Thursday, November 27, 2014

Scream At The Devil

There's a certain rollercoaster that can come as a hazard of the socially connected world.

"Oh, hey, Shari Shattuck's on Twitter! Loved her in Body Chemistry 3! I'll follow her."
"Well, she's been retired for a while, wonder if she's been raising kids or stage act—"
"Oh, she followed me back! How nice!"
"Look at this: She's got a new movie coming out called Scream at the Devil. Groovy."
"Wow, that trailer—that's a surprisingly cool trailer. I'll tweet that."
"She RTed my tweet! Neat."
"I'm looking forward to seeing this."
"Crap. What if I don't like it?"
"Remember Sturgeon's Law. And for horror movies, it's more like 95%."
"Uh oh. Written, produced and directed by her husband."
"Who's only done two other movies I've never heard of."
*sweats*

Thus ends Act I of "A Nice Guy Goes To The Movies".

Act II Spoiler: It's pretty good.

*sigh of relief*

Actually, there are parts that are great, but more on that in a bit.

Scream at the Devil is the story of a woman (Shattuck) trying to repair her marriage after a severe breakup/mental breakdown, as she and her husband move into an isolated home (that looks like it might be in the Montrose area) far, far away from working cell phones and expensive locations and extras.

What follows is a sort of Rosemary's Baby meets Repulsion, as Mirium, our heroine, starts to go-crazy-or-does-she? imagining demonic presences while she refuses her medicine and rages at her husband.`

A movie like this rests on a few things. First, and most obviously, the acting. Happily, Shattuck is more than up to the task. She is, by turns, vulnerable, agonized, bitchy, furious, haunted, grieving, determined, and just downright crazy.

Second, less obviously, is style. When you think about it, the plot here (as in Repulsion or Black Swan) is "woman goes crazy". Not a lot to hang your hat on. But Joe Stachura (Mr. Shattuck, if you will) sells it, and sells it with full conviction, using a full raft of camera angles, cuts and moves. There are a couple of great dutch angles in here, for example, sincerely and effectively done which give a nice unsettled air to things.

I'm assuming this was very low budget, but the cinematography and overall energy does yeoman's work in hiding that. In fact, if there's a fault here, it's that the director oversells certain things, leaving me to think at times, "Something sinister is going down...but I have no idea what!"

So, you have these great elements, what keeps this movie from being great? Well, what keeps most movies from being great?

Suspense, of course. Or rather, lack thereof.

In the case of horror movies, the most common culprit (I believe) is the desire for the "shocking twist". The temptation is to straddle the fence on what's going on (real horror, or a Scooby Doo tearaway mask) so that you can surprise people at the end.

Not to continually trash Something Wicked, but it's a near perfect example of trying to create tension by presenting three simultaneous "plausible" explanations for the story, lying to the audience, all in an attempt to create a surprise ending.

There's an interesting side-effect to the crazy/possessed dichotomy here: Shattuck is convincing enough as crazy, you end up having a sympathy for her (and her husband, played by Eric Etebari) that's more appropriate for a more serious film. But the movie whipsaws between this and literal presentations of demonic presences, which means:

1) She's either crazy beyond hope.
2) She's possessed beyond hope.

But the audience has to have hope for there to be suspense.

This might be one place where being low-budget tripped things up: A rather odd couple in the form of Tony Todd and Kiko Ellsworth show up very near the end, as a couple of police detectives. These scenes are rather stilted, except for the chemistry between Shattuck and Todd (whom we've occasionally seen misused, as in the Final Destination series and The Graves).

But it suggested a potential avenue for hope, if there had a been a second storyline involving them trying to unravel the crazy-or-possessed mystery. Instead, they, too, end up as swept up in the events as Mirium.

The odd assortment of creepy neighbors and service people (again reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby) was also weird and stilted, but it's supposed to be, and is rather effective in setting the tone here.

But the Boy pronounced it "solid" and solid it was, and we would definitely queue up to see more from this husband-and-wife team.

Oh, one thing, though: When the movie's over, just roll the credits, okay? If you feel you must, you can put a "The End" or a "Fin" in, though, note you're making a commentary. Never, ever put an ambiguous ending title in: Not "The End?", not "The End...or is it?", and for Heaven's sake, not "The Beginning".

We all saw the movie. If there's more to the story potentially (and there's always potentially more), we all know it. Spelling it out is just plain hokey.

Anyway, check it out: Overall, it's lots of fun.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giovanni's Island

On the last possible day they could do it without breaking an agreement Stalin made in Tehran in 1943, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. This was August 9th, the day the US dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. About three weeks later, Japan surrendered, and the Soviets had visions of occupying (and doubtless annexing or splitting Germany-style) some of the Japanese Islands, like Hokkaido. They were largely thwarted in their ambitions.

Giovanni's Island, an animated film out of Japan, tells the tale of one place where they weren't.

Shikotan is a small island north of Hokkaido, and our story begins in 1945 after the surrender, and young Junpei and Kanta's grandfather is describing the depredations about to be visited upon them by the invading American horde. Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife, kinda stuff.

Instead of the Americans, though, it's the Russians. And they steal everything. I presume they raped everything, too, but this is a kid's movie, so nothing of that sort is shown.

On the other hand Grave of the Fireflies is also a kid's movie, so keep that in mind going in. This is not quite at that level. If memory serves, Fireflies is near constant tragedy, whereas this has strong elements of the positive aspects of a "coming of age" story.

For example, the Russian commandant who takes over the island (and Junpei and Kanta's house) has a young daughter, Tanya, who evolves a relationship with Junpei. The Japanese and the Russian kids end up learning each others' folk songs. While Junpei's family lives in the adjoining stable to their old house, Tanya and the boys share a toy railroad track.

The railroad is the theme of the story: Giovanni's Island is a science-fiction story the boys father read to them, and they are named after the two main characters of that story. (Well, sorta: Junpei is as close as you can get to Giovanni. And Kanta is...Capone or something.) This story has to something to do with trains, and the boys are obsessed with them. (They've never seen one. They live on a rural island.)

Things take a turn for the worse when the Russians decide to clear the island of the pesky Japanese and the boys take it on themselves to find their captured father.

But it's a good story, strangely bittersweet, and very Japanese. (But not Studio Ghibli.)

The Boy approved.

Ouija

I found myself trapped downtown for a while and, as I often do, I wandered into a movie theater. And, when I wander into a movie theater not "my own", I marvel at how much it costs, and am not even the least surprised that people don't go to the movies any more. (One ticket was fifteen dollars! For a matinee!)

And, as often happens, I see a movie I wouldn't normally see at all, in this case Ouija, a movie that ranked only slightly higher on RT than the tragically awful Something Wicked. This is the story of a girl who plays with a Ouija board thus ensuring her doom, and that of all her friends.

As it so often does.

This is typical of the modern, slickly produced, PG-13 horror flick, Well shot, reasonably well acted, with good looking principles, a few startle shots, a twist, and a ridiculous stinger. It makes a few typical horror movie mistakes, in particular a sloppiness in "the rules" that makes it seem like things are happening just because the plot needs to advance.

Probably the most interesting thing about this film is one rather unusual mistake it makes, which I will endeavor to explain.

Genre films have certain conventions which are typically both limiting and necessary in order for the genre to hold up. For example, a mystery by nature downplays the terribleness of the crimes, because the crimes aren't the point. The point is the solving of the mystery. This is particularly necessary of the murder mystery serial, where the detective encounters corpse after corpse. Jessica Fletcher must be as perky after seeing her 200th corpse as she was after seeing her first.

Horror films come in different varieties with different conventions. Ouija may have had pretensions about being something else, but it's essentially a slow-moving Ten Little Indians (speaking of murder mysteries) as each character gets knocked off by an evil spirit.

But it's vital for this kind of horror film to shake off deaths quickly. Dwelling on the deaths of characters who, after all, exist entirely to be killed to demonstrate the growing menace takes all the fun out of it.

Friday The 13th, while not a great (nor even passable) series, typically handled this by hiding the deaths from the other characters. Other horror movies will spread the deaths around between characters who don't interact. And some approach the problem by not killing outright, but just threatening.

Ouija opens, after an initial flashback-type scene involving three of the characters as pre-teens, with one of the characters killing herself (after being possessed by an evil spirit). I didn't check my watch, but it seemed like the movie's characters spent close to the next 30 minutes grieving over the dead girl.

I mean, seriously, it could've gone into some sort of After School Special territory, so much time was spent on grieving characters.

That's neither fun, nor scary, but just sad. Then, when the next girl dies, there's no real reason for it, no narrative logic for why she gets picked, and why only her, it's just a standard issue "non-main character dies" beat.

The Boy (who wasn't with me) would probably call this a "problem with the tone".

This, combined with a sort of sloppy metaphysics, infrequent and not particularly novel horror PG-13 effects, and an unfortunate stinger, adds up to a largely forgettable flick. Not bad, exactly, just aggressively inoffensive.

Lin Shaye, who's practically become a latter day Vincent Price, has a short role in this.

Other than that, utterly unremarkable.

Diplomacy

As the Allies were beating back Jerry on the European front, the Nutzis hatched a plan to delay the inevitable invasion of Germany by blowing up, super-villain style, Paris when the Allies tried to retake it.

And it really was a supervillain thing: The strategic value of destroying Paris (and killing over a million people) was actually pretty minimal, and the motivation seems to have been sheer Hitlerian insane rage, at least as portrayed here.

The actual history is rather murky. We know that some sort of plan was in the works, from all the explosives found wired to monuments and structures all over the city. And we know that General Choltitz didn't blow up Paris because, hey, it's still there. But why this mass murderer changed his mind is a mystery.

In Cyril Gely's play "Diplomatie", he boils the situation down into a single long night when the Swedish consul Nordlinger sneaks into Choltitz' hotel-based office (via a secret passage designed for a French noble's dalliances) to convince him not to push the plunger.

I knew about 15 minutes in that this almost had to have been based on a play, confined as it was to two guys in one room, talking, and this is the sort of thing I really enjoy when it's done well, so I have a bias here. But The Boy also liked it.

It works because there's an arc here: Nordlinger is clearly motivated, and willing to push whatever buttons he can find on Choltitz, while Choltitz appears to have no buttons to be pressed. But, as they do their little dance, you get tensions, resolution, and even character development, all based around a high stakes situation—really, all you need for good drama.

Some nice twists and turns, too. All in under 90 minutes!

Perennially evil dude Niels Arestrup (You Will Be My Son, War Horse) plays the evil German dude well, even as he evolves into a maybe slightly less evil German dude. Andre Dussollier (A Very Long Engagement, Tell No One) plays the Swedish consul/voice of reason with a deceptive sentimentality, under which lies determination, desperation, a hardness that suggests a level of threat. You can sense that he'd kill Choltitz if doing so wouldn't seal Paris' fate.

Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid's Tale) directs and keeps it from feeling confined by its theatrical roots.

Worth checking out.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rifftrax Presents: Anaconda

The funny—well, funny oddthing about the last "live" Rifftrax Godzilla was that, despite being packed wall-to-wall with laughs, the movie itself was so bad, it sort of brought me down. That was a big-budget flick, and it was supposed to be good, or at least not as disastrously bad as it was. It was supposed to be exciting or campy or, you know, something.

Now, Anaconda? Unless you're prone to believing Siskel & Ebert (two thumbs up! 3 1/2 stars!), there's virtually no chance of being disappointed by this film. As a result, while there are probably fewer laughs in the RiffTrax version of this versus Godzilla, I actually enjoyed it more overall.

What? It's not that weird. Look at Manos: The Hands of Fate on MST3K: Most people agree that's a hard, hard film to watch, even depressing. Takes a lot of laughs to counterbalance that.

Jon Voight is probably the savior of this film. (Siskel and Ebert thought—not making this up—he should get an Oscar.) He's so ridiculously over the top, with his inexplicable accent and this combination of being outright evil with saving everyone's life is weirdly compelling.

There are a few lulls in the Rifftrax here, but mostly it builds to fast-and-furious end.

Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson definitely built up a good rapport on the last years of MST3K and on The Film Crew, which gives the proceedings a smooth feel. Even though the jokes are pre-scripted, there's a comfort level and camaraderie that adds another layer of fun.

Also, you can't buy this one either.

If you like movie riffing, or if you've never tried it, it's definitely a cool experience to get together with a couple hundred strangers and laugh your butt of. Check it out!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Israel Film Fest: Tubianski

After the War of Independence, people were a bit on edge in Israel. An IDF officer by the name of Meir Tobianski (spelled with an "o" on Wikipedia, but a "u" here) worked at a British-owned power station (lots of people pulled double-duty back then, serving both in a civilian and a military capacity) fulfilled a simple request from his (British) boss that would ultimately be construed as an act of treason.

This was the story behind the fourth (and sadly final) film of the IFF The Boy and I were able to get to. It's played out very simply and low-key, virtually daring you to get sentimental over it, but the nature of the story (and the quality of acting) is such that you can't help but be moved.

The Boy and I both liked it, but I pointed out that I'd have liked to see Hitchcock do the same story: This is sort of The Wrong Man meets Rear Window, with a couple of guys chasing across the countryside trying to save Tobianski, while the zealous and ambitious Intelligence officer pressures three other officers to convict him in a Drumhead court martial.

Then there's the whole young wife-trying-to-clear-her-husband's-name angle, the son, the mistrust of the British, and so on.

So it could've been great. As it stands, it's almost a "dramatic re-enactment" more than anything. I'm not surprised the director's most recent work is a documentary.

One nice touch is Tobiansky's wife waiting for him in a theater where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing. It probably literally happened that way, but the contrast of whimsy-induced paranoia against actual paranoia is poetic.

All brought in comfortably under an hour-and-a-half.

So our IFF went four-for-four this year, and we didn't even get to the most hyped movie of the season, The Dove Flyer, about the eradication of the Jews from Iraq.

Israel Film Fest: Next To Her

A twenty-something woman, Chelli, takes care of her brain-injured younger sister Gabby (who's also in her 20s) in the Israeli Film Next To Her. Chelli also has a job so she leaves Gabby locked in the apartment alone all day, only to come home and find her sister banging her head on the floor amidst whatever destruction she's wrought during the day.

A social worker insists she send Gabby to a daycare, which reveals an interesting dynamic: As burdened as Chelli is by having to take care of Gabby, she's also a little jealous when Gabby turns out to really like the daycare.

Things get even more complicated when Chelli finds a boyfriend who, while initially unimpressive, turns out to be a stand up guy who's remarkably good with Gabby.

Here's the thing: This is the most authentic representation of a brain injured kid I've ever seen. Gabby's behavior matches about 90-95% that of The Enigma. The Enigma fortunately doesn't bang her head against hard objects, and she isn't overtly sexual like Gabby, but the running around naked, the biting her own hand, even the sense of humor was similar.

So, this was a very hard movie to watch. I actually asked The Boy if he wanted to leave, since The Enigma tends to yell in a way that gives him headaches, but he was okay. (Gabby actually yells much less in the movie.)

We stuck it out, though, and it's a fine, if ultimately tragic (on a number of levels) tale of sororal love, as Chelli tries to build a life around Gaby, while being suspicious of the possibility that Gaby might want to build a life beyond her.

Dana Ivgy (Jaffa, Or) is simply outstanding as Gabby. Playing a role like this is so easy to get wrong: The nature of the brain injury means having to give up a lot of the actors' usual tools like talking, having appropriate emotional responses, and looking at other actors. Ivgy is uncanny in her portrayal and very effective as an actress.

Liron Ben Shlush as Chelli is also excellent. She loves her sister, but has a wide range of reactions to Gabby's injuries. Sweet, at times, near murderous at others. Shlush also wrote the script, making me think she has some first-hand experience to draw on.

Bold, hard roles for both of them. The other actors, whom I don't really know, were also quite good, especially the hapless boyfriend, Zohar, and the World's Worst Mother.

This is the first feature directed by Asaf Koram, who edited God's Neighbors and Jaffa, and he's to be commended: He fits a great story into a tight 90 minutes, with just a few locations. The packed house I saw it in roundly applauded.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Suicide

After the delightful Going of Age comedy Hunting Elephants, our next IFF film was Suicide, a noir-ish myster/thriller that actually is mysterious and thrilling, told in parallel timelines (as is the fashion these days).

When the movie opens, an attractive woman is setting a dead man and a business on fire. It turns out the dead man is her husband, and the cop's ruling is, you guessed it, suicide. The "current" timeline has to do with a quirky police detective (Dror Keir, who played Meir The Librarian in the excellent 2010 Israeli film Matchmaker), interrogating the wife (Mali Levi, about whom much ado was made regarding co-starring with Brad Pitt in World War Z, said role never materializing), and trying to suss out a truth nobody wants him to learn.

I've commented regularly on the quality of the characterization of Israeli films, and this film is an interesting example of what I mean: In this kind of film (noir) the characters do not emote in any big ways. Their lives are threatened; they're in races against time; they have to lie in front of a bunch of rabbis—and at no time are we allowed to see what they're thinking and feeling.

A lot of times, as a result, the characterizations of these sorts of films end up flat, resorting to archetypes. The gangster, the hardboiled detective, the cynical cop, the moll, and so on. Not so here. The story moves along two timelines: the post-fire timeline, and the timeline leading up to the fire, where we see a picture of a man in financial trouble to the mob, the wife who seems to be passionately in love with him, the brutal gangster with a code, and a situation where even the peripheral characters all have backstories ultimately explaining their roles in the drama.

On the other hand, it's so tightly constructed, and the characters drawn so strongly, that the mystery is pretty well obvious by the time of the reveal, with the only real mystery being in the details. What's funny about that is that the police detective is putting it all together at the climactic moment, and you're sitting there (or I was, anyway) thinking, "Man, this guy is slow!"

Of course, the detective has none of the back info we have, so it's perfectly appropriate but it's kind of funny from a narrative standpoint to have the audience be aware of everything while the detective is still just piecing things together.

Good film. We both liked. The Boy noted that family was a theme pervading the movie, which is true, and also very unusual for noir. The IFF scored two for two at this point.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Hunting Elephants

The 28th Israel Film Fest has begun! And you know what that means!

Or maybe you don't, so let me learn you something: Five years ago, The Boy and I went to see the New Zealand crime thriller Out of the Blue starring Karl Urban, only to discover that it was in fact not from New Zealand, not a crime thriller, and had nobody in it we'd ever heard of. Instead it was Out of the Blue, an Israeli film about the amusing antics of some resourceful junk men.

Since then, we've grown to really look forward to the IFF, seeing more of the films each year in the (short) time allotted.

One of the chief characteristics of the IFF films is that they tend to develop strong, interesting characters, and this year is no different, though from what we've seen so far, there's also been an uptick in the technical quality, and we've even seen a few recognizable actors.

This year got off to a rip-roaring start with Hunting Elephants. If there are "coming of age" tales, there are also "going of age" tales. Slices of life stories involving old people out for one last hurrah before going gentle into that good night, like the '70s Art Carney, George Burns (who lived for another 20+ years, heh) and Lee Strasberg flick Going In Style. Or last year's Stand Up Guys.

In Hunting Elephants, we see young Yonatan left at the bank with his night watchman/security chief father, when a mishap ends the father's life in a sort of darkly comic fashion. Well, this doesn't help his mother out at all, obviously, and with nowhere else to turn, she dumps Yoni off at the old folks home her estranged father-in-law lives in.

And he's not a pleasant old fellow, oh, no. The details of his backstory come out over the course of the movie, and they're really not particularly flattering. (This is a particularly interesting feature of Israeli films: Whereas in American films, characters are often redeemed through "it was all a misunderstanding", in the IFF films, the characters are redeemed through action, and often not only don't apologize but practically cling to their old sins.)

Grandpa was a special forces guy during the Liberation, and as little use as he had for his son, he doesn't have much more interest in his grandson. But, of course, he doesn't kick the kid out either, or we wouldn't have a picture.

Grandpa's pal Nick was in the same service, a doddering, blind old dude, with an interest in the ladies suited to a much younger man, who generally serves as the driver on the gang's capers.

The third senior in the gang is a fading English actor, brother-in-law to Grandpa, who wants conservatorship over Grandma (his sister, who's in a coma) but Grandpa refuses to let her leave his side. Which, while romantic, turns out to have many not-so-romantic layers.

Well, for whatever reason, everybody needs money so a bank must be robbed. In particular, the bank where Yoni's father was head of security, since Yoni still knows a few tricks. And it doesn't hurt that the creepy bank manager is putting the moves (successfully) on Yoni's mother—who, also rather creepily, is kind of into it.

So, no groundbreaking setups here, but it's all done with such a great touch: Almost non-stop laughs, even in the face of tragedy (how Jewish is that?), great acting, fine directing and camerawork with a few inspired shots, good music—just a fun film with lots and lots of character oozing out of every plot point.

Also, the one weakness these "going of age" movies tend to have is that they peter out at the end, when (customarily) the characters start dying, but this movie actually picks up speed and throws a few more twists at you.

Originally, the fading English actor was to be played by John Cleese, which would've been amazing, but the role was taken over by Patrick Stewart, who is absolutely flawless. He mixes just the right level of comedy and pathos, enough for us to laugh with him (and occasionally at him, but empathetically). I think this is my favorite role of his.

But all the acting is solid: Sasson Gabai (who stood out in The Band's Visit) is Grandpa Eli, Moshe Ivgy (Out of the Blue) is creepy bank manager, Moni Moshonev as Nick, newcomer Gil Blank is Yoni, Yael Abecassis (Live and Become) is mom, and, oh yeah, Patrick freakin' Stewart!

Fun and recommended. And half-in-English for the subtitle-curious.

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