Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, February 27, 2009


The great English playwright and Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter passed away on Christmas Eve at the age of 78. Very few artists can claim to have had their very name become an adjective found in most standard dictionaries but Pinter is on that short list. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "Pinteresque":

"Of or relating to the plays of Harold Pinter; marked especially by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and air of menace."

Well, what does that tell us? It's basically like saying that "Hitchcockian" refers to the suspense and tension in the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. If you haven't seen it yourself it doesn't mean much at all. Hitchcock's brand of black humored, sophisticated suspense is quite different from what might be expected.

Pinter was for many years a mystery to me. Absurdly, I first tried to read The Birthday Party when I was 12 years old. I wasn't THAT precocious-at least not about literature. Movies were my thing and at that time I making my way through the films of William Friedkin. Friedkin directed a film version of the play scripted by Pinter himself and starring Robert Shaw in 1968. It was a film I could not find at the time. So, when I found the play at the local library I dove into it to imagine what kind of tense and shocking thriller the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist could've made of it. What I discovered instead was a strange text full of specific words in strange combinations about some guy named Stanley who may or may not be on the run from some people who may or may not intend to harm him. Maybe. Nothing was certain the least of all the plot which at 12 years old is basically what seems to be the entire purpose of narrative fiction. I basically tossed the play aside as pointless and inexplicable. The only part I liked was a three page scene in which two strange men, Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley using a rythmic dialogue that reminded me of the famous "Who's on First?" sketch by Abbott & Costello. But again, it was words, words, in strange alternations with these...weird...PAUSES...

Years later I gave Pinter a second chance with something a little easier The Dumb Waiter which is like Quentin Tarantino's entire career in one act. I had just read Waiting for Godot and suddenly the whole thing clicked. I "got" what Pinter was all about, at least early Pinter which is what I prefer. He seemed to be combining in a wholly original, almost intuitive way the kind of absurdist theater of Becket and Ionesco with theoretically more realistic settings and a slangy language that sounded like snatches of overheard conversations edited to a cadence. The Dumb Waiter is like a gangster version of Godot with the two hitmen waiting forever for their orders to kill-neither understands their place in the universe any more than Vladimir or Estragon in Becket's play. But what Pinter adds to the mix is this veil of language- a veil so thick that no one can break through the games of wordplay, of question and non-answer, of pause before response.

This is the brilliance of Pinter's conversations-perfectly sculpted to dance around meaning, to create ambiguity as to what the REAL meaning might be. This goes beyond subtext, it's a kind of SUBconcious text. In Pinter's final screenplay, his reworking of Anthony Schaffer's much more straightforward thriller Sleuth, we get gems like the following quid pro quo between Michael Caine and his wife's new lover a struggling actor played by Jude Law:

Andrew: Why have I never heard of you?
Milo: You will before long.
Andrew: Really?
Milo: In Spades.
Andrew: That sounds threatening.
Milo: Does it?
Andrew: Doesn’t it?

So much of what makes Pinter unique can be found in that exchange of words-all in concealment of meaning. The two men are merely testing each other and it starts with words.The "air of menace" the OED refers to is there as well "in spades." But this is something that one needs to see performed in order to understand. Pinter was a stickler for his "...", "PAUSES", and "SILENCES" each with it's own meaning. When I finally saw The Birthday Party I saw how actors like Shaw and Patrick Magee could bring this menace between the lines alive. Watch this clipto see what I mean:

Pinter's influence is incalculable. David Mamet and Patrick Marber are clearly working in his shadow in the theater while Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson exhibit his use of quiet tension on the big screen. Along with Kafka, he has meant a great deal to me in my own writing and I continue to return to his work like a fountain of inspiration.

For more info check out my review of Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth HERE

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Exorcist II: The Heretic Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

There's something to be said for directorial ambition. It's common to lay blame whenever a filmmaker overreaches instead of congratulating them for not doing the mundane, safe, and obvious. Some filmmakers make a habit of overreaching and John Boorman is near the top of a list that would include at the very least mad geniuses like Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terry Gilliam. Boorman is a man with lots of mad ideas swirling uncontrollably in his magpie mind. Sometimes these ideas come together in coherent ways and we get films like Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory and The General. When they come together like a mixed stew we get films like Zardoz, Leo the Lost and, of course, Exorcist II: The Heretic.

I have to admit that I don't think there is a great divide between the two forms of madness.

This film is basically reviled by everyone. It's greeted with camp derision the moment it's brought up in conversation. Well, that's because it's completely and utterly batshit insane. Taken on its OWN terms, without expectation, the film is still pretty Godawful. However, it remains essential viewing for it's sheer ambition and reach which is amazing. No film could achieve it's goals and certainly not a sequel to a box office hit with an expectation set of its own.

Eschewing the procedural format of it's predecessor, Boorman places the follow-up square within a world of magic and fantasy-a world not so different from those depicted in Boorman's earlier Zardoz or later Excalibur. This is the premise on which the film starts and it is already a problem. The classical horror film (which Friedkin's The Exorcist still is despite its extremes) asks the audience to suspend their disbelief by having the supernatural invade what appears to be a fairly natural, acceptably normal world. The original film used realistic location photography, naturalistic and motivated lighting, and subdued performances in order to create an everyday mundanity. Defiantly, The Heretic begins on the wings of a demon and is set in a New York City as imagined by a blind and insane Chinese production designer.

A research facility made up of glass, mad scientist helmets ("The SYNCHRONIZER") which can link 2 separate brain waves, a constantly sweating Richard Burton acting up a storm, really cheap looking FX, James Earl Jones as Kokumo, Ned Beatty flying a helicopter, and dialogue that sounds like something was lost in translation from the original Swahili basically do everything possible to create disbelief rather than suspend it.

But the thing is, the film has so many more ideas than Friedkin's film it is a shame Boorman couldn't pull it off. He seems trapped between the literal and the metaphorical, between the realism of the original film which he has to respect on the one hand and the personal desire to make a film that exists on a whole different plane altogether. It seems that he and "creative associate" Rospo Pallenberg wanted to challenge the conventions of narrative cinema in which stories are told through plot and character and to take off into something much more visual and suggestive. A film told through symbolic imagery and associative ideas. This could've been amazing and would've brought back some of the magic of the silent film, particularly the early films of Fritz Lang. But note that I said "Silent Film". When The Heretic is driven by Boorman's imagery and Ennio Morricone's loud and incredible Disco hell score, the film begins to soar. It comes crashing down the moment Linda Blair says something abstract and inexplicable to Richard Burton, however, since this makes us instantly realize how absurd the film is. It may be that the best way to watch The Heretic is to shut off the soundtrack and play a CD of Goblin's Suspiria score as accompaniment.


Friday, February 20, 2009


These are the nominations for the 81rst annual Academy Awards. What started as a cookout in my backyard has blossomed into a major event. About every single nomination was totally predictable but I am glad that The Dark Knight was kept out of the major categories. Batgeeks around the world will weep. Too bad. Build a better Batman. I made some comments on this list, my choice in each category is in BOLD.

Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost / Nixon(This is the" Joel Grey Effect")
Sean Penn - Milk(Been there, done that,gay Jeff Spicoli)
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Rourke was once one of the best actors around-just watch his work in Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart or Year of the Dragon and you'll see what this guy could do. A Brando like combination of exterior toughness but with a very human vulnerability. His performance in The Wrestler is the biggest special effect of the year. There are moments which seem to completely transcend conventional acting and enter the realm of personal revelation in a way I don't know if I've seen since Brando in Last Tango in Paris.

Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight(*Will not be present)
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road

I liked both of these performances equally. Michael Shannon is a good actor who was great in William Friedkin's Bug but he was not a character in Revolutionary Road so much as a bad literary device. Brolin along with James Franco stole Milk.

Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - The Reader

Winslet hands down-she should win, and will win. Glad this was not for Revolutionary Road as that was really a subpar performance and film.

Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

This is a hard category as all of these performances were excellent. Marisa Tomei was very efefctive at conveying a life full of emotional wounds in The Wrestler and Amy Adams was so wonderfully fragile in Doubt, a witness to the very personal war of wills between Hoffman and Streep. But I think Penelope was the best here. Very controlled and in command of herself in a way I haven't seen her achieve in the English language. Woody Allen helped a bit I think. Actually, I think this has been the key to his great success over the years: Woody writes dialogue that could almost play itself.

Kung Fu Panda

I have nothing to say about Animation.

Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry - The Reader
Clint Eastwood - Changeling
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon

All of the nominees pale in comparison to Boyle's truly cinematic work. While the others made fine films they remain what Hitchcock once called "photographs of people talking" not cinema. Watch 10 seconds of Slumdog and you'll feel the electric charge that comes from a director who writes stories with his lens.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost / Nixon
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Milk is a run of the mill TV movie and doesn't deserve to be here.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Doubt(play should be disqualified)
Frost/Nixon(play should be disqualified)
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

I still think it's funny how Hollywood just cannot stop from typecasting even their screenwriters. Eric Roth was hired to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" because he's the screenwriter of the very "Button" like Forrest Gump. In fact there is a great comparison video HERE of the major scenes from both films which illustrate the similarities.

Frozen River
In Bruges

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire

A.R. Rahman's score is one of the key ingredients of Slumdog. But I'm actually disappointed not to see THE DARK KNIGHT here. That score was very subtle and clever and I think is one of the reasons why Heath Ledger's performance was so striking.

"Down to Earth" - Wall-E (Peter Gabriel)
"Jai Ho" - Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman)
"O Saya" - Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman & Maya Arulpragasam)

Slumdog is driven by it's score and this song makes for a real crowd pleasing ending.

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Man on Wire
Trouble the Water

Man with Balls of Steel could be an alternate title for this film about a very unique madman.

Der Bader Meinhof Komplex
The Class
Waltz with Bashir

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

The best part of the film. Amazing control of color and space. Partly authentic recreation of a time period, partly a nightmare catalog of '50s appliance hell.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

You're guess is as good as mine.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost / Nixon
Slumdog Millionaire

I know good editing is supposed to be invisible-I just don't agree with the literary restraint of that concept. Orson Welles is my man and his editing was loud, graphic, and very tactile! Slumdog features this approach throughout and it's graphic montages of Mumbai's light and dark are dynamic and thrilling.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire

I know I said I didn't have anything to say about Animation but Wall-E's sound editing and design was done by the great Ben Burtt and he should and will win.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Iron Man
The Dark Knight

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Directed by Pierre Morel
Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Xander Berkely, Olivier Rabourdin, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy

TAKEN is a by-the-numbers action flick from the action factory of Luc Besson and his partner in screenwriting crime Robert Mark Kamen. The thing is, most filmmakers have lost those numbers so this is actually a very welcome old fashioned B-flick. It's the kind of movie that was once commonplace in the days of Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner-a tough, no frills thriller that delivers EXACTLY what it promises and nothing more. Casting is everything in these films and Liam Neeson is both old enough and young enough to be convincing as an aging government agent with the two fisted skills and cat-like reflexes of Jason Bourne. Moreover, Neeson is damn likable which makes anyone who doesn't treat him respectfully in the film seem to deserve the bone crunching attack they receive. Even Famke Janssen, who plays Neeson's disapproving ex-wife, seems to deserve to be punched in the solar plexis for giving this cool dad a hard time. So what if he didn't have all the time in the world to spend with his little girl? The cats in the cradle Harry Chapin, daddy was busy keeping the world from blowing up. Give a guy some slack already!

If you've seen the trailer, you know the plot. If you haven't, it boils down to this: White slavery organization kidnaps a pair of naive teenage girls on their first trip to Europe not knowing that one of them (Maggie Grace) is the daughter of a retired James Bond who lets them know in no uncertain terms that if they don't let his daughter go, he will find them and when he does, he will kill them. Quite honestly, this set up is so full of clarity that there's no way anyone can watch the trailer and not think that they will at least catch some of this when it hits HBO. Besson and Kamen do not come up with anything new here but that's because they know no one has come to see an art flick. Director Pierre Morel shoots the action directly without any kind of post John Woo or Sam Peckinpah fussiness. Sure, the editing is fast but not as fast as it was in the frenetic Quantum of Solace-I could still figure out where the good guys and the bad guys were. These three men know how to play the genre game like old pros and deliver the hard edged action that their audience came to see. This is not a movie about moral dilemmas-it's about a father who will rip out your eyeballs if you don't give him his daughter back. Maybe Neeson's Bryan Mills will feel sorry later and confess his sins to a Priest or bartender but thank God it's not in this movie-the end credits roll without mercy. Enjoy this one with some popcorn and don't worry about the poor drug addicted girl Neeson leaves in a cheap hotel room on an IV drip. Besson and Kamen didn't.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Cast: Keifer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Mary Beth Peil, Jason Flemying
Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Gregory Levasseur
Produced by Alexandra Milchan, Marc Sternberg, Gregory Levasseur
Directed by Alexandre Aja

Ben Carson (Keifer Sutherland) is on extended leave from the NYPD after accidentally shooting a man. This tragedy has left him a broken man, a violent tempered alcoholic who has alienated everyone around him including his wife (Paula Patton) and children who have left him. He moves in with his sister (Amy Smart) and tries to put his life back together again by taking a job as night watchman in the old, rundown Mayflower Department Store. Ben very quickly learns that there is a terrible secret within the dark mirrors of the burned out building, secrets that seem to involve an old insane asylum that once stood in its place and a demonic force that kills all those it enchants. Ben soon discovers that only he can stop the evil force which seems bent on killing his wife and children as well.

In Dario Argento's Suspiria Udo Kier tells Jessica Harper that "bad luck isn't caused by broken mirrors, but by broken minds". Well after making the by-the-numbers and just plain silly Mirrors, director Alexandre Aja might think otherwise. He was on a lucky streak for the last few years, with the international success of his debut feature Haute Tension followed up by his American debut, the remake of Wes Craven's The HIlls Have Eyes. That film was the only one of the current spate '70s cult horror classic remakes to actually improve upon the original. But now it looks like it'll be at least 7 years before he'll be able to sweep up the pieces of this broken mirror.

There are many reasons why a film fails to work given the best intentions of its creators. Aja seems to have wanted to transcend the genre with a film that's partly a character study and, indeed, he and Sutherland work well to create a portrait of a man on the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. But these dramatics and long scenes of boring exposition do not sit well when weaved together with screeching demons and fiery deaths.

The most significant problem is the subgenre itself. Mirrors is a classical ghost story, a narrative tradition with many specific and familiar conventions. Subtlety is the driving force of these stories. A realistic setting and characters are slowly and very methodically invaded upon by events that may be supernatural. Often there is a mystery involving some dark secret in the past that must be solved and only in the very end are the angry spirits finally given their due and put to rest.

Currently it has been fashionable to rework this tradition within the commercially popular form of J-Horror. But this is a clash of cultures that does not work as well as it should. The problem is that the classical ghost story is logical as far as any story involving the possibly living dead could be. The ghost or ghosts are causing trouble for a reason. A reason it takes the hero 90 minutes and three acts to discover. However, in Asian horror the ghosts are far more malevolent and inexplicable. There is very little reason and the only logic is that of a nightmare.

Many of the greatest horror films play out on this level. Films as diverse as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr to Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and Dario Argento's aforementioned Suspiria do not tell so much as suggest the plots of their cryptic stories. By focusing their films on mood and atmosphere, they side step most of the silliness that comes from characters talking to each other about "vampires", "witches" and "demons". The horror is more abstract and therefore more personal. The nightmarish mood isn't dispelled every time the local professor is asked, "So, tell me, just what ARE werewolves?"

Aja is a filmmaker singularly unsuited to the classical ghost story. His brand of horror is driven by savage, torturous violence and in your face blood-letting in the great French tradition of Grand Guignol. Had he tossed out the needs of the classical ghost story and focused on creating a nightmare of the fantastique he may have created a film that could stand proud next to those by Dreyer, Coscarelli and Argento. He certainly had the visual imagination to pull it off-the design of the abandoned Mayflower hotel is hard to forget. As it is now, though, the film suffers from being pulled in too many contradictory directions.