Ti West’s tense, suspenseful 2009 film The House of the Devil is a slow burning, stomach bending study in horror tropes. It synthesizes its sources (Carrie, Psycho, urban legends about babysitters and Satanic cults, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1980s), to move beyond mere pastiche or parody. At first, the dance montage appears to offer a respite from the nervous dread that West spends most of the film building—it’s also another dead-on moment of eighties filmmaking—but the montage’s content (the violence of the careening billiard balls, the furtive glance into the dark basement, the breaking of the vase) ironically redoubles the isolation of the film’s protagonist. The affirming, protective power of her Walkman cannot resonate beyond her big earphones.
The House of the Devil is a great, smart, scary film that you may have overlooked. Recommended.
Things that happen in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Valhalla Rising:
A one-eyed warrior (let’s just call him One Eye) gets revenge against the dudes who have enslaved him (they’ve been making him fight chained-to-a-pole gladiator-style for kicks).
(This is, by the way, likely set in some Scandinavian country during the Middle Ages, in case you need some context).
One Eye blood-eagles a dude.
One Eye does not kill the slave boy who brought him food when he was chained up. The boy becomes One Eye’s mouthpiece, because One Eye never talks. The boy names One Eye “One Eye.” In the film’s only moment of humor, the boy says “You need a name. And you do have only one eye.”
For some unclear reason, One Eye and the boy team up with a band of Christian Vikings who are planning to invade the Holy Land. Maybe they join the Christian Vikings because the bastards who enslaved them were pagans? No. I don’t think that’s it.
The Viking ship gets lost in an existential mist. Despair ensues.
They arrive somewhere. Are they in the Holy Land? They’re somewhere.
There’s no food. Some Vikings dissent. People are flipping out. They want to go home. Some Lord of the Flies-type craziness kicks in.
Valhalla Rising rumbles to an intense, surreal climax, which I will not spoil here.
Things that don’t happen in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Valhalla Rising:
Lots of talking.
Any appearance by a woman.
Explicit context or exposition with respect to setting, plot, or character motivation.
Coherent or unproblematic resolution, clear and defined conflict, epiphanies, or other moments of transformation. (Hang on, maybe there is an epiphany, but it’s likely the viewer’s, not a character’s).
Some more thoughts on Valhalla Rising, in a non-list form:
Valhalla Rising begins with a quotation asserting that before the introduction of monotheism, there’s just man and nature in the world. The film then goes about showing how cruel this relationship is and how the apparently assuaging claims of Christianity have no purchase on the world’s intrinsic, bloody Darwinism. There is no social contract in Valhalla Rising, only brain busting with axes, confounding weather, and a lack of easily available food. If there’s a religious commentary that links the fact that the Norse god Odin only had one eye to One Eye tenuously throwing in his lot with Christian marauders, I can’t find it. The film plays out like a version of King Lear where all sense of family, philosophy, and art has been stripped away, leaving only the cruel heath (and maybe the eye-gouging scene). Valhalla Rising may actually be closer to Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s version of Lear, with its unrelenting silence punctuated by moments of warrior violence. But hang on, Lear is a bad comparison altogether, isn’t it? Maybe better to say Valhalla Rising recalls Werner Herzog’s jungles and madmen, or Terrence Malick’s lonely vistas. But if Refn’s film recalls those greats, it also has a strong whiff of Jason Statham all over it. Not that its violence is cartoonish or that it’s a mere actioner, but it is a violent film that refuses to reflect on its violence, that posits violence not just as a necessity but as normal, as constituent of existence itself. In some ways the film recalls Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, only more meandering and aimless. One Eye and the slave boy are not “carrying the fire.”
Valhalla Rising was shot in the gorgeous highlands of Scotland, and director of photography Morten Soborg evokes expressionist depth in this landscape, balancing the natural deep browns, verdant greens, and grays of the setting with rich blues and bursts of fireblood red. Peter Peter and Peter Kyed’s soundtrack sounds at times like an arty death metal band’s extended druggy tune up, but when it starts chugging, it really works. Mads Mikkelsen’s silent performance as One Eye will likely strike a cultish cord for those who like their badassery served up cold and mean. It’s more nuanced than it has a right to be in a film that is, like the aforementioned Herzog and Malick’s films (as well as maybe Wong Kar Wai), more of a mood than a narrative. Valhalla Rising is not a film for everyone; those who want the swelling moral clarity of say, Braveheart, need not apply, and even though I’ve name dropped Herzog and Malick in this review, Refn’s film is something else. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it very much.
The Dark Knight
We liked the first act of Nolan’s second Batman movie very much. In fact, nothing in the whole movie could top the robbery scene at the beginning. Yes, we loved Heath Ledger’s Joker. He wasn’t in it enough. But we were getting pretty bored by the end of the second act, and by the time it became clear that Two Face would be a villain in this Batman film and not the next sequel, well, we were downright exhausted. The clunky editing, clumsy fight scenes (you really couldn’t see anything in the film), and convoluted plot turns didn’t help a film where the hero endorses the Bush administration’s methods (torture; spying on its citizens). And don’t even get us started on Bale’s silly “Batman voice.” Worst of all was all the praise this film garnered, as if everyone had been primed to love it and had no other choice. The Dark Knight is a crushing fascist vision; that its true hero is the Joker will be lost on all.
An interesting premise and a funny opening scene quickly devolve into an incoherent mythology and a superhero story absent of any real villain. We usually like our films short, but Hancock felt thin at under 90 minutes. What was cut?
Speed Racer, a psychedelic cartoon blur of flat characters and unfun nonsense should be the nail in the Wachowski’s brother-sized coffin. We’re beginning to think that The Matrix was just a matter of the right William Gibson rip-off at the right time (right time here = right technology). Ugh.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
You saw that South Park episode, “The China Probrem,” right? Where Spielberg and Lucas literally rape Indy? That’s about right…
Shyamalan owes us the ninety minutes he stole from us. We suggest he show up at Biblioklept World Headquarters (shamefaced, of course) prepared to work–there’s always some caulking and mowing and painting that needs doing. On second thought, we’re sure he’d figure out a way to fuck up even the simplest chore. Possibly the worst movie we’ve ever seen.
Where The Dark Knight plumbed the worst aspects of human nature, Iron Man gave us a hero with a truly redemptive arc, and did so in a way both moving and humorous. Iron Man also looked great, and featured the best origin story of any of the big superhero movies of the past decade. In fact, we’re calling it: Iron Man is the best superhero movie of the decade.
Be Kind Rewind
We laughed, we cried, we wrote a review.
Burn After Reading
Coming after No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ shaggy dog comedy felt light and even superfluous at times. Still, elements of the story stuck with us long after the viewing, and, as usual, the Coen’s get great performances out of their cast.
We don’t want to give away too many details from In Bruges, but it’s worth pointing out that the trailers and ads totally missed–or misrepresented–the tone of the movie. In Bruges is funny, but it’s hardly a buddy film–at it’s core it’s a sad, even philosophical, reflection on loss and guilt. Great stuff.
Enough has been written at this point on Judd Apatow’s crew and the successes they’ve had in recent years that we don’t need to comment, except to point out that we loved Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired and it’s great to see what all these kids have done since then. Seth Rogen is hilarious, but James Franco steals the show here as a dope dealing loser who just needs a friend. Great action scenes too. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also featuring Apatow cohorts, was pretty good too, of course.
Who knew a post-apocalyptic film criticizing consumerist culture and our ever-increasing loss of connection to both the natural world and our own bodies would be so good? We loved, loved, loved Wall-E. Best film of 2008.
Films we still haven’t seen but in which we have interest: Rachel Getting Married, Synecdoche, New York, Hamlet 2, Hellboy 2, The Wrestler, Quantum of Solace, Let the Right One In.
“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” — John LeCarre
Movies rarely compare favorably to the books from which they are adapted and almost never surpass them. Still, film adaptations of books can be fantastic if handled by the right director–take Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón for example, whose brilliant films Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (adaptations of books by P.D James and J.K. Rowling, respectively) convey richly imagined, engrossing worlds. Cuarón’s films join a small stable of adaptations that live up to–if not surpass–the books on which they are based. Most great film adaptations turn good genre fiction into great art. However, great literature doesn’t usually fare so well. Geniuses like Kubrick and Coppola have reconfigured airport reading like Stephen King’s The Shining and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather into cinematic masterpieces, but has anyone ever done justice to Melville or Hemingway or Hawthorne or Fitzgerald (of the four attempts at translating Gatsby to the screen, the 1974 Coppola-produced effort is arguably the best, but consider how short it falls of capturing Fitzgerald’s vision)? Which brings up the question: just how good, bad, or indifferent will the upcoming movie adaptation of Cormac McCarhy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road be? We thought we’d navigate the pros and cons here.
What The Road film adaptation has going for it:
The director: Australian director John Hillcoat’s 2005 feature film debut The Proposition captured the bloody violence and moral ambiguity of a world alienated from civilization. We loved the movie, and not enough people have seen it. The tone Hillcoat achieved in The Proposition seems well matched to McCarthy’s grim vision.
The producer: Nick Wechsler’s list of films includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Player, Requiem for a Dream, 25th Hour, and Drugstore Cowboy–so it seems like he knows how to sit back and let a filmmaker create art without trying to, you know, have a massive Hollywood hit.
The leading man: Viggo Mortensen as the father seems like a great choice. Mortensen brought depth to the role he’s most famous for–Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy–something of a feat when you consider most of his screen time was devoted to scowling, brooding, or chopping up orcs. He was fantastic in the films he did with David Cronenberg, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (his bathhouse fight scene is unbelievable). Mortensen’s a published author who started his own publishing house, Perceval Press, so he probably understands the literary gravity of The Road.
The story: Anyone who’s read The Road knows that it’s a sad and moving and strangely beautiful take on one of the most hackneyed devices of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
No Country for Old Men: The Coen brothers did a great job with No Country for Old Men.
Potential problem spots for The Road film adaptation:
The cast: We don’t know much about twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays the son, but we do know that that is a major role. Let’s hope Kodi is more Jodie, less Jake Lloyd or (shiver) Dakota Fanning. However, Viggo’s had pretty positive things to say about him. Ringers Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are also in there, but there aren’t too many other speaking parts in the book besides the father and the son, so it’s hard to predict what they’ll be doing–hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t fiddled with the story too much. Charlize Theron is also in the movie. The wife character showed up in a few dreamy flashbacks, but was more of a shadow than a fleshed out character; again, hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t chosen to expand the role to appease a wider demographic.
The story: Some of the best moments of The Road consist of the father’s inner monologues on memory and loss and very few directors can pull off a voice-over successfully (Terrence Malick is the only one who comes to mind right now). Of course, this problem of language is always the problem of movie adaptation.
All the Pretty Horses: Billy Bob Thornton’s leaden 2000 adaptation of the first of McCarthy’s “border trilogy” is pretty boring. I’ll admit that I’ve never finished the book, despite three attempts [ed. note: I finished the "border trilogy" in spring of '09. Books are far, far, far superior to the film].
No Country for Old Men: Even though the Coens did a great job with No Country for Old Men, the book was still better than the movie–and No Country is, in some ways, McCarthy’s take on a genre novel, the crime procedural. In this sense, the Coens made a smart move, but they still couldn’t convey the depth and meaning of the book–again, much of it delivered via Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s inner monologues. Although The Road may appear to have genre fiction elements–namely, the tropes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi–to describe it as such would be a severe limitation, as would be to film it in such a manner.
The advance stills: Sure, they’re grim and bleak, but are they grim and bleak enough?
Also, why the stylized cart? If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean–the cart needs to be a grocery store cart, homeless style! Hang on–
–that’s better! (NB: images link to a gallery of advance images)
Does it seem worth seeing in the theater?
Yes. We’ll be carrying the fire on or around November 26th (and just in time for Thanksgiving!)
The wankers at the American Film Institute just released their lists of top ten films by “genre” (full lists after the jump). Everyone loves to quibble with lists, and there’s plenty weird with theirs. First off, “Animation” is a medium, not a genre. That’s like calling comic books a genre, or TV a genre. But whatever. Also, Shrek on anyone’s top ten is always a bad sign–still, they give Blue Velvet its due and give Groundhog Day some props). What I thought was really odd was that AFI finds room to recognize a “Sports” genre (and on that end, are Raging Bull and Caddyshack really sports movies?), and even a “Courtroom Drama” genre, but doesn’t make a list of the great horror films. Why?
Here’s our list of the great American horror films. We’re sure we’re forgetting a bunch. This blog has been a slapdash affair lately.
1. Night of the Living Dead (the original)
2. Psycho (clearly, not Van Sant’s remake)
4. The Shining
5. Dawn of the Dead (the original)
6. Rosemary’s Baby
8. The Thing (John Carpenter)
9. Evil Dead 2
10. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original)
Perhaps no comedy best exemplifies “the little film that could” syndrome as does Mike Judge’s Office Space. Although Office Space died in the theaters, this movie about three fed up cubicle drones quickly regained a second life as a cult film classic before eventually becoming a quotable cultural touchstone on par with Caddyshack. Judge’s next film Idiocracy followed the same pattern, and while it’s not likely to ever hold the same prestige as Office Space, movies like Super Troopers and Wet Hot American Summer continue to show us that a film can die at the box office but have a second life as a cult favorite. We present to you five future classic comedies, all underappreciated, all worth watching.
1. Beerfest (2006)
Drunken Lizard’s Beerfest details the experiences of two brothers and their friends who travel to Germany to enter an underground beer-drinking competition in order to restore both familial and patriotic glory. Despite the silly premise, the movie is nonetheless an epic adventure story that dutifully moves through each phase of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It’s also, of course, very, very funny.
2. Hot Rod (2007)
Hot Rod was in the theaters for about five minutes last year and was unfairly criticized for being derivative of every other sports spoof ever made. Sure, Andy Samberg was following a model that anyone who’s ever seen a Will Ferrell comedy will be familiar with, but it’s the small touches, the strange little nuances that make the delicious dumbness of Rod Kimble’s sorry attempts at dare-devilry so funny. Ian McShane (Deadwood‘s Swedgin) is fantastic as the malevolent stepfather and Chris Parnell is too fucking funny in his bit part.
3. I Think I Love My Wife (2007)
Everyone knows that Chris Rock is hilarious, so why did no one go see I Think I Love My Wife? Well, it could be that the story of an African-American executive who feels constricted by his upper-middle class lifestyle, kids, wife, etc. and daydreams of having sex with lots and lots of other women simply couldn’t find it’s niche; I Think I Love My Wife is a cult film with no cult. In an interview with the AV Club last year, co-writer Louis CK says that he warned director/writer/star that the film would be a mistake to make. I think he’s wrong. Although the film is very much a monoglossic, one-voice escapade–this is Rock’s tale, of course–that voice is funny and insightful, and often says things that most married men are apt to feel on a daily basis (but not me, honey!)
4. Crank (2006)
Crank should be taught in film classes. In the most wonderfully stupid plot imaginable, professional assassin Jason Statham (who’s made a career out of these kinds of roles, it seems) is injected with a lethal poison. Here’s the twist: if his heart rate drops too low, he’ll die! For the next 90 minutes, he engages in every kind of adrenaline-jumping escapade imaginable including drinking lots of Red Bull, snorting mounds of cocaine, driving really, really fast, and, uh, fighting all the time. Lots and lots of fighting. In one memorable scene, Statham publicly schtups his annoying girlfriend while a busload of Japanese tourists cheers him on. Why this film didn’t win an Oscar, I’ll never understand.
5. Southland Tales (2006)
I’ve already reviewed Southland Tales but it belongs on this list. For all its many, many faults, Richard Kelly’s sprawling opus is a weird, sardonic mess of smart satire and goonish toilet humor, the kind of movie that seems to be mocking both itself as well as its audience at every turn. Not everyone will get this movie, but there are some of you out there who will love it even as it bewilders you.