Monday, October 31, 2011

HALLOWEEN TOP 5: Horror-Movie Villains

Hollywood loves a good Boogeyman, so much so that they tend to overdo it. You get success with one film focusing on a crazed murderer of some sort, expect at least three sequels. Sometimes the sequels morph into remakes and reboots, and on and on. But as pure horror villains, how do the best of the best match up? I am sure you know the five on this list, and the rankings could be interchangeable depending on what you see as the most important aspect of a horror movie murderer…

5) PinheadThe Hellraiser films have been out of sight for some years now, but Clive Barker’s creation, Pinhead, the demonic Cenobite, is one of the more inventive and original horror-film creations of all time. Remember, in the original film Pinhead was one of many Cenobites, a member of a team of horrific looking demons who steal the souls of those foolish enough to summon them. But Pinhead’s look, the most aesthetically fascinating of the demons – all of whom had their own hygiene issues – is the most iconic of the film franchise. I am pretty sure there was a fourth Hellraiser in space, but I can’t remember right now; regardless, the first three films showcase Pinhead at his best and most wicked.

4) Jason Voorhees – I can’t remember a time when Jason was ever really scary. The Friday the 13th pictures might have, at one time, been terrifically scary films. But that was before my time. Jason Voorhees is not a scary figure, but he is quite threatening and his kills have to surpass anyone else on this list through sheer volume of films alone. Jason has killed unsuspecting, sexually-charged teens with every sort of sharp object mankind has ever created. I can only imagine what kind of damage Jason would do if he were transported back into medieval times with all that weaponry. Wait a second… has he done this in one of the twelve or so films? I smell a sequel idea.

3) Freddy Krueger – Much like Jason Vorhees, I am certain Freddy Krueger was scary at some point in time. I just don’t remember when. After the first two or three films in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Freddy became less threatening and more cartoonish as his creative dream killings gradually spiraled out of the realm of horror and into comedy. Nevertheless, the burned dream stalker is an iconic horror-film figure, and he would give Jason a run for his money in the kills department. The only thing is, Freddy never got to sneak up on these teens having sex; they were always too tired to do anything other than scream.

2) Leatherface – Trying to categorize these villains as most and least unstable is futile. Of course they are all unstable, they kill people and live in hell and wear masks. But if I had to point at one of these murderers as the most unstable, I would have to say Leatherface takes that title. The craziest and most dangerous member of a family of backwoods, inbred cannibals is a retarded beast who wears human skin, bludgeons and saws, and snacks a little. The shrill screaming of Leatherface in the original film is what nightmares are made of, and as he took center stage in the later films the killing got more out of hand. Just ignore the two remakes and you’ll appreciate the creation of Leatherface much more.

1) Michael Myers – The stalker who started all of this craze is still the best. Despite Rob Zombie’s bastardization of the character, the Michael Myers who exists in the John Carpenter’s original Halloween film, and the subsequent sequels, is the greatest single-minded slasher of all horror films. Jason is similar in his mannerisms, but it’s the odd white William Shatner mask that adds another level to Myers’ creepiness. A hockey mask has no human traits, so it creates a certain wall between Jason and the victims. Myers, on the other hand, has the eeriest and most memorable mask of all the slashers.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: The Exorcist (1973)

In this current culture of oversaturation, where the limits of limits have been surpassed, where nothing is shocking to anyone anymore, try and imagine audiences going to see a film and subsequently passing out and vomiting in their seats. Imagine them fleeing the cinema in fits of nausea and horror. It seems impossible to fathom these days. But in 1973, when The Exorcist hit theaters, these things happened all around the country. Not the nineteenth century, not the birth of moving pictures. 1973. Arguably modern times. People could not endure the brutality of William Friedken’s sensory assault, his terrifying masterpiece which leaves no room for mental deconstruction until the events have passed and the credits roll. This is a testament to the masterful vision of Friedken. Maybe The Exorcist and its shocking imagery has been diluted in the last forty years of excess, but consider the time in which it was released, and consider the freshness of horror displayed. Sure, it isn’t quite as shocking anymore, but the picture’s psychological and thematic material keeps it relevant, and helps it retain a spot as one of the ten or fifteen best horror films of all time.

The Exorcist has questions to ask regarding the possession of its subject, a twelve-year old girl named Regan (Linda Blair). The twentieth century was the modernization of the human race, where possession and the tangible influence of Satan in the world were replaced by psychoanalysis. People were not possessed by demons anymore; they suffered from neurological disorders and needed physical treatments. This is the idea permeating the early portions of The Exorcist, so when Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), Regan’s mother, begins to notice something is terribly wrong with her daughter; she goes straight to the doctor. The doctors explain her strange behavior and her nightmares and her proclamations of a shaking bed as nerves, or stress, or acting out. But things escalate, so the doctors suspect maybe there is something wrong with Regan’s brain. Tests build up, Chris grows increasingly frustrated, and Regan gets worse. Chris eventually comes to understand, whatever it is affecting her daughter, it is not of a medical origin.

Chris witnesses the violent trembling of her daughter’s bed. Chris is thrown across the room by invisible hands as her daughter writhes in pain and her voice changes to an evil growl. Regan is possessed. But the very idea is impossible to accept. Things escalate. Regan’s physical appearance changes and she is clearly no longer completely human. These moments in The Exorcist are perhaps the most horrific, shocking moments in the picture. They are cinematic moments of legend now. The controversial crucifix masturbation, the spinning head, the projectile vomit, all are events in the film that – no matter how familiar – are still shocking. The Exorcist builds quickly into an assault on the senses and sensibilities of its audience, not making room for one moment of thought. Instead, it creates an experience that becomes an endurance test for the audience much in the way it is for Chris. We feel pain and fright and anguish right along with this desperate mother.

Once Chris buckles and timidly approaches a local Jesuit priest for help, she finds the reluctant Father Karras (Jason Miller). Karras is tangled in his own crisis of faith, questioning his dedication to God, and when Chris approaches him he tries to convince her that the things she is telling him cannot be true. Of course, after he visits the home, he realizes she was right. Realizing he will not be able to handle this task on his own, Karras calls upon Father Merrin, an elder Jesuit priest who has been said to have performed exorcisms. Max Von Sydow plays Merrin, and his arrival in the final act of the film is one of the most legendary shots in all of cinema, as he stands outside the home, a light from the window shining like God’s eye from above. A beacon of hope.

I try and imagine a remake of The Exorcist, as much as the very thought makes me as nauseous as those audiences in 1973. I imagine the special effects would overwhelm the story in 2011, whereas they were done for maximum impact in the original. They are sensational effects, even by today’s standards, but they do not distract us from the psychological damage being inflicted upon these characters. William Friedken approached this story, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s seminal novel, with the right amount of energy and disregard for those brave enough to sit and watch it in the theaters. He knew there could be no corners cut, no restrictions on his vision, if he were to make a truly great and memorable horror film. In doing this, he created a horror film for the ages.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ACTOR PROFILES: THE FASSBENDER EFFECT

Michael Fassbender isn’t necessarily a household name at this point. He wouldn’t be mistaken by the masses in America for George Clooney or Ryan Gosling. But I say give it time. The thing is, you may not know Michael Fassbender but there is a good chance you have seen him apply his craft in the last few years. Europeans have known Fassbender for a decade now, as his career blossomed in British television, but I could not have ever imagined Fassbender was an actor cut out to make his living on the small screen. He carries too much weight in his acting style, is too compelling, and in the last three years may be the biggest new film talent you haven’t yet acknowledged. But it won’t be long now.

Born in Germany in 1977, Fassbender is of German-Irish decent and spent his formative years in Southern Ireland. His acting background began at the Dram Centre of Northern Ireland, and before long he was landing small roles in various television series. Most notably was his first bit part, playing Pat Christenson in the celebrated HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. From this 2001 epic series, Fassbender would continue appearing in a wide array of television shows and movies in the U.K., building his reputation overseas, looking for that one role that may open more doors. First was a pivotal role in the Zack Snyder style-a-thon, 300, where he played Stelios. And then, Quentin Tarantino came calling.

Inglourious Basterds is a sprawling opus of a war film, with a seemingly endless cast of faces both familiar and fresh to American audiences. Fassbender was cast as Lt. Archie Cox, the cocky British military man who, most notably in the film, gives away the allies in the extended bar sequence when he flashed the number “3” with the incorrect fingers. This was the first moment Fassbender made an impression on me, and despite his brief role in Inglourious Basterds, it was clear he had a solid grasp on his craft. That same year, however, Fassbender showed he had something more than an ability to portray a stuffy British soldier. Fish Tank was a critically-acclaimed European drama about a wayward young girl who falls into a forbidden and tense relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Connor, played by Fassbender. While the film itself did not affect me the way it did many, Fassbender’s role was something from the other end of the spectrum, something wildly diverse than his role in Basterds. Fassbender showed he could act inwardly as well.

Fassbender also appeared in Jonah Hex. But let’s move on. Earlier this year he appeared as Magneto is the sensational origin film X-Men: First Class. Fassbender, playing alongside James MacAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, was intense and knew the right tone to carry a superhero film. As we move into awards season the next few months, Fassbender will appear in two films that may grab the attention of the Academy. The first candidate is A Dangerous Method, the historical drama from the great David Cronenberg. The film, about the controversial studies surrounding Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, is bound to garner awards attention. Fassbender portrays Jung.

The second film may be less accessible to audiences as it will be rated NC-17 in the States, but it could be another shot at a nomination for Fassbender. It is the Steve McQueen drama Shame. Fassbender plays Brandon, a Manhattan man struggling with his sex addiction as his sister moves in with him and his life begins to unravel. The trailer suggests a heavy, hard drama that will find love from critics more than general audiences. This is the second pairing of Fassbender and Steve McQueen, whose directorial debut, Hunger, was a massive hit all throughout the festival circuit. This is undoubtedly a challenging role for anyone, and the fact Fassbender is willing to tackle such heady material while still finding comfort in the mainstream cinema bodes well for his career. You may not know Michael Fassbender right now, but I assure you it won’t be long before his name means something more to American audiences.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

RECONSIDERING THE GODFATHER PART III

Francis Ford Coppola had an uphill battle ahead of him when he decided to direct The Godfather Part III, the final chapter of his legendary trilogy some sixteen years after The Godfather Part II took home Best Picture. Time had passed, the story had faded a bit, but Coppola still had a story to tell. The troubling life and trajectory, and the dark mythos of Michael Corleone still had a final act. Upon its release, The Godfather Part III was recognized as a wonderful film and a picture in the vein of the first two; only something was off. There was something about this third installment that kept it at arm’s length, especially when held to the standard set by the first two classics.

Thus, The Godfather Part III has become the most divisive and polarizing film of the three. Time has done nothing but be cruel to Coppola’s film, and despite its critical acclaim in 1990 and its Oscar nominations, it would be the only film to be shut out on Oscar night. So what is wrong about The Godfather Part III? A number of things. What is right? Well, a number of things. This is not necessarily a defense of the film as an examination of what went wrong versus what Coppola did right.

WHAT WENT WRONG:

Time – It is always a challenge to tell the continuation of a story after sixteen years away. Time in between franchise entries is often a hindrance to the impact of the story. The Godfather Part II won Best Picture and Director at the 1974 Oscars, and the lasting image we had of Michael Corleone and his empire was one of great darkness and despair. In between the second film and the release of the third, the gangster genre may have been diluted a bit. But time may be the least extenuating circumstance regarding the failure of The Godfather Part III.

The Vatican – The meat of the story in The Godfather Part III focuses on the Corleone family’s shady dealings with the Vatican. While this narrative carries the film to Rome and the old country, and The Vatican is an enticing antagonist for the story, there is something less threatening about such a public and powerful entity as The Vatican. In the original film, the Corelone family dealt with the influence of other Mafia families. In the sequel, as Michael is working to legitimize his family, he gets caught up with Mafia members in Cuba and Florida. We also get the narrative focusing on the rise of Vito Corleone. Each of these narratives is compelling in its own right, and the enemies of the Corleone family in the first two films are much more threatening than anything The Vatican could accomplish. Although the final act of The Godfather Part III is thrilling closure to the saga, the interplay between The Corleone’s and The Vatican carries less impact, mostly because it takes on a slower, watered-down, political tone.

Joey Zasa – The Vatican was not the only thread in the film. The other was the local influence of Joey Zasa, a gangster looking to take some of the power from the Corleone family. Joe Mantegna plays Zasa, and is a poor substitute for any of the gangsters in the first two films. His characterization of Zasa plays less like an authentic portrait of Mafioso than a hyper-stylized, almost mocking hoodlum. The influence of decades of gangster parody and oversaturation clearly creep in to Mantegna’s gimmicky portrayal. The result is a gangster which generates more snickers than thrills.

Sofia Coppola – Ask a dozen film buffs what their biggest issue is with The Godfather Part III, and at least eleven of them will say the acting of Sofia Coppola; and they would be correct in that assessment. Even Francis Ford Coppola himself, in the commentary track for the film, subtly regrets his decision to cast his daughter in the role of Michael’s daughter, Mary, who falls into an incestuous relationship with her cousin, Sonny’s bastard son Vincent (Andy Garcia). Nevermind the incest aspect of their relationship, which was more than enough to turn off a large portion of audiences, Coppola’s acting is the weakest part of this grand epic. She is flat, uninteresting, and delivers her lines with no energy or conviction. Sofia Coppola has blossomed into a force as a director, and has an amazing talent behind the camera. But in front of the camera, as Mary Corleone, Coppola kills and all momentum of the story. Her thread kills the story, and her poor acting takes some of the bite out of the final scene.

BUT WHAT IS RIGHT?:

It’s easier to pile onto The Godfather Part III than it is to see the forest through the trees; this is still an epic film, and a better film than most directors would ever create in their careers. The fact that it was prefaced by two of the most indelible film classics of all time does nothing but hurt this third installment. Still, there are a number of things within The Godfather Part III to admire…

Al Pacino – Of course, Pacino would be the bright spot of the entire film. Pacino embodies Michael Corleone perfectly, as a broken, guilt-ridden man tortured by his demons. The self-inflicted wounds of Michael’s life are visible in the bags under Pacino’s eyes and the slump in his shoulders. There are heartbreaking moments in the picture, when the guilt of killing his brother, Fredo, overwhelms him. One such moment is a stunning confession to a priest in Italy. And the final scene, Michael’s final penance when his daughter is killed by a bullet meant for him, is a moment of pain unmatched by anything Pacino has ever done. Pacino carries the film, as it should be.

Andy Garcia – Garcia’s portrayal of Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan from the original) bastard son, is a polarizing performance. Some may see his over-the-top portrayal as hamming, but it fits. Many critiques focus on Garcia being too showy, but consider the source material and the motivations for his tempestuous role. James Caan was arguably the best character in the original Godfather, a fiery brawler with a short fuse, and Garcia channels the young Jimmy Caan as best he can through fits of rage and a tendency to act before thinking. Despite his romance on the side with Mary, which never works for a minute, when it is Vincent who rises to the top The Godfather Part III is at its strongest as a drama.

Closure – We could not simply leave things as they were at the end of The Godfather Part II. Michael sits alone at his Las Vegas home, having lost his wife and his kids, having just ordered the murder of his brother. He has completed the transformation from reluctant godfather into pure evil. We cannot have it end here; debt must be paid. That is why The Godfather Part III exists, to see this story end as it should. The Godfather Part III may not be on the same level as the original two, but what films are? It is a solid film, full of warts but not without redeeming moments. These moments of redemption, lie where the characters find none, and Coppola does what he can with a film that may have never had a fair chance.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

VACATION TIME!!!

Well, I will be back from vacation Monday, October 24th. Until then...


Friday, October 7, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: New Movies, New Remakes or Prequels, and Bond 23

* Maybe I didn’t give Real Steel a fair shot. Reviews seem to be positive judging by the meter.

* So is this new version of The Thing supposed to be a remake or a prequel? I have heard prequel everywhere, but if that’s the case why does all of the action look the exact same? Why are there dogs involved again? Something is fishy.

* Chaz Ebert called Michael Shannon “the new Christopher Walken.” I think that is a perfect description. Shannon is an actor of amazing depth that can be seen simply by looking at him. When he begins to speak and act, that is icing on the cake.

* I really like the trailer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, coupled with the Led Zeppelin cover, but the frenetic split second clips are enough to give a person a seizure.

* I don’t think The Ides of March will have enough steam and energy to carry it to Oscar season. Nobody seems to be overwhelmed judging by letter and star grades.

* Am I the only one who thought the Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman version of Great Expectations was a good movie? Anyone? No?

* Rumor has it the next James Bond film will be titled Skyfall. I’m not sure what I think of that one. Better than Quantum of Solace I suppose.

* I’m still not sure what to do with Sam Mendes directing this next James Bond. Marc Forster, a traditionally melodramatic filmmaker, directed the last one. And it turned out to be quite a mess. I suppose Mendes is more of a talent but I haven’t seen him branch out into action yet. Just don’t put Bond into a loveless marriage.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s hard to believe it’s been seventeen years since Pulp Fiction was released. Makes me feel old. Even harder to understand why it took until this week to release Quentin Tarantino’s game-changing film on bluray. I held off writing about Pulp Fiction for a few years to establish myself and the website. I didn’t want to go right into this thing writing about every piece of obvious fanboy fiction I could think of. But I think it’s a good time to get out all my thoughts about Pulp Fiction, and how it was one of a handful of films that shaped me as a young movie nerd. Certain films propelled me through cinema at different stages. This was the film that drove me to Martin Scorsese and inspired me to examine movies a little closer. In 2000, Requiem for a Dream would change my sensibilities as a movie watcher for good, but six years earlier it was Pulp Fiction driving me to see and understand more.

My mother was pretty cool when it came to seeing movies, I must admit. So when I told her I wanted to go see this new movie called Pulp Fiction at the young age of thirteen, she obliged because, well, I guess she had already picked up on the fact that my movie tastes were a little different than most thirteen-year olds. Sure, I liked those thirteen-year old movies, but I had also seen Unforgiven in the theater a year before. I suppose I was a strange kid. My mother had faith in my ability to separate fact from fiction. That is not to say she wasn’t thrown off a little by the violence, the drugs, and just the overall mayhem of Tarantino’s breakout. I, on the other hand, was spellbound.

I won’t waste words going through the plot and the storylines of Pulp Fiction. Mostly because they are so complex I would spend the entire time explaining, but if you don’t know the story at work here then you probably don’t have a computer or an interest in movies so you aren’t reading this anyway. Pulp Fiction changed the attitude of cinema forever. Stories had been told in non-linear fashion before, but nothing this succinct or masterfully crafted had pushed the boundaries of narrative like this. The story is put together better than that watch Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) gave to a young Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). It is wonderful to simply explore the screen during any and every shot of Pulp Fiction, to see how the details shaped the experience.

Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay is a thing of absolute beauty. This is, at its most base level, a piece of crime fiction, a noir which recognizes itself as such. But the dialogue is nothing you would find in any sort of traditional noir fiction. All of these characters have their traits, traits developed through their manner of speaking and the things they say. Tarantino gives his characters time to say interesting things. To say the dialogue doesn’t simply exist to move the plot forward is an understatement; there is very little dialogue that is simply plot driven. Consider the conversation between Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) on their way to kill a few kids who stole from their boss. Their conversation in the car is dedicated to Vincent’s recent trip to Amsterdam, and the differences in cuisine from America. They only mention the job they are about to do in passing, because it’s just their job. Do you talk about work with a co-worker on your way in to the office? Rarely.

Patience is indeed a virtue of Pulp Fiction’s screenplay. Even when Jules and Vincent arrive at the apartment, there is much exposition before we arrive at the point. In lesser hands, this would be dull because we would want to simply get to the action and the gunplay. But the rich dialogue and dark humor of the scene in the apartment, led mostly by Jules, works on so many levels. We know why Jules and Vince are there, and so do the kids in the apartment, so the fact that Jules rambles on and on, taking stock of the scene, builds tension without ever mentioning the reason we are all here. The patience does not slow the story; it builds it from a base most filmmakers would never even consider adding into a scene like this. This is a technique used all throughout Pulp Fiction, where characters discuss matters which seem frivolous at first, but enrich the entire situation. Think about that opening scene with Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, two lovers sitting at a diner having breakfast. Roth explains his reason for robbing restaurants in great detail, so much so that he has you convinced it’s a good move by the time guns are drawn and threats are made.

The idea of a main character is also obtuse in Pulp Fiction. Everyone remembers Jules and Vincent, and they could arguably be the focus of the film. But they are absent for most of the second act, when we get the story of Butch Coolidge, the boxer who agrees to throw a fight, but bets on himself to win for double the money , double-crossing Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). This is yet another bold move by Tarantino, to shift gears mid movie when we have become invested in Jules and Vince, the killers. The narrative of Butch will blend in with Jules and Vince, with the common thread being Wallace, but Tarantino’s ability to develop an entire story separate from everything else and still bring it all together is another master stroke in the screenplay.

And how could anyone forget about Missus Mia Wallace? Uma Thurman is a wonderful muse for Tarantino, and he knows just how to shoot her with the camera, accentuating her exotic looks under an angular black wig. Mia is also the subject of the most infamous of all the scenes in the film. After a night out with Vince, Mia overdoses on heroin. Vince, who is high himself and certain that if Mia dies his boss, her husband, Marcellus, will kill him, rushes her to his dealer’s (Eric Stolz, wonderful here) house. Lance, his dealer, agrees to give her a shot of adrenaline straight into the heart. We all remember this scene as a brutal scene loaded with uncomfortable laughter. But the brutality of the scene is played just right. We don’t see Vince actually stab Mia in the heart with this massive dripping needle. Everything is reactionary, with a very important thump sound as the needle penetrates. In doing this, Tarantino manages to do a crude scene with great taste and panache.

Not only is this scene handled in an entirely different way, but Tarantino manages to mask horrific violence with dark humor. Consider when Marvin is shot in the face by accident in the back of the car. What a shocking accident this is, but it is remembered as one of the more humorous sequences in the film. The reaction of Jules, the cleaning of the car, the introduction of The Wolf (Harvey Keitel), and the new wardrobe for Jules and Vince are all elements of comedy masking a sudden and shockingly violent mishap.

Very few films evolve on the fly the way Pulp Fiction does. Here is a film that is different every time I see it. It becomes a deeper film experience. There is a new dynamic every single viewing, and a new aspect to examine closer. Most recently, the religious oppositions of Jules and Vince sticks out. After an unknown gunman bursts from the bathroom in the apartment and unloads a .44 Magnum in their direction, missing them entirely, Jules sees this as an act of God. Vince argues for coincidence. Tarantino never sides with either of the men, but this occurrence drives their characters’ entire conversation through the end of the film. This is simply another moment made to develop a story where most directors wouldn’t bother.

Like any groundbreaking film, Pulp Fiction birthed an entire generation of imitators, none of which came close to the impact of this original. It was one of the first films I ever saw that changed my idea of what a movie could be. It belongs to no genre, yet it exists in so many genres. If any mortal director attempted a story with so many moving parts and so much to work with, the result would be a mess. This is not a mess. Tarantino’s words are immortal, his style undeniable. It has taken some time for him to escape a certain stigma, that he wrote fan fiction for geeks. I think it’s clear now, however, that he writes beautiful words and somehow forms them into seminal films. It changed the way I looked at movies, and propelled me to 2000, where my sensibilities would again evolve. While it may have been knocked around on Oscar night by the unstoppable force that was Forrest Gump, ask anyone today which film is more important. I think the answer would be unanimous.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

FOREIGN CORNER: I Saw the Devil (2010)

Korean filmmakers know how to do revenge right. Oldboy is arguably the most recognizable and visceral revenge film ever made, a Korean masterpiece of violence and mayhem with a singular vision. Director Chan-wook Park pushed the limits of bloodshed and redefined a revenge subgenre which has been and always will be a staple of thrillers and noir. Last year, lesser known Korean director Jee-woon Kim, following in the footsteps of Park, directed I Saw the Devil, his own take on the revenge thriller that tests the limits of violence and human endurance in the face of blind rage. I Saw the Devil is a gripping piece of Korean cinema which questions the very nature of revenge, and looks at determined vengeance in a slightly different light than Oldboy. It is a film in the same vein as Oldboy, albeit with more moving parts and, dare I say it, more depravity.

Korean heartthrob Byung-hun Lee plays Kim Soo-hyeon, a special agent for the South Korean police force. As the film opens his fiancé, Joo-yeon, the daughter of the police chief, is kidnapped and brutally murdered by Kyung-chui (Min-sik Choi), a diabolical serial killer. This sends Kim Soo-hyeon spiraling downward, away from the world around him and into a life of blind rage. Like most protagonists in revenge films, Soo-hyeon will stop at nothing to find the killer and exact revenge. Only here, Soo-hyeon’s idea of revenge is much darker and more precise with regards to human emotion. He doesn’t simply wish to kill Kyun-chui, he is fed by a bloodlust and a desire to make him suffer.

After some tough interrogation, Soo-hyeon finds Kyun-chui just as he is about to claim his next young female victim. Rather than kill him on the spot, Soo-hyeon has developed an elaborate plan to torture him mentally and physically, beating him relentlessly before inexplicably letting him go so that he may stalk him and repeat the abuse. This sets up an interesting dynamic in the story; Kyun-chui flees the scene and meets up with some interesting characters as Soo-hyeon stalks him. Kyun-chui hops in a cab that has been stolen by two thieves who think they have found an unwitting new victim. Little do they know they will soon be victims themselves in a brutal knife fight in the close quarters of the cab. The scene, sprayed in blood, is wonderfully shot.

With this type of narrative set up, Jee-woon Kim allows the viewer to get to know Kyun-chui more so than we typically get to know the serial killers in movies like this. Min-sik Choi, an established stage and screen actor in Korea who also played a role in Oldboy, is a fascinating actor and brings great gravitas and depth to the killer Kyun-chui. And a strange thing happens as the film unfolds; there is the slightest bit of sympathy we feel for his character as Soo-hyeon’s tactics escalate. Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chui undergo a bit of a role reversal in the film. Although it is Kyung-chui who is the sadistic murderer – something we definitely never lose sight of – it is Soo-hyeon’s single-minded rage and twisted psychological torture which takes center stage as the more brutal of the two men. There is an age old metaphor in films of this ilk, where cop and criminal are one in the same. I Saw the Devil takes this metaphor to a new level.

In his quest to make Kyung-chui feel the things his fiancé felt before she was killed, has Soo-hyeon not lost his own humanity? Has he not become the very thing he wishes to destroy? These are questions posed in nearly every revenge film to some extent, but I Saw the Devil succeeds in its dedication to go further. I feel the actors themselves are important in reversing the roles here. Byung-hun Lee is a quiet actor with a small frame, and as Soo-hyeon becomes the aggressor we see the darkness in Lee’s acting. In contrast, Min-sik Choi is a much more charismatic actor. Although Kyung-chui is this brutal serial killer, Choi has a much more broad personality. When these roles reverse, it’s as if they were always meant to be this way.

Much like Oldboy, the end result of the picture deals with familial shame, which must be the ultimate penance for crimes against humanity in Korea. While I do think Oldboy is a slightly better picture than I Saw the Devil, that is no knock on Kim’s film. To say Oldboy is only slightly better is more of a compliment of I Saw the Devil than anything. There are more moving parts here, and this film takes you in more directions. But regardless of the inevitable comparisons, I Saw the Devil is an intense film soaked in blood and drowned in depravity with a sure message and a sure hand behind the camera. And of the two films, I would argue that the better final shot belongs to I Saw the Devil. As Soo-hyeon has completed his vengeance, we have a shot of him walking down an empty street as he realizes what he has become. It is a heartbreaking moment, and the final reveal of a story which convinces me further that nobody does revenge better than the Korean auteur.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Scream 4

It had been eleven years between Scream 3 and Scream 4, the latest installment in the landmark franchise from Wes Craven. Times have changed in those eleven years, and despite the best efforts of Craven and writer Kevin Williamson – the creative duo behind the original Scream film – the whole fare feels like an analog tale set in a digital world. Along with Craven, the original surviving cast returns because, well, I imagine they hadn’t been up to much. Scream 4 is also a victim of itself, with the meta-fictional aspects spiraling inward until they make this fourth installment collapse under the weight of everything we have seen and heard before.

First and foremost is the return of Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, the most fit of the survivors from the first three pictures. Sidney has returned to Woodsboro, where the Sheriff is still the hapless and mustachioed Dewey (David Arquette), now married to former reporter turned lost soul Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox). Sidney is back in Woodsboro to promote her new book about being a survivor; it just so happens to be the anniversary of the initial slayings. Naturally, as Sidney shows up in town, so do the bodies begin piling up in gruesome murders.

As Craven realizes a new generation of horror fans have seen it all – been there and done that – he injects the film with a new crop of Woodsboro teens to whack. Emma Roberts is here as Sidney’s niece, Jill. She has a spunky friend, Kirby, played by Hayden Panettiere with an unfortunate hairstyle. There is a pair of nerdy film buffs played by Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin who are in charge of explaining the new rules of horror to all of us. There are new rules, mostly ones trying to usher in the overwhelming onslaught of technology between the third and fourth films. Smart phones, webcams, YouTube, tracking devices, headsets… these are plugged into the film wherever possible in order to show us Craven is still hip. But it is all a feeble attempt to distract us from the fact the story has grown stale.

There are no scares in Scream 4. I know the original films weren’t made to be scary necessarily, but they had jumps in between some clever humor. At least the first two did. Scream 4 is too concerned talking about how the fake Stab movies explain the real world and the real world Woodsboro becomes a stage for a reboot of the original Stab movie, which is based on reality but has since become ridiculous sequels and… you catch my drift? Scream 4 winks at itself about a dozen times too many that it becomes distracting. I caught myself drifting off under the droning about movies and sequels to scary movies that by the time the action rolled around I was thinking about whether or not I have any undershirts for tomorrow.

Sure, there is some fun in Scream 4, but it’s made rather soggy by the nods and winks which never end. And there are a few lines and one murder in particular that made me literally groan. The picture feels like stale bread, a film whose time has passed. The ghostface killer from the film used to generate some energetic, fun movie-going excitement. Now I feel like the screaming face is actually just a yawn.

C

Monday, October 3, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Is George Clooney The Next Eastwood?

Sometimes, directing seems like the natural progression for some actors. The shoe fit Clint Eastwood from the start, and as he has transitioned more into director and less actor, Eastwood has become one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood after hitting his stride when most people are retiring. Ben Affleck appears to be heading more towards director, and that is nothing but a good idea judging by his first two directorial efforts. But if there were any actor working steadily today who seems to have transitioned into a quality director while still playing the leading man, it is George Clooney. Clooney seems to have found his balance as a director and actor much sooner than Eastwood, who worked through poor Westerns and thrillers as a director before topping the mountain in 1992 with Unforgiven. Though it is a short sample it is evident that Clooney has a voice, and it is growing stronger with each passing film.

Clooney’s directorial debut was almost ten years ago, when he told the bizarre story of Gong Show host Chuck Barris, who was convinced he was a CIA operative, in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. At the time, the film seemed intriguing and well made, but time has shown a few warts. It feels a little over-produced and hyper-stylized at times, where Clooney is reaching to find his unique voice and nail down a vision for the story. That being said, there are brilliant performances in Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore, and Clooney knows how to frame actors. A few years later, Clooney would try a deliberate and daring style with Good Night, and Good Luck.

Having worked with Steven Soderbergh several times throughout the years, Clooney has modeled his acting career after Soderbergh’s directing career. Soderbergh will famously work commercial films to get his low-budget indie films made. Clooney starred in the Ocean's films for the opportunity to direct Good Night, and Good Luck, a low budget niche film about the Communist witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. The picture focused on the crusade of Edward R. Murrow to uncover McCarthy as a fraud, and on the evolution of news media in the pivotal decade. Good Night, and Good Luck is a fascinating picture, one educators should use for years to come. It is also where Clooney nailed down his style, his visual voice. Although it is shot in a stark black and white, this beautiful picture also keeps us in tight with the faces and voices of these actors. Clooney had found his own way of framing actors and keeping the tension palpable.

After he tried and failed at a classic screwball formula with 2008’s Leatherheads, Clooney’s latest film, The Ides of March, appears to have the potential to be everything the 2008 remake of All The King’s Men tried to be but couldn’t. With an all star cast including Clooney himself, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, this politically-charged thriller seems to be the film Clooney has been heading for his entire directorial career, however green it may be. Clooney has the potential to be the next Eastwood, that leading man who is a talent up on the screen, but whose real talent, and eventual legend, may blossom behind the camera.