Monthly Archives: June 2013

Option C — Red Lights

By Nathanael Griffis

In life, as on our podcast Buried Cinema, there always seems to be two options: Option A or Option  B. Sometimes that is just not enough, so consider these films your Option C.
This Option C pairing is with our June 14 podcast “Now You Sydow Me.” In it we reviewed Now You See Me and The Magician. I have found a third option that I didn’t discuss on the podcast, but I think fits into the discussion. Red Lights is a psychological thriller from Rodrigo Cortés, the director of Buried. It’s about a young physicist (played by Cillian Murphy) who joins with a veteran psychologist (Sigourney Weaver) who made her career debunking psychics, magicians, and paranormal occurrences. They find themselves challenged when a psychic (Robert DeNiro) comes out of retirement after thirty years.

It has a classic premise of most magician films. The point in question is: is any of this real or just a trick? Naturally it has twists and turns, like a killer fight scene in a bathroom, which I didn’t see coming. Turns out Cillian Murphy can fight pretty well. Not well enough though, because — SPOILER ALERT — he loses the fight. The premise moves along nicely building tension and characters. The protagonists and antagonists never meet until the third act, which I enjoyed because it made their meeting more meaningful.

What surprised me the most though was the response to this film. After I’d finished it, I thought to myself that it was pretty good, and I liked the ending. Then I went to the internet and found that everyone disagreed with me. Not just that they didn’t like it, but that they all thought the exact opposite. The ending apparently had several people confused, and they kept using phrases like “derailed,” “lost control,” or “fell apart.”

This is were I have to take a stand. Sometimes as critics we get into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” mentality, where we simply take on others’ opinions because we’re afraid to disagree. Maybe it’s more subconscious than conscious, who knows. We’ve seen this on Buried Cinema before: movies like Safe and The Green Hornet are good movies worth checking out, but critics hold them back. I’m not too worried about my reputation though, because sometimes critics get it wrong (also I don’t think I’m influential enough to have a reputation). A famous example with Dark City comes to mind. Critics disparaged that movie when it was released. Now it’s considered a sci-fi classic whose concept has been repeated several times.

I don’t want to give away the ending, because I want you to watch the film for yourself. It definitely relies on the ending to be completely successful, but what to me was so impressive is that the ending is the only possibility that makes any sense. Still, you don’t see it coming, which is the sign of good storytelling. Cortés does a fantastic job of writing around the surprise. Most of the film is a giant red herring, but even knowing that, you’d be hard pressed not to be taken in.

What I think happened is that the film doesn’t directly explain it. There isn’t a scene of Morgan Freeman talking over flashbacks showing how it all worked. Instead the director expects that you have been paying attention through the whole film and can put together what happened. Frustrating, I know, but it’s so much more satisfying when you do the work.

Red Lights is bolstered by good performances from the whole cast. It’s script is taut, meaning it doesn’t waste a scene. It doesn’t take the easy way out, and it leaves you thinking at the end. Definitely a great Option C if you like magician films.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

Tom’s Tuesday Rant — “Ansiktet” and religion

By Tom Kapr

Our latest podcast, entitled “Now You Sydow Me,” which came out on Friday, focused on a couple of movies about magicians: the new release Now You See Me, and Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician (the original Swedish title of which is Ansiktet, or literally translated, The Face.) I picked The Magician as a pairing with Now You See Me having never before seen it. It’s a mixed bag of a movie, with many great scenes but also a handful that either don’t have quite the effect they should or just don’t translate well from their Swedish sensibilities to mine (and being a quarter Swedish myself doesn’t help me any).

 

Max von Sydow doesn't care what translates. He just wants to look deep into your eyes as you die.

 

One of the bits of conversation that I cut from the podcast (mostly for time considerations) dealt with the religious aspect of the film. The story itself revolves around a controversial magician named Albert Emanuel Vogler (how’s that middle name for a religious allusion?) and his traveling “Magnetic Health Theater” as they arrive in a small town where the heads of the community (the Consul, the Police Superintendent, and the logical but emotionally sadistic Minister of Health) put them through a rigorous and invasive trial to determine their legitimacy before allowing them to perform for the public; or more accurately, to expose and mock their illegitimacy.

One of the major characters is Vogler’s grandmother, known only as “Granny.” Granny (played by Swedish theater and opera veteran Naima Wifstrand) is an alchemist and self-proclaimed witch, a practitioner of the old ways, the Norse paganism that prevailed before the arrival of Christendom. There is a moment early in the film when Granny is complaining about how the new religion (by this time, in the mid-1800s, most likely the official establishment of Lutheranism) has pushed out the old ways and made them suspect.

There was some confusion on the podcast about why, then, Granny would make the sign of the cross as she does twice on a wall and once in the air when they’re traveling through the woods at night. Thing is, the religious significance of the symbol of a cross pre-dates Christianity in many cultures, such as with the Egyptian ankh. And yes, in Norse paganism as well, there were symbols that closely resembled the cross, such as the irminsul, the mjolnir (commonly known as “Thor’s hammer,” a symbol — it’s worth noting in the context of how Granny uses the cross — widely worn for protection), and even a version of the swastika, which was a cross-similar symbol with various meanings used by many cultures around the world long before Adolf Hitler took a shine to it. So Granny could have been making a cross-symbol related to her old Norse paganism.

 

Here's Granny now, moments after endearing herself to the audience by spitting on a crow.

 

However, it’s worth noting that wherever Christianity has gone in the world and become the establishment, it has been notorious for co-opting pagan traditions and putting a Christian sheen over it. After all, even in modern America, we still celebrate our Christian holidays with tons of old pagan symbolism: the Christmas tree, the Easter bunny, etc. (Sure, this is the day in which we remember Christ’s death, but we prefer to do it surrounded by ancient pagan fertility symbols.)

Also, wherever Christianity went, local religions have had a tendency to mix bits rather than adopt it philosophically whole. Look, for instance, at voodoo, which uses many Christian symbols and in many places co-exists with pseudo-Catholic beliefs. There’s no telling how much Christianity has infiltrated, or been adopted by, the paganism of 1840s Sweden. (Well, there probably is, but I’m a film critic, dammit, not a doctor of comparative religion.)

Even if Granny was making the sign of the Christian cross, if you closely watch those scenes where she’s hexing the wall with her finger, you’ll notice that the cross she is drawing is upside down. The upside down cross is perhaps the most diametric symbol in all of Christian history, being either a symbol of absolute devotion to Christ, which originated with the tradition of Saint Peter opting to be crucified upside down since he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus himself (it’s even known in Roman Catholicism as the “Petrine” cross); or, more recently, a symbol of anti-Christianity or even anti-religion (notably popular with heavy metal enthusiasts and other people who don’t understand their own symbolism).

So, even if she was making a symbol in upside down Christian cross form, Granny could have been sticking to either the Lutherans or the devil, or both, depending on how you look at it.

But again, I’m just a film critic. You can take all this hypothesizing over mixed religions with a grain of salt. Just make sure it hits the devil in the eye when you toss it over your shoulder.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

Buried Cinema: The Innkeepers

By Nathanael Griffis

This filim has a lot of great posters I highly suggest checking out the artwork, actually.

My favorite genre of horror is without a doubt the spooky haunted house story. I don’t like slashers or gore fests. I like Zombie movies, but don’t find them scary. Exorcist films have gone down hill since, well The Exorcist. So, when I want a good horror flick. I look for ghost stories like The Orphanage, The Shinning, The Others, or The Devils Backbone. I’d therefore been eyeing The Innkeepers  for sometime.

See here’s the thing. I like horror movies, but am admittedly a big baby. After watching Paranormal Activity I ran into an opossum on the way home and had a staring contest with it, because it looked devilish. I am a coward and get scared easily, so I am leery about watching them. The Innkeepers  though is evil, because it’s deceptive and makes you think everything will be okay. Then you poop your pants. For the record, I didn’t literally poop my pants. It’s the summer time, so I was wearing shorts.

The Innkeepers is directed by Ti West, who’s been stacking up some horror cred in recent years with several solid flicks and involvement in V/H/S. It stars Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, and Kelly McGillis. No real big names, but has something odd that most other horror films don’t, a sense of humor. Sara Paxton is known mostly for tween television shows like Darcy’s Wild Life (Yeah I don’t know what that is either, but it’s on IMDB and it sounds like something from ABC family, and no I can’t back that up. You do the research. I honestly don’t care enough to click the link and find out.) Pat Healy is a relative unknown, who I hope to see more, and Kelly McGillis of course, as I’m sure she hates being reminded of, was in Top Gun. She’s the girl who took our breathe away. Remember wind blowing, piano music, and thin strangely over populous amounts of white curtains.

Like I said The Innkeepers is genuinely funny. It’s not a horror spoof or a B-movie. It has some genuine moments of humor. The plot follows around the only two employees at a failing inn’s last weekend. Claire, Sara Paxton, is a young girl who dropped out of college and Luke, Pat Healy, is a budding paranormal researcher. They don’t care about their customers, or taking care of the dying hotel, and are more interested in just getting through the weekend. The first two thirds of the film builds character and has a few tired scare moments that fall flat. I don’t think they’re supposed to hit though. If they were, then the director should just pretend they weren’t. There’s an odd sense of comedy to the whole situation.

(Spolier Alert)

You know it's spooky when they brake out the flashlight.

It’s not until the turn when Claire starts to take the stories of a hung bride seriously, and Luke admits that he made the whole thing up that it takes a turn for the horrorific. Also they enter the basement, which is always scary. I mean never under any circumstances go into a basement after midnight. The film suddenly becomes something more, but the characters don’t make unreasonable decisions. They call the police when they should. One runs away instead of staying in a horrible scary hotel with dead people walking around. Like we all wish every character would do, but no they have to slowly continue down the hall where the spooky little children on tricycles just wandered.

The film pokes you and gets you interested in the characters through humor. It gives them flaws makes them feel down to earth. They’re easier to relate to then a bunch of sorority girls who have a seemingly bottomless budget, and yet decide to go the lake (there are places called beaches ladies). Then when the scary stuff starts to happen you care, and the director makes you continue caring because they don’t make dumb decisions. It builds for a nice combination, because investment in characters means I don’t want them to get hurt, so I become (and listen carefully) horrified when they’re threatened.

If you like ghost horror movies, and good scares plus a little brains with your horror (no not a Zombie reference) then the The Innkeepers is worth checking out. If you require machetes and chainsaws for entertainment, then try it out and come to realize what good horror actually is.

This is what you have to look forward to. You're welcome.

 

Expectations: Bunraku

By Nathanael Griffis

 

I’m a sucker for Kung-fu action films. It doesn’t matter how many times someone pummels a sneering bad guy in the face I’m there. Add cowboys to the mix and it should be good, except that last time cowboys and ninja’s got together we were given The Warriors Way, so I feel like a guy who keeps going back to the same destructive girlfriend saying ‘It’ll be different this time’. It’ll be different actors perhaps, but will that equate to enough action to satisfy my face-pummel thirst.

 

Hypothesis (expectations)

Poster & Trailer: This is strange, normally there’s at least two or three alternative designs for posters, but this nope just the one choice. I’m digging pretty deep here to and there’s nothing really besides the plain design. The recipe goes like so: show your stars in a perfect billing phalanx, emblazen the title in Caps beneath,  insert action pose from star and Asian star, smother in blue. The boring poster proves worrisome, because the trailer boasts some engaging color palletes and strange paper art designs. After watching it I gather Ron Perlman is the bad guy. Josh Hartnett is a cowboy, Woody Harrelson is a bar tender. Demi Moore is pretty and there are two people I don’t know in it, but the movie is insisting I must. Gackt and Kevin McKidd are supposedly names of actors, but I’m still not convinced. The screenshots bring a little hope. The set’s look cool and like they’re constantly changing, so hopefully it’ll be pretty.

The Critics: 6.1 on IMDB and 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m confused. That discrepancy is only furthering my concern. People on IMDB can be weird, but there we very few reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and they can sometimes be pretentious. In other news, while searching I discovered that Bunraku is actually a form of Japanese puppet theater. I then got lost in a Wikipedia article on Japanese puppet theater and lost track of what the critics said, so that should tell you something. It tells you I have a general disdain for critics opinions.  Yet serving as a critic myself, I’m at a loss recognizing the meta-critique I’m doing and expostulating on how boring critiques are I’ve tumbled into some philosophical condrum. What could possibly save me from all this thinking.

 

A drink perhaps

Sum Up: Face’s getting smashed that’s what. I need to see heads get chopped off, knees shattered, men thrown through walls, all manner of liquer bottles explode, chairs snapped like twigs and bad guys flying across the screen while screaming long extended vowel sounds. Yes that’s what I need to pull me out of my slump. Bunraku has a lot riding on it. If it fails, I’ll be left to ponder my ever disintegrating mental constitution. If it succeeds and entertains, I can continue on in my self-imposed wonderland, where people read what I write and care enough to make it worth writing.

Results (review)

There’s something ominous about all this I think.

The film opens with a Baz Lurhman freneticism that’s annoying in Baz Lurhman movies. To boot I think they went out and got the world’s worst movie-trailer-guy-impersonator to do the narration. The scratchy voice would sound more comfortable pouring out short little drawls like “In a world with no guns…”. Instead, the cigarette burned voice spews out the entire plot, which is extremely unfortunate, because the title sequence is stunning. The best thing about this film is the art direction, the sets, lighting, and transitions are worth studying. The way the story stays true to traditional Bunraku theater is impressive.

It frequently looks made of paper and focuses on hard lined geometric shapes that make it look like the sets where literally folded into place and the transitions between scenes would have us believe such. Guy Moshe’s (the director) use of lighting is stunning as well. He has an amazing sense of color and uses shadow to an exceptional effect. A fight between Harnett’s Drifter and Gackt’s Yoshe is almost completely stationary except moving shadows that give the appearance of a greater motion. The fight scenes are more akin to dances than brutal body count raising action. This was a pleasant surprise, but it didn’t feed my desire for sheer entertainment.

Here in lies the conundrum, from a film I expected little to no substance of story I got a touch more. There are some lines and plot moments that are well placed and give the story an edge. At other times the use of vulgarity intermixed with poetic dialogue is deliberately distracting. It’s as if the director will not allow his film to be taken seriously, which troubles me. I can’t decide if I like that or not. The characters are archetypes, yet small flaws and weakness give them just a touch of depth.  So I was pleased with the story to be honest, but that’s not what I turned to Bunraku for.

I wanted to see faces smashed and pummeled. I got that to some extent, but like I mentioned earlier the fights are more like dances than fights. They don’t get your blood pumping as much as they widen your eyes in an attempt to dazzle you. The opening fight is a let down, but sets the tone and by the end I was engaged, which is a credit to the film. Still I didn’t enjoy the first half of the film, because the action wasn’t entertaining enough. There are at least 15 fights in this movie and maybe 5 are worthwhile, but all 15 are beautifully staged with bizarre touches, Kevin McKidd as an Irish samurai being one of the strangest. It’s simply just a hard thing to buy a man with a thick Irish accent, a burgundy fedora, a dappled kerchief, goldenrod slicked back hair, a grey and lavender three piece suit, and plum set of glasses as a threatening master of bushido.

The rest of the cast is fine. Demi Moore supports nicely giving those around her motivation and stronger characters as a supporting actor should do. Hartnett is a convincing gruff drift. Gackt a good samurai. I’d buy a drink from Woody Harrelson anytime. And, give Ron Perlmen and axe, dreadlocks, and a beard and he’s a force to be reckoned with sure. It’s all these strengths and weakness that bother me though. I find myself on the seat of some horrible film lovers struggle. There really is this Yin and Yang of film, with entertainment & art both working against and betwixt each other.

Harnett waiting patiently for his fellow cast members to unfold.

With the end of each fight scene, and the sudden arrival of a transition that lifts us up from a city square to rising paper buildings that collapse as quickly as they were built to reveal the next scene, I would be both intrigued and disappointed. I had wanted some snarky comment to finish it off. I’d wanted to see more blood. More bad guys being pummeled, instead my critics palette had been fed with colors that washed over the story. The action becomes symbolic for the struggle within one’s self and good vs. evil in life, much like the simple stories of Bunraku theater itself. The sets are wonderfully built and amazingly utilized. The film refused in some ways to stay within a discernible genre, which is both praiseworthy and immensely frustrating at the same time.

Overall it’s worthwhile checking out and I mean that literally I don’t think you can simply watch this film. It is a feast visually for the eyes, but not action wise. It simply sports some of the best uses of light and color I’ve seen in a long time.

Analysis

Our expectations, may not have as much influence as I’ve thought. My expectations met or unmet didn’t change my feelings. Before the film I was in some silly overstated turmoil trying to work out the dichotomy of entertainment and critique. After I had watched the film that lens remained and I was stuck within those boundaries. My expectations don’t actually affect the film. They limit how I can interpret the film. How I can asses or enjoy something, and if something can be assessed for enjoyment. Going into a film without any expectations may give you a more honest sense of the film, perhaps. But the broader sense created by no expectations may also lead to an inability to describe it. If I hadn’t been struggling between entertainment and critique, I would simple have mentioned what was good and what was bad. I would have presented you with little more than a summary of what happened, returning to the dreaded book report of 4th grade.  Expectations provide a guiding lens that is necessary to engaging with film and that films demand of us. They may ruin a film entirely for us or, in some rare cases, provide a chance for us to dig deep into some unheard story and drag something revelatory out.

They may also provide a chance for some person with extra hours on a Saturday to type up extra words in an attempt to sound smart. Either way, I’ll be changing around that format for my upcoming expectations articles. I think it’s time we brought in a control. Up until now I’ve been testing the variables of my own expectations. It’s time I compared them to a viewer who has no expectations.

 

Korean Cinema: The Chaser

By Nathanael Griffis

Korean's just so much cooler than English it's not even funny.

This film had been staring at me from my Netflix queue for some time now. I love Korean films, but I began to become consumed with fear. Eventually I was bound to find a flaw in Korean films. It’s the fourth week of the relationship when you realize the dreamy-eyed girl never shuts up about her stupid scarf collection. I mean who cares about the difference between voile and silk. I’ve become distracted (and I hope Ashlynn never reads this). The point is, for a while I’ve pulled back from watching Korean movies. Instead I’ve been forcing my friends to watch ones I know are good, but eventually you have to push through and either move on with your relationship or let it drift into that land of pleasant memory. Allusions are tricky when they’re personal.

The Chaser was a welcome return and although flawed and not a classic in my opinion, it’s good to know you love the one your with. Based on a shockingly true story of a disgraced detective turned pimp who hunted down a serial killer after his own prostitutes disappeared, The Chaser is a good gritty thriller. It was fascinating to watch where the film would go. It has some issues toward the end as it becomes, we might say Hollywood-ized, but it’s not Hollywood. Basically, movie clichés are inserted to “make the film more exciting.” The protagonist has to cause a car crash to escape. The evil serial killer needs to buy sunglasses and drag a couple of bodies around. Then naturally there needs to be a brutal final fight scene.

What’s fantastic about this film is the stunning way they build and play with tension. It has Korean films’ strange balance of humor with shocking images. But — SPOILER ALERT —  it only takes about twenty minutes into the film for Joong-ho the pimp (played by Yun-seok Kim) to catch the killer Young-min (played by Jung-woo Ha). It made me sit back and wonder. The killer is caught and confesses. Then it gets interesting, because he retracts and accuses the police of brutality. All of a sudden it becomes a mad race to find evidence they never had, because they assumed a confession of a serial killer would be enough. Yun-Seok Kim and Jung-woo Ha as pimp/chaser and killer/chasee are good. They don’t bring much subtly to their role, but they play their roles to a ‘T’.

Yes, for all those wondering there are chase scenes in the movie.

It’s well paced, exciting, and balances the violence with tension well at the beginning. As it rounds up, and the Killer is released because of police bunglings, things begin to fall apart. There’s a strange scene where Joong-ho the pimp evades the majority of Seoul police force, who are all concentrated in a small construction site. He does get caught only to cause the now cliché cause a car crash and survive even though everyone else is beat up moment. It also seems hard to believe that the disgraced detective would be so willing to put the lives of police in danger. This is something that we only allow in movies. It’s based on a true story, but the end becomes increasingly unrealistic.

Things like a shop owner who’s watching the news never catching on that the man who just entered her store is the serial killer who’s been on the screen all day. It allows for the vicious blood spewing scene where Jung-woo shows off his acting ability, and frightens us with a gleeful yet controlled performance. Then naturally we have a slow motion discovery of a grisly crime scene where the camera leisurely strolls over every blood splatter and chunk of flesh ala CSI. Our violent prone protagonist now all of sudden is able to put the pieces together, and discovers the house that the entire Seoul major crimes unit couldn’t. Which leads us to the epic stare down and Bourne-esque fight, it’s great to watch to be sure until you start thinking wait the first half was a lot smarter. It’s a compliant for sure, but I was still fooled. I was entertained during and it wasn’t till after the fact that I stopped and paused that it dawned on me that I had been fooled. How dare they entertain me! So naturally I did what any American with Wifi does. I sat down and a typed out a blog article. Yeah that’ll show them.

Got a little something on your face there...nevermind I'll leave you be.