Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Sunday, December 20, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

A tough war picture in the tabloid journalist tradition of Samuel Fuller, The Hurt Locker avoids most of the sentimentalizing and editorializing of other recent films about Iraq. It focuses instead on the human drama of a trio of characters living under the sword of Damocles. Members of a bomb disposal unit, these men live moment to moment counting the days before their tour is up. Well, at least two of them. Their new Team Leader, Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is a guy with that thousand yard stare. He's the "man in the suit", the one who is sent into harm's way to actually diffuse the IEDs. While Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) sweat the days out, James seems like he's right in his element. If war is a drug, then William James is an addict.

While most films about war either glorify it or more often than not attempt to make a statement as banal as "war is hell", The Hurt Locker avoids that by just getting on with it. It simply takes place in a hellish, harsh environment full of paranoia and where the action is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. This isn't a film with designer violence but it doesn't avoid the ugly beauty of that violence either.

What really makes the film work is that Kathryn Bigelow directs it as a nail biting suspense picture rather than a war film. Like Clouzot's The Wages of Fear we watch breathlessly as James looks through wires as tangled as a plate of spaghetti. Bigelow cuts to random locals watching or walking by who may be the enemy waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. No one can be trusted and the environment is just as threatening-landmines could be anywhere but the sand and heat do their best to make man extinct by itself.

William James is the film's central mystery. What exactly makes this man tick? Smartly, screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow do not answer this or even allow James to explain himself at all. We can see it in his face when he goes home for a short break. The way he looks at his wife and the dislocation he feels standing in the frozen foods section of the local supermarket. He's going cold turkey and needs a fix.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

"The book was better."

This is the challenge for any filmmaker who dares to adapt a popular novel for the big screen. Well, of course the book was better. The book was perfect since it was yours. The novelist provides the spark but the fire rages in the reader's mind, colored by their own life experiences and imagination. In the end, the book belongs to the reader on a personal level. But a FILM belongs to the director who has no idea what you were thinking and can only color it with his own life experiences and imagination. Though much of the narrative is the same, this is clearly Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones and that is a mixed blessing.

Alice Sebold's novel would be a challenge for any filmmaker to adapt. The story is told from the POV of a 14 year old girl who was raped, murdered and dismembered as she watches from the afterlife the years that follow in the lives of her family and her murderer. That story is actually the catalyst for several others. That of the disintegration of a family overcome with grief, a suspense thriller about the investigation into the girl's death and a coming of age story for the dead girl herself, Susie Salmon, who finally accepts her death and all that it requires her to give up. That's just the body of the story. The engine behind it is the mournful tone which channels Thornton Wilder's Our Town for its expression of the fragility of life and the temporary nature of all things. This is a story about loss-the loss of life, a parent's loss of their child, but most of all the loss of human experience. Susie is killed just as she begins to experience her first love. At its most basic level, murder is a form of theft. Susie's murderer steals this precious experience from her and the whole story is haunted by the sadness of a life unlived.

Adaptations are all about making choices and sometimes drastic ones in order to capture the spirit of the book rather than the letter. The Lovely Bones requires a kind of high wire act in order to pull this off successfully so it's no surprise that Jackson along with his usual collaborators Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh seem overwhelmed by the task. This is the kind of material that requires a complete overhaul in order to work as a movie but it is also a popular novel which seems to beg for absolute fidelity or else face the wrath of its fans. Something has to give and if you are making a film you must fight for the film. It is the ideas and emotions in Sebold's story that have to make it to the screen not her character list. But instead of reshaping it into something more cinematic, they make the "safe" decision to tell the story as fast as they can including as much of the book as possible. Having to tell a thriller, a family drama, and a ghost story all at once and within a reasonable running time is ultimately self defeating. Especially when all three never seem to integrate effectively. Even at 135 minutes, the film leaves characters such as Susie's mother Abigail(Rachel Weisz, wasted)woefully underdeveloped while others are virtually props (Susan Sarandon). Sarandon is cast as the Salmon family's crazy grandmother and basically exists within one long, tonally flat and absurdly comic montage sequence which seems like an outtake from Stepmom. The core of the story would've been better served by dropping her character altogether. Imagine the film without her presence and you will find that nothing is lost.

Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker but he may not have been the right fit for this material. Jackson seems to see the story as a kind of bookend to his earlier film, Heavenly Creatures and uses much of the same mix of blatant fantasy and stylized reality here. What worked in that film is a liability in this one and the Candyland visions of heavenly worlds break the tenuous threads that hold the story together. It is Susie who must hold the film together. It is her presence as witness to the events following her death that gives the story meaning. Visually placing her in a goofy CG landscape for much of the running time separates her too much from the rest of the film. She seems stranded in that "Palm Pre" commercial . What was needed was the matter of fact surrealism of Luis Bunuel so that the veils between worlds would feel more uncanny and human than some digital Magritte. In fact, the more one thinks about it David Cronenberg would've been the best choice for this film. His work during the psychic vision sequences of The Dead Zone are very effective in mixing the real with the unknown.

What Jackson does get right and pulls off superbly is the evocation of 1970s suburbia. The street that the Salmon family lives on seems not so much a realistic depiction of time and place as a slightly hyper-real memory of it. In the film, Susie is a budding photographer chronicling the world around her with a tiny Kodak Instamatic. This idea seems to have inspired Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Leslie to visualize the real world as one of those vibrant and slightly unreal Kodachrome snapshots. Particularly interesting is the home of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) with its pastel green exterior contrasted by an alarming red curtained window.

Jackson has also cast the film perfectly. No matter what the flaws may be, the film holds great power in its central role. Saoirse Ronan is absolutely perfect and heartbreaking as Susie Salmon and it is her performance that makes the film work in spite of its flaws. Giving her fine support is Mark Walhberg as Susie's father Jack. Wahlberg underplays the role very effectively and not the way he "underplayed" in The Happening. The sooner we can forget that performance the better. This is easily one of his best dramatic performances. Stanley Tucci's George Harvey is a kind of archetypal serial killer. We learn nothing about him except that he has a mania for making dollhouses (without dolls) and appears to live in one. But this is OK since he is not really supposed to be a psychologically credible character. He is the story's "big bad wolf" and Tucci is very good at reminding you of every weaselly murderer from our cultural history. You look at George Harvey and can see right through him to the BTK killer. Rachel Weisz is fine as always but her character seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

The strangest thing about Jackson's approach is how chaste it is. The whole film is just a bit too tasteful to achieve real catharsis. Jackson seems to be a prisoner of his PG-13 rating and because of this, the darkness of the crime is left a bit anti-septic. This was the story of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered. She is now only murdered. There is a difference especially with its themes of awakening sexuality. Jackson's film is filled with the sentimentality of innocence lost but it remains empty since that sentiment has to be earned through pain that the audience needs to share. The ending is another false step though one it shares with the book. It's just too tidy for a story that wants to express the chaos of the world.

Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CRUISING Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

This is a film that has been obscured by controversy. A cause celeb when released in 1980, the film was rarely discussed on its own terms. Looking at it now, almost 30 years later, it boggles the mind how a film like Cruising could even get made especially with the backing of a major studio and starring one of the '70s biggest stars. It's about as dark a depiction of mankind as any you will ever see.

New York City circa 1980 as presented by director William Friedkin is completely sick. At it's best it is cruel and corrupt. At its worst, deviant and deranged. No matter how much anyone complains of the modern anti-septic NYC with its commercialized Times Square(aka "Mickey's Asshole"), it is an improvement over the conditions seen in this movie. Perhaps the city was more inviting in real life, but as seen through Friedkin's scum smeared lens, the NYC of CRUISING is a nightmare world, a contemporary Sodom or Gomorra where the cops Protect and Serve themselves amid an orgy of sex, drugs and murder.

Al Pacino plays a straight cop named Steve Burns who is sent into the pre-AIDS gay "underworld" of New York's leather bars and sex clubs to act as bait for a Jack the Ripper-like murderer preying on gay men. It seems that all of the victims resemble his physical type. Which must mean that they all had nice perms.

Burns lives with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) whom he keeps in the dark while he goes out at night and literally "cruises" the club scene. Burns is the classic voyeur, window shopping without buying. This is one of the central tensions of the film-will he or won't he? Friedkin keeps us in the dark-setting up tantalizing situations and focusing on Burns' enigmatic reactions to very blunt sexual advances before fading the scenes to black. The film unfolds in an elliptical, suggestive manner that keeps the narrative ambiguous. In fact, everything that happens in the film remains ambiguous throughout. There may be more than one killer, he may be gay or homophobic or both, Burns may have engaged in homosexual sex-or not, and finally, Burns may have committed a murder.Or not.

Friedkin makes no attempt to clear these matters up. Indeed the film is meant to be as blurry as possible. Even our ostensible protagonist-Steve Burns-is a mystery. Ambition is one thing, but a promotion in the NYPD is just not worth being sodomized in a hotel room.

At the very least, Burns seems "Bi-Curious" throughout and personally disturbed by it. His heterosexual relationship with Nancy is strained as much by his secretive work as his sexual confusion. The film's one heterosexual lovemaking scene depicts Burns violently "making love" to Nancy as though he had something to prove.

Even stranger is the film's odd shifting of POV. It begins as an omniscient narrative chronicling the activities of the killer, his victims, and the police. It then shifts into a more conventional single protagonist structure. Specifically it makes use of the "undercover cop" subgenre of crime films which hinge upon the cop identifying with his prey to the point of becoming a doppelganger to him. Burns stares into a lot of mirrors in the film, gazing at himself gazing back. But slowly, and slyly, Friedkin pulls away from him. This is a masterstroke. Burns becomes enigmatic-and even sinister in the final third of the film. He is seen as a stalker from the POV of the most likely suspect who suddenly becomes the focal character. This final shift pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet. Burns may have been mysterious but this guy is clearly deranged, hallucinating conversations with his dead father. From this point on, we don't identify with anyone since our identification figure-Burns-has been removed. But the feeling isn't the same as it was when Janet Leigh was murdered in Psycho for example. In that film, the original protagonist was murdered not transformed. Here, Burns remains onscreen and yet he seems inexplicable. We are as uncertain about him as we are about the killer. Friedkin uses the soundtrack subliminally to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty. Music and sounds from Burns' experiences in the clubs start to bleed into his life during the day, often under other music and sounds creating a very avant garde aural collision. This feeling of uncertainty builds throughout culminating with a tense confrontation in a well lit but very threatening Central Park. At this point we are not sure about anything. By the time the end credits roll, you'll feel as though you missed something-a shapeshifting story that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Much of the criticism of Cruising has centered on it's supposedly negative portrayal of homosexuality. The scenes in the sex clubs present open drug use, sexual promiscuity and acts such as "fisting" which are not often seen on the classical silver screen. At least not the one of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers. But since Friedkin is so ambiguous, the film could be saying anything. An argument could be made ( as it has been made) that it endorses the idea that homosexuality leads to psychosis and murder but one could also be made that it presents the NYPD as Nazis. Several scenes show the police using violent interrogation techniques that go way beyond water-boarding-including the positively surreal image of a large black officer wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boots and underwear and who is brought in to pound on suspects.

Part of the problem lies in Friedkin's approach to filmmaking. He is unique among his contemporaries for exhibiting an almost complete lack of humanity in his work. Even De Palma at his most mechanical seems to care for his characters. Friedkin makes the kind of films that a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers might make given the chance. But this is not really a liability. It remains the reason why a film like The Exorcist is still frightening. There is something in the blankness of the author's voice that makes Friedkin's films positively chilly experiences. Cruising is a kind of apotheosis in this direction. It takes all the experimentation with form that the director was toying with in earlier films and uses them all for a single goal: the creation of an almost blank narrative where anything is possible and all things could be inferred. Cruising remains fascinating because it doesn't just ask but rather demands that the viewer fill in the blanks themselves. It is the complete opposite of the goal of most Hollywood films: the creation of as much synthesis as possible and expressions of mass emotion. Cruising intends only to get a reaction out of its audience. What that reaction is says as much about Cruising as it does about you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

INVICTUS Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

The Presidency of Barack Obama supposedly ushered in an era of post-racialism. Of course, this is nonsense but it does set up an interesting parallel with the Presidency of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Mandela's goal was to create a post-racial South Africa or at the very least a racially cohabitable South Africa and this becomes the core of the new film by Clint Eastwood. Attempting to unify rather than divide, Mandela creates his own "team of rivals" by forcing his black security officers to work side by side with white ones. The fact that these very men may have been their oppressors a few years earlier is not lost on anyone. But Mandela believes in the power of forgiveness and rejects all objections. He intends to prove that the fear Afrikaners have of a South Africa run by blacks is unfounded and that South Africa is for South Africans, white and black. His tool in doing this is a down on their luck rugby club known as the Springboks. Many view this team with their green and gold colors as a symbol of Apartheid and want to change their colors and name. Mandela doesn't agree. He sees the Springboks, much loved by white South Africa, as a way of uniting his country through a shared national pride. When he asks their team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to afternoon tea, Mandela has a simple goal: to inspire the Springboks to win the 1995 World Cup. Not surprisingly, Pienaar is speechless.

INVICTUS is based on a true story and never has a true story seemed more like a bag of movie cliches. This must be an example of life imitating art and B movie art at that. Basically the film is your garden variety underdog sports flick placed within an historical context. You've seen this before in films like Rocky, Rudy, The Bad News Bears, and Hoosiers. All the bases of that genre are covered-the seemingly "impossible" goal of winning, the initial lack of teamwork, and believe it or not, the "star" player is even injured before the big game. Anyone care to guess if he shows up to play before the final quarter?

The intersecting of these sports story cliches with history is what distinguishes the movie. Working from John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy", screenwriter Anthony Peckham gives Eastwood a real spine to bring it all together: William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus". Latin for "Unconquered", it was a source of inspiration for Mandela during his time in Robben Island prison, a mantra that kept him from giving up. He gives these words to Pienaar to inspire him and the spiritual words of human courage and dignity allow him to walk a short distance in Mandela's shoes giving him the drive to unite and motivate his team. Two stories about politics and sport become one story about the power of the human spirit.

Clint Eastwood has gone from the most underrated filmmaker in America to the most overrated in less than a decade. A concious shift from thrillers and action movies to Stanley Kramer type Oscar bait subjects has created an illusion about him. INVICTUS is no different in aesthetic than SUDDEN IMPACT or BLOOD WORK and yet those films didn't garner him BEST DIRECTOR accolades. Eastwood just does what he has always done and that is to tell the story in the simplest, most unaffected way possible. There are no dazzling shots here, no slight of hand montage or startling transitions. He has mastered the form of classical Hollywood studio filmmaking. A form that prided itself on making the gears as invisible as possible. This could be construed as old fashioned and right from the start there is something very quaint about the way Eastwood tells this story. Everything seems stripped down to the most basic of elements. It seems as if he were retelling some ancient myth about heroes and not a realistic story at all. There is virtually no characterization in the film that goes beyond the archetypal. Both star roles are defined as much by the real life figures as by the star persona playing them. The Mandela presented in the film is the one most of us hold in our imaginations-a man of near indomitable will and courage. Morgan Freeman plays the role with all the gravitas and dignity he carries with him in even the smallest of roles. Any suggestion of complexity such as his divorce or his estrangement from his daughter is used merely to create a sense of isolation around the man. He is meant to be a kind of Gandolf figure in the story, a dead "father" whose spirit inspires a nation.

Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar is even more abstract. He isn't a person so much as an idea-white South Africa coming to terms with it's past. To go a bit further with this Joseph Campbell reading, the "Invictus" poem is used like the Force from STAR WARS. When Pienaar meets Mandela, he is visibly shaken by the experience as though he were touched by God. The voice of Mandela reading the stirring final lines of the poem, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" play out repeatedly in Pienaar's mind until its ghostly power finds a context when he visits Mandela's 6 foot square cell on Robben Island. Pienaar and Mandela, white and black, politics and sport all come together there.

You might think from the above description that the movie is actually "good". In one respect you would be right. INVICTUS sometimes works better than it deserves to as an old fashioned,predictable entertainment. In another filmmaker's hands the Capra-corn would just be too much. Eastwood's poker faced style keeps the film grounded-not in reality but in some old movie world of myth. But in the end the film is just too obvious and simplistic to have any lasting effect. Everything is a slave to three act storytelling taking us from racial divide on both sides to forced equality and finally racial unity symbolized by hugs. The Springboks at first refuse to sing the new National Anthem but of course at the World Cup they do and with great pride; Pienaar's father spews racial venom throughout but relents when his son has an extra ticket for their black housekeeper-a woman seen previously as an employee at best; Mandela's rainbow guard begin full of suspicion and anger but end up as real colleagues and friends-even playing Rugby themselves on the Presidential lawn. Not only does Mandela proudly watch this from his window with an approving smile but he is then made to say, "See. Do you still think it's just a sport now?" The director even includes a kind of Greek chorus of songs co-written by himself that are awfully unsubtle as in the appropriately titled "Colorblind". That one actually made me cringe a bit.

Regardless of the fact that INVICTUS is based on a true story, the film is exactly the kind of film Eastwood has always made. A genre film not some deep and moving treatise on the human condition. It's a popular entertainment in which the "good guys" in green and gold beat the bad New Zealanders in BLACK. Believe it or not, they are even known as the "ALL BLACK". Mandela gets his moment for South Africa on the international stage and gives the cup to Pienaar who thanks him for being so awesome. All that was forgotten once again was a medal for Chewbacca.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving All! As a card carrying member of the Online Film Critics Society(OFCS), we sometimes like to get together in the virtual Moose Lodge and vote on our favorite films. This POLL was based on the question: "What is your favorite Thanksgiving themed movie?" Runner ups were Hannah and Her Sisters, Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays and The Ice Storm. But as you may be able to guess, there was little doubt about the top slot. If you can't guess, you may need to go to the OFCS BLOGto find out. Or you can read my dazzling review of it HERE.In any event, have a wonderful holiday!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

It's easy to look at the work of novelist Dan Brown and think that virtually anyone could be just as successful by using Wikipedia and the cut-and-paste function on their computer. Look up some arcane trivia about the Catholic Church, make a few references to the Illuminati or the Knights Templar, and mix it all up in some kind of treasure-hunt mystery based on clues found in ancient documents. That gets you more than halfway there. Establish some symbologist or semiotician as the hero, add a smart European heroine who is basically the modern-day version of the "kidnapped scientist's daughter," and in just a few weeks you could create something like "The Michelangelo Connection."

These external trappings obscure Brown's real skill as a writer, which lies in plot construction. It might be easy to concoct the framework of an exciting thriller, but it's quite another thing to keep the reader in suspense for 500-odd pages. While Brown's novels have cerebral subjects, they remain old-fashioned pulp adventures at heart, featuring the hero surviving cliffhangers while trying to save the world from literal or figurative ticking bombs. Brown is very good at keeping the action moving in a very linear, scene-by-scene manner. Which is exactly why they are perfect source material for movies.

How director Ron Howard failed to make an entertaining movie out of Brown's fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, remains a mystery more puzzling than the story itself. As a filmmaker, Howard is an anonymous but dependable craftsman. Da Vinci, however, was inept. Paced like a Sunday visit to the Louvre, the film was talky in the extreme, dramatically neutral, and featured a hero who was more of a bystander than an active participant. Tom Hanks' weird experimental hairstyle didn't exactly help matters either. In terms of cinematic craft, Howard's flat and ludicrously self-important film was like a handbook on how not to craft a suspense thriller.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Angels & Demons. It appears that Howard knew that he had to change the way everything was done in the previous film, and sending Tom Hanks to the barber was a very good start.(Read the rest of the review at CINEMABLEND.COM )

Friday, November 13, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

This is a movie positively buried in hype and William Castle-styled promotion. All that's missing are flying skeletons and insurance policies for "death by fright". Somewhere under all the exclamation exists the movie itself simple and unadorned. It's a home video shot in the director's actual home with a pair of unknown but enthusiastic actors. So, expect less and you will appreciate it more. The film isn't particularly unique or even very well made. But first time writer-director Oren Peli has just enough skill to keep the movie grounded in a faux reality. Like many previous indie film successes, it makes strengths out of its limitations. Bad sound, low res images, and zero production values are the right aesthetics if the goal is "realism". After all, "real" is as much a convention of cinema as any other. The audience "reads" bad lighting, shaky camerawork and muffled sound as signifiers of cinema verite.

Of course in the subgenre of "Docu-Horror", the desired effect of this aesthetic is the illusion of "unscripted reality". The idea is to place the supernatural right next to the natural in order to get you to believe the impossible. An open acknowledgement of the recording device is part of the ploy. The fourth wall is broken; someone is shooting this right now so it must be real. Done reasonably well, this format can make the most cliched stories seem new. Cloverfield demonstrated that even Godzilla could learn new tricks. The trouble with Paranormal Activity is that it doesn't even have the old ones mastered.

The "story" is both too much and too little at the same time, with no awareness of how classic ghost stories play with shifting realities. The basic situation has day trader Micah (Micah Sloat)videotaping he and his fiancee' Katie (Katie Featherston)in an attempt to catch a ghost on tape. A ghost that has been haunting Katie since she was a child. When they consult a psychic (Mark Friedrichs) things begin to get a lot worse. He tells them that the spirit isn't a ghost per se but rather a demon. The film then chronicles a series of increasingly violent attacks on them while they sleep at night.

At first Paranormal Activity seemed like it was going to be more like Cloverfield and less like its obvious model, The Blair Witch Project. Cloverfield took the "found footage" concept and gave a few seconds of thought as to how that form could be used to its best advantage. Drew Goddard (Alias, Buffy) and company came up with several clever storytelling devices most notably the idea that the footage being watched was TAPED OVER a previous recording of the protagonists' first date at Coney Island. This allowed for a poignant epilogue showing the lovers alive in better times and with the added bonus of J.J. Abrams' trademarked touch of mystery through the final frames depicting something unknown falling into the water behind them.

Next to the wit and sophistication of form in the monster flick, Paranormal Activity seems positively juvenile. The low budget is simply not an excuse for bad design. The film is like a crayon drawing made by a talented child. The instincts are right but the execution is completely naive.

The film is presented as an edited assembly of "found footage" given to the producers by the San Diego police. Right off the bat the film wastes the opportunity to playfully exploit its form. Acknowledging that the movie is an edited version of reality potentially allows for some very interesting ambiguity between what transpires onscreen and the "story" that the editor has decided to construct from it. Peli acknowledges this through the use of judicious fade outs, dates added in post production, and several moments when the recording is played back in fastforward. But all of this is merely functional and the concept is never used for storytelling or for creating dread and fear. Just imagine the possibilities a more creative filmmaker would've explored. If Peli was OK with fastforwarding the recording, he could also have rewound it as well and allowed us a second look at certain mysterious images. Like those creepy ghost photos and videos we've all seen, these images could also be freeze framed and blown up to show frightening entities "hidden" within mundane moments. Clearly if you have ever seen the famous Three Men and a Baby ghost you know exactly what I am talking about. I can still remember the chill that ran up my spine the first time my friends and I freezed that frame on the VCR.

The following is one you've probably seen:

There are also missed opportunities involving the turning on and off of the camera. The film's best opportunity for this is during the "time out" Micah takes to have sex with Katie. The camera is turned off and when it comes back on Peli doesn't exploit the fact that something could've happened that we did not see, something that could create a stronger sense of ambiguity in our minds about Katie's mental state perhaps. Most interestingly it could be something very important that we finally understand during the climax.

Dramatically the film is badly damaged from the beginning. Starting the story in "Act Two" is clearly the work of a neophyte screenwriter. When the film begins there is already an understanding between the two of them that there is some kind of presence haunting Katie. This isn't set up at all. Within minutes a psychic arrives to listen to Katie turn into Captain Exposition and tell us the story of her past in the most boring manner possible. Even Dan Brown has more skill than this. The correct way to do this is to change the story so that it begins in a more mundane reality with Micah perhaps annoying the hell out of her through his obsession with taping everything. Slowly, we are presented with strange incidents which seem to defy rational explanation (but, importantly, could still be explained). Micah sees that Katie seems to be more frightened than she should be by these incidents, that they seem to have a special meaning to her. This forces him to confront her about her "secret" and a much better scene for the actors to play so that she has to confess her strange past to him. THEN we can bring in the psychic and the idea that it's a demon that is plaguing them. Micah would then be the audience surrogate throughout and his conversion from skeptic to terrified believer would be the structure.

The traditional ghost story is a form that has stood the test of time and there is no doubt that Peli studied this to some extent. He does a good enough job with the later stages of it so the film comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. What he misses is several beats in the first half that would get the audience worked up into a much more frightened state and make the ending really work. Creating an ambiguity about Katie's mental health would give the middle of the film more tension and it's the middle of this film that truly drags. Having Katie walk out of the room and not return for hours on end would create tension as to what she is doing at night. Things that are discovered the following morning but seem increasingly impossible for a young woman to do by herself. So the film can begin to create tension with ambiguity. Is there a demon? Is she insane, or is she possesed?

Basically, Peli only seems able to come up with HALF of a good idea throughout the film. He very smartly creates a widescreen frame of them sleeping at night and leaves it running for quite a while until the audience begins to scan every corner and pixel of that image. But he then leaves it at that. Any horror filmmaker worth his salt would know that the following image is a perfect Volleyball set for a spike.

Drawing the attention to the door at the left and letting the audience hang in silent apprehension would easily allow for a huge SCARE by having the lamp at the far RIGHT next to Micah either come on, fall over, or blow out. Any one of those choices would be a textbook way of having the scene still be realistic in terms of the surveillance framing and yet accomplish the main goal of a film called Paranormal Activity which I must assume is to frighten.

The performances by the two leads are decent. The problem lies in the use of improvisation to create the "reality" so needed for this to work. The failure in many of these "docu-horrors" is in allowing the actors to be interesting when all they need to be is believable. We don't need Second City alums here. Actors want to be seen as clever and witty at all times and this kind of improv leaves the door open for phoniness. The scenes between Katie and Micah often seem like acting exercises played directly for the camera instead of conversations overheard or caught on tape. The right approach would be to force them to talk about the most mundane subjects. "What's for dinner?" "Are we going to your parents this year for Thanksgiving" etc.

The fear factor is, of course, all that matters. But here Your Mileage May Vary. Depends on how scared you get looking at people sleeping and shadows creeping. I found it all mildly suspenseful. I also do not think that demons have footprints. But that is a whole different argument.

CAST:Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong

Thursday, November 12, 2009

DRACULA (1979) Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

In 1976, Frank Langella starred in the tremendously popular Broadway revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderston play "Dracula". A slightly campy production, the show was distinguished by its dazzling black and white sets designed by Edward Gorey and a powerfully sexualized Count. Just like the play's original star Bela Lugosi, Langella too was spirited off to Hollywood for a film version.

This revamped Dracula is a sort of Saturday Night Fever version of the story with a stylish, afro'ed Langella walking around with an open shirt looking for girls to take to his Castle Disco. There's actually some really dizzying dance scenes and a psychedelic love sequence done with lasers and animated bats that has to be seen to be believed. Dracula isn't really scary in this version so much as he is a Eurotrash prick who decides on a whim to steal your girl at the prom. The girls are all whores in this too, all dumping their stiff upper lip lads for the Tom Jones experience and never looking back. Dracula is clearly more man than you.

There is ONE scary scene involving Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) coming face to face with his undead daughter in the creepy catacombs beneath Whitby Cemetery. This scene is extraordinarily well done and makes you wish director John Badham would've made a more frightening film overall. He certainly had the resources as this may still be the most elaborately mounted adaptation of Stoker's classic. Seaside locations are dripping with misty atmosphere and the photography of Gil Taylor is amazing. It's a very worthwhile film to watch but in the end proves to be more disappointing than satisfying. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the huge orchestral score by John Williams. Along with his score for The Fury it's among his most underrated.

As a more everyman Van Helsing, Olivier is good but somewhat feeble. Screenwriter W.D. Richter's idea to make Van Helsing the father of one of Dracula's victims was a smart change from the novel and play. But it's a character that should've become much more aggressive as the story developed making Van Helsing into a kind of revenge figure willing to stop at nothing in order to destroy the vampire. Along those same lines, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) should've also become more ruthless since the film really pushes the idea of a foreign intruder stealing women from the English. But really the cast is top notch from Kate Nelligan to Donald Pleasance. Not a weak link among them and of course Langella himself who is charismatic as hell. Besides he can vibrate his eyes. How many of us can do that?


Friday, November 06, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

The poster says "From The Director of SPIDER-MAN" but this is really from the director of EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, a filmmaker who has been MIA for a long time. Since the mid '90s, Sam Raimi has spent his career auditioning for and then reaching the "A" list of Hollywood directors. This is how the very quirky, handmade style of films such as The Evil Dead, DARKMAN and even The Quick and the Dead suddenly gave way to the incredibly impersonal style of both A Simple Plan and the maudlin sports opera For Love of the Game. Those were films which could've been directed by virtually anyone-put James Mangold (Copland, Kate and Leopold) behind the camera on either of them and not much would be different. Perhaps they would even be better since Mangold wouldn't be faking it. While A Simple Plan still had its moments of dark humor and well crafted tension, For Love of the Game expressed little but directorial boredom. For a man who invented a rig called the "Shaki-cam" in order to best depict the POV of a demon, over the shoulder shots and close-ups of talking heads were definitely a step back. They were what Alfred Hitchcock called "photographs of people talking".

Both films are examples of the "well-made play" crafted as invisibly as possible. In providing unchallenging, easy entertainment, these films proved to the Hollywood industry that Raimi could make 'em as dull as anyone else. That he could be controlled. Raimi had become just the man that an expensive franchise like the Spider-Man films needed. The studio could count on his visual imagination to give the action some punch secure in the knowledge that he would play ball with the front office. That said, the Spider-Man films were mostly great fun. Especially the first sequel which seemed to express much more of Raimi's mischievous personality. The less said about the third film in the series the better except that its best scene has Bruce Campbell stopping the movie dead as a surreal waiter-a scene that looks like something out of Raimi's early Super-8mm work.

While that was merely a throwaway return to an earlier style, it may have been an indication of Raimi's mindset at the time of production-perhaps stirring his desire to return to something smaller and more personal. For most filmmakers, "smaller and personal" means a character drama or indie talkfest but for Raimi this meant FILMMAKING. A return to a genre which requires more cinematic skill than any other and inspires a full expression of style and playfulness. Digging up a script written with his brother Ivan around the time of Army of Darkness, Raimi has made what must be his best film in years, the surprisingly smart and exciting DRAG ME TO HELL.

The Universal Studios logo that opens the film is a real tip-off to the film's personal meaning. It isn't the current logo but one that dates from the time Raimi got his start as a filmmaker. I remember growing up in the '70s and '80s and dreaming of making a film that would open with the classic MCA-Universal globe that preceeded the films of so many of my favorite filmmakers from Hitchcock to Spielberg and Landis. It was a corporate signature to be sure-the world spinning on the tip of Lew Wassermann's finger-but it usually meant GENRE as this was Universal's specialty and seeing it instantly sparks my imagination with thoughts of the exciting film to follow-The Birds, Duel, Animal House, The Sting, Back to the Future, or An American Werewolf in London. MOVIES.

This is what DRAG ME TO HELL is all about and you can feel Raimi's excitement coming through the screen to grab your throat. But the best thing is that the film is not just a throwback but a realization. This isn't some attempt to merely recapture a retro feel and in fact I don't think Raimi could've made this film so well in the '80s. While it has the energy and the endless cinematic invention of his early work, the film's command of economical storytelling is something that once eluded him. There is a command over the ENTIRE film from story to character to effect that makes the whole thing integrated which is a culmination of all the work Raimi has done over the years. It is a work of maturity that can still express itself childishly. Which is what an old fashioned scary movie needs to do and this film is gloriously old fashioned as it feels like something William Castle would've made in the mid 60s or some alternate reality remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMON starring Vincent Price. In fact, NIGHT OF THE DEMON haunts the whole film from the three day "death sentence" and the "woodcut demon" design of the "Lamia" to the film's train station climax.

Former "Pork Queen Fair" farmgirl Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has come a long way from her roots. She practices her speech and diction while driving to her bank job each morning and struggles to establish herself among her male colleagues. Both her boss (David Paymer) and her rival for the much wanted assistant manager's position (Reggie Lee) seem to exclude her from their boy's club. To prove her grit, she decides to turn down nasty old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for an extension on her mortgage payment which, of course, means that she will lose her house. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ganush doesn't only look like Bela Lugosi, she is also some kind of old witch and Christine soon finds herself on the other end of a terrible curse that will literally "drag her to hell" in three days time. Neither the help of a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) who accepts American Express nor the truly unending support of her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) can save her.

The script by the Raimis does an effective job of establishing a strong lead character and Alison Lohman is excellent in the role, finally playing a character close to her actual age. The film's production design has the clean studio backlot feel of Henry Bumstead's work on films like To Kill A Mockingbird while Christopher Young's score channels Bernard Herrman as well as the very particular violin riffs of Jerry Goldsmith's work for '60s TV programs like Thriller and The Twilight Zone. In jokes abound from the cameo by Raimi's classic EVIL DEAD Oldsmobile, having Justin Long surrounded by MAC products to the name of David Paymer's character "James Jacks", a well known Universal Studios producer and friend of Sam Raimi. Altogether there is an air of comfort and control throughout. The feeling that the director has nothing to prove and is just having fun.

Raimi teaches an entire generation how to make full use of the PG-13 rating-the film is released to DVD with both the theatrical and Unrated cuts included but as another example of his growth as a filmmaker the difference between the two are mere seconds and not of gore but rather character. The Unrated version is actually SHORTER-cutting a few frames away that show Christine looking remorseful for killing her cat. In the Unrated version, Christine just wants to survive and has reached a point where her furry friend has to go. Raimi seems to go a bit "off the rails" during the train station climax with some Tales from the Crypt obligation for a grim twist. After investing 2 hours of time with Christine it seemed rather cynical to drag her off to hell. Especially in a film that is mostly jokey. But then again, the film IS called DRAG ME TO HELL.

CAST: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic, Kevin Foster, Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier, Shiloh Selassie, Flor de Maria Chahua
RUNNING TIME:(Unrated version) 99 minutes

Monday, November 02, 2009

SUNSHINE Movie Review

by Brian Holcomb

It’s 50 years from now and once again mankind faces extinction. Not from a meteoric Armageddon, or the inconvenient truth about the environment, but from the death of the sun itself. A second ice age threatens to end life as we know it and so mankind looks to its last hope for survival, a spacecraft christened the “Icarus II”, which carries a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to be fired into the center of the dying star to relight the burner.

Since the “Icarus I” clearly failed in its maiden attempt, only a single nuclear device remains. If the crew of the “Icarus II” fails as well, there will be no more chances. Understandably, the weight of this responsibility hangs heavily on the multi-racial multi-national crew. These seven men and women know that they are nothing BUT expendable. It causes them to question every decision in the light of a philosophical context. Anything or anyone who stands in the way of the success of their mission must be avoided or stopped. Mankind must prevail.

The serious space movie is one of the most limited genres around, with virtually the ENTIRE ground having been covered by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey”. You get pretty much what you expect each time out: The loneliness of space travel; a pleasant but suddenly disobedient talking computer; a technical malfunction that threatens the lives of the spacemen requiring a tense spacewalk in order to make the necessary repairs; the tragic death of one of the protagonists who sacrifices his or herself for the greater good of their colleagues and/or humanity itself; Cabin fever tension between the shipmates courtesy of Jean-Paul Sartre and last but certainly not least, a touch of the spiritual in probing that which “man-was-not-meant-to-know”.

Alex Garland is a writer who is clearly no stranger to this theme. His debut novel, “The Beach” set the tone for all of his following work. Alienated characters one step removed from tactile, real life experiences who seek some kind of connection to the physical or spiritual world. The one that exists outside their windows and beyond their Playstations and Gamecubes. They seek to find communion with the unknown or secret knowledge, the true meaning of the word “occult”. Instead of “The Beach’s” Gen-X backpacker, we are given 7 scientists on a seemingly impossible mission. All are withdrawn not only from each other but from their own psyches. They are all clearly far from where they belong, on the last leg of a journey that has them staring right into the center of the sun. This is where science crosses over into the spiritual. Human notions of the physical universe and it’s spiritual creator are closely entwined when considering the life and death of a star. For within our own vocabulary the “heavens” can be celestial as well as scientific.

Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”) crafts a jaw-droppingly beautiful film. He makes a fantastic decision to avoid establishing shots of the spacecraft and to begin the film with the mission already in progress. We are placed in the same position as the ensemble cast, trapped within the claustrophobic space and forced to consider the film’s issues along with them.

Garland and Boyle are nothing if not ambitious. They want us to consider the Big Questions about the importance or inconsequence of mankind as well as the argument of science versus fundamentalism. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. But how about in space? If you were to look into the center of the sun, would you see the face of God?

The first two thirds of “Sunshine” play on these issues in an intelligent and actually quite subtle fashion. There are no deep monologues about the vastness of the universe or the crutch of spiritual belief, thank God. Everything is conveyed through action and reaction and the very powerful images that Boyle and his team conjure up to create the power of the sun’s light. Something they are clearly trying to suggest is more than a literal “illumination”. Yet, this is actually the film’s singular flaw. Boyle and Garland do not seem to be on the same page philosophically and the film cannot contain their oddly opposing views. Garland is trying to tell a story about man’s inability to comprehend the universe without making himself the center of it, while Boyle is photographing a movie about man’s spiritual connection to the divine. Boyle does not see the divine as being within man himself but rather something outward, to be literally reached for and just barely out of grasp.

In fact, Boyle is quite literal altogether. He layers images onto the subtle script which are both obvious and yet perplexing in the extreme. Images of sex and reproduction are everywhere and yet there is no actual sex on-screen. The “Icarus II” looks like a sperm cell as it approaches the center of an egg-like sun which it needs to penetrate in order to preserve life itself. In one scene, several crew members must be shot out of the wrecked “Icarus I” back to their own ship like a journey through the birth canal. These are presented but have little to do with the film’s more central themes and are certainly abandoned by the last third where the whole film falls apart completely.

In “28 Days Later” Boyle and Garland switched from their rage plague story to a post-apocalyptic study of the more mundane evil that lies in the hearts of common men. The infected were less threatening by the end of that film than Christopher Eccleston and his droog-like gang of soldiers bent on power struggles and deviant desires in a world without laws.
They attempt something similar here but it’s a complete mistake. The 8th inning arrival of a slasher film boogeyman, with the burned flesh of Freddy Kruger and the physical strength of patient V. in “V for Vendetta” turns the film into nothing more than “Ten Little Indians” in space. A tense, minimalist film turns into a stalk and slash thriller without even a strong philosophical angle from the talkative villain. The death of mankind being “God’s Will” is a fundamentalist notion but it has no power when voiced by a knife wielding maniac. If there is a real lesson to be learned here it’s that sometimes a filmmaker’s reach can exceed his grasp.

But the film is still worth a look. The ensemble cast is terrific and Cillian Murphy in particular continues to impress with his quiet, introspective screen presence. None of the characters are particularly well defined and so it’s up to the actors to convey their feelings between the very terse lines of dialogue. This they do quite admirably. As mentioned before, the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful and flawed as it is, Boyle and his team conjure up something truly magical in the final minutes of the film as Murphy reaches out and is able to grasp what Boyle himself could not.

Danny Boyle (director) / Alex Garland (screenplay)
CAST: Cillian Murphy … Capa
Michelle Yeoh … Corazon
Hiroyuki Sanada … Kaneda
Rose Byrne … Cassie
Benedict Wong … Trey
Chris Evans … Mace

Monday, October 26, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Known as “Rinne” in Japan, “Reincarnation” is the film Shimizu made after the incredible “Marebito”, and before production commenced on the Japanese “Ju-on 3″ and, I would wager, the American “Grudge 3″. Shimizu is an enigma to me, a filmmaker who is quite talented and yet seems to be both driven and repelled by the motion picture factory mentality. While “Marebito” was definitely a change of pace for Shimizu, “Reincarnation” is back to his J-horror roots of long black hair and vengeful ghosts. But it’s once again what Shimizu does with the material that distinguishes it from the rest, not the trite material itself.

I also think Shimizu set out to make a film that was more in line with a Hitchcockian thriller than a full blooded horror film, so those expecting a terrifying movie will be disappointed. The score and credits sequence more than merely reference Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock; the animation of the credits is clearly inspired by the work of Saul Bass, Hitch’s title designer on films like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”, who created abstract patterns onscreen that somehow distilled the themes of the story.

The story of “Reincarnation” is another contrived piece of “Shimizuscript”, in which two separate yet related storylines come closer and closer together as the film progresses. The fascinating element of this picture revolves around its spin on “The Shining”, with 11 people murdered at a mountainside hotel in the 1970s by a deranged Professor who filmed the whole thing with an 8mm camera. Years later, a self important film director, Matsumura (Kippei Shiina), brings a cast and crew to the hotel to work on his own fictional film about the murders, and casts a timid young actress, Sugiura (Yuka), in the lead role of the professor’s young daughter.

Sugiura has all kinds of visions and nightmares and begins to feel that she is the reincarnation of the professor’s daughter in real life. She finds herself “Phantasm”-like, moving from one state of reality to another, from dreams to visions to scenes she plays in the movie within the movie to flashbacks to the past. In a parallel narrative, a college student is suffering her own sense of deja vu, and with the help of an occult-wise actress, tries to find out her own connection to the hotel’s past.
The brilliance here is not in the day old plot, but in the way Shimizu moves the differing strands of reality closer and closer as the movie comes to its climax. In the last ten minutes, we watch Sugiura play the professor’s daughter in a scene while she “sees” events playing back from the past in visions. Meanwhile, Sugiura’s agent is watching the killer’s actual 8mm footage of the murders, and this is cross cut with the other action to create a sense of reality on top of reality as it all begins to bleed into one another. At the end, we are shown perhaps the creepiest “living doll” ever filmed.

I have to applaud Shimizu’s clever resurrection of the “rubber reality” movie so popular in the 1980’s, following the release of Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. Shimizu’s direction is so assured that he is able to fully integrate a “Dawn of the Dead” reference without a blink
“Reincarnation” was probably the best of the three I saw at “Horror Fest”, and the one most deserving of a theatrical release.


Friday, October 23, 2009

SAW III Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

Saw III is the latest installment of the horror franchise specializing in the violent cutting of both flesh and celluloid. The flesh we expect. The celluloid is fashionably cut to please the supposedly fickle audience attention span. Utterly paranoid of inducing anything resembling boredom, the entire film is jacked up to the nth degree. This includes the soundtrack which is mixed with all the subtlety and finesse of a runaway vacuum cleaner. Images jump, blip, strobe, and shock like an epileptic seizure - all the result of director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lack of trust in his screenplay, his cinematographer and his cast. This is a shame since all three elements are much better than his direction.

FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE: Jigsaw’s not doing too well. After spending two films creating torture devices of extraordinary magnitude, he is now aware of his own mortality. It seems as though he is about to turn over his house of horrors to his loyal assistant, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Another game is about to begin and this time it involves an attractive young surgeon (Bahar Soomekh) who is tasked against her will to perform brain surgery on the ailing madman. Apparently, Jigsaw wants only to teach the world about “forgiveness”. His pawn this time is Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a vengeance driven man who lost his son in a hit and run accident which destroyed his entire life and those of his ex-wife and young daughter as well. Jeff is placed into Jigsaw’s rat trap and offered up the object of his hate as the prize if he can only make the “right” choices and survive the gauntlet.

Leigh Whannell’s screenplay is much better than usual for this type of film but seems overly committed to making a slasher film about moral choices. Unfortunately, when the choices come between watching a man being drawn and quartered mechanically or saving him, the film is at complete odds with itself. Of course we want to see the man drawn and quartered; hopefully in great detail. The entire point here is to watch characters get tortured and killed in inventive ways. Morality is the anti-thesis of this entire genre. It’s based on breaking taboos. No one came to this party armed with condoms and a designated driver. So, while the film’s dialogue makes pleas for the pointlessness of vengeance, the film’s images revel in bloody, bone crunching Grand Guignol.

Along with the thematic confusion, the production is also damaged by its very frugality. Sets are cramped and are merely unimaginative variations on the “rusty old factory” location found in most survival horror video games. But the most aggravating aspect is its use of stock footage. In some ways Saw III resembles one of those budget episodes that sitcom producers roll out when the season proves too costly. Gather the Friends around and have them reminisce about that time when…cue the dissolve to footage from episode 97. Saw III is packed with stock footage from the previous two Saws to the point where it seems less like an actual movie and more like a mad mix tape. The Bloody Best of Saw!Of course, most of what is shown is pointless filler.

The hyperactive filmmaking itself would be effective if it occurred in moments of great tension set apart by scenes photographed and edited more conventionally. However, the film is cut like an action film in even the quietest of scenes. The cinematography by David A. Armstrong is drenched in atmosphere but the cutting ignores it completely, chopping it up into pieces like one of Jigsaw’s ingenious devices.

Performances are nearly impossible to judge. Angus Macfadyen was so good in both Braveheart and as Orson Welles in The Cradle Will Rock. But here, he is seen emoting in occasional flash cuts which explode in and out of scenes like subliminal advertising for emotional dysfunction. I’ll have to go back and watch him in slow motion and freeze frame. As the dying Jigsaw, Tobin Bell continues to employ the David Caruso technique of whispered acting. His quiet line readings are almost the only refuge from the screaming. Besides that, the only actual performances not drowned out by the cinematic sound and fury are those by the women. Both Shawnee Smith and Bahar Soomekh give performances that shade in the pencil sketch characters they were given. In Smith’s case, I doubt the script called for much more than mere stage directions to enter and exit. As a whole, the entire cast is better than this film deserves.

In the old days they used to make these movies more honestly. They were “banned in 47 or 68 countries” and titled Faces of Death. That series was nothing more than a plotless “documentary” featuring a series of violent tortures and deaths. It was fictionalized snuff without the pretense of some kind of illogical story. This current genre of torture erotica set in jigsaw mazes, hostels, and hills with eyes wastes time with the narrative facade. The teenage horror audience wants to see someone get his tongue cut out or his hands crushed. No one cares WHY this is happening and I am sure it would be scarier if it happened to a series of innocent people without reason. For all its nervous noise and mechanical tension,Saw III isn’t very scary, just annoying. Their popularity aside, these are hard films to enjoy. They are designed to fill the viewer up with the most primal tension of bodily dismemberment and then leave them hanging without catharsis. Saw III ends with its protagonist completely screwed. At least Eli Roth had the presence of mind in Hostel to allow his lead character some level of cathartic vengeance on his torturers. This is why the theme of Saw III is utter nonsense. Forgiveness? Maybe in real life we could learn a thing or two about the emptiness of revenge, but in this loud, screeching video game meat grinder, everything is reduced to the lizard brain. KILL! CUT! SMASH! SURVIVE! DESTROY! The fact that Saw III is so intent on jerking us off without a “happy ending” is the real torture.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

The title tells all in this jumbled mess of a horror film. After a funeral, several of the deceased’s old friends get the “Big Chill” and decide to celebrate life by dancing on some graves. Unfortunately they dance on the graves of three very pissed off psychos, whose ghosts rise, having exactly one month to kill their desecrators.

Mike Mendez made a fairly popular comic horror film several years ago called “The Convent”, and spent the next several years trying to raise funding for this ghost story. Why he felt so compelled to bring “The Gravedancers” to the screen escapes me, but I can imagine he thought it would be a fun William Castle type horror picture. With either a larger or smaller budget he may have achieved that goal.

As it is, the film is budgeted at the deathly mid-level, where a known French actor like Tch’ky Karyo (the bad guy in most Luc Besson movies, as well as Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys”) can be afforded, and the film has to abide by tight scheduling and union rules. A guerrilla styled DV version could’ve taken the concept and went Sam Raimi mad with it, inventing all kinds of unforgettable sequences that would take days to shoot.

While watching “The Gravedancers”, you just feel the need for more money, through effects that just don’t cut it, actors who really, really need that extra take, and “ghosts” that are little more than silly looking rubber mask affairs. And while Karyo lets us know that he knows he’s in a ridiculous movie by camping things up, he never lets the director or the other cast members in on the joke, and they seem to be incredibly square as a result.

“The Gravedancers”, while never boring, is not much above the level of the standard Sci Fi Channel production.


Sunday, October 04, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Although he is not generally considered to be an auteur, Dan Curtis is a filmmaker whose work is instantly recognizable. Part of this comes from his love of the zoom lens, his often hurried, chaotic staging, and the sudden stings of dramatic music by his usual composer Robert Colbert. All of it creates an atmosphere that immediately brings to mind the film and television of the early 1970s.

The soap opera Dark Shadows was Curtis' baby and it ran on ABC from 1966-1971 hitting the peak of its popularity with the release of this film in 1970. While the show had many long running storylines and even storylines in different eras, Curtis decided that the film version was going to tell the Barnabas vampire tale alone. Audiences were a bit shocked by how much harsher the film version of the show was, with a Barnabas that was much less sympathetic and violence that was, well, violent.

With a tightly focused vampire story, Curtis produced a film which has the feel of a classic Hammer film. This is ironic as the real Hammer Films had been struggling with a way to bring their gothic style into the modern era as evidenced by their early 70s failures Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Curtis realized that it wasn't achieved by including blue jeans, nightclubs and airplanes but by drawing the story back into an insular world that is essentially timeless. The film is aided immeasurably in this regard by its location photography in upstate New York and Connecticut. It's a film of old cemetaries, large monasteries and country houses.

The biggest difference between the show and film is that the show often traded on a certain low rent charm. Cheap looking FX, wobbly sets, and actors who became lost in the dialogue. The film is well mounted and stylishly produced. In what must've seemed like a luxury, Jonathan Frid had time to learn ALL his lines.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Producer Val Lewton was the driving force behind a series of innovative B-horror movies for the RKO Studios beginning with “Cat People” in 1942, and ending with “Bedlam” in 1946. He developed a new style of horror film storytelling by presenting credible characters living and working in the real world amid real day to day problems. The supernatural element was dropped into this mundane reality and seemed all the more suspenseful in contrast. Now, I don’t know if writer-director Kareem A. Bland is a fan of Lewton’s films, but he’s definitely on the same wavelength.

Amid the buckets of blood and breasts on hand in most indie Horror thrillers, “Bleeding Rose” stands out as something entirely different. I was very pleasantly surprised at how easily the movie balanced its desire to express something more than mere genre while still satisfying the needs of the genre. One of the great traps filmmakers fall into is the “anti-genre” film, where they intentionally subvert all of the pleasures of the chosen genre to make some thematic or moral point, but only end up producing a “feathered fish”. That is, something neither fish nor fowl that pleases neither the indie/art film crowd nor the ordinary moviegoer looking for his genre fix. “Bleeding Rose” wants to be more than a thriller but still takes the time to respectfully construct an effective suspense thriller narrative.

“Bleeding Rose” centers on Ebony Rose (Sakeenah Nicole), an attractive young woman haunted by strange dreams and visions of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Alex (Nicholas Vitulli), while trying to start a new life back home in New York City . She is reunited with an old friend named Cedric (Archie Ekong), who is working hard to establish his new record label. Cedric and his “genius” lyricist partner and best friend Kyle (Duane Littles) are looking for a new voice and ask her to come down to their studio and audition. The three eventually form a love triangle and become suspicious of one another as Ebony’s friends and family are stalked and killed one by one by an unknown killer.

There is a great, relaxed quality in the first act of “Bleeding Rose”. It hints at the thriller beats to come, but holds its focus on Ebony’s new life and circle of friends, with the documentary like feel of the scenes at the recording studio and the almost improvisational feel of the performances coming across as natural and real. There is a confidence that Bland demonstrates throughout these scenes that draws us deeper into the story, without feeling obliged to hit us over the head with one shock after another. Instead, the film concentrates on telling its story through its characters. The suspense builds and the thriller set pieces emerge, more effective since they involve characters we’ve been given the chance to know.

One of these set pieces, involving Ebony’s friend Candice (Elizabeth Ruelas) actually seems to be a tribute to Lewton, who designed his movies around a series of what he and director Jacques Tourneur called “Buses”. This was the name given to the sudden jumps they began in “Cat People”, in which actress Jane Randolph is stalked along a New York street until suddenly she and the audience is jolted by the hiss of a bus stopping in front of her and opening its doors. Bland revisits this in his movie’s best set piece, as Candice is stalked in a subway and we are jolted by the sudden arrival of the train.

Unlike most ultra low budget films, “Bleeding Rose” is not hampered by its lack of resources, unknown actors and effects. It also has the intelligence to leave the classic model of low-budget filmmaking behind and use the freedom of new technology to expand its canvas. The old way of making a horror movie fast and cheap required bringing a cast together to a single location and murdering them one by one, in an intense shoot regulated by the high cost of camera, sound and light rental, and the complexities of moving cast and crew from place to place. However, in this digital age, a very accomplished movie can be produced with small cameras and sound equipment the filmmaker can afford to own, and with the use of available light, move from location to location with real speed, giving the movie more production value and a real sense of place.

“Bleeding Rose” has a nice feel for its New York locations and its steady handheld style is effective, using the new technology not to mimic some large Hollywood movie, but to do what they do best — eavesdrop, lurk, and watch like an electronic voyeur. The only criticism I have of the movie is one that I have to excuse. There are moments when the sound is not as clear, or the lighting is not quite perfect. Jumps in editing that seem to be the result of missing scenes near the end as the movie rushed headlong into its conclusion. These are all technical points and they are found in all indie movies and are always solved by throwing more money at the screen. So, maybe somebody should throw Kareem A. Bland some money and see what he can achieve.

Outside of those criticisms, “Bleeding Rose” is a skillfully made thriller with some interesting themes involving racial identity and abusive relationships. These are not separate things, but instead are effectively part of one complete story. Hopefully, Bland’s “Bleeding Rose” will find a niche amid the more exploitative fare on the DVD shelves. In any case, it stands as a very effective example of what can be accomplished on a low budget and meager resources.

Kareem A. Bland (director) / Kareem A. Bland (screenplay)
CAST: Sakeenah Nicole, Nicholas Vitulli, Archie Ekong, Duane Littles

Thursday, October 01, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

I caught this on one of the many Encore Cable channels last night and since it was a Blaxploitation film shot in Philadelphia in the year I was born I thought I would look at it for a few minutes. Well, a few minutes turned into 89 and as the end credits rolled I must say I was quite impressed. This wasn't the standard "pimp and ho show" but rather a smart, character based crime flick about two hustlers just trying to survive in the City of Brotherly Love.

Based on the novel by Iceberg Slim, Trick Baby is the story of veteran black conman "Blue" Howard (Mel Stewart) and his young white protégé "Folks" O'Brien (Kiel Martin). Folks is the "trick baby" of the title, the son of a black hooker and a white John who passes convincingly as white. "Blue" took the young man in at an early age and they have a strong father-son bond that insures a strong trust while scamming the short money day in and day out. Just as "Folks" decides to retire from the risky grind, he seizes an opportunity to lure $90,000 out of a group of racist bigwigs. But this last "sting" becomes increasingly perilous as they have to keep one step ahead of a crooked cop (Dallas Edward Hayes) they shortchanged and the local mobster who has placed a price on their heads for their involvement in the death of his uncle following a con.

"Iceberg Slim" was the pseudonym for Robert Beck. Under that playful name, Beck quickly became one of the most successful African-American authors of the '70s. His acclaimed 1969 debut novel, "Pimp: The Story of My Life", an autobiographical account of his days as a hustler on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s was first optioned by Universal for a motion picture adaptation but concerns regarding the raw subject matter made them switch to TRICK BABY instead.

This film is not really "blaxsploitation" at all though it shares some of the same concerns and conventions of that genre. The film's focus on the relationship between Folks and Blue is what distinguishes it. The pair make a very conscious use of their skin color and the inherent racism of their "marks" in order to pull off their scams. Like a game of good cop/bad cop, Folks gets the trust of the white community and uses their desire to rip off the black man against them.

The performances are uniformly excellent but the late Kiel Martin really steals the picture as Folks. There's something charismatic about him that makes Folks likable even when he first appears onscreen pretending to be a villainous racist while pulling a con with Blue.

Visually, the film makes great use of its rundown Philly setting, staging scenes in street corners, alleys, and elevated train stations during the grey days of winter. It also features some very inventive editing that places dialogue in counterpoint to the image and an incredibly tense foot chase that works not so much because it's so well staged but rather because the stakes are so high for the characters. This is the key to why the film really works-the personal stakes are raised so high and yet the film keeps reminding the audience that death is imminent. Folks can sense it and keeps trying to convince Blue to forget the big score and just walk away. This is Standard Plotting Procedure for most crime films but here there is an underlying sense of mortality much like Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. A seemingly random attempt to pull a pigeon drop on a "naive" black businessman becomes quite dangerous as the man tells Blue that he's going to kill Folks for the hell of it. They make it out of that jam but the scene leaves a mark on the scenes to follow and make it clear that the ending will not be anything but tragic.

If that's not enough to recommend it, Trick Baby also comes complete with Ted Lange (a.k.a Isaac the Bartender from The Love Boat) as Melvin the Pimp.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

On a cold winter night a few years ago, I was channel surfing when I came across what seemed to be a documentary on the Discovery Network about a real life haunting. I say "seemed to be" because it had fairly high production values and a great deal of cinematic flair in its dramatization of the infamous Snedecker case. This was "A Haunting in Connecticut" which would later lead to a series on the same channel depicting "A Haunting" in many other parts of the country. None of those, however, came close to the feeling of dread and wintry death as this one, however. Part of the effect was due to the story itself which was, of course, supposedly "true". Or at least as true as anything self proclaimed "demonologists" Ed and Lorraine Warren were involved with before (The Amityville Horror).

This material has been adapted again into a feature film starring Virginia Madsen and it desperately wants to scare you to death. Armed with elaborate makeup effects and a whole bag of visual and auditory fireworks the movie works hard for your money and should theoretically be scarier than the cut rate television production. But it's not. Not by a mile.

So, the question is: Why not?

The story of the Snedecker haunting first came to the public's awareness via the book "In a Dark Place" written by horror novelist Ray Garton along with the Warrens themselves. Garton would later say that the book was a pile of BS and that many of the Snedeckers stories were contradictory. After relaying his concerns to Ed Warren, Garton supposedly received this sage advice:

"Oh, they’re crazy. Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary."

Now I bring this up not to attack the Warrens or Ray Garton for taking your money. I bring this up because the intent was not journalistic, but rather narrative. "Just make it up and make it scary." But what does that really mean? "Make it scary"? At its core, the story as laid down by Garton and dramatized on the Discovery Channel program is nothing more than the usual blood and thunder ghost story. It could be broken down in the usual beats:

1.Unsuspecting Family moves into strange and strangely inexpensive old house.
2. They slowly become aware that they are not alone there.
3. Tensions rise as the supernatural phenomena begins to tear apart the family unit.
4. Someone goes to the library instead of looking on the internet to find out about the house's murderous past.
5. Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in to fight the evil within. If the family is Catholic replace "Ed and Lorraine Warren" with a Priest.

I suspect that amid the piles of scripts sitting on Ari Gold's desk in Entourage, there would be at least one or two with this exact structure. And not one of them would be even remotely scary.

OK. So, how did Garton take this formula and "Make it scary"?

He didn't-You did-the moment you saw the words, "Based On A True Story". The suspension of disbelief which is so important to all fiction but of primary importance in a tale of terror is automatically engaged with those 5 words. And with this engagement comes the sudden loss of critical functions. Something that would sound contrived in a work of fiction is not even given a second's thought once it is believed to be "what really happened" because we all know that there are many things that are "Strange, but true".

Now, it IS true that Garton was also working with a pretty creepy situation from which all kinds of deep seated fears could be milked. You see, this wasn't just your regular "Amityville" house with a creepy attic. This house was once a funeral home complete with all the old dissecting tools and a crematorium in the basement. Now, few of us would want to spend more than a few minutes in one of these places-let alone spending the night-let alone LIVING there. Along with this situation is the central figure of the story's haunting, the Snedeckers teenage son who was stricken with cancer and receiving intense experimental treatments at a local hospital in a last ditch effort to save his life. There is something about the young man being so close to death that gives the story an added sense of personal drama and makes the supernatural aspects more harrowing. This is very well captured in the Discovery Channel program which makes great use of aerial shots of snow capped Connecticut trees and icy roads to envelop you in a cold and deathly universe. But the program does something else which makes it quite frightening and it's not narrative but formal. Since someone was good enough to put the whole program up on YouTube you can watch the entire thing there-but for our purposes take a look at THIS portion of the program-it's not the scariest part or the most interesting but it serves to demonstrate the peculiar effect of the form.

Now, the events depicted in the clip are all present in the film version. Yet, they carry none of the dread that is in virtually every second of this clip. The TV version is even more subtly and effectively directed than the feature version. It makes use of a quiet gliding camera and very specific and quiet sound effects to play on the viewer's imagination. This is all more successful than the elaborately constructed explosions of shock cuts and screaming in the film.

But there's something else.

And it's been used in programs of this sort since the days of In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries. The story is not only relayed visually through re-enacted dramatization but also orally through a "voice of doom" narrator and personal testimony of those involved. Ghost stories have a long tradition of oral storytelling and it could be that this is the form that has the most power. The thing is that is a form that doesn't agree with the commonly accepted notion of narration in the cinema. In motion pictures, narration that simply states what the visuals make obvious is considered to be artless. But here, we see the young boy go into the basement and are told by the narrator that "Paul made his way down to the basement." But this narration sets us on edge. The same scene in a standard horror picture accompanied by "scary music" would only be slightly effective. In a standard horror movie, the boy would go into the basement and hear strange sounds from the shadows. But in the TV version the narrator tells us that the boy "could hear strange sounds from the next room and began to feel as though something was watching him." Now THIS really begins to chill the spine in a way a movie could never achieve. The shots that follow of the boy walking into the dark room have a dread that wouldn't exist without the voiceover.

The question is whether the commercial cinema can actually learn from this and achieve the same effect within the confines of cinematic storytelling. You don't go to the movies to watch an extended Unsolved Mysteries episode after all, the expectation is for a psychologically credible narrative that isn't interrupted by omniscient narrators or personal testimony. How could a filmmaker blend the forms without alienating the audience?

I don't know if he could do worse than the trite and obvious manner in which the film version was made. The film isn't BAD, and actually the acting is quite good by Madsen, Kyle Gallner, and Martin Donovan. What fails to work is the film's insistence on being in your face. The desire to prevent the teen audience from texting in the dark rather than following the story leaves a movie that has no grace notes, no sense of real atmosphere or control of pacing. I think it should be remembered that the much subtler TV version was MADE FOR TV where there is a very real fear that someone would just flip the channel. For a theatrical film, you have a captive audience who has paid for a ticket and is not so ready to jump ship. But for me, an hour of annoying flash cuts and random screams made me want to do that very thing. At least there was this tribute to a truly great horror film: