Edition #2 takes a look at more side-by-sides from in & outside of the horror genre, as well as movies from Scorsese, Aronofsky, & Carpenter.
A new column examines the influences of horror movies & what has influenced them via side-by-side film frame comparisons.
James White. 2015. Directed & Written by Josh Mond.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston, Makenzie Leigh, David Call, David Cale, Benjamin Brass, Lori Burch, Scott Cohen, Adriana DeGirolami, Jeanette Dilone, David Harris, Rosemary Howard, & Sue Jean Kim. BorderLine Films/Relic Pictures.
Rated R. 85 minutes.
Producer Josh Mond has been behind a few really excellent films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Afterschool, and others, as well as the upcoming Christine (not a Carpenter remake). His first feature film, James White, is a little flawed, but overall an honest, raw look at the life of a New York City Millenial stuck in a brutal situation between trying to reign in his own childish behaviour and taking care of his very sick mother, all after the death of his father. In a day and age where many young people are starting to deal with the death of parents, just as every generation has before them, this is certainly a film with huge impact.
Often the battle against cancer is portrayed in an almost romanticized way. Many movies will show the devoted individuals caring for their sick loved ones as unabashed caregivers, noble, nearly saint-like. Instead of the cliched, emotionally manipulative picture many mainstream Hollywood movies paint, James White is the portrait of a young man, imperfect and stubborn, whose life is upended. He becomes caretaker to his mother while also trying to discern his own place in the world. Along the way we watch his destructive self unfolding in the emotional massacre of his life. There are portions of this film that are genuinely sweet and beautiful. Still, the ugly side of love in a time of disease is on display to make sure the honest truth never slips from our memory.
The center of this film, above its gritty real life feel, are the two major performances from Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott. I mean, honestly, this doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. Although, if it doesn’t move you there may be parts of your insides made of concrete. Immediately we’re drawn into the reality of this story because of cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul, Miss Bala), his natural feeling lens hooks the eye. We’re able to drop into the perspective of the main character James because the camera follows closely behind him, near him, hovering over his shoulders constantly. So once we’re put in that position, Abbott’s talent further pierces us. He is enigmatic, and at the same time upfront. He’s enigmatic because there are things he’s not saying, leaving below the surface, as the drinking problem and everything else, his bravado, masks what’s truly going on. Simultaneously, the camera lets him be upfront because we see his darkest moments. And under all that machismo, there’s a sensitive part which eventually breaks through those barriers. Abbott is able to give us all the aspects of James that makes him interesting. They’re not always easy to watch, nor are they enjoyable. Sometimes you want to smack him and scream into his entitled face. But always, always he is able to command your attention with a brave, truthful performance.
Added to Abbott is the fantastic(ally underrated) Nixon. Her performance is even more exceptional, simply because of the condition she portrays. Her character, Gail, is often difficult, though loving, and many other opposites. Because the disease is ravaging her. It’s the way she shows us the disease which is powerful. It will stop you, freeze your eyes to the screen. One in particular sees her unable to speak, as she says later her brain couldn’t get the words to her mouth, and that moment between her and James is extraordinarily gripping. You’ll almost want to hold your breath.
Ultimately, the two performances together, the relationship between James and his mother, this is what drives the film. I love the look and feel of it all, but these are what makes the whole thing worth it. The threat of cancer and disease is something we all know, and if not yet then someday soon. It touches everybody. To examine the issues – such as how a child might end up having to totally care for a sick parent in an event like James experiences – can really turn heartbreaking. And no doubt, James White both character and film will break your heart to pieces.
A major aspect of why this movie is intense lies in the decision to look at how a young man out of the Millenial Generation is forced to cope with a parent dying. There are so many dumb think-pieces in the media these days, so many ridiculous opinions about the younger generations today, that we’re often forced into believing there are no serious issues at stake for Millenials – and so you know, I just barely fall into this category being born in 1985. With an intensely emotional screenplay by director-writer Mond, this movie allows us a window into a microcosm of that generation. Left with one parent, whose time is numbered due to cancer, James is confronted with trying to make dreams into reality. He’s a struggling young man that wants to be a writer, though circumstances in his life throw him into complete chaos. In an already bad economy, being a writer is a tough life decision; one I know all too well personally, being a writer (I don’t only write reviews). With his father gone, his mother on the way out, he’s almost got a limited amount of time to construct his life. And with so much time spent being there for his mother, he’s had no time to concentrate on getting himself better, he has neglected his best interests. While there’s a noble aspect to that, he is left with a gaping abyss ahead of him, and with no one there to help guide him.
This is a film about cancer, the effects it brings down upon those caring for a sick loved one. It also comes at a time where people in their twenties can relate. Because even as the older generations start to die out (Gail here is not particularly old though) and make way in a sense for the younger ones, there is an element of loss, aside from personal loss, because now we are the ones left to guide the way forward, to steer the future. And like in the case of James, not everyone is ready for the burden.
Absolutely a 4-star experience, from the cinematography and its hyperreal atmosphere, to the directing and the screenplay from Josh Mond. Hopefully Mond will go on to do more directing, apart from his great track record as producer. He is talented, and the personal nature of his writing shines through, even if things are grim, uncertain throughout. James White is difficult but necessary cinema in many ways. Aside from its raw look at something which affects us all, this film really speaks to a passing of the torch, willingly or not, from parents to children. And the torch will pass, no matter if its ugly, or if it passes silently in bed during the night.
Son of Saul. 2015. Directed by László Nemes. Screenplay by Nemes & Clara Royer.
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sándor Zsótér, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Amitai Kedar, & Kamil Dobrowolski. Laokoon Filmgroup/Hungarian National Film Fund.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Stories of the Holocaust and WWII are a dime a dozen. Some of them are exploitative, such as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. Then there’s the exploitation films using the Nazis and their crimes in an exciting, dare I say fun way, like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Also can’t forget classic Holocaust-centered films Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. My personal favourite is The Night Porter, which examines leftover emotions and disturbing feelings from the last few years of the Second World War.
But along comes Son of Saul. It takes a close, personal perspective and drags us alongside, witnessing the dark horrors of the concentration camps. This is one film that uses both subtlety and graphic depictions of its subject to wow the viewer. Director László Nemes brings us inside the world of the Sonderkommandos – prisoners in the German death camps made to work, often burning the corpses of their people after extermination, and other such macabre duties. Having read lots about WWII, specifically what happened in the camps, to see a film bring these events to life is emotional, gripping, and thoroughly savage. However, savage with importance. Without exploiting the experiences of those imprisoned under Nazi rule, Son of Saul manages to craft itself into a powerful drama that tows us through a road of horror to get to its conclusion.
During the fall of 1944, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew, is imprisoned in a German Nazi concentration camp – the infamous Auschwitz. He works as a Sonderkommando; his task is burning the dead Jews exterminated in the gas chambers. Except one day he finds the body of a boy who was meant to go for an autopsy, and takes him for his son after discovering him still breathing. He convinces the prison doctor not to do it, then decides to try burying his supposed son, also hoping to find a rabbi so they can perform a proper Jewish burial. Meanwhile, Abraham (Levente Molnár) hopes to get a rebellion going against the SS guards. Another fellow, Biedermann (Urs Rechn), proposes they photograph all the horrors of the camps and smuggle the pictures out.
But the body of the boy keeps calling for Saul’s attention, and to make up for his own past Saul continues on his mission to give the boy the burial he deserves instead of relegating him to the mass graves and the body burnings. At the same time, Saul has to make sure he can manage to survive until the terror is over.
Immediately, one thing that’s incredibly noticeable is the almost first-person perspective we get through Saul. Over his shoulder, the camera allows us to hover around Saul’s head, to gain a look into his world, his emotions. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély – whose excellent work can also be seen in 2011’s Miss Bala and his latest in the recent James White – immerses us into the experience of Saul, always keep us on his periphery, only ever briefly allowing small moments outside of his headspace. And so, for a highly personal, almost private story, the cinematography engages us in Saul’s emotional point of view, rarely ever relenting. This helps us feel as if we’re sitting in the midst of the camps. And though anyone outside of the Jewish people who experienced all those atrocities will never ever be able to fully comprehend the mindset, the resonance of this film’s visual style is capable of drawing out those tough, tender, raw emotions.
Furthermore, everything is very dark, almost completely lit by natural light. So the shadows and the sunset and the darkened corners of rooms, hallways, the concrete chambers of Auschwitz, they’re all rich and beautifully captured. Everything looks honest and real. Coupled with that, the fact there’s no score throughout and the images are punctuated by the sounds of voices, the noise of work and machinery, the breathing of Saul and those around him, it adds something perfectly human to the drama and the horror swirling about the camp. Some say without a score films can feel empty. I agree, only on certain accounts. Son of Saul works with no score because there’s no preying on the emotions here. The film speaks solely to the personal human drama, it doesn’t try to play with your feelings and accentuate emotional moments with strings or piano music, or whatever. Rather, the filmmakers continue to immerse us in the world of Saul because without score we’re forced to stick to the images, to the movement of our central character and his actions. Everything becomes like life, playing out right in front of our eyes as naturally as can be while simultaneously looking rich and vibrant.
The juxtaposition of all the different things the Jewish prisoners went through is stunning. For instance, while there’s no shortage of dead corpses, piles of them at times, some of the most disturbing bits are actually less explicit. In one scene, Saul is in a doctor’s office, but finds himself interrupted by a bunch of SS guards. One of them starts to mock Saul, then breaks into a big routine on Jewish song and dance. What’s most disturbing, apart from everyone enjoying Saul being humiliated, is how the ring leader of the mocking grabs Saul, pushing him around the room, shaking him, treating him like some might treat an animal. So even with all the little graphic moments included throughout, a few of the more chilling scenes come from these subtle, quieter moments where we’re able to see how childish the heart of racism is – paralleled with all the brutality that becomes part of it, too. Similarly, the whole idea that Saul sees some beauty left in life, wanting to bury the boy and get a rabbi for him is parallel against the fact he’s ignoring a chance at escape, he’s risking his life further than he has to in order to both honour a child in death, as well as make up for his own past faults. The whole film is filled with great juxtapositions such as these, part of why there are many lingering emotions after the credits roll.
A flawless 5-star experience. At times you’ll want to look away, but don’t. We can never turn our face from atrocity, no matter how brutal and tough to watch. This is not a film that relishes in torture or delights in any of the horror through which it frames the plot. No, Son of Saul shows us the Holocaust in all its grimness, never allowing for an overly emotional experience. It’s more of a trying one. But rightfully so. No film about such an event should ever be easy to sit through. At the same time, Nemes uses his beautiful approach to filmmaking for a purpose, and draws us through a terrifying time in 20th century history. He allows us to experience the world of Saul, to feel and see and hear its morbidity. Most of all, Son of Saul shows us a character and story not often put on film, which takes us deeper, further into the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. More so it brings up questions of morality, humanity, daring to explore some of the scariest darkness among human kind while pushing forward a semi-redemptive theme underneath all the terror. A truly fascinating, impressive bit of cinema.
A gay couple & their close friend decide on having a baby together. All their plans are derailed when a momentary act of frustration boils over into something unimaginably worse.
Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. Directed & Written by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, and Roger Casamajor. Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Telecinco/OMM. Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Guillermo del Toro has one of the most consistently fascinating minds in film today. Ever since I saw his feature film debut Cronos – a unique take on vampire mythology – I knew he’d go on to do a lot more great work. Even the 1997 Mimic was fun, though marred by studio interference and the fact del Toro’s father was kidnapped during that time. He went on to do another fascinatingly original type of ghost story with The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, which really came back to his exciting from the first feature. Afterwards, he added a good entry to the Blade franchise with its second installment and then did a funny, engaging adaptation of the Hellboy comic in 2004.
Pan’s Labyrinth is most certainly one of del Toro’s best works to date. It is highly original, while at the same time having its roots in old folklore, fairy tales and fantastical stories such as Alice in Wonderland. Even further, there is a darkness which is present in other fantasy storytelling but becomes pronounced through del Toro as a writer and as director. Perhaps the best part of this film is how he so elegantly weaves dark fantasy through the real life drama at the heart of the story, creating a perfect hybrid between the main character’s reality and her dreamworld.
During 1944, the post-Spanish Civil War phase has begun. Although there are rebel troops still fighting in the mountainside against the Falangist army troops. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) orders his wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) brought to live in a country mill within the forest. At first, Ofelia finds it hard to deal with her new life as the daughter of Vidal, whose fascist tendencies do not stop at his soldiers; rather his family is just as much a part of his rule as anything or anyone else.
Once a strange faun draws Ofelia into the labyrinth in the courtyard of the mill, she discovers a whole other magical world existing right under the surface of reality. When the faun tells Ofelia she is actually Princess Moanna, she is given several tasks to complete before the next full moon, which leads her into the other world adjacent to our own. However, it may not be enough for her to escape the hardships of the tragic reality in which she finds herself living with Vidal.
It’s no wonder Pan’s Labyrinth won Academy Awards – three of them. There is such an incredibly craftsmanship about the entire film. Certainly when you look at all the individual aspects, it’s hard to imagine anybody hating this film; sure, you can not be totally into it, but I’ll be damned to hell if you can’t admire this movie for all its efforts.
First, there’s the impeccable cinematography of Guillermo Navarro. Anyone who has read my blog before knows I’m a fan of Navarro. I knew him from his work with del Toro first and foremost. Though, when he directed a couple episodes of NBC’s Hannibal I was truly impressed – those episodes were titled “Coquilles“, “Trou Normand“, and “Rôti“. He captures the light and the dark in equal measures, the latter coming out beautifully in terms of shadow particularly. I think, above all, he and del Toro have very similar sensibilities, which helps in this case because though the story is awesome what I love most is the film’s look. What I imagine is that del Toro and Navarro, as director and cinematographer respectively, came together to find the visual presence of the film; effectively forming a dual director of photography. While del Toro no doubt had an entire aesthetic in mind, I can tell Navarro’s touch lands heavily on Pan’s Labyrinth because of watching his own directing on Hannibal, as well as in the two episodes of Narcos he helmed.
Almost better than the cinematography itself is the film’s intensely detailed art direction. From the look of the old mill, to the forest locations and the darkly fantastical settings inside the labyrinth with the Pale Man and Pan, there are too many different places where the art direction is on the level of a masterpiece. There’s such an effortless feel to the way del Toro and his team take us back to the mid-1940s in Spain. All the while, you know this movie took a ton of work to complete, it’s actually mind boggling at times when I think of it. Every location you see in Pan’s Labyrinth looks like it’s been pulled straight from a picture.
To make it all the more magical, the makeup in this film is just downright jaw dropping. The pinnacle, of course, has to be Vidal’s knife wound through the cheek. Absolutely raw and looks so natural! Its look is something out of a horror film and I found the makeup had a super visceral effect. I’m not normally a cringing sort – I watch a ridiculous amount of horror – however, the part when Vidal patches himself up, sewing the wound, then drinks a shot of liquor: it got me. But in the right sort of way. This part is only one amazing instance of excellent makeup work. Pan and the other creatures have such an innovative design about them, it’s some of the better makeup effects in fantasy over the past 20 years. Hands down. Without all these elements together, the fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth wouldn’t juxtapose well enough with the reality-based drama in its script. The look – in cinematography, design and direction – is perfectly dark and simultaneously vibrant. Add to that the painstakingly created makeup/effects and del Toro’s genius comes alive – although he wrote the script and obviously came up with a massive amount of stuff to throw into its story, as evidenced by the plentiful notes and sketches he creates over the course of every production, such a vision does require an entire team able/willing to go the extra mile to make this what it was meant to be.
There’s no argument on my part, Guillermo del Toro has several masterpieces under his belt and Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception: a 5 star film, from start to finish. The screenplay itself is enough to warrant a full rating. With all the different and various elements of this film coming together, working in favour of one another, del Toro’s dark fairy tale is something you might imagine coming out of the great literature from history. Honestly, I truly believe if del Toro had written this as a novel it would’ve been just as well received and perhaps could’ve gone on to rank among some of the big works of fantasy in the literary world. That being said I’m glad he chose to make this as a film. The visual qualities added to the masterful storytelling of del Toro made this into one of the great fantasy epics that will ever be in cinematic history. If I’m alive 50 years from now I’ll still be raving, and hopefully my eyesight will have lasted me until then; hell, even if I’m blind I’ll still ask someone to throw this on so I can listen to its beautiful music, all the sweet sounding Spanish words and the overall magical sound design. If you’ve not seen this one, please, do yourself a huge favour and take this in soon. It’s a pleasure of a movie even with its bits of creepiness and tragedy.
* As of writing, this title is available on Canadian Netflix.*
Cooties. 2015. Directed by Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan.
Starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, and Armani Jackson. Glacier Films/SpectreVision.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Officially out now on iTunes, Cooties was announced a little over two years ago. I remember seeing the premise alone and thinking this would be, at the very least, a bit of a good laugh. Admittedly, I’m not actually huge on horror-comedies. Funny that I love comedy and I am way in love with horror, yet the combination of both isn’t something that immediately appeals to me.
That being said, there are definitely instances of horror-comedy I’ve loved. Like Shaun of the Dead, which is almost the pinnacle to me of the sub-genre. There’s also Dead Alive, Gremlins, pieces of An American Werewolf in London are definitely full of comedy, Return of the Living Dead, House (a favourite of mine), and many more.
Cooties isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best horror-comedy films to come out in awhile. There are lots of good laughs, solidly executed horror, and a pretty excellent script. This movie never takes itself too seriously; not to a fault, but enough to make it feel genuine. Some good performances help the whole film succeed, even in its slower moments. Rainn Wilson, of whom I’m not a fan, actually is pretty awesome. Not just him: Elijah Wood is great, Alison Pill cracked me up almost constantly, Nasim Pedrad played such an amazingly satirical character and proves she’s a real good comedian, and even the other much smaller roles had me in stitches.
But it’s the horror I love – the sweet, sweet horror.
The opening sequence of the film is pretty spooky, as well as nasty. Like churn your stomach nasty. Tainted nuggets… need I say more?
After this opener, Cooties shifts into comedy/dark comedy mode for a little portion. Which works extremely well. From a screenplay by Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell, the comedy is genuine. It’s not awkward comedy, as some might expect seeing Rainn Wilson, however, it isn’t at all. There are some hilarious moments, especially from Elijah Wood whose character has a boyish charm while carrying the weight of the adult world on his shoulders; a writer trying hard to be whats he wants, stuck teaching when he’d rather be writing a novel as he says he is.
Still, things get intense fairly quick once the horror rears its fierce head. What I love is that the movie is only an hour and a half, not even, so the plot kicks in and runs wild without enough preamble to numb you. For a horror-comedy, this is an efficient technique and certainly made me enjoy Cooties even more than I might normally enjoy other movies in the sub-genre.
Killer kid movies always freak me out. Something about the innocence of children combined with evil – and in this case an illness/virus – really just gets to me, in an awfully heavy way.
The kids in Cooties are creepy. Plain and simple. One of the first intense scenes is when Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson) finds himself trapped on the basketball court, surrounded by a bunch of the kids; they’re hissing, snarling, growls and blood and pus come out of them.
Something I enjoy about the killer kid sub-genre is how it subverts how we feel about children. You don’t feel any fear from them. When you see a kid, as an adult, there’s nothing threatening about them. Even when it comes to really messed up kids who might talk a good tough game, worst comes to worst you can pick a kid up and throw them if necessary. However, when the evil aspect comes into play – in film – there’s something in that subversion, something about how the children suddenly become threatening, which unsettles me at the core. It’s the innocence coming back into play, in a very sinister sense.
Even more so, Cooties pits school teachers against the kids they’re meant to be teaching, caring for, moulding into responsible young adults. There’s something even more wrenching about seeing these educators forced to kill the ones they’ve protected so long, similar to zombie films where we see parents have to kill their children or children forced to kill their parents. Something about this whole idea eats away at me. And even though there’s plenty of comedy peppered in throughout, I think there’s an absolutely relentless sense of dread happening from start to finish which never ever lets go.
What I enjoy so much about this movie is the fact it balances so well the aspects of horror and comedy. This is the strength of any solid horror-comedy, if they can find a balance somehow that ultimately works equally on both fronts. What I found worked, for me, is that Cooties teeters back and forth between riotous moments and nasty horror. I mean, there’s a genuine dose of R-rated horror here a lot of other filmmakers would be too afraid to include in their own films.
When Johnson (Wilson) kills the first kid with a fire extinguisher, I knew it was coming but there’s still an effective scare in that moment. Particularly I love the makeup special effects, the blood spray all over Johnson and the wall behind him, speckled red dots everywhere. A true horror scene. Often times there’s a comedic aspect to kills in horror-comedy; this is not one of those kills. In the midst of the comedy comes a brutal, vicious scene. Not only that, the weight is evident on the character of Wade Johnson, as he sorts of loses his fun loving attitude afterwards and takes a bit of time alone.
The cinematography all around is pretty awesome. There’s a genuine atmosphere from start to finish, which sort of evolves from section to section. Lyle Vincent is the one responsible for the camerawork here – he also did 2012’s Devoured, a decent little indie horror with some teeth, and also the downright fantastic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (you can see a marquee poster for this movie at around the 1 hour 17 minute mark, or a little after, as the survivors pass a theatre). So knowing those two pieces – liking the latter more than the former – it’s no surprise Vincent is able to give Cooties an interesting look and feel. At the start, even in the creepy/nauseating opening sequence, there’s this real bright, shiny type of aesthetic happening – this leads through a bit to when the darkness comes into play. Following the “turn” of the children, a more gritty yet still colourful scheme begins. The vividness of colour persists, only darker now, along with the shadowy halls of the school, lit here and there with neon Exit signs, and the dull, sickly makeup of the kids, bloody and diseased looking. Tons of great visual stuff happening in terms of how the cinematography is both bright and gritty.
Also, there’s a rocking score from Kreng (Pepijn Caudron) – lots of cool electronic stuff happening. Unlike many modern horror movies trying to evoke a retro 1980s style soundtrack, I found this goes for the electronic sound while not necessarily trying to riff off the ’80s particularly. It might have that type of vibe, but for me it’s not the typical modern horror score. Helps the different aspects of Cooties become more intense, along with Vincent’s cinematography, whether it be the action-horror scenes near the end or the plain creepy horror moments throughout. A great horror score, definitely a bit different than some of the other stuff as of late from the indie horror scene.
I have to mention one of my favourite scenes. It’s very close to the end, so without spoiling anything, the group of teachers trying to fend off all the infected/zombie children wander into a sort of McDonalds PlayPlace type of building. They find the PlayPlace itself, a massive jungle gym full of infected kids, frothing at the mouth, hissing and screaming, laughing like maniacs. The part I love is the lead-up, where first the group comes inside and the dark closes everything in, the flashlights give us enough to see bright party decorations, half eaten cake and nuggets; there’s this eerie quality to the scene I found incredible. Then when the lights go up, a neon multicoloured disco light ball turns, there’s this WHOA second where you can’t get over how wildly creepy the scene has become.
With a decent ending, that doesn’t try to wrap things up cleanly and to a precise point, I think Cooties overall gets a 4 out of 5 star rating. I loved the excellent mix of horror (good dose of blood/gore) and comedy. Plenty of good laughs, but horror wins out above anything else. There’s a lot of great intense kid-centric horror. This doesn’t shy away from showing any kids infected, bleeding, or straight up being killed. Though it isn’t malicious in the sense of useless violence. Mostly, as I said before, the subversion of the roles of the teachers in this film really makes things interesting, and horrific at various times for both the audience and the characters.
This is out now via iTunes, so get a copy! Maybe not everyone will love it like I did, but as someone not often drawn into horror-comedies, I’d at least suggest you give it a try.
Queen of Earth. 2015. Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Washington Square Films.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Opening with such a tightly framed shot of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, Alex Ross Perry completely submerges us immediately into her world. Not to mention she’s in an absolute state of disarray and her temper is flaring, her makeup smeared and running. There are plenty of tight close-ups on Catherine moving on through the film, but it’s this almost shocking, jarring opener of her face, in our face, vulnerable and weeping, angry, emotional, which sets the tone of the film. Furthermore, I love how Perry has the title card come up in a hot pink colouring, as it sort of gives things an interesting little twist – as if everything’s fine on top, the pink like the makeup, yet underneath things are wrecked. A nice start to an oddly beautiful film.
From there, Queen of Earth descends into a spiral of broken friendship, jealousy, treacherous relationships, and a general atmosphere of dread and madness. For a movie that isn’t horror, it’s awfully scary. A lot of filmgoers seem to see this is as partly a comedy, though, for the life of me I cannot figure that one out. There’s nothing funny to me here. Not even in the darkly comic sense, which is the type of comedy I personally love most. Mostly this is full of terrifying reality, perched upon two vastly different but equally impressive performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Above all else Perry crafted an excellent and classic style thriller out of a mess of emotions and psychological torment.
A big problem I have is that I see so many people online bashing this movie because, supposedly, nothing happens. First of all, it troubles me how many of these same people also admitted they’d pirated it. So right away, I honestly have no regard for that opinion; you stole it, didn’t enjoy it, well fuck off. Honestly, if you can’t shell out a couple bucks to watch a movie online as opposed to going to theatre, which yes is damn expensive these days, well why should I care what your opinion is? It’s the same as if you start to heed the opinions of people who don’t actually pay to go to art galleries but rather they look at Polaroids of the artwork and then critique it. Regardless of what you thought about this film, a lot of people worked on it, just as you work at your job, and then people go ahead and pirate that hard work, giving nothing back, what does that say? It’s sad, whatever it says.
Secondly, I have to say that it’s fine if you don’t dig this type of film – the quiet, slow burning style that’s more focused on dialogue and character than action, whether big or small. Queen of Earth is more like a play, as we’re focused mainly on two characters – a couple others sort of in the wings in smaller supporting roles – and the bulk of the plot takes place in a single claustrophobic type of location. That’s part of what I love, as those who say “nothing happens” are SO WRONG. You really think nothing at all happens? Maybe you didn’t listen to all the fascinating dialogue between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, or did you miss all the palpable tension going on during scenes with Moss and Patrick Fugit? I don’t know. Might do well with seeing the film again. Because for me, a ton happens in this movie and the plot pops right out of the frame, grips ahold of your neck, and refuses to let go until the very last shot. A movie doesn’t have to have a ton of action – by action, I don’t solely mean car crashes and explosions, I mean action as in big sequences – and I think Alex Ross Perry knows that, more than well. I’ve not actually seen any of his other films, but now I’m determined to go back and watch them. They’re surely not all like this, as there’s a genuine air of old school psychological thriller throughout Queen of Earth, but it’s obvious in this one film alone he knows how to focus in on character, as well as relationships between characters, and how to draw out the tension in normal, everyday type situations; so much of that happens here from beginning to end.
I’ll get to Elisabeth Moss and her performance as Catherine afterwards. I’d like to talk about Virginia to begin; the character wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston. While clearly, painfully obvious that Catherine has some deep issues, it seems to me certain filmgoers are ignoring altogether how damaged Virginia is in her own right. Starting out early on, within the first 15 minutes, there’s a flashback scene between Virginia and Catherine, the latter with her saccharinely sweet boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) around – they talk about codependency, needing the other person in a relationship and what would happen if there was a breakup, et cetera. This is very telling. What we come to see is that not only does Catherine seem to be highly codependent
One way we can see the already glaringly obvious parallel in the situations of Catherine and Virginia is the boyfriends. Though the Kentucker Audley and Patrick Fugit characters are vastly different, the obviousness lies in the women themselves. They’re like a figurative tennis match, each of them batting the ball with equal force, mirroring the charge of the other. For instance, at the beginning we see James (Audley) calling Virginia ‘Ginny’, which she continually says is what close friends call her and advises him not to; not long after, James again calls her Ginny, she once more chastises him for it. A year later, once the situations have been reversed, Rich (Fugit) does the exact same thing to Catherine that James did – he calls her ‘Kay’, over and over despite the fact she tells him not to. What’s most interesting is that it’s not something initiated by either of the women, it’s something springing organically from these people, as if Catherine and Virginia are somehow willing it out of the universe.
Or is it? I also wonder if Virginia provoked Rich into taunting Catherine with the ‘Kay’ nickname in retaliation for how she perceived her friend to have treated her that year before. Because something strikes me as highly childish about Virginia. Each of these women are somewhat spoiled in terms of money – both of them have/had parents you’d most likely classify as rich – and so I think they’ve got their individual tendencies. But what’s telling in terms of why I think Virginia is especially childish is a scene where she and her boyfriend Rich (Fugit) are laughing in their room – when Catherine comes up quietly towards the door, Virginia won’t look at her and Rich goes to the door, without a word, closing it in Catherine’s face. Virginia and Rich giggle behind the door like two children, as Catherine stands for a moment outside, hurt, confused, then walks away. I thought this moment spoke VOLUMES in regards to Virginia particularly.
Because essentially, we’re seeing a back and forth duel between these two, supposedly, best friends who wound one another like a violently psychological and emotionally unstable game of tag. Instead of standing together, they fall harder and harder apart as the scant 90 minute runtime of Queen of Earth rolls on. This relationship is what sets up so much of the incredible tension within. Bottom line it comes down to the fact these two women are more interested in boosting their own egos than helping each other, neither wanting to be the bigger person and instead tearing their friend apart even worse at the seams.
Not only is the perpetually depressed and anxious character of Catherine written well by Perry, the way in which Elisabeth Moss inhabits the character is out of this world. I’m not a fan of Mad Men. However, after I saw Moss in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I became really impressed with her abilities as an actor. She has this very quiet and subtle presence about her, yet there are scenes where she has the ability to take hold of everything near, hauling the scenes down around her and just scorching the earth; I mean this, if it’s not clear, in a hugely positive way. I’ll say it: my top favourite performance of 2015. There is no doubt about it. Starting at the first frame, closed in tight on her weepy, angry face, I was utterly taken with Moss and her portrayal of Catherine. There’s a feeling going into this film you might be expecting something big, loud, brash, yet she surprises by keeping things low-key. Still, there is always a gripping sense of tone when she’s onscreen, whether she is being emotionally intense or quiet and withdrawn. I do love Waterston in this movie. There’s simply an undeniably awesome quality to Moss and her performance, throughout every last scene; not once did I find myself watching her and wanting more, or feeling there ought to be less, rather I continually felt impressed with everything she did.
The score from Keegan DeWitt lays just beneath the surface, like a thin layer of skin beneath the outer edges. At times the pieces are genuinely unsettling, others it’s like a swell is happening and at any moment things might burst, shattering the world in Queen of Earth to pieces. Most of all, the music fits so well in every scene of the film. For me, it’s DeWitt who adds so much of the uneasiness and terrible feeling inherent in the atmosphere of the film, he gives the screenplay and Perry’s direction a dream-like and also nightmarish quality. It’s amazing, really. Even in one scene as Virginia is out running, faded into a scene of Catherine generally not taking care of herself (eating crackers/chips and drinking pop in the morning), there’s a haunting piece with a flute riff on top of some electronic style sounds which sucks you into a weird state and kind of sticks to your skin a while. Great, great score. I think my favourite bits are the extremely foreboding pieces – you’ll know which ones – full of the horns and low woodwinds, then undercut with these deep and growling electronic rumbles.
Music and cinematography can go together hand in hand as lovers if the work is done correctly. Queen of Earth has that with DeWitt’s compositions pairing together with the camerawork of Sean Price Williams. One thing I love in terms of Williams’ cinematography here is how the close-ups really pull the viewer directly into this world. In particular, there’s a great scene with Catherine and Virginia where they’re recounting past relationships, bad ones, and there’s this great profile-like set of shots of the two talking, listening; reminds me very much of an Ingmar Bergman film at times, honestly. These perfect shots, peppered everywhere throughout the film, make the emotional and psychological weight of the screenplay resonate long and wide. Without such gorgeous looking visuals, I don’t think the film would have near as much depth, so I’m glad the look of the movie fits so well with the screenplay and its themes.
One of the 5 star films of 2015 and one of my favourites. It’s hard to talk about Queen of Earth without giving away the ending, even though some will still bark “nothing happens”. To them I say, go watch something else. Lots happens, it’s just not full of big sequences where a ton of characters are jumping about, each spewing expository dialogue to further the story. Instead, Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is a deeply unnerving and raw snapshot of the nervous breakdown of one woman, as well as the breakdown of a long relationship between two old friends, accompanied by an astounding score composed by Keegan DeWitt and the lush visuals of Sean Price Williams.
If you’re not into slowly paced pieces of film with all its focus centred on character and emotionality, then I suggest to not even bother. Really. Because if not, you’re only going to find yourself bored. However, if you can handle a slower pace for 90 minutes, and you’re able to sit through the brutish reality of two friends falling to pieces, one far worse than the other, then this is for you! It can get tough to watch at times if you let the plot and story sink into you, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This film brought me back to some of Bergman’s work, even one of my favourite movies of all time Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet it’s a completely separate and unique masterpiece all on its own.
The ending has stuck with me. Even the entire final half hour is UNBELIEVABLE and at times intensely creepy, as well; that whole party sequence calls back to Polanski in a way which left me jaw dropped for a second or two. The last two shots, switching between an astounded Virginia and a scarily ecstatic, laughing Catherine, they’ve still not washed off me. I watched Queen of Earth, after picking it up through iTunes, twice in the matter of about 12 hours. Each time I was floored beyond belief and those final moments will not find their way out of my head.
The Cell. 2000. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich.
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Colton James, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gerry Becker, Musetta Vander, Patrick Bauchau, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Weber, Dean Norris, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard, Catherine Sutherland, and Vince Vaughn. New Line Cinema.
Rated R. 107 minutes.
Tarsem Singh doesn’t always hit the nail on the head – apparently his latest Self/less is a bit derivative and uninspired if I’m to believe some of the criticism – either way, I feel he has an incredibly distinct vision when it comes to the way he makes films. I remember seeing this the year it came out and ever since I’ve been highly enamoured with Singh’s visual style. His work is all slick looking; not in the big budget Hollywood sense, but in a way that’s often highly reminiscent of painted art.
The way in which Singh visualizes the script for The Cell plays perfectly into the story. If Singh had gone a different route, or another director entirely did this film, the emotions and the sensory experience, all the wonder of the script would not come across as perfectly as it does. Aided by the incredibly moving and disturbing performance from Vincent D’Onofrio, as well as probably the most solid work Jennifer Lopez has ever done in my opinion, The Cell has an air of science fiction, but most importantly becomes a dramatic and tense story about a terrifying serial killer, and a brief look at the minds of the people who catch them.
Using a new technology allowing her to literally enter the mind of a patient, psychotherapist Catharine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) first explores the brain of a young boy in a coma named Edward (Colton James). Though not many believe in her methods aside from Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker) who work alongside her at the hospital, Catherine pursues this innovative technology in order to help actually fix the mental illnesses some people suffer under.
When a serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes into a coma from a sort of epileptic episode and still has a woman in an unknown location, slowly drowning, Catherine is called in to enter his mind and try to figure out where the latest victim is being held.
Once inside the dangerous mind of Stargher, it becomes more dangerous in real life for Catherine. Her own mind becomes susceptible to the influence of the dark world Stargher inhabits within his dream world. In the end, it’s up to FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) to enter Stargher’s world so he might try and save Catherine; moreover, hopefully the last drowning victim Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff).
“Want some milk?”
A huge part of why I love Singh’s work has to do with his films and their overall aesthetic. As is with a lot of very visual movies, editing is always an important aspect.
The edit here at the ‘milk moment’ is perfect starting with Catherine about to feed her cat. Next shot cuts to a dead woman’s open-eyed face emerging out of a pool of milky white liquid; this is in fact, what we later learn to be, bleach. Very creepy and effective.
Right afterwards, more of Singh’s visual identity as an auteur director comes through, as Catherine falls asleep after smoking a joint, and as the camera slowly pans to the sheets on her bed they merge with the sandy dunes of the desert which she’d seen earlier in Edward’s mind. Excellent shot, again with some wonderful editing.
These moments, they are only the start to the visual feast which Singh serves us.
It’s the plot of Carl Stargher which truly horrifies me in The Cell. The writing for his character is pretty great, I must say. I’m not a fan of much else Mark Protosevich has written personally (one of the only Marvel films I do like coincidentally was written by him – Thor). However, his script for this movie impressed me. I like how there’s a sci-fi element to it with the technology Catherine Deane uses. At the same time, Stargher provides a disturbing and intriguing look at a real life type killer.
What’s interesting, though, is how we get the look at Stargher in reality then we’re quickly swept off into his mind – a dream world. This is the most disturbing when it comes to The Cell‘s killer – even after we’ve seen him suspend himself from rings hooked into the skin all down his back and legs then masturbate over a dead woman. The dream world Stargher inhabits is something out of horror and fantasy; perhaps you could almost classify this film as part dark fantasy, as well as a thriller. Not only is the imagery of the world inside Stargher’s head itself scary, but when we see Carl as the king of this world he is an awful, mortifying creature that you couldn’t even come up with in your worst of nightmares.
Vincent D’Onofrio is a wonderful actor and here he gives a truly wild performance. Those moments inside his head, when Catherine (Lopez) is looking for him and following the younger Carl (Jake Thomas), are so perfect and effective. D’Onofrio keeps the essence of the real life killer in Stargher and also imbues the character with an essence of monstrosity; even in his insane makeup and speaking strangely, D’Onofrio makes this literal monster still feel real. I think a lot of people jump to Full Metal Jacket – and rightfully so – when they say it’s his best work, but honestly, for me this is his crowning achievement as an actor. Plenty of actors have played serial killers over the course of their career; it’s Vincent D’Onofrio who does something completely different and changes the role from a familiar character into an altogether new beast.
It’s strange how cinematographer Paul Laufer does such an amazing job here, and yet everything else he’s done is a couple TV movies and music video stuff for Rihanna and Katy Perry. I mean, what? So strange because this movie is viciously dark and horrifying, yet nothing else he’s done as a cinematographer has been anything like that. Although, Laufer did work as an assist camera on 1988’s Lady in White and also as an addition photographer in the second unit for cult classic Miracle Mile.
Regardless of his previous experience, or anything after, the camerawork he does on The Cell is just downright gorgeous. There are definitely moments people will chalk up as MTV style music video moments, but it’s not the fast editing style or anything similar to the fast pace of Tony Scott films (ironically one of the editors who worked on this also edited Scott’s final movie Unstoppable. Laufer uses these highly stylized techniques in order to make it visually evident how strange and dreamy a world we’re inhabiting while in the mind of Carl Stargher. The way the scenes look match perfectly the atmosphere and tone the script goes for, which is why I say this movie has such an incredible, undeniable aesthetic. It brings together so much talent on all ends, from the performances of the actors to all the technical angles involved in the film.
That brings me to the score, which is – to my surprise – from Howard Shore. Lately I’ve written reviews for other films including the masterful compositions of Shore, now I come across this one; a movie I know well, apparently just not well enough. I think when it comes to music that has a lot of horns involved, Shore is one of the greatest in the movie industry. He does such impressive work with the foreboding sounds trumpets, tubas, trombones (and so on) can produce, which I recently discussed in both The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en; each having their own unique and dark qualities. Furthermore, in The Cell there is plenty of equally amazing string work and percussion. I find especially his score rocks me in those first scenes after Catherine has entered the mind of Stargher: as she walks down the trophy cased room of victims and the bodybuilder grabs Catherine, presenting her for Stargher’s dream world alter ego, the score just ramps the tension up until we’re hit with a ton of bricks. That moment could’ve easily played well almost on its own. However, Shore adds the extra oompf a proper film score ought to. There are plenty instances of his music and its effectiveness throughout, which each bring more of that tension and it drives the thriller elements of the plot.
This is yet another film that strays into horror, dipping its toes at the appropriate times, yet does not fully become a horror movie. And as a horror fan, I find that great when genres can cross together and mix as one. I like when a thriller can incorporate horror while not fully becoming a scary film; if it’s done right.
The Cell absolutely uses horror, some times it is quite raw and ugly, but it’s mainly a thriller with dramatic and sci-fi elements. We get a lot here, a nice bang for your buck, because there’s something for everybody. Even while it can be terrifying at times, it’s so rooted in reality – even with the innovative technology used in the plot – that the drama of the story draws an audience in, the performances stay buoyed around human situations, and we’re able to feel all the appropriate emotions without getting lost in too many aspects of horror.
With all that being said, the horror is still my favourite part. It’s a scary story and at the same time exciting, as well as dramatic. But the disturbing elements concerning Carl Stargher make things all the more interesting for me. Examining his mind/head LITERALLY is something that hadn’t been explored really at the time of The Cell‘s release. They took a cool and familiar idea from science fiction and then crafted a highly intense serial killer drama-thriller out of it.
All in all, Tarsem Singh does spectacular work with The Cell. It isn’t perfect, however, I’d argue that it’s close to being so. Maybe there are little things Singh could have tweaked, who knows. Some people say they’ve got a problem with both Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn. Me, I think they’re both pretty decent here, certainly Vaughn who rarely gets to show off his serious side; his character felt very real and I thought his backstory came out just enough, briefly, in order to give us a sense of how intensely he feels about his job. Lopez does a good job and I don’t think you can fault her for anything here, she’s not a particularly awesome actress overall but here her character goes over well.
I’m giving this movie a 4.5 star rating. There’s a disturbing script which keeps you incredibly involved with its drama and psychological horror, while it also contains overt elements of horror – a serial killer with a nasty penchant for drowning women and turning them into bleached dolls – and a dose of science fiction. Add to that Singh and his visual flair, which I’m always pleased to watch (this and Immortals both blew my mind; The Fall is pretty neat, too). Then there’s the costume and set design and makeup effects which each cement this is an excellent bit of technical work. Together all the elements of the film work so well in unison, they create a lingering aesthetic that I’m never fully able to get out of my mind.
I’ll never forget this movie because it is so beautiful looking and simultaneously so unsettling, plus Vincent D’Onofrio brings out one of the most nuanced and terrifying visions of a fictional serial killer I’ve ever witnessed.
Haven’t seen it? Don’t let J-Lo turn you away. She is as good as she needs to be for this film. Come for the bits of horror, the interesting premise, and a script/plot that’s bound to stick to you a little after you’ve finished watching.
Enjoy. Or be disturbed. Not sure which I’m supposed to say to normal people.
Se7en. 1995. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cassini, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, John C. McGinley, Richard Portnow, Mark Boone Junior, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Richmond Arquette, and Kevin Spacey. New Line Cinema.
Rated R. 127 minutes.
While I’ve loved a lot of films out of the 4,100 plus I’ve seen so far, there is a special place at the top of the list for David Fincher’s Se7en.
I’m one of the many who finds interest in the criminal psychology of serial killers. Anything I can read or watch involving serial killers, I’m usually devouring. Morbid interest, however, it’s because I’m so flabbergasted by the actions of these types of people that I find myself so interested. If I had to come up with a big reason for why I love this movie so much, certainly that would be one. Then there’s the fact I think David Fincher is one of our modern geniuses. He’s got a slick style, but it’s not slick like in the way big Hollywood blockbusters are; it’s a dark and strange slickness. Even when the subject matter he’s tackling isn’t as morbid as Se7en, there is still a shadowy quality to his work I always find present. I love the way he captures both locations and actors, making everything look very rich in texture. This comes in handy with Se7en because he creates a dreary, nameless city in which to set the script by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Finally, the performances are incredible. There’s no doubt having Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, during the mid-1990s arguably in their prime or just getting to it, as a part of the primary cast helped this immensely. Having talented actors such as these two carry such a grim and violent story is part of what gives this savage yet beautiful film a commercial appeal on some level; while it’s horror, it resists the label by remaining a dramatic, dark thriller.
One of my favourite films, most definitely in the top ten, Se7en is arguably Fincher’s best, which is saying something. Not to say his work after this is bad or that it’s not any better, I just think that this film stands as the most perfect evidence showcasing his stylistic abilities, and inclinations, as well as how Fincher also has the ability to draw his audience into a familiar yet simultaneously mysterious, scary, at times uncomfortable reality.
In a nameless almost constantly rainy American city, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) wakes up for his first day at his new post; he and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) recently moved there for his transfer, living next to the train line. Mills meets his new partner, Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) who is set to retire in a week. Their relationship starting out is tenuous at best. Regardless, they catch a murder case which seems to suggest a serial killer may be at work. Not wanting to deal with it, and also worried Mills is not prepared for such a case starting out at his post in this new city, Somerset tries to have his Captain (R. Lee Ermey) give it to somebody else. However, no such luck.
But it’s when new murders present themselves, one of which Detective Mills ends up on, that more evidence leaning towards a serial killer comes to light.
Using the seven deadly sins of Christianity as his method, an unknown killer dispatches people one at a time in increasingly savage, ritualistic fashion. Wanting to retire yet unable to let go of such a heavy case, Somerset hangs in with Mills as they try to head off the killer before he can finish his ‘work’.
I think many film fans like to try and poke holes in Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. Ultimately, I don’t think you can do much in the way of coming up with plot holes. Reason I say this is because, with movies like Se7en we have to accept that while Fincher draws us into a very realistic sphere, there’s still a part of us which is required to understand the story takes place in a heightened universe. This is why the setting of the film is not defined as being one city or another; Fincher and Walker purposefully keep the city nameless. While you can say that it’s due to the fact they might have wanted to perpetuate a feeling of THIS COULD BE ANY CITY, THE DEPRAVED ARE EVERYWHERE, I think most importantly the namelessness of the city plays into the heightened universe of the film. Yes, this is supposed to be a real feeling story, you just have to accept not everything is going to be perfectly plausible down to every minute point. I don’t think there’s any big flubs in here either way, I’m just saying for those who like to pick apart a film there’s not much use here. Everything works so well.
Even further, I think Walker does such an excellent job crafting the characters in Se7en that you almost forget about everything else. The plot, of course, is important, but there are times I find myself swept up in the relationship between Mills and Somerset and forgetting about the plot; merely going along with the motions. Naturally, I’ve seen the movie so many damn times I know every single solitary move of the story I don’t need to pay full attention to all details at all times. But still, I think the characters are wonderfully realistic. Moreover, the pairing of Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt is incredible. I’d never have thought of them together in a million years. Perhaps that’s why it works so well – their first scenes are so painful and awkward, in the right way, and it benefits from the fact you almost look at them and think “How did they put these two in this movie?”
And it’s AMAZING! They’re both so good here. While Freeman is even better than he usually is, I’ve got to give the top prize to Pitt. Honestly, especially when you consider the finale – which I will not ruin in case people have yet to see it and PLEASE IF YOU COMMENT DO NOT SPOIL THE ENDING OR YOU’LL NEVER COMMENT AGAIN – I really think that Pitt is the one who goes above and beyond. Not discounting Morgan, he’s one of my favourites. Simply put, there’s a bigger rollercoaster ride for the character of Mills and luckily Pitt plays it with both an explosive side, as well as one that’s light and subtle. If anybody ever doubts these two actors, I always suggest playing Se7en because they work well as a pair, and they also give solid individual efforts.
In terms of Freeman’s performance, I really love the quiet scenes where it’s Somerset by himself at his apartment, tossing and turning, or just tossing a knife at his dartboard; very cool and sort of pensive stuff, watching this soon to retire cop sort of wandering around his house at night, probably half kept up by what he’s seen already and half from worrying about what he’ll do with the remainder of his life. I hate when I see some people say Freeman plays the same character all the time, as if it’s always just Morgan Freeman onscreen and not a character – you cannot say that about this movie, there are several layers to Somerset and he plays them all with passion.
Having an amazing actor like Kevin Spacey play the integral but brief role of John Doe was superb casting. I don’t think it so much matters about any big reveal. Even if you go in knowing Space plays the killer, the suspense and tension will get you and then his short performance will leave you in awe. A different role for Spacey, but the way he inhabits it is chilling. Aside from when he screams to get the attention of Mills and Somerset, essentially turning himself in, Spacey stays pretty quiet, he’s subdued. You really get the loneliness and isolation of John Doe come out through Spacey; in the few bits of dialogue he does have, there’s an even more vivid impression of a man who is cut off from the world, deliberately, as he talks to people almost as if they’re not people, like they’re pets or something less than him – not condescending, it’s almost more like Doe is an alien amongst humans. Not sure if anyone else could’ve played it this way so well, other than Spacey. He is an impressive actor, one of my favourites, and though he’s done challenging work this is most certainly an edgy role for him to play. I bet back when this came out it was a big surprise for people to see him once the character is shown. Still, knowing that he’s in the film from the start he’s still able to get you with a creepy and restrained performance.
The cinematography by Darius Khondji really goes together with the Fincher vision. Khondji has done some very innovative film, such as the French films of directorial pair Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, and Danny Boyle’s The Beach. So I really dig his style, particularly in the French films; there’s this ultra vibrant and gritty look to everything. Best I can describe what he does in those French films, as well as here in Se7en, is capture an essential rawness. There’s a grit in each scene you can nearly feel between your teeth, at the same time the picture is clear and beautiful. So many scenes look full of colour and life, but there’s a darkness even in the finale when they drive through a sunny desert. This constantly dirty style – best description I can think of – frames everything throughout the film, giving it a deeply dark atmosphere and tone.
Added to the look of the film, Howard Shore presents us with an exceptional score. No surprise, he is a powerhouse in the film industry when it comes to composers. I love his work. Especially here, I find there are pieces which really remind of his score for The Silence of the Lambs; not in any way is it derivative, merely I think the instruments he used for particular scenes sort of crossover, as each movie deals with law enforcement situations. The scene where Mills and Somerset accompany the SWAT Team to the apartment where they find the man strapped to his bed, there’s this amazing horn-centric piece I find parallels parts of The Silence of the Lambs where the police are heading up to find what Lecter has done to the others right before his big escape. So I thought that was great. They’re not copies of themselves, merely I think it goes to show how Shore composes, in that the situations of the film very much dictate how he builds a piece in his mind. His work has great mood to it, which in turn helps the atmosphere Fincher and his cinematographer cultivate together.
Best of all, Fincher has these horrific elements to the plot and somehow this doesn’t become a full-on horror film. Even though I love the genre, I think some times great stories often get lost in directors focusing too much solely on the horror itself. While that’s perfect for certain horror movies, it doesn’t exactly work for all of them. Some would benefit from being told from a more dramatic/thriller-like angle. This is one of the reasons Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Se7en is so brilliant and the reason Fincher works magic with it. Easily, this could’ve turned into something out of post-2000 horror like a Saw film or something of the like (no doubt those movies all grafted at least a tiny piece or two from this masterpiece). Instead, Fincher and Walker allow the story to be wildly disturbing, but at the same time the focus is very much on the humanity of it all: how it affects the detectives, their lives. We see this so clearly with the finale, as Mills and Somerset find themselves confronting the most EVIL part of John Doe yet. I think the way this movie was handled, it came out perfectly, proving how masterful Fincher is as a director.
5 star film; all the way. I’ve given a bunch of movies 5 star ratings, but this is one I definitely feel so firmly is an objectively perfect piece of work. The performances are spot on, including perhaps my all-time favourite Brad Pitt role. David Fincher directs this with such precision and his style is so grittily clear, it’s hard not to some times marvel at each scene and how it looks; doesn’t hurt to have composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Darius Khondji behind him, either.
The horror movie which became a thrilling dramatic story, Se7en is one of those films I know inside out. Yet at the same time there’s no end to how much excitement it brings me. There are a handful of titles I watch repeatedly throughout a year, this being one. That will not be stopping any time soon. While I love almost every single bit of Fincher’s directorial work, it’s always a toss up between this and The Game for my favourite. Darkess, for him, is old hand. So I’d love to see more of this type of thing from him. Regardless, his rich, slick style always seem to have a bit of that at hand.
If you haven’t seen Se7en yet, DO IT NOW! You’ll be wondering what took you so long.
High Tension. 2003. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur.
Starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, and Oana Pellea. Alexandre Films/EuropaCorp.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
★★★★★ (Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment DVD release)
Right out of the gate, I’ll say it: I’m an unabashed, huge fan of Alexandre Aja as a director. While I don’t necessarily think he’s as good a writer as he is director, he’s still pretty good at writing when it comes to certain stuff. Honestly, his only writing-directing duel gigs I didn’t enjoy hugely were P2 (which he only wrote) and Mirrors (wrote/directed). Other than that, I am IN LOVE with this movie, I loved his screenplay work alongside Grégory Levasseur on his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for the remake of Maniac.
But it’s High Tension I continually come back to, the one I always find myself putting on when I want something intense and gory with nice use of practical effects. It’s a fallback every time I can’t think of anything else to put on and I’m looking for a scary flick. A lot of people want to file this one away with a ton of similar films. Sure, the twist itself in Aja’s film is not original, it has been done before. Regardless of that, he does an incredible job taking something slightly familiar and crafting an entirely new, vicious beast. Just a little over 7 minutes in, there’s a moment you realize: this is not like the others. With a very gritty and vibrant look from the cinematography of Maxime Alexandre, High Tension is a modern horror masterpiece with a depraved serial killer, a bad ass female lead, and it announced to the world Alexandre Aja would attempt to carry on the torch of hardcore horror as best he could from the older Masters of Horror from which he learned the craft.
High Tension is the story of Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), two friends from college heading back to Marie’s house in the country, out in the cornfields, to stay with her family a few days. Arriving late, Alexia’s father (Andrei Finti) welcomes them and they get settled in.
Later that night, Marie in the room at the top of the house witnesses a sadistic killer (Philippe Nahon) break in. First he kills the family dog, then murders the father; even Alexia’s little brother isn’t spared a savage fate at the end of a shotgun. Her mother (Oana Pellea) gets perhaps the worst of it all, while Marie hides in a closet and is forced to watch the woman bleed out in front of her after a slit throat and other injuries.
But when the killer takes Alexia hostage in his truck and is about to speed off into the night, Marie makes a quick and drastic decision to hop aboard in order to make sure her friend makes it out alive.
Beginning as they hit the road with the insane killer driving them to who knows where, Marie and Alexia experience a night of absolute terror and madness, coupled with constant murder.
Okay, so to my surprise when I looked specifically to see who the special effects makeup artists was for High Tension, I discovered Giannetto De Rossi was the man responsible. And get this – his filmography is out of this world. To start, he worked on Once Upon a Time in the West, Zombi 2, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, Dune, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and Waterloo. So for the work Rossi did with Lucio Fulci alone, I can see why Aja probably sought him ought purposefully.
Because the effects here, the blood and gore and the nasty violence, it’s all classic already. Honestly, even if you don’t dig the movie overall, you can’t say the makeup effects are not well done. It’s ignorant to even say that because they’re brilliant. If you don’t like the plot, the story, fine – you just cannot deny Rossi’s work is incredible. It helps keep with the tone of Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography, which casts everything in this vibrant yet dark light. You get to see everything full on, there’s no shying away from the hardcore kills and violence, but it also fits with that darkness Alexandre sets up through use of the shadow and dark both in interior and exterior scenes. There’s nothing worse than when a horror film with lots of very noticeable makeup effects goes with something that visually sets itself off too much from the lighting and colour of the scene’s shots. In this way, Rossi’s work compliments that of Alexandre and his cinematography very effectively.
The GREATEST EFFECT, even amongst a ton of them, comes so early on when Alexia’s father gets his head cranked off. Some people have said it’s a silly effect, but I think it is incredible! It doesn’t matter to me if it’s totally realistic; the effect itself is so gnarly and amazing, it works beyond how well it should. I remember the first time I saw this, I actually blind bought the DVD years ago after hearing it was a good horror – that moment made my jaw drop and then I was on the edge of my seat, like “Bring it on, Aja!” What a solid horror effect. There are rarely awesome effects involving heads coming off, being blown up, et cetera, but this one is SPOT ON. Nailed it. The blood after the father’s head rips off is wild, too. A very surreal moment, compounded by the fact his wife comes out to see what’s happening not long after and sees him with his body still wedged between the staircase bars, blood EVERYWHERE. Vicious sequence I can’t get enough of, one that ought to go down in classic horror history as time passes.
There are a bunch more effects where that came from, this is merely my favourite of the bunch. Also, there’s the scene where Alexia’s mother has her throat cut savagely by the killer, filmed neatly through the closet as Marie watches between the wooden slits of the door. All around, that entire part is also very well executed and full of nasty, gory stuff. I was continually impressed with how great and realistic the effects looked. Too many moments to list.
It isn’t only in the effects department that High Tension succeeds with its horror. There’s a genuine air of tension and lots of suspense. At times, you’ll feel like your skin might start to crawl right up off your bones, as Marie creeps along trying to stay just out of the killer’s reach/eyesight. The first moment to really ratchet up the tension is when the killer stops at a gas station. The attendant, Jimmy (Franck Khalfoun), nervously talks with the killer and Marie, in the background, tries to sneak through the place without catching any attention. Great few moments then a BRUTAL KILL. Always nice to see a good axing in horror.
I think that whole sequence in the gas station is fairly suspenseful, start to finish. It’s similar to a classic slasher horror movie style bit, but Aja directs it well. The smooth and at the same time gritty cinematography of Maxime Alexandre looks marvellous with the dirty gas station bathroom; something about the way everything looks with all the white tiling against those green stall doors, a very raw and vibrant visual. Plus, the steady tight shots of Marie really draw you in. Then seeing mostly the killer’s back as he goes to each stall door, peeking in, sort of gives him a more ominous feeling; we’ve seen his face, but I like the way the camera in these moments sticks to rear shots, as it’s creepier that way.
Undoubtedly, though, the most perfect and incredibly effective part about High Tension is its finale. In fact, the entire last 25 minutes is some of my favourite horror, period. The final showdown between Marie and the depraved, sadistic serial killer is beyond fantastic. First off, the makeup effects here just go above what most other slasher horrors achieve; the bits with the barbed wire – savage! I love every second of these scenes. Secondly, when the killer is running around with that big saw – looks like an industrial concrete saw or something – I think that will come to be an ICONIC, CLASSIC horror movie moment when people look back at it 20-30 years on. I truly think this movie in general will find itself that sort of status after a couple decades more pass. The finale cements it in that category.
WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER AHEAD!
The twist is where High Tension seems to lose people/piss them off. Either you dig it, or you think it’s derivative and foolish. I love it because we’re basically seeing EVERYTHING from the perspective of Marie, that’s why so many things seem impossible if you try and look back at the whole plot and say “Well how did she do that if she was the killer?”. You can’t do that because Aja made everything look the way Marie would’ve been seeing it. Only once she starts to come to her senses and realize what has happened do we, the audience, get treated to her viewpoint, as well. And that is why I think Aja’s film is brilliant modern horror. Because with a familiar twist, he pulls people in and makes them believe everything is real. After the fact, it pisses some people off they were, essentially, fooled into believing Marie was the heroine. When what it is simply equates to good horror filmmaking. That’s just my opinion, but I love this finale so much, from the fight with the killer to those final moments where Marie reaches out towards Alexia who is standing behind two-way glass; very creepy, very cool.
I’m giving Alexandre Aja’s High Tension full marks; 5 star horror movie. I can’t say any different. You can have your opinion, if it differs from mine, and that’s totally understandable. I get some people just won’t dig this, or they’ll have problems with the supposed movie logic, or whatever the case may be. However, I think this is one of the best savage horror flicks out there, certainly of the last 15 years or so. Aja revealed himself to the world with this nasty feature and as I said earlier I’m sure this will go down as a New French Extremity classic.
The DVD is a pretty awesome bit of work in its own right. There’s a few good hours worth of extras and Special Features included here on the Lions Gate release, which includes my favourite: a spotlight on Giannetto De Rossi’s special makeup effects for the film. He is an incredible artists at work. The featurette is only about 7-8 minutes long, but long enough to get a sense of how much work went into the effects they pulled off. Watching a man Rossi’s age on set with blood all over him, enjoying his work, it is ridiculously enjoyable. It’s so great to see someone still enjoying what they do after all those years. As Aja points out, having him onboard was a way to truly bring this film back to the spirit of the 1970s horror movies from which Aja draws influence.
The Making-Of featurette is all around a good deal of fun. It’s around 25 minutes long and there’s a look at just about every little aspect of the film, accompanied by both Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur giving insight into the entire process. I think they make a good team, which is clear by how they discuss their techniques working with one another, but merely by listening to how each of them talks about different aspects of the film it’s obvious how they came together and made something incredibly horrific like High Tension.
If you’re ever looking for a bit of shock, some gore and tons of blood, plus an interesting film with a FUN twist and a kick ass lead female performance, then look no further: High Tension has got what you’ve been looking for, friend. See it soon and enjoy all its horrific pleasures. The DVD is an added bit of enjoyment if you’re a fan; I certainly would suggest you pick this up for your collection.
Aja is a gifted talent and though some say otherwise, I think he’s one of the few new, younger horror filmmakers out there with both balls and an old school moviemaking sensibility about him.
Whiplash. 2014. Directed & Written by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, and Paul Reiser.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
★★★★★I think one of the most incredible things about Whiplash is the fact it captures the blood, sweat, and tears which go into the making of a true musician so accurately that it’s almost a little scary. In fact, with J.K Simmons’ performance this really becomes a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the beating heart of music. While most people only see the surface of musicians, Damien Chazelle opens up the doors and shows the world what it’s like behind them. Now, not all musicians go through such strenuous training – many famous rockstars would have you believe they’ve run the gamut, however, the studied musicians who have trained for years and years, who have literally bled and spent hours grinding themselves into dust just for that extra bit of practice to get ahead, they are the true masters. I’m not discounting what famous bands, et cetera, are doing (there are absolutely famous musicians who’ve gone the hard road of classical training) – I only mean that the real tough and uniquely talented individuals are those who went through the trenches.
Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer named Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who attends a very prestigious music school. There, he comes face to face with a fearsome, well-respected professor, Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). The two butt heads. Andrew wishes to be one of the greats. While Fletcher initially seems to give him a positive response, soon Andrew finds himself at the mercy of a merciless maniac consumed by only one thing – perfect music. Continuously the two clash to more and more unexpected results.
One of the most obvious things that impresses most people about the film is Miles Teller. Firstly, it’s incredible to know he played the drums. I mean, if you pay attention to the film for more than ten minutes you’ll obviously realize it’s him – very hard to hide anything the way Chazelle shot the film. But it’s still mind blowing. There are some really tough scenes in here. I can imagine some of the blood, and no doubt every last drop of the sweat, were all Teller; one hundred percent of the way. This is a performance where an actor really dives in. Not only pulling off a complex emotional character, but additionally playing the music of the film. Apparently, Teller has played drums since the age of 15, and took more intense lessons to prepare for the role. It shows.
He also certainly did a great job while not on the drums. His performance reflected a lot of what I’ve personally seen in musicians over the years. Myself, I’d never strived to be anything more than a decent musician who could play for fun. I grew up with an aunt and uncle who both have their Master’s Degree in music – both of whom taught me, in one form or another, over the years. I planned piano and trumpet for a long time, fairly well I might add, but not at a truly competitive level other than music festivals throughout grade school. I mention this because I’ve come across a lot of people such as Andrew Neiman while coming up. They are determined. Some times to a fault. However, I’ve always been fascinated with their determination. Trying not to ruin anything, I think it’s the finale which really brought me around to believing Teller did a fabulous job. You really see the determination, the pain, the anguish of Andrew in these moments. The ending is really beautiful. Overall, and for the character of Andrew himself.
The other undeniable aspect of Whiplash and what makes it so good is, of course, the always fascinating J.K Simmons. In him, the character of Terence Fletcher really comes alive and jumps out of the screen. I know he played this role in the short Chazelle did before getting the funding for the feature, so that certainly was good for Simmons as an actor; being able to live with a character more than just a small period of time while filming. Either way, I’m sure he could have pulled this off. He has a great knack for playing hard ass characters, however, I think this goes beyond that – Fletcher is a cruel, relentless savage who stops at nothing to secure the best performance possible from every musician under his eye. Again, while Andrew is a very real character to me, so is the character of Fletcher. I’ve known people who could really push the envelope, as far as what is or isn’t acceptable to say to a person in regards to conductors. Even my own uncle who has been conducting, writing, teaching musicians for several decades now – this coming from both his nephew and a former student – could be an asshole. This wasn’t because being an asshole got him any further. It was always in service of the overall performance. Not only him, but other band teachers I had in grade school were also intense. I’ve seen and heard some fairly foul stuff from these guys over the years. One of them actually smacked me on the top of my head lightly with a trumpet mouthpiece – if you’ve ever held one, you know it doesn’t take much to leave a nice goose egg on the top of a teenager’s skull. All that in mind, Simmons really pulled off a spectacularly villainous role. He’s probably one of the best film villains of the last decade, and this is purely a dramatic film about music. So, I really think the praise is deserved, as much as any other great performance from 2014 – if not more. A great actor who deserves the most recognition possible.
In the end, I really think the best thing for me about Whiplash is the fact I really didn’t know where this film was headed. For a while, I sort of thought this might end up being a really cheesy music movie because of where I thought the plot might go. Luckily, was I ever wrong. Especially in the last third of the film. I really didn’t expect things to take the turns they did. Without spoiling too much, I think Chazelle made some interesting, non-typical choices. In particular, the very end played extremely well. I was expecting the film to end on a certain note, and while it did end in similar fashion to what I imagined, there was a distinct lack of ham. What I mean is, I really thought Chazelle might fall into the trap of lesser films where they go for sentimental conclusions which make me feel forced. I don’t like to feel forced to say “oh that’s nice a happy ending”. Whiplash ends on what I believe is a positive note, but doesn’t jam any sappy finale moments down your throat. It’s actually really intense. I found myself wide-eyed and wondering how things were finally going to clue up. I was impressed once Chazelle finished the film in the way he did, and walked away feeling great.
I can honestly say this is a flawless drama. It’s a 5-star movie about music. There is no doubt. While some might try and say it does no service to music because it seems to say practice can make anyone great, this is absolutely not the case. At one point in the film we see Fletcher’s only moment of weakness: a young musician he moulded, who went on to be a fabulous musician, dies in a car accident. Later in the movie, he explains a few things to Andrew. Fletcher ends up mentioning that even though he tried his best he never really “had a Charlie Parker” – right there and then, even if you know already, you realize this is not about saying practice can make anyone into one of the greats. Even this student Fletcher thought was the best he’d ever produced was not who he deemed to be “a Charlie Parker“. The point is, Fletcher pushed people to go beyond what was expected of them. He never guaranteed anybody greatness – only the opportunity to learn the tools through which greatness might then be attainable. The message isn’t wrong, but certainly will be misinterpreted. You won’t be great just because you practice yet ultimately, no one can be good without practice, and certainly not great – this is the message.
I highly recommend everyone see this film once they get the chance. It’s a great movie about music with incredible performances, lots of jazz, a bit of psychological horror in a few scenes, and always, always tons of heart. I enjoyed this every step of the way, and it defied a lot of the expected moments I anticipated to see.