eraserhead

Part 13 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

Although writer-director David Lynch has gained a considerable reputation in recent years due to such projects as Blue Velvet and the television series Twin Peaks, his first feature film will forever be his most twisted. Shown originally mostly in art houses and at film festivals, Eraserhead is so unfailingly creepy that no one can completely forget it. The movie is structured with the logic of a nightmare, its characters are abnormal people who consume meals that may or may not be still alive, and its protagonists are the parents of a grotesque little baby that is definitely not human. At ninety minutes in length, the movie nevertheless seems to go on forever for anyone trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next, any why.

Shot is stark black-and-white, the movie shows Lynch at his most outrageous, as unsettling image after unsettling image unspools across the screen like the loosening bandages of a critical accident victim. Cineteratologist Richard Meyers has called it “a live action Monty Python animation made in Hell.” Whatever Eraserhead may be, it can be truly considered one of those films that forever changes your perception of “reality.” At the very least, you get the incomparable sensation of being awake in the center of a truly disturbing, bad, bad dream.

Snowpiercer

The most recent movie in a growing list of American films made by prominent South Korean directors, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is one of the most ambitious and challenging sci-fi thrillers in recent memory. The extremely brutal, often bizarre film follows the last group of humans on Earth, after a weather experiment to stop global warming freezes the planet. Aboard the perpetual motion train SNOWPIERCER, a group of oppressed, lower-class survivors led by Curtis (Chris Evans), hatch a plan to make their way to the front of the train to take control, and in doing so improve the quality of life for the passengers living under a makeshift military dictatorship in the rear. Curtis, aided by a series of cryptic messages, pushes his ragged crew through increasing resistance, all while discovering horrific truths about the society they live in aboard the train.

In a time when the science-fiction film market is catered to primarily by sequels and remakes of existing sci-fi properties, a film like Snowpiercer offers fans of the genre a breath of figurative fresh air. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film combines original concept sci-fi with Bong Joon-Ho’s unique directorial sensibilities to create a bleak and extremely engaging film. Joon-Ho builds a sense of claustrophobia and dread in the narrow, fastidiously designed train, each car looking markedly different than the last and offering new challenges for the core group of characters.

While the film is in many ways an action movie, Bong Joon-Ho’s style shines through in the myriad moments of conflict and confrontation. Action sequences are often brutally violent and the hyper stylized, providing ample opportunity for Joon-Ho to show off his directorial chops, and remind us why he remains one of Korea’s premier filmmakers. The film is not particularity averse to the idea of killing-off characters, and despite the underlying glimmer of hope that the protagonists cling to, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that things will not end well by the time the story reaches its satisfying and unexpected climax.

If you are interested in something a little out of the ordinary for your next Netflix session, Snowpiercer might be the film for you. Though most of the news surrounding the film was due to its shockingly high VOD sales in comparison to a lackluster theatrical release, Snowpiercer  is ultimately a really good film, and presents a complex and thought provoking story within the framework of its slick, hard sci-fi presentation.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Combat Shock 3

Part 12 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

An extremely personal, overwhelmingly depressing, low-budget film written, produced, and directed by New Yorker Buddy Giovinazzo. Originally American Nightmares, it was retitled and reportedly toned down by the notorious exploitation film company Troma, so as to secure and R rating and a videocassette release. Even “toned down,” the movie is still one of the most uncompromisingly bleak examinations of a person’s dead-end existence ever made. (In a critique, Chas Balun states that the movie has been “thrown out of over fifty film festivals.”)

Combat Shock is the tragic story of a wasted Vietnam veteran, living in abject poverty in the Bronx with his wife and baby. Every day is a battle to stay alive; every night is a battle to retain what’s left of his steadily eroding sanity. If this weren’t bad enough, the couple’s baby is not quite human (can you say Eraserhead?), having been genetically damaged by the aftereffects of Agent Orange brought home by Dad as an added legacy of lifelong despair.

The film is so painful because the filmmakers make absolutely no pretense to soothe us with even a moment of happiness for anyone in the story. Every pitiful character is shown to be hopeless, knowing only drugs and violence and suffering. Incredibly, the man’s situation gets even worse—finally concluding with an extended murder-suicide bloodbath after putting the baby into the oven and turning it on high. Nearly unbearable in its raw intensity, Combat Shock makes the violence and nihilism of Taxi Driver seem like a Walt Disney production.

Mumblecore Article

I was idly browsing Wikipedia the other day, because I have that kind of time, and I came across a term that I had never heard before: mumblecore. I admit I was a bit perturbed at first; it was a completely foreign concept, and I consider it a point of pride to stay abreast of most developments in film. In an effort to remedy my ignorance, I quickly read on. Wikipedia offers this strict, technical definition:

“Mumblecore is a subgenre of American independent film, characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue. The term mumblegore has been used to describe films mixing mumblecore and horror gore.”

The article goes on to list a few of the more notable filmmakers that are involved in the movement, including Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Marc Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, and Ry Russo-Young.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, it seems as though there are a few demonstrable elements, which together constitute a legitimate mumblecore movie: a small budget (generally under $10 million), a heavy emphasis on improvisation, realistic-sounding dialogue, plots concerning the lives of characters who are usually young and single (often in their twenties or thirties), and sometimes, but not always, a limited soundtrack.

Though it’s a bit difficult to nail down exactly where and how mumblecore originated, many proponents of the genre suggest that it was born from a desire to depart from the tired and cliché plot structures, specifically designed to attain mass appeal, that are common in bigger-budget Hollywood productions. Some mumblecore filmmakers profess to draw inspiration from the works of French New-Wave director Éric Rohmer, perhaps most famous for films like My Night At Maude’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), and The Green Ray (1986).

Rohmer’s technique and narrative style tends to focus primarily on the thoughts of the characters, rather than their actions. His characters were generally young and well-educated, and often engaged in long, meandering conversations with one other, concerning topics as eclectic as philosophy, relationships, and the ideal vacation spot. Rohmer disliked the close-up, as he believed it was disingenuous and non-representative of how people actually see one another. He likewise omitted the use of non-diegetic music (i.e. soundtracks), considering it a violation of the fourth wall.

The reliance on ‘realism’ and the emphasis on exclusively diegetic storytelling were ideals that mumblecore filmmakers eagerly adopted, having understandably grown disillusioned with the bloated, creatively shallow studio mechanism.

While most fans of mumblecore cite Rohmer as a chief influence, there still seems to be a bit of a debate among mumblecore diehards concerning the emergence of the first ‘true’ mumblecore film. Some point to Claudia Weill’s somewhat obscure 1978 film Girlfriends as the unofficial beginning of mumblecore, while others suggest that Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan is a more likely candidate, despite its being a big-budget production. Even director Richard Linklater, though generally not considered part of the mumblecore movement, nonetheless made meaningful contributions to the stylistic leanings of the genre with his films Slacker (1991), and Before Sunrise (1995).

There is one man, however, whose name is buried deep within the annals and sacred texts of mumblecore, and is revered above all others as “the Godfather of mumblecore.” That man is Andrew Bujalski, and his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha is popularly considered the legitimate vanguard of mumblecore proper.

Apart from the popular “comedy-drama” plot format, there have been a number of forays into the broader genre of horror, with varying degrees of success. Adam Wingard’s 2013 home-invasion horror flick You’re Next remains a pretty popular entry in the mumblegore sub-sub-genre, though I remember having some mixed opinions about it at the time, and the horror compilations V/H/S and V/H/S 2 are likewise part of the mumblegore stable, but I’m personally not a fan of either. Ti West’s 2009 cult flick House of the Devil comes a bit closer to the sweet spot, but still has some pretty serious pacing issues, and seems to have trouble telling the difference between atmospheric tension and just having nothing happen for forty-five minutes. And that’s not to say that horror and mumblecore don’t mix, but the fact is that creating effective horror is a delicate and subtle science, and it takes more than a camcorder and a couple of improvised lines to make it work.

I’ll admit it—I haven’t seen a ton of mumblecore movies in my time, but I have seen enough to know that I can wholeheartedly respect the intention, even if the execution remains a little hit-and-miss. I did, however, have the good fortune to see Aaron Katz’s mystery film Cold Weather (2011), which I can heartily recommend, as well as Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010).

In my opinion, an important thing to keep in mind while watching a mumblecore movie is that the filmmakers are often trying to bring across a feeling of helplessness or confusion, while the agency of the characters to improve their respective situations are often limited. The films can admittedly be a bit disheartening towards the beginning, I know, but I would recommend that the viewer power through it, as it often transpires that beneath the characteristic bleakness, there often lurks a certain lighthearted silliness and childlike sense of abandon, almost as if to say, “maybe things aren’t great now, and maybe they won’t even be okay by the end of this movie. But we’re all still alive and kicking around—and that’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?”

Tombstone Poster

I was scrolling through the Simply Film archives the other day when I noticed a shocking dearth of Western movies! Now, dear reader, could I simply abide such a blatant lack of cinematic diversity on my blog? I could not! So I alt + tabbed over to Netflix and scoured the online catalogue for a Western I had already seen, because it happens to be finals week here, and time is a college kid’s most valuable resource.

So, Tombstone. The story follows a retired Wyatt Earp, the grizzled gunfighter and ex-sheriff with a shadowy past, as he travels with his two brothers to the blossoming mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, where the trio hopes to settle down after claiming a stake in the local “hospitality” industry. Soon after arriving, the Earps are beset by a brutal gang of outlaws, and Wyatt finds himself once again in the role of reluctant peacekeeper to a helpless and fragile town. Naturally, tensions soon boil over, leading to the film’s signature moment; the legendary gunfight at the O.K Coral, which serves as the film’s narrative focal point. Joined by storied gambler and friend-of-the-family Doc Holiday, Wyatt and co. must hunt down the remaining outlaws, eventually coming face to face with their psychotic leader, Ringo.

Kurt Russell gives an admirable performance as Wyatt Earp, portraying him as appropriately hassled and ultimately pained by his inability to let well enough alone. Val Kilmer—who, to his credit, steals every scene he’s in—portrays a remarkably Jack Sparrow-esque Doc Holliday, and despite being afflicted with a debilitating case of tuberculosis, comes across as suave and debonair in a way that only a true Western hero can pull off. Director George P. Cosmatos also pulls his weight, and has quite the eye for the weighty action scene, also have been responsible for Rambo: First Blood – Part II as well as Cobra, both starring Sylvester Stallone. And like any Western worth its salt, cinematographer William A. Fraker makes the most of the natural, rugged splendor of the American West. The scope is appropriately epic, and the natural visual atmosphere changes seamlessly from the often claustrophobic confines of the sprawling town of Tombstone, to the relentlessly bleak and strangely desolate beauty of the plains.

Tombstone is a movie that does a lot of things right, but at the same time seems to be bound to a sort of “by-the-book” type of thinking. By that, I simply mean that it suffers a little from a lack of creativity and might not have the kind of vibrant and lively execution that the interesting and rich characters seem to deserve. It sits on the verge of being a really excellent movie, but falls just short of the mark, mostly for its slightly predicable plot and some minor pacing issues.

Despite its few flaws, Tombstone is a very fun film and is guaranteed, at the very least, to hold the interest. After my initial viewing, for instance, I had the insatiable desire to call people “pard-ner” and cheat at cards, to the immense displeasure of my friends and colleagues.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ilsa_she_wolf_of_ss_poster_02

Part 11 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

Not the first motion picture to exploit the sadism of the Nazis during World War II, and certainly not the last, what is so disturbing about Ilsa is that it has become a cult classic. What the attraction may be of a beautiful female commandant (played with gleeful relish by Dyanne Thorne) in a camp where only female prisoners are endlessly tortured as part of ghastly “scientific experiments” is certainly open to question. Just the idea of using torture as a form of entertainment is reprehensible enough, but when one realizes that all the tortures depicted in the movie may have actually occurred in the concentration camps, the mind if not the stomach certainly reels. (Add to this the report that the film was shot on the standing set of the television series Hogan’s Heroes, and the stomach reels as well.)

There isn’t a single likable character in the movie—and when Ilsa isn’t whipping some naked prisoner, she is shown as a nymphomaniac fucking a different man every night. And any man who doesn’t satisfy her insatiable sexual desires is summarily tied down on the operating table and castrated the next morning. Fortunately—if that is the right word—the acting a direction are so over the top that Ilsa can perhaps be thought of as “camp”—a Nazi version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Amazingly enough, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is only the first in a series, each movie placing the immortal Ilsa in a different time period and section of the globe. For those who need to know: Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia, and Ilsa, Wicked Warden. (Originally titled Wanda, the Wicked Warden and later transmogrified into an official Ilsa movie.) Like the first film, each is filled to vomiting with well-staged scenes of sexual perversion and torture to titillate the fancies of any true sadist.

Mockingjay Poster

I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of The Hunger Games series, but that being said, I’d wager that I went to see Mockingjay with a more objective mindset than I might have otherwise. I did read the first book and half of the second, but I never got around to reading the third; an associate of mine whom I sometimes pretend to respect once told me that, for whatever reason, there was a pretty drastic drop-off in quality between the second and third books. As the book-to-movie adaptation debate rages on, let’s see how THG:M-1 measures up in its own right.

Francis Lawrence reprises his directorial role from 2013’s Catching Fire, though he is joined by screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong—both newcomers to the series. Lawrence, just like the last time around, proves to be functional if uninteresting, and as is generally the case with this sort of thing, I place the blame for Mockingjay’s shortcomings squarely on the writers. I’ll delve deeper into the minutiae in a moment, but at present, suffice it to say that the film is one of the most childishly melodramatic and hollowly plaintive films that I’ve seen in a long while.

Even the acting left me a little disappointed, though admittedly there was little for the cast to do besides mope around and look sad. I’m aware that I’ve got a slightly unpopular opinion of Jennifer Lawrence, in that she’s a serviceable actress though vastly overrated, but her performance in Mockingjay was extremely “one-note,” if you follow me. Again, I’d say that’s more a fault of the writers that J-Law’s. Likewise, the vast majority of dialogue came off as extremely stilled and awkward, presumably in an ill-placed attempt at soaring emotional impact. To my mind, only Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the washed-up District 12 victor Haymitch Abernathy, provided at least a tenuous grounding in reality, despite all the other character’s spouting overblown nonsense at one another.

Now, let me get back to the writing. From what I can tell, neither Craig not Strong have to many scripts to their credit, apart from Craig’s co-writer status on the 2010 film The Town. As far as the plot itself is concerned, I’m fairly indifferent; I get that it’s mainly a set up for the big finale in the upcoming part 2. It’s mostly the dialogue and delivery thereof that got to me.

You know it’s always a big sign when the actors are delivering lines like they know they’re being filmed, and by that, I mean I lost count of the number of times that characters stared stoically into the middle-distance and quoted overblown, cheesy, melodramatic lines, presumably intending to elicit an emotional response, every single one of which come off as hollow and token. Even Lawrence, who’s usually better than this (even by my own admission) isn’t immune from the ravages of un-ironically awful dialogue.

Some of my associates have posited that this is the best entry in the Hunger Games series to date, though to my mind, Mockingjay Part 1 belies just how immature and silly the series actually is. I actually favored the glorified death-match setup of the original Hunger Games as well as Catching Fire, as they tended to have an undertone of almost otherworldly, surreal bleakness—savagery and blood sport beneath a gilded veneer of garish flash and sparkle. Meanwhile in Mockingjay, it’s all melodrama, all the time.

Mockingjay Part 1 advances the rather sparse plot of the series, but that’s about all it does, frankly. Despite my general indifference to the series, my hopes aren’t particularly high for part two, but then again, I’ve been wrong before.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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