Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rampart (2011)

Rampart (2011)
Dir. Oren Moverman

3 out of 5

Woody Harrelson's unrepentant LAPD officer in Rampart is one of the nastiest cinematic cops in recent memory, a performance made all the more chilling in the film's historical context. It's set shortly after the 1999 Rampart scandal involving evidence tampering, drug dealing, and general corruption within the LAPD's anti-gang unit (one of their credos was "Intimidate those who intimidate others"). That Harrelson is still on the take in this politically-charged atmosphere, brutalizing criminals and family members alike, speaks to his status as a thoroughly horrible human being. His motive is pure sadism. He is cruel for the sake of being cruel, carrying out his duties with the ominous aura of an executioner. But when Harrelson's professional and personal mistakes start piling up, he is intimately acquainted with a painful truth that most law-breakers eventually realize: it's not a problem until you get caught.

An excellent, sprawling cast represents the many forces arrayed against Harrelson, trying their best to push back against his abuse of authority. They include Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as sisters who consecutively married (and divorced) him, Ice Cube as an equally aggressive counterpart in Internal Affairs, bratty daughter extraordinaire Brie Larson, and even the corrupt ex-policeman Ned Beatty, who mentors Harrelson with a combination of pride and remorse. (Notably, Harrelson's direct superior is not among this group.) It's a shame that their characters are altogether unequipped to parry his misplaced rage and unlimited capacity for lawyer-speak. Pitting Harrelson and his rhetorical fireworks against people who counter with lines like "You were dirty, and you dirtied us all up," seems highly unfair.

Director Oren Moverman tries to fashion a realistically sleazy tale of a shady sub-bureaucracy, but Rampart feels bloated with empty provocation. Harrelson's predatory relationship with lawyer Robin Wright and his brief visit to an underground sex club come to mind, the latter sequence being a egregious and annoying example of a filmmaker congratulating himself for foisting "edgy" material on a hopelessly naive audience. Rampart has too many "dirty cop" clichés embedded in its DNA to register as truly shocking, and at times resembles a cheesy TV drama - an act of violence meant to echo the Rodney King beating is presented in a groaningly obvious fashion (the movie as a whole is riddled with tiny anachronisms). Harrelson's ferocious and unglamorous turn keeps the movie afloat, however, pasting together a series of lurid vignettes into a greater story of a man's slow, inevitable slide towards obsolescence. Through his presence in every scene, we at least get a glimpse at the pathology of corruption, even if the rest of the film is ripped a bit too directly from the headlines.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bullhead (2011)

Dir. Michael R. Roskam

3.5 out of 5

"Let me tell you about coincidence," bellows a police officer in Bullhead when her informant starts making excuses: "Things are as they are!" That's the general sentiment of this fatalistic movie, one where people keep making the same mistakes, where the strong oppress the weak with impunity, and where the weak are - in the words of the film's opening narration - "until the end of time...fucked." Matthais Schoenaerts stars as an intimidating Flemish cattle farmer who gets tangled up in the seamy side of the Belgian beef trade. His point of entry is a shady veterinarian (Frank Lammers) who persuades him to strike a deal with members of the "hormone mafia" - peddlers of the bovine growth agents widely used in the U.S. but outlawed in Europe. Schoenaerts soon crosses paths with a long-lost childhood friend (Jeroen Perceval), now a lackey for one of the agricultural crime syndicates, an encounter that dredges up old animosities stemming from a violent and senseless act of hatred committed twenty years before.

Bullhead plays like a novel with an omniscient point of view, but its heart clearly lies with Schoenaerts, a steroid user whose swollen muscles and lumbering gait mimic the cattle constantly observed in the background of the film's rural locations. His plight not so subtly rhymes with the animals', pumped full of chemicals that alter his physique and his even temperament, a slab of meat bred for a singular purpose. He knows more than he lets on about how to operate with criminals and lowlifes - mainly, that they can't be trusted - but a normal social life is out of the question, at least until Perceval's reappearance encourages Schoenaerts to stop repressing the memories of his childhood trauma. This leads to several ill-fated attempts to connect with his childhood crush (Jeanne Dandoy), the daughter of a high-level gangster who works in a perfume shop. There's a bracingly awkward scene in that shop where Dandoy, unaware of Schoenaerts' identity, cheerfully counsels him on what brand of aftershave to buy. The surprisingly hardy adage about putting lipstick on a pig is nicely applied here.

That's also not a bad way to describe the film's shortcomings, as director Michael R. Roskam tries to slather the style of a kinetic, multi-layered crime caper onto a stark character study. At its best, Bullhead's portrait of a moody loner struggling to separate revenge and redemption recalls Drive, but Roskam is markedly less concerned about straying from his vision to please the crowd. Several of the goofy gangsters are like first drafts of characters from a Tarantino script - a pair of irritating car mechanics meant as comic relief are by far the worst offenders. And the air of inevitability cultivated in the plot and the visuals make several potentially tense moments fall flat (one character's revealed sexuality is apparently meant to shock and instead lands with a resounding thud). However, Schoenaerts' tortured, eccentric performance is something to behold, transforming a decent thriller into a desperate plea for understanding from a creature trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jump Cuts: Studio Ghibli Edition

Full reviews aren't right for all films - particularly ones that seem past the point of timely comment. These films are better off with bite-size opinionating. Let's call them "Jump Cuts."

Since the mid-1980s, Japan's Studio Ghibli has set an international gold standard in animated cinema with its distinctive style blending the fantastical and the mundane, and its painterly devotion to the medium as a fine art. Under the creative auspices of writer-directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli stamp all but assures a level of quality rivaled only by Pixar Studios. Indeed, it's possible to say that Ghibli predicted Pixar in redefining the animated feature film, refusing to condescend to audience expectations and blazing a trail for modern animated masterpieces of wit and empathy.

Still, the Ghibli braintrust must have taken a considerable leap of faith in green-lighting Whisper of the Heart (1995), a tender coming-of-age story from Yoshifumi Kondo that contains almost none of the studio's trademark whimsy, and prominently features John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (in two languages!) as a thematic touchstone. Kondo's only directorial feature before his untimely death in 1998, Whisper is a straightforward tale about a teenage girl who struggles to make important decisions about her future. It's a parable about hard work, self-confidence, and the effort to give the things in our lives the proper weight. There's a bit of strange business with the backstory of a cat figurine that stands sentinel in an old man's curio shop, but outside of a dream sequence or two the film is refreshingly grounded. Sadly, some ending revelations undermine Whisper's commitment to realism; it's nonetheless a moving depiction of the often confusing adolescent years.

The bittersweet lessons of youth are a key inspiration for Ghibli's filmmakers - some would say that it's the studio's only focus, but that assumption undermines the pure cinematic joy of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988). The film that first propelled Studio Ghibli into the global consciousness, Totoro focuses on a university professor and his two young daughters who move into a country house while their mother recuperates from an unnamed illness. The sisters discover a number of Japanese folk spirits living in their backyard including the titular creature, a rotund, vaguely feline version of Sasquatch calibrated for maximum cuteness. These close encounters may distract younger viewers from the movie's darker undertones (another classic Ghibli strategy), but symbolize all the family's hopes and anxieties so well that you may forget that the film has no conventional villain and little conflict. Despite having
all the stakes of a nursery rhyme, Totoro is an immensely charming and bewitching portrait of that initial collision between the demands of reality and the expectations of childhood imagination.

The latest Ghilbi film to be distributed stateside, The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), could be described as a callback to Totoro: it also involves a curious youngster's retreat to a rural homestead and his attempts to parley with the strange creatures hidden therein. In fact, it's more accurate to call Arrietty an inversion of Totoro as it's told from the perspective of the creatures themselves - tiny people known as "borrowers" who survive off the scraps discarded by human "beans." Based on a popular British children's novel of the 1950s, the movie is an unexpectedly tense examination of the clandestine existence led by the teenaged borrower Arrietty and her parents, Pod and Homily. Despite the danger it poses to her family, Arrietty forges an unlikely friendship with a sickly, bedridden boy who is depressingly ambivalent about his prospect for living a longer, healthier life. It may be asking too much of the audience to ponder such distressing questions of mortality in a movie with a comically evil housekeeper voiced by Carol Burnett, but director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes up for it in the deliciously detailed way he explores the borrowers' way of life. Every possession, every movement is perfectly scaled to present the unique challenges and possibilities of such diminutive folk. Chances are you'll find an Easter egg in every frame. It's that quintessentially Ghibli spirit of play, seeping into heavier matters and providing that little spark of creativity that lets us cope with life's persistent letdowns.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Vow (2012)

The Vow (2012)
Dir. Michael Sucsy

2 out of 5

Rachel McAdams plays a sculptor married to Channing Tatum in The Vow, and you almost believe it is a union based on her need for a life model. Blessed with the type of body that graces the cover of romance novels and exhibiting the impossible patience seen only in date movies, Tatum is a object of fantasy that fits perfectly into the film's vigorous disregard for reality despite being "inspired by true events." He remains devoted to McAdams, whose memories of their courtship and marriage are erased after a devastating car accident. In the first of many salvos fired against verisimilitude, said tragedy is caused by McAdams' bizarre insistence on vehicular nookie at a downtown Chicago intersection. Yet Tatum resolves to romance her all over again despite the interjections of her disapproving parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill) and the looming presence of her squinty ex-fiancé (Scott Speedman).

The Vow is the kind of movie where wardrobe is meant to substitute for character. A post-accident McAdams is suddenly disgusted by her closet of funky, artsy clothes - where "funky" translates to "gym socks" - and distances herself from her recording engineer husband and his flannel-clad hipster friends with her smart sweaters and pearl necklaces. Is it a bad sign that Tatum's friends do not look remotely like anyone who'd actually hang out with him? Furthermore, anyone in a suit is bad news. The movie promotes a weird false dichotomy between a fulfilling creative life and being a soulless corporate shill: Tatum is stunned when McAdams makes the indefensible choice to return to law school. He tries to remind her how much she enjoyed her previous routine, which engenders the inadvertently depressing description "you would check emails, pay the bills, then go work in your studio all day." What more could a girl want?

Much of the film's first half is a pedestrian slog through the couple's feeling-out phase, more of a breakup song than a love story. The Vow eventually circles back around to what makes them nice people, and nicer together, but it all comes too little, too late. McAdams finds Tatum inoffensive at best for a large chunk of the movie, but it's not so shocking when his character seems so airheaded and juvenile. Tatum lands a few choice one-liners but reacts to almost everything with the flat, leaden expression of a runway model. He has the body of a Chippendale and the mind of a lovesick eighth-grader; he is a man rudderless without the passwords to his online bill pay accounts. McAdams isn't served well by her character, either. She appears as a lively, intelligent woman before the accident, then reverts to damsel-in-distress mode. She's frustratingly oblivious to her parents' high-pressure sales tactics, neglecting to ask questions as she happily climbs into their creepy van of familial guilt. "It's like getting a free do-over!" she coos. You may want one too after seeing The Vow.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wide Angle: Digital and the Death of Second-Run

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

There's a ritual conducted at the boutique multiplexes of Los Angeles that never ceases to amuse me. Before every screening, a chipper usher in a solid-color polo shirt will bound down to front row, center and welcome the audience, reciting the title, rating, and running time of the film you are about to see. Finally, this person will assure you that she will stand by for the first ten minutes to "ensure sound and picture quality." It's an earnest attempt to put a little of the human element into the theater. It's also a practice that's absurdly at odds with the current reality of how movies are shown, and it's indicative of just how much control consumers have lost in the public movie-going experience.

The last bit of the usher's spiel is the most telling, as these chic and luxurious facilities all feature the latest in digital projection technology, which replaces 35mm film stock with password-protected computer files and can be automated for days or weeks at a time. To see what I mean, do a little test next time you go to a theater with digital projection (this will be easy enough to find). Take a few peeks back at the projection booth during the show and see if you can spot any moving shadows or shuffling hands or any other signs of life up there. Once the domain of dedicated and skilled craftspeople, today's digital projection booth is a lonely place. A "set it and forget it" ethos has replaced what was a visible, human process: I'll still mark time during particularly boring movies on celluloid by looking for the sprocket holes that appear during each reel change.

I was thinking of this particular disconnect while reading film scholar David Bordwell's recent article on how digital technology is revolutionizing the movie exhibition business. (It's part of a larger series on the ramifications of digital film projection, a fascinating read in its entirety.) In a nutshell, movie theaters - and, by extension, their customers - are increasingly surrendering control of the screening process to distributors and projector manufacturers. It affects everything from the requisite technology to show films right down to the minutiae of when and how often a particular film may be screened. Bordwell notes that "the projectionist isn't the only ghost haunting the multiplex," but his metaphor is too kind: the forces behind the industry's impressment of digital exhibition are more like puppeteers manipulating the strings of a marionette.

This loss of control is troubling as it ultimately leads to the loss of choice. Recently I lamented the closing of the Culver Plaza Theater, a former Mann flagship that was resurrected as a second-run theater until the end of 2011. It was the latest domino toppled in a line that also included the Regency chain's budget-priced theaters in Redondo Beach and the Fairfax/Mid-City area (the latter ultimately done in by a roof collapse). In reality, these were more like 1.5-run theaters, mixing last month's big Hollywood releases with smart indie fare, limited-release oddities, and infamous cinematic orphans; I cherished Culver Plaza for giving me the opportunity to see Uwe Boll's Postal. I'm not going to pretend that these places were diamonds in the rough. They were sparingly cleaned, minimally staffed, and often in need of repair. They were cheap places to see a movie, period. What I am saying, though, is that they were the last remnants of a system that provided an increasingly rare service, and they deserved better.

Photo Credit: Hiltron Bailey

Our polo-shirted usher also symbolizes the class stratification that has taken place as we consolidate more screens in fewer buildings. As celluloid prints become scarcer, it takes immense financial resources to run a movie theater. The digital technology is prohibitively expensive for most smaller operations, and data tracking makes it more difficult to "split" a theater between two different prints or offer a more eclectic selection of non-Hollywood movies. Think of it this way: the leverage lost by the exhibitor is also leverage lost for the consumer. It hurts both the curious cinephile, subsidizing the arthouse arms race with its gourmet snack bars and cocktail lounges, and the budget-minded moviegoer, eschewing the theater and making it a Redbox night.

The current system has many advantages - reliability and cost-effectiveness chief among them - but I feel like future generations are losing something that's truly valuable. The first movie I ever saw (or so my parents tell me) was a reissue of the 1967 Disney-animated version of
The Jungle Book. I saw it at "The Movies" in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, a Streamline Moderne one-screener which was, at that point, the main theater serving a community of approximately 5,000 people. It was cleaner than a lot of cheapie theaters, but it was also the kind of place where the person working the concession register might also be selling tickets or running upstairs to start the projector. They would host birthday parties in a side room - I recall scarfing down pizza before seeing John Goodman mug his way through The Flintstones - and frequently held raffles after kiddie matinees. One lucky day I went home the proud owner of a pin bearing the smirking visage of Macaulay Culkin as Richie Rich.

Photo Credit: Josh Popichak

The Movies had the charm of a living museum and a staff that was directly engaged with the demands of its customers, even if they were demanding lukewarm adaptations of classic cartoons. It also had a leaky roof and outdated technology, and closed over a decade ago. By that point, a new 10-screen multiplex had opened just a few miles outside of Hellertown. I visited this place (which has itself shut down after losing its business to a bigger, sleeker, digitally-equipped gigaplex) a few years ago to see
Sherlock Holmes. Returning to the theater after a bathroom break, one of the employees asked me if I was enjoying the film, which had been playing at that location for two weeks.

He wanted to know, he said, because he had only ever seen the first ten minutes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

Dir. Josh Trank

3.5 out of 5

"I'm filming everything from now on" announces troubled teen Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) in the opening shot of Chronicle, a warning to his alcoholic stepfather that doubles as a matter-of-fact apprisal of the movie's self-awareness. Here is a "found footage" feature that plows right through the format's limitations. Where The Blair Witch Project began the genre in grainy black-and-white images confined to the woods, Chronicle soars to the tops of skyscrapers and through the clouds, creating a sense of woozy liberation that quickly careens into power-drunk madness.

DeHaan begins the film as a lowly loner, dragged to a rave on the rural outskirts of Seattle by his cousin, Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), where they are joined by class president hopeful Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) in some off-the-cuff spelunking and discover...something. Quickly they realize that their close encounter has endowed them with more than just nasty nosebleeds: they're instant superheroes, slowly learning to harness their raw powers of telekinesis and flight. The trio uses their abilities mostly to goof around and play pranks, but DeHaan is the surly elephant in the room. He is the strongest of the three, and the least emotionally prepared to handle such a sudden reversal of fortune. The film is cleverly built around his increasing angst and corruptibility as he dances on the line that separates hero (steadfastly protecting his dying mother) from villain (projecting the resentment of his abusive stepfather).

Adrenaline junkies take heart: Chronicle is nothing too subtle. The psychodrama takes a backseat to effects-driven spectacle in the third act, which makes a giant leap into the uncanny valley, yet feels justified in doing so. After all, this is essentially a comic book movie. Such things require a final confrontation where two supercharged characters lay waste to an urban landscape. Plus there's plenty of goofiness on the margins. Friends and family are none too inquisitive about all the incredibly strange phenomena they witness, and the script foists a love interest on Russell primarily to get another camera in the mix. But the movie's trump card is its darkness, unrelenting and frighteningly casual. It disabuses us of the notion that if we were just stronger or smarter or richer, all of our problems would disappear. Chronicle is ultimately a smart, subdued sermon about the sublime torment of being special.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black
Dir. James Watkins

2.5 out of 5

Daniel Radcliffe is dangerously close to being typecast as the unassuming hero of The Woman in Black, an Edwardian ghost story about a rural English village where superstition links a tragedy at a spooky old mansion and the accidents that have disproportionally claimed the lives of the community's children. Who better to put on the haggard, hangdog expression of a man put-upon by the supernatural better than the once and future Harry Potter? To his credit, Radcliffe maximizes the bland role of a widowed lawyer who is assigned to manage the estate of Eel Marsh, gradually uncovering its gruesome secrets while a vengeful spirit looks over his shoulder. Fearing for the safety of his own son (who's due to arrive in the doomed village within three days), Radcliffe convinces the skeptical landowner Ciarán Hinds to help him put the town's demons to rest, a jolly endeavor that involves the exhumation of two corpses. So much for resting in peace.

Though it establishes an appropriately grey and lonely atmosphere early on, the entire film is subsequently cheapened by its reliance on a barrage of cheap, fleeting funhouse scares. The Eel Marsh house is a location tailor-made for horror, an eerie Gothic manse in the middle of a swamp that floods during high tide, essentially turning it into an island. But this arresting imagery quickly becomes dull and repetitive, with Radcliffe padding down the same upstairs corridor, sticking his head into the same room to investigate whatever weird noise is interrupting his work this time. Eventually Radcliffe decides that he has to get to the bottom of things, and his ill-advised decision to isolate himself in the house for one night does produce a bushel of genuinely tense scenes. Overall, however, James Watkins' direction gives the film a kind of Scooby-Doo vibe that it struggles mightily to surmount.

Nor is The Woman in Black very successful in paying off its silly internal logic with any lasting sense of dread. Radcliffe is chewed out by his boss at the beginning of the movie, and he's a pariah in the village for reopening old wounds, but that doesn't prevent him from morphing into a Sherlockian genius-slash-amateur medium as the plot rushes to a conclusion. The film's jerky, muddled anticlimax lacks novelty and begs for some interesting period detail - like, say, a makeshift séance - to consolidate its several allusions to the post-Victorian fascination with spiritualism. The Woman in Black is appealing mostly in the same way as an expensively-appointed haunted house: the lighting, the costumes, and the furnishings make top-notch window dressing. But it all suggests a refined approach to a more psychological form of horror without delivering on this promise, and the end result is as disappointingly insubstantial as most modern creepshows.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Declaration of War (2012)

Declaration of War
Dir. Valérie Donzelli

4 out of 5

Star-crossed lovers Roméo (Jérémie Elkaim) and Juilette (Valérie Donzelli) are Parisian bohemians who stumble into parenthood in
Declaration of War, an absorbing and bittersweet familial drama. Their courtship montage ends with a date at an erotic art show, where they stare at each other quizzically in front of a giant photo of a woman's nether regions. Cut to the arrival of their son, little Alex, who brings the couple a mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion. Before long, though, Alex begins to exhibit the mildly worrisome behavior of a newborn - he cries all day, is slow to develop motor skills, and "tilts his head to the side," a habit his standoffish father rashly links to mental disability. Donzelli and Elkaim dutifully shuttle the tyke to the pediatrician's office, where the doctor dispenses calm reassurances to the concerns she has doubtlessly heard from hundreds of freaked-out parents. But these hiccups prove to be the first signs of more serious health problems for Alex, and his parents must fight to save his childhood, even if it means sacrificing their couplehood.

The film - released to much acclaim last year in its native France - is written and directed by Donzelli and is based on her own experience as the mother of a child diagnosed with a brain tumor. She creates an affecting portrait of a parent's greatest crisis without restoring to hysteria or mawkishness. The story is simply too personal for that. About sixty percent of the movie takes place in various doctor's offices and hospitals, where Donzelli and Elkaim give tremendous performances, worrying and hoping and bickering and comforting each other in circumstances that tax their dignity and severely limit their privacy. They are rubbed so raw that their brief moments of escape only accelerate the erosion of their relationship. One romantically-charged party scene ends with Donzelli and Elkaim boldly making out with other guests before dejectedly returning to their shared apartment.

There's a sense that Donzelli might be making too much of the collapse of a partnership that has trouble sustaining interest past the infatuation phase. Elkaim is particularly confusing, charming one minute and sullen the next. His moodiness is a mystery, save for a small bank scene hinting at his failure to secure his family's financial stability. But the film's center is rock-solid, and Donzelli wisely focuses on the transformative courage and remarkable determination that good, caring parents will do anything to summon when their child's life is in jeopardy. Maybe love does conquer all, but
Declaration of War makes the case that it can only handle one thing at a time.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kill List (2012)

Kill List (2012)
Dir. Ben Wheatley

3.5 out of 5

Kill List is an angry, angry film set in modern-day Britain, but its close-up examination of moral bankruptcy is universal. It peels back the layers of a discontented, war-weary, and financially untenable society until we see nothing but its raw nerves and seething rage. We see this darkness gradually enveloping ex-soldier and private security contractor Neil Maskell, who is driven by economic pressures and his ball-busting wife (MyAnna Buring) to take a job as a contract hitman for a mysterious employer, despite his many reservations. His boss's insistence on signing a blood contract is just the first sign that something is amiss. What's more, the victims on Maskell's hit list all seem to recognize him. They hint that the bloodshed is part of a larger plan, accepting death with a chilly tranquility that's unsettling even to a cold-blooded killer.

A salvo against slickly-produced, lifeless crime thrillers masquerading as exploitation films, Kill List is a character study of a man whose fury simultaneously drives and consumes him. Scuttling around the darkest corners of Maskell's psyche (it's strongly suggested that he suffers from PTSD), writer-director Ben Wheatley creates a feeling of constant disorientation onscreen. Maskell's utter confusion is perfectly married to his lack of grace - a man of action grudgingly accepting that he can do nothing but react. His long-suffering sidekick (Michael Smiley) can only do so much to smooth over his colleague's boiling rage with a disarming sense of humor. Smiley's humanity never rubs off on Maskell, a proper peach who rejects his young son's request for bedtime stories about King Arthur in favor of ones about his own war-scarred past.

Wheatley's stark, elliptical style is heavily indebted to Lars Von Trier, with scenes of domestic discord smashing up against grisly violence and ominous symbolism. Essentially, Kill List is Von Trier by way of David Fincher, a parable of the destruction wrought by man's hubris packaged inside of a twisty, voyeuristic film about society's criminal underbelly - not a bad pedigree for one's second feature. But this also means that the film often feels overly familiar when it should feel more assured. Wheatley's reference points and hint-dropping may tip off astute viewers to the story's climax too far in advance, and the film's last twenty minutes feel like a peculiarly specific response to the disastrous Neil LaBute-Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man. The success of Wheatley's homage to and/or meta-commentary on British horror is a secondary concern, though. Kill List easily stands on its own merits, mining the depths of a confused and dissolute world to propel a bruising, bracing morality play.

"Kill List" is receiving a very limited theatrical release but is also available via Video On Demand.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Innkeepers (2012)

The Innkeepers (2012)
Dir. Ti West

4 out of 5

Indie horror filmmaker Ti West skewers a familiar Internet meme near the beginning of
The Innkeepers: the gag where a unsuspecting victim stares intently at a dull photo until some terrifying image unexpectedly bursts onto the screen. It's a corny "gotcha," but it's also the first touch of self-awareness in this unique comedy-horror hybrid. Taking a back-to-basics approach in its exploration of the ghost story and its psychological underpinnings, The Innkeepers nimbly re-appropriates old school horror tropes with fiendishly successful results. West beckons the audience with a slow burn of freaky murmurs, ominous portents, and excruciating pans around dark corners, aiming for nothing less than to reclaim the soul of the American horror film.

The Innkeepers is a simple story elevated by its unusually strong characters. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are amateur ghost hunters convinced that the spirit of a jilted bride haunts the going-out-of-business Yankee Pedlar Inn, using their downtime to fuss over their Geocities-era website and record garbled nighttime whispers. "There's a lot of money in this right now," grumbles Healy, acknowledging a bizarre reality in which the living have an economic incentive to harass the dead. The arrival of "healer" and professed psychic Kelly McGillis (in town for a New Age convention!) furthers illustrates the film's bemusement with the commodification of the paranormal. But this playful skepticism only establishes a false sense of security. McGillis encourages Paxton to ignore the jaded Healy and indulge her curiosity. And despite the heroine's decision to disregard some pretty obvious warning signs, the audience remains in step with Paxton's mental state as she blurs the line between inquiry and obsession.

Paxton and Healy have a great comedic rapport that makes
The Innkeepers a livelier effort than West's previous film, the vintage horror homage The House of the Devil. Healy has great deadpan timing, but Paxton is simply fantastic: a gorgeous pixie who effortlessly transforms into a gawky, high-strung underachiever sweetly oblivious to Healy's crush on her. Like many who dabble with dark forces, she has a frustrating penchant for running herself into dead ends, but she remains affecting even in peril thanks to her overall likeability and determination to find some damn answers. By taking the time to craft such believable relationships, West earns amnesty for the times he squanders it all on anticlimactic boo! moments. But even with glacial pacing and only a handful of thoughtful scares, The Innkeepers cranks up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable - a diabolical strategy that forces us to admit that sometimes we fear what we know (or think we know) is coming even more than the things that take us by surprise.