Monthly Archives: October 2011

Anthologies: Four Rooms

By Nathanael Griffis

Sometimes called vignette films, anthology films are a genre of a film I greatly lack in. I haven’t watched many except the two big ones, Sin City and Pulp Fiction, which are probably the most well-know examples. To put it simply, anthology films are a collection of short films, or vignettes if you will, that somehow connect together. I want to make a distinction between anthology and montage films like Babel, Crash, or Magnolia. Montage films tend to be one overarching story built together from different perspectives. Anthology films are separate stories that may share some similar qualities, but do not have to form a cohesive narrative. Take Pulp Fiction, for example: the stories are connected by having cross-over characters, but each vignette could be its own stand-alone film.

I love Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but to be honest, that’s about where my knowledge of anthology films ends. Embarrassing I know, but anthology films are not mainstream to be honest. They’re hard to find, but provide an interesting change of pace for filmgoers. One of the things I love about them is that they give a chance for legendary filmmakers to collaborate, like New York Stories where Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese each directed one story. They can examine a single theme with various tones of drama or comedy. There’s a chance for greatness, and if one of the stories sucks you know another, hopefully better one is coming soon. My goal is to watch around six to ten anthology films and explore the themes, successes, and failures of this little watched genre.

To begin, I started with Four Rooms, a film I’d heard little about but was pleasantly surprised to watch. As you might guess it’s about four stories in four rooms. What initially attracted me was the directors and cast, which is a normal draw to anthology film. Four Rooms was directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. The last two names really drew my attention. Four Rooms was made in 1995, when Rodriguez and Tarantino were still just making names for themselves. The basic premise is that a bellhop, played by the wonderful Tim Roth, is left alone for what becomes an absolutely insane night as he deals with one room full of unexpected occurrences after the next. As is to be expected, each segment revolves around a particular room and their residents.

They flow nicely for the most part except for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed with anthology films is that one weak segment can sour all the rest. At the very least it feels like a wasted 15 minutes. “The Missing Ingredient” starts with Madonna asking the hapless bellhop Ted for the honeymoon suite. Soon other all-female guests start to arrive, representing varying degrees of stereotypical characters with accents, from the Southern belle to the Midwestern fifties girl to the prim and proper strong East Coast woman. It turns out that these women are a coven of witches trying to revive their cursed deity, but one of them has forgotten a certain ingredient. A certain ingredient that Ted can provide. I’d avoid spoilers, but it’s kinda painfully obvious. This segment just feels out of place, and Madonna is distractingly awful in skin tight leather literally spending a few minutes bending over in front of the camera in deliberate slow motion. It also isn’t funny and is basically skimming the surface of sex jokes. It seems to be on a rush to get to the punch line, but begrudgingly needs to fill up 15 minutes so they show some boobs, read some poetry, have a strange animation moment, and call it good.

It wasn’t until the end of the entire film, though, that I noticed the true flaw of this segment. It’s not about Ted, or doesn’t feature him enough, which is so sad, because the single great thing about this film is that it reminds me Tim Roth is an astounding actor. I’ve never really seen him do comedy and he pulls off an off-kilter-in-a-good-way physical performance that should really be studied. His character grows and changes but tries to remain composed as his night becomes increasingly chaotic. He has so many equally charming and somewhat disturbing physical quirks that are just sheer pleasure to watch. The simple way his character walks is hilarious. To see him pull a 90-degree turn from being stabbed with needle and running out of a burning room to answering the phone in a polite British accent is astounding. It’s fascinating that his character remains pretty static in performance across the board in each segment. It makes me wonder who decided to write his character that way and how much the four directors collaborated. This is definitely a distinctly comedic film. It has a fascinating 50’s/60’s  sense of comedy–with a Pink Panther-esque animated opening even–but with a 90’s presentation and topics.

Jennifer Beals, Paul Calderon, Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino, & Bruce Willis in a movie--that's a good thing.

Because you’ll want to know, here’s a rundown of the other segments. The second segment is where the film really gets going. It takes a distinctly dark turn with “The Wrong Man,” directed by Alexandre Rockwell, a director who’s managed to stay off everyone’s radar. Ted the bellhop walks into the wrong room and is mistaken for a the lover of deranged man’s wife. The comedy in this scene is extremely dark and a bit unsettling at first, but it fits with the other two segments a lot better than “The Missing Ingredient.” Also, there’s a lot more of Tim Roth, so it’s exceedingly better. “The Misbehavers,” directed by Robert Rodriquez, is basically what would happen if Rodriguez made one of his kids’ films rated R. The final scene is a ridiculous send-off to screwball comedies with a wonderful punchline from Antonio Banderas to boot.

The real treat is the final segment, “The Man from Hollywood,” with trademark Tarantino dialogue and characters. It moves forward slowly, building tension constantly yet realistically. I don’t want to give away too much, but will say thing it’s inspired by Roald Dahl’s Man from the South and an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of the same nameif you know either of those you’ll understand the plot almost immediately. Interestingly, the characters in Four Rooms get the name of the Alfred Hitchcock short wrong. The short is definitely worth checking out, considering it stars Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen. What’s really impressive about “The Man from Hollywood” is what Tarantino does with the camera. Overall, with the exception of the first segment, the cinematography is astounding for such short films. It’s really something in “The Man from Hollywood”–there are long one-take shots, close-ups, monologues, and dizzying crane shots, but they coalesce. The only problem is that Tarantino again insists on placing himself into the lead acting spot, which is hit-and-miss. He’s such a larger-than-life character that he sometimes seems to leave his character behind and just be himself. I’m glad that in subsequent films he’s stayed in the director’s chair.

Overall this is a surprisingly good introduction for my newest genre foray. I found it to be really funny and engaging. It’s wonderful to see different directors lending their hands to inventive stories. If only the first bit hadn’t been there, or had focused more on Tim Roth. Any moment Roth is on screen is really quite wonderful, as is the rest of the cast which includes Marisa Tomei, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, and Paul Calderon.

Next I’m going to stay with comedic anthology films and watch David Wain’s The Ten.

Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road

By Tom Kapr

Last October, I undertook the self-imposed challenge of watching 30 horror movies in 30 days. I called it “30 Days of Madness,” and though it stretched me as a film critic, as a writer, and as a human being, it also stretched my sanity more than once. This is the time of year I always get back into the horror genre, and it’s no wonder why–such a fascination is ingrained in many of us and only intensifies at this time of year because of the annual arrival of Halloween and the movie traditions that accompany it. I wanted to do another horror series this season, but nothing on the scale of last year’s madness, so I’ll be watching the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series and recording my impressions here at the Rant Pad.

Masters of Horror ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2007. Created by Mick Garris, perhaps best known for his televised adaptations of Stephen King novels, the premise is simple: 13 episodes a season, each episode a one-hour mini-movie made by a director known for his or her work in the horror genre. During my 30 Days of Madness last October, I reviewed two episodes from season two. “The Black Cat” is still one of my favorite works of horror ever; “The Washingtonians” is still one of the worst things I’ve ever sat through. With these two diametrical examples to go by, I know I am to expect a vast divergence in quality from one movie to the next. Hopefully I’ll find some good horror flicks along the way.

Masters of Horror #1.1 — Incident On and Off a Mountain Road

(Spoiler alert)

I have a love/hate relationship with the horror genre: I love horror as a genre. I’m drawn to it. I love that it can explore aspects of the human experience in ways that a more straightforward dramatic piece can’t. It can be thrilling. It can be therapeutic. But I hate that so much of the genre is crap.

I don’t mean that I hate that most of it is cheesy. And most of it is cheesy. But I can enjoy a cheesy horror flick. When I say crap I mean, purely unpleasant sadistic crap with no redeeming human value. So much of the genre is pessimistic in nature, and I hate pessimism. (And I realize the inherent irony of saying “I hate pessimism.”)

Horror should horrify, by definition, but it should be a way to explore the macabre, not to revel in it.

I had hopes that Phantasm writer/director Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (which is a terrible title, by the way) would be a story of female empowerment in the face of victimization–a push back against the majority of the slasher genre in which so many girls make so many stupid decisions and then lay back screaming and begging and take what’s coming without much of a fight. After all, the premise was that a young woman has a car accident on a lonely mountain road and is victimized by a crazed backwoods killer, but recalls the lessons she learned from her survivalist husband to fight back. And she does, eventually. But the moment the killer throws the knife at her and misses, and it becomes embedded in a log inches from her head, and instead of grabbing the knife she runs away, after she’s already made the decision to fight back–well, then the premise is lost on me. At that point, it’s just bad writing.

Bree Turner as the heroine and John DeSantis as "Moonface." Do I need to specify which is which?

But that bad writing slowly turns into ever-more disturbing writing. We get to watch the other girl being terrorized by the killer get strapped to a table, alive, and have an electric drill put through her eye. We get to watch, in flashback, the ways in which the heroine’s survivalist husband (played by Ethan Embry) becomes increasingly paranoid about survival, going from teaching her survival methods to terrorizing her with them and eventually tying her up and raping her for weakness. Rape is just as valid a part of a dramatic work as any other part of the human experience, though I believe it should only be depicted if absolutely necessary, and here it does inform later revelations about the lead character and how she survives, but the final outcome is so cheap and schlocky that it the rape scene loses all validity. (A note on Ethan Embry: he certainly stretches his acting beyond the goofy, charming characters he’s best known for, and he’s actually quite believable as a militia nut, but I just personally don’t want to see him in the role of a man who would victimize and rape his own wife. I’d much rather remember him for Empire RecordsThat Thing You Do!, and Can’t Hardly Wait.) Finally, we get watch the heroine become, not just the victor in her struggle, but swing completely to the other side of the spectrum as she continues to kill in cold blood. (Side note:Phantasm villain Angus Scrimm, one of the best horror star names ever, has a supporting role as a creepy old man. Shocker.)

And I haven’t even given away the big twist which, everything else aside, I have to admit, I did not see coming and is pretty effective.

Mostly, this is just one of those bleak, heartless, unrelenting slasher flicks that tries to pack as much awfulness as it can into its 50-minute running time. I see no value in such productions. It’s a thin line between this and torture porn. Hopefully, subsequent episodes will be more about exploring human fears and the unknown aspects of life and psychology that scare us, and less about cheap violence.

I can almost hear you asking, Why do you watch so much horror when you have so many problems with so many of the most prevalent themes and filmmaking methods of the genre? As a person with such a strong interest in horror and such strong feelings about violence in movies, I wonder that myself sometimes; but perhaps, reading some of my earlier writing on the genre will give you a better understanding of my fascination with it.

Buried Cinema — The Wind That Shakes the Barley

By Nathanael Griffis

Can't imagine it'll end well for whomever the film cuts to next.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a film I’d heard mentioned from time to time. It would pop up in discussions about Cillian Murphy: “Oh yeah, and he was great in The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” I found it a while back at my local video store, and traded in Die Another Day for it, a steal if there ever was one. What I discovered was a director by the name of Ken Loach and an amazing film that is a must see. It will change the way you look at history and truly challenge any sensibilities you have about armies, government, brothers, friends, and national identity.

Ken Loach, through my research after watching some documentaries and reading up on his past work, is described as a social realist. Although he doesn’t claim the title himself, it’s an accurate description of sorts. A simpler way of putting it is, he loves the common man and wants to tell their story. He makes films about the struggles of railroad workers, bus drivers, janitors, and the unemployed. These aren’t tales of their rising up and becoming a stock broker like The Pursuit of Happiness; no, Loach is more interested in their lives and the way the system around them tries to tear them down. Filled with tragedy, his films never lose hope, because there is a hope that comes with being alive and loving those around you that he conveys so wonderfully in his films.

Since seeing The Wind That Shakes the Barley I’ve been trying to put my hand on everything he’s ever made. His look at September 11 left me haunted. It’s a harsh, honest, hard-to-swallow look our connection with Chile, who experienced an equally troubling event on September 11 that has been long forgotten. Still, it’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley that stays on my mind. It’s the story of two brothers in 1920’s Ireland. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a doctor who leaves behind his promising future to join his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who leads a group of guerrilla fighters. It’s the story of the inception of the IRA, which has completely different connotations from the description I just gave you. This is what is so fascinating about the film. A British filmmaker made the most complex, honest look at the IRA I have ever seen.

Oooh, who's the mysterious redhead, a love interest perhaps?

For those of you that need a brief history lesson, Ireland was effectively a colony of England till the the 1930’s. The IRA would contend that it still is, and that they have not fully gained their freedom, but are merely under the reign of puppet government. So in 1920, the Irish united against the Black and Tans, the British occupying forces, and forced the army out, only to be offered a peace treaty that some found insulting and not completely what they were fighting for. The treaty offered Ireland autonomy with their own parliament, but they still had to swear fealty to the British crown. Disagreement over the acceptance of this treaty led to civil war in Ireland and gave us what has become known as a terrorist organization in the IRA.

What The Wind That Shakes the Barley does is take us through this whole historical process. It shows us the brutality of the Black and Tans, the struggle of teaching farmers to fight, the tough decisions of war, the loss of friends, the establishment of a new government, and finally the heartbreaking choices that pit two brothers against each other. Without giving away too much, Teddy and Damien end up on opposite sides of the Irish civil war. What is so haunting is that Ken Loach’s film sees them both as sympathetic. At the heart of the film is the sense that the life of a human being is inherently relatable. Their actions may be foreign and you may disagree, but the pain and consequences of their choices are something we all feel. One brother wants peace and the other freedom. There are scenes that amount to political debates, but they are shot with such a wonderful sense of natural debate that they flow realistically. Subsequently, you are placed in the midst of the debate and dared to take a side. What I found amazing was that I couldn’t decide. Ken Loach manages to place me so deeply inside this debate that I’m as torn as the brothers themselves.

Cillian Murphy telling Padraic Delaney just who has the best cleft in their chin.

Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney give astounding performances. Ken Loach is a hands-off director in the Robert Altman sense. He gives his actors room to react realistically. The camera is frequently hidden, he’ll allow improvision, he won’t provide exact dialogue, and will sometimes surprise his actors on film to get honest reactions out of them. There’s a famous story about Ken Loach getting a young actor all ready for a scene where he was to go into a bathroom and stab a man. They practiced and went over his motivation for hours stabbing dummies. When it came time to film the scene the young man rushed forward toward his victim and five men with baseball bats jumped out from around a corner and stopped him. The look on the actor’s face is genuine surprise and fear that probably could not have been achieved any other way. Admittedly, it’s somewhat dangerous, because they just jumped a young man hopped up on emotion who was carrying a knife, but for a director aiming to present reality you have to shoot your films differently. Paul Laverty, who has for a long time collaborated with Ken Loach, provides a wonderful script again. The script is minimal only in the sense that no scene is wasted. Every word spoken matters and builds toward the picture of Ireland’s tumultuous history.

Ken Loach himself is truly a buried director. He’s never turned to Hollywood or made anything mainstream. He’s always been a unique and independent filmmaker. And I hope he stays that way, because without him stories that must be told would never be. The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a film that will challenge you in ways I cannot describe, and should leave you scouring the shelves of every local video store for films by Ken Loach.