, bolstered by home video footage shot by eye witnesses. The survivors’ harrowing accounts and pictures of the destruction evoked waves of overwhelming feelings.  Now it’s Hollywood’s turn. Writer Sergio G. Sánchez and Director J.A. Bayona’s THE IMPOSSIBLE is a heartfelt, gut-wrenching testament to survival that tells the true story of the Belon family’s painful ordeal to re-connect after a natural disaster. It’s through the microcosm of this family that we see the world of pain and loss.

The film begins as an idyllic vacation for Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their three young sons Lucas, Simon and Thomas. But their holiday turns into a hellish nightmare when a wall of water wipes out the resort and separates the family. When all is said and done, the tsunami has killed over 200,000 people and left millions homeless. Maria Belon, who was actively involved in the making THE IMPOSSIBLE, is beside herself when she thinks about how fortunate her family was.

“There is no explanation. There’s no reason why we survived and other moms and dads and kids didn’t. We just ask, ‘what for?’ not ‘why?’ If you ask why, you can go dark. We would like to go up.”

Writing commenced on the third anniversary of the tsunami. Sánchez says, 

“[Producer] Belén [Atienza] heard Maria’s story on the radio and it moved her to tears. We met Maria in Barcelona and heard an extended version of her story. We sat at a table and the coffee went cold. None of us had planned to do a movie about a tsunami. I think in a way the film is not about the tsunami – it’s a story of a loss of innocence. There was something very universal about it.”

Bayona was able to assemble a cast of incredible actors to help tell this extraordinary story.

“Naomi is really good at getting into the dark places and getting close to the tragedy. And also she’s a very everyday woman. Same with Ewan. He has also has this normalcy no matter the character he’s playing, he’s able to keep humanity. He’s really easy to have a sense of empathy from the beginning.”

The film’s message hit home with McGregor and pushed him to explore new territory.

“This film was an extraordinary opportunity to explore being a dad for the first time. I’ve been a father for sixteen years. This was an opportunity to look at the unique love that you have for your children is a love that you don’t experience with any other human beings in the world.”

Watts responded to the script’s emotional resonance.

“The minute I read the script it just felt rooted in truth and it just felt necessary in a way because it was an intimate piece of storytelling about this family as well as addressing this tsunami.”

While the film shows events almost exactly how they happened, it did go through one major alteration. Filmmakers decided to change the original Spanish family to an English one. Says Sánchez,

“We didn’t know if we were going to get the financing to make this film. That first draft was in Spanish. Even in that first draft, 80% of the dialogue was in English because after the wave comes, that’s the language everyone would use to communicate. So then with the characters, you never know where they are from. We let everyone keep their accents. Instead of working against that, we thought it was an interesting concept to have this family have no home. It’s not clear what’s the home they want to go back to. At the end, they realize home is where they are together. We were trying to make it universal – to try to create a place where nationality didn’t matter.”

Bayona reiterates,

“It felt quite natural to get an English speaking cast. It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.”

Watts felt it was necessary to spend time with the real life heroine.

“I didn’t have to worry about the walk and talk and the look of Maria because nobody knows her. I got to invent that part. The power of what she went through was so big. We spoke a lot. There was such a willingness on her part. Although she had reservations about being a part of telling her story for a movie, she also felt it was right that it wasn’t just her story. It was the story of so many. There’s no question that woman has left a massive profound impact on my life. She’s full of courage and so centered and connected. She’s inspired me.”

McGregor felt he had the freedom to create a character from Henry’s experience. He says,

“I’m playing him and I wanted to capture him but we were making them British not Spanish so already I felt I’ll play this guy on the page. I knew that the director knew him and the writer had spent a lot of time with him so I trusted that they steered me in the right direction. When I knew he was coming out to Thailand after a month of our shooting, suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, fuck. What if he doesn’t think I did him at all? What if he doesn’t like it?’ I was nervous that they were coming. It’s a funny idea that you’re playing somebody and it’s an easier idea if they’re not there in a way.”

To help ground the film in authenticity, THE IMPOSSIBLE shot at the same hotel where the Belon’s had vacationed.  Sánchez says,

“People kept coming to us asking, ‘do you know this story?’ There’s this palm tree in front of the hotel that’s covered with pictures and teddy bears. There’s many open wounds and a need to tell this story. It’s like sending a message in a bottle to many different people.”

Great care and respect is given to the film’s script in crafting a fitting tribute to survivors of this horrific event. Says Atienza,

“We were cautious because we were invading some place that is painful that went through all that. We soon found out they want to talk about it. They need people to know. When you are watching the news,you don’t feel what these people went through. That is why we were so obsessed with not only telling the story, but the feeling. Everyone there had a story. We had a lot of extras that were at the tsunami. For example the scene with Ewan in the bus station, the people surrounding him are real survivors. Before he shot his scenes, the other people told their stories. It was very emotional and helpful for Ewan to be transported to what that moment was like. They were very generous and brave to openly share with us to help the story feel true.”

Bayona says,

“…that created a special atmosphere on the set. I felt not like a filmmaker but a messenger getting all these stories and putting them together on screen.”

To capture the horror of the event, Bayona didn’t rely solely on computerized effects. Instead, they built a massive tank with rushing water and debris. Atienza made sure all of the pieces of the puzzle would be there in order to do justice to this incredible story.

“The only way to do it is step by step. One of the key things was to have the money in order to really tell this story right. Not so much the adventure but how it felt. The realism was key to the story. We started from scratch. We worked for six months on an animatic that had all the shots we needed. There’s very little digital. We shot there with the actors in the water. The rest is a composition in the shot with plates of real water at scale. It’s very precise and fun to do because it’s an old school way of doing things. The problem with digital water was it still had this feel of fantasy. In this film, anything that could bring you out of the story would harm the story. Same with the sets – they were huge. Only the background is composition.”

Astute audiences will note that sound design is key during the initial wave sequence. Atienza states,

“We wanted it to sound like a monster. Suddenly this wave becomes like a monster for this family. It’s non-stop. Maria said she could feel the evil in the wave. It wouldn’t listen to you even though you beg it to stop.”

Bayona expands,

“Everything had to be very sensorial. Much more emotional than intellectual.”

Belon was at first reluctant to tell her story on the big screen but ultimately changed her mind. And thank God she did. Says Sánchez,

“That was one of Maria’s questions, ‘Why our story? Nothing happened to us.’ So for us we struggled to find within that story a moment of empathy. The whole story is geared to that last scene on the plane – a sort of bookend with the beginning. It’s not a happy ending – Maria is thinking of the woman on her arm, Lucas takes off that tag, Henry opens up that note with the names on the list. Again, it’s all about the people who remain there.”

Belon states,

“I personally feel I came away from the wave with so much presence. It was selfish of me to keep it for me. People have told me they’ve come home from the movie and hugged their children. There’s nothing else to say. Nothing else to say.”

THE IMPOSSIBLE opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 21.

AFI FEST REVIEW – THE IMPOSSIBLE

AFI FEST REVIEW – THE IMPOSSIBLE 600 421 Joel

THE IMPOSSIBLE
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Johan Sundberg, and Geraldine Chaplin

Both Hollywood and audiences love a good, real-life tear-jerker. After all, it allows us to work out our pent-up emotions whilst plunking down our hard earned cash to see these intensely felt stories play out on the silver screen. This is the sentiment behind director J.A. Bayona’s tsunami of emotions, THE IMPOSSIBLE. While it does a fantastic job portraying the emotional and physical devastation from 2004’s tsunami in South East Asia, it also suffers from a few cuts and bruises due to the film’s trite, lazy, and maddening third act. When all is said and done, this film is visceral, thrilling, and heartbreaking – although not entirely for the right reasons.

We first meet British married couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their young children Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) en route to their Christmas getaway on one of Thailand’s luxurious beach resorts. Setting up each of their personalities (and the traits they’ll have to overcome in order to survive later), this is a well executed precursor to the harrowing horrors that await. Things are going perfectly at the Orchid resort until the day after Christmas, when a pressing (and frightening) powerful wave floods the shores – not just once but twice! Unrelenting terror kicks in when our hero family becomes separated. Lucas and a badly hurt Maria band together to seek help after being swept away by the current, and Henry and the young boys hang at the hotel until he decides to go look for Maria and Lucas.

THE IMPOSSIBLE’s script by Sergio G. Sánchez makes it impossible not to cry – or at the very least tear up – during the breathtaking and immersive second act. It puts viewers right in the epicenter of the tsunami. How do you go about finding your loved ones in a disaster? Would you take the same measures? Where does strength come from? Through the mouth of Geraldine Chaplin, death is explained in an elegant, non-condescending fashion. Brilliantly executed, Bayona and Sánchez find many moments of staggering beauty throughout much of the devastation. Whether it be toddler Daniel (Johan Sundberg), who represents the hope that can spring after complete ruin or a stranger’s kind act of handing over a cell phone to call home, it’s these tiny genuine moments that visually speak volumes – much more than any dialogue could ever do.

The film brims with standout performances from the entire cast – not just from leads Watts and McGregor. While they add the gravitas a piece like this needs, Holland is tasked with one of the most difficult jobs here. He equals his more seasoned co-stars’ determination and ferocity without ever being precocious or losing one beat with the audience. Sound design by Oriol Tarragó and his crew also plays a large part, as it’s the sound of the massive wave that makes us feel it to our core (and what notably starts us on our harrowing journey). Plus the visual and special effects departments earn a hat tip for adding the correlating visuals. Cinematography by Óscar Faura gives the film a polished, slick sheen that both complements and contrasts the narrative.

That’s why it’s so utterly disappointing that the third act stands in such jarring juxtaposition to what we’ve seen prior. Relying on a cheap flashback device manipulates viewers and insults their intelligence. We’ve already seen the nightmare of what happened to Maria, and we understand this will haunt her for the rest of her life; why must we experience it again?! Plus the film ends on a maddening note, as this rich, insured, white family leaves safely on a private jumbo jet, casually comptemplating the real losses of other less fortunate people. It seems very insincere. There’s also no post-script about how the real life family this film is based on is doing today, which also leaves viewers hanging.

THE IMPOSSIBLE is a testament to the human will, a force that can get us through even the most dire of circumstances. Unfortunately, it can’t overcome all insurmountable obstacles, such as third act contrivance.

THE IMPOSSIBLE played at AFI Fest on November 4 and 8 and opens on Christmas Day.

Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Nine)

Mr. Knight’s Double Bills of Blood (Part Nine) 940 225 Joel

I love October. The weather, the leaves changing color, the candy, the Halloween decorations…

…and the movies. Goddamn, you get to be a horror fan without anyone looking at you like you’re some bugged out dude sitting by the playground. For one month, fright fans are granted carte blanche because it’s “in the spirit of the season” (unless you’re watching the GUINEA PIG films, in which case you’re still just a “weirdo”).

In short, October is badass.

When I kept a personal blog, I used to watch a horror movie each day in October and then write about them at length, just like everyone else who isn’t the Osiris of this Horror Shit, Brian Collins of HMAD. Before that, I’d usually just jot down a list of the films I watched and on what day (fuck your judgment, I like lists). Now I bring this tradition to Very Aware, only I’ve put a bit of a spin on it.

Thirty double features in October — that’s what I’m going to bring you. The dual bills of horror, cult, sci-fi or exploitation that I’m using to ring in my favorite month. Most of these pieces will be quick (a meaty paragraph or so) while others will be full-blown reviews. It all depends on how much I love (or hate) the films.

All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year: the Exhumed Films 24-Hour Horrorthon (October 27th and 28th); an entire day where, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, 35 or 16mm prints of great (or horrifyingly awful…depending on the group’s mood) genre films from the 60s, 70s and 80s are projected nonstop with trailers, shorts and other oddities in between. It’s all courtesy of the fine folks in Exhumed Films (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi), who have been putting on unbelievable double features for the past fifteen years, and the 24-Hour Thon for five.

Features seventeen and eighteen revolve around a pair of weird, atmospheric ’70s flicks and a double shot of Wes Craven…

Feature #17 – 10/17/12 – A Pair of Little Seen Atmospheric Oddities From the ’70s (DEATHDREAM [1974] & LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH [1971])

DEATHDREAM is an angry movie. A film about the how the horrors of war can change a human being irrevocably, it uses its supernatural elements (in this case vampirism) as a metaphor, not just a tool for elementary scare tactics. In many ways, DEATHDREAM feels like it would be at home in the filmography of George Romero, an artist who was interested in creating similar allegories.

Bob Clark is mostly known for his holiday classic, A CHRISTMAS STORY, and his raunchy teen comedy, PORKY’S. But before making those mainstream hits, he toiled away in indie horror. Starting with the zombie movie, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (which is an absolute snoozer), he cut his filmmaking teeth creating rubber faced ghouls and desperately horny teens. It wasn’t until DEATHDREAM that he would add deeper dimensions of character and emotion, as it seems the story of young Andy’s homecoming from Vietnam is a very personal one for Clark.

The plot to DEATHDREAM is relatively simplistic, and that straightforwardness allows the film to focus on the more interesting subtexts going on beneath the surface. Andy Brooks (an utterly chill inducing, dead eyed Richard Backus) is a young Vietnam soldier killed on the battlefield. While dying, he is suddenly transfixed by an ambiguous object. Back home, a soldier reports the tragic news to the Brooks family (which includes John Marley and Lynn Carlin, of John Cassavettes extraordinary FACES, as his father and mother). However, on a local highway, Andy reemerges as a silent hitchhiker. Much later that evening, hours after a tranquil Brooks family dinner, Andy returns home. The family is ecstatic, but Andy is despondent, much to his father’s chagrin. He stumbles through the motions of civilian life, but eventually the family’s happiness turns into curiosity and later fear for Andy’s condition. Something is definitely wrong with him and Andy’s relationship with his father becomes increasingly strained as it becomes clear the boy may have been involved in two local murders (where the deaths “fed” him in an unusual way).

Its obvious what Clark is getting at here. Like so many soldiers of that war, the “old” Andy died on the battlefield and returned home a souless, empty shell of a human being.  Clark and Ormsby take the transformation a bit futher, making Andy a very literal “monster”, as the Vietnam War used him up, sucking every last of humanity the young boy had in him. The subtext adds a layer of sadness to Andy’s character and, even though he gives you creeps as he injects one of his victim’s blood straight into his veins (another obvious bit of Vietnam Vet imagery, as so many brought home drug habits), you can’t help but feel sorry for his plight. He served his country and, in turn, lost his soul.

Besides unveiling Clark’s directorial talents, DEATHDREAM also served as a training ground for two other horror icons: Tom Savini and Alan Ormsby. Savini’s legendary talents speak for themselves, but it is worth noting he considers DEATHDREAM an important rung on the ladder of his success. The DVD (from fellow exploitation icon Bill Lustig’s amazing label, Blue Underground) features a 10-minute featurette about Savini titled “The Early Years” that has the young makeup artist saying just how much DEATHDREAMmeant to his career. Screenwriter Alan Ormsby wrote DEATHDREAM, and he later wrote CAT PEOPLE for Paul Schrader and THE SUBSTITUTE (yup, the one with Tom Berenger), in addition to frequently collaborating with Bob Clark. Ormsby also directed and wrote DERANGED in 1974 (the same year DEATHDREAM hit the States from its native Canada), a biopic about serial killer Ed Gein that again showcased Savini’s early makeup work.

There’s a lot to love about DEATHDREAM, but I can also see many people being turned off by its overtly grim tone. Unlike CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS and his follow up to DEATHDREAM, the holiday slasher classic (and pre-cursor to HALLOWEEN), BLACK CHRISTMAS, Clark would inject zero humor into the proceedings. But those looking for a dour, thoughtful piece of cinema with one hell of a downer ending will be thrilled beyond words. A true product of its times, DEATHDREAMis a damn fine horror picture.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, which is the very definition of “unremarkable”.

I first saw LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATHat an Exhumed Films triple feature in 2005 (I believe the second and third movies were actually Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGSand Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS). A definite “slow burn”, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is the low budget tale of our titular heroine, a recently released psych patient who moves with her cellist husband and hippie friend into a New England estate known simply as “the old Bishop place”. Upon arriving, she attempts to ignore the whispering voice in her head and the ghostly apparitions surrounding the property.  Is Jessica going crazy? Or is the house really haunted by the spirits of its past?

I honestly can’t give you an answer either way, as the film’s attempts to shroud its narrative in ambiguity create too many unanswered questions. The locals tell tales of a girl drowning in the lake that surrounds the home, and that she now roams the countryside as a vampire. And an old family portrait shows the girl bearing quite a resemblance to the beatnik squatter Jessica finds living in their new house. But that can’t be right…can it? The resemblance has to be a conicidence. Or is it?

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH creates solid atmosphere with its misty photography and haunting score. The use of sound in the film is top notch as well, as long stretches of silence give way to jolting pianos and jarring jump scares, something I usually hate but found worked quite effectively here. I’d be interested to see if Tobe Hooper is a fan of this film, as the aural design would be replicated in the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, full of clangs and white noise. And much like that classic, the scares never feel cheap, but are used in an effort to build Jessica’s growing paranoia.

The performances are good, if a bit uneven at times, and the attention to character building over straight horror (a solid portion of the film is devoted to how Jessica’s mental disorder puts a strain on her marriage) is something you don’t see in most scare films anymore. Unfortunately, the lack of answers grows frustrating after a while and the film, while only running a scant 88 minutes, drags quite a bit.

A true encapsulation of the filmmaking style of the time, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH feels like a great concept that never fully gels into a completely coherent film. With such a great title and premise, it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t snatched it up to remake (I know I sound like a broken record here). With a slightly more focused script, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH could be a truly wonderful little horror movie.

Feature #18 – 10/18/12 – Two From the “Master” of Horror: Wes Craven! (SHOCKER [1989] & NEW NIGHTMARE [1994])

Wes Craven’s nickname should be “50/50″, because those are the odds that, whenever he makes a movie, it’ll be any good. While it’s considered a “classic”, no one can say A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is completely flawless (the ending, when you think about it, makes completely no sense), and even Craven’s “solid” movies, like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, suffer from glaring flaws (God, those bumbling small town cops are horrible). To me, SCREAMwill always be his best film (just rewatched the first one on blu and it holds up like a motherfucker. The sequels…not so much…), and when you combine this fact with the absolute stinkers he’s made (DEADLY FRIEND, THE HILLS HAVE EYES II, CURSED, MUSIC OF THE FUCKING HEART), the guy comes off like an above average Tobe Hooper, not a John Carpenter or George Romero.

SHOCKER is a film that is usually lumped by most into the “stinker” category. And, for the most part, that’s right. But only half right. In 2010, Craven directed the monument to incoherent filmmaking, MY SOULD TO TAKE. Watching that film unfold is how the last moments must be before you dehydrate and die in the middle of the desert. It’s hallucinatory, bizarre, and you just kind of want it to end already. In many ways, SHOCKER feels like the a stepping stone to that colossally entertaining piece of crap, as the last thirty minutes find Craven almost brazenly defying logic.

What sucks is that SHOCKERactually starts off great because it’s, well…coherent. Following a very ELM STREETfeeling credits sequence (where a man is using a buck knife to splice television pieces together in a grimy lair), we meet Jonathan Parker (future FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS mastermind Peter Berg), a rising high school football star. He’s got a pretty girlfriend, a supportive coach, and a loving police detective foster-father (the always welcome Michael Murphy). Enter Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi or, as you and I know him, Skinner from THE X-FILES), notorious mass murderer of suburban families. He slaughters Jonathan’s mother and sister (which Jonathan somehow witnesses in a dream before it happens) and then Jonathan psychically leads his father and the rest of the police force to Pinker’s television repair shop. He, of course, eludes capture and murders Jonathan’s girlfriend.

Up until this point, everything pretty much follows an easily discernible bit of logic. The psychic dream stuff, you would assume, will be explained later (spolier: it isn’t) and there’s only been minor logic gaps (like…why would they just let Jonathan and his girlfriend hang out alone after Pinker has just slaughtered his relatives and then gotten a good look at Jonathan while escaping the TV shop?). But, overall, it’s thrilling, well paced, and chock full of that great atmosphere that made A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET so enjoyable. In all honesty, there are so many similarities between this movie and the ELM STREET films that I couldn’t help but wonder why Wes didn’t just rework the script to be another sequel.

Jonathan then (psychically, of course) leads the police to a murder in progress, where they apprehend Pinker. Time passes, Pinker is sentenced to death and, on the day of his execution, the guards find him worshiping at a self-made television altar (his last wish was to have a TV brought to his cell), where some kind of spirit comes out and electrocutes him. The guards are able to revive the maniac (not without Pinker snapping awake and attacking the poor saps), and then Pinker is promptly put to death via electric chair, but not before delivering a speech to Jonathan and his dad (they’re witnesses at the execution) that pretty much says “Luke, I’m your real psycho killer daddy”.

The whole time I found myself thinking, “OK…so I’m still with you Wes. And I’m entertained. So really, who gives a shit about logic?” I quickly regretted giving him, as my dad would say, “enough rope to hang himself”.

Pinker comes back, but as conducted electricity. Also…he’s able to jump into other people’s bodies. It’s actually kinda cool at first (and nice to see where JASON GOES TO HELL stole the idea from). But then Pinker possess everyone in a small park, one after another, and it kind of gets ridiculous. I’m sorry, but the movie lost me from that point on. SHOCKERkind of just drags from there (at almost two hours, this film is ENTIRELY too long), hurtling toward a climax that is so preposterous, so inexplicably batshit as to defy explanation. But I’m going to give it my best shot (HERE THERE BE SPOILERS):

At one point, Jonathan’s loving football coach (who should’ve been played by Carl Weathers) is possessed by Pinker…until the ghost of Jonathan’s girlfriend appears and tells him to “will it out” (the ghost will later appear to guide Jonathan in his quest against Pinker, kind of like “Grandpa’s Ghost” leads little Joshua in TROLL 2). It seems that Pinker feeds off of the “life force” inside of each human, but if yours is strong enough, you can kick his ass to the curb. Needless to say, the coach fails and then Pinker makes him jam a knife through his own chest. Everyone’s sad, and Jonathan gets the football team to rally together to execute a plan that he’s (again, inexplicably) devised to trap Pinker in TV Land.

This is where it gets tricky. Jonathan somehow is able to wrestle Pinker INTO A TELEVISION, where they fight and tumble through classic TV shows (like Mary Tyler Moore), music videos (I think that was Alice Cooper) and recorded moments in history (like the H-Bomb tests…who the hell is watching this?). At midnight, his football buddies are supposed to cut the town’s main power tower off (using just an axe, apparently), trapping Pinker in TV Land forever. It’s a sequence so stupid and strange, that you can’t help but grin ear to ear while watching it.

Oh…this should be a good time to clue you guys in: I loved every second of this nonsense. It’s so weird, so defiant in its stance against logic and reason that it almost becomes a piece of abstract art. Craven throws narrative to the dogs and just lets the crazy flow. It’s deliriously wonderful, and really has to be seen to believed.

Seek SHOCKERout. It’s not “boring bad” like CURSED, but instead is a great film to watch. Make sure you grab your beer bottle cooler (it’s a long movie) and just kick back with. You’ll laugh. You’ll gasp. You’ll scream “WTF?” more than once. But as the credits roll, I guarantee you’ll be entertained. It’s up in the air as to which side of the “50/50″ coin this truly lands on, but I’d say it lands on the “solid” side.

NEW NIGHTMARE felt like the obvious choice to follow SHOCKER with, as it almost explains why that film was so incoherent. Craven was obviously bored with the actual character of Freddy Kreuger. Relegated to a pop culture piece of iconography, the gloved killer had lost his ability to be scary long ago. After having very little to do with FREDDY’S DEAD (falsely subtitled THE FINAL NIGHTMARE), Craven didn’t actual resurrect the character, but instead let Freddy usher a new monster into “the real world”. Deliciously meta in a way he’d go on to perfect in the SCREAM movies, NEW NIGHTMARE is, in my opinion, one of the more wrongly underloved films of all time.

NEW NIGHTMARE is very much a horror film within a horror film. The film follows actress Heather Langenkamp, director Wes Craven and the rest of the crew (both fictional and playing themselves, as is the case with New Line head honcho of the time, Bob Shaye) as they embark upon making another sequel in the ELM STREET franchise. But Wes is making the movie in order to stop evil from entering this world, as the first six films apparently helped usher in a demon that manifests itself in the form of Freddy.

Where SCREAM would be a commentary on horror films, NEW NIGHTMARE is really a commentary on fervor. Much like the Sutter Cane novels in John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, these works of fiction are made real by the multitudes that take in and believe them. In many ways, I also wonder if Craven is relaying to us, via fiction, some of his disdain for both fans of the franchise and the franchise itself. The demons return to earth because, not only do people not believe in them anymore, they’re also angered by the death of their fictional manifestion on the big screen. They want more Freddy because, without him, the people don’t get their fill of “pure evil”. “The only way to stop Freddy is to make another movie,” Craven says at one point, making it literally clear that he wanted to stop the ELM STREET movies and their clamoring fans in their tracks.

Craven also seems interested in the effects making these movies has on its stars and creators. Heather has trouble sleeping and almost fears the sight of her movie when her young son has it on the television. When Craven is said to be writing the “new script”, his nightmares keep him awake night after night, to the point that Langenkamp is concerned and instantly knows the background of the director’s seemingly legendary dreams.  “Nothing good comes from these,” Craven seems to be saying and even Robert Englund is haunted by visions of his evil alter ego.

None of this would matter if the film didn’t work, and it really does. Craven’s shot composition, while rather workmanlike as it always is, is lit to moody perfection at times. And the look of “new Freddy” is kind of terrifying, as the cartoon, rubbery visage that became his trademark is replaced with an angular, demonic face. Also gone are the “witty” one liners and jokey, tongue-in-cheek nature of Freddy’s attacks. NEW NIGHTMARE is deadly serious, and all the better for it, as its the first movie since the original that is actually, you know…scary.

If Craven’s intention was to throw fans off and kill the franchise, he succeeded. While the film made $18 million at the BO (over double its budget), it was the lowest grossing, and final entry in the original series (unless you count FREDDY VS. JASON or that abomination of a remake). It’s just as well, as this is the best way to take out an icon. By reinventing him almost completely and putting an entirely new spin on the series, Craven made his greatest creation scary again. And that’s really all we want from our horror right? To thrill and chill and make us question why we ever liked these movies (or want to make them) in the first place.

TRAILER: Robert Pattinson Has A Bad Day In David Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS

TRAILER: Robert Pattinson Has A Bad Day In David Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS 579 291 Joel

The closer we get to COSMOPOLIS, the more excited I get. Keep in mind the movie doesn’t have a US release date yet but I’d buy my ticket now if I could.

The David Cronenberg film, based on the novel by Don DeLillo, seems as weird and unsettling as you’d expect from Cronenberg. The movie looks like it’s showcasing the complete societal breakdown of New York. Indeed, the entire trailer feels very apocalyptic. This is material that Cronenberg can really have fun with.

Much has been made about Robert Pattinson’s casting. The young actor seems to be doing a fine job here, though it’s understandable if you hold judgement until the film’s release. Obviously Cronenberg saw something in the TWILIGHT star that he wanted to experiment with, let’s hope he gets a career-changing performance out of him.

COSMOPOLIS also stars Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche and Mathieu Amalric. The film premieres at next month’s Cannes Film Festival.

New York City, not-too-distant-future: Eric Packer, a 28 year-old finance golden boy dreaming of living in a civilization ahead of this one, watches a dark shadow cast over the firmament of the Wall Street galaxy, of which he is the uncontested king. As he is chauffeured across midtown Manhattan to get a haircut at his father’s old barber, his anxious eyes are glued to the yuan’s exchange rate: it is mounting against all expectations, destroying Eric’s bet against it. Eric Packer is losing his empire with every tick of the clock. Meanwhile, an eruption of wild activity unfolds in the city’s streets. Petrified as the threats of the real world infringe upon his cloud of virtual convictions, his paranoia intensifies during the course of his 24-hour cross-town odyssey. Packer starts to piece together clues that lead him to a most terrifying secret: his imminent assassination.