Monthly Archives: October 2009

In Honor of Halloween: The Five Best Horror Films

I’ve always had an admiration for horror films because, when done right, they can quite simply define what it means to be entertained. You might forget why you cried at the end of “Titanic,” but you’ll never forget that final shock in “Carrie,” or that shower scene in “Psycho.” Quite simply, a good scare proves that our emotions remain intact.

What better time is there to celebrate the best films that make you scream than on Halloween? If you’re looking for some real horror this Halloween, check out these films; the five best horror films:

1. The Silence of the Lambs- To date, this is the only horror film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And for good reason. “The Silence of the Lambs” boasts two of the creepiest villains ever and one of the most troubled heroes. You might be most shocked by the cannibalism and you might be most shocked by the well scene. Point is, there’s enough shock here to go around. As violent as it is, “Silence of the Lambs” is the rare horror film that truly uses character for thrills. And not cheap thrills. Anthony Hopkins performance as the brilliant cannibal Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest in all of cinema. “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Hopkins delivery of this line makes it all the more chilling. They say some movies truly have to be seen to be believed. If you want to understand truly why this horror film tops all others, then sit down and watch it, frame by frightening frame.

2. Psycho- Skip the 1998 shot-by-shot remake. Head toward the original instead because almost five decades later, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic hasn’t lost its power to make audiences scream. In discussing this film’s qualification for the list, only one scene is necessary: the shower scene. This scene still delivers goose bumps because of its hyper-fast cuts and shrieking musical scores. Try showering alone again after watching this, it won’t be easy.

3. Se7en- This contemporary masterpiece is also one of the bleakest films ever put onto the big screen. The film follows two cops hunting for a certain John Doe, a psychopath who kills his victims based on the seven deadly sins. “Se7en” is so distinct in the fact that it can frighten you for days not by what it shows you, but what it doesn’t show you. The audience never sees any of the victims die, but the aftermaths are even more horrible.

4. The Shining- The master of every genre, Stanley Kubrick, deserves at least one mention on this list. Only someone like Kubrick could take something as simple as a ghost story about a writer going mad from isolation and trying to kill his family to something so frighteningly complex. In this movie, it’s not just the axes and the blood that are so scary, but the eerie musical score, and those stunning tracking shots. “The Shining” was released 20 years after “Psycho.” This time audiences weren’t so much afraid of being stabbed in a motel shower by Anthony Perkins, but axed in the face in a hotel bathroom by Jack Nicholson.

5. Carrie- Some horror films try to scare you with cheap thrills like oozing blood and bumps with the night. Not this one. What starts off as your typical drama about a bullied high school girl, until she gains super powers and uses them for revenge. “Carrie” is a slow building horror film, with the greatest not occurring until well over an hour in. Brian De Palma uses Hitchcockian techniques to create slow-burning suspense leading up to its unforgettable climax. “Carrie” is an essential horror film for those with patience. To top it all of, this movie has the best final scare. Ever.

And, a few other classics: Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws, Deliverance, Alien

Boondock Saints: Why I’m Not Part of the Cult

Nine years ago, a film called “The Boondock Saints” opened on just five screens. At the end of its theatrical run, it had grossed a mere $25,812. Nobody knew then, that a phenomenon was in the making.

Today, Troy Duffy’s tale of two Irish brothers wreaking havoc on Boston’s criminal underworld has become one of the defining cult films of the decade. To date, its grossed more than $40 million on DVD and can currently be seen in over 500 different t-shirts at your local Hot Topic. Now, it’s getting a sequel called “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.”
But is this too much? “Boondock Saints” is entertaining, for sure. It’ll make you laugh and mostly keep you interested for its entire running time. Plus, it features Willem Dafoe at his absolute creepy best. But does it really deserve this cult?
Well, most of the great cult films are the trashiest ones (think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and anything John Waters does). However, this film’s level of escapist trashiness feels uninspired. It felt like Duffy was trying his absolute best to imitate Tarantino. At some points, it’s all too obvious (you probably won’t laugh as hard at the cat getting his head shot off once you see the Marvin scene from “Pulp Fiction”). Mainly, however Tarantino is the hardest director to emulate because his style comes from decades of watching thousands of movies no one has ever heard of.
But I digress. The real problem with “Boondock Saints” is the story itself. Couldn’t Duffy have made the religious references a little more subtle? “Donnie Darko,” one of the great cult classics of the decade, was a film that explored the possible existence of God. Yet, you wouldn’t have known that until after you thought about it for a while. Plus, I find it impossible to take sympathy for anyone who believes murder is justified just because they believe God told them to do it. Perhaps this film is just plain overrated.
Maybe I just haven’t seen the movie enough. Or maybe I’m just one of those people who simply don’t get it. That’s what a cult film is: some get it, and some don’t. When I look for a good cult classic, I look for a film that penetrates your mind so much and spawns so many questions. In that light, the likes of “Donnie Darko” and “Blue Velvet” work for me. Or, I look for a film that transcends reality and forces you to embrace your darkest, guiltiest pleasures. In that light, “Scarface” works for me.
While those three films are constantly commented on on IMDB message boards or turned into useless merchandise, there’s more too them. They sit in your head, they make you question the very reason you go to the movies in the first place. And I guess that means I still really can’t answer that question.
I wish Troy Duffy best luck with this sequel and other films in the future. If he hopes to make something better than “Boondock Saints” there’s one thing he should remember: a great film (or great cult classic, for that matter) should be something to chew on, and not just full of cool quotes to put on t-shirts.
Now “Boondock Saints” fans please tell me: what do you enjoy about this film so much? Am I missing something?

Movie Review: Where The Wild Things Are

Like many children in America, I remember being read only two books growing up: “The Cat in the Hat,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” The former got a movie adaptation that few would ever like to mention again, while the latter, after so many years, finally made it to the big screen.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a movie adaptation I’ve been waiting for for quite some time. The idea of how someone could take 10 sentences and turn it into a feature length film fascinated me. The end result is something of a mixed bag; an intense labor of love that just isn’t given all the love it truly needs.
In order to make the story fit a feature length, director/writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers added a backstory. Young Max (Max Records) feels isolated from the rest of the world. He doesn’t have friends, he has an indifferent older sister, and divorced parents.
Just like in the book, Max’s frustrations mount to him donning the trademark wolf suit, biting his mother, and then sailing off to the land of the Wild Things. There, he meets the tough but lonely Carol (James Gandolfini), the bullied Alexander (Paul Dano), and the free-spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose).
Like in the book, Max becomes their king. Here though, he learns that it ain’t easy being in charge.
“Where the Wild Things Are” was brought to the big screen by one of Hollywood’s most wildly imaginative directors, Spike Jonze. This is his third film, following “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” His version of “Where the Wild Things Are” proves to be not only Maurice Sendack’s vision, but also his own. He turns the island of the Wild Things into a land of not only dense forests but also desolate, empty deserts. And there’s a giant dog.
Like “Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are” takes place entirely inside one person’s imagination. In this case, it’s in Max’s head. Unlike the book, Jonze doesn’t seem to distinguish between Max’s fantasy and reality. Perhaps this is his way of saying Max hasn’t entered the realm of early maturity yet, and the only thing that will accompany him is his dreams.
Before I dish out some complaints of the film, there are a few things here that must be praised. Mainly, it’s Lance Accord’s camerawork. His cinematography ranks alongside “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Children of Men” as the best of the decade. Some of the best shots come during the “magic hour” of the day when the sun isn’t quite set, but still beams down in golden rays. The desert is used perfectly as a metaphor for Max’s isolation from humanity.
But maybe most profound is the way the Wild Things themselves are depicted. Instead of choosing CGI, Jonze went with old fashioned puppetry. While on set, Records was never talking to a green screen, but rather living, breathing creatures. Then, there’s the way they are introduced. While most directors might make a big deal out of it and create a slow, painful introduction (i.e. Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”), Jonze shows us the Wild Things just seconds after Max arrives.
When I left the film, I felt conflicted. I knew there was something missing from the film, but I just didn’t know what. While it’s understandably hard to turn 10 sentences into an entire film, the approach seemed a little backwards. In a way, almost nothing seems to happen in the film. While the Wild Things certainly are given a human face, some of the conflict felt a little forced. At one point, Carol asks Max if he knows the feeling when your teeth spread apart as you get older. Lines like this sound more like Andy Rooney observations than actual thematic discussion.
Maybe “Where the Wild Things Are” could also be a victim of bad timing. The film about the child who creates a fantasy world to escape their horrible reality has become quite commonplace. It was done best most recently with “Pan’s Labyrinth.” In a way, I wish Jonze laid the plot out a little more like that film. “Pan’s” felt more like a story with actual challenges facing Ofelia in her own fantasy.
In the end, I still do appreciate everything Jonze did to make this movie. I call it a labor of love because I know Jonze truly did all he could to get his vision on the screen. It’s a labor of love like Copolla’s “Apocalypse Now,” Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” or Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” in which the style is so flawlessly executed that most might lose the meaning of exactly what was going through the director’s head. Could this version of “Where the Wild Things Are” be so personal to Jones that it might just be lost on us?
Max was a hero to me in my youth and his character continues to interest me. Jonze makes him out to be not just an outsider, but also something of a misguided rebel. Could he be a boy with no love in his life who deserves it like Jim Stark? Or just someone as emotionally immature as Holden Caufield?
But let’s not over-analyze. The simple message of this film is the power of a little bit of love. It’s a message so simple yet so brilliant that only 10 sentences are needed to fully illustrate its power.

Movie Review: A Serious Man

The very first scene of “A Serious Man” is a short fairytale set in a Polish shtetl. While one can spend hours figuring out how this fable connects to the rest of the film, interpretation is futile. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have repeatedly stated that this story had nothing to do with the rest of the film. So, why put it in? Because, we have officially entered the world of the Coen Brothers, a world like few others; a world where they can do whatever they like.

How does one make the sudden leap from 1800s Eastern Europe to 1960s Midwestern America? Simply, with the stunning jump from a snow covered village to the inside of an old headphone blasting Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” It’s a transition that reminded me of Kubrick jumping from dawn of man to the space age in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This is the very first glimpse of the world we’ll be looking at for the next two hours.
“A Serious Man” is the Coen Brothers at their most schadenfreude. The unlucky schlub they focus on this time is Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). Gopnick is a physics professor at a Minnesota college in 1967. He embodies the “nice Jewish boy” that all Jewish mothers hope their daughters will someday marry.
While Larry tries his best to be a mensch, his life is an utter mess. His wife (Sarri Lennick) plans to divorce Larry and leave him for the too-nice-for-his-own-good Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son (Aaron Wolff) spends more time getting high than studying for his Bar Mitzvah and his daughter (Jessica McManus) totally resents everything about him. Meanwhile, Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) can’t find a place to live. Elsewhere, he is tempted by a bribe and a seductive neighbor. In order to sort out his problems, he seeks the help of three very unhelpful rabbis.
When comparing “A Serious Man” to all other Coen Brothers films, it seems so similar but yet very different. It is quite possibly their most personal film. Not only does it mark their first film set in their homeland of Minnesota since “Fargo,” but it’s also the first time they’ve chronicled their childhood growing up in a suburban, Jewish, middle class family.
One of the most distinctive trademarks of a Coen Brothers film is its emphasis on each character’s quirks. Usually, these quirks, involve the accents, behaviors, or dialects of a certain area. However, the Minnesotans of “A Serious Man” don’t talk in that Scandinavian accent like the ones in “Fargo.” This film is more focused on the quirks of the Jewish community. The Coens focus on the hilarious habits of referring to non-Jews as “goy,” overly congested voices, or the habits of making weird nose sounds [Editor’s Note: Just spend a day with me, and you’ll understand this].
The Coen Brothers do not rely on these stereotypes as a way of being mean-spirited or self-loathing, but rather as a loving tribute to their people.
One of the greatest creative risks the Coen Brothers took in making this film was compiling a starless cast of mostly theater actors. This decision pays off, as the audience feels not so much focused on the actors as they are on the characters. Stuhlbarg steals the show as Larry. He makes Larry’s struggles seem too painfully real. Melamed turns Sy into someone you want to hug and punch at the same time. Perhaps the most recognizable actor in the cast is Kind, who is best known as Larry David’s annoying cousin on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Here, he is typecast as the bothersome relative but he manages to bring a level of depth to Uncle Arthur and helping create of the more emotional scenes the Coen Brothers have ever shot.
The second creative risk the Coen Brothers took here lies in the story itself. The plot never really goes anywhere in terms of action. And without giving much away, I’d just like to say that things just have a way of getting worse and worse for poor Larry.
Often the Coen Brothers are criticized for being so hateful toward their characters and making fun of them. However, they are filmmakers, and therefore observers. Why not mock someone when they do something that is, well, ridiculous?
One thing I sometimes tend to tire of in films are Biblical references. That’s mainly because directors will throw in an image of some guy laying with his arms spread out, call it a Jesus metaphor, and then beg for an Oscar.
However, the Coen Brothers are not like that. They use Torah stories and Jewish myths to create a story that questions but doesn’t deny the existence of god, one that tries to determine how one can keep the faith in such a cruel world.
I unfortunately don’t know enough Biblical tales to point out exactly which ones were used here. Many have pointed out that Larry embodies Job, another good person whose constant suffering was a test by God. I found the story to be an allusion to Adam & Eve. Larry’s nearly perfect suburban street could be his Eden, while the temptations of money and adultery are his equivalent of the Tree of Knowledge.
At the end of the film, audience reactions seemed mixed. Maybe the reason I liked the film so much wasn’t just for a Coen bias, but because of a deep personal connection to it. I remember the days of listening to recordings of my Torah portion to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah and even more so how surreal the actual day felt.
You can be either Jew or Gentile to enjoy the darkly comic “A Serious Man.” It’s a film that will entertain, frustrate, and infuriate. Most importantly, there is not one answer to the films religious questions about life. It does what a great movie should do: rather than interpret itself, it lets the audience member interpret it instead. Does the film believe in God? Is the film existential? What does that tornado mean? To all this, I say; oy vey.
Unfortunately, this deeply intelligent film is only playing in a few places nationwide. To see it for yourself, either head to New York, or write Focus Features a letter and beg them to release the film in your hometown already. It’ll be a much more enjoyable evening than the one you’d have seeing “Couple’s Retreat.” Also, leave all interpretations of the very open-ended ending in the comments. I’m still very confused by it as well.
If You Liked this Movie, You’ll also Like: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Lolita, anything really, really, Jewish

Movie Review: Contempt

“The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

-Jean-Luc Godard
The very first shot of “Contempt” is something of a mind trick. From off in the distance, it looks like we’re seeing a few small children, running with the wind, as one of them holds a white balloon. It is a moment of simplicity and freedom. Suddenly, as the children get closer, we see that these are no children.
What it really is is a man holding a boom mic, and a camera on a track following a wandering woman. We are not in reality right now. Welcome to the world of movies, within this movie.
“Contempt” was released in 1963, riding toward the end of the brilliant French New Wave. It makes sense, as in a way it seems to encapsulate the new feelings toward the art of cinema in the era.
The story focuses on struggling screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli). Javal is invited to Italy by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to write a screenplay for a new version of “The Odyssey.” Prokosch is having some creative struggles with the film’s director, Fritz Lang (Lang plays himself). Paul reluctantly accepts, hoping that writing this screenplay will give him the money to pay for his apartment. While Paul finds himself struggling with Prokosch, he also struggles to keep his marriage with the beautiful Camille (Bridgitte Bardot) from falling apart.
“Contempt” is one of those movies that’s about making movies. While most movies of this nature focus on biting the hand that feeds it, “Contempt” only takes nibbles. It seems more sad than angry. Paul must give up the sanity of his life just to get this screenplay done. And what is he doing it for? Just the money?
I wouldn’t be surprised if director Jean-Luc Godard faced these conflicts himself while making his films. Each film he made expresses some form of the audacity of the New Wave. “Contempt” takes it to a new level. The images of Camille’s nude form may be among the first in cinematic history. This was something that could never be done in American movies at the time, thanks to the Hays Code. Along with this, there are also a few grizzly images of violence, and a scene where Camille spews out a list of curse words. This scene is somewhat funny; it’s like Godard’s way of showing off that this is his film, and he can do whatever he pleases with it.
Then again that’s also sort of the theme of the French New Wave: that the film is in the hands of the director. The director is the author of the film. And Godard, of course, is a fine director. Every shot of “Contempt” is filled with the utmost passion. Godard makes brilliant uses of tracking shots and long shots. Also, he uses the objects within the film such as statues and walls to emphasize character relationships. The bizarre version of “The Odyssey” contains shots of the camera staring at statues of the gods. Meanwhile, as Paul stands on one side of a wall and Camille on the other, we can already tell this relationship is going south. And of course, the shots of the rocky Italian coast are absolutely breathtaking.
While Godard is a great filmmaker, he never seems to get inside his characters’ heads. Each one can often seem a bit trite and artificial. Maybe he did that on purpose here, as most of the people are well, trite and artificial. In the New Wave era, Godard was the master of technique and Truffaut was the master of character.
However, one character in “Contempt” doesn’t feel artificial: Paul. Godard makes him out to be like Odysseus. Like Odysseus, he’s strong-willed yet the forces of nature seem to be against him as he tries to achieve his goals. But unlike Odysseus, there is no loyal wife at home waiting for him.

Kill Bill Volume 3: Why I’m Excited

Whenever someone asks me how I got so into film, I give them a simple answer: I watched “Kill Bill: Volume 1.” In a way my life is split in two parts: before I watched “Kill Bill,” and after I watched “Kill Bill.”

Since “Kill Bill” wrapped up five years ago with its amazing sequel, I was sure that would be the last time we’d ever get to see Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman).
But ever since Quentin Tarantino released part two in 2004, rumors and speculation about a third part were all over the internet. Some said it’d be a prequel, chronicling The Bride’s days as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Others said it would be shot totally in anime. Others thought it would be about an older Nikki Bell avenging her mother’s murder. I dismissed these theories as pure rumors. Not anymore. Yesterday, Tarantino announced that he plans on making “Kill Bill: Volume 3.” He claims he would want a 10-year break between the second and third film. If so, then it should be released around 2014.
When I first saw this I thought perhaps it was a joke. But during Cannes ’08, Tarantino promised that his WWII film “Inglourious Basterds” would be ready for the Festival in 2009. While Tarantino is usually known for taking time between shooting films (there was a six year gap between “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill: Volume 1″), he showed up one year later with one of the strangest, funniest, and most mesmerizing war films I’ve ever seen.
Now that “Basterds” has grossed over $114 million and allowed me to say the word “bastard” without getting into trouble, Tarantino will now likely be given the artistic freedom to do whatever he wants with this sequel. Since no hint of a premise has been given, it’s time to speculate. As great as it would be to get a D.V.A.S prequel, I think the great thing about the original “Kill Bill” films is that The Bride’s past is mostly shrouded in mystery. The extent of her skills as a killer must be left solely to the imagination. Also, it would be impossible to do this prequel, since Carradine died earlier this year.
Of the theories, Nikki Belle’s revenge sounds most plausible. When The Bride tells her “when you’re older, if you still feel raw about this…I’ll be waiting,” it’s almost an invitation to make a sequel. Here’s another possibility: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) remained alive after her eye was plucked out. Will a totally blind Elle try to strike back at The Bride? Or maybe Tarantino will bring back Michael Parks. His performance as Esteban Vihaio was just too good for Oscar voters to understand.
As ecstatic as I am for the prospect of this sequel, I do hope that Tarantino gets back to work on making more original characters. The Bear Jew is already one of my favorite movie characters of the decade, and Hans Landa is certainly one of the creepiest villains the silver screen. But as long as Tarantino’s knack for brilliant dialogue, deep characters, and visual humor still holds up, then a little more “Kill Bill” should never be a problem.
In Other Awesome Pop Culture News: Chris Lilley, Australia’s answer to Christopher Guest, is slated to make another comedy for HBO. This follows the success of his brilliant, twisted “Summer Heights High.” It’s called “Angry Boys.” It’s about what it’s like to be a man in the 21st Century. This show will also be shot in mockumentary style, and Lilley will also play multiple characters. Please, please, bring Jonah back.