Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater –prominent writer/directors, Texas natives (both have roots in Houston) and coincidentally my two favorite humans. Their latest films were nominated for Best Motion Picture this year and, delving further, their careers have evolved at very similar rates, humbly paving the quaint dirt road that was the indie film scene in the ‘90s with Slacker and Bottle Rocket. Onward, they transitioned to tastemakers, acquiring cult followings with Dazed and Confused and The Royal Tenenbaums. With each film Anderson and Linklater make, their toolbox gets a little bigger without compromising their eclectic and pridefully offbeat styles, one vastly different from the other, yet hauntingly similar. Which leads to the question, who does it better?
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve gotten through all of Survivor on Hulu or I just have had more time on my hands lately but once again, I have a huge slate of movies for this batch of Weekly Review. Horror flicks from four decades made an appearance; some of which were great, some exhaustively terrible. In theaters, I caught Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner which will be posted new week. So with seven films on the docket, it’s time for the hebdomadal Weekly Review.
SESSION 9 (2001)
Inventive, eerie and well paced psychological horror outing has more in common with The Shining than it knows, Session 9 spooks. Gordon (Peter Mullan) leads an asbestos abatement crew who’ve taken on the massive job of cleaning up an enormous abandoned mental facility. In a matter of days, the crew shows signs of wear with each undergoing their own form of mental break to various degrees. With only a paltry budget at his disposal, director Brad Anderson (who would go on to make The Machinist) milks the natural spookiness of the set’s locale, the true-to-life Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts, making Session 9 an exercise in making the most of what you’ve got. Considered a cult film, this frightfest is likely to leave you jittery and actually satisfied with the reasonable conclusion it arrives at. (B+)
I had no idea that It was a made for T.V. movie until it was too late and I had already rented it at my local video store. Lo and beyond, It sucked. Goreless, indescribably long (three hours and 15 brutal minutes) and populated by stretches of terrible, terrible!, Little House on the Praire score, It fails to ever cross the line into being actually scary or a distinctive take on Steven King‘s frightful tome. With adult actors who are amazingly worse than their child actor counterparts – Tim Curry is fine as Pennywise the Clown, but hardly memorable – and a villain who’s overexposed to the point of being entirely ineffectual, It has utterly no oomph. The dialogue is aggressively cut rate – the apparent product of a discount script from an amateur screenwriter – but it’s astounding how poorly the hackneyed lines are performed. Worst of all, the pitiable direction is a wash, with absolutely nothing visually interesting going on…ever. It is almost to the extent of being without one redeeming aspect. In essence, the ponytail/mole combo on actor Richard Thomas (As the World Turns, The Million Dollar Kid) is a pretty spot on representation of the movie as a whole. (F)
SANTA SANGRE (1989)
As experimental and organic as a Werner Herzog film, Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Mexican-Italian experimental horror thriller Santa Sangre explores themes of mental illness, circus politics and familial chaos. Deemed too immature, Fenix, the young lad dubbed the “Boy Magician”, lives in a despotic circus. His father is a womanizing brute, his mother a jealous, wrathful woman. When their elephant bleeds out its snout until it dies, Fenix’s father carves a massive phoenix tattoo into his chest because he was caught crying. Because that’s what makes men men: chest phoenix tattoos. What follows enters Psycho territory; the grim story of a man who becomes the hands of his mother, who’s forced to do battle with himself and his evil urges. Dark, unpredictable and utterly weird, Jodorowsky’s cult hit is a queer parade of violence and sex. It’s repulsive and sexual, often in the same scene. It’s a under-worldly nightmare that matches dark humor with brutal imagery and a cast of oddly hypnotizing characters. (A-)
The first film to feature pop culture icon Hannibal Lecter (here called Dr. Lecktor), Michael Mann‘s Manhunter (which shoulda been called Mannhunter) is very 80s and very inferior to the award winning installation, Silence of the Lambs, that came on its heels a decade later. Brian Cox plays Lecktor but only has one or two scenes in the entire movie. Instead the focus is on Will Graham (played half-heartedly by CSI‘s William Petersen) and is a direct adaptation of Thomas Harris‘ “Red Dragon”. Later adapted by Brett Ratner with Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, Manhunter can’t get outside of the shadow that is Silence of the Lambs. Plus, the almost total lack of Lecter leaves very few interesting characters who aren’t ever enough to keep us glued to the screen. Manhunter is a very sparse procedural, occupied by mediocre performances and a plot that I was already familiar with. Without my contextual knowledge, my experience with it may have been better but I cannot divorce the two in earnest. Amazingly enough, I prefer Ratner’s version to Mann’s (didn’t think that would ever be the case but I have to admit the truth. (C-)
Pontypool is it’s own breed of horror movie. Rather than witness the violence first hand, we’re on the outskirts of the horror, listening in to the world breaking down from miles away. It’s a one location infection movie that puts us in the head place of the protagonists as they slowly, systematically piece together what exactly is happening outside their radio station doors. Stephen McHattie is Grant Mazzy, a controversial disc jockey who’s just relocated to the small rural town of Pontypool, which just so happens to be the victim of a bizarre infection spreading like wildfire through the county’s populace. Armed with a mic, a Marianna-deep baritone and sparse information from on-site reporter Ken Loney, Mazzy attempts to keep his cool while keeping the citizens informed of the outbreak. Using information depravation and long stretches of call-in auditory bits and pieces to ratchet up the tension, director Bruce McDonald uses psychological tactics on his audience brilliantly. The last act was a touch jumbled for me but the willingness to go somewhere completely new rather than go down a familiar route is to be admired. (B-)
Richard Linklater laid the foundation for all that would follow with wildly experimental stoner philosophy a la Slacker. As ADHD as the onslaught of characters running their mouth for their 15 seconds of fame, Slacker skips from one character to the next, allowing them to throw down some wild theory or perspective on life and then move onto the next. It’s almost anthological but the way that Linklater drifts his camera from one interaction to the other gives it a sense of place and continuity that a different approach wouldn’t have. Though he’d go on to make Waking Life which also allows characters to wax on the meaning of this or that, Slacker is a more compelling whole, a conscious journey through a cultural ethos, roaring with a sense of time and place. Although it gets a little long in the tooth towards the end – I wish he had shaved a good twenty minutes from the tail section – Slacker is a ferociously imaginative way to make a movie and, if you’re willing to turn your mind on, provides some really thoughtful (and sometimes really stonerish) reflections on life. (B)
“What the hell did I just watch?” many will ask after watching Borgman, the enigmatic Dutch film nominated for the Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes. And that’s part of the magic of it. Heads end up in concrete buckets, unregulated surgeries are never explained, characters fall under the spell of the mystical Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) while others appear to turn to hellish hounds and back. The story is simple enough and yet filled with mystery: a grizzled hermit living underground is ousted by a shotgun-wielding priest and his small band of townspeople. He takes to the street, knocking on door after door to try to find a bath. But his true intentions are far more sinister and far more veiled. Even by the end, we’re not exactly sure what Borgman and his crew’s intentions are but we know all that they’re capable of. This is part of the fun of Alex van Warmerdam‘s obscured goal; it’s not as simple as, “He was a vampire all along!” There’s something much more haunting about not getting the resolution we’ve been programed to expect. Another notch in the belt is the fact that even though it’s wildly weird and totally out there, it casts a spell that doesn’t allow you to look away. In the end, Borgman is confounding but not impenetrable, the kind of film that invites a few re-watchs and potential cult status. (B+)