Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


School Ties

For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

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* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

Film Review: A House Is Not A Home (dir by Christopher Ray)


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I was recently lucky enough to get a chance to see a perfectly creepy haunted house movie called A House Is Not A Home.  A House Is Not A Home is one of those films that I have wanted to see ever since I first heard about it last year.  I have to admit that, usually, whenever I find myself looking forward to a movie, I sometimes dread actually watching it.  There’s nothing worse than being disappointed by a film that fails to live up to your initial expectations.  That’s why I’m happy to report that A House Is Not A Home not only lived up to those expectations but exceeded them.

A House Is Not A Home begins with a close-up of a bloodied hand.  An obviously unstable man (played, with a truly unsettling intensity, by Richard Greico) calls 911 and tells the operator that “they’re all dead” and it’s all his fault.  He then hangs up and, after shouting, “Take me!”, disappears into a bright white light.  It’s an effective scene, largely because it’s played totally straight.  You look at Greico and you have no doubt that something terrible truly has just happened and that not only was he responsible but he’s going to also be responsible for a lot more before the film reaches its conclusion.  It’s the perfect way to open up a haunted house scene, one that hints at the promise that the film itself will soon fulfill.

Sometime after the man had vanished, the house is up for sale.  Architect Ben (Gerald Webb) and his wife Linda (Diahnna Nicole Baker) are given a tour of the house by a real estate agent named Paul (Bill Cobbs).  When we first see Paul, he seems like a nice old man.  He’s friendly, he’s always smiling, and he comes across like he could probably sell snow in Canada.  But, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s something a little bit off about Paul.  By the time he finishes showing the house, you start to realize that his friendly smile seems to be more of a self-satisfied smirk.

Regardless, Ben and Linda buy the house and, along with their two teenagers, Ashley and Alex (Aurora Perrineau and Melvin Gregg), move in.  From the minute that they unpack, strange things start to happen.  Ashley is woken up in the middle of the night by mysterious laughter and, regardless of how many times she tries to move them, the same scary-looking dolls keep showing up on her dresser.  (Seriously, those dolls were creepy!)  Alex feels as if he’s being watched wherever he goes.  Linda, a recovering alcoholic, starts to drink again and her attempts to give piano lessons are made difficult by the fact that the piano occasionally attacks her students.  And Ben suddenly finds himself having nightmares and deliberately cutting himself so that the blood can hynotically drip down onto the kitchen table.

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Even more frightening?  The man from the first scene in the film keeps popping up, standing in the corner and watching.

Yes, obviously the house is haunted and eventually, even Ben is forced to admit it.  The family is forced to call in a voodoo priest, who attempts to exorcise the house.  (The priest is played by Eddie Steeples, who may be best known for playing the comedic Crabman on My Name Is Earl but  who actually gives a nicely intense and creepy performance here.  Just check out his eyes!)  If you’re a fan of the horror genre, then you’ve probably seen a lot of haunted house exorcisms but, even if it might seem like a familiar development, the exorcism scenes in A House Is Not A Home are really well-done.  If nothing else, they’re distinguished by the fact that the exorcist isn’t the typical quirky medium or self-doubting Catholic priest that most movies offer up.  For once, we’re given an exorcism that’s interesting to watch…

But does the exorcism work?  Well — does an exorcism ever work in a haunted house film?  You’ll have to watch to find out.

A House Is Not A Home is an effectively creepy movie, one that uses its low-budget to its advantage. Director Christopher Ray allows the camera to creep through the house, snaking its way through empty passages while the soundtrack is full of the sounds of restless spirits.  The end result is a film that, as opposed to relying on predictable CGI for its scares, instead creates a palpable sense of doom and dread.

The film is well-acted by the entire cast, with Bill Cobbs especially giving a wonderfully sinister performance.  (I wish I could tell you about his final appearance in the movie without it acting as a spoiler but seriously, it’s a wonderfully acted scene.)  In the role of Ben is Gerald Webb, who will be a familiar face to anyone who regularly watches the SyFy Channel.  Webb (who also earned a bit of pop cultural immortality by serving as casting director for both Sharknados) has appeared in several beloved Asylum films as characters who inevitably always seem to end up getting killed.  It was nice, in A House Is Not A Home, to get to see Webb play a leading role and prove that he’s capable of a lot more than just a good death scene.  He gives an effective, sympathetic performance here.  In fact, the entire family does.  One reason that the film works as well as it does is because you believe that these four characters actually are a family.  You care about what happens to them and, as a result, the horror is all the more effective.

Finally, two final notes about A House Is Not A Home.  At its best, the film — with its emphasis on atmosphere and its scenes of the characters discovering that the house exists on its own plane of surreal logic — can compared favorably to the works of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci.  I don’t know if that was intentional or not.  But it’s definitely a good thing!

Secondly, and perhaps a little sadly, A House Is Not A Home is one of the few “serious” films that I’ve seen recently that featured an almost entirely African-American cast.  That’s really saying something when you consider that I literally watch hundreds of films a year.  At a time when mainstream filmmaking (and the horror genre in particular) still seems to be struggling to break free from racial stereotyping, A House Is Not A Home is definitely a step in the right direction.

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Film Review: Beyond the Grave (dir by Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro)


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Beyond the Grave is an intriguingly enigmatic film about the end of the world.

Why was the world ended?  To the film’s credit, this is left intentionally vague.  Some characters mention that the “Seven Gateways of Hell” have been opened.  (Just the term “Seven Gateways of Hell” pays wonderful homage to Lucio Fulci’s horror classics, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead.)  At one point, we spy some graffiti reading, “Beware the Walking Dude,” which, of course, brings to mind the apocalyptic fiction of Stephen King.  Occasionally, small groups of “returners” are seen aimlessly wandering up and down empty highways.  Are they zombies or are they something else?  Occasionally, on the radio, a disembodied voice is heard over a car radio.  “This is the end of the world,” the voice says, “If you are listening to this, it is already too late.”

One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that there’s very few “normal” people left alive.  One of these is a mysterious and enigmatic man known as the Officer (Rafael Tombini).  The Officer, who carries both a sword and a gun that carries only one bullet, drives a police car over the deserted landscape and dispenses his own form of justice.  Who he works for or if there’s any sort of controlling legal authority left in this world is another issue that the film leads intriguingly vague.

(I appreciated the fact that the film — much like Romero’s original Dead films and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — only hinted at what had causes it’s world-changing cataclysm.  When it comes to end of the world, there should never be any simple answers.)

The Officer is hunting a demonic force known as the Dark Rider and, as he explains, it’s a search that he began before the world even ended.  (And, indeed, we saw in a brief flashback that the Dark Rider existed even when there was still civilization.)  Throughout the film, the Dark Rider jumps from body to body, all the while uttering, “What is near me, shall become mine.”

Working with two teenagers, the Officer searches the Dark Rider, taking time to only briefly rest at a compound.  When, about 42 minutes into the film, the Officer finally tracks the Rider down, something totally unexpected happens, something that forces the audience to reconsider everything that they had previously assumed about how the film was going to work.  I’m not going to tell you what happens.  That’s something you should discover for yourself.

Beyond the Grave is a visually stunning hybrid of a film.  It’s a western, a zombie movie, a postapocalyptic action film, and a philosophical rumination of man’s place in the universe, all wrapped up in one!  Director Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro gets the most out of the film’s bleak locations and Rafael Tombini gives an excellent lead performance as the enigmatic Officer.  Beyond the Grave is an intriguing film, both for the questions it answers and for the ones that it leaves unanswered.  It’s a film that any horror fan should see and will appreciate.

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