Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Ever see a film that invokes such a level of passion and craving that your mouth begins to water? Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of those films.

Jiro owns a sushi house in Tokyo’s business district. The sushi bar sells only sushi, no alcoholic beverages, appetizers or side dishes. The sushi rolls and nigiri are grandiose in their simplicity; Jiro uses the finest quality ingredients and old-school methods to bring out the natural flavors of the fish on a diner’s palate. The lack of frou-frou elements or unnecessary garnishes bring the attention back to flavor and technicality;  one patron described the fish as butter melting on her tongue.

Several apprentices discuss Jiro’s mentoring process, including a discussion of the shortest tenure of an apprentice (one day). Both sons marinate over what Jiro was like as a father; one anecdote includes one of the boys not recognizing his father and asking their mother what this stranger was doing in their house (Jiro frequently rose before the boys were up and came home long after their bedtimes). Despite Jiro’s familial shortcomings, his real marriage is to his art in sushi-making, and his family has come to respect this.

The sushi master has two sons, one of whom is being groomed to take over the restaurant after Jiro’s retirement (in line with Japanese custom). His younger son owns another sushi restaurant, using the same style and meticulous clean method as his father, but in a more relaxed atmosphere.

The documentary has a sleepy, dreamlike quality, which is buffeted by whimsical Philip Glass-type soundtrack. At times, you will feel that you are at the bottom of a pool looking up at Jiro & Sons.

A big reveal near the documentary’s end is heart-warming as much as it is startling.  This one plot twist made the rating jump a 1/2 star – you leave the film feeling buoyed (and hungry for sushi).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix instant and DVD.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended (even if you don’t like sushi).

EXTRA CREDIT — Dining with your eyes.

Famously foodie films  include Babette’s Feast, 9 1/2 Weeks, Julie & Julia, The Cook The Thief His Wife & His Lover, and my personal favorite, Big Night. Big Night is an Italian restaurant that serves one last meal to its faithful few before its possible and likely closing. During the highlight course, one diner sobs at the beauty and divine taste of the food.

If you want to nurture your sweet tooth, re-watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Chocolat, Waitress (oh, those pies!).  For foreign films, try Tampopo, Tortilla Soup, Like Water for Chocolate, Mostly Martha, or Eat Drink Man Woman.


Review: The Day

The Day

Review: The Day

The Day is a new post-apocalyptic horror film with a whole host of actors you know from other genre films. I liked it but didn’t love it.

We saw this film at the Sarasota Film Festival in April. The filmmakers were in attendance along with actors Ashley Bell and Dominic Monaghan.  You may remember Monaghan best as the hobbit Merry from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and as Charlie on Lost. He was affable during the post-viewing Q&A – maybe even endearingly goofy. It was clear that he enjoys interaction between the audience/fans and himself, and I always respect an actor for this. Similarly, Ashley Bell (the tortured young girl from The Last Exorcism) was incredibly gracious toward the audience and her experience on the film.

X-Men’s Iceman Shawn Ashmore  and Shannyn Sossamon round out the principal cast.  Michael Eklund continues his run of creepy roles as the chief of predatory clan. Eklund brings a feral quality to the role that other actors would have spoiled by overacting, lack of nuance, or an overindulgence in the cheese quotient.

The basic premise is a devastated earth yields little fuel, animals, or food for the remaining human race. Survivors band together to scavenge what they can to subsist, but ruthless clans of predators have picked off many of these intrepid human remnants. Five somethings are being tracked by one of these clans, and rather than run and be picked off one-by-one by the ruthless trackers, they hole up for a final stand in an old farmhouse and prepare for battle.

Luckily, this protypical siege film is pretty true to its genre and premise. It’s straightforward in that if the premise sounds appealing to you, you will probably like it. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it likely isn’t. The Day does not pull its punches.

The “preparing for battle” montage was probably my favorite scene of the movie. Cornered without arms, the quintet use ingenious methods to cobble together weapons and traps for their would-be assailants (who of course are expected to arrive at dark).  The gore is not over the top, but do know that most of the combat is of the hand-to-hand variety, and a female is tortured practically to the point of losing consciousness.

As for the shooting aspects, the film was beautifully shot in a muted palette.  The colors of the world have bled out with the last bastion of humanity, and it adds a really gritty atmosphere to the film. You may even forget from time-to-time that the film was shot in color because the landscape is utterly gray and dreary.

The filmmakers were coy when an audience member asked what caused the apocalypse, but they seemed to insinuate it was possibly environmentally-related. It seemed they didn’t want you to question to “why” or “how” of their set-up, but just get immersed in it. I think this is partially folly – while I get they are not trying to make a Message Film, trying to analyze the plot beyond what was shown on-screen was not rewarded.

WWE Studios is distributing the film. According to VideoETA, the DVD is slated for a November release if you don’t catch it in its limited theatrical run.

The trailer is here, but I would advise against seeing it; the trailer reveals a fairly significant and unanticipated spoiler than I was glad not to know going into the movie completely blind.

Recommendation Level: Recommended (if you are a fan of the genre).

Review: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

Review: Juan of the Dead

I saw this film back in March at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida. It was our third year in attendance. Coming into the festival, I had secret hopes that Juan would serve as this year’s Strigoi, the Romanian/UK horror-comedy (available on Netflix Instant).

Juan, he did not let us down. Touted as the Cuban Shaun of the Dead by the media, this slogan really sells the film short because it is more than just a Spanish-language counterpart. Indeed, Juan is an homage to our beloved Shaun, but it stands on its own two undead legs too. One reviewer makes fun of the incessant comparisons to Shaun of the Dead with his parody titles list, including Prawn of the Dead, Lawn of the Dead, Faun of the Dead, et al.

This gory romp has pure moments of comic relief buffeted by intense action sequences that scandalize the audience in its honest brutality. Tucker and Dale v. Evil may be a better comparison for this element, among others.

The film has real heart. Initially, Juan is shown as a feckless, absentee father interested only in beer, women, and chortling with his pudgy best friend. His transition into zombie-combating greatness does not seem forced and is surprisingly organic. The tragic pre-outbreak relationship between Juan and his teenage daughter is remarkably spot-on for a film with so much zombie fodder.

As his undead-killing prowess improves, so does his relationship with his daughter, who finally sees her father as the leader she has always wanted in her life. Raised by her grandmother, the daughter has the sass and spunk that is needed in what is otherwise a male-dominated cast.

Characters use insanely ingenious methods of dispatching the infected. I dare not ruin any for you, but two scenes in particular will be a treats you have always wanted but have never been given in somewhat similar fare.

Cuba, for all its problems (both of image and actual substance) should be proud of its film industry for making such an entertaining, solid film. While being marketed as Cuba’s first horror film, there has been dispute as to whether this is really the case. Anyway, politics are not wholly removed from this neo-Cuban classic. A visit to the film’s website reveals the apropos tagline: “50 years after the revolution, a new revolution begins.”

See the trailer and you will get an excellent idea of the film’s feel. No punches were pulled during the editing of this preview. Juan of the Dead is now available on VOD in USA and Canada. Check for screenings of the film here.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended

Review: Another Year

Another Year

Review: Another Year

There’s something about British director Mike Leigh. A truly cerebral auteur, you may know him for his work in Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky, and the un-hyphenated but adequately ampersanded Secrets & Lies.

Another Year is centered around a stable married couple whose friends and relatives bring seismic rumblings during one eventful year in their otherwise happy, settled existence.

Frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Jim Broadbent brings levity to this slice of life showcase as the jovial Tom. Tom’s wife, Gerri, is helmed by Ruth Sheen. Her conflicted maternal instincts are expertly exposed throughout the year with the most nuanced of mannerisms and expressions. Her stoicism is omnipresent throughout most of the film, but you can sense those buried emotions just simmering beneath the surface.

David Bradley delivers a devastating performance as widower Ronnie. While you may know Bradley best for his role as groundskeeper and squib Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, this veteran Brit’s oeuvre is as impressive as it is long.

If there can be a standout performance is such a cinema gem, it would be Lesley Manville as Ruth’s friend Mary. There is something quintessentially annihilating about this film, and Mary is a big component of that ambiance. It marinated with me for a few days after viewing, but I didn’t feel it was a depressing watch either. You are watching Mary simply unspool in front of your eyes but you only feel concern and empathy for her wretched stratagems.

The film is beautifully shot in 35mm with Arricam LT, Cooke S4 Lenses. The 129 mins runtime does not feel too long at all; it gives the characters time to develop and evolve. You will not want to say goodbye to them at the film’s end.

All in all, give this film a go. You might feel that it’s the best film you’ve seen in a long time. Or at least since you saw Midnight in Paris.

If you are a Mike Leigh beginner, start with Secrets & Lies. It is an easily accessible though not always easily watchable) film with a high squirm quotient. The performances are powerhouse and understated, depending on what is required for the actors. Topsy-Turvy is perfect for Gilbert & Sullivan fans, and if you did not have a penchant for The Mikado before you saw the film, you are sure to afterward. Vera Drake is a grittier tale of a home-care abortion provider in 1950s England (but regardless of your position on the political spectrum, this is not to be missed for the riveting performance by Imelda Staunton).

Fun fact: Another Year actors David Bradley, Imelda Staunton, and Jim Broadbent have all appeared in multiple Harry Potter films (as Argus Filch, Dolores Umbridge, and Professor Horace Slughorn, respectively). Timothy Spall from Secrets & Lies played Wormtail, and AY/S&L actress Lesley Manville was married to Gary Oldman, aka Sirius Black.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended

Harry, Ron, Hermione

Update: David Slade is now attached to direct.


With the success of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and the Twilight films simply dominating the box office in the last 10 years, Hollywood’s been green lighting as fast as YA authors can pen them.

Certainly the bulge of YA movie adaptations has been met with mixed success:

* I Am Number Four (and its sequels) have been hugely successful novels. Despite this literary success, the movie had a fairly mediocre run at the B.O., and this mild economic return was not enough to trigger a sequel (yet).

* Percy Jackson was a lackluster film that pulled in $88m domestically, but had a $95m budget. Ouch. Yet the sequel – Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is currently slated for release in August 2013. With the under-performance of the first film, I was really surprised to see that announcement.

“Luckily”, most of the adaptations coming out seem to revolve around dystopian society and love triangles. Because that’s not an overdone trope. Yawn.

Anyway, the following is not in any way a comprehensive list (it would be far too large), but this is a good sampling of what’s on the radar for the next few years.

MATCHED: This okay dystopian love-triangle fest has been picked up by Disney, which is probably not a good sign. Plus, they do not appear to have begun production. The last book in the literary installment drops this November, so maybe they are waiting to see that book’s performance. The plot of Matched involves a government-run matching program for procreating/marriage. The stoic existence can’t stop the feelings between our two star-crossed teens and insurrection ensues.

DELIRIUM: Very similar in premise to Matched, Delirium’s dystopian society surpresses emotion, especially love. The stoic existence can’t stop the feelings between our two star-crossed teens and insurrection ensues. Fox 2000 owns the rights, but hasn’t done anything with them yet.

SHIVER: Maggie’s Stiefvater’s first novel in her wolf-human love trilogy has been picked up by Unique Features, with first look going to Warner Brothers. The movie version is currently in production.

DIVERGENT: Heads above the other romance dystopian novels is Divergent, a dystopian society where factions are established based on career/credo. The protag does not fit into one faction because she is “divergent” and fits into at least three categories. Insurrection ensues. The movie is currently in pre-production but isn’t slated for a release until 2015. Divergent is the first in a trilogy, and the second book, Insurgent, is likely to be adapted for the silver screen as well.

THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH: Probably the most compelling trilogy I read last year, Forest is a heart-wrenching, lyrical tale of sheltered, oppressed life within the walls of a quaint village. Yet the walls that keep you safe from the Unsecrated are stifling and lure the protag closer and closer to the gate. The film version is tentatively set for a 2013 release.

MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: This hugely popular franchise by Cassandra Clare was written for the screen. The first movie, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, has attracted some lovely actors (Lena Headey and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The genre is paranormal romance/mystery and boasts a large cast of characters.

MAZE RUNNER: This is an insane novel, the first of a trilogy, plus a prequel. The basic premise finds our protag in a domed outdoor prison that also contains labyrintine paths, which could lead to the teenage inmates’ escape. Not much is known about the production of the film, except that a 2013 release is expected.

HEIST SOCIETY: This lauded novel (obviously part of a trilogy, since that’s apparently required these days), is about a family of art thieves, led by a 15-year-old girl. If you like art, you’ll love watching wily teenagers steal it. I looked up several of the pieces mentioned in the novel after reading the book because I found the history interwoven through the plot so compelling. Drew Barrymore has been rumored to direct.

SEVENTH SON: The adaptation I’m most looking forward to (and does not involve a love triangle, thankfully) is Seventh Son, which is based on an English series called The Spook’s Apprentice (which was renamed The Last Apprentice in the USA for obvious reasons). Joseph Delaney’s 10-book series centers around a spook, or old-school ghostbuster, who travels around Cheshire and Lancashire, England (where my husband is from) ridding domiciles of denizens of the dark. The books are honestly scary and well-written in a way that’s refreshing for this age even though the stories take place several hundred years ago. Confirmed cast includes Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges, and Djimon Hounsou. The theatrical release is tentatively set at October 2013.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES: Sure to lure the Twilight legion is this paranormal romance which is currently set for a February 2013 release. Plot descriptions are vague but involves a stranger and a curse. Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons are all attached.

WARM BODIES: Also, slotted for a February 2013 release (which in of itself is not a good sign), this YA novel is essentially a better-written Twilight (not that that is a high bar) but involving a zombie male love interest in lieu of a vampire. I’ve read the book and it is as weird as it sounds. Veteran actor John Malkovich has somehow found himself attached to this project.

DASH & LILY’S BOOK OF DARES: Remember Nick & Norah’s Infinte Playlist, written by dream team Rachel Cohn and David Levithan? Dash & Lily was written by them too – an Amelie-like game of chance and love, where the would-be couple leave clues for one another over Christmas break in New York. The effervescent Lena Dunham (creator and star of HBO’s Girls and director/writer/star of Tiny Furniture) is set to direct.

OTHERS: Summit is developing Tempest, a clunky novel somewhat akin to Butterfly Effect or The Time Machine. Blood Red Road is a post-apocalytpic novel about a girl saving her brother from marauders that rule their arid wasteland. It was at one point attached to director Ridley Scott, and is tentatively set for a 2014 release.

Mini-Rant: “Reboot” is a disingenuous misnomer.

Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

I HATE the term “reboot.” Hate it.

Everything is being rebooted these days. The 90210 TV series. The Spider-man movie franchise. Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The Batman franchise.

While there are described differences between remakes and reboots, these seem largely nuanced and semantic. Essentially, a reboot is when the franchise is started again from the ground up – former cinematic plot lines are eschewed and possibly any non-canonical characters. Thus, the franchise is ‘reboot’ and starts fresh without having to work new plot developments in around what’s happened before.

It can be effective when the previous version becomes to cluttered and confusing, but it often seems unnecessary in an industry where hundreds of thousands of original screenplays are trashed each year without being read. And how many great books can you think of that have never been made into a movie? You would think that A Confederacy of Dunces was akin to Don Quixote in how seemingly impossible it has been to push past the pre-production stage. (Good news is that a version is back on the slate, starring Zach Galifianakis).

Reboots often are more loyal to the source material than the original film adaptation. However, this does not always a better film make. Exhibit A: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory vs. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Charlie was more faithful to the book, yet more people seemed to think Willy Wonka is the superior film.

Of course, rebooted franchises can often be greeted with critical and box office acclaim. The Amazing Spider-man (Webb, Garfield & Stone) was closer to the source material (i.e. comics) than Spider-man (Raimi, Maguire & Dunst). However, in this case, the newer incarnation has been reviewed highly, and the disparity in ratings between the films is less than in the Chocolate Factory movies.

I hate to be a cynic, but production companies really love capitalizing on nostalgia. Has every Hasbro toy and Parker Bros. board game been made into a movie? Just how will a Tetris movie even work? (It probably won’t, I saw the trailer for Battleship). Preying off our nostalgic yearnings is a somewhat questionable activity.

Comic Phyllis Diller (Rest in Peace, dear lady) said on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1986 that setup string jokes are highly time-economical. You set up the premise (“Your dog’s so dumb that…”) and then the strings follow in a 1-2 punch (“She barks at her shadow. She chews on her own leg when she wants a bone. She licks her own butt” etc).

Production companies follow this same calculus in that they don’t have to introduce the premise to us. We get that Nightmare on Elm Street is a guy with a striped sweater with knives on his hands. We know that a Chocolate Factory film is going to be based on the Roald Dahl novel and star an eccentric chocolatier. No one needs to explain to us that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to be about a teenage girl fighting the un-dead denizens of the dark. With us in the know, less money needs to be spent on marketing; the concept is already part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Also, with the recent backlash against remakes, production companies can slyly insinuate that this new film is superior to a paltry remake because this is a reboot! The ego smog that is emitted from everyone who thinks they can do it better is simply stifling.

While differences (small, sometimes imperctible ones) may exist between remakes and reboots, the end result is still the same. Hollywood is trying to shove the same, recycled material down our throat while minimizing original ideas. Remember that when you purchase movie tickets or rent DVDs that you are voting with your dollars. Here’s to hoping we’ll have some original screenplays in 2013 (c’mon, Charlie Kaufman, where ya been?).

Let’s not even discuss re-imaginings!

Trends in the Horror Industry: More Story, Less Gory (Part 2)

Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers

Check out the first part in this two-part series.

As horror films transition away from high gore to scare up viewers, they seem to enter more character-driven and story-driven fare. This is a much welcome throwback to the pre-slasher and pre-vengeance films. It harkens back to the ’60s and ’70s where horror had more of a slow burn.  Even horror-themed episodic TV evidenced this – Rod Serling’s Night Gallery is perhaps the paradigm. Remember the episode with the changing painting? If you haven’t seen it, watch it as soon as possible. The slow crescendo of action, gradually building over time into an explosive finale.

Many of the horror films that have been released in the last year or two have embodied these ‘slow burn’ traits. For a very retro spectacle that wholly evidences the last statement, check out House of the Devil, which co-stars Mumblecore royalty Greta Gerwig. Sometimes these films take time to get going, but I don’t usually mind. Strong scriptwriting and even pacing ensures that the first act is spent building characters and back story before heading into the meat and terror of the film.

The Innkeepers is aesthetically a vintage-style haunted inn story that is satisfying and enticing, but not a flawless film. Yet the stratospheric eerie quotient and well-developed characters keep you hooked until the end. Neo-scream queen Sara Paxton (star of the Last House remake) really shines in this film, which is about the real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn. She has stated in interviews that this character (an employee of the inn) is more like her real-life self than the popular girl roles that have become her mainstay. This character is realistic and believable; she’s not those vapid, generic teenagers that are all too prevalent in these films. This girl is someone you’ve actually known, maybe in a college class or hiking club.

Shelved for many years yet wildly critically acclaimed is the Joss Whedon-scribed haunted cabin film The Cabin in the Woods. This vehicle very effectively turns those overused horror tropes and premises right on their head. I dragged three very reluctant guys to see this on opening night for my birthday, but we all came out of the cinema buoyed by how solidly structured we found the film as well as just simply freakin’ entertaining. I’m deathly afraid that it will be a long time before I am that wowed and unexpectedly impressed again. Cabin is released on DVD on Sept 18. 

Comparisons have run amok between new film The Awakening and the Guillermo del Toro-produced El Orfarnato/The Orphanage (Jay Antonio Bayona directed), but I think it sounds a bit more like a film del Toro actually directed, The Devil’s Backbone. The Awakening takes place in 1920s Cumbrian England, which gives the ambiance a particularly spooky feel. Really, what is eerier than a ramshackle boarding school in the damp, dank Moors? The protag (up-and-comer Rebecca Hall) is a paranormal debunker called into the solve the mystery of the school, plagued by denizens of the dark. If you are on the fence about this one, try watching the first 10 minutes. It starts right off with a seance, and you will immediately get a feel for the film.

The Apparition looks extremely derivative. Reminiscent of lackluster films such as They and Pulse, the ridiculous premise is that ghosts won’t harm a group of sexy newlyweds (and friends!) until they start believing in their existence. Sounds cloying and far-fetched to me, but I will reserve judgment until video. Its theatrical run starts Friday, in case you are intrigued. This film is a good reminder that while the films mentioned in this write-up are less gory than many other horror films from the last decade, the decrease in splatter alone doesn’t automatically make them good. Or even scary.

While this trend is fairly recent, we cannot deny that there have been so many more story-driven horror films vaguely recently. The Caller, Drag Me to Hell, and 1408 were all more or less character- and/or story-driven horror films in the last 5 years or so. None of these films were amazing, but all hinted at greatness to come. It could even be argued that these films (et al.) paved the way for Cabin in the Woods and its contemporaries.

Drag Me to Hell is part of the Raimi Brothers’ Ghost House Productions. Their latest offering, The Possession, will enjoy a theatrical run later on this month. The film was known as Dybbuk Box during its production, but the title was changed to the much more generic and banal current selection. Despite this small setback, I think the premise sounds wonderful: a young girl picks up a Dybbuk box at a yard sale, thinking it’s just a cool ole box. She opens it after much struggling, but her personality changes extremely afterward. Expertly blending Jewish folklore and the Pandora allegory, this movie is based on a real story that you can read about here. The present owner of the box even tried to sell it to the Raimis.

Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is a perfect director for horror as he masterfully blends the horrors of wartime (namely the Spanish Civil War) against the unseen horrors of the supernatural realm. This juxtaposition of the super-normal and paranormal really bring a new layer to the genre. Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are whimsically horrifying and more akin to contemporary Grimm’s Fairy Tales than any other horror offerings on the market.  Cronos is a dryer, straighter film that the aforementioned offerings, but is still worth a viewing (or two). While not strictly horror, his upcoming film Pacific Rim will likely be a double hit – both in the box office and on the critic sheet.

I was really excited when I learned about the premise and cast of Red Lights. Debunking psychic fraud is not a topic that’s been especially been en vogue since the age of Spiritualism ended, but I think it’s ready come out of the spirit cabinet. The cast includes heavyweights Robert Deniro and Sigourney Weaver. Frequent castmates Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page are once again reunited (see Inception and Peacock) to round out the cast. Currently, the film is still is limited release; it may never get a wide release based on its reviews (it has been critically panned).  It’s too bad the execution was so terrible because the premise is so terribly intriguing. There’s always DVD.

I can’t decide how I feel about the new Ethan Hawke vehicle, Sinister. The premise involves found footage as a plot device, but it is not a shakycam film (from my best estimation anyway). The plot centers around a new homeowner who finds footage with clues to who was murdered in the house beforehand. Hawke plays the homeowner, who happens to be a true crime novelist. His thirst for new material leads him to delve into the murder mystery so much that he may be putting his family on the target for future attacks (either paranormal or regular ole human psychopath).

The one-word title of Sinister reminds me a little of Insidious. Referencing back to the slow burner paradigm, Insidious is the paragon of slow burners because it really implodes in the final 20 minutes. It seems like everyone I personally know that has seen this has loved the first act, but reaction to the final act was much more polarizing. I loved this film and felt it was a really unique take on an infrequently-used supernatural phenomenon (I can’t say much more without spoilers). While the movie did contain some really bizarre moments, these mostly bolstered the quality of the film rather than having a deleterious effect. Rose Byrne plays really well against Patrick Wilson and midway through the film you relate to them as a couple you might know that live down the lane. Excellent pacing, a perpetually eerie atmosphere and real scares (in lieu of ‘jump’ scares, although there are a few of those) really make this a solid effort.

Final thoughts: You’ve seen The Others haven’t you? Please see The Others. I saw it in college and a frat boy ran out during the particularly intense climax. Even after the ‘Big Reveal’, The Others has plenty of re-watch value. Also, I’m really excited about Keyhole, which has a great vibe. This new Guy Maddin offering stars legacy actress Isabella Rossellini.

Check out the trailers below and let me know what other story-driven horror films arrive on your radar.

Trailers: The Innkeepers / The Apparition / The Possession / Red Lights / The Awakening / Sinister

Trends in the horror industry: more story, less gory (Part 1)


Trends in the film industry are always very interesting to me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the horror genre has been evolving (at times arguably devolving) for the last decade.

Perhaps more than any other genre, horror ebbs and flows, transitions and stagnates, re-invents and recycles. Often, the trends we see in horror are simply reflections of current horrors of the day.  The current landscape of fear of vampires, zombies and other un-dead denizens of the dark suggest escapism from more realistic concerns: a frightful global stage, domestic political turmoil and a sluggish economy. Further, vampires very obviously represent eternal life. Why are we so afraid of our mortality?

Other recent horror trends, such as torture porn/gore-nography (e.g. Turistas, Hostel franchise, Saw sequels, Captivity, Final Destination sequels, Last House on the Left remake, etc.) may insinuate the scars of a post-Abu Ghraib society that still linger in the collective psyche.

Horror has become big business in the last few years. With even more cons and film festivals added to the slate each and every year, the horror genre becomes more entrenched in and reflective of the cultural zeitgeist. It will be interesting to see how these cons and festivals change as the trends in the industry become more evident.

About a decade ago, modern torture porn or gore-nography were birthed out of more clever material. One such example is Saw. Yes, it is a divisive movie, but infinitely more clever than its even more polarizing successors. Plus, it cannot be overstated how much less gory it is than its familial films.  The plotline arcs with Jigsaw’s traps driving the action along. Subsquent films relied too heavily on beefing up and goring out these traps so that the focal feature of the film were these torture devices. The storytelling suffered, but the ticket sales did not; to date the original Saw film has spawned 6 sequels. The same could be said about the Final Destination franchise. The original was such an original take on a universal source of dread — death itself. However, the following gore-nographic films relied too heavily on goring out its instruments of death in lieu of beefing up the plot.

For a few seasons, it seemed that every new horror film coming down the pike was a torture porn.  Remakes of old familiars were manufactured but with an upped mayhem quotient (see Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and House of Wax. The first four films referenced above were fairly graphic films to begin with, especially for their time. The fear a viewer feels in the originals is palpable and timeless; did you feel any of those films were dated or stale?

Even France has gotten in on the torture. In fact, it seemed to start there a little earlier than it did here. I’ll admit that I thought High Tension/Haute Tension was more solidly written, acted, directed and shot than many of its contemporaries. Endless comparisons are made to Frontier(s), another French film that pits its protags against some whacked out Neo-Nazis. This new wave of French horror is called The New French Extremity, and also includes splatter-fests Martyrs and Inside.

Via the Last House on the Left remake, we began a transition bridge where  torture porn became less a subgenre and more an element in revenge films. Examples include Death Sentence, The Brave One and the I Spit on Your Grave remake.  While not strictly horror, Taken has been insanely popular, and its sequel gets its theatrical release soon. Vendetta films seem to, as an instrinsic component, contain high gore or torture in the action of enacting the vengeance.

Unfortunately, other than the event that instigates the need for vegeance (almost always of the vigilante variety), the revenge is all too often the only motivating, flesh-out plot line driving the story. Ancillary characters serve where secondary characters would be more appropriate; in fact, most characters in these films are two-dimensional. Further, even the protag will seem flat because his or her main characteristic is the need or drive for vengeance. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for personality quirks or idiosyncracies (luckily, there are many exceptions, especially in the Western genre. Bronson in Deathwish is another example).

One massive trend in the last three years has been a return to the shaky cam/found footage genre that resurfaced briefly in the 90s after the release of The Blair Witch Project. This subgenre shows no sign of slowing; the Paranormal Activity franchise has taken over Saw’s October theatrical release timeslot. While the fourth film‘s tagline is: “All the activity has led to this,” even a marginal box office showing will secure a sequel.

This guerrilla cinéma vérité is so popular because they are so easy and cheap to produce; further, the handheld camera format more effectively pulls the viewer into the action. There’s much more to explore in the shakycam/found footage subgenre, but I am going to leave that to an entry in the near future.

La casa muda / Silent House

The Uruguayan film.

Silent House, the American remake of La casa muda, is now out on DVD, and despite my judgment, curiosity won out and we gave it a whirl. While there is more differentiation between the two sister films than between [REC] and its nearly identical twin and U.S. counterpart Quarantine, I don’t think the differences merit a singular watching of Silent House, sadly.

Without delving into spoiler territory, the biggest difference between the films is that the Uruguayan original posits more questions than it answers, while the American version answers many of the obvious questions, sometimes which slip into the realm of banality (e.g. why the windows are covered with plywood).

Both films taut themselves as being ‘one-take’ phenoms. I counted 5-6 cleverly hidden cuts in La casa muda and 8-12 in Silent House. The internet is rife with speculation on where the cuts happen, but the consensus is that neither film is presented in one take. If you listen to the DVD commentary on Silent House, the filmmakers are quite unapologetic for the multiple takes. They state that the integrity of the film was more important than the gimmick, which is certainly laudable.

Actually, the one-take gimmick harkens back to the master of horror, Alfred Hitchcock (as an aside, the format of this blog is based on Hitchcock’s film Vertigo). Hitch’s film Rope, based on the infamous Loeb/Leopold murders, was heavily marketed as one take, but most connoisseurs now agree the film is actually 10 takes glued together with rather glorious smudging. If Master Hitchcock couldn’t shoot a film in one take, will anyone ever achieve this feat?

I find gimmicky movies often fall flat on substance; too much attention is given to the format of the film. There are notable exceptions of course, and this is perhaps best evidenced by Memento. The reason why Memento is such a creepy film is that the unique structure and nonlinear story format adds to the story instead of guides it.

Too often these format-driven films add up little more to the tail wagging the dog. Conversations with Other Women was a fun watch, but did its format really add to the experience? The reverse chronological debacle 11:14 is only tolerable due to its format. A neat storytelling mechanic simply does not excuse the lack of a cogent, masterful story.

All in all, despite the ratings below, I would encourage you to see La casa muda to get a small taste of the burgeoning Uruguayan film market.  While not amazing, it hints at greatness to come. While Silent House fall flat, Elizabeth Olsen gives a powerhouse performance that is worthy of her already sterling oeuvre.  Whether her stellar performance is enough to entice you depends on your curiosity on the project.

La casa muda: 7

Silent House: 5.5

La casa muda Trailer / Silent House Trailer