Alexis Diaz de Villegas, Australia, bats, Bob Byington, George Romero, horror films, House of the Devil, indie comedies, Michel Gondry, Movies, Nick Offerman, road trips, Roost, Seth Rogan, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Guilt Trip, The Sapphires, Ti West, Tom Noonan, Vietnam War, zombies
Welcome to the first actual installment of The VHS Graveyard. This post will concern all of the films watched yesterday, beginning with the pair that I started at midnight. Future posts should keep us on a better schedule but the holidays are always a bit tricky. Without further ado, then…
To be honest, I have a rather love/hate relationship with Ti West. On the one hand, I think that House of the Devil is just about one of the best “modern” horror films out there, particularly that incredible jump scare involving the best friend in the car. On the other hand, I’m having a hard time relating the Ti West of that film to anything else in his oeuvre. The follow-up that wasn’t Cabin Fever 2 was the (for me, at least) ultimately disappointing The Innkeepers. This was followed by a decent segment for the V/H/S anthology film, as well as a wretchedly stupid, lazy short for The ABCs of Horror. All signs would seem to indicate that West came out of the gate strong only to suffer a pretty severe slump. After watching his debut, The Roost, however, I’m more inclined to believe that House of the Devil was the rare bright spot in his catalog.
By all intents and purposes, The Roost is a bad film. Bad for many, many reasons but mostly because it’s peculiarly tone-death and unsure of itself. On one hand, it’s about vampire bats attacking a small town. It’s also about zombies, since those attacked return as the living dead. But not as vampires, mind you: as traditional zombies. This, in itself, is such a strange wrinkle that I can only be led to believe West figured vampires were too cliche in this situation yet he still needed another threat: enter the zombies.
Part of this “everything to everyone” approach also involves the film’s framing device. The Roost runs for a total of 80 minutes but that’s a little deceiving. You see, West conceived this film as part of an imaginary Saturday TV fright film showing, complete with stock horror host (played by poor Tom Noonan, so good as the evil patriarch in House of the Devil, so wasted as Zacherle-lite). This horror show footage takes up at least 15 minutes of the film’s running time, cutting the actual feature to about an hour after the credits. Even odder, the actual film peters out with a completely abrupt ending, only to return to the wraparound segment for the true finale. This, in effect, makes it seem as if West couldn’t really be bothered to even finish the actual story. If he couldn’t be bothered, perhaps you shouldn’t be, either.
This, ladies and gentleman, is why I still bother to watch new films. Despite the less than inspired title (cuz it’s a Latin-American take on Shaun of the Dead! Get it?), I’ve been eagerly anticipating this film for some time. It was well reviewed and, from many indications, was something of a revitalization for the stagnant zombie genre. Did it come through? And how.
Juan of the Dead is the absolute best kind of zombie film because it’s only nominally a zombie film. George Romero, the godfather of gut-munchers, knew this better than anyone else. Remove the zombies from Dawn of the Dead and you have a vicious satire about consumerism and good ol’ American greed. Remove the shopping mall and you have a rousing B-movie. Similarly, Juan of the Dead is really about the state of modern Cuba, the fates and fortunes of those living there and the tendencies of the Cuban government to blame any problems on outside forces: these aren’t zombies, according to the state-run TV broadcasts…they are dissidents and they are most certainly sent by Uncle Sam. Removing the zombies from the film would remove some of the fun but none of the core message.
There’s so much to love about this film that I fear to say too much, lest I spoil any of the film’s myriad happy surprises. Tonally, this is a masterpiece of horror-comedy, balancing both with deft skill, although the film definitely comes down more on the side of satire than heart-pounding fear. The acting is superb, especially from Alexis Diaz de Villegas as Juan. He manages to make a character that could seem selfish and slightly misanthropic on paper into a completely lovable, three-dimensional character. I was so invested in Juan’s struggle – and he assumed the mantle of hero so capably – that I can’t help but mentally include him in the role call of great genre heroes like Ash, Tucker and Dale and, yes, the ubiquitous Shaun. The action is well-staged, the locations are gorgeous, the gore is plentiful and (mostly) practical and there are several very astute observations about the cliches of zombie films. Top this off with a truly great ending and you have a minor classic. Essential viewing, especially for anyone with zombies on the brain.
Chalk this up as a case of truth being stranger than fiction. During the Vietnam War, four young Aboriginal women (two sisters and two cousins) from a small Outback town in Australia decide to try their luck as USO entertainers for the troops overseas. They hook up with a scraggly white piano player and, ditching their love for country & western ballads, become the soul powerhouse known as The Sapphires. Danger, unexpected love, racism, classism: it’s all here.
This was definitely one of the most feel-good films I’ve seen in quite some time. Anchored by five very convincing performances, this was a masterclass in how to touch the heartstrings without being too manipulative. In many ways, this is a very well-made version of The Committments, with an Australian focus. The juxtaposition between Australia and Vietnam was quite interesting and the period details seemed pretty authentic.
Ultimately, there’s nothing really surprising or groundbreaking about The Sapphires: if you have seen one rags-to-riches story like this, you’ve probably seen a hundred. The joy, however, comes in the many small details: the constant in-fighting between the ladies; the burgeoning love affair between the gruff piano player and the hard-as-nails eldest sister; the development of the group from George Jones-loving cowboys into sparkle-dress-bedecked soul sisters. The greatest compliment that I can pay the film is that it honestly earns all of its emotional beats, including a truly lovely ending. Uplifting and inspirational, this is one to add to the roll-call of great “band movies.”
Nowadays, you can’t swing an ironic Motley Crue t-shirt without hitting at least a bakers’-dozen indie dramadies. When they’re done right, they can provide some real moments of insight along with the smirking cynicism. Of many recent offerings, I definitely feel that Somebody Up There Likes Me has the best chance of being remembered years down the road.
Featuring 35 years in the life of two “best friends” (the relationship between Nick Offerman’s Sal and Keith Poulson’s Max is too complicated to not require the quotation marks), the film takes a droll, rather unemotional look at love, marriage, friendship, fidelity and mortality. The film jumps forward in five year increments, showing us how Sal and Max move around each others orbits for the better part of a lifetime.
Despite my growing frustration with the kind of indie film that I’ve mentioned above, I find myself constantly chasing them, always hoping to fall into the next Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry. While writer/director Bob Byington isn’t in that lofty company yet, he’s definitely got some tricks up his sleeves. In particular, the dialogue is very sharp and rather quote-worthy. I also like how every character in the film approaches issues like infidelity, death and romance with as little emotion as possible. It’s almost as if Byington decided to make his principals into actual quip-spewing robots, turning generational angst into something almost poetic. Extra points for the fact that the only character who seems to physically age over the course of 35 years is Sal: Nick Offerman is always the realest person in the room, anyway.
Remember the key tenet of the VHS Graveyard: any movie at any time? Well, I live by those words and so, a day that began with Ti West and zombies ended with Babs and that guy from Freaks and Geeks. Just part of my universe, folks.
In reality, this was actually a cute, fun and inoffensive little road picture. Big-screen multiplex fare like this really isn’t my bag and I often find myself getting burnt (I positively hated Due Date and I really like Robert Downey, Jr.) but there was something about this that said “Take a chance on me” (or maybe it sang it…not sure).
I expected Streisand to be completely over-bearing as the stereotypical clingy mom but there were some surprising beats and depth to her character. She made my skin crawl a few times (there were a few moments that reminded me of Liza Minnelli’s Lucille Austero) but I really found myself pulling for her. I expected Seth Rogan to be manic and smarmy but he actually downplayed his role pretty well and was incredibly likable. More importantly, Streisand and Rogan worked well together, coming across as an actual mother and son. The script was fairly nimble and the resolution was well-earned. All in all, not bad, and a pretty good way to end the day.