Archive for the ‘Eyes Wide Open’ Category

One of the many perks of living in the Tri-State area is the ease in which I can visit the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan, a wonderland of independent and foreign cinema. Ever since the otherworldly vibe I felt while watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire there in the winter of 2006, I’ve loved the place. Over at Reel Loop, I’ve jotted down my thoughts on a new French film playing at IFC, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard

Give it a read, if you can….

LINK: Reel Loop review — ‘Bluebeard’

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It’s the quintessential Academy Award job, a brave and vicious turn from a critically-beloved actress known for her vintage class. The kind of work that leads to writers typing, “Who knew she had it in her?” Not unlike Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning descent into ugliness and despair in 2003’s Monster, when the stunning, radiant actress morphed into a schlubby, disgusting prostitute-turned-murderer. If you went into that film blind and there’d been no opening credits, Theron’s name would be most likely remain silent when it came time to play the guessing game of “Who’s that star?”

It’s similarly difficult to accept the fact that it’s Tilda Swinton on screen while watching Julia, a nobody-other-than-critics-knows-it-exists independent thriller from last year, directed by French filmmaker Erick Zonca. In an otherwise strong but flawed film, Swinton is grade-A. Written by Zonca and Aude Py, Julia is a dark look at one desperate, 40-year-old woman’s frantic downward spiral, which she brings upon herself by kidnapping the 8-year-old son of her fellow Alcoholics Anonymous groupmate, a mentally-unstable Mexican woman. She promises to give Julia (Swinton) buckets of cash if she helps steal her estranged son from his grandfather, an electronic tycoon who hates the fact that his grandson’s mother is of Mexican descent. Julia’s life is a series of drunken hookups and flimsy values, made worse after she’s fired from her job. On the edge of hopelessness, she orchestrates her own swipe-the-kid plan that goes completely to hell, though she does end up with the kid, not for lack of scaring the piss out of him (wearing a creepy black mask, she puts a pistol to his head and then tosses him into her trunk). The rest of Julia’s idea devolves into a nightmare of debt, crime, and run-ins with con men in Tijuana.

Throughout all of the film’s realistic intensity, Swinton is dynamite. The role of “Julia Harris” is a sharp left turn from the Scottish actress’s recent work; earning heaps of praise for her co-starring gigs in Michael Clayton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Burn After Reading, she’s proven to be surgical when embodying uptight sophistication. Which is why she’s such a revelation in Julia; here, Swinton is indistinguishable, talking with a sailor’s mouth one second, telling a sleazy gun-toting delinquent “I wouldn’t wipe my ass with you!” the next. There’s hardly a 10-second stretch in the film without Swinton in sight, and she holds the production down with pure muscle. ‘Julia Harris’ starts off as a wretched low-life, escalates into a menacing degenerate, and then unexpectedly upgrades into a sympathetic misfit—–As conceived by screenwriters Zonca and Py, the character is ticking timebomb beaming with dimensions, and Swinton nails them all. Even when the film itself enters an over-the-top climax, one that demands suspension-of-belief to accept its absurdity (how Julia and the little boy survive a few moments is anybody’s guess), Swinton literally saves face.

Too bad she won’t snag enough nominations over the next two months, let alone win any statues. Julia received a lowball theatrical release last May on its way to a second life on DVD, yet even in that market it hasn’t ignited. No real Oscar push for Swinton is underway, though she totally deserves one. Some critics have pegged this performance as a dignified actress merely slumming it, grappling with a down-and-dirty assignment simply to show that she can, that she’s not above the grime. Some critics, in that same breath, are delusional. Julia would be an intriguing premise undone by too many implausabilities, and not much more, if guided by another star.

Whenever Meryl Streep is on stage accepting trophies for Julie & Julia (it’ll probably happen more than once), know that there’s another Julia better known as Tilda Swinton out there who never got a fair shot. After all, awards season has never been prone to justice.

Julia trailer, after the jump: (more…)

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I figured that it’d take longer than a eight days before I began steaming over my Best of 2009 list, but, alas, the ocho is upon me. Lone Scherfig’s An Education is lucky, because had I seen Oren Moverman‘s The Messenger before New Years Eve, it would’ve most certainly edged An Education off the list (The Last House on the Left, which placed tenth, had the 10-spot secured, lock and key, regardless; that ninth position was the flexible one). A steadily hectic schedule kept me from seeing Mr. Moverman’s sobering and fresh look at war-time grief, and that’s a shame.

The film sprinkles a variety of emotions, all landing right in the middle of the pie. Moverman, along with the script’s co-writer Alessandro Camon, knows when to relieve the tension with perfectly-executed humor; there’s some of the most earned levity in this film that I’ve seen in some time. The domineering sensation is that of a heart being wrenched, though, particularly in four scenes that show U.S. Staff Sergeant, and medal-holding hero, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) carrying out their patriotic duties: they’re both Army soldiers turned Casualty Notification Officers, meaning they’re the troopers stuck with the somber task of informing a recently-killed comrade’s next-of-kin about his or her death.

Whenever this specific job requirement comes into play, The Messenger devastates. Foster and Harrelson knock on one home’s front door and greeted by a grumpy middle-aged man; they’re looking for his daughter, though Harrelson has requested her by a different last name. Turns out, she recently married an Army guy whom her pops disapproves of, behind his back. What starts off as a father’s heartbreaking realization that his kid has broken his own heart shifts into violent sobs from her and daddy being forced to swallow his pain and console. Moverman keeps the camera mere inches behind the daughter’s back, showing her father’s teary eyes as he hugs her in the foreground, and the holding-back-their-own-tears, crumbling expressions of Foster and Harrelson. It’s extremely taxing. Continued after the jump: (more…)

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What’s so interesting, and admirable, about Paramount Vantage’s unfairly-dumped-into-oblivion (limited theatrical release on September 4; forgotten about by the following day), now liberated on DVD, Carriers, is how it deserves so many tired parallels yet manages to subvert them all. Yes, it’s close in tone to The Ruins, and, sure, not unlike the structure of Zombieland. You could even toss some comparisons to The Road in for extended measure and not be overzealous. They’re all earned. But with that degree of “It’s like….” descriptions, it’d be easy for a film to buckle under the pressure and come across as a perfunctory trash-header. Carriers, written and directed by rookie brothers Alex and David Pastor, somehow rises to the occasion, and the end result is mute, personal and, despite its obvious shortcomings, rather satisfying. Continued after the jump: (more…)

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If I had the luxury of my own “If You Like This, You’d Also Like This….” feature here, a write-up on the IFC Films-distributed, straight-to-DVD Belgian horror flick  Linkeroever (Left Bank) would preface mention of Ti West’s The House of the Devil. West’s inconspicuous descent into ’80s satanism still holds up as one of the year’s best horror films, perhaps even THE tops, once polls are finalized; what makes that film so damn effective is its patience. The House of the Devil saves the anarchy for its final reel, and everything that comes before the endgame insanity justifies the wait. Quiet creeps, gradual earning of sympathy for the heroine. A constant sense of something-just-ain’t-right; you know it’s going to end badly for the main character, a college-aged babysitter tending to a spooky old house in the woods, but it’s all a matter of getting there.

Left Bank, directed by Pieter Van Hees, succeeds on that same level. Budding track star Marie (gifted actress Eline Kuppens; she’s a pro at the woe-is-me face) gets smitten by suave Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), and, against the wishes of her over-protective mother, moves into her new suitor’s Left Bank-located apartment building. The film’s first 80 minutes are entirely dedicated to establishing a mood; it’s understood that Marie is in for something unpleasant, but just what she’s destined to experience is kept in the dark, until an explosion of cult-sacrifice fun.

Van Hees’s pic isn’t as across-the-board triumphant as West’s picture, mainly due to screenwriters Christophe Dirickx and Dimitri Karakatsanis’s story’s all-too-brief and none-too-revealing payoff; that aforementioned explosion is more like a firecracker job. The film has been met with some of the same “Roman Polanski-esque” claims by critics as The House of the Devil, and such lofty compliments aren’t unfounded. Left Bank, in fact, owes more to Polanski than West’s work; Left Bank—-set in a sinister apartment complex that rests above a mysterious black pit, accessible through a dark, dreary basement walkway—–is close in setting to Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. The climax that Van Hees’s film  inches toward, a strange exercise in Pagan rebirth rituals, is more in line with The House of the Devil, though, so, in that sense, the film’s aesthetic quality is a curious amalgamation of Polanski and Ti West,. I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Hees has never even heard of one Ti West, but he should, because they seem to operate in the same genre headspace.

Left Bank does have its share of problems. The underlying theme, for one, isn’t fully realized, leaving interpretation not only open-ended, but littered with holes that a NJ Transit train could zip through untouched. There’s a midway slideshow presentation that informs Marie and her one ally of the apartment building’s shady history, central to which is some mumbo-jumbo about a woman-eating dragon that lives underneath and devours its latest female every seven years. Thankfully, no fire-breathing Reign of Fire rejects co-star in Left Bank, but the big reveal surrounding Marie’s sketchy lover, Bobby, is nonsensical and too vague; is he somehow connected to the dragon? Why does her assailant look like a lady’s private part during that time of the month (sorry about that)? And does that resemblance connect to the film’s several references to Marie’s troubling inability to have necessary periods?

I’ll leave these questions to the decision(s) of whomever gives Left Bank a chance of their own. Oddly, the film has been overlooked by the various horror websites that typically promote foreign movies of this ilk. Which is a shame, because Left Bank—-mostly a winner despite its narrative trappings—-is certainly worth a gander.

Left Bank trailer, after the jump: (more…)

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Some day, I’m going to get all Sigmund Freud on myself and figure out why I love horror anthologies so damn much. There must be a definite explanation; the excitement that’s visible on my face while I’m watching these films and/or television series is unlike any other. Not even a slideshow of Eliza-Dushku-in-bikini pictures could out-perform the horror anthology in this respect, and that’s both a sad and compelling truth (sad for obvious reasons). The curious thing about this preference is that the majority of genre omnibus projects are faulty, more hit-or-miss works than unanimous successes (Tales from the Darkside and Monsters, for the losses). The Twilight Zone and Creepshow are the exceptions, in other words. While I personally love them, Britain’s old examples Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973) seem to generate contempt amongst film critics. Fuck if I know why; it doesn’t get any better than seeing Peter Cushing in one chunk of a larger multi-story horror show. 

1972’s Asylum has been treated better by analysts, and rightfully so—–it’s a stellar piece of chilliness. Right alongside Asylum, I’ve come to realize, has rested the 1971 Amicus production The House That Dripped Blood (directed by Peter Duffell), though until this past weekend I’d yet to see it. I thought I’d experienced all the British have to offer in terms of horror anthologies, but, alas, I was wrong. The House That Dripped Blood, though awkward and hammy in spots, is a great time, and I have my father to thank for it, oddly enough; he came across an old used VHS copy of it in some mom-and-pop shop in upstate New York and grabbed it for a mere $5, knowing that I’m a sucker for “cheesy horror,” and what other two words come to mind when looking at the film’s cover art:


There he is, the legendary Peter Cushing, in all his decapitated, cheesy glory. His presence in the film was the first immediate hook; learning that it was written by Robert Bloch (great horror screenwriter and author, most known for penning the novel that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was based upon) was the nail in the hopeful-coffin. For more, head beyond the jump: (more…)

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See, I’m more than just a horror guy, or a movie lover compelled to focus on the sickest of flicks. The inclination to enjoy some high-brow cinema is always present, as is the softer side that privately loves a good “teenager discovers his or herself” film; when the lead is a female, included. Such as An Education (opening in limited release this Friday, October 9), surely one of the best of this kind to come around in ages, and a little charmer that should make the rounds come awards season. Mostly for its dynamite star Carey Mulligan, who’s hopefully a lock for a Best Actress nomination. She’s a knockout in this one, the best part of an altogether A-grade picture.

To show that I’m well-rounded in my coverage, here’s my review of An Education, over at Critics Notebook:

Critics Notebook — AN EDUCATION (2009)


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