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Sublime: We Are What We Believe

June 2, 2012

We see castles in the distance and leave the plains for cities.  We claim our land and spend our lives protecting it.  We build homes that shield us yet become our prisons.  We build fences isolating us and now log on, desperate for connection.  And in our quiet desperation, we find only what we believe exists: horror, depravity, and danger.

And in the life of every white, middle aged man married with children, there will come a time when nothing seems right; the world shrinks around him, suffocating his existence, until there is nowhere stable enough to stand.  Everything breathes danger, everyone breeds evil.  The stories we hear, the news we watch, the neighborhoods we avoid, and the conversations we ignore act as incubators, feeding the anxiety and doubt until it bubbles over. The fantasy crumbles, and the fear takes control. This is where television producer turned director Tony Krantz begins his first feature.

Sublime opens on a painting, using the “epic of nature as an expression of the sublime,” filling the screen with blues, greens, and a rainbow cutting the sky from mountaintop to mountaintop.  A bird explores the imagery, flying slowly across the screen.  A flash of light against the brightly colored blue sky is followed by a trail of lighting.  Moving in closer, we see a man falling through the surreal scenery.

George awakens.  He sits at the end of the bed.  His wife stirs.  “I was dreaming of falling,” he says.  “You know what they say,” she replies. “Our brains protect us from death by preventing us from seeing ourselves die in our dreams,” George answers.  “Maybe people who die in their sleep hit bottom,” she concludes before laying atop his chest and whispering, “Everyone’s coming, their coming for you,” she tells him.

It is George’s 40th birthday.  Nervous about tomorrow’s scheduled colonoscopy and prodded by his brother to re-evaluate his marriage, career, and surroundings, George, Ed’s Tom Cavanaugh, is perpetually nervous, always trying to be the perfect man.  But life is moving quickly, and the realization of his current situation creates an anxiety and paranoia magnified by the pending procedure.  At party’s end, the group poses for a photo recreation of the last supper.  Who is Judas, one calls out.  “I am Judas,” his wife playfully retorts.  George is Jesus, of course.

In the hospital the next morning, we meet the nurse; Krantz’s camera wraps tightly on her full, artificially red lips.  “Hello, I’m Zoe,” the lips say.  Enter Dr. Shirazze.  “Hello, Mr. Grievous,” he says.  “Welcome to the Outback Steakhouse,”  one of many gastroenterologist jokes.  George gets the joke, but there is no laughing.

Instead, George corrects him.  “It’s Grieves.”  Something in this hospital just doesn’t seem right.  And when George nicks his leg on the wheelchair, the blood bubbling from the wound indicates serious trouble ahead.  Krantz plays on our fears of hospitals, on the stories that we have all undoubtedly heard about hospital incompetence.  There is an immediate suspicion drawn from the white walls, the white uniforms, the foreign doctor who thinks he soothes George by telling him his degree is not from Tehran, and the mispronounced names.

In any other environment, these are all just moments, fleeting exchanges leading us forward or back, side to side, randomly about our environment.  Life in this other environment is truly sublime.  But in a hospital, at 40, with a mortgage, the doubt of a wife’s love, the fear of influences upon the children, the world closing in and the 24 hour news stations laying their hooks in, each of these exchanges creates more fear, and fear breeds paranoia.  And so the premise of Sublime is laid out.

From here on, things grow increasingly convoluted.  When George awakens, he is in pain, sweaty, and wearing a 3 inch incision on his right side.  Impaired by medication, he struggles to communicate a clear thought, an increasingly frustrating plot device used to build tension.  Clearly though, we now understand that something was done to George that should not have been.

Sublime is really a mystery, in the same way that Jacob’s Ladder is.  Krantz wants us to spend the movie questioning the events; and by cutting back and forth between last night’s party conversation and the present situation, he succeeds for a while.  Many of the incidents and ideas discussed at the party occur in the hospital.  We are invited to piece the puzzle together through George’s flashbacks to the night before.  In one of the films most beautiful moments, his teenage daughter stands at the edge of his hospital bed and asks him what he meant 10 years ago when he turned to her and said, “Yes.”  His answer is beautiful, like nothing I have seen.  And skillfully, Krantz is able to turn this most beautiful moment into the film’s most shocking as well.

Each conversation from the previous night unravels more clues, and the conversation is interesting enough.  But as the movie progresses, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to figure it out, and it slowly grows tiresome.  There are many moments in Sublime, but they do not make the whole.  As a first effort, Sublime shows Krantz to be a capable director with a unique voice.  His desire to explore the lives of the middle class white man through the darker side of film is his niche, and with Otis, his second feature, he is wildly successful.  But with Sublime, he manages only to bait the hook. And so by the end, it doesn’t matter that George lies in bed, bleeding from his hands and feet, crucified.  It only matters that it is finally over.

Note: Darker Side of Film’s review of Sublime was originally posted at Beyond the Dark Horizon on July 7, 2010.

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Halloween 2: Zombie’s Angry

May 31, 2012

Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is depressing. From start to finish, Michael Myers mercilessly pounds the humanity out of his victims and his audience. At some point, I just wanted it to end already. And I think this is exactly as Zombie intended.

H2 picks up in the aftermath of Halloween night. As the coroners prepare to load Michael Myers corpse into the van, Sheriff Bracket, played with tempered mania by Brad Dourif, stops them. Bracket tries to warn the drivers of the danger even a dead Michael Myers poses. “It’s pretty obvious what happened here,” says the driver.  “I’d say there’s nothing obvious about what happened here tonight,” Bracket spits back.

With this exchange, Zombie would have us believe that he is setting up the revival of Michael Myers corpse.  And surely that is exactly what happens. But his intentions may be hidden cunningly beneath the Hollywood facade. Once it is clear that Michael is back, the usual mayhem ensues. Myers stalks the night as he moves closer to home, closer to Haddonfield.

Laurie Strode and Annie now live together with Annie’s dad, the sheriff. Things are dark and grimy, and notes are spray painted on the walls of the house. Lights are rarely turned on and the house feels claustrophobic and dirty. Laurie, struggling to regain her sense of humanness, works at a heavy metal coffee shop run by a “Berkeley in the 60s” hippie played by Howard Hesseman.

And here we find writer/director Rob Zombie’s target. Hesseman, the rebellious talk radio personality from television’s past reprises the same role here. His Java Hole is the antithesis of Starbucks shiny image. It is a hole in the wall heavy metal hang-out for society’s outcasts, social philosophers, and thinking artists with empty pockets and bleeding hearts.

Fittingly, this is where the sensitive and broken Laurie finds refuge. It is where Zombie would prefer to mingle, to hone his craft on his own terms. But this is a Dimension film, and Dimension’s executives all hang out at Starbucks. Yet Zombie forges on, criticizing the very entity allowing him to speak.

The man doing all the speaking in H2, however, is Dr. Loomis, played with a wink and a smile by Malcolm McDowell. Promoting his new book, Loomis returns to Haddonfield on Halloween for a book signing amd hoping to capitalize on the lives tragically lost. He quickly finds himself disillusioned though when he discovers that public opinion holds him greatly responsible for the past murders. After his agent questions his motives, Loomis shoots back with, “It’s part of the job I suppose, spoon-feeding dribble to the masses comes with its own bloody price.”

Rob Zombie’s H2 is a dark, brooding, downer of a horror movie. But it is directed with skill and precision, and while the movie might not work, the message is clear. When Weird Al Yonkovic  asks Dr. Loomis on national television, “Are we talking about Austin Powers Mike Meyers?” Zombie slams his bloodied blade into the heart of the Hollywood machine.

Wake Wood: A Borrowed Premise

May 26, 2012

Wake Wood wastes little time with silly narrative and character complexities. Instead,  Writer/Director David Keating sends us careening along a tired path already masterfully presented by Mary Lambert in Pet Sematary. Of course, anyone familiar with King’s story will find this the lazy and obvious comparison, but the truth remains that Keating’s story never attempts to find its own way.

Patrick and Louise race along a country road, their tortured faces captured in skewed close-up. Through flashback we learn that their daughter, Alice, is killed by their dog on the morning of her birthday. Mom and dad, suffering and in need of healing, move to the titular town to start anew. Cut to Patrick, a veterinarian, performing a graphic cesarean section on a cow while Louise is dishing out drugs at the local pharmacy.

Up to this point, Wake Wood succeeds in setting an intense, anticipatory tone. The opening is somber, tragic, and effectively plants the seed of dread in the viewer. Boarded up store fronts hint at mysteries to come. A woman and a young girl enter the pharmacy. There is clearly something odd about the young girl.

But the story of Wake Wood is about the tragedy of losing a child, of sending an innocent baby out into the world on her own to fend for herself, and then discovering that her youth and naiveté leave her unprepared for life. At first, I thought this is the territory we would hang out in. When Patrick tells his wife that he just wants her to be ok, I got the sense that this was setting things up for later. That we would struggle along with Patrick as he tries in vain to resurrect, not his dead daughter, but his wife. It is conceivable that a husband would go to extremes to bring happiness to his tortured partner, even if the extreme means digging up his dead daughter’s remains.

But Wake Wood doesn’t slow down, it forgets that strong characters make horror horrific. All opportunity is lost when instead we get a sudden trip to the “station.” Apparently Louise wants to go somewhere and Patrick quickly appeases his wife’s request. But when the car breaks down, the two end up stumbling upon a ritualistic rebirth while catching the attention of Arthur, played with cunning restraint by Timothy Spall.

Losing a child is the unimaginable. I can imagine, though, the opportunity for a proper goodbye would be impossible to pass up, but there are so many decisions to be made along the way. This is where Wake Wood fails. In Lambert’s Pet Sematary, the audience suffers along with the family. We want the child to return, we hope he will return as a normal boy, and we understand the depths of despair which lead to the blood drenched consequences.

In Wake Wood, however, we get none of the emotional protein. We get only the basest form of filmmaking. Working off a borrowed premise, Wake Wood suffers from a lack of creativity and human understanding. The set-up is merely an excuse for the carnage. So in the final moments when Keating means to shock us, he manages only to release us from our boredom.

Fermat’s Room: A Tightly Woven Dance

May 20, 2012

There is a true land and a false land.  Those in the true land always tell the truth. Those in the false land, always lie.  In Fermat’s room, the difference between the two exists within the 4 walls of one shrinking room, where four mathematicians have been brought together by a mysterious host to solve a great enigma.  Once inside the meticulously designed room, tension mounts as the walls begin to close in around them.  As time and space run out, the four participants must solve complex riddles while contemplating the mystery and motive behind their predicament.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Luis Piedrahita’s Fermat’s Room is a fast paced, clever exercise in desperation, studying man’s intellectual capacity under incomprehensible duress.  Fermat’s room is not for everyone, though, and Piedrahita reveals as much when over black screen, a voice says, “Do you know what prime numbers are?  If you don’t you should leave now.”  Somewhat tongue in cheek, this is a warning to viewers of the mind boggling mathematical madness that will follow.

Let’s meet our participants.  Galios, a young star, has just solved a 250 year old problem, Goldbach’s Conjecture, but discovers that his flat has been ransacked and the solution stolen.  Aging and suicidal Hilbert, while playing chess with a close friend, reveals the receipt of an invitation from Fermat.  He must solve the riddle on the page in order to qualify for the event.

Pascal, alone in the library, struggles to unravel the same riddle.  Somehow, a mundane line from a librarian unlocks the mystery.  And last, we meet Olivo; pulling up to the isolated lake, as directed, on her moped.  “I thought we weren’t supposed to know each other,” she exclaims.  This is one of a few not so subtle reminders that things aren’t exactly as they appear.

Like so many movies before it, (Ten Little Indians, The Haunting, Clue) Fermat’s Room asks its audience to subvert rational thought and accept that these people are so desperate for a new challenge that they willingly ignore all better judgment.  “The more you study logic,” Hilbert says, “the more you value coincidence.”  Piedrahita hopes this will be enough to satisfy his audience, and for most of the movie, it is.

how’s your calculus?

Like Natali’s Cube and Aranofsky’s Pi, Fermat’s Room utilizes its confined space as an additional character. The film’s greatest moment comes not from solving a riddle, but from an attempt to beat the room. And as we watch from high above, the dance taking place below is beautiful and awe inspiring.

Piedrahita keeps things moving.  The riddles come one after another. The walls move in, crushing furniture, smashing lights. The dialogue is fast, complex, and tightly woven; words and phrases uttered early on appear later with greater impact.  But the real fun is in watching the tortured geniuses struggle against time to solve the riddles.

Unfortunately, the films greatest strength is also its biggest flaw. Once the final riddle is solved, the room suddenly falls flat.  The end is somewhat anticlimactic; almost ruining what is otherwise a taut psychological thriller.  But Piedrahita accomplishes his final goal, posing a question most of us would rather not consider.  Fermat’s Room is well worth the 90 minute investment, and should continue to pull you back for more.

Note: Darker Side of Film’s review of Fermat’s Room was originally published in Shallow Graves Magazine in July 2010.

Perkins 14: Craig Singer Where Are You?

May 19, 2012

I’d like to introduce you to somebody; this is Kyle and he wants to be your new friend.

 

As more and more children commit violent crimes, the American criminal justice system has repeatedly faced criticism for its treatment of juvenile offenders.  Each time a child is charged as an adult, the debate reignites, and psychologists ponder who is to blame.  Are violent children monsters born to manipulate and deceive, or are they victims of their surroundings, created by a society ill equipped to provide the proper guidance?

Perkins 14, from Craig Singer (Dark Ride, 2006), tackles this question head on.  It unfolds methodically, presenting a family man (Patrick O’Kane) struggling to cope with the loss of his son, a wife crumbling under the weight of a loveless marriage, and a daughter stuck in the middle, desperate for her parent’s affection.  Paying homage to Michael Lehman’s Heathers, Daisy (Mihaela Mihut) greets her father, “Good morning Mr. Hopper.”  Mom (Shayla Beesley) passes and is greeted by her husband, “Hello Mrs. Hopper.”  It is an effective exchange, and immediately sets the stage for the slow, unraveling mystery that will follow.

While working the night shift at the station, Officer Hopper meets Ronald Perkins.  Locked in a holding cell, Perkins calmly explains to Hopper that his friend, the judge, was supposed to have completed the paperwork allowing for his release.  Hopper, noticing that Perkins is missing a piece of his finger, sets off on an investigation into his background.  Soon the cat and mouse game begins.

Perkins 14, upon its release, was described as a zombie kids run amok in small town scenario, but this description does not begin to describe the complexity of the story.  Craig Singer does a fine job building suspense, and the first half of the movie delivers a dramatic scenario in which a tortured father stumbles upon a man who appears to be his son’s killer.  Bringing the dramatic story arc to its conclusion, before the zombie mayhem begins, is an expertly constructed overlapping sequence.

Hopper convinces his friend, off duty officer Hal, to explore Perkins’s home.  Communicating via radio, Hal enters through the basement doors.  Perkins, seated across from Hopper, urges against this scenario.  “I have my rights,” he says.  As Hal explores the home, Hopper and Perkins square off in an intense battle of will.  Once radio contact is lost, however, Perkins 14 becomes a different film.

The 14 (as advertised) zombie children, unleashed on the unsuspecting town, fill the screen with blood and gore as they eat their way from door to door.  Like the best moments from George Romero’s zombie features, blood spouts freely while intestines litter the scenery.  The zombie children rule the night, and the intensity of their hunger is electrifying.

But this is not the typical zombie mayhem; there is an emotional hook here, and Perkins 14 is elevated to another level because of it.  And even as these children smash innocent skulls, rip heads from torsos, and tear out the intestines of fleeing folks, Singer forces us to question our beliefs.  Who are the real monsters here?  And in the midst of their violent rage, he somehow evokes a sympathetic point of view.  The children, victims of unspeakable acts, are now carrying out a murderous rampage, programmed by a world that has failed them.

Perkins 14 never lets up, and except for a brief lapse in logic toward the end, it presents a believable small town scenario.  Filled with plenty of horrific moments, blood soaked walls, and gut wrenching intensity, Perkins 14 satisfies all the way to its tragic conclusion.  Thankfully, there is no Hollywood ending to this story; it will stay with you long after the blood stops flowing.

Mum and Dad: Insanity of Family

May 19, 2012

Growing up in my house, there was a code that we lived by, “What we say in this house, stays in this house.”  This code ignited in my imagination visions of debauchery and horror; what, I wondered, is locked in secrecy inside other people’s homes?  A Nightmare on Elm Street, Amityville Horror, and An American Crime each feature houses filled with horror; the neglectful mother of Elm Street, the murderous father of Amity, and the sick, abusive mother of Crime all betray the sacred trust of the young and innocent child. It is the great crime of human nature, preying on the child’s want of love and kindness.

Steven Shiel’s Mum and Dad lifts the shroud off of one family’s attempt to maintain the façade just beyond the insanity.  Blue collar working Dad loves his family, Mum derives pleasure from playing with her kids, son Elbie quietly carries out his chores around the house, and daughter Birdie earns her keep cleaning airport urinals and bringing gifts for the family.  And if you were looking on from your bedroom window, it would seem that this family is like any other.

But when Lena, a young Polish immigrant whose broken ties with her own family in an attempt to find her place in the world, follows Birdie inside the house, the façade suddenly shatters with a crushing blow to the back of her head and a vocal chord numbing shot to the throat.  This Mum and Dad is the nightmare, the reason that my own mother’s code has continued to fuel my darker side’s imagination.

Lena wakes up in a dark, filthy room to the shrieking screams of a desperate female.  Mum sits down next to her, attempting to calm her by offering a sympathetic smile and a kind touch.  Dad appears, holding a mallet and covered in blood.  “I’m Mum; he’s Dad,” she says.  Dad is ravenous, ready to pounce, but Mum quickly calms Lena sending Dad back to his prize in the next room.  Mum removes a blade from her bag; as she begins to slice into Lena’s youthful skin, Birdie delivers a tray holding a cup of tea.  The mug reads, “World’s Greatest Mom.”  Mum sends Birdie out, quieting Birdie’s request to play along.

Mum is back to work, hurtling toward ecstasy as blood follows the slicing blade along Lena’s leg.  Birdie pops her head back in, “Dad wants a family meeting.”  Lena is dragged into the next room where Dad masturbates.  The family waits patiently as fat, sweaty, blood soaked dad finishes; he plops the semen covered organ onto the work bench and turns to his family.  And just like any father might do, proceeds to explain the rules of the household to his new daughter.  Do your chores and keep Mum happy, and you will become a member of this household.

The next morning, Birdie awakens Lena, scrubs her sliced and bloodied body with a sponge, and escorts her to the bright, sunny kitchen. Mum is serving breakfast to her family; Dad carries on jubilant conversation while drinking coffee from his mug, “World’s Greatest Dad.”  As Lena, terrified and in pain, takes a bite out of her buttered toast, Elbie is completing his morning chores.  Carrying saran wrapped body parts to the garbage, he carelessly drips blood across the kitchen floor.

Mum and Dad is an intense portrayal of insanity disguised as family.  It is an unapologetic look at the worst kind of depravity.  And for the most of the movie, it is a sickening addition to the horror/torture porn catalogue that continues to grow.  The brutality reaches its peak when Lena tries to alert a visitor of her predicament. While doing the laundry, a lump of bloody teeth roll onto the floor.  She has an idea.  But startled, she throws them into her mouth.  Once the coast is clear, she throws the teeth through the open window hoping to gain some attention.  It doesn’t work, and as punishment, she is zipped up in a suitcase and repeatedly smashed with a wooden mallet.

It is brutal, sickening, and grotesque.  And upon the film’s conclusion, that was my only feeling.  Mum and Dad is a punishing experience. Writer/Director Shiel attempts to contrast the purity of need to maintain the family unit with the dark, destructive needs of the parents.  The kids yearn for their parent’s murderous attention.  But what is brilliant about Mum and Dad is that unlike so many movies within this genre, it repulses because of what the audience imagines is happening.  The horrors are not really on the screen; some are, of course, but most of the sick, nauseous feeling rising from within is coming from the imagination.  So with Mum and Dad, Shiel proves once again that the horror’s we imagine are far worse than those that we are shown.

Dorm: Youth in Transition

July 29, 2010

At first glance, Songyos Sugmakanan’s Dorm might easily be dismissed as another tired Asian ghost story.  But first glances can often be misleading, and in the case of Dorm, downright wrong.  Yes, there is a ghost in the dorm, but there are also real live kids in the dorm, kids who think, feel, and dream.  

Chatree is there, but not by choice.  One night over dinner, his father announces that he is sending Chatree to boarding school.  Without a word, young actor Charlie Trairat displays shock, sadness, and anger with only a pained look on his youthful face. This is an actor in command of his craft.

Ms. Pranee greets the family at the entrance of the school, immediately presenting a daunting force charged with the care of the boys.  A sad, lonely woman, Pranee spends each night alone staring into a mysterious desk drawer, tears streaming down her cheeks as the record player sticks on the same classical note.  Yet during the day, she is the evil nemesis, the Nurse Ratchet of this asylum. 

But in the dorm, nothing is as it seems, and as the story slowly unravels, one secret after another reveals a complex, touching story of one child’s struggle to maintain his identity under the weight of betrayal and lies, one woman’s never-ending anguish over her deadly mistake, and one boy’s tortured soul and its attempt to right what went so terribly wrong.

At its heart, Dorm is the story of Chatree and Vichian, two lonely boys looking for companionship amidst the chaos of youth.  Vichian is the teacher in this relationship providing the younger boy experiences that will forever change him.  Chatree is consumed with his own problems, drowning in anger and hate.  But Vichian wakes him up, shows him the world outside his head, and unleashes the man within.

The horror of Dorm is not in its ghosts, but in its truth of the human condition.  There are no villains, no demons, and no evil forces.  There are only life’s little tragedies.  And in the end, it is the little tragedies that push each of us into adulthood, that steal our innocence and seal our fates.