Being a fan of horror is a double-edged sword. You seek out as many movies as you can, looking for more and more scares, but that effort also numbs you to the images onscreen, making you more and more difficult to frighten. Eventually you’re watching things you know intellectually are terrifying, even if you don’t find yourself the least bit scared. Add to that the sorry state of Hollywood horror, in which most major releases are trend-following cash grabs, and watching horror can by and large be a thankless pursuit.
But every so often something sneaks into major release that surprises you by making the dark walk home through quiet streets feel like it could be your last, and causing you to turn on every light once you’re safely indoors. Writer/director Scott Derrickson’s new film, Sinister, is one of those rare gems.
The film stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who moves his family into a house where a horrific family murder took place. He’s desperate to write the next In Cold Blood, but the stress of strained finances and a failing marriage are driving him to drink and to hear many things going bump in the night. Not helping his state of mind are the images he sees on a bunch of super 8 films he finds in the attic of the house, depicting not only the murders there, but also connected ones in other cities. The movie’s eventual twist can be seen from the very start, but because the movie is essentially told from his perspective, the predictability doesn’t become a weakness. Within that framework, Derrickson creates a bone-chilling occult thriller that has plenty of make-you-jump moments that might be cheap adrenaline rushes from lesser films, but seem earned given just how much skill he displays (with a huge assist from Christopher Young’s fantastically macabre soundtrack) at creating a frightening atmosphere.
Ben Affleck’s latest has been getting big Oscar buzz ever since it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, and with good reason. It’s easily his best film yet as a director, and also has all the sorts of things one looks for in a Best Picture nominee: a grand scope, a historical basis, an uplifting story of human triumph. The film is based on the true story of the escape of six employees of the American consulate in Iran, who had escaped from the embassy compound to the home of the Canadian ambassador while the rest of the embassy was taken hostage in 1979. In order to get them out, a CIA exfiltration expert (played by Affleck), with the help of some contacts in Hollywood, creates a cover story about location scouting a film production in the hopes of passing off the six as a Canadian movie crew in order to get them out in a daring broad-daylight escape via the airport.
With each film under his belt as director, Affleck shows more storytelling assurance, and Argo moves along briskly, with a great balance of humor in the ludicrousness of the operation to set up a fake movie in the Hollywood circus set against the life-or-death survival story of the escapees. The escape sequence itself is a skillful set piece of tension and thrills—though it does go a little overboard in the way Affleck has them just getting out under the wire in a half dozen different ways that seem a little too constructed to be as true to life as much of the rest of the film feels. Still, it’s such a fun ride, at that point it seems pointless to complain.
When watching the classic William Wyler adaptation of Emily Brontë’s only novel, the essential misery and pettiness of the doomed would-be lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine, is somewhat concealed under the romantic sweep of Wyler’s period drama. Audiences arriving for Andrea Arnold’s new take on the novel may be a little disoriented by the utter lack of period piece airs put on this story, as well as the impressionistic techniques she uses to tell the story. Fans of Arnold’s work will be familiar with her style: extremely visually oriented, preferring to let a handheld camera watch in voyeuristic close-up rather than rely on dialogue to be the primary delivery method for the narrative.
But even more striking than that style is the way in which she strips these characters down to their abusive and vindictive cores. Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) is as fickle and opportunistic as ever, while Heathcliff (James Howson) is sullen and feral, and as he puts up with the continued abuse doled out by Catherine’s horrible brother, Hindley, he becomes as tempestuous and violent as the storms that lash the Yorkshire countryside. That landscape, richly colored through Arnold’s lens, plays practically as much of a role in the film as the leads, as the harsh environment, with occasional moments of unspeakable beauty (one could really just spend the entire running time marveling at Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s staggeringly gorgeous compositions), reflects the alternating romance and despair of the classic relationship between these two. When the end comes, the feeling is less one of overwhelming tragedy for their missed opportunities, and more one of relief that they can stop tormenting one another.
Each year the AFL/CIO puts on a festival of movies about work and the working class, blending serious documentaries and dramas about labor with comedies on the absurdities of working life. On the latter end of things, they always have a spot in the schedule for the cult classic Office Space, which is joined by the underrated 2009 Greg Mottola film Adventureland. Other well-known titles on the docket are Billy Elliot, the early Martin Scorsese effort Boxcar Bertha, Newsies witha young Christian Bale, and Stanley Donen’s Doris Day-starring The Pajama Game. Things kicked off this afternoon at the AFL/CIO headquarters with a noontime screening of a Woody Guthrie documentary; there’s another noon screening tomorrow of a documentary about clash between Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and union workers. Tomorrow night, a full schedule of weekend screenings, mostly at the AFI, begins with BURN: One Year on the Front Lines to Save Detroit, a documentary about one of the most active firehouses in the country, located in the struggling city of Detroit.
View the trailer for BURN: One Year on the Front Lines to Save Detroit. Opens today and runs through October 18, with screenings at the AFL/CIO
headquarters, the AFI, and Busboys & Poets.
See the full schedule for details.
Robert Rossellini became one of the most well-known figures in Italian cinema after World War II, helping define the neorealist movement that was the dominant legacy of that time. But as that movement cooled in the early ’50s, his own style began to evolve, as well. It was with this 1954 English-language film starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders that he really shook things up, creating what the young critics of the soon-to-explode French New Wave would call the first “modern” film. Rossellini, telling the story of an unraveling couple on a trip to Italy to sell property, often abandons the strict adherence to moving the plot forward that typified commercial cinema in the first half of the 20th century, allowing scenes to play out in lengthy sequences that are more about establishing environment and mood than taking the story from point A to B. It’s a landmark in the history of the movies, and considered by many to be Rossellini’s finest moment.
View a scene from the movie. Saturday
and Sunday at 4:30 PM at the National Gallery of Art.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Magical Mystery Tour
For all the accolades the Beatles received during their career for both their music and their movies, the one major misstep that stands out like those post-”Helter Skelter” blisters on Ringo’s fingers is this hourlong movie the band made for the BBC. The plot involves a bus tour where strange and mysterious things begin to happen, all interspersed with what are essentially music videos for a half dozen songs from the accompanying record. The film was largely unscripted, and it shows in the haphazard plotting and generally sloppy construction.
But for a band that seemingly did everything so well—except, of course, communicate with one another as they neared the end of their run— Magical Mystery Tour is kind of a humanizing effort: Even the Beatles had creative disasters. This week’s release is also likely the best anyone’s seen, as the film went for years without any restoration efforts due to its poor reputation. With a slew of extra footage and a full restoration (including a new 5.1 surround sound audio mix), this is still probably an essential for Beatles completists, and at least an interesting curiosity for the rest of us.
Special Features: Audio commentary from Paul McCartney, a making-of featurette, alternate footage shot for a number of songs, a Top of the Pops promo clip, and a number of deleted scenes.