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A Faithful but Dated Adaptation.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a hopelessly awkward teenage girl: loathed as a pariah by her classmates and abused by her profoundly Christian mother (Laurie Piper). The only person who shows her the slightest human kindness is her gym teacher (Betty Buckley), who rescues her from the torments of her classmates when she gets her first (incredibly belated) period while showering after gym. Along with her late-coming adolescence, Carrie develops telekinesis, which she hones despite her mother's accusations of witchcraft. Sue Snell (Amy Irving), one of Carrie's tormentors, tries to make up for her actions by convincing her boyfriend (William Katt), who Carrie has a crush on, to take her to the prom. Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), however, despises her punishment for what she did to Carrie and wants to make her pay.
"Carrie" (1976) demonstrates an intense level of fidelity with the novel upon which it is based. Brian DePalma demonstrates his technical proficiencies as a director in his realistic (if extreme) treatment of adolescence. The problem arises, however, with entrenched in the decade of its origin the film is. It is hopelessly, infuriatingly, obviously seventies. The decisions to use of kaleidoscope lenses, to rotate the camera opposite the rotation of Tommy Ross' and Carrie White's dancing and the a-typical use of sound after Chris dumps pigs' blood on Carrie - while it certainly conveys its cinematic message with all due clarity - are hopelessly dated techniques that permanently entrench the film in its specific time and place (instead of existing within a sense of timelessness).
Fans of Stephen King's novels will find this to be delightfully faithful to his novel (a statement which cannot be said about even some of his best adaptations). Fans of horror films - as well as distinctly seventies films - will likewise find this to be a welcome and fairly-executed inclusion into their folds.
The Parisian Chainsaw Massacre.
Amidst the riotous aftermath of a French presidential election, five Parisians - pregnant Yasmine (Karina Testa), her brother Sami (Adel Bencherif) Alex (Aurelien Wiik), Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Dahmani)) - commit a robbery in order to obtain the necessary funds to escape the city. The group separates after Sami is shot; Alex and Yasmine take Sami to the hospital while Tom and Farid head to their rendezvous point, a hostel in the countryside outside of Paris. The Hostel, however, is run by a family of cannibal Nazis, who proceed to kill the youths one at a time - except for Yasmine, who they decide should join the family and carry on their bloodline.
"Frontier(s)" (2007) is the confluence of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and "Hostel" (2005). In fact, "Frontier(s)" owes nearly the entirety of its narrative structure to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Both films open with striking documentarian verisimilitude: in this case, with Yasmine voicing over images of her ultra sound, shortly followed by news footage of the Parisian riots. The film likewise closes with radio footage of the same event, gifting the film with unsettling realism. Just as with its docu-horror predecessor, "Frontier(s)" contains striking audio-visual symbolism for the protagonist's slaughter; our first introduction of Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan), the film's Leatherface character, is him gutting a pig in some extended detail. The visual of pigs (and the sound of their squeals) are omnipresent once the slaughter itself begins.
While the film is unflinchingly violent and gory, it did not truly deserve its NC-17 rating. The levels of grotesquery are consistent with other R-rated (or R-worthy) films - such as "Saw" (2004) and its sequels, "Hostel" (2005," "The Hills Have Eyes" (2006) and "Hostel II" (2007). It also warrants mentioning that the violence, while certainly extreme, is not warrantless. Every table-sawed corpse, severed Achilles tendon and shotgunned head represent the real-world violence that the protagonists sought to escape from. It represents the omnipresence of violence throughout the world as much as it satisfies the genre expectations that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) could never live up to.
While still not up to the cinematic quality of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974), it is nonetheless that film's true cultural successor (not the less-than-stellar 2003 remake). The film is intense and unrelenting in a way that its predecessor never could be while still acting as an apropos expression of twenty-first century violence. Fans of slasher films (such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Hills Have Eyes") and torture-horror films (such as "Saw" or "Hostel") should find this an intensely riveting horror film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Worse, but More Horrific, than the Original.
August, 1973. Five friends - Erin (Jessica Biel), Morgan, (Jonathon Tucker), Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), Andy (Mike Vogal) and Kemper (Eric Balfour) - drive through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Along the way they pick up a woman (Lauren German) that they find listlessly walking along the road. As they enter a small, dead-looking town, the woman panics and shoots herself. They stop in order to notify the authorities, but are picked off one by one by a family of murderous cannibals.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003) is the perfect compliment to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in that where the first fails, the second succeeds (the reverse it likewise true). While the original is certainly the better film, the remake is just as assuredly the better horror film. Its style much better conforms with contemporary genre expectations than its predecessor. It features significantly higher levels of gore, much more low-key lighting and a subdued color palette in general. The decision to have the hitchhiker be a victim of the family (instead of a member of it) as well as the active psychological terror on the part of the sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) heightened the terror and unease of the film.
The trade off, however, is the loss of 1) the brilliant juxtaposition between the protagonists' surroundings (idyllic, brightly-lit sunflowers) and the horrific violence of the family, 2) the foreshadowing of the protagonists' "butchering" at the hands of the family through the images of the livestock and slaughterhouse, 3) the social commentary on industrial modernization.
Fans of modern slasher movies as well as the original film (or at least the idea of it) will find this a fitting and entertaining film. The more critically-minded viewer, however, will likely find it more than a little over-the-top and less satisfying than its predecessor.
The Film that "Outbreak" Wanted to Be.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to Minneapolis after a business trip to Hong Kong. Two days later she collapses in a fit of seizures, dying in the hospital shortly thereafter. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), returns to find their son (Griffin Kane) dead of the same disease. As Mitch and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) attempt to survive both the spreading plague and societal breakdown, the CDC - headed by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) - attempt to trace the genesis of the virus and create a vaccine. Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) heads the U.S. efforts to contain the spread of the virus (at least in the United States) while World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is abducted in Hong Kong by colleague Sun Feng (Chin Han) in an attempt to blackmail the Chinese government for enough vaccinations to inoculate his village. Meanwhile, freelance journalist, blogger and conspiracy theorist Krumwiede (Jude Law) propagates the use of Forsythia to combat the disease, which he claims cured him.
"Contagion" is every bit the film that "Outbreak" (1995) tried so desperately to be - an intelligently written, tightly directed and compellingly acted multi-protagonist film that traces the genesis, spread and subsequent effects (military quarantine, social breakdown, emotional human drama, desperate race for a cure) of an omnipresent super virus. Unlike its notable predecessor, however, "Contagion" never falls prey to cliché (notably the "misfired nuke" which prevents a town from being eradicated after a cure was discovered at the end of "Outbreak").
The film sustains a palpable suspense from its first scene (which depicts the sickening Mrs. Emhoff the day after she contracted the virus) to its finale (which shows the true genesis of the virus). This mounting suspense is achieved through the carefully administered depiction of societal collapse alongside its dryly executed timeline of the outbreak.
Mitch's actions throughout the film are born out of equal measures of love and paranoia for his daughter, his only surviving family. His hostility toward her boyfriend are among the most memorable moments of the film - heartbreaking, yet coldly rational. The family's eventual catharsis (Matt finally being allowed to grieve and Jory's emotional reunion with her boyfriend) perfectly capture the film's binary tones (catastrophic loss and eventual triumph).
The fact that this film is capable of achieving so much so well is a truly outstanding accomplishment. It is able to show the devastating breadth of the global epidemic while simultaneously placing a human face on the tragedy. Dr. Mears' (Kate Winslet) death, Dr. Cheever's guilt over inadvertently sending Dr. Mears to her death (and subsequent attempts to keep his loved ones alive) and Mitch's struggle to keep both himself and his daughter alive all succeed at personalizing the epidemic (and its effects) without falling into the trap of being too cheesy or schmaltzy. Furthermore, it manages numerous disconnected (and radically different) plot lines and characters without becoming a jumbled, incomprehensible mess (which is more than most multi-protagonist films can boast).
This is hands-down the best film so far this year and the best non-zombie themed virus film ever made. If I had my way, this would be standard viewing in every secondary-level health class in the country for its realistic depiction of viral spread. Fans of "Outbreak" (1995) and other like-themed films, as well as suspenseful, thrilling and dramatic films, should find something to enjoy in "Contagion." Don't be confused by the horror-centric advertising - which paints it as a cross between "Outbreak" (1995) and "Cabin Fever" (2002) - however, as "Contagion" is far from what it portrays itself as.
A More than Capable Film that Takes a Little Too Long to Get Moving
In 1972, several staff members of Richard Nixon's campaign are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Convention's headquarters at the Watergate Office Complex. In 1974, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigned as president. In 1977, British journalist and TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) conducts a series of twelve interviews with Richard Nixon concerning his actions as president. Forced to self-finance the $2 million endeavor, Frost and staff members Bob Zelnick (Oiver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) seek to hold Nixon's feet to the fire and give him the trial that the American people were denied by President Ford's pardon.
"Frost/Nixon" (2008) is an excellently acted character drama. Frank Langella gives what is easily one of the most convincing performances of the year, deserving of every accolade and scrap of praise that he has earned with it. He gives an exquisite portrayal of the former president, capturing his every nuance and intricacy. Michael Sheen, masked in a shroud of easy charisma, reenacts the personable man-about-town David Frost. While Sheen fails completely transform into Frost in the same way that Langella succeeded as Nixon, he delivers a nonetheless commendable performance.
The film takes the same excessive liberties with the facts surrounding the Frost/Nixon interviews that Richard Nixon took with the office of the presidency. In of itself this isn't anything peculiar. The problem arises, however, is Ron Howard's choice to juxtapose the progressing plot of the film with documentary-esque interviews of those involved in the Frost/Nixon interviews. This creates a heightened and unjustified sense of authenticity concerning the depicted events, especially alongside the "documentation" of the Frost/Nixon interviews themselves. While there is nothing wrong with taking creative license in order to heighten the dramatic qualities of a historical drama, what Ron Howard engages in through these Moore-esque techniques is borders on the unethical.
Despite these extreme discrepancies in historic fact, as well as the excessively long buildup to the final interview session (an hour and on half), "Frost/Nixon" is a well-executed, engaging and ultimately successful film. It grants a degree of closure to an unresolved American trauma. Fans of Nixon-era and post-Nixon era politics, as well as dialog-driven dramas, will enjoy this film.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Not So Much a Narrative as an Event.
When reports of rampant grave-robbing grip the state of Texas, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her invalid brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and three of their friends (Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn) visit a rural Texas cemetery to confirm that the Hardesty's grandfather remains undisturbed. On their way back, they stop by their family home. Their neighbors, however, are a family of murderous cannibals who can't resist a free meal.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" doesn't tell a narrative story so much as it depicts a singular event with documentarian verisimilitude. The film expounds a great deal of effort creating an illusion of reality: opening with a dryly narrated title card assuring the audience of the coming events' authenticity, followed by camera flashes illuminating decayed corpses. Character comments, which extend beyond of the immediate socioeconomics of the plot, further grant a sense of realism to the film (such as the hitchhiker's comments about modernized slaughterhouse equipment putting workers out of jobs).
For all of its positive qualities, however, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" has not aged terribly well. It ultimately comes off as a better "film" than a "horror film." Despite its violent action and gritty realism, the film just isn't frightening to contemporary audiences (in much the same way that Tourneur's horror films are considered tame). The shocks aren't quite as shocking as they used to be and the suspense is essentially nonexistent. Most of the terror scenes are shot in brightly-lit daytime, often against a background of sunflowers. While this definitely serves the purpose of juxtaposing with the action of the film (in much the same way that having the killers be a close-knit family), it doesn't succeed in eliciting terror in the minds of the audience.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is a notably important and influential horror film, one which certainly defined a decade of radical socioeconomic change. This is a must-see for students of both the horror genre and the history of American film. If you're looking for a gory good time filled with modern scares, however, the less cinematic remake might be a better choice than the original.
The Town (2010)
Starts with a Bang, Ends with a Whimper.
Four childhood friends - Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert Magloan (Slaine) and Dez Elden (Owen Burke) - rob a bank in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, kidnapping bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) in the process. They release her after the heist (but not before stealing her license and promising that they would rape and kill her if she went to the police). MacRay befriends Claire in an attempt to learn more about the FBI investigation surrounding the robbery, eventually falling in love with her. After a botched armored car robbery in North Boston, MacRay tells his boss - crime lord Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) - that he's retiring to Florida. After making a few not-so-thinly veiled threats, he convinces MacRay to do one last job for him.
For the life of me, I can't understand the critical acclaim that this film has acquired (it currently holds a 94% "certified fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was listed on the AFI's list of the top ten films from 2010). Despite Ben Affleck's surprisingly slick direction and several briskly paced action scenes (each featuring a unique set of disguises), the film is ultimately a victim of its own horrendous writing (proving once and for all how little input Affleck had on 1997's "Good Will Hunting").
The film's greatest writing concern is its inability to reasonably suspend the disbelief in the audience. While it seems reasonable to take a hostage to ensure a safe getaway from a bank heist, I don't believe for a second that anybody - especially one of the abductors - would think it reasonable to date the abductee. As that is seemingly the moral crux of the film (a case for MacRay's changed life-style and ultimate redemption), the entire production collapses at the failure of that premise.
The denouement of the film attempts to show Claire betraying MacCray by setting him up to be arrested when he comes to visit her (much in the same tradition as 2009's "Pubic Enemies"). Unlike its immediate antecedent, however, the supposed betrayal is completely unwarranted by the script. The film opens with MacCray kidnapping her at gunpoint, stealing her driver's license and threatening to rape and kill her if she went to the police. The stress caused by this incident causes her to leave her job. Then her abductor begins a prolonged intimate relationship with her. Her proximity to him so soon after the robbery causes her to become suspect in the FBI's eyes (it's not difficult to imagine her as an inside conspirator for the four actual robbers). The film then has the borderline-offensive audacity to paint her - a genuine victim - as a traitor against the implicitly noble MacRay.
Fans of heist films will find this to be a more-or-less worthy addition to the genre. Likewise, those in accordance with the nation's critical heartbeat will find the film more than agreeable. As for the rest, however, this is a tired, clichéd and thread-bare film unworthy of the acclaim that it has generated.
Proof That There is a Reason for Traditional Aesthetics.
Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from the mob in the Rocky Mountains. When she stumbles upon the tiny village of Dogville, a town of fifteen, she seeks refuge among its citizens. The town, however, is skeptical of harboring a stranger. In an attempt to win them over, she visits with each citizen every day and does whatever chores they have for her. This campaign succeeds and she is accepted by the people of Dogville. When the police start looking her, however, and wanted posters start showing up, the secret of Grace's presence weighs heavily on the townspeople, who begin to lash out at her.
"Dogville" is an obviously experimental film, radically abandoning tradition Western film aesthetics in favor of minimalistic, theatrical ones. The film is shot entirely on a bare sound stage. Instead of physical buildings or landscapes (trees, bushes, etc...), everything is chalked out and labelled on the ground like a to-scale architect's blueprint. The four walls of the sound stage are stark white during day scenes and muted black during night scenes. There is no non-diegetic sound (such as background music), save for the fact that the film is narrated by voice-over (John Hurt). Furthermore, the film features jarringly non-traditional editing, in which cuts are unexpectedly rapid and characters - without any indication - have changed location between shots (such as a sitting character unexpectedly moving to a standing position since the last shot they were in).
I will admit that I am in the critical minority when it comes to "Dogville." Despite a solid story, capable acting (particularly from Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard and Paul Bettany) and a few brilliant moments (particularly when Grace is raped by Chuck behind closed doors, which in Dogville is in plain sight of the entire town), the film is ultimately a failure. The total abandonment of traditional, Western film aesthetics, while an interesting directorial decision, was ultimately damaging to the film's overall presentation. In fact, many of those consciously neglected aesthetics (realistic sets, realistic lighting, realistic landscape, non-diegetic music, smooth Hollywood-esque editing) would have greatly amplified the film's quality. The lighting, in particular, did little more than hurt my eyes from constant exposure to it over the course of the film.
"Dogville" is not nearly as interesting as the inevitable discussions that it will spawn. Fans of non-traditional cinema (which is to say non-mainstream cinema) will love this film. Film students should see this film for its radical departures from traditional aesthetics. Other than that, however, I fail to see this film garnering a large or even moderately-sized following.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
As Much a Classic as "Casablanca" or "Gone with the Wind"
When Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) go to their father's grave in rural Pennsylvania to pay their respects, Barbra is attacked by a zombie. In the ensuing struggle, Johnny is killed (his head bashed against the corner of a tombstone) and Barbra is chased to a nearby farm house. There she takes refuge amongst other survivors: Ben (Duane Jones), Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Hellen (Marilyn Eastman), their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), Tom (Keith Wayne) and his girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley). Deeply divided over the best course for survival, they must survive both the undead onslaught and their increasingly violent natures until a rescue party arrives.
"Night of the Living Dead" is a classic much in the same vein as "Casablanca" (1942): so often quoted and parodied that the film may at first seem like the cliché that its mimickers created. Romero completely revolutionized the horror genre with his radical re-imagining of the zombie. No longer the soulless victim-slave of a witch doctor (as in 1932's "White Zombie" or 1943's "I Walked with a Zombie"), they are undead ghouls who without proper cause (later films will challenge the theory that radiation from Venus is the cause of the phenomenon) begin killing and consuming the living. Any recently dead person will become reanimated with murderous intent toward the living, regardless of the fact that they were once a family member or friend. Their slow, unrelenting gate gives them a sense of inevitability: you might kill or outrun one or two of them, but their swelling numbers will outlast and eventually overwhelm you.
The film portrays the bleak realities of race relations in the late 1960's. Ben's plans are met by Harry's violent resistance, implicitly because he's black. Later, when Ben, as the sole survivor, finds the notably all-white rescue party, they kill him and burn him with the rest of the slain undead. It may have been an innocent mistake, but the image of an armed posse of white men killing an unarmed black man is nonetheless seared into the memory of the viewer, reminiscent of the South's violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement's peaceful protests.
Likewise, "Night of the Living Dead" also portrays the strained gender relations of the time. I won't say that the film is sexist (because I don't believe that to be the case); it does, however, portray a staunchly patriarchal world-view. Barbra, after viewing the death of her brother, essentially becomes a zombie herself. Clearly suffering from intense shock, she becomes practically comatose, incapable of assisting anybody in the slightest (and, more often than not, getting in the way). Harry presents himself as the tyrannical head of his family. He keeps his wife in the dark concerning the latest life-altering events (literally, she's kept in the basement while the best course of action is debated by the men upstairs) and even attempts to stretch his influence to the other women. Notably, he treats Barbra like a child that needs looking after and Judy like she's Tom's to order around.
Like "Nosferatu" (1922), "Night of the Living Dead" is more unsettling and chilling than it is frightening (at least to the contemporary viewer). There are no "jump out at you" shocks or outright scares, but a slowly intensifying suspense that very much resembles the undead themselves. The scene in which the zombies get a hold of the incinerated Tom and Judy, savoring the chunks of their ripped-apart flesh, is easily the most unnerving of the film (and, perhaps, of the genre). Like Jacques Tourneur, Romero wields his films' dark atmosphere as a weapon, one infinitely more effective than simple shock-and-awe scare tactics.
The only detriment to this film is the character of Barbra. I can understand wanting to show a "shell-shocked" victim in what is a clear parallel to the Vietnam War (essentially bringing the horrors of the war home to the American public), the end result is an absolute mess. Her every line infuriatingly fails at anything even closely resembling a realistic character. While the 1990 remake committed just as bad a mistake with their gross over-correction of her character (turning her into a caricature of Sarah Connor), Barbra is still sad excuse for a traumatized woman.
This film is a must see for any of horror, especially fans of the zombie sub-genre. Likewise, those interested in the changing racial and family dynamics of the 1960's will find this an intensely symbolic film rich with coded power dynamics.
Wall Street (1987)
Greed (and This Film) is Good.
Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a peon stockbroker whose ambition vastly outstrips his ability. For the last fifty-nine days, he's called the office of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) - an infamous, unscrupulous corporate raider - for his shot at the big time, never getting past Gekko's secretary. But now, armed with inside information about Blue Star airlines - a company which his father (Martin Sheen) is a union representative - he gets his shot. Bud, now consumed with wealth and fast-tracked success, must decide between doing what's profitable and doing what's right.
"Wall Street" is much a film for the 80's as it is for today. The "greed is good" mentality, while it certainly has its merits, is twisted by Gekko into a doctrine of immoral excess, where money is paid for by the livelihoods of the working man. Gekko, the Devil in a tailored suit, proves that he's willing to do anything for a profit long after money has become anything other than a scoreboard.
While there are a number of incredibly well-executed performances to speak of (Sheen and Sheen being the ones to come to mind), Michael Douglas gives us one of the decade's best. Seamlessly sliding into Gekko's skin, Douglas breathes realism into the coldly calculating and darkly charismatic character. He doesn't merely seduce Bud with his mean and hungry look (to borrow from Shakespeare), but the entire audience as well: all of us swept up in his charm and obvious grandeur. Gekko possesses his office with a commanding presence, like a retro Zeus in his temple on Wall Street.
While enough can't be said for Stone's exceptional direction, it's his and Wesier's brilliant screenplay which completely steals the show. Particularly in the "Greed is Good" speech, they capture the Darwinian nature of economics and the a-moral (if not outright immoral) philosophy that defined the eighties (and every decade since). One merely has to look to Wall Street today to see the film's timelessness: the 2007 housing crisis (which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved, if the Wall Street occupation is any indication) and the Enron scandal are merely the largest and most recent examples.
This is a film that every American, without exception, should watch. While it may only truly appeal to lovers of Drama and finance, it is far too relevant to today's economic crises and of far too excellent a quality to go unseen.