Saturday, January 12, 2008

THE ATTIC (2008) d. Mary Lambert

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The complexities of the mind are rich ground from which screenplays often spring. Since the earliest days of film, neuroses and psychoses have been the motivating forces of movie heroes and villains alike. Since Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, thrillers and horror films have mined the warped passages of the brain even more heavily, but it rarely gets old. Insanity and its related psychological ailments touch some of the most deeply seated fears in our souls. THE ATTIC is a film that tries to blend a descent into madness with elements of the occult, and has a degree of success doing it.

Set in an aging rural, New York estate, THE ATTIC is the story of the Callan family and their 20-something daughter Emma. After moving into this old house, which was the scene of past violence and disturbing events, Emma begins to see a person who looks like her, which feeds growing fears about going outside and staying within the house itself. Emma’s fears degenerate into phobias and paranoia, as she suspects her parents, her therapist and even her brother of plotting against her. Emma’s behavior slides into the realm of bizarre, even as what she sees becomes more frightening and inexplicable, causing her to resort to drastic measures to save her sanity and soul.

THE ATTIC is a very mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses. While most people today would consider the slow pace a detriment, it is also of benefit, for it gives the viewer the chance to enjoy some of the fine camerawork in this film. There are some artfully composed shots that meld color, form and subject into some very compelling scenes. While there are some derivative camera and computer generated effects similar to scenes from THE RING, these are few and do not detract from some of the genuinely appealing atmosphere that is reminiscent of 1970s, Euro-suspense. Elisabeth Moss’s performance as Emma is quite strong, as she shifts her character from one moment being the sweet and breathy-voiced youth, to the darkly disturbed femme fatale and all the moods and affects in between. As a result of her changes of tone, temper, makeup and dialogue, Miss Moss’s portrayal of the complex Emma Callan is the best performance in the film. Tom Malloy’s portrayal of Emma’s damaged brother Frankie is also sincere and their chemistry is palpable, but Frankie’s character and other potentially important characters are shouldered aside for other plot elements.

The story is not as strong as the camerawork or some of the performances, as it wobbles between being predictable, baffling and full of illogical gaps. Part of these fissures in reason is explained at the end when the character of John/Brad/Ronald is “unmasked”. Prior to that point, John’s character, played by Jason Lewis, adds a layer of romance to the story that is unneeded and unwanted. The focus needed to be on the Callan siblings and the parents, played by veterans John Savage and Catherine Mary Stewart. Their talents were wasted on parts that were sadly under developed, but should have added layers of tension to the plot. When the more intense and violent acts of the film are played out at the end, the viewer has not had the time to fully form feelings for the feature characters. In addition to unnecessary characters, the very short run-time of this 76 minute film did not allow enough character development either.

Unlike Allumination Filmworks offering of THE OTHER SIDE, which contained a sizable and interesting menu of extras, THE ATTIC is not typical of most people’s upstairs. It is not crammed with goodies, trinkets and mysteries, instead it is pretty bare. With the exception of four Allumination previews and the film trailer, there is nothing to be had. When you consider the pedigree of this film, with PET SEMETARY’S Mary Lambert directing, two screen veterans in supporting roles, an actor who is also the writer and an up and coming actress in Elisabeth Moss, who has a pretty impressive resume for a 25 year-old, some short interviews, commentaries or behind the scenes short features would have been advised. What is often forgotten when producing and releasing a dvd is that seeing inside the mind and motives of the film crew and cast almost always lends a degree of warm sentiment in the soul of the viewer and reviewer. When a disc is “bare bones”, the film is the only line of defense against full-scale criticism.

THE ATTIC was neither time wasted, nor an emotionally crippling experience as too many films often are today. It had redeeming qualities and some unrealized potential. As a lover of old-school film techniques, it would great to see more film makers use patient, well composed photography. In addition, it is heart-warming to see a young actress give a strong performance and not just trade on her bright eyes and pretty face. Despite these strengths and others, THE ATTIC may not be for everyone. It is not brutally gory, does not move as fast as a video game and it is not needlessly crass and boorish. For me, that is a good thing because it means that THE ATTIC is a lot like films of yesteryear, in that it tries to get you to relate and reflect. Had the story been a bit better constructed, that might have been a little easier to do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

THE SEXPLOITERS (1965) d. Al Ruban

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Exploitation Cinema was just what the name implies. It was a vehicle to use some theme like sex, violence, race relations or taboos to lure patrons into theaters and get them to spend money on the promise of a “thrill”. By the video age of the 1980s, exploitation titles of the 1960s saw a revival as they were brought to vhs. Lurid box covers and licentious tag lines made these films even more enticing to the unwary or uncaring. Retro-Seduction Cinema has been restoring a boatload of exploitation titles of the past like HIDEOUT IN THE SUN, THE SEXPERTS and CHANTAL, many of which are enjoyable films in their own right and with lots of goodies in the extras menus, the historical/nostalgia value of these dvds is inestimable. THE SEXPLOITERS has some charming elements, but it is a great reminder of why this genre was labeled “exploitation”.

THE SEXPLOITERS is the “story” of bored suburban housewives led by “Lynn”, who use their looks and talents to make extra money in the seedy heart of the Big City to support their materialistic lifestyle back in the ‘burbs. Women like Lynn take gigs posing for “camera club” photo shoots, attend swinger parties and fulfill fantasies of perverts only to end up with a fistful of cash back in the mundane world of track housing, manicured lawns and the two-car garage.

THE SEXPLOITERS doesn’t really have a “story”, but is a series of vignettes or nudie loops loosely bound together by Lynn’s tale. The underlying intent is to explore scenes like the seedy world of shutterbugs who leer at the occasionally attractive, but more often pedestrian women. There are scenes where the “models” of the “agency” do more than pose nude, but go to parties or arranged “liaisons” where their “talents” are tested more fully. Even taboo subjects like necrophilia and lesbianism are delicately broached. What is assembled is a perfect example of “exploitation” cinema. While some of the “actresses” are attractive, like “Lynn”, played by Terri Steele or Gigi Darlene’s “model eating ice cream”, most of the women would be considered fairly plain by today’s standards, but that is part of the charm of 60s exploitation cinema. In addition, like most theatrical releases of the time, only boobs and butts could be displayed and actual “sex scenes” were pretty tamely shot. The idea is to “tease” and get people in the seats with a “hint” of what they might see. What is surprising is the occasionally well-composed shot, witty camera angle or tongue-in-cheek exchange that keeps this film from being perilously dull. The problem isn’t that THE SEXPLOITERS doesn’t deliver on its promise of skin. Unlike a lot of exploitation film that is set in interesting locales or includes wonderful cars, fashions or kitsch of yore, THE SEXPLOITERS is set indoors for the most part and the sets were extremely simplistic. As a result, you have to dig to find anything of apparent nostalgic value, but it’s there. THE SEXPLOITERS is the very definition of what exploitation cinema was, from the grainy black & white film, to the archetypal drooling scumbags, to the lasciviously built “housewives” and the amiable incidental music that sounds like it was taken from Woolworth’s sound system. THE SEXPLOITERS reels you in with a great dvd front box cover, some fine box photos on the back and great use of old-school tag lines that promise all kinds of sleaze. In the end, you’ll get a laugh or a thrill. It just won’t be from what you expected.

Unlike a lot of Retro-Seduction’s recent offerings, the extras menu is a bit thin, but like the film, there is more than meets the eye if you search around. The commentary by C. Davis Smith is very interesting and entertaining. Michael Bowen’s liner notes are chock-full of historical information worthy of the serious film buff. The Retro-Seduction trailer vault is pretty similar to what can be found on other discs, but the vibe is right and the producers of this project avoid adding trailers from the other satellite imprints of PopCinema, which just wouldn’t fit.

While not up to the loftily set bar of HIDEOUT IN THE SUN or THE SEXPERTS, THE SEXPLOITERS is another worthwhile addition to Retro-Seduction Cinema’s growing “vault” of gems of long-ago. Americans have long had a poor relationship with history as we still tear down historic baseball parks, build malls on Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield sites, “refit” old farmhouses and brownstones and restructure City Squares and downtowns. What was and is lost can never be recovered. Film is a lot like that. If it is not carefully restored, old film is lost to history and all that is left is memory, which is never as accurate or as clear as we think. THE SEXPLOITERS may not be THE GRADUATE, but it is a snapshot of 1960s culture and mores none-the-less and as such it is worthy of preservation.