Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Every now and again, I'm sort-of corralled into seeing a movie or take a calculated risk that something won't be as awful as my instincts are telling me. (I'm usually wrong on the latter.)
Attitudes and expectations count for a whole lot, I've discovered. A so-so movie with low expectations can be a pleasant surprise, whereas were the same movie hyped, or deceptively advertised, it will be a disappointment. And I'm not talking so much about myself here, but the people I see walking out of theaters pissed. (Although I will relate one incident momentarily.)
I'm not going to a Mulberry Street (or any horror film, for that matter) with high expectations. I like a good horror atmosphere, and Mulberry did that, so I was pleased to that extent.
The worst films I see, then, are highly pedigreed. Written by a bestselling author, say, and directed by an Oscar winning director (of a movie I very much liked), and starring a raft of not just stars, but talented actors. To say nothing of the vast, talented pool of well-funded craftsmen backing a film.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, yeah, two years ago I went to see The Constant Gardener. I loved the director's previous film, City of God, and you can't really go wrong with Ralph (Rafe?) Fiennes, Rachel Weisz (well, maybe in those mummy movies), Pete Postlethwait and Bill-freakin'-Nighy.
On top of that, I hate pharmaceutical companies. I'm anti-drug. To the point of stupidity, it's not unfair to say. But we won't go into that now.
So, here you have a movie that should be preaching to the choir (me) made by a bunch of highly talented people who clearly know their stuff. And yet this is a godawful film that makes no sense and is downright insulting in its stupidity.
One drug company is poised to make billions off a coming epidemic that's going to be so pervasive, they won't be able to keep up with the demand. At the same time, they're so worried about a few piddling millions, that they'll kill everyone who finds out...that they're making a drug that will save billions of lives. Well, no, I guess because they're testing on Africans and some of the tests went wrong and they'll have to start over or something....
So, one has to believe that the Big Evil Drug Company first has a special insight into an oncoming plague (though, as far as I know, in my lifetime, none of the predicted plagues has come to pass), one that's likely to kill (e.g.) a good percentage of the people who work there and their families, that will be so prevalent it would make them billions and they won't be able to cover everyone anyway, and yet they're concerned because of a problem in testing--which, I'm not a chemist, but I gotta believe it's pretty common to have to start over when trying to achieve a specific effect.
On top of that, it's a paean to Romantic narcissism.
I've seen a lot of spy-type thrillers with stupid plots. It's pretty much de rigeur, and shouldn't impair one's enjoyment. But this film cries out to be taken seriously. It has a message. And this message was best stated by the Trey Parker via the puppet Alec Baldwin in Team America:
"Corporations are all...corporation-y."
Probably the worst part of this film is that it forces you to go back and look at the heartwrenching, excellent City of God and ask: "Well, wait, I've never been to the outskirts of Rio De Janeiro....is this movie just a crapfest, too?"
Some day I'll review Hilary and Jackie, which was the worst movie I'd seen prior to Constant Gardener, in that case, suckered into seeing an overblown, depressing made-for-Lifetime chick flick by the Academy, which presented it as an amusing, light-hearted slice-of-life type film.
Nothing shown at the HorrorFest was in the worst of all time. Go watch Monster A Go-Go, to name a famously bad film. T&N had a lot of good camerawork, humor, some fine acting--there are films that have nothing to recommend them at all.
Mulberry Street had some inventive camera-work, solid acting, positively great characterization and was very evocative of New York. I'm not saying either were great films, or even good films by some standards, but they both had things to recommend them.
Worst of all time? Oh, no, no, no, no. Try Santa Claus vs. The Martians, Robot Monster or The Sky Divers. Try Manos: The Hands of Fate. And those are just movies you can find on IMDB.
You can't go into a film series like this expecting every movie to be The Deaths of Ian Stone, which reportedly had a whopping $11M budget. If you're going to enjoy yourself, you can't, anyway. If you want to have fun, you have to look for what these people manage to do under the most adverse of circumstances. Mulberry had a $60K budget, I'm told!
Go watch Plan 9 from Outer Space, which had a similar budget in 1950s dollars! Now, I'm a fan of Plan 9, but it doesn't achieve anything like Mulberry or T&N.
There were admirable things in all eight of the films. Hell, compare them--any of them--to this year's relatively big budget Primeval. I'd watch any of the eight again rather than that, and it had Orlando Jones!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Eight movies in three days. Eight horror movies in three days. I wonder why I do it to myself.
I'm glad the After Dark guys dropped the whole "too extreme" nonsense. These were actually milder films than many of the films released this year. And this isn't a bad thing; people mistakenly think that Saw pushed the boundaries of gore when, of course, the '70s were littered with movies that make Saw look PG-13.
They just weren't mainstream. Saw brought cleverness along with the gore, and in particular, allowed you to internalize the horror by imagining yourself in the situations portrayed. (After all, a maniac sawing off a leg is pretty mild, but sawing off your own leg at the risk of your family being killed--that brings it home a bit.)
I've heard the "fest" hasn't done so well this year which is a shame, I guess. As challenging as it is to sit through them all, it's fun and I'd hate to see it go away so soon.
Feel free to comment here or, if you like, go to the Loaded Shelf and put up your opinions there. You can also enter our book giveaway!
The last movie we saw was probably the biggest budget flick. Not for any special effects but for name actors.
Frank Whaley, Traci Lords, Gabrielle Anwar and Dina Meyer star with George Newborn and co-writer Dan DeLuca as grownups who (as kids) were institutionalized together as part of a behavioral experiment (and such things did happen, although this is not based on any particular incident as far as is detectable). They meet at the funeral of one of their friends and relive aspects of the past as the memories return.
So, sort of a The Big Chill with ghosts.
Last year, you may recall, I gave up on the fest with The Abandoned, which is a genre of film I just don't care for. This movie actually falls in to the same genre—as becomes apparent when the six travelers drive past the same house over and over again—but this wasn't so off-putting.
The good parts of this film include the acting, the setting, and the back-story. Well, sort of on the whole back-story thing. The problem with this movie is that it never decides what it wants to be.
Tantalizing things are hinted at. Nothing is ever truly settled upon. I suppose this could work. But here it just leaves questions without any strong motivation to pursue the answers to.
Obviously, these characters know each other and know that they know each other. But they don't know that they were institutionalized. Or maybe they do, but they don't know for how long. Or what happened while they were there. They've committed some kind of terrible crime; but in actual fact what is finally described sounds more like an accident of childish ignorance.
There's an implication that they lack the capacity for guilt, and so are sociopathic, yet nothing at all about their characters suggests anything extraordinary about their emotional state (under the circumstances).
The stinger seems to be a pointless flashback. But it might be suggesting that none of what we've seen actually happened.
The characters are being tormented by a ghost. Or they're doing it themselves.
Here's the thing: The frisson in horror comes from a re-adjustment of perspective. Think of the marvellously chilling scene in Misery where James Caan discovers how tiny Kathy Bates really is. Think of the aftermath of the Alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest and the realization that everything has changed forever—and things aren't going to be okay.
I'm avoiding spoilers here, so I won't detail The Sixth Sense, The Others, and similar films where the chilling parts were often twists in the story line. The only way it works, however, is to take an unclear or incorrect audience perspective and throw it into contrast by illuminating something previously unknown.
In other words, we have to see how small Kathy Bates is in order to throw our view of her as a psychopath into contrast. We have to see the hulking killer Malcolm and understand his relationship to the vulnerable hooker Paris in order to make everything come together in Identity.
If we have no clear idea what's going on and are presented with imagery that suggests yet another unclear idea, we get no frisson. And that, in a nutshell, is what's missing from this potentially classic film.
The home stretch of our festival experience began with Rolfe Kanefsky's Nightmare Man, probably the lowest budget feature after Mulberry Street. Curiously enough, the effects used on Mulberry Street allowed me to watch the whole thing without thinking, “Wow, this was shot on video.” (And Mulberry was even shot on mini-DV, which I understand is even crappier than regular video.)
The outdoor day shots, especially the tracking shots, absolutely scream “shot on video”, which definitely kicks in some prejudices. (Think “Spanish Soap Opera”.) Once the night rolls in, though, the camerawork is nice enough to distract from the cheapness.
Anyway, the story concerns the emotionally fragile Ellen (Blythe Metz) whose dim-witted husband William (Luciano Szafir) is having her committed, as she is constantly haunted by nightmares. (I don't think you can actually commit someone for having nightmares, no matter how real, or even outright schizophrenia unless you can prove a danger to themselves or others, but roll with it.) Oh, and I guess William isn't really dim-witted, but he really seems like it.
Actually, all the men in the movie seem dim-witted, when you get down to it, even “Night Court”'s Richard Moll, who has a small role as a cop.
Kanefsky does a lot here with his budget. The story moves along with the action, giving us a bit more than the usual “10 Little Indians” plot, and he's not afraid to exploit comic moments when they arise. This is smart, the audience is going to do it unless you do it for them—as in Tooth & Nail—and the movie ends up feeling like it's still under his control, when the big reveal happens in the third act.
We happened to see Rolfe and Esther Goodstein in the lobby on Friday handing out autographs for this movie and she was pushing the surprising twists and turns at the end. I'm sorry to say that I knew more-or-less exactly what was going to happen from the opening scene of the movie, sans a few details that didn't fill in until Tiffany Shepis showed up in the second act
I'm not good at that sort of thing, really. I didn't see The Sixth Sense coming, for example. (But all subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movies have been devoid of surprise for me because I know how he thinks now.) But really, there was only one way for the story to go.
The key thing is that you have fun getting there.
Veteran Tiffany Shepis is as believable as any of the other 90lb-5'3” ass-kicking chicks we saw over the weekend but I'd give a special nod to relative newcomer Blythe Metz. She never gets to Brinke Stevens level crazy—it's not really that kind of film—but you feel like she could.
The only real negative on this film for me was the stinger. The final battle makes everything as plain as need be as to what's going to happen after the credits roll. The subsequent scene gilds the lily.
Although I've never read anything that mentions it, I think it's apparent that the Evil Dead series was a big influence on Kanefsky. There are definitely worse influences to have.
I love a good post-Apocalyptic thriller. It's too bad one's never been made. No, no, there are a few—very few—classics of the genre, but mostly they're quite bad. And perhaps worse than just badness, they're stupid. Take the Triple A title Children of Men: It posited all kinds of horrors that stemmed from women not being able to get pregnant, and missed the obvious ramifications of such a situation. (For example, if youth is exceedingly rare, it would also become exceedingly valuable; the idea that there would be youth running around unemployed seemed far-fetched.)
No, it's really best if the whole reasons behind the apocalypse are ill-defined and not much discussed.
Tooth and Nail brings the stupid with its theory of apocalypse being “we run out of gas”. And the world collapses so quickly and thoroughly, there's no time to adapt to coal, nuclear, natural gas, or whatever. Why? Because everyone floods south to warmer climates and wars ensue. As we all know from history lessons, prior to the refining of oil, everyone had to live in temperate zones.
Despite the apparent amnesia regarding “fire”—something that might have been handy with a bunch of people running around Philadelphia in light clothing—the heroes of our film seem to have acquired virtually no survival skills in their two or three years in the apocalypse.
I'm gonna keep ripping on this movie for a while longer, so you might be surprised to know that I did enjoy it quite a bit. But make no mistake, it's dumb enough to have been a Michael Bay film.
And it really served no purpose to make this a post-apocalyptic thriller, except as a premise for locking up a bunch of college kids in a hospital so that a bunch of cannibals could come after them. Surely they could have thought of something else. Even the setting was dumb, though: Anyone who's ever been in a large, modern hospital could tell you that six people could hide for weeks without being found by a dozen or so people searching for them.
In the dark.
So, the premise of the movie is that Ford (Rider Strong again!), Viper (Michael Kelly) and Dakota (Nicole DuPort) are out scavenging one day when they come across an injured girl, Neon (Rachel Miner). They bring her back to the hospital, where Professor Darwin (Robert Carradine) sets her to work fixing the water purifiers.
'cause, you know, there's a real shortage of water in Philly. Or maybe running out of gas ruined the water, even though everyone has moved south.
This causes stress because Viper (Michael Kelly) doesn't trust Neon and wants to spend time fixing on the barriers instead of the damn water purifiers like the Professor wants. We never see “the barriers” by the way. When Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones, and their band of cannibalistic freaks invades the hospital, they walk in through one of the “dozen” entrances to the hospital.
Because, you know, despite civilization collapsing into violence, you wouldn't worry about finding a defensible position to settle down in.
You also would be sure to let everyone follow their whims as far as relationships, even if it meant two of your young men were without women and therefore ties to your group. (Darwin is hooked up with Dakota, Torino is hooked up with Ford, and Viper and Yukon are celibate because Victoria is picky enough to make good on that “last man on earth” threat.)
You may have noticed that while our crew hasn't picked up any worthwhile skills, nor done anything but sit around contemplating the future, they have found the time to rename themselves after automobiles.
Things go bad when Neon fesses up that she was fleeing a bunch of cannibals who will now be coming after Darwin's gang. Needless to say, our crew acts like an apocalypse-hardened team who is used to defending themselves against any and all attacks.
Ha. Just kidding. They act like a bunch of pampered college kids who don't know how to fight, strategize or set traps.
I should probably point out that if you love uber-nerd Robert Carradine and tough guy Michael Madsen like I do, you will want to keep in mind that, generally, the big name on a low-budget horror flick works for a couple of days. The star gets quick cash and the movie gets the name on the box. (I hope that's not too big a spoiler.) Interestingly, Madsen is one of the producers of the film.
The movie actually gets increasingly preposterous. At one point, one of the characters suffers a compound fracture. No problem, right? These guys have been living in a hospital for 2-3 years, they've probably been studying first-aid, bandaging and splinting techniques, even minor surgery. They have all the supplies organized; that's the smart part of using the hospital, right?
No, they never bother with any of that. This leads to a whole bunch of giggling in the audience whenever a medical matter comes up.
I could go on like this. Really. For days. As I said, nobody does post-apocalyptic stuff right. It takes too much thought. We're all way too comfortable to think through what life would be like without society to take care of us.
The upshot, though, is that if you're a master at suspending disbelief, this is a fun little movie. Carradine and Madsen's brief performances are what you'd expect, and Vinne Jones (X-Men 3's Juggernaut) is over the top. Rider Strong turns in a typically good performance, and I thought Alexandra Barreto and Michael Kelly were fairly believable characters in a context where little was believable.
One thing that makes the movie work is that it moves. Not to draw ridiculously high comparisons, but Road Warrior is not really less absurd than this film, but it also moves. That's how you keep people from questioning the absurdities. (Where the hell do they get their tires from in that movie?)
The other thing that makes it work is the interplay between Rachel Miner and Nicole DuPort. Not unlike Emmanuelle Vaugier in Unearthed, neither actress looks particularly plausible as the strong-headed tough-minded leader in a crisis situation. Miner's eyebrows are exquisitely sculpted and her skin flawless while Nicole DuPort's hair looks salon styled whether she's just set a bone or painted herself with half-camouflage/half-tiger face paint.
I guess you could say the film was thought-provoking, since I've been rambling about it for so long, but really, you shouldn't watch this film with any sort of pretensions. There's a review on IMDB talking about its Nietzsche-ian undertones, for example, and I think that's probably setting the bar a little high.
But some folks would say that Children of Men was thought-provoking, where I would say a speculative fiction movie needs to make sense on its own terms before it can actually provoke thought about real life.
“By the numbers” was probably the watchword for Day 2. Our second film, Mulberry Street, was a by-the-numbers modern zombie flick, only instead of zombies/ghouls, we have wererats.
But that description doesn't really do this film justice. It excels in some ways and falls down in some others. First of all, this film is New York. Lower East Side, Bowery-type New York City. I'm no expert on the city, but it felt completely authentic to me.
The characters are drawn wonderfully, too. Co-writer Nick Damici plays ex-boxer Clutch, single father to war vet, the striking Kim Blair. The feminine touch in the parenting done by Coco (Ron Brice) a gay black man with feelings for Clutch, and no hidden resentment toward aging beauty queen Kay (Bo Corre). We have a cranky superintendent, a Vietnam war vet, an Anzio(!) war vet, and just buckets of local character.
This stuff is mostly lightly touched upon as the story unfolds of Manhattanites being infected by rats with a disease that turns them into flesh-hungry were-rats. That's the good.
It's so clearly New York, that the introduction in the middle of a long montage accompanied by a blaring folksy tribute to New York makes you want to say, “OK! We get it! It's New York! It's weird!”
But the thing that really sinks this film is its lack of focus. It's sort of 28 Days Later in the Bowery. The rat-people are killing people for food, but in the worst tradition of the zombie flick, they're also turning them into rat people, and only the needs of the plot determine who gets what treatment.
It's really a shame, too. This is a movie you just want to be better. Apparently, it was made on $60,000, but I didn't actually see that as it's weakness. In fact, the video is made deliberately grainy and cheap looking to considerable effect.
It just needed a tighter plot.
American Gothic minus Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo.
That's the short form, anyway. Last year, the first movie I saw at the horror fest was Dark Ride. That movie started as a smart take-off of the '80s “fun-house” sub-genre but by the end had simply become any number of '80s movies in complete earnest, as if no one had ever thought of making a movie where a psycho killer eliminated his teen targets one by one.
I mention this because it astounds me that anyone would do that.
This movie was similarly astounding: Somebody's grandfather dies and his granddaughters go to inherit his old place. No, not the “locked in haunted house” story but the “carry on the family tradition” story. I was sort of hoping for a monstery twist, something sort of “Shadow over Innsmouth” but no dice: It's just straight inbred hillbilly madness. Every time this movie seems like it might stray into unfamiliar territory, the music swells—absurdly at some points—and soon we're back on rails.
It did have the grossest scene we saw all weekend: James C Burns french-kissing “Grandma” Pat McNeely.
The other thing it had, which was sort of amusing, was really, really stupid psycho killers (looking sorta like runners-up in the “Nick Nolte Mugshot” contest). I mean, logically, being inbred and all, and living wildman lives up in the hills, you wouldn't expect the brightest nails in the crude-but-effective-mace. But as it leads kind of comically to their deaths, you have to wonder how they managed to be so fearsome in the first place.
This underscores a good trend at the festival, though: The superhuman baddie is clearly on the out. That's nice. It was a limited concept beaten into the ground after Halloween, the only place where it was truly startling.
Less explicable was this movie's choice to leave the final showdown between evil brother and good—well, crappy, abusive, alcoholic but still relatively good—brother offscreen. Really, we hear a shot, the victor emerges. The end.
A remarkably unoriginal film which had a whopping 7.5 rating on IMDB. It should be apparent to all by now that you can't trust an IMDB rating when it involves fewer than five hundred people.
We closed the first night with one of my least favorite genres: The crazy cult coming to cill, er, kill you genre. These were big in the '70s and were usually unpleasant affairs, both predictable and unsatisfying. They also tended to feature, as a “twist”, an actual appearance by Satan or some other demon at the end.
So I sat down to this one—which had a dismal 3.8 rating on IMDB—with more than a little trepidation. And the beginning is grotesque, probably the goriest thing we saw all weekend. Yet the movie holds together by being dedicated in its realism and tightly focused. (It claims to be “based on true events”.)
Brian Presley, Jeff Muxworthy and Rider Strong play three post-grads on a “last fling” to Mexico who fall afoul of a Santeria cult looking for, em, emotive contributors to their black magic. The cast is rounded out with excellent performances by Sean Astin (in an almost Dennis Hopper-ish role), and Mexican actors Damian Alcazar and the gorgeous Martha Higareda.
The cultists are menacing and arrogant, with my favorite being Marco Bacuzzi, who reminds very strongly of the great Michael Berryman. And yet, there's no cheating: The director doesn't try to straddle the line convincing you these guys are supernatural; he gives you the facts, and dares you to believe them.
The film is actually only marred by (God help me, I'm not making this up) a political statement. Muxworthy plays jerky, greedy, Republican Henry who hates the poor and can't figure out why his friend Ed wants to go dig ditches in Malawi. He also talks trash and buckles when the pressure is on.
I suppose with Joe Dante's shameless episode of “Masters of Horror” (“Homecoming”), even horror can't be spared the daily grind of partisanship. But I have to wonder: With party enrollment dropping to all-time lows, does it really make sense to possibly alienate most of your audience? (I'm a decline-to-state and always have been, and I was appalled by the gratuitous slap.)
Besides, if he'd really been a Republican, he would have had a gun, right?
OK, enough stereotyping. Zev Berman is clearly a talented director with a good eye for story. Let's hope he uses it to make good movies rather than making “important” movies.
This was Day 1 for us, and Borderlands ended it on a high note. Day 2 would be less enjoyable, unfortunately.
The Deaths of Ian Stone
Probably my favorite premise of the festival: A man is killed by some sort of crazies/monsters, then wakes up in a new life, only to be killed by them again. And over and over. Groundhog Day, if the groundhog had a chainsaw and a bad attitude.
But in fact, this feels at first more like Dark City meets The Matrix, with some sort of alien force rearranging reality for some reason we are unable to fathom. Another thing that we're unable to fathom is why Ian Stone is an American (Mike Vogel) living in London.
No, I guess that's not really important but it does sort of stand out without ever being explained.
The middle of the movie drags a bit, as we get some torture of our hero, and some dominatrix-inspired costume changes for hot 'n' sexy Jaime Murray (best known to Americans as Dexter's “anonymous” sponsor on Showtime's Dexter).
The movie actually veers away from horror into more of an action style that reminded me more of “Buffy” and “Angel” than anything else, and I didn't really care for that, but overall this was a fun flick.
Oh, won't someone free the horror movie alien from the grip of H.R. Giger? Ever since Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 film, Alien, it seems like all malevolent aliens are slime dripping, mouth articulated, baroque-carapaced xenomorphs.
In this movie, the alien is mixed with a little bit of predator as well, though that aspect of the film isn't strongly fleshed out. More strongly fleshed out is the overwrought plot, concerning hot 'n' sexy Emmanuelle Vaugier as the sheriff of a small town haunted by a terrible mistake in her past as hot 'n' sexy Tonantzin Carmelo does plant biology for Grandpa Russell Means (who's apparently taking a break from delivering anti-pollution PSAs) while hot 'n' sexy blondes Beau Garret and Whitney Able breakdown after picking up hot 'n' sexy hitchhiker Tommy Dewey. Did I mention the hot 'n' sexy drug dealer/pimp Charles Q. Murphy who runs out of gas? No? Consider him mentioned.
Despite being awash in clichés and unlikelihoods, I was actually pretty impressed by this film at first. The cinematography exploited the beauty of the New Mexico setting (even if it was shot in Utah) and you can't really complain about a horror flick putting a hot and sexy chick in a role, no matter how improbable the role.
And, in this case, Vaugier is reprising Ben Affleck's role in Phantoms. Funny thing is that while she's 31, which is a perfectly respectable age for a sheriff, she looks 20, and since she's supposed to have hit the skids, she doesn't really come off sheriff-like. I'd suggest this was a bad combination. It's made worse by the fact that her backstory is just noise, unlike Affleck's character in Phantoms.
And, seriously, why would anyone say, “Yeah, Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms! Let's remake it with hot chicks!”
But they did and it almost works. There's competent groundwork in the filming, editing and music. The story is, as mentioned, derivative and overwrought, but even that's not really the death knell. The thing that kills this movie? The alien itself.
It's a common problem with low-budget monster flicks and I hate to bash them for it but it's truly disastrous. I think at some point they had a puppet-type alien, and where that is used, it's okay, but whenever CGI is used to show the thing moving, it totally destroys the atmosphere. This is compounded by the fact that the creature isn't running around in shadows but is mostly fully lit up.
So, it's diminished by being an Alien rip-off to begin with, and knocked flat by being poorly animated, until all you're left with is a mess of a story that rips off Phantoms, Alien and Predator.
Nonetheless, I was still optimistic going into the next film.