Archive for December, 2009

Best of 2009 – American Made Horror

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2009 by anubhavbist

During this decade, the horror genre has flourished with masterpieces; Most of which have been foreign exports like Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 creature film The Host or last year’s great Let the Right One In.  But this year, two phenomenal American horror films have made up for the long drought: one from a newcomer in the indie horror scene and the other from one of our greatest auteurs of the genre.

First is Ti West’s surprise hit House of the Devil, a throwback haunted house film that takes a page from the great old horror film from masters like Polanski or Hitchcock, and holds back on the violence and dials up the suspense. Taking place in the early 80s, West’s film follows a Samantha Hughes, a college student eying a one bedroom apartment which she can’t afford. Hating her current living situation, she decides to take a babysitting job for a peculiar older couple, the Ulmans. But as she arrives, the couple reveals to her that they don’t have a child and that the babysitting job is for their elderly mother. While skeptical about the whole situation, Samantha agrees to the job after the Ulmans raise the prices. From then on, West creates a suspenseful atmosphere as we see Samantha wonder the halls of the Ulman’s old creepy mansion, slowly discovering clues to whats really going on.

The reveal in the end is a thing of beauty for any horror fan and will surely satisfy any gore fans of the genre. But most horror film enthusiasts will appreciate  the the vintage look, from a great opening sequence to the bright colored blood reminiscent of the great 60s Italian horror films from Dario Argento or Mari0 Bava. Jocelin Donahue gives a very good understated performance as the lead and Tom Noonan is always a delight to see as he proves he still knows how to play creepy characters 23 years after his great performance in Micheal Mann’s rather awful adaptation of Red Dragon, Manhunter.

The second is Sam Raimi’s comeback to the horror genre, Drag Me to Hell. A film with a very simple plot: Christine Brown, a loan officer, evicts an 0ld gypsy women late on her rent, and in return is given a curse that has her being tormented by a demon known as the Lamia. It’s a rather absurd premise and one that may have audiences laughing rather than trembling in their seats. But because Raimi’s wonderfully use of props, strange camera angles, and ability to present some of creative and just flat out weird gross out sequences (which range from nose bleeds to fly swallowing), makes this one of best horror films of the decade as well as one of Raimi’s greatest features. Like his brilliant Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi finds a certain humor in his work that makes the film enjoyable and, in my opinion, worthy of standing the tests of time like the gimmicky, campy yet endlessly entertaining horror films from William Castle.

My biggest problem with the film, however, is that it doesn’t go as far in its gross out scenes and demonic characters as some of his other horror films, notebly something like his great Evil Dead II. But Raimi aimed for a pg 13 rating, feeling that the film shouldn’t be “strictly driven by gore.” I applaud him for that, though I’m sure many Evil Dead fans were disappointed hearing him make that decision. But the film still manages pushes the pg 13 to the limit, and in the end, the film still ranks among the best of the director’s catalog of great works. Also, it would be a shame if I forget the performance from Alison Lohman as Christine. When I watched the film when it first came out I really didn’t notice her performance, and actually thought that Ellen Page, the actress who was originally slated to play the role, would have done a better job. But after re-watching the film on DVD, I was surprised how much life she brings to her character and, after watching the featurettes, how physically demanding the role was. Lohman has delivered good performances before in films like Ridley Scott’s underrated Matchstick Men and Tim Burton’s equally underrated Big Fish, but here she was given an opportunity to really carry a film and she was up for the challenge with a performance that ranks among the many great female horror film performances.

Both films are sure to become cult classics and hopefully get some recognition on critics end of the year lists.

Best of 2009 – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

Posted in Uncategorized on December 21, 2009 by anubhavbist

In 1992, Abel Ferrara release his magnum opus Bad Lieutenant, a film featuring Harvey Keitel’s best performance and a gritty style of film making that was reminiscent of a 70s crime thriller that might have been directed by Scorsese or Lumet; It could actually be argued that Ferrara’s film went further in terms of realism than either director had ever attempted in the genre. The film was also a target of controversy with shocking material including a brutal scene involving a young nun being raped as well as a scene of male nudity; it was enough for the film to garner the dreaded NC-17 rating. But the film was masterfully done, presenting a  terrifyingly realistic portrait of man being consumed with guilt by his many vices.  The film also contained an ending that left audiences in full shock as the protagonist makes a powerful decision with the lives of two rapists wanted by the police. Some found the decision preposterous, and even down right appalling; The ending only reinforced my opinion that the Ferrara’s film might have been one of the most thought provoking and challenging film, not just in it’s genre, but of any film I’ve ever seen.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when it was announced that a remake was in the works, I was skeptical. But like many skeptics, I was silenced when Werner Herzog was announced as the director taking on the huge task. Part of me thought the final product would be the biggest train wreck in cinematic history, but another thought it had potential to even best the original. I know it’s blasphemy to ever consider a remake to the original (especially to a great film like Ferraras’) but this wasn’t any average filmmaker. This is Werner Herzog. The German New Wave pioneer who might have made my personal favorite film of that movement if not of all of German cinema (his 1977 masterpiece Stroszek). Also a remake isn’t anything new for Herzog either; His 1979 remake of Nosferatu was nothing short of a masterpiece and in my opinion even better than the classic silent original.

My fascination over the film rose even more after Ferrara spoke out.

“I wish these [Herzog and remake people] die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up,” – Abel Ferrara

A comment that probably would have had any other director furious and ready with rebuttal to spark a childish back and fourth. Surprisingly, Herzog didn’t even know who Ferrara was and admitted that he hadn’t even seen the original. Herzog would later state his Bad Lieutenant wasn’t going to be a remake, but actually a whole different movie that shared the same name. That left me wondering how exactly different the two films were going? When I started watching, I realized that this wasn’t the same film at all.

First the location moved from the crime ridden streets of New York to the hurricane ravaged streets of New Orleans, and the on the edge main character looking for redemption, known only to us the Lieutenant, is now Terence McDonagh, a rather eccentric police officer with a bad drug problem, a hooker girlfriend (played by Eva Mendes) , a gambling problem and a case to solve. Unlike the Ferrara’s film, the case doesn’t involve the rape of a nun but rather a serious of murders committed from a drug king pin known only as Big Fate (played surprisingly well by rapper Xzibit). The film has an interesting beginning with McDonagh and his partner finding a prisoner trapped in a cell during a flood and on the verge of death. McDonagh ends up saving the man’s life but suffering from a back injury in the process. This leads to a doctor prescribing pain medication and thus an addiction forms from this.

From there we see the character’s relationship a with his hooker girlfriend Frankie, with his father and mother-in-law, and his bookie (played by Brad Dourif, reuniting with Herzog after their under-appreciated science fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder ) develop. The film takes a turn when McDonagh has to protect a witness of one of Big Fate’s massacres and the taking an even stranger turn as he and Frankie get in trouble with another gangster.

The plot might make the film come off as just another bad cop film that we are subjected to year after year, trying their hardest to be like the original Bad Lieutenant (ex: Training Day, Harsh Times etc.) and I would agree. The plot and script could have made this just another rudimentary exercise in the genre, but because Herzog is behind the material, we instead have an absurdist take on the genre that surprisingly works. We have the typical scenes that are expected from a cop film like a cop abusing his authority like asking for sexual favors, doing drugs with the “bad” guys, and the hard core interrogation scene. But instead of trying to aim for realism in a plot that is so cartoonish, Herzog embraces the campy aspects of the script. Unlike a film like this year’s Taken, we aren’t ever thinking “wow this would never happen in real life.” Here we see scenes like McDonagh pulling his gun out on two old women or reciting his “Nigger Elk” monologue while smoking his “lucky crack pipe” and we just go with it.

Herzog’s other touches shows like the already infamous iguana scene as well as a dance scene near the end that might have some thinking back to the dancing chickens in the end of Stroszek. It adds a strange surrealist touch that is very daring for a mainstream film; But what word better word describes Herzog than “daring.”By highlighting on the absurdity of the McDonagh’s situation and actions reminds us just how ridiculous this genre really is sometimes (even Ferrara’s film suffers from this when we see the Lieutenant blow his top and fire at his car radio).

But what is more daring than Herzog’s direction is the unforgettable performance by Nicolas Cage. Cage’s reputation for going over the top is well documented in many films this decade and has often been the subject of ridicule by many. But sometimes the material fails him rather than the other way around: take for example Alex Proyas’ Knowing, a film lauded by Roger Ebert but hated by almost every other critic this year. In other films, Nicolas Cage’s over the top performance sometimes helps give the film a sort of camp status, like with Neil LaBute’s undeniably misguided remake of The Wicker Man. Here Cage does go over the top, but because the film asks for him to be eccentric, his performance works. Its the type of performance that Nicolas Cage has mastered to perfection in other films like David Lynch’s underrated Wild at Heart or Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss. It might not be the type of dramatic method acting that usually gets people’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one without merit. In many ways what Cage does in this film is just as worth of award praise as Sean Penn’s portrayal as Harvey Milk (not to mention a lot more entertaining to watch).

I don’t imagine this to get really winning any awards come the end of this month and don’t think this as highly as Herzog’s other great films; but there something fun seeing a great auteur exploring new grounds and seeing an actor back in full form.

Forever Young,Tatsuya Nakadai

Posted in Uncategorized on December 19, 2009 by anubhavbist

Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanshiro Tsugumo

Earlier this week was the great Japaneses actor Tatsuya Nakadia’s birthday, and after recently watching him in the great Samurai comedy/action film “Kill!”, I thought it would be important to reflect back on an actor who gets overlooked when discussing the greatest actors ever. Most commonly known for his work in  Akira Kurosawa’s two late masterpieces in the 80s (Kagemusha and Ran), Nakadia remains one of the most noticeable faces of Samurai cinema. Sadly he has often been overshadowed by Tashiro Mifune, often playing the antagonist in many of his samurai films (most notably Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.) But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Nakadia was a powerhouse actor in the 60s and has worked with some of the greatest Japanese directors who ever lived from Akira Kurosawa to Mikio Naruse to Kon Ichikawa to Hiroshi Teshigahara to Kihachi Okamoto. But it was with director Masaki Kobayashi, Nakadia gave his greatest performances; one of cinema’s great director-actor collaborations (up there even with Japan’s most famous, Kurosawa and Mifune). Working together in 11 films (including the expansive Human Trilogy and the horror masterpiece, Kwidan), it was in Hari Kiri where Nakadia solidified his place as one of the best actors of his generation playing the mysterious ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo. In a very physical and nuanced performance, Nakadia brings to life one of cinema’s greatest and most tragic anti-heroes from the pages of what might have been the greatest script ever written by Shinobu Hashimoto (the famous scribe for many of Kurosawa’s masterpieces including Rashomon and the Seven Samurai as well as Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin and Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion). But its also important to remember Nakadia’s range was incredible. Just compare his performance as a retired samurai in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill!, where he plays a very laid back and almost comic role, to another film he did Okamoto, Sword of Doom, a performance that really is the polar opposite. But Nakadia is up for the challenge and delivers two great performances. The sad fact that always puzzled me though was why Kurosawa never gave him a lead role in one of his 50s or 60s films. While given juicy roles in those films as well as starring roles in the great director’s later films in the 80s, I would have loved to see him given a lead role earlier. Many times I hear the arguments about whether or not Tashiro Mifune could have been able to pull off Nakadia’s performances in either Kagemusha or Ran (an argument which I admit to have pondered myself), but I have always wondered how Nakadia would have done in one Mifune’s roles like Throne of Blood or Bad Sleep Well or what if the actors traded places in Yojimbo or Sanjuro? Obviously we’ll never know, but always something fun to think about. But with a resume of diverse characters and fantastic performances, Nakadia will forever remain not only one of the greatest but also one of the many unsung heroes of the Golden Age in Japanese Cinema.

for more, here’s a great essay about the legendary actor posted on the Criterion Collection’s website:

http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/393

Best Films of the 90s

Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2009 by anubhavbist

For the past year, Allan Fish and the film enthusiasts of Wonders in the Dark have posted their countdown of each decade starting from the 30s (here are the results to all the countdowns http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2009/05/wonders-in-dark.html as well as the blog itself: http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/)  . Fish, the author of each essay, has just finished his countdown for the nineties and is preparing for his next big countdown (the 100 best silent films). But before that happens, Wonders in the Dark have asked everyone who visits to sound off on their own personal favorites list, as they have done for the past countdown, will poll the best of the decade from the lists that are posted. Well I decided to post my own personal top 50 of the nineties on their site but figured why not just post it here as well:

1. Naked (1993) – Leigh, UK
2. Boogie Nights (1997) – Anderson, USA
3. Naked Lunch (1991) – Cronenberg, Canada
4. Fargo (1996) – Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA
5. The Thin Red Line – Malick, USA
6. Insomnia (1997) – Skjoldbjærg, Norway
7. My Own Private Idaho (1991) – Van Sant, USA
8. Fight Club (1999) – Fincher, USA
9. The Double Life of Véronique (1991) – Kieslowski, France/Polish
10. Jackie Brown (1997) – Tarantino, USA

11. Se7en (1995) – Fincher, USA
12. Fallen Angels (1995) – Kar-wai, Hong Kong
13. Barton Fink (1991) – Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA
14. Hard Boiled (1992) – Woo, Hong Kong
15. Trainspotting (1995) – Boyle, UK
16. Magnolia (1999) – Anderson, USA
17. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Tarantino, USA
18. Dark City (1998) – Proyas, Australia/United States
19. Safe (1995) – Haynes, USA
20. Happiness (1998) – Solondz, USA

21. Rushmore (1998) – Anderson, USA
22. Being John Malkovich – Jonze, USA
23. Crash (1996) – Cronenberg, Canada
24. Thelma and Louise (1991) – Scott, USA
25. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Demme, USA
26. Existenz (1999) – Cronenberg, Canada
27. Chasing Amy (1997) – Smith, USA
28. Wild at Heart (1990) – Lynch, USA
29. Heavenly Creatures (1994) – Jackson, New Zealand
30. Sink or Swim (1990) – Friedrich, USA

31. The Truman Show (1998) – Weir, USA
32. Toy Story (1995) – Lasseter, USA
33. The Ice Storm (1997) – Lee, USA
34. Dazed and Confused (1993) – Linklater, USA
35. Leon (1994) – Besson, France
36. Princess Mononoke (1997) – Miyazaki, Japan
37. Bad Lieutenant (1992) – Ferrara, USA
38. In the Company of Men (1997) – LeBute, USA
39. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Singer, USA
40. El Mariachi (1992) – Rodriguez, Mexico

41. Bringing Out The Dead (1999) – Scorsese, USA
42. Taste of Cherry (1997) – Kiarostami, Iran
43. Secretes and Lies (1996) – Leigh, UK
44. Menace II Society (1993) – Allen Hughes/Albert Hughes, USA
45. Office Space (1999) – Judge, USA
46. Reversal of Fourtain (1990) – Schroeder, USA/UK/Japan
47. The Big Lebowski (1999) – Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA
48. Groundhog Day (1993) – Ramis, USA
49. Ed Wood (1994) – Burton, USA
50. American Beauty (1999) – Mendes, USA

Sadly after posting the list, I realized that I left out one of my all time favorite sc ience fiction films of the decade, 12 Monkeys, as well as not including a single documentary. While I can’t name too many documentaries off the top of my head from the decade, I know I left out of my all time favorites, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. I also didn’t account for some made for TV films that were released in the decade including one that I felt was worthy of a theatrical release and some big awards: And the Band Played On. It was a fantastic film that featured Mathew Modine’s best performance and was probably one of the best films to tackle the issue of AIDS and homosexuality I’ve ever seen (easily more powerful than Johnathan Demme’s Philadelphia released that same year and Gus Van Sant’s good but tad overrated Milk) The list also excludes other big critically lauded films like Santango, Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, The Sweet Hereafter, and Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness. My reason for this is simple: I have yet to see them. Other big films that weren’t mentioned were from big name directors like Steven Spielberg, whose Schindler’s List seems to be a stable on most best of the nineties list, but I really wasn’t as big of a fan. I also excluded Martin Scorsese’ Goodfellas, another staple on most lists, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, easily the most mportant American film of the decade. My reasoning was that I felt the those directors made much better films that decade: Scorsese with the heavily underrated Bringing Out the Dead (which might be rather low at 41 now to think about it) and Tarantino with the even more underrated Jackie Brown (a film I will argue as not just Tarantino’s greatest film but as one of the greatest films ever). Either than that, I was happy with the list and hope to do a review of some of the films above in the coming weeks. Also, with the end of the year on the horizon, I know I’ll have to be compiling a best films of 2009 list as well as a top ten of the decade (or maybe even 50). Until then, there are still a lot of movies to watch and re-watch.