Monday, January 28, 2013

The Guardian (1990)

If you’ve read my musings on Rampage (1987), Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2012) then you’ve probably guessed that I’m a big William Friedkin fan. One of the things that I’ve always admired about Friedkin is despite being one of the most well known and established names in film, the last thing you could describe him as is being “in the system”. If you’ve ever read, listened to or watched an interview with the man you know that he’s always quick to call out the studios on their bullshit as well as openly voice his displeasure with the reliance of lame trends in current American cinema. He doesn’t make films with the thought of box office receipts or being commercially appealing in mind. To call The Guardian one of his least popular films would possibly be one of the biggest understatements of this young year. When this film was released in 1990, it was Friedkin’s return to pure horror after 17 years. That alone meant the film was already working at a disadvantage. Think about it, no matter what type of film he could have decided to make within the genre, be it a slasher, a ghost story or what have you, ultimately it was going to end up being unfairly compared to The Exorcist (1973). Of course leave it to Friedkin to come out with something so out of left field such as The Guardian. I’ve seen this film get more than a fair amount of shit flung it’s way over the years and surprise surprise, I’m going to come to it’s defense.

Young couple Phil (Dwier Brown) and Kate (former Bond girl Carey Lowell) have just celebrated the birth of their son Jake. After interviewing several potential nannies, the two finally settle on the charming Camilla (Jenny Seagrove). On the surface, Camilla seems to be the perfect caregiver, taking care of not only baby Jake but the cooking and housework as well. Unbeknownst to Phil and Kate however, Camilla isn’t exactly human, as she’s a druid, supernaturally liked to a tree with an evil spirit housed inside of it, who’s life-force is fueled by the pure blood of infants, and Camilla has plans for baby Jake that include much more than diaper changing and naptime.

Not to sound condescending although I’m sure it’ll come off as such no matter how I word it, but my response to those who dismiss The Guardian simply based on the, as they put it, “ridiculous plot” is suspension of disbelief anyone? I will grant you that yes, the idea of sacrificing a baby to an evil tree is a bit loopy, but there are films out there, and I’m not just talking about horror/fantasy films, that require you to set logic aside a lot more than this one. The Guardian could best be described as a nightmarish, surreal fairytale, and it’s one of those situations where if you just go with it the experience will probably be a lot more rewarding. I’m not going to lie, along with this being a Freidkin film it was the film’s outright weirdness that attracted me to it. Love it or hate it you have to at least admire the films sheer bizarreness, it’s defiantly one of the more out there genre films you’ll ever see. Setting aside all the films eccentricities for a moment, the characters of Phil and Kate are established right off the bat as likable people, and Friedkin employees the device of having the audience know more than the characters making them even more sympathetic. Then of course, there’s Camilla. Really a one of a kind horror villain, Jenny Seagrove nails it in the role. The woman is alluring beyond belief, possessing an undeniable magnetism that draws you to her character immediately, not to mention her enticing accent and menacing coyote minions that appear out of nowhere!

The Guardian certainly gave Friedkin license to flex his stylistic muscle, putting off ominous vibes from the very first frame. The film is thickly coated in atmosphere, atmosphere aided immensely by the cinematography. There’s a ton of blue in the film which works winders during all of the nighttime shots. If there’s a scene taking place in the woods at night, rest assured it’s going to look fantastic, such as the shot of Camilla “becoming one”, I suppose is how you would describe it, with the tree being surrounded by her coyotes. The tree itself and all it’s surroundings are all quite sinister looking which only pile onto the dark fantasy-esque mood of the film, made even more striking by the sight of infant faces which appear to be frozen in mid scream/cry carved into the wood. Friedkin even threw in a nice hallucinatory dream sequence, which despite it being completely obvious that it was just that, a dream sequence, totally fit the aura of the film. There was obviously a good sized budget behind the film, aside from a few instances I don’t really think any of the effects look particularly dated at all. The actual tree effects are well done and whenever the tree attacks it’s simply a blast to watch (ever see someone decapitated by the tree branch?). Friedkin doesn’t skimp out on the gore either, whether it be during the first time we see the tree in action or a vicious coyote attack. Then there’s of course the films blood drenched, “bleeding tree” finale. Quite the sight to behold if you ask me.

The Guardian was released on DVD in 1999 courtesy of Anchor Bay but it’s since gone long out of print and commands a pretty astronomically (read that as unnecessarily) high price these days. Said DVD contains a commentary from Friedkin which would really be interesting to listen to seeing as you hardly hear him ever mention the film. Jenny Seagrove’s memories of the film unfortunately not so fond, stating in a 2007 interview with, how appropriate, the Guardian: "It was about this druid nanny who became a tree. I begged Universal to make it about a real nanny who kidnaps babies. “No, no, we can't do that,” they said, “the thirtysomethings in America won't come and see the film.” I said, “I think you're completely wrong, this film is total fantasy, and it's just awful”. She also claimed that “the screenplay was appalling” and that it was “written on the hoof”. That’s a shame as she really is fantastic in the film. Perhaps she’s changed her mind since then. Oh well. I realize that I’ll probably forever be in the minority when it comes to thinking The Guardian is awesome, but I’m in the minority when it comes to most things regarding film anyways. So be it. It might not have had viewers fainting in their seats or exiting the theatre en mass in hysterics, but it’s a unique film that has a lot to offer visually and has more original ideas and creativity behind it than the last 5 genre films I’ve seen TV spots for. Haters gonna hate as the saying goes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Killer Joe (2012)

Chances are if you’ve somehow stumbled onto my lowly corner of the internet you’ve probably guessed that I don’t make it out to the movie theater all too often, and you would be correct in that assumption. So naturally when the rare occasion arises that a new film comes out that I actually want to go to the cinema to see, the film in question, Killer Joe, get’s a ridiculously limited theatrical run in the US on account of it‘s NC-17 rating, only playing in very select theaters  none of which were anywhere near me. From the second this film came to my knowledge, Killer Joe had “me” written all over it. Not only was it the new film from William Friedkin, but it was the new film from William Friedkin written by Tracy Letts, the same team that brought us the underappreciated and still quite frankly misunderstood Bug (2006), which I consider to be one of the very best films in recent memory and has subsequently became my favorite Friedkin film. Just like Bug, Killer Joe was based on a play by Letts, his first in fact, and promised to be something very different to anything else happening in film these days, quickly gaining a word of mouth reputation on the festival circuit which only made me more eager to finally see it. I’m positively giddy to say that not only were my high expectations met, but were exceeded beyond the beyond as Friedkin and Letts did it again as the saying goes, making one of the best and most memorable films of the last decade.

Desperate and in debt to some seriously bad guys, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) approaches his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) with the idea of putting a hit out on his estranged mother, the owner of a very inciting life insurance policy, by hiring “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective who doubles as a hitman to do the deed. Unable to front Joe’s advance, Joe proposes the idea of taking Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer until payment can be made. Reluctantly, Chris and Ansel agree along with Ansel‘s wife Sharla (Gina Gerson), Chris‘ stepmother, although a wrench is thrown into the operation causing the plans of all parties involved to go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.  

It didn’t take long for Killer Joe to become infamous due to a scene involving Gina Gershon and a piece of fried chicken, and although the film is indeed gleefully fucked up in parts, making no apologies for it, rest assured that the film consists of so much more than just shock value for shock value’s sake. First and foremost Tracy Letts is a brilliant writer with a real knack for creating interesting characters. Characters that may be completely despicable in one way or another, but you’ll sure love spending time with them, most likely due to their eccentricities, which is exactly the case when it comes to the Smith clan. Easily the most dysfunctional “family unit” this side of my old neighbors, it really is fascinating to watch these people make one horrible decision after another, the way they react to certain situations and their “interactions” with each other, IE hurling insults at one another that would possibly make even Jerry Springer blush, the altercation between Chris and Sharla early on in the film being a standout. The film could easily be described as the blackest comedy since Man Bites Dog (1992). While the film’s depraved sense of humor obviously isn’t going to be everyone’s bucket of K Fried C, if it is than you’re going to have a field day. There are instances, the chicken scene in particular not to mention the dozy of a finale, where many will be unsure whether or not to gasp in horror or piss themselves with laughter, or do both at the same time. Exactly the reaction Friedkin and Letts were going for I’m sure.

Once again Friedkin hit the jackpot in the casting department. If I were to dedicate a section of this to each member of the cast, that in itself would be 5 paragraphs long so I’ll try and keep it as condensed as possible. Anybody who’s seen the film can attest to the fact that Matthew McConaughey puts on a clinic of epic proportions, a performance that’s destined to become iconic and from the looks of things it’s already starting to become just that. The key word when discussing McConaughey’s performance is stealth. Joe isn’t a ranting, raving lunatic frothing at the mouth or anything like that. McConaughey gives a suave, calm and collected performance, leaving the audience to guess just what Joe capable of, and when the crucial moment arrives when he demonstrates his true colors,  maximum impact is felt. He has the ability to change the tone of any scene on a dime, going from funny to awkward to incredibly tense in the span of seconds with ease. While Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, who’s comic timing in the film is perfect, and Gina Gershon, who really outdoes herself here, going places most actresses probably wouldn’t even consider going, all kill it (pun defiantly intended) in their roles, knocking it out of the park, if there’s one member of the ensemble who stands out alongside McConaughey, it’s Juno Temple. Temple is not only convincing as the dimwitted (yet we get the sense that she’s the wisest person in the Smith family trailer) Dottie, but her character is probably the most interesting in the entire film, alongside Joe of course.

Again, Killer Joe was released with the NC-17 rating in tow as Friedkin refused to cave to  the MPAA stating "Cutting would not have made it mass appeal. Cutting it would have been the equivalent of what members of the United States government and military leaders said about the Vietnam War. They said, "We have to destroy Vietnam in order to save it," and that's what I would have done to Killer Joe. To get an R rating, I would have had to destroy it in order to save it and I wasn't interested in doing that." Even still when the film hit disc late last month Lion’s Gate opted to release 2 separate versions of the film, fully uncut and a toned down R rated cut, which I guarantee was just to appease certain retail outlets and something else I found odd was some sites had the R rated version available for pre-order before the uncensored version! Not that it matters now though, what does matter is that the director’s cut is fully available for everybody to see, and see it you should. The sooner the better. You know, the way things are in American cinema these days, it’s really inspiring to know that films like Killer Joe are still being made by a maverick director not giving 2 shits about commercial appeal and a fearless cast willing to go for it with reckless abandon. Just like I did with Bug, I can’t recommend Killer Joe enough, and every chance I get you bet I’m going to preach it’s gospel. This, as the kids say, is where it’s at.