The first John Erick Dowdle movie I saw was 2008's Quarantine, one of the few American remakes of foreign horror films that's actually worth your time. I then went back and hunted down his previous film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and between the two of them, I came to the conclusion that the seeds of celluloid greatness lie dormant somewhere within John Erick Dowdle. Every movie he has released since has been increasingly frustrating for me; they are never disappointing-I have never failed to be at least entertained by a movie he's directed-but he never actually gets there. With As Above, So Below, I think those seeds are starting to germinate. Don't get me wrong, this is not a Ti West-like metamorphosis from genre hack to wunderkind in the space of six months, but it is a step in the right direction.
Plot: Scarlett (Prowl's Perdita Weeks) is a polymath-the first scene of the main film, which comes after a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style prologue that's great for getting the adrenaline pumping, is Scarlett standing outside an archaeological dig introducing herself with a list of credentials longer than her purported age; cameraman Benji (The Purge's Edwin Hodge) even remarks "that's a lot of credentials for someone your age" when she's done. She has taken up the quest her father was on, before he committed suicide: the quest for the philosopher's stone. Yes, everyone from Harry Potter to Aleister Crowley is now joined by another seeker and her loyal cameraman. During the prologue, Scarlett found a legendary artifact that will allow her to translate the sigils on the tombstone of equally legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel (in popular legend, the only human to have ever actually created a philosopher's stone) into Aramaic. Sine she doesn't speak it, she has to convince her old friend George (Cloverfield's Ben Feldman) to help her. We get some dark intimations about the last time he did so, but she's charming and manipulative and gets her way. (Don't feel too bad for George; he pulls the same trick on a museum guide a few scenes later.) When the clues point them to the catacombs that lie underneath Paris, Scarlett and Benji take a trip down there with a map they've sketched out, discover the basic location of what they're looking for, and are told by a guy who's hanging around sketching a wall to go looking for a guy nicknamed Papillon, who can get them where they want to be. Soon enough, they meet up with Papillon (Elles' François Civil) and his urban-explorer friends Souxie (Marion Lambert in her screen debut) and Zed (Zero Dark Thirty's Ali Marhyar). The six of them-George doesn't do subterranean treks, but has agreed to help the party get where they're going and then coordinate from above-ground-head into an abandoned railway tunnel that provides an alternate entrance to the catacombs. A series of misadventures lands all of them, including George, in a chamber with no way out except down. And that's when things start getting really weird.
At the base of As Above, So Below is an extremely intelligent script; John and partner/co-writer Drew either did more research for this than they ever have before or (more likely) have a long-standing and enduring love for the source material. And what that source material is is as clear to me as it was opaque to the people I saw it with (and, seemingly, most reviewers): Dante Alighieri. Yep, As Above, So Below is another, looser than I've ever seen before, attempt to translate the Inferno to the silver screen. Papillon's old friend Le Taupe (Los Malagradecideos' Cosme Castro)-who, we are told, has been living in the catacombs for years-is the Virgil to Scarlett's Dante. And, of course, the way out is down; Dante had to go all the way to the bottom and meet the devil before he could advance to the second book of the Commedia. So do our travelers. (In fact, Scarlett barely misses mentioning Alighieri by name at one point.) Sorry if that's a spoiler-given the film's trailer, I don't believe it is.
As well, while there is no scene in this movie as claustrophobic as that scene in The Descent, in As Above, So Below the claustrophobia is more a pervasive feeling. The Descent loaded it on in little tunnels between massive caverns. These folks spend very little time in little chambers, much less massive caverns. Well over half this movie takes place in hallways, some of which are slightly smaller than Benji's hips. (I will say that there's one scene where Dowdle was trying to work that Descent angle. While it's definitely claustrophobic, it's defused by some possibly-unintentional humor.) I know, the whole shakycam-found-footage thing is really played out now, but Dowdle, as he does every time he uses it, at least found some inventive ways to use it effectively. The same is true of his use of chiaroscuro, which in this film may be as good as David Lynch's (and Lynch is the current American master of chiaroscuro). Sure, he's using it mostly for cheap jumps, but it adds up. And those cheap jumps work really well in this movie. Like the original When a Stranger Calls well. The first time Benji's helmet light goes on the fritz may be the most perfectly-timed moment in the movie.
A quick side note on understanding the last thirty minutes of the movie: it's pretty straightforward, including the ending, but much of the audience around me seemed somewhat confused. There's a point where Scarlett explains the title of the movie to Papillon's crew while explaining a medieval painting on the wall. Okay, once you get there, pay very close attention to what she says the second time they see that symbol, and keep it in mind for the rest of the movie, and all of it will make sense.
As far as the frustrating part...I started off by talking about the intelligent script. I think parts of it got left on the cutting room floor. There were a lot of pieces I ended up wanting more information on (like the scar on Papillon's hand, which ends up feeling like a plot device rather than the character-building angle it obviously was in some draft). As Above, So Below fits the current ninety-minutes-and-out model of American filmmaking, coming in at a shade over ninety-two. It could have easily been twice as long just based on the parts that obviously aren't there-the history between Papillon and Zed, Souxie's entire character. I suspect there is a great deal more to Le Taupe; I think at one point he may have been a major character. (And the possible interplay between the butterfly and the mole? Where were they going with that?) In fact, I can tie so many things about this movie that felt abbreviated, short, or mediocre to possible editing cuts or overzealous script revisions that I'd be willing to toss out a blanket statement that a director's cut, if it puts back in at least an hour of footage, might be one of the best movies of 2014. What we got fits right in line with Dowdle's previous output. It is an entertainment, and a pretty good one, but you may well find yourself more annoyed by the pieces that aren't there than appreciative of the ones that are. ***
It has been a long time since I've read The Road-I got an ARC of it from a pal of mine at CNN before its release and read it immediately-so when I finally sat down to watch the movie, my memories of the book were hazy at best. I know relying on my memory of a book I read eight years ago is probably not the best thing in the world to do when comparing a film adaptation to it, but I remember, for what that's worth, the book not being anywhere near as unfocused and episodic as the movie.
Then Robert Duvall gave that brilliant monologue*, and I no longer cared.
Plot: the world has effectively ended. (While the film, true to the book, never reveals the exact cause of the end of humanity, both the book's descriptions and the movie's subdued lighting will call to mind the vivid descriptions of nuclear winter anyone of a certain age was fed.) Two characters we know only as Man (The Prophecy's Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape along the titular road. They may have a goal; they may not. (I have always assumed they were going to some legendary "safe zone", but that is probably me projecting onto this from a hundred unrelated zombie movies.) They do their best to avoid the roving bands of cannibals; food is scarce, so human beings have turned to eating one another when they cannot find anything else. Man tells us, in a voiceover, that he fears only two things: cannibals and hunger. You find out why soon enough. The present-day pieces are interspersed with dreams, memories, and reflections Man has of the pre-apocalypse days, with his wife (Monster's Charlize Theron) and, when they stumble upon Man's childhood home, of things even before that. They discover a few more friendly fellow travelers along the way, but this is the only escape from the drudgery of their daily lives.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are both top-tier actors, and the two of them should be enough to carry this symbolism-laden film, especially when paired with John Hillcoat (The Proposition), who was the perfect director to take on this source material. And yet still, what stood out to me were the cameos. A number of very well-known actors show up here in minor parts; I've already mentioned Duvall, and then there are Guy Pearce and Molly Parker as a married couple, Michael Kenneth Williams, Garret Dillahunt... each graces the screen for less than five minutes (Theron doesn't have much more than that), and each shines. Williams is a perfect archetype of the desperation of those survivors who have not joined one of the cannibal gangs in a way that Mortensen never is, though by all rights he should be. Pearce delivers the one-liner that is the moral to the entire story and still manages to pass it off in such a way that you might miss it if you blink. (I was reminded, favorably, of the immortal final shot of Dellamorte Dell'Amore.) Because of this, I ended up having to conclude that neither of our main characters is pulling much of the weight in this movie. I am now very happy I didn't end up seeing it until after Let Me In and ParaNorman had already made me a rabid Smit-McPhee fan.
Now having said all that, I know I'm harping on the negative aspects of a movie that I'm giving a rating of "you really should see this" and considering adding to the thousand-best list. I don't mean to. Blame it on the movie's relentlessly bleak atmosphere, which I rush to add is perfectly appropriate for the material. And it's obvious from the film's reception, both critical (75% at Rotten Tomatoes) and popular (68% RT, 7.3 at IMDB), that its general plotlessness didn't hamstring it, the way that sort of thing does with so many movies. (I ascribe the credit, or blame, for this solely to Hillcoat, whose mastery of celluloid shows new aspects with every movie he releases.) The movie does take a while to get up to speed, and it is intentionally (I assume) confusing/disorienting for a bit. Also, you have to pay attention to it or you'll miss some of the more important bits, none of which I can tell you without major spoilers. Trust me, it's worth paying the extra attention when one of them rolls around. Hillcoat takes a lot of time setting up most of his characters, even the minor ones, which make the movie feel slow. Don't let that deter you; this is one you will find yourself mulling over long after the final frame has passed your eyes. *** 1/2
* According to IMDB's trivia section, Duvall's monologue is at least partly extemporaneous; when I read this, that little "I KNEW it!" light clicked in my head. It feels a little off with the rest of the script, and ends up marking the movie's turning point. It may be complete coincidence that it falls where it does, though I suspect once they realized the gold they had, some editorial prowess was put to use subtly emphasizing the importance of that monologue. In any case, if you don't watch the movie for any other reason, watch it for this scene; it is the post-apocalyptic equivalent of Michael Fassbender's riveting monologue in Hunger.
A little less than an hour into Skyfall, it was too late to stay awake, so I paused it and went to bed. The next morning, I asked on Facebook if I was the only one who found it a confused, muddled mess, and given the outpouring of love for it, wondered if it got better. The unanimous answer was yes, it got a lot better, so I went back to it that evening. Less than a minute after I turned the movie back on, there was Javier Bardem. Javier Bardem has the almost singular quality of making every movie he appears in a better work, and his presence in Skyfall was sorely needed. It stayed better after that, and for that I was truly grateful.
As we open, Bond (Daniel Craig in his third outing as 007) is in the throes of trying to save a fellow agent, Ronson (TV stalwart Bill Buckhurst in his first feature appearance), who is in danger of death, against the express orders of M (Judi Dench) and Eve (28 Days Later...'s Naomie Harris), the third operative on the team. Things go south, and we end the sequence with Bond hiding away somewhere in the tropics, turning his love of a good shaken-not-stirred martini into a nightmarish bout with dependency until he chances on a new report about a terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. Bond returns, only to have M tell him that before he can go back out into the field, he has to pass all the tests again. And all this while trying to figure out who's got MI6 on the defensive, and how he seems to know so much about their movements, defenses, and infrastructure...
I ended up looking at that first hour as setup-a whole lot of setup. And I am not sure the movie would have worked without it. This is a very meta Bond; if you were to look at a spy movie where the main character wasn't known for quaffing martinis, the slip into alcoholism in the tropics wouldn't be nearly as meaningful, and that's only one of the places where the film pays lip service to updating the character for modern sensibilities. (The new version of Q, amusingly played by The Zero Theorem's Ben Whishaw, is the most notable bend in this angle; the new Q has dropped the focus on gadgets and is far more interested in cyberterrorism. For the good guys, of course.) This almost by definition makes the film vertical-market; if you are not already an established fan of the series, Skyfall will not only not do anything to convince you, it may well drive you off. And yet, once the film takes off, Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Albert Finney as Skyfall's caretaker (the film's namesake estate, the Bond family pile in Scotland) all turn in their A levels with aplomb. This is the Daniel Craig of Layer Cake, the Judi Dench of Iris, the Albert Finney of The Dresser. And Bardem? He just has to show up to bring his top-level game; I can think of a single Bardem movie I've seen where he didn't tear the screen apart (For the record, it was Días Contados, I've seen eleven Bardem films, and he was the star of the movie that has topped my top 1000 movies list since 2000, Before Night Falls). Mendes directing his first non-R film may have been a strength rather than a weakness; he flirted with that line every chance he could, and in the process managed his most successful blend of talkiness and action yet. Well, seventy-two minutes of it, anyway. Pity about the first hour. If you're already invested in the series, you need to see it, but then you don't need a review to tell you that. If you're not, start with something more accessible-either version of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and A View to a Kill are all good starting points for the series. ***
Rudolf van den Berg has won the Golden Calf, which is basically the Oscar, twice in his career, both times before this: in 1982 for San Senten Rebel (Best Long-form Documentary), and in 1984 for Bastille (Best director). I don't know whether that says worse things about the state of film in the Netherlands or their Academy. Probably neither, if America's own Academy is anything to go by (I'll omit yet another rant on the 2002 nominees). But if this guy is one of the cream of the crop over there, there is great pity to be had for the country.
The Johnsons isn't necessarily a bad film so much as it is a film that hovers on the verge of unintentional greatness. This had the potential to be horror comedy on the same plane as Return of the Living Dead or Dark Star. It missed the mark by such a small margin that it's painful to watch, but like a particularly gruesome car accident, the hapless viewer keeps watching, hoping and praying that somewhere within the mess a spark of life will be found.
The story begins with Dr. Johnson (Johan Leysen, presently onscreen in Brotherhood of the Wolf) delivering a set of septuplets, then going out into the woods and enacting, sloppily, some sort of odd ritual that ends with what looks like a squat stone idol encased in crystal rising out of a ring of fire in the middle of a lake. We then skip to twenty-one years later (present-day) and two intercut stories: one of a single mother, Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven, presently on the TV series Spangen, probably best known to American audiences for the not-too-bad action flick Amsterdamned) and her daughter Emily (the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Esmee de la Bretoniere, for whom this is the only film credit anyone in America has a chance at seeing without importing movies). Victoria, a photographer, takes a job tracking down some rare birds in a secluded swamp. Emily's been having recurring nightmares about seven crazy-looking kids painting a room with blood, and is in general disrepair emotionally, so Victoria takes her along, hoping that some time in the country will help her state of mind. The other story deals with Winston (Kenneth Herdegein, who's also frequently seen on TV these days over in Europe), an anthropology professor who's approached by police inspector de Graaf (veteran TV actor Rik van Uffelen-are you seeing a pattern here?) about seven psychopaths the police have been holding without public knowledge in an out-of-the-way abandoned prison in a secluded swamp. Winston's father (Otto Sterman), a voodoo priest, warns Winston and de Graaf to get their noses out of it while they can, but the two keep digging for info on the odd symbol said seven psychos keep drawing on the wall, usually in blood.
That's a brief synopsis of the film's first ten minutes; I'm pretty sure you can fill in the next ninety-three. To call this "predictable" would be the understatement of the year. That's not necessarily a bad thing; Hamlet's predictable, too. So is Dark Star. Problem is, The Johnsons isn't anything close to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. The dialogue is alarmingly silly, the characters would have to be better-drawn to be made of cardboard, and the plot stands alone in its utter disregard for anything resembling logic. When faced with such a script, the best directors will take it and play it for laughs, and every once in a while they get something great out of it (the aforementioned Dark Star and Return of the Living Dead being two classic examples). Van den Berg, however, gives us no indication at any point during the film that he and his characters are anything but serious. Even the cop doesn't crack wise. It's hard to believe anyone could have considered this a serious piece of filmmaking, but van den Berg did his best to make sure you'd at least try. That said, if the last two minutes of this film don't have you groaning in sheer agony, you've a stronger stomach than I. * 1/2 (rewatchability factor supplied solely by de la Bretoniere. Hubba hubba.)
Butcher Boys (Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, 2012)
I spend a decent amount of time trolling the bottom of my sorted (by average rating) Netflix queue, looking for those movies that have a horrible rating that are actually pretty good. I've come across a few here and there that are neglected for whatever reason. The Butcher Boys, Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer Kim Henkel's first feature script in eighteen years, is the latest of those. I have no idea what movie the public who rated this movie a collective one and a half stars were watching, but it must not have been Butcher Boys.
Plot: Sissy (Breaking Dawn's Ali Faulkner) is celebrating her seventeenth birthday at a swanky restaurant in Austin, Texas, that's under protest by a band of radical vegetarians. (While I can't tell you why without spoilers, this becomes important later.) When she, her brother Mikey (Dear Sidewalk's Philip Wolf), and their friends Barbie (The Big Picture's Tory Tompkins) and Benny (Hallettsville's Derek Lee Nixon) are on their way home, a series of minor misadventures end up with them crossing paths with the Butcher Boys (also known as the Boneboys, which was the film's original title), who are out for the kind of good time that involves kidnapping random folks and taking them back to the basement of Austin's hottest new restaurant, J. Swift's.
Okay, the movie's main drawback is very easy to point out, and is just as minor as it sounds: this movie contains two of the worst body-double shots in cinema history. If you combine the two, they take up less than a second of screen time, so that can't be what everyone's up in arms about. And the movie certainly does have its reliance on Henkel's older, far better-known script; before I realized Henkel had written it, I was planning on giving them a few snaps up for nailing modern takes on certain classic TCM scenes (the dinner, especially). They still deserve it. There are a few times this feels like "what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have been like if it had been written as a comedy"; given the popularity, if not the quality, of the movie's many sequels (and a remake or two that took that tack), it's not a bad idea. IMDB's trivia section mentions that this was originally Henkel's script for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, but he pulled it out and re-worked it with the aim of turning The Butcher Boys into a new franchise. That, too, is deserved; given a little time and room to grow, this might grow away from its ancestor and become something even better than it is now. It's still singing in someone else's voice, but the lyrics are pretty darn good so far. *** 1/2