Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #86: The Manson Family

Jim Van Bebber started making The Manson Family in 1988.  In 2004 it finally came out in America.  It is, by and far, a labor of love, and that shows in every minute of this dark, dark film.  You see the title and you think you know what you are about to see.  What you get, however, defies the senses.

Shot as if it were a film and a documentary, it follows the Manson Family up through the infamous murders, and it looks at a group of contemporary Mansonites who are trying to stir the pot anew.  It is a surreal and often disturbing film, and its narrative structure makes it play like an arthouse terror ride into the depths of Hell.  It is also a fictional movie based around real events but shot to look as if it is using actual footage from the real-life participants.  In short, it’s a movie that seriously fucks with you and your expectations.

Bebber had a lot of issues completing this movie, as is evident by the film’s timeline.  Money was a constant source of problems, and at least one actor was fairly nervous while shooting because he was unsure of just what he had gotten himself into.  And what had he stumbled into?  A movie where the depiction of sex and drugs weren’t always just motion picture simulations.  A movie where the blood flowed freely and nudity was commonplace.  It is not for the weak of heart or easily offended, either, as we all know what happened in that murder spree that took Sharon Tate and her unborn child (and a host of others).  For some, a movie that revolves around that particular crime can be nothing but disrespectful and there is no amount of reassuring that can sway that feeling.  That said, those people are wrong.

Bebber, despite all the problems, created a something very close to a masterpiece that is more a nightmare than a film at times.  Upon finishing it you will feel like you just did a ton of acid and got trapped in an abandoned amusement park.  It’s not pleasant, and it’s not meant to be.  It is, however, meant to make people talk, and in that it succeeded quite well. 

Roger Ebert, the man who made me want to be a film critic, gave it one of the most even-handed reviews I have ever read for it; he understood quite well what Bebber had accomplished.  Ebert, who called the film “an act of transgression so extreme and uncompromised, and yet so amateurish and sloppy, that it exists in a category of one film -- this film,” understood that the director had done something beyond the norm.  At the conclusion of his review he stated that the film was “remarkable,” successful and “uncompromising,” and then wrote, “That doesn’t mean I think you should see it.”  That sums up The Manson Family experience quite well.

Watch it if you think you can handle it.  Avoid it if you have any doubt.  If you do watch it, understand that you’ve never seen anything like it prior and nor will you ever see anything like it again.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film to review.  If you click on a link, I may earn a commission.  If you click on a link, leave something witchy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #87: Thriller -- A Cruel Picture

When director Bo Arne Vibenius set out to make the most commercial movie ever, little did he suspect what impact 1974’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture (one of its many titles) would have on future cinema.  If this movie hadn’t of been made, we would have never had Elle Driver in Kill Bill.  That role was directly inspired by Vibenius’ Frigga character, played by the amazing Christina Lindberg, whose first centerfold spread in a men’s magazine (Lektyr) happened while she was still in high school.  This movie that inspired Tarantino may not be the most commercial movie ever made, but it sure raised a few eyebrows.

Frigga is a young woman who was left mute by a sexual assault in her youth.  One day she accepts a ride from a stranger and quickly finds herself forcibly addicted to heroin and pushed into prostitution.  When she angers the man who did this to her, she gets her eye taken out to teach her a lesson.  Not one to just take her lot in life lying down, Frigga uses her money to buy weapons and take martial arts classes in order to extract her revenge on all who have wronged her.  (Kind of like a low rent The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)  Prime exploitation stuff. 

As if the subject matter weren’t controversial enough, the eye removal scene was actually filmed with the cadaver of a young female who had recently committed suicide.  The film also had hardcore sex scenes added to it to help boost revenue. 

Those who have watched a lot of exploitation will tell you that this Swedish film isn’t actually all that rough and tumble, and they are correct.  It would shock the hell out of the average moviegoer used to Julia Roberts and superheroes, but all things considered, it really isn’t as nasty as it sounds.  In fact, at times it almost seems like a made-for-television movie.  So why do I have it on the list?

Thriller has a certain quality to it that you can’t quite put your finger on.  It’s definitely a product of the early ‘70s, and it feels like a foreign film trying to be American.  Vibenius, who directed and wrote the film under a pseudonym, tried something fairly gutsy and stylized, and had very little money with which to do it.  What he created wasn’t exactly what he was trying for, I’m sure, but it was something magical.  No one who has ever seen the film has ever forgotten it … no matter what title they saw it under.  (My favorite being Hooker’s Revenge.)  It’s that kind of courage that’s missing from a lot of cinema.  Sure, filmmakers have grand ideas, but how many have ever said they were going to make the most commercial movie ever created and then threw in a mutilated corpse, rape, drug addiction, copious amounts of nudity and blood, and hardcore sex scenes?  Bingo.  No director in his or her right mind would attempt such a thing … and then try to make it artistic!  The audacity of Vibenius is amazing.  I can only find that he has written and directed three films in his short career, but this one is actually more than enough.

Only in the ‘70s…

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film for review.  Clicking on it may earn me a commission.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #88: Hard Candy

How many good movies are out there that center around pedophiles … besides Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?  Few.  It is difficult to make a good movie about a pedophile because the subject matter is so loaded.  What if you make a movie about a pedophile who sets up an encounter with a teen girl in order to have sex with her, but she isn’t what he expected?  What if she, Ellen Page in this case, turns out to be the predator … and she’s really good at it?  Can you make a good movie about a pedophile then?  Yes.

Hard Candy is such a fun film to watch.  It turns viewers’ expectations on their head as it presents a pedophile (or at very least an ephebophiliac, though an assertion is made that he may be a pedophile, so I will stick with that) as someone you may actually have some (but very little) sympathy for as he is seemingly tortured.  That’s a real fine balancing act to pull off effectively.  Too far in one direction and you have what lazy critics call “torture porn.”  Too far in the other direction and you have a creepy movie about a sympathetic pedophile.  Director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson walk that high wire the entire running length.  They understand the danger they have placed the plot in, and they give the audience credit for being intelligent enough to see what they are doing.  In that sense, Hard Candy becomes an act of trust between the filmmakers and audience, while the entire film itself is based around lies (a pedophile who lies to lure a teenage girl to his home, and a teenage girl who pretends to be a victim).  Once you start delving into the implications presented in the picture it is hard to dismiss it as a mere thriller.

I have heard it asked how such a young girl (she is 14 in the film) can outwit a grown man who has obviously partaken in such acts before.  There are, of course, a thousand different answers that can be given, but I think one that hasn’t been discussed much is that even as teenagers, girls are very aware of their sexuality, even moreso than boys, who are controlled by their own sexual urges and have little in the way of understanding them.  Girls realize the control their sexuality has over others.  Really intelligent girls know how to use this to their full advantage, and men often underestimate this skill despite the fact that they curse it so much instead of respecting it.  When it comes to sex, few men ever make it out of their teenage years, while teenage girls are forced to grow up faster.  They know what those leers mean and those “accidental” touches indicate.  That is how Page’s character pulled it off.  She knew what drove men … especially men turned on by teenage girls.  Watch any episode of To Catch a Predator, which is really nothing more than pedophilia you can feel good about, and you will see the same ideas in action.  Men will travel hours, ignoring every sign that says he is about to be entrapped, simply because of the promise of a sexual encounter with a girl.  Most men are controlled by sex plain and simple.

Hard Candy is not a disturbing film.  In fact, it is quite tame.  (And, let’s be honest, the writer and director could have made this even more of moral swamp to drown in, but decided to let the audience off easy.)  Almost all of the damage done to the pedophile, played well by Patrick Wilson, is psychological … until the end at least.  If it were remade today, one has no doubt that would be remedied … and the film would then fall off that high wire I mentioned earlier.  As it stands, it is a subtle and smart commentary on the notion of victims, predators and prey, and what it means to be any of those things.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review.  Clicking on a link may earn me a commission.