Fury Poster

 
World War II, as we know, is the best war, because all the good little countries of the world put aside their differences to go stomp all over an unambiguously evil enemy. That being said, if you have the good judgement to set your story during the war, it generally means that there’s a whole mess of ready-made context, meaning that you don’t have to justify anything the heroes do. The pitfall, of course, is that you have to work extra hard to make the good guys not come across as repugnantly patriotic, glory-boy assholes. Fury, to it’s credit, takes full advantage of the myriad Nazi-killing possibilities, and tells a story that, though simplistic and worn, is still a good bit of fun to watch.

Fury comes to us from director David Ayer, formerly responsible for the fairly decent End of Watch, as well as the hyper-violent Sabotage of recent memory. A veteran of the macho action movie genre, Ayer has expressed his ambition in recent years by focusing his attention of more character based pieces as opposed to the pulpy action flicks that make up the bulk of his résumé. At heart though, Ayer is still a dyed-in-the-wool director of action films, and Fury, likewise, is essentially a action movie with some interesting character moments threaded across a cohesive narrative.

Acting is pretty strong across the board here with Brad Pitt in the leading role, supported by Shia LeBeouf, Michael Peña, and the always excellent Joe Bernthal. Even LeBeouf, who has spent the better part of the last few years trying to live down his participation in the Transformers franchise. With a seasoned veteran like Pitt in the starring role, who played a very similar role in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds, it’s no great leap to assume that he was instrumental in assuring that the members of his supporting cast were performing to the best of their abilities.

The fact that Fury has become a critical success is due in large part to its retelling of a tale we’ve all heard before, albeit in a fresh an interesting way. Indeed, the general setup is nothing more than the typical war movie trope—namely an ill-provisioned heroic force facing an enemy that vastly outnumbers them—but the film shines when it comes down to the technical execution and pacing of that very simple idea. Likewise, the characters and interpersonal relationships between them are archetypical and a little cliché, but the sheer level of excitement and dramatic tension that Ayer weaves into the narrative keeps the audience fully invested for the duration.

While the film is undeniably hyper-violent and uses the placement and portrayal of that violence to great effect, it almost feels as though the film is trying to hide behind that violence in an effort to distract the audience from the rather scarce plot. Admittedly, it mostly succeeds, and the more incongruous and slightly more unbelievable of the character-building sequences placed in the middle of the film are easily glossed over and mostly spring to mind in retrospect, after the film has ended.

Despite a plot that remains a little wanting, Fury is an incredibly fun and expertly paced action-packed character drama, and though there are certainly tropes and characters that we’ve long since been accustomed to, the sheer adrenaline rush of watching Pitt and company steamroll over some Nazis is well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 4 out of 5

last house on the left poster

Part 5 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

Produced by former porno filmmaker Sean Cunningham (who later went on to produce the first Friday the 13th) and the directorial debut of Wes Craven (who went on to direct The Serpent and the Rainbow, A Nightmare of Elm Street, and several others) this is one of the vilest films to ever attain respectability as a horror “classic.” In truth, its status primarily lies in the fact that, as indicated, both men have since had very successful careers in the genre. Otherwise, this cheap and ugly film would probably totally—and thankfully—forgotten. (Although for some inexplicable reason, this is one of the late Roger Ebert’s favorite horror films. His review was even used in the movie’s posters.)

Supposedly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s classic Virgin Spring, the story line has a gang of toughs (both male and female) brutalizing, raping, and finally murdering two teenage girls. By chance, the end up at the house of one of the slain girls, and when the parents discover what has happened to their daughter, they naturally become far more vicious and depraved than the trapped gang of punks in exacting their revenge. That the movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of totally unknown “actors” only adds to the gruesome sensation of watching a cinema verité docudrama rather than a shameless piece of exploitation catering only to our basest senses. (For example, the story includes one of the cinema’s first demises by fellatio/castration.)

In any other genre, Last House on the Left would be a credit a first-time director or producer would do their best to make disappear, not to be revered as a milestone in splatter-cinema history.

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Part 4 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

This was reportedly first released as The Incredible Torture Show—a far more apt title to describe this truly sick film’s entire reason for existence. Produced, written, and directed by New York auteur Joel Reed, this very low-budget production tries to excuse its nauseating excess by purporting to be the blackest of black comedies. Unfortunately, the amoral filmmakers seem to be enjoying themselves far too much for Bloodsucking Freaks to be anything more than a sadist’s red wet dream.

Clearly inspired by the early gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the film has a mad magician named “Sardu” running a Grand Guignol theater off-off Broadway. The theater is a cover so Sardu and company can torture and then slay their unfortunate victims. Not too surprisingly, the victims consist almost entirely of young, naked, attractive females.

When not actually killing women, Sardu passes the time by using their bodies as human dart boards, serving tables, and urinals. Every scene is meant, of course, merely as a huge joke. Check the laughs in this scene: A demented dentist friend of Sardu’s first pulls out a woman’s teeth with a pair of pliers, then drills a hole into the woman’s skull. Inserting a straw into her brain, he begins to suck the woman’s brains out. Get the joke? Reportedly produced by people usually involved in hard-core pornography, and it shows. Bloodsucking Freaks is that rare film that is completely without redeeming value: it’s not even “bad” enough to qualify as offensive camp.

annabelle


It’s finally October, the spookiest month of the year, and I am so freaking excited. The leaves are changing, Movie Bob is doing his annual “Schlocktober” series over at The Escapist, and this year’s horror movies are about to hit cinemas everywhere in an unassailable tide. This week’s Annabelle is kicking things off, though unfortunately not with a bang but with a whimper.

The film comes to us from cinematographer cum director John R. Leonetti and is indented to be a prequel to James Wan’s 2013 horror hit The Conjuring. Leonetti, having been Wan’s associate and cinematographer on nearly all of his films to date, takes a crack at a directorial role while Wan himself fills the position of executive producer. Wan, perhaps the hottest name in the horror genre right now, has certainly shared many of his techniques and approaches with Leonetti, and as such, Wan’s signature style and tone are omnipresent. As anyone who has followed Wan’s career with any attention can tell you, his approach is nothing is not formulaic, but, on the other hand, I suppose there isn’t much sense in fixing what isn’t broken.

Annabelle Wallis stars opposite Ward Horton as Mia and John Gordon, respectively; and, to be fair, to do a fairly decent job with the rag of a script that they had to work with. In keeping with the status quo of The Conjuring, Annabelle portrays the struggles of white, middle-class suburbanites, caught up in some freaky paranormal nonsense, as they are eventually aided by an a good samaritan who eventually helps banish the offending entity. It’s like a damn mad lib with these guys, honestly. You could basically run a search-and-replace program and substitute the names of the characters from Insidious or The Conjuring and get essentially the same, yet inferior, film. But why is that, exactly? Well, let me break it down.

The traditional problem with these generic, cash-in horror flicks (and a cash-it, this certainly is) is that the film startles, but doesn’t ever horrify, which, as one might assume, is kind of a crucial aspect to the whole ‘horror movie’ thing. There are jump scares abound, but that’s kind of all there is. I can point to maybe a single scene in which the audience is made to feel any kind of dread or anxiety, and even that tiny sequence takes way too long to build to, considering how small a payoff it actually is. Annabelle really strikes me as a kind of “baby’s first horror movie” and ultimately leaves the audience unsatisfied and angry at being metaphorically blue-balled for an hour and a half.

I find myself being pretty disappointed in Annabelle (although I can’t imagine why I let my expectations get so high in the first place) because I think there’s some really fertile ground to be tilled with the whole “Warren Files” mythos that The Conjuring had established. Indeed, I hope they keep delving into that cornucopia of possibilities, but, my God, they’ve got to quit phoning it in like this.

So, Annabelle turned out to be a bit of a dud, despite the fact that it made its money back about ten times over already, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the search for the year’s next great horror movie. We’ve still got The Green Inferno coming up in a bit, as well as Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead; but then again, we also had Devil’s Due earlier, so what do I know?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Part 3 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

Originally released—and forgotten—as Day of the Woman, this very low-budget revenge film received instant cult notoriety when critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert lambasted it on their nationally syndicated television show. Why? Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Meir Zarchi, who shot it somewhere in rural New York, I Spit on Your Grave contains perhaps the most prolonged and graphic scenes of rape ever filmed. The plot is incredibly simple and direct: a young woman (Camille Keaton) rents a cabin out in the country. Alone, she is set upon and then brutally and repeatedly raped by four men. That’s the entire first half of the movie: scenes of this woman being raped and beaten and sodomized by four different men—one of them portrayed as a pathetic mental defective.

The second half of the movie is devoted to showing how this resourceful young woman takes the law into her own hands and fatally dispatches each of her attackers in the most lurid and cruel manner possible. When the last one is dead, the movie just ends.

Some critics have defended this unrelentingly cruel film as a feminist revenge fantasy in the sense that the victim gives her attackers just what they deserved, and then some. However, the fact that the protagonist is a very attractive woman who doesn’t hesitate to use her physical attributes to “seduce” the men into compromising positions before attacking them certainly muddies the moral waters. It is one ideal to make a brutal film condemning rape, it is another to portray the four rapists as exhibiting “acceptable” behavior toward women so that a female can later use her sexuality to “naturally” destroy the male.

Whatever I Spit on Your Grave is trying to say about rape, about the only conclusion that can be reached from viewing it is that both sexes are thoroughly violated and debased. It’s the kind of slimy cinematic experience that makes you want to take a long shower after its final, blood-drenched climax.

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This week in cinemas creates an interesting “point-counterpoint” type of situation between A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson, and The Drop, featuring Tom Hardy; these two films, both ostensibly crime dramas and starring well known actors, offset one another in narrative quality. As we’ll explore, the places where Tombstones falls flat are the same places in which The Drop succeeds—and then some.

The film is directed by Michaël R. Roskam, whose only other feature film was the Belgian drama Bullhead (2011) and is written by novelist Dennis Lehane. As the man behind the novelizations of Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island (adapted by Scorsese in 2010), Lehane’s screenplay was inspired by one of his short stories entitled “Animal Rescue.” It’s abundantly clear that Roskam and Lehane make a great team, as Roskam’s careful, deliberate style of filmmaking lends gravity to and emphasizes Lehane’s beautifully paced, character-driven story.

Speaking of characters, the film’s central protagonist, Bob Saginowski, was masterfully brought to life by Tom Hardy, whose understated yet quietly intense performance reminded me, in the best of ways, of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the unnamed protagonist in Drive (2011). Continuing this positive trend, the chemistry between Hardy’s Bob and love interest Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, felt amazingly natural and compelling; more importantly, however, the relationship between the two was vital in a narrative sense (as opposed to being strong-armed in, which we tend to see a lot of in Hollywood) as it provided context for the actions of the antagonist, expertly played by Matthias Schoenaerts, making him appear all the more dangerous and unpredictable. The Drop also features the final performance of the late James Gandolfini, who plays Cousin Marv, an ex loan shark with strong ties to the local organized crime syndicate. As expected, Gandolfini proves to be a perfect fit for the role, and gives a performance that I like to think he would be proud of.

No stranger to the crime drama genre, Dennis Lehane shows considerable restraint by omitting much physical violence—that is, until the final, bloody climax. Instead, the story progresses via the implication of violence and veiled threats as the protagonist is beset on all sides by forces which threaten to decimate the quiet, fragile life that he has created for himself. Throughout the film, the audience discovers that Bob, trapped in the center of an unstable and violent world, might be infinitely more complex than we might have first imagined.

One of the only real criticisms I can level at the film is that there’s an intrigue established early on concerning an ongoing investigation by a Detective Torres (John Ortiz). Presumably, the intent was to create a little more pressure to the event’s of the film and to add a sort of ticking-clock element to the proceedings. While it works well at the beginning and helps to establish the characters and events to a certain extent, it doesn’t really end up going anywhere by the end. I do think it’s a nice touch though, because the police investigation, which is external to the immediate events of the film, lends a bit of perspective and gives the impression that there’s a larger world outside of Cousin Marv’s bar and its denizens.

The Drop, in my opinion is one of the best crime dramas around and easily one of the best films of the year so far. Granted, it’s only just now the beginning of October, but before all the Oscar-bait starts hitting the screen, Roskam’s sophomore effort is, without a doubt, a very fun time at the movies.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Part 2 of 13, excerpted from an essay entitled “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater.

A very obscure Chinese film—the English credits list only the director (T. F. Mous) and the producer (Fu Chi): no other actors or technical credits are given. The title is also questionable, as the subtitles indicate the literal translation from Chinese would be Manchu 731 Squadron. Whatever the title, this is an incredibly grim film, one which purports to tell the true story of the 731 Squadron, a group of Japanese scientists experimenting with biological warfare in occupied China at the very end of World War II.

Just as the Nazi scientists used concentration-camp victims for their hideous experimental efforts to see how much punishment a human body could take and still survive, the scientists of 731 Squadron are shown using the imprisoned natives of Manchu province as their guinea pigs. This is the core of the plot—the vivid demonstrations of these various experiments in human endurance. The handsomely produced film is presented very much like a documentary. Watching this movie is very much like being taken on a guided tour of a factory designed to create hell on earth.

In one unbearable scene, a young boy (the only character the filmmakers have allowed us to develop any sympathy for) in injected with a biological plague. While still alive—to see how fast the plague travels through his body—the young boy is next taken to the operating room. There, a group of jovial doctors literally cut him into pieces and put his organs into assorted glass jars. The camera never once moves away from the sight of the scalpels shredding the flash as the strangers’ hands dip inside and cold-bloodedly remove the boy’s living organs.

How much of the story is historically accurate, I honestly don’t know, but the idea that any studio (for this is a major production, not a low-budget exploitation flick) would want to remind us of these unspeakable horrors is something almost beyond imagining.

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