Sunday, May 31, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes 2002: Auto Focus

"Tell them sex is normal. I'm normal. People have these hang ups..."

This is what Bob Crane, a shell of his popular self, explains to his ex-agent at the end of Paul Schrader's Auto Focus. He has to tell himself that because he's so dense he can't see that his obsession with sex doesn't mesh with his obsession with being liked; he fails to see the conflict. Paul Schrader is at his best when he's profiling characters who will do anything to be liked. These are usually men, and the characters are often people who have a need, sometimes an obsession, to be understood and to be liked. Whether it be Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Julian, or the subject of his brilliant 2002 film Auto Focus, Bob Crane, Schrader is a director obsessed with studying how these types of characters, and their need to be liked, leads to a lonely existence.

Auto Focus is not about Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) the television star, that much we already know, and Schrader wisely zips through that part of his life within the first 15 minuets. The film is more concerned with the Bob Crane who had an unending need to entertain and be liked. He doesn't want to disappoint anyone, and this is one of the main reasons he frequents strip clubs: he doesn't want to feel bad for turning down an invitation.

The bulk of the film is concerned with Crane's relationship with tech-head John Carpenter (Willem Defoe) who introduces Bob to the swingin' world of strip clubs, sex with multiple partners (their motto becomes "a day without sex is a day wasted"), and orgies. It's clear that the friendship he began with Carpenter was the catalyst for his own downfall, but what Schrader shows is also a man whose naivete put him in compromising situations. Crane was never embarrassed by his obsession with pornographic magazines, and in a scene where his first wife finds a stack hidden in the garage Crane explains that there's nothing to be ashamed of, "I'm a photo nut" he proclaims, as if he were looking at them for their artistic quality. That's the sadness that permeates every frame of the film: Crane is a man almost childlike in the way he sloughs off the fact that he's showing people naked pictures of girls ("not everyone looks at these things the way you do, Bob" his agent explains to him one day on the set of a Disney movie) or how he's playing the drums in strip clubs in order to "hone his craft".

Kinnear plays Crane as the lovable loser he was. He's all surface, never concerned about his own morals or ethics, because I don't think he ever thought about that; he just wanted to be liked and that came at whatever cost. Even when Crane's ego gets so big, as he becomes more and more comfortable with his suit of celebrity, he cannot help but berate his friend John Carpenter in the nicest possible way. There's also a moment where Crane, late in his career, is on some local cooking show and makes a disparaging remark to a women in the front row. It's a sad scene that shows how Crane's sexist humor is a product of a man who refuses to evolve; he thinks aloud and his thoughts of women aren't the same as those he has to work with. It shows how the obsession, the nightly immersion into amateur pornography clouded his mind resulting in tactlessness; he's involved with sex on a daily basis, so why shouldn't everyone else depersonalize sex the way he does. It's a sad, telling scene that is common in these types of biopics, and Schrader shows the perfect amount of restraint with the scene, never going over-the-top with it; and Kinnear, too, who plays the scene perfectly as a man who is oblivious to his own idiocy.

There's another great scene at the beginning of the film where Crane is doing a press junket for the show and he's being interviewed by a radio host. Crane, a former radio host himself (that's how he broke into Hollywood) is looking forward to the interview. However, the interviewer asks him a rather snarky question: "so would you say that if you enjoyed World War II you'll really like Hogan's Heroes." Crane is taken aback for a moment as the interviewer gets up and leaves as Crane screams "you're an entertainer, you should understand." It's all about entertaining for Crane, and even though now in the not-so-sensitive time of 2009 it may seem silly to think that Hogan's Heroes was ever an entity to be taken seriously, but back then nothing like that had been done before, and the fact that Crane doesn't really question his enthusiasm for promoting his new comedic show about a concentration camp shows Crane as a man who dissected few situations, all he wanted was to be told he's a nice guy and that he's doing a good job. It's a brilliant performance that transcends apery -- sure Kinnear looks and acts like Crane, but he also shows the man as being someone who is walking the tightrope of debauchery and celebrity.

Defoe plays Carpenter for the sleaze that he was. A man who uses his niche, his understanding of technology to leech onto the leftovers of celebrities. He forms a bond with Crane because really, Crane is the only type of person someone like Carpenter can be friends with. Crane doesn't like to disappoint, and there come a few times in the film where you get the sense that Crane is going to pull the trigger on ending their friendship, but he looks at Carpenter's pathetic grin (a grin only Defoe can supply) and just can't do it. Carpenter is the ferryman ferrying Crane to the underworld of sleaze: orgies and amateur pornography all for the gratification of the aftermath -- Crane and Carpenter don't get off on the moment, they get off on watching it later. There's a telling scene where they are watching one of their hidden camera, homemade porn films where they try to guess which city the act took place in. Crane and Carpenter causally talk to each other as they both reach down their pants as Crane says "this is making me hot..." It's a sad, pitiful descent Crane makes, and he's ushered there by the sad, pitiful Carpenter.

Paul Schrader has written many of Martin Scorsese's best films and as one watches Auto Focus they feel like they're watching the prototype for a Scorsese film: humble beginnings, quick ascent to the top, tragic downfall. That's the career arc of Bob Crane, a star on television before his personal obsessions clouded his need to always be liked. Once he alienated all of his contacts, leaving him pretty much unhireable, he had no other choice, because of his need to be liked, but to cut ties with Carpenter, which ultimately led to his death in a hotel room in 1978.

Schrader is on the very short list of directors who always have my attention. He's extremely underrated as a director. His writing credentials are well documented, and really, he's responsible for what I think are Scrosese's best pictures (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead). He's a filmmaker that has always been interested in showing characters that aren't always easy to take; they're often characters filled with flaws who are responsible for creating uncomfortable moments that make the viewer wince. However, Schrader writes about these characters as if they were case studies. He lets the audience contemplate their actions as they unfold in an authentic way. Schrader's films are never overwrought and are always interesting and deeply thought provoking; evoking themes you can find in most of his films and certainly in all of the pictures he's penned for Scorsese. Here his aesthetic is subdued and subtle: as the film begins he paints his images with a beautiful sheen evoking the hope and prominence Hollywood can offer; however, as the film progresses, and Crane devolves so does the films style as the last part of the film is filmed mostly in close-up with hand held cameras evoking the paranoia and grasping-for-acceptance mentality displayed by Crane at the end of his life.

Auto Focus is like a lot of Paul Schrader movies: a forgotten, or never seen, masterpiece. I love the biopic -- especially films that show me someones life I didn't know much about or an aspect of their life I didn't know much about -- it's one of my favorite genres. This was a natural marriage I think as Schrader, one of my favorite filmmakers, tackles one of my favorite genres. I think it's the best film of 2002.

My Top 10: 2001

Ibetolis of the brilliant Film for the Soul has added another fun feature to his massive "Counting Down the Zeroes" project. It's simple: just click the links above or go here to "My Top 10" on the man's blog and submit your top 10 list. It should be another fun thing to look back at in the archives. I'll post my list on here every time he wraps up another year on his site and remind you guys to head on over there and submit your lists. Since I didn't do this for 2000, I'll post that list at the bottom. Here's what I submitted as my list for 2001:

I'm still trying to catch A.I. as I know my fellow blogging friends like Sam Juliano hold it in high regard, so as it is with any list, it has the possibilities to change at any time.

2001 was a funny year for me. If I were to construct this list during that time (fresh out of one semester of college and thinking "what the hell am I to do with my life?") this list would look awfully different. You would probably see Vanilla Sky atop the list because at the time I was younger, dumber, and a Crowe apologist.

I pretty much copped out with this list from the onset by placing a released film Apocalypse Now Redux, at the top of the list, even though it does have a lot of new footage. But still, it's one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema, and it was released in 2001 (albeit a different version that is debatable if it was necessary at all) so it goes at the top as a reminder of its influence on all the films below it.

Everything else on the list is just kind of "meh" as 2001 wasn't a particularly strong year in film, but as I always say on this blog, any year that produces reasons for me to talk about film is a good year -- there is no such thing as a bad movie year as long as intelligent and provocative movies are being produced.

David Lynch produced one of his masterpieces with Mulholland Dr. and Wes Anderson topped his previous masterpiece Bottle Rocket (yeah that's right, not Rushmore) with the amazing The Royal Tenenbaums, a film he has yet to top. The Claim was Michael Winterbottom's (who seems to release a good to great film every year) criminally underrated western starring Wes Bentley and Sarah Polley and Milla Jovovich and containing some of the most beautiful cinematography in a western since Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

No Man's Land was the only real Foreign film that got my attention. The Tailor of Panama was a lot smoother and cooler than Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven (which was also a great, fun movie). The Pledge was the last great performance we've gotten from Jack (yes that includes The Departed). And Ghost World was the perfect film for nerds like I'll always remember the soul patch line, ha.

The Majestic was another patience required drama from the king of lingering Frank Darabont. The only difference between this film and the way too long The Green Mile was that The Majestic was a sweet call back to the old style of dramas released in the 30's and 40's. Like his masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption, you don't mind the length of the film because you like the characters and like hanging out with them.

Finally Wet Hot American Summer: I always try to place one comedy on my year end lists, and even though Ghost World could qualify for that title, it's a tad too dark, and I really just wanted to give some love to the people who made The State and are starting to become a popular now with films like Role Models and I Love You Man (too many to name, but the most famous to come out of that group are Michael Ian Black and of course Paul Rudd).

So with that, here's my list for the best films of 2001:

1. Apocalypse Now Redux
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
3. Mulholland Dr.
4. The Claim
5. No Man's Land
6. The Tailor of Panama
7. The Pledge
8. Ghost World
9. The Majestic
10. Wet Hot American Summer

Runner ups: Ali, Amores Perros, Black Hawk Down, Devil's Backbone, Heart's in Atlantis, Heist, Memento, Monster's INC., Ocean's Eleven, Sexy Beast, Vanilla Sky.

Here's 2000 (in no particular order):

Wonder Boys
The Virgin Suicides
You Can Count on Me
George Washington
Almost Famous
High Fidelity
The Contender
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Other good movies from 2000:

Dancer in the Dark, All the Pretty Horses, The Way of the Gun, O Brother Where Art Thou, Requiem for a Dream, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Thirteen Days, and Yi Yi.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

DVD Review: Frailty

The children are sleeping soundly in their small Texas home when their father, a quiet loving man, comes into the room and turns on the light jarring them awake. He tells them he's just had a vision from God, and they are to exterminate demons using "magical weapons" (an ax named Otis). We are told this story through narration by one of the sons, Fenton (Matthew McConaughey in a rare role where he has his shirt on throughout), who walks into the local FBI branch and tells the director (Powers Boothe in a great supporting performance) he knows who's responsible for The God's Hands murders. As he tells the story he constantly refers to that night, that moment as a dream, and he was just waiting to wake up from the nightmare. But he never does, and what is truly horrifying in the film is created out of not blood and guts, but dialogue and a foreboding sense of events to happen, and continue to happen -- all in the name of God.

Frailty begins with credits that evoke the dreadful scores of the best Hannibal Lector movies: Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs. We're introduced to the Meik family through flashback of those horrible days; there's Dad (Bill Paxton), Fenton (young Fenton is amazingly portrayed by Matt O' Leary), and his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). They seem like a happy family: Adam sings Sunday School songs on their way home from school, Fenton is too old to join in, but he acquiesces because he loves his brother; Dad works as an auto mechanic and raises the boys himself after his wife died while giving birth to Adam. Their life together is shown early on to be an organic, loving family experience. Paxton plays the father as the wise southern authoritarian who looks upon his kids with the eyes of a loving father.

But those eyes change as the story progress, and it's an amazing piece of acting by Paxton he makes us believe this seismic shift. What were once loving eyes have turned into the crazed look of a man on a vision quest; a supernatural vocation to exterminate the people in the town who are "demons".

I dare not go further in revealing the story. There are twists, sure, but they aren't conventional twists. The biggest twist comes not as a shock, in fact to the astute viewer they'll recognize the possibilities of unreliable narration and other factors that may add to the uncertainty of the films final 20 minutes. In fact I would claim that ever since The Usual Suspects screwed us over, and M. Night Shyamalian taught us never to trust what we're watching, that most people will be second guessing the confession by the adult Fenton from the onset. What's amazing about the film is the way Paxton knows how to build dread without being giving in too much to the horror conventions that could have made this film a mess.

Paxton and his writer Brent Hanley are making a statement about religious fanatics like Jim Jones who mass kill in the name of God, but what makes the film rise above that is that Paxton is in complete control of the tired premise. He could have easily relied on cliches from the genre and hack and slash tactics to try and trump up his scenes with "scary" moments; but he wisely sidesteps the pitfalls and knows, probably because he's one of the best damn actors we have, that the father's dialogue -- the serene way he talks about the killings with his kids and how he invites them to participate with him so they can fulfill their destiny -- is far more shocking or and horrifying than slasher cliches. You wince and shudder and hide behind a pillow throughout the film, not because you're scared, but because you're unsure of what this unstable father will do to his children in the name of God. There are biblical allusions throughout the film, most notably the story of Abraham and Isaac, and again, kudos to Paxton to have the tact to not make the scenes involving the father and his children seem gratuitous or over-the-top.

Paxton has been one of my favorite actors ever since I was a little kid and watched him as Hudson in James Cameron's Aliens. He's able to do the maniacal killing machine in that film, the cocky cop like he was in Predator 2, he's able to do the soft spoken sheriff like in the criminally underrated (both the film and his performance) One False Move, he can do sleazy like he was in his movie-stealing performance as Simon in True Lies, and he can do calm authority like in the brilliant thriller A Simple Plan. He takes all of these abilities and applies them to his performance of the father in Frailty. Throughout the film the father runs the gamut of all the aforementioned emotions, and Paxon just nails it and makes you believe that the father still loves his children and is completely insane. It's an impressive balancing act and Paxton walks the high-wire with ease.

The supporting performances are grat, too. I mentioned O'Leary as young Fenton, he's amazing in showing how he doesn't believe his father, and wants to turn him in numerous times -- often calling him a killer in the process of digging holes for his father -- yet he has a hard time doing anything about it because it's his father, and he thinks he's still just dreaming all of this...just waiting for the nightmare to be over.

Frailty is a brilliant film. The film shows a comfortable childhood flipped upside down by one nightmarish night where a father tells his children they need to kill in order to fulfill God's will. It's a masterful psychological horror film that gets under your skin; a perfect example of how horror doesn't have to be torture porn or super gory, but can rely on psychology to be enough to do the job. The film reminded me a lot of The Silence of the Lambs in that regard. There really isn't any violence onscreen in Frailty, but it's the use of lighting, sound, the performances, and the way the father calmly explains how they're going to kill these people that makes the film scarier than almost anything released today that calls itself a horror film.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)

Finally the DVD...has arrived (I was doing The Rock while typing that...a little wrestling humor to start this much belated post).

I might as well get this out right away: I love wrestling. I love it. I have an unabashed love for it. It's what I watch to decompress when I come home from work, or if I have time on a weekend night -- instead of watching bad sitcoms or reality TV, I watch professional wrestling. It's sport, it's spectacle, it's theater in its purest form. I've followed it since I was a kid, taking a brief hiatus from it during 2002-2005, but I came back to it one night in 2006 and I was immediately hooked again. Wrestling isn't the same now compared to when I was a kid, and it's definitely not the same as it was when Hollywood screenwriter Barry Blaustein (Boomerang and The Nutty Professor Movies) made the documentary Beyond the Mat.

Wrestling was experiencing an all time high in viewers during the 1997-2000 years, thanks to what is known as The Monday Night Wars between the WWE and WCW. Well, the WWE wont he battle because they bought out WCW and created what has become a pretty watered-down, kid friendly product where Vince McMahon (the head honcho) employs Hollywood and television writers to turn the product into kid friendly comedy.

So why do I still watch? Because I love the performance of it all. There are still a few wrestlers who are allowed to shape their characters, instead of having them be written for them, and this creates great face (good guys) versus heel (bad guys) dynamics. It's so damn entertaining. This is what comes across in Beyond the Mat: the love of wrestling filtered through the lens of someone who is not being condescending to those who do it for a living. It makes for an enthralling doc that is better than anything about the subject of wrestling I've seen.

Nothing in the documentary really surprised me. See, I'm what is called a smark (smart mark) because I know the inside workings of the business, therefore the product isn't really catered towards someone like me. The term comes from the carnival days of wrestling when they would tour different cities across America. Just like ant good carnival sideshow, the promoters would look for "marks", easy targets they could sucker into believing it was real so they would pay their money to see the show. Well, once word started getting around about the fact that is was fake, the promoters would begin to notice these marks were more privy to what was really going on, so they called them "smart marks", which evolved into "smark".

So knowing what I know it doesn't surprise me when the film opens with Blaustein talking about how wrestling is scripted, practiced, and sometimes meticulously story boarded...because I already knew that. I already knew that sure the wrestlers are doing something that's "fake" the pain, however, is all too real. But that doesn't damper my love for the spectacle or my love of this film; it just makes it less shocking than it might for most (I had the same feelings towards Arronofsky's The Wrestler).

Blaustein follows three subjects throughout the film: Mick Foley (better known as Cactus Jack and Mankind), Terry Funk (53 and preparing for his retirement match), and Jake "the Snake" Roberts (who tours small towns in the Midwest, demanding he get pais in crack). Blaustein interweaves these stories perfectly, using some of film techniques not always used in documentary filmmaking.

Without going into to much detail about these three stories I will say that it's amazing that Blaustein was granted so much permission to film backstage at WWE events. We get access to their board meetings, a meeting with Vince and his creative team who talk with a hopeful new talent (which they want to call Puke, because he can regurgitate on command...oh Vince), we get the frantic workings of backstage before a big time Pay-Per-View; it's all pretty amazing footage that you won't see anywhere else, especially now, because Vince is too sensitive about that kind of stuff.

What's most interesting about the film is how all three subjects share something in common, yet are leading totally different lives. Funk is wrestling for independent start up ECW (also bought out by Vince and the WWE in 2000) on their first ever PPV, he's 53 and has chronic arthritis in both of his knees; he doesn't care, he has to wrestle. Roberts was once one of the premiere wrestling minds until his personal demons became too much for him to control. Jake is not innocent in all of this, but he's definitely a product of the vigorous road schedule (360 days a year) these wrestlers partake in. There's a tragic interview with Jake where talks about how his life just began to devolve into something he couldn't recognize anymore because of the simple fact that he could get anything he wanted on the road as a top WWE performer. He mentions how sex is probably the biggest problem and how there's just no way you can go home and make love to your wife after all of the crazy sexual things you do on the road. It's a powerful scene. Then there's Mick Foley. One of the nicest wrestlers in the business. But he's not off the hook, either. He's WWE World Champion and he's about to drop the belt to The Rock (now Disney film staple Dwayne Johnson) at a major PPV and has invited his wife and two small children to watch in the front row. However, he's not aware of how affected they are by it, and that they can't decipher and rationalize the line between reality and fiction.

They all share one thing: addiction. Sure, there's different kinds of addiction, but for these three, and most wrestlers, it's addiction to the spectacle. The crowd is their needle, the wrestling is their drug, and it destroys lives just as quickly as drugs do. Terry Funk sets up a retirement match in his hometown, bringing together all sorts of people from different wrestling companies to participate. He un-retired three weeks later. He was 53 then, seven years later, at the age of 60 he was wrestling in a WWE Hardcore Match, still blading (if you've seen The Wrestler who know that entails) and still falling off ladders through tables. At 60.

Foley continued to wrestle until retiring in the early 2000's (I wasn't watching it then) only to come back a year later and wrestle again -- then be retired again in another match -- then he came back again. Foley may be the nicest guy according to this documentary, and when Blaustein shows him footage of his kids crying as they watched his match with The Rock from the front row (a match where The Rock handcuffs Foley and hits him in the head with a chair about eight times in a row), Foley calls himself a bad father. It's a telling interview about the affects that the vocation these people have chosen has on their young children. However, despite the fact that Foley may have been sincere in his interview in the film, the truth speaks louder and he was back doing those same things years later. For wrestlers, money (and the crowd reaction, I could imagine it's pretty good on the ego to have 20,000 fans screaming your name) trumps everything else. As of today, Foley is still wrestling for the smaller company TNA...he's their champion.

The funniest thing about the film is that Roberts may be the most honest out of all three of them. He has an un-sexy view of wrestling and how it destroys lives. There's a scene where Blaustein takes Roberts to see his estranged daughter. There's a lot of hurt in the room as they sit together, and even though Robert's avows to keep in touch with her, he goes back to his hotel room and gets high. It's a sad scene, one that I think was an obvious influence on Arronfsky's The Wrestler. The relationship between Randy and his daughter felt a lot like what was going on here with Robert's and his daughter. Wrestling is a business that makes it almost impossible to raise a family. You're on the road too much to be with them, and if you invite them along on the road, you end up getting scenes like Foley's kids crying because of the violence being inflicted upon their dad.

I've always been fascinated with the pain in wrestling. Yeah the blading and blood-soaked faces is sometimes awe-inspiring, but really, the pain is just as real when they leave the arena, and I think that's what Blaustein's documentary does so well. Here's a film that's not afraid to show the not-so-glamorous side of the business, but yet, people still give their life to it. It's an amazing entity. Knowing what I know I still watch it. I hate Vince McMahon and the way he manipulates people, but whatever, I'm sure if filmmakers or producers were as open to the public in their product as Vince is in his then I would probably hate a lot of filmmakers, too. You have to be able to disassociate the performance, the spectacle, with the real life stuff. That's the only way you can survive in the business and as a fan of the business. Knowing what the wrestler's probably go through, it's tough sometimes to watch, but they are entertainers, and the really good ones make me forget about the bad stuff that is inevitable when one talks about wrestling.

I've made allusions to The Wrestler throughout, and if you've seen that film then I highly recommend you watch Beyond the Mat. It's a better film, showing you why Randy "The Ram" does what he does in Arronofsky's film. It gives insight into that film, which I thought was great, but couldn't compare to the real thing (although it came pretty close). In that film Randy sacrifices happiness with the woman he loves because there is now way, in his mind, that she can compare to a building full of people screaming your name. Despite the health risks his character faces, and the fact that Cassidy gives him an easy way out, he throws it all away for the "glory" of the spotlight. It's frustrating, not doubt, but makes so much more sense if you're a fan of wrestling or if you've seen this documentary. My mind keeps going back to that scene with Funk and his doctor, and his doctor is telling him he needs two new knees, but all Funk can ask him is if he can wrestler this weekend. This is a passion that is so deep that not even the pleading of wife and daughters can convince the man to quit. It's a passion that blind and ultimately leads to stupid decision after stupid decision until fans no longer think of you as the great wrestler you once were, but as the sorry, money-loving has been you've become. It constantly happens in the business, and despite people like Foley talking about the integrity of going out on top (which is funny considering the man is still wrestling despite "retiring" multiple times), it's almost impossible for these guys to do that (The Rock did it, though.) because the allure, the pull is too strong.

There's a lot of sad truths in Beyond the Mat: the older Funk waiting by the phone hoping to get another call; Foley feeling the pain of steel chair shots to the head while his kids are in a much greater pain watching it all happen; and Jake Roberts, the least glamorous of them all, speaks the truth on why they business will kill you, and how he's okay with it. There are also some other tremendous insights into the business: a small part of the film follows the ECW brand and its owner Paul E. Dangerously as they run their promotion out of his moms basement (in a funny scene they are filming a promo and his mom is behind the camera ironing). Paul is a man of great passion, he may be an idiot (and I think he is), a low rent Vince McMahon, but he instills passion in his wrestlers. In one great scene he is giving the entire crew a pep talk before their first ever PPV, and it's amazing how all of these grown men look up at him, and are completely enraptured, getting even more pumped up because of what Paul is saying. It's a Jim Jones type of moment, and all of these people are freely drinking Paul E's kool-aid.

This is a great, forgotten film from 1999, and if you enjoy the spectacle that is wrestling, or if you've seen The Wrestler and want to see some of the real people that Aronofsky drew inspiration from, then you should definitely check out Beyond the Mat. It's just a fascinating viewing experience.

Note: Despite how hard I am on Vince McMahon the man has done two things to make his wrestlers safer: When Stone Cold Steve Austin was almost paralyzed by a botched pile driver he outlawed the move; and when Chris Benoit tragically killed his wife and son, then himself, he outlawed chair shots to the head, as many believe that was one of the contributing factors to Benoit losing his mind and committing the horrible act.

Monday, May 25, 2009

DVD Review: Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father

Netflix didn't send my copy of Beyond the Mat on time (it was supposed to come Saturday), so with the USPS not moving today because of the holiday, I figured I'd dust off some notes I jotted down for a movie I watched a while ago.

Kurt Kuenne's documentary Dear Zachary is love letter. Really that's no surprise as the film opens with Kurt narrating talking about how the subject of the film, his murdered friend Andrew, was the star of his home movies while they were growing up together. The film has the warmth and anger one must feel when a close one dies. At times I felt a little odd being let into this world of Andrew, a doctor who, thanks to countless testimonies, we come to find was a great person. There is a mystery surrounding his murder, although the solution is pretty easy, and they even have the killer in custody. But she's allowed to walk free, and this sets off an unbelievable chain of events that are just shattering.

Kuenne uses a lot of tricks to drum up the suspense of his documentary; some of them work, some don't and draw uncomfortable attention to the fact that he his making a film, not a documentary, but overall the effect works because we care about Andrew's death and what will happen to his killer. The documentary is paced like a fictional thriller, bits of evidence are given to the audience throughout the film as the truth is meted out in a way where you find yourself on the edge of your seat incapable of waiting to see what happened next.

The documentary is about Dr. Andrew Bagby son of Kate and David, two people we come to know well as the documentary progresses. Andrew was murdered in the park near his home. A senseless act that has a shocking reason behind it. It's a documentary that, even though you can google the name and find out about the case, I wish not to give any information away. I didn't know much about the film aside from the fact that it was a well regarded doc from last year, so when the story started to unravel, and the truth came out, and crazy thing after crazy thing started happenng...I was in awe.

Andrew Bagby (left) with friend, and the maker of Dear Zachary, Kurt Kuenne

It's evident people loved Andrew as the viewer is privy to all kinds of intimate interviews with family and friends. Andrew's parents obviously fostered a loving household where everyone was invited to partake in their family community as everyone interviewed in the film calls them "mom and dad". Kuenne, obviously close to the subject, interviews the friends and family uncensored; which is rare for a documentary to be so unfiltered, even the medium of documentaries usually has a set way of interviewing people in order to get certain information on to the screen. Sometimes Kuenne lets his camera sit for long periods of time on his interview subjects where deeply rooted anger comes boiling up as the calmness and normalcy of the interview is over, and then after some silence there will be profanity and hatred, a type of venting, that seems too real; I felt weird being in that interview session with them since I, obviously, didn't know Andrew. But man is it powerful stuff. This is especially true in the case of a specific interview session with Andrew's father, David Bagby, who after a lull in the interview goes off on a hate-filled diatribe explaining how he's kill the person who killed his son; and when you find you killed their son, and their connection to everything, it becomes so much more powerful.

I can understand what Kuenne was doing, though. We've all known someone like Andrew, and maybe their still alive and we need to cherish the time we have with those we love; or perhaps we knew someone like Andrew before, like him, their life was take too soon, and this film acts as a catalyst for remembrance. Whatever the case may be, the film is a tremendously powerful, if not manipulative (but what documentary isn't?), experience that lets you in how the death of a well liked person shattered these peoples lives, and reverberated into the future with horrifying consequences as the truth becomes clearer and clearer.

There's a revelation about midway through the documentary that comes as a surprise to us, and as Kuenne who is narrating admits it was a shock to him, that puts these nice people through more hell. However, when you come out of it and the credits roll, you know the wounds will never heal, but you're convinced that these people know what love and community feels like.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

DVD Review: Cemetery Man & Zombie Holocaust

Sunday night I decided to have myself an Italian zombie double feature: the first film, Cemetery Man, directed by Michele Soavi, is considered one of the best zombie films ever made; the other film, Zombie Holocaust, written by Fabrizio de Angelis, the creator of the seminal Italian zombie film Zombi 2, is notorious for, well I don't know if it's notorious for anything, but it's one of the few Italian zombie movies I've yet to see. My affinity for all things Italian horror, specifically Italian zombie films, is no secret -- the blog's namesake gives that away -- just click on some of the tags to see how much writing I've done on Italian horror, and specifically the zombie subgenre; but it's been a long time since I've been able to wax poetic about the genre I love so much so I went ahead and myself a double feature. Thoughts after the jump...

Cemetery Man:

Michele Soavi is one of the forgotten greats of Italian horror. Perhaps that's because he came in a little late, not making his first film well into the 80's. However, Soavi, Aregento's top apprentice, has made some of the best horror films, American or Italian, that I've ever seen. His Stage Fright is a classic hybrid of Italian giallo and American slasher (not to mention one of my favorite horror films), and his eerie The Church is a beautiful looking film with a set design and classical Italian nonsensical ethereal mood throughout. The Church, as a supernatural horror story, excelled in areas that only Argento laid claim to. Soavi then went on a hiatus from film to care for his ailing son. He returned, however, to make mobster films for Italian television (which are supposed to be really good, I'm working on getting those to review). Despite all of the kudos I've showered on the man I hadn't yet seen what was probably his most famous film, sandwiched in between Stage Fright and the mobster films is what many zombie gurus consider one of the premier zombie films, Cemetery Man.

The hype was warranted as Soavi creates a weird hybrid of comedy and classical Italian zombie elements that fans are looking for. The film isn't a gut-muncher like some of the films of Lucio Fulci; it relies more on bizarre scenarios, beautifully shot scenes, and comic violence in the vein of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

The story concerns Francis Delamorte (Francis of Death he tells us through narration) played by Rupert Everett who must guard a cemetery so that the "returners" (or what we would call zombies), who rise from the grave after being a dead one week, don't get out of the cemetery and into the city. Delamorte meets a beautiful woman during a funeral and tells the audience "she was the most beautiful living woman I had ever seen." It's lines like those that make Cemetery Man such a treat. Here's a film that doesn't take itself seriously at all, it has a lot of fun with the premise of zombie flick and the conventions the viewers expect; however, it flips those expectations by taking none of what happens seriously.

Soavi's film does get all meta with the major plot twist that occurs, and it's at this point that the film plays more like fairy tale. Delamorte utters this doozy of a line in his narration: "The living dead and the dying living are all the same; cut from the same cloth"; and thus kicks off his killing spree of not just zombies, but of living people as well. It's a funny take on society and how the killing spree by Delamorte and the zombies are no big deal. The joke does tend to overstay its welcome, but it's such a fun ride, not to mention beautifully shot, that I didn't quite mind that the film is kind of monotonous in the middle.

Delamorte is like Ash from the Evil Dead films: witty, weary, and always on his toes no matter how ridiculous the situation. Delamorte is joined by one of the more bizarre sidekicks I've seen, his name is Gnaghi, which is essentially the only sound he makes. Delamorte tells us that he has "a real passion for dead leaves", so we always see Gnaghi raking leaves. The slapstick element he provides is also pretty amusing as there is a great scene when Delamorte is shocked to find that the "returners" are rising well before their normal one-week time. He's outside struggling with a zombie, runs into Gnaghi's room, continues to fight the zombie without him noticing at all; he just continues eating his meal and watching television. The way the scene is blocked and executed is wonderful, and it's clear to see the influence of Soavi's film on the hilarious Shaun of the Dead. I also love how Soavi plays with the conventions of Italian zombie flicks. There's a great scene where Delamorte walks in on someone being eaten by a zombie -- he's about to put an end to the business when it seems like the girl getting eaten is kind of enjoying it as she says: "please don't, he's only eating me." There's something about that scene that got a huge laugh out of me; in fact the entire film has a wry undertone to it that is often omitted in horror. People often forget that one of the reasons you watch a horror movie is to (gasp) have a good time.

As I've mentioned already, the film is beautiful to look at; Cemetery Man,like a lot of good Italian horror, has style to spare. One thing Soavi does extremely well is light his scenes. The graveyard is a perfect setting for Soavi to work his magic, and there is rarely a scene in the film that doesn't make you realize that Cemetery Man is not your average horror film. There are some truly bizarre moments in the film that will probably turn off the most casual of horror fans (like Delamorte having some serious sex with a woman right by the grave of her ex-husband), but if you're familiar with Italian zombie subgenre, and can enjoy just a classic, cheesy, fun horror film, then this your film. Soavi's film is what I think Sam Raimi's new picture, Drag Me to Hell, will be like: nothing overly gruesome, just a fun horror movie. We need more of those as the genre as turned way too serious. The other amazing thing about Cemetery Man is that it came about 10 years after the last successful Italian zombie film. Italian horror was being phased out, and it was rare to see such a good film produced in a time when horror was middling. This is the exact same thing that happened with his slasher/giallo film Stage Fright.

Soavi is a director who you must acquaint yourself with if you are a fan of horror films. He has an amazing way of integrating haunting sets with hilarious situations without ever compromising either aspect of his film. There's a moment in the film where a motorcycle rider is killed. His friends bury him on his motorcycle, so when the week is up, and it's time for his to rise from the grave, he does so on his motorcycle; he even leaps over a tombstone and Soavi shoots the scene against the moon so all you see is a motorcycle driving zombie silhouetted against the night sky. It's a scene that is both hilarious (especially if you've seen other Italian horror films like Demons that have goofy elements like that in them, only they're played straight) and aesthetically beautiful. It's rare to find a horror director who can balance those two elements with such ease. Soavi often goes unrecognized when people speak about the great Italian horror directors like Bava, Argento, and Fulci; but he deserves mention right along side those giants of Italian horror.

Zombie Holocaust:

Crazy things happen in the jungle...that's what I've learned from Italian horror films. Also, don't mess with the natives, man. Let them do their thing -- so what if you're freaked out by them munching on your dead buddy, just get the hell out of there, don't worry about taking your stupid pictures for the newspaper! Also, if you're a doctor performing "studies" on the natives, you may want to re-think your vocation, because well, the jungle,'ll drive you crazy -- and then a zombie is bound to find you. This is what I've learned from Italian zombie movies that require their characters leave the comforts of the city to go find out what's going on in the jungle.

This film is nothing special, just your typical drive-in movie from the 80's that really doesn't even contain that many zombies. The film stars Ian McCullough as a doctor and Delli Colli as a journalist who unearth the horrifying mysteries about "zombies" in "New York City" (Italian horror directors never filmed on location). This leads the two to a mysterious island where the characters are relegated to a lot of sight seeing so all sorts of Italian horror staples can occur: stock footage, funky synth music, gratuitous nudity, cannibalism, etc.

The film is good for a laugh as you get a good sense of the type of film you're getting into from the onset. The film opens with a mysterious figure hack-sawing off limbs from a cadaver that's to be used for an Anatomy class that Dr. Butcher (yes his name is Dr. Butcher) teaches. Butcher is amazingly portrayed by Donald O'Brien who is like a low(er) rent Mel Ferrer. This allows the film to immediately begin with the usual close-ups of intestines. I swear, watching these old Italian zombie movies is like watching Discovery Health; they thought it was so neat to show you the insides of people.

This leads to Peter (McCullough) and Lori (Delli Colli) inquiring about such and such (seriously these generic zombie plots all run together) and wanting to see what Dr. Butcher is up to when they hear he is on an island "helping" the natives. The convoluted plot, the backwards logic, the amazing justification for the good doctor's "life work" -- they're all the classic bad movie elements that make these 80 minute affairs tolerable. However, they are a lot more fun to watch with a group of people than by yourself.

The film was obviously shot at the same time as writer Fabrizio de Angelis' other film Zombi 2 was. It contains two of the same actors,essentially the same storyline, and all of the same locations; however, the film is lacking in the creative gore found in Zombi 2. The gore in this film looks more like the leftovers from Lucio Fulci's famous zombie film. Most of the shots are of scalpels going through cadavers and it is some of the most laughable effects I've as it's pretty clear it's just a scalpel going through a bed sheet; the "skin" even bunches up as the scalpel goes through it. Pretty funny stuff that definitely fall under the so-bad-it's-good category.

If you're bored, and have about 80 minutes to kill, Zombie Holocaust isn't bad for a laugh. There are plenty of moments that I could go into detail about, but really, they're just the same as the moments found in much better, and funnier, Italian zombie flicks like Nightmare City, Burial Ground, and The House by the Cemetery. There's some decent enough gore effects once they get on the island, but the film really only has zombie in the title so that they could cash in on the successes of Romero's Dawn of the Dead (entitled Zombi in Italy) and Fulci's "sequel" to that film Zombi 2 that were sweeping Italy at the time. If you're a completest like me, though, then definitely check this out as there's something kind of charming about the familiarity of it all.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Sunshine (István Szabó)

This is another edition to my posts that revisit 1999. The 'Forgotten Films' will be featured every Monday until I'm done with the list; then I'll be moving on the conclusion of this project, the best films of 1999. Last week I took a look at the forgotten, painful family drama The War Zone, directed by Tim Roth. This week it's István Szabó's saga Sunshine. Next week look for Beyond the Mat, a documentary about pro wrestling. If you liked this years The Wrestler, then you'll want to check this out next Monday.

István Szabó's Sunshine is unapologetic, melodramatic family saga. It has the sweep of an epic that would be more at home in the 50's or 60's, not at the postmodern, cynical turn of the century; it also is one of the rare films that boasts a performance so good that you're likely to forget that the three hour film is never quite the masterpiece it so badly wants to be. At times the film feels more like Masterpiece Theater than large scale epic, but the always fabulous Ralph Fiennes (turning in his second great performance of 1999, the other being his role in Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair) turns in one of the finest performances of 1999, and he does it playing three different characters.

The film follows three generations of the Sonnenschein's, a Jewish family living in Hungary. Fiennes plays all three patriarchs of the family -- spanning three generations -- beginning with Ignatz, a judge who rises to prominence only to be burdened and torn by the fact that his government has sanctioned anti-Jewish laws. Ignatz is trusted as a judge, but the Chief Justice advises him to change his name to something more Hungarian. Ignatz obliges and he and his sister Valerie (oh, who is also his lover and future wife) and brother Gustav change their last names to Sors; which means prophecy, fate, destiny, task. There is a certain kind of glee as the kids look for their new name, as if they will be able to fulfill duties not associated with being Jewish. This, however, sets off a chain reaction that reverberates through all three generations of the (now) Sors family.

Ignatz is so trusted that he becomes part of the ruling class, something his father doesn't necessarily approve of. Meanwhile, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignatz get married and have a son Adam; however, with more trust from the ruling class, Ignatz is becoming a different man, abandoning not just his name but his faith and family, too. Valerie divorces him and in a scene of tremendous understated power tells him in a matter-of-fact way that she is divorcing him, but that she'll always be his sister. And, in true grandiose, epic form, Valerie utters the words "neither my husband nor my brother can give me what I need. I'll suffocate without love in my life." What follows is a brutal scene of pathetic proportions as Ignatz can't deal with the dual loss of his wife and sister.

The second hour of the film focuses more on the second generation of Sors, with Igntaz deteriorating into a dreadful, hate-filled man. Istvan and Adam are the two sons, and the film follows closely Adam's life as an all-world fencer who wants to join the Officer's Club. However, Jewish people are not allowed in the club, so like his father, he is faced with a dilemma of what to do about his name and the faith that comes attached to it. While his father changed the name, the reverberations from that act are felt in the actions Adam takes to further distance the Sors' from the Sonnenschein's; he must convert to Christianity in order to join the club. Adam acquiesces and is soon made captain of the Olympic fencing team that goes on to win a gold medal. Adam enjoys the pleasures of success as he has an affair with Gretta (a young Rachel Weisz), who again, like Valerie in the first generation, spouts lines like "love is all there is" and "I won't stop loving you because love doesn't stop." This is truly an epic film about love that is interested in all of the cliches, good and bad. Adam's fame, however, brutally and horrifically comes crashing down as he is heritage is found out and he is taken to an interment camp.

The internment camp scene is one of the most powerful I've seen in a film. I forgot about the way Adam meets his end in which he refuses to admit his name is Sonnenschein (all because of a medal) and avows that he is Adam Sorn Olympic Gold Medalist. This only infuriates the head guard who then strips him naked in the cold of winter and hang him from a tree, they then proceed to spray him with a hose until a thick layer of ice covers him and he can no longer breath. It's one of the most powerful images in the film; not just because of the horrors it makes you realize went on, and the incredibly ridiculous intolerance that was rampant in Europe at the time, but also, in the film's context, the fact that Adam was so attached to his medal, to his fame as an Olympic fencer -- the status of it all -- that he refused to acknowledge is heritage. A name is something quite important to Adam, but only the name Sors, not the Sonnenschein family name. It's a powerful, powerful sequence.

The third hour, and final story arc, follows Adam's son Ivan, who comes home weeping, informing his mother (now being played by the great Rosemarie Harris) of Adam's death. Ivan is urged to join the police by Gustav, who has returned, too. William Hurt plays Andor Knorr, the captain who brainwashing young Ivan into getting all of the "rat bastard traders"; the Hungarian's who turned on their own kind. This leads to a manhunt of anyone who may have been artistic, individualistic, or anyone who does not have "worker's hands" -- these are the people that threaten the state. Ivan, who has shown that he easily susceptible to authoritative voices, is then asked to bring down Knorr who is photographed with "the traders" and wanted for Zionist Conspiracy. Ivan must lead the investigation and interrogate his boss.

Whew. That's a lot of exposition about the film. Sunshine has a lot of ideas floating around in its head, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. One of the most interesting things about the film is how Igntaz' decision to change his name created a son who was too stubborn to admit who he really was, and and a grandson who was too weak to think for himself and decipher right from wrong. Oh, Ivan does have an epiphany by the end of the film, one that comes in the form of realizing that "Jew" and "Worker" were the same derogatory term whioch leads to a chain of events that bring the story full circle, where Ivan is asking to change his name back to Sonnenschein; there's even a "Rosebud" type moment that film ends on as Ivan can't locate one important possession admists all of his grandfather's things as he is clearing how the Sonnenschein house.

The nuances of Fiennes' performance is really what makes this giant machine run. Sometimes the journey is a bit clunky and overwrought, but Fiennes always portrays the three generation of Sors' with a subtle difference that, without the aide of donning make up, makes them easily identifiable. Credit goes to director Szabó, too for not making the film over complicated; sure, it may drag at in the final act, but the information and ideas are almost always intriguing, and it's interesting to see all of Central Europe's modern "tragic misadventures", as a narrating Ivan puts it, covered with such scope; most directors would just want to focus on the love stories or the internment camps, but Szabó wisely balances them all so that you never feel like you're in too familiar of territory.

Sunshine is forgotten most likely because of the patience it takes for one to sit through it. It's a slow moving film, with little to offer for those with a short attention span. The love stories are pretty generic, weepy melodramatic moments found in most epics, but the second hour of the film is phenomenal and powerful, and of course, at the center of it all, you have what it probably the best performance of 1999 by Ralph Fiennes. It's worth checking out for his performance alone.