Tuesday, September 3, 2013

KILLING SEASON and MANIAC: Flawed, but watchable

Some of the violence in Mark Steven Johnson’s Killing Season is farfetched, and the ending feels like a bid for a feel-good spin in an otherwise nasty movie. Yet this tale of two old soldiers–one American, one Serbian–battling it out in the Smoky Mountains is surprisingly watchable.
Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro) saw terrible things during the war in Bosnia.  Now he spends his time living alone in a cabin in the mountains, estranged from his family. He reads Hemingway. He stays away from people. Then Emil Kovac (John Travolta) appears, helping him fix his truck after it breaks down in a rainstorm. After a night of drinking and listening to hillbilly music, Kovac talks Ford into a hunting trip in the mountains. Both are bow and arrow enthusiasts. But Kovac, a former member of a Serbian death squad, has an ulterior motive.  Ford wounded him in Bosnia, forcing Kovac to spend years learning to walk again. Now he wants to see how they match up man to man, alone with their weapons of choice. Once in the wild, they proceed to torture one another in ways usually reserved for films  with Saw in the title.

If it sounds like a formula, that’s because it is a formula. But it’s the stuff that happens in between the ugly violence that makes the movie worth your time. This is especially true during the first half in which the two banter and tease each other in scenes that are  easily the high point of Evan Daugherty’s screenplay. We never quite know what Kovac is up to, and the slight tension between Kovac and Ford feels like a scene in a Harold Pinter play where two old adversaries size each other up. If the rest of the movie feels like a cheap Chuck Norris rehash, well, so be it. Johnson renders the cat-and-mouse games between Ford and Kovac with much suspense.
The average person couldn’t survive the physical traumas showcased in this movie, but Johnson is trying to create something mythical. His past movies include Daredevil and Ghost Rider, so realism isn’t necessarily his forte. Still, there’s something about Killing Season that makes me think he’s on to something. Johnson with cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. make the mountain scenery look rough and beautiful. The musical score by Christopher Young is winsome. This all helps set up a great line for Kovac, who says that his country is beautiful too, but that there’s an invisible layer of blood that only he can see.
There’s also a scene near the end where Ford stands on a mountain top, a Winchester rifle in his hands. He becomes, in that instant, a living piece of old-school Americana. John Wayne or Charlton Heston couldn’t have looked any better. (And is it just a coincidence that Daugherty named the character “Ford”–perhaps after John Ford, the director of many classic westerns?)
As Kovac, Travolta looks quite butch with a chinstrap beard, and his single-minded determination to kill Ford is chilling. He’s a believable villain, marching through the woods like Yul Brynner as the robot gunslinger in West World,  but he also has quirks. At one point he sings Johnny Cash songs in a Serbian accent, which is funnier than it sounds on paper. Travolta has had a career of incredible highs and lows, and in recent years he’s suffered through some box office bombs and personal troubles. A familiar face in the tabloids, it’s easy to forget that he’s a capable and adventurous actor.
There was a time when each new De Niro movie was greeted like an event. He was saddled early with the dreaded “best actor of his generation” tag, and during the 1970s and 1980s critics and moviegoers couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. In recent years, though, some almost wish he’d stop making movies. Routine cop dramas and dumb comedies fill his bank accounts, but do nothing for his legacy. There was a return to form in Being Flynn (2012), in which he played a loudmouthed, unpublished novelist who ends up homeless. As Benjamin Ford in Killing Season, he seems motivated yet again. There’s a brief scene early in the film in which he tells his son that he won’t be able to attend his grandson’s baptism. He gives quick, light answers, but we can see the pain in his eyes. It’s a great little scene performed by a master actor. There will be many who feel De Niro, now 70, is too old for this kind of a movie.  Perhaps they’re right. Still,  it’s nice to see that the old brawler still has a few rounds left in him.
* * *
Elijah Wood deserves some credit. He could easily rest on his Lord of the Rings laurels, and spend the next 20 years getting free lunch at comic book conventions. Instead, he’s seeking out offbeat parts, like the one in Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac.
Like the 1980 slasher film it’s based on, Khalfoun’s Maniac focuses on a serial murderer who scalps his victims and staples their hair onto mannequins. Wow, talk about alternative lifestyles. Wood plays the murderer, a shy, repressed psychotic named Frank who is haunted by childhood memories of his mother’s sexcapades.

Conveniently, Frank lives in the back of a store full of mannequins. He restores and sells some of them. The rest, well, he keeps them in his bedroom and argues with them. Frank eventually meets a pretty female photographer needing some mannequins for one of her exhibits. She seems to have a genuine interest in Frank, but he’s too far gone.
Did Khalfoun see the original and think it could be improved by filming it like a Prius commercial? William
Lustig's  original was as grimy as a Manhattan garbage strike, but this new version takes place in a high gloss Los Angeles where the streets are always strangely deserted.  Still, the scalpings are brutal and graphic, and Khalfoun takes special glee in showing us the inside of a woman’s head.  He piles on the synth music, too, and at times he almost appropriates the feel of a 1980s grindhouse film.  Those moments don’t last, though.  The mood of the film is surprisingly sluggish. We’re not sure if this was an artistic choice to suggest Frank’s being bogged down by his own madness, or if modern directors have simply forgotten how to pace a movie.
Most of Maniac is seen from Frank’s point of view.  We see Frank only in mirrors, or we see his hands as he washes the blood from them.  Khalfoun’s strategy  is clever for a while, but it doesn’t pay off.  Despite being inside his head, we know nothing about the guy. A late night chase scene through an empty parking lot is almost completely devoid of drama because we don’t know Frank, and we don’t know his victims. Khalfoun’s so concerned with being clever that he forgets the most basic component of horror: we have to have some compassion for the victims, otherwise there is no suspense.

Khalfoun is more interested in set pieces and grandiose posing, like when Frank hog-ties a woman, calls her mommy,  and then scalps her. Khalfoun probably thought this scene would be the film’s highlight,  but without characters we care about, Frank’s grandstanding is all garnishment without a main dish. It is also to Khalfoun’s discredit that he presents some of the victims as dumb and bitchy, as if we’re supposed to root for Frank to kill them.
Kudos to Wood. He’s convincing as a sexually damaged person.  This movie, though, and the original, are just typical dark fantasies about men who fear female sexuality and want to kill it.  No matter how artsy you make it, a slasher movie is still just a slasher movie.

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