Hello again! Annette Kellerman back with more coverage from this year's SXSW Film
Festival. Next up...
So, obviously I have to give full disclosure and admit that I am friends with SINISTER screenwriter and mastermind C. Robert Cargill, also known lovingly on AICN as Massawyrm. I have been buds with him and his wifey for over a decade now. When Cargill first broke the amazing news about his first film endeavor, I was simply elated because not only are we friends, I've been an avid admirer of his voice on this site and others, and I happen to believe he is one of the best film critics/writers out there today. He has always taken one for the team by reviewing even the most widely reviled films (Back Up Plan anyone?) and never fails to deliver a well-rounded, entertaining review. So, when one of your pals/favorite writers tells you his movie is actually getting made, there is initial excitement...which eventually segues into a dull gut ache from that nagging question repeating in the back of your head-"What if it sucks?" Well folks, I am delighted (and relieved) to report that SINISTER is not only un-sucky, but it scared the shit out of me.
The story begins with true-crime author, Ellison (Ethan Hawke) as he and his family move into their new house. Ellison has notoriously moved his family from one crime scene to another in order to fully investigate and sometimes even solve the grisly crimes upon which his books are based. Though the author assures his wife that they are "not moving 3 houses down" from a crime scene, it is apparent from the get-go that a most ominous air shrouds the family's latest home. While storing some junk in the attic, Ellison finds a box that contains a projector as well as a collection of 8mm home movies. Soon enough, Ellison makes the grisly discovery that these home movies are actually recordings of the elaborate murders of several different families. Since his literary star has been fading for quite some time as he keeps chasing his next big hit novel, Ellison chooses not to notify the authorities in the hope that this found footage will be his long-awaited ticket back to the big time. As the author becomes more and more immersed in his latest subject, things start to get creepy y'all! His son's night terrors return, his daughter is painting some weird stuff on her bedroom walls, and that old projector spontaneously replays the murder movies in the middle of the night. As Ellison uncovers more clues and begins to connect the dots between these seemingly unconnected crimes, the story takes a seriously twisted supernatural turn sending Ellison and his family into utter chaos.
SINISTER has all the prerequisite chills and thrills a horror/thriller should have, with one or two great fake outs thrown in for good measure. The sound design is rife with that omnipresent low-end hum that always serves well to keep me on the edge of my seat and cue the freaky stuff that is about to go down. Director Scott Derrickson has aptly applied a dark and shadowy look to the film which serves as a great contrast to the bright light of the projector- an inanimate object that practically becomes another character as the story unfolds.
Ethan Hawkes' performance is solid and convincing as a family man grasping at a career on the decline while trying to salvage the family he is unwittingly destroying. Especially noteworthy is a cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as an occult expert who aids Ellison in filling in the blanks while also amping up the crazy.
As with many films dealing with the supernatural, there are some unanswered questions I wish were addressed. While I am completely capable of suspending disbelief, I guess I was just left wanting more explanation at some points. I don't want to spoil anything here, but there are a few plot devices that are a bit random as well as characters that seem somewhat extraneous or not fully realized.
Fortunately, these minor offenses are completely forgivable and overall SINISTER is a terrific little horror film. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it forging new horror territory? Not really. Did it scare me. Absolutely, emphatically yes, which is all I really want from a horror film. Derrickson, Cargill, and company deliver a solid, fun, and scary film that still gives me a bit if a fright thinking about it even now. SINISTER will be coming to theaters in October, and I am confident that this perfect timing as well as its broad appeal will make it a Halloween season hit.
PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE
So, what does it say about me that I have been more excited to see a 5'2" sixty-something 70's cultural icon in real life than Channing Tatum? Then again, I was more excited to see Jonah Hill again than Channing Tatum. Needless to say, the doc PAUL WILLIAMS IS ALIVE has been at the top if my list since I first heard that it was an official selection for this year's fest.
I sing The Rainbow Connection almost every night to my 2 year old son, we have almost worn out our copy of Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, and I think I may have been the only mom in the world jumping up and down when Mr. Williams made an appearance on a recent Yo Gabba Gabba episode. This is why the title of the film kinda perplexed me. PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE? Yeah, no shit!! Doesn't everyone know that he is the current president of ASCAP and a frequent poster boy for substance and alcohol abuse recovery? Well, apparently not. In fact, director Steve Kessler thought his childhood idol was dead. That is, until a quick google search revealed that not only is the 70's icon alive and well, his career is too. Thus began Kessler's personal and cinematic quest to seek out the academy award winning songwriter to find out where the heck he has been all these years.
Right off the bat it becomes apparent that Kessler himself is just as much a player in his film as his titular subject. The director humorously illustrates via a delightful 70's TV montage why this former luminary registered so high on his childhood pop culture barometer. We learn that Kessler, like many of us, identified with the people he saw on TV as a youth, considering them his friends and family. For anyone alive and watching the tube in that era, Williams was a entertainment mainstay who appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over 50 times, performed on countless talk/variety programs, and even subbed as host for Merv Griffin on several occasions.
Though the film borrows heavily (and delightfully) from footage of Williams elusive past, the crux of the doc centers on the celebrities' current life. Today we find Kessler's hero singing his greatest hits in hotels and casinos. This may sound like a step down for such a former big hitter, but Williams' approach and respect for each gig is met with as much nervousness and preparation as any of his former higher profile jobs. Even when Kessler tries to pry and force the actor into some sort of professional confession comparing his former life to today, Williams retreats and can only embrace the journey he has taken. This infallible attitude has everything to do with the other character of the film- Paul Williams the addict. Through gut-wrenching footage from home video and TV appearances alike, we get to witness Paul's decline into addiction. When Kessler finally shows Williams' footage from a long-forgotten talk show episode where he drunkenly jokes about infidelity, Paul is overcome with shame and walks away from the screen. It is a tough pill to swallow, but ultimately this moment is what makes Williams' journey most meaningful.
For the climax of the film Kessler, who has eventually won the trust and even friendship of Williams, accompanies him on a tour of the Phillipines. Though Kessler expresses many reservations about traveling into an official no travel zone, Williams insistence prevails and the director finds himself scared to death on what he predicts to be a total disaster of a trip. What ensues instead is an amazing full-on arena sized Paul Williams love fest that rivals even the most voracious Justin Bieber experience. Point blank- Paul Williams hasn't gone any where and is still worshiped by legions of fans today.
I highly recommend this documentary. Kessler's somewhat self-deprecating approach is endearing, but he really infuses the film with an overall fun, respectful, and hilarious tone that just makes PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE an incredibly enjoying documentary and triumphant cinematic journey.
Until next time,