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Killer Joe (2012)

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Killer JoeStarring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church

Directed by William Friedkin


Master filmmaker William Friedkin will always have carte blanche around these parts for his cinematic adaptation of The Exorcist which still manages to be one of the best and most terrifying films of all time even after almost forty years since its release.

As a storyteller, Friedkin has always strayed from the norm and given audiences some of the most thought-provoking and powerful films of all times including The French Connection, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in LA and Cruising as well as a few other notable projects including Rules of Engagement, Bug and the erotic thriller Jade (penned by the wacky Joe Eszterhas). And one would be quick to think that after 47 years of filmmaking the director would be slowing down but with his latest, Killer Joe, Friedkin shows he’s not ready to slow down any time soon.

In fact, Friedkin delivers some of his best work in decades here which will have you seeing both Matthew McConaughey and fried chicken in a whole new light once the credits begin rolling on Killer Joe.

At the start of the movie we meet a down on his luck 20-something schlub named Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) who finds himself in debt to a local crime boss who’s ready to break his kneecaps if Chris can’t score some cash quick. Desperate to repay his debt (and preserve said kneecaps), Chris presents a dastardly yet simple scheme to his dimwitted mechanic father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his 12-year-old sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a naïve and sheltered girl who, as it turns out, will inherit $50,000 if her mother (and Ansel’s first wife) should happen to kick the bucket.

Chris suggests that they hire Joe Cooper (McConaughey)- a local lawkeeper who also happens to moonlight as a deadly hitman named Killer Joe in his spare time- to take out the mother, leaving them to split Dottie’s inheritance and saving Chris’ debt woes once and for all. The snag in Chris’ perfect plan is that their proverbial trailer trash family lacks the money to hire Killer Joe for the hit. The chillingly cool Joe isn’t too thrilled that his potential employers lack the necessary funds for the job but he graciously offers up an idea that would keep the killer satisfied while awaiting payment- he wants sexual favors from Dottie, a virgin while he awaits payment.

At first, Dottie’s family debates back and forth about putting the virginal youngster on retainer with Killer Joe (much in a way people debate whether or not to put this year’s Christmas presents on lay-a-way at Wal-Mart; an off-kilter approach that certainly elevates Friedkin’s darkly comedic stylings peppered throughout the flick), but the trio all succumb to the allure of the insurance payout that is awaiting them and soon, Killer Joe makes quick work of Chris and Dottie’s mom- almost as quick as he seduces the virgin right out of the young girl, and Dottie shows she’s definitely not immune to Joe’s charming ways (it’s McConaughey- he perspires pure charisma), quickly falling for the dangerous killer, thusly complicating things within her family dynamic which elevates tensions all around in some pretty unimaginable ways (again: fried chicken).

As a whole, Killer Joe is a frantic, unsettling and cynical portrait of lower-income family dynamics that explores the best and worst aspects of the familial unit and just how broken family ties can become in today’s society. In some ways, the flick also explores the recent down-turn in the economy and how poverty can push people to do terrible things to the people they love the most.

But most distinctly, Killer Joe manages to be a twisted and weird little love story which isn’t something you’d expect packaged inside a gritty crime thriller by Friedkin at all; there is just something horribly mesmerizing about watching Joe and Dottie’s completely irrational yet completely rational relationship unfold throughout the film (much like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers) and as you watch the youngster fall for the older killer, you know it’s wrong but you find yourself kind of rooting for the lovers to make it through the messy situation that unfolds as the inheritance doesn’t end up working out like Chris first thought it would.

Both McConaughey and Temple are simply astonishing in Killer Joe and deserve any sort of praise or accolade that comes their way for their performances in the movie. Truthfully, McConaughey is an actor that this writer has been endlessly defending for years now; sure, the bongo-loving actor has shown up in some turkeys (The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) over the years but people always seem to forget McConaughey’s stellar turns in a multitude of great flicks too like Dazed and Confused, Frailty, A Time to Kill, Reign of Fire (which I’ll defend to the bitter end), We Are Marshall, Tropic Thunder (another flick I’ll defend until I’m blue in the face), and most recently The Lincoln Lawyer. McConaughey’s latest turn in Killer Joe is by far the actor’s most impressive work to date and certainly proves he still likes to keep things interesting in his career.

Gershon is given one of the more thankless characters in Killer Joe with the scheming and underhanded Sharla but the underappreciated actress delivers a brilliantly daring and layered performance, making Sharla into something more multidimensional than the usual trampy and unsatisfied trailer park housewife. Haden Church gets back to his indie roots here and makes Ansel a likable unassuming schmuck who just can’t be bothered with making decisions, going along with whomever seems to be a bit smarter than him in that given situation.

Killer Joe‘s script by Tracy Letts (who also penned the play as well as Friedkin’s last thriller Bug) is exceptionally good once it finds its footing; the movie stumbles a bit right out of the gate, making the first thirty-five minutes or so the weakest part of the movie with some of the scenes lingering on just a little too long. But once Joe is introduced into the mix and the story picks up steam, everything really clicks in Killer Joe with Friedkin’s unflinching directional style complimenting Letts’ unsettling but sometimes sweet (in a twisted way) story beautifully.

While it may be a bit too heavy-handed and careless in some places to ever be considered one of Friedkin’s greatest masterpieces, Killer Joe is definitely the best we’ve seen from the iconic director in some time; it’s a bold, weirdly charming and violent look at the modern family unit that makes for one of the most thought-provoking cinematic endeavors of this year that also manages to prove that it is possible to still make compelling and interesting films after almost five decades in the business.

4out of 5

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Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political

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Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside

Directed by Eitan Gafny

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.

Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.

Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.

The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.

The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Yafit Shalev as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.

So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.

Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.

The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.

Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.

  • Children of the Fall
2.5

Summary

While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.

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User Rating 3 (11 votes)
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Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama

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Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein

Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker

Reviewed out of Utopia 2017


One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.

The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.

Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.

The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.

While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.

All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.

  • Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club
3.5

Summary

Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.

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User Rating 3.46 (13 votes)
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Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!

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Beyond the 7th DoorStarring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman

Directed by B.D. Benedikt

Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision


Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.

Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.

Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.

The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.

Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.

The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.

The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.

There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.

“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.

“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.

Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
  • Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
  • The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
  • Beyond the Seventh Door
  • Special Features
3.5

Summary

Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.

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User Rating 3.4 (20 votes)
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