The Mystical "Picnic at Hanging Rock"


Mystical and Mysterious are only two of many words to describe Peter Weir’s 1975 film “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.  One of the great films to come out of Australia is based on a book by Joan Lindsay and still holds and strangely intense appeal even today.  Is it a Drama? Science fiction? Horror? Mystery? It’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.

We are introduced to a small Girls College on Valentine’s Day 1900 where the girls are preparing for the “Picnic”.  The soft melancholic and slightly erotically charged scenes of the girls getting ready with there corsets and flowing hair.  Glances to one another through mirrors and an air of youth and beauty.  Sarah, an orphan, is not allowed to join the girls on this trip.  She must stay behind with the stern and strict Mrs. Appleyard whose name is on the building.  The girls board the carriage and make their way to the mysterious mountain.

Clothed in long white formal dresses in the midday sun, the girls are not alone as another well to do family is picnicking there as well.  Their teenage son, Tom, and a slightly older carriage driver look upon the girls.  The theme of repressed sexuality is a major theme within the film and can be felt in almost every scene.  The atmosphere of the film is very unique as it blends together so many emotional notes in an almost subconscious way.  Lounging at the mountainside and in the tall grasses, The carriage driver notices his watch has stopped, the same with the chaperones.  This little bit of ominous foreshadowing just adds to the mystery.

After lunch Four girls, Miranda (the Botticelli Angel), Irma, Marion, and Edith (the complainer) venture into the labyrinth of stone to explore the mountain.  They almost immediately seem to become entranced, except for Edith who continues to complain about everything.  They lounge around and end up napping, upon waking the three girls almost as if being led by a mystical force walk further up the mountain and vanish.  A hysterical Edith is found and brought back to camp.  What happens to the girls? This is the question that has been fueling this film since its premiere.  Search parties are sent out but its as if they just disappeared or never existed at all.  No Bodies, no evidence, nothing.

Tom, motivated by his brief encounters with Miranda, takes on his own search of the mountain and although he comes back bruised and battered he finds Irma!  She is found without her corset, shoes or stockings and after a doctor's examination found to be quite “intact”. When asked what happen she remembers nothing.  The loss of Miranda hits Sarah the hardest as her infatuation with her was quite deep.  She is also on the verge of being kicked out of school for non-payment or her tuition.  With the scandal of the lost girls, Mrs. Appleyard’s enrollment dwindles.  Bad things tend to happen in repressive societies as you can only keep actions and emotions down so long until they will eventually explode and everyone has their breaking point.  “Picnic” is a richly layered film in which each viewing can reveal something new. 

A "Mustang" Cannot be Tamed!


The 2015 film “Mustang” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016 for Best Foreign film but unfortunately didn’t take home the prize.  Writer/Director Deniz Gamze Erg├╝ven's film is the story of five fiercely independent sisters who must fight against aging cultural norms to find freedom and take control of their own lives and bodies.  Placed in rural Turkey with strict religious and moral standards, girls and women have very little freedom.  The whole society seems to be stuck in some sort of medieval time warp.

Lale, Nur, Selma, Ece, and Sonnay are your average fun loving and respectable girls who on the last day of school play around in the ocean with a group of boys.  This seemingly innocent horseplay between friends becomes scandalous and labeled as obscene behavior.  Chastity must be protected at all costs.  The girls are even taken to the local doctor to ensure they are still virgins.  Raised by their aunt and uncle the girls are put on house arrest but escape now and again forcing them to turn the house into a formidable prison that backfires at the film's conclusion.

The future is pretty bleak for the women in this society after a girl has her first period she is fit to be married off.  The girls are more of a traded commodity than an actual person.  The town’s older women get together to play matchmaker over tea and biscuits.  The merchandise (the girl) plays hostess and tries to make a good impression.  Family prestige, wealth, and subservience play key roles.  Then the men are brought in to broker the deal.  The girl's youthful innocence and tight bond slowly get torn apart.  Sonnay, the oldest, is married off first.  Her depressed, melancholic attitude during the whole ceremony is ignored as the man is celebrated.  The marriage customs are equally archaic and bizarre.  The bedding ceremony and bloody sheet inspection, to confirm she has in fact lost her virginity, are just unbelievably intrusive and gross.

After the first two sisters get married off Lale starts to feels abandon and betrayed and decides that this will never happen to her.  She dreams of escaping with her remaining sisters to Istanbul to start lives of their own.  When its Ece’s (the middle sister) turn to be auctioned, she doesn’t want anything to do with it and after acting out at the dinner table and sent to her room and in a final act of defiance kills herself.  All of these people seem to have no sense of free will and are all slaves to traditional values.  The men do whatever they can to quell any uprisings to keep their oppressive power.   When it comes time for the next sister to be married off, the girls are in full revolt mode, and right before the ceremony, the girls lock themselves in the house.  By now the house has been turned into an impenetrable fortress, and the furious men are unable to get in.  Things get extremely intense and If the girls are caught they will be killed!  They are able to slip away and eventually get to Istanbul and hopefully a better life.  Although it's hard to imagine that this kind of stuff still exists in the world it is all too prevalent.  

Sofia Coppola's Debut Film "The Virgin Suicides"


The directorial debut of Sofia Coppola came in 1999 in the form of an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides hypnotically enthralling book “The Virgin Suicides”.  The daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia made a less than stellar acting debut in her father's Godfather: Part III in the early 90s.  Her immense talents in directing are definitely where she belongs and it all started with this film.

The Lisbon sisters, Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese live in a modest suburban Detroit neighborhood.  Their mystical beauty casts a spell over the neighbor boys that last a lifetime.  The mystery and legend of the girls only deepen as they all end up taking their own lives.  Born too strict religious parents played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, the girls live a sheltered life and their noose of freedom is always getting tighter and tighter.  The film is told through the memories of the neighbor boys who spend their days imagining what the girls must be like.

The youngest of the girls, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), gets things started by surviving a suicide attempt.  Her lost and melancholic face always seems to be somewhere else. Like the film itself, it lives in this dreamy sort of limbo between life and death.  After getting advice from counselors the Lisbon parents agree to throw a party so the girls can socialize with boys.  This ends as bad as a party possibly can as Cecilia finishes what she started by killing herself.  

Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the second oldest at 14 is by far the most outgoing and adventurous of the girls.  She is pursued by the coolest guy in school Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett).  She plays hard to get but Trip is persistent and eventually wins her over with their relationship culminating at the homecoming dance.  Ignoring her curfew and other sisters she gives it all up for Trip as they spend the night on the football field.  Waking up alone, Lux returns home to a new level of restraint.  Her infuriated parents take the girls out of school and their bedroom becomes their prison. Lux devolves into the town slut as the boys watch her sneak out to be with a new guy just about every night.  The girls eventually reach out to the guys and they communicate their feelings over the phone by playing records back and forth.  The girls finally decide they want out and the guys agree to take them anywhere they want, but their way out is more drastic than anyone could have imagined.

As I mentioned before Coppola injects a dreamy, otherworldly quality to every aspect of the film.  Being set in the 1970s reinforces this, from the clothing and music and performance of the actors.  Although I would have liked to have known more about the other sisters, the five of them all seem to act like one.  The ultimate question of why the girls kill themselves remains a mystery, even as the guys vividly recall the events some 20 years later.  For Coppola “The Virgin Suicides” was only a precursor to her hit 2003 film “Lost in Translation” which brought her several awards and accolades.

Rockport Rates: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Obviously, the original is a landmark film in the history of not only horror but cinema itself.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
A remake of unexpected greatness that launched the glut of other horror re-makes most of which were awful.  An extremely rare example of a remake/sequel hitting all the right notes and delivering a decent film.

3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Tobe Hooper’s sequel takes more of an over the top comedic route starring Dennis Hopper.

4. Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990)
An interesting and adequate sequel aside from its ridiculously impossible ending.  

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
After the success of the 2003 re-make, this origin story film leaves a little to be desired, but not as bad and the utter garbage to come.  Tries to follow in the steps of Saw and Hostel with the excessive and over the top gore.

6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger? Two big Hollywood actors from Texas get there starts in the plotless mine numbing insanity.

7. Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
This was an obvious money grab trying to cash in on the renewed 3D craze.  Just terrible all round from the script, actors, you name it.

8. Leatherface (2017)

This second origin story is as lifeless as a hacked up corpse.  Picking up on some of the dead-end storylines of the previous film.  Stop humanizing Leatherface!  A lazy script and D list actors trying to remain relevant.  We need more grindhouse and less boring Dr. Phil backstory.

"Joy Ride" is Quite the Trip!


One of the forgotten gems of the early 2000s, “Joyride” is a thrilling and entertaining road film with a horror twist.  Starring the late Paul Walker, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski the cast is first rate as well as the direction by John Dahl.  The script also got a rewrite from J.J. Abrams, who at the time was a relative unknown.  Although mired in re-shoots and other setbacks, the final film is surprisingly good.

Lewis (Paul Walker) is a college student from California who is going home for spring break and decides to cash in his plane ticket to buy a crappy car so he can pick up his girlfriend in Colorado.  He gets a call from his estranged older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) who needs to be bailed out of jail.  This creates our nice little road trip scenario.  Fuller is the risk-taking loose canon compared to Lewis’s more reserved and responsible type.  While getting a tire fixed Fuller has a CB Radio put it, kind of random, but it works.  This sets up the whole premise of the film.  To pass the time on the open road the guys use the CB to pretend to be women, Fuller’s idea of course.  Lewis or Candy Cane as he calls himself plays along and they go fishing on the airwaves.  They start talking to a guy named Rusty Nail and start to reel him in.  They go as far as setting up a meeting a sleazy roadside motel and when Fuller runs into an angry businessman in the rental office decide he should be the one to meet up with Rusty.  The guys rent the room next door so they can hear how it all goes down.  Obviously, it doesn’t go well and the man is severely beaten.  They guys are shaken and have a bit of a guilty conscious, but they talk it over with police and are back on the road in no time.

Still furious that he’d been played Rusty Nail tracks down guys and turns the tables on them.  What makes or breaks this film is Lewis and Fuller, they are real relatable people, who are more than your average horror stereotypes.  They play off each other really well and Zahn’s off the wall character is very well done in a role that could have been an awful parody.  You feel for the guy and you want them to survive.  At the halfway point of the film, we finally meet Venna (Sobieski), Lewis’s girlfriend.  She is smart, sophisticated, and nothing like your typical scream queen, although things do end up trending towards the damsel in distress syndrome in the third act.  Rusty Nail continues to torment our characters and abducts Venna’s roommate.  In the film's funniest scene Rusty forces Lewis and Fuller to go in into a restaurant buck naked and order burgers.  Rusty then manages to abduct Venna as well in a cornfield chase.  He then sets a trap for the guys at another roadside motel, just like what they did to him.  “Joyride” has its share of Hitchcockian moments and strives to be better than your run of the mill horror movie, even if it does tread on familiar themes.  And like most horror films leaves you with an ambiguous twist ending that leaves open the possibility for sequels.  Two straight to video sequels were made without any of the original characters, except for Rusty Nail, of course, I don’t plan on seeing these but they do exist.

Abel Ferrara's Cult Classic "Ms.45" Starring Zoe Lund


In the same vein as “I Spit on Your Grave” released in 1978, “Ms.45” released in 1981 is a rape-revenge shocker.  A B-style feminist film of a woman’s revenge against the men who have assaulted her.  While “Grave” got all the attention, good and bad, “Ms.45” has been hard to find almost forgotten cult classic.  In 2014 Drafthouse Films released a new remastered copy of the film on DVD and Blu-ray.

Directed by Abel Ferrara and starring the amazing Zoe (Tamerlis) Lund.  This was Zoe’s film debut and at only 17 is quite the revelation as the mute garment worker Thana.  Like most of Ferrara’s film,s the story takes place on the gritty streets of New York City.  This was the early 80s so it has that grimy sleazy feel to it.  It is established early on that all men are dirty sex crazed pigs, and on the way home from work the meek and innocent Thana is hauled off into an alley and raped by a masked man.  While this is happening another man is breaking into her apartment.  In a state of shock, Thana makes her way home only to run into the burglar still in her apartment, where she is raped again.  Although this time she is able to kill her assailant with an iron.  Now what to do with the body?  She pulls him into the bathtub and dismembers him, wrapping his pieces in garbage bags which she gets rids of on walks throughout the film.  Thana’s journey from sweet and innocence to sexy cold blooded killer is amazing as Zoe shows great range and boldness for a girl her age.

Thana’s work starts to suffer and her boss, Albert, gives her a break because of her severe disability.  Her nightmares and anxiety drive her over the edge and after shooting another over eager sleazeball in the face, she starts actively looking for more victims.  She lays on the red lipstick pretty thick as she trolls the streets doling her brand of vigilante justice.  Her stereotypical victims are actually pretty funny.  She kills a pimp whose whaling on one of his girls.  Then he gets into a car with an Arab Sheik who thinks she’s a prostitute, she kills him and his driver.  In another ridiculous encounter, she kills or injures an entire street gang.  This is all pure B movie awesomeness.

In an effort to make Thanna feel better and be more apart of things, Albert wants her to attend a Halloween party and she agrees. This party is the climax to this great piece of cinema.  Dressed as a nun with Albert as her date she mingles with the crowd and they both eventually go upstairs.  Although Albert is obviously gay, he comes on to Thanna and pays the price, but in this instance, Thanna was in full control and looks to have planned his murder.  She then goes on a slow motion killing spree throughout the party targeting all the men.  She is taken down by one of her female co-workers with a knife to the back, metaphors anyone?

This is a great film if you love the nostalgic seventies-ish vibe.  The musical score is full of whaling saxophones and disco beats.  At a cost of about $70,000, this film has it all and I didn’t even mention Thanna’s eccentric landlady and her dog Phil.  Check it out and you’ll have a great time!

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" The Best Indie Film of 1995!


“Welcome to the Dollhouse” was the breakout indie film of 1995 and launched the career of filmmaker Todd Solondz.  The auteur director is known for his dark humor and satirical wit, he likes to torture his characters not to mention his audience with painfully awkward and embarrassing moments that also hit a nerve of truth.  
Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener a spirited seven grader.  But let’s be honest she’s far from the prettiest girl in school and growing up is hard.  She is mercilessly bullied at school and is known as “Wiener dog”.  We follow Dawn in the school cafeteria desperately trying to find a place to sit, but that’s only the beginning of her daily adventures.  Even when trying to do good and helping others it always seems to backfire.  When trying to defend herself, she is the one that gets punished.  Home is not much better with her younger pretty ballerina sister and older book smart brother.  She is the family whipping girl.  It comes to mind that if there was ever an inspiration for the character of Meg on “Family Guy’ this is your girl.

You’d think that Dawn would be damn near suicidal, but no, she takes it in stride and lives her life.  She has cobbled together a clubhouse in the yard called “The Special People’s Club” where she and a neighbor boy talk.  Unknown to her she is later told what the clubhouse really means.  When her brother starts a garage band with a couple of his friends they sound awful until they get high schooler Steve Rogers to be their lead singer.  Dawn is immediately smitten with him.  A common theme in a Solondz movie is that Love is awkward and bizarre and feelings can burst out in some pretty strange ways.  When Brandon, the meanest of Dawn’s bullies, threatens to rape her after school, she is terrified. The first attempt is thwarted by a school janitor and when Dawn shows up for the second attempt they just goof around.  He kisses her, but it's rather sweet and not in the least menacing or violent.  Brandon really is more than just a one-dimensional bully stereotype.  His character is fleshed out and made whole when seeing why he acts the way she does. Their relationship is odd but that's life.

While taking place in the early 1990s before the internet, smartphones, and social media the ideas explored are timeless.  A dark satirical thread is woven through this thick tapestry of American suburban life.  “Welcome to the Dollhouse”.

Tributo de Guillermo De Toro: "Blade 2"

Blade 2

The sequel to the 1998 graphic novel-adapted film “Blade” was given to Guillermo Del Toro to direct for a 2002 release.  Starring Wesely Snipes as the half-man half-vampire and his father figure side kick Whistler, played by Kris Kristofferson.  Although they had seemingly killed off Whistler in the first film he is back along with another team member Scud, played by Norman Reedus. 

“Blade 2” has Snipes battling the Reapers, a race of mutated vampires with a voracious appetite for blood.  Kind of like cool looking zombies but were calling them Reapers, they threaten to not only wipe out all vampires but humans as well.  The Shadow Council enlists the help of Blade and his team to wipe them out for good.  The Reapers as characters are pretty cool looking with their best feature being their mouths that shall we say open really wide, something that is seen later in the Resident Evil Movies.  

Del Toro’s trademark blue and gold lighting schemes can be seen throughout and as mentioned the character designs are top notch.  The effects are well done, especially the Reaper autopsy scene.  Del Toro also must have scenes with medical specimens floating in jars.  The film is through and through a comic book movie, mixing everything from Japanese Anime influences and hyper-real violence to WWE style fight scenes.

Action movies do have a tendency to be a little boring and repetitive at times, but “Blade 2” knows what it is and aims to be as entertaining as possible.  It does fall into certain genre trappings, such as the “seen it before” climax and rather ridiculously sappy ending.  Although the “Blade” films do have their audience (13-14 year old boys) I really don’t think it is the film for me.

Tributo de Guillermo De Toro: "The Devil's Backbone"


Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s 3rd film is the finely crafted gothic fairy tale “The Devil’s Backbone”.  This critically acclaimed film was released in 2001, four years after the disappointing experience of “Mimic”.  It’s a Spanish language ghost story that takes place at the end of the Spanish civil war in an isolated and ominous looking orphanage.

The film is full of atmosphere and mystery surrounding a tragic event that happens not so long ago.  When Carlos, a twelve-year-old boy, arrives he brings with him a youthful innocence and hope for a place that has all but lost it.  He has been left there by his uncle after his father’s death in the war.  He panics at first with the idea of being abandon there, but like all of the other children, he has no choice.  The place is run by headmistress Carmen, whose prosthetic leg becomes heavier, and heavier over time.  Her husband is Dr. Casaras, played by Federico Luppi the lead actor in “Cronos”.  Their relationship is strained and since Casares is impotent Carmen has been sleeping with the angry and lonesome Jacinto.  Jacinto has his own nefarious plans and has been slowly biding his time until he can get his hands on all of the gold bars in the safe.  Then there is Conchita, the sweet young girl who is in love with Jacinto.  

An unexploded and rusty bomb rests in the center of the courtyard.  Its a symbol for so many things in the film and is a sign of things to come.  At the center of all this moody darkness is a group of orphans leads by the older Jaime who bullies and harasses Carlos.  It doesn’t take long for Carlos to begin seeing “the ghost that sighs”.  His name is Santi and he disappeared from the orphanage and presumed to have run away.  Santi looks like a cracked porcelain doll with a billowing cloud of blood coming from a wound in his head.  Carlos and others are terrified of the ghost but what does it want?  Santi does warn of more death to come.

The war continues to take its toll on its people as well as the orphanage.  All of its inhabitants are bound that this place with little hope for the future.  Jacinto is a passionate but dangerous character who gets exiled from the place after a violent attack on the children.  Jaime’s character evolves beautifully throughout the film as he transitions from being a child to a man and a leader.  Carlos faces his fears and learns of Santi’s story and his only request is vengeance for the person who killed him.  Santi is not meant to be a so-called scary ghost, but a trapped soul looking for justice.  

When Jacinto returns he no longer holds back his anger and rage and is hellbent and destroying everything and everyone.  Left to there own devices the children must fight for there survival more than ever before.  Can hope survive?  Del Toro tells a remarkable story and doesn’t cop out with any cheap Hollywood crap.  It doesn’t offer any easy answers or shortcuts but is an honest depiction of its characters.  Del Toro’s later film “Pan’s Labyrinth” is quite similar but stars a girl in the lead role.  They are meant to be companion films.

“The Devil’s Backbone” is available on disc from The Criterion Collection.

Tributo de Guillermo Del Toro: "Mimic"


Guillermo Del Toro’s second film was the modestly budgeted studio film “Mimic” and according to Del Toro was a complete disaster from start to finish.  His stylistic touches can be found sporadically but things just don’t come together in the end.  Miramax, the studio who bankrolled the film, has since allowed Del Toro to release a new Director’s Cut edition on Blu-ray.  This version also contains an insightful commentary about the filming and production by Del Toro.

The giant cockroach movie it has been called.  When roaches start infecting the children of Manhattan with a deadly disease entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler, played by Mira Sorvino, helps bioengineer a new breed of roaches called the Judas breed.  It kills off the disease-carrying bugs and the epidemic ends.  But 3 years later, these roaches have rapidly evolved into a more dangerous problem than they ever thought possible.

An autistic young boy who lives with his grandfather spends hours looking out his bedroom window, the man across the street is a bit strange and he calls him Mr. Funny Shoes.  He uses two spoons to mimic the sounds he hears and the sounds coming from across the street sound like cockroaches.  Kids in peril and battling evil is a theme of Del Toro's work, but here it gets second billing to Dr. Tyler and her husband Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam).  Along with Josh (a young Josh Brolin) and transit cop Leonard (Charles S. Dutton), the group hunts the NYC sewers for a human-like cockroach species that is looking to replace the human race.  

With numerous script re-writes and issues during production, it is surprising how good the film turned out.  There are some dead-end storylines likes Dr. Tyler’s pregnancy and a sappy Hollywood style ending.  The bug effects and actions were decent as well as pacing.  The characters were nothing special, about a tic up from your stock horror movie fodder.  There is a lot here that could be something and the director’s cut tries to focus things a little better by adding some scenes and cutting others out, but as Del Toro says in the commentary, “This is as good as it will get”.  Surprisingly there were two straight to DVD sequels for which Del Toro had no involvement.  After his experiences with the film, Del Toro’s next project goes back to his roots with the Spanish language ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone”.

Tributo de Guillermo Del Toro: "Cronos"


Mexican auteur director Guillermo Del Toro’s first film was the vampiric fairy tale “Cronos” about a husband and grandfather's encounter with a small golden device that houses a worm-like creature and gives everlasting life.

Del Toro’s themes are present in all of his films.  Insects, children, gothic fairy tales, and lighting.  “Cronos” introduces us to his world with a very small budgeted but finely crafted story.  Jesus Gris is an antique dealer and while investigating a new piece finds a small egg-shaped device that opens like a beetle and clamps down on his hand, drawing blood.  His blood awakens a dormant worm-like creature inside the device that begins a transformation of Jesus.  His granddaughter Aurora is always by his side and goes on this journey with him.  Although silent until the end Aurora is her grandfather's pride and joy.

A wealthy industrialist, De La Guardia, is a Howard Hughes like billionaire shut-in that has been searching for the Cronos device ever since he came across a sort of user manual for it.  His nephew, caretaker, and heir in waiting Angel (played by Ron Pearlman) helps him in his search.  Meanwhile, Jesus has been enjoying a youthful resurgence thanks to the device.  Although it does have a hold on him like a heroin addict and further bodily changes come quickly.  Soon his skin is starting to rot and is extra sensitive to the sun.  Aurora turns her toy box on to a makeshift coffin for him to sleep in.  His growing need for blood rears its ugly head in a public bathroom where he seems licking it off the floor.  Filled with themes of mythology and Catholicism the film feels more than what is on the surface.  Jesus and Aurora come face to face with De La Guardia in his factory/mansion in hopes of getting out alive and seriously in question. 

According to Del Toro, horror stories are born out of childhood fairy tales. His subsequent films “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are prime examples of this.  A retrospective museum exhibition entitled “At home with Monsters” offers a deep look into both Del Toro himself and his films.  It is as though they are one and the same.  “Cronos” is available on Blu ray from the Criterion Collection with very insightful commentary from Del Toro.  It is highly recommended you buy the new boxed set from Criterion simply called  “Trilogia de Guillermo Del Toro”.

"Dead Snow" Starring Nazi Zombies!


The 2009 German horror film “Dead Snow” takes a crazy B movie premise, Nazi Zombies, and makes it into a blood-soaked worldwide hit.  Made on a shoestring budget of only $800,000 the film was made exclusively for the horror connoisseur.  Although the film is in German with English subtitles which may put off a lot of people, what’s on the screen is what matters most.  Director Tommy Wirkola has gone on to directed “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” which came out in 2013 and had a budget of over $50 Million.

“Dead Snow” is plotted out like so many other horror films a group of young people, this time medical students, go on a ski vacation to a cabin in the mountains.  You have your various stereotypical characters, The fat party animal, the hot guy, the hot girl, etc.  All very one dimensional and uninteresting.  They find out early on that the mountains interfere with the cell service, so they can’t call for help when things start getting interesting.  There is even a scene where a mysterious old man comes into there cabin to tell them the history of the area and to beware of the evil presence.  After leaving the guy is brutally killed later on in his tent by some mysterious monsters.  Being a German film there are a number of American pop culture references and homages to other horror films.

While searching under the floorboards they come across on an old wooden box filled with World War II era gold coins, suspected to be hidden Nazi gold.  Stop right here!  Put the Nazi gold down and back away from the cabin.  They don’t take that advice and battalions of Nazi Zombies emerge from the ground.  While some of the students smoke pot an have sex, in a stanky outhouse, for instance, the other drink themselves stupid and party it up unknown to them what lurks outside.  When the invasion starts the blood and gore start flowing it’s an all-out battle for survival.  There doesn’t seem to be a hero survivor character to really get behind and cheer for but for the Zombies, it’s Col. Herzog the rarely seen leader of the pack.

“Dead Snow” seems to be heavily influenced by the films “Evil Dead” and “Dead Alive”.  The oftentimes comedic and slapstick style of violence and gore is sure to get a reaction out of the most hardened horror fan.  From chainsaws, sledgehammers, and snowmobiles, we zombie kills from every angle.  The film is very simple and straightforward and doesn’t aim for anything more than it is.  Nazi Zombies.

A well-received sequel was released in 2014 again directed by Tommy Wirkola, but this time with a bigger budget and starring Col. Herzog. 

The Power of "American History X"

American History X

One of the great films of the ‘90s and according to the #30 best rated film of all-time. Tony Kaye’s “American History X” starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong is a deeply moving story of love and hate.  Norton’s portrayal of Derek Vinyard, a reformed white supremacist, earned him an Oscar Nomination as well as wide critical praise.

Hate breeds hate and feasts on vulnerable young minds.  With a little encouragement from the wrong group of people and a charismatic leader Derek is led down a dangerous path.  Living in Los Angeles Derek and his family seems to be living a normal suburban life until his firefighter father is killed while responding to a call in a dangerous neighborhood.  His father was a racist and influenced a lot a Derek and his younger brother Danny’s thoughts.  After his death, Derek found a sort of surrogate father in Cameron (played by Stacy Keach), a powerful white supremacist leader.  Derek takes to the teachings and rhetoric and is all in.  He now has a big swastika tattooed on his chest and a white power tat on his bicep.  

The film opens in black and white with a major turning point moment in Derek’s life, a group of young black men are trying to steal his truck from his driveway.  When Danny tells him about it, Derek bursts out of the house locked and loaded.  He shoots two of the guys and curb stomps the other.  This scene and other parts of the event are recalled throughout the film.  Derek is sent to prison for three years.  The film is told in a non linear fashion going back and forth between Derek’s activities before prison, his time locked up, and when he gets out.

In the present day Danny is seen going down the same road as Derek, his school report entitled “My Mein Kampf” obviously drew the attention of the faculty and of principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (a black man).  Danny’s new assignment is to write a report on his brother entitled “American History X”.  The overall voice and perspective of the film is through Danny’s eyes as he writes his report.  The bond between him and his brother is very strong and when Derek emerges from prison a changed man, he does everything he can to change Danny’s thinking.  Now looking for like an accountant, with his button up shirts and grown out hair, his old friends look for him to return to his old self.  Derek’s mind has grown in prison, the realities and lies of the white power movement become more clear as he is eventually betrayed by his arrayan brothers, for befriending Lamont, a black man he works in the laundry with.  Lamont calls him out on all of his bullshit and gets through to Derek on a deeper level. 

Where Derek tries to distance himself from his old life, he is met with some strong resistance.  He must now try to rescue his family from sickness, his mother has emphysema or something,   and poverty.  He does have a sister, Davina, who seems a little underused in the film and just kind of a prop.  When everything seems to be looking up and we think we're headed for a classic Hollywood ending, we have out hearts ripped out with an ending that really brings the house down.  It's tragic but feels right if all you do is spout hate don’t be surprised is it come back to bite you in the ass.  Hate has a memory and things can pop up when you least expect it.

Ryan Gosling is "The Believer"


Henry Bean’s film “The Believer” was the Grand Jury Award winner at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and made a rising star out of Ryan Gosling.  Although acting since he was little, this was Ryan’s first starring role and his performance was nothing short of brilliant.  At first controversial due to its subject matter, if you actually watch the film you’ll find that the message is ultimately a positive one.  The “Believer” is also based on a true story.

Gosling plays Danny Balint a morally confused young man with fervent hate for Jews, but get this he’s Jewish himself.  Danny is a cocky young man with his buzz cut and proudly worn swastika t-shirt.  The opening scene shows him stalk and terrorize a young Jewish man through the streets and subway of New York City.  He punches and screams at him to fight back, but the man sheepishly takes it, only to walk away.  Danny’s story is about a young man in the midst of a crisis of faith and that of identity.  Somethings cannot be changed, his Jewish upbringing is so ingrained in his mind and body that no amount of rebellion or denial can shake what he truly is.

He roams around with a group of other white supremacists who seem to do nothing but pick fights and terrorize people.  Often winding up in front of a judge, who sentences them to sensitivity training.  They are brought before three Holocaust survivors and are forced to listen to their experiences in the concentration camps.  While his friend mocks and disrespects them, Danny is moved by the story of a man whose young son was murdered by a Nazi soldier.  This story will haunt him throughout the film as it is flashed back to a number of times. 

Danny then meets up with Curtis (Billy Zane) and Lina, the leaders of an organized fascist group, who see potential in him as a great leader and speaker to promote their cause.  It is there he also meets Lina’s daughter Carla AKA the love interest.  Danny’s commitment to hate and bigotry is starting to crumble when he and his friends vandalize a synagogue.  As he sees his friends desecrate the Torah, something inside him snaps.  He starts to doubt everything he’s believed in.  His most tightly guarded secret is also starting to leak out as well.  A New York Times reporter has been looking into his past and sets up an interview with him.  They get together at a coffee shop and towards the end, the reporter drops the bomb.  He knows he is Jewish and threatens to expose him, Danny doesn’t take this lightly as he pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself if he prints the story.

Danny’s double life can’t last for much longer as his mind is constantly at war with itself.  The Nazi rhetoric and propaganda he has been spouting no longer rings true, but like in the mafia, it’s hard to just walk away from it all.  We come to a climax that is both tragic and life-affirming.  Danny’s final action to rid himself of the hate comes with a price, and he is willing to pay it.  Does this atone for all of the pain and suffering he has caused?.  “The Believer” is a great film and can be seen for free if you have Amazon Prime.  

Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive" with Ryan Gosling


The 2008 film “Bronson” starring Tom Hardy was the calling card film for director Nicolas Winding Refn’s as it received a hand full of awards and rave reviews.  He initially drew a small cult following with his “Pusher” trilogy of films about a gritty and brutal drug dealer.  “Drive” in 2011 marks his first major studio film with a wide theatrical release. Boasting an impressive cast, Ryan Gosling stars as “Driver” a mechanic and stunt driver by day and a for-hire wheelman by night.  He’s a cool and quiet dude sporting a flashy silver jacket with a scorpion on his back.  With its 80s style Euro synth score by Cliff Martinez, “Drive” has a unique feel and aura to it.

Set in downtown Los Angeles the opening scene shows the Driver at work.  Evading the cops while being the getaway man for a couple of small-time thieves.  The atmosphere is electric as he darts up and down alleys and freeways and is finally able to freely walk away from the consummate professional. 

The Diver then becomes involved with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the single mother of a little boy named Benicio, who lives next door.  Her husband Standard is serving time and is in debt to some mafia guys.  The mob big shots are Bernie and Nino played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perelman and in typical movie fashion, they own a pizzeria as a front for there activities.  The Driver works at garage repairing the car for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also has a history with the mob guys, and has paid his debts.  This group of characters all intermingles in a story about masculinity and drive (the motivational kind).

The Driver is a man of few words, an anti-hero with good intentions.  He lives a solitary life and follows his own code of ethics.  But when it comes to protecting Irene and Benicio from the mob, it drags him down into some pretty dark emotional places.  When Standard is paroled he comes home to Irene and Benicio, leaving the Driver out in the cold.  Although when Standard asks for his help to repay his debts, he agrees.  When things eventually go south, the Driver finds himself in a life or death situation.  The Driver is a man of action and when Irene and Benicio are threatened, he doesn’t take this lightly.  Intensely brutal violence has also been a hallmark of Winding Refn’s films and we get plenty of here with Drive.  The ending feels authentic as it doesn’t go for a stock Hollywood finale.  It feels right but at the same time a little sad.  It has you asking questions but in a good way.  “Drive” did well when award season came around and it furthered the careers of Gosling and Refn.  But only to be taken down a peg on their next collaboration in the completely unwatchable “Only God Forgives”.

Nicholas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" Starring Elle Fanning


Beauty and style are two words that immediately come to mind with writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” for both good and bad reasons.  The film starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone comes off as extremely egotistical with style overcoming substance.  Although the film does try to come off as a satirical attack on the modeling industry and our concepts of beauty itself.  This point is muted with several bizarre and questionable scenes where bright neon lights and over-stylized symbolism cloud the message.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a fresh young girl of 16 arriving on the L.A. fashion scene.  She is beautiful, innocent, and pure, for how long?  The film opens with her at a somewhat foreshadowing photoshoot where she lies dead sprawled out on a couch covered in blood. Afterward, she has help wiping the fake blood off with the older and more experienced make up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone).  Ruby admires his beauty and they quickly become friends.  They go to parties and mingle with a few other experienced models, Sara and Gigi, who are obviously jealous of Jesse.  After years of modeling and the constant threat of newer, younger faces and bodies, Jesse is just another threat.

Jesse has a meeting with an agency and although she is really only 16, they just fudge the papers and have her say she is 19.  She gets invited to do a test shoot with a highly sought after a photographer named Jack.  Jack is a stereotypical photographer. He is an intense, intimidating, and demanding of his models.  He closes the set so it's just the two of them and in no time, Jesse is nude.  Although Jack does not come off as a sleazy perv, a professional artist pushing the boundaries of his craft.  The shoot leaves Jesse with a sense of confidence and power not to mention covered in gold paint.

Jesse lives in a low rent motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves) and after coming home one night finds an intruder in her room in the form of a mountain lion.  Whether this is supposed to be a metaphor or just something that happens in L.A. I’m not completely sure, but needless to say Jesse is freaked out.  She starts dating a photographer, Dean, from her first shoot (the one with the blood).  He is about 25 or so and is by all outward appearance a pretty good dude.  As Jesse quickly climbs the local modeling ladder, things get a little more intense and we begin to see some changes in her attitude.  She is well on her way to becoming a neon demon.

When things get a little rough Jesse runs to Ruby who has her own plans for her.  Ruby has had a thing for her ever since they met and when she finally makes a pass at her, Jesse freaks out and tosses her aside.  Ruby then really starts to lose her shit.  She also works at a morgue applying makeup to cadavers when her deepest fantasies for Jesse get a little carried away and she ends up defiling that poor corpse.  Jesse’s ultimate fate is a little anti-climactic and the 3 women go all medieval on her ass and consume her beauty both literally and figuratively.

Winding Refn referred to his film as a “ceremonial celebration of narcissism” and used a lot of artificial visuals to make things feel more synthetic and fake.  He takes the age old story of the pretty young girl going off to Hollywood to follow her dream and in the end being unfulfilled (and dead).  The basic story structure is nothing new, but the visual style and the always wonderful Elle Fanning make this film something to check out.  If you have Amazon Prime it is currently streaming for Free.  Amazon Studios was also involved in the distribution of the film.