Tuesday, January 24, 2012

and it's back to work!

and so we return for another week in what will hopefully be a more consistent run here at the Third Row.

During that downtime of trying to get things back up and running over the last few months, several questions emerged as far as how to improve the content here. ...well, beyond there actually being some to begin with.

While these general entries on news and wrap-ups have been nice, they do seem to be missing out on part of what this blog was started to do - review and spread the word about some of the weirder shit out there in film. The kinds of things where, unless you're actively digging, you don't get to hear as much about them, if at all.

With this in mind, we're going back into the radioactive sections of the cinematic salt mines to try and bring up some more mutants to show you all. These plan to be especially interesting since most of these even I haven't seen before sitting down to write about them.

So we're all getting something out of this (...beyond the inevitable regret later.)

Anyway...with that in mind, here we go


No doubt we're all familiar with the old saying about imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. There's certainly some truth to this phrase, of course. If something gets aped by enough people, it's cause it was seen as good enough the first time to follow the example of.

...of course, this doesn't always assume the imitator will be as good as the original. In fact, more often than not, it will likely completely miss what made the original good and instead just serve as an example of how not to do it...

...assuming it's remembered anyway.

Which brings us to this week's film.

In the aftermath of the smash success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist in '73, we inevitably saw, as big successes tend to do, a metric crapton of knockoffs and cash-ins on the occult horror genre. Yes, metric crapton is a technical term. They don't recognize it as a form of measurement in the US, but take my word for it.

In the midst of this, in 1975, came this rather curious mess. A film that I haven't rightly named yet because I'm not sure which name to call it by (as of my last check, I count four titles.)

In starting, I should probably identify it by the title that first made me curious. As a general rule, I try to learn more about a film before I let myself get interested, but in this case, it was really hard not to be sold right off the bat. How often can you find a movie with the title 'I Don't Want To Be Born'?
...no. Really. That actually is one of the titles it was marketed under.
This film has also, over the years, been marketed under the titles 'Sharon's Baby', 'The Monster', and 'The Devil Within Her' (the latter proves rather interesting as this was also used as an alternate name for another failed occult horror film a year prior called 'Beyond the Door'.)

Title number two on that list is also part of where my misconceptions about what this movie would be lifting from came from. I mean, yes, riding the Exorcist gravy train was inevitable for the time period, but with an alternate title like this and a plotline involving a baby possessed by the devil, one would inevitably expect the movie to be also riding the coat tails of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.

To their credit, it wasn't an RB knockoff...
...in turn however, the resemblance to Ray Bradbury's short story 'The Small Assassin' raised eyebrows at several points (which is kind of sad since the first time I read the story, I felt like it could honestly make a great short movie.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To sum up the movie for those who haven't seen it, heard of it, and who may likely have no interest in seeing it for yourselves, let's try and sum this up.

The movie follows British couple Lucy and Gino Carlesi . The movie begins with Lucy giving birth. The birth itself doesn't appear to be going well. By 'not going well' I mean that 'guest star' Donald Pleasance describes it as "It's like he doesn't want to be born." Why this element is brought up in the movie isn't really clear. I mean, it's discussed in passing in a scene or two, but it never really seems to amount to anything.

There is certainly something up with the child, however. As we learn in a flashback, the baby itself has been cursed by a dwarf.

Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen.

...I'm gonna let that sit for a second before I explain.

...OK? We good?

OK. Now, to explain, early in the movie, we learn that Lucy (played by Joan Collins), prior to meeting her husband, worked as a dancer in a British club. The nature of the dancing seems to vary from whether it's full on stripping, or just some still-dressed burlesque dancing...largely dependent on how much of a sleazy bastard they want her former boss (John Steiner) to be. Anyway, in flashback, we learn that, alongside the numerous women in various phases of undress, one of Lucy's costars was a dwarf named Hercules (George Claydon, who spends much of this movie looking downright uncomfortable to be there.) It turns out Hercules had a thing for Lucy...and by a thing, I mean we find out Lucy just seemed to be a magnetic for lecherous guys back in the day. In this case leading to quite possibly the only film where one will ever see Joan Collins being groped by a dwarf. However, Lucy is a principled woman (she's already sleeping with the boss,) so she turns Hercules down.
Bowing out gracefully, he proceeds to curse her in probably one of the most straightforward, if lackluster ways possible, transcribed for your
(Note: To properly maintain effect, the line must be said all in one breath with no breaks.)

Now, despite the fact that Hercules appears to have NO occult credentials beyond the fact that he's a dwarf, which this movie seems to believe is enough, his curse DOES somehow come to pass. Little baby Nicholas is seen as bigger and heavier than most babies...and possessed of a tendency for physical violence (within a day, the child is somehow able to rake his fingers across Lucy's face and draw blood, for just one example.)

Maybe this is just me talking, but if this

Can do this
There's a distinct possibility you probably had it coming

As far as the baby's concerned, I want to clarify something. As you can see, this baby looks perfectly normal. It's not like this is 'It's Alive' where the baby is a fanged, clawed monster that can slaughter anything that comes near it. In fact, most of what it does happens, almost comically, off screen. In fact, the only times we get any sort of confirmation the baby has any stake beyond the ending come either
a) when the child is confronted with Christian elements (primarily Sister Albana, a nun and Gino's own sister, whose presence induces Nicholas to not only cry, but summon a sound I'm sure they meant to sound evil, but really sounds more like applause.)
b) During a few select moments, usually when Lucy's watching, when the baby turns into Hercules. In fact, the movie seems to suggest that, with a few exceptions, the baby does seem to channel him whenever he's about to kill someone.
Also, whenever Nicholas 'turns into' Hercules, he's wearing the same outfit.
Leading to moments like this:

Which looks better
or 2?

In true horror movie fashion, most of the cast remain oblivious to Nicholas's evil, often falling into their predictable roles - Ralph Bates (as Gino) is the loving father who can't seem to see his child as evil, Joan Collins half-sees it, but doesn't really seem to do anything for it, Donald Pleasance is the classic 'rational science' guy who's doomed to die just because he's not gonna see it coming. In fact, Eileen Atkins's Sister Albana seems to be the only person who knows what's what, which is why she seems to be the only one to take any action (in a finale that screams that it was harvested from The Exorcist.)

Though to be fair, casting the devil out
WAS seen as a valid parenting technique during the mid-70s.

Anyway, much of the baby's killing spree is, as said, done off camera, what few onscreen antics we do see being carried out by Claydon dressed as a child (in arguably the creepiest part of the movie.) As a result, over the course of the movie, we see the cast being lured to their deaths by some bizarre giggling after which they're taken out by someone off-camera. I can kind of see why, to a degree...I mean it WOULD be hard to take the site of people being murdered by a baby seriously (even less so a dwarf dressed like a baby) but really, the fault there lies less in the filmmakers and more in the concept itself.

Is this the most embarrassing death in a horror film?
Perhaps not, but it sure makes a strong bid for it.

To that end, the execution in general doesn't help here either. With a good cast and director, a weak idea can still manage to pass for watchable. Unfortunately, this film doesn't really seem to capture any of the three. Most of the cast are largely just there for the paycheck and mostly just reading their lines off without much effort (Hilary Mason as the couple's nanny/housekeeper is particularly bad at this.) Overall, only two of the cast members in this actually do feel like they're making an attempt...and of those, only one really seems to succeed. Donald Pleasance, in a shift from many of his standard roles, actually manages to come across as warm in this movie...of course, that's also largely thanks to the lack of performances by much of the supporting cast. The one other attempt at effort coming from Bates as Gino, who proves that the British rule about accents DOES have its exceptions, care of an Italian accent that feels strangely reminscient of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat voice.

In trying to figure out how to sum this up...several hours later, about the best thing I can think to say about the problem with this movie is...it doesn't seem to add up at all. I don't mean it doesn't make sense. It's pretty easy to parse out the plot to. Nor do I mean I'm automatically opposed to the idea of a film with its own warped sense of logic (Hell, some films it's great, such as the Adam West Batman movie, where Batman has the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes dropping acid.) The problem here is just...there's no real reason for the entire premise to be happening. In a setting that is otherwise free of any occult presence, the idea that one dwarf was miffed that he only got to second base (and a very half-hearted second base at that) and, summarily, would be able to cast a curse on the spot in a single exclamation: a curse that, with no sort of ritual or offering, cursed a woman to bearing a child that would be channel to himself and the Devil.
How badly off is the Devil in this movie that he is able to respond to such a request on relatively short notice without the dwarf appearing to make any offer on his end of things? It makes Satan seem like a failed actor who takes bit gigs on third-rate television shows cause he's THAT desperate for any sort of work.
This almost sounds less like something from a modern day horror
story and more from a fairy tale...though I'd like to believe even a fairy tale would do a bit better than "But alas, because the princess would not let the dwarf do more than clumsily fondle her breasts, due to her own tawdry affair with the local prince, he placed a sinister curse on her."
...it just feels like a really weird place to start a story from.
Also, the writers don't even seem to know how far they want this curse to go. After the dwarf lays it, it never appears on his part again, despite his receiving more screen time than was probably needed. In fact, after that flashback, we get almost no indication he's ever done anything occult or unsavory for the rest of the movie. It isn't until the very end of the movie that an attempt is made to reconcile this plot thread, but in the end all it really accomplishes is ripping off a better class of movie and properly showing Claydon's apparent agony at being in this film.

Here we see him being brought back
after another failed attempt to escape.

I know some would argue I'm expecting too much of this, and that I should tell myself it's just a movie...but the problem is, most other bad movies, I can at least make out some semblance of logic. It's usually sporadic and badly done, but there's at least more of a sense of method to it. This is one of those rare cases of a bad film where I can almost picture the writer responding to questions with "Just cause."
Whether this is because this was just a completely mishandled storyline, or maybe this script got run through a thresher during production, I don't know. If anyone can fill me in, by all means do so...but as it stands, the finished product just sounds like it got rolled out in five minutes and was followed by the statement "If we hurry, we can still make happy hour."

On a plus, there is some nice unintentional comedy (for an example, see the image below, placed at the bottom for the spoiler-sensitive.) But overall, unless you're keen for a mess of a movie that manages to misfire almost every cylinder, but sometimes timing itself just right to get a few laughs at just how bizarre it gets, you're not likely to get anything else of note from this film...
...unless maybe you have a thing for Collins. If that's the case, then you might find some benefit in this afterall, since the film does manage to find a few excuses to show her in her underwear (just realize if you are one of the people in that camp, you will have to deal with some creepy dwarf presence in one of them.)

Not there just yet, but just keep reminding yourself
a baby channeling a dwarf's strength is doing this.
It won't make it any less ridiculous, but it MIGHT
make it funnier.

With this, things seem to be getting back on track. Please join us again next week when we reach into the horrific grab-bag of worldwide cinematic insanity the web has to offer.
Just remember, after this week, we can still go further downhill.

...aaaand NOW for the prime spoiler

and in two swings of a shovel, this baby manages
to accomplish what it would later take
Michael Meyers six movies to accomplish.
Sad, really.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Live! Live! Live, damn you! Live!!!

Well, it's officially a new year.

A time for new beginnings, making good on resolutions (in short, this year we may actually get this up to a regular pace again) and, if you're one of the ones who still genuinely believes it, getting the most out of the last 12 months before the Mayans kill us all (...or something to that extent. Hell, even they can't get the story straight half the time.)

Inevitably, for all of the five of you who've stuck with us here through all the stops and starts, you know who you are (...and I'm sorry too) this is about the time when we here at the Third Row run the top five picks of the previous year (held over for two weeks in this case for a grace period. One part conferring, one part trying to get in a straggler or two before posting.)

Now then, for those who are just tuning in...and who aren't that interested in going through the archives, the set-up here is easy enough.

1) These aren't in any set order. Just cause I listed something first doesn't mean it's #1 over another pick on this list.

2) This list is based on the films of last year that I have seen at this point. There are still many on my 'to do' list I regretfully didn't get to in time for this. Chances are, when I do get to them, they may upset the balance (it's happened before. Really kicked me in the teeth back in 2007.)

I have to admit. This one was both trickier and easier than I expected it would be. Cause when this year was good, it was generally pretty spot-on.
...but the disappointments. Oh Lord, the disappointments.

Despite that, and with some weighing over, I've come up with a top 5 that, based on what I've seen at this point, I can look at and not feel like something is on there just as a placeholder. They may be supplanted in the future, but at least for now, I can say it feels like they've earned their place here.

Having cleared up the preamble, and in the hopes of kicking this year off right, here we go...

Because someone eventually thought
"What if we turned Doorbell Ditch into an extreme sport?"
What ensued was both a new pasttime and
leading cause of death.


This was a film that I was surprised by compared to my expectations...
...this was partially because I went in with almost no idea of what to expect.
Marketing on this film was...virtually nonexistent, actually. Sure, there were spots for it running, but they never really gave you much of an indication what exactly the film was supposed to be about. I mainly gave it a go on the strength of the subsequent reviews and recommendations from others.
The film itself was an interesting mix. On the one hand, its story felt very much like a standard issue action film. Many of the classic elements to it, the mysterious stranger helping a down on their luck family, the sinister mobster villain, the old friend who was once a pro, etc...and yet, the film itself executes them in such a way that it actually manages to feel fresh. This is thanks in one part to the direction, which really does lend the film a lot of its style that keeps it from being lost among the many 'shakey-cam' action offerings out there. The other thing that helps this one stand out - the casting. For what could have easily just been cheap renderings of old character tropes, the cast on this film manage to breath a lot of life into these old hats (even Ryan Gosling manages to take the stoic hero type and make it an interesting, if cryptic, character to watch.) That said, the two best performances in this cast have to go to the two senior cast members - Bryan Cranston (proving there is still gonna be work for him after Breaking Bad ends) as a former racer turned mechanic who never quite seemed to accept that his glory days were over, and Albert Brooks playing VERY against type as the film's crime boss antagonist. The latter especially surprised me, in part since at first it almost seems like this could be a Brooks-style character, a touch sarcastic, but ultimately still mostly just a talker.
...then we see what he's like when he's been crossed. For a man most well known for his comedy work, Brooks can be surprisingly intimidating when pissed off (to be perfectly blunt.)
Is it an original film? Technically, no. Despite that, it still does well at taking the old and making it feel like something new.

"Look, what you've been through sounds terrible, and I do
feel bad for you...I'm just warning you, I'm not sure the
Academy's going to recognize it is all."

-Martha Marcy May Marlene

Let the record show, we're now 3-for-3 on an 'actress goes off the rails' movie making it into the top five. I feel like this should be a warning sign of some sort...either that or this just means I have some strange offshoot of schadenfreude.
Of course, it also helps in this particular case that many of the other things addressed in this movie clicked well for me beyond just the challenge of 'will this continue the streak?'
The premise of the film is a bit strange at first because it's not really a complete closed narrative. The focus of the movie is around Martha, a woman who's fled from a communal cult she's been living in for some time. The film intercuts between her attempts to get her life back on track as well as showing us what her life back at the commune was like.
One of the things that surprised me the most about this (and from the look of reviews, annoyed many others) is how the film handles its narrative shifts. There is no real set up to a flashback per se. No dissolves, no real prompt, nothing. It simply shifts into the past and leaves you to piece it out yourself. This element works particularly well for the film in a large part thanks to the fact it dabbles in two things that, admittedly, I love to see done in a film in capable hands - paranoia and the unreliable narrator. Thanks to how these shifts are handled, we're thrown for a loop trying to determine what's then and what's now...and how much of it is genuinely real and how much is either paranoia or altered memories. To this end, as viewers, we also can't help but sympathize with her sister (as well as her fiance) who find themselves at times growing frustrated with Martha's erratic behavior. To their credit, the film avoids making the couple seem unreasonable. As outsiders, we sympathize with them as well as we do with what we've seen Martha has been through (it's worth noting the film makes it pretty clear she hasn't told them.)
Which leads to the other thing I have to commend this film on - given how easily films tend to cave to the temptation to depict cults as these outlandish groups of either eccentric loonies or robe-wearing Satanists, there's something refreshing and more than a bit disturbing in how the cult is depicted in this film. From the initial flashbacks of Martha's first days at the commune, where she became Marcy May, to helping indoctrinate new members, to taking part in the increasingly more brutal actions ordered by their leader, we see a down-to-Earth, and altogether rather disturbingly plausible vision of a cult.
Between these multiple strong elements, as well as some great acting (especially Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, who really helps drive home how badly this cult has affected her) it's a shame this film will probably be passed over come awards season. I mean, I haven't put much stock in them in years, but it's gonna be a damned shame if they let this performance go unacknowledged.

OK...so there's a few bits of exaggeration. It's a documentary
about a comedian. You can't be THAT shocked.

-Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

I'm gonna start this by saying, had it not actually been made in 2010 and only screened in '11, there's a possibility Conan's spot on this list would have gone to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This isn't to say this is a lesser film (actually, given the different styles and subjects, comparing would be tricky here) just saying...despite the different year, that was a great documentary (OK, mini-plug over.)
As I'd explained in part when discussing films seen over the summer, this film was another for this year that really surprised me when I saw it. Given this was a behind the scenes look at Conan's live tour when he was legally blocked from appearing on television, the humorous parts of the movie were a given. The parts that caught me by surprise, however, were some of the moments in between the joking. While I had a great time watching the performance footage, some of the parts that stuck out for me the most were actually the behind the scenes moments, things like some like joking around with his team, some of his talks with his children (both at home and, while on the tour, via webcam), and even the moments of frustration/fatigue on the road. This movie could have easily just been all about the on-stage persona. It could have come across as the proverbial vanity piece. Instead, we get the bad with the good and, as a result, we get a much more human portrait of the comedian. This probably won't be a documentary that goes down in history as an earthshaker, but for what it is and what it could have been, it handled its content very well.

"How about Ghandi? Did you see that one?
A House of Sand and Fog?
...please kid, don't make me discuss the live-action
Thunderbirds movie here, give me something!"


Joining Drive on the double-bill of 'No, really marketing, what's this movie about?' this was another that promotion gave me NO idea on. Word of mouth, as well as a couple of promising interviews by Scorsese finally won me over. The resulting film honestly surprised me...partially because, despite strong word of mouth, I was still going in skeptical (in large part due to the 3D. I'll spare you all that rant.)
After the film was over though...I have to admit, I was impressed. For a man known for his passion for cinema, this movie, more than most of his offerings, is probably one of Scorcese's purest love letters to the silver screen. While the title and main focus are on the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield, proving yes, America does still manage to get some good child actors, even if they're somewhat rare), much of the film is about both the love of, and the history of, the early days of film (to a degree personified in Ben Kingsley as Georges Melies, a performance that hopefully means Kingsley's career rough patch is behind him at last.)
Alongside the salute to the pioneers of film that makes a major theme of this movie, Scorsese in general delivers a very heartfelt and fleshed out world. Everyone of the regulars seen at the train station is seen as having their own lives we peek into, instead of just being talking heads to serve a singular purpose. Even Sacha Baron Cohen as the film's antagonistic station officer is revealed to be more than just a clumsy force of authority, his own feelings and insecurities helping showcase that, despite his general comedic styling, Cohen can handle drama.
...and yes, I will admit, even the 3D managed to surprise me on this movie. After many of its applications so far, I expected a case of the obvious stand-outs and spectacle tricks that have become such a staple for the new technology. Instead, I was surprised to find it actually used in such a way that it felt like I wasn't even really watching 3D...and by that I don't mean it didn't work, I mean it all just felt natural. Instead of favoring big spectacle scenes, the real gem of the technology in this film was in how much depth it adds to the film. The crowded train stations feel more, for lack of a better way to put it, there. For all my cynicism towards the big push for the technology, this gave me faith that maybe it still has potential in the right hands.

"...and that big face with the camera up there, that's
director Lars von Trier. He comes by the Earth every
few years to sow misery and doom upon us all.
It is an act of nature as cruel as it is beautiful..."


...and once again, right after the heartwarming entry on this list IT'S LARS VON TRIER TIME (...this was coincidence, I swear.)
As von Trier's first project after Antichrist, this already felt slightly ominous when he described this movie as having his 'first bad ending'
(...after how the prior film ended, I'd be slightly afraid of a man who'd count that as happy...just saying...)
To the man's credit, his statement was technically accurate. It IS rather hard to top ending your movie with the literal end of the world (...what? It's not a spoiler. You find it out in the first 10 minutes of the movie.)
Of course, the main draw of the movie isn't actually 'will the Earth be saved?'. Instead, taking place over two arcs, the film follows one small group during the final days before the end of the world and how they all respond as it becomes increasingly clear that there's no getting out of this.
The casting on this one...I have to admit, had I seen these names on paper, I wouldn't have expected these performances. Well, OK, I'd have expected Charlotte Gainsbourg. She's shown the range with von Trier before. The other two principle leads though really surprised me on this one in particular, Kirsten Dunst making one Hell of a comeback as Gainsbourg's sister who's been suffering from clinical depression. It's a very different role for her, but she handles it remarkably well. Rounding out the trio, we have Kiefer Sutherland reminding us that, yes, he CAN handle other non-action roles...if anything, this role almost seems a counter to that idea, as he starts as the seeming voice of reason, only to find the foundations of his assertions coming undone around him.
The interesting thing about how all of this is handled is that, despite this being an 'end of the world' movie, it's also a very personal film. In particular with the focus on Dunst's depression. The film does a considerable job really capturing the feel of what depression can, and does, do to people. By comparison, the impending planetary collision almost feels like a minor setback. For as controversial as the man may be, it's hard to dispute that von Trier has once again proven himself as a talented director on this film. Likewise, it again affirms the man's surprisingly good eye for visuals. Some of the shots in this film are stunning.

I have to admit, for my earlier mentions of the disappointments, there were also a lot of promising titles had to pick from this year (alongside the many I still haven't watched yet, I feel a need to give shoutouts to a couple of titles from this year that didn't make the cut. In particular: Hanna, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Meek's Cutoff, and Attack the Block.)

While they may not have made this top 5, I will still say they're worth the watch if you have the opportunity.Overall, I'm not gonna say 2011 was an all-around great year. We had some strong entries, but also several stretches of mixed offerings.
...on a plus side, a year like that really DOES help you appreciate the good ones that much more.

Anyway...between my own inner self-nagging, and a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the custom of New Year's Resolutions, hopefully we'll be back here next week and finally writing again on a regular basis.

If all goes well, see you all then.