Archive for October, 2008

Happy Halloween, movie fans!

Friday, October 31st, 2008

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    After a somewhat dedicated month of horror film reviews (ok, I really slacked off about half the month, after demands with school work became the first priority), Halloween is finally upon us.  So, celebrate with a scary movie!  Or two, or three!  The movie still, by the way, is from the early 80s horror film Halloween III: Season of the Witch (maybe someday soon I’ll review that one…)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

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This film is Francis Ford Coppola’s blood-soaked love letter to the horror films of yesteryear. It is as gorgeous and as visually amazing as a silent film, but filled to the brim with flesh, gore and guts. Oh, and blood, lots and lots of blood. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is so impressive to look at, in fact, that’s it’s easy to ignore some of the film’s flaws.

The biggest, of course, is the casting of Keanu Reeves in the major role of Jonathan Harker, the “hero” of the film. Even Francis Ford Coppola has come out and criticized his choice here, but that’s a moot point; what’s done is done. Reeves’ stoic, solemn acting is sometimes perfect for the role (look at the first Matrix or Speed), but here it’s fair to say he’s out of his depth. In fact, Reeves’ dull as ditch water portrayal helps make a case that his young bride Mina (Winona Ryder) would in fact be better off with the Count (Gary Oldman).

One of the big changes between the original novel by Stoker and this adaptation is the inclusion of the love story angle. In a prologue, we learn that Vlad the Impaler (Oldman) went to fight the Turks, when he was away his young bride Elisabeta (Ryder) thought he was dead, kills herself and Vlad comes back and turns his back on the church after he is told by the old priest (Anthony Hopkins, who also plays Van Helsing, and the narrator, and the voice of the ship captain) that Elisabeta’s soul is damned for all eternity. Vlad rejects good for evil at this moment, and blood begins to pour out of the giant cross as Vlad embraces Satan, and becomes the undead…

The film was released as a Gothic romance, and is kind of like Romeo and Juliet with fangs. Oldman as Count Dracula is suave, but also evil and disgusting and horrific. It really depends which form Dracula takes on. There’s the creepy old man with the crazy bun hair, and then there’s a creepy werewolf thing, and also a bat creature, and then the smooth, dapper gentleman who woos Mina. Oldman, of course, is an amazing actor, and he is convincing in all of the Count’s many forms.

Winona Ryder plays Mina as a mindful, proper woman who is slowly transformed by forbidden lust into someone more passionate and uninhibited. Anthony Hopkins is over-the-top as Count Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing, and also a lot of fun (I’m always a fan when Sir Hopkins does one of his really ridiculous, hard to recognize accents). Sadie Frost (Jude Law’s ex wife) is the beautiful, tragic Lucy, who becomes Dracula’s first meal upon arriving in London. A great deal of the film involves Lucy’s three suitors (Richard E. Grant, Billy Campbell and Cary Elwes) dealing with the vampire Lucy, as Van Helsing gives them pointers on what to do.

One of my favorite supporting performances in the film would be Tom Waits’ weird interpretation of Renfield, the poor, sorry sap who became Dracula’s servant. I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is incredible to look at, but there’s an emotional distance to the story, and therefore it’s easier for the viewer to appreciate the film from a visual standpoint than from being emotionally involved in the story.

Credit must be given to the production design crew led by Thomas E. Sanders, the art direction by Andrew Precht, to the astonishing costumes by Eiko Ishioka (I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned the costumes in a movie) and the incredible cinematography by Michael Balhaus. Another key part of the film making crew was Coppola’s son Roman, only 29 at the time, who figured out how to accomplish many of the tricky visual shots that the film include, that were accomplished by largely old-school cinematic methods.

DVD Covers That Suck: Meet the Parents (bonus edition)

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

There are a lot of DVDs out there. Thousands and thousands of them. Let’s face it, the cover art to many of these DVDs simply suck donkey balls. I am tired of looking at them. In fact, sometimes, if the cover art is really bad, it may prevent me from buying or renting the DVD in question (or, at least for a while). So, I decided to start an occasional blog entry where I would bitch about DVD cover art. Why? Because I can, that’s why.

The first one I would like to talk about is the bonus edition cover of Meet the Parents. Here it is, in all its suck-tastic glory.

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First of all, why the hell do they have to call it the “bonus” edition? That just sounds desperate and lame. Ok, so the original DVD release was called “special edition” (and is still available,) so why release another edition? Because I guess Universal Studios needs more money. They should call it the “Ben Stiller Needs Another Yacht edition.”

I love the movie “Meet the Parents.” I think it’s great. De Niro is a hoot, and late 90s/early 2000s Ben Stiller was a master of the slow burn. To watch him finally loose it on the airplane late into the picture is to watch a comedy genius at work. That being said, I hate this cover. In fact, this awful cover has prevented me from buying this DVD several times. Maybe that makes me a weirdo, I don’t know.

I don’t like that it tries to cram all the main characters into a tiny space. I don’t like Ben Stiller’s strange, obviously photo-shopped reaction. I don’t like that for some reason the cat, Mr. Jinks, is on the cover. I feel like they’re really, really trying too hard with this cover, and it’s not working at all.

I like the original DVD cover art, I thought it was pretty funny (I like when the DVD cover art doesn’t change the movie poster much, because the movie poster is usually better anyway. When they change the DVD cover art from the movie poster, 80 percent of the time it’s a bad move). Anyway, both DVDs are available on Amazon, and they’re the same price. So, do yourself a favor and get the one that doesn’t have a suck-tastic cover.

Appaloosa

Monday, October 27th, 2008

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It’s interesting that this is only the second film that Ed Harris has directed. It looks like the work of a seasoned filmmaker. Maybe it’s this freshness as a director, at least as a director of westerns (his only other directorial credit was 2000’s terrific biopic Pollock), that helps give the film that special kick.

Appaloosa is a straight up western, all right, but it’s also a bit unusual. It’s got of a sense of humor, it’s cynical and it looks at the Old West’s sense of justice and vigilance in a unique way. This is a western that questions the system, ethics and code of westerns.

A great deal of the success of the film is thanks to its leads, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, who play peace makers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, respectively. Harris and Mortensen have an easy chemistry here, creating two characters who have been around each other so long that they have grown to rely and depend on each other. It’s not one of those phony-baloney Hollywood buddy pictures where the two guys play best buds but you don’t buy it for one second; this is authentic.

Virgil and Everett have been summoned to the town of Appaloosa to bring a vile man named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, who plays the part with lip-smacking devilishness), who has, in the chilling opening sequence, executed the town’s sheriff and his two deputies. Everett, speaking for Virgil, explains to the men in charge of Appaloosa that in order to protect the town, they must hand over complete control to Virgil and Everett. In order to maintain order, they will absolute power. This scene couldn’t help but remind me of the our current commander-in-chief and his administration.

Renee Zellweger plays Allison French, a young woman who arrives to Appaloosa, and becomes involved with Virgil, and lusts over both men. It’s a strange, tricky role, and Zellweger plays her as sweet, quiet and a little unbalanced. It’s definitely unlike the depiction of women in most modern westerns.

For me, one thing about this movie that helped make it work is the cinematography by Dean Semier. Semier takes full advantage of the beautiful landscapes, to be sure, but he also strikes unusual compositions that help elevate the story. One shot I particularly liked was of Ms. French, Virgil and Everett standing in a triangular shape; this makes perfect sense since this is a love triangle of sorts.

There are scenes of sudden violence, most chillingly when Virgil, seemingly out of anger at Ms. French for humiliating him regarding a question of a personal nature, beats a man at the bar within an inch of his life. There is also a terrific gunfight scene that feels, unlike many gunfight sequence in other westerns, seems like the way a real gunfight would go down.

Two other supporting roles come to mind: Timothy Spall plays the mild-mannered lawyer who wants order at all costs, and Lance Henriksen shows up as a gunslinger-for-hire. Appaloosa is an interesting western, and well worth a look.

W.

Friday, October 24th, 2008

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The most surprising aspect about Oliver Stone’s new biopic about our controversial current president (that is other than Josh Brolin’s starling, brilliant lead performance; more on that later) is how, well, even-handed it is. Considering that Stone is pretty well known for how he feels about Bush, I was surprised at how the film didn’t paint him as a tyrant or a mad man, but then again, it doesn’t paint him as a hero or a political genius either.

I think the film paints Bush as a well-meaning kind of guy who wasn’t really sure what to do with his life, and ended up as the leader of the free world. Stone paints Dubya as a man whose key decisions in life seem to be made by other people (his father, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove), not that Dubya seems to mind this too much. In one key scene, Bush mentions that a plan seems to have “a lot of words.” George W. is a man of action, not of logic and thought.

That he was a man ready to go to war there is little doubt, though the film does question whether we went after the right people. The voice of reason/sanity in the Bush Administration is provided by Colin Powell (played with class and strength by Jeffrey Wright, that chameleon of an actor). Condoleeza Rice (eerily portrayed by Thandie Newton) and Paul Wolfowitz (portrayed by Dennis Boutsikaris, you know, the psychiatrist from The Dream Team) are viewed as Dubya’s Yes Men, while Ol’ Rummy (played by Scott Glenn with a mix of all smiles and aw-shucks, and a dash of menace) moans about how they used to do it “old school,” and regrets new rules and protocol.

Of course, most of Bush’s policies, doctrines, strategies and decisions are decided and set by Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss is dead on in his ruthless performance), and Karl Rove (Toby Jones disappears into this character). James Cromwell is well cast as George Bush Sr., and Ellen Burstyn gives fire to her scenes as Barbara Bush. Elizabeth Banks is fine as Laura Bush, but since this is Dubya’s story, all other characters are seen as Bush sees them, so Banks pretty much plays the long-suffering wife character. There is one terrific scene where Dubya, having just lost a local election, drives the car through the garage door, and then lays on the charm as he escorts Laura back to her door to say good night.

Josh Brolin’s performance as President George W. Bush Jr. is a revelation. Yes, he’s a very good actor (as recent performances in No Country for Old Men, Grindhouse and American Gangster have shown), but his work here shows astonishing range, depth and complexity. He creates something more than an impersonation or a caricature; he is the embodiment of our current president. Brolin makes a film that could have just been a series of satirical vingettes, and creates something richer and more interesting.

Oliver Stone has created a satisfying biopic, but his cast (most notably Brolin) makes the film.

Prom Night (1980)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

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The opening sequence of Prom Night is actually pretty creepy. Four children are playing a game called “killer” in an abandoned building, scurrying and giggling from room to room. A young girl, who wandered off from her older brother and sister, walks into the game, and the four children taunt and terrify her until she falls out of a window, landing on a plate of glass. Rather than going for help, the four vow to go home and never, ever, mention what happened to anyone. Then another plate of glass falls on the girl’s head.

Flash forward six years, and the deceased girl’s family are trying to cope. Mr. Hammond (Leslie Nielsen, yes, Leslie Nielsen) is the principal of the local high school, and his surviving children Alex (Michael Tough) and Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) are trying to get their minds off of the tragedy by preparing for prom. Of course, the four responsible for the death all get anonymous phone calls, telling them something to the extent of “I’ll be seeing you soon.” Gee, I wonder if it’s the killer.

From the ten minute mark to about an hour into the film, it’s all set-up with no real suspense or plot. That’s saved for the last 30 minutes, which takes place at prom. Along the way, there’s some good stuff, mostly provided by David Mucci as Lou, the ugliest, oldest looking bully you’re likely to see in a movie anytime soon. Lou looks about twenty years older than any other “high school student” in the movie. Of the four guilty teens, Eddie Benton as the nasty, conniving popular girl Wendy is the only one who really leaves an impression.

One aspect to this entertaining but dated slasher film I really enjoyed was the excessive disco flavor to the production. If any sole pop culture artifact could be considered responsible for the “death” of disco, it might be this film. That being said, I got a sick thrill out of seeing Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis disco dancing at the prom.

Also, Prom Night was a Canadian production, and I never got tired of the actors talking about going “ooot side,” or asking what all the commotion was “aboot.” Unfortunately, the film transfer on the DVD I watched was awful, too dark in places (so dark, in fact, that some scenes I kind of had to guess what was going on) and the sound wasn’t very good either. It might have been the print itself, who knows.

Prom Night is by no means a “good film,” but I have a soft-spot in my heart for cheesy 80s slasher films. Always have, probably always will. Plus, this film contains a terrific decapitation scene. That’s got to be good for something.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

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For a film that is almost 90 years old, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a power to unsettle and disturb that is pretty astonishing. Directed by Robert Wiene, this silent classic is widely considered to be one of the first true horror films, and is one of the high points in German Expressionistic silent film (don’t I sound like a smarty-pants?) It also has an amazing, bizarre look and style that probably inspired countless filmmakers.

Like Nosferatu, Metropolis, King Kong and other early sci-fi/fantasy/horror films, the exact influence that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has had on the history of film is probably immeasurable. The film centers on the young Francis (Friedrich Feher) who tells a story to another man regarding the sinister Dr. Caligari (the wonderfully expressive Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist henchman Cesare (the silent film star Conrad Veidt). Francis believes that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are behind the murder of Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Francis’ friend.

Things get murkier when Cesare kidnaps Francis’ young love Jane (played by Lil Dagover). The sequence where Cesare abducts Jane is justifiably famous, and the moment where he plucks her out of her bed is still chilling after all of these years. Most films are lucky to have one memorable villain, this film has two.

As I said earlier, the visual look of this film is astounding. The backgrounds are not realistic, but rather a nightmarish, unsettling landscape of twisting shapes and jagged edges. I learned on the Internet Movie Database that the sets were made out of paper, with the shadows painted on the walls. I can definitely say that the film has a look that you’ve probably never seen before.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also feels ahead of its time in regards to the ending, which could probably be considered a “twist.” It’s unusual for a silent film, I think, to have an ending that makes the audience question the film they’ve just witnessed. This is a horror film, of course, but it has a psychological depth to it, that I think is part of the reason why the film has resonated with so many audiences over so many years.

Army of Darkness

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

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    While the original Evil Dead was a brutal, straight-up horror movie, and the second was a blood-soaked, comedy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness is sillier, lighter, breezier.  Yes, it still has monsters and demons and mutilations and possessed people, but it also has a goofier tone, and Bruce Campbell as Ash is now basically an honorary Stooge. The film would probably best be described as a slapstick horror/fantasy.

    At the end of the second Evil Dead film, Ash winds up in Medieval England, where he slays a Deadite (that’s what the demons are called in these films) and is praised as a hero by the people of Medieval times.  In this film however, Sam Raimi retells the story, this time having Ash being immediately captured by the knights, led by King Arthur (Marcus Gilbert).  It should also be noted that in this film, Linda is played in the opening sequence by Bridget Fonda (it’s amusing that Linda is played by a different actress in every Evil Dead film).

The film is basically an excuse for Bruce Campbell to get into fights with demons, get hit, punched and kicked by just about every character in the film and for there to be a variety of terrific quotes.  Everybody has got their favorite, mine just might be “Well, excuse me, mister fancy pants!  You ain’t leading but two things right now: Jack and Shit, and Jack just left town.”  While the first two films really felt like Raimi’s unique vision, this one has the distinct feeling of studio involvement, in this case, Universal.

Raimi’s directorial style is apparent in a few scenes, most notably the moment where an unnamed enemy soldier gets thrown into a pit, and a long silence begins, as various characters peer into the pit, waiting a show.  After a moment of silent anticipation, we see Ash’s reaction shot, as a geyser of blood erupts from the pit.  It’s bizarre, gory and hilarious.

The film contains a few great movie in-jokes, I think immediately of the skeleton army that is a direct homage to Jason and the Argonauts (another favorite line is when the skeleton screams “Let’s get the hell out of here!”).  There are also shout-outs to the animated version of Gulliver’s Travels and to The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Of course, Campbell is ridiculous (in a good way), mugging and over-the-top and reminding us that he is a fine actor.

Originally, the film was supposed to end on a much different note, with Ash waking in a post-apocalyptic future.  This ending I think better fit with a recurring theme of the films, which was how Ash is an idiot and has horrible luck.  The ending the film has now, though, is a happy ending, of sorts, and does give us a super closing line: “Hail to the King, baby!”

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

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If horror film in-jokes alone made a good horror movie, then 2001 Maniacs may have been on to something. First of all, it’s a remake of the film Two Thousand Maniacs, directed by cult horror icon Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was produced by Eli Roth, who made the Hostel films, and Scott Spiegel, who co-wrote Evil Dead II (Roth and Spiegel head up Raw Nerve Films, alongside director Boaz Yakin, who also produced). The film features roles from many prominent horror film icons, including Robert Englund, Kane Hodder and Roth himself.Unfortunately, a horror film can’t be good just because it knows it’s a horror film and has lots of in-jokes and references other horror movies (although often it helps a little); if the film isn’t scary or funny or suspenseful or interesting, than all that in-joke stuff just doesn’t matter. Sure, Englund as a crazed, cannibalistic Southern mayor is fun, but the film isn’t about him, or the tyrannical Southern matriarch Granny Boone (Lin Shaye, who is also well cast), it’s about a bunch of horny, boring college kids on their way to spring break, who take a wrong turn and end up in a Southern town still miffed about the Civil War.

In fact, (and I’m not giving anything away, trust me) they’re upset because they were all killed by embittered Yanks. That’s right, the film is about a town of vengeful Civil War ghosts who kill goofy, stupid college students. It’s a great set-up, but there’s not much else to it. There’s a few great death scenes, like when one of the slutty college students gets ripped apart by four separate horses (one tied to each of her limbs), or when the young man gets his stomach burned through with acid while he’s having sex with one of the Civil War ghosts.

If it’s sounds cool, that’s because I’m only mentioning the interesting parts. I’m not mentioning of all of the pointless, uninteresting scenes between the various college students (all of who are young, pretty and really, really bad at acting) or how the movie screeches to a halt when one of the vengeful Civil War ghosts (or CWGs, as I should refer to them) is not murdering a devastatingly boring college student (DBCS).

This movie needs more CWG, and less DBCS. But, that’s not how it works out, is it? For some reason, Peter Stormare and Travis Tritt (yes, the country singer) appear in small roles. I thought Tritt was effective in his very brief appearance as a gas station attendant, he should have had a bigger role. So should Eli Roth as a psychotic hitch-hiker. 2001 Maniacs would have been more enjoyable if it had pushed the limits of the gross-out humor, and the ghoulish murder scenes, and less of the crummy stuff. A mixed bag.

Evil Dead II

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

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There is a sadistic, savage sense of humor that pulsates through Evil Dead II. While Sam Raimi’s original film in the trilogy, The Evil Dead, was a terrific, inventive horror film, his sequel is a gory, intense horror/comedy hybrid, right up there with An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead and Re-Animator. It’s like Night of the Living Dead meets Deliverance meets The Three Stooges, co-directed by Dario Argento and Buster Keaton. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

A good deal of the credit, of course, goes to the genius of Sam Raimi, who takes the film to the limits of taste, and then pushes it a little further. His vision in this film is cartoonish and horrific, subtle and over-the-top, super-cool and chaotic. The special effects team, led by the legendary Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, also is responsible for a great deal of the impact that this film still has. Surely composer John LoDuca’s chilling and beautiful score is part of it, too.

But, without the inspired performance by Bruce Campbell, the film probably would not have such a devoted following, nor such a cherished reputation. In the first Evil Dead film, Campbell’s performance as Ash was competent, but there was a bit of woodenness to it (this was understandable, since it was his first film). However, his work in Evil Dead II is a joy to behold. It is over-the-top, ridiculous, undeniably hip and incredibly demanding from a physical stand point (there are scenes where Campbell’s body movements are timed to the slightest detail). There is a sequence where Ash’s hand becomes possessed by an evil spirit, and the hand retaliates against its master. It is a masterpiece of comedy and of suspense, and Campbell pulls it off perfectly.

There is a mini-controversy over whether Evil Dead II is a true sequel, or if it’s a remake. Here’s the story: the film is a sequel, but since Sam Raimi could not start the film with a recap from the original (there was a problem over the film rights with the distributors), Raimi retold the story of the first film at the beginning of this one. So, at the seven minute mark, the sequel officially begins.

In this one, Ash and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), drive up to an old abandoned house in the middle of the woods and Ash plays that dang recording and unleashes the dark forces of Hell, who immediately possess Linda, forcing Ash to chop off his darling’s head with a shovel. And then it gets weird.

Evil Dead II is funny because of its over-the-top presentation of the violence, especially in how many of the fights seem like they were staged by a Three Stooges fanatic (oh wait, they were). The excessive amounts of blood, guts, shattered bones, entrails and assorted body parts stop, at a point, being nauseating and start being funny. Two of the supporting performances also add to the underlining humor of the film, those would be the performances by Dan Hicks and Kassie DePaiva as the country bumpkin Jake and his hillbilly princess Bobbie Joe. Hicks, especially, balding, sweaty and sneaky, creates a human character every bit as reprehensible as the demons in the film. Sarah Berry as Annie, the missing professor’s daughter, adds a gentle, kind touch to a dark film. Richard Domeier, as the tall, blond hero type Ed, is your typical B-movie performance, until he turns into a hulking monster, that is.

I must, of course, also mention Sam’s younger brother Ted as Henrietta, the professor’s possessed wife, who was buried in the fruit cellar. His first appearance is an especially creepy moment. I can’t tell you how much I love Evil Dead II. It’s a blood-soaked treasure.