Lita On Film

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Halloween recommendation: “Insidious”

In Film Reviews, Netflix Recommendations on October 30, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Horror fans rejoice: finally, a film about possession that will leave you with more than just abject disappointment.

James Wan, instigator of the infamous “Saw” series, sets his sights a little higher in “Insidious,” a film which very consciously harkens back to some of the great horror tropes of the 1970s and 80s: demonic children, haunted houses, and intimations of the Beyond (in this film it’s called “the Further”). Part “Poltergeist” and part “Exorcist,” what sets “Insidious” apart from not only the recent spate of vapid possession flicks (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Last Exorcism,” “The Rite”) but from horror film tradition at large is its concentration on a male child as the victim of possession, and a father as the agent of his salvation.

The film opens on Renai (Rose Byrne), an aspiring musician and young mother of three settling into a new house in a tony suburb. Her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a schoolteacher, and they lead a hectic but happy family life—though not for long, of course. Soon Renai is plagued by mysterious voices during her long days home alone with the baby, and objects start to fall off shelves of their own accord. Then, after a tumble off a ladder in the shadowy attic, Renai and Josh’s oldest son, Dalton, fails to wake up the next morning. He has fallen into a strange, undiagnosable coma.

As the couple searches for answers Renai’s encounters become more and more terrifying, until she finally convinces Josh that they have to leave the house. But unlike “The Amityville Horror” or “Poltergeist,” the problem in “Insidious” isn’t in the house, but in the child. Having exhausted medicine and religion as possible solutions, Renai turns to (you guessed it) an old woman who acts as a medium between this world and the next—I mean, the Further. Josh turns out to be the only one who can save his son, who has wandered into some sort of existential Purgatory and is being pursued by evil spirits. The ending is too entertaining to spoil, but suffice it to say that things are left tantalizingly unresolved.

Wan’s touch is deft, neither abrupt nor predictable; he incorporates the inherent campiness of the genre seamlessly into this effectively spooky film, knowing just when to ramp up and when to relieve tension. Byrne and Wilson are believable in their roles (though Byrne looks far too well-kempt for a mother of three) and Lin Shaye, as the medium, and Barbara Hershey as Josh’s mother bring a seriousness to their roles that keeps the narrative from tipping into the absurd.

For someone who dreamed up the torture-porn orgy that the “Saw” franchise has become, Wan’s visual effects in this film are surprisingly innovative, even restrained at times. At one point, autonomous flashbulbs signal the presence of unseen malevolent spirits, recalling the barrels that indicated the approaching shark in “Jaws.” The evil spirits themselves are, as usual, less scary when we finally see them than when they remain an intimation hovering just out of frame, but they’re perfectly serviceable. It’s a credit to Wan that the appearances of the ghouls themselves don’t make or break the rest of the film.

Recalling “The Shining,” “Insidious” also relies heavily on its soundscape to create an atmosphere of menace, something that Joseph Bishara’s score accomplishes with aplomb. His heavy use of strings recalls not just Kubrick’s favored composers (Georgi Ligeti above all) but even Bernard Hermann. It’s impossible not to think of “Psycho” when those violins are being sawed at.

Overall, Wan is to be commended for his effort to update the haunted house genre and for stepping outside the glut of degradation films (some admittedly of his own making) that enjoy inexplicable popularity these days. Far from feeling dated or overly nostalgic, “Insidious” is pleasantly reminiscent of many of the best horror films of the past 40 years, but remains firmly anchored in the 21st century. It’s a welcome addition to the canon and, hopefully, the first in a long line of non-“Saw” films for Wan and company.


“Insidious” is available on DVD from Netflix.


The Skin I Live In – NYFF 2011

In Film Reviews on October 14, 2011 at 1:00 am

Pedro Almodovar is known for many things: his incredible sense of humor, affection for his characters, and knack for making circuitous, complicated narratives compelling and satisfying. One thing he’s less known for is freaking people out, and that’s exactly what he sets out to do in his latest effort, “The Skin I Live In.”

Apparently, it all started last year at a press conference at which Almodovar stated that he was suddenly interested in making a horror film. Many cognoscenti expressed shock at this but, if you think about it, there are many horrific vignettes in some of Almodovar’s best and most respected work: the birth scene at the beginning of “All About My Mother,” the murder in “Volver,” practically everything in “Talk To Her.” And “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” Almodovar’s last collaboration with Antonio Banderas before “Skin,” was hardly a parable of everyday domestic bliss.

This time, Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world famous plastic surgeon whose wife was horribly burned in a car accident, and threw herself out a window to her death after seeing her own reflection. Because of this experience, the doctor has become obsessed with synthesizing a better version of human skin that is stronger, softer and more resilient than the real thing (a description that could be applied to many of Almodovar’s characters, incidentally). To this end, he kidnaps a “patient” and grafts this new skin onto her while keeping her imprisoned in his villa. Of course, the doctor’s obsession extends beyond his patient’s skin itself, and the characters become entangled in a web of power plays and deceit that wouldn’t be out of place in 19th-century opera. Did I mention there’s a character who appears only in a tiger costume?

Post-transformation, the captive is played by Elena Anaya, whose model-like body frequently takes up almost the entire screen (yet is surprisingly tiny in person; she was dwarfed by Banderas as the press conference, despite her gigantic sparkly heels). Unusually for him, in “Skin” Almodovar is interested in the (ostensibly) female body primarily as a spectacle, an object to be beheld and played with, rather than the embodiment of a character’s soul. There is much window-dressing, in the form of framing, special effects and costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, but the characters themselves are pretty one-dimensional. This is disappointing, as Almodovar’s characters are usually deep and vivacious, especially his women. Having them reduced to pieces in a narrative puzzle makes it hard to work up the enthusiasm that the frenzied narrative is clearly trying to create.

Once everything comes together at the end of the film, the effect is somewhat less satisfying than what I’d hoped; the film is strangely cold and clinical, and lacks the warmth and humanity that I associate with Almodovar. Though there are echoes of everything from “Eyes Without A Face” and “Frankenstein” to Buñuel and Cronenberg, “Skin” isn’t as creepy as it sets out to be, and isn’t as compelling either. Though it’s certainly recognizable as an Almodovarian narrative, it feels a bit like he’s just going through the motions.

Banderas, Anaya, Almodovar and the Film Society's Richard Peña at the NYFF press conference

© Lita Robinson 2011

Fassbender teaming up with McQueen again!

In Film News on October 14, 2011 at 12:49 am

Rejoice, fans of “Hunger” and the soon to be released “Shame”: Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen–the Hitchcock and Hedren of our day–are teaming up for a third feature, “12 Years A Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Fassbender’s role hasn’t been announced yet).  Let the collaboration continue!

Shame – NYFF 2011

In Film Reviews on October 14, 2011 at 12:39 am

Steve McQueen’s second feature reprises his collaboration with “Hunger” star Michael Fassbender, and the effect is no less spellbinding. This time, instead of starving for a cause, Fassbender plays a man at the mercy of his urges rather than in control of them: a sex addict.

In the frenetic world of New York City, it’s easy for Fassbender’s Brandon to keep his private life a secret. When a vat of pornography is discovered on his work computer, his boss doesn’t even suspect him and automatically blames an intern. Brandon has a corporate job, no friends, no family and an apartment that can only be described as antiseptic. He lives to indulge his fantasies, flirting with strangers on the subway and participating in live-action internet porn. However, McQueen doesn’t regard Brandon as demented or soulless; just the opposite, he seems to be a romantic at heart, just too screwed up to act like one.

Enter Brandon’s sister (Carey Mulligan) appropriately called Sissy, a hot mess of a singer who’s run out of places to stay. Her arrival disrupts everything Brandon has worked to solidify in his life—suddenly his apartment is dirty, his secrets are spilling out, and he’s forced to interact intimately with another human being. Sissy alludes to their shared upbringing (in Ireland, to explain the accents) without ever giving any details, but it’s clear that she’s just as damaged is he is. She also proves adept at sleeping around and being generally self destructive, which worries Brandon, but not enough to keep him from kicking her out. Several scenes hint at the possibility of incest in Brandon and Sissy’s past and, though this is never fleshed out (and McQueen wouldn’t elaborate during the press conference), there’s a queasiness to their relationship that adds even more tension to the already crackling narrative.

Eventually, after a disastrous attempt at starting a real relationship (with the excellent Nichole Beharie), Brandon is forced to confront his inability to relate to other people unless he’s paying them for sex. This really is the crux of the film, despite its already infamous smorgasbord of nudity and copulation. Brandon craves a release from his inner emptiness, but is unable to form a real relationship with anyone, so meaningless sex is the best he can do. It’s only through catastrophe that he and Sissy are able to break through their mutual alienation and begin the process of becoming normal.

McQueen’s direction is mature and sincere; he doesn’t patronize his characters or his audience, and handles his salacious subject in a completely matter-of-fact way. Fassbender is stoically mesmerizing, and doesn’t become any less credible when his facade finally cracks. Mulligan is, as usual, deceptively mature in her performance; whereas another, lesser starlet could easily cheapen the film by being histrionic, Mulligan manages to convey confusion and desperation in a way that feels raw and uncontrived. Though it’s anything but family friendly (read: do not take your parents!), this is one film every cinephile should put on their must-see list. Let the Oscar buzz begin.

© Lita Robinson 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene – NYFF 2011

In Film Reviews on October 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm


Director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen at NYFF

For relative newbies to feature filmmaking, writer/director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) seem like old pros. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” their new thriller, is so tight and poised that it seems like the work of long-collaborating veterans. It may prove difficult for them to live up to this standard through the rest of their careers, but that’s a good problem (for them and us) to have.

The film, which nabbed a Best Director award at Sundance earlier this year, follows Olsen’s character, Martha, after she escapes from a cult in upstate New York and is taken in by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their ritzy summer home in Connecticut. As she tries to reintegrate herself into “normal” life, Martha is continually troubled by recollections from her time in the cult; often she cannot distinguish memory from reality, and it’s similarly difficult for the viewer to be exactly sure whether a given scene is a dream, flashback, or what passes for reality.

This creates a huge amount of tension, both for the audience and between Martha and her sister. Lucy is constantly trying to find out what exactly happened to Martha, and why she behaves so abnormally (she seems to have forgotten her table manners, strips naked without warning, and sits on the couple’s bed while they’re having sex). Martha is so overwhelmed by her experience and her fear that the cult members will come after her that she can’t even tell Lucy where she’s been for the past two years; it seems she doesn’t really know herself.

The scenes of life in the cult are fascinating and mostly understated; there’s very little bloodletting and grandstanding, but we are shown scenes that detail the cult’s brainwashing strategies , which include renaming, food restriction and communal sex. (At the post-screening press conference, Durkin made a point of discussing his research into cults, and the fact that all these activities were drawn directly from real accounts of recent cult life in the Northeast.) John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Deadwood”) plays the Manson-esque leader, and the gaggle of other women who indoctrinate Martha (rechristened Marcy May) all do a good job of conveying the everydayness of their bizarre living arrangement.

Later on, we see Marcy May reprising this caretaker role with another new cult member; her transformation within the flashback sequences from ingenue to leader is a little scary, as she’s clearly taken the commune’s brainwashing to heart. However, her transformation back to Martha after she’s escaped is even more striking. She’s now world-weary enough to be cynical and cruel (she lectures Lucy and Ted on their materialistic lifestyle), but still a damaged teenager on the inside, capable at any moment of falling into debilitating hysterics.

Olsen’s performance is excellent, and the accolades she’s being showered with are well-deserved. Far from the self-absorbed performance style one could logically expect from someone with her celebrity upbringing, Olsen instead manages to be both damaged and pragmatic, mysterious yet ordinary. Her turn as Martha isn’t a put-on; it’s as genuine a piece of acting as anything you’ll see this year (or, at least, anything that I’ve seen so far).

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” will open in limited release on Oct 21st.

David Cronenberg talks “A Dangerous Method” at NYFF

In Film News on October 6, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Check out this video that I shot on my iPhone last night at the gala premiere of David Cronenberg’s new film “A Dangerous Method”!