Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mysteria (2011)

Mysteria [(DVD)]. Arramis Films presents a Mysteria LLC production in association with Gruntworks Entertainment and Omnicomm Films; written and directed by Lucius C. Kuert. [Boca Raton, Fla.]: Green Apple Entertainment, 2012. Originally released as a motion picture in 2011. Performers: Martin Landau, Danny Glover, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, Robert Miano.
Summary: a has-been writer drafts the story of his life, and quite possibly his death. Once celebrated, Aleister Bain is now a whiskey-soaked, washed-up Hollywood screenwriter. Secluded in a sleazy hotel, he's desperately struggling to finish a script, with no success. But in this noir-esque thriller, truth is stranger than fiction and the chain-smoking Bain abruptly finds himself at the center of an investigation into the murder of a prominent politician's wife.

style ***
substance ***

Mysteria wasn’t an easy film for me to warm to, but as I got accustomed to the quirky pacing and flashback/flash forward style I liked it more and more until it became, as they say, compulsively watchable. It's difficult to categorize Mysteria: the closest to a broad brushstroke description would be neo-noir, but more specifically it's a kind of existential retro-thriller parody with lots of B movie overtones, which I suppose is a long-winded way of saying it’s neo-noir. The story takes place in a Los Angeles-like environ in a frozen, late 80s (or thereabouts) gestalt, but it's all a little vague.

To some extent Mysteria has to be catnip to fans of noir, and of course several noir films are specifically mentioned, including The Killing, the choppy, nonlinear style of which Mysteria mimics. Other films that are referenced, either by design or no, include Dead of Night, The Usual Suspects, Memento, and especially Mulholland Drive.

Mysteria is well-cast. The familiar names – Landau, Zane, and Glover – have what amount to little more than extended cameos. But it's Robert Miano's movie all the way and he's perfect for the role: he essays the confused, unkempt, unshaven, needing-a-shower, always late, always-smoking-a-cigarette hero in eminently underplayed style and somehow it works perfectly.

Mysteria pulls out just about every neo-noir trope in the book: along with the murky look and labyrinthine plot we have near-caricatures of the sleazy private eye and especially the down-on-his-luck screenwriter (is there any other kind?). Aleister Bain is a gin-swilling, chain smoking, disheveled, onetime success who lives in a low-class hotel where he can't pay his rent, and of course he has writer's block. A bright spot in his life is the beautiful blonde film student (played by Meadow Williams) who's his biggest fan and a kind of Gal Friday wannabe.

Ultimately the story leaves quite a bit unresolved, to say the least. And I like that. And as some commentators have noted Mysteria was obviously produced on a small budget, thus its mildly amateurish look and feel. But that’s not a problem for me, in fact it’s more of a strength. In any case it’s a fun movie. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

There's something about a paranoid thriller : Closed Circuit (2013)

Closed circuit [DVD]. Focus Features presents a Working Title production; screenplay by Steve Knight; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Chris Clark; directed by John Crowley. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2014. Originally released as a motion picture in 2013. Bonus feature: ‘Secrets behind the camera: Closed circuit’. Performers: Julia Stiles, Ciaran Hinds, Jim Broadbent, Eric Bana, Anne-Marie Duff, Rebecca Hall.
Summary: One morning, a busy London market is decimated by an explosion. In the manhunt that follows, only one member of the suspected terrorist cell survives: Farroukh Erdogan, who is arrested and jailed. Martin and Claudia are lawyers and ex-lovers who find themselves bound together again and put at risk after they join the defense team for an international terrorist's trial.

“There are powers at play that neither you nor I may even hope to control.”

Closed Circuit
may not be a great movie, or give us a lot that’s new, but it does tell its story in a cool, competent, sometimes stylish way that makes it a very easy-to-watch, if unsettling, cinematic experience. Most of the paranoid tropes are present: terrorist incident; well-meaning, frequently menaced defense lawyers; pushy, not-so-appealing American journalist; oily bureaucrats; malevolent spy organization; clandestine meetings in parks; suspicious suicides; cover-ups; mysterious powers behind the scenes pulling the strings.

All the skullduggery is presented in a murky, hero-looking-over-his-shoulder style, and in this case the paranoia is not only topical but both tangible and mechanical. The technology put to use in our surveillance-state world and its Hitchcockian, film-world ramifications is placed front and center, specifically the camera-created world, which watches and records our every move, and the political world, which gathers data from the citizenry to be used by the politicians to “protect” said citizens. Truth be told, this aspect of the film wasn’t developed as much as one might have hoped for, but what we are given – strong performances by the principals, good production values, and the intelligent, fast-moving script – is sufficient to raise the film to the ranks of well-heeled time passer if not exactly a masterpiece.

Happily, for the writer anyway, a goodly portion of the story involved the minutiae of legal grunt work and the resultant peek into the somewhat arcane British legal system. I loved the scene where Bana and sidekick enter a room filled with piles and piles of legal briefs and other documents. But despite the weighty legal, political and philosophical issues involved, there’s not a lot in Closed Circuit’s treatment that’s particularly original. As mentioned above, we’ve seen it all before, arguably done better. To some extent CC morphs, about half way through, into a conventional suspense thriller, a pretty good one at that, even if the ending seems truncated and strained.

In short: there’s not much that’s new in Closed Circuit, but not much that’s wrong either.

style ***

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The curse of the crying woman (La maldición de la Llorona)

The curse of the crying woman / La maldición de la Llorona [DVD]. Alameda Films, CasaNegra presents a film by Rafael Baledón; screenplay by Rafael Baledón & Fernando Galiana; directed by Rafael Baledón. Panik House Entertainment; Ryko Distribution, 2006. Originally released as a motion picture in 1961. Cast: Rita Macedo, Rosita Arenas, Abel Salazar, Carlos Lopez, Moctezuma, Enrique Lucero. 
Summary: a young woman inherits a creepy mansion from her reclusive aunt and gradually discovers its secrets, which include cursed bloodlines, mysterious murders, and supernatural magic.

style ****
substance ***

Accompanied by her husband, a naïve young woman visits her eccentric auntie, who lives in a decaying mansion. When they arrive, a scarred, clubfooted servant greets them in most menacing fashion while the auntie is nowhere to be found. As the couple settles in, creepy sounds of a wailing woman and ominous organ music can be heard in the middle of the night. Things only get worse for the visitors as the night progresses. 

If all this sounds familiar it’s, well, because it is. Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldición de la Llorona) follows the familiar Gothic formula while throwing in a few, decidedly Mexican, twists and tricks of its own. Beautifully filmed at night and often described as the Mexican Black Sunday, the film is one of the summits of Mexican horror cinema and abounds in the genre’s trademark creepy atmospherics: hovering fog, candle lit dungeons, dilapidated castles, endless stairways, howling wolves, and lots of dead trees. In overall elegance of production I would rate it a whisker below Black Sunday, but with its own quirks and charms, which is another way of saying it’s pretty darn good.

Unrepentantly Gothic and with references not only to witchcraft but also voodoo, vampirism and lycanthropy, Crying Woman has all the genre’s requisite tropes: an inherited curse, pervasive madness, a menaced heroine, well meaning but ineffectual hero, sexy witch who is also a femme fatale, deformed servant, madman in the attic, rundown old castle, magical mirrors, dour portraits, and an intermingling of life and death, all done in a quintessentially Mexican style.

A veritable catalog of cinematic sleight-of-hand conjures up all these moods: miniatures, trick shots, lighting effects, rubber bats, foam rubber makeup, shadows, spooky sound effects, trap doors, elaborate staircases, fog machines, zooms, heavy-handed music score, rear projection and so on. Thus the striking similarity not only to the elegant Italian horror films of the era, but also the cheesy potboilers William Castle was serving us at about the same time, House on Haunted Hill in particular. But Crying Woman is a lot classier than Haunted Hill, and in its way scarier. All the more impressive that its high level of technical accomplishment was done so on a much smaller budget than its Hollywood and European counterparts.

In any case, the Mexican folktale of “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) has many variations and can be found in the local folklore of Hispanic communities from the American Southwest to the Philippines. The Curse of the Crying Woman is a very loose adaption of the original legend. In this version, the villainous Selma tries to use her niece in order to resurrect the ancient specter of La Llorona.

Selma is played by Rita Macedo, who projects a strong screen presence in the role of country estate matriarch who moonlights as a high priestess and sometimes eyeless witch. She’s supported by a fine cast of veteran Mexican actors but it’s really her show all the way. Whether playing the organ or metamorphosing into witch mode through one of her sinister trances, she oozes a malevolent sensuality that overlays a smoldering evil: seldom have we seen a witch this hot (burned at the stake or no) [1]. All in all, a marvelous, scenery chomping performance as the black magic woman.

My regard for the Mexican Horror genre grows with each new film I see, and if Curse of the Crying Woman is any representation, Mexico was a great country for Gothic cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Though it my have some minor flaws, La Maldición de La Llorana is a quasi-masterpiece and nudges for a place in the top tier of horror films of the era.

CasaNegra’s re-mastered print looks like a million dollars and the special features include commentary by Michael Liuzza and a full color booklet, "The Legend of La Llorona" by Peter Landau. Delectably macabre and just plain beautiful to look at, Crying Woman is a must-see for fans of offbeat horror films.

[1] Barbara Steele, in the aforementioned Black Sunday is also pretty steamy. Is it just me, or does Rita Macedo bear a vague resemblance to Miss Steele? Maybe it’s all that black they wear.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

There’s something about a paranoid thriller : The Double (2011)

The Double. [DVD], Image Entertainment, 2012. Director: Michael Brandt; writers: Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. Performers: Richard Gere, Topher Grace, Martin Sheen, Odette Annable, Stana Katic, Stephen Moyer. Summary: When a United States Senator is brutally murdered, the evidence points to a Soviet assassin code-named Cassius, long-thought to be dead. Two men who know Cassius best are assigned to track him down. Both men think they know Cassius, but one - or both - may be dead wrong. Bonus features: producer interviews and commentary with Michael Brandt and Derek Haas.

Style ***1/2
Substance ***

I was prepared to dislike this film. Certainly the formula is all too familiar: prominent person who ends up dead; invisible arch-villain working for mysterious, hostile powers; undercurrent of doom highlighted by a dark, menacing score; sweeping but threatening vistas of D.C.; intense, ambiguous albeit appealing hero; amoral bureaucrats; high voltage chase scene; brutal hand-to-hand fights; murky ending. But like it I did, and thus I must dissent from the mostly lukewarm to negative reviews it’s received.

Admittedly we’ve seen it all before – the paranoid thriller has been around at least since Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May over a half century ago, and can be traced even farther back if we count film noir in the mix, which we might well do.

The genre really hit its stride, however, in the 1970s and 1980s and shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, in today’s climate it seems more to the point than ever. And when executed as well as our present film The Double, it can be darn near irresistible. Another plus is that Double has, relatively speaking, a minimum of onscreen violence for this type of film. And who cares if our story is more than a tad implausible and has a plot hole or two?

Double pleased me and will please fans of the genre with its clever script, high powered leads and impressive production values. It becomes an instant inductee into my pantheon of movies I hate to love, but love them I do. Or put another way: for people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.