Sunday, September 21, 2014

Vital Viewing: Frailty (2001)

A man walks into a police station and demands to see the detective in charge of a slew of recent murders. A relatively simple start to what ends up being one of the most compelling thrillers of the last few decades.

Frailty, the directorial debut by actor Bill Paxton, is an underrated gem that at first glance almost appears as tame as an episode of Lassie- with a small Texas family just making ends meet but happy with the cards they've been dealt.

It's a dark, rainy night when Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into FBI headquarters and insists to speak to the lead agent, stating that he has pertinent information regarding the 'God's Hand Killer, a serial murderer eluding capture in the Dallas area. He claims the killer is his younger brother, Adam, and says he can prove it by showing the agent where the bodies are buried.  Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) at first thinks Fenton daft, but after listening to a few minutes of the improbable tale, he reconsiders.  And Fenton continues as we blast back to the past...

A father (Bill Paxton, whom we'll simply refer to as "Dad" because no name was given) is raising two young sons, Fenton (Matt O'Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), on his own after his wife died giving birth to the youngest.  For all intents and purposes, they seem like quite the content family, with older Fenton taking care of Adam while Dad is at work, then the three sit down at dinner and discuss their day.

All seems completely fine, and truly is.  Until one day Dad wakes the boys in the middle of the night and tells them a wild tale.  One of God's angels appeared to him in his bedroom and gave him instructions for the three of them.  From that day on, they will be awaiting orders from God - for they are "demon-hunters" and must kill the unruly demons that are pretending to be humans in their neighborhood and beyond.  Dad claims he will be able to touch these demons - to "lay hands on them" - and see the horrific crimes they have committed as demons. Additionally, God will send them a list of demons that have to be exterminated.

It's obvious without a word spoken than Fenton thinks his dad has flipped his lid.  Younger, more impressionable Adam has doubts but is willing to cast them aside because it's his daddy. And daddies are only there to protect you.  If God spoke to Daddy then whatever God said must be law.

Dad takes the demon-hunting venture very seriously, and waits for more word from God.  When God leads him to an old barn with an axe inside, it is a "sign".  He is soon buying a van with very few windows,  acquiring weapons by "angel-visions", and writing a list of people demons to destroy.  At first, time passes and Fenton thinks perhaps his father has forgotten about his quest.  But one night he wakes him and his brother up, showing them their first demon victim.  He lays his hands on the woman and apparently "sees" her sins.  Adam admits to seeing this as well, so Fenton believes Adam to be under the influence of his father and realizes he is on his own.  His father then murders the woman with the ax and they bury her in the town rose garden adjacent to their house.

Fenton is soon punished for being an unbeliever when his father makes him dig a giant hole so that they can move their shed over it and use it as a cellar-dungeon for the demons.  After the second victim is killed, Fenton can't take it any more and runs off to the town sheriff, who takes Fenton home and doesn't believe a word he said. When he finally agrees to look in the shed cellar, Fenton's father kills him, and then gets mad at Fenton for making him actually murder someone.  It's obvious he doesn't believe he has killed anyone before. This is when Fenton knows there is no hope.

When the film bounces back to real-time on occasion, we can feel the pain and hurt of the life that Fenton has lead. The truly agonizing decisions that have been made affected the entire family, and left his adult brother Adam with a gun at his temple, saying he couldn't take it anymore.  But there is more to the story that is best left unsaid.  Newcomers to this film need to experience this movie without knowing anything at all, like I did.  I first saw it many years ago and just recently revisited it.  I'd forgotten how powerful it is.

Part of where this picture succeeds is the absolute believability of the father's fanatic character.  Paxton does such an excellent job portraying a man that has lost all sense of reality and right and wrong, believing that he has a job to do set upon him by a higher power, and he feels great pride in knowing God has chosen his family for this task. Equally as impressive is Matt O'Leary as young Fenton. As he grapples with knowing his father is bat-shit crazy, he also struggles with his own sense of right and wrong and exactly how he is going to stop his dad from continuing to murder innocent people. And of course, Matthew McConaughey as adult Fenton is very comfortable in these kinds of dark roles, and seems to pull credibility out of his back pocket on a regular basis.  He's great here as well, and it's easy to see how he got such rave reviews for True Detective - he's been perfecting his dark side for years.

Religious horror is often unnerving and always chilling, and films like this just drill that point home. It's because in the real world, there is so much wrong with religion - so many wars started and acts of terror and violence in the name of God or Allah or whomever is the chosen deity - that it makes it hard to see how religion is there to comfort and soothe us and bring us peace.  It's a rarity.

All in all, Paxton's direction is as first-rate as his acting, and when the film comes together for its final act, which is perhaps a tad predictable but nonetheless shocking, it's easy to place it among the best of thrillers, a psychological mind-boggler of the very best kind.  Seek this out, by all means.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dark Arts: Sam Wolfe Connelly

"ABOVE MY FLOORBOARDS"
~by Marie Robinson

Art is inspiring. A painting turns a solid wall into a window—even a portal—into another world. In the Dark Arts series, the worlds are dark and unusual, and maybe even disturbingly familiar. They are realms of shadow, madness, violence and ethereal beauty. Indulge with me in our featured artist of the month.

Today we are highlighting Sam Wolfe Connelly, an artist from NYC whose worlds are haunted by strange and beautiful women.

His work has been featured in galleries all over the United States, and in a dozen different publications. He has done covers for Night Shade Books (Hitchers by Will McIntosh), Evil Ink Comics (The Amory Wars), Penguin Books (Love Stories by Ludmisha Petrushevska) and has illustrated stories for Tor.com.

Connelly’s oil paintings capture nocturnal visions of ghosts, witches, murderers, and some creatures we don’t have names for. They take place in shadow-veiled woods and old, dark houses. A few of his pieces appear like flash photography, and give one the sense that this moment—now captured—was never meant to be seen. It is tempting to get lost in the places Connelly creates, but be warned that once entered, one will not come out the same.

You can view all of Sam Wolfe Connnelly’s artwork at his website, HERE.


"AUTUMN WINDOW"

"PENNYSQUISHERS"

"THIS OLD HOUSE"

"UMBRA"

"WHAT LIES IN MAINE"




"BAT RIDER"  (editor's favorite!)

Monday, September 15, 2014

One Hour Photo (2002): Robin Williams At His Creepiest Best

 Since the untimely death of Robin Williams, it seems all we are left with is the plethora of films he made and the never-ending question of why.  How could something like this have happened?  And while I'm not going to get all philosophical about this tragedy I have to admit it has left me with more questions than answers. 

But it has also left me with a great deal of thanks to him for brightening my days with laughter and for making me think a little bit when he turned on the drama.  While films like Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting showed us his vast dramatic acumen, there are other films of his that showcased his complex talent for bringing emotion to life on the screen.  

One of these overlooked gems is One Hour Photo. 

Sy Parrish is a middle-aged photo tech at a big box chain store (think Wal Mart) called Savmart.  On the surface, Sy seems like your ordinary store clerk, just trying to get through his day so he can get home to the wife and kids.  But look deeper.  You soon learn that Sy leads a pretty pathetic life, a solitary existence in which he is more likely to heat up a tv dinner for supper and sit around watching reruns of Barney Miller.  There is no wife. There are no kids.  There's not even a cat.  Unfortunately, Sy is more reclusive and introverted than you think.  He is also one fry short of a happy meal. His job at Savmart is all he lives for.  Well, that and the Yorkin family. 


The Yorkins, Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen) and their nine year old son Jake (Dylan Smith) are Sy's favorite customers.  He lets them know this when they come to the Savmart but not in an overly obvious way.  He takes their order and comments on things that happen in their lives, even going as far as to give Jake a "free" throwaway camera for his birthday. 

But Sy takes it a bit further than that.  He lives vicariously through them as he develops all their photographs and secretly makes copies of each picture for himself. 


In one of the creepiest moments in the film, we see just what he is doing with all those photos.  He has wallpapered his entire wall with their lives.  The Yorkins remain unaware of Sy's psychological problems and when Nina and Jake often drop film off they make polite conversation and seem only mildly rattled when Sy seems to remember key elements of their lives, brushing it off by reminding them that he takes great pride in developing their pictures.  Jake even feels empathy for Sy, admitting that "Sy the photo guy" seems very sad and that he doesn't think he has anyone that loves him.


Sy attempts to involve himself matter-of-factly into their lives by doing things like showing up at the mall where Nina shops to run into her and chat, buying Jake a toy he notices him admiring, and happening upon Will in the hardware department of the store to see if he can help him even though it's not his section.   He implants himself gregariously, even imagining scenarios in which he enters their home and is showering, making dinner, and watching television until the Yorkins get home and time stops - and then they laugh and joke with "Uncle Sy".  It's all very unsettling when you realize just how sad and potentially alarming Sy's behavior is. 


When Sy develops some photos which show Will and another woman very obviously having an affair, this sends Sy over the deep end - and that is when things get scary.  Sy begins to envision scenarios in which he confronts Will, and even easily sets it up so that Nina gets her hands on the incriminating photos.  Meanwhile, Sy's work suffers and his boss (played with flavor by Gary Cole) notices the photo count is way off base.  Questioning him about where all the extra photos are, he ends up firing him when Sy denies taking the pictures. 

When Sy finally snaps, it is the same time that the police become involved, leading to a show-down of sorts that goes in unexpected ways you won't see coming.  There is nothing loud or demonstrative about this film, but its quiet doom is malignant.  



Robin Williams was a true talent, and is no different here.  His Sy is so incredibly unnerving - so foreboding, that it almost feels possible to understand how someone could be depressed enough to do something completely out of sorts.  If I'd have seen this film before Williams' suicide, I think I'd have felt the same way, but this is such a clear picture of a desperately lonely man that it almost feels like I took a peek into reality - and what I saw was melancholy, somber, and most of all troubled.  I don't want to say that Robin Williams was able to easily emulate the character of Sy because of his own growing despondency, but in watching One Hour Photo, it is there.  It is just....there.  I would like to choose to believe he's just that good of an actor....but everyone puts a little bit of themselves into a role.   Here, it felt like a lot.  

Regarding the film, whether or not it showcased true emotions peeking through is not for me to say.  What I will say is that this is a great movie about a very lonely individual who let the lines of reality blur, causing him to shatter his existence as he knew it and fade into someone else's life.  It's a portrait of depression, isolation, and heartache whose final act only lays bare these facts:  there are people out there that no matter how kind you are to them, they are not living based in reality - and someday they are going to crack.  We just need to either be aware and try to help, or stay the hell out of their way before they turn into a sociopath. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

THE ORIGINALS: Missing True Blood? Try This Captivating Vampire Series On For Size!

Disappointed that True Blood has ended?  Looking for some more vampire action?  Then it's possible The Originals will be right up your alley.  A series spin-off from the CW's The Vampire Diaries, The Originals bears some similarities to its relative, but mostly in crossover characters who make the transition to a more,  if I may be so bold, adult series.  Most of the characters here are adults - ancients to be exact.
The Originals are exactly what the name implies:  THE originals.  Ancient vampires who were the first of their kind, created centuries ago by a witch mother anxious to save her children from death.  The Mikaelson family currently consists of five siblings, three of which factor heavily into the plot-lines of The Originals:

Klaus (People's Choice Award Winner for Favorite Actor in a new series, Joseph Morgan) showed up first on TVD, wreaking havoc in Mystic Falls.  He is a very powerful, VERY headstrong hybrid (half vampire, half werewolf) due to an affair his witch mother had with a werewolf.  He returns to New Orleans seeking to reclaim his power and control over the city, all the while trying to protect his unborn child - a product of his own coupling with a werewolf - Hayley (Phoebe Tonkin).  To gain control of the city he will need to thwart the domination his former protégé, the very sexy yet fierce Marcel (Charles Michael Davis) has over all the supernaturals and humans alike in NOLA.

Elijah (Daniel Gillies) also first showed up on TVD, attempting to keep a tight leash on the destructive and murderous plans of his younger brother Klaus.  If a vampire can be amicable and mellow, Elijah is the closet to that that you'll find.  He had a generally peaceful relationship with the Salvatore brothers and especially Elena from TVD.  He still found time to be a vampire though, and when the Mikaelsons trekked to New Orleans to set up shop, Elijah spends much of his time keeping Klaus out of trouble and the rest of his siblings unharmed. He develops a fondness for werewolf Hayley, causing a further rift between the brothers.

Rebekah Mikaelson (Claire Holt) is the only sister of the vampire clan and because of various insecurities, is quite cruel and spiteful.  Nonetheless, she continues to have a soft spot for her brothers and follows them to New Orleans.  This develops into a serious problem when she rekindles an old flame with Marcel.  The two were lovers a few centuries ago, but family ties and loyalties forced them apart.  She is eager to help keep Hayley and her unborn child safe, yet desires the power the family previously had over the city.

When you factor in a coven of witches, more vampires and werewolves than you can shake a (sharp) stick at, and some plain 'ol humans to up the ante, you've got an entertaining show rife with violence, battles between good and evil (and evil & evil, natch!), romance, and of course, a whole lot of bloodshed.  

The Originals: Season One (from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group) was just released on DVD Sept. 2 and awards us with not only the entire 22-episode season, but with some great special features, including 5 new featurettes - one of which details the origins of creating the spin-off series and another which lends more light on the Mikaelson family's complicated back-story. Of course it has commentary, deleted scenes, and also boasts some highlights from the 2014 PaleyFest!  You have just enough time to binge watch the entire series before its Season Two premiere on Monday, October 6.  I really have to say this DVD is an awesome package and you won't be disappointed.

The Originals is the CW's #2 show (after The Vampire Diaries) among adults and it's easy to see why - if you're looking for some escapism from the grueling banality of day-to-day life, and/or you're missing True Blood  like the devil, you owe it to yourself to pick up this DVD (better yet, get the Blu-Ray combo pack and see these guys in the highest definition available!) and settle in for a wild ride.

Just so you know, it's not necessary to have watched The Vampire Diaries to start watching this show.  It stands alone with its own mythology and story-lines. It's super-sexy while still staying true to vicious and savage vampire lore.
I'm psyched for Season Two!  Get sucked in!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Blue Ruin (2013) : Just Take My Word For It, See This Film.

Blue Ruin is one of those films that speaks volumes without saying a word.  I had heard about this movie through word of mouth only.  I don't think it had a huge marketing campaign.  I haven't heard any of the lead actors' names before.  Its various posters were nondescript and didn't really tell you a lot.  I knew it was "some kind of thriller" but read somewhere that it was better if you knew nothing about it going in. 
These are the kinds of films I want to watch - ones I seek out because I don't know a damn thing about them then one day they just pop up on my radar.

I would have to admit it's one of the better films I've seen all year, and it will be tough to beat.

Nothing in the first few minutes of the film screams "WATCH ME!", but perhaps that is for the best.  We are shown a disheveled, unkempt, drifter-type wandering about the beach, squatting in homes when people are away or at work, digging through dumpsters for food, living out of his car and basically looking like the first five minutes of a Criminal Minds episode in which you know something bad is going to happen to this bum.  But on closer inspection, Dwight (Macon Blair) appears lost. His eyes have a sense of personal wreckage in them. Something unspeakable has happened to this man to plunge him into this life of vagrancy. There is such a vibe of utter defeat coming from Dwight, you know he has been emotionally destroyed.  But why? And how?
Macon Blair
Macon Blairappears lost, somehow.  Not in the physical sense, but in the emotional sense.  His eyes show a sense of personal wreckage. Something unspeakable has already happened to Dwight to plunge him into this life of vagrancy. 

When the town cop knocks on his car door one morning and escorts him to the station, we soon realize she is not bringing him downtown to arrest him.  She has brought him in so someone could be with him when he gets the news.  She hands him a newspaper and by the look in Dwight's eyes you know the shit has just hit the fan.  Dwight has just been informed that the man who murdered his parents is being released from prison.

And because we have realized at this point that this is going to be a revenge film, we become anxious if not eager to see Dwight rectify this situation in whichever way he deems appropriate.  But what can a man of little means accomplish?  Well, he attempts to steal a gun without success and ends up procuring a knife. He then waits....outside the prison gates, watching as Wade Cleland walks out of jail and into his family's waiting arms.  Dwight follows them to deadbeat bar and soon makes his way inside, finding Wade in the restroom.  The two struggle but Dwight is able to stab Wade in the neck and then the temple, effectively killing the murderer and leaving one hell of a mess.

Unfortunately in the heat of the moment, Dwight runs out but forgets his car keys inside the bar. Forced to steal the Cleland family's car (which is a limo for whatever reason).  He heads for his estranged sister's house but meets her in the driveway.  The two are soon sharing lunch and Dwight breaks down, admitting he has killed Wade.  Turns out his sister ends up quite happy that the man who killed her parents is dead, which only brings Dwight to the realization that the Cleland's haven't went to the police. She didn't know.  It's not on the news. No one is aware. Meaning they have decided on retribution on their own terms.  He urgently orders his sister and her family out of town, shaves off his scraggly beard, cleans up, and looks like a sixth-grade teacher when all is said and done.  He looks up an old high school pal who obviously has access to a whole pile of guns, and settles in for the long haul, awaiting the Cleland's attempt at revenge.

To call what happens from here a cat and mouse chase would be downplaying the fierce, tension-filled drama that unfolds at a steady pace. There is absolutely nothing unnecessary or gratuitous here.  Everything that is done, is done for a reason that is utterly cohesive with the plot. When watching it, you feel like (as my husband so correctly stated) "this shit could really happen".  It feels real.  It feels like the nightly news. Dumb mistakes are made on both ends by both parties. People forget their keys.  People do stupid things without thinking first. The violence is hard-core at times but completely legit.  Yes, that is what it looks like when you blow part of someone's head off.  Yes, most of the time things are not resolved without violence.  Life is not tied up in a pretty little bow. 

Seeing just how completely the past tragedy in Dwight's life has made him fall into his own ruin is at heart, the most compelling theme in this excellent film. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier knows just how far to pull the emotional strings here, so that we almost feel a sense of pride in Dwight's choices.  Murder should never be the answer, of course, but when we are forced between the proverbial rock and a hard place, sometimes you just have to actually throw the rock.  Dwight struggles with his choices, and we struggle along with him, all the while hoping things will work out for him in the end.   Revenge is never pretty stuff, and the stark reality of actually killing someone and living with the consequences are never more blatantly clear than within this first-class character study of regret and vengeance.