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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.

Ryan Gosling is Walt Disney in the first poster for WALT

Ryan Gosling is Walt Disney in the first poster for WALT 476 680 Joel

Ok, ok, so maybe the movie WALT doesnt exist, but after seeing this gorgeous poster done by artist Pascal Witaszek, I really wish that it did. Finding information about this fake poster is next to impossible, but I can tell you that Pascal Witaszek is a french guy and a very talented artist. I am very thankful to the anonymous tip we got on it and hope we can snag further details coming up.

Congress Rules to Re-Copyright Things in Public Domain

Congress Rules to Re-Copyright Things in Public Domain 200 100 Joel

One of my favorite films of all time is a film from 1965 called CHARADE. It’s an amusing little caper with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and it was directed by Stanley Donen. It’s had a sordid history and a one point had sunk into public domain. That’s all well and good, as many things do. But CHARADE, amongst other works that have been in the public domain, may face a big change ahead, as Wired reports that the Supreme Court may re-copyright things that have fallen into public domain. This includes books, musical compositions, and other works that can be freely used by the public and adapted. The ruling was made last Wednesday.

The ruling was 6-2, the reasoning being that “just because material enters public domain, it is not territory that works may never exit.”

This ruling was made against a petition by a group of people within the arts whose livelihoods depended on the arts. Claiming that the speech rights of those using the material currently would be breached by recopyrighting the material, the group was vehement to stop the ruling. Someone the most famous works in the arts are in public domain, such as the books of Jane Austen, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic METROPOLIS, and the compositions ofIgor Fyodorovich Stravinsky. This is the first time that the issue has been brought to public light in years, the last time being in 2002 when Congress ruled that copyright would last from 50 years after an author’s death to 70 years

Mel’s Top Ten Films of 2011

Mel’s Top Ten Films of 2011 560 323 Joel

It’s that time of the year again. That time of the year when movie critics left, right, high, and low post their year-end favorite lists. Any year-end list is, by definition, subjective, a list that reflects the writer’s biases, prejudices, and real/reel-world experiences, but we can also agree that our choices in film reflect certain agreed-upon elements that, together or in part, signify quality filmmaking. In addition, a year-end list can be seen as a contribution to the ongoing conversation and dialogue between critics, cineastes, and filmgoers. Herewith, forthwith, and heretofore are the films that resonated the strongest with me (in reverse order). As with any list, your mileage may (and probably will) vary. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts, positive, negative, or even neutral, in the comments field below.

10. INTO THE ABYSS: The seemingly tireless Werner Herzog released not one, but two well-received documentaries this year, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, a literal and metaphorical exploration of the oldest cave drawings known to science, in the spring, and INTO THE ABYSS, a difficult, thought-provoking, and unsurprisingly given the subject matter, heart-wrenching documentary that explores a single death penalty case from every practical angle (e.g., the murder itself, the perpetrators, the victims, and the death house workers) in the state of Texas. A staunch death penalty opponent, Herzog stays offscreen, respectfully giving everyone the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the death penalty or, in the case of a death-row inmate, his impending mortality.

9. MEEK’S CUTOFF: Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, arthouse Western (in the loosest definition of that term), follows an increasingly desperate group of pioneers headed for the Promised Land become literally and metaphorically lost in the Oregon High Desert. Using a full, box-like frame that subtly contributes to a sense of unease and oppression while eschewing close-ups, Reichardt and her collaborators, including writer Jonathan Raymond and a stellar cast led by Michelle Williams (in yet another award-worthy role), crafts a uniquely unforgettable existential, historical drama. It’s also a carefully calibrated examination of gender and gender roles, far more fluid than otherwise assumed, circa 1845.

8. SHAME: Steven McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s second collaboration (after HUNGER three years ago), SHAME, received an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA for its ample male nudity and (joyless) sex scenes, but SHAME is far more than just, as someone semi-cleverly put it, “full frontal Fassbender,” it’s also a deeply affecting character study of a damaged, tortured sex addict and his dysfunctional relationship with his younger, unstable sister played by a career-best Carey Mulligan. It’s their troubled relationship that elevates SHAME above addiction narrative tropes and into an uncompromising, raw, authentic near-masterpiece.

7. THE SKIN I LIVE IN: Showing little or no sign of slowing down, Pedro Almodóvar, the crown prince of subversive, melodramatic excess returned this year with THE SKIN I LIVE IN, his first collaboration in twenty years with one-time muse Antonio Banderas as a supremely deranged, surprisingly sympathetic, Frankenstein-inspired “mad doctor” who decides to play God remakes one, not-so-innocent woman (played by Elena Anaya) in the image of his long-dead, adulterous wife. A seeming ode or homage to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE SKIN I LIVE IN take a sudden, unexpected turn into polymorphous perversity (among many other perversities) and never looks back. At times blackly comic, at other times blackly horrific, and sometimes both at once, THE SKIN I LIVE IN must be seen and experienced to be disbelieved (and then seen and experienced again).

6. RANGO: Best known for THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy that made Johnny Depp into one of, if not the, biggest international box office draws, Gore Verbinski wisely passed on directing another entry in the franchise, instead focusing his not-inconsiderable visual and storytelling talents to his first animated feature, RANGO, a Spaghetti Western-flavored, CHINATOWN-influenced comedy that starred Depp as the title character, a one-time pet chameleon and aspiring thespian who finds himself embroiled in a dying town’s politics and a nefarious plan to control the town’s ever-diminishing water supply. With creatures no Pixar animator would love, let alone draw, and stunning, eye-catching cinematography thanks, in part, to an assist from ace cinematographer/frequent Coen Brothers’ collaborator Roger Deakins, RANGO isn’t just the best animated film of the year; it’s one of the year’s best films in this or any other category.

5. DRIVE: Call it neo-noir, call it neon-noir, or call it an exercise of style (over substance, presumably) if you prefer, but Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’ crime novel, DRIVE, a collaboration with, among others, Ryan Gosling as the loner anti-hero, Carey Mulligan as the obligatory romantic interest/object of desire, and Albert Brooks as a sociopathic gangster, offered semi-adventurous moviegoers a singular experience. Admittedly, Winding Refn’s mix of visual poetry and ultra-violence left some moviegoers and even some critics queasy and disquieted, but moviegoers with strong stomachs willing to look past the violence or accept it on its own uncompromising terms saw a film that respected the genre and elevated at the same time.

4. MELANCHOLIA: Provocateur-extraordinaire Lars von Trier caused an outcry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that resulted in his banishment over ill-conceived, ill-timed comments but with time comes perspective (and forgetfulness). More importantly, critics and moviegoers could evaluate von Trier’s latest film, MELANCHOLIA, explores, among other things, the deleterious effects clinical depression has on Justine (a career-best Kirsten Dunst), her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their respective families as a rogue planet, dubbed “Melancholia” (a massive, perhaps over-obvious, metaphor), heads on a collision course for Earth. The world ends, not with a whimper, but with a bang, a huge, explosive bang that destroys all life (no, that’s not a spoiler). More importantly for von Trier, the impending apocalypse gives him (and us) the opportunity to explore two lives under incredible duress. A surreal, lyrical, poetic prologue edited to Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde,” and MELANCHOLIA emerges as one of von Trier’s strongest films (one of his most accessible too).

3. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: A remarkable feature-length debut from writer-director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen (the younger, more talented sister to the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley), MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE shifts and slips between genres and categories (e.g., psychological thriller, psychological horror, cult expose, family drama, etc.). Durkin likes to keep his audience guessing and, more importantly, thinking. Employing a time-shifting narrative to disquieting, disturbing effect, a simulation of the lead characters troubled state of mind. Through carefully doled out exposition, Martha’s experiences in a repressive cult led by a charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), shed light on why she joined and why, ultimately, she left. Not one to limit his critique to cults, Durkin takes aim at conspicuous consumption and materialism as well through Martha’s older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).

2. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) and an award-worthy Gary Oldman (the first among equals in an all-star cast that includes John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch) bring John le Carré’s dense, convoluted 1974 novel to the big screen with complex, layered thematics and subtext (duplicity, betrayal, etc.) intact. In interviews, Alfredson said he wanted to recreate the smell of “damp tweed” with his period-specific adaptation of le Carré’s Cold War novel. He, along with his production designer, Maria Djurkovic, and cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, succeeded admirably. Oldman gives a layered, nuanced performance as George Smiley (a role originated by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries), a taciturn, reserved retired/unretired spymaster searching for a Soviet mole inside the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

1. THE TREE OF LIFE: Terence Malick’s fifth film in four decades and his first in four decades, THE TREE OF LIFE was nothing less (and much, much more) than a treatise on life, the universe, and everything. Malick explores universal themes and ideas about the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, brothers and brothers, morality, and religion through the prism of Texas-based family in the late 1950s. Bookending THE TREE OF LIFE with present-day search for reconciliation, Malick segues into nothing less than the birth of the cosmos, the origin of organic life on earth, evolution, and the birth of THE TREE OF LIFE’s central character, Jack (Hunter McCracken as a boy, Sean Penn as an adult). A collage of golden-hued impressions and sense-memories, often delivered with minimal dialogue or whispered interior narration, THE TREE OF LIFE offers a visceral, emotional, and intellectual experience unlike anything else moviegoers will see and hear this or any year.

The Next Ten:


The Spielberg Award for Mawkish, Maudlin Sentimentality (a.k.a. Schmaltz): Three-way tie between Steven Spielberg for WAR HORSE, Stephen Daldry for EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, and Martin Scorsese for HUGO.

The ‘Male Weepie’ Award: WARRIOR by a landslide of sweaty, grunting men working out their dysfunctional family issues in an ultra-contrived mixed-martial arts competition.

STAR TREK sequel finally gets a release date: May 17, 2013

STAR TREK sequel finally gets a release date: May 17, 2013 300 162 Joel

Deadline reports that Paramount has scheduled J.J Abrams widely anticipated STAR TREK sequel for a May 17th 2013 release date. The move comes after Sony delayed Roland Emmerich’s next film SINGULARITY from the May 17th slot to fall 2013. It has also been announced that J.J Abrams will shoot the film in 3D.

The original cast and writers of the first film are returning for one of the most anticipated sequels of the next five years. J.J Abrams and Paramount still have no title for the sequel. Recently it was also reported that Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro is primed to star in the sequel as the film’s villain.

STAR TREK was the perfect example of what a reboot/remake/re-imagining (or whatever new term Hollywood comes up in justifying their infatuation with re-doing classics or established franchises rather than embarking on new projects) should esteem to be. The film not only stayed faithful to the fan base but also made it accessible to the non-fans to broaden its (new) fan base.

Cinephelia on iTunes: The Criterion Collection Makes its (Quiet) Debut

Cinephelia on iTunes: The Criterion Collection Makes its (Quiet) Debut 580 225 Joel

The platinum standard in DVD and Blu-ray publishing companies, the Criterion Collection, has now entered the world of iTunes. On November 1, without any fanfare or announcement, Criterion showed up on the iTunes movie page. The company, established in 1984 with LaserDiscs and moving right on to Blu-ray, is renowned for offering world cinema’s greatest films in very pretty, rather expensive sets. Criterion was the first company to introduce audio commentary tracks with film historians and directors on their LaserDisc releases. Well known for their exclusive special features and pristine restorations, Criterion is still the Everest in the DVD and Blu-ray world, in terms of quality, despite the niche audience. In 2008, Criterion started investing their efforts into Blu-ray and have been on numerous top ten lists for best Blu-ray releases of their year. Earlier this year, Criterion and streaming website Hulu made a polarizing deal where they left Netflix and decided to port over their entire collection (and more) to the site, albeit for their subscription service Hulu Plus. Since the deal, which was made official on February 15th, according to Moviefone, Criterion has more than 680 films as well as their incredible supplemental features.

Criterion is offering a very small selection of films from their collection (especially in comparison with Hulu’s library), but it is a start. They seem to be beginning with 46 films, including such hallmarks of cinema as Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL, Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS, Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, and Francois Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS. Each film is $14.99 to purchase and $2.99 to rent.

There are a few things surprising about this move such as: a) how few films they’re starting off with, especially in terms of better known titles; b) the lack of any announcement or fanfare, considering that Criterion is a big name well known for their distribution of classic and important art house films; and c) their lack of any special features. While 46, I suppose, is a fine number to begin with, Hulu Plus began their deal with 150 films. Many of the films weren’t part of the official collection, one of the perks of having a subscription. We’ll simply have to wait for more. There was almost no prior announcement on their website, and even the guys at CriterionCast only found out about it the day of. It’s very strange for such a beloved company. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of extras. They could very well utilize iTunes Extras to get some of their comprehensive featurettes and documentaries on iTunes, but they seem to have decided against it so far. The pricing isn’t terribly surprising, as Criterion is a bit infamous for charging an arm and a leg for some films.

At the moment, no film in the meager selection intrigues me enough to buy it, even though the rental option is nice. I already own several on Blu-ray, and until they add more, I’ll be hard put to buy any. I’m hoping that, in the future, they’ll add Charlie Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES and Stanley Donen’s CHARADE. Those two I would pay for to have on my iPod.

INTERVIEW: Jeffrey DeMunn talks THE WALKING DEAD, “Dale”, and Frank Darabont

INTERVIEW: Jeffrey DeMunn talks THE WALKING DEAD, “Dale”, and Frank Darabont 556 390 Joel

It is THE must watch show for fans of strong serialized drama and the horror enamored. A show about survival, and a modern day wagon train full of diverse characters fighting against a mysterious zombie plague that has befallen the world.

THE WALKING DEAD was created by Robert Kirkman, adapted for the small screen by noted Director Frank Darabont, and brought to life by a tremendous cast which includes frequent Darabont collaborator, Jeffrey DeMunn.

A classically trained theater actor and a veteran of over 100 TV and film projects, I spoke with Mr. DeMunn today about the DEAD source material, Darabont’s sudden departure, and what the future holds for his character.

How familiar are you with THE WALKING DEAD comic series?

Jeffrey DeMunn: Im not really all that familiar with it, as a matter of fact when Frank first called me to do the job I was working on another job down in Dallas and he asked me if I wanted to come to Atlanta and kill zombies and I said ok without any previous knowledge of THE WALKING DEAD. I just took a leap because it was Frank Darabont.

Are you aware of where the story goes in the comics?

JD: I have some awareness of it, yeah, but its not by any means a focus of mine. Its like doing an autobiographical play. Aaron Burr, I did that once, I studied some on the life of Aaron Burr but ultimately what you have to go by is what your script is. So I have some awareness of it but its utterly peripheral.

Speaking of Frank Darabont, obviously he’s no longer involved on a day to day basis with the show. I know you’ve worked with him extensively through your career, how has his departure effected you and how do you think its effected the show overall?

JD: Inevitably it is a massive change. It was Frank who brought everybody together. I’ve worked with Frank, I guess for about 22 or 23 years now on various projects. I think its 7 projects in all, this is my 7th Darabont project and I’m no way unique in that. Our scenic designer Greg Melton went to high school with Frank. Our wonderful zombie-maker Greg Nicotero has known Frank and worked with him for 17 years. The FX guy Bill has worked with Frank, I don’t know how many times, Laurie Holden. I guess what I’m trying to say is that everybody was brought together by Frank, not just the cast not just a few individual crew members but it was a massive reuniting.

He works with a group of people and he carries that talent with him and talent follows him because he is, within our time, he is one of the greats, so yeah its made a massive difference having him leave, it was his vision that took a successful comic book and turned it into a massively successful worldwide phenomenon.

If you picture that there was once a wonderful book called RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Frank Darabont read it, and had a vision of what it could become as a film and suddenly that became huge.

His ability to take something from the page, from someone elses hand and move it to the screen…THE MIST for instance is a favorite of mine, and I re-watched it for the first time in awhile for an article, and the vision of that movie is striking in how it casts humans as the monsters…

JD: Did you watch it in Black and white?

I did not, I didn’t know it was available in black and white.

JD: Yes, that is the way that Frank originally wanted to only release it, he shot that as a black and white movie but the powers that be said “no you cant do that, people aren’t going to watch a black and white movie and you’ve got a rough enough ending as it is“.

Going back to THE WALKING DEAD, it seems like his impact is still felt and I think that speaks to how strong his vision was.

JD: Well he worked on the first 8 which takes it right through 2.08, which will be now the first 7 because we combined 1 and 2 for the premier to make the hour and a half premier. So Frank’s work is right through what was our episode 2.08 and I believe that will complete what is shown this autumn and then there is a bit of a hiatus, followed by the remainder of this season in which he had nothing to do with the plotline and so on.

The remainder of the season he had nothing to do with, but another big thing, and I don’t mean to go on and on about Frank, but he’s a genius and one thing, he would look at every makeup, he would look at every costume. People knew you had to run it by Frank, he had his hand on everything, especially the editing. So what we do have now for this year is the edit is not the “Darabont edit“, in that you will see some differences and I believe some people have noticed that already.

What episode are you guys up to now?

JD: 2.12.

Can I get any kind of hints as to where the show is going to go?

JD: Not a chance. (laughs)

Not a chance, well, I had to take a shot–I guess you could be called a character actor in terms of movies and TV, obviously you’ve done a lot of theater work as well but you’ve kinda found a home with THE WALKING DEAD in that you’re stable and its an everyday job. How has that transition been for you?

JD: Oh fine, you know when we shot THE GREEN MILE it was an everyday job too, that was 20 weeks. So this is just a long one (laughs), like a long movie, so yeah it hasn’t been a huge transition, the big transition is always between doing theater, and doing film or television.

Which do you prefer?

JD: I don’t really have one I prefer, they’re both still an extraordinary challenge and they’re both still very very exciting to me. So I don’t have a preference, they feed each other. Theater is harder, it’s a tougher job, and it takes more out of you. But I just enjoy them both, I’m fortunate enough to be able to do both.

Your character on Walking Dead is slowly going through a transformation. He seems to be more vocal, a little less concerned with confrontation, for instance, the whole back and forth with Andrea over her father’s gun. How do you feel about that?

JD: Well, I think it makes sense to me. Dale is a protector, a caregiver, a watcher, and eventually people like that have to speak up. Yeah, you’ll see a lot more of that from Dale.

Now in the comic, Dale kinda moves from being a paternal figure in Andrea’s life and moves toward a romantic relationship with her. Is that something you foresee happening in the show?

JD: I haven’t seen it yet, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

INTERVIEW: Jewel Staite talks FIREFLY, Food, Fun, and Fillion

INTERVIEW: Jewel Staite talks FIREFLY, Food, Fun, and Fillion 571 425 Joel

As a journalist I am duty-bound to conduct interviews that aim for revelation, probing my subjects with deft questions that are supposed to push them beyond where they want to go. That’s how Oprah does it, that’s how I’m supposed to do it, but funk that.

I reached out to Jewel Staite, a globe-roaming gourmand and portrayer of both Kaylee Frye, the ever lovable mechanic on FIREFLY, and Jennifer Keller, the resident Doctor on STARGATE ATLANTIS, with the hope of having a fun conversation that I could share with you.

The following conversation does not contain revelations on the internal struggle of a suffering thespian, or a questionnaire inspired by Bernard Pivot; frankly I’m not that good at my job.

No, instead of that stuff we touch on brain eating, cheap wine, the ego of Nathan Fillion, shrimp pot pie, Muppets, the creepiness of shag carpeting, and Jewel’s plan for world domination.

And now without further delay, Jewel Staite…

So, you’ve been acting since you were 9 or 10. How are you so normal? Or is it all a clever ruse?

Jewel Staite: Sorry, did you just call me normal? That might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I grew up with a mom who wouldn’t put up with any sort of diva-like behavior. She frightened me into being a well-adjusted person. Thanks, Mom.

I have become slightly addicted to late night re-runs of DA VINCI’S INQUEST, with Nicholas Campbell and Donnelly Rhodes (DANGER BAY!). You were on that for much of the first and some of the second season, and it seems like a role that was a key pivot point toward more mature projects. What was that experience like?

JS: I think that was the very first set I worked on where two of the lead actors were doing a love scene I had to walk in on. It was a very different change of pace from Disney and Nickelodeon, that’s for sure. 

You’ve got the very wonderful blog, where you have revealed yourself to be a foodie and a wino, or rather, a wine connoisseur – I’m curious, does my preference for $5 bottles of Strawberry Hill “wine” make me a bad person or am I just keen on depriving myself?

JS: Sorry, I didn’t hear anything past “very wonderful”. Just kidding! Go ahead and drink your cheap wine. I’ve been known to down a glass of Yellowtail on the plane if that’s all they’ve got. But please do yourself a favor and make up for it with something expensive soon.

If one has the opportunity to saunter into a particularly fine restaurant, are they better off ordering from the menu or giving the Chef carte blanche?

JS: Carte blanche, always! Some of my favorite meals have been when I’ve trusted Chef to do what he does best. Plus, it feeds their ego when you let them do the deciding for you, and they really let loose most of the time. I like a loose chef.

There are stock questions like “What kind of weapon would you use in the middle of a zombie apocalypse?” and “What would you’re death row meal be?” that I could ask, but those are boring so let’s mix it up: What do you want on your plate if you’re on death row during a Reaver apocalypse?

JS: The lobster pot pie from Michael Mina’s at the Bellagio in Vegas, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. And maybe a Xanax.

I was at New York Comic Con this weekend (and so were you, but you know that), and I had a former pro wrestler call me “Big Daddy” and then give me an impromptu bear hug. What’s your weirdest con  moment?

JS: Well, I signed someone’s back at New York Comic Con that they later had permanently tattooed on themselves, so I think I trump you, Big Daddy. Weirder than that, though, was when a very respectable-looking older lady asked me to sign her boob. And I said yes. If you’re reading this, I’ll never forget you, Crazy Lady! XO

You played Doctor Jennifer Keller on STARGATE ATLANTIS; does the medical jargon stay with you, and also, how’s your Mandarin? Do you know medical jargon in Mandarin?

JS: I know no medical jargon or Mandarin anymore. As soon as it’s out of my mouth and the scene’s done, I promptly allow my puny brain to forget it. I have been known to use the phrase, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a mechanic!”, however.

Has Nathan Fillion changed now that he has “cop show, screw-you” money?

JS: He hasn’t changed at all. But I have. I let him pick up the check more.

Being a part of the “Whedonverse” surely comes with perks; I imagine some typecasting drawbacks as well. Is it an overall joy or is it frustrating to be so strongly associated with Kaylee and FIREFLY?

JS: It’s totally an overall joy. Really. That show’s one of the things I’m most proud of being a part of. I adore being associated with it, and I love every single person on that cast like family. And that’s about as serious as I’m going to get in this interview.

What were your thoughts when you first read the script for FIREFLY, and how surprised were you when Joss got the band back together for SERENITY?

JS: When I first read it, I couldn’t believe my luck, honestly. And I think we were all stunned when Joss got that movie greenlit. That stuff just doesn’t happen very often. Plus, I was really relieved I was going to see Nathan again, because he owed me money.

So say AVENGERS makes a billion dollars, and Joss gets a greenlight for SERENITY 2. Is he touring the country, going from set to set like Kermit the Frog trying to track down stray Muppets or are you on his doorstep in full ragamuffin attire the next day?

JS: Who you calling a ragamuffin? Seriously, this Muppet would be there in a heart beat. Wait – which muppet do I get to be? Can I be Gonzo?

What can you tell me about THE PACT?

JS: THE PACT was a short I did last year for a friend of a friend that ended up getting into Sundance. It’s dark and moody and super creepy. Because it has a lot of shag carpeting in it.

How are you not like Kaylee Frye, how are you better than her, and how is she maybe better than you?

JS: She’s overall a better human being than me. She’s sweet and lovely and wide-eyed and wears her heart on her sleeve. I just wear my liver on my sleeve.

DOOMSDAY PROPHECY seems like one of those, “make a bag of microwave popcorn, Saturday afternoon on the couch, fun disaster movies“. What do you say to those who get a bee in their bonnet and think that Syfy originals are an affront to mankind and puppies?

JS: Those people are the kind of people that don’t believe in having cable because it’ll turn your brain to mush. Well, sometimes a mushy brain is exactly what we need on a Saturday night. I love movies I get to check out on. Not every movie needs to be flippin’ PRECIOUS.

We can’t avoid it – you ate brains on SUPERNATURAL. Now, you’re a bit of a food gangsta, would you find your inner Bourdain/Lector and eat a (non-human) sautéed brain of some kind?

JS: What makes you think I haven’t already…?

It seemed like Kaylee’s favorite place was her hammock (which I understand you stole, thief). What’s yours, geographically and I suppose spiritually?

JS: Listen, that thing was given to me, I swear. You want to talk about being a thief, talk to Fillion. He’s got boxes of stuff he stole from that set, and the irony that he’s playing a guy who helps cops right now is not lost on me. But I digress. My favorite place is Maui. I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, so that’s my recharge the old batteries place. One of these days I’m going to pull a Woody Harrelson and just move there permanently and become a beach bum and wear hemp and grow dreads. Okay, maybe not the dreads part. And that hemp’ll be Chanel.

What’s next?

JS: Same thing I do everyday. Try and take over the world.

How do you say “Whino” in Mandarin?

NYCC INTERVIEW: Dark Horse Comics Scott Allie on BUFFY & FIREFLY comics

NYCC INTERVIEW: Dark Horse Comics Scott Allie on BUFFY & FIREFLY comics 549 250 Joel

There always has to be someone to make sure the trains come in on time, and for Dark Horse Comics (HELLBOY, STAR WARS, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) that person is Scott Allie, Dark Horse’s Senior Managing Editor.

I met up with Scott at the Dark Horse booth at New York Comic Con where I’m almost sure he stood throughout the first full day of the east coast answer to San Diego, meeting fans, pros, and press alike.

Accommodating and forthright, Allie spoke about Joss Whedon’s involvement in this “season” of the BUFFY comic, the future of FIREFLY comics with Dark Horse, and the digital future of comic books.

Is Joss’s involvement on BUFFY this year less than it was last year?

SA: It’s different. He wrote a lot of last season, and he’s not writing any of it right now. He wrote the first issue. So it’s definitely less in that way. But we’ve got more going on, you know. So he’s overseeing the script that Andrew’s writing and that Chris is writing on the two different titles. And he’s still in control of the covers and that kind of stuff. Yeah, so there’s a little less day to day. And he’s not writing as many issues as he was.

He’s probably going to come back to write some when he really wraps up AVENGERS. But for right now Andrew Chambliss is writing all of BUFFY and Chris is writing all of ANGEL AND FAITH.

Any possibility of a FIREFLY monthly title?

SA: Not a monthly title. We don’t have any interest. It’d be great to do commercially, but creatively that’s not where we’re headed. But we are going to do more FIREFLY. We actually just announced yesterday that our Free Comic Book Day book will have STAR WARS and SERENITY. And then we’re going to follow up with some more stuff later in 2012.

Any more graphic novels like THE SHEPHERDS TALE?

SA: Depending on what we come up with it might be straight to graphic novel or it might be serialized like in the past.

You guys are really at the forefront of digital comics; Where do you see the industry five years from now? Do you see it more digital, or still paper and ink?

SA: There will be a shifting balance towards digital. Right now digital is not really a significant part of anyone’s financial life, but everybody’s being really aggressive and ambitious about building it.

We’re doing our thing, comiXology has what they’re doing, and there are other companies. I think that will continue to grow. Right now it’s a relatively small portion of income in the industry. So I’m sure it’ll shift a little bit more towards that in the next 5 years.

What about the pricing model? Do you think it’ll stay similar, or drop down to due to less overhead?
It’s all over the place. I think our digital pricing is the right way to go. But there are a lot of companies that charge a lot more for digital. So right now it’s everywhere. I imagine over a short period of time it will fall in line with ours, but you never know. Maybe when it takes off people will start charging more. Right now it seems like a lot of pricing is based off of pamphlet pricing. And we’re not exactly doing that. We’re a little lower, because you’re not paying for printing.