Film Review: Let Me In


Film Review:
Let Me In–R
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz,
Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas
115 Minutes, Feature Film
Hammer Films

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The American film remake sub-genre is, generally speaking, a film industry cop out. Take an inspired (or uninspired) original source–films generally carrying the word “classic” in their notoriety–and present a new and updated version to an audience that studios predict will pay money to see a film they have already seen. While exceptions can be found, most remakes fail to best their source material, the horror genre being the best example.

In the past decade we have seen remakes of more than a dozen universally lauded classics in the horror and thriller genre. Most appeared to be nothing more than opportunities to cash in on a film’s preexisting reputations; seldom did these films shed new light on the classic story. To this end a remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire/coming of age film, “Let the Right One End” seemed pointless and actually offensive to a perfectly fine film that just happens to have subtitles.

Matt Reeves “Let Me In” is a surprisingly rare breed of remakes. Its source material is indeed from foreign soil, which, too, is another sub-genre within the remake sub-genre of horror. Following in the footsteps of such successes as the wave of Japanese ghost story remakes like “The Ring” or “Dark Water,” “Let Me In” hopes to attract a new audience, one not expected to have sat through the subtitles of the original, to this refreshingly unique take on vampire lore.

It’s also a rare breed of remakes in that scene for scene “Let Me In” is almost a direct retelling of its predecessor. Its flow is uniform as are many of the original’s memorable shots. Like its source material, “Let Me In” is set in a cold, empty place (here, Los Alamos, New Mexico, filling in for the desolate suburb of Stockholm). It’s an understandably bleak environment for what on the surface is a terribly bleak story, one that has climaxes that are both triumphant and despairing.

Owen (“The Road’s” Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young, lonely and bored boy. He spends his days fleeing from bullies; avoiding his overly preachy, wine-o mother; spying on neighbors through his apartment’s very own “rear window;” and indulging in the one thing that seems to bring him comfort, his Now & Later fruit chews.

When a young and mysterious girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) arrives one frigid night observed walking barefoot through the snowy courtyard, Owen’s world suddenly becomes all the more interesting.

The friendship that forms is the essence of what makes this story (the original was based off a best-selling Swedish vampire novel) so unprecedented in vampire iconography. This isn’t the 90201-themed love triangle of the “Twilight” series, nor does it attempt to be a clever comment on society a la HBO’s breakout hit series, “True Blood.”

“Let Me In” is a love story like “Harold and Maude” is a love story. It is a coming of age story in the same austere way Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, “The Road” is. More to the point, it doesn’t glamorize the vampire lifestyle, but rather shows it as a cruel infliction on everyone involved, both physically and mentally.

While some alterations are made from “Let the Right One In” (a strange scene from the original involving a pack of wild cats is smartly removed this time around) the filmmakers respectfully mirror the original, swapping for a Reagan era small town U.S.A setting and throwing a larger budget to the production (a particularly effective shot from the back of a car as it slides out of control stands out).

Director Matt Reeves drops snippets of Reagan’s famous, “Evil Empire” speech early on in the film, a speech in which the former President acknowledges evil’s existence in the world. This is not merely a way to present the setting. Whether or not the characters believe or know there is definite evil in the world is beside the point; they don’t understand it. In “Let Me In” things aren’t as black and white as good and evil.

Religion is hinted at throughout the film, primarily with the word evil being tossed around. Owen’s mother is hardly seen or heard from in this film because she is not entirely there for her son. She is struggling with her own beliefs and her weakness for the bottle. She sees and believes in the evils of the world but yet doesn’t care enough to protect her own son who ultimately turns to violent acts to solve his own confrontations with the evil that hears about but doesn’t quite understand.

We see early on where his character is headed in terms of his budding kinship to Abby who, as she puts it so eloquently, has been twelve years old for a very long time. To say much more would spoil the film’s intrigue. To tread lightly, this is a film that leaves the viewer wondering about the decisions made by its characters after the credits roll.

“Let Me In” features a stellar cast including the great character actors Elias Koteas (“The Thin Red Line”) as a curious, soft spoken policeman, and Richard Jenkins (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) as Abby’s mysterious father-like caretaker. Here both men play somber and serious men who don’t quite understand what is happening around them, but are drawn into the fold nevertheless. In one scene Jenkin’s protector character pleads with Abby not to see Owen again. It’s a simple exchange of words that manages to tell so much about his past with her and his understanding that after he’s gone she will still be.

“Let the Right One In” is a masterful little horror film that should be seen by all fans of the genre. On its own, “Let Me In” stands up surprisingly well but ultimately feels like an easy way around trying one’s hand at a foreign language film. It’s a far more insightful film than anything else you might see this Halloween season and hopefully will pique the curiosity of its viewers enough to seek out the original.

Film Review: Sin Nombre


Dreams of El Norte

Film Review:
Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
96 min Feature, 2009
U.S.A/Mexico

The gang members portrayed in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, are among some of the most frightening real-life villains ever to be fleshed out on screen. Covered from head to toe with tattoos (not to mention painfully endured initiation ink on the inside of the lower lip) and toting menacing homemade pipe guns, the Mara Salvatrucha family in Sin Nombre live in a world of devastating carnage and hopelessness. 

Sin Nombre was a runaway hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is an ambitious debut feature from a talented new director to keep an eye on. At times the film is an adrenaline-fueled amalgamation of Fernando Meirelle’s brutal exposé of Rio de Janeiro’s gang warfare, City of God and Gregory Nava’s 1983 border crossing odyssey El Norte. One half carries the same thrills that made City of God so exhilarating–fast paced cat and mouse chase scenes and gritty moments of violence. The film’s other side is reminiscent of the socially poignancy of El Norte, a film that would make anyone reconsider the U.S./Mexico border dispute and the grueling journeys so many hopeful immigrants undergo.

When we first meet Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) the leader of the Tapachula, Mexico syndicate of Salvatrucha he has recently kidnapped and beaten a member of a rival gang. Without hesitation he enlists a young, rising thug, El Casper (Edgar Flores) and his even younger minion El Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to shoot the young hostage in the head with a makeshift gun, yet another initiation task to show his cajones. The body is then mutilated and fed to a pack of equally vicious dogs. This is only the first of many tests and grueling exercises that the young recruits must endure. 

While El Casper and many other Tapachula youngsters are establishing their loyalties, a young Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), begins the arduous journey north to the Texas/Mexico border with her estranged father and uncle. She realizes there is nothing for her in Honduras and is told of a better life in New Jersey, far off the folded Central American map the trio refer to throughout the film.

The Honduran’s odyssey starts in the jungles of Central America, segues to the corrupt Southern Mexican border, and ends up on the crowded roof tops of various freight trains headed north to the U.S. crossing.

Eventually the two worlds depicted in Sin Nombre merge as El Casper and Sayra are entangled in a dangerous race to reach the border. The love story, dramatic music and chase thrills that fill Sin Nombre’s latter half weigh the film down a bit, pulling away from its social realism. Still the meat of the film, particularly during the perilous train journey, is a heartbreaking glimpse at the trek so many people make to the promised land in The North. 

The film’s title translates to “nameless,” referencing the often-disposable soldiers that make up these urban gangs and the hundreds of souls trying to cross into our country on a daily basis. While it’s easy to view these people as a singular faction (or if you believe in the Lou Dobbs doctrine, an epidemic), Sin Nombre gives these faces a story, albeit one with devastating results. While the issue of immigration remains a hot talking point in politics and in living room cable news debates, there are thousands of people risking their lives every year just for the chance of somehow making it. They leave families, friends and their familiar life for the promise (or illusion) of bigger and better.

Films like Sin Nombre, or better yet the immortal El Norte, are made to show the unspoken side to the immigration debate. They are released as pieces of fiction but are rooted in the style of documentary realism. More often than not they sneak by the mainstream but should be seen with eyes wide open.

Film Review: Everlasting Moments


A Life Caught on Film

Film Review: Everlasting Moments
Directed by Jan Troell
131 min. Feature Film, 2008
Sweden

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is a period piece without the overtly glamorous costumes ubiquitous to its genre. It is based on a true story but in the most unassuming manner, that is to say, straying away from the familiar subjects–the famous, the regal, and the important. It’s a foreign film but it could be set anyplace with an underclass. To this end Everlasting Moments fits the formula for a tedious subtitled piece set in a forgotten time but is ultimately one of the most intimate, honest and uplifting portrayals of the proletariat in a time of inequality since Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Set in Southern Sweden circa the early 1900s, Everlasting Moments follows a working class family as they struggle to survive through political unrest, a world war, and their father/husband Sigfried’s ill-fated alcoholism. At its core the film is about a woman’s dreams of escaping her surroundings and the camera that helps fuel this desire.

Shot in the grainy 16mm film stock of yesteryears (the film was then transferred to the normal 35mm for an extra gritty look), the film is in many ways an ode to the old school tactics of filmmaking. Set during the advent of the personal, plate loaded camera and a time when a Charlie Chaplin would tickle the delights of a family’s imagination for an entire evening, the film, like Giuseppe Tornatore’s whimsical Cinema Paradiso, pays homage to the wonders of photography.

Maria Larsson (a masterful, full of vigor Maria Heiskanen) plays a loving mother and an understanding wife who, after winning a camera in a lottery, finds comfort in a new love for capturing images of the world around her. While her husband drinks his way through a work strike (and the English strike breakers brought in), an affair, and a countrywide dabbling in communism, Maria is able to appease her concerns and misery with an eye for the beautiful frozen moments amidst the chaos and sadness of her day to day life.

One day while trying to pawn her prized camera a local photography shop owner, Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), befriends her and offers to teach her how to use the camera through an endearing act of kindness. Seeing Maria’s glowing fascination with the glass-eye gadgets that line the shop walls Sebastian encourages her to follow this newfound passion and ultimately gives her a new lease on life. As their relationship grows from professional admiration to minor crush to a full blown window into a life of true love and happiness, Maria is forced to make a series of choices regarding her loyalties to her abusive husband, her dignity as a member of the nobody lower class, and her feelings towards Sebastian. 

Christensen, the Danish actor best known for his villainous turns in the recent 007 films, turns in a restrained but memorable performance as Sebastian who adores Maria but whether or not this fascination is out of lust or pity remains Christensen’s charm with the role. 

Eventually Maria, having a true gift for the medium and an ability to see what most don’t, begins to document those around her and is able to make a petty living for her passion, a first for her character and an advent that brings on jealous rage from her husband. 

Much of the film’s screenplay was taken directly from the photos that Maria took during her life and from her daughter’s personal account. This authenticity and Jan Troell’s love of old school cinematography gives the film the look and feel of a documentary. She shoots a historical gathering of the three Scandinavian Kings, earning her a photo in the newspaper. Through rising notoriety she takes portraits of the neighborhood families, including her friend’s daughter with Downs syndrome, and captures a chilling candid moment of a group of children mourning their recently deceased friend.

This film, like the memorable photographs it honors, is about capturing a moment in time, in this case pre-war Sweden. Maria’s story is the vehicle for a larger tale of a port town’s growth through the ages and the effects that world tensions were having on the lives of the working class.

Everlasting Moments was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Gold Globe Award, but failed to make the more prestigious Academy Award shortlist. The film also failed to garner a wide-release here in the states and will most likely be ignored by even those knowledgeable of independent films, a tragedy bestowed on so many offerings in global cinema. It’s the epitome of what a great period film should be, a flawless window into a world not so foreign to our own.

Heiskanen is so convincing in the role of Maria that it’s easy to forget that she, along with her fellow cast members (watch out for Mikael Persbrandt’s complex turn as Maria’s abusive husband Sigfried), is a contemporary actress.

The film is about the heartaches that come with the weight of the world, the complexities of love, family and forgiveness, and above all the magic of photography, an art form often taken for granted in the age of Photoshop and camera phones. There are moments of great sorrow, particularly in a harrowing scene involving Maria’s son who is born with polio. Persbrandt’s Sigfried is at times a monster who still manages to gain our sympathy. Despite its more difficult themes the film is also an uplifting tale of a woman who appears to have nothing but ultimately has everything thanks to an iron will, a love for her family, and a beautiful, dual lens camera.

Revisiting ‘Baraka’


DVD Review 2-Disc Special Edition of Baraka

Few films are able to truly show our world for what it is better than Ron Fricke’s Baraka. From its mesmerizing beauty to its often-troubling complexities, Baraka is a universal masterpiece of filmmaking. To this end the film is essential viewing for any and everyone even remotely interested in the bigger picture

To appreciate Baraka one must appreciate the complexities of the world we inhabit. One must be able to be in total awe of its splendors while being equally as disgusted in its horrors. The film is a testament to how beautiful and how horrific this planet and those who inhabit can be and furthermore how despite our many differences people share the same common thread of being human.

The word ‘Baraka’ has various meanings and is a staple in a handful of global languages. Ron Fricke has often spoken of its Arabic and ancient Sufi roots, roughly translated to “the thread that weaves life together.” The daily grind of life–both at a natural pure level and man-made–is the film’s focus. The globetrotting editing, the fast time-lapse photography and the film’s depictions of humans as tiny parts of a vastly bigger whole offer viewers a glimpse at how immense but also how united this planet is. When it’s all said and done life is what ties this world together.

Shot over the course of 14 months at 152 locations of 24 countries, on six major continents, Baraka is also a traveler’s dream project–a hypnotic trek of the planet and its many cultures told simply through the marriage of motion pictures and music. From a cinematographer’s standpoint Baraka may be one of the finest photographed films ever made, revolutionizing preexisting large format motion picture technologies (the film was shot in the 65mm Todd AO format then transferred to 70mm print stock, resulting in extreme widescreen shots originally used for epic films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s).

Baraka was released in 1992 and has since then fallen into the depths of cult film status–unfortunate considering the film’s timelessness and international appeal for viewers. Its relevance today is marked by its recent re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray hi-def format, a technological feat that makes the film even more impressive than its past home video incarnations. For the first time ever the film was scanned at 8K resolution, a revolutionary digital transfer process designed solely for Baraka, which may end up becoming the standard for future hi-definition film releases. The scan, which supposedly took three weeks to complete (a post scan detailed digital restoration would take even more time), presents Baraka in the way the filmmakers intended–with an all-encompassing widescreen presentation and with just the right amount of color and image rejuvenation.

As for the hi-def format of the film (which, sadly this writer has not yet been able to experience) if ever there was a reason to invest in Blu-Ray–clearly the future of home video entertainment–Baraka is it. Supposedly the level of detail and vibrant color saturation makes the eye candy images of the Planet Earth hi-def series look like child’s play. But enough with the technology focused DVD marketing.

Much like watching a sunset Baraka has the ability to put the viewer in a trance the minute the film begins. It is also a film that resonates long after its initial viewing with those who have seen it rarely experiencing the film only once.

Opening with sweeping shots of the planet’s highest points at the Himalaya mountain ranges the film is then taken down to earth as we glimpse into the daily routine of the rare Japanese snow monkeys living in the moment. The camera closes in on the sole creature enjoying the nearby natural hot spring, simply being; living in a Zen like state. From the epic ceiling of the planet to the simplest of its inhabitants, before the film’s title shot in front of a perfect lunar eclipse, one gets the notion that Baraka is going to be a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

It should be noted that the film’s editing is as impressive as the photography with Fricke and team sporadically transporting the viewer all around the globe from frame to frame. Baraka does not feature any dialogue nor is it rooted with a traditional storyline. Besides the beautifully scored music the only natural sounds heard are those of certain tribal songs and the ambient sounds of nature. What’s striking about Baraka is despite the film’s non-traditional structure and flow a central narrative somehow emerges.

One moment we’re viewing a primitive aboriginal tribe perform a funeral ritual, ten minutes later we’re taken to modern day Tokyo, a bustling, densely populated metropolis world’s apart from the aforementioned primordial setting. Later as the camera surveys some of the planets most visually breathtaking sites–Western U.S. rock formations, Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu waterfalls, the mount Bromo volcano range in Indonesia–the viewer is then transported to mankind’s uglier side.

The slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endless garbage dumps in Calcutta, India serve as reminders of the chaos that somehow balances out the harmony. From flourishing life in a remote Kenyan tribe where villagers dress in vibrant garments to the bleak realities of Cambodia’s killing fields, Baraka doesn’t shy from highlighting our planet’s lightest and darkest moments. 

Baraka carries a spiritual message as well and could be perceived as a bit preachy at times. Still, nitpicking aside, it’s hard to deny the film’s central messages. Being one with nature seen through the Tibetan monks in prayer, the hypnotizing dance of the Dervishes, or the elderly Japanese peering out at a seamlessly perfect rock garden is key to understanding the film. Throughout Baraka there are plenty of moments showing the planet’s chaos–from the densely populated streets of pedestrians and toy like cars, to the shots inside endless factories and sweatshops–and also its grandeur. Watching the film it’s easy to get blown away by just how immense life and this is very much its intention.


Film has always been a universal medium still there are very few films that should be essential viewing for all.
Baraka without a doubt fits the criteria as a must see film. Its scope reaches for beyond simple nature documentaries (while similar in terms of photographical achievement Baraka is far more important and ambitious than BBC’s epic Planet Earth miniseries) and somehow manages to be more impressive than its sister films, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy–comprised of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi–of which Ron Fricke first made his presence known as cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi.

The recent DVD release of Baraka should have received more attention and praise than has been bestowed (apart from its notoriety among cineastes alike, Baraka’s foray into the Blu-Ray market should spark the interest of any and all people in the retail industry interested in selling this new technology) but alas its release was overlooked. Besides its crystal clear picture (which one would assume is even more stunning in hi-def), lush color saturation and digital soundtrack remixing (an entire essay could be written in praise of composer Michael Stern’s score for the film in conjunction with Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance and the Gladiator soundtrack), the two-disc special edition of the film features a fascinating behind the scenes making-of documentary. Chronicling the film’s extensive shooting schedule (which followed the lunar full moon cycle so as to ensure night shots were well lit) the mini-featurette provides fascinating insights into how Fricke and his crew selected and attained rights to film at the various sights. Interesting tidbits regarding the homemade camera equipment and time lapse system are also worth noting.

For those who have seen the film now is as good a time as ever for its revisit. For those who have yet to experience Baraka the film exceeds any and all written praise for its power lies in its ability to suck the viewer in.

It might be wishful thinking to hope that the new DVD release might also prompt the film’s return to theaters (a transfer to IMAX, a medium that Fricke worked with for his second feature film Chronos, would also be welcomed) but if ever there was a film to be seen on the big screen this is it.

It should also be noted that Fricke has supposedly been filming an unofficial sequel to Baraka called Samsara, which, according to a press release from the filmmakers at http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/samsara-press.aspx, will be released sometime in 2009. The film will continue Baraka’s tradition of spiritual undertones this time focusing its attention on the cycles of life on the planet. According to reports the filming has taken Fricke and his team to over 20 different countries and the film has been shot in a new 70mm HD format that subsequently “will be the ultimate showpiece for both the HD format and high-resolution digital projection, as well as standard film projection.”

Baraka is not a conventional Hollywood film and will not be the first film to jump off the shelf at your local video store still its an important piece of art transcends all prior conceptions of what films should be. The film has the almost mystical ability to draw you in unlike any movie-going experience before and after its release. While some may find its unconventional format distracting, it’s safe to say that those who experience it gain a new outlook on life and a newfound intrigue towards this planet’s cultural diversity.

 

 

 

 

A Worthy Redux?

Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

ImageOne of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline. 

A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?  

Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film. 

As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.

Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.  
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.

ImageMuch of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play. 

The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot. 

Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux. 

Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.

“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison. 

Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”

Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.

Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.

Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.


The Art Behind Art House Films


For film fanatics The Criterion Collection remains one of the few bastions for the preservation of essential films spanning the globe. Besides being the to go-to place for hard to find releases Criterion is also the premiere leader in film restoration, remarkably in-depth DVD audio commentaries, critical essays and countless other features that actually enhance the overall cinematic experience. Many believe that a trip to the library and a viewing devotion to Criterion’s growing collection makes going to film school seem futile.


While presenting each film at its absolute pinnacle edition is Criterion’s true raison d’être, the collection also serves as a haven for some of the most beautiful DVD packaging art around. From revivals of old and often rare film posters and prints to original layouts from up-and-coming artists and graphic designers, Criterion continues to beg its loyal following to judge the book by its cover.

An entire column could be devoted to praising the countless classics–everything from standards to forgotten gems and everything in between–being released annually through Criterion. For devout film aficionados Criterion is a proverbial name. The company’s token logo, ordered spine numbering system, and expensive price tags make the discs a collector’s Holy Grail–DVD fiends pine over particularly rare or out-of-print discs the way literary buffs seek out that pristine first edition to complete their library. From the filmmaking standpoint, a coveted release amidst the cinematic giants–Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ozu, Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Powell & Pressburger, to name a few–generally means an artistic career high.

Running at around $30 per disc, with special box sets running as high as $650 (for a 50 film/disc art house film retrospective collection), Criterion discs are pricy but the general rule of thumb is you pay for the quality, this includes packaging designed with love and care.

Unlike most DVDs, which provide poster art, film stills or the occasional inspired 
“Special Edition” cover for their packaging, Criterion generally goes a step further by designing carefully thought out images to pair up with the film’s content. Sometimes this means taking a preexisting piece of artwork from the film’s past and doctoring it up, other times it calls for a re-imagining of the film’s central themes or characters to be displayed front and center.

ImageTake for example the beautifully crafted cover of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of Criterion’s first releases (spine #4), which was reissued in a two-disc collector’s edition in 2006. A terribly gifted artist named Caitlin Kuhwald was commissioned to paint what eventually became a mini four-panel mural depicting four scenes from the film in a vibrant, jump off the canvas array of colors that is as much a wink and a nod to the golden age of Technicolor film processing, as it is visually stunning. The artwork is not only showcased on the cover but also spans into the DVD inserts. Kuhwald continues to return to Criterion most recently with their release of the beloved, magical children’s classic The Thief of Baghdad.

For Criterion’s massive DVD release of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the art direction team turned to none other than longtime Thompson collaborator and surreal ink blot illustrator Ralph Steadman. The grotesque drawing of Duke and Dr. Gonzo racing through the desert with looming bats overhead and a dark, art deco “Emerald City”esque fortress in the background is the perfect center piece for the film and story’s equally loony content. The company has also gone to great lengths to give Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil a proper release, with the latter’s box-set packaging also serving as the rare example of a literal “box” set.

ImageSometimes Criterion goes the minimalist route featuring a simple film still or photograph behind carefully chosen typeface. The packaging for the five-disc release of Ingmar Bergman’s epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander features nothing more than a series of slightly grainy photographs of the film’s protagonists. The images portray the children as young, innocent, and naïve to their true bourgeois surroundings, perfectly respecting Bergman’s cinematic intentions for the film and subsequent television mini-series.

The cleverly layout for Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth, simply presents an orange haired, possibly inebriated David Bowie (the film’s alien star) in front of a pitch black background. The film’s title, placed over Bowie’s face, is in a typographical descent:
 

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Simple but effective, the packaging for Earth is as bleak and dark as the film itself.

ImageFinally Criterion continues to be the exclusive home of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s wide-ranging catalogue, with each release and re-release receiving the royal artistic treatment. From Throne of Blood’s black, white and red cartoon of Tohiro Mifune as a pseudo Macbeth, the simple splatter paint and Japanese character inspired cover for the equally vibrantly colored film Ran, the more modern, metropolis driven front for the Bad Sleep Well (the towering white, art deco office building with a single red X on one window is another clever tie into the film, which tells the tale of revenge set inside the corporate world), to the fabulously blurred shot of the central home in Rashomon, an allegory to the blurred reality of the story being told and retold in the film (think Usual Suspects), Criterion continues to pay its respects to this filmmaking legend.

A new Criterion release is an event all in itself. Discovering what buried treasure of a film they’ll take on next is always a delightful moment for film buffs. What they choose to display on the cover is also part of the fun. Not only does this method give up and coming artists and graphic designers a chance to showcase their talent but it opens up a new level of creativity to an old classic. Often times the art is the sole catalyst for checking out a new and unfamiliar title.

Up next for Criterion is the company’s first foray into the High Definition arena with four Blue-Ray releases, including Bottle Rocket, which completes its devotion to the films of Wes Anderson and yet another re-release of The Third Man, which features arguably one of the most beautifully dark, and menacing packaging art design in Criterion’s catalogue. Criterionco.com lists all of the company’s current titles as well as its back stock of Laserdiscs, which served as a starting point for the extras now common on DVDs. There are also a number of Criterion “completist” blogs of buff working their way through every disc in the collection, for example criterioncollection.blogspot.com and criterionconfessions.com.