Friday, November 21, 2014

WHY DOES OSCAR OVERLOOK HORROR FILMS?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in the very scary GONE GIRL . (copyright 2014)
We’re in the middle of Oscar prediction season again, and there are few horror movies that will figure in any serious prognosticating. The animated film “The Book of Love” is a ghost story and it is considered to be a strong contender for Best Animated Feature, but no out-and-out horror films will likely be in the running for any other categories. Despite the raves for frighteners “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Oculus”, few expect them to figure in the nominations.

Why is that? Do genre films like horror, thrillers and science fiction yield a reputation that doesn’t appear serious enough to be considered art? Are the pulpier aspects viewed as too base or even cheesy for best of balloting? Perhaps it’s because genre tends to be more visceral than intellectual. But no matter what the excuse is, the Academy finds plenty of reasons to shun such films year in and year out.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider in JAWS. (copyright 2013)
In fact, it’s quite astonishing how horror films specifically have gotten such little love from the Academy Awards over the past 86 years. When it comes to Best Picture, only a handful of true horror films have ever been nominated. “The Exorcist” in 1973, “Jaws” in 1975, and “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991 made the cut. Borderline scare-fests like “Fatal Attraction” and “No Country For Old Men” did too, but classics like 1931’s “Dracula” and ‘Frankenstein” didn’t.

The list of other classics that didn’t yield a single nomination is astonishing: the 1942 version of “Cat People”, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (neither the Don Siegel original or the Phillip Kaufman remake), “Night of the Living Dead”, “Halloween”, “The Shining”, “Theater of Blood”, John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, "Let the Right One In"  – none of them were up for boo. At least “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the Oscars its year, taking Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

More often than not, if horror does receive Academy recognition, it’s in smaller categories like makeup or special effects. And horror rarely rates an entry in the acting categories. Thankfully, there have been exceptions over the years, like when Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and Kathy Bates won in the lead category for 1990’s “Misery”.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in 1973's THEATER OF BLOOD. (copyright 2012)
Still, horror legends like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were never nominated for their performances, nor for that matter, were any of them given life achievement Oscars either. In fact, it’s more often the case that acclaimed horror performances, even those that have won critics awards, get notoriously snubbed by the Academy when they’re filling out their ballots. Jeremy Irons won a slew of awards for his dual performance in "Dead Ringers" in 1988, but the Academy just couldn’t stomach nominating him from that David Cronenberg shocker. Same with Jeff Goldblum for Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” two years earlier. It was a widely heralded performance, but the Academy ignored him anyway.

There are other great performances in horror movies that have been similarly overlooked. Even if they’re from hit movies or are adapted from great literature. Alistair Sim couldn’t muster a Best Actor nomination come Oscar time for his dramatically nuanced turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol”. He captured the miser’s loathing and bullying like few others before or since, and he aced the redemption part too, but it still wasn’t enough to sway voters.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO. (copyright 2013)
“Psycho” was such a phenomenon in 1960 that it couldn’t be ignored, so the Academy nominated both director Alfred Hitchcock and supporting actress Janet Leigh, but they forgot to remember its star Anthony Perkins. Was Perkins simply too effective at creating the insidious character of Norman Bates, arguably the greatest horror movie character in the history of film, that it unsettled too many voters? Were his fellow actors jealous that he transcended the one-dimensional male ingénue roles he’d often had previously and hit such a complicated part out of the park?

What’s so incredible about Perkins’ work in the film is how he manages to make the audience sympathize, even empathize, with such a psychopath. You actually root for him to cover up the crimes of his ‘mother’ and get away with it. And it isn’t until the very end that audiences realized how his character had conned everyone on screen and off. Maybe the Academy members resented being fooled so definitively, or perhaps their complicity in cheering on his horrible actions made them feel remorse and guilt. Either way, they snubbed him.

Two of the greatest female performers in frighteners were unfairly ignored as well. Both Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion" and Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” gave incredible performances in the classic horror films directed by Roman Polanski, but neither performance got the Academy’s due. The gorgeous Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing a “Monster”, but these two ingénues couldn’t get the time of day for battling theirs onscreen.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Alistair Sim in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (copyright 2012)
The year before “Repulsion” came out in 1965, Deneuve played a singing shop girl in Jacques Demy’s candy-colored “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Her follow-up role the next year couldn’t have been more different. Yet Deneuve showed she had the talent and the range to pull off the part of a deranged young woman losing her grip on reality. And she did it with nary any dialogue, instead using her large eyes and expressive body to register her downward spiral into insanity and homicide. Still, Deneuve’s palpable performance wasn’t enough for the Academy.

And why was Farrow ignored? She’s onscreen virtually the entire film and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. You’re invested in every second of her pregnancy and even come to understand her choice to nurture the baby at the end, rather than snuff out Satan’s spawn. Yet while the Academy acknowledged Gordon, they ignored the movie’s lead.

If straight horror movies fare poorly with the Oscars, horror comedies barely even register. Michael Keaton may be considered this year’s Best Actor frontrunner for his sublime work in the dark comedy “Birdman”, but he couldn’t muster even a Supporting Actor nomination for his hilarious turn in the 1988 comedy hit “Beetlejuice”. And of course, horror comedies like “The Evil Dead”, “Fright Night”, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” were completely overlooked. Those last two even warranted a 92% and 90% rating at RottenTomatoes.com, respectively, but that and a dollar fifty got them home on the bus.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Linda Blair in 1973's THE EXORCIST. (copyright 2012)
There is hope though. “Gone Girl” brushes very strongly up against the horror genre, and it’s a real contender this year. It’s expected to get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Editing and Cinematography. Whew! Rosamund Pike is surely Oscar worthy, but we’ll see if her monstrous Amy Dunne character has turned off too many viewers to prevail. Glenn Close played a similar role in “Fatal Attraction” and came this close to winning, but she didn’t.

It has always been an honor just to be nominated for an Oscar. There are only 24 categories and most of them only allow for five nominees. (Best Film now allows 5-10, depending on vote totals.) Nonetheless, horror movies too seldom make the top five, and that’s not right. Is a film whose primary purpose is to scare you less legitimate than a film where the goal is to make you cry? Here’s hoping that at least “Gone Girl” and “The Book of Life” scare up some awards this season. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

THE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL CAREER: TALENT, HARD WORK AND MORE THAN A LITTLE INSANITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER. (copyright 2014)
The 2014 film year has already been distinguished by movies with a decidedly dark slant to them. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is not your typical Wes Anderson whimsical comedy, but rather a biting commentary on racism, the class system and fascism despite its candy-colored decor. THE LEGO MOVIE may have been aimed at 6-year-olds but the romp was as cynical as any of Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies. GONE GIRL is not just a thriller, it’s also a searing indictment of the compromising institution of marriage. And the brilliant BIRDMAN is both an affectionate love letter to the theatrical world as well as a brutally scathing takedown of the egos in show business.

Now along come two movies that are so dark, so bleak, and so black of heart, that they almost could be horror films. And both contain a ‘villain’ with borderline personality tendencies that are truly terrifying and might even be sociopathic. And each film has a lot to say about America and in particular, what it takes to succeed in the modern world. The films are NIGHTCRAWLER and WHIPLASH. Even their names are rather frightening.

NIGHTCRAWLER could easily be the name of a horror movie and true to form its protagonist is a man who’s essentially a monster. Jake Gyllenhaal, in a career best performance, plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief who stumbles upon a car accident one night and watches as a freelance videographer films the scene for a local news station. Suddenly, he sees a way to make money as well as a name for himself.

Bloom starts to bloom in his chosen career path as he starts racing across the streets of LA looking for the latest accidents, murders, and crimes to film. He’s intrepid and immoral, and willing to do anything to get the most lurid shots for a voyeuristic TV audience. He’ll even tamper with a crime scene or move a dead body to get a better shot. It skyrockets his career and buoyed by it all, he starts extolling his success philosophy to both his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) and the station producer (Rene Russo) buying his bilious tape. It’s the same bullshit that you’d find in a Tony Robbins tape or any self-help book, and it’s clever how writer/director Dan Gilroy uses it to expose the crap that is the cliched American Dream formula.

One of the most amusing things about this dark comedy/thriller is the way in which Gilroy has directed Gyllenhaal to play Bloom. He is a man who doesn’t close his eyes to any of the ugliness, thus he barely blinks in this movie. Bloom has an aggressive staring gaze, like a predator considering prey, and it's both eerie and amusing. The shrewd actor even lost 30 pounds to give his hungry hunter a hollowness. There is no core to him. And the weight loss helped make Gyllenhaal's large eyes pop even more. They seem to be akin to his camera lens, all seeing and unwilling to look away. 

Bloom triumphs again and again in the story, and he becomes addicted to it. Ultimately, he starts creating the stories to keep his camera rolling. He even allows himself to become the news towards the end of the film, and again, reaps heaps of glory, albeit for a story he set up, starred in, and shot with his ever-present camera. Bloom’s complete lack of journalistic ethics makes the blurring of the lines between good reporting and bad reporting at the heart of movies like NETWORK (1976) or BROADCAST NEWS (1987) seem almost quaint by comparison. And Bloom’s sensationalized, over-the-top work isn't much different from the utter hysteria the cable news media created these past months with their breathless coverage of Ebola or ISIS. NIGHTCRAWLER couldn’t possibly be any timelier. It’s an up-to-the-moment cautionary tale about the faltering morals of our news media and its  insatiable catering to an audience's that devours fear and misery on a nightly basis.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH. (copyright 2014)
Bloom may fancy himself a connoisseur in a way, but he knows it's not exactly art he's creating. Nonetheless, the question of art is precisely what's at question in WHIPLASH. Here writer/director Damien Chazelle deals directly with what one suffers for their art, specifically the struggle of a young musician to make it in the world of jazz. His protagonist is Andrew (a brilliantly nuanced Miles Teller) who's a young drummer trying his best to meet the exacting standards of his brutish and dictatorial teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). It's all about the thin line between a dedication to one’s art versus obsession. 

Andrew is good enough to make it into the top jazz band in a performing arts college (a take on Julliard), but he's not sure he has true greatness in him. He wants to become a legend in the mold of  Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, but what does it take to get there? Can pushing yourself through endless practice get you there? When talent and hard work isn’t enough, what becomes the X factor that pushes you into true excellence? Is it insanity?

Fletcher seems to believe that if that's necessary, than so be it. That's why he's pushing his students to the brink. That’s why he’s willing to bully, terrorize and physically assault his charges to get them to dig deeper. For him, the end result of true greatness justifies the horrible means. And he thinks nothing of methods that  include physical assault, verbal abuse, and driving a student to the edge of mania.  

Fletcher may be a monster, but he’s not all black despite his rather Johnny Cash-esque wardrobe. (That costuming choice is a bit on the nose.) And the casting of Simmons was a stroke of genius as he’s capable of even making assholes into sympathetic and relatable characters. Every time he was onscreen as bellowing newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the SPIDER-MAN movies, he was an absolute treat to watch. Here, he does something similar, turning Fletcher into both a terrifying jerk, but a funny one as well. Not since John Houseman’s pudgy face stared down Timothy Bottoms in 1973’s THE PAPER CHASE has an educator been so leeringly LOL.

Fletcher goes too far, no doubt, as no teacher has the right to slap students or slur their heritage or sexual orientation. My God, his anger issues are as brazen as his brass section! Still, this instructor knows that playing up the fears of failure in an artist can amp up their will to survive and strive. It's a pact with the devil the ambitious Andrew is all to willing to succumb to. Like Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER, he wants to be a huge success as well, and he's willing to do almost anything to reach such lofty goals. Andrew bleeds, sweats, loses sleep, turns away his kind-hearted dad (Paul Reiser) and adorable girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), and even drives recklessly to get to a concert to play - all to be the drummer of his dreams. And Fletcher’s.

Teller does an amazing job of portraying the character and he  demonstrates some truly astonishing work on his drum kit too. We remain on his side every step of the way, even when he starts to go mad. And by the end, when the two men finally get on the same page together,  the two see eye to eye, literally, over what matters - the music. You can hear the difference that Andrew’s perseverance has made in his extraordinary climatic performance. 


The takeaway from both of these dark films is that hard work and talent no longer ensure career success. Something else is required to give it a push, be it shamelessness, brass balls or utter insanity. It would appear that crassness and craziness are the new paradigms of the job market.

Friday, October 31, 2014

WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES FOR THIS YEAR'S HALLOWEEN!

Hey, just kidding. That was sort of a trick. 

Now, here's the treat. The images I'm sharing with you are indeed graphic, but not in that gross and gory sort of way. Instead, I'm sharing with you a series of the original caricatures I've drawn over the past couple of years of some of my favorite horror icons. I hope you enjoy these 'graphic images'!



Good evening! Yes, it's the Master of the Macabre himself, hoping your Halloween comes off without a hitch. He's done some wonderful horror like THE BIRDS (1963) and what some consider the greatest horror movie of all - PSYCHO (1960). 


Vincent Price is one of my favorite actors, and nobody dominated horror films the way he did. Here he is in one of his best, as the title character in THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH from 1964. His best role ever? As the murderous Shakespearean actor in THEATER OF BLOOD (1973). Rent both!


Sigourney Weaver saves the cat in the original ALIEN (1979). This caricature was done for Blake Snyder's blog about screenwriting called "Save the Cat" (http://www.savethecat.com). His book argues that heroes should do something heroic, like save an animal early in the film, to get the audience on that character's side. Weaver's Ripley is a caretaker throughout, and makes sure she saves the cat from the alien space creature as well.


THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) may be a silent movie, but it's still an incredibly creepy one. The story of a carnival side show attraction and its murderous proprietor and somnambulist attraction has some of the most nightmarish images in any film.


The scariest movie I've ever seen was THE EXORCIST (1973), mostly because it seemed all too real. Interesting as well was the fact that for the first hour of its running length, it's a rather straight-forward story about a girl's psychosis. It's discovered to be Satanic possession in hour two, and that's when all hell breaks loose. 


It may be a TV-movie but THE NIGHT STALKER was one of the scariest films ever. The portrayal of vampirism, personified by the well-suited Janos Skorzany (Barry Atwater), will haunt me forever. If you see it, it will do the same to you!



My all-time favorite horror movie is JAWS (1975) starring (left to right) Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider. Every time I stumble upon it on TV, I have to watch it. Still.


Glenn Close played one of the scariest characters ever in the horror movie/thriller FATAL ATTRACTION (1987). She was a sympathetic 'monster' in many respects, with Michael Douglas' philanderer perhaps being the true villain of the piece. 


Alistair Sim created film's most definitive Scrooge in the 1951 A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Funny how the world's most popular Christmas fiction is a horror movie, what with those ghosts and all.


Finally, GONE GIRL may be a thriller but it's also more than a bit of a horror movie, as argued here recently (http://bit.ly/1sgSoIE). And Rosamund Pike is my pick for the best 'monster' in a movie this year. (Pictured here with Ben Affleck.)

I hope you enjoyed these scary portraits. And have a happy Halloween, everyone! 

Monday, October 27, 2014

SETTLE ON THE UNSETTLING THIS HALLOWEEN

One of the lobby art cards from the original release of SISTERS in 1973
Halloween is this Friday, October 31, and many horror fans will be renting scary movies this week and settling in with their significant others for some entertaining thrills and chills. But if you’re the kind of moviegoer who wants something that will truly cause nightmares, here are five films to consider that you may not have even have heard of, let alone considered. Nonetheless, these five will truly leave you utterly unsettled.

“The Poughkeepsie Tapes” is one of those movies that likely will not ring a bell. That’s probably due to the fact that this horror indie has never been officially released in theaters. Or on DVD. Or in any streaming platform. Why? There is no “official reason” on the books, but it may have something to do with how incredibly disconcerting it is. Sitting on the shelf since 2007, with fits and starts regarding its opening and distribution, this mockumentary will send chills up your spine and throughout your skeletal system. And it’s available for free on YouTube.

One of the disturbing images from THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)
It’s the fictional story of a serial killer who’s still at large. The authorities have found his home and confiscated the 800 plus videotapes he had in his house. This maniac managed to record virtually every element of his crimes: the kidnappings, the torture, and the eventual murders. Written, produced and directed by the Dowdle brothers, John Erick and Drew, their story not only shows us the killer’s chilling and grisly ‘home movies’ but also creates a creepy documentary around them.

In fact, the most affecting and terrifying scenes are the interviews with the detectives, parents of the victims, and witnesses to the horrific crimes. Hearing them speak about the horrors is where this one becomes truly harrowing. And just when you think this visceral thriller can’t burrow any deeper into your marrow, one of the killer’s victims is discovered alive and gets interviewed as well. You might not sleep after hearing what Cheryl, his last known victim, has to say. This dark and disturbing little thriller deserves an audience, and YouTube hopefully is just the start.


“The Descent” (2006) is as masterfully done as any horror movie from the last 20 years, with an 85% fresh rating from RottenTomatoes.com, so how come you’ve never heard of it? Well, maybe because it’s British and it contains no stars. Still, it’s a nail-biter that will grip you in an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia its entire 99-minute run.

Six women enter an unmapped cave system in the sticks, where they become trapped, and then hunted by flesh-eating humanoids living underground. These modern cavemen are vicious and craven, and yet so are the six women who are at each other’s throats from the start of the excursion. The title refers to their expedition, yes, but it also comments on their fall from decency and humanity during their vacation together. The film explores dark, cavernous chasms in the caves and the human mind.

The tight tunnels and jagged rocks here look incredibly real yet were brilliantly created on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England. It’s some of the best production design you’ll ever see in a movie, and director/screenwriter Neil Marshall has made an exceptional horror film that should ascend towards the top of any horror aficionado’s list.

Margot Kidder as the Siamese twins in a flashback scene in SISTERS (1973)
When you think of Brian De Palma, you probably think of classics like “Carrie” or “Scarface”. As disturbing as those films are, a more unsettling pick from his oeuvre is “Sisters” (1973). It stars Margot Kidder in a role about as far away from her Lois Lane from 1978’s “Superman” can be. Here, she plays conjoined twins Danielle and Dominique, now severed, and living as roomies. One is good, the other – not so much. When Dominique kills a suitor with a cake knife, a reporter happens to witness it from her apartment window. It starts a cat & mouse game that riffs on “Rear Window”, Jekyll & Hyde, as well as Our Bodies, Ourselves, that legendary woman’s tome from the late 70’s. (Yes, this film has a lot to say about the feminine mystique.)

What makes “Sisters” so unsettling is its subject material, as well as Kidder’s two performances. Just watch the new season of “American Horror Story” if you don’t think Siamese twins still hold fascination with horror fans. And Kidder’s work here is her best ever. Somehow she makes both characterizations eerily discombobulating. They have a blowsy Manson girl vibe to them, equal parts love child and killer. De Palma brilliantly uses the split screen filming technique here too, just as he did in “Carrie” so effectively; only here it also serves as a metaphor.


 Another unsettling psycho/sexual thriller is Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965). It stars Catherine Deneuve, one of cinema’s most luminescent stars, though she’s anything but glowing here. She plays a troubled young woman who finds aggression all around her, from the vulgar men who come on to her on the streets to the pushy customers she waits on at the beauty salon where she works. And when a leering landlord makes advances on her, she begins a downward mental spiral. Suddenly the whole world is grabbing at her, even the walls. Why is she unraveling? You’ll have to wait for the very last shot of the movie for the answer. Polanski focuses on a framed photograph in her apartment that tells you everything. It’s utterly unsettling. And it will haunt your home too.


Finally, there are those that see David Lynch’s masterpiece “Mulholland Drive” as merely a thriller, but Vulture.com made a very convincing argument that the movie could and should be seen as a horror movie (http://vult.re/1w9xDAd). Of course Lynch’s films have always had their nightmarish themes and qualities to them. Robert Blake’s villain standing next to Bill Pullman at a party and answering his home phone simultaneously in “Lost Highway” is one good example. This one is no exception. This story, however, is far more disturbing than anything he’s ever done and much more terrifying than most horror genre fare.

“Mulholland Drive” (2001) is also an eerie art-house film that can be interpreted in any number of ways. Is it a fever dream in the mind of the failed actress Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts)? Is it a searing indictment of Hollywood’s penchant for discarding female talent after a certain age, like a companion piece to “Sunset Blvd”? Absolutely. But it’s also about the illusions of dreams, whether they are the hopeful kind in Tinseltown or those in our imaginative brains.
Naomi Watts and Laura Harring are the stars of MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)
No matter what you think, and the director himself encourages multiple interpretations, this movie is a dreamy vision of Hollywood old and new, juxtaposed against the ugliness of show biz. The Diane character imagines being a hot, young ingénue taking the town by storm, but that’s a pipe dream. Along with that illusion, the film also explores the loss of power in a town that is all about it. The klutzy hit man can’t get his assignment without taking out a number of innocent bystanders, and the arrogant, young director clashes with the mob over who gets cast in his film. All of this suggests that Hollywood itself is a monster movie with reasons to scream at every turn.

And then there is the literal monster that Lynch shows us in the famous Winkie’s Diner scene. It is one of the most terrifying scenes ever in a film as a disturbed man and his friend venture behind the eatery to see if there is a monster behind the dumpster. As they take their cautious steps, Lynch proves he’s the modern master of the macabre. They seem to float, the sound design from Angelo Badalamenti builds to a feverish conclusion, and you’ll find yourself devastated by what is shown. If nothing else, that makes this one unsettling horror movie. (See the scene in the embedded video from YouTube below.)


 If you like tamer frights, you can always watch one of the many “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Paranormal Activity” sequels. However, if this Halloween you’d like to challenge your goose bumps, see something you haven’t seen before. See a horror movie that proves that man is always the much more monstrous than any vampire, zombie or alien. These five films may make you question your faith in humanity. They’ll certainly make you lose some sleep.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

REFLECTIONS ON THE HOLLYWOOD MIRROR

Original caricature of Meryl Streep by Jeff York (copyright 2012)
Whenever there’s another ‘scandal’ about another Hollywood star’s plastic surgery, I’m always reminded of Isabella Rossellini’s line in 1992’s DEATH BECOMES HER. In that black comedy, she played Lisle Von Rhuman, a sorceress with a magic potion, who promises aging actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) that it will keep her young forever. Literally. She won’t die. But then, after the desperate star drinks it, Lisle issues a warning. Madeline implores, “Now, a warning?!”

Lisle tells her, “Take care of yourself. You and your body are going to be together a long time.” Of course, Madeline doesn’t heed that warning. She doesn’t take care of herself and instead commits one epic fail after another. She falls down the stairs, breaks her neck, and has a vicious, physical battle with her enemy played by Goldie Hawn. It leaves Maddie maddeningly bruised, busted, and twisted into some zombie version of herself. And she’s stuck with those errors of her judgment, for the very long time that is immortality.

Which brings us to Renee Zellweger. 

Renee Zellweger then and now. 
The blogosphere is abuzz this week with outrage about the apparent alterations that Zellweger has made to her appearance. They're screaming that she's ruined her face, that she's unrecognizable, that society demands too much youth and beauty from women in Hollywood and on and on. It's become the story in Hollywood this week, and yet surprisingly, the only real surprise should be that there's no real surprise here at all. 

Now, did Zellweger have plastic surgery? Or too much Botox? Is she merely getting older and we can't handle it? You'd think she committed a crime by the way some are overreacting, but it does appear that she is different looking. It's hard to find those identifiable Zellweger features (the pouty lips, the squinty eyes, the apple cheeks) that characterized her since her launch into stardom as the fresh-faced, all-American girl from JERRY MAGUIRE. Where did that Renee go? Talk about your GONE GIRL.

But this isn't really all that much of a news story. This kind of thing happens all the time in Hollywood. Cher, Joan Rivers, Mickey Rourke, Courtney Cox, Bruce Jenner, and on and on. If Zellweger wanted to beat the clock with some artificial means, that is just par for the course. There may be some news in how it affects her career, but that will take a while to tell. It could rob her of choices like it did for Jennifer Grey or Meg Ryan. And hopefully, Zellweger won't become a bad punchline like Heidi Montag and Kenny Rogers did after their unfortunate alterations.  

Zellweger does cop to looking different now, admitting that there were times in the past when she wasn’t at peace with her looks. She says she's happy and healthy now though, and if that's really the truth, good for her. If it hurts her access to roles, that may quickly change. 

Of course, an actress' age and looks shouldn't be such an issue, but they are. And they always have been. It comes with the job. It does with most jobs. For men too, though obviously not as much. It's a sexist world and a vicious one at that. But there is not much surprise in that fact. Certainly not enough to create the reaction of  abject horror to Zellweger's new face by so many. It may be an ugly part of the game that is Hollywood, but it's a game that no one should be naive about. Not in a town that usually has the word "Tinsel" in front of it. 

If anything is a shame it's that we're not talking more about all the terrific movies coming out now during Oscar season including such buzz worthy entries as BIRDMAN, THE IMITATION GAME, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, NIGHTCRAWLER, ST. VINCENT, INTO THE WOODS, and BIG EYES, among others. We should be talking about the art of movies, not the art of looking younger.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in SUNSET BLVD. (1951)
As William Holden’s Joe Gillis pointedly told aging actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in 1951's SUNSET BLVD., “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five!”


A tragedy, indeed. And not much different now than it was then. End of story.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE FIVE WAYS THAT SUGGEST DAVID FINCHER'S "GONE GIRL" IS REALLY A HORROR MOVIE


David Fincher’s thriller GONE GIRL virtually tied with ANNABELLE, the horror movie prequel to THE CONJURING this past weekend at the box office. Both took in over 37 million, and both prove that the nation’s audiences love to sit on the edge of their seats at the Cineplex. And, not surprisingly, GONE GIRL has a lot in common with the horror genre too. In fact, if Fincher’s SEVEN brushes up against terror, his GONE GIRL could be considered such a genre entry as well. Here are five reasons that suggest so. (Note: there will be plot spoilers ahead so you have been warned!)


Its antagonist is monstrous
First and foremost, the antagonist in GONE GIRL goes way beyond the normal femme fatale one would find in a thriller. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has a lot in common with the dangerous female characters from film noir. She could be a Hitchcock blonde with her icy beauty and sophisticated allure. However, her diabolical agenda renders her less Tippi Hedren and more Hannibal Lecter. Amy’s actions go way beyond what passes for vengeance in most pulp fictions. She’s not just vile; she’s villainous. And her deeds are more than just self-preserving. They’re sociopathic.


Its main setting is a haunted house
David Fincher loves to work with the extraordinary cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. In fact, Fincher’s recognizable signature  - low, warm light and lots of shadows – is a staple of noir and horror. And in Fincher’s thrillers, Cronenweth is an absolute expert at making the maximum out of the mystery by painting the light with his disquieting darkness and eerily still camera work. The DP has proven in everything from FIGHT CLUB to GONE GIRL that he knows how to place suspect characters in suspicious settings, and make the modern world as scary as anything supernatural.

Just look at how he shot THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Cronenweth photographed the characters sitting at a boardroom table, practically static as they gave depositions, and made it look as dangerous and terrifying as anything Phillip Marlowe ever discovered in a darkened alley. In GONE GIRL, Cronenweth shoots the Dunne’s beige, bland suburban house like it’s a well-decorated prison. The home of hapless husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is vast, lonely and filled with secrets. Has track housing ever been so disturbing? Cronenweth’s shadowy geography kept Nick in the dark in GONE GIRL, both physical and metaphorically. And the audience too.


The creepy music would make Dracula feel right at home
Film composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose have collaborated with Fincher on two other occasions – THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – and both times they produced moody scores that added to the eeriness of those edgy stories.

With their music for GONE GIRL, they’ve made even more out of such dismaying tones. The chords are sultry and yet foreboding throughout. It’s spooky in the film and as a stand-alone soundtrack as well. Such a score could easily accompany a modern vampire tale. And in many ways, that is exactly what GONE GIRL is.


The murder and mayhem is truly terrifying
Say what you will about the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise, but antagonist Jason Voorhees was basically a big, dumb killing machine. He was practically a shark in a hockey mask, driving forward from one inevitable bloodletting to the next. In GONE GIRL, Amy Dunne is so calculating, cold and vicious that she’d make a Manson girl blush. The death on display in GONE GIRL is simply shocking. And somewhere, Eli Roth and John Carpenter are covering their eyes behind their hands.


The lethal combination of sex and murder is a horror staple
The female vamp archetype has always driven screen thrillers. Bad girls like Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT made homicidal tendencies haute, hot and horrifying. But seldom has film noir seen a villain as unstoppable and ferocious as Amy Dunne. Her peer group is more like horror’s Freddie Krueger and Norman Bates. In fact, if the mother from “Aliens” had a showdown with the ‘Amazing Amy’, I’d bet on the 5’8” stunner vanquishing the space creature in a minute flat. That’s how horrid the antagonist of  GONE GIRL is.


The movie title itself works on a couple of levels, and one clearly points to horror. Of course it refers to the so-called ‘disappearance’ of Amy Dunne since she is perceived to be a possible kidnap victim in the first hour of the film. More importantly however, the title points to how far Amy is from what everyone thought she was. Amy was never really the beautiful, erudite and loving woman that her husband, friends and family thought she was. Instead, she’s hovering on the fringes of societal norms as her humanity has long vanished. What’s left is an utter monster.