Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nightcrawler (2014)

Where there's human misery, there's a camera rolling

Every morning someone is reported as to being shot on the local news. After seeing enough bleak accounts day after day, I start to wonder what kind of affect it has to know of random, one-off incidents that barely scratch the surface. Your filter can only include or exclude so many stories of what feels like your city crumbling around you. Eventually it can get backed up with an unwashable fear that may turn irrational in the way it obscures what was once a clear view. Only to come full circle when one unconsciously watches and waits for a shred of resolve or understanding that they'll never get in the format it's long been in. This film is going to take on some of those messages, though push the tone further than the general movie-watcher may be accustomed or comfortable with. Saddle up, make sure the red light is on and get ready for what could be someone's--or your--last ride.

"Nightcrawler" is a pitch black character study and satire--rightfully exaggerated--about a man's introduction to the caught-in-action videography side of local crime news in L.A. As one well-paid stringer, as they call 'em, says, "If it bleeds, it leads." Depending on how you look at it it can be both refreshing or asphyxiating--eye-opening or eye-clenching--or sometimes both. There's an irony to it--like with "American Psycho"--in how society inadvertently excels a sociopath to greatness. It steers away from the tried-and-true tale of a hero's rise to righting wrongs that you could walk out feeling good about. I mean, some can be aspiring and challenging depending on the give and take of the direction; others can feel like a kind of grasping fantasy in a real world that is as harsh as picking yourself back up off its hardened, weather-worn concrete paved paths.

Instead of centering around a martyr like, say, a "Serpico" that unflinchingly does the right thing despite those around him, you get to watch the actions of its doppelganger Louis Bloom. His brazen confidence and quench for power is something not to take your eyes and ears off of despite his "charming" personality. Well, at least he thinks so. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself to be almost unrecognizable in features and mannerisms with the character. With the overall look and pacing being like that of a cramped, overlooked broom closest that reveals an even narrower, darker and darker pathway, it only cements it as he can progressively weigh into you.

For a directorial debut by a seasoned script writer with family connections--Dan Gilroy; also married to the lead actress Rene Russo who plays, Nina, a desperate, green-and-red-in-the-eyes news director who finds something in Louis--this is surprisingly well done by bringing about consistent performances, a sense of tension and mostly developing the plot naturally. There are points that feel single sided to line up to the extreme spectrum of a what-if scenario, though the movie digs its hooks in deep enough to the moment by moment that it can be overlooked. It's not a film that is just going for a "it's good." It's not a neat little package with cute bow and delightful surprise. The difference being that even after the credits rolled it was effective enough to stick with me for getting down and dirty and breaking a share of the usual cinematic rules about an everyday subject that's ingrained and normalized in a portion of us. It can make one wonder what all that chaotic noise of information might actually mean. Is it something we want or need to see, or something we're told we want or need to see? Maybe an ambiguous pull and tug of both.

Rating: 8.5/10

Director: Dan Gilroy (writer of "Reel Steel" and "The Bourne Legacy")
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed.
Site: IMDB
Trailer: Youtube link

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Os Violentadores de Meninas Virgens (1983)

Brazilian fathers, lock your daughters away now!

This is a sleazy, ultra-rare exploitation crime-thriller from Brazil. By large the plot is senseless and seems only there to show sex and violence to titillate the audience. A pimp has rich clients who want to pay him exclusively for virgins. And what better way to get ahold of unspoiled girls? Why kidnap them when they're doing everyday activities because no sane and unblemished female would have anything to do with this criminal syndicate when she sees their hideous mugs and tell-all grins. They throw in subplots involving the media and the Sheriff, and then as an after thought the film turns over to a dry cleaner named Pedro, his fiancee Suely and her brother/his friend Shorty who wanted to help but got caught up in the mayhem. The film is as simple as the heat closing in on the clients who want more virgins after an initial taste no matter the cost, along with they want Shorty, Pedro and Suely dead for getting too close.

If you're looking for any social commentary or anything important to say, you sought after the wrong film despite involving the news and being filmed in a section of Brazil during a time of political turmoil. Even when a woman is being violated it's questionable if the direction was intended to disgust rather than erotically excite the senses compared to other rape/revenge pictures that were more about shock, getting under one's skin or even gaining a new perspective like "I Spit on Your Grave." This was a cheaply made film, so the acting meets the grade, the dialogue is utterly direct, the direction often overemphasizes the point, and the pacing has both its ups and downs due to stretching the lack of in between. Not to mention the actors frequently have incredibly exaggerated mannerisms that make this unintentionally comical both when it's trying and not trying to be.

There are a few areas that are inappropriately tongue-in-cheek despite the sensitive subject matter. At one point, a young virgin girl goes to visit her boyfriend. He attempts to do the deed regularly when she says she wants to be married a virgin. The next scene has her flipped around to enter at a "different angle" as if the problem was easily solved. Unlike some other rape/revenge features, this is heavily miscued for the bad guy's favor. There's some shreds of forced sympathy for the good guys, so this doesn't look completely cold and cruel, but that's as far as that goes. There's no real worthwhile hero to give this a level of coolness or cheering power, as the main character Pedro (director Francisco Cavalcanti) is always one step behind and doesn't have any extra intuition in how to get back at them. Eventually he gets lucky when there's an opening, but by that point a share of the damage is already done, which makes it fall flat on climax.

Only recommended for die-hard completionists and those with thick skin looking for easy entertainment at the expense of others, as this feels like a failed experiment gone wrong in one too many areas to be worthwhile otherwise.

Rating: 3/10

Director: Francisco Cavalcanti
Link: IMDB

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

When a victim gets their day

The '70s saw an emergence of films with individuals taking matters into their own hands from "Straw Dogs," "Dirty Harry," "Deliverance," "The Last House on the Left," "Thriller" to "Death Wish" about the justice system being too lenient or not being readily available in the most extreme of cases. Citizens weren't trusting "The Man" or those other two-faces that were supposed to be protecting and serving rather than beating and discriminating.

"I Spit on Your Grave," aka "Day of the Woman," involves drawn out rape and excessive humiliation to amplify that point. By the time it's ready for payback, few are questioning whether its means were justified. It makes sense within the narrow realm of the movie, though its black and white, open and shut delivery doesn't always do itself a service because it leaves little to debate or expose deeper layers. Not to mention, it's such an over-the-top set of scenarios that a viewer might just assume it unlikely and move on. Did she ask for it? Certainly not. Was she justified for what she did? With the extent she went through most would say yes I'd imagine. The film lacks subtlety to go either way with those questions and instead clunks a viewer over the head with its delivery, which makes the experience somewhat basic and straightforward and lacking in challenge. The simple directorial approach has a tendency to show rather than tell, but instead of being more interpretive it feels stripped down to the bare essentials: rape and revenge. The first is depicted with some realism in the way power and domination plays a part in the debasing act. The second is purely cinematic in the way it transitions so easily, not to mention with little question and without a hitch. Everything else with the picture leaves little in between. To its credit there are a share of scenes that are memorable for better or worse and it can keep one's attention glued for the duration even when only one aspect happens at a time.

A young and confident woman from New York City named Jennifer Hills rents a summer house by the edge of the river in a remote area a few hours away. She wants the peace and tranquility to write a fictional novel but finds bigger trouble in the thought to be quaint setting with three bored delinquents and their mentally handicapped, tag-along friend. They carry a sense of entitlement, so when turned down they don't just only take but make a point to degrade this city girl supposedly struttin' her stuff. There's nothing erotic or pleasing to be found here for the viewer, just a purely senseless violation of another person in a lonely, desperate state and setting while the audience helplessly watches on for at least a good 30 minutes. Jennifer even has the slow and agonizing walk of shame back, where you think the antagonists are going to collect their thoughts and feel guilty for what they've done, but then proceed to amp up the carnage like they were just getting warmed up. It went from a spur of the moment action to something far more dark and depraved. It feels like a firm decision was never made as to whether they're supposed to be mirroring real people or just making pure cinema villains that are only ever seen on the big screen. The end result gives a little of both: a minimal outline of their lives, but with actions that don't always line up in the way that they seem to go beyond the explanations shown or given.

The performances of the male characters went from being your typical rowdy bunch to missing all relating points the way they're so over-the-top and know exactly what they're doing. It seemed instinctual and predatory to the point of animalistic. The main actress Camille Keaton doesn't shy away from what the film puts her through. She's dragged into the mud over and over again. Some scenes she's standing fully nude with dirt and grime all over. Or in another instance she's being picked up and manhandled with forceful weight on her tiny frame. The Jennifer character has more to reveal at first, in that an independent woman tries to mark her territory and go about her life but has others taking advantage of her outgoing personality when her guard is down. The portion where the revenge takes place starts to lose relating points in that her cold and determined motivations are kept to herself for the sake of cinematic surprise rather than getting to know how she actually ticks. The only area shown for reflection is the repercussions on the victim's family. Otherwise, it makes her stone-face demeanor seem just as equally unfeeling and depraved as her tormentors. Yeah, violence begets violence and no one is the winner. But it causes the film to unfold as a blatant formula: we all meet, you relentlessly torture me without putting up a fight, I torture you without putting up a fight so you could look shamed and humiliated too, the end. Any questions?

This is a daring film for its day, but due to a shallow script doesn't transcend itself to be more than a go-for-the-throat exploitation piece. The biggest command the picture has and why it's lasted so long is that it doesn't hold back in its cruelty. Even completely dehumanizing stories made by sensationalist papers to bring out fear skip out on at least some details. This is essentially the gratuitous nitty gritty that's left out to get even more under one's skin. The camera angles are fully framed without trick photography, that way little is missed. By not including a score but just sound effects made the movie more effective to put one in the direct moment. Rape doesn't need a theme song, now does it?

"I Spit on Your Grave" purposely tries to aggravate and entice a viewer by using a mentally challenged guy, by having no police presence, by having no remorse or regret except from getting caught, by including a former Marine as if it was a cause and effect, by including slightly older guys who should know better, and then by having one of them married with kids no less! The more contradicting faults about the antagonists the better to rile a viewer up, otherwise the constructive arguments that might come about are primarily from the watcher. The filmmakers went in with a message about a female victim getting her day, demanded you paid attention with gross travesties, but then skipped over making a productive point for others, which leaves the audience satisfied in one way on a superficial level but emotionally set-up and manipulated on another. This just feels like a straight set up for a revenge film with simple characters strategically moved around to get the biggest reaction. Decent for what it advertises but otherwise you won't get more out of the experience unless you put in more effort for where the filmmakers didn't.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Meir Zarchi
Stars: Camillie Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann
Link: IMDB

Last House on the Beach (1978)

3 criminal men, a nun and a group of virgins at the beach

"Last House on the Beach" is an Italian made thriller about three sadistic bank robbin' guys who need a place to hold up from their latest heist. And where else do they pick for their several day lay over from the law? Why some "random" tucked away beach house with none other than a nun heading a group of all female students innocently practicing for a stage play. You know, just the thing deviant kidnappers dreams are made of.

The biggest underlying theme here is if an ordinary group of people, as well as someone of the "divine" cloth, who's ultimately human underneath, is capable of bringing out their inner vengeance to reap on their captures what they sowed. The nun angle one can imagine was a scolding hot topic for someone from the homeland of Catholicism in their collective borders. Similar to earlier Giallo mysteries presenting the finale with a priest holding the knife must have been a real whopper of a shake up to the daily hail Mary spoutin' folks that have unwavering traditions and rituals ingrained in them from the moment they take a first breath. With other movies that present a question it usually lingers after it ends, this, however, directly asks and answers which limits some of the challenge.

The violence comes and goes, there are moments when the kidnappers give break and others when it's let loose such as boredom leading to drinking, drinking leading to groping, and groping leading to raping. There's blood and nudity, yet it isn't relentless or always in the audience's face compared to other exploitation films. Which leads me to believe that the filmmakers were balancing out the shocking physicalities as well as the ominous underlying question that was also asked in its precursors "The Virgin Spring" and "The Last House on the Left": Could a citizen give an eye for an eye if the tables reversed, or turn the other cheek and forgive and forget? The idea is if a thought to be untouchable clergy woman could, so could you.

What's in its favor is the film was shot well for its genre type with a crisp wide angle lens that doesn't always need to zoom or move around a lot as a result. A share of this has random, funky, larger-than-life, rock-tinged music inserted that doesn't always add to making the claustrophobic environment smaller or the situation any more terrorizing. Though they slowly escalate their lusts and push and prod the women into feeling backed into a corner. There was a strange, if a little too stylish for its own good scene that stood out from the rest. It involves a series of chaotic voices that stream overtop of a sleazy, upbeat hard rock number while two of the goons rape one of the young woman from behind in ultra slow motion and with a randomly painted face. There is another surreal one with a scenario similar to "Night Train Murders" with an even larger object forced into a victim--all in slo-mo again with exaggerated, contorted facial expressions in uncomfortable close ups to make a viewer feel every agonizing inch.

The events skip around the several day episode to get to the meat of it, though the pacing still feels somewhat sporadic, causing the film--despite some memorably heinous scenes--to not always be consistently gripping or tension filled. At a few points they step outside to break the single environment archetype of being trapped in a house, though even with Bolkan's subtle acting as the nun and Ray Lovelock's charming looks and dangerous demeanor, this isn't as gripping as it could have been. The bad guys are, well, simply bad guys with few things on their minds. A few areas break the molds of what you would expect a criminal to act like, such as one being a good natured looking drop out of college or another being a pervert who reads Faulkner. The women whisper their escapes but get easily pushed around like the filmmakers wanted in order to lead up to their main agenda towards the latter part of the film. A balance wasn't always struck to give a solid relation between the characters or their plight, causing the audience to look about impassively and make their own loose assumptions.

Rating: 5.5/10

Director: Franco Prosperi
Stars: Florinda Bolkan, Ray Lovelock
Link: IMDB

Death Weekend (1977)

Some men are sly, some aggressive: only a lady can clean up their act

This was a low to moderately budgeted Canadian thriller--from producer Ivan Reitman who would go on to do "Animal House" and "Ghostbusters"--about what happens when road games are taken too far when a group of out-of-control bullies attempt to take advantage of a two regular, working class folks in a remote setting.

A successful but superficial dentist named Harry and his newly met model friend Diane--who's unlike the typical diva that's afraid to get her hands dirty or ready to put out at the drop of a dime--take a trip out to a secluded area to spend the weekend at his cabin by the lake in Canada. Diana takes over the wheel in Harry's black Corvette with a super charger engine and finds herself battling another red muscle car packed to the seats with four rowdy hooligans. Their leader, Lep, sums up what's to come with the line: "You'll get yours baby" as he licks his lips when she gets the best of them. Lacking the education to even spell their name or calculate the total bill for alcohol consumption that day, the delinquents still end up finding the cabin after doing some local terrorizing on the way. There they vandalize the property and play psychological games with their captures as a form of over-the-top payback with no end in sight except to satisfy their depravity and lust.

The more booze they abuse, the more the events escalate to dangerous levels till the victims can find it in themselves to put a stop to the mayhem and terror. Let's just say, when pushed against a wall: don't mess with this chick! The story is pretty straightforward with no subtext or underlying driving point to fall back on except for revenge and more revenge: you mess with me, I'll mess with you. The rape scenes are pretty tame compared to "The Last House" and others that fall more so in the rape/revenge format than this. She's thrown around and traumatized, which is a nasty act in itself, but it's questionable if there was actual insertion. The film still has a certain mood that comes with a share of ugliness to it with arrogant playboys trying to be sly to get their way in the world, to then arrogant rednecks becoming forceful to get what they want out of others. Then there's a strong lady in the middle to put a stop to both at separate times--probably doing the world a favor; like mother nature taking out a small village headed towards destruction.

With the exception of Brenda Vaccaro, playing the part of Diane, the characters are only given simple archetypes with limited range. Despite this, the performers take their parts with a bit of seriousness even when giving the occasional rough-house joke that's usually one sided and at the expense of the victim. "Death Weekend," aka "The House by the Lake," is a film that relies on its interactions and thrills rather than its narrative. On the one hand the events move along steadily and provide enough room to make the woman's actions a little more believable than jumping right into primal instincts as if she was just a caveman yesterday. Though, on the other, from holding back with some reserve it limits the number of exceptional scenes that could have taken advantage of the situation and made this more of a memorable classic. The characters do a few unpredictable things within a certain scene but overall this still feels somewhat formulaic in the larger scope. It's still a movie that a viewer can count on even if it doesn't pull out a number of surprises outside of the boxed-in template.

Rating: 6/10

Director: William Fruet (Wedding in White)
Stars: Brenda Vaccaro, Chuck Shamata, Don Stroud
Link: IMDB

Death Game (1977)

The most whacked out and impulsive women you'll ever meet!

This wasn't a rape/revenge feature per se--more like sex/revenge if there ever was a genre--as no one actually gets raped. But it still plays on sex and violence after the fact from one man giving in to urges but quickly regretting the decision when the women use it against him in a series of long, terrorizing mind games. This came out well before "Fatal Attraction" and I'm sure if mainstream audiences would have seen it, it could have made some men second guess which loose women they choose to take on the side that initially look to give it up so easily.

Two young women named Jackson and Donna turn up soaking wet from storms at the door of a family man named George's house when looking for someone else. He's home alone with his wife and kids out of town and allows what he thinks are nice ladies to use his phone inside to get a ride. This leads to using his bathrobes, bathroom and eventually they seduce him in his bathtub no less. He reluctantly goes along to what looks like guilt free gratification, though morning comes and they still haven't left. They begin to take advantage and act rambunctious to the point where he sees red and wants to call men in blue. He drives them to San Francisco but when arriving back home, they're hiding in wait. They tie him up and play a series of sadistic, psychological games while George squirms and pleads for them to let him out.

This has a simple story that plays out somewhat straightforward with no complex layers to get in the way. It's more about atmosphere, which set out to make one uncomfortable as the unpredictable women push buttons and get under one's skin. It's supremely irritating and can cause one to tap their foot or cross their arms but that seems to have been the point. This has more hyena-like cackling and incessant calling of George's name than memorable dialogue. Even most of their bizarre actions are so out there that it can't be described rationally. Some of the scenes are supposed to be nothing but just weird, sadistic fun, with a number of them that look improvised by the actresses. There are some scenarios that play on natural interaction rather than doing anything significant or substantial. It makes it feel like a loosely connected series of events in a bad dream with no chance of waking up.

There are a few quick nude scenes with tops and behinds of the pretty but dangerous women--you can see why he got tricked. The sex scenes use more rubbing and kissing and quick cuts to get around showing penetration shots. Seymor Cassel, playing George, feels like a caricature of the everyday guy with standard look and dialogue that's the epitome of getting the message across to the point of not generating a spark of interest. However, the two performances of the women have areas of standing out. One of which includes Donna acting out a prior molestation in her mind or that really happened while beating on George and simultaneously screaming like a lunatic--must have been fun to make this film to be able to let loose like that. The camera angles and quick edits can be jarring, not to mention the lighting set-ups can be strange in certain areas, with the music even odder due to being so upbeat and contrasting. The film eventually starts to lose a driving point and wane on tension--apart from him getting his mock verdict by the women and an hour glass counting down--but even then it feels like padding. It turns over to an incredibly abrupt, unsatisfying ending that makes you think the filmmakers either ran out of money or ideas--possibly both.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Peter S. Traynor
Stars: Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp, Seymour Cassel
Link: IMDB

Lipstick (1976)

Next time someone asks your opinion about their music...lie

This was a Hollywoodized version of the rape/revenge format that was starting to pick up steam in the '70s, except the difference is it throws in a legal battle and concentrates more so on the first than the second of the formula. For the cinematic experience, "Lipstick" has some memorable and gripping scenes, though for social commentary the script isn't air tight due to taking on too many threads at once. This tries to be something like "Dirty Harry" and "The Last House on the Left" at the same time with mixed results.

Kathy wants her older sister Chris, who's a busy and exceptionally beautiful fashion model, to listen to her seemingly nice teacher Gordon Stuart's music. Chris and Gordon rendezvous at her apartment alone where tensions flare with this person she hardly knows when he sees how much success she has. Then only mounts when she takes a phone call from another guy in the other room partly as an excuse to get away from his grating, electronic tunes. He begins to degrade her with exaggerated accusations that eventually turn over to raping and terrorizing Chris in various, over-the-top ways until a very confused preteen Kathy accidentally walks in to witness her role model taking advantage of her loving sister that's essentially a parental figure. What looks to be an open and shut case with evidence and witnesses, only ends up opening new wounds when not only her but her sister as well have to testify in court in front of this manipulative man that turned Chris' glamorous life into nightmarish pain and trauma.

Gordon gets a slick and weaselly attorney that looks for every loophole and technicality imaginable. The film carries a message about how little can be done about rapes: how it's stacked against the victims because of due process and your word against their's. Not to mention people in her life, such as her boyfriend, are insensitive because it's going to put her livelihood and reputation on the line, and then she might not even win in court regardless. Her other support is a priest brother who represents a road of healing rather than hate. When all else fails with the men in her life that are supposed to be protectors from another incident, she finds it in herself to take matters into her own hands with a message that's going to get some men checking their drawers if everything's still in place.

The film shows how there can be exceptions to the rules that govern how we judge people on the surface. One is a vile person in hiding, despite being in a position of respect with not only young kids but also at a church, and the other has a heart of gold, despite being socially elite in something as fickle as fashion. The strange part is Stuart's character is portrayed as highly sociopathic and unfeeling in one instance but then is able to get hot under the collar and feel guilt in another, except the two don't go hand and hand. It's not the most effectively made film or entirely believable because of a narrow set of circumstances but it still gets the message out there that even the courts are imperfect.

Instead of being a thoroughly challenging film with ambiguity, at times it feels somewhat emotionally manipulative to go a certain way with a black and white delivery. This still carries some messages about abuse against women, but the main one is how citizens are supposed to be protected by the justice system. It also deals with some double standards about how men of distinction are hardly ever questioned, while women not only have to deal with the painful memories but live with further shame and embarrassment from the public because she must have done "something" wrong to find herself in that position. The rape scene isn't pleasant to say the least. Despite being a model who sells her looks, they made it so there wasn't a shadow of a doubt that Chris did not deserve it. If that wasn't enough the filmmakers put it in the audience's face that she's also incredibly charming and accommodating. It seems overkill to make her extremely sympathetic to the point of clubbing the viewer over the head. We get it: she can't help it that's she exceptionally pretty or desired and it should be her choice who she shares herself with.

There's somewhat of a lull after the heated trial till it picks back up again to a faster paced thriller. The movie waited till the last minute to pull the revenge, that way there wasn't a doubt with the audience, not to mention the second court case was breezed over as well to sweep inquisitive questions that might jeopardize the story under the rug. I think the ending would have been much more effective if it just closed with her revenge like "Thriller," rather than showing a not very plausible court verdict. They could have really made the tumblers work if her violence wasn't justified by law but rather to show she became part of the problem. It was such a quick scene that it didn't ask questions or show how violence and revenge affects a victim such as how long "The Virgin Spring," "Straw Dogs" and "Deliverance" concentrated on the two. For the first trial in the film, this is no more guilty than 90% of the other stories that switch over to courtroom drama that's more about emotion than actual rules and procedures. There's just enough to make it look potentially real but then the other portions are a circus act of outbursts, surprise evidence and witnesses.

The two lawyers, played by Anne Bancroft and Robin Gammell, despite being more cinematic than real to life, go further with their roles than the two leads as they fight neck to neck in a battle of slyness, egotism and last but least justice. Margaux Hemingway, with her first film role, takes on the part somewhat low key as if she's reserved--even with a dry, unexcited voice--though with a few outbursts in between. It's hard to say if it was the director or her choice to underdo certain scenes instead of playing it up, so that there's little if any mistranslation or complications to understanding her role. Chris Sarandan's character, as Gordon, is only loosely outlined to make him that much more creepy, though he becomes the Boogey Man in human form the way he's sometimes moved around to get thrills than representing anything concrete. The young Mariel Hemingway exceeds in her role as Kathy by playing a naive girl with a crush that gets forced into adulthood too early.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Lamont Johnson
Stars: Margaux Hemingway, Chris Sarandon, Mariel Hemingway, Anne Bancroft
Link: IMDB

Night Train Murders (1975)

Criminals, the rich and a set of fresh victims meet on a train

Over the years some Italian films have capitalized on the success of American pictures with lesser results. "Night Train Murders" isn't shy about making an unofficial sequel to "The Last House on the Left" except on a train and in another continent. Likewise a group of delinquents and their female companion attack and humiliate two unsuspecting young girls out to see the world on their own until they go too far and the parent(s) find it in them to seek out revenge that's just as cruel as what they suffered. Though it's a different film in its own right that plays more on social class idiosyncrasies in Europe and follows a better pacing and development over "Last House" due to being a little more restrained and refined with style from a seasoned director. While not as over-the-top as others in the rape/revenge subgenre, it still carries punch due to some worked up scenes and the lasting messages it carries as well.

Two young college girls seek independence during their Christmas vacation when they take a train by themselves to visit family. Meanwhile two street thugs go on a petty crime spree in the city and end up on that same train to escape a police officer. A rich, business looking woman bids her husband goodbye and ends up joining the two criminals due to the three being attracted to power and control. From only doing minor crimes beforehand, the two male criminals step up to the big leagues when the fancy looking woman uses her wily ways to egg on the two men to senselessly torment and violate the girls who were just at the wrong place and at the wrong time.

"Night Train Murders" spends some time showing how the circumstances led up to what they did with shots of the surroundings, some introductions and light drama. It's an exploitation piece but as a result of the gradual flow it can make one feel dirty and sick for watching the unfeeling events unfold one moment at a time right before your widening eyes. It doesn't help that there are intercut shots of the parents none the wiser as they go about their little fights of money and politics in their wealthy household that bought them everything but protection for their daughter. The only time the film shows sympathy is when the captures themselves think they went too far, which is going to probably get on some people's nerves to show they're human beings too and not monsters usually portrayed in films in a black and white context to make it easier to swallow. The dialogue comes with the usual English dubs by professional voice actors that speak overtly smooth and proper. The performances aren't award winning but they show some range between the characters with distinct qualities and faults too. Macha Meril stands out among the cast as the rich and sadistic woman who not only carries the look but also makes the little transitions needed to believably pull off both sides of her dual personality. Ennio Morricone's score is melancholic and full of doom and gloom the way piano strokes will methodically time their hits like a slow funeral march, or how a harmonica will sound high notes that resemble pleading wails. The opening credits have a male soprano soothingly singing as if unavoidable tragedy is about to come and he's padding the fall.

The movie leaves some room for the viewer to decide their stance rather than giving a clear cut solution to all of the problems presented. Like "Last House" this has a theme about violence and vengeance by showing how easily it can be done but that the after effects are the worst portion of the whole process, for antagonist and protagonist alike. There's the question of if a normal, modern family person, even with respectable qualities and a profession that cures the sick, is able to commit retaliation on someone beyond reform. It shows just how differently we perceive the well-off compared to the common person. The villainous woman is more concerned with her appearance than other's feelings or what they're going through. The same can be said about any money grubbing corporate types who trample the weak any which way they can. They often get a free ride just for how they look rather than how they actually act just because they pay the bills on time. There's a message about letting your children out into the world without properly preparing them for the dangers, as they might have been too sheltered before that. There's even a witness who has a chance to do something but instead gives in to the opportunity because he can get away with it. These themes still seem common today as they were in the mid '70s and probably will still be in another 30 plus years to come.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Aldo Lado (Who Saw Her Die?)
Stars: Marina Berti, Laura D'Angelo, Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril
Link: IMDB

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)

They picked the wrong Swedish girl to mess with

This controversial Swedish film for its day gets a down and dirty look at the trade of kidnapping and prostitution from the perspective of a teenage girl. It doesn't skip a beat in showing just how perverse and cruel human trafficking can be. There's not just nudity but full on penetration shots. It can't compete with "Forced Entry" from a year earlier where the performers were actually engaging rather than inserting shots but, then again, there's more of a story in between. Despite its candid, insider's look "Thriller" isn't an exemplary showcase on the serious subjects it presents as it has a tendency to reach over the mark to the point where you have to wonder if they're just trying to stimulate and entertain on a base level. It's an exploitation piece that shows more than tells and mostly uses the setup as a means for the over-the-top revenge angle than anything to challenge with social commentary compared to "Straw Dogs" and "The Last House on the Left" of a few years earlier.

Madeleine was molested when she was a little girl, which made her mute from the trauma. Now grown up, she's been secluded to simple farm life until she meets what she thinks is a charming, rich man named Tony at the bus stop who drives her around in a fancy car and takes her out to eat. He gets her back to his place where he waits till she passes out and gets a shady doctor to load her up with heroin. Soon enough she's addicted and has to service strange men and women to get her fix. If that wasn't enough she loses a body part to make sure she complies. With no way out of the rut and with "accidents" happening to her family and friends, she starts to train in martial arts, tactical driving and weaponry for her moment of vengeance to come against the lustful clients that made her do demeaning acts, as well as against her slimy captor who's only concern was ever money. Even if she gets help at a rehabilitation clinic, guess what they want in return? It makes the world go round in an endless cycle with victims only becoming part of the problem.

"Thriller: A Cruel Picture" has influences from westerns, crime dramas to the growing number of revenge features in the '70s, which this apparently even beat out "Death Wish" by a month. The flow and style of the film is a little clunky at times with some pointlessly extended shots, all-too-convenient revelations and off-kilter experimentation. There are ultra slow-mo shots that some viewers are going to be bothered by or be all for as they make them so the audience didn't miss a single millisecond of violence--Peckinpah would be a proud cinematic parent. Some of the effects are hit and miss, such as bullet wounds represented by blood spray on the clothing but no tears underneath, or cars that instantly explode in flames on impact as if everyone's driving an unrecalled Pinto. Though it still gives the film some charm and a rough around the edges quality that enhances the excessive experience. It shows that the filmmakers went beyond their means just to deliver as much of an impactful experience as they possibly could at the sacrifice of quality. You'd have to worry if it looked too good or glamorous: an ugly delivery for an ugly act.

The dialogue is simple and direct, leaving little if anything to read between the lines. Christina Lindberg, known for her roles in erotic films, conveniently doesn't have dialogue or little way to communicate what she's thinking. Lindberg definitely carries the initial look of innocence to then taking on the persona of a dark vigilante with a penchant for cool dress--nowadays she'd have her own graphic novel where "The Punisher" was just getting started. The film carries little concerning emotion or sympathy for its duration as it shows that every other person is a creep or full of hopeless tragedy. There's little lasting subtext to be found here beyond to show there's no turning back once switching to the dark road of violence and revenge. It makes you wonder if she's truly absolved or so far over the edge that there's no way of returning to normal. There's a simple message against any shady individual who wants to mess with someone who they think is weaker, giving the audience something to cheer about when the victim turns anti-hero aggressor and doesn't hold back.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Bo Arne Vibenius
Stars: Christina Lindberg
Link: IMDB

Rape Squad (1974)

"Sisters stop rape now!"

A share of films have a give and take process where they attempt to blend serious subjects with different modes of entertainment usually so they can keep one's attention span and an ear glued to what they have to say...still with me? This picture takes that sentiment to a whole other level when the subject is about rape. Not to mention a rapist with a distinct m.o.: wants women to fight him, to scream--normal stuff as it's about power and control--but then has an outlandish outfit of a hockey mask and an orange jump suit all before two big slasher pictures would use them. Not only that but he wants them to sing "Jingle Bells" while in the act so he can get off. A thick skin is a must when approaching this over-the-top film where you have to wonder which areas were intentionally amusing or not. I guess that's what you get when you make a film that attempts to mix two polar opposites: seriousness and exploitation with no middle ground to smooth them together.

After a series of women are raped by the same man, the police don't want to go out of their way to stop him, so five fierce females band together to form the "Rape Squad." All men in the film are either insensitive and uncaring: "Stop rape? Why that's my favorite sport," one of them says. Women are championed here to rise above but these aren't feminists, just typical independent '70s women who want their dignity and a sense of control back in their lives. That includes taking karate classes to defend themselves, though not changing a single shred about their attire because they don't feel they asked for it. They get a little taste of vengeance and empowerment with some known perpetrators after putting up fliers for their cause, but then face dangers when the Jingle Bell rapist is still at large and following their every move with self-reflective memoirs to show for it.

To its credit, the women have actions that seem more plausible for their capabilities. They use seduction to trap men who took advantage of other females. Not to mention, they might only do minor property damage, rather than something that's far too elaborate such as with "Thriller: A Cruel Picture" and how she's an unstoppable revenge machine once signing up for some classes and throwing on a trench coat. The tone is all over the place for the duration and the pacing feels a little up and down as they do a few misadventures till the final showdown that makes the women look somewhat inept after their growth and struggle to get there. Yeah, this is no "Charlie's Angels" when it comes to action or "The Last House on the Left" when it comes to brutal revenge. But the film does have its charms and has some replay value due to how outrageous some of its setups are. The movie is so inappropriate that you have to wonder if it was on purpose, such as romantic music during a rape scene where the woman is pleading and the guy is acting disgustingly sleazy. Or be it the sheer timing of an important discussion when all of the women are nude in a hot tub together. I couldn't imagine being the director during that scene with a straight face while giving out character motivations. The movie will try to make you laugh, cheer and feel a round of emotions for them, though the first is usually what this film does best.

The women get their comeback lines in but the strange part is the bad guy is given much more snappy ones to remember. Even then, this has far too much dialogue from the villain to be considered scary or intimidating. He's got a smooth talking southern drawl and enough witty catch phrases to fill a small quote book. "What're you running away for? All we're gonna do is make looove! Now, there's nothin' much wrong with that is there? Matter of fact this is your lucky day, you know why? 'Cause you're with the best lady. You are with the ever lovin' best! Matter of fact I think you should say 'thank you Mr. Rapist for choosing me.' " Or: "Yeah, music is always good with ballin'." Even: "So, who are you?" "Oh, I'm just your friendly neighborhood hockey player."

I'm not sure "Rape Squad" gave any man a run for his money or a woman the true power to take back whatever male dominated society took. It's an offbeat concept gone awry but still watchable for all of its missteps along the way. The movie definitely gets an A for personality and effort, as otherwise it would have been a belly flop with winches all around from the spectators. There was an actual point where the film gave some perspective to walk away with contemplation. In the beginning it shows a colorful version of the act on the main character Linda (Jo Anne Harris) that felt more cinematic than real, but it isn't until it concentrates on the after effects does it get the tumblers rolling. For instance, how the police have limited resources, how they treat you more like a suspect or a file number than a victim with a name, and then how you're examined on a table with more strangers without even getting emotional support or time to heal yet. Other than that the movie plays more so on simple entertainment for lack of anything else to say that hasn't been said better, though it's still a lighter contrast to some of the harder hitting films that dealt with the subject such as "The Virgin Spring" and "Straw Dogs" that are going to demand more emotions and time for reflection.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Bob Kelljan (Count Yorga, Vampire, Scream Blacula Scream)
Stars: Jo Ann Harris, Peter Brown
Link: IMDB

Because of the Cats (1973)

Young, rich cats on the prowl for trouble

Well before the shadowy frat club in "The Skulls" there was a little mystery/crime/thriller from Holland in the earlier part of the '70s that shared a number English actors called "Because of the Cats." The story, which was part of a larger series of crime novels from the early '60s, in itself is simple enough, though how it's presented is somewhat elusive and enigmatic--with the audience never sure of where it's going or what's to happen next. In between it gives way to a number of different titillations and shock, to the point of being somewhat edgy for its day for a culture that was still getting used to racy cinematic assaults such as "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection." Our crime fighters weren't always knights in shining armor as the waning flower generation seen.

A gang of young vandals with pantyhose stocking caps surprise a middle aged couple in their upscale home and take turns raping the woman in front of her panic stricken husband. These aren't your normal criminals doing thuggery but instead dress in suit and tie and speak like proper and educated students--as if they're out to a charity dinner instead. An inspector from Amsterdam named Van Der Valk is sent in to investigate the callous crime and from a series of clues gets lead to a click called The Ravens where a share are heirs to wealthy families in the most prosperous area of the Netherlands called Bloemendaal. From there, another group called The Cats are whispered about, along with a rich, well-spoken gentleman who you're never quite sure about under his overly charming demeanor. The inspector is determined to put a stop to them before the crimes escalate beyond control but finds himself with little evidence, oblivious but protective parents and tight mouthed suspects that are bonded to their friends through a secret cause.

The tone is a little jumpy in places: one moment somewhat upbeat and humorous, then in the next atmospheric and serious. The music is somewhat misplaced at times, with a theme song that's akin to a parade marching band with horns and drums. It can be slapped overtop of a scene whether or not the underlying part matches. This is missing some of the heart-racing chase scenes in car or on foot that are a staple to crime thrillers. Though this European film is quite liberal with sex and nudity, whether it be with forceful or consensual, or be it showing full frontal of men and women--more so on the latter. The inspector even drinks on the job and has a good time with a high class prostitute that gives him information that he couldn't have pumped out otherwise--killing two birds with one stone, he's a resourceful guy.

There are a hand full of memorable scenes that make this more than your run-of-the-mill crime story, from a group of women seducing a man in the ocean that includes full body underwater shots, to some scenes of cat carnage where innocent kitties are brutalized for shock value--not for real though! The film has a fairly quick editing style for the '70s when it was common to have more of a looser flow throughout. This is still caught somewhat in between where it has rapid cuts in one area and then becomes unnecessary to carry on with another for so long, especially towards the latter half. Some of the editing is cut so close that it doesn't make this as challenging of a mystery as it could have been. No one wants a picture to hold their hand, but it can dive into the middle of a scene without a sense of direction till sometimes well after the fact. It makes it so the audience are steps behind the detective instead of steadily moving at the same time for more of an engaging experience. This is still largely unpredictable as some of the clues come in the form of red herrings to throw one off.

This came out at a time when traditional religions were questioned and at the same time new factions were forming with experimental ideas and philosophies. This mixes self-awareness practices of body and mind with susceptible, spoiled-rich modern youth in the '70s. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should do it. They're an anomaly in that they have both responsibility and appear like standup citizens but at the same time are giving in to over-the-top vices at the expense of others. The two require a delicate balance and things can get out of control when it's tipped. In a way it shows how far some youth have lost their morals and scruples when growing up pampered and never having to earn what they were given with blood and sweat. Not to mention the parents have all of the money one could wish but little time to spend with family. The youngsters have no sympathy, regret or perspective to what they're doing. They mindlessly follow their click to be part of something but have no definable future from being stuck in the now. "Because of the Cats" was an interesting take on the crime genre that doesn't include the usual hip, slang spoutin' street thugs.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Fons Rademakers (Village by the River, Mira)
Stars: Byran Marshall
Link: IMDB

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Two girls meet four criminals meet protective parents

This was both ahead of its time in some regard and also a time capsule of the period with hip slangs and dress, not to mention with messages that were a hot debate back in the early '70s. This is an exploitation film that no doubt exploits, though it also softens the blow with randomly queued music and offbeat humor not to desensitize a viewer but to make one lower their guard and think they're safe for the time being. It's filmmaking at its most inappropriate and confrontational: not just with a surprise left hook, but sand thrown in the eyes and then a kick when down. This seminal film has been copied a few times since but there's still nothing quite like the actual experience even if everything doesn't come together quite so perfectly or in a neat little package. Rather than doing everything on purpose, the filmmakers stumbled into a cult item that's crude, blunt and with a final delivery that was also fresh due to how unrestrained it was.

Mari Collingwood and her friend Phyllis Stone are going to an edgy concert in a rough neighborhood in NYC. They're young and wild and life is an open field for them to explore all of its fun and thrilling areas. That is until they test their limits when attempting to buy marijuana at an unknown apartment from a boy their age. The trap is set by three recently escaped criminals of violent crimes and a girlfriend of their leader, Krug, who can hang just as tough. With little planning ahead than just getting away from the police hot on their trail, the sadistic criminals take their pleading captives out to a remote area to give into animal-like impulse that will leave their victims so humiliated they'll want to just end it all. It so happens to be near Mari's house in the woods with her parents and the Sheriff looking into her absence no less due to expecting her back for her next birthday party that she might never see again unless someone can intervene in time.

The tone of the film is truly odd and unorthodox due to how much it experiments: one moment being somewhat easy and whimsical fun, then the next truly sadistic without holding back. It's like it has two extremes of good and bad with little in the middle to grab onto. It's not a subtle film like its predecessor "The Virgin Spring" but one to instead wrack the senses. What better way to do so than to give some breathing room and then suddenly sock it to the stomach. Both the protagonists and antagonists have their pros and cons shown, whether it be mindless partying to giving in to the most darkest primal urges. Or living the quaint life to enacting elaborate revenge. The Sheriff's deputies are knuckleheads rather than heroes. Watching them make one bonehead move after the next is tedious and annoying but rightfully gets a viewer squirming from assumptions made by what they normally represent and should do in films.

"The Last House on the Left" blends sex, drugs and violence and how it relates to just giving in or having control to hold back. It shows women can be just as sadistic with one of the characters joining and egging on the situation. Another character is doped up and has the ability to do something about the predicament but chooses to turn in on himself and act comatose. This carries a message of the times--the promotion of peace and Vietnam protests--to show that violence even for the regular, everyday family member is necessary against heinous individuals who are beyond clean up or reform. It shows how innocence of body and mind can be robbed within the blink of an eye. Also how much a person can build up their family and belongings in life but then have them taken away in an instant. It brings one back to a primitive time when the police weren't so readily available and things have to be taken into a citizen's own hands. It shows how criminals would rather use, use, use than give back to society, while others give, give, give but then there's no one to help them when they need it.

There's no denying this movie has its faults: awkward camera angles, jumpy editing, wooden characters that primarily stick to their archetypes to make it easier to decode and digest. At times the film is much stronger with its messages than its hit and miss filmmaking techniques that are all over the place. Not to mention it's overly exaggerated and noticeably tweaked to go a certain way to get those results than always refining them. Even with its many setbacks "The Last House on the Left" manages to still entertain, disgust, frighten and bring about debate all within a single experience.

Rating: 8/10

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess
Link: IMDB

Deliverance (1972)

What happens in the woods, stays in the woods

This is the grandfather of backwoods films. It's an adventure/thriller/drama but one that would be an inspiration for a number of horror films about country folks who now look all but merely simple. It has a basic plot but what makes it so iconic is a powerful and memorable delivery that has the capability to get stuck in one's head whenever thinking about the great outdoors, never mind trekking 'em. The film creates one of the most uncomfortable scenarios for any man to find himself in with villains that can't be shaken from one's mind with neither look nor their over-the-top lines. Not to mention anytime someone sees a banjo they might mention "Deliverance" out of habit, possibly without even seeing the film. The characters experience nature minus all of the distractions of technology from paddling in canoes to hunting and sitting around a fire and bonding, though it gets turned into a treacherous tale that even when seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the recollection of the dark side that they went through to get there never truly goes away.

A group of anxious guys from Atlanta go out for a once-in-a-lifetime weekend to experience the Cahulawasse River before a dam is built across it. They get an awe struck peek at the landscapes and its strange inhabitants who look like they lived unspoiled from the outside world for generations--same DNA, reused supplies and all. The lead of the group is Lewis: a hobby outdoorsman who tests limits and pushes buttons. His confidence is the size of the river itself but he also has a philosophy he abides by to fine tune his survival sense in case the modern machine society's built up fails. Ed looks up to his buddy but falls short of his staggering shadow, while the two other friends, Bobby and Drew, are straight city slickers in a far removed world that take the brand new adventure in stride.

Ed and Bobby split up with their canoe and take a break to the side of the river when they meet two demanding locals who have more knowhow of the loaded shotgun they're pointing than how to operate a toothbrush or subscribe to soap. Instead of the usual "You're trespassing" they get a "Now let's see you just drop them pants" from one of the crusty toothed men with a deviant look in his eye that's usually given to a girl on lover's lane. They get violated and thrown around but then gain the upperhand and kill one of the captors in self-defense while the other runs away. A debate ensues about what to do with either reporting it to the local law, who are probably in relation with each other, or burying the body in what's to be the new dam area. They want to put the horrible and humiliating situation behind them but their real issues have just begun: from pretending to be in survival mode in the beginning turns into the real deal from not only the unfamiliar wild but the escaped hillbilly who got away and knows the lay of the land better than any visitor could hope.

The structure doesn't follow a strict platform like other pictures. It starts out on a high note with fun and adventure, jumps right into its climax midway through, then slows down to make room for the dramatic as you get to know more about these men's lives with some emotional scenes. One could say the filmmakers put all of their energy in the beginning but another way of looking at it is what we represent on the surface isn't always who we really are. Usually it takes a stressful situation to put someone outside of their comfort zone to see their real personality come out: hence giving the usual proper introductions might have been fake anyway. The film did that so well that it even surprised the characters at what they were capable of doing due to switching to a primal state in the stark wilderness from living cooped up in the city and suppressing who we really are as a species. This gives a share of interaction with the audience in that it presents a number of "What would you do questions?" Your answer might not be any better than their's but it still creates an engaging experience to get wrapped up in. One that's both dangerous and enlightening and shows who really has it in them when the going gets rough. What would you sacrifice for your friends? Would you go outside the law? Commit retaliation?

Burt Reynolds has a sense of command with his role as Lewis, in that he rarely lets his guard down or lets it be known what he's thinking or going to do next. Jon Voight plays the middleman of Ed who's in between places but is forced to make the transition to the next level. Ned Beaty, as Bobby, represents the average me or you character in the way it's so much to handle that it hasn't even fully hit him. The filmmakers are capable of putting the viewer in the then and now with some authentic scenery, genuinely odd inhabitants to regular Joes who found themselves in the midst. There's some beautiful moments, tense situations and some surprises about the experience. What stands out is how nature can remain immobile when there's human turmoil amongst it. It's not judgmental, yet we seem to do what we want with it, when we want.

Rating: 9.5/10

Director: John Boorman (Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, Leo the Last)
Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Bill McKinney, Herbert Coward
Link: IMDB

Straw Dogs (1971)

Avoiding life's issues can boil over

Revenge films that questioned justice became prevalent in the '70s, though "Straw Dogs" was more than just a simple excuse for vengeance or carnage. The darker side of human nature is no doubt shown from multiple angles but it isn't exploited or all that it has to offer. This drama/thriller is a deep examination of a couple from different backgrounds and personalities who escape to a remote area to get away from the chaos ensuing back where they lived in a more populated area in the States. The logic is to completely avoid a problem before it becomes an issue, but what happens when one gets cornered when there's nowhere left to turn? Wherever any humans dwell, human nature becomes inescapable.

David Sumner is an American academic that recently moved to his wife Amy's original home town called Wakely in England for the perceived quiet country life and to comfortably write a book from teaching mathematics prior. Or so he thinks... Like sheep with a pack of wolves patiently standing by for any shred of weakness or slip up, they're both timid, too polite and passive aggressive in character instead of stating outright what they really feel or mean. Amy desperately wants to be desired by her sometimes aloof husband to the point of acting immature towards him and a tease to a few locals working on their property. One of them is Charlie: a recent hire that was a former love interest of Amy but now a distant reminder to her past. She's at a crossroads of a former loose lifestyle to now trying to settle down. There's a give and take of both sides that adds some struggle and development to her character's flawed but human personality. When she actually realizes the position she's put herself in, it's already too late.

The couple's situation looks fine on the surface but underneath there is an air of animosity creeping up from the moment they arrive. There's a genuine feeling of uncomfortableness portrayed by the performers that carries over to the audience as well the way things never quite settle in. It can be subtle with a sly grin here or a tongue-in-cheek greeting there. The film is gradually paced with enough room for the transitions to feel fluid and the events to steadily and believably escalate to a boiling point of no looking back. How it got to there wasn't just a single situation that can be pinpointed but a series of little unsolved dilemmas that were swept under the rug till a solution would hopefully appear. When one does emerge it looks more like patchwork. The film examines violence and shows some of the causes and effects, then leaves enough breathing area to let the viewer decide if it was justified or not. If David should have spoken up to begin with or put in place preventative measures, only to let it build and build and take a desperate, amoral solution out. Or that David was minding his own business and was only pushed into a primal protective mode by an unruly bunch. There's even some other positions that come about from the experience about his manhood and if it's his wife he's protecting, his ego or the house, or even if he picked the right moment to do so with a questionable town person they took in.

"Straw Dogs" has an equal balance of ambiguity to unravel. The power of the film lies in the direction and script in the way they keep it all together and from getting muddled, despite being filled with multiple layers, not to mention with distinct and purposely flawed situations and characters. There's even enough material and insight to return back and see it from another mode. For one, there's no clear cut so called "good guy" or "bad guy" by the time it comes to a roaring, climactic conclusion. The movie looks at traditional roles of family in the early '70s, while modern outlooks might look more progressive. David picked his corner and stuck to it, which lead to shirking his responsibilities as master of the household. Amy, on the other hand, irrationally craves affection from not having a sense of independence or a feeling of comfortableness in her own skin. Who's right and who's wrong all came down to both their lack of communication and a true sense of togetherness as husband and wife. There's also the slow character in town who can't control himself when it comes to young girls (he's an anomaly in the story in that he's the only person incapable of making a rational decision, while everyone else around is making bad choices left and right), to the prosecutor not doing his job of locking him away, to the family members being outraged and wanting to take their anger and frustration out on someone--anyone--despite their own misgivings and hypocrisies. That theme can be traced back to "Frankenstein" and possibly even further back. It's an intersecting domino effect that eventually gets down to the last connective, tumbling row and piece. Whoever is caught in the vicinity when it falls: Watch out for its wrath!

Rating: 9.5/10

Director: Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughn, Del Henney, David Warner
Link: IMDB

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Virgin Spring (1960)

A flower that loses its preservation

This is a picture with a gradual flow that one can truly feel as it happens. It evolves step by step: working its way up and then deconstructing itself down. What also helps lock in a viewer is a share of the film isn't scored but instead lets natural sounds and pictures of nature speak through black and white imagery that way to develop a certain ambiance. The style of direction feels loose when there's emotion to evolve and then in others it can be deliberate and calculated in the way no detail is frivolous or unaccounted for.

"The Virgin Spring" starts out like every other day in this small Swedish town in the Middle Ages, though as it moves along it slowly turns more and more devastating due to an event that caught everyone by unawares. These simple folk come from a different era with different customs and professions, though they get hit with a tragic set of circumstances that can still translate and relate to the modern day person wherever a viewer comes from.

Life is here one moment, gone the next. Our time on Earth is about survival, as the chaotic ways of our environment can give and take at anytime. Letting your guard down is something that we all wish we could do, but the moment we get bit we'll be covering up in preparation for the next time, just in case. What makes this film so sad is that it shows that even the most treacherous occurrence can happen to those full of heart and passion. Being innocent, unselfconscious and a free spirit should be things that we should all be able to openly enjoy and experience. Though as most adults learn: there are those that are willing to take advantage and step on what you've built up in the blink of an eye.

Karin, a young, blonde maiden, is one such person who's prospects are far reaching with possibilities. She's a rare type that gives off a radiating spark to brighten those around her. The father is protective of Karin, while the mother softer due to it being her only child. As a result the girl is somewhat spoiled, fanciful and naive: ultimately not ready for the harsh realities of the outside world. She wakes up late and is given the small task of bringing candles to the church as per a virginal ceremony with her servant Ingeri. During her trek through the woods, Karin meets three brothers who look poverty stricken and from hard times. Expect they have an ulterior motive even when she offers to give them food and have a picnic. In the flash of a tranquil moment, things turn for worst as they want her for her body and belongs instead as Ingeri looks on as a silent witness from afar. When the three brothers seek shelter, they stumble into the last people they want to meet: Karin's relatives.

This has a fairly quick rape scene compared to what's to come with films in the '70s that would make a formula out of this and turn it into the rape/revenge subgenre. It's ugly and manipulative, sure, but it's also an impulsive, spur of the moment action. That way to concentrate more so on the after effects from putting little forethought into the selfish act on the rapist's part and also the servant who willed it at first but became panic stricken when actually played out. Max von Sydow rightfully plays the master of the house named Tore with a looming stance and stern face that commands when needed. His actions and expressions are subtle enough to translate what his thoughts are without having to say it outright. Gunnel Lindblom, as Ingeri, has the most complex role in the film. She's the black sheep of the family, always expected to do wrong and never appreciated when actually doing right: so what's the point of making an effort? The result is she acts misplaced and never really part of something with a sense of security.

"The Virgin Spring" is a challenging tale that unveils beauty and then breaks down the meticulous ruination of it. The film shows some of the effects of not having restraint, whether it's with hate, physical attraction or violence. It deals with choice: whether to swallow your pride and move on or easily give into current emotions and instant desires. It involves opposing ideals about forgiveness and revenge, as the family is turning towards Christian ways as opposed to traditional Pagan. This begins without a bad guy, gains a few in the middle and by its close the film will have you questioning whether the good ones that got thrown into the horrible situation are any more right in how they wrapped it up. This is an incredibly well-done and poignant picture, though not something to watch lightly even if it reveals a glimmer of hope that can be passed on. This was expertly paced, acted in a natural fluidity--like graceful stage actors than typical cinema performers--as well as the period decoration puts one there to live and feel as these basic people did, so when the events take place, it made them that much more powerful.

Rating: 10/10

Director: Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal)
Stars: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Pettersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Valberg
Link: IMDB

Friday, December 16, 2011

Now on Facebook!

From Black to Red now has its own Facebook page that includes an index with short descriptions of all films reviewed. Facebook link to wall.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Flesh, TX (2009)

Keep your family close and your enemies your stomach

This is an ultra low budget straight to video horror--camera humming, rushed lighting setups, low dialogue, computer made soundtrack, low key actors: you name it--that revolves around an amoral household in a small Texas town.

They're an oversexualized, overindulgent family of four women and two men: one of them happens to be Sheriff and some of them both daughters and partners. Each visitor that comes across the dwelling meets their end with a hint of barbeque sauce and the tip of a fork. When people aren't coming to them, one of the seductive daughters named Sugar lures 'em in--the bigger the better. Though this time Sugar gets ahold of a bratty little girl who wanted to initially run away from her mother on their way to California. The demented family prepares to cook a little Sunday night treat and go back to their ways with the others in the town all the while remaining hush-hush. Though the mother persists since she doesn't believe her daughter would have gone on a bus and just left like that. The situation acts as a catalyst to break up the family and cause some to question what they've been doing all along.

The tone has moments of being tongue-in-cheek by poking fun at backwoods folks and movies that have exploited the subject, while trying to exploit it further themselves. Sometimes it's meant to be sadistic fun, at others it comes off as far too cartoonish, such as one character wearing an obvious wig or another with a blatant blacked out tooth. This comes in and out of trying to pull your leg and also attempting to be serious, though not always finding a comfortable balance in between. The concept--if you can call it that--feels incredibly short sighted and stretched thin with little to say. Why they're eating people is never made to be a point, so the shock value of it all underwhelms.

A Sheriff that has full control of the town for his own gain has been better outlined and made more believable in even the most throwaway made for TV movie. It makes "Roadhouse" seem plausible because at least you get a better perspective of the town and how it all works. I mean, they're actual tax payers with a corporate brand gas station and an established Sheriff's headquarters, not some place that fell off the map with shoddy construction and outdated cars. They seem fully aware and unsheltered, so what gives? The story is extremely simplistic to the point of feeling like there isn't an actual story as a result of the pacing having its highs and lows and long periods of insignificant activity. If we're to be mindlessly entertained at least pull out enough situations to keep one busy and to forget all shortcomings. Easy fun and formulas are fine, so long as they're steady.

There were a few small glimmers that made it seem like the filmmakers might be on top of things and "had" it, but otherwise this feels like a practicing grounds for those involved. One particular scene went all out with some true weirdness when one of the daughters named Fancy sniffs her hands from greeting a new comer and begins to erotically touch herself as the mother smiles on and the guest looks uncomfortable enough to run on foot to the next state over. The exceptional scenes come too far few and in between, such as two girls cannibalizing a body, only to then drop a piece of flesh from one mouth to the other's.

The accents are there one moment, gone the next; it makes it a challenge to take it seriously when they're actually trying to do so. With little to work with the performances don't always get a chance to stand out enough to be remembered later. Dale Denton, playing the Sheriff, had some inspiration during some scenes either by living on the wild side at home or in charge when in uniform to get everything in order so he can continue with the former. He had conviction in either one but lacked the little touches to bring them together to make sense. Joe Estevez has a small part as the rambling town drunk who wants to come clean but is otherwise only used as a recognizable name. One thing that's appreciated is at least they gave the character of the mother with the missing daughter some strength instead of just getting pushed around like a punching bag or a helpless victim that only screams and trips over her own two feet.

Rating: 2.5/10

From Black to Red recommends instead: "Delicatessen": This French made dark comedy centers on an apartment building in an apocalyptic universe where food is scarce.

Director: Guy Crawford (Starved, Dark Places, Withered One)
Stars: Kathleen Benner, Dale Denton, Joe Estevez, Davina Joy
Link: IMDB

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Red Hook (2009)

Can't stay locked away forever

This is a modern day slasher about a girl named Jenny Traylor who had an older sister that was brutally killed when she was younger in front of her. Now as a young adult she's rigid and untrusting, which results in a share of awkward moments when she changes scenery from North Carolina to the fast moving university campus in New York City. Everyone's either a snob, overeager or a prankster with little in between until she meets a down-to-Earth guy named Gavin. He invites her to a small scavenger hunt held by the persistent resident advisor Tim but then fails to show up while her roommate Angela and others she's getting to know arrive--though with me-or-you competition in their sights. The participants have to find an object from clues sent to their phones via "Red Hook," then snap a picture and send it back to get another all before midnight for a grand prize. Eventually another kind of sport is made out of the game when the bodies start to rack up from Jenny's past coming back to haunt her or something else.

After seeing the sister bumped off, this turns somewhat light as if nothing out of the ordinary is going to happen. Though this plays the part a little too much as if it's just the latest, derivative dramedy pilot about one girl's growing pains. Time was spent showing the character's lives on the surface but it still comes off as mundane: Jenny can't find a seat in the lunchroom, her new neighbors pull pranks on her, her roommate is one moment nosey but then the next needs space to perfect her acting chops. This is no "Carrie" in college, that's for sure. The major driving point is about Jenny being afraid to go outside because her sister was killed after running out the door of their home to get away. Something doesn't chime about that as it was such a random, unprovoked attack as to seem a fluke and not something that could be repeated again...until now of course. "Red Hook" presents a far-fetched world where psychos grow on trees and are sent out into the world as an innutritious pang in your stomach. It's like the filmmakers only studied other films by coping their villains and situations instead of starting from the ground up.

To get a momentary reaction the film leaves gaping holes with more questions than answers, which ultimately gives it zero replay value. It tries to be sneaky with its story to keep one from guessing anything outright but the issue is it's to the point of not being able to follow around activities on most of its characters as a few are potential suspects till it gets revealed which one it was at the end. Not to mention the death scenes are delivered quickly and abruptly with no build up prior due to little being shed on what's going to happen. One scene of someone stabbed years ago foreshadows everything that's to come? By the time it gets to the bloodshed the audience long forgot which genre they were watching. Up to a certain point there doesn't seem to be any real danger to fear apart from one character having a general anxiety disorder that appears to come and go. The horror feels oddly misplaced once the bodies start to pile up as even the scavengers are lead to believe it's a joke since one aspect feels only loosely tied with the next. It amounts to a lack of tension and little anticipation past a certain point. The clues they're sent to find are hardly a challenge: most are uncaring employees at businesses who take the scavenger's pictures next to the objects that have little significance to do with anything and feel like padding in between. Maybe if it was an equal part cat and mouse game where the clues could have potentially prevented a death, it could have redeemed itself and made to be more engaging.

There are a share of characters and not enough time to concentrate on them all. As a result, the amount of room for their performances only reaches a middling point with little that stands out as exceptional since they're just caricatures of regular, hip college students: some jerks, some quirky and some you can befriend. The only piece that might have stood out here is the scavenger hunt gimmick, or possibly some unique deaths to make this memorable, but the finale of it all was so over-the-top as to lose the audience with eye rolls and double checks on watches to see how much time they've wasted for something that looked a big bang but only came with little backing power.

Rating: 2.5/10

From Black to Red recommends instead: "April Fool's Day": This '80s slasher came out with a unique concept that keeps one guessing.

Director: Elizabeth Lucas (Clear Blue Tuesday)
Stars: Christina Brucato, Tate Ellington, Bryan Fenkart, Terrence Mann
Link: IMDB