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Monday, September 27, 2010

Thrilling New Shows and Seasons

The new television season starts out with a bang with the welcome return of an old favorite, a stunning debut and the anxiously-awaited premiere of a new series that could bring zombies to the home screen in a big way.

Last night's opener of Dexter (Showtime) started off where last season's shattering finale left off—with Dexter (Michael C. Hall) coming home to discover wife Rita's body in the bathtub and his infant son crying and sitting in a pool of blood, exactly the same way he'd been found years before. Without Rita's warming presence to guide him, he is incapable of displaying his usual pretense of human emotion. He tells the police who arrive on the scene, "It was me," meaning, of course, that it was his fault—but they're quick to interpret his comment as an admission of guilt.

Even when he must deliver the shattering news to his now motherless stepchildren, Astor and Cody, all he can do is ape the words a funeral director said to him: "I'm very sorry for your loss." Sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) is willing to cut him some slack, assuming that he's still in shock, but when he won't snap out of it, even she begins to lose patience.

Worst of all, the guiding spirit of his father (James Remar) seems to have abandoned him as well, and Dexter feels truly alone—and for the first time, he doesn't want to be. He's furious at himself for not taking care of Trinity before he could get to Rita, but he's even more angry that he was unable to stop his Dark Passenger from spreading its poison into his family life. A flashback reveals that it started on their very first date—Rita meets Dexter at a restaurant, but he quickly excuses himself when he sees a victim he'd been stalking and hurries out to finish his business. With both the FBI and his fellow officers regarding him with suspicion, he decides to destroy the evidence of his past and take off on his beloved boat—the "Slice of Life" (I love that). I was worried that it was going to become a serial killer road trip, which would have been a shame since the characters surrounding him have been so painstakingly developed, but fortunately Dexter returns to Rita's funeral to deliver her eulogy and face the music.

Last season, with the outrageously evil (and Emmy winning) John Lithgow as Trinity, was dynamite, but this one has all the makings to be a real zinger too. Never before has Dexter felt so exposed and unsure of himself, and Deb is coming closer than ever to finding out what he really is. Speaking of Deb, she's quite the little tramp, having a kitchen floor quickie with partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) after they clean up the murder scene(!). And Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and Sergeant Batista (David Zayas) are now married, but it looks like their relationship is gonna be a bumpy ride, too.

Hall is playing Dexter with his usual reserve, but it's breaking down. This season's storyline could bring some real jolts and surprises...and perhaps finally one of those elusive golden statuettes for America's favorite serial killer.

Speaking of Showtime, I'm delighted to see that Weeds seems to have regained its footing this season. After a couple of good years, it wandered away from its original premise (pot-dealing suburban Mom) and replaced it with unbelievable (and unbelievably boring) scenarios. Maybe it was stoned and forgot what it was doing? Fortunately, the family is working as a team again—on the run and in danger—and that's just the way I like it.

After the "meh" season finale of True Blood, I wondered what HBO could possibly do to take its place, but when I watched the debut of Boardwalk Empire, my wishes were fulfilled...and then some. Man, this is a great show!

Based on the true story of Atlantic City official and unofficial crime boss Nucky Johnson, it's an absolutely compelling show with lush period settings and fun modern-day sex and violence. Steve Buscemi plays Nucky, given the new surname Thompson for legal reasons, and he's terrific. With his reedy voice, pop eyes and mouth full of miscellaneous teeth, you wouldn't think Buscemi would be able to pull off this type of role, but he really does.

He's supported by a wonderful cast, including Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, Thompson's former driver, whose ambition and grudge against his ex-boss is developing deliciously and dangerously; Michael Shannon as FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden, who wants to expose Thompson's criminal activities and whose extremely buttoned-up demeanor seems to be concealing a secret that's set to explode; and the charming Kelly McDonald as Margaret Schroeder, a young Irish immigrant whose abusive husband Thompson orders to be rubbed out.

Executive produced by Martin Scorcese (whose welcome hand is all over this project) and created by Terence Winter (The Sopranos), this is definitely appointment television...and if maintains this compelling pace, it'll be another triumph for HBO.

And I absolutely can't wait for The Walking Dead on AMC, which is appropriately making its debut on Halloween night. Based on the Robert Kirkman comic book, it chronicles the efforts of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.



Any regular reader of Weird Movie Village knows I love me some undead types, and this looks look it could be a real winner. Created by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), whose adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist was admirably tense and bizarre, it's got a good pedigree. The only question I have is how they're going to keep it compelling over multiple episodes. Not having been a reader of the comic books, I don't know the storyline, so I'm looking forward to a delightful surprise.

It's funny how AMC has evolved. Beginning as a classic movie channel, it changed formats when Turner Classic Movies became the Big Dog in that department. It started running edited-for-television theatrical films, which I thought was really irrelevant in the age of pay cable, but then came roaring back with originals like Mad Men and Breaking Bad (another of my favorite shows). Will The Walking Dead be another jewel in its crown? We'll find out soon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Toronto International Film Festival News

Now, I personally didn't attend the Toronto International Film Festival (running until the 19th of this month), but some films of great interest to Weird Movie Village are screening there that are receiving early critical praise and are worthy of previewing.

Let Me In, the highly anticipated (or dreaded) English-language remake of the Swedish masterwork Let the Right One In, premiered last Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the good news is that writer/director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has not desecrated the original. As a matter of fact, a lot of critics are reporting that he's made an adaptation with enough invigorating twists to elevate it above mere "remake" status. That's all good news.

For those who don't know, it's the story of a lonely, bullied boy who befriends the mysterious girl who moves in next door and gradually comes to the realization that she's not a child at all but a vampire of undetermined age.

The action is moved from Scandinavia to Los Alamos, New Mexico, but it's still a period piece, set in the 1980s. Richard Jenkins plays the vampire girl's caretaker and Elias Koteas is a new character, a cop trying to track down the source of the mysterious murders occurring in his town. In a big departure from the original, these are the only prominent adult roles. All the others are ciphers. The young leads are the focal point in Let Me In, so it's vital that their performances merit such attention.

The critics agree that Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass), now named Owen and Abby, are perfectly cast. That's more good news. And the filmmakers didn't wimp out and shoot for a PG-13 rating; it's a full-blooded R. Even though this is a film about children, it's not a children's film. Anna's attacks are appropriately vicious as they were in the original, and the situations are far more adult than your typical Twilight scenario.

I'll certainly be in line when it's released on October 1st, and I hope it's a hit for co-producer Hammer Films, the granddaddy of the vampire genre.

Another one I'm looking forward to is the Guillermo Del Toro-produced Julia's Eyes, from the team that made the impressive The Orphanage in 2007. There's no U.S. distributor yet, but Salon's Andrew O'Hehir thinks it's only a matter of time. Like The Orphanage, this film is set in gloomy Northern Spain, and Belén Rueda once again is the female lead.

She plays Julia, a woman suffering from a degenerative eye disease that had caused her sister to go blind. And when said sister hangs herself in the basement of her gothically creepy house, Julia suspects murder and conducts her own investigation, fighting her failing eyesight and the encroachment of evil. It sounds like this film is dripping with atmosphere, and if it pulls off the brooding darkness of The Orphanage, it ought to be pretty gripping.

Trainspotting director Danny Boyle screened his latest, 127 Hours, and audience reaction was strong—one viewer even required medical attention! It's based on the true story of a mountaineer who managed to free himself after being trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon for five days by severing his own arm.

James Franco plays the mountaineer, Aron Ralston, and his performance is being acclaimed as one to watch when the Academy Award nominations roll around. I really love these kinds of intense character studies, and Boyle is the right director to pull this off. And it's only 90 minutes long, so it doesn't seem like it will outstay its welcome.

Director Stuart Gordon pulled off a similar feat—though in a much more macabre vein—with 2007's Stuck, also based on a true story, about a retirement home nurse (Mena Suvari) who drunkenly runs into a homeless man (Stephen Rea) and leaves him trapped in her car's windshield in her garage while she tries to decide whether to kill him, free him or ignore him altogether. And there are scenes of Rea trying to pull his battered body out of the glass that are absolutely agonizing.

Evidently the buildup to 127 Hours' self-amputation scene is so excruciating and the sequence rendered so realistically that the audience freaked out. And since you can't spend 90 minutes showing someone crying for help with their arm stuck under a boulder (unless you're Andy Warhol), other story elements must be added. In this case, Ralston reflects on his life—invoking multiple flashbacks, I'm sure—and I hope they're compelling. I think they will be. We'll know on November 5th. Oh, and there's a masturbation scene that's causing some buzz in the community...

After making the magnificent but more-or-less straight The Wrestler, eclectic filmmaker Darren Aranofsky (Requiem for a Dream) seems to be returning to his surreal roots for Black Swan, which was well-received at TIFF. The film stars Natalie Portman as a repressed ballerina who is offered the lead in a production of "Swan Lake," and the psychological toll she must pay.

Word is there's nothing black and white about the film. Aranofsky mixes genres audaciously, with lots of "Is it really happening?"-style sequences. When this material is handled well, it can be riveting, and Aranofsky has already proven to be an expert at it.

I happen to be a fan of his 2006 The Fountain, a film that many dismissed as New Age claptrap, but I found fascinating with its disconcerting shifts of time and place and bizarre visuals. It's a mystery you can't wait to solve. Swan seems to be traveling in a similar orbit, although costar Vincent Cassell, upon seeing it for the first time in Venice, said "It's a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too." Sounds like fun to me.

Black Swan will be released in selected cities on December 1st.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gallic Darkness

In the space of four years—1989 to 1992—three French-language films were released that were truly remarkable in their genre ferociousness and jet-black humor. I saw one theatrically, the other two on video, but the impact they had is still imprinted on my memory.

Baxter (1989) is based on American writer Ken Greenhall's 1977 novel "Hell Hound," and tells the story of the miserable life of a bull-terrier whose misanthropic and hateful thoughts are audible to us on the soundtrack. He is given to an old woman by her daughter, and he loathes her. He wants a more structured, active life and the old lady just wants him to take baths with her. He longingly watches the young couple across the street, wishing he could live with them, so he decides to kill his elderly owner by knocking her down a flight of stairs.

His wish comes true—he goes to live across the street, but when the couple has a baby boy, the infant becomes the focal point in their lives. Baxter realizes he must takes matters into his own...paws, so he pushes the baby into a backyard pond. Unfortunately for him, he barks for "help" too soon, and the child is rescued. The couple is traumatized, though, and they decide to give Baxter away to erase the memory of the traumatic incident.

He next finds himself in the care of Charles, a sadistic, disturbed kid and his aloof parents. Charles is a real mess—he's obsessed with Adolph Hitler and takes out all his pent-up hostility on the dog. Surprisingly, Baxter responds to this harsh treatment, but when he mates with a bitch (whose owner reminds the kid of Eva Braun) and a litter of puppies is born, Charles kills them. Later, he orders Baxter to kill another boy, but the dog refuses, and the battle for dominance well and truly begins.

This is grim, existential stuff. Baxter's musings, voiced in an angry growl by Maxime Leroux, are obscene and hate-filled (he calls the infant a "disgusting bag of flesh"), and Francois Driancourt is pretty amazing as the young Nazi in training whose angelic face conceals a jet-black soul. And the dog is certainly as much of an actor as anyone else in the cast! Bleak stuff, with appropriately color-drained cinematography and a minimalist score, Baxter is a reminder of the horrors that can lurk in seemingly-normal places and hearts.

1990's Baby Blood features another creature that shouldn't be able to vocalize. This time it's a baby/monster still in its mother's womb. The plot is set in motion when a new leopard arrives at a French circus, but its new owners are unaware that there's some kind of alien thing inside the animal. It bursts out of the leopard and burrows into the body of pregnant circus employee Yanka (Emmanuelle Escorrou). The fetus becomes quite a bloodthirsty chatterbox, ordering its mother to kill to satisfy its voracious appetite for blood.

Yanka's victims are all ugly, stupid men (would be rapists, her abusive boyfriend), and she gains strength with each kill. She also develops a love-hate relationship with the thing growing inside her, tolerating its inappropriate questions and keeping it well-fed with the red stuff. It's a tongue-in-cheek splatterfest that's reminiscent of a French-accented early Peter Jackson movie. Besides the gory murders, there are two Alien-style birthing scenes.

Escourrou is quite effective as the murderous mommy, and the voice of the fetus (said to be supplied by the film's director Alain Robak) has been described as "Eddie Munster on laughing gas." In the English-dubbed version, which I haven't seen, it's rumored that Gary Oldman provided the creature's voice!

I originally saw the film on a fourth-generation "gray market" video I picked up at a collector's show, but Anchor Bay released the restored, subtitled version on DVD in the U.S. I'll have to check it out. Escourrou went on to star in Lady Blood (2008), reprising the character of Yanka but now as a cop investigating a series of cannibal murders. Now that's strange.

1992's Belgian production Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary about a film crew following a serial killer around as he practices his craft. Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde) is certainly a cheerful murderer. He expounds on philosophy, art and culture, loves his family and enjoys playing music in his spare time.

Poelvoorde is hilarious as the arrogant, egotistical killer, treating his compulsion like a nine-to-five job. Scenes played with his real-life family (playing his onscreen family) are shot through with sunny normalcy. Evidently, his relatives didn't know that he was playing a serial killer during shooting! He provides tips on how to dispose of bodies, especially the proper ways to weigh them down when submerging them underwater so that they don't rise to the surface.

Ben loves having the crew around—they're an audience for his exploits and he puts on a real show. A comic highlight occurs when they run into another crew following a different killer—and Ben scoffs because they're using videotape to save money!

Of course, it's an absurd idea to have a camera crew following a murderer and documenting his nasty needs, but the filmmakers were talented enough to give their movie a rough realism that works. And while you may not necessarily be charmed by Ben, you're taken in by his unexpectedly cheerful demeanor. Eventually the crew becomes financially dependent on Ben when their money runs out, and they even become active participants in his crimes.

As the viewer, you too find yourself feeling guilty for laughing at the jet-black humor, forgetting momentarily that you're enjoying the exploits of a seriously twisted individual and a morally suspect group of filmmakers who do nothing to stop him. The killing themselves are violent and shocking, and by the time the crew actively participates in the rape and disemboweling of a young couple, they realize what they've become—and so does the viewer. That's what works so brilliantly.

I first saw Man Bites Dog during its arthouse theatrical run, but when it came to home video, it was released in multiple versions: R-rated, unrated and NC-17. The NC-17 version is the one to seek out for maximum impact. Ironically, the unrated cut is edited. It's certainly not for everyone, but it's frightening in its prediction of the steady stream of reality shows filling up the television schedules that keep getting uglier and more extreme. How long will it be until "Man Bites Dog: the Series" becomes a regular program on cable?

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