Midweek Review: 2 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Salvation” + “Girlhood” and One Trip To The Movies – “Wild Tales” (6/1-6/3)

First up was the Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s “Hannibal”) western drama “The Salvation”, which was officially released Tuesday on both DVD and VOD. What can I say, like the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn I will see just about any and everything this Danish actor stars in. I also happen to like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the film’s villain and outlay enemy to Mikkelsen’s film protagonist. It’s about as simple as simple set ups go. Mikkelsen’s Danish wife and child meet him in America only to quickly be murdered in a thrilling stagecoach scene and Mikkelsen is left behind. Mikkelsen than goes into bad ass, revenge mode, and swears vengeance on the men who killed them. He does but winds up in one of those small, little frontier towns and learns that one of the men he’s killed is the brother of one of the most notorious and corrupt outlaws in the town (Morgan). A somewhat predictable story follows that (you guessed it) has Mikkelsen escaping and teaming up with some of the local townspeople who aren’t too keen on Morgan’s character and for the rest of the film we get a relatively standard, yet enjoyable, Spaghetti Western, with a fair amount of action but all contained within something I felt like I had seen before. Mikkelsen is enigmatic as usual, as is Morgan as he pulls off just the right blend of menace and ruthlessness. I’m going to recommend this for fans of the Western genre and of the actors involved. However, that being said, it breathes no new life into a genre of which I recently talked about in my “Slow West” review that seems to be reinventing itself in original and innovative ways particularly as of late. I can confidently say you won’t find much of that here. But for the most part, it’s a good time. [B-]

Bande de filles Movie Poster

Next up was a highly anticipated film from the young French female director Celine Sciamma, who wowed audiences with her sophomore effort “Tomboy” just a few years back in 2011. A movie which I held in such high regard that it wound up on my Honorable Mentions list at the end of that same year. “Girlhood” is an extension of “Tomboy” in that it depicts an adolescent girl, seemingly going nowhere and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. She teams up with a rival street gang, where she finds community, moral support, and a new-found sense of confidence. Things that seem to be lacking at home and she seems to find exactly what she’s looking for. But like ., “Tomboy”, this is a deeply probing (and quite moving) look at adolescence. Drawing to mind another film I saw the same year as “Tomboy” – Dee Rees’ “Pariah”, a coming-of-age story, like this one, except in that it focused on a young teenager struggling with “coming out” and showing the world who she really is. “Girlhood” seems to focus more on finding one’s own true identity and being faithful to who you are and not who you think others may think they might want you to be. Sciamma seems to have a perfect and uncanny understanding for these coming-of-age stories of adolescence (sorry Richard Linklater, this is no knock on you) and manages to do it with such a sense authenticity that it’s hard not to get wrapped up and emotionally invested in her characters. This is one of the sleeper house hits of the year, and it’s too bad (well, not for myself, but for others I know who try to stray away from subtitled films…which as an added disclaimer, for those of you that do, you’re missing out on 90% of the world’s best films) that it’s a foreign film in the French language. Because it’s a deeply raw, moving story, about teenage adolescence, that is remarkably well done and should be seen by everyone. This should make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end. [B+]

Last up, was “Wild Tales”, a film I ventured out to the theater to see, as for one it got astronomically good reviews, but even more importantly, it garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Language film (Argentina) at this past year’s Oscars. That and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (and word has it earned itself a full ten minute standing ovation following). Other than this I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I heard it was supposed to be completely and utterly batshit crazy. The story itself contains six short films, almost like one of those anthology movies you see that have been being released in droves these past  few years. Except with one major difference – this film has got more hilariously depraved and deranged moments in its 2 hour running time than almost any other film I’ve seen like it (similarities could be drawn between it and 2013’s “Cheap Thrills). Except unlike that film, everything seems to take place coincidentally and by a mere matter of chance (think Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” (2012) as a reference point and there’s quite a fair bit of dark humor/black comedy and satire, that takes on an almost screwball “oh my god you’ve got to be kidding me” element to the proceedings that had both myself and my fellow moviegoers laughing hysterically at various moments throughout the film. Just at the mere absurdity of it all. My one critique of the it as is usually with most “anthology” films are that some are segments that are better than others. The first starts off real strong, as the second and third, but I felt like it lost a bit of steam in its fourth and fifth segments, only to finish strong in its final act. Though despite this one somewhat moderate criticism of the film I still had a hell of a time with it. As it’s a funny, daring, original, and undeniably deranged piece of cinema that wound up being well deserving of its Best Foreign Language film nomination. [strong B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “It Follows” 4.4.15

After last year’s highly acclaimed but ultimately disappointing “The Babadook” I was really looking forward to the second of this year’s first two good looking horror releases after “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (which as you can see by my review, I wound up really liking) and then this one, which I essentially knew nothing about other than that saw a trailer for it before the aforementioned film. A trailer that looked like it showed great promise. Also, coincidentally, a movie that got great reviews, which is rare in this day and age in films of the horror genre. Let’s face it, the genre in and of itself seems to be a bit of a dying one. As there are countless retread and remakes of older classics that seem to be churned out one after another. A sure-fire sign that Hollywood, hell even independent horror films, are a bit of a dying breed. One thing I realized back in October when I did my “Top 5 Favorite Horror Films of the Past 5 Years” section, is that I really could only come up with one single horror film I liked on average per year. To augment that statement, rarely does a horror film wind up landing on my end of/best of the year lists (one of the only films to have done so was in 2011 – when Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” wound up being my favorite movie of that year). The only other horror film to have come out that landed a spot on my top 10 came out 6 years ago and that was Ti West’s “House of the Devil” (2009). It seems like it’s nearly next to impossible these days to come out with something that’s truly original and innovative enough to separate itself from the rest of the bunch coming out of the genre, and only once in a blue moon does a horror film come along that I truly feel breathes new life into the genre. So going into this one, while having heard great things via word-of-mouth, I have to admit I was slightly skeptical that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But even still, despite my skepticism, my level of anticipation for this one was rather high.

The movie begins with a young girl screaming, running from something, of which we can’t see. A few hours later, she winds up dead on a beach. We are then introduced to the film’s central character, a young teenager by the name of Jay, who’s romantically involved with another character, an older guy named Hugh. After a trip to the theater, things start to get slightly odd as Hugh claims to be seeing someone who Jay is convinced is not there. Jay winds up having sex with Hugh, but you see, this is much more than just sex, as without trying to give away any spoilers, Hugh winds up passing something along to Jay, something in which she is now afflicted with. It is through this pivotal sexual encounter that the story begins to unravel, as Jay and her neighborhood friends try to stop the evil curse that Jay has unfortunately found herself with. I’m going to stop there, because the less I tell you about this film (if I haven’t told you too much already) the better (similarly to how I felt about Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012) ). Like that film it’s one of those rare films that come along every so once in awhile that really needs to be seen before it should be explained.

As mentioned the less I talk about the film’s content itself the better. What I will say is the film met my expectations and then some as it truly was an exercise in something that felt totally unique and original. And succeeds mostly in its execution on a lot of levels. It’s genuinely unnerving and tense throughout. While also being cerebral in that if you’re not paying close enough attention you might not have a clue as to what’s going on. It’s very much a “thinking person’s” horror film. You actually have to do quite a bit of work to formulate what it’s about (but it’s all there if you’re paying close enough attention). It does a great job penetrating the audiences psyche, and creates a certain tone and atmosphere that had both me and should have any other movie goer wide-eyed and transfixed by the images that are being shown on-screen. And while although I wouldn’t necessarily call it “violent” (not a deal breaker for me with horror as I like my horror to be more psychological) per say, it certainly is equal parts disturbing, shocking, very creepy, and startling. In fact, I was so immersed in it that my “holy fuck” meter was at about an 8 throughout the entire duration of the film from start to finish. The film itself felt influenced by “j-horror” films (Japanese horror) like “Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002) and “Ringu” (1998). Both of which most Americans saw in their English remakes “The Grudge” (2004) and “The Ring” (2002). It was also reminiscent of early horror films that came out of the mid seventies to mid eighties in terms of feel and tone. Films such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), and what I found to be its most direct influence – 1987’s “Prince of Darkness” which all acted as reference points. I also thought it shared influences with more contemporary films like “Timecrimes” (2007), “Triangle” (2009), and “The House of the Devil” (2009). The latter of which it seemed like it took quite a few notes from as a throwback piece to older, more classic horror films. The music was also integral to the film as it contained a great menacing, pummeling, synthesizer score by the group Disasterpiece. I honestly can say I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the film half as much as I did if it weren’t for the score. It elevates the tension and pacing of the film quite nicely throughout, never giving up steam, and seemed to fit perfectly. If I were to throw in one or two minor complaints of the film it would be that it loses a tad bit of momentum in it’s final quarter. As Jay and her Scooby Doo rag tag team of neighborhood friends take the action to the 8-mile section of Detroit. The events that transpire after this, particularly towards its grand finale, come across as somewhat underwhelming compared to the nerve wracking tension the audience had been privy to prior to this shift in location. But that was just my opinion and my fellow film goer didn’t necessarily feel like that portion of the film detracted from it. With that said I also felt like it ended on a bit of an anti-climactic note. However, despite these two minor criticisms aside, this is as close to something that resembles a masterpiece in the current horror landscape from first time writer/director David Robert Mitchell. Who hits most of the right notes with this highly innovative, singular, and by all accounts terrifying piece of film-making, and has already positioned himself as one the freshest new voices in modern day, American horror.

[B+]

Review: ‘Borgman’ 9.12.14

Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is an unbelievably unique and undeniable singular vision. One that follows on the heals of films by celebrated international directors like Pascual Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009’s exceptional “Dogtooth”, Michael Haneke’s 2009’s “The White Ribbon”, Ben Wheatley’s 2011’s “Kill List”, and Claire Denis’ 2013’s “Bastards”. I bring up these directors and their respective films I chose because all of them in some shape or form, be it in their social allegories (“Dogtooth”, “The White Ribbon, “Martyrs”), or their penchant for the macabre (“Kill List”, “Bastards”), were just a handful of the films that acted as reference points throughout. Especially “Dogtooth”. What interested me so much about this movie first was that I was hearing that it drew comparisons to the aforementioned films. But also that it was the first Dutch movie in 36 years that the panel at Cannes felt like belonged on their small slate of 18 films. I sometimes have to stress to people how unbelievable of a feat it is to get your movie selected and shown at Cannes. You’re talking about thousands of movies that are submitted every year from international film makers from all over the world to the world’s most prestigious film festival. That and only 18 make the cut. So pretty much of a film is selected at Cannes, chances are 9 times out of 10 that I will make a mental note of and see it when it’s released later in the year.

If you showed this movie to a 100 people everybody would give you a different explanation of what it was about. It’s very interpretive and most of the time you’re left wondering “wait a minute what the” or “what did I just see and what did it mean”? The story starts with a priest and 2 hillbilly types, getting ready for some kind of attack. They storm the woods and come across a network of people that live under the ground (yep), who escape their demise, and the leader, Anton, finds himself coming out of the woods and wandering into one of those rich, suburban, upper class communities. He goes door to door asking if he can take a bath or shower (uh-huh) and people are adamant about not letting him into their home, not only because it’s such a strange request, but because he looks like some kind of vagrant pedophile. He finally manages to be let into one woman’s home, because her husband gives him a beating, and she winds up feeling sorry for the guy. Here’s where things start to really get interesting (if they hadn’t been enough already). He infiltrates their home, and his focus seems to be to “move up the chain” and “sit at the big table”. Since his wife is hiding him from her husband this isn’t necessarily realistic. So he winds up camping out in their back shed. Soon after he starts to get comfortable, he begins calling what appears to be a sort of network of people, all who seem to be in it for some greater cause. To me I interpreted this “cause” to be wrecking havoc on the upper class. But that makes it sound too simple. By a series of events, they manage to take over the home, not literally, but in that the main character, Anton, shaves and goes under the guise of a gardener to secure a job and spot within the family’s home. Now him and his cronies, or what could be better referred to as “the network”, can really take over. That’s more or less the setup. Then really strange things start to happen involving hypnotizing the children in the home, killing people and putting their heads down in planting pots filled with concrete and sinking them in the water, serving up some kind of mysterious poisonous liquid to unsuspecting guests, along with tearing up the families entire property with bulldozers for reasons not entirely clear (like I said nothing is spelled out for you in this film). Along with various other antics and shenanigans. This is bizarre, absurdest, and extremely strange stuff indeed.

But within it’s absurdity also lies its brilliance. From the second the beginning credits started to role to the second they rolled up the screen following. I was totally hooked and immersed in the story. The brain light switch went on and didn’t go off for the duration of the entire film. What were these people’s motives? Who were they supposed to represent (they live underground, need to be invited into the homes, etc). The devil’s spawn perhaps? Some kind of group/cult/organization with supernatural tendencies? Clones? What on earth is going on here is what I was constantly asking myself throughout the film. But within that ambiguity of not really knowing what was going on I found myself more and more fascinated by it. It’s nicely shot and has some almost mystical, dreamlike sequences that were pretty effective. It’s also a great social allegory on classicism, racism and discrimination. And how protective people of the upper class really are of their privacy, and how they react once it’s been invaded. This was a very hard movie to review because there really were so many aspects one could refer to when talking about it. Which I thought was its greatest strength; its ability to engage the audience while still remaining faithful to the unbelievably strange and challenging source material. This I would definitely recommend but only to a certain demographic. If you are like me and are a fan of incredibly bizarre, experimental, absurdest, psychological  material. Well then this one might be for you. For everybody else, you might have a difficult and frustrating time of trying to get into such a weird and obtuse film.

Grade: strong B (*but strictly for a very specific type of audience)

Review: ‘A Field in England’ 3.18.14

This was one of my top 10 most anticipated releases of this year. For those of you who don’t know I am a huge Ben Wheatley (‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’) fan. I would say of all of the international filmmakers whose movies I look forward to most he would be in my top 3 along with Nicolas Winding Refn (The ‘Pusher’ Trilogy, ‘Bronson’, ‘Valhalla Rising’,’Drive’, ‘Only God Forgives’) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’, ‘Babel’, ‘Buitiful’). It had a lot of strong components, particularly the black and white cinematography which I thought lended itself nicely to the story which I believed took place during the Revolutionary War. Cinematically there was some unique camera framing and angles, an interesting use of an almost “strobe light” effect (there’s actually a disclaimer at the beginning that warns you if you have sensitive eyesight), and a solid musical score as it consisted mostly of what sounded like songs taken from that time period (either that or old Irish jigs) mixed in with some of Wheatley’s moody, almost haunting scores that he uses from film to film. As for the story itself, it involves a pack of Brits who basically band together and evade enemy forces in the opening scene. From that point they realize that one of them is actually a scholar who was sent out to find and rescue a nobleman. So that becomes their mission also with the hope that they might reach an alehouse (lots of nice puns surrounding that). Then about halfway in in usual Wheatley fashion it goes into absolute ape shit bonkers territory. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but what I will tell you is this…it involves eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and doing an unbelievable amount of crazy stuff. I had some degree of difficulty following what was going on, hence the lower grade below. So what I did was I began reading into other people’s interpretations of the film, not so much reviews, and correlated those who had the similar explanations or ideas to that of my own. After finishing it and reading those, I realized that maybe it was a brilliant film underlying that maybe I just didn’t look hard enough at. I also found out that Wheatley has said in multiple interviews that he intentionally wanted to make a film that would require repeated viewings on behalf of the viewer. So this film could get considerably better after another viewing or two. Still, worthwhile, especially if you have the slightest interest in one of the more innovative and incredibly unique auteurs on the film making spectrum today.

Grade: B-