Friday, February 28, 2014

Cap'n Howdy Presents His Quasi-Annual Academy Award Speculation

 As anyone inclined to read a blog about movies already knows, this weekend brings the 86th Annual Academy Awards, the final award show of "Awards Season" that runs from last December until the beginning of March. It's possible the Razzies are also this weekend, but since they gave up nominating movies that were bad and just went for the low hanging fruit (did Adam Sandler or M. Night Shyamalan make a movie this year? Nominate them in every category!) I really haven't given that much credence. I can't remember when I started watching the Academy Awards, but it's been a fixture in my life as a cinephile (to give you some idea, I can still remember Jack Palance doing push-ups on stage and Billy Crystal in the Hannibal Lecter mask like it was yesterday).

With that said, I've never been very good at predicting the winners. As I often joke, I tend to defer to friend of the Blogorium Neil, because he has a much better track record, but as he's not around to write this, it falls to the Cap'n to give it a shot. With the exception of Nebraska, Captain Phillips, and Philomena, I've seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and a vast majority of the other nominated pictures (with the exception of Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary, which I'll be going with what friends have been telling me). In the spirit of the late Roger Ebert - who I imagine will have some form of tribute on Sunday - the structure will be who the Cap'n thinks should win and who will win. I'll try to give you some idea of why I think one nominee will win over another, but remember that a) the awards are voted on by people in the Academy, so who knows what their thought process is, and b) I'm not very good at this. Nevertheless, it should be fun to look at this next year, or even just next week.

 In order of how they're usually presented:

 Best Supporting Actress:

 Sally Hawkins - Blue Jasmine
 Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle
 Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave
 Julia Roberts - August: Osage County
 June Squibb - Nebraska

 Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
 Who Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o

 Looking at the other nominees, there's no question in my mind that Lupita Nyong'o is taking home the statue for Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, and she deserves it. As much as I liked Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, there's no comparison. I haven't seen Roberts or Squibb in their respective roles, and Jennifer Lawrence was too young for her part in American Hustle.

 Best Supporting Actor:

 Barkhad Abdi - Captain Phillips
 Bradley Cooper - American Hustle
 Michael Fassbender - 12 Years a Slave
 Jonah Hill - The Wolf of Wall Street
 Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club

 Who Should Win: Jared Leto
 Who Will Win: Jared Leto

 This is a little trickier to pick: although I'm convinced Leto should and will win, there's an off chance that American Hustle starts picking up steam (I'll get to the reasons why during Best Director and Best Picture) and Bradley Cooper sneaks in and takes it away as some weird penance for not winning last year. There is this strange sense of "making up for" awards that happen at the Oscars, which lead to oddball wins for movies, like Denzel Washington for Training Day or Martin Scorsese for The Departed (not that they aren't both very good movies / performances, but far from the best either has ever done). Still, Leto is fantastic in Dallas Buyers Club, although I don't know how that would impact the Leading Actor category. As another friend of mine pointed out, Jonah Hill might have been a little too broad, and Fassbender while great is too loathsome in 12 Years a Slave.

 Best Animated Film:

 The Croods
 Despicable Me 2
 Ernest & Celestine
 The Wind Rises

 Who Should Win: The Wind Rises
 Who Will Win: Frozen (?)

 I'm not sure here, to be honest with you; The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki's final film and I can't imagine that wouldn't factor in the voters minds somehow, but all I hear about everywhere I can listen in on the public is Frozen. Since there's no Pixar entry this year, and that's the reliable vote (was Despicable Me 2 really that much better than Monsters University?), I guess Disney has an outside shot at this, but Studio Ghibli has my pick.

 Documentary (Feature):

 The Act of Killing
 Cutie and the Boxer
 Dirty Wars
 The Square
 20 Feet from Stardom

 Who Should Win: The Act of Killing
 Who Will Win: The Square (?)

 I'm not 100% sold on my "will win" pick - it could be 20 Feet from Stardom, although conventional wisdom is to go with the strangest title (Cutie and the Boxer). In truth, every single person I know who saw The Act of Killing says it's not only the best documentary they saw last year, but that it was the best movie they saw last year. Looking at the last few years, it's hard to say if a movie about unrepentant perpetrators of war atrocities is going to be the top vote getter, but it sounds like it should be. I'm looking forward to sitting down and watching The Act of Killing and seeing for myself.

 Writing (Adapted Screenplay):

 Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke - Before Midnight
 Billy Ray - Captain Phillips
 Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope - Philomena
 John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave
 Terence Winter - The Wolf of Wall Street

 Who Should Win: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
 Who Will Win: John Ridley

 Unless 12 Years a Slave totally gets blanked in every category, John Ridley will be taking home the Oscar for adapting Solomon Northrup's true story, and I'm okay with that. It's a harrowing experience, and a very well written screenplay that avoids being maudlin or playing for cheap emotional beats. That said, Before Midnight is built around conversations, usually between Delpy and Hawke, and is a masterwork of writing and capturing the ebb and flow of conversation. It's a little silly this lands in "adapted" because Jesse and Celine are recurring characters and therefore are "based" on something else, but despite my admiration for Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke's writing, the Academy's propensity for going "rogue" in writing is usually reserved for the next category.

 Writing (Original Screenplay):
Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell - American Hustle
 Woody Allen - Blue Jasmine
 Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack - Dallas Buyers Club
 Spike Jonze - Her
 Bob Nelson - Nebraska

 Who Should Win: Spike Jonze
 Who Will Win: Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack

 Or David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, if American Hustle starts a-rolling. There's no chance for Woody Allen, and as much as I enjoyed Blue Jasmine we all know why that's not happening this year. I hesitate to even bring that up because I know how toxic the back and forth is and I don't want to weigh in without knowing all of the facts, and as it has nothing to do with Blue Jasmine's screenplay that's all I have to say about it. If Spike Jonze was going to win anything for Her (which he should but it's on the outside looking in for most nominations), it ought to be this but I somehow don't think it will be. That said, Borten and Wallack took what could have been an easy tear-jerker of a true story and gave us a more nuanced version, whether they took liberties with Ron Woodruff's story or not (speaking of which, how is something based on a true story an "original" screenplay?), so I'd say they have a good shot at it.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Amy Adams - American Hustle
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock - Gravity
Judi Dench - Philomena
Meryl Streep - August: Osage County

 Who Should Win: Amy Adams
 Who Will Win: Amy Adams

As much as Cate Blanchett owns every moment of Blue Jasmine, I think it's pretty clear that's a non-starter this year. Sandra Bullock was the odds-on favorite for Gravity when the film came out, but unfortunately that was too long ago (last summer is eons ago in Academy-time, which is why most of the nominees seem to be films released in November or December). Judi Dench and Meryl Streep are reliable favorites and you can never, ever count them out, but Amy Adams is THE reason to watch American Hustle. I'm dubious about all of the other acting nominations for that film, but unquestionably Adams is riveting from beginning to end and deserves to win.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Christian Bale - American Hustle
Bruce Dern - Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey - Dalls Buyers Club

 Who Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
 Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

 Now, I could be wrong here, and Bruce Dern could be the spoiler because of a strange trend in Hollywood. What usually happens is that an older actor who has been under the radar for a while has a great performance and suddenly awards voters freak out and assumed that he's going to die soon and those nominations fly in (see Peter O'Toole in Venus, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story). Now, to be fair, none of the actors I mentioned won, but everybody's talking about Bruce Dern like he's suddenly on death's door and how many more movies has he got blah blah blah. For what it's worth to you death clock counters, Peter O'Toole was nominated in 2006 and will be memorialized this year.

 For different reasons, I think there's no chance for Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale. DiCaprio, who did some of the most impressive work I've ever seen him do in The Wolf of Wall Street, has no shot because the stupid controversy surrounding the film "glorifying" Jordan Belfort, the sleazeball that DiCaprio is playing. In no way would you ever want to be Belfort after watching The Wolf of Wall Street, but DiCaprio makes him an undeniable presence you want to watch for three hours. The physical work in the quaaludes scene alone should be enough to justify his nomination.

 Christian Bale was all right in American Hustle. That's it. He wasn't any better or any worse than he is in any other movie, so I genuinely don't understand why he was nominated, and unless voters just decide to go crazy for American Hustle, I can't see him taking home the Oscar for gaining weight.

 I'm really tempted to go with Matthew McConaughey taking it from the amazing Ejiofor (who conveys a sense of dignity in the most dire of circumstances and is in almost every scene of 12 Years a Slave) just because voters seem to love a physical transformation. Also, McConaughey has been on a serious upswing over the last two or three years where he finally got tired of being Surfer, Dude and has been on a real tear reminding people he's more than Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. I think I preferred him in Mud, but this might be the year that voters decide to take him seriously. But secretly I hope Chiwetel Ejiofor wins, and deep down I think he might.

 Best Director:

 David O. Russell - American Hustle
 Alfonso Cuarón - Gravity
 Alexander Payne - Nebraska
 Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave
 Martin Scorsese - The Wolf of Wall Street

 Who Should Win: Steve McQueen
 Who Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón

 Since 1999, when Steven Spielberg won for Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love took Best Picture, it's no longer a guarantee that Best Director and Best Picture will go hand in hand, as they always seemed to. Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated last year, which boggles my mind if you're going to award Argo Best Picture, but I digress. What Best Director now means is anybody's guess, but last year's winner, Ang Lee for The Life of Pi, indicates that spectacle and technical achievement is now a mitigating factor. In that case, it's very hard to argue that what Alfonso Cuarón achieved in Gravity doesn't automatically qualify him to win, hands down. Regardless of how I feel about Gravity's story (and it's telling the screenplay isn't nominated), I can't argue that it's an astonishingly well made film, the work of a director who spent years doing something we hadn't seen before. So he's almost certainly going to win.

 Is that unfortunate? I guess: I prefer the understated, sober direction of McQueen in 12 Years a Slave, with his long takes and willingness to let a scene unfold without overt manipulation. It's hard to believe this is only his third feature film, and all of them are uniformly excellent. In my mind there's no reason he shouldn't be standing at the podium accepting the award for Best Director (as he has been at various ceremonies this season), but the Academy Award voters are weird like that.

Speaking of which: there's a teeny, tiny, outside chance that neither happens and that David O. Russell stops being a bridesmaid and finally wins (three nominations in four years, after all), even if it's not for his best direction. I'd hate to think he would win Best Director for a film that is so clearly a copy of Martin Scorsese's films, especially at the expense of Scorsese, who made a much better film that's not going to win anything, but there's certainly been a big push for Russell since The Fighter. It's weird, because I vastly prefer Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees to Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but it could be that kind of year, which leads us to...

 Best Picture:

 American Hustle
 Captain Phillips
 Dallas Buyers Club
 12 Years a Slave
 The Wolf of Wall Street

 Who Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
 Who Will Win: American Hustle

 Yep, I'm going with it. I don't think American Hustle was the best movie of 2013, and while Her is nominated it has no chance considering the paltry nominations. The Wolf of Wall Street is this year's Zero Dark Thirty, a great film overshadowed by a ridiculous "controversy" that will scare off voters regardless of the merits of the movie itself. Gravity has excellent direction and nice special effects but a story that strains credibility to the breaking point - it's a great ride, but not necessarily a great movie. I've heard nothing bad about Philomena, Nebraska, or Captain Phillips (in fact, quite the opposite), but they seem to be movies that are there to fill out the new "5-10 nominees" logic the Academy implemented a few years ago. Dallas Buyers Club is a fine movie but not one I see taking home the big award.

 All of the buzz, and rightfully so, has been with 12 Years a Slave, and it was my hands down pick to win Best Picture until I found out just how few people had seen it. I know that it's an incredibly difficult film to watch (I watched it) and that it's not a "feel good" movie and that it's "important." That's not to diminish the fact that yes, it IS important and it IS a part of American history we don't like to look at or talk about, but it saddens me that people just won't go see it because they don't want to deal with it. And I worry that this is going to trickle over to the voters in the Academy. It's true that the actors and critics and writers and directors who all voted for 12 Years a Slave in their respective guilds are also Academy voters, but for some reason they tend to go "safe" with the Oscars.

 Look, I really liked Argo, but it was the "safe" alternative to Zero Dark Thirty, which wasn't going to win anyway but they dealt with precarious points in American history that involved a level of obsession and a coordinated effort to come out victorious. Shakespeare in Love was the "safe" choice. The Artist was the "safe" choice, and so were The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, to name a few from the last few years. Best Picture, increasingly, has been a bizarre alternate universe where movies you wouldn't necessarily consider the best picture of the year are nevertheless selected over other films.

 Putting aside the obvious argument that it isn't fair to put such varying types of films against each other, the reality is that often voters will go with a film they enjoyed over an "important" film. In fact, the "important" with quotes around it gets some sort of asinine backlash from people who want spectacle over serious. Think about the South Park episode that tore George Clooney and Hollywood a new one for being smug and suggesting that cinema should mean anything (and, by proxy, that they "mean" anything). That's a prevailing thought, even as it's easy to lampoon Hollywood for being too self-important.

 So yeah, could voters pick American Hustle over 12 Years a Slave? I can totally see it happening. Take the consistent presence of David O. Russell for the last few years, with a cast that was almost uniformly not doing their very best work (no offense, but Amy Adams is the alpha and the omega of that ensemble) who are all nominated, and a gamut of other categories, and you have the makings of a picture that could run the table. Why? Because it's a fun movie and lots of people liked it (although, increasingly, I talk to people who really didn't) and dammit, isn't that what's fun about Hollywood? Not depressing movies about the horrible things we did to other human beings and I know it's important but dammit I just want to see Bradley Cooper with a perm, you guys!

 Will it happen? I don't know. I'd like it not to, but you can never be sure. If there's one thing I've learned from years of unsuccessfully choosing winners, it's that I don't know what's going on in the minds of voters any more than I know how March Madness is going to end. I can pay attention to the prevailing trends of Awards Season and extrapolate from that, but that's about it. But it's fun to speculate in the meantime, to have wild theories and to spend unnecessary time and energy into rationalizing them. And besides, I haven't had a non-review post in a while, mostly because I didn't want to talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Harold Ramis, and I'm sure as hell not comfortable talking about Woody Allen right now. But the Academy Awards? Now that's something to talk about, at least until next week...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Nevermore Film Festival Recap (Day Three)

 The final day of Nevermore for the Cap'n was a bit of a light one, by comparison to Saturday, but continued the trend of quality over quantity. While I only saw one feature (admittedly one I'd seen before) and one collection of shorts, the experience was consistently entertaining and served as a nice way to close out the fifteenth anniversary of the festival. As has been the case all weekend, the main draw, other than the films themselves, was the jubilant festival atmosphere. There really is something to be said for being at an event where people really want to be there, and not just showing up at the multiplex because it's something to do. Waiting in between screenings was an opportunity to soak in the decorations, take a look at posters new and old, and to trade notes with strangers about something you wanted to see but couldn't fit in.

 And there were more than a few - 2014 may have been the hardest to schedule in the three years I've been going to Nevermore. To give you some idea, here are the movies I wanted to see at the festival but didn't: Here Comes the Devil, Almost Human, Haunt, and Malignant. I'd already seen Last Days on Mars, Big Bad Wolves and The Human Race, so I was trying to catch movies I a) wanted to see with an audience (Grand Piano) or b) wouldn't be able to see on VOD or rental any time soon (The Shower). Since at least two of the movies I didn't see at Nevermore are on VOD (maybe more - I think The Visitant might be on there, too), I'll try to watch them in the next week or so and do a "supplementary Nevermore coverage" set of reviews, as were it not for the festival I wouldn't have known about them. As it was, I don't think I would have known about some of these movies at all had it not been for Nevermore, which is the other reason it's so much fun. But let's get to talking about the movies, and on the other side I'll share a few photos I remembered to snap over the weekend.


 Grand Piano is a movie that I'm honestly surprised I hadn't heard about before Nevermore. It's a Hitchcockian thriller that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, and is also being favorably likened to Brian DePalma, in part because it's easier (and maybe safer) to invoke DePalma than to draw comparisons to The Master of Suspense. That's fair (it sets a very high bar and is almost impossible to live up to when you put it up against Hitchcock), but director Eugenio Mira draws attention to his camera work and trick shots than DePalma ever has, and in many ways Grand Piano is a feature length version of the end of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It's a solid thriller with a very good cast that makes the most out of the three main characters being largely stationary for the duration of the film.

 Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a famed classical pianist, or, at least, he was - Selznick hasn't performed in public in five years. Following a botched performance of his mentor's composition, he withdrew from the public eye, just as his wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé)'s, star is on the rise. She's a famous actress, and uses some pull to get Tom back on stage to perform in Chicago for the first time. On top of that, Selznick will be performing on his mentor, the late Patrick Godureaux's custom Bösendorfer piano, flown in especially for the occasion. Most of the orchestra Tom's performing with is glad to see him, including conductor Reisinger (Don McManus), but someone in the audience is determined that Selznick have a perfect performance. If he doesn't, he's a dead man, and once the ground rules are in place, it's up to the pianist to figure out who is threatening his life, and why, without drawing attention while everybody is watching him.

 You can look at the poster and see that Elijah Wood isn't the only marquee name to draw in audiences: John Cusack is listed right afterwards, so it shouldn't be hard to figure out who the voice of the (mostly) unseen assailant is. At first I thought it might be a bad thing to know Cusack was in the film, since when you don't see him it's easy to work out his role in the film, but a friend of mine pointed out to me that it would be much more distracting not to know he was in the film and to suddenly hear his voice. Unlike Kiefer Sutherland in Phone Booth, it's impossible not to recognize Cusack's voice immediately, and it would pull you right out of the story at a critical point. As it is, using his name for marquee value when he's more of a audible presence than a physical one in the film is a necessary evil, but I do wonder why Grand Piano is still mostly an unknown film.

 The selling point of the film, beyond the always reliable Wood (people still content to think of him as Frodo tend to forget that he has quite a range beyond that) and a supporting cast you've seen in many other films, even if you don't recognize the names (Bishé was in Argo, for example) is Mira's direction. The camera is constantly moving, redirecting your focus and masking or revealing critical details at exactly the right moment. There's a split screen that doesn't initially look like one until one half of the screen zooms in on Selznick while the other side remains stationary, and seemingly impossible shots that swirl around the piano as Wood (or someone - Mira masks it very well) plays a series of very complicated pieces. Hitchock is famous for his use of "sound bridges," but Mira makes a great "visual bridge" by cutting to somepne playing a cello at the moment an act of violence occurs. I was impressed by the clever use of camerawork, but never distracted by it (as I sometimes am when watching DePalma).

 My fear is that the fact that Grand Piano is still something no one seems to know about will result in it being released on home video and being treated like a "DTV dump" to sit on shelves with any number of other movies with recognizable names that just aren't very good. Like, oh for example, The Frozen Ground, another movie with Cusack and Nicolas Cage you probably didn't know existed. It's not very good, and certainly nowhere near as interesting visually or structurally as Grand Piano. I don't feel like it would be fair for such a solid, consistently entertaining thriller to be thought of as "just another paycheck" for a few actors whose best days are behind them, which is often what the "DTV dump" implies. Wood was similarly great in the recent remake of Maniac, another movie that went largely unnoticed outside of hardcore horror fans when it drifted through a limited release last year. I'd hate to think that Grand Piano might not get a fair shot with audiences when I think many of them would enjoy it, and it's much better than a lot of so-called "thrillers" that do get wide release. But I'm glad I had the chance to see it again at Nevermore, and it benefits from multiple viewings, as the second time around you can see how much of the main narrative is set up in the first twenty minutes. Oh, and Alex Winter (Bill S. Preston, esquire) takes a break from his Excellent Adventures and Bogus Journeys to play a supporting role in the film, if that helps sway you.


 After Grand Piano, we walked upstairs from Fletcher Hall to Cinema Two for They're Coming to Get You, Barbra!, the collection of U.S. shorts, which tends to be a highlight of every Nevermore. Generally speaking, it's difficult to see these short films outside of a festival atmosphere, even in a world where you can find nearly every short ever made online somewhere. Of the entries this year, I'd only seen one, and that was because it was an entry made for the forthcoming The ABCs of Death 2, where "M" is the letter up for voting this year.

 There was a bit of a wait outside of Cinema Two as a Q&A from the previous showing was running over, so after talking to a few other attendees and Jim, Nevermore's programmer, I caught up with some friends and had a brief chat with the cast and crew of The Shower who came all the way across the country with the film (seriously, if you can see it, do so. I'm looking forward to a release on DVD or Blu-Ray so I can show it to everybody I know, but in the meantime, keep an eye out to see if it's playing at a festival near you). Once Cinema Two finally opened up, it was time for my last screening of Nevermore, and it turned out to be one of the hardest ballots to choose a winner from.

 Like yesterday's shorts collection, I'll provide a brief synopsis and try to link to the trailer, site, or an IMDB page, because other than one entry, I couldn't find any of the full versions online.

 The Root of the Problem - starting things off on a high note is the story of a woman visiting the dentist in the 1950s(ish), only to discover her fears of dental work may not be unfounded. Are her dentist and his assistant really monsters, or is it just the gas causing her to see something horrible behind their pearly whites?

 Call Me Crazy - A mental institution may not seem like the best place to find love, but when a vampire who murdered her boyfriend meets a cannibal who ate his girlfriend, sparks fly. It starts a little awkwardly but quickly picks up steam and is both funny and rather gory in a way not dissimilar to yesterday's Mr. Bear.

 Out of One's Misery - A man mourns the loss of his family, only to be visited by a stranger that may or may not be real. The premise is a solid one, and it manages to be fitfully creepy, but there's a bit too much repetition of action in the story for me to really take to it.

Songs in the Key of Death - In the world where zombies roam the Earth, it's not always easy to make a living, but FJ Ackerman found a gold mine as a piano tuner with undead accompaniment. Presented as a news piece, ala 60 Minutes, Songs in the Key of Death is at times riotously funny and then flips to a truly gonzo finale that takes the insanity of the premise to a whole new level.

Rope-a-Dope - While not horror in the slightest sense of the word, Eric Jacobus' Rope-A-Dope is an amusing and action-packed variation on Groundhog Day where the Dope (Jacobus) runs afoul of a Martial Arts Mafia and wakes up on the same morning every time they knock him out. He has to learn to fight back, and the use of slapstick and action choreography and editing makes for a very impressive and funny short film.

Christmas Carvings - A locally made film starring one of the co-stars of Out of One's Misery, this short has a Tales from the Crypt-style twist but suffers a bit from pacing issues. A husband and wife celebrate the holidays in a unique fashion, but are they really alone?

Killer Kart - FSU Film School student James Feeney  makes what I ended up selecting as my favorite of a really strong set of contenders with this story of the closing crew at a grocery store trying to survive the shopping cart that "snapped." It combines the best elements of a slasher film with genuinely likable characters, some impressive gore, and one of the most improbable monsters you're likely to see this side of The Gingerdead Man. On top of that, it's really well made an a fun ride from beginning to end.

M is for Mime - I quite enjoyed this brief story of a disrespected mime who has his revenge on a snarky hipster, but realized quickly why The ABCs of Death keeps the credits for each short at the very end of the film - the credits are almost as long as the short itself, which left much of the audience feeling antsy. Don't take that as a slight against "M" is for Mime, because you'll enjoy the short itself, but it somewhat drained the momentum immediately following the end of the action.

Welcome to Dignity Pastures -  Speaking of really short shorts, I'm not sure what to make of this. Dignity Pastures is about a funeral home that caters to families of the undead, which is something we find out after the recently deceased comes back to life in the middle of a service. The funeral director is very quickly called to switch another service to a cremation, and before you know it, Welcome to Dignity Pastures is over. I suppose there's some merit to "get in, make your point, get out" but it felt like a better premise than the execution made it out to be.


 Finally, here are some pictures I remembered to take (in my infinite wisdom) on Saturday night:

One of the many banners.

 Also known as "three I didn't see."

Forgive the glare: I tried hard to avoid it but it just wasn't happening.

 Well, gang, that about wraps it up for the 2014 Nevermore Film Festival coverage. I had a great time, made some excellent new discoveries, and am looking forward to seeing what's in store for 2015!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Nevermore Film Festival Recap (Day Two)

 Saturday is always the grinder at Nevermore, because I have the entire day and try to take advantage of seeing as many movies as I can. After breakfast at a greasy spoon, we were on out way to a healthy mixture of features, foreign short films, and the Retro feature of the Festival: William Castle's The Tingler Starring Vincent Price (yep, still pretty sure that's the title, so no need to check up on that). There wasn't anything that quite matched the surprise and entertainment that was The Shower (well, maybe The Tingler, but that's a movie I'd already seen), but overall Saturday turned out to be a pretty solid lineup.


 We started with The Returned (which, it turns out, is not the same as the show Les Revenants), which is kind of a contagion / sort-of zombie movie that also isn't. It uses the idea of an outbreak that turns people into flesh eaters and jumps forward twenty years to a world that's learned to cope with the virus. Anyone who is bit (it's only transferred by blood) becomes one of them, but if a retroviral drug is administered immediately, there's a chance they can survive and become what's referred to as "The Returned." They have to continue injecting themselves every day to prevent the virus from breaking down their bodies, but the contagion is largely under control - until the supply of the drug starts running low.

 At the center of the story, which is less about the disease and more about how the world responds to its continued presence are Kate (Emily Hampshire), a doctor who works with "Returned" and prepares them for life outside of the hospital's rehabilitation center, and her boyfriend Alex (Kris Holden-Reid), a guitar instructor who met Kate when he was infected. As Kate struggles to convince private firms to invest money into developing a synthetic form of the drug (the natural can only be made from untreated victims), she works to buy more medicine for Alex, illegally if necessary. After a hospital break-in from an anti-Returned group ends violently, the clinician who was smuggling medicine to Kate, Eve (Melina Matthews) warns her that they also stole information about where registered Returned live, and that she may be in danger. Alex's friend Jacob (Shawn Doyle) and his wife Amber (Claudia Bassols) offer them a place to hide out, but the world seems to be falling apart as tensions increase between pro and anti-Returned groups...

 I was rather impressed by how writer Hatem Khraiche and director Manuel Carballo slowly provide exposition in The Returned. Rather than devoting time to an exposition dump early on, we're eased into the world where the presence of Returned is already accepted (by some, anyway) and learn about its origins and effects through conversation. Alex is nervous about telling Jacob he's Returned, and we don't know what that means or the ramifications of it until later, during one of Kate's presentations, where it's treated like any other life-long disease. There's no long discussion about where it came from or how the world handled it at first, just a handful of flashbacks involving one of the main characters. The Returned deals with this world as it is and is comfortable enough in the strength of the story to let the audience put the pieces together.

 As would turn out to be the trend for the day, The Returned is less of a horror film than the premise might imply and more allegorical, similar in a sense to David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. It has a similar sense of hope and desperation, but on a broader scale - while there are four main characters, the lives touched by families with Returned is explored repeatedly and in differing approaches. It's an intimate story with a broader scope, one that maybe stumbles a bit near the end (it's really the only way the movie could end, but you can probably guess what's going to happen halfway in) but is quite well directed and acted. Think of it as a sort of alternate universe response to 28 Days Later, story-wise, and it has some nice ideas to wrestle with. A great way to start the day off.


 After The Returned, we settled down in Cinema Two for the long form and short form foreign shorts, Across the Styx and Revolution of the Foreign Invaders (respectively), which I'll try to cover in short bursts, with links to the films (or their trailers) when possible.

 Across the Styx:

 Agophobia - I'm not going to lie - I watched this film, was impressed by the visuals, but didn't know what the hell I'd seen when it was over. I think the best way I can describe it is if you imagine William Gibson going on a walkabout with some serious hallucinogens. If it helps, the synopsis is on the official site. It was interesting to watch, but I freely admit that I didn't follow most of it.

 The Other Side - A student working on his thesis goes to the home of a writer and her lover, convinced they found a portal to another world. It's a slow build and a bit of a rushed final scene, but has an interesting premise. There are so many results for this title that I couldn't find the specific one based on Nevermore's site, but if I locate it I will update this entry.

 The Crimes of All Hallow's Day - After an introduction from filmmaker Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi, we're presented a story of true crime from Ibiza in the 1970s about a Danish couple who run across the wrong "nice old couple" while out for a drive. It has a very late-sixties, early-seventies vibe to the lighting and cinematography, and a wicked sense of humor.

 AM/FM - A student has a chance encounter with a homeless man who makes a compelling case for alien invaders in this short from Brazil. Some of the cutaways to what the aliens look like are rather amusing and reminiscent of Ed Wood films, but it takes a surprisingly dark turn at the end. After The Crime of All Hallow's Day, my second favorite of the long form shorts.

 Revolution of the Foreign Invaders:

 Euthanas, Inc.- A cheap family wants to euthanize grandma, so they take drop her off with a company who specializes in unique deaths. If you want to die like in your favorite movie, Euthanas, Inc. can make it happen. But Grandma has other plans...

 Don't Look Here - When her fathers dies, a young woman returns home to comfort her mother and sister, but it appears that his connection with the younger daughter is stronger than anyone may have expected. It's a brief, Guillermo del Toro-esque take on communicating with the dead, that's effective but perhaps too quick to conclude. (Searching for the title has been extremely difficult, both in English and in Spanish. I will update accordingly if I locate it).

 Hibernation - An astronaut prepares for deep sleep as he heads out for interstellar exploration, but he's more interested in the girl whose place he's taking. More straight-ahead science fiction than anything resembling horror, but it has some nice cinematography and a distinctly retro-vibe.

 Mr. Bear - Steve and his wife are running late to their children's Christmas dinner, and when the car breaks down next to a mechanic, he's mistaken by the men inside for a "cleaner" of, unusual circumstances. Quite clever and surprisingly gory with some sadistic humor thrown in for good measure.

REM - To be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of this short. It wasn't that it was very reminiscent of Inception (which it is), but that it essentially exists to tease either a) more short films or b) a feature length continuation of the story, neither of which I'm particularly interested in.

 Nexo - A man's new phone has a strange camera: instead of showing what's in front of him, it displays the yard of his friends, where the man appears to be, even though he's inside his house alongside his girlfriend. There's some genuine suspense, but it's often hampered by not seeing the image on the phone and an abrupt conclusion. (I was having trouble finding this short as well in any form online).

 Le Revenant - My favorite of the foreign shorts involves a young man who is convinced he can cheat death, so he tests his theory with hilarious results. Often cartoonish with a healthy dose of black comedy, Le Revenant ramps up the insanity as the now undead man decides he's going to stop Death from doing his job, often with disastrous consequences.


 The main event for Saturday night was Nevermore's "Retro" screening of The Tingler (shortened title for the sake of brevity), presented by Bruce Goldstein of Rialto Pictures. Goldstein mentioned in his introduction that despite his reputation and recognition for film programming, he's probably best known around the world for The Tingler due to his interest in screening it (and other William Castle films) with the original "gimmick," Percepto. The Tingler also happens to be John Waters' favorite movie, and with good reason. While House on Haunted Hill might be better known, The Tingler exemplifies "camp" cinema before anyone had a firm grasp on what "camp" was, not to mention the distinction of having an onscreen LSD experience in 1959, nearly a decade before it caught on with the counter-culture.

 If you're a fan of very questionable "science" and even more questionable scientific techniques of experimentation, or of characters who exist to out-chew the scenery of their co-stars, or of William Castle / Vincent Price and you haven't seen The Tingler, you're really missing out. Price is gnawing all over the scenery like an overgrown rat as Dr. Warren Chapin, a prison mortician who also researches fear in his home laboratory with his assistant, David Morris (Darryl Hickman). David is dating Lucy Stevens (Pamela Lincoln), the younger sister of Chapin's wife, Isabelle (Patricia Cutts). Warren and Isabelle have a "hate / hate" relationship; she is constantly (and openly) carousing around town with other men, and at one point he tricks her into thinking he's going to kill her for the sake of an experiment. Their dialogue is also dripping with innuendo, like this bon mot from Warren:

 "How is it that the back door slams whenever the husband comes in the front door?"

 I'll let you mull that one over. The title creature comes in after Warren meets Ollie Higgins (Phillip Coolidge), the husband of deaf / mute theater owner Martha (Judith Evelyn). Warren is explaining his theory that an organism lives inside of us and materializes during periods of extreme fear, which gives it enough strength to shatter vertebrae. Ollie suggests calling it "the Tingler," and when Warren mentions it to David, he agrees that "we can't give a Latin name until we've discovered it, so the Tingler works." David also traps a cat, leaves a dog outside in a car, and makes a strange joke about hoping that Lucy can't run fast. Screenwriter and Castle regular Robb White, intentionally or otherwise, packs the film with lines that could imply something far less innocent. Although, considering that Chapin is open to the idea of experimenting with Martha because she can't scream (the only way to stop the Tingler) in order to manifest the creature should give you some idea of how morally questionable every character is in The Tingler. When (SPOILER) Isabelle tries to murder Warren with the Tingler, it hardly seems unreasonable after what he's done in the name of "science."

 The great fun of watching a movie like The Tingler is seeing it with an audience, in particular because Percepto! is designed for theatres. While we didn't get the exact Percepto! experience, it was nevertheless a fun time, and they found a way to throw in another gimmick during Chapin's LSD experiment, where the black and white film turns color for a short period of time in what can only be referred to as "proto-psychedelic." When Chapin tricks Martha later and "doses" her, there's another, stranger hallucinatory sequence that improbably ties into the story's "twist," one that's jettisoned almost immediately so that the Tingler can get loose in the theatre below Ollie's apartment.

 Oh yes, I haven't mentioned what the Tingler looks like, have I? Well, imagine a large rubber cenitpede being pulled along by string and you'll have a pretty good idea. It's gross, but not exactly scary, and when it tries to choke Warren but looks suspiciously like it's humping his chest, it's hard to be frightened. Then again, that's probably not the point. William Castle specialized in "interactive" movie experiences, and the audience in Fletcher Hall was certainly having a grand time shrieking and laughing along with The Tingler, fifty five years after its original release. Call it schlock if you like, but Castle knew what he was doing with his gimmickry.


 It's hard to imagine topping The Tingler, but at it was barely nine o'clock when we left Fletcher Hall to move to Cinema One, there was no reason not to see one of the two movies closing out Saturday at Nevermore. The options were Battle of the Undead, an Israeli film about zombies, or The Last Days (Los últimos días), a Spanish film set just before and slightly after a sudden disease causes all of humanity to be incapable of being outdoors. While I enjoy a zombie movie as much as any red blooded gore hound, if you're offering me post-apocalyptic cinema, I'm going to take it. (Long time Blogorium readers will attest that if there are two subgenres the Cap'n is a total sucker for, it's anthologies and post-apocalyptic cinema).

 Marc Delgado (Quim Gutiérrez) is a software programmer in Barcelona who lives with his girlfriend Julia (Marta Etura), a puppeteer. He's hesitant about having children and there's some visible strain in their relationship, but something strange has been happening around them. People are shutting themselves in, finding they are incapable of going outside. When Enrique (José Coronado), a corporate restructuring expert (nicknamed "The Terminator") fires an employee who had been living in the office for two weeks, he goes into shock as soon as he leaves the building and dies in front of everyone. Before long, this unexplained affliction is widespread, and Marc finds himself trapped in his office building while Julia is at home. After three months, he'll do anything to get back to her, and when they break through the parking garage to the subway, he sees his opportunity. The only problem is that someone already took the only GPS - Enrique. In order to find Julia, he's going to have to make a deal with a man he barely trusts, but what other option is there?

 There was a technical error at the beginning of the film that, for reasons unknown, prevented us from seeing subtitles on every other line of dialogue, so we'd catch half (or less) of a conversation in the first ten minutes, and every time someone would head outside to tell the projection staff, the subtitles would come back on, only to immediately drop out. Eventually they stopped the film and restarted it (and everything worked that time), but it's a testament to how well The Last Days is made that something that disruptive didn't impact the overall film experience.

 Writer / Directors David and Àlex Pastor crafted a story about the apocalypse that isn't directly about how the apocalypse happened. Scattered throughout the film are flashbacks that fill in details about Marc and Julia's life, including one revelation that increases his need to find her, but like The Returned, there's no grand attempt to explain what happens to everybody that keeps them indoors. We see what it feels like to go outside and understand why they're afraid to try, but the explanation remains a mystery. What's more important is how people learn to adapt to this new world, where humanity is crammed together in pockets, unable to contact each other.

 The Last Days is a very well made film that covers a lot of familiar post-apocalyptic tropes in interesting ways and structures the story in such a way that you're always interested to see where it goes next. The surprisingly upbeat ending feels appropriate, particularly when it could have gone in a much darker direction with one or two minor changes. At the heart of the film is the bond between Marc and Enrique, who each have their reasons for venturing out into the unknown, where anyone is capable of anything. While Marc's quest for Julia is the impetus for the narrative, the performances of Gutiérrez and Coronado are the glue that holds The Last Days together, and the film is a fine addition to the post-apocalyptic cinema family. There's even a tiny reference to the Mad Max films during a conversation about whether all of humanity is affected or not. At least, I choose to see it that way - there's a way The Last Days and The Road Warrior could exist in the same world...

 I'm even more worn out today than I was last night, but Sunday awaits, along with the last two Nevermore experiences of 2014. Join the Cap'n tomorrow for Grand Piano and the U.S. short films, They're Coming to Get You, Barbra!

Nevermore Film Festival Recap (Day One)

 Today was, by necessity, a light day for the Cap'n to experience Nevermore (that whole "working" thing can be a drag when you'd rather watch horror movies, but what can you do?), but I did manage to sneak through rush hour traffic and make it to The Carolina Theater in time for two movies. It turned out to be quite the clash of styles, of approaches, and ultimately, of tastes for me: I really, enthusiastically enjoyed one of them and couldn't wait for the other one to be over with. Fortunately, we get to start with the good one, which is already in the running for "favorite discovery of Nevermore," and we're only on day one!

 Other than the listing on the festival's website, I knew nothing about The Shower. I knew it involved a baby shower and some sort of outbreak, and a clown. Things always end well when there are clowns, as you may be aware. Call me crazy, but I like to start off a festival with a horror comedy, when possible - it tends to bring the right energy to what is a fun, but admittedly butt-numbing experience over the course of a weekend. It was a blind call, but I chose wisely - The Shower delivers.

 After a brief intro from writer / director Alex Drummond and two cast members / producers (apologies if I get this wrong but I'm pretty sure it was Stephanie Tobey and Andy Hoff), the film began, and off the bat it strikes the right tone between horror and comedy. I'm normally not a huge fan of the "freeze title cards" (at least, not since the first Feast), but in a film set in Los Angeles about struggling actors and writers, the dichotomy between what they wanted to do and what they were doing was a nice way to introduce the main cast quickly while we're settling in. It's much appreciated, because Drummond gives you just enough time to meet Nick (Kurt Ela) and Mary (Rachael Drummond)'s friends before things get violent.

 Nick is a struggling screenwriter and Mary is and actress on downtime before she gives birth to her second child, and they're headed to a baby shower at the home of her agent Joanne (Suzanne Sena) when... strange things begin to happen. For no apparent reason, people are turning violent (possibly slightly cannibalistic) and attacking each other, without any clear pattern as to when or why it happens. Trapped in a house with their friends, children, Joanne's assistant Beth (Tovey), and a party Clown with a taste for flesh and blood (Tony Rago), the expectant couple has to figure out a way to stay alive when supplies and trust are in short order.

 I don't want to say too much more about how The Shower unfolds, because much of the fun of watching the film is not knowing where the story is headed next. By not explaining what the outbreak is, or how it spreads, Drummond keeps the audience uncertain of who is and isn't infected and generates a lot of comedy out of the reactions to the curious behavior when someone does turn. Rather than simply going mindless, the infected remain mostly themselves, but with a sadistic indifference towards their "friends." It's a nice twist on what could have been any other contagion / zombie movie.

 There are a lot of horror comedies out there, and a lot of low budget ones that, frankly, aren't very good. Trust me, I've seen my fair share, so when there's a good one, let alone one as good as The Shower is, I'm going to make a point to mention it. For a movie that's only 78 minutes long, The Shower packs a lot in at a brisk pace, and finds time for character moments with the dozen or so cast members. It came as a genuine surprise how much Drummond and crew were able to do with as low of a budget (and only one camera), so kudos for a job well done. I hope the film gets picked up for distribution so that more of you can see The Shower (on this off chance you're reading this during the weekend of Nevermore, go see the movie on Sunday, but if not I suggest checking the official site to see when and where you can see it). Normally I try not to be too pushy about movies, but The Shower is an independent production and they made the time to bring it across the country so we could see it, so I'll evangelize a little bit. I think most Blogorium readers will really dig The Shower, so it's worth getting the word out in any little way I can.


 After a Q&A for The Shower, it made sense to stick around for another movie, and since we didn't really know anything about Proxy, it seemed like another worthwhile unknown to pursue. I know that if you don't have anything nice to say, you probably should just not say anything, so I'll try to keep this short, because Proxy didn't do it for me. I feel kind of bad about it, because at first I was on board with Zack Parker and Kevin Donner's story and Parker's direction, but about halfway through the film, Proxy lost me and I never got back on board.

 The premise was interesting enough: Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) is nine months pregnant and having a final ultrasound, and as she's leaving someone knocks her out, severely injures her stomach, and leaves her in an alleyway. Esther loses the baby and is urged to go to group counseling, where she meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), who lost her husband Patrick (Joe Swanberg) and son Peyton (Xavier Parker) to a drunk driver. They bond over shared experiences and Melanie seems to be helping to coax Esther out of her withdrawn state, but it turns out neither woman is quite what she claims to be.

 For a while, the mystery of Proxy sustains interest, and there is an admittedly interesting thematic exploration of the cycle of revenge and its futility (as well as recurring water motifs and some degree of "baptism by blood" you could also read into) but the film takes a hard left turn about a third of the way in that lost me completely. From that point forward, the pacing seemed less deliberate and more like filler, something to pad out the run time until two character arcs met in an inevitable collision course. Unfortunately it takes far too long to get there and the end result is less than satisfying. There's an awkward introduction of "is this all in their head" that doesn't really work the way I think it was supposed to, and some of the contrivances that bring characters together was too much to swallow.

 Other than the pacing, everybody else I saw Proxy with seemed to enjoy it more than I did, but with each successive scene introducing a new character that added nothing to the story, I must admit that my patience wore thin. At two hours, Proxy is far too long, but my initial interest dwindled after it was clear what direction the story was headed. Maybe it was the character of Esther or the physical resemblance of Rasmussen to Angela Bettis, but it seemed in the early goings that Proxy might be a character study like May. This is not the case - it heads in quite a different direction - and without spoiling too much, the ending reminded me of the master plan in Scream 4, which is not a comparison I'd really like to make.

 There are some intriguing elements to Proxy : Parker definitely goes a few places I wouldn't have thought he would - and I think it's well made (if bloated), but I'm afraid that it just didn't work for the Cap'n. But these things happen, and I don't regret taking a shot on watching it. I wish I had nicer things to say, but the best thing to do is just move on and look forward to tomorrow. While I can't recommend Proxy, I wholeheartedly recommend The Shower, so if you get the chance to see it, do so.

It's time for sleep, but I'll be back tomorrow with more Nevermore recap-ery, including The Tingler!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It's almost time for Nevermore!

 Greetings, readers! It's been a little while, hasn't it? After a month straight of recapping 2013 and then a few reviews to follow that, the Cap'n took a little break to recharge the batteries and to focus on my other, regular job (it's nothing exciting and doesn't have anything to do with the Blogorium, which is why I don't mention it much). And then the Snowpocalypses happened and friends had kids and before you know it, I'm looking at two weeks of nothing new. But hopefully you had plenty to read in the meantime, and maybe now we've all had time to let news like Philip Seymour Hoffman's death to settle. It still sucks (it really sucks), but it is what it is.

 I'd like to have some more reviews up for you soon, and I'll try to, but  the past two weeks haven't been much more movie watching. The Cap'n did see The Bling Ring, and while I wrestled with whether I had anything to say about it, I'm landing on the side of "it didn't do much for me." I'm not convinced that Sofia Coppola really had any point to make about celebrity obsessed culture or that the movie accomplished much of anything at all. A gaggle of teenage miscreants break into the homes of people they idolize on superficial levels, steal their things, and attain a level of quasi-celebrity (the girl Emma Watson is based on had her own show on E!) and end up in jail. Well, some of them. And they betray each other because they're just as superficial... and that's the point. There's no insightful commentary or anything that really makes The Bling Ring stand out from the TV movie version that already existed, unless you count the fact that Coppola had access to Paris Hilton's house and also asked some of her friends to appear on camera, sometimes merely for seconds (seriously, how long is Kirsten Dunst on screen?). Maybe I'm missing something, but I sure didn't feel like I was while watching The Bling Ring.

 Grand Piano, on the other hand, is much better, but I don't want to review that yet because I'm going to watch it again this weekend and will be covering it for the annual Nevermore Film Festival roundup. This will be my third year attending the festival of things dark and macabre in Durham, and it looks to be a fun one. Their "retro" feature is William Castle's The Tingler with Vincent Price (actual title, don't bother fact checking me on that one) with Castle's original "Tingler" gimmick. If you don't know what that is, either look it up or show up to The Carolina Theatre in Durham on Saturday night to find out. It's going to be a fun time and will make it the first time I've seen The Tingler as it was meant to be experienced.

 I'll also be checking out Big Bad Wolves, Here Comes the Devil, The Shower, Open Grave (if I can fit in a showing), Last Days, Proxy, and the short film collections. In particular I enjoy the shorts because it takes me the rest of the year to find them online, and even then sometimes you just can't, meaning that Nevermore is the only time you'll see them. Some of my favorite bite-sized horror comes from the collections, and there's always a surprise or two that really works with an audience. On the features front, I'm looking forward to Here Comes the Devil and if I can squeeze it in, I'd really like to see The Returned, but right now it's not looking likely if I want to catch all four shorts compilations. Haunt is the same way, but with work as it is I can't make it there until Friday night, meaning that some of it's going to have to get left out. I'll see if I can get some of the other attendees to file reports on movies the Cap'n couldn't see.

 If you live within driving distance of Durham, you really should go to Nevermore this weekend - the atmosphere is great, they have three screens running all day with all sorts of different varieties of horror, science fiction, thrillers, and just bizarre stuff. Tickets are pretty reasonable, and there's always something to walk around and see in between - vintage posters, movies for sale, memorabilia. The audiences are always great, which is a major plus when seeing something new or being able to watch a classic like Dawn of the Dead in a completely different way. John Dies at the End also played very well with a large audience, something that most people didn't get to see as a result of its limited release. The Tingler is going to be a lot of fun with a crowd, and for five bucks you really should make the trip out to see it. And at this point I sound like I'm shilling for the fest so I'll stop. The point is that I got my passes yesterday and the Cap'n is rather excited. It's the one fest I don't run myself that I try to make it to every year.

 On the other side of that, there are a bunch of things I'd like to try doing beyond just reviewing movies, but I hate to set something up and then not get to it, so for now I'll leave it mysterious. I will say I've given some thought to revisiting movies that I reviewed a long time ago, both that I did and didn't like, if only because their original reviews are a) terrible, b) too short, c) both, or d) don't give a reader any real impression of the movie. I've gone back and read a few from years ago (particularly ones written in the middle of a Fest) that are too cursory and don't really seem fair to ask you to take at face value. So I might try to rectify that. The way I review films has changed a lot in the last ten years, and the Blogorium is more or less an archive of how that style evolved, but it means that old reviews really don't stand up, and there are a lot of movies in there I think deserve better consideration. Stay tuned on that one.

 I'll see you cats and kittens this weekend for Nevermore!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Quick Review: Good Ol' Freda

 At this point, you'd think there would be nothing about The Beatles that fans wouldn't know. Between the biographies, anthologies (musical and televised), fictionalized accounts (Backbeat), and the vast swath of websites devoted to the "Fab Four," all the ground has to have been covered, right? The Cap'n used to pore through books at the local library, soaking up details about the earliest days of the band, the transitional periods, the acrimonious break up, and solo careers, and while I don't pretend to know it all, I've certainly heard a lot of it over the years (and we're talking pre-internet for a lot of that). That considered, it's refreshing when a documentary like Good Ol' Freda pops up in the instant queue - it's a different side of the story of The Beatles, from someone who hasn't spoken about it in more than forty years.

 To put some context at the opening, Good Ol' Freda begins with The Beatles' 1963 Christmas recording, where John, Paul, George, and Ringo give greetings to all of their fans. As they're moving through their "hello's" and Christmas wishes, George mentions their secretary, Freda Kelly, and the boys pipe in with "good ol' Freda!" - voila, we have our title. Kelly was Brian Epstein's secretary and the head of the Beatles fan club from before they were famous until the very end, and Ryan White and Jessica Lawson spend the lion's share of the film letting Freda tell her story of Beatlemania from the inside.

 At 17, Freda Kelly was a typist in a secretarial pool, until one day her friends took her to the Cavern Club in Liverpool. She enjoyed the club so much she went back just about every day, and in 1962, that meant seeing quite a bit of The Beatles (John, Paul, George, and Pete Best at the time). The atmosphere was intimate enough that fans in the audience could request songs, although it was best not to send notes to John (Freda learned quickly that without his glasses, he couldn't read a thing onstage). Eventually, she started hanging out backstage with the bands and almost by accident became the fan club president of a band nobody knew - yet. In short order, that would change, and so too would her life...

 There's a level of intimacy in Good Ol' Freda that's really fascinating, because Kelly was so close to the band, their families, and Brian Epstein, that you don't really get elsewhere, even in the anthologies. She's very particular about what stories she's willing to tell and what she chooses to keep private - Kelly draws the line at sharing details about relationships and at one point sheepishly dodges the question "did you ever go out with any of them?" - but all of her anecdotes are personal. Hearing Kelly say "Richie" instead of Ringo, or about George's father insisting that he teach her ballroom dancing are a side of The Beatles that doesn't get covered much. It's less about the music and more about the lads. John tries to fire her after Freda has too much to drink in the Moody Blues' dressing room, so she tells him that she'll answer everybody's fan mail but his, and he begs her to stay on one knee. Her perspective on the Magical Mystery Tour is quite interesting, and I must admit that it's hard not to see her in the footage and photos from the movie once you've seen Good Ol' Freda. She was there the whole time (also amusing is her anecdote about booking the entire tour at a hotel as the "Women's Catholic League" because no one would dare book The Beatles).

 Much of the well covered territory in Beatles lore is left out - conquering America, the psychedelic phase, the tension towards the end - because Freda didn't travel with the band much. In fact, when Epstein moves the base of operations from Liverpool to London, Kelly doesn't join them after her father objects. He never approved of The Beatles, and his health is such that she can't in good conscience leave, so rather than lose the heart and soul of the organization, Epstein gives her his old office and Kelly continues to run the fan club from Liverpool. Quite a step up from accidentally using her home address for the fan club in the early days. She's free to hire (and fire) helpers to maintain a massive operation (including the assistance of other Liverpool bands like the Merseybeats to help deliver mail every now and then), and does her level best not to disappoint the fans. After all, she's a fan, too.

 Kelly is a fascinating figure in her own right, and scattered throughout Good Ol' Freda are brief interviews with her daughter that give us some idea why we've never heard this particular story before. There are other contemporaneous interviews, particularly with Tony Barrow (former Beatles press officer), mentioning that while most people related to the band decided to "cash in" at some point, Freda has been curiously silent about her life at the center of Beatlemania, a life she walked away from after the birth of her second child. Her decision to put that part of her life aside - in some instances, to literally pack it up in the attic, where we see hear going through some of the impressive memorabilia she didn't give away - was a personal one, and the reason for telling it now is one I'll let you discover in the documentary. One gets the impression that Kelly is happy to have told it now, so she doesn't have to again.

 She's a great storyteller, and White and Lawson bridge her interviews with plenty of rare footage and photography, along with something that must be hard to get making a documentary on the outside of the band: Beatles songs. While Paul isn't in the film (and Ringo pops up at the very end), I suspect their longstanding affinity for Freda Kelly helped in approving the rights to use the band's songs in the film, which is rare outside of Apple produced films. It's necessary and would be strange for Good Ol' Freda not to have, but I sense that the surviving members still think fondly of "good ol' Freda" and are happy to see her tell her story. I think most Beatles fans will be happy to hear it too; it's rare to hear a perspective on the band you haven't heard, and even if you're caught up with archival interviews with her, seeing Freda Kelly tell the stories is something fab indeed. While I haven't seen it yet, I imagine Good Ol' Freda would make a good double feature companion with 20 Feet from Stardom, so maybe I'll check that out next...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Blogorium Review: You're Next

 Festival screenings are a funny thing: movies can really build or destroy their reputation based on playing at a festival, and sometimes it happens for reasons beyond the creators' control. For example, while I really do like Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End and I think it does the best possible job it can adapting the book with the budget he had and the time constraints (and there's a lot that didn't make the adaptation), I think it benefited immensely from playing after Dawn of the Dead with audiences at the Nevermore Film Festival last year. I was there, and most of the people who came for Dawn of the Dead (and it was packed) stuck around for John Dies at the End, which played shortly thereafter, and they were already pumped having just seen what is arguably the best of Romero's "Dead" films (it's not my favorite, but I won't argue it's the best constructed). As a result, what is already a very good movie went through the roof because people were excited in the first place.

 I didn't see You're Next in 2011, because I wasn't in Toronto, Austin, San Francisco, Sydney, Los Angeles, or any of the other cities it played it. But apparently audiences went gaga for it. I probably read about it and then, as time went on, forgot about You're Next. Like The Cabin in the Woods, there was a sizable gap between the completed product and release. In the case of You're Next, it finally came out last August, and just recently came out on DVD and Blu-Ray, which is how I saw it. And you know what? It is pretty damn good.

 Crispian (AJ Bowen) is going to visit his parents - Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) - at their fixer-upper house in the woods for a family reunion. He's bringing along Erin (Sharni Vinson), his girlfriend, to meet his siblings: Felix (Nicholas Tucci), Drake (Joe Swanberg), and Aimee (Amy Seimetz), as well as their respective SO's Zee (Wendy Glenn), Kelly (Sarah Myers), and Tariq (Ti West). What none of them know is that three killers just murdered Paul and Aubrey's only neighbors (Larry Fessenden and Kate Lyn Sheil) and are preparing for a little family reunion home invasion. Then again, what the killers don't know is that Erin may be more than they can handle, much to the surprise of everyone else...

 I was already enjoying the set up of You're Next as it built towards the first attack on the family, but the moment that one of the killers (dressed in black and wearing animal masks, like they do in these kinds of movies) breaks through the glass and tries to grab Erin, I was sold. Instead of scream, she plunges a knife into his arm and pins him to the window pane, and the killer is standing there, howling with pain, while she looks for something to finish him off with. Her rationale why they shouldn't hide in the basement and the reaction it gets from the others is also priceless. The tone is just off-kilter enough to to overcome the predictability of the genre, which is always welcome, but Vinson is without a doubt You're Next's selling point.

(Also seeing Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) again is a bonus, who came out of semi-retirement to be in the film, although I honestly didn't recognize her until I saw her name in the credits)

 Coming in, I'd seen the quotes that You're Next was "ground breaking" and that it would change the rules of horror movies, which to be honest is the kind of festival-related hyperbole that increases expectations for a movie beyond where they need to be. You're Next is a really good horror movie, and probably the best domestic "home invasion" entry I've seen in the last decade (at least), but it doesn't reinvent the wheel, gang. It's okay for a movie to just do its job very well. Director Adam Wingard (V/H/S 2) and writer Simon Barrett (The ABCs of Death) made the kind of straight ahead horror movie that audiences will eat up: great kills, some clever laughs, fun characters, and actual suspense. The Final Girl has a novel back story that explains why she knows so much about fighting back (she grew up on a survivalist camp in the Outback), and the "twist" may not be novel (it's taken from the playbook of 60% of all thrillers) but it plays out well. You're Next doesn't need to be described as game changing, because it plays the existing game and does a damn fine job of it.

  You're Next also (apparently) falls into a category I'd never heard of before: "mumblegore." To be honest, I wasn't aware such a distinction was necessary, but the internet does love to create hybrid subgenres, and it was only a matter of time before "mumblecore" horror films had their own category. Other than Baghead, I'm not really certain what else qualifies as "mumblegore," because You're Next is most certainly too well scripted and too tightly directed to be considered a largely improvised, boring piece of shit. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm letting my bias slip through, but I really don't like mumblecore movies. Unless the way they've been made has changed drastically since I endured Funny Ha Ha, You're Next has one scene that even resembles "mumblecore" - the dinner table conversation right before the first attack.

 In the extras on the disc, Wingard and Barrett mention that they wanted each conversation to be distinct from each other and that there were many, many takes to get it just where Wingard wanted it to build to, but even in that I sense a greater sense of control than "just let them act and we'll shoot it." There's still a sense of control in the editing that I don't associate with movies by the Duplass brothers or other directors of that ilk. To be honest with you, I haven't seen A Horrible Way to Die or Pop Skull (Wingard's other horror movies), so maybe that's why You're Next gets lumped in, but I don't agree with that any more than the ridiculous notion that Ti West also falls into that category.

 Maybe that happened because West (The House of the Devil), Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), and Barrett are in You're Next, and (SPOILER) have some of the most memorable death scenes. Wingard does mention in the cast commentary that he wrote many of the parts for his friends (including Seimetz, who could only film in fits and spurts because she was in Upstream Color), which I suppose is something that gets lumped into the "mumblecore" playbook, but You're Next doesn't feel improvised. Once the movie really gets rolling, it's clear that Wingard and Barrett have a plan for every scene and how things are going to play out, which is the antithesis of "mumblecore." So is "mumblegore" a real thing? I don't know, but I'm going to go ahead and declare that if it is, You're Next shouldn't be part of that subgenre. It's a straight-ahead home invasion movie with some slasher influences, and what it does, it does very well.

 You're Next is the kind of movie I would have liked to have seen with a crowd. I'm strongly considering breaking the rule of what plays at Summer Fest so I don't have to wait until Horror Fest in October to show everybody the movie. I would have loved to have seen it at Nevermore, because it plays right into what the crowds there love, but that was not to be. The good news is that You're Next is finally out there, and while it doesn't rewrite horror (and I don't think it was even trying to), it's a hell of a fun movie to watch. Check it out.