Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Original caricature by Jeff York of Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey from the new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67. (copyright 2017)

Was Jayne Mansfield the Kim Kardashian of her time? The new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67 makes the argument without uttering those words. It lets its audience fill in such blanks. After all, as showcased in the terrific new film opening this weekend from directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, Mansfield was an actress known as much for her publicity seeking and camera hogging schemes as for her talent. Plus, Mansfield defined her era’s sexual ideal the same way that Kardashian does her generation, flaunting a cartoonish sex appeal and larger-than-life figure. It makes this new movie not only a fascinating study of history but a relevant editorial on how fleeting and shallow fame can be in Tinsel Town. No matter what the decade.

Long before Mrs. West was ‘breaking the internet’ repeatedly, Mansfield herself was reaping all kinds of magazine covers, gossip column ink, and PR from her overtly sexual schemes. Mansfield was a talented comic actress, no doubt, sort of a caricature of Marilyn Monroe in her way, and yet her greatest talent was in self-promotion. Long before sex tapes could turn an heiress’ best friend into a multimillionaire, Mansfield was using her sexuality to climb the ladder to success. Coming from the world of beauty pageants and modeling, and a significant presence in the early pages of Playboy, Mansfield made sure she became an icon of the era, and a physical representation of the larger-than-life industry in La-la Land.

Interestingly, the actress did have the talent as well as the body. Her comedic skills received raves when she starred on Broadway in the romantic comedy WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER in 1955? She received rave reviews and Hollywood quickly cast her in the film version of it. Not only were her 40-21-35 measures eye-catching, but her personality took the big screen by storm too. Her comic timing, her warmth, and an innate ability to make fun of herself, endeared her to audiences and Tinsel Town executives alike. Her tireless work ethic also appealed to filmmakers who were tired of dealing with the emotional juggernaut and erratic on-set behavior of troubled rival Monroe. 

Mansfield soon became in demand, as well as a household name, at least with most of the male movie-going audience. Amongst her best credits were starring turns in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, THE WAYWARD BUS, and KISS THEM FOR ME, where she received star billing alongside the legendary Cary Grant.

Unfortunately, from there, Mansfield’s career started to waver. Age is never kind to actresses, let alone sex symbols. Plus, tastes were changing as the nation veered into the 60’s. A more naturalistic, even hippie style feminine look started to take hold, and the platinum-coiffed Mansfield suddenly seemed as outdated as her leopard spot and polka dot bikinis. Hurting her resume as well were her numerous pregnancies which kept her from cultivating her career. Ultimately, Mansfield’s greatest productions were the five children she had from her three marriages. (She was married three times in 15 years.) 

As fame waned, Mansfield made all sorts of attempts to stay in the limelight. She recorded a pop music album and proved to be a very fine singer. Mansfield also recorded the novelty disc Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me. There, she defied her dumb blonde image by passionately reciting the Bard’s sonnets and poems against classical music in the background. Few knew it, but Mansfield was actually one smart cookie. Her IQ was measured at 149. Indeed, her looks were quite deceiving. (She also was a natural brunette, but then no one on God's green earth has ever had such platinum tresses naturally.)

Still, the bimbo image made it difficult for Mansfield to be taken seriously in some circles, and after a while, she started to just give in and go with it. She created a nightclub act where she sang, shimmied and cooed her way through pop standards. The aging actress even agreed to help launch grocery stores in the LA area, and attend whatever red-carpet movie premiere ticket she could get her hands on. Apparently, the desperate actress even crashed some.  

Her most stunning move was in 1966 and 1967 when she started dabbling in occultism alongside Anton LaVey, the founder and head of America’s Church of Satan. More of a hedonistic outlet for her narcissistic excesses, Mansfield nonetheless allowed herself to be photographed performing Satanic rituals alongside LaVey in full devil’s garb. Such shenanigans earned her as much bad PR as positive ones, but some believe any publicity is good publicity. Mansfield, at that point in her career, obviously thought anything would help.

All of this is featured in the documentary, but what makes MANSFIELD 66/67 so much more than an expert A & E network profile is the fun and kitsch that the filmmakers add to their film. Ebersole and Hughes interview dozens of name celebrities about Mansfield and some of them are outright coups. John Waters provides some of the wittier and more insightful barbs. And you’d expect such a doc to include 50’s sexpot Mamie Van Doren and tabloid journalist A.J. Benza, but when’s the last time Kenneth Anger gave such an exclusive on-camera interview? The author/occultist/filmmaker famously put Mansfield on the cover of his landmark 1965 tell-all Hollywood Babylon and here he provides a ton of insight into what drove her regarding the relationship she had with LaVey. (He suggests they had a sexual affair without saying outright that they did.)

An interpretive dance scene from MANSFIELD 66/67.
This film also utilizes a treasure trove of photos and film that have rarely been seen before to help chronicle all aspects of Mansfield’s life. And for those moments that the filmmakers don’t have such pics, they create their own content, often in hilarious ways. Documenting some of the crazier moments, Ebersole and Hughes  employ staged recreations, even incorporating some cheeky animated storytelling. They also use interpretative dance, tongues and toes planted firmly in cheek of course, as well as some original songs written for the doc to highlight various parts of Mansfield’s sorted history. It all keeps even the heavier moments from bogging down and becoming depressing. 

That’s especially helpful during the documentary’s final section where it delves into Mansfield’s notorious death from a car crash in 1967. She was in Biloxi, MI for an engagement at a supper club when the Buick carrying her, her companion Sam Brody, and three of her children – Miklós, Zoltán and Mariska – crashed into a tractor-trailer at 2:20 in the AM. The adults in the front seat were killed instantly, along with one of Mansfield’s beloved Chihuahua’s, yet the sleeping children in the back seat survived with only minor injuries. The film shows off plenty of lurid accident police photos, even an utterly unseemly one of the lifeless dog.

Mansfield with LaVey in 1967.
For decades, the rumor that Mansfield was decapitated in that accident added an unsavory notoriety to her biography, but that simply wasn’t the truth. Those death scene shots caught one with her platinum blonde wig amongst the wreckage, leading to the rumors that it was her whole head. The filmmakers here make a point to clear up the falsehood once and for all by including documentation, not to mention film of an interview with Mansfield’s embalmer. Of course, it is only fitting that the life of a woman so public would achieve some of her greatest fame in death, and that fact is not lost in this film. Arguably, it is the cherry on the top of its darkly comic assessment of the notorious star.

Missing from this doc, and rather conspicuously at that, are any interviews with her closest family members. Especially interesting is the very little said about TV star Mariska Hargitay, Mansfield's  daughter from her second marriage to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. Mariska overcame her troubled childhood with her mother to build one of the more incredible careers in television. (She's been one of its top stars and highest paid actresses for over a decade.) Granted, I didn’t expect such an interview here, but omitting more mention of her seems like an oversight.

In 1967, film critic and trash film expert Whitney Williams wrote of Mansfield in Variety: "her personal life out-rivaled any of the roles she played." This film argues that case as well, making for a timely lesson on Hollywood and the cost of fame. The release of this film can only benefit from all the Harvey Weinstein talk and how hard the town is on female talent. Jayne Mansfield was truly one of those talents – gorgeous, funny, and whip smart. Still, that wasn’t enough, and even making whatever sort of pact with the devil couldn’t help her as much as she had hoped.

The cover of Kenneth Anger's notorious 1965 tell-all featuring Mansfield falling out of her dress.
Dying early, in a lurid and unforgettable way, certainly did manage to cement Mansfield's place in the pantheon of Hollywood celebrity in a way the rest of her career could not, but was that too large a price to pay for poor Jayne? Hmmm...

Monday, October 23, 2017


With Halloween season in full swing, there is a ton of horror out there to see. This weekend, Yorgos Lathimos throws his hat into the ring with THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. It’s a very well-made horror/psychological thriller whose title comes a from the Greek story of Agamemnon who accidentally kills a deer in the grove of the goddess Artemus. To appease the angry goddess, he is compelled to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Indeed, a similar bargain is struck in this story too, though the reference to Agamemnon is never fully explained. Lathimos’ story begs other questions too, some of them, never fully answered either. It makes for a horror tale that can confound due to such a lack of clarity. The movie also makes one egregious genre mistake that prevents it from being truly affecting.

For horror to work properly, and not just be silly trash, two tenets must always be honored. First, the fear of death needs to dominate the narrative more than actual death. Dread is more powerful and palpable than bloodletting. And films that rely on buckets of blood and gore will revolt the audience. This is where the SAW franchise went wrong. The first film was all about dread. The sequels were all about more elaborate ways to kill people. Second, characters in horror movies should not be too stupid or the audience will give up on them. Audience empathy is always key, and no one wants to root for characters too dumb to respect. Lathimos totally nails the first one, building an incredible sense of dread from the very get-go. Unfortunately, in the third act of his movie, his characters start to act inexplicably stupid and one’s emotional investment starts to wane.

What a shame, because THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER has a wonderful sense of foreboding throughout. It starts with its very first shot – a close-up of open-heart surgery being performed. The throbbing organ looks hideous, almost like some sort of breathing alien in a monster movie. Then, as we watch further, we worry that a scalpel will slip and do terrible damage to the heart. Lathimos places us on the edge of our seats right there, and we’re there almost to the end. Almost.

Lathimos also succeeds with his film’s music cues. They’re big and bombastic even though they often accompany benign shots of empty hospital corridors or conference room meetings. It’s a fun, over-the-top way of foreshadowing all the horrors that will soon be taking place in such a ‘safe’ setting. The production values are top-notch too. Thimios Bakatakis’ camera knows just when to get in tight on a face for the audience to register lies being told, as well as when to pull back to keep a cool and objective distance from the horrific things happening on screen. Even his wide shots of the rich mansion are framed to almost suggest a prison. Bravo!

The director also ensures that his cast of characters are sneaky and deceitful,  adding more menace and mischief to the mix. Bushy-bearded cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) talks around people, dispassionately chatting mostly about minutiae. Whether it’s discussing watch band preferences with his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp), or making small talk at a meal with his family, Murphy is distant and aloof. So is his family. Wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Siljic) seem to talk without ever really expressing what they’re feeling. This is one frosty family.

But they’re not nearly as creepy as the fatherless teen that Dr. Murphy is cultivating a strained and strange relationship with. Martin (Barry Keoghan, a million miles from his sweet turn in DUNKIRK) pushes the doc to meet with him at diners and parks and keeps dropping in on him at work. And Murphy is buying the boy gifts too. Why? It turns out that the boy’s father died on Murphy’s operating table and the surgeon feels sorry for the teen. It’s a very inappropriate response, suggesting that the doctor feels extreme guilt over his failure to keep the parent alive, and it’s rendered even more complicated when Murphy accepts dinner invitations to the boy’s home, and invites him over to dine with his brood as well. Sexual tensions intrude on both dinners as Martin’s lonely mom (a game Alicia Silverstone) flirts with Murphy, and when Martin visits his home, he and Kim make goo-goo eyes at each other.

Soon, Martin will insinuate himself further into Murphy’s family and start secretly dating Kim. Then, not long after that, young Bob loses the feeling in his legs. He’s checked into that foreboding hospital, and indeed, his condition seems dire. When the same paralysis befalls Kim, Martin informs Murphy that he’s the one who’s brought upon their pains. He tells Murphy that he blames him for the death of his dad, and he wants retribution. Thus, like Agamemnon, Murphy must wrestle with the idea that Martin proposes to even the playing field. Either he kills one of the three members of his family or Martin will ensure that they all die.

For the next half hour after that, as the two children’s paralysis worsens and the medical staff is stymied about the cause, the tension ratchets up magnificently. But then, Lathimos makes some very wrong turns with his movie. The children come home to be nursed there, and it seems more like the filmmaker’s way to get them away from others to serve the needs of his story versus sound medical decisions that the characters onscreen would likely make. Also, no one in the story ever finds out what was ailing the kids. Those aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but they are plot holes that take the audience out of the picture. Lathimos should know better, but then he lets the whole shebang slip through his fingers.

Murphy kidnaps Martin and holds him hostage in the basement and with that crazy plot point, the movie passes the point of no return. From there on, each of the characters does one ridiculous thing after another. The police are never involved. The characters become crazy violent. Other times, they act wholly namby-pamby. The paralysis continues. Kim still pines. And it all leads to a virtual game of “eeny meeny miney moe” with a rifle that would be almost laughable if it didn’t lead to the utter unraveling of what was good horror up until then.

Some critics have suggested that this story is really a metaphor, that the characters are symbolic of the fraying family unit writ large, a Greek tragedy or a dissertation on the Bible. Really? Well, that may be the director's hidden meaning in it all, but why couldn’t his film have played straighter and more cogently? Why does logic have to go so wildly by the way side in that last half hour? And why are these people at the end of it all no smarter than the fools who Jason used to slaughter with so much ease in the wretched franchise that was FRIDAY THE 13TH? When characters stop acting like logical human beings and become symbols, we in the audience stop caring.

To such things, I cry, “Boo!” And not in the way that befits this Halloween season.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


It may only be October, but THE SNOWMAN is going to top a lot of critics’ lists as the worst film of the year, and rightfully so. Its mess of a screenplay, confusing direction, and labored acting makes this adaptation of the 2007 book written by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo an utter debacle. It’s so bad, it’s hilarious, and you can listen to two of the funnier reviews of it here and here. (Kudos to Eric Hardman of the YouTube video review program entitled "That Kid at the Movies" for making me laugh out loud a number of times with his takedown!) Still, THE SNOWMAN should have been great and therefore needs a thorough autopsy. And oh yes, there will be spoilers. Lots of them. 

All the makings were there for a sharp thriller in the style of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the George Smiley novels. Nesbo’s original novel concerns a shrewd but hard-drinking veteran detective named Harry Hole (more on that later) who is being taunted by a serial killer who is doing away with troubled moms using a homemade snowman at the crime scene to serve as his calling card. Even better, the book dives deeply into the police department politics, not unlike Sheriff Brody’s feuds with the mayor and town council in the early part of JAWS. The SNOWMAN is the seventh in the series of Nesbo’s books with Hole as the protagonist and the tension of his page-turners come in as he examines Hole’s expertise at his job, his self-destruction in his personal life, and the power struggles that occur within the police department and among the local officials.

To lose all that “palace intrigue” is just one of the mistakes made here. In fact, there are 11 huge blunders that sank this adaptation:


Whenever a movie fails, you can start with the screenplay. You’d think that starting with ripe source material is key, but what if you ignore it? That’s what happened here. The adaptors kept all the clichéd stuff, like a brilliant detective who alone knows what is going on, and lost all the items that made the book more special. The loss of most of the internal politics is one of the bad choices the screenwriters made here. Granted, a two-hour movie cannot have everything, but scripters Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sveistrup would have been wiser to keep the fresher aspects of the procedural.

They also should’ve kept the Katrine Bratt character that Nesbo wrote. In the novel, she’s a superb detective, Hole’s love interest, as well as a corrupted official who ends up in a psychiatric unit. In comparison, the movie Bratt comes off as an inept cop, a snide harpy, and ultimately, an all too easy victim of the killer’s.

Additionally, the screenplay is marred irreparably by introducing side stories and back stories that drift away like the blizzard snow does in so many scenes. Val Kilmer is introduced as a brilliant detective in flashbacks but his character has only a handful of lines and we have no clue as to what makes him so special. J.K. Simmons’ character of the smarmy politician Arve Stop is one big red herring but little else, and then the script goes and forgets all about him in the last half hour. The script also seems disjointed throughout, possibly due to what director Tomas Alfredson confessed during the press junket. He admitted that changes in weather, the crew, and other production problems led to him not being able to shoot 10-15 % of the working script. And...scene.


It’s easy to give an antihero flaws like alcoholism and arrogance, but has the screenwriter fleshed out what drives the character's self-destruction? This movie never bothers to tell us how Hole truly fell into  such a dismal state. Was there no police counseling, AA meetings, or even a friend there to help him? And tell us, what makes him brilliant? Most of his deductions seems rather obvious to any armchair detective in the audience.  Why does he wear the same clothes in every scene? Is he so out of it even when he's sober that he lacks basic social awareness? And what kind of detective walks into the bedroom of a child who's just lost her mother, with no adult supervision, braying like a mule upon seeing her in a donkey mask as she's hiding from the world? 

Worst of all, his name is Harry Hole. I’m not sure that even the porn industry would find that name acceptable in a movie.


Is there something wrong with Michael Fassbender these days? Is he getting bored with acting? Since his Oscar nomination for STEVE JOBS in 2015, he seems to be uninterested in building definitive characters. Too inert in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, a one-note asshat in SONG TO SONG, Fassbender even seemed dispassionate playing the dueling leads in ALIEN: COVENANT. Here, he’s even less invested as he mutters his lines through clenched teeth or in vague whispers. Maybe he knew the final script was a stinker and he’s trying to lay low. Still, his somnolent approach drags the material down further.


There are a lot of fine actors in this film, and they're given precious little to sink their teeth into. Charlotte Gainsborough plays “the wife” character and she’s mostly window dressing until the very end. Acclaimed British thespian Toby Jones shows up for virtually one scene, lasting about a minute, and is given only a handful of lines. Why cast such an exceptional talent in such an unexceptional part? And poor Chloe Sevigny…she plays one of the Snowman’s victims, a woman who raises chickens and ends up decapitated after barely two minutes of screen time. Geez, her prop dummy head gets more screen time.


Speaking of glorified cameos that aren't glorious in the least, Val Kilmer has a critical part but it's rendered ludicrous by the performance onscreen. Yes, he's been very ill, and God knows his reputation has suffered from erratic behavior over the years, but if you’re going to cast him as the central figure in a number of important flashbacks, he better deliver a meaningful and cogent performance. At the very least, he shouldn't be allowed to egregiously chew the scenery like he does here. And it sounds like his voice has been dubbed over with a different actor. Could Kilmer not deliver his lines? Were his readings all the more laughable? Whatever it is, when he's on screen, he stops the drama cold.


Chloe Sevigny and J.K. Simmons speaks with vague Nordic accents, but you’ll barely hear it in the words that Fassbender and Ferguson speak. At least in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, director David Fincher strived to have all his cast attempt a Swedish accent. Such consistency seems to have been lost here. The hodgepodge of different tongues plays as lazy oversight at best and throws off the film’s believability at worst.


Of course, the serial killer writes notes to taunt Hole. Ever since the Zodiac and the Son of Sam, movies have milked this trope to death. In his prose he teases, “All the clues are there.” No actually, they are not. That sounds good on paper and in the film's marketing (See the poster above.) but it's false advertising. For example, sometimes the killer cuts up the body parts and leaves them laying around like the Ice Truck Killer from the first season of DEXTER. Other times, he forgets to be true to his form. So how exactly is he giving us all the clues? Frankly, the whole Snowman shtick seems utterly contrived, playing more like the conceit of an author who needed a hook rather than a peccadillo of a deranged murderer.


Starting the film with a long flashback focusing on a horrific event that sets the killer on his path of destruction puts the cart before the horse. Why shut off the possibility that the killer could be a woman? Even worse, it encourages the audience to find the adult actor who most closely resembles the kid they cast. Only one actor fits that bill, and the show is ruined 20 minutes in.


Alfredson is a terrific director, as evidenced by his taut and intelligent LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, so how did he lose control of the ship here? What happened to those 10-15 pages? Why doesn't the editing of the film connect the dots better, especially with as esteemed an editor as Thelma Schoonmaker working on it. And how could Alfredson leave so many plot points dangling? 

In one of the worst examples of threads going nowhere, Hole’s apartment is renovated as his home has a mold problem. (It's a metaphor for Hole’s character which plays too on-the-nose by half.) Then, later in the story, it would appear that the killer has snuck into Hole's hovel disguised as a worker. Yet, nothing comes of it. It's never paid off. There are a number of instances like that throughout this misbegotten movie.

Alfredson is a director who creates moody atmospheres and has showcased his great skill with actors, directing Gary Oldman to his first Oscar nomination for TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and getting two of the best performances in the history of horror cinema out of children! His cinematography is always thoughtful, the production design A plus, as is most everything else. So what happened here? Perhaps the DVD extras will explain some of the problems more thoroughly. 


Alfredson does get a lot of inexplicable minutiae into the final film, though most of it makes the audience scratch their heads. For example, why does Stop take a cellphone pic of all his conquests? Or for that matter, why does the police crew assigned to Hole seem so loosey-goosey all the time, to the point where they seem to be treating the investigation as an opportunity to break into dancing in their war room? And why does the first victim turn around and smile at the serial killer when he beans her with a snowball in the parking lot as she's walking to her car? Does she know the man? Shouldn't that be explained? And here's a confounding detail...what in the hell is it with having the killer obsessed with the novelty song “Popcorn” from the 70’s? It plays three times in the film, and for this child of that decade, that is three times too many. 


At the end of the day, it's hard for a thriller to keep its audience guessing when the show is all too woefully predictable. For  example, Detective Bratt hides in Stop’s hotel room to nab him, or so she thinks, but someone else happens to sneak in the room instead. Gee, do you think it might be the killer? Then, the killer nabs the hero’s ex and doesn't seem true to his M.O. in killing his victims quickly and savagely. Instead, she remains alive, even after he's put a metal cord around her neck to behead her. Is that so the hero will have enough time to save her? Ya' think? And when the hero chases that now reluctant killer out onto an icy lake, do you think the bad guy might hit the spot where it's weakest and fall through into a icy, watery death? If you answered no to any of those questions, you've never seen a movie in your life.

Should a film like THE SNOWMAN warrant this much dissection? Perhaps not, and there are likely worse B movies out there this year, but this film's failings point to how so much gets bungled by time, money, and the decisions by committee in Tinsel Town. What should have been a sure-fire hit turns into very possibly the worst movie of 2017. A movie with this much talent associated with it should not be such a deadly dud. This film forgot to keep its audience emotionally invested, with inspired action, and a genuinely terrifying villain. If a thriller fails to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, folks start looking at their watches. I know I was looking at mine. Mostly, I was clocking how much more screen time Chloe Sevigny's prop head received versus the actual actress.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


A scene from the horror/comedy short FUCKING BUNNIES.
The Chicago International Film Festival always does an outstanding job of introducing films to the Midwest that most people would likely never get to see. Foreign films, arthouse fare, shorts – these are films that usually screen only on the coasts, but for decades the CIFF has been ensuring that we see them too. A particular treat are the horror films that the CIFF gets its hands on each autumn as part of their "After Dark" series. Granted, there are plenty of horror movies that open at the local Cineplex any given month, but the frighteners only available at the CIFF are one-of-a-kind must-sees for any true horror fan. 

“Living After Midnight: After Dark” is the name of this year’s collection that will show just one time, so mark your calendars. Friday night, October 20th at 10:15 PM at the AMC River East 21 in downtown Chicago is when you can catch five films from various corners of the world intended to make audiences shake, shudder, and move to the edge of their seats. And, as is always the case with a collection of works, not all the children will be loved equally. Still, all of this year's slate are thought-provoking at least,  if not outright thrilling and chilling.

Here is this horror buff’s take on the six that you can see in short order with the CIFF’s 75-minute program Friday eve:


Yes, that is the name of one of the shorts and it’s the best one too. (Its original Finish title was “Saatanan Kanit.”) In this 18-minute dark comedy, a Finnish man named Raimo (Jouko Puolanto) and his wife Kirsi (Minna Suuronen) must contend with quirky new neighbors who’ve moved in down the hall. Just who are these interlopers upsetting their world? Why, they're a cult of sex-obsessed Satanists. This is not a horrifying revelation as it was in ROSEMARY’S BABY, but rather the impetus for a sitcom-like take on tolerance and diversity.

The cult members, headed up by the genial leader Maki (Janne Reinikainen), make no bones about what they’re doing. They all wear satanic makeup day and night, complete with upside down crosses drawn on their foreheads. The group openly burn effigies in the garbage dumpster outside, and parlor games in Maki’s living room consist of the orgy and ritual torturing kind. Maki would love to make a connection with Raimo, who is quite the middle-aged stick in the mud, but he's continually turned down even after inviting them over for dinner and an “Eternal Night of Blasphemy and Sodomy.” Some people are just party poopers, no?

Now, if you’re laughing at that line then you will adore the rest of Antti Toivonen’s inspired comic script. Not only are their loads of similar exchanges, but there are sight gags a plenty too. One of the best is when Maki’s crew carries a ginormous cross from the freight elevator to the apartment as if they’re moving in an unwieldy davenport. At least there are no pet sacrifices. (Toivonen must have read Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" screenwriting book!)

Director Teemu Niukkanen keeps it all bubbling along, earning raucous laughs from not just the game cast, but from droll camera shots, quicksilver editing, and  comically timed hits of metal rock to underscore all the silly sacrilege. FUCKING BUNNIES even manages to wring outrageous laughs out of carrot juice, racket sports, and the overly cold and precise design aesthetics of the Finnish. Some of those sterile apartments look positively horrifying here. Indeed, in this short, even the interior designs are funny/scary. 


At the beginning of INNARDS, an 11-minute short written and directed by Todd Rubenfeld, a suburban man is organizing clothing at night to be sold at a garage sale. He’s interrupted by a persistent customer who doesn’t care that the sale hasn’t begun yet. This sellee not only chats up the blasé seller for five minutes, but fails to realize the old man virtually ignores his every word the entire time. The buyer finds an old VHS tape in one of the boxes of junk on the table and is soon regaling the salesman with tales of how he actually starred in the title when he was a child actor.

The one listing on the man's resume is the schlocky 1980’s horror movie called “Innards” that the old man is unloading. And we are shown a couple of its awful and amateurish scenes as the young man takes it home for a dollar to watch and reminisce. As he does, he ponders over who's who in the scene. He and his twin brother shared the role as child labor laws required limited hours on set. That's why so many twin sets are cast for such youthful roles. (And yes, that is how the Olsen Twins happened, folks, with their double duty through all the seasons of FULL HOUSE back in the 80's.) 

As he watches the decrepit VHS copy in his shitbag apartment, the actor calls his twin who still has a career. It doesn't seem to be much of one as evidenced by the terrible makeup being applied backstage, but at least the one twin is still acting. Sadly, for our confused twin, his working brother seems no more interested in what he has to say that the garage sale proprietor. Sometimes loneliness is the most terrifying thing there is.

It’s hardly what you’d expect from a horror short program, but the more you watch this one, the more it unsettles you. In fact, its most unsettling image in the short may be the one of the kid actor frozen by the remote control. The watcher too is frozen in time with nothing to show in his adult life worth listening too. Horrific, indeed.


More zombies yet again? Horror's most famous villains this decade show up in this 7-minute, but they are mostly delightful. As the short starts, a group of human survivors are holed up in some sort of warehouse on the outskirts of town. A zombie horde is ravaging through the garbage of what's outside and finding precious little of interest. By accident, one of the walking dead clicks on an old boom box and it starts playing a dance tune. This triggers the memory of a zombified pizzeria worker and his instincts to groove to the tune takes over.

Soon, his fellow pizzeria victim is watching in awe as his friend busts some moves that would make the hordes in Michael Jackson's THRILLER music video jealous. Director Henry Kaplan keeps the horror present throughout though as the humans try unsuccessfully to escape during the jam. While the one man shakes, rattles and rolls, new victims become remains by the overwhelming number of flesh eaters that won't let them depart. At least a dog who was hiding in the garbage runs to safety. (Looks like the filmmakers here are familiar with Blake Snyder's screenplay rules too.)

500,000 YEARS (Thailand)

This short may be confounding to many as little actually happens in it. Shot as a documentary-style short, it juxtaposes the findings of an archeological dig with the cheeseball aesthetics of a 1980’s Asian horror film being screened at the site. The film has a certain irony to it as we watch a group of explorers set up a makeshift outdoor screen where the homoerectus fossil was discovered in Lampang, but that is what this short is all about. Even amidst such astounding history, man will choose to obsess over silly entertaining fluff. 

Is this film suggesting that nothing is meaningful to our dumbed down society of gawkers and tweeters? Perhaps it’s commenting on how society tends to devaluate anything that takes some time to fully digest and understand in favor of instant gratification. Suffice it to say, there is a strange sense of dread throughout watching such commentary take hold. You wait for something to come out of the jungle, something to break up this silly exercise in schlock watching, but the truly frightening thing here is that man's voyeuristic instincts set our humanity back all too easily.


This is arguably the most oblique of the shorts, a slow build that probably takes too long to get where it's going, even though it clocks in at a mere 13 minutes. Still, it's an interesting examination of man treading into a land where he may not belong or know how to cultivate. 

The term “Plus Ultra” is the motto of the Spanish state, and indeed this short comes to the CIFF from Spanish filmmakers Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Giron. The slogan was used to encourage navigators to conquer new territories in the past, even though such types were often told “Non Terrae Plus Ultra” (There is no land beyond here.) The Canary Islands is the setting here, during the late 1400’s, shortly after the colonization of the Americas. It’s an experimental film, shot on 16-millimeter, and frankly, it has a bit too much of a student film vibe to it, albeit an expensive, on location one.

Nonetheless, Delgado and Giron take their time and painstakingly show the strained efforts of the Spanish settlers in their attempts to conquer strange lands. Lugging supplies, finding refuge, beating the heat, and even sampling local fruits to see if they’re edible, it all plays out here like an exercise in futility. I’m not sure that it’s horror exactly, but one could argue that western man’s attempts to invade various foreign countries and cultures and make them bend willingly was not only terrifying to those in the past, but still is today. Hubris is almost always horrifying.

The beginning of the fake Red Lobster commercial in GREAT CHOICE

Finally, we have GREAT CHOICE, the hysterical and macabre 7-minute short from writer/director Robin Comisar. The premise here is that a woman gets stuck in a Red Lobster commercial, and if you’re chuckling already that simple pitch, wait till you see what Comisar has in store for you. 

It starts with a meticulously recreated commercial for Red Lobster from the 1980's. The copy is a dilapidated and yellowed copy of a VHS - which is a funny way to show how outdated the marketing of the restaurant seems - and even more hilarious is the fact that the chain still runs commercials that are awfully similar to that today. In the spot, a typical Midwestern mother and her family sit down to dinner at Red Lobster and are enticed into ordering the special shrimp menu items being hawked by the effusive staff. Only this is not a real commercial, of course, and pretty soon things will take a “Twilight Zone” turn for the worse.

As the commercial plays over and over again, its setting, characters, and shots become more and more self-aware, as well as darkly vicious. The mom starts to get pissed off by the excessive hucksterism of the wait staff, and those ginormous shrimp platters become utter torture to her. Even the endless slow-motion shots of spurting lemon wedges start to become ominous. Egads, they start cascading blots of blood! Eventually, the grim, grinning host starts acting like a charismatic cult leader and the waitresses become Stepford Wives on automatic pilot. Can this long-suffering mom escape the haunted house that is this casual dining spot or is she doomed to be part of an endless media buying barrage? 

Making knowing glances to Rod Serling, as well as Mel Brooks and his famous ending of BLAZING SADDLES, this short film is a stinging editorial on the crass commercialization of food and family. Those gluttonous platters and the shrill phoniness of TV commercial actors is lampooned brilliantly here, and it's all the more funny because so many products still make spots this ridiculous. 

It’s a funny, chilling, and politically incorrect highlight of the CIFF shorts. Plus, it’s got Carrie Coons, the star of GONE GIRL, FARGO season three, and THE LEFTOVERS, in the lead role. The  sublime short becomes even better knowing they scored such a casting coup.

Carrie Coons as the mom in the Red Lobster spot in GREAT CHOICE
This year’s Chicago International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and it's debuted a ton of terrific features from all over the globe. Shorts and documentaries too. And if you’re a horror fan, you really need to get out and take in this strange and unsettling group of mini-movies. Just be aware as you walk in the door at the River East 21, that you'll like some more than others. But you'll be delightfully disturbed by all of them.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


The new horror/thriller FOUR HANDS (“Die Vierhandige” in German) from writer/director Oliver Kienle made its Midwestern debut at the Chicago Film Festival this weekend and it’s an amazing addition to their “After Dark” series this year. The film is tense, riveting, and does what the best horror always does - it puts the emphasis on dread rather than blood. In fact, this film will have you on the edge of your seat from the first moments of the film until the final credits start to roll. It’s truly one of the most assured works in the genre, and may remind you of the best of David Fincher, as well as acclaimed thrillers like Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966) and Juan Jose Campanella’s THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009). Remenber the name Oliver Kienle, because he is likely going to be the next big deal.

How assured is Kienle’s work here? Quite simply, there is not a wasted moment, line, gesture or expression in his film, with each moment connecting to the horrors at hand. Actually, make that four hands as it all connects to the strange and twisted bond between the two sister protagonists here. When they were younger they were forced to watch their mother killed by a home intruder, and 20 years after the fact, it still haunts their every waking moment, their relationship with each other, and their individual senses of identity. 

The movie starts with a ginormous and imposing 19th century house shown alone on a hill with an industrial plant right next door exuding smoke from its imposing chimney stacks. The sound of the clanking machinery serves almost as a metronome for two little girls playing a piano duet together inside the house's parlor. They are Jessica and Sophie, and their four-handed duet not only captures their sisterly bond but it shows an inherent tension between the two as well. Not long after, their lives are irreparably changed forever when their mother is attacked in the same room as the girls scrabble to hide and end up being witnesses to her stabbing murder mere seconds later.  

The killer is a man who only intended to rob the place with his girlfriend, but they didn't expect to find anyone at home. They try to eliminate the witnesses to their botched burglary but didn't realize that the two young girls were hiding behind the sofa. Only the older Jessica sees the horrible killing as she covers her sister Sophie’s eyes and ears to shield her from the horror. She even whispers to her  that it'll be alright and that she'll always protect her, but this being a horror movie and all, that will soon turn out to be a false promise. 

The murderers are caught, thrown in jail, and the movie moves forward 20 years hence with the adult sisters still together, still living in that huge house, and the industrial plant still chugging away next door. The murderers get parole too, and their release sends the girls into a panic. What will they do? How can they deal with the two ex-cons living in the same town? As the sisters argue about whether or not to move or seek revenge, the timid, brown-haired Sophie (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) rejects talks of murderous schemes from the intense, raven-haired Jessica (Friederike Becht).

The two fight, the way only close siblings can, and their hasty battle ends up getting them run over by an errant car in a parking garage. Jessica doesn't recover from her wounds and her sister's death spirals Sophie into a deep despair. Now she's lost a third family member to the drama of the home intruders, and it starts to make the budding concert pianist crack. She no longer wants to play, and she feels horrendous survivor's guilt. Now, she not only has to deal with the parolees but also her unresolved relationship with her deceased sis.

Whenever a film's story has a twin or close sibling die in the storyline, the remaining one invariably has a difficult time with self awareness and identity. This film is no exception as Sophie starts to feel like she must honor her sister’s vow to protect her by taking on the characteristics of Jessica. And sure enough, it isn't long before Sophie starts acting just like her sister. At least she's aware that she is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, but quicker than you can say "Jekyll & Hyde", Sophie lapses into behavior just like that of her sister, and worse yet, she blacks out during those times and cannot remember what happened. As she tries to identify her actions while 'being Jessica' Sophie will not only run in with the law, but she will discover bruises and wounds that come with no explanation. 

The way Kienle has Sophie turn into Jessica is not done in some cornball special effect way that we're used to seeing with Frederich March or even Jerry Lewis. Rather, Kienle just changes actresses mid-scene to convey that one or the other sister is now dominating.   It’s a fantastic trope, clever each time it’s used, and it helps us understand just who is who. Of course, the shifting identities become more and more difficult to track, and to share any additional spoilers would ruin the fun. Suffice it to say, the way the girls flip back and forth is both clever and exceedingly creepy.  
Filmmaker Oliver Kienle
Kienle is not only an exceptionally clever screenwriter, but he’s an excellent director of his cast too, particularly his two lead actresses. Both Hamann and Becht are superb in very physically demanding and complex roles. Christoph Letkowski is great too in his supporting role as a hospital worker who befriends Sophie during her journey. (One can imagine the American remake already - I can see Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Chris Pine in the parts.) 

Kienle also knows how to add surprises to the tried and true tropes of horror. He ends scenes much quicker than you’d expect, and that adds instant tension to the start of the next scene. Kienle uses both Jessica’s voice and her image to screw with Sophie’s sense of self, and he creates menacing sound design out of the constant rhythm of the local factory noise. They seem to literally propel Sophie’s madness down that road even faster. And as the truth of what’s going on starts to become illuminated, Kienle wittily increases the shadows in Yoshi Heimrath’s cinematography.

Indeed, it says a lot about the brilliance of a psychological horror movie when the revenge angle becomes the clear B story to the A story’s superior thrills and chills. Kienle masterfully brings both of the two stories together seamlessly for his climax as well, and he keeps some of his best surprises for the final denouement. This is one of the year's best horror movies and might even figure into the best foreign language film balloting by critics groups in the remaining months of this year.

It's run is now done at the Chicago International Film Festival, but be sure to look for this superior horror film when it arrives at an arthouse near you for its regular run or makes its way onto VOD. Oh, and don’t be surprised if FOUR HANDS is voted one of the best of the Chicago fest at the end of next week. This one is a winner, ahem, hands down.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Did the romantic inklings of the TWILIGHT vampire series propel horror filmmakers to run in the other direction? It seems that most new frighteners coming down the pike these days, especially vampire movies, are more and more violent and nihilistic. Thus, it is with the new horror film TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL. It’s one of the five major horror films being showcased in the “After Dark” program as part of this year’s Chicago Film Festival. It screens October 14 at 10:30 PM at the River East 21, as well as on October 16 at 1:30 PM and October 21 at 9 PM. If you choose to attend, be warned...this film is not one for the faint of heart.

Not only is there a ton of vampiric bloodshed in this one, there are so many bullets shot into the heads of characters onscreen that I lost count of how many deaths there were just 20 minutes into it all. Cuddly Bella and Edward types are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL showcases only killers and victims. And the extravagant bloodletting is such that one wonders if the four quadrants for this film are cannibals, serial killers, Medieval surgeons, and the Manson clan.

When this film isn’t preoccupied with being as vicious as it can be, it loves being eccentric, almost to a fault. Yes, eccentricity and surprise tend to be two of the greatest characteristics of Japanese director Sion Sono, and there is a lot of hilarious craziness on display here. One of his main characters is an aging and decrepit  vampire queen presented laid out on a stretcher with a human head, and a cartoonishly fake torso that looks like a giant marionette. It's so over-the-top, one has to admire Sion Sono for much of his gonzo  sensibilities, but everything is that way here. From the violence to the oddball characterizations to the hyperkinetic camera work and editing, manic is a word that doesn't do it all justice. 

In fact, such excesses have become somewhat of a plague in the thriller and action picture genres these days. It seems every director working in those worlds wants to be the one that edits the fastest, moves the camera the craziest, and jolts the audiences the most. Is Paul Greengrass that much of a role model? Sono doesn’t just want to manipulate his medium, he wants to fold, spindle and mutilate it. But movies need to breathe too, and this one needs an oxygen mask.

Originally conceived and shot as a nine-episode vampire series for Japan, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL has now been edited down to a 142-minute film for the festival circuit. Cutting a TV show down like that is never the best gambit, and indeed, the narrative here is rendered choppy, disjointed, and difficult to follow because of it. And it's fine for a TV show to have an ambitious storyline that includes two warring vampire families, the backstory of Count Dracula, the rise of a messianic female named Manami whom both sides are after, a chic hotel that serves as a metaphor for the elitist one-percent, as well as an apocalyptic plan to purge the world of all residents outside the hotel, but it's too much for a two-hour movie. (What, no werewolves? At least TWILIGHT had those.)

Sion Sono has some excellent instincts as a filmmaker. He strives to entertain certainly, knows how to film action, and culls great things from his production department and virtually all the crafts below the line. He has a game cast, and they all match his energy and commitment to the material. Sion Soon also knows how to wring maximum impact out of the shocks in his horror tale too. But this movie simply has too much going on - too many plots, too many characters, and maybe too much style for its own good. It often feels like the director is showing off more than showing things as cogently as possible. And it is quite evident that a lot of crucial exposition ended up on the cutting room floor. All to make room for the director's delight in setting off squibs? 

The hotel setting is sumptuous and striking in this, even breathtaking, but we barely get to see it when the story stuffs hundreds of extras in it to keep the hectic plot chugging along. It becomes all too apt a metaphor for the film - each frame is simply packed with too much. There are dozens of great ideas here, perfect for a TV series, less so for a film. 

And no matter the medium, the violence jars in ways that overwhelm the rest of its charms. Obviously, a film about vampires isn’t going to shy away from rivers of red, but why are there so many head shots from uzis and other automatic weapons here?  The necks being drained by fangs weren’t enough? Call it bad timing, but after the rampage in Las Vegas two weeks ago, it’s hard watch automatic weapons do so much damage with such blitheness onscreen. Granted, most horror fans don't want the cooing lovebirds that Mr. and Mrs. Cullen were, but do we need scores and scores of extras mowed down in their place instead? 

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Original caricature by Jeff York of Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.
(copyright 2017)
If Willem Dafoe didn’t star in it, you might think THE FLORIDA PROJECT was a documentary. That is how realistic this new movie plays. It seems like cinema verite - an improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality - but it is not. That may be the biggest compliment to filmmaker Sean Baker. He has managed to write (with Chris Bergoch) and direct a film that feels utterly observational, spontaneous, and even haphazard at times. The film captures the messiness of life, its randomness, and miraculously, most of it is done with child actors so natural you think you're watching a documentary.  

THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a daring work, filling its story with a people most Americans don't even know exist.  The focus of the film is on a precocious 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) who lives with her welfare mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in an extended-stay motel in Kissimmee, Florida, not far from Walt Disney World. The title of the movie is a play on what Disney and his minions called their plans to develop the world's largest theme park in Orlando back in the 1960's. It also may be intended to reference how those like Halley and Moonee survive in such an existence. For them, their Florida project is to make it through the day as best they can under such dire circumstances.

Could the title also suggest that their home is similar to that of a project or tenement? Perhaps, especially since most of the tenants of The Magic Castle Motel, a cartoonish mauve-painted tourist trap, are welfare mothers, transients, and others who are down on their luck. They are disenfranchised, yet Baker's film makes the argument that their stories are worthy and deserving of our empathy.  

That may be a tall order for audiences weaned on the current cinema of fantasies, futuristic worlds, superheroes, and CGI monsters, let alone an arthouse crowd used to period pieces and Oscar bait. If people keep an open mind, they will enter the theater and experience a unique movie experience, a film that is utterly unflinching in its portrayal of societal outcasts. The film may remind you of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, another movie about a precocious child trying to navigate her way through youth and poverty. Moonee is akin to the character of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) in that film, though not quite as heroic or likable. 

Moonee is a tough little kid, often brusque and noisy, even bratty. She's fiercely independent because she has to be as her mother is often too preoccupied to mother her. A girl of six shouldn't be out on her own walking the streets, exploring abandoned buildings, and panhandling for dollars to buy ice cream, but this is Moonee's daily existence. Amazingly, she handles most of the obstacles that cross her path with an upbeat, "can do" attitude.   

Like most little girls, she loves sweets, laughing with friends, and running around the neighborhood making playtime out of a tree, street or picnic table. Yet, there is danger lurking at almost every corner. On the strip where she lives, there is all kinds of drama a six-year-old should never run headlong into - drug deals going down, prostitutes turning tricks, and a collection of intruding vagrants and deviants. They're as much a part of her everyday life as the tourists and garish stores she frequents.

But Moonee manages, worldly beyond her years, and unwilling to  take any shit. She has a potty mouth that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. And she plays the game too, panhandling for dollars to buy treats, and helping her mother sell various products to gullible visitors to the Sunshine State. Moonee even seems to delight in it, enjoying all the crazy people and buildings built to look like giant oranges or wizards. It's as if she's the star of her own cartoon show chock full of crazy characters and outrageous settings. 

Still, in this environment, Moonee hasn't just learned to survive, she's inherited all sorts of bad habits, mostly from her wayward mom. Hallee isa piece of work - half charmer, half trainwreck. She’s a welfare queen, only in her early twenties, yet tatted up and tarted up, on the lookout for easy drugs, easier money and dupable men. And the chip she carries on her shoulder is as big as some of those goofy stores along the strip. 

So how can we empathize with such an awful woman? Halley's rap sheet keeps her from gainful employment and she makes ends meet by hooking. She also smokes too much, drinks too much, and scores drugs, lying and cheating her way to the rent due at the end of each week. Yet, despite all that, she is relatable. She wants to help her daughter, even if her methods aren't always the best and include too much fast food and junkie toys. And Halley isn't going to win any Mother of the Year awards when she turns tricks in the motel room during Moonee's bath time. 

It's depressing to watch such bad behavior. At times, you want to scream at the screen. Still, Baker and Bergoch beckon us to stay with their story and these troubled people. Perhaps the filmmakers are making that most Christian of arguments in suggesting that there but for the grace of God go any of us. Still, this is an exceedingly cringe-inducing film and not for those merely desiring escapism.  

But despite all the awfulness, there is a sweet nobleness to Moonee that keeps us on her side. She is kind to her friends Jancy (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and they know enough to stay away from genuine trouble. And even when they start a fire in an abandoned motel just for kicks, thankfully none of them get hurt, and no one else in the neighborhood perishes in the flames. 

Some practical parental guidance does come to the kids from Bobby (Dafoe), the worldweary manager of the motel. He not only takes care of all the little problems from broken washing machines to donation drop-offs, but he keeps the children tenants on the straight and narrow where and when he can. Whether he wants it or not, he becomes a reluctant father figure to them.

Bobby's style is gruff but respectful. He has a strong moral sense and in one of the film’s best scenes, the motel manager prevents an aging pervert from getting his hands on the kids. Watching Dafoe play the emotions of the scene, from fearful to bullying in a matter of moments, is amazing to see. Dafoe seamlessly blends toughness with sensitivity, and it may be his best onscreen work to date. Expect him to figure strongly in awards season. 

Vinaite does marvelous work here too. Halley is the villain of the piece, but the actress manages to make her likable even when she's at her most loathsome. In fact, Baker ensures that all of his cast treat their characters with dignity, never condescending to them or overplaying their problems. 

In our age of growing economic disparity, with more and more of our nation's citizenry struggling merely to make ends meet, this film couldn't be timelier. Again, there but for the grace of God go any of us. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is truly a film of the moment, showing the struggles of the growing population of people who are on the outside looking it. It is a moviegoing experience that is  harrowing at times, inspiring at others, and unflinching in showcasing the background of poverty in these characters' lives. 

It's also daring in that it has no real plot, no big set pieces, and no normal character arcs. It plays out organically, showing moments of life being experienced moment by aching moment. It won't be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who can handle extremely unconventional storytelling populated with fringe-dwelling characters, this uncompromising film is a must-see. It may be exceptionally hard to watch, but it’s even harder to get out of your head.