Alex Pettyfer's directorial debut is a moody, subdued story about masculinity, family dysfunction, and small town repression.
Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE isn't great, but its themes make the whole thing eerie enough for a dark night alone.
Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED explores the difference between experiences in the city, focused on those with power v. those without.
John Grant finds life getting even worse in the Yabba, after Mick & Joe take him for a pig hunt in the bush.
For all its faults, this adaptation of Stephen King does have teeth; sharp ones.
Masculinity isn't always a bad thing. When it goes toxic, it's the worst thing.
The Wicker Man. 1973. Directed by Robin Hardy. Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer; based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Water, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr, Ian Campbell, & Roy Boyd. British Lion Film Corporation.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: as of this writing it’s been 43 years since the release of this classic, so if you haven’t see it I really don’t even need to tell you about any possible SPOILERS! Yet I do so anyway. This review is going to talk about the ending later. If you head on through expect for that to get talked of openly. This is your final warning.
Upon hearing Robin Hardy passed today, I was torn up. Honestly there’s nothing else he’s done that I’ve particularly been interested in. It’s the influence of his mysterious folk horror The Wicker Man that endeared me to him permanently. When I was young I remember catching this movie on some channel, whether it was Show Case here in Canada I can’t be sure; likely, but not positive. I remember how strange and dreamy the whole thing was, and the way in which its songs mixed into the creepy story to make something altogether different from anything else I’d ever seen at the time. So as an early teen Hardy influenced me greatly with a single hour and a half of film.
There are a few reasons for Hardy’s influential touch. First, it wasn’t until about age thirteen that I finally shed the influence of my Roman Catholic upbringing, after my parents were smart enough to give me a choice – church or not. I saw this movie around age eleven, maybe twelve at most. It was before that choice of mine to stop going to church and taking communion, all that. The religious elements at play in this film were incredibly interesting to me. Second off all, Hardy’s finale is one of the single most horrific sequences of all time. To me it is the epitome of folk horror, including the gradual build up to those moments. This is a successful horror movie that does not rely on an entirely physical element to make things scary. Rather, The Wicker Man pries up your skin and slithers beneath it, both disturbing you and even making you smile (or laugh) from time to time.
One thing’s for sure: imitators be damned, there is NOTHING like this one.
Shaffer has done some good work other than this film, mainly Frenzy, Sleuth, Murder on the Orient Express come to mind. This is his crowning achievement. There’s of course the inclusion of David Pinner’s novel Ritual, but his work together with Hardy made for some terribly interesting story and characters. Forget the simple fact all that folk music thrown in is so unique and fun, Shaffer makes this paganism-styled religion out on the fictional Scottish island Summerisle partly unnerving and also an equal part intriguing. You want to know more, and as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers more then you sort of want to know less – in the best, mystery-horror hybrid kind of way. I love that there’s a great deal of attention paid to the Celtic traditions, paganism, as well as drops of history here and there. Shaffer uses all kinds of things, such as the Middle English folk tune “Sumer Is Icumen In” (you can find a proper copy of this in A Middle English Anthology edited by Ann S. Haskell) that you’ll find comes at a crucial moment. The song is a terrifying sound to hear when it’s sung. It is also very poignant for that scene, too. If you know a book called The Golden Bough by James Frazer then you can see how much Shaffer drew from when writing this script. What I love is that he creates a purely organic way for us to discover this Summerisle religion alongside Howie. Instead of feeling like a terrible load of exposition, while still being completely expository, the journey on which Howie goes to figure out what’s happening allows us to sift through the pagan island religion with interest. Other screenplays might make that feel boring. Shaffer manages to keep the pacing steady. Then you can also count the interesting musical pieces as a way to make everything feel compelling. Between the unique atmosphere, the songs and the dancing and the pagan-like rituals we witness, all the odd visuals (those first animal masks are horrifying), there’s enough to make this more than weird for weird’s sake.
Some of the more enjoyable aspects stem from the theme of religion v. paganism, the centrepiece of the screenplay. Howie is a direct parallel to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose hippy-like vision of religion appals the lawman, a staunch Christian. There are some genuine looks of horror courtesy of Woodward’s talented acting which really make you see how devastating the idea of pagan worship is to the straight laced, God fearing Christian worshipper. The awful irony is that Woodward’s Christianity leads him into curiousness and duty that is his downfall. That apprehension and judgement becomes a gateway into paranoia. In the end, this Christian paranoia re: heathenism alongside Howie’s dutiful police sensibilities combine in a lethal cocktail of curiosity. Something that’s worth noting is that on his way toward the finale, and his doom, Howie momentarily loses himself in the heathen pagan traditions: whilst wearing the disguise to follow Summerisle and his people, Howie sheds his Christian repression and slaps a few women on the ass gleefully. If only for a second he forgot his devout Christianity and let loose with the heathens. Probably all for the best, as the poor Scottish policeman isn’t long for this world, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned, The Wicker Man is successfully filled with horror not because of any blood or gore, nor any jump scares. It isn’t due to anything typical. All the fun elements like the songs eventually transform into something treacherous and evil. By the final scene, singing is nothing but a vortex into madness. The masks and the pagan symbols are appealing early on, like the marks of island/small town charm. Later, as Howie discovers himself the ultimate fool – perfectly dressed just like Punch, eternal fool himself – those animal masks and all the nature imagery, it’s positively chilling. Christopher Lee gives a charismatic performance that set him so far apart from the typical Hammer Horror roles it’s amazing, and his determined attitude as Lord Summerisle is nothing if not psychopathic. Likewise, Woodward plays Howie perfectly, and for all his foolishness you truly pity him, especially once he sees the eponymous structure from which the film takes its name. Robin Hardy will always be remembered, fondly, for his weird and wild The Wicker Man. It is not merely a load of hype. It is a fantastic piece of folk horror and an unforgettably unique moment in cinematic history. Relish that. I do, every so often, and as damned often as I can.
We’ll miss you, Mr. Hardy. Thank you for your strange vision; it is forever a fever dream in my memory.
The Godfather. 1972. Directed & Written by Francis Ford Coppola; based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name.
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, & Rudy Bond. Paramount Pictures/Alfran Productions.
Rated 14A. 175 minutes.
The Godfather is one of the rare films I believe is better than its source material. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a long time ago when I was about eleven or twelve years old, one weekend as I was in the woods hunting and fishing with my grandfather and uncles. It captivated me every waking moment when I wasn’t busy hauling gear or casting a line. The violence and sexuality and the raw language of Puzo struck me. Something I never forgot, as a reader and as a young man who eventually went on to become a published author himself. Part of reading that novel always stayed in my mind. Then when I’d finally seen the movie adaptation not long after it made me understand there was a way for film to improve upon its origins. Francis Ford Coppola and his ambition made this into a worthwhile project. As is evident, he’s a director that never backs down. Many of his choices throughout the production weren’t exactly what the studio and producers imagined, everything from the dark, shady look of the cinematography to the casting of Al Pacino. Luckily, Coppola’s iron will seems to eternally capable of winning out, and we’re left with his choices. Undeniably the best ones possible. Not every last classic of American cinema is as classic as the critics and audiences who love it want us to believe. That being said, certain classics are considered exactly that for a reason.
The Godfather nails every last bit what it aims to do. There’s not a single moment of bad acting, nor is there ever a misstep in the way its shot. If this were made like every other picture at the time, the end product wouldn’t be near as fascinating. Rather for a movie that’s considered classic, as if to signify it’s part of a type or a set of movies from that era that are alike in some way, this one is very much different from other films from the 1970s. Coppola dared to take on a dangerous story, one that accentuated the underworld of Italian-American crime while taking a legitimate look at the real people caught up in its Black Hand. Further than that he didn’t settle for making a blockbuster that appealed to the specific demographics Paramount Pictures had in mind. He came out with something more visually beautiful and intricate than an average Hollywood picture. This let the whole film industry and its varied audiences know that even the major studio productions can keep their artistic heart without being an independent project. Forever, I’ll consider Coppola – for this and Apocalypse Now particularly – a reason for why directors can still be artists within a studio system.
Let’s talk about oranges! We’ve all heard about this one, so take a deeper look.
First scene is between Tom Hagen and Jack Woltz, a bowl of them sits at the table. This is the first sinister event where the oranges give us a foreboding look at what may soon come. Of course, we know what ends up in Woltz’s bed not too long after. A gruesome scene. This sets up the whole element of oranges signifying something bad about to happen, which extends through the film, as well as its sequels. One of those nice little pieces of symbolism that makes this movie feel more akin to great literature than great movies, though it’s clearly one of the latter above anything else.
Second scene comes just prior to Don Corleone being gunned down in the street. He goes to buy some fruit, oranges to start, and this ominously lets us know there’s about to be a tragedy.
I love that Coppola decided to use this little system because it gives the whole thing greater depth, along with the good writing in general and the nicely fleshed out characters. In every way, the director makes sure this becomes more than a big studio picture with dollars in its eyes. Best part is that the orange symbolism goes on throughout the trilogy, not only a part of this first film.
The cinematography from director of photography Gordon Willis is all around fantastic. As is the editing. These aspects collide in such a perfectly classical way. Francis Ford Coppola exerts such great, effective control as director, which is in part due to him taking on the screenwriting duties, as well. The look of the scene where Don Corleone is gunned down has to be one of the best in the entire trilogy. Without a doubt. The darkness almost seems to encroach the sky, as the deadly scene commences. Then the overhead shot of Vito being shot, falling on the car, the guns going off, it’s so effortlessly gorgeous and well blocked that you know how everything is laid out came about meticulously. Some shots can appear accidentally. This is not that type, whatsoever. One example of the eye Coppola has for framing. That’s a reason why the overall film is so damn good. Every bit of the darkened camera work, the shadowy lighting, all those thoughtfully considered shots and the precise blocking, it all makes this better than any average big budget adaptation of a novel. The directorial choices out of Coppola are impeccable. Not every director can block well enough to make it evident. A guy like Coppola does so to a point of feeling like a theatre director, making his shots stand out at all angles.
So much acting talent to take in. Even during the most seemingly insignificant moments and scenes this whole cast makes everything interesting, at times powerful. Partly Coppola, through the original writing of Puzo, is able to convey gangsters in a more three-dimensional view than they’d ever been seen before onscreen. Gangsters have been around the Hollywood stories since as early as films were being made. Yet this movie takes us further into the psychology of these men. You don’t always agree with the way these characters act, nor that they’re so involved in such dastardly criminal activity on many levels. Although you will find yourself a little more informed, at least in the way they do things. The characters themselves and the performances take us into the human beings behind the business. Again, these actors won’t make you necessarily empathise, but they will always, always keep you hooked to the story and the intensity of the plots.
Above anything else, The Godfather is entertaining. The characters and the plot, every inch of the story rivets the audience. Marlon Brando is at the pinnacle of his career, no matter what other great, epic roles he’s taken. Likewise, James Caan and Al Pacino are both fantastic in their respective roles as the Corleone brothers; distinct personalities, each part of the same crime family and subject to its effects, so while they feel real different they are also just like real brothers. Add to these lead actors guys like Abe Vigoda, Richard S. Castellano and others only round out the cast making the story rumble right off the page. Oh, and Robert Duvall can never be forgotten. He crafts Tom Hagen into just as classic a character as the rest, often overlooked simply because of the other star power bursting through the screen.
If you don’t dig this movie, that’s fine. You cannot, however, claim this is not a classic. And not a perfect one. There are so many amazing aspects to The Godfather, from the powerful acting to Coppola’s adaptation of Puzo to the downright saliva-worthy cinematography. Each time I watch it, and until this writing it’d been a good seven or eight years, there’s a new love I find somewhere between those luscious, dark frames, all the brooding Pacino looks and the well delivered dialogue. This is one movie that will never fade in its awesomeness. Until the end of time it’ll remain one of the greatest in cinematic history.
Needful Things. 1993. Directed by Fraser C. Heston. Screenplay by W.D. Richter; based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh, Ray McKinnon, Duncan Fraser, Valri Bromfield, Shane Meier, William Morgan Sheppard, Don S. Davis, Campbell Lane, Eric Schneider, Frank C. Turner, & Gillian Barber. New Line Cinema/Castle Rock Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 120 minutes.
As an avid reader of Stephen King I’m always happy when I can tout one of the film adaptations as worthy of his writing. With any book the movie never seems to match up in quality, though on rare occasions this happens. What an adaptation for the screen can hope for is that it preserves the spirit of the source material. Not all adaptations of King novels work out appropriately, as I’ve mentioned in my other reviews recently. At least with a good couple hours directors and writers are capable of turning a large-sized novel into something worthwhile of the author’s efforts.
Needful Things makes use of every minute out of the two hour runtime. Screenwriter W.D. Richter manages to turn a large cast of characters into interesting people within that time frame, not jamming anything down our throats. Rather the screenplay allows for so much in 120 minutes because it’s structured well, it focuses on the right elements. Doesn’t hurt that the cast is spectacular, right down to the smaller roles. Then you’ve got Ed Harris, Max Von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia leading the ensemble with strong performances. In particular, Sydow presents us with a version of the cinematic devil that stands out amongst so many other similar depictions of that mythic character. I can’t help loving this King film when so many never hit the mark, nor are they given the proper level of production in order to achieve what potential they have inherently. There’s a little bit of cheese here or there. Maybe you dig it, maybe not. Either way, Needful Things is a devilishly fun and mysterious mix of the supernatural and personal stories of drama, crime, and all sorts of small town issues. The novel is treated well here in this uneven yet awesome fantasy that takes place in that little town of Castle Rock, Maine.
First and foremost, Max Von Sydow is great. A perpetually fantastic actor whom I always find interesting to watch. He’s well suited to play a man such as this, one whom we know little of but glean that he’s, essentially, the devil. Literally. Even the name works, Leland Gaunt. But Sydow is what gives this screen character such fearful depth. His voice, his way of dressing, how he laughs and sweetly ingratiates himself to the men and women alike in Castle Rock; only part of that is the writing. Sydow’s abilities as an actor come out quite nicely with such a classic character as the literary Satan in disguise. He makes the devil so flawlessly friendly to those around him. Really one of the best devils out of any movie, regardless of how you may feel about the rest of the film.
Part of the performance is also his look in terms of makeup and costume. For most of the film we get that elegant, suit wearing look that suits Sydow so well. In brief moments the makeup renders him into a nearly goblin-like creature, his long nails protruding, yellow and thick, his nasty teeth shining in the light of certain head movements. Plus, much more. This isn’t always outwardly visible, only in those brief shots is it clear and that makes it more unsettling.
Everyone else is mostly great, even if Sydow is the centrepiece. Harris and Bedelia are both excellent, just as their chemistry makes their characters relationship sweet and loveable. Even young Meier does well as Brian Rusk, a tough and complex role for an actor of any age. Most of all I love Amanda Plummer – the character is good enough, but she automatically makes ANY character that much better. She turns up and I’m usually ready to keep glued to the screen. She does not disappoint, and her final showdown, warring with neighbour Wilma (Valri Bromfield) is so satisfying in a morbid way that you’ll have trouble not cheering a little. Don’t worry, I did. So we’re both sick fucks. If the acting weren’t so good then it wouldn’t be this hard to resist.
Visual callback to The Exorcist, as Polly (Bedelia) walks down a set of stairs and witnesses Alan (Harris) shaking hands with Danforth (J.T. Walsh). I’d never noticed that until this last time watching. Funny how that escaped me. Right now, it stood out so evident. Not in a hokey sense, but a stellar homage to William Friedkin’s supernatural, religious horror masterpiece. The movie isn’t built on homage. Not in the slightest. Everything else is pretty well shot. It doesn’t stop at the cinematography from Tony Westman. The entire flow of the film in its writing to the directing choices and the editing is a huge reason why everything works. Alone the way most scenes are edited together is good filmmaking, but better yet are certain scenes. For instance, when Brian (Shane Meier) is tossing the baseballs, then there are the flashback moments certain residents have as they make their dirty deal with Gaunt, among others.
Also have to mention the inclusion of classical pieces. I’m a huge fan of classical music, so it’s even better that the soundtrack here is used to such advantage. Beautiful, soul-filled pieces play over moments of wild destruction and violence. Always an interesting, effective juxtaposition.
Furthermore, in terms of writing, I find Richter does impressive work. A lot of movies insist that linear storytelling means you can’t move back and forth between moments in time. In a sense, yes. Many others prove that you can tell a linear story and also include plenty of non-linear aspects. What the screenplay here accomplishes is a linear plot that gives us 99% of the current story, then peppers in the whole cast of characters within that whole structure with their own histories. The overall story never gets bogged down because of how well the writing is adapted. Again, this is how Richter manages to fit all these characters into one two hour span without making a mess of things. The writing, the editing, the direction on Fraser C. Heston’s part, all comes together to make Needful Things a horrific bit of fantasy inside a story of intense human drama.
Another solid King adaptation. Lots of negative reviews out there. Although I’m totally in the other camp, this is a fantastic little movie. Not perfect by any means and a couple of the actors leave some to be desired. I can’t fault anybody in particular for not making the movie better. Needful Things is a good deal of fun. The story is one that could easily go epic in scope, instead King’s original novel takes that type of plot about the devil making deals with ordinary people for their souls and crafts that into a tale of corrupted innocence in a coastal town in Maine, bringing the scale down to a personal, emotional level. Sydow looms large as the Satan figure, Leland Gaunt, and everyone from Harris to Bedelia to Meier and Plummer all play their respective characters well.
I know not everyone will always feel the same. A typical story is done differently and done well with this film version. In a world of terrible movies made from Stephen King stories, let’s appreciate the ones that genuinely work. We get all the character, all the setting and the terror and the familiar macabre qualities of King, including some blood and psychosis along the way. If that can’t please you, nothing will.
Fincher's FIGHT CLUB, like Palahniuk's book, is a wild piece of fiction with roots in old philosophy.
Paranoid Park. 2007. Directed & Written by Gus Van Sant; based on the novel of the same name by Blake Nelson.
Starring Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Dan Liu, Lauren McKinney, & Scott Green. MK2/Maximum Films/IFC Films.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.
Gus Van Sant is yet another American director by which I’m enthralled. Not every last project he undertakes is as spectacular as his greatest, though there’s always a sense he pays attention to the minute details of his stories, that he wants to whittle life down to the nitty gritty. Each Van Sant film usually explores people on the fringe, characters living at the edges of society in one way or another, often the types that are sensitive to the world and its plights. No matter what his focus, Van Sant’s eye is always catching the beauty of the situation.
Paranoid Park examines the guilt (and paranoia which comes as a packaged deal) of a young skater kid, whose thoughtless action one night leads to the accidental murder of a security guard on the local train tracks. Based on a Young Adult novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant adapts the screenplay into a psychological piece of cinema that looks at the hubris of youth and the disaffected attitudes of a young man, as well as ponders deeply the meaning of morality, how we live with ourselves when something challenges it, and most importantly how we either repent or forget our actions. Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li help Van Sant cultivate his flawless look and feel, which fits so perfectly in the world of high school. As we float along with the camera, we’re given a peek into a time of life everybody’s been through. Although, the boy in the middle of all this experiences a far more adult situation than his brain, his morality, his will power can ultimately tolerate.
The flowingly beautiful cinematography is amazing. So many sequences I could mention, though it’d take forever. I love how the cinematographers slow certain things down, scenes you’d likely not imagine in slow motion. And in this way, they capture the gravitas of the situation, the plot. We can see clearly how devastated emotionally the main character becomes, as the camera lingers on him, on his movements, his face. Every little morsel of detail gets captured and in an extravagant way. To the point high school and teenage life seems more glorious and grand than it ever did in real life. There’s a heightened realism which hooks you. The visuals root the emotional experience of this film’s journey with the main character, taking you on a ride that feels at times as if it has you over the top of the clouds, gliding without care yet at the same time with the weight of the world upon your shoulders.
There’s great use of music, too. There’s this very classical sense about the film overall, as if it were made with adults in mind yet a story concerning teenagers. Lots of big band type stuff, pieces of music that’ll harken back to the 1940s and 1950s both in terms of music at the time, as well as in the sense of the movie itself feeling like one of those yesteryear classics. This in part plays into the feeling that Paranoid Park is similarly themed as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, that these teenagers – mostly the main character Alex (Gabe Nevins) – are ahead of their time. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, perhaps Alex is too ahead of himself and doesn’t realize the destruction he’s wreaking upon his own innocence. Nevertheless, there’s an old timey atmosphere in some of the shots.
Other wise, Van Sant continues on with his impressive style. Gorgeous, sweeping tracking shots, slow motion moments where time feels stalled and we’re watching Alex try and keep his mind straight while walking through a world filled with distractions and danger. The quiet and thoughtful style of Van Sant helps us feel involved in the plot, and most importantly we’re engrained in the perspective of Alex while he holds onto his sanity, trying to salvage his morality; if the latter is even possible.
When it comes to the plot and the characters, everything feels so natural. I love the scene where police officers come to talk with skateboarders at the high school because you can hear them talking lightly over him, making comments, laughing and carrying on. There’s a real sense of disaffected, disconnected youth. When the cop passes around a picture of the murder victim and everybody sees him cut in half on the tracks, most of the young boys laugh, blown away by the brutality yet seeming utterly undisturbed. Certainly there’s a hint of something in Alex’s eyes, but even he doesn’t appear overly moved. At least not until later. But all the characters, the setting, the way high school kids feel throughout the screenplay and how the skaters interact with people and one another, is every bit organic. Couple that with the wonderful cinematography and there’s a highly realistic quality always present that makes us feel initiated into the world which Van Sant shows us.
Front and centre, Nevins puts in a spectacular performance. He is the crux of it all. In some cases, young actors are not my favourite. If we’re being honest. Only some are able to attain the level of emotionality necessary for fiction; others rarely hit that mark and always feel as if they’re acting, never like they’ve slipped into the role. Nevins has a natural quality that’s always there, through each scene and situation. His emotional depth is vast. We see him in the shower ready to break down, juxtaposed with his otherwise calm demeanour. We watch him go over everything in his mind, pieces of memory and slivers of guilt. This is a great role and Nevins uses it to the fullest. At times I want to shake him. Sometimes I’d like to throw my arm around him, say it’s going to be okay. Either way, the character of Alex and his moral dilemma comes across well through Nevins, pulling us in until we’re so close that the suffocating guilt and paranoia the character feels is nearly our own.
I bought Paranoid Park years ago on a whim. I love Gus Van Sant, even if I don’t love every one of his films. Though, most I do. I’m glad I picked this movie up because it pays off incredibly. There’s a nice sense of slow burning drama, almost to a point of thriller-like tendencies. Although what Van Sant does is keep things dreamy, perpetually enclosing us in the psychological space of our main character, the troubled young skater Alex. Using excellent cinematography, fun choices of music, and riding on the important performance of Gabe Nevins, Paranoid Park tries to get at the heart of morality, how it operates in the idiotically naivety of youth. Mostly, it presents Alex’s moral dilemma and then asks us to speculate about what sort of person he is, and what kind of man he will be eventually. Moreover, Van Sant attempts to peer inside how we connect with the world in our youth and the various ways in which we’re meant to act, versus all the ways in which we want to act and how we hope to connect with the world. A scene late in the film involving Alex and his girlfriend epitomizes his disconnect from life and the world around him, from a sense of normality. It’s easy to see that Van Sant, as well as novelist Blake Nelson, understand the trials of youth. Placed in an extreme situation, these trials are even more intense, and this film opens them up in front of us in all its psychologically scarring glory.
Annie Wilkes is the brutality of modern fandom, long before Twitter.