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Hemlock Grove (2013)
I'm a fan of horror/suspense and really want the Netflix original programming experiment to succeed. I loved 'House of Cards' and am one of the handful of people in the world who actually likes Eli Roth. Which is to say; I had high hopes of "Hemlock Grove". I can't remember the last time I was so disappointed.
1) The three credited writers have little to no actual screen writing experience and it shows: incoherent plotting, poor pacing, and embarrassing dialogue.
2) The casting is terrible. Not a single actor remotely suits the character they're playing. One of many, many examples is Bill Skarsgard. He's supposed to be playing bad-boy-dangerous. He even chain smokes to prove it. Only problem is he looks like a pasty and waifish Prada model with all the menace of a girl scout. Every character is similarly miscast.
3) All the actors are terrible. They're experienced. They're not new to the whole acting thing. Yet every one of them is awkward and stilted and visibly uncomfortable. They all have that embarrassingly amateurish community theater vibe and I can't understand why. Famke Janssen's accent sounds like a Canadian Leonard Nimoy doing a Katharine Hepburn impersonation. It's just one example of the inexplicably poor choices made by every actor involved.
4) For a show about werewolves, gypsies, angels and mysterious backwoods shenanigans, there's no attempt to introduce an ounce of suspense. You know that feeling when you're watching a show and the credits role and you're giddy with excitement over how it's going to turn out and you're mashing at the keyboard to pull up the next episode? Yeah - there's none of that.
5) The whole point of Netflix producing original content is that they're not confined to the standards of TV. Nothing about this show couldn't be shown on primetime network stations: no sex, no violence, nothing that even tries to push the envelope.
6) Even at a technical level, everything seems amateurish: awkward framing of shots, shots held too long, inconsistent editing, dull and murky photography, poor music choices, generic and uninspired production design and costuming.
"Hemlock Grove" is one of those once-in-a-decade epic failures that defies all reason. I hope to God it's an aberration and not an indicator of what to expect from Netflix in the future.
The Gravedancers (2006)
Really Not So Bad
The opening features such bad titles and crappy camera work I almost turned 'Gravedancers' off before it even started, but it turned out not to be so bad after all. As direct-to-DVD horror goes, this occupies the high end and for all its plagiarism and clichés, it's entertaining enough. The budget limitations lend the whole thing a vaguely old-fashioned quality, not least when the ghosts are finally revealed, reminding us that static latex can actually be far more creepy than CGI. There's nothing particularly original or inspired here, and the actors, save for Tchéky Karyo and Megahn Perry, deliver nothing more than functional performances, but for all its faults I was inexplicably entertained.
Dead End (2003)
Great Performances - Okay Movie
A predictable plot, the denouement of which can be guessed in the first act, is lifted above complete dross by some very strong performances. Ray Wise and Lin Shaye, as a constantly bickering middle-aged couple, are fun to watch and put the rest of the cast to shame. The screenplay, while not original in any way, provides them with some surprisingly funny banter. Oddly lacking in blood or violence, given the story, with the terrible fates of each character only hinted at and never shown. All involved do a reasonably good job considering the obvious lack of money, but ultimately, as is so often the case with low-budget horror, the effort is wasted on a screenplay that lacks real structure, surprises or suspense.
Trick 'r Treat (2007)
Entertaining Horror Anthology
Surprisingly entertaining throw-back to those horror anthologies that were so common in the seventies and eighties. Several stories straight from the pages of 'Weird Tales' loosely connected by a vicious little sack-headed demon who really doesn't like people who don't get into the spirit of Halloween. In an era of gross-out torture porn, there's something refreshingly innocent about a horror movie that revolves around creatively retelling old-fashioned ghost stories. Production values and performances are top notch--definitely the high-end of direct-to-video. While not particularly scary, it's consistently entertaining.
The Maze (2010)
Pretty Lame Stuff
Even by the standards of no-budget direct-to-DVD fare, this is pretty bad. I can live with the amateurish lighting and questionable acting, such are the pitfalls of limited finances, but creativity and originality don't cost a penny and 'The Maze' is sorely lacking in both. The entire blame for this fiasco can be laid at the feet of the two writers who don't so much craft a screenplay as string together a series of loosely connected genre clichés. We're used to our horror characters behaving stupidly, but few are as stupid as those depicted here. Grown adults playing tag in a corn field in the middle of the night? Really? Grown adults who don't seem to realize that corn rows do not constitute an impenetrable barrier? And shouldn't the psycho killer be just a little bit scary? Or at least intimidating? Not a skinny kid who could, in reality, be immobilized by a girl scout with her hands tied? And why so squeamish about blood and violence? Sheesh.
Not even bad-in-a-good-way. Just plain bad.
It's Grim Up North
'1974' has a lot in its favor. The performances, production design, and cinematography are excellent. The shortfall is in the screenplay. Pierce's book is so rooted in the urban landscape of West Yorkshire that the back streets of Leeds become another, if not the most important, character in the story. The Leeds of '1974' is not supposed to be realistic, but an almost Dante-esquire vision of absolute power running amok where the police are more dangerous than the psychopaths and nobody is to be trusted. It's a vision of concrete tower blocks and crumbling Victorian architecture. The film, however, rarely depicts Leeds as an urban metropolis, favoring rural isolation instead. It's a curious decision, and denies the film much of its potential visual power.
Pierce's books make McCarthy's 'The Road' seem like light and fluffy beach reading. For all the movie's 'It's Grim Up North' doom and gloom, it's nowhere near as unrelenting as the book. Though Tony Grisoni makes an admirable effort, and presents a society of rampant corruption, at no point do we really feel the Orwellian weight of it all. In the books, it's clear that the horror is simply the inescapable reality of the world. In the film, you get the impression that Eddie could just get in his car at any moment and leave it all behind.
I guess I was in the mood for uncompromising nihilism and '1974' failed to deliver. Not a bad movie by any stretch, but fails to achieve its potential.
Green Zone (2010)
Superior Conspiracy Thriller
I always find it slightly comical when people complain of hand-held camera-work. It reminds me of an old woman hearing The Chemical Brothers and wincing in pain "They don't really call that music do they?" Personally, my eyes have been able to follow a moving object ever since I was a child. I have no problem with a hand-held camera.
As for the movie, 'Green Zone' is an excellent action thriller about a US Army Warrant Officer investigating the shady reasons why the military intelligence being fed to the Iraq Survey Group is failing to uncover weapons of mass destruction in post-invasion Baghdad. Much of the ensuing shenanigans are inspired by the findings of both the Iraq Intelligence Commission Report and the UK's Butler Review, which in 2004 found that pre-war intelligence had been highly suspect.
I say 'inspired' because 'Green Zone' is fictionunless I blinked and missed it, there's no opening title card claiming "based on a true story". Conservatives, so often unable to discern fact from fiction, will view the film as a piece of docudrama reportage and find it deeply flawed, as it would be if it purported to be such a thing. The rest of us will recognize that Greengrass has crafted an excellent conspiracy thriller that simply uses the controversial politics of post-war Iraq as background color, and does so very well. As is to be expected from a director who, at this point in his career, can do this stuff in his sleep, the action sequences are brilliantly choreographed, the tension masterfully built, and the characters multi-layered. The cinematography that others have called "ugly" I found added a sense of realism, particularly in the grainy night scenes. My only complaint is a couple of instances in which Iraqi characters begin spouting embarrassing soap-box polemic. It isn't that such thoughts are out of character, just the way they are expressed; the dialogue being too obvious and cheesy. Thankfully, such moments can be counted in seconds rather than minutes. What's so impressive about 'Green Zone' is the seemingly authentic locations. It really does look as though it were filmed in Baghdad. Instead, it was shot on location in England and Spain. A production designer hasn't worked such magic since 'Full Metal Jacket' converted a London parking lot into the battlefields of Vietnam.
'Green Zone' is an excellent movie that will be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of political conspiracy thrillers. It isn't presented as factual, and only fools would look to a movie for facts. For facts, read books or, better yet, read the Iraq Intelligence Commission Report and the Butler Review. But don't blame Paul Greengrass for your laziness and stupidity in mistaking his excellent movie for a representation of 'truth'.
Solid, Suspenseful Thriller
On the surface, 'Shuttle' looks like it's going to be one of those slightly laughable high-concept movies like 'P2' - kids get on the wrong airport shuttle bus and all hell breaks loose. You'd be forgiven for expecting little more than incompetently handled third-rate genre clichés. This is one of those rare instances when you'd be wrong. Defying all the odds, writer/director Edward Anderson manages to craft a tightly structured thriller with a genuine sense of mounting dread and performances well above the norm for straight-to-DVD fodder. He's able to create some sequences of real tension and displays more talent and understanding of the mechanics of suspense than many more experienced directors. I, for one, found the story involving, the protagonists likable, and enough unexpected reveals to keep me guessing 'till the very end as to the true nature of the crime being perpetrated. All in all, 'Shuttle' is a solid horror-thriller that chooses suspense over violence, and does so admirably well for such an inexperienced director. I've no idea what Anderson's been doing in the three years since making this movie, but I hope his evident talents won't go ignored much longer.
Dance of the Dead (2008)
Saved by the Bell...with Zombies
Even at just 80 minutes, this one is tough to get through. I guess some people might be able to enjoy it as an homage to cheesy comedy-horror of the eighties but I'm not one of them. 'Dance of the Dead' features the most tired clichés masquerading as characters; all played by third rate actors speaking badly written dialogue. The whole mess plays like a 'Saved by the Bell' Halloween special, complete with a ten year old's sense of humor and a faux-rock soundtrack. The film lacks a single scare, even of the cheap cat-in-the-closet variety. The zombie make-up looks like the product of a kid's face painting party, and the gore, usually the highlight of zombie movies, is virtually non-existent. I suspect the writer thought he was creating a 'Shaun of the Dead' for teens; but the reality is comedy that isn't funny, horror that isn't scary, and action with all the energy of a retirement home fun day. Don't bother.
Well it's Certainly Original
Thanks to the incomparable EVOL666 for turning me on to this movie. An Australian vice cop specializing in internet crime seems to have spent one too many days wallowing in the filth of other people's sexual perversions, most recently cracking a case of consensual sexual- cannibalism. As his private life spirals into a meltdown, he becomes suspicious of a fetish site promoting the overfeeding of morbidly obese women. Fearing that he's witnessing the work of serial killer intent on feeding his victims to death, he follows the investigation to Ohio and discovers that the situation is far more dangerous than he'd anticipated. The film is solidly structured and well paced, and starts out asking some interesting questions about the nature of love and attraction and exactly what constitutes normal, unusual, and illegal, in consenting relationships. The opening scenes establish a nice contrast between the casual violence of the 'normal' couple and the loving gentleness of the 'abnormal' feederist and cannibal relationships. Unfortunately, these issues get lost along the way as the movie morphs into a straight thriller, albeit one with a pretty unusual central premise and some startling imagery. The middle act gets bogged down in some mildly tedious running around doing nothing in particular, but once everyone gets to the country house for the finale, things move at a thrilling breakneck pace. The final scene can be ignored for the cheap twist that it is. Excellent performances and a daring and provocative story make this one a solid recommendation, it's just a shame that the filmmakers backed away from producing something truly dark and thought provoking