Monthly Archives: September 2014

Double Screamings: Stake Land and We Are What We Are

With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.

Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading

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Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: Devil in a Blue Dress

First, a note: If not for plot synopses, I might write twice as many film reviews. A synopsis is that desperate time when I have to actually remember (!) what I just saw in narrative terms and commit violence upon my mental understanding of visual storytelling by reducing it to words on paper (well, internet paper) about the “plot” of a film. I have to pretend as though a paragraph explanation of the “event” of a film is an accurate description of what can make a film good or bad. It is no secret that I am a firm believer that just about any plot description can amount to a terrible film as much as a great one, and that it is the storytelling and not the “plot” that a story makes. So this causes me great dysfunction.

With that out of the way, a follow-up review!
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Review: The Double

Richard Ayoade’s second film is certainly an ambitious affair. Not only is it an adaptation of a famous work of literature, the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky, but it’s more an experiment in filmic language than a narrative proper. The story of a man, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), bored with his life and introduced to another, darker and more aggressive version of his self, the narrative is rather proudly enigmatic and obtuse. Writer-director Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine run layers around themselves as they subvert their narrative not so much through scripting complication but more through visual chicanery. We do not learn much about what is going on from the script – in some sense, it is an experiment in challenging the audience with a narrative that has no real beginning, middle, or conclusion. We’re left to look to the visuals to save us from our confusion, but Ayoade has other things in mind. Continue reading

Review: Calvary

If The Guard was a strong, entertaining if somewhat slight caustic comedy, Calvary keels over and knocks things back down to Earth, hinting at even greater things under John McDonagh’s sleeves in the process. The film, which details one week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and takes place in a quintessentially Irish countryside, deals with crises of faith with an uncustomary humanity and sincerity (especially considering John and brother  Martin’s reputation for snarky, brittle humor). The warmth shouldn’t be confused for lack of despair though –  the center of the plot is James being told in a confession booth that the man confessing plans to kill him at the end of a week. The reason? He was molested by another priest in his childhood and, after trying to cope for years, he can no longer come to terms with himself and needs to lash out to acquire some sense of vengeance. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: The Films of Ben Wheatley

This post being slightly in honor of Wheatley’s directing of the first episode of Doctor Who Season 8, and mostly in honor of him just being a highly talented new filmmaker I happened to have a few mini-reviews written on. Seriously, do check this guy out. 

A Field in England

A Field in England opens with a warning about the film’s psychotic, psychedelic imagery, but it serves, and was likely intended, as much as a badge of honor– the film’s visuals are gloriously perturbed, and the trickery on display is the film’s biggest selling point. This is all the more true when one considers the film’s enigmatic narrative and its clear subversions, even from it’s opening moments. If the film opens with the aforementioned warning about its visual nature, it immediately cuts to a black screen with only chaotic sound for thirty or so seconds, pointedly delaying what it’s just promised us. Then, of course, there’s the film’s black-and-white monotony when we now automatically associate visual splendor with cheerful color, and the fact that the film opens with a battle scene captured purely in close-ups and shots of single people, as well as quavering images of bushes. It doesn’t play like a battle in reality, but as the arch impression of a battle, the sense of chaos and loneliness ever-present but indescribable when on the edge of life and death – it’s an almost abstract collage of imagery distant from context to convey the holistic difficulty of understanding war. A Field in England is a pure, distilled cinematic hell.
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Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: Kiss Me Deadly

Updated mid-2015

Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955, is one of the last great classic period film noirs, but it wasn’t often acknowledged as such originally. It was fought by politicians and “moral” figures at the time of its release, seen as the kind of film dangerous teenage types went to see in hopes of engendering social subversion. And this concern, about the danger it posed to accepted, conservative social mores, was valid: not only is this a lurid and exploitative film, but it has the gall to elevate these qualities to high art and use them to reflect on the luridness and exploitation perhaps intrinsic to human nature. Continue reading

Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: The Killing

Edited and Updated Mid-2016

It’s perhaps fitting that The Killing, a film so predicated on control and careful positioning was brought to life by a director who lived and breathed control and precision. It is usually considered director Stanley Kubrick’s first “mature” film, something which has two meanings here. Firstly, it’s the film where we see aspects of the filmmaker’s form and style come to fruition, including perhaps his most ubiquitous care:  his love of calculated, icy cold filmmaking, perniciously-formed and rigorous like clockwork mechanics, where humans don’t much matter at all except in their capacity to move event and process forward. The Killing is the kind of filmmaking which would define his later efforts and mark him as one of the great visual masters of contempt-ravaged cinema, and it is a particularly suited film, and film genre, the noir, for Kubrick to have cut his metallic teeth on. Continue reading