Category: 2000’s


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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I promised you all in my last Best Of list [well, actually, it was in the post explaining why there would be major differences to my Best Of lists and arranging all the films I viewed by score] that I would start at least reviewing the “A” and “A+” films that I’ve watched again. Well, last week, I finally got around to watching one of those films. And in an instant reminder of why I’d had to retire this blog, I’ve only just now found the time to do this write-up. But, I really have a lot to say about this film so here goes.)

Terrence Malick’s last two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both dealt with questions as old as mankind itself. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to my life? Are we alone even when those we love are physically in our presence? What do we do when we don’t have the answers to our own existential queries? What makes Terrence Malick so special is his own humility in knowing he can’t possibly hope to provide a definitive answer to those questions. At best, he can speculate on what he believes and capture the despair of our mortal need for answers in a world where those answers are impossible to grasp. And if a mainstream American blockbuster has ever come close to matching Malick’s existential introspection, it’s Steven Spielberg‘s 2001 science fiction opus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

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Discarding fears of artificial/synthetic intelligence overlords like Skynet or Mass Effect‘s Geth, we live in an exciting era of machine intelligence. I’m skeptical of a truly intelligent/sentient machine existing in my lifetime (although Ray Kurzweil’s prediction for the technological singularity places that in 2049 which would be the year I turn 60. So, maybe…), but programs like Wolfram Alpha or even less complex virtual intelligences like Apple’s Siri mean that an age where computers can be trained to understand natural language systems and return answers based on those queries is already upon us. And what happens when we have machines that can not only process information and provide answers but can also draw inferences and attachments to the sensory input they take in? Which is to say, what happens when a machine begins to have emotions?

What could have been a redundant and unnecessary question, one that had been thoroughly analyzed through Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is given new life and greater insight in Spielberg’s A.I. A.I. is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the world’s first “mecha” capable of genuine, unconditional love. Set in a world where global warming has raised the sea level and destroyed all of the world’s major coastal cities, population is strictly controlled, and few families are lucky enough to be given the license to have children. One such family, led by scientist Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) have an ill son kept alive through cryogenic sleep until scientists can find a cure for him. And, in the meantime, they are the test parents of David, designed to be the world’s perfect mecha son.

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Although Monica does not appreciate her husband’s decision to bring a robot boy to their home as a substitute for her sick son, she quickly warms to David, and once she “imprints” on him, he more than warms to her. He experiences the obsessive, protective, desperate love towards his new mother that only young children can understand. But, through a set of circumstances beyond David’s control, Monica is forced to abandon David into the cruel, dystopian world in which she lives. And David starts a manic and crazed quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio myth which he is convinced will turn him into a real boy so that he may finally have the love of his mother which he so desperately craves.

If A.I. were simply about whether or not David were a sentient being capable of emotion and genuine self-awareness, it would be unnecessary. And the film dispenses with those questions almost immediately. As soon as David’s capacity for unconditional love is awakened, he becomes a boy. A boy that is slightly off but a boy nonetheless. He is capable of hopes and dreams and aspirations. He wants love and affection. He wants to impress his mother. He ignores the logical and sane response to the Blue Fairy myth (which is to say that it is a myth) and believes that he can actually become a real boy. Therefore, he is capable of that most human of responses, self-delusion.

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And because A.I. has the sense to be about more than whether or not David is a sentient being, it is able to ask deeper questions. Was it ethical to create David at all? The world is a cruel, miserable place, and is it right to create a being as innocent as David and then thrust him into this misery? Of course, by the end of the film, David’s woes and journey and existential quest become a stand-in for all of humanity. Is there something inherently selfish about the act of human procreation? Is our human habit of creating grandiose justifications for our own existence desperate self-delusion or beautiful despite its falsehood? Can our existence be its own justification? Is our human need for love a strength or a weakness that consumes us when it’s not provided?

And through Steven Spielberg’s marvelous direction and a story conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, A.I. takes a long, hard look into the potential nihilism of our own existence and manages to provide something beautiful and meaningful at the end. Let there be no mistake. A.I. is not the cloying melodrama that Spielberg is prone to in his weakest moments, but it also refuses to be an empty reflection of the abyss that happens in Kubrick’s darker pictures. Instead, A.I. paints a heartbreaking and horrifically sad portrait of growing up, loss, mortality, and parenthood while also saying that the beauty of some of those experiences and the narratives we craft in our lives makes our existence worthwhile.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where its most heartbreaking moments wildly shift from genuine despair to forced melodrama. At two and a half hours long, the film has more than enough to say to suit its lengthy run time, but there are still scenes that could have used more editing simply because a number of scenes just run slightly too long. Although the film is very much meant to be a science fiction fairy tale, it is a science fiction fairy tale grounded in realism, and one scene involving fish in the submerged ruins of New York City breaks that illusion of realism.

But these are minor complaints about what is easily one of the finest science fiction films of the aughts. Great science fiction holds up a mirror to modern society and forces you to engage with the great questions of your time, or in the case of the best science fiction works, of all time. And A.I. Artificial Intelligence will have a shelf life that I hope lives on even into the days where artificial intelligence isn’t simply something we see in works of fiction. If you want a film that presents a marvelous fairy tale and thrilling adventure for chidlren but poses the kind of questions and insights you expect as an adult, A.I. is everything you could wish for.

“I am. I was.”

Score: A

 

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If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.

My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.

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Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.

The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.

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If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.

But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.

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And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.

Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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Chinatown is arguably one of the five greatest American films ever made if not the greatest period, and while the subtext of cruelty and random violence exists alongside a masterful deconstruction of the elements of classic noir, Chinatown‘s genius primarily resides in being an excellent story perfectly told. It has those elements of being about more than the story of Jake Gittes as well as great characters, but unlike most of the films I herald as “the greatest ever made,” it’s story is 99% of the draw. Chinatown is practically the Platonic ideal of great screenwriting, and 2000’s Memento from director Christopher Nolan is the greatest neo-noir since Polanski bowled us over 40 years ago.

Memento‘s reputation as “the movie told in backward chronology” kept me from watching it for many years. As someone who’s found Christopher Nolan’s work to be very good but not as great as many others seem to believe, I assumed the film’s gimmick was its only draw. That isn’t the case, but even if it had been and there weren’t any more layers to Memento other than its tightly-layered narrative, Memento would have been one of the most expertly paced and structured crime thrillers of the last decade. But by becoming a commentary on how we remember things and what we choose to remember (as well as a slick discussion of the emptiness of revenge), Memento is so much more than its gimmick.

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Though it is more than its gimmick and as sharply scripted and clever as any film of the aughts, Memento‘s unique structure provides half of the thrills of any first viewing. Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) plays Leonard, a man suffering from a severe (and not medically accurate but I honestly don’t care in this film) case of anterograde amnesia. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered, and during the assault, Leonard was given serious brain damage. He can remember everything before his injury with perfect clarity, but Leonard no longer has the capability of producing short term memories. Before long, Leonard forgets everything that’s just happened to him, and the only way he’s able to function is through an elaborate series of tattoos and photographs that direct him towards his next action.

Leonard’s sole raison d’etre is to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and left him with his condition. And the film begins with Leonard killing the seemingly friendly Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) because a photograph of Teddy that Leonard is carrying says he is the one and that he must kill him. And from there, the film continues to unravel back towards the beginning as we find out that maybe Teddy wasn’t him, and we get to know a dangerous femme fatale (Carrie Anne-Moss) that is helping Leonard and his photo says that he can trust her, but can he really? And what secrets are being hidden from this man who is constantly meeting people for the “first” time?

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Part of Memento‘s clever conceit of being told backwards is that it is actually a perfectly “structured” story of the Syd Field/Robert McKee vein. Yes, we’re getting all of the facts in backwards order, but if Memento were told from start to beginning, it would be a terribly structured tale with the revelations in a jumbled, poorly paced mess. Memento is a classic mystery/noir based around picking apart what is the truth and what are the lies in the life of Leonard and why he kills Teddy at the beginning and whether or not he should have done that. And few films can match Memento on a twist-by-twist basis as you navigate the minefield of its mental gymnastics. But, from a point-of-view of pure structure, it follows the classic mold to a tee; it just warps and plays with it to its own (and the audience’s) delight.

But Memento distinguishes itself by having more to say than just your traditional crime thriller. And that’s funny because I was almost content to give this movie perfect marks before I realized what the film’s real point was. I can’t talk too much about what this film is about without ruining some of the major twists of the film’s final act, but Memento is a stark subversion of your average revenge tale (as any film about revenge should be). Leonard can’t remember more than 20 minutes of his life at once, but he functions perfectly during those moments of time. And that means he can fall prey to human vice and human flaws, and are the facts that Leonard has written on his body really facts at all? Or do we simply remember what we want to even when we can barely remember anything at all?

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The worst that can be said about Memento is that it is not a visually imaginative film. With the exception of The Prestige and Inception, Nolan’s films are rooted in a gritty realism, and Memento‘s visuals are no exception. Although the claustrophobia of anonymous motel rooms and abandoned buildings works to Memento‘s advantage as it adds a level of disorientation for the viewers that matches Leonard’s state of mind. And, the black and white sequences that are running concurrent to the main story (without following the backwards tale [I don’t want to spoil this too much]) is a nice if perhaps too simple way of segregating these lanes of Memento‘s story.

Guy Pearce’s performance is one of those rare performances that you might think is stale and boring at first (because he’s a dude who literally can’t remember more than 15 minutes ago) but you grow to appreciate it more and more as the film progresses until you reach the end. But, as the layers of his character are revealed, you see the obsessiveness and cold brutality that is lying beneath the seemingly lost exterior of Leonard, and Guy Pearce (and Christopher Nolan) peel back these characters with laser precision. Carrie-Anne Moss also shines as the femme fatale whose real motives are constantly up in the air.

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For those, like me, who found the cult of Christopher Nolan to be a bit insufferable, Memento may likely be the only film capable of changing your mind. For those whose itch for neo-noir can never be fully sated, Memento and its labyrinthine layers will keep your brain working long enough to scratch that itch. Great story is so rare in today’s world of sequels, remakes, and reboots, and while Christopher Nolan has never managed to live up to this remarkable second feature, it’s one of the most refreshing and intellectually invigorating stories of the 2000s and a true can’t miss for any real cinema lovers.

Final Score: A+

 

 

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In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.

2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.

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This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.

In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.

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Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.

Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.

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And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.

As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.

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And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.

It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.

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Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.

And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.

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But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.

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And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.

Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.

Final Score: A

 

Room

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When I was reading Robert McKee’s Story months ago to help with my screenwriting (that book can really only teach you structure; it can’t teach you to be a writer), he went off on a long tangent about how modern independent cinema has forsaken plot for mood and atmosphere and stylistic window-dressing. I bet Robert McKee would have really hated 2005’s experimental indie drama Room. Here is a film that is all atmosphere, and when it attempts to have an actual plot or conversations between its characters on screen, it falls completely apart. But when it focuses on atmosphere, there’s something hypnotic about this film.

As an experiment in free-associative storytelling (and masterful post-production on a limited budget), Room‘s plot is not nearly as important as the way the film makes you feel though there is the skeleton of a story here. Julia Barker (Cyndi Williams) is a desperate and exhausted married mother of two. Her life consists of dealing with her delinquent eldest daughter and being yelled at by her boss at the bingo hall where she works in addition to being some type of delivery woman. Julia’s life is a monotonous grind of work and an unfulfilling home life. And there’s no way it will ever change.

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But, Julia’s life does begin to change when she starts to experience blackouts accompanied by visions of a massive empty room. The visions are muddled and unclear at first (and never really clear up that much), but the room appears as a giant loft, the kind you’d find in Brooklyn these days going for exorbitant rates. And so, Julia steals the deposit from her bingo hall’s safe and runs off to New York City desperately trying to find not only this giant room that she keeps seeing in her head but to find change and meaning in her life for the first time in years.

I almost feel like that last sentence of that paragraph is a spoiler for this film because ultimately, the emptiness of our lives is the point of the film and what I believe the empty room that Julia sees symbolizes. I don’t think that the film is remotely subtle in trying to get that point across. And, honestly, that’s okay to an extent. As a meditation on the desperation of impoverished working women in America and the idea that a family isn’t the only key to female satisfaction, Room is surprisingly powerful, and the interludes where there’s no dialogue and we just see Julia’s frantic search for anything in her life are fresh and evocative filmmaking.

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And the film’s sound design and editing match the disorienting feel of Julia’s existential crisis. With industrial droning and a schizophrenic cutting rhythm, Room (when it does what it does best) places the viewer right in the mindset of a woman on the brink. It’s a shame then that the sections of the film that focus on Julia’s interactions with others or dialogue seem so stilted and unnatural. Perhaps the director was attempting to make a statement on the mundaneness of Julia’s existence. But it didn’t make it any less dull and difficult to sit through.

Room isn’t like a lot of films you’ve ever seen. The only comparison to spring immediately to mind is Inland Empire although Room is decidedly less ambitious or mind-screwy. For casual film-viewers, Room will not be a rewarding experience and you will likely leave it angry that you sat through it all considering the film’s denouement (which to be fair, I enjoyed), but at 73 minutes, Room is worth a watch from fans of experimental cinema looking for something that truly follows its own rules and doesn’t bow down to the logic or structure of conventional cinema.

Score: B-

 

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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie on Saturday with my dad. I knew their was an English-language remake coming out directed by Spike Lee but for some reason, I thought it was coming out next year, not today. So, this review’s timing is strictly coincidental.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s crowning magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, a high-ranking Allied officer during WWII consumes the fresh feces of a BDSM psychic (and possible German double agent), the rakish hero participates in a graphic orgy and is subsequently given fellatio by a minor, and a German rocket scientist may or may not be having violent sex with his long-lost daughter. 1998’s practically perfect minus one-subplot Todd Solondz feature, Happiness, turns a child molester into a sympathetic creature without shying away from the terrible things he does and one of its heroes jerks off while making angry phone calls to random women.

I bring up these works of transgressive fiction because, in a world where Gravity’s Rainbow or Happiness exist, it’s hard to shock me anymore or to truly get under my skin.  The only movie I’ve watched recently that truly unnerved me from a thematic standpoint was the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me because of the incestual rape content. So, perhaps it’s appropriate then that 2003’s cult classic Oldboy found its way into my viewing rotation as it is without question one of the most disturbing and unflinching films I’ve watched in recent memory.

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Oldboy has been heralded as one of the finest exports of Korea’s burgeoning film market and director Chan-wook Park is certainly one of its wunderkinds, but despite Oldboy‘s undeniable ability to get under my skin, it isn’t quite the masterpiece that many believe it to be. Similar to the more recent cult classic Drive, there’s a certain hollowness to the masterful style on display (and a muddled plot that operates on a fuzzy dream logic). And though the film has something to say about the emptiness of revenge, it goes to cartoonish lengths to make a point.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is nobody special. Though he’s a bit of a drunk and a ladies’ man, there’s little else to set this married man and father apart from the crowd. But, after a night of heavy drinking, Dae-su is kidnapped off the streets of Seoul to begin a hell that lasts 15 years. Dae-su’s unknown captors place him in a locked room with nothing but a TV and occasional meals to keep him company, and Dae-su is totally in the dark as to who’s doing this to him or why it’s happening. And, for 15 years, Dae-su stews in his own anger (and insanity) preparing himself to take revenge on those who’ve held him captive and have murdered his wife in the interim.

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But just as Dae-su is about to escape on his own, he’s released into the wilds of Seoul (through a giant briefcase on a high rise) with new clothes, a cellphone, cash, and no idea what he’s doing. And Dae-su vows to find the men who locked him up. However, not long after being released, Dae-su meets the beautiful and young Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), and the two share an instant (but severely disturbed) sexual connection. But there seems to be a link between Mi-do and the men who kept Dae-su locked away for so many years and the already frayed and bordering on insane Dae-su becomes even more torn as he has no idea who he can trust.

I won’t say any more about the plot of Oldboy because I imagine that going into this film for the first time knowing what’s going to happen would ruin much of the shock of the film’s climactic twist (which I predicted fairly early in the film because apparently I’m as fucked up in the head as this film’s screenwriters). So, let me simply say that if you find the first two acts of the film to be unbearably uncomfortable and brutal, just wait til you find out what’s really going on. I imagine any future viewings of this movie will take on an entirely new and even more unpleasant light.

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I really can’t stress enough that Oldboy is not for the faint of heart. For some reason, the only thing that I had absorbed about Oldboy before watching it for the first time was that it was a hyper-violent film (it is), and for some reason, that made me assume it was an action film (it most certainly isn’t). Oldboy is a mystery thriller that happens to also deal in gore at unfathomable levels. Clearly, Chan-wook Park is of the Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn school of film-making where stylistic beauty has to be matched by an equal amount of brutal carnage. Unfortunately, Park also lacks those premier stylists ability to make any thematic statements beyond the obvious surface.

Oldboy has much in common with another 2003 revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1 insofar as it is a cartoonish revenge fantasy though Oldboy happens to become a cartoonish deconstruction of the cartoonish revenge fantasy by film’s end. There are sequences in Oldboy that turn the old ultra-violence into something that would fit in on a PCP-infused episode of Looney Tunes. And while the film succeeds in making its point that revenge is ultimately a hollow pleasure, the movie doesn’t hammer its point home; it drops a ten-ton nuclear device and then firebombs the surrounding country side to make sure you got the message.

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Ultimately, Oldboy is a film for movie-lovers by movie-lovers where one has to be willing to subserve your need for a coherent or complex story to Chan-wook Park’s masterful direction and sense of visual flair. As gut-wrenchingly violent as it is, Oldboy is as well shot as the best Western films, and you can sense the giddy energy that went into the production of the film. So, if you appreciate the high-class “B” movies like Drive or Kill Bill, there’s no reason to skip Oldboy. Just know that you’re getting yourself involved in a brutal Korean take on Titus Andronicus and a certain Greek tragedy that I don’t want to name for fear of spoiling the film.

Final Score: B+

 

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This is going to be possibly the most contradictory and conflicting review I’ve ever written. On every intellectual level that I can muster, I know that the 2006 Happy Madison production Grandma’s Boy is exquisitely awful. It’s low-brow to the extreme and a consistent affront to good taste and smart comedy at every turn. But, and it’s difficult to express how much it pains me to admit this, I love this movie. Part of a cadre of films that I used to watch religiously whenever they were on HBO when I was younger (others include Beerfest and Anchorman), Grandma’s Boy makes me laugh louder and harder than it has any right to, and there are days when I think there’s something wrong with me for how much I love this film.

Grandma’s Boy is steeped firmly in the stoner/slacker tradition of the Cheech & Chong films but with a decidedly modern bent and a fixation with video games (which explains in part my love of the film as something of an avid gamer). And it isn’t afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for jokes, but for God knows what reason, those “bottom of the barrel” gags work here when they never work for me in any of the other modern Happy Madison films (like That’s My Boy). Because let’s face it. Any film that has Shirley “Mrs. Partridge” Jones talking about giving a hand job to Charlie Chaplin speaks to me on some odd, inexplicable level.

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Alex (Allen Covert) is a stoner wasting his life away as a video game tester for a game design studio when he really wants to make his own games and not mindlessly test the games of his obnoxious, robot-obsessed boss J.P. (Avatar‘s Joel David Moore). But, when the company brings in the beautiful and charming Samantha (Brokeback Mountain‘s Linda Cardellini) to ensure that their current game gets finished on time, she may be the motivation Alex needs to finally try and do something with his life. However, Alex has just been thrown out of his apartment (because his roommate spent their rent money on hookers) and he has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends which Alex is too ashamed to explain to Samantha and his best friend Jeff (Nick Swardson).

Alexander Payne this is not. In fact, it’s not even Judd Apatow. The jokes in Grandma’s Boy are as crass and disgusting as you can possibly imagine. At one point, before he lives with his grandmother, Alex stays at Jeff’s for the evening. Alex can’t sleep so he attempts to masturbate to one of Jeff’s female action figures (which he pretends is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft) and winds up ejaculating on Jeff’s mom when she walks in on him. At one point, Jonah Hill (Academy Award nominee for Moneyball) sucks on a breast (he literally appears to be suckling on a nipple at one point) for hours on end. And fart jokes abound.

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But, and there’s no logical explanation for this, there are moments in Grandma’s Boy that carry some type of moronic genius where the film becomes so stupid, it’s brilliant. Alex’s burnt out pot dealer Dante (Patrick Dante) drags Alex into situations so surreal that they capture some of the absurdist magic of the old Happy Madison films like Billy Madison. And Shirley Jones steals virtually ever scene she’s in as the grandmother’s trampy roommate Grace. And, maybe it’s because I was born and bred on Freaks and Geeks, but watching a drunken Linda Cardellini make a fool of herself to “Push It” is hilarious. Although, Linda Cardellini is way too good of an actress for the material she’s given in this film.

Grandma’s Boy is a bad film. Although, it’s a bad film that I wholeheartedly enjoy (and though it was a disastrous critical flop when it was released, it has become something of a cult classic in intervening years). The movie doesn’t have a sophisticated bone in its body, and when I’m not trying to think about the film critically (as I was forced to during this viewing), that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If you require your comedy to have brains, avoid Grandma’s Boy like the plague because it smoked all of its brain cells away. But if you can enjoy a stupid but occasionally brilliant stoner comedy, Grandma’s Boy can be a great trip.

Final Score: C+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)

What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.

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While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.

In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.

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And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.

Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.

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And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.

The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.

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And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.

Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.

Final Score: A-