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Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”


A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 


2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”


Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.


3. “M”


When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.


4. “Nosferatu”


With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 


5. “The Evil Dead”


Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.


6. “Carrie”


“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.


7. “Dawn of the Dead”


Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 


8. “The Bad Seed”


Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.


9. “The Shining”


That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 


10. “The Blair Witch Project”


“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”

Review: “The Strangers” (2008)


Evil creeps up on Liv Tyler in Bryan Bertino's eerie "The Strangers."

With horror movies, particularly 21st-century ones, sometimes it’s better to ask “is this film effective?” and not “is this film original?” Because truth be told, there’s not much new and different about “The Strangers,” Bryan Bertino’s lean and mostly capable thriller. The whole “we’re not safe in our own homes” concept? It’s been done before better, and we’ve seen these characters creep under windows and cry a thousand times.

So “The Strangers” doesn’t get high marks for originality. But when a horror movie this spare and gripping juices your nerves like electrical wires, innovation’s something of a moot point. What Bertino lacks in originality he more than makes up for in execution. This is a director who understands that fear of the unknown and the tension that fear creates are what keep us up nights starting at every floorboard creak. Bertino builds this anxiety to unbearable levels using horror standards — the face emerging from the shadows, a car rendered useless by flat tires, the old peel-back-the-curtain-and-boo! — that get us squirming uneasily in our seats right up to the purely stupid ending. 

“Tension” — that’s the watchword here. The film’s first act is all about tension, starting with the shaky relationship between Kristen (Liv Tyler, a fine scream queen) and James (Scott Speedman). The pair’s headed to his parents’ remote vacation home, and it’s clear early that something’s a little off-kilter. Things only get more awkward when they arrive at the house — turns out James expected a different answer to his marriage proposal. The house is filled with champagne and rose petals, all the trappings of a giddy engagement. Somehow Tyler and Speedman, B-level actors at best, capture the pain and strangeness surrounding this relationship speedbump beautifully, relying more on defeated facial expressions and body language than dialogue (in short supply here). They’ve hit a wall, they know it and they don’t know where to go next, or if they care enough to keep trying. There’s something sadly universal in that struggle that endears Kristen and James to us, makes them real people and not just bodies to be dispatched messily into the afterlife.

But don’t go fretting that there’s no action here and no bloodshed. After the sometimes-too-languid setup, “The Strangers” packs plenty of thrills, shrieks and spatters into the second half. Bertino brings on mayhem in the form of three masked intruders who proceed to unleash a hailstorm of psychological torment on Kristen and James. These mind games are the film’s meat. It’s the little moments, like the moved smoke detector, the missing cell phone charger and the doorknob rattles, that start to unglue Kristen and James. That sense of security a locked door and a security system provide go all to hell, and we can’t help but get dragged along.

Then “The Strangers” moves from mental to physical torture, and, well, that’s right about where things go a little sour. The characters start to do predictably illogical, dumb things — some mind-bogglingly so — simply because the plot requires them to. (Perhaps Bertino would have us believe fear makes logical people develop the I.Q. of sea kelp.) There’s more than one let’s-split-up moment that’s laughable. As the end approaches, “The Strangers” starts a downward spiral toward an end that is so outrageously over-the-top and contrived that it feels like it belongs in a vastly different and inferior film. The finale is an insult to our intelligence — except for the strangers’ frightening explanation of why they targeted Kristen and James — and it’s lazy to boot. 

Does the end ruin “The Strangers”? It comes close, damn close, but the movie’s first half works perfectly as an intense psychological thriller, with Bertino shining an unwelcome light on that primordial human fear: that anyone can get to us anywhere at any time. And for much of the film this new director has the good sense to let tension run amock and let his actors run with it. Bertino would do well to revisit this strategy if he hopes to become anything more than a fifth-rate John Carpenter.

Grade: C

Five freaky horror movie scenes

AMC Fearfest ’09, I wish I could quit you.

See, for the past five days this wonderous channel has lured me into its lair of good, bad and wonderfully bad horror movie programming. It’s “The Shining” during lunchtime treadmill marches (does fear increase calorie loss?), “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” and “Puppetmaster” before breakfast (and sunrise), an all-you-can-stand pre-bedtime “Halloween” buffet. There has to be a threshold between Reality Land and Horror Movie World, and I think I’m about to cross it. Or maybe I have already. Is that what it means when you start approaching every dimly lit corner of your house with your cell phone in your pocket, a cordless phone in one hand and an (admittedly pretty dull) bread knife in the other?

Oh, no — I can see a well-timed viewing of “13 Going on 30” or something similarly lobotomizing in its cheery, mindless optimism might be in order if I intend to communicate effectively with human beings post-Halloween and say anything other than “Did you check the closet? Did you CHECK the CLOSET?”

But until that time comes — and it can’t come until at least 10:30 p.m. on Halloween night, when the last showing of “Night of the Living Dead” kicks off — I’m going to enjoy this bloody, spooky mayhem, and possibly even revel shamelessly in it by recalling five of the freakiest horror movie scenes that still rattle about in my brain:

Meditation, therapy, drugs -- you can't unthink Reagan's uberfreaky spider crawl.

Herbs, meditation, therapy, prescription narcotics -- nothing can make you unsee Reagan's infamous spider crawl.

1. The spider crawl in “The Exorcist” — The revolving head, the pea soup projectile shower, a bucking Bronco bed, Reagan getting a little too friendly with a crucifix — is it any wonder “The Exorcist” has retained its status as an unchallenged horror classic? Frightening scenes abound, but the worst has to be the possessed Reagan’s skin-crawlingly awful crab/spider walk down the steps (visible in the film’s restored version). There simply aren’t words to describe the way this image burns your retinas.

2. Mike Myers’ disappearing act in “Halloween” — John Carpenter’s masterwork of scare is so jammed with shriek-inducing, nail-gnawing moments that it’s hard to proclaim one more frightening than all the others. The closet sequence? Genius. Myers’ face appearing slowly in a dark closet? I’m under the bed. But for me, the film’s best scene is the final one simply because it drives home an elemental fear: You can kill people, but you just can’t kill evil. Donald Pleasence’s grim reaction to Michael’s missing body gives me chills I can’t shake for days.

Could "The Shining" be responsible for the decline of typewriters? Hmm...

Could "The Shining" be responsible for the decline of typewriters? Hmm...

3. “All work and no play”: “The Shining” insanity chronicle — Frame for frame, I’m not sure I can name another horror movie that packs in as many chills and screams as Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly creepy take on a classic Stephen King novel. Every moment is about the atmosphere, about anticipation, and all that tension bubbles over when Wendy (Shelley Duvall, underrated here) discovers the true contents of her husband’s novel. That’s when we know in our bones that this family’s headed straight for hell in a big, flaming handbasket.

4. The hedgeclipper beheading in “The Exorcist III” — Was “Exorcist III” the best of the “Exorcist” films? Hell no. Did it feature one scene so bone-chillingly frightening and unthinkable that it made me walk backwards, then forward, then backwards again in my house for weeks (OK, fine, months)? Bank on it. This little clip is unassuming at best, a throwaway in the bizarre third entry in the “Exorcist” canon. But there’s something about a man in a sheet sneaking up on you with hedge clippers that’s profoundly disturbing.


"For sale" signs haven't looked the same since "Carrie," have they?

5. The hand that chokes the respectful mourner in “Carrie” — Stephen King’s gripping and original tales of fright don’t always translate to the big screen. (Don’t get me started on “Christine.”) But “Carrie” marks one of the very few times a film elevated King’s talent of turning our hearts to quivering blobs of jelly. No scene proves that better than Sue Snell’s visit to the gravesite-of-sorts of a most unusual teen who doesn’t let death stop her from holding a wicked grudge. It’s one of the few times a scene has moved me to tears, and I mean the kind you need your childhood Blankie to mop up. 

I realize now that my horror movie tastes are unforgivably modern and mainstream, so chime in, thoughtful readers, with your suggestions: What are some must-sees in the horror genre that are guaranteed to make me shake, shiver and just generally squeam whilst hiding in my closet gripping a coathanger?

Yi, Cera shine in occasionally too-cute “Paper Heart”

Charlene Yi and Michael Cera meet cute (see paper dolls) in "Paper Heart."

Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera meet cute (see paper dolls) in "Paper Heart."

“Paper Heart” is the kind of movie that’s so aggressively twee in its indie hoodie-and-battered-Pumas appeal, so “we’re being this cute totally in the name of irony” that it sputters in parts and occasionally threatens to lose our interest. We almost stop caring. How much low-budge, quasi-documentary ruminations about love can we stand?

When actors like Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi (remember Martin’s perpetually baked squeeze in Apatow’s “Knocked Up”?) are involved, the answer is “a whole, whole lot.” Cera and Yi, a real-life couple (we think) during filming, lend much authenticity to a movie that has a shaky-at-best  foothold in reality. These two have a shy, tremulous chemistry that feels surprisingly real, and it’s this banter — illustrated beautifully while they shop for groceries, or have dinner in some dive — that holds our attention and tugs (well, more like a polite “um, excuse me, please?”) at our heartstrings. Somehow Cera and Yi create a budding romance on camera that seems tentative and true. Considering they’d already met and were dating in real life … well, let’s call it talent and leave it at that.

It’s no accident, I suspect, that Yi and Cera’s performances are deceptive, since Yi and Nicholas Jasenovec made “Paper Heart” a devious film that teases us to decide what’s real and what’s not. While the premise is simple, the follow-through is anything but: Yi, with her thick glasses and forever-mussed ponytail, takes off across the United States on a journey to discover what love is. Since she doesn’t understand it or believe she’s capable of finding it herself, she interviews everyone — divorcees, gay and straight couples, remarkably self-assured children on an Atlanta playground. (This last interaction spawns the movie’s funniest line, about how when you truly love someone you take them to Applebee’s and buy them wings. Amen, little one.) Her friend Nicholas Jasenovec (played not by Jasenovec himself but by actor Jake M. Johnson), also a filmmaker and her producer, films everything, including her meet-awkward with Michael Cera, more or less playing himself, at a party one night. Cera’s taken with her, calls her “mysterious,” and thus begins a courtship of studiedly clever instant messages (he proposes marriage early on), hand-in-hand searches for dinner at the local market and one sweetly disarming first kiss. All the filming, though, strains the new relationship, and pressures Yi to define, in no uncertain terms, what she’s found … even though she has no clue.

This all seems a little muddy, right? It’s meant to be. Or at least I think it is. We cannot know what’s really happening, if Yi and Cera are just actors putting us on or if they really feel what they say they feel. Maybe it’s a little of both. Even more puzzling is that we do not know how “Paper Heart” ends. Yi and Jasenovec aren’t about to let us in on the joke if there is one. This is frustrating, maddening and so underhanded that it’s tempting not to care at all. Johnson-playing-Jasenovec seems to express our frustrations here, insisting he film everything the young couple does and says. He, like us, seems to ask: This is a documentary-of-sorts; we’re making voyeurs out of our viewers here, so why the furtiveness? Then there’s the fact that Yi and Cera won’t allow us in certain parts of their relationship. Maybe that part fits. Relationships look different to the people outside of them, after all. There are places the camera and microphone should not capture.

So, yes, all the uncertainty and the feelings of being hoodwinked and generally jerked around — these make it difficult at times to harbor much affection for “Paper Heart.” But enough cannot be said of Yi’s talent as an actress, a script writer, a comedian. What a chameleon she is: shy and outgoing, ambitious and timid, spontaneous and guarded. She epitomizes what Whitman meant when he wrote “I contain multitudes.” Try as we might, we cannot pin her down. And so “Paper Heart” succeeds in its small way because Yi herself, much like love, is an endless source of mystery and fascination.

Grade: B-

Review: “The Golden Compass” (2007)

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds an unlikely bodyguard -- Lorek the Ice Bear (Sir Ian McKellan) -- in "The Golden Compass."

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds an unlikely bodyguard -- Lorek the Ice Bear (Sir Ian McKellan) -- in "The Golden Compass."

Peter Jackson, listen up: Just because a film details an epic adventure doesn’t mean it has to last three hours. That’s right, J.R.R. Tolkien fans “The Golden Compass,” a likable, visually impressive adaptation of Philip Pullman’s 1995 bestseller, has all the intrigue of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy but none of the yawn-inducing running times. If anything, “The Golden Compass,” which clocks in at just under two hours, ends too soon, leaving viewers eager, right then and there, for more. (Call me batty, but this reviewer can’t remember a single person leaving a “LOTR” film and remarking, “Gee, that movie ended way, way too soon.”)

“The Golden Compass,” though, does weave a fairly complex plot which requires some explanation. At the heart of the film is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a spritely young girl and prankster who spends her days scaling the rooftops of the university where her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), teaches. Her carefree days come to an abrupt end, though, when she meets icy Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), agrees to travel with her to the North and discovers Coulter is part of a sinister underground organization that kidnaps and experiments on young children including Lyra’s best friend Roger (Ben Williams). Lyra makes it her mission to rescue Roger, and she gathers a unique assortment of helpers along the way. There’s Lee Scoresby (the always watchable, husky-voiced Sam Elliott), a tough-as-nails pilot; Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), a gruff “polar bear for hire” of sorts; and Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), a mysterious but good-hearted witch. Helpful, too, is Lyra’s alethiometer, or golden compass, which reveals the true answer to any question … and only Lyra possesses the power to use it.

Like any book-to-film adaptation, some things in “The Golden Compass” get lost in translation. There are potentially intriguing, rich characters (like Scoresby and Pekkala in particular) about whom we know very little; they feel like collateral damage in the effort to pare down length. The most controversial element of Pullman’s book — the figurative “death of God” in society — gets watered down, perhaps to increase the film’s marketability. As reimagined by director Chris Weitz, “The Golden Compass” is a film about the quest for truth and knowledge (called “dust”), a quest the ruling body (dubbed the Magisterium) would kill to stop. This concept works swimmingly in a coming-of-age movie like this, but the blunting of the book’s sharpness is disappointing nonetheless.

However, these are minor quibbles with a movie that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling to watch. The animation is well-done and occasionally inspired, particularly the scene where two polar bears battle for rights to a kingdom — perhaps the tensest moment in “The Golden Compass.” The acting is solid as well, with Kidman perfectly cast as the frigidly menacing Coulter and Elliott sinking his teeth into what might have been a throwaway bit part. Roberts is a major find, a plucky young talent with an expressive, open face and a Tom Sawyer-like curiosity about the world. She’s one to watch.

There’s little doubt that there will be people (aren’t there always?) who won’t see “The Golden Compass” because they believe it’s a dangerous work of heresy. What a shame that is, for this stunningly beautiful, intelligent adaptation is meant to be experienced. The film is not some bitter, topsy-turvy argument in favor of atheism. No, “The Golden Compass” is a grand journey, a film that reminds us, gently and quietly, that the quest for knowledge, for truth and purpose, must be an individual pursuit. And ultimately, the idea explored in “The Golden Compass” is a familiar, timeless one: Is the unexamined life really worth living? Plato knew that, but viewers will have to decide for themselves. There are no pat answers to be found here. Still, that’s not bad for a film where nothing gets pitched into a volcano (sorry, Tolkienites).

Grade: B+

Cleaning house (no taking names required)

Happy Nine-Hours-Til-“The Office”-Comes-On Day, readers!

If you’ve been looking at the site, you might have noticed some changes, and you might have thought to yourself: “What in the wide wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?”

(Sorry. I’ve long passed the point where I want to and can suppress “Blazing Saddles” references. It’s a sickness.)

This site has grown a bit of late, and I’m trying to do a little minor housekeeping — making new categories for reviews of old and new films, archives, etc. — that will make this blog easier to navigate. I hope you’ll bear with me during this wee growth spurt.  

So many thanks to you, illustrious bloggers and skilled Web surfers and thoughtful/philosophical random comment-makers, for stopping in to read my movie scribbles. Keep reading and I’ll keep writing.

And I swear on the late, great Teutonic Titwillow to try really, really hard to stop all the shameless quote-dropping.

Review: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Here’s the plain truth: Sidney Lumet’s grim, gripping “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t so much wear you down as break you down … hard. In frame after frame, Lumet uses his disjointed, objective direction to build the momentum, and he never hesitates or shrinks back. Neither do the actors. So the hits — emotional and physical — keep coming until the film steamrolls into a conclusion that’s profoundly unsettling. “Devil” is as draining as it is invigorating to behold.

Part of that energy has to do with the way the story (epic in scope) unfolds. The narrative is nonlinear, so the characters are introduced in jarring flashbacks and meta-flashbacks. This a multi-layered story, with plots and subplots weaving in and out, but there is a common thread: Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who believes money will rebuild his broken life. Andy convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect crime: Rob their parents’ jewelry store, pawn the merchandise and walk away with $60,000 each. It’s a win-win, since Hank is months behind on his child support and Andy’s living light years beyond his means (thanks to his money-hungry wife, played by Marisa Tomei). But Murphy’s law (or karma?) mucks up Andy’s scheme from minute one, and nothing about the robbery goes as planned. Things go very, very wrong, leaving Andy and a shell-shocked Hank with blood on their hands and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), hell-bent on finding out who planned the robbery.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin the experience of watching “Devil.” There are grueling twists and surprises aplenty. In fact, the film feels much like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together wrong, with sharp edges jutting out and pieces shoved into nooks where they don’t really fit. But that’s why “Devil” is so absorbing — the pieces are all there; it’s up to viewers to put them in order. In Lumet’s mind, it seems, the viewers are the detectives. He makes us work for it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for injecting even more energy into “Devil.” The supporting cast is large, but the players make their performances singularly unforgettable. Finney is quietly effective as Charles, a man reeling from the fallout of a crime he can’t fathom. But his is not a one-note performance, for Charles isn’t an ideal father, and Finney isn’t afraid to let the cracks show. Hawke, too, plays it subtle; it might be the best work he’s ever done. Known for playing fake-charming womanizers, he shrinks himself to portray Hank, an emotional cripple whose coddled upbringing didn’t prep him to deal with reality. He cowers when things go wrong. Tomei, who just keeps getting better, is impressive as Gina. Essentially, Gina’s a trophy wife; she spends more time romancing Andy’s platinum card than Andy. But watch what Tomei does with her eyes, particularly in the scene where Andy breaks down. There are hints of depth there. Gina may be one of the film’s few female characters, but Tomei makes her more than just a party favor.

As for Hoffman, this may be his best performance — and he won an Oscar for “Capote.” In “Devil,” Hoffman gets another meaty role, and he does not disappoint. On one level, he exceeds at demonstrating Andy’s many flaws. Here is a man who craves money and success, a preternaturally calm control freak who refuses to admit he’s sinking too fast to pull himself up. He steals and lies, then wonders why the parts of his life “don’t add up.” But leave it to Hoffman to find beauty where there is none. When Andy finally lets loose, Hoffman rips into the pain like a man possessed. He shows that Andy is an insecure man who has numbed his feelings to the point where he believed they no longer existed. It’s the exhausting, awe-inspiring lit fuse that fires Lumet’s exquisitely crafted and tumultuous Greek tragedy character study.  

Grade: A+

Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-

No. 9: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis

There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.

And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.

This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.

Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.

Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.

No. 8: “Citizen Kane” (1941)

“You can’t buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.”  ~~Charles Foster Kane

There’s a laundry list of reasons why Orson Welles’ sweeping character study “Citizen Kane” consistently ranks high — or at the tip top — on any Best Films Ever Made in the History of the World list. Cinematography, use of makeup, bold subject matter (biopic of a living, highly visible public figure), music, special effects, that punch-you-in-the-neck twist ending — all there, all faultless, all revolutionary. And though these qualities certainly contribute to the film’s greatness, what matters most, what makes “Citizen Kane” such a timeless stunner, is Orson Welles. He fills up every frame of the movie with his energy, his nerve, his presence and his passion. 

What Welles does so well, first and foremost, is create a vivid, flawed protagonist — the ultimate antihero — and populate his world with the people who believe they know him but, in the end, know even less about him than we do. That protagonist, of course, is Charles Foster Kane (Welles), an ultra-rich media mogul with a penchant for quotable observations and huge impulse buys, including the New York Inquirer (which he buys because he thinks “it would be fun to run a newspaper”). In fact, much of his Kane’s direction is determined by his whims and the way these wild fancies damage the people around him. He trades his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick) for a much-younger wannabe opera star Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingmore). His ability to consolidate power by manipulating people, the force of Charles Foster Kane, lays waste to his marriages and frays his friendships beyond repair. “You only want want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules,” his best friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) rages at him. How right he is.

This in itself would be a richly textured and fascinating film, but Welles, operating under the “more is more, and more is always better” philosophy, takes it a step further with the frame story: Kane, that larger-than-life figure, has died holed up a recluse in Xanadu, his sprawling, opulate and empty estate. The story becomes an international sensation, with reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) digging into Kane’s background and private life to discover his secrets, including the meaning of “rosebud,” his last word before dying. His interviews with Kane’s associates, including his business manager (Everett Sloane) and Jedediah Leland, reveal a man more interested in creating his own myth than using his wealth to become a spokesman for the common man. When he doles out his money or his affection, he expects to direct and control its flow, to rule unquestioned. What we learn in the final scene — Welles dubbed it “a gimmick”; that’s the understatement of the Aztec calendar — barely softens Kane’s razor edge.

It’s possible that this is precisely what Welles wants: to control us the way Charles Foster Kane attempts to control everyone around him. Yes, control defines “Citizen Kane,” makes the film a true work of art. Welles does, after all, make us wait and wonder about the tidbits we hear about Kane; he paints us a portrait of him as one way, then flips the canvas to show another side. There’s always a line we missed, something in the background that slipped right past while we sat, stunned, all wrapped up in Kane’s filibustering or awed by his swaggering presence. The control Welles exerts over his audience — which reveals itself oh so suddenly in the final scene — is mind-blowing. There’s just no other word for it.

Manipulation aside, the performances here cement the movie’s initial promise. There are no small parts, no throwaway characters. Cotten brilliantly shows the raw nerves exposed by years of badgering, the long, then sudden end of a dear friendship. Cotten in particular is a walking, oozing wound, so damaged by her husband’s bullying nature she’s a shell soaked in booze. But Welles … well, “Citizen Kane” revolves around his magnificent, destructive presence. He’s such a total force of nature that resistance is useless. But with a film this good? Surrendering to the storm is sweet, indeed.