‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Love, Gilda’ Shows How the Late ‘SNL’ Comedienne Never Really Left Us

Love Gilda poster

You cannot help but fall in love with Gilda Radner. Even in death, her spirit radiates with a power nothing can destroy. Her smile stretched for miles whenever she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and it never faded from our sight even as she fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer. When she passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42, it really felt like a national tragedy, and I remember Steven Martin paying tribute to her on the “SNL” stage while on the verge of tears. After showing a video of him dancing with Gilda, he said the following:

“You know when I look at that tape I can’t help but think how great she was and how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you.”

It’s now been almost 30 years since Gilda died, and she is still missed. But with the documentary “Love, Gilda,” she is brought back to life for a time, and we get to see sides of her many have not seen previously. Granted, her life has been documented endlessly on various shows and in numerous books, but we get to see home movies of her youth and journal entries, most of which were previously unseen. Whether or not you think this documentary touches on anything new, just the chance to spend time in her company makes it a must see.

Among the most memorable images we get of Gilda are in home movies made when she was a child. Even back then she had a big smile on her face and a zest for life which never faded. We also see how she was overweight as a child to where she talked of how kids at school teased her viciously. One family member told her to make a joke about her weight if they made fun of her again, and this proved successful. From there, I think it’s safe to say comedy was Gilda’s weapon of choice for all the obstacles life would throw at her.

It’s a treat to watch “SNL” regulars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong among others reading from Gilda’s journals as it is clear on their faces the love they had for her work, and of the effect she had on theirs. Poehler even admits many of the characters she created on “SNL” were essentially B-versions of Gilda’s characters, but her work still stands on its own regardless. I envied these celebrated performers as they got a glimpse of Gilda’s actual handwriting which gives a glimpse into her wonderful mind.

As “Love, Gilda” moves on, we see her reflecting on the fame she achieved through “SNL” and the overall effect it had on her. I believe her when she reveals how she was unaware of how famous she had become until the cast visited New Orleans. We also come to see how fame at times served to keep her chained to a certain place in life, and of the pressures it brought on which made her eating disorder even worse. Once again, comedy becomes her weapon as she finds ways to make fun of being famous as her spirit remains strong. While she came to fame in a time before the advent of social media and cell phones, being in the public’s eye probably wasn’t much easier.

This world can really beat you down to where we become overcome with disappointments and bitterness, and many often feel like happiness is a commodity far out of their reach. So, it’s always great to know that one person who maintains a strong spirit and a wonderful view of life in the face of personal tragedies. Even as we watch Gilda Radner in her most harrowing moments, going through chemotherapy and losing the ability to bear children, she still has a big smile on her face and an infinitely strong spirit which never faltered even in her dying moments. She also had the love of her life, the late Gene Wilder, at her side through it all. I can only hope to be as lucky.

Could director Lisa D’Apolito, who had the privilege of appearing in my all-time favorite movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” have dug deeper into Gilda’s life? Perhaps. Some parts are given short shrift like her brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith and her movie career which ended after the critical and commercial failure of “Haunted Honeymoon.” D’Apolito also uses audio of Radner reading from her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which remains one of my favorite books ever. Anyone who has read it can testify just how revealing Radner is about her struggles, and it threatens to make this documentary pale in comparison.

Regardless, D’Apolito does excellent work in making us see what a strong human being Gilda Radner was, and of how her spirit and influence remain incredibly strong even years after her death. The “SNL” cast member was made to endure terrible things in her life and left us at far too young an age, and yet she came out fighting and left us laughing hysterically. She even found humor in her cancer battle and demonstrated this when she guest starred on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and her entrance was one full of victory. Nobody dared to make jokes about cancer back then, but she showed no fear in making fun of the most hideous of diseases. Even if it feels like there could have been more to this documentary than what we are shown, D’Apolito makes us see how Radner lives on in many ways.

Wilder founded “Gilda’s Club,” an organization where people with cancer can meet to build emotional and social support, after her death, and there are now over a dozen of them throughout America. Her book “It’s Always Something” is still in print, and I cannot recommend it more highly. And, of course, you can always catch her in “SNL” reruns which continue to entertain audiences of many generations. She may be gone, but “Love, Gilda” shows she never really left us. With a spirit as strong as hers, she never will.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

Doubt movie poster

  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

Slumdog Millionaire poster

  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

Let The Right One In movie poster

  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

Wall E poster

  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

The Dark Knight poster

  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

Ti West and Gene Jones on Preparing for ‘The Sacrament’

The Sacrament movie poster

You may not know who Gene Jones is, but odds are you have seen him in at least one movie he has co-starred in. Many know him best for his role as the gas station owner who is subjected to one of Anton Chigurh’s terrifying coin tosses in “No Country for Old Men,” and he also appeared as Wild West Barker in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and co-starred in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But after watching him in Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” it will be impossible to forget who Jones is as he gives us a character who seems sweet on the surface but is really a vicious devil in disguise.

“The Sacrament” follows a couple of reporters as they travel out to a commune located out in the middle of nowhere to find one of a long lost relative. Upon their arrival, they discover the commune is a technology-free zone called Eden Parish, and they meet Father (played by Jones) who is the leader and treats his loyal followers with tremendous warmth and care. But when these outsiders arrive, he quickly sees them as a threat and eventually convinces his followers to take a sinister course of action which leads to an unspeakable tragedy.

The press day for “The Sacrament” was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and many who worked on this movie, be it in front of or behind the camera, participated in an informative press conference. Among those there was West who told us he wanted to audition Jones after seeing him play a pharmacist on “Louie.”

Ti West: There’s a scene where there is a woman waiting in line and asking all these inane questions to the pharmacist who’s not paying attention, and Louie (C.K.’s) waiting behind her and he’s getting bored. And then Gene eventually turns to her and is like, “Have you had a bowel movement today and was it soft?” And then she gets uncomfortable and then that’s the scene, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” So, what we did was that we tracked him down and then I asked him to do a quick audition. Most of the reason I asked him to do the audition wasn’t so much to see if it would be any good. I just wanted to see if he would not be into the material. So I knew that if he did the second audition that he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable with the subject matter like that because you never know if you don’t know people. Gene likes to say that the first audition wasn’t very good and that’s why I asked him to do a second one which is not true. But there was enough from those, just seeing him do it, to know what I had thought was going to happen was going to happen.

The plot of “The Sacrament” was largely inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when Jim Jones made the followers of the Peoples Temple commit mass suicide. When Jones first appears onscreen as Father, you can’t help but be reminded of Jim, especially with those sunglasses he’s wearing. But in describing his preparation to play Father, Jones shot down our assumptions of what he did to prepare for this role.

Gene Jones: It’s less than one day in Father’s life, and not a typical day. So, I didn’t do any Jim Jones research about what he read and how he interacted with people on a daily basis. What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice, you would leave your family and you would leave your country and go with this guy. I never met Ti until I stepped onto the set. I did audition for it, but it was a video audition. Actually it was two auditions and Ti commented on those, and those comments gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go which was in the direction of being so damn trustworthy and so avuncular and nice. A phrase that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was doing one of these (press conferences) was I wanted to show you somebody who was evil but not mean. Somebody who believed absolutely poisonous things but was the nicest fellow you ever met.

West said when he first met Jones in the flesh was when he arrived at the movie’s set located in Savannah, Georgia. Jones’ first big scene was when he does the interview with the two reporters, and it involved a lot of work and memorization on his part. West was more than prepared for things to go wrong as he described this scene as a “massive undertaking,” but we all felt his astonishment at how things actually turned out.

Ti West: It’s the kind of production day that you dread because it’s a night shoot, there’s 200 extras, it’s 12 pages which is like six times more than anyone wants to shoot in a day and there’s just so many moving parts, and it was cued up to be a disaster. I remember on the very first take I hadn’t told the extras what to do yet, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the extras are just there for one night to be in a movie. They don’t know what the movie is about and they haven’t read the script. They are just like, “Yeah we’re in a movie!” They’re all seated and you figure that some of them aren’t going to be good and will have to move them around, but before we do any of that let’s just wing it. Let’s just try one where Gene comes in and we’ll tell them to cheer. He can come in and then start talking to A.J. (Bowen), and its 12 pages so if the lines get screwed up we’ll stop and then we’ll do it in chunks, and this is how we are going to get through this night. Well on the very first take, Gene came in everybody went crazy. He sat down, did a 17-minute unbroken take without dropping a line, got up, everybody cheered and he walked out, and all of the reactions from the extras were their genuine reactions. They weren’t me feeding them things to do because I just wanted to assess the situation, but the assessment of the situation was we don’t need to do anything because Gene nailed that so effortlessly, and then all the extras chimed in perfectly. Gene had figured out how he was going to do it, and all I had to do was just capture it.

Jones’ comment on how the extras fueled his performance was great because he made it sound like he was doing a play more than making a movie.

Gene Jones: I loved, loved the congregation, and there’s little variations each time you shoot. They were tuned to that and I didn’t have to say, “Give me an amen somebody.” They would give me an amen. They would just give it to me and they would nod, and it was just alive. It was like talking to a group of friends. They all chimed in and they were great.

In a business which can be so ridiculously youth-oriented, it is nice to see an actor like Gene Jones defy the odds. If this were a studio movie, executives would have probably forced Ti West to cast a young adult who was more demographically desirable. But in the end, there are certain parts only actors of a certain age can pull off, and this is one of them. Jones succeeds in giving us a villain for the ages as Father draws people in with ease and then destroys their lives for the most selfish of reasons.

“The Sacrament” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Ti West, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz about “The Sacrament” for We Got This Covered.

‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

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“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *

Harry Treadaway Discusses Keeping the Suspense Strong in ‘Honeymoon’

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Directed by Leigh Janiak, “Honeymoon” is a taut horror movie which stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as a newly married couple who spend their honeymoon in a secluded cabin by the lake where things soon become very chaotic. One night he wakes up to find that his wife is not in bed, and he eventually finds her sleepwalking in the woods. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but then strange things begin to happen as she suddenly forgets how to make coffee, burns the food while cooking it, and ends up swimming in the lake despite it being incredibly cold. The husband begins to wonder if this is the same person he just married, and the movie keeps you wondering the same exact thing all the way to the very end.

For me, “Honeymoon” was fascinating because a lot of horror and thriller movies these days have a hard time maintaining such a strong level of tension and suspense. The way I see it, pulling this feat off could not have been the least bit easy for either the director or the actors. I came out of it desperately wanting to know how they succeeded in keeping things tense throughout, and I got my chance at the press day for “Honeymoon” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Treadaway has appeared in movies like “City of Ember,” “Fish Tank” and “The Lone Ranger,” and people these days probably know him best as Victor Frankenstein on the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.” I asked him what it was like maintaining the suspense of “Honeymoon” as an actor, and his response showed how much thought he put into his role.

“I think it came from the great script. It came from the fact that it was set up with this foundation of reality and the horror came through,” Treadaway said. “The trickiest parts were the sort of middle ground almost because you kind of have to look at how you can tell that this is a happy relationship, and you kind of see where it’s got to be when it’s at its most horrific. But it’s won or lost probably in the way we see his first reaction to her going sleepwalking. If you buy that or not and if you buy the way that he’s reacting to her certain motor neuron skills slightly going weird or her forgetting certain elements of making coffee, you don’t just flip out straight away and go ‘you’ve lost your mind’ and you don’t ignore it. So, it’s how you work your way through that, and I think that was in the script and that was the fun part, playing with the elements.”

“Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For horror fans, it’s a real treat.

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Honeymoon

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Honeymoon” starts off with us viewing the pre-wedding video of Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie), and it’s the kind of video couples end up watching on their 10th anniversary. It also helps set up Paul and Bea as the perfect couple, and the chemistry between the actors is very strong to where we are eager to spend a lot of time with them.

For their honeymoon, these two lovebirds elect to spend it in a cabin on the lake. As is the case with horror movies, the weekend they pick to vacation at this cabin also happens to be when everybody else is out of town.

To be honest, the cabin they end up staying at is really beautiful. It’s not like those ratty old cabins we’ve seen in the “Evil Dead” movies, but instead the kind my parents always liked to take me and my bother to on family vacations. It has a docking station for a boat and all the amenities like a stove which any cabin requires. And, of course, it is located in an area of the United States which doesn’t get very good cell phone reception, if any.

Paul and Bea are having the time of their lives, but things take a strange turn when Bea suddenly goes missing and Paul finds her out in the woods naked and disoriented. She has no idea of how she got there, and Paul takes her back to the cabin. From there, Bea begins to act very strangely and Paul begins to wonder if she is the same person he just married. As her bizarre behavior escalates, strange things start happening like shafts of light invading the seemingly peaceful cabin, and scissors being used in ways almost as painful as what we witnessed in Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

I kept waiting for “Honeymoon” to fall apart. The suspense keeps building and building throughout, and I feared the movie would eventually mess things up by revealing too much. The fact it doesn’t is a testament to director Leigh Janiak who keeps ratcheting up the tension just when you think it’s on the verge of disintegrating. According to her IMDB page, Janiak has worked mostly as an assistant to various movie producers, and “Honeymoon” marks her directorial debut. I honestly find this to be a very impressive debut as she avoids a lot of rookie mistakes many filmmakers tend to make their first time out. She also doesn’t rely on a lot of blood and gore (although there is a bit of them here and there), and she instead lets the characters drive the movie while creating an atmosphere which makes you feel increasingly isolated from everything and everybody else.

I’m not familiar with Rose Leslie’s work as an actress, partly because I haven’t watched “Game of Thrones” which she has appeared on. On top of giving us a perfect American accent, she makes her character of Bea very down to earth to where we shudder as she endures things no human being should ever have to. She also has a very natural and appealing quality which makes us care even more about her horrific predicament. It’s a surprise to learn this is one of her very first movies as she shows a confidence in front of the camera which takes a long time to build up, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Treadaway, whom you might remember from the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” also turns in an equally strong performance as Paul. While a lot of actors in horror movies tend to emote more than act, you can tell Treadaway isn’t faking a single emotion we see him experiencing onscreen. He drags us almost forcefully into Paul’s mindset as he desperately tries to help the love of his life, and he makes you feel his desperation as it becomes increasingly evident time is running out for him to do so.

“Honeymoon” ends on an ambiguous note which may drive some audience members who want everything spelled out for them crazy, but it shows just how effective Janiak’s work as a director is. She keeps stringing us along and keeps us intrigued all the way through, and the movie’s final moment taps into our own dark and primal fears. There are no easy answers, only an inevitability the characters try to resist.

Everyone involved in “Honeymoon’s” production clearly had more on their mind than just giving you the same old thing. It deserves a much bigger audience than it has received so far. My hope is horror fans will check it out sooner rather than later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *