15 April 2014

Machine Gun Preacher

Rousing Machine Gun Preacher Slightly Hampered by Its Own Weight
By Kristin Battestella

I was eager to see this 2011 true telling of the eponymous minister Sam Childers and his mission work in Africa. Though heavy hitting and powerful in its spiritual tale and in shining the light on children’s plights, Machine Gun Preacher has a little too much to do in showing its multi layered story and somewhat hinders its potent performances.

Biker Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is released from prison and returns to his criminal ways despite wife Lynn’s (Michelle Monaghan) turn to religion. Childers eventually comes to faith himself and after success in his construction business, builds a church for other reformed men like himself and best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon). Upon hearing of mission work in Uganda and orphans amid the Lord’s Resistance Army strife in the war-ravaged Sudan, Childers goes to Africa to help despite the ups and downs it creates with his own family. When the foundations of his hospitals, schools, and orphanage are threatened and damaged by the regime, Childers uses his weaponry knowledge to defend the frightened and maimed children in his care.

A violent 2003 Sudanese village attack with upsetting images of women and child injustices sets the scene for this biopic before introducing us to the titular biker and would be minister Sam Childers. Director Marc Forster’s (Quantum of Solace) pace, however, is somewhat confusing as we go back thru the years and meet Childers fresh out of jail and immediately deep into his old life of drugs and guns. Robbery, stabbings, shooting up – regardless of the criminal activity, the uneven editing or intercutting is heady one moment and then too slow or tame like a Y2K TV movie from the period Machine Gun Preacher depicts. The transition from underworld debauchery to church going also happens too quickly, increasing the subsequent reckless or violent feelings instead of the about the man inspiration. With or without religion, audiences love films with strong redemptive characters brought low only to overcome. With its bland look, haphazard, and armed debate, however, Machine Gun Preacher looses the resonance of its tender, reforming salvation story. Instead of a rushed twenty minutes, one could do an entire movie on such an uplifting character arc, but the only way to tell such transformative time is speedily passing in Machine Gun Preacher is through Childers’ Rapid Soap Opera Aging daughter. Decide to be a righteous war epic or a quiet personal piece – the mishmash of battle desolate and dangerous or scary scenes don’t always hit home as they should because of Machine Gun Preacher’s indeterminate structure and timeline crunch. Understandably, when a film is based on real life questions this sort of struggle to properly dramatize events can happen – with such a two sided, dual tale of one man, this material was always going to be compromised in its telling. Would Machine Gun Preacher have been an even finer picture had it abandoned the true story narrative and streamlined choice cinematic events for a completely fictionalized account? Perhaps.

Fortunately, the story gets better as it goes on thanks to the honest baptism scene and spirituality treated as factual, natural, and realistic even amid Childers’ human struggles and imperfection. This newfound faith isn’t handled as overly lofty, magically montaged, or even filmed artistically or highbrow. This is a man trying to do well for himself and his family as finances, work, and recovery troubles mount. Childers sells his motorcycle, gives blood for money, let’s toss in a tornado just to really test a man’s resolve before the carpentry business succeeds! Granted, the symbolism is obvious at times – the family starts in a distant choir loft and the next minute they are sitting in the front pew – and again, the story seems uneven since Childers’ life changing conversion isn’t the primary focus of Machine Gun Preacher but rather a background catalyst for his causes in Sudan. That being the case, then the film takes half of its two hour plus runtime for the real titular action to happen. Machine Gun Preacher restarts its tale once Childers gets to Africa, and he asks questions about the LRA so the audience is updated on the disturbing war injuries and landmine consequences. This reset is tough to pull off, yes, but who can quibble when kids are asking what they did wrong to be so attacked? No shocks are withheld, and once we hear Childers speak on his mindset, details, and cause, the story grows deeper and more personal. The possibility of one person doing good is relatable compared to the angering, snotty, uncaring rich folk refusing to fund the desperate, maimed, and destitute children. Machine Gun Preacher gets heavy and asks some tough, gray questions despite an unrefined script from newcomer Jason Keller (Mirror Mirror). Is some of the ambiguity, language, or blood played too safe at times so Childers can show a slightly re-cut version of Machine Gun Preacher in his ongoing work? Maybe. However, Hollywood would have made Machine Gun Preacher a 90 minute feel good movie – a sweet, badass looking action picture with a clear line in the sand, black hat wearing villains, and heroes on white horses easily defined in total rah rah rah.

Of course, Machine Gun Preacher must also rise upon its lead actor, and Gerard Butler certainly looks badass a top a motorcycle! His rough get up is cool, matching the slicked back hair, rocking beard, biker build, sleeveless arms, and husky voice. Naturally, he’s chewing on an American accent, but Butler does get some of the nearby inflections right and it lends an authenticity to Machine Gun Preacher. His look also noticeably changes through the film – Butler cleans up nice as Childers cleans up nice before ultimately switching to some militant swag. It’s also downright refreshing to hear Butler bandy over serious dialogue and dramatic delivery in such a serious role. Family man Childers does his best, works hard, and helps his friend back from the brink, and Butler hammers, digs, and builds in excellent physical embodiment of Childers’ determination. Childers does start Machine Gun Preacher as unlikeable, trashed, and disheveled to parallel his drug shooting, misogynistic demeanor. He’d rather his wife be a moneymaking, hard drinking stripper instead of an honest factory worker, and again, the fast moving timeline slightly compromises his positive changes. The viewer sees him get on the up by his home, family, and business one minute yet he’s running off to save Africa the next. Childers speaks powerfully at an under construction church but then jets off again to build an orphanage. The spiritual transformation is superficial or full force as needed, and though it’s apparent that he’s just looking for a crusade to occupy the void of his previous wild activities, Butler makes us believe Childers must do something about the big picture. Gerry’s likeable earnest is the best part of Machine Gun Preacher, yet we don’t immediately think of him for this kind of part thanks to his badass action yarns or crappy romantic comedies. He is on his game in driving Machine Gun Preacher and this may in fact be his best immersion of character since 300. This isn’t an ogle Gbuttz movie for sure, but its Gerard frickin no fear Leonidas Butler at a pulpit – we want him to succeed. Machine Gun Preacher proves he can make some damn fine movies when he wants to do so. Not only has he actually done work with charities in Africa, but if Butler did turn to doing somber, artful good movies or produced topical films all the time, Lord have mercy! His only problem is that no one is watching these quality pictures.

While Butler is giving his all in Childers’ quest to save orphans, that uneven writing and Machine Gun Preacher’s unanswered questions hamper the zest and the story’s opportunities for more. Butler doesn’t shy away from the difficult choices gnawing at one’s core and shows the crisis of faith and its extremes – from the tenderness, uplift, and inspiration to the one drink away from destroying the mind, body, and soul. Unfortunately, such heavy, often too close to home concepts are not for entertainment value, and the audience of Machine Gun Preacher is left with an uncomfortable, tough emptiness instead of closure. Childers certainly goes off the deep end at times – wouldn’t you? How do you choose which orphans to help if there are too many and you can’t save them all? Do you just not try? Why continue this losing battle at the expense of your own family, mortgaging their livelihood, selling your business, and missing your daughter’s life? Is it Childers’ place to play white savior in Sudan? Is he helping, hurting, or interfering? It’s easy to root for Childers when he is doing actual ministry at home or abroad. However, his physically taking up arms in renegade salvation will negate his mission for some viewers. Machine Gun Preacher makes some confusing statements, and Childers’ killing of others – sometimes tragically forced militant kids – to save the lives of other orphans can certainly lead to a spiritual dispute. One has to defend one’s ministry. We ought to defend the sanctity of all houses and homes needing protection– but with rocket launchers? Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t present this debate very well yet adds some shame rousing on top. He’s doing something to help others, but what are you doing? We like Butler. Upon hearing his stirring pleas for funds, you want to know to whom you make out the check! We never get the sense that this movie is a big advertising campaign for Childers’ ongoing missions, but had this hot button material honed in its riveting statement to match Butler’s presence, Machine Gun Preacher could have been a controversial success instead of an obscure church movie.

True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan also falls prey to spousal clichés in Machine Gun Preacher as Lynn Childers. She found religion and changed her tune while Childers was in prison, but we see too little of her strife as she supports him thru the worst and the best. The back and forth is both girl of gold and a thankless part – she tells her man he has God’s purpose and he needs to build again while on the phone and pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store. Their relationship onscreen seems all about him instead of them or her and any happy understandings or uneasy rough patches they may endure. Monaghan has excellent moments when push comes to shove between cause and family, yet she’s almost painted in a bad light if she contests Childers’ Sudan glory. Does a wife have the right to draw the line on family when he is doing such good for others? Likewise, Michael Shannon’s (Boardwalk Empire) drug dealing biker pal Donnie is immediately dislikeable as a mocking enabler and we unfortunately don’t get to see all of his touching recovery thru Childers’ help. Of course, that jump over a critical character turn doesn’t stop him from becoming the underused but typical brotherly and sacrificial best friend. Kathy Baker (Picket Fences) as Childers’ mom Daisy also has next to nothing to do in Machine Gun Preacher – I don’t recall her even speaking onscreen! Although she’s apparently a lovely upstanding lady, it’s never explained how her son turned into a prison going bad biker, either. Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote) as daughter Paige fairs slightly better only because her point that Childers cares more about his cause then her is a very valid one. Several spotlight Sudanese child characters such as newcomer Junior Magale and soldiers Souleyman Sy Savane (Goodbye Solo) and Mduduzi Mabaso (Blood Diamond) also provide an innocent but no less sophisticated and much needed counter balance on how to let hate go and not let cruelty change your heart. They put a face to the mission but should have been better focused soundboards for Childers instead of leaving Machine Gun Preacher as a patchy one-man vehicle. Solid emotional scenes from the ensemble and questions from aid worker Jessica Joffe (And It Was Good) on mercenary motivation versus humanitarian aide or killing for the right reasons reflect the viewers’ ethical questions and help deter Machine Gun Preacher from lapsing into its one sided storytelling crutch.  

Although Machine Gun Preacher has no major fancy camerawork interfering with the tale and the story is generally allowed to speak for itself from scene to scene, it nonetheless feels that a production finesse or punch is lacking here. The straightforward independent style looks undynamic or standard; dark nighttime photography and firelight make it tough to see who is who amid the battle action logistics. However, the crappy early 2000s cars, trailers, and South Africa filming locations are both lovely to see and fittingly bleak or harsh. The good old-fashioned split level rancher interior filming is also not congested but realistic compared to studios and sets. Would Machine Gun Preacher be more polished and a deeper, complex tale if it had focused solely on either Childers’ transformation or his African campaign? A fully dramatized mini series or episodic length not beholden to the back and forth could build the transformation, business struggles, difficulties at home, ministry, crisis, and wartime in an extended, worthwhile, if depressing presentation. The end credits contain words about ongoing mission work and real photos of The Childers Family, yet Butler’s larger than life presence almost isn’t enough to tide Machine Gun Preacher’s often polarizing double design and pacing flaws.

The inconsistent faith questions, divisive action, and zooming timeline will be polarizing, even aggravating because the audience keeps thinking of the film Machine Gun Preacher should have been rather than the picture it is. For some viewers, something more inspirational will be missing from Machine Gun Preacher thanks to its real life meandering, but then again, this isn’t an indulgent re-watch nor does it shy away from the ugly humanitarian struggles in its heavy viewing. There are not for faint of heart scenes that will have even the most hardened audience holding its breath and gasping regardless of the man’s man physicality and action edge. Yes, Machine Gun Preacher has its ups and downs in getting itself straight, yet I’m surprised this too zealous and not zealous enough picture with such controversial potential limped away from the box office with only $1million to its name and has gone so unnoticed by, well, everyone. The unexpectedly fine performances, touching moments, and relevant issues in Machine Gun Preacher are worthy of discussion, perhaps even in some churches or schools. Hampered as is, Machine Gun Preacher should not be so easily dismissed, for its stirring, spiritual pondering is most definitely worth a look.

07 April 2014

James Bond Documentaries!

Real World Documentaries on the Fictional James Bond!
By Kristin Battestella

If there’s one thing more magical than analyzing Bond onscreen, then it’s analyzing the analysis of others analyzing Bond onscreen!  So here’s a session of Bondian non fiction and documentaries to delve deeper into Her Majesty’s fictitious Service.

Biography: Daniel Craig – From his first school plays, maternal support, and theatre work to edgy independent fair such as Love is the Devil and successful Hollywood turns in Road to Perdition and Layer Cake, this 2007 episode of the long running series illumes the decade of thespian work before Craig’s coveted casting as the first blonde Bond. While it’s great to see childhood photos and early snaps of the handsome young actor, the zooming, panning, angled, and spinning photos can be annoying as they continuously repeat and fill the 45-minute TV time. Of course, most of the 21st century Biography shows play more like hip, gossipy, entertainment newsbeats instead of the program’s traditional, seemingly official, or sanctioned sit down interview and intimate revelation with the subject. Instead, snippets from other Craig interviews pre and post Bond, chats with old school teachers, and commentary from celeb columnists make for a somewhat awkward presentation. A showbiz reporter informing on Craig’s first marriage, famous girlfriends, daughter, and extreme privacy against intrusive tabloids feels illegitimate – if industry reporters are talking about how he doesn’t often grant interviews or ignores media fodder and he didn’t consent to an interview with Biography…yeah, whoopsie! Short clips from Craig’s early films and television that international audiences may not have seen do much better in showing the actor’s talent, versatility, and penchant for heavy scene chewing material. The popcorn narrator doesn’t paraphrase Barbara Broccoli’s decision on choosing Craig as Bond until the final fifteen minutes, but the encapsulation of the challenging transition and becoming accepted as 007 is interesting to see in retrospect again now. It’s nowhere near all encompassing on Craig’s life and career, no – this episode seems to have more of everyone else but him! Indeed, I’d like to see a new, real Biography conversation someday with The Man Himself reflecting on his Bond tenure, yet fans new to the franchise or Craig’s work can get a quick summary here before diving into his varied filmography for complete Craig appreciation.

Bond Girls Are Forever – Maryam D’Abo hosts this retrospective hour on “The Women of James Bond” with an honest, globe trotting, and fun approach fitting to this fanciful, exclusive club. Footage of each lady in her respective Bond film looks great alongside new intimate conversations on Their Man James and what it means to be a Bond Girl from Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Luciana Paluzzi, Jill St. John, Jane Seymour, Maud Adams, Lois Chiles, Carey Lowell, Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry, and Rosamund Pike. Non traditional 007 gals like Judi Dench as M and Samantha Bond as Moneypenny also have their say, and updated editions of this 2002 video include thoughts from Eva Green, Caterina Murino, Gemma Arterton, Naomie Harris, and Berenice Marlohe. Of course, this isn’t exhaustive with every gal in every Bond movie, and understandably, some foreign ladies or retired gals perhaps did not wish to appear. Although this leaves little reflection on From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, A View to a Kill, Goldeneye, and The World is Not Enough, we can forgive absentees of note such as Diana Rigg, Barbara Bach, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Tanya Roberts, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Sophie Marceau, and Denise Richards. Pity also there’s no outside canon conversation with Kim Basinger, but the major loves and villainesses here give unique cross coverage on the fame, notoriety, expectations, career help or hindrance, and where are they now comparisons. Serious issues on the sexism of Bond then and now, the feminism movement, and the over the top damsel or bitch caricatures are debated as well. This isn’t specifically a classic look or by Bond focus, but the chronological order and clips from all the 007 pictures go along well with the multiple re-releases and companion book. Besides, it’s just dang fun to see how these ladies have only gotten better with age.


Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of James Bond – World War II background, lovely post war period footage, and Jamaican home videos inform on Bond creator Ian Fleming’s literary tenacity to start this 2012 hour and a half detailing the history behind the beloved spy. From the earliest, struggling Jimmy Bond adaptations and difficulties in establishing the titular Eon Productions to interviews with Christopher Lee, Fleming family and friends, Barbara Broccoli, the Saltzman family, and Michael G. Wilson, this documentary has a lot of history to cover! Archive footage of Fleming and Cubby Broccoli supplement the hesitation over choosing Sean Connery as Bond and finding the right production team with Maurice Binder and John Barry before the fame, franchise heights, cast fallouts, and more. Quotes from John F. Kennedy, voiceovers with Connery, and more conversations with Maud Adams, Judi Dench, Bill Clinton, Famke Janssen, Rosmund Pike, and Sam Mendes read like a who’s who, and of course, we have retrospectives with 007 men George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. Whew! Indeed, this feels a little too action movie fast paced as it intercuts and jumps between Bond footage. The time here isn’t a sentimental reflective documentary going deep with Fleming’s genesis, but some film details are skipped over in favor of the bitter, decades long Kevin McClory drama. Thanks to a playing it safe lack of depth beyond how these court cases broke Fleming’s health, viewers who don’t know the franchise’s history may not fully grasp the scale and legal issues created by McClory’s claims. Time is much better spent on the Lazenby switch, trouble between Broccoli and Saltzman in Moore’s early era, Dalton’s darker take on 007, Brosnan’s waits in landing the role, and 21st century refocus with Craig.  Despite the title, there’s a lot more of the basics then what’s untold – an entire series of documentaries could be done with the story of this franchise. A telefilm per actor, an episode on Fleming, one on Thunderball and the Battle of the Bonds with Never Say Never Again – the billion dollar interest can support it! There are a few pacing hiccups, sure, but ultimately, this nostalgic look serves its purpose in getting both newcomers and longtime audiences hankering for a viewing marathon.

The Real Story: James Bond – The Smithsonian Channel presents this 2009 45 minutes debating how much fact is actually in Ian Fleming’s spy fiction. Did Bond embody his creator’s womanizing and addictive ways? What about those real life secret service efforts and AU commandos orchestrated by Fleming? Expert interviews discuss the literary action, plot formulas, and sexism on the page and how they encapsulated Fleming’s own military life, travels, and espionage experience. Real life card game encounters and officers who would become M inspirations had their twists in Casino Royale while enigma decoding plans become From Russia with Love’s premise, but what wartime heroes could have suggested the 007 character? Was Bond the author’s wish fulfillment or something darker and misogynistic? Through expensive tastes and real world expertise, Fleming used his history and the Cold War topics of the time to draft the perfect fantasy spy for a post war UK still looking for heroes. The segment on fantastic wartime gadgetry, real gyrocopters, and defecting spies becomes a little out of place since the majority of the time here plays more like a Fleming biopic than something about Bond or the film franchise. The re-enactments and narration hyperbole are a bit much at times, and the questions raised sound so overly serious or faux scandalous amid otherwise tender and fresh family angles and period footage. These numerous possibilities, theories, and offshoots on how Bond came to be are nothing new in themselves, and the presentation could have been exclusively about Fleming by going deeper into his exhaustive book pace and it’s increasing tired and ill tasking upon his health. Fortunately, literary purists will like the brief graze upon the films, and the fiction comparisons and digging deep into life imitating art is always interesting to see.

And just in case you’re curious, no, I still haven’t gone through all the multitude of features on the Bond 50: The Complete Film Collection blu-ray box set, tee hee. 

02 April 2014

A Ghostly Film List!

Ghostly Film Delights!
By Kristin Battestella

Phantoms, spirits, ghosts, and the supernatural – who doesn’t love a good old haunted house tale, ghost story, or bump in the night scare? Regardless of if you spell it spectre or specter, don’t take in these apparition accounts alone! 

The Conjuring –Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Patrick Wilson (Insidious) lead this 2013 possession thriller along with Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under). Although some of the cast may seem a bit too modern and it’s tough to tell the kids apart at times, the 1968 beginning has the fashions, feeling, and creepy dolls for immediate atmosphere. No attempted cool opening credits waste time – the opening crawl explaining the true story basis and Warren demonology casework does just fine before the 1971 station wagons, old TV static, home movie reels, and ominous music accent the main Perron tale. Granted, there is always a hardened dad, nobody pays attention to the dog’s warnings, the clocks all stop at the same time, and they go into the previously boarded up basement! The Warrens also seem fake and over confident to start, withholding information amid a slightly uneven back and forth establishment of the Perron haunted house period Poltergeist meets Ghost Hunters Warren family relationships. Fortunately, the plots and sympathies come together amid foggy lakes, eerie wide camera lens perspectives, uneasy upside down pans, creaking doors, and sleepwalking kids – that’s a creepy blindfolded and clapping game they play! The editing on the jump moments from director James Wan (Saw) is surprisingly subtle, startling the simmering audience at different times with different things and allowing for a personal build instead of in your face, all the time unfulfillment. Kids in peril, bodily bruises, excellent silence and darkness, heavy breathing, and over the shoulder fearful reveals keep the phenomenon intimate despite the old time research montage and cliché centuries old history. Most visual tricks happen in camera; the pacing focuses on fear and personal reaction even as complex, multiple occurrences mount thanks to an off kilter contrast, stillness, or action movement. Horror fans accustomed to recent under 90 minute standards may find the near two hours here long or too similar to classic supernatural fair, but the tension follows through from start to finish, progressing to a wild exorcism finale. 

Ghost Story –Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Patricia Neal, and a bewitching Alice Krige shine in this supernatural 1981 tale adapted from Peter Straub. Firelight, dangerous snowscapes, and perfect mood music accent the storytelling atmosphere, and cluttered old houses, period décor, quaint thirties charm, and a mysterious Victorian derelict anchor the classy old guard and their demented Chowder Society. Ghostly laughter, eerie sounds, old time elevators, and scares unseen until it’s too late match the hazy effects and dreamy style – keeping the viewer unsure but intrigued. Is this a dream, reality, guilt, or apparition? Granted, the plot isn’t faithful to its source, bad effects are humorous today, and some of the acting crazy is hokey. Those who don’t know the cast may also find it tough to tell who is who and be confused in putting the connections together. The unusual framing design and back and forth flashbacks add some humor and romance that may detract from the spooky tone, and wise horror viewers will spot the simplistic plot holes, too. However, it’s pleasing to see older protagonists deal with sudden shocks, death, sex, and mature topics while clashing over generational changes, phantoms, and longtime regrets. It’s both thrilling to see the jolly old school unravel and suspenseful to watch uncomfortable nudity and an ominous we don’t know what lingering over any seemingly happy times. We like our gent ensemble yet suspect the past illicit – thanks to the period settings and refined performances, the decades old scope and personal stakes have room to stand out even if this isn’t all that scandalous compared to contemporary tales with lots of gore, cults, and torture. The paranormal tone and gothic atmosphere are not super scary for the most part, yet there are some excellent, intense moments here along with a macabre little mystery and ghastly finish.

The House of the Seven Corpses – Cranky director John Ireland (Red River, All the King’s Men), the aptly named John Carradine (Bluebeard, The Grapes of Wrath) as creepy old man Edgar Price, and aging actress Faith Domergue (This Island Earth) star in this 1973 haunted house film within a film full of red decor, black candles, and color tinted photography. A creepy death reel further sets the gothic mood along with Outer Limits music, feline fears, and spooky old house bumps in the night. Who knew behind the scenes equipment, filmmaking troubles, seemingly innocent script incantations, and shooting in a haunted location held so many perils? The viewer is just waiting for a retractable knife switch a roo stabbing! The voices are tough to hear most of the time, but the light humor and snarky banter works because the ensemble knows they are making a scary movie – the wooden, fake filming and crappy scenes are a fun audience comfort before the real suspense and spine chilling scary mounts. Conflict amid the onscreen crew and production furthers the fears and shocks as the titular risings begin while plenty of great screams, twists, and ghoulish intensity keep the viewer invested even if we suspect how the scares will play out. Although the ending is somewhat unexpected, even abrupt because the house history is confusing and left unresolved thanks to some plot holes, this is still a bemusing, atmospheric 90-minute ride.

Lights Out – I like short films and wish they got more mainstream attention and recognition, but I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed something this short at under three minutes. I can talk longer than this is! However, director David F. Sandburg’s (Earth Savers, Ladyboy) winner of the Bloody Cuts Horror Challenge 2013 starring Lotta Losten got me. Not many purportedly scary films these days can capture this unseen suspense, the increasing infringement of the unknown in the sanctity of the home, bedroom, and childhood under the covers safety. How can you flight or fight when fear is coming to you? Sure, jaded viewers may balk at the lack of dialogue or motivations. Why not call a friend in the night? Leave? Lock the door? Scream! Perhaps the end isn't as fulfilling as the initial shocks that either glue you in for the topper or make you drop your precious mobile viewing device, either. The lighting, shadows, and design, however, are top notch, and we’ve all been there – thought we saw something in the dark or retreated at the paranormal possibility. This relatable hook and scares totally works. If bigger industry names or Hollywood studios don’t notice Sandburg and this smartly simplistic viral sensation, they should certainly take note at the taut tension and straightforward filmmaking. Is it easy to keep up this intensity at this short a sample? Sure. Was the minimal design required by the competition and an indie shoestring budget? Probably. But is this how modern horror should be done instead of all the in your face 3D mayhem, fluff, trite, and obnoxiousness? Yes.  View if you dare on Sandburg’s page here: http://vimeo.com/82920243.

But Not so Delightful…

The Ghosts of Hanley House – Great thunder, screams, fun sound effects, footsteps, shadows, ticking time, and chiming grandfather clocks set the mood of this 1968 black and white haunt. Objects moving by themselves, unseen chokes, and opening doors lay on the titular further along side antiques, séances, and creepy décor. Unfortunately, bad music, faux hep cat cool, dated dialogue, ridiculous up close shots, flawed editing, and wooden acting from the unknown cast hamper any chance this seemingly tired premise or its twist might have had. One can forgive low budget feelings, the dares to spend the night in a haunted house, the cliché old woman who knows the story, and the inexplicably psychic lady believer, sure. However, viewers can’t overcome the overlong 85 minutes, padded plot, and poor audio – it sounds like they are throwing their voices from off camera! The slow pace and stupid actions are too tough to enjoy, and the darkness or flashlights going off and on will be annoying to some. These lighting schemes ought to be eerie and effective, forcing the audience to look and listen for the ominous sounds and scary reveals. But sadly, the dry scripting and stilted cast ruin any atmosphere, and there’s almost no reason to care once we get to what should be a very fine kicker. Pity.

29 March 2014

The Counselor

The Counselor is Too Messy for Its Own Good.
By Kristin Battestella

In hopes of permanently financing his jet setting lifestyle and indulging his new fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), the eponymous Michael Fassbender turns to drug dealing businessman Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) to land the drug deal of all drug deals. Despite his conspirators’ warnings on how far in over his head he is, criminal coincidences with The Counselor’s current case Ruth (Rosie Perez), her Mexican cartel biker son The Green Hornet, and interference from Reiner’s wildcat girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) thrust The Counselor and all those around him into a dangerous, deadly game of cartel retaliation…

The Scripting

I finally settled in for a night with the theatrical cut of The Counselor, but this 2013 modern noir thriller from acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) is muddled with much too much trite and obviousness vaguely disguised as cerebral commentary. From the slow, awkward sex scene and chop shop drug action interspersed with the opening credits to the plodding pace, undynamic metaphors, and waxing philosophical characters, nothing much happens in The Counselor until the last forty minutes. No character back stories and motivations are revealed in the heavy handed script; the threats from the anonymous drug cartel come too late and pull the rug out from under the danger when people are not so unexpectedly killed. A critical kidnapping that should have been the genesis of the piece happens far too late in The Counselor, and the overlong, seemingly backward story doesn’t have much going for it beyond the disconnected and redundant dialogue vignettes. I can forgive the undercooked drug deal particulars – it’s refreshing that any action heist elements are nearly a beside the point MacGuffin. In fact, we don’t need any drug action scenes at all if The Counselor is meant to be a psychological interplay and character piece. Unfortunately, the point of view among the characters is all over the place, and anonymous thefts, deaths, and shootouts from characters named “The Wireman,” “The Young Man,” “The Blonde,” “The Priest,” “The Buyer,” “The Diamond Dealer,” and “The Chauffer” contribute to the unrefined, confusing flab. 

In a novel, the reader trusts that all between the layers will be revealed, but the surprisingly mundane style of The Counselor doesn’t guarantee anything for the audience. The viewer is given no emotional cause to continue, and even something as simple as a phone conversation accentuates this distance. These talks could be an excuse to play with the filmmaking style, editing, or visual cohesion – change the design for each caller or make each a linear uniformity. Instead, some phone calls are intercut, others are unheard on one end, and some pretentious soliloquies are listened to by those in the next room. Is this a quibble or an uneven media treatment indicative of the un-thought out cinematic design of The Counselor? Why is this stunning cast literally phoning in these stilted skits? This ensemble could sit in an empty room and read the dictionary for a wild time, yet their collective wow goes unrealized. Instead of hearing “Counselor” every few minutes, Fassbender’s lawyer should have no title. Make his thinking he’s the shit an intriguing subtly ala Layer Cake – just because he doesn’t know he’s crossed the line doesn’t mean the audience is so unaware. For all this wordiness, The Counselor doesn’t say very much. Religion versus sex? The drug business is a religion? Love is a beheading? These potential examinations, supposed shock values, and crime dangers don’t register with the audience because we aren’t given all the pieces until after the fact, if at all. Leaving things for the viewer to figure out is one thing, but plot holes and having your story take place at the wrong point in time are not highbrow. I didn’t expect The Counselor to be a standard, violent, action caper. I expected high drama and emotional depth but spent more time pausing, analyzing who was who, and wondering why I was wasting my time, for the answer to who was going to come out on top was so pathetically obvious compared to any emotional journey The Counselor or the audience is supposed to have.

The Fassbender

Speaking of that lawyer who’s called by his courtroom courtesy minute to minute, Michael Fassbender’s incompetent Counselor is apparent from the moment he doesn’t know which fancy diamond is which. If he were swindled on the gem, would he have even known? This over his head symbolism is given in the first fifteen minutes of a film that spends the rest of its run time repeatedly reiterating how in over his head The Counselor is. His head is under the covers, his head is between Laura’s legs, he presses a client about hats; this dude harbors a rainy cloud over his parade and everyone sees it but him. We get it. Why not show how this pedestrian lawyer came to love the high life? Let’s see him cross that unlawful line and greedy point instead of telling us nothing we don’t already know. We see his legalese job but once so the viewer can’t appreciate any shady underbelly contrast or allure. How does he know these crooks? Why are these drug dealers warning him so kindly if they pressed him to get so involved? The Counselor is a risky, unlikeable, untrustworthy protagonist who balks at his court appointed client. He wants to prove his power over his case, but in that swagger he ignores obvious clues to his undoing – like a speeding motorcyclist who was caught carrying $12,000. We don’t need to know his name. However, without any details beyond what a piss poor, unable to read people lawyer he is, The Counselor’s supposedly important relationship with Laura becomes unbelievable, insincere, and suspect. He didn’t mind putting her at risk when he was actively doing something nefarious, yet The Counselor grows scared once the cartel is coming after him because of Shakespearean coincidence? The criminal turns in which The Counselor finds himself will not surprise today’s audiences, and combined with the cliché outcome for this couple, there isn’t much else to deduce beyond the irony of him not knowing he’s in the proverbial horror movie patheticness. 

The Counselor is the first real misstep from the Oscar nominated Fassbender (Shame, Twelve Years A Slave, X-Men: Days of Future Past). With so shoddy a script, it’s as if The Counselor is supposed to get by on Fassbender’s seemingly charming portrayal of an overly asinine version of himself. He should be able to carry a gritty, despairing crime thriller on his own, but for a talented actor who usually slips so seamlessly into his character’s skin, Fassbender looks strangely uncomfortable and out of his element here – just like his character. His voice is slightly different, an in and out British or American accent changed from scene to scene regardless of jet setting location or his Bar association. We hardly spend enough time with Fassbender to enjoy the tailored Armani suits, strut, and cropped hair. He looks cool, but he’s trying too hard to be cool and over compensates with his chiseled ponder as The Counselor listens or ignores as needed. Is the point of The Counselor this hollow or weak register? Why would the viewer care if this shallow fool gets his comeuppance with no reflection on what has happened? The Sopranos would have dealt with this eponymous screw up by proxy a lot sooner! Will this whole episode break The Counselor, force him to live with what has happened or have him fall on his Roman sword? Did he really expect to get away with this escapade? The audience knows this is all his fault, but again, the story before and after the movie would have been more compelling to see. Fassbender gives his stunning best efforts in his final few scenes, but it’s simply too little too late to save The Counselor.

The Couple

Not only is it obvious she is pregnant despite the usual film trickery, but how is it possible to make Oscar winner Penelop Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) so seemingly juvenile, dense, and un-hot? The opening scene with Fassbender is not just not sexy, but laughable. “Touch me down there?” Seriously? For so verbose a script claiming to be so solemn and edgy, The Counselor tries to be scandalous without using any dirty words. Laura’s chemistry with The Counselor feels fake with a poor, high school-esque marriage proposal. If this relationship allegedly brings them both such purity and glee, then why does he think he must obtain wealth and go illegal for her? Yet again, the audience has no indication of her background or demand for such criminal desperation. Did the sweet, innocent, church going Laura escape from a cartel lifestyle? Is she poor? How did they meet? What’s this angel doing at the spa with the vixen Malkina ignorant how much her diamond ring cost? Laura is apparently made deliberately clueless of any crookedness and unheard during a ridiculously chaste phone sex scene, yet she knows how to quickly form a get out of Dodge plan when things hit the fan. Any emotional feel in The Counselor comes through Laura, but her motivation for being in this one sided, noticeably unhealthy relationship goes unexplained. Is she written as that dumb? Because Laura doesn’t get a free pass for being so duped, and the high price for her innocence is pitifully evident through the course of the film, again taking any shock and awe away from the viewer.  

Likewise, Cruz’s real life husband and fellow Oscar winner Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) is used and abused in what feels like a farce or parody performance. Why the wild hair? Why the esoteric over-analysis on how money makes women make the world go round? Sometimes this deal is good, but more often than not such loon for poon will come back to bite you in the ass? Who didn’t know this or already learned it the hard way? Reiner didn’t get his education from that car sex scene? Why prod The Counselor to get involved only to warn him he’s deathly in deep? Surely with that flashy style and party pad no one thinks Reiner is a legitimate businessman, but everyone in The Counselor is this same kind of talkative, philosophical friend with no real cause for such wisdom. Reiner’s talk of being scared by yet in love with Malkina practically gives the whole picture away – if it wasn’t already beaten over the audience’s head before the gynecology gone awry car encounter. He asks The Counselor what he’s going to do yet he keeps telling him what he should do and neither sees what’s right in front of them as clear as that sticky windshield. Why didn’t we see all this development action then? Why isn’t The Counselor showing us anything now? We meet all the characters at the wrong point in time. What happened before? What happens next? If you’re going to tell the viewer what we already know instead of showing us the genesis and the pathos of this tragedy, then why are we watching?

The Diaz

I know Cameron Diaz (Being John Malkovich, There’s Something About Mary) has Cuban ancestry and proper ethnic flavor is one of the few things The Counselor gets right. Unfortunately, Malkina speaks in riddles just to screw with people, her Spanish quips feel off kilter, and that iffy accent completes the edgy, trying too hard to be bad girl via Barbados miss. Why the cheetahs, cat print tattoos and clothes? One or two suggestions, sure, but too many caged, cat, wild, wildcat, pussy, and insatiable primal references beat the viewer over the head again in The Counselor. Why does Malkina want to corrupt Laura? How did they become friends? The forced, latent lesbian, supposedly sexy spa scene is not just awkward, but pointless – the viewer never sees these women together before or after the salon. Just because their men don’t see it, The Counselor doesn’t need these two women to briefly interact for the viewer to connect the saint and sinner contrast. Malkina’s embarrassing trip to the confessional tells us she’s bad, and she certainly says it enough, too. Attempts at either deflection or overselling her naughty – like the car scene and Reiner’s whipped nature – aren’t intimidating, tantalizing, or funny. Malkina dicks men over for her own gain, and The Counselor does everything but play Hall & Oats’ “Maneater” in the background. Diaz does her best, but the she’s so bad is laid on so over the top that any turnabout or surprise is compromised. Is something woman hating being said in all these men missing the catfish, too gynecological, hunter chewing up her prey ala vagina dente implications? Even if the audience somehow misses all these evident cat clues, are we supposed to be empowered by this femme fatale victory at the expense of the saintly woman cliché?  Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, sex, drugs, and rock n roll shrugs The Counselor.

The Pitt et al

Though it takes a half hour for Brad Pitt to appear, at least he gets to keep his own voice as Westray – because he’s Brad Pitt. Of course, more symbolism is hammered home in his white suit and cowboy hat style, and it becomes increasingly frustrating to watch The Counselor when yet another character is basically introduced to tell Mr. Titular the same thing as everyone else in similar cryptic, overlong soliloquy fashion. Honestly, it isn’t foreshadowing if you are in public talking about snuff films before a little old lady waitress. The moment these things are mentioned, they must occur. What’s a bolito you say? Why here it is, ba donk a donk. What little suspense in connecting the dots The Counselor gives is continually compromised by its lack of an emotional crux, and Westray is largely an unnecessary information dump of round about, Rube Goldberg, butterfly on a wheel giveaways. We only see Pitt in a handful of scenes, and with a few tweaks, this middleman character could have been removed without much further damage to the picture. Again, in written fiction, this sort of go to for the scoop financial source can come and go, but not in film. Likewise, budding it girl Natalie Dormer (The Tudors, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games) had one of her deleted scenes released for The Counselor’s marketing campaign – but it was better than what survived the film proper! How is a character introduced with fifteen minutes left, unknowingly caught up in the heavy, and then given a change of heart so fast? Rosie Perez (Fearless, White Men Can’t Jump) is also treated to this ‘insert someone here’ vibe as a stereotypically sassy Latina inmate with a troublesome biker kid who offers The Counselor a bj to square up on a fine. It’s actually a bit depressing to see so many talented and acclaimed players used and abused in The Counselor. Most of the ensemble has one or two scenes each and half of them have no fricking names! Too Wong Foo? I’d like to order John Leguizamo for the final twenty minutes please. Thanks! ER? Goran Visnjic for the finale. Stat!

The Design

Early Dutch hints, fine Spanish flavor, and Mexico moods add a sense of global place for The Counselor – sunsets and vistas contrast with ancient, wet Amsterdam concrete to establish the high and low. Yet once again, there is an inconsistency in the style of The Counselor. The Spanish isn’t always translated and some of the slang will confuse those who don’t know the language. The interior scenes are dark, the framing for the photography during drug conversations is deliberately shadowed, and the digital color gradient continues the redundant parallels by accentuating the purity of white statues or sheets. Scenes with Laura – always in a white coat or pale clothing – are bright and well lit, but the daytime outdoor locales are also overly rich and saturated in color to the point of feeling flat. In what could be such a cultured, vibrant, and layered landscape, The Counselor looks like just any other film. Is this meant to be an abstract criminal limbo underlying so close to the real world? Then why not add more haze, visual illusion? The few gruesome but tame scenes don’t highlight the drug underworld as they should, and any parallel imagery is textbook apparent rather than dynamic. I want to like original film rather than ad nauseam remakes and sequels, but The Counselor needed another run through, someone to step back and realize where the flabby patterns and un-snappy editing impede the cinematic mandates. Brief flashbacks serve no purpose, and what should be a visually titillating and mentally stimulating picture ends up with neither. I hate being harsh – I feel my own reviewing is ironic in its redundancy – but the best part of The Counselor may have been Michael Fassbender’s winking pause at the poster of the classic Steve McQueen. Otherwise, The Counselor wanders aimlessly like that poor, overly metaphoric cheetah left to roam in the desert.

The Audience

I expected to see the Unrated Extended Cut of The Counselor, but the Netflix rental blu-ray is only a bare bones Theatrical edition with much needed subtitles. At first, I had to compare the run times and check the listings of extended and additional scenes not in my viewing to assure that this long and dry two hours was indeed the shorter cinematic release. All the times today’s cut up television or a 90-minute film needed just a bit more time, explanation, and character development, yet The Counselor’s pedestrian pace, characters, and look proves why film going attention spans can no longer endure a picture near two hours or more. Not only are viewers over accustomed to spoon-fed popcorn shallow, but to swing the pendulum here toward muddled, thinly drawn esoteric rants seems cruel. This film won’t make a lot of sense to unschooled audiences yet insults the intelligence of the refining viewer. Maybe you have to be able to laugh with The Counselor, see new commentaries on your tenth viewing amid a drinking game? Truly one does need to see this picture more than once to clear up any initial confusions, but the despair, pitiless people, and stupid mistakes here aren’t anything we haven’t seen before The Counselor. This criminal material has been done better with lesser onscreen and off clout – the first-rate Essex Boys comes to mind – making this movie more of a big disappointment than anything else. The bleak here is so phoned in, divisive of itself, and superficial; the talking heads use star power to veil the obviously thin B grade plot, clearly unmotivated characters, mediocre drug angles, and undercooked story. Were there obligated commitments to appear or back door contracts coercing these A-listers to take part? Familiarity between the cast and crew and their previous collaborations alone should have made The Counselor enjoyable. Did the tragic passing of Ridley Scott’s brother and fellow director Tony Scott cloud the production? I dare say I’d love to see this same cast and team again with more worthy meat and film focus.

Ultimately, the takes too long obvious, pedestaled and vilified women, disconnected dialogue, apathetic players, and premature story of The Counselor just tries too darn hard. One can read this kind of slow conversation and page turning analysis, but the distant cartel dangerous never registers onscreen thanks to the witnessing of superior crime pictures and little new wisdoms in the pretentious here. Although fans of the cast will enjoying their preferred guys and gals in their respective scene chewing snippets, The Counselor never stop hitting the audience over the head with wordy we already know. Indeed, movie lovers can find better heist pictures, crime dramas, or action films that give the audience what it wants, serves the plot, and their characters’ storytelling needs without so much… ostentatious absurdity.

18 March 2014

Two Lon Chaneys List Post!

A Tale of Two Chaneys List Post!
By Kristin Battestella

Tonight we’re discussing that lovably scary Father and Son duo Lon and Lon Chaney, Jr.!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Editions and runtimes for this 1923 silent classic based upon the Victor Hugo ode vary, of course. Jumping film and damaged footage, however, do not interfere with the surprisingly delightful cathedral production values, and the score matches the sweeping or tender as needed. Though long, complex, potentially confusing, and not for everyone, the tale here is well paced. Time is taken to establish the cultural backdrop, scope of events, and all characters – be they rich, poor, religious, decadent, revered, or reviled. Reels tinted green, yellow, blue, and purple for bittersweet flashbacks are also pleasing to see, as is the magnificent make up done by the eponymous Lon Chaney. The hump, shabby coat, gruesome face, and impressive, physically bent performance – Lon Senior’s switch from tender at hearing the church bells to spitting, rageful violence, and hanging from gargoyles is both repulsive and pitiful yet so fascinating to watch. Quasimodo is a wronged creature who does villainous and redemptive acts at the same time, and Chaney is wonderfully emotive yet subtle compared to the often seen over the top silent style. Unrecognizable Lon lets our own heart and helplessness fill in the inhumane, and the tale’s saucy suggestions and lusty turns make for some suspense and one or two proto-horror styled scenes amid the injustice. We’re talking about a film from almost a hundred years ago – a historical costume epic and shocking blockbuster with a wild finish – but the ugly examination on those that use, mock, torment, and abuse Quasimodo are what makes this story so long lasting. Today’s viewers will quickly notice some obvious social statements, redemption, Christ-like imagery, and saintly roles, but the combined symbolism and core depth here is still darn good stuff.  

Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask – Rare, unseen silent film footage, vintage photos and clips, charming family home movies, and archive interviews with co-stars and crew anchor this 76 minute 1995 documentary illuminating the Man of a Thousand Faces. From early bit parts to his iconic horror heights, the pain, emotion, and melodramatic catharsis of his tragic portrayals is examined against Chaney’s stanch need for privacy amid the fame orchestrated Hollywood system.  Collaborations with director Tod Browning are highlighted, and quotes on the craft from the man himself are smartly reiterated – wisdoms on how to utilize makeup or character flaws to accentuate the performance and create redemption in villainous roles. Of course, the presentation focuses on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera but ends somewhat suddenly with Chaney’s death rather than any retrospective summation or legacy. Fortunately, there are lots of behind the scenes snippets, photographs, and factoids, for it’s really quite sad to realize how much of Chaney’s work is gone – over 30% of his films have vanished. 56 lost pictures – that’s more movies than some people today make in their entire lifetimes! The dated nineties design, uneven editing, jumping back and forth timeline, and a very dry narration don’t quite hit home here. However, this informative presentation remains classroom ready and will delight new film enthusiasts, longtime Chaney fans, and horror historians.

By The Sun’s Rays – This ten-minute 1914 western is Chaney’s earliest remaining work and thus is included with the Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask documentary. Certainly, it looks poor now, with a jumping picture and obvious damaged, but let’s give the magic of having a hundred year old movie a pass, shall we? This one is surprisingly well done for the time thanks to interior and exterior filming and unique binocular camera effects, but Chaney is already showing his slick as a double dealing clerk in on the gang’s gold heists. He’s so adept at standing out in the background as he nevertheless subtly listens for the latest shipment news or a good time to pocket the paperwork – or swipe a kiss from the dames. Ironically, the ladies are dressed in their of the time, pre-war Edwardian best rather than the Victorian or Old West attire the plot requires. Didn’t their mothers have some appropriately then recently old-fashioned designs handy in their closets? Fortunately, the nice horsemanship, carriage chases, and suspense music make for a dandy, thrilling little finish. 

Spider Baby – Talk about an awkward dinner table! Lon Chaney Jr. sings the catchy little song matching the opening cartoon titles of this bizarre 1964 family cannibalism tale written and directed by Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown). Though the introduction seems slow to start – we only have 80 minutes and it takes too long for all the players to arrive on the scene – the ominous drive to the decrepit Victorian house, crazy knife killings, and cut off ears establish the twistedness. Quirky beatnik music, mellow pace, and low quality black and white photography belie the increasing suspense as those incoming ruthless cousins explore the house at their own peril. Our older, aged Creighton with the sweet Hearst seems like a reasonable, loyal caregiver yet he’s harboring a trio of seriously demented killers. The titular Jill Banner (The President’s Analyst) and her sister Beverly Washburn (Old Yeller) would seem to live quietly in peace – so long as no kids hop their fence or mailmen knock on their door that is. Internal references to classic horror film clichés and The Wolf Man add to this witty whiff of comedy, but veiled statements about trying not to be bad, being unable to help one’s behavior, or possibly not knowing any better perfectly contrast the humor and the ironic, supposedly normal but snotty and infiltrating rival family branch. Society vilifies the sick or ill it can’t understand, and the contorted and creepy to see yet innocent and tragic Sid Haig (House of 1,000 Corpses) initially has our sympathies. Of course, when the disturbia turns kinky, we know why these people remain under lock and key. Along with the scandalous inbreeding, cannibalism, family murder, black garter belts, and intriguing commentaries, the not for the feline faint of heart scene, eerie dumbwaiter uses, crawling spiders, and the general dementedness of seeing older people act like evil kids sets the bar for future macabre domestic horror pictures.

For all of our Lon Sr. and Lon Jr. Reviews, feel free to browse this handy list!


Spider Baby


By the Sun’s Rays
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask