Tuesday, January 13, 2015

sensitive tough guys: a double feature

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: (2014. dir: Kenneth Branagh) This ought to have been a success. Chris Pine is good, Keira Knightley is good, Branagh is good as the Russian heavy facing his mortality, Costner is good in his mentor role. There are some lovely images: Branagh's Cheverin contemplating the Russian cavalry taking the French eagle at Austerlitz is a beautiful moment. When Pine's Ryan barely escapes a brutal assassination attempt and meets Costner for debriefing at a bus-stop, Costner's sad gentleness is sublime. And, after a convincing flirtation between Knightley and Branagh, the moment when he realizes he's been played, the expression into which his face falls, like a man turning into a stone golem, is one for the ages. Cheverin's moment of death is played out gracefully, too. It's almost as if Branagh wanted to direct the film because his interest lay in the poetry of this one character, this one mass of contradictions, poet and killer. It comes off, though, as if he didn't get to make the film he wanted to, only succeeding in vague, melancholy gestures towards what might have been.

That's not the biggest reason, though, that this is a failed project. It fails because it follows The Formula. As usual, you've got the vapid teal and orange color-scheme. You've got the shaky cam, which is always more annoying for me when the acting is good, when you're fair certain that if the camera were sitting still and showing you what the actors were doing, it might be quite interesting, but you'll never know for sure. There are extreme plot-turns and, more distancingly, such narrow windows of time in which the characters may accomplish their ridiculously impossible tasks that you subconsciously stop caring, since it doesn't have anything to do with the real world. You've got the requisite chase scenes: there he goes on a motorcycle, there he goes in a police van. Bet he'll end up in the river. Sorry. Did I give something away?

the Watcher: (2000. dir: Joe Charbinic) Another of those cerebral duels between a serial killer and his hunter. (If they happened half as often in life as they do on our screens, the world would be impossible to live in.) James Spader digs deep and finds gold as the disintegrating cop who has abandoned the dance to dissolve in the acid of his own guilt and remorse; Keanu Reeves is ridiculously miscast as the whimsical maniac. A scene to which the director returns, as if he wants it to be a centerpiece, is one in which Reeves does a sort of dark victory dance at the site of his final hurrah, and it is fatally marred because (one assumes) Reeves can't dance, and therefore the camera and the editor must skirt around its edges, draining away any emotional punch it might have carried.

Charbinic would have ruined it, anyway. He is one of those musical-montage directors; I suspect what he really wanted was to direct music videos, as that's the cheap aesthetic he brings to the piece. When we are watching through the killer's eyes, all brightness is drained from the colors, and he breathes like Darth Vader. There is also a sort of stop-motion effect Charbinic tosses into the mix, sometimes during chase scenes, probably meant to lend a hypnotic air, but instead resulting in a strobe-like distancing, and the last thing we need is further emotional distance, believe me. We have plenty already.

Spader is the one good thing about this movie. Oh, and Chris Ellis as the sidekick cop, an excellent secondary role, and he takes it to town.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

tough guys: a triple feature

Thief: (1981. dir: Michael Mann) There is magic in this. Mann somehow makes even the darkness bright and shiny; it's hypnotically beautiful without feeling contrived (contrived ala Miami Vice, I mean). The cinematography is breathtaking. Who will ever forget the angle of perspective when Robert Prosky is giving his last, terrifying, damning tirade at the prone Caan? or the mesmeric force of the sparks from the machinery as the heists are performed?

I can't fault the performances, either, but the weakness of the film is that I don't give a crap about any of these people. Caan's courtship of Tuesday Weld is supposed to be endearing in its ultra-toughness, I suppose, but it's only absurd. Weld gives it a game try but her character is a plot device, a mere symbol of a single aspect of the American Dream, as is the baby, purchased like a commodity, a baby silent and trouble-free. When Caan orders Weld to set out on her new life without packing anything, I wanted to laugh. With a newborn child? Have you ever tried to go ANYWHERE with a baby, even just up the street, without packing anything?

So the downside is that I didn't give a crap about these folks; the upside is that even in spite of that, I was electrified by the finale, when Caan reboots his inner robot and takes ruthless control. There's a shot of Prosky, waiting half-hidden behind furniture with a gun in his hand, silent and ready, that was just about as perfect as a shot can be.

He Ran All the Way: (1951. dir: John Berry) My expectations were high for this. It was John Garfield's last picture: blacklisted for his leftist politics, hounded by McCarthy and refusing to turn rat, his heart gave out at the age of 39.

This is the story of a young hood (Garfield is too old for the part, but he excels in boyishness) whose tragedy is that he cannot trust. The beginning is wonderful: we watch as Nick Robey is tormented by nightmares in his tiny brownstone bedroom, then tormented by his blousy, drunken mother (Gladys George). Out on the street, he is accosted by a weaselly bad guy (Norman Lloyd) who conscripts him into a payroll robbery. Robey protests, tries to tell his nightmare, keeps repeating that he knows he has no luck that day, that they should wait. It's a wonderful set-up, like a baleful prophecy, setting the doomed tone for the rest of the picture.

Like clockwork, best-laid plans implode, and in the aftermath of the fouled-up heist Robey ends up getting his hooks into Peggy (Shelly Winters), who takes him home to meet the family. For the next few hours, everything slowly goes south, as southward as possible, as you'd imagine in a John Garfield crime noir. Every mistake he makes, the script makes it clear, is because he does not know when, or, indeed, how to trust. He's been so battered around by everyone in his formative years that he has no firmament on which to stand, and feels he must take everything by force.

The bulk of the picture unfolds in the family's apartment, and it's a decent unfolding. Unfortunately, it's too easy to project what you know of Garfield's real life onto the picture, and feel his paranoia too acutely to enjoy it. It's gorgeously shot, of course, by James Wong Howe: from the early moment when we see Garfield waiting to attack the payroll guard, half his face in shadow, the other sweating in full light, to his last stagger in the water-filled gutter, nobody ever shot anything better than Howe did. Howe and Garfield work beautifully together to show us a boy tormented by doubt, and consequently, by hopes: look at his face in the back as Shelly Winters tells her father she is going away with Robey, a face torn between incredulous hope and cynical dread, or the climactic trip down the staircase, masterfully shot, while Garfield gives in entirely to his lower nature, forcing her at gunpoint before him, barking, "Garbage! Garbage!"

It's a good movie, but hard, in context, to enjoy.

the Lusty Men: (1952. dir: Nicholas Ray) This is Ray's rodeo movie, and it's a good one, if you use it for that purpose. By that I mean that if your heart jumps in anticipation when you read the words "rodeo movie", then you'll like it. It's got a lot of footage of the sport itself, some cameos by real names from the day, and a convincing feel for what the "circuit" might have been like back then.

As far as the women are concerned, it's not just another slog through the misogyny that was the '50s. I mean, it is, but it spends some time examining it. This is a place where Susan Hayward has to settle for being spunky and feisty in her hard-fought stand-by-her-man because she's simply not allowed a second choice. We hear her cooking complimented several times, and we watch her doing housework and fighting a no-account buckle-bunny for rights to her man's attentions. He is a burgeoning rodeo star played by Arthur Kennedy, an actor who somehow manages always to seem a little untrustworthy, no matter how clean they scrub him behind the ears, and the older cowboy who takes him under his wing is the far sexier Robert Mitchum in a role that's just as untrustworthy. (After Hayward opens up to Mitchum --about how she's going to stand by her man, of course, --he watches her go with a certain Mitchum dreamy-eyed quality, then muses to his hoss about why men always prefer a redhead, since they all have such hellion tempers? Gawd.)

Still, Hayward's character is full and real, and she makes it clear that, springing from a family of migrant workers, there was only one choice she was ever allowed in her life, and that was who she'd marry. She took her time and made it carefully, but she was fooled into thinking he really meant what he said when they were courting. There are other women around the rodeo: mostly wives, torn between worrying about their husbands knocking their heads open and where the next day's groceries are coming from. There's one particularly strong and unusual woman: Maria Hart plays a trick-rider who, although locked out of the main competitions, has created her own niche on the circuit.

It's not a bad movie; it's a good one. Even so, I'm grumpy. It's not Ray or this movie I hate; it's the fifties in America. What a godawful time.

The best moment in the whole shebang belongs to Mitchum, naturally. It's his last and it's filmed particularly well.

Friday, January 2, 2015

errol flynn western double feature

Montana (1950. dir: Ray Enright) In Montana, a full-scale war is raging between cattle-herders and sheep-herders, with so much unjust blood spilt on both sides it's come to resemble the Irish Troubles. Luckily, all it takes to make peace is a charming shepherd like Errol Flynn to step in, seduce the chief cattlewoman to his side, and sheep and cows co-exist happily ever after.

This is a silly movie. First of all, as a vegan and a democrat, a conflict between beef-heads and mutton-heads seems as absurd to me as the Star Trek episode where the racial armageddon on the planet springs from one half of the population being black on the left side, the other on the right (Let That Be Your Last Battlefield). Secondly, did anyone ever really LIKE Alexis Smith? or did she just get work because she was one of maybe two actresses in Hollywood (the other being Olivia de Havilland) who didn't hate Flynn?

Like all of Flynn's Westerns, it's not about the outlaw or the man alone, it's about the friendly, clever bloke who's going to tame the West, bring in some culture, throw up some fences, see that folks do their drinking properly on a Saturday night before cleaning up for church the next day. It's the kind of Western in which I have little interest. Some of them are better than others, yes, and this is not one of those. Characters are introduced, coddled, and dropped (like the Lassie-dog. She's the love of his life, she instigates an important plot-twist, and then promptly vanishes), as are relationships (who's that girl kissing Alexis Smith's fiance? is she a plot-point in woman's clothing?)

There is nothing in this movie that doesn't show up in more successful guise in other Flynn Westerns, either Silver River, Virginia City, Dodge City, or San Antonio. Watch those instead, along with Rocky Mountain and Santa Fe Trail, and leave this one to languish on the shelf. San Antonio sports all the same weaknesses this one does, but it has a lovely night-time climax which makes up some for it. This one has a cattle/sheep stampede screen-projected ridiculously behind the heroes and villains as they duke it out in the end, and it resembles a joke more than a climax.

Rocky Mountain: (1950. dir: William Keighley) This is easily my favorite of Flynn's Westerns. He's Captain Lafe Barstow, leading a seedy band of Confederate soldiers to California to muster up troops for Lee in the final plunge of the war. Instead, they find themselves trapped on a rocky outcrop with Yankee prisoners in tow and surrounded by a bellicose band of Shoshone. The rock and nearby canyon are particularly photogenic, and cinematographer Ted McCord uses the land's rich texturing, along with a lovely variance of velvet darknesses, and some of the best, most unpretentious framing you'll see in a Western, to give us a thing of beauty. The plot moves along at a suspenseful pace, and Flynn gives the best performance of his career, I think, at least this side of his heartbreaker in the Sun Also Rises. He doesn't use the dimples; he doesn't force the charm. There is a wonderful, subtle weariness to his delivery, punctuated by the occasional sparkle of optimism. He has gravitas here, a natural force of command not dependent on his usual tricks.

In fact, there's very little wrong with this movie. There's an odd prologue in which a modern-day car drives up and let us read the monument telling us that this is indeed based on truth, and it feels superfluous and television-inspired. The other thing is that the dog has its own jaunty theme-song, which dates the piece pretty badly. And, truth be told, the dog itself is a blatant piece of emotional blackmail. It's as if they didn't trust us to care about a raggedy pack of Johnny Rebs unless a pooch showed us how.

None of that matters. The Indians ride in graceful, intimidating circles in the aftermath of battles, the Rebs are stalwart and, inevitably, lose, but with undeniable honour. It's got people like Slim Whitman, back when he was truly slim, and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams among the soldiers. The script speaks with easy elegance about the strangeness of war. It's a beautiful movie.

This is where Errol Flynn met his last wife. Lauren Bacall was originally slated to play the role, and refused, bringing some contract woes down on her head, but Flynn and Patrice Wymore must have worked well together, because they were still undivorced, albeit separated, at the time of his death nine years later.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

fire in the sky: true fortean


(1994. dir: Robert Lieberman) I love this movie. If you clip off the "Hollywood Ending" denouement in which all the loose ends are neatly tied up, just that last five minutes, get rid of that, then you have a True Fortean experience.

The parameters of the "True Fortean" (or daimonic) experience are that you are, first off, fairly certain that something weird and probably supernatural happened, but you can't ever entirely suss out just how much of the story you're told (or, if you were one of the participants, how much of what you experienced) is truth, half-truth, faulty memory, outright lie, or hallucination, and if it's hallucination, how much of it is shared. In our practical, commonplace life we come to the table with a few expectations, certain demands: one is that the Truth is Out There, that truth is distinct from untruth, that there is always a way to snuffle out what really happened, and if you're not finding it, then somebody's obscuring the way or you're not trying hard enough. In a True Fortean experience, the lines between fact and fiction, real memory and hallucination, nature and supernature, get so blurred that they run together into a wholly new artwork, a sort of subconscious watercolor. All our demands are not only unmet but in so strange a manner that it leaves us speechless, and possibly sleepless, the ground having been pulled from beneath our collective quietude.

The movie was based on a "true" tale from the Fortean vault, the Travis Walton alien abduction. (You can read about it in The Walton Experience by Travis Walton.) In the mid-70s, outside a quiet little Mormon burg in the forested part of Arizona (Snowflake, up near Flagstaff), a man vanishes and five days later reappears, naked, near-feral, and damaged, in a nearby town. The best part about this movie is that you're never exactly certain what kind of story you're watching: is it, in fact, an alien abduction? is it, as the investigating officer believes, a crime with a crazy cover-up story? or a publicity stunt dreamed up and executed by a childlike fantasist? Every time you think you've got your finger on the answer, the story shifts, in some tiny way, so that you doubt again.

I love the way this movie starts. You see a road through a forest at night, and the credits roll over the top of it, with sounds of the occasional owl or night creature finishing a picture of utter peace. Then a pickup truck comes slamming over the hill, its driver in an obvious panic, running into trees, careening off the road. Eventually, barely, its engine smoking, the truck parks in front of a honkytonk and five men, big men, loggers, shaken and in a state of shock, file into the warmth of the place and sit down as their friends and kinfolk watch them, their friendly advances rebuffed. The men talk quietly among themselves, establishing they are going to "stick to the story." Then one of them, the leader, walks into the back, picks up a phone, looks at it as if it is an alien device, and dials a number. Later we learn he is calling the cops to report a missing person.

The story unfolds partly through their telling, but mostly we glean it as the investigating officer (James Garner) does. In his first scene, in which he gets the initial call on his police radio as he's driving, the director gives us a strange moment: we are looking at him through his windshield and we see a string of red lights reflected in the glass lift up and we watch his face as he watches it, the radio in his hand momentarily forgotten. It's a trick: our brains convince us it is a UFO, but when the camera pulls back, we see it is the glowing crossbar at a railroad track lifting. It's a trick, yes, but it's also a clue: hallucinations are more frequent than we think they are, and some are trickier than others.

The first half of the movie, we (along with the federal investigator) think we're watching a crime unfold, and then our expectations get cheated once again. Every time we think we have ahold on what is true, it slips away, and the movie keeps that going, without cheating, nearly until the end, which is the only real cheat. In Lieberman's defense, it would have been a bold filmmaker who could leave the "neat ends tied" version off (like the Coen Brothers, with that amazing Tommy Lee Jones dream-speech at the end of No Country for Old Men, or Kelly Reichardt with the controversial and stunning ending of Meek's Cutoff). It weakens the movie into a mere curiosity; on the upside, Robert Patrick is doing a sort of sexy Norman Reedus kind of thing, so it's not all bad.

This could qualify as a horror film, because once you get to the Climactic Reveal of the abduction sequence, it really is horrifying. The aliens look fantastic, seriously fantastic, the best I've ever seen, and the set-up of the "zoo" of abductees I swear gave the Matrix its vast-human-incubator blueprint. After that, it's one big nightmare, a hideosity constructed from goo, a disconcerting lack of gravity, cringe-worthy needles, and gunk and machinery inserted into orifices. And it's filmed in a way to encourage an unsettling, dream-like experience.

After you watch it, you can decide yourself whether you want to go online and join the debate about whether the "true" story is indeed a fabrication. None of that has any bearing on the film itself.

Once again, for emphasis: I love this movie.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

nazimova's camille: art deco

(1921. dir: Ray C. Smallwood) June Mathis wrote the script the same year her breakout hit the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse emerged, the one that made her protege, Valentino, an overnight sensation. He's here, as well, playing Armand, but anyone hoping for a Valentino Movie would have been disappointed. This is very much directed and choreographed towards showcasing the talents of the women. Nazimova was a massive star of the theatre, beginning at Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre before immigrating to New York where she was the Liv Ullman of her day, bringing Ibsen and Chekhov to the yanks. (According to Wikipedia, Dorothy Parker called Nazimova the best Hedda she'd ever seen.) Today she may be best remembered as the proprietrix of the infamous "Garden of Alla", a sort of sodom-and-gomorrah pleasure-den which has become an architectural fixture in the Classic Hollywood which resides in our collective unconscious.

Camille was to be a bold production, set in the modern day, photographed very much to emphasize Nazimova at the expense of her co-star, with a strong focus also placed on Rambova's striking art deco production design. Its Parisian scenes may be, in retrospect, the most stylistically "'20s"-looking pieces ever caught on celluloid. Rambova, Valentino's future wife and very much Nazimova's protege (and possibly her lover), was never well-liked among the Hollywood elite, but she owned a forceful artistic vision. Here, she's created spare sets designed around circles, amongst which Nazimova can bend her graceful body into expressive arcs and esses.

The script itself, alas, is no great shakes, giving us long scenes we don't need and far too little time spent with Marguerite and Armand together. Once she makes her decision to leave her lover for his own good, the movie falters and crawls to a slow finish, both actors hamming it up, and we never do get the scene we really want, which is la dame dying gracefully in her sweet boy's forgiving arms. The only times Valentino's star appeal comes apparent are when his eyes shine with sorrow; all else is either bland, predictable, or overplayed. It doesn't help that what we expect from a Valentino character, the strong, forceful lover, is instead a submissive, grasping Marguerite around the knees and offering to be her dog, and signing a gift for her not with love, but with "humility". Granted, nobody ever watches any version of Camille for Armand, but there are hints in Valentino's biographies that the relationship may be a sort of mirror image of his love affair with Rambova, who was most definitely a domineering powerhouse thrusting up through the center of his short life and his career, reshaping both; he was devastated when she left him.

More generally, it is a fascination to look back on the power these women had in those early Hollywood days: Rambova, Nazimova, and June Mathis, all three, and wonder, where did it all go, that female forza on the backlot?

In the end, this Lady of the Camellias seems flat and uninteresting in her virtuousness, with none of the fascinatingly layered sense of conflict we glean from Garbo's later rendition. Even Paris manages to feel claustrophobic, as if all of Parisian night-life is one roomful of pretentious humans who travel from a restaurant to a party to a casino. The most beautiful scene may be when Marguerite's car, headed to Paris on a night of Biblical rains, passes the car in which Armand is enjoying his last moments of happiness, on his way back to find a house empty but for betrayal.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

samhainfest 2014: allison hayes triple feature

Disembodied: (1957. dir: Walter Grauman) You could call Allison Hayes the poor man's Jane Russell and you wouldn't be too far off-base. She suffered bad luck under the studio system, but that's to our advantage, because she wound up one of the original scream-queens, one of the greats.

In this ill-conceived and badly-written supernatural melodrama, Hayes is the Great White Voodoo Queen, leading the necromantic rituals of an unnamed native tribe in an unnamed jungle in deepest Africa. (One of my favorite lines is when the white men are awakened by drums and Paul Burke says, "It sounds like it's coming from the jungle," as if there's a second choice, as if in the jungle hut's back yard there's a nice rolling savannah they just never show us.) She's got the sex appeal and charisma to carry this femme fatale, but it's so badly written, incorporating so many unmotivated actions and crazy choices, that it's no great success. Also, and more damningly, her dances during the voodoo rituals are absurdly choreographed, and she winds up looking pretty silly doing them. The action never really gets rolling, the pace constantly derailed by the archenemies pausing to have a nice talk over tea cosies, some of it a lot of nonsense touching on Pythagoreans and metempsychosis, which makes no sense except to prepare us for one nice effect, when one of the natives switches personalities with one of the white men (ala "Turnabout Intruder" from the third season of Star Trek).

Still, she looks great, and when she hears her prey approaching the house and hikes up her skirt to show off the gams, you know the poor sod hasn't got a chance.


Zombies of Mora Tau: (1957. dir: Edward L. Cahn) These zombies walk underwater out into the sea; you can tell them from a distance because they're often adorned with seaweed. They have the 100-yard gaze, but otherwise look like men, and somehow their sailors' clothes from fifty years prior are still pretty neat and well-darned. They're guarding a chest of diamonds which was stolen from a local temple (this, also, is in darkest Africa, of course). Every so often a new expedition of white men come seeking the diamonds, and the old white lady of the island, widow of one of the zombies, shows the newest group the graveyard of all the men who've come, tried, failed, and either been buried or, if you don't get them into the ground fast enough, resurrected as the walking dead.

Sound like Pirates of the Caribbean? Well, it is, except without the charm or skill of execution. There are some chills, as when the ingenue is stolen by one of the zombies and dumped on the floor in the sort of bomb-shelter where the undead bunk down. The zombies all silently rise from their coffins (now, why do they sleep in coffins, again?) and gaze at her in utter silence before beginning, slowly, to encroach. (Don't worry. She gets saved.) Mostly it's pretty silly, but fun to watch. The diamonds are in a safe in the hold of a sunken ship, and the men diving have to fight off zombies underwater, which is not, I assure you, the makings of an exciting fight-scene.

Because she's an obvious slut, Hayes' character gets hers early on and becomes the only she-zombie amongst 'em. It's nice to see her man hit her with all his clout and the force of it bounce off her as if she's made of stone. In the end, the Old Widow "destroys" the diamonds (by tossing them out of a boat into water about a foot deep, where anyone could just reach down and grab them up again), and the zombies all vanish, their clothes fall into neat piles on the ground, and their souls, at last, are at rest. It's completely, entirely absurd, and a lot of fun to watch.

the Hypnotic Eye: (1960. dir: George Blair) I remember this one from when I was a kid, although I didn't remember it until the climactic, rather shocking moment. Beautiful girls are maiming themselves after they see a stage hypnotist at work. The early part about the girls and their auto-mutilations has almost a Sam Fuller feel to it, the perverse shock of it, but there are great hunks of the film devoted to Jacques Bergerac and his pretty dull mesmerism act (although, I'm here to tell you, when somebody keeps describing the taste of a lemon, your mouth really does react as if you're tasting it) and to a dull policeman (Joe Patridge) bumbling around trying to solve the crime. He patronizes his girlfriend (Marcia Henderson) when she gets the idea that the hypnotist is involved, letting her take all the risks, following her petulantly, almost letting his jealousy get her killed. He's patronizing to her friend, too, who defaces herself with sulfuric acid (which she just had sitting around the house. The fifties were a crazy time), disbelieving her when she claims that she really was hypnotized.

Hayes has the strong woman role here, and she's far more interesting than the suave, French magician himself. Even while she's lurking in the background her presence is powerful, and when she steps to the fore, she does it with a vengeance. To the film's credit, it doesn't pause to explain her motivations; it doesn't have to. If it weren't for the protracted clumsiness of the "let's hypnotize the cinema audience" scenes, this would have been a small but intriguing success.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

samhainfest 2014: snippets

the House that Dripped Blood: (1971. dir: Peter Duffel) An anthology of horror stories, lackadaisically encased within an unconvincing "the house gives people what they deserve" framework, and ranging in quality from the engaging (Christopher Lee moves in with his daughter and is less than forthright with the new governess about his sweet little girl's true nature) to the downright silly (Jon Pertwee is a movie star who buys an "authentic" vampire cloak, which turns out to bestow the actual curse and powers of the vampire upon the wearer). Good acting by the likes of Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott lift it above its under-par effects (a wax figure whose siren-like charms supposedly draw men to their deaths is heavy-featured, frumpy and petulant-faced, tossing a farce-like wrench into the works, and when Ingrid Pitt "flies" then "turns into a bat", the clumsy mechanisms involved bring the words "Ed Wood" to mind).

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch: (1982. dir: Tommy Lee Wallace) The infamous "but wait! where's Michael?" episode in the very long Halloween sequence, it's really a decent watch. It has an interesting story, Tom Atkins is always a stalwart lead, and Dan O'Herlihy as the evil mask-maker is fantastic.

Oculus: (2013. dir: Mike Flanagan) Effective and inventive psychological/supernatural thriller, about a mirror which is either an evil mastermind which devours life around it and lures its prey by planting illusions in the mind, or else a scapegoat which two grown siblings target to excuse the bloody demise of their parents. The acting is good, Katee Sakhoff will be my favorite scream-queen if she keeps going with it, and by the end, you'll be questioning yourself what is illusion and what is not. The scene in which the brother and sister stand outside safely in the yard, watching themselves standing in peril inside in front of the mirror and wondering if they are the real humans or if the other two are is mind-twistingly suspenseful.

the Reeds: (2010. dir: Nick Cohen) Small-cast English horror venture going for something along the lines of Christopher Smith's Triangle. It's got some decent acting, and the locale, a chartered boat lost in a landscape of narrowing canals pushing through desolate reeds, is low-budget effective. It's a power-place: something about the reeds "captures" those who die there, in effectively haunting variance of levels, sometimes mere breaths and suggestions, sometimes as corporeal as you and me. Some time-displacement gets woven into the mix, and it very nearly approaches success, but not quite. In the end, it reaches for one too many clever turns, goes one earth-shaking coincidence too far, and leaves us behind.