Friday, April 25, 2008

Armond White Speaking Truth to the Powers That Be

Armond White quickly became one of my favorite modern film critics when I first discovered his writings. His highly informed (this guy knows classic cinema as well as any major critic), hard-hitting style is one of kind, and while I certainly don't always agree with him, I always appreciate his perspective. (This review of Gone Baby Gone is emblematic of his approach to film writing-- I was going to write a review of that piece of crap until I read it, and then it just didn't seem worth the effort.) White is frequently criticized by other reviewers, and very often with good reason, but as much as I would like to be able to write him off as verbose or snobbish, there is always something new and thought-provoking in every one of his reviews, and that keeps me coming back to his writing.

As part of the NY Press' 20th anniversary issue, they've printed this article by White entitled "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies." It's one of the best essays on the state of film and film culture that I've ever read. His basic argument is that critics today don't relate their discussion of film to political, social, and moral issues, and that they champion pretentious dreck over more honest, humane works. While he doesn't do himself any favors by using War of The Worlds as an example of the latter (like I said, I don't always agree with him), his overall point still shines through.

But White doesn't confine himself to the mainstream media. He also strikes out at the online film community, which he describes as "an opinionated throng, united in their sarcasm and intense pretense at intellectualizing what is basically a hobby." As much as I'd like to dispute that...I have to say he's more or less right.

Do yourself a favor and take the time to read this article. This guy's not just a film critic, he's a social critic.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Visitors (2003)

Visitors, another entry in the Aussie-horror sub-genre, takes the common horror trope of isolation to its extreme, placing its heroine Georgia Perry alone on a 38-foot yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Only days away from finishing a five-month solo circumnavigation of the globe, the intrepid Georgia has suddenly found herself languishing in the windless horse latitudes, alone in the middle of an ocean with only her radio to connect her to the outside world. The boat hasn’t moved for days, and to make matters worse, she’s starting to see things. As she says in the film’s opening dialogue, “the line between dreams and reality has started to blur.”

With such a unique and truly creepy premise, one could hope that Visitors would be able to deliver on the same kind of psychological horror that made classics like Repulsion so terrifying. But despite a promising start, Visitors quickly devolves into hopelessly melodramatic territory, and like Georgia’s drifting boat, never quite manages to get back on course.

Georgia is played by the severely underrated actress Radha Mitchell, who does a fine job of carrying the film on her shoulders, but her nuanced performance can’t lift the material beyond its very basic flaws, the biggest of which is that it never manages to deliver on its set-up in any way that’s not entirely contrived and predictable. In all fairness, writer Everett De Roche (who wrote Long Weekend, and employs none of that film's subtlety here ) had no easy task before him-- a single character at sea is not the easiest of situations in which to establish any kind of drama without dialogue. With this in mind, it didn’t even bother me that Georgia’s cat speaks to her in a laughable British accent, or that the film constantly flashes back to her life on the mainland, if only because they had to have some way of establishing character development without using constant narration. But when the titular visitors start showing up, the film exhausts any semblance of suspense and becomes almost laughably stilted.

Visitors comes from the tired school of horror where every bit of psychological fright has to be the result of some personal demon manifesting itself visually. So when Georgia starts seeing things, they are all characters we’ve met before, and for the purposes of having some dialogue, she usually chats with them for a little while. While I can see why the filmmakers took this route (they were probably freaking out that they had a feature film with only a forty-page script), it does very little to encourage a mood of dread or suspense, emotions so key to a story like this. I found myself wishing that the menace at the film’s center had been a bit more nebulous, or at the very least that the filmmakers had tried to string the mystery along a little longer. As the film stands, we get Georgia working out her issues with specters of her dead parents, a recycled plot device that fails to work even in the more direct dramatic sense. This story isn’t Solaris and director Richard Franklin is no Tarkovsky. The filmmakers should have dispensed with the melodrama and focused more on constructing an effective atmosphere.

Indeed, because of its preoccupation with the emotional, Visitors fails to establish any kind of consistency of mood or tone. The film shifts radically in several instances, changing from a horror story to a family drama, from adventure (look out! there’re pirates about!) to thriller, eventually settling on an ending that seems lifted out of a bad romantic comedy. The whole thing smacks of drastic rewrites, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find that the film had been re-cut to satisfy a more mainstream audience. Not only this, but outside of a few excellent CG-assisted zoom outs to the stratosphere, Franklin does a meager job of conveying the truly desperate nature of Georgia’s isolation, and for the majority of the film it seems obvious that her boat is floating in a water tank on a studio backlot.

If anything, Visitors is noteworthy for proving once again that Mitchell has what it takes to be a legitimate star, and since this film’s release she has indeed found her way into more top-shelf material. But the film wastes what could have been a truly frightening premise on hackneyed plot devices. In the end it commits the most unforgivable sin in all of horror cinema: it just isn’t that scary.

Challenging a Tree

From Even Dwarfs Started Small. Simply the greatest...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Long Weekend Remake Trailer

As was pointed out to me in a comment to my review of Long Weekend, the film is about to be remade Hollywood-style with Claudia Karvan and Jim "Jesus" Caviezel as the two leads. You can see the trailer HERE via Several of the scenes appear to be shot-for-shot copies of the Australian version, only they've taken out the subtlety and added in the same Moby song that already appears in The Beach. I guess it's a rule that any movie that features a secluded beach has to include Moby. Yet another remake of a film that was done perfectly well the first time around.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Long Weekend (1978)

Long Weekend follows city dwellers Peter and Marcia as they set out on a trip to a deserted beach during a holiday weekend. Peter is eager to rough it and has brought along thousands of dollars worth of camping gear, much to the chagrin of his citified wife, who would rather stay in a luxury hotel. Things start out bad enough when the couple hit a kangaroo on a deserted country road, and only get worse when they arrive at their destination, which strangely the locals have never heard of. With camp set up, tensions rise between the bickering couple, whose marriage has been on the rocks for some time. It doesn’t help that there are nightmarish screaming noises coming from the forest and the local animals are particularly aggressive, or that a dark shadow seems to stalk Peter every time he goes surfing.

The Australian precursor to Larry Fessenden’s (Wendigo, The Last Winter) eco-terror films, Long Weekend is a sort of cautionary tale about mankind’s relationship to nature, as well as a rumination on the disconnection of modern day people from the land. Not unlike Fessenden's movies, it finds nature mounting an all-out offensive against the environmentally irresponsible couple, who leave a trail of beer bottles, cigarette butts, and dead animals (Peter has bought a new rifle for the occasion) in their wake wherever they go. As Peter and Marcia’s quibbling and the sense of dread escalate, the film shifts to become an all-out horror-thriller, feeding on the couple's alienation from a seemingly benign environment that has suddenly become dangerously hostile.

Director Colin Eggleston expertly constructs the atmosphere of the film, and it’s to his credit that as things progress even the idyllic ocean and white sand beaches manage to be tinged with menace. His style is slow, deliberate, and lyrical, often conjuring up memories of fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the effect is similarly eery and perplexing. Complementing the film’s visual style is some particularly excellent sound design, through which the majority of the horror is constructed. A scene with Peter sitting alone around a smoldering campfire is perhaps the best, with the bizarre, haunting sounds of the Australian wilderness being distorted and altered to the point that they take on an almost otherworldly quality.

Although Long Weekend is a slow movie, Eggleston effectively layers the tension so that the film’s final third manages to be truly engrossing and not easily forgotten. It works as a pure thriller, but its message is also intelligently and subtly constructed. There was a possibility for it to play as a heavy-handed, pseudo-public service announcement, but the filmmakers manage to weave the themes into the picture seamlessly, thanks in no small part to some truly excellent acting from John Hargreaves and Briony Behets as the two principles. The relationship of man to his natural environment is a recurring trope in Australian cinema, from Weir’s early work with The Last Wave to Nic Roeg’s classic Walkabout, and Long Weekend, with its thoughtfully-constructed themes and truly disturbing atmosphere, is an under-appreciated gem that recalls the best of those films.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Teaser Trailer for "Blindness"

Here's the first look at Blindness, City of God director Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's 1995 novel. The film stars Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Danny Glover as citizens of an unnamed city that is suddenly stricken with an epidemic of blindness that leads to mass hysteria and panic. It's a harrowing book that ranks among the best of the "apocalyptic fiction" sub-genre that I've always found to be so irresistible. It strikes me as a tough novel to bring to the screen, but I'm hoping that cult Canadian writer/actor Don McKellar will be able to do something with the adaptation.

The trailer is a bit melodramatic, but it's still worth a look. Check it out HERE.