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Refreshes the Horror Genre - Bravo!
As a hardcore lifelong horror fan, I was thrilled to catch this little gem on my DVR.
Forget that it's an anthology. It's a bit disjointed and free-form, but the stories are easy to follow, there's no crappy filler scenes or banal dialog, and the surprises keep piling up. It reinvents the made-on-video genre, blowing away Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity by being more experimental, sexier, scarier, more disturbing, with a greater range of special efx and ingenious use of video efx.
It starts off with a deceptively simple interstitial story (as pitched in the log-line) which sets the expectations low. We get a hint that something more is about to happen with a slightly subtle reveal that foreshadows the hellish carnage to come.
The cast is wonderful. The acting is blessedly naturalistic (meaning extremely realistic for those of you who never took an art class) but not flat. While the mostly young actors have the look of folks you'd usually find in university films, they perform brilliantly. And unlike well-known movie stars, their fresh faces help preserve the suspension of disbelief that makes horror films more effective.
Hannah Fierman deserves a nod as a stand-out in a stand-out cast, but she's also aided by delightful make-up efx and mechanical efx work.
Unlike most low budget films these days, the stories vary widely in tone and include some stunning location work. The screenplay is intelligent and the vignettes are original.
The film was made by a collective, so I'm not even going to attempt to mention everyone by name. Suffice it to say, they are bona fide filmmakers who have mastered the medium and don't get overwhelmed by the cutting edge techniques they use.
If you're a horror fan and haven't yet seen it, check it out. But be advised that this one is much more full-blooded (no pun intended) than the typical made-for-a-middle-road-audience flicks, with liberal injections of sex and nudity and realistic gore. Softcore horror fans might find it too disturbing.
Bye Bye Birdie (1995)
How bad is this movie? It was so bad that when a train pulls into the station with Pennsylvania on its side I suddenly got an urge to move out of that noble Commonwealth. So bad that when a character laid down on the train tracks, I wished that the entire cast would join her.
The romantic lead is pudgy little Jason Alexander, with a rug on his head that looks like he found it in a discarded crackerjack box. His true love is obviously compatible -- she's also adorned with a wig, which looks to have been mail ordered from the back of an Archie comic book.
I was shocked to learn that director Gene Saks was only in his 70s when he muddled through this opus. Based on his Borscht Belt sensibilities and comic timing I would have guessed he'd gotten his start on the vaudeville circuit.
The choreography stands out as perhaps the cheesiest and most clichéd choreography ever to be captured on film. Probably because the dance moves were scraped off the mold from old movies, I was reminded of Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers during the climactic duet -- which made me wish I was watching Singing in the Rain again, instead of a toupeed bundle of flab in a tailored suit struggling to look debonair while hoofing it with a partner who's a head taller than he is and clearly out of his league. In fairness, the number brings some desperately needed (if unintentional) comedic relief to an otherwise bland waste of time.
It's admirable that they stuck to the original play, although anyone who previously watched the 1963 movie will miss certain elements of the earlier Hollywood make-over, such as drama and comedy and fun.
The movie does pack a few surprises here and there. One involves Tyne Daly in a wet fur coat. The other is the number of people who seem to actually like this disaster and find it entertaining. We really need to get a handle on the pharmaceutical industry... before we're a nation of zombies.
The Howling: Reborn (2011)
Not For Fans of the Original - More like Teen Wolf Reborn
There is a theory of film study which asserts that an important factor in how a film is experienced is the time and setting in which one sees it. It's especially true for horror films. Teens who see films like the original Texas Chainsaw and The Howling for the first time decades after they were made will compare them to films like Saw and other films they've seen earlier. People who saw them when they first came out got the full impact of the new ground they were breaking at the time.
The Howling: Reborn breaks no new ground. It does however break one of the cardinal rules of screen writing: avoid voice-over as much as possible. This film is plastered wall-to-wall with the pretentious observations of a "teenaged mind." The main characters are like rejects from an MTV dramedy, slinging pseudo-pithy ruminations of teen angst that only a pre-adolescent could find intriguing.
It's not all bad though. There is Lindsey Shaw to look at. And the lighting is top notch. Unfortunately the cinematography is lost in a flashy mess of music video after effects and choppy editing, apparently used to cover up the less-than-state-of-the-art CG work.
The original Howling was a notable entry in the horror genre. Aside from the fact that it was genuinely scary and atmospheric, it featured the first truly impressive "real time" full body on screen transformation of a man into a werewolf. (Yes American Werewolf had good efx too, if you found it impressive to see one hand transform at a time.) And this was before CG, when make-up artists had to figure out complex robotics combined with masterful sculpted skins.
And while the original Howling drew you in with realistic situations and characters, Reborn starts off with a few unreal clunkers. One is a security guard in charge of a school lockdown system that would be the envy of any maximum security prison. The second is when a high school student is pushed against a locker and has a three inch blood-gushing gash sliced across his jugular, and shrugs it off as if the school bully just rubbed a booger in his hair.
Not long after that we find ourselves immersed in a wannabe feature length MTV video with standard rock video efx like color desaturation, flash cuts, and worst of all, a string of songs with sappy vocals that make the mickey mouse orchestral score even more mickey mouse.
In the end, the bombastic direction and flashy editing fail to make up for what this film lacks: substance.
Kids will probably like it though. Fans of the original hoping for a state-of-the-art update will be sorely disappointed.
Sam gang 2 (2004)
Outstanding Top Quality Horror Film
This is one very slick and glossy horror film that will challenge many Western viewers, particularly the more provincial-minded. It should shatter some prejudices and put a serious dent in some chauvinistic preconceptions.
Overall it is very artfully sexy. The actresses are beautiful; the actors are movie star handsome. The costumes, sets and photography are lush and sensual. The production values are as high as you can get in any movie, let alone a horror film. The final episode rivals Fellini's Amarcord for the sheer beauty of some of its imagery.
The first of the three stories relies heavily on irony, with its most powerful images as subtle as they are disturbing. The second one is more bombastic, and caters to the "Saw" crowd with its sadistic bent and convoluted story. The final story meanders and is perhaps a bit perverse, depending on how far you let your imagination roam to fill in the gaps.
I would caution that this is not a film for 12-year-olds having a sleepover. Not that it's too disturbing, since it's softer than most. But other than the second segment, it's probably too subtle. It's more likely to please sophisticated adults with a worldly view, looking for a sumptuously hedonistic slice of dark drama. Watch it in bed with a trayful of chocolate and strawberries, and a bottle of champagne.
Smart Sexy Little Horror Outing
If you prefer "movies" to "films" you might find this one too story driven and less gory or sensationalistic than you like.
The first thing that caught my attention in this film was the warm soft color pallet. Unlike the annoying dim cold blue gels so overused by many fledgling DPs, this film breaks the mold with liberal use of orange and red throughout, in the settings and props and costumes. The result is an airiness that dispels any claustrophobia in the mostly interior college dorm location. The camera work is often very tight, reminiscent of early Polanski and John Huston with occasionally unorthodox but evocative framing. The lighting is highly effective, appropriately dark in some scenes but never murky.
The soundtrack is also a delightful break from the standard "ominous" horror beats and groans. Ethereal chimes dominate the music tracks, owing a lot to the Icelandic band Mum. The sound effects tracks are beautifully designed and unique; again the director avoids the usual horror film clichés in favor of experimental choices that work very well.
The actors are sexy and wholesome, much as you might expect from a bunch of healthy young Scandinavians. They're very good, serious actors who quickly but subtly convey the nuances of their characters, thanks to the director's steady hand.
As for the scariness, this is more on the level of Japanese creepy vengeful ghost scary than jump out of your skin American or Brit shock horror, but the story is nicely developed and fast paced, with enough intriguing mystery to hold your interest to the end.
If this movie starts to bore you then you need to put it away until you're mature enough to appreciate its artfulness.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Great Classic 70s Zombie Flick
With the recent resurrection (no pun intended) of the zombie genre and the revisionist reworking of the genre's conventions to include fast moving zombies, military action, zombies that talk and tongue in cheek humor, Fulci's "Zombie" is a throwback to the days when zombies were slow-moving corpses and you could count the number of worthwhile zombie flicks on one hand. Basically there were George Romero's three initial entries, the last of which stretched his ouevre thin, and a bunch of cheesy European entries with jumbled story lines and generally crappy efx.
Horror fans raised on the recent wave of zombie films may not fully appreciate Fulci's entry. Yes, there is stilted dialog and acting, largely the result of a multi-international cast and a director working in his non-native tongue. The story is bare bones, the budget in line with indie Euro productions of the time.
That said, this film packs a surprise or two and is a horror film for fans who appreciate true edge-of-your-seat horror, not watered down, humor-softened "horror" films. This film owes as much to the original "Night of the Living Dead" as it does to the T'n'A laden B movies of the pre-HIV 70s, which used sex and nudity to pump up the adrenal impact of the suspense and horror, rather than automatic weapons.
The setting and imagery are major creep factors, with a small group of characters stuck in the isolated environment of a desolate tropical island. The tone is set by the first glimpse of islander corpses wrapped in bloody shrouds in a bamboo-roofed clinic, a scene no doubt inspired by the opening basement scene of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead". The pre-digital efx are fairly simple but were brutally realistic and shocking at the time the movie was made.
Fans who prefer the fast-moving-zombie-versus-assault-rifle dynamic of the military action films to the pure horror of slow-moving infected corpses preying on unarmed vulnerable people may find this film not as bombastic as they'd like. But fans of the original Romero films who can tolerate B production values and aren't offended by pre-Reagan era social mores should find this an enjoyable romp.
For zombie completists this is a must.
The Children (2008)
Brilliant Little Horror Film
As a jaded lifelong horror fan I'm always on the lookout for that rare gem which entertains without cheapening the genre. There's been a deluge of crap produced over the past decade; the usual indicators are murky blue cinematography from injudicious use of gels, formulaic or gimmicky story lines, copycat themes, or cheesy humor.
The Children has none of these problems. It's one of the most original horror dramas to pop up in years, a breath of fresh air. It's also subtle in its build-up of suspense and occasional injections of humor. Which probably explains why viewers who judge a horror film by the volume of blood and guts dumped on screen might not "get" this film.
Set in one basic location (a prime requisite for indie horror funding these days) the script takes advantage of a beautiful rural setting to avoid the claustrophobic limitations of the typical and obvious "creepy location" most straight-to-vid horror flicks are set in.
The script is smart, a sort of Children of the Damned but much more naturalistic. In a nutshell, it chronicles a two-day holiday family get together during which the small children gradually succumb to a virus and become bratty little devils who wreak havoc on the adults.
The direction is straightforward but artful, incorporating punchy detail shots and dynamic editing techniques for maximum impact on a budget. The acting is superb. Unlike the cold glaring "Damned" kids, these are real life toddlers whose emotions escalate from vulnerable reliance to psychotic sadism. Performances are excellent all around from a very attractive cast. Particularly amazing are the child actors, who are never less than convincing in extremely demanding roles.
Perhaps more aptly described as an "intensely horrific drama" than straight out horror film, this is an ideal chiller for anyone who values creative film-making and intelligent stories over gratuitous effects. That said, it is loaded with disturbing moments, and would probably give the average soccer mom nightmares for months.
Hell Ride (2008)
Campy B Movie Biker Fun
It puzzles me how people can be slamming this movie for its B movie values, when it's a consummate B movie! What did you expect from a biker movie called Hell Ride?
Contrary to some of the complaints expressed here, the acting in this movie is quite good. It's tongue-in-cheek campy, but it's effective and fits the tone of the film perfectly. Dennis Hopper may appear to be a little shaky -- Duh! He was terminally ill at the time he made this. It's cool that he was able to actually ride a bike at his age, and nice of the producers to provide him with a sidecar. His appearance is a fitting tribute to his birth as a star in Easy Rider, the role which put him on the map, just as this movie is a worthy tribute to biker movies.
The cinematography is top grade. The music is appropriately twangy and the soundtrack is well mixed, with the throaty growl of the vintage big twins adding a nice authenticity to the riding scenes. Unlike the old B biker films of the 60s and early 70s, the rides in this flick are real "biker" bikes. Vintage Harleys and Indians etc. not just dirt bikes tweaked up for stunt work.
The casting and costumes are sexy. The screenplay is not exactly Shakespeare but is good for what it is; an excuse to showcase the action, humor and"drive-in" style gratuitous T'n'A. The dialog is punchy and the story has enough twists to keep you guessing. Editing is crisp.
In a nutshell, the production values are what you'd expect from a Dimension movie. Slicker than usual for a lower budget film.
The only knock is the intro of the characters, which uses the overdone "modern" device of subtitled intros, but this is a minor complaint about a directorial cheat that some viewers probably find clever.
If you like B movies, drive-in movies or biker movies, put your feet up and check it out. If you're offended by violence and nudity, go watch something else. It's a biker movie!
Best Thriller in Many Years
I was more than pleasantly surprised by this movie. Based on the title and the trailer, I was expecting a typical soft gut Hollywood formula thriller with a few cheap scares and a namby-pamby pseudo-cathartic ending. What I got was a top notch seat of your pants white-knuckle joy ride.
Everything about this film is top of the line, from the beautifully paced screenplay by David Johnson, with rich characters and more suspense than you'd find in your usual Hollywood thriller, based on a great story by Alex Mace.
The casting and performances are uniformly superb, but most notable are the three main female characters, who are a bit more complex than you normally get in a genre film from Tinseltown.
Vera Farmiga is a fine actress who's been impressive in past roles, but this is a stand-out role that will have everyone remembering her name. Her young co-stars are both outstanding as well. Newcomer Aryanna Engineer is a charming newcomer and Isabelle Fuhrman as the mysterious orphan was simply amazing in this role.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is great not only with the actors but with action and pacing as well. Like Paul Verhoeven, he's one of those rare European directors who handles Hollywood style action better than most American directors.
With several top producers on board, including Joel Silver, Don Carmody and Susan Downey, it's not a surprise that the production values are excellent, from the score to the costumes to the efx make-up and stunts.
If you're a fan of the thriller genre, this is one you can't miss.
Mega Piranha (2010)
A New Low for Sci-Fi
Tagline: "They were created to save mankind. Something went wrong." You can say that again.
SyFy Channel continues to plumb new depths in sci-fi programming with this entry from "auteur" Eric Forsberg. Mega Piranha stands out as the consummate example of low quality, mindless fodder cranked out for the indiscriminating pre-teen viewer. Sadly, a generation of impressionable kids are being trained to accept this level of crap as acceptable entertainment.
The screenplay is a decadent mess. With its tale of lab-created monster fishes, the story traces its lineage back to the original Frankenstein story, the seminal work of science fiction. For more than a century, the sci-fi genre has served up some of the most daring and provocative explorations of morality as it pertains to science and technology. Unfortunately, any attempt at such intelligent or provocative story-telling has been jettisoned in this hack effort.
The characters are muddled and clichéd, and unlike the original Frankenstein (and Alien, and other classic sci-fi works) this film has no moral compass whatsoever. Token female Tiffany (someone's idea of a milf, I suppose) plays a scientist who helps create a monster form of piranha, although she later describes herself as a "greenpeacer" (when she advocates for a super nuclear strike on her evil creation.) The writer apparently has no clue about eco-politics and simply pulled his characterizations out of thin air (to be polite) without a minute's research (or even a dollop of common sense.) This is perhaps the laziest writing ever perpetrated on sci-fi fans, and one of the stupidest scripts.
The US military figures are smart and idealistic do-gooders, while their foreign counterparts are of course blundering idiots. While the South Americans' stupidity is portrayed as evil, the team of North American scientists responsible for the mess are transferred into heroes without the slightest hint of a character turn or transition. They simply realized after the fact that creating monstrous piranhas with accelerated mutating and reproductive capabilities might not have been the best way to "save the world." Wow. Well, clearly they weren't rocket scientists.
With their poorly matched lighting, the efx are the typical unconvincing low grade efx churned out for Syfy's bargain basement productions, where quantity bests quality every time. Almost every movie on the channel features efx that looks like they were rushed out by animation interns working for lunch money. You'd think someone in charge might eventually get the idea to re-use and further develop their existing wireframe animations rather than starting from scratch with every production. By pooling their already developed resources, the companies whipping up the endless slew of ogres and monster fishes might eventually come up with a convincing effect.
This one is for strictly for kids who are too young to watch real sci-fi movies. Although god only knows how it might warp their perception of the world we actually live on.
An American Crime (2007)
Bad Casting & Wimpy Direction Add Up to Inferior Version
Anyone who was impressed with this movie owes it to themself to check out the much superior, lower budgeted version titled "The Girl Next Door." But then again, those viewers who prefer watered down, heavily filtered, inappropriately glossy accounts of horrific material will prefer this version. And anyone who was emotionally disturbed by this version will be absolutely devastated by "The Girl Next Door."
The problem starts with the casting. Catherine Keener and Ellen Page have both proved themselves to be highly talented actresses. It must have seemed a clever move to cast both "against type" (based on their earlier works.) Unfortunately, the sappy direction prevents either from rising to the challenge, and it's impossible to lose yourself in the characters and forget that they are just two actresses playing roles in a movie.
Keener's character comes off as cotton candy soft, and the writers' feeble attempts to add depth by humanizing her just adds to her inauthentic characterization. And thanks to the soft "glamor" lighting, even in scenes of torture, Page comes off more like a sleepy model at a Seventeen magazine photo shoot than a victim of the worst abuse imaginable.
The other actors are a mixed bag, ranging from good-if-this-was-a-made-for-TV-movie to just plain awful.
The camera work is far too slick and pretty for the gritty subject matter. With a more capable director at the helm, the effect might have been ironic, but here it is just annoying, an unending cascade of softly lit glamor shots, with no consideration of its dramatic relation to the subject matter whatsoever.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the ratio of close-ups to other shots in this movie had to be at least 10-1, making for an artlessly claustrophobic experience. (For an artful claustrophobic experience, see "Carnal Knowledge.") Someone should count the amount of close-ups in this film; it might qualify for the Guinness Book.
The soundtrack is just as bad, veering from Mickey Mouse bombast during the "suspenseful" scenes to syrupy pretentious mush throughout.
If you're interested in this horrible true life story and want to get the full impact of what it must have been like, skip this one and seek out "The Girl Next Door" instead. Like the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" it has a quasi-documentary feel. The direction doesn't distract from the subject matter, and the actors are much more believable in their roles.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Cinematic Masterpiece - Best Drug Theme Film Ever
A few film directors (notably Oliver Stone with "The Doors," Donald Cammell-Nicolas Roeg with "Performance" and Jerry Schatzberg with "Panic in Needle Park") have successfully captured the essence of certain drug experiences, but Darren Aronofsky goes deeper than anyone with this exploration of addiction.
"Requiem for a Dream" is based on a novel by one of the most controversial and important authors in the history of literature, and Aronofsky did it justice with his innovative and astute direction.
The first thing that stands out, from the very first frames of the film, is the totally original soundtrack. It's amazing that this was one of the first movie scores by composer Clint Mansell -- and even more amazing that although the film received a slew of nominations and awards, the composer was only nominated once. The "modern music" score forms a lush, smooth platform for the choppy but never incoherent storyline and erratic camera moves, and a masterful array of electronic sound efx punctuate the emotional beats.
The story is centered around Jared Leto's character, a nice Jewish boy on a very bad track, and the three people closest to him. Ellen Burstyn should have taken the Oscar for her multi-faceted performance as his nice Jewish mama victimized by a pill-pushing doctor, but all four characters are brilliantly portrayed as we follow them on their paths of degradation. Economic snippets of early life flashbacks add depth to their characterizations.
Aronofsky is equally adept at capturing the dizzy rapture of drug abuse and the sad descent of the users. The moment when Leto first persuades his girlfriend to fetch some drug money is as fine a cinematic moment as has ever been filmed. While most filmmakers would use close-ups for such an intimate moment, Aronofsky uses a long medium two-shot from behind. Jennifer Connelly's expression (in profile, no less) conveys a wealth of disturbed emotions, while Leto's hidden face and hunched posture are all we need to experience his total shame and desperation. For the first time the nice boy realizes he is now something less than nice. And his higher class girlfriend realizes she is about to cross an irreversible line for him. Or more correctly, for the drugs he has hooked her on. Their happy-go-lucky love affair is no more. Replaced by love of the drug.
This film is worth watching on so many levels. The great performances. The brilliant film-making techniques. The uncommon score.
If I were a parent, I'd watch it with my children as soon as I felt they were intelligent enough to understand it. It's like a vaccine shot against drug abuse... and against falling into other people's messes.
The Happening (2008)
Glorified TV Movie
It's not easy to criticize someone who seems like such a genuine nice guy, but it's hard to believe that the same person who wrote "The Sixth Sense" also wrote this movie. But then, the only movie that Shyamalan has written since "The Sixth Sense" that was original and cohesive and intriguing was "The Village." He seems to be a classic example of what happens to many talented artists once they snag the big bra$$ ring.
This movie starts off well, although the opening is suspiciously similar to that of Stephen King's novel "Cell." The cast is extremely likable. Mark Wahlberg plays against his usual urban tough guy type, playing a milksoppy quasi-hero, which is very appropriate for this milksoppy movie.
John Leguizamo stretches a little. Zoey Deschanel, unfortunately, loses her trademark quirky charm in her cardboard characterization of a wife on the verge of straying--a subplot that arises through ponderous dialog, rather than action.
This rather lame dramatic device is an early warning sign that Shyamalan is pulling his creative punches once again, and the last two acts of the movie have all the grit and pizazz of a 1970s TV movie. Actually that's unfair--to superior TV movies like "Duel" and "Trilogy of Terror."
The characters literally meander through a thin storyline with a monotonously obvious plot. At its worst moments it grinds to a sodden halt, like the scene where Leguizamo has bummed an "urgent" ride, and the driver waits for what seems like an hour while Leguizamo delivers a valedictory goodbye speech to his chums.
Shyamalan needs to stop aspiring to direct "horror" films, he is obviously too genteel for a genre that has spawned the "Hostel" and "Saw" and "Ring" and "Living Dead" franchises. Even bloodless masterpieces like Robert Wise's "The Haunting" would be lucky to satisfy a mass audience today, and "The Happening" is far from a masterpiece.
Considering the somewhat laudable attempt at delivering a message (which is old news, thanks to Al Gore) to the masses, the "surprise" ending is simply trite, and only makes us hope he wasn't setting up a sequel. The Gaia Theory deserves better.
Catch it for free if you can. Or rent it if you enjoy pretending to be scared by pretentious horror non-thrillers with little gore and no licentious material.
What a "B" Horror Film Should Be
Having seen the Project Greenlight series about the making of this film, I had very low expectations for the final product. The director was portrayed as amateurish, and his stubborn attempts to cast his unproven actress girlfriend in the movie seemed to support that charge.
In retrospect, it seems that the Weinsteins sacrificed any shot at successfully distributing this film theatrically in favor of exploiting it as TV fodder. A rare misfire from the usually brilliant media moguls. Had they been brave and supported this movie, they might have ended up with a mega-million dollar theatrical franchise like Nightmare on Elm Street, instead of a straight-to-vid release.
A classic B horror film, FEAST serves up heaping helpings of cheap thrills in lieu of long-winded "back stories" which thrill development girls and story editors but leave horror fans snoring in their popcorn. The character development is clever and perfunctory, introducing a dozen characters with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency--colorful characters worthy of a (good) Tarantino flick.
The script is fast-paced and the direction captures the tone of it perfectly. The real fun starts just a few minutes into the first act, and keeps on pumping throughout the film, with just enough lulls in the action to reset the audience for more.
The cast is superb all around, with luscious ladies and hunky guys playing it for all its worth. Thankfully, whatever humor there is is not the insipid one-liner crap or tedious reflexive humor that's dragged the genre down for the past twenty years.
The EFX are topnotch, and the cinematography is outstanding, giving the film a bigger budget feel and greatly enhancing the limited number of sets.
Although some may disagree with the lack of a "back story" of the monsters, they were no more mysterious than the creatures in ALIEN, another film in which there was no way for the protagonists to learn more about their foes without contrived and boring exposition.
I can't wait to check out John Gulager's other films, and hope he gets a chance to expand into bigger budgets which he deserves. I also hope he stays in horror and doesn't lose his edge, because there are far too few consistent directors in the genre.
Blood and Chocolate (2007)
Outstanding Werewolf Romance - Beautifully Directed Worth a Look
Let me preface by stating that I grade my movies against their genre peers, not across the board. Ten stars for a Fellini film and 10 for BLOOD & CHOCOLATE translate into two different animals. For a modestly budgeted, PG-13 supernatural thriller, B&C ranks high in its class.
That is not to diminish the directorial skills of Katja von Garnier, who also directed the quirkily charming, award-winning BANDITS. Thanks to her very capable hand, BLOOD & CHOCOLATE joins the ranks of recent memorable movies (THE HOWLING, WOLFEN, GINGER SNAPS, American WEREWOLF, CURSED) in a generally anemic sub-genre.
BLOOD & CHOCOLATE is less of a horror film (splatter addicts will hate its lack of gore and nudity) than it is a supernatural romance, lush with gorgeously photographed Medieval locations, a sensual soundtrack, and beautiful actors in every role.
The international cast is led by rising American starlet Agnes Bruckner, perfectly cast as the Juliet to Hugh Dancy's star-crossed Romeo, caught in a deadly interspecies tryst. Olivier Martinez and Brian Dick are superb as "homo lupine" royalty.
Subtle attention to costuming enhances the characterizations. In his black leather jacket and tousled hair, Martinez's dominant scent practically wafts off the screen. Dick plays his son and heir apparent, a snidely confident Brit preppie leading a pack of hormonally driven young followers.
Katja Riemann is the lean, sexy MILF of the pack, which is made up of dozens of hot young Romanian actors who perform their minor roles with vigor. It's nice when even the background players take their roles seriously and contribute greatly to the atmosphere, and too rare.
The one area I could quibble with is the special visual EFX, but I won't because the single faulty effect is very minor, the kind that turns up frequently, even in big Hollywood blockbusters. Garnier makes effective use of action and stunts coupled with some great animal casting. The animals, by the way, are excellent actors as well.
Blessedly, she forgoes the slash-and-burn digital editing effects so popular among lesser directors who rely on it to disguise their lackluster direction. She actually knows how to drive an action sequence without digitally blurred swishpans and chopshots that break the narrative flow to remind you how clever the filmmaker is. Instead she frames her shots masterfully, gets plenty of coverage, and uses traditional cross-cutting to add dynamism and suspense.
The cinematography and production design are topnotch, taking full advantage of the architectural treasures of Romania, from palatial mansions to grungy industrial cellars. The soundtrack is excellent, the music hip but not obtrusive. The sound efx are rich and clean.
The screenplay is by Ehren Kruger (THE RING, BROTHERS GRIMM, SKELETON KEY) and Christopher Landon (DISTURBIA, and son of Michael!). Their screenplay is pretty straightforward, ticking along like clockwork. It's based on a novel by Annette Curtis Klause, who's written some interesting, off-the-wall novels. Not having read her book BLOOD & CHOCOLATE, I can't comment on any possible differences, but the screenplay is well-crafted and the characters nicely drawn.
Based on a book by a woman and directed by one, this is a great movie for couples or family viewing, with a good story told well, plenty to like, and nothing too exploitive or controversial. Its sexiness is very low-key but I suspect it would be a good tool for seduction. When the werewolf king flashes his wolf eyes, I'm sure hearts will melt and knickers will get misty.
Smiley Face (2007)
Delightful surprise from Gregg Araki
Gregg Araki takes off his usual kink'n'angst bisex-tinted spectacles and shows us the world from a stoner's perspective. Happily, this isn't the typical dumb serving of simulated stoned humor; it elegantly captures the flavor of such classic stoner moments as stoned paranoia, the giggles, massive confusion, stoned driving and "inspired while stoned." A huge factor in the success of this comedy is Anna Faris. She's been compared to Judy Holliday, but her subtly quirky performance in this movie is more reminiscent of a young Mary Tyler Moore, blending emotional humor with deft physical comedy, at once adorable, endearing and hilarious.
Araki milks her performance with simple yet inventive tech work, avoiding clichéd "stoned" camera tricks while making masterful use of his soundtrack to amp up the humor. And as usual for Araki, that soundtrack is loaded with great, hip, off-beat tunes spanning many musical eras, used effectively but subtly.
While obviously not a big budget film, the production values are top notch. Based on Araki's body of work, he's not only one of the hippest directors working today, but one of the most efficient.
The rest of the cast is perfect, including a small bit by Dylan Haggerty, who wrote the screenplay and deserves a huge "thank you" for breathing new life into the genre. His script is funnier, smarter, and more authentically captures the essence of being stoned than other drug comedies, including the very funny "Pineapple Express." Finally, while being stoned might enhance your enjoyment of this film, it is plain outright funny and would be extremely enjoyable straight, for anyone with a healthy sense of humor. In fact, it's a film that any sophisticated film buff should appreciate.
Cheesy "Brat Pack" Gangland Melodrama
This movie is just plain awful. It's a textbook example of how "packaging" has ruined the art of film-making in Hollywood. It was obviously more important to the studio to fill up the screen with "bankable" stars than to make an intelligent, entertaining drama.
The casting is horrible and the acting is strictly cornball. Anthony Quinn, that Swiss army knife of ethnic characterization, delivers yet another offensive, simplistic stereotype, a two-dimensional cartoon slob who stuffs his face with pasta and blubbers with faux emotion.
The young stars who powered this fiasco into production are little better. The most notable aspect of their vapid portrayals are their glamorous but unbelievably pristine suits. In fairness, they've been given very little of substance to work with; did it really take two writers to butcher this story and concoct such clueless dialog? Luciano and Lansky were criminal geniuses in real life, smart enough to rule the underworld and avoid the long arm of the law, yet here they can best be described as "less dumb" than the rest of the idiots surrounding them.
The worst crime committed by this movie is the screenplay, which wastes one of the most fascinating and dramatic episodes in the history of crime, the Castellammarese Wars that rocked New York in the late 1920s and solidified the structure of the modern American mafia. Typical of its idiocy is the misnaming of Maranzano as Faranzano. Apparently some wise old development exec decided that having two of the key characters with names that began with "Ma" was simply too confusing, so they kept Masseria and renamed Maranzano. There are several other inaccuracies as well. The movie is more fiction than fact, and not good fiction at that. It adds nothing of value to the body of gangland cinema.
The beauty of "The Godfather" was that the writer researched the story he was telling and translated it into an epic tale that captured the spirit and reality of the mafia, changing the names of the characters but preserving the essence of their experience. "Mobsters" kept the names and threw everything else out the window.
On top of all that, even the action sucked.
That said, there is one redeeming moment in the movie. The chorus girls dancing in the club looked great and the dance routine was fairly good. Too bad it wasn't 90 minutes longer.
Kike Like Me (2007)
Sad exploration of Jewish identity - Flawed but Interesting
What starts off as a seemingly whimsical quest for auteur Kastner to "discover" what it means to have a Jewish identity ends in an abort, crushed by the weight of the "new anti-Semitism" and Kastner's inability to deal with the subject objectively.
His inadequacy becomes apparent when he interviews Pat Buchanan and is dismissed when it becomes clear that he's simply wasting the very cooperative Buchanan's time.
He moves on to England, and interviews an overtly anti-Semitic commentator, and does his best (but fails) to entrap a poor cabbie with some crudely pointed questions.
On to France, where he finds a gleam of hope, only to have it snuffed by a conversation with some zealously anti-Semitic Arab immigrants (who'd a thunk it?).
Then on to Germany, where he is outwitted by a German woman responsible for the construction of a huge Holocaust monument, because someone has decided it's a bad thing, which gives him the incentive to try once again to entrap her into admitting she's really an anti-Semite (and once again fails).
Finally he visits some Jewish cultural tribute sites in Poland, which thrill him at first, until he figures out that none (of the ones he's visited) are owned by Jews. The fantastic violinist playing Klezmer music isn't a Jew, so she is lumped in with the Arabs and the nasty British commentator in the great anti-Jewish conspiracy the auteur has "uncovered" in his journey.
He ends his quest at Auschwitz, disgusted by the commercialism he finds there. You know, the kind of tourist trinkets sold to FUND the existence of the monument. Tacky? Yes. Anti-Semitic? Hardly.
Kastner's resolve finally sputters completely when he finds out that the woman selling admission tickets to a historic Jewish synagogue is actually a gentile. He angrily demands his "five bucks" back and huffs out. The old Polish woman is puzzled, but readily complies (denying him the opportunity to make a stink about the money or otherwise implicate her in his grand conspiracy.)
He refuses to visit the notorious ovens, remarking instead that the whole place (and all monuments to the Holocaust) are evil and should be razed to the ground, along with those who built and maintain them.
This is the sad part... the realization that the very real anti-Semitism he found in obvious sources earlier in his journey have terrified him so much that he's seeing anti-Semites every time he looks at a gentile.
Next time make a movie about ducks or sailboats or something you can handle, Mr. Kastner. Leave the serious subjects for serious filmmakers.
30 Days of Night (2007)
A Breath of Fresh Bloody Air for the Vampire Legend!!
"30 Days of Night" is a very welcome addition to the ranks of vampire movies. This one is strictly for horror fans, not for doily-draped gender-confused romantics dreaming of third degree hickies from pretty fanged lovers in New Orleans.
The fun begins in the first frame, courtesy of the evocative setting, a snowbound town at the Northern edge of America. The only iffy moment comes with the introduction of Josh Hartnett as the town sheriff. Young and movie star handsome, he threatens to come off as unbelievable, like the Ben Affleck sheriff in "Phantoms." Hartnett, however, despite his young years, has the gravitas to pull off this role, and director David Slade gets masterful performances from all the fine actors in this film.
Melissa George is scrumptiously beautiful. (Her mouth is so cute it should be patented.) She's also an excellent actress, who horror fans should remember from the recent (and highly recommended) remake of The Amityville Horror. With her endearing little girl face and keen talent for playing it straight under the most fantastic of circumstances, she's likable, sympathetic and totally believable in this role.
What really sets this film apart though is its portrayal of the vampires. Someone obviously boned up on ancient vampire legends, because these are the most authentic movie vampires since Boris Karloff's "wurdalak" in Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath" 40 years ago.
Speaking in a strange Eastern European tongue (Romanian? or Hungarian?) these creatures bear the remains of human personalities, but are purely evil; cunning and vicious and blood-stained, like vampires were before Bram Stoker introduced the "new improved" (i.e. sanitized) Victorian model and Anne Rice gussied it up even more.
Fans of Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" and John Carpenter's "Vampires" will appreciate the high action and body count. The story is a bit slimmer than either of those two films (it is based on a comic book, after all) but it's very atmospheric and suspenseful, with superb production values all around.
The visual efx are topnotch, especially when they're subtle, such as snowflakes adding their magical luster to a scene. The special make-up efx (blood and guts et al) are completely believable, but aside from a few very graphic images and much spilled blood in the snow, are not as overwhelming as some overly squeamish reviewers have claimed.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and is enhanced by the seamlessly integrated visual effects noted above.
If you're in the mood for a nicely paced, well-produced, superbly directed movie that'll satisfy your craving for a dose of traditional horror, you can't go wrong with this one.
Zombie Nation (2004)
Even Worse than House of the Dead!!! Worst horror film EVER!!!
German filmmaker Ulli Lommel has managed a task many horror fans thought was impossible: he's unseated fellow Teuton Uwe Boll for the crown of director of the worst horror film ever made.
Lommel is truly the Ed Wood of the new millennium. This film is as shoddy and laughable as the best-worst of EW. I am both proud and embarrassed to say that I watched it in toto, morbidly fascinated to see just low the bar could be set. The answer is: subterranean; Lommel dug a pit and buried it.
The fun begins with the cast of international nobodies. Only someone who has lived in Los Angeles, where every auto mechanic, doctor and mailman is an actor or screenwriter waiting to be discovered, could easily understand how Lommel managed to find so many wannabe actors willing to spew his ridiculous dialog with a straight face.
The main character, a villainous beat cop, is played by a German actor with a thick German accent. Aside from being a serial killer, he is also the oldest beat cop in LA. Despite the fact that he stops innocent women drivers and takes them into custody, then drags them into his home (which inexplicably is the top floor of a furniture warehouse), and does all this in plain sight of his rookie partners, the LAPD refuses to investigate, going so far as to physically attack one of his accusers in a ninja style raid on his apartment.
The sets are excruciatingly bad. The production designer's budget apparently included just enough money for a can of paint; enough to paint "Precinct 707" on a cardboard wall.
Since the actors were obviously unpaid non-professionals--a sad assortment of European emigres (possibly deportees if they acted in their native lands), bimbos, mimbos, and desperate middle-aged women--and since little if any money was spent on sets, special efx, locations or other production value, it is only fair to mention that they did spring for a few genuine-looking police uniforms. Sadly, they couldn't afford a police car; the uniformed cops cruise the streets in a shiny new Mercury rental.
More than half of the story focuses on the dirty deeds of our deranged German LAPD officer and the futile efforts of two young rookies to stop him. One of these young actors is especially pitiable because he's the only actor in this whole mess with even a vague shot at a real career in the movies. The other fits right in, with a rockabilly hairdo and tortured Brando posing that needs to be seen to be appreciated.
The latter part of the film is where the title gets its zombie, as the victims of our killer are resurrected after he murders a girl who had just visited some voodoo priestesses to have a protective spell put on her. Don't ask why a girl from Romania would resort to voodooism in anticipation of being murdered, just accept Lommel's logic and enjoy the absurd ride.
After much prolonged hand-clawing out of straw-covered roadside graves, the zombie girls manage to make their appearance. They look exactly as they did before death, maybe even prettier, with black glamor make-up generously airbrushed around their eyes. Looking nothing like zombies, they look more like high fashion models ready for the runway.
At this point in the movie Lommel borrows a creative note from his lauded countryman Boll, and injects large doses of cheesy Euro-trash techno into the soundtrack. We're talking prehistoric electronic bumblebee noise. Stuff they might have played in an Ibiza disco when Lommel was still young enough to shake his booty.
Unlike other zombies, Lommel's girls speak and function as normal... er, I mean, as they did before becoming zombified. This gives our auteur ample opportunities to shower us with more of his golden dialog. Yes, a golden shower it is.
I won't spoil anything by revealing the shock ending. All I can say is it's perfectly in tune with the rest of this masterpiece. The spirit of Ed Wood lives on... or should I say his geist.
An American Haunting (2005)
Atrocious Waste of a Great American Legend
If nice costumes, decent sets, beautiful lighting and a talented cast were enough for a great movie, this film would be very good. Unfortunately, it is also important to have a great screenplay, appropriate music and camera work, and original special effects.
The original story of the Bell Witch (not the book this is based on) was written by a member of the family that experienced the haunting, and contains some of the most intriguing and unique events in the history of the paranormal. None of these events were captured in this movie. Aside from the main characters and a few of the more mundane aspects of the haunting, the writers and director chose instead to fill it up with a tedious litany of unimaginative horror movie clichés. Apparently, they were either woefully unfamiliar with the original source material, or unwisely chose to jettison it in favor of this tacky reinterpretation.
Although the lighting is very pretty and works nicely with the production design, the camera work is strictly B movie cheese, particularly when the "witch" appears via drunkenly whirling POVs that were tired way back in the 80s.
The music is pathetic: a generic Mickey Mouse score more appropriate for a TV bodice ripper than a period piece. A truly talented composer would have captured the flavor of the era, as well as created suspense instead of alternating currents of boredom and bombast.
In fact, the entire soundtrack is annoying, with the mix veering between low, often barely articulate dialog to booming blasts of music to let us know that we're now supposed to be frightened by the flaring candles and other cheapo EFX.
Equally inappropriate are the synthesized demon growls, which only remind us that we're watching a bad movie that wanted to be The Exorcist. No such luck.
Skip the movie... and skip the book it was based on (since the writer collaborated on this POS) and scour the earth for a copy of Richard Bell's original book. It's a delightful read, with all the creepiness and atmosphere that this film is sorely lacking.
The Omen (2006)
Handsome but totally pointless remake - what were they thinking????
Commercial director John Moore is a name to take note of. Mainly, to avoid his pointless remakes of superior original films. It's too bad he can't find any original material to direct, because he does have a masterly touch.
He should avoid horror, however, as he's somewhat inept at delivering scares or suspense. Occasionally he hits it just right, but falls flat equally as often. Thankfully, even when he's off the mark, he's nowhere near as bad as Jan deBont, whose remake of The Haunting was an absolute travesty.
Based on the original Omen screenplay and replayed almost note for note, there are only two reasons to see this version. One, if you've never seen the original and this is the only version available. And two, for the cinematography, which is the real star of this film.
Director of photography Jonathan Sela's gorgeous and evocative cinematography makes this retread bearable. The acting is fine all around, and the costumes are very nicely done.
The only real problem with this movie is its complete redundancy. Why Hollywood feels the need to remake classic films by master directors like Richard Donner and Robert Aldrich and Robert Wise is beyond rational comprehension, when there are so many old films that could genuinely benefit from a remake.
Who Gets to Call It Art? (2006)
Awesome and Important Document of Art & Commerce History - WoWewoahwaow!!!!!
This little gem may represent the last gasp of healthy symbiotic intersection between pure art and the world of commerce, a centuries old tradition that died with the rise of corporate supremacy in the latter half of the 20th century.
Henry Geldzahler is lovingly memorialized by world class artists Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, David Hockney and others. Born into a wealthy family of Belgian diamond merchants, Geldzahler transcended his illustrious materialistic roots to inject himself as a potent and active force in the world of modern art. A maverick assistant curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum, Geldzahler was prescient enough to recognize the future of art and instrumental in establishing America's modern artists as a force to be reckoned with.
Geldzahler stands primarily as an example of someone who was born into incredible privilege, yet used his social advantage as but a starting point for a career that influenced American culture at the highest intellectual level.
Testimony to his importance lies in the multitude of flattering portraits of Geldzahler completed by the greatest American artists of his era, many of whom appear in this documentary to lend oral tribute to him as well.
While Geldzahler's story makes this a must see for anyone interested in the arts (particularly Modern American art) or in the depiction of a brilliantly realized upper class life, the most precious clips are those showing Geldzahler's friends at their best: Andy Warhol's brief but trenchant observations are well worth sitting through this on their own, and Frank Stella's comments brilliantly illuminate the state of the arts in 50s and 60s America, and Geldzahler's place in that scene.
Anyone interested in the arts will appreciate Geldzahler's incredible ability to recognize art at its inception, years before the slugs of Middle American society were able to grasp its significance, and only with the aid of forward-thinking guides like Geldzahler to explain it.
Geldzahler was that rarest of species: a person who could have easily coasted through life on the coat-tails of his ancestors, fat and happy on the dregs of their accomplishments, yet rose beyond their limitations to affect the course of art history by recognizing and supporting worthy and brilliant artists who may otherwise have been overlooked, with no social or political agenda to affect his artistic judgments.
Geldzahler represents the last of an extinct breed. Uncorrupted and uncompromised, he intersected with the creative community in a way that is impossible even for the most powerful of today's media moguls, who ultimately must answer to their brainless corporate uberlords.
Art lovers should watch this, and appreciate that there was a time when art for art's sake had its champions, and wealthy educated patrons were as pure of heart as the artists they championed.
Artists will watch it, and wish they had been born when Geldzahler still walked the earth.
Not much suspense, not a convincing period piece
The best thing to be said about this film is that it is easy on the eyes. An attractive young cast is put through the paces in beautifully lit scenes. Unfortunately there is no suspense generated and the film is a big empty experience.
The problem begins with the cinematography. Warm yellow and red filters tint everything with a warm and fuzzy feeling--the exact opposite of what is needed to convey the chilling psychopathic horror that is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The power of the original lay in its documentary feel. Here we get a slick glossy "Gen Next" soda commercial, lacking only a pop drink to sell. The cast is attractive, but nothing about their style or demeanor connects us to the period this story is allegedly set in.
Leatherface's make-up (i.e.-- his trademark mask) is the ONLY thing about this sequel-remake-ripoff that comes close to meeting the standards set by the original.
The story is utterly forgettable. R. Lee Ermey is a stand-out in an otherwise bland cast of TV actors who aren't given much in the way of characterization by the writers.
Considering that the original Texas CHAINSAW is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and was made for such a minuscule budget, it's amazing that no sequel has even come close to capturing the terror of the original.
As a film this is better than most of the TC sequels, but as a horror film it's woefully lacking. However, based on the overall ratings it has gathered on this site, it seems to be evidence of a shift in standards, as younger viewers relish the shallow impersonation of horror while older horror fans see it as sheer exploitative crap.
The Descent (2005)
Zzzzz... Take a nice nap instead
Style isn't everything, but this film offers nothing else. Considering how laborious the set-up is, it's a miracle that an ounce of character development couldn't work its way into this flashy mess.
Somebody seemed to think that a handful of taut female bodies with a slathering of attitude would be empathetic enough to involve the viewer, but the characters in this film are so blank and uninteresting that neither I nor the group of folks I watched this with could have cared less what happened to any of them.
There have been worse "horror" films made. But I can't remember one that was more boring and pointless than this.
The cinematography is totally wrong. Why anyone would choose warm yellow and red scrims to color a descent into the cold chilly bowels of the earth is unfathomable. When the ghoulish action finally starts, the color scheme switches to green, but for some ungodly reason the brains behind this fiasco chose a nice vibrant organic green rather than a pasty fluorescent sickly green which might have added a hint of unsavoriness to the cookie cutter proceedings.
It's interesting that many English viewers rate this director's crappy movies so highly. With all the great English directors out there, you'd think they wouldn't be so hard up for glory.
If you choose to watch this sorry chunk of offal, dose up with plenty of coffee or Irish breakfast tea before hand. Otherwise be prepared to nod off twenty minutes in.
Mercifully, the story is utterly forgettable.