August 29, 2010

Get Low

Get Low begins with a burning house on a dark, deep Tennessee night, and suddenly a figure moves from the left side of the frame toward the middle and then to the right until it vanishes just as quickly as it appeared. It's the story of a hermit named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who has been the focus of much local gossip and story-telling for the forty years that he's lived in seclusion. Suddenly in the winter of 1938 he comes to town and announces to the local mortician (Bill Murray) that he wants to throw a funeral party to which the whole town is invited.

The dark comedy and the Southern gothic have never made a more peculiar match than in this aged-in-wood "tall tale," which presents a perfect opportunity for Murray, whose deadpan brand of humor is so well-suited to this particular vein of comic movie-making. As Felix's life moves from intensely private to suddenly public, the relationships between he and Murray (and Murray's assistant, played by Lucas Black) become strangely compelling and sympathetic, despite Felix's gruff, pushy, stubborn behavior and Murray's opportunistic money-grubbing.

In the midst of Felix's quest for a public, "living" funeral--one where he can finally lay to rest some of the demons he's been living with for forty years--he rekindles his friendship with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), who remembers him as he was--charming, handsome, and much deeper than the taciturn persona that has developed about him through years of gossip and unanswered questions.

The movie is slow, but on the other hand, it allows us to live with the absolute solitude the characters seem trapped within. It's got the look of a Southern-fried nightmare at times: scenes pulsate with eeriness, and yet this isn't a horror movie (although it's a bit of a ghost story, in a way...without the actual ghosts, perhaps). It's also palpably sensual: You can almost smell the rabbit cooking in Felix's kitchen, the trees as he chops through them with an axe; you can almost feel the dirt under his fingernails and the chill of the ghostly winter, as a faint but persistent aroma of smoke wafts through the landscape. The delightfully sarcastic humor saves it from being stagnant, and the humanizing performance of Robert Duvall transforms Felix from ominous to endearing.

With Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney. Directed by Aaron Schneider. 103 min.

August 22, 2010

Deep Red

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975) is an Italian giallo thriller (in Italian giallo means "yellow" and specifically refers to the yellow covers of popular Italian mystery and crime novels). It's about a psycho killer running amok, and a musician (David Hemmings) who sets out to determine the killer's identity after he witnesses one of the slayings. Inevitably, Hemmings winds up at each crime scene and becomes incriminated in the murders himself.

The movie was directed by Dario Argento, whose body of work often emphasizes outlandish style over narrative structure or characterization. The excessive, exuberant violence and gore will more than likely alienate most viewers other than those who enjoy that sort of thing. Despite the dumb, sometimes incredulous aspects of Deep Red's plot, there's something about the movie that stays with you long after you've seen it. If you try and think about Deep Red, you will see through its plot holes and be left feeling cheated. If you try and feel your way through Deep Red, you will experience it as it was intended to be: a visceral sensation, like something out of a nightmare. This is not to let the movie off the hook for being essentially a stupid thriller with lots of red herrings and characters making idiotic mistakes. But I think it's too easy to dismiss the movie altogether for those reasons, particularly when you realize that the movie had a profound effect on the horror genre in America. 

Deep Red's fingerprints are all over movies like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and the myriad "slasher" movies that become popular fodder for young audiences in the late 70s and early to mid- 1980s. Most of these movies are bottom-of-the-barrel trash, from the bad writing to the creaky acting and even creakier production design. Deep Red is at the head of the pack in a way. The garishly red, comic-book blood doesn't look real, and yet, we're left just as unsettled because of the way the camera lingers, even enjoys, the violence (which is usually directed against women). There's a fetishistic obsession with human disfigurement that is at times disturbing, but all of this is aimed at eliciting that visceral reaction from the audience which I mentioned earlier. Nowhere more than in an Italian horror movie is the audience member both the primary victim and perpetrator of the gruesomeness. ½

August 04, 2010


In Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Central Intelligence Agent Evelyn Salt. A Russian defector outs her as a Soviet spy in front of her colleagues, and she takes it on the lam--seemingly to avoid prosecution for being a traitor. The movie is one long chase scene. Jolie carries the movie well (apparently the part was originally written for Tom Cruise). Even when she's bad she's good. The action is exciting rather than arbitrary or deadening, and because we are never really sure whose side Salt is on, the movie never lets us off the hook as viewers. You're either with her or you aren't as she is alternately heroic and savage in her endeavors. With Liev Schreiber is Salt's superior, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski and August Diehl. Directed by Phillip Noyce.