Saturday, December 19, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Six 9/29/2009

Film #12 - Bronson
Film #13 - The House of the Devil

I did not attend any films on Day 5 of the film festival, so these are reviews for Day 6, a day which turned out to be pretty exciting.

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
UK - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sarajevo Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)
Sydney Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)

Bronson is the true story of Britain's most dangerous prisoner, Michael Peterson, (Tom Hardy) who was originally sentenced to seven years in jail in 1974, but due to his violent behavior, has been behind bars for 34 years; 30 of them spent in solitary confinement. Later changing his name to Charles Bronson, his biggest downfall is his need to make a name for himself, and regardless of attempts at rehabilitation, his true nature continues to surface.

There a lot of really great things about this film, but the best has to be Hardy. Critics have raved about his performance, calling it a "tour-de-force" and "legendary", and I couldn't agree more. Knowing nothing about the subject of the film I can only imagine how Hardy embodies the role, but he was absolutely mesmerizing, combining charm and humor with terrifying rage and violence. The role was very physical, with Hardy allegedly gaining 100 pounds of muscle to play it. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes in which Bronson is telling his story to an audience on stage, using various masks and costumes. Hardy goes balls-to-the-wall (sometimes literally) with his portrayal, at times spending several scenes completely naked. He transforms from raging maniac to a prostrate and drooling mental patient to a (temporarily) upstanding citizen marching around in an ill-fitting suit, all the while with the posture and looks of one of those mustachioed characters with dumbbells from the early twentieth century, all with a little humor and a little terror. One scene, which takes place at a "rave" being held for mental institution patients, stood out to me that I couldn't shake for a couple of days: Bronson is sent to the institution and is very heavily medicated because they don't know what else to do with him, and while the patients "dance" to the Pet Shop Boys, Bronson is just sitting in a chair, drooling constantly until he screams in rage and frustration because he is drugged and can't move, but he is still somewhat cognizant of his situation. Later, he decides he needs to get out of there and go back to prison, so he decides to strangle another inmate, and his transformation from drugged look to evil and aware was very subtle and gave me chills. It takes a talented actor to make the audience sympathize with a psychopathic madman, even find him somewhat charming, but Hardy pulls it off flawlessly. If he doesn't get recognition from this film, I hope that he gets a name soon.

Bronson has been called "A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century", and I agree with the comparison, at least visually, though it is not as deep, thematically as the latter. There are several surreal scenes with bizarre costumes that appear to be direct nods to Kubrick's classic, and certainly a pivotal scene in an art studio was an homage. The film is violent, but not over the top - I think Fight Club was more graphic - and fast paced and stylish; think Matthew Vaughn or Guy Ritchie without the hyper-spazzy effects and edits. The style of the film is not made up of an overload of jump cuts and quick edits, rather it has panache, which fits right along with Bronson himself. Like it or not, you know you're witnessing what are probably some terrible acts, but you can't look away for a second or you'll miss something interesting. I really enjoyed Bronson, but didn't come away from it questioning myself the way I did the first time I really loved a film like, say, A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps it was because it didn't give me a lot to ponder, it simply gave me a great hour and a half of cinematic enjoyment.

4 out of 5 stars

Director: Ti West
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009

Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student who desperately wants to find an apartment off campus so she can get away from her slutty roommate. She finds the perfect place, but is in danger of not getting it because she doesn't have enough rent money up front. She gets a babysitting job that quickly becomes weird when it turns out the couple do not have a child, rather an elderly mother upstairs they want her to look after, and to top it off, she is in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. The $300 they offer her is enough to convince her to take the job, however, and after she begins to explore the mansion, she discovers the reality of her terrifying situation.

Hearkening back to the great late 1970s and early 1980s horror films like Halloween or The Changeling, The House of the Devil is one of the best films I've seen recently that I don't want to see, if ever, for a long, long time - I was absolutely terrified throughout most of it! I fully admit that I'm a complete wuss when it comes to horror films that are done well; even in film school we would be studying a Dario Argento film in class as if it were a lab report, it was so clinical, but I would be the one digging my nails in my palms and trying to hide the fact that I was squinting behind my thick rimmed glasses. I found myself doing the exact same thing in the crowded theater the evening I saw this film, but I knew what I was in for since my boyfriend Chris had warned me, "I saw the trailer and it could be really f-ing creepy." The genius of The House of the Devil is that with a couple "holy crap!" moments, there is a really slow burn of tension until all hell breaks loose. Donahue spends half the film creeping around the house, sometimes with a large butcher knife, but you have no idea when someone (or something) is going to surface behind what seems like 350 doors and windows in the house, and by the way, what was that sound??

Special mention needs to be made about the music in the film. Jeff Grace's original music is almost as scary as the film itself, and it is used for optimal effect. There were a couple of times where the music itself was so scary that I wanted to cover my ears to make it go away. Another excellent use of music was during a scene involving Samantha, in the beginning of her tenure on the job, dancing around the house with her Sony Walkman and headphones on, blaring "One Thing Leads to Another" by The Fixx. I normally would have enjoyed this, but since we, as an audience were already uneasy at this point, the concept of this girl dancing around with really loud music impairing her senses was almost too much to bear.

The audience I saw this film with was a lot of fun and had no problem shrieking, yelling out warnings or the occasional expletive when scared or tense. It was really refreshing to have a low budget film that is stripped down to the simple necessary elements needed to scare the pants off of an audience, without a ridiculous amount of gore or cheap thrills. I think that most of us left the theater feeling like we'd seen something kind of special, knowing it wouldn't hit the mainstream theater-going audience. The House of the Devil is the best film I've seen recently that I don't, if ever, want to see for a long, long time. Though I may not have "enjoyed" myself during the film, I have to rate it according to effectiveness and how well it met its objective, so while I would normally give it 3 stars, I have to give it 4 stars because it was that good at what it set out to do. To quote an audience member I encountered in the ladies' room after the film: "Even this huge, over lit bathroom seems terrifying to me right now!"

4 out of 5 stars

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