Monthly Archives: October 2014

Frightfest 2015: Halloween (1978)

Co-writers John Carpenter and Debra Hill couldn’t believe that there had never been a horror film simply titled “Halloween”. Taking advantage of everyone else’s missed opportunity, they produced a film set almost entirely on Halloween night that captures all the thrills and chills that we’ve come to expect from our favourite halloweens.

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When he was six years old, Michael Myers stabbed his big sister to death. Dr. Sam loomis (Donald Pleasence) tried to treat him but saw nothing but limitless evil in his eyes. fifteen years later, Myers has escaped from his institution and is headed back to the quiet street where it all began.

As Laurie, Jamie Lee Curtis earned the title Scream Queen and has never really been dethroned since. Working with director John Carpenter, she strikes a delicate balance between being scared shitless and being a fighter. Myers is still scary today, sporting a mask which was in reality nothing more than a Shatner mask with white spray paint and wielding a really big knife. the concept is simple enough to be ageless.

Halloween has some good scares but there is no blood so it’s perfect for those who love a good spooky story about a serial killer on the loose but can’t stand the gore that is so typical of these kinds of movies today.

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Frightfest 2015: The Babadook

Amelia (Essie Davis) has never had the chance to grieve the death of her husband 7 years ago. Because her beloved Oscar died in a car carsh while Amelia was in labor, processing her trauma had to take a back seat to raising a newborn all by herself. Now about to turn 7, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is having some trouble fitting in, unable to shake the feeling that his mom will one day leave him and develops an obsession with protecting him and his mother from monsters.

Oh, and there’s a monster in his closet.

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What starts with a creepy children’s book that mysteriously appears on his shelf, (“If it’s in a word. Or if it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of… The Babadook”), escalates into a full-blown assault on Amelia’s psyche. The more The Babadook gets under her skin, the more dangerous Amelia becomes to her terrified son.

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The Babadook, the feature debut from director Jennifer Kent, is a supernatural thriller in the tradition of The Shining. Kent’s film, however, separates itself from Kubrick’s classic in two important ways. First, the dynamic between mother and son and the themes of trauma and loss are more psychologically astute here, with character arcs that would still be satisfying even without the horror element. Second, with Amelia, Davis- as she herself has pointed out- has to play both Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson to Samuel and she plays them both perfectly. Her descent into madness is is captivating and played with a restraint that- as much as we all love Jack- has never been his strong suit.

The Babadook will get under your skin. Filmmaker William Friedkinhas apparently stated that he has never seen a movie more terrifying. And he directed the Exorcist, so…

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Henry (Robin Williams) is angry. Crazy angry. Sitting in his car he can think of no better way to pass the time than ranting. Henry hates a lot of things. Henry rants away his commute until something he can REALLY get angry about happens – he hits a cab. Then he really unleashes.

hero_AngriestManinBrooklyn-2014-1A precautionary trip to the hospital reveals a problem that his doctor hadn’t told him about yet: brain aneurysm. Yikes. But his usual doctor’s out on vacation so Dr. Sharon (Mila Kunis) fills in, but she’s not exactly having a great day either. How bad is this brain aneurysm? It’s pretty bad. Like, 90 minutes to live bad.

What would you do if you had 90 minutes left to live? For most of us, it would be squeezing the last drops out of joy out of life, phoning loved ones, making sure people know how we feel. For Henry, who has destroyed his marriage and is estranged from his son, this is about to be a difficult 90 minutes.

It’s an interesting concept that fails in execution. I never believed Henry. Henry’s anger was out of control and over the top. Robin Williams does a untitledterrific stand-up rant so I know he’s capable of playing a deeply disturbed individual. However, ever time Henry got going, I was always expecting it to end up somewhere funny. It was just too much to be taken straight. The writing is really weak – Henry’s anger just doesn’t seem genuine. Tonally, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn flops around like a fish out of water, gasping for a last breath.

It turns out that Henry has some good reasons for being angry, and these 90 minutes would have been better spent redemptively.  The closest he comes is in remarking that his tombstone will read 1951-2014, and that the dash is where it’s at: a true but oft-repeated sentiment. Sadly, this would be Robin Williams’ last movie. I hate to see his brilliant career end on this note. I’m also sad to report that his own tombstone reads 1951-2014. I hope he lived his dash to its fullest. As for this movie which lacks the language to efficiently say “don’t waste the time you have”, I can only caution you to include this movie in the waste of time column. Life is too precious for bad movies.

 

 

Frightfest 2015 Double Feature: The Shining and Room 237

Die-hard fans of Stephen King’s harrowing 1977 novel of the same name will likely disagree but, to many, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining delivers two of the most frightening hours in the history of American horror.

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Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an out-of-work writer who is desperately in need of a job, drags his meek wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and eight year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the historic and secluded Overlook hotel where Jack is to act as caretaker for the long lonely winter. The hotel manager warns Jack that some caretakers in the past have experienced some cabin fever as a result of the isolation, resulting in (at least) one murder-suicide. Jack (Torrance), with that famous Jack (Nicholson) grin, assures the manager that this will never happen to him but we as the audience already aren’t so sure. We’ve already learnt from Wendy that Jack has a bit of a temper and once dislocated Danny’s shoulder in an accident that “could have happened to anybody”. What’s worse, Danny has a special ability to see both the past atrocities of the hotel’s history and all all the horrors to come but, despite his frequent chants of “Redrum”, no one will listen.

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King famously hated Kubrick’s adaptation of his cherished novel. Kubrick took what was useful from the book and scrapped the rest, in favour of a more surreal, ambiguous, and visceral version of the story. As a fan of the novel, It’s a chilling, exceptionally well-made horror film that so many have embraced over the years and can easily be enjoyed as such. The Shining is most unsettling, however, for those who are willing to dig a little deeper and continue to reflect on the film’s mysteries as it continues it’s work on you.

Which brings me to Room 237, a 2012 documentary by Rodney Ascher about people who have room 237never been able to stop delving into the mysteries and symbolism of The Shining. Six participants share their elaborate theories through voice-over almost entirely over footage of the film. The choice of brands in the pantry, posters on the wall, faces in the clouds, missing chairs, impossible windows, and hidden erections are all under intense scrutiny.

The theories of Room 237 run the gamut from thought-provoking to just plain silly. Some examples you’ll wonder how you yourself could have missed while other are almost painful to see as people who are clearly obsessed seem to be grasping so desparately at straws. So many who were involved in the making of The Shining have insisted that there are no answers to be found in Room 237 but, one way or another, it is sure to change the way you experience Kubrick’s classic.

Frightfest 2015: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

What if your nightmares weren’t “only a dream”?

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The late Wes Craven touched on something primal here with his horror classic that spawned way too many shitty sequels. Three high school students on Elm Street discover that they have been dreaming about the same nightmarish figure with severe burns on his face and knives for fingers. And that laugh. Oh my God, that laugh.

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It seems that the now infamous Freddy Krueger was once just a regular child murderer. Now that he’s dead, he can only get to you in the world of your dreams. I’ve had nightmares before that would make me fight sleep just to avoid getting back to that place. Here, to fight for sleep is to fight for your life. Craven’s mythology surrounding the world of the dream isn’t nearly as elaborate as, say, Inception’s but he’s come up with an interesting idea here that he has a lot of fun with.

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For a modern audience, the most fun part is watching Johnny Depp’s first movie looking as baby-faced as you’ve ever seen him at 20 years-old. He plays the typical teen boyfriend in a high school movie, apparently not yet having decided that he would play every part as a weirdo. Having never acted before, Depp was so nervous about every scene that he would bring an actor friend of his (who I think may have been Jackie Earle Haley, who would later play Freddy in the 2010 remake) to run lines with because he was so afraid of getting it wrong.

As humble beginnings go, Depp’s wasn’t so bad. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a Halloween guilty pleasure of the best kind.

Frightfest 2015: Scream

scream 3With its three progressively implausible sequels and the always idiotic Scary movie franchise which it inspired, I find it easy to forget that Ghostface’s journey began with a modest and self-contained horror comedy back in 1996. It was the only movie in the Scream franchise to manage to be genuinely scary while it sumultaneously pays homage to and pokes fun at the conventions of the slasher genre.

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Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone making some popcorn and getting ready to watch some scary movie when she gets a phone call from a mysterious stranger. The phone call begins as a wrong number but soon becomes a flirtatious discussion of horror movies. Before long, though, the conversation turns to threats (“What do you want?” Casey screams. “To see what your insides look like,” he replies) and Casey may need to rely on her knowledge of horror movies to survive the night.

If you need me to tell you what Scream is about, to tell you any more would spoil the fun. Yes, people die in this movie and when they die they bleed. A lot. But there’s so much fun to be had here. Watch it for the kids of Woodsboro High, who are having way too much fun knowing that there’s a killer on the loose. Or for the bumbling Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) who is always being publicly undermined by his kidsister (Rose McGowan) while he’s on the case.

And, if you find yourself double-checking your locks at night after watching it, just be thankful for all the Rules for Suriviving a Horror Movie That You’ve Just Learnt.

Shark Tale

You know how movies always come in pairs? White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen: same basic film. Dante’s Peak and Volcano: twins! Armaggeddon and Deep Impact: same damn thing. Antz and A Bug’s Life: why the hell not. Infamous and Capote: nominally two different films. Turner & Hooch\K-9. Platoon\Full Metal Jacket. The Truman Show\Ed TV. The Prestige\The Illusionist. No Strings Attached\Friends With Benefits. I could go on and likely so could you. Are the movie studios hoping you’ll see one instead of the other, or are they banking that if you liked one, you’ll like the other?

Or did Jeffrey Katzenberg steal an idea and take it with him when he left Disney? He’s been shark-taleaccused of that more than once, and that’s the theory behind Shark Tale conveniently riding on Finding Nemo’s coat tails. Both are animated movies dealing with outcast sharks befriending fish. Doesn’t that seem like quite the coincidence?

DreamWorks Animation has often been a step behind animation powerhouse Pixar, and in this case, Shark Tale isn’t exactly a bad movie, but it is the inferior one.

Oscar (voiced by Will Smith) is a small fish who dreams big. When a shark turns up dead at his feet (fin?) of course he takes the credit, and then the money and the fame that come along with being The Sharkslayer – everything he’s always wanted. Until some real sharks start threatening his reef and he’s the one that’s supposed to stop them.

There’s a tonne of voice talent on hand: Renee Zellwegger, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black – butGang001.jpg my favourites were Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who recorded their lines together, and if you look carefully at their characters, you’ll see some tell-tale eyebrows and a distinguishing mole.

So why is it that this movie fails? Story, mostly. Pixar has this magical formula for making a children’s movie that still appeals to adults, and I think in striving for it, Dreamworks failed to hit either target. It’s fast and it’s colourful but it doesn’t seem to captivate kids the way that Finding Nemo did. And there’s no underlying truth and sweetness, so no reason for adults to really watch, except for the sharks-as-mafia bit that’s kind of a tired joke, and got the Italic Institute of America all riled up. But that’s not the only organization they pissed off: the Christian wackos over at the American Family Association (a nice euphemism for spouting pure hatred) decided 1that Lenny the Shark was a bad example to kids because his VEGETARIANISM was an allegory for HOMOSEXUALITY. Um, no comment.

The one thing this movie does get right is its soundtrack. But everything in between is forgettable and derivative. Even the animation doesn’t live up to the standard they set with Shrek. There’s no charm, and no whimsy. Would this movie be as ugly if it wasn’t always being compared to the pretty twin, Finding Nemo? Who knows. But it’s just not interesting enough for me to care.

 

Frightfest 2015: The Blair Witch Project

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

A year later their footage was found.

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So begins one of the most puzzling horror hits of the 90s. So effective was its marketing campaign that it had many convinced that they were watching a documentary even after the closing credits. Actress Heather Donahue later revealed that her mother received condolensce cards from frends who honestly believed that her daughter was genuinely missing and presumed dead. The Blair Witch craze was so strange and so devisive that it managed to earn an Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature Film and a Razzie nomination for Worst Feature Film.

With over 15 years of hindsight, it’s all too easy to take The Blair Witch for granted. Within months of its release, the impact of some scenes had been diluted by way too many Blair Witch spoofs. The film’s unexpected success went on to inspire so many imitators that Sean recently called for an end to the “found footage genre”. To be 17 though, as I was, when the movie first hit theaters was a truly terrifying experience that took me days to recover from. Watching it today, its barely lost even a bit of its initial impact.

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For those who haven’t seen it, The Blair Witch Project follows three student filmmakers who spend a weekend in the woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch, who supposedly haunts the area. The poor kids soon find themselves hopelessly lost in the woods and stalked and psychologically tormented by unseen forces (presumably the Witch). Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez rely entirely on the hand-held “documentary” footage to capture the horror.

In fact, Myrick and Sánchez really did rely on their trio of actors to be their camera operators. Spending eight days in the woods alone, the actors improvised almost all of their dialogue and rarely knew what the unseen crew would throw at them next. The unorthodox approach pays off. The three lead perofrmances were convincing enough to fool so many audiences into thinking they were watching a real doc, after all. The Blair Witch may not be real the the tears and fear often are. It would even be compeelling just as a story of three students lost in the woods. Of course, it’s their tormenter who makes The Blair Witch Project a horror classic. Unseen by the audience, we have only the reactions of the tormented and our own worst nightmares to rely on. The Blair Witch is whoever you want her to be, whoever you are most afraid that she is. The film works every bit as well as your own imagination does.

The Lookout

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also appearing in 50/50) stars in the only bank heist movie screening at Healing Fest 2015.

Chris Pratt (JGL) was hot shit back in high school until some reckless driving leaves him with a traumatic brain injury. Since the accident, he can’t concentrate quite like he used to and needs The Lookoutto make himself a list of instructions to even be able to do simple things like making himself a bowl of soup. After what seems at first to be a chance encounter with an old schoolmate, he soon finds himself in way over his head when he is manipulated into acting as accomplice in a bank robbery by a gang of low-lifes looking to take advantage of his disability.

The ski masks, shotguns, and double crosses only make up a small part of this indie thriller from writer-director Scott Frank. The Lookout tells the story of a young man who not only has to learn to live with a brain injury but with the consequences of his own actions. Two of his classmates didn’t survive the accident and Chris still can’t bring himself to visit his ex-girlfriend, the only other surivivor from the crash, who has lost one of her legs.

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JGL apparently prepared for his role through sleep deprivation and strenuous physical exercise before filming to help give himself that confused and exhausted look. He’s made a career of playing likeable characters with more than their share of demons (Mysterious Skin, Brick, Looper) and his hard work pays off here. He keeps us invested in this story even as the plot twists start to seem implausible.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

How do you go on living if you wake up one day unable to speak, unable to move, and only able to blink one eyelid?

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This is the seemingly impossible challenge faced by former real-life French Elle editor Jean-Domonique Bauby after, at the age of 43, he suffers a massive stroke. Bauby has team of talented and empathetic doctors, nurses, and speech therapists to guide him along the way but overcoming the understandable paralysis of self-pity will have to come from within. Learning to communicate again won’t be easy. Especially when, as you’ll soon see, communicating with his family wasn’t easy for him to being with.

Shot almost entirely through the one good eye of a paralyzed man, The Diving Bell and the diving_bell_04Butterfly could easily have been unwatchable. Instead, director Julain Schnabel offers us something life-affirming and almost excruciatingly beautiful. Schnabel’s lens takes us on a breathtaking journey through Bauby’s imagination while Bauby’s interior monologue, based on his own memoir, is painfully honest but often very funny.

The great Mathieu Amalric, who you may know from American films such as Quantum of Solace, Munich, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, gives an unforgettable performance, almost literally without moving a muscle. Also, watch out for the lovely Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze as a speech therapist with unwavering faith and Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father. If you aren’t bothered by French subtitles- or a POV shot of one’s one eye being sewn shut, you just might be glad you gave this film a chance.