Review: ‘Cold in July’ 9.13.14

I’ve grown quite fond of director Jim Mickle over the past couple of years. Really only having very recently seen both his 2006 debut – “Mulberry Street” and last year’s “We Are What We Are” (a surprisingly better remake of the 2010 Spanish film of the same name). Though admittedly I was a little disappointed with his 2010 film – “Stake Land” it still had its moments. That and I knew we were being introduced to a new kind of genre director. Perhaps a new horror director but with something very different to say. His films up to this had focused on a decaying city being overrun by toxic rats, a vampire hunter, and a family of cannibals. Though there have been several genre pictures of this kind. Mickle seems to have more of his own vision and puts a personal stamp on everything he does. Like with many great directors, you would almost know it’s a Jim Mickle film even if you didn’t know so going in and had seen any of his prior work. He is an auteur. But rather than be pigeonholed to one specific genre, Mickle here steps outside of his comfort zone to delve into an entirely different genre. A sort of genre hybrid. One that contains elements of film noir, crime, suspense, and thriller tropes.

We are first introduced to Richard (Michael C. Hall from Showtime’s “Dexter”). Richard is a quiet, reserved family man. Who at the very beginning of the film has to make a rather difficult choice in order to defend his family. Someone winds up dead. And this someone’s father, a man who goes by the name of Russel (played ruthlessly by the great Sam Shephard) wants revenge on the family of the man who killed his son. Richard’s paranoia increases over his own family’s safety after several run in’s with Russel, and after one specific incident, they are put into a kind of pseudo-Witness Protection program. The first act was more or less standard fare. But then things really start to pick up. Richard witnesses an act of police corruption, believes his family was set up and used as bait, and tells Russel that he doesn’t think it was his son who he killed and that it was all part of a cover up involving both the police and local Texas mafia. Then about halfway in we meet a man by the name of Jim Duke (played by the legendary Don Johnson), an outside detective from Houston, who comes in to work on the case. Things also seem particularly shady to him as well, and the 3 central characters then band up together to go and seek out the truth. By whatever means necessary.

Mickle does a great job here of tackling a new genre, one that acts out as an almost hybrid of sorts. It’s a gritty piece of pulp noir crime thriller. He does a great job of making sure the audience is constantly second guessing at the twists and turns that come up constantly at almost each and every corner of the film. His ability to wrack up the amount of tension and suspense that he does without letting go is nothing short of amazing. It also has a incredible original score, one that’s heavy on the synthesizer and sounds like something from early John Carpenter films like “Assault on Precinct 13” with hints of the excellent Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) scores of recent years. The pulsating, thunderous, driving beats of the score accentuate the story’s suspense and drama. Mickle’s 3 central actors – Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson all come with the goods here. All three performances are particularly strong and none stand out above the other. What I can say too without hopefully giving too much away, is that its climax that had me gasping. The violence is someone restrained up to this point, but when the the end comes Mickle really brings the guns. I thought the last 15 minutes, which had elements of a great Western showdown, and reminiscient of something out of a Sam Peckinpah film, were some of the most tense, well shot and choreographed segments I have seen of any film this year. This one already has earned a spot on my top 20 films of the year so far. If this type of material sounds like something that you might be interested in I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: B+

Review: ‘Oculus’ 9.3.14

I have a really hard time with American horror films these days. Why? Because I love the genre so much. And I constantly feel like every stab I take at seeing a film, I’m let down again and again. This has become more apparent in recent years. There are some exceptions. I enjoyed Scott Derrickson’s 2012’s – “Sinister” Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” (2013), and James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013). I also really liked Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem” (2013), but that was geared more to the art house crowd and hardly anyone I know saw it. Lately, especially with American horror, all I feel like I see advertised is one horror crap fest after another. Or another film in the line of carbon copy franchises (I’m looking at you “Paranormal Activity”). That, or the countless retreads or remakes of older classic horror films (I recently heard, though I guess it’s old news, that there’s actually a “Rosemary’s Baby” TV show). What is this world coming to?

Though every now and then an American horror film will pop up that piques my interest. This being one of them. It had been on my radar as I had seen that it was well reviewed. That, and I’ve always had a sort of underlying interest in horror films that take a ordinary premise and make something extraordinary out of them. In the case of this film a “haunted mirror that shows you things you don’t want to see”. After Alexandre Aja’s catastrophically bad 2008’s “Mirrors”, which was similar in concept but done with disastrous results, I found myself intrigued when the premise came up again. “Hopefully they’ll get it right this time around” I thought to myself. Well, what we do have right here is we have a somewhat effective, creepy enough, psychological horror film that succeeded on some levels. And then not so much on others. The setup revolves around a mysterious mirror that was once owned by a family who purchased it as an antique when they move into their new home. The mirror then takes many shapes and forms as do the inhabitants of the house. Though in good ole’ horror ghost story fashion the kids rise up to the defense of their family. A number of years go by, and the kids; now grown ups, buy back the mirror in hopes of figuring out why some of the things that happened to them did, setting off a new series of events. Sounds tacky? Well, it is. But it also produces some geniunely scary moments. They just happen to come at you a little bit too far in between each other. That, and with what almost seems to be becoming a tradition in American horror these days, they try and pack a tad too much of a punch towards the end. That being said, it manages to retain a pretty creepy vibe throughout, and when the punches do come, they’re somewhat exciting. What I can say it’s certainly better than the average American horror film these days. But still, that’s not really saying much.

Grade: C+/B-