Sunday, October 26, 2008

October 26th: Slither (2006)

You know what's awesome? Slither is awesome. It's a great homage to '80s horror movies like The Blob and Night of the Creeps; James Gunn's writing and direction is very funny; Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, they're all hilarious in the movie. It's a real shame that the movie bombed as badly as it did, because true horror-comedies are few and far between these days, and movies like this and Shaun of the Dead just prove how great the genre can be when handled properly.

A couple years ago, a professor of mine referred to Slither as "an insightful commentary on the state of modern marriage." I'm not sure how 'insightful' the movie really is, but he's got a good point. If not for the weird relationship between Grant Grant (Rooker) and Starla Grant (Banks), the movie would only be half as interesting as it is.

The other thing worth noting about Slither is how incredibly funny the whole thing is. The DVD commentary with Gunn and Fillion is great, as are a lot to the behind-the-scenes features. The deleted "Meat Filing" scene really has to be seen to be believed.

So to sum it all up, go check out Slither. It's disgustingly gory, with some really great makeup effects, but if you can get over that, there's really a lot to love about the comedy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

October 24th: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

I've had four years to think about this, and I think I'm well within my rights to say so, so I'm going to say it. I firmly believe Shaun of the Dead is one of the best movies ever made. Not just one of the best comedies, horror films, parodies, or zombie films. It's all of those too. But there's much more to Shaun of the Dead than any of those four things.

All the best zombie films have some sort of allegorical target in mind. In Dawn of the Dead it was the consumer culture. In 28 Days/Weeks Later, it was military intervention during times of crisis. With Shaun of the Dead, it's the entire notion of desensitization. Shaun is completely absorbed by his own little microcosm that he doesn't even notice the zombie epidemic until one wanders in through his front door. The rest of the movie is about Shaun's journey out of the Platonic cave. Call me crazy, but I definitely see it. The movie also deals in binaries; in other words the movie tossing out dualities and repeated lines and incidents like they were candy, which also keeps with the notion of breaking Shaun out of his stupor.

(Few people I know realize that Shaun and Ed are singing a Grandmaster Flash song in this scene. And badly.)

Having said that, on a purely visceral level Shaun of the Dead is incredibly emotional. Sure, it plays as a romantic comedy, but it really is more of a horror film. The fact that the characters are so well-rounded through the movie's humor only makes the film's key death scenes exponentially more poignant. I'm not gonna lie. I still shed a tear when Shaun and Liz ultimately abandon Ed in the basement of the Winchester.

I got to see Shaun of the Dead opening day in theaters. Then, I wasn't entirely sure what I'd seen. Plus, I was still getting into the whole zombie genre; didn't yet know all the ins and outs like I do now. After repeat viewings, and with much respect to George A. Romero's Dead series (more on those to come...), I've decided that Shaun of the Dead is the best. It's gory, it's emotional, it's stylish, and it's hilarious. Shaun of the Dead is everything I could possibly want in a movie, let along a horror movie.

(Something I didn't notice until just tonight: The guy in the yellow hat is none other than Tyres from Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright's TV series Spaced.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

October 22nd: The Monster Squad (1987)

Here's another movie that I came to way late in the game. Just about a year ago, actually. Of course, I can remember being very little (4 or 5), and my older cousin (8 or 9) telling me all about this really cool monster movie where they blow up the wolfman with a stick of dynamite. It took me 17 years to see what the hell he was talking about, but I finally did, and I gotta say, I really liked it, even at the age of 21.

Basically, Count Dracula enlists The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster , and the Gillman into helping him find an amulet that will help him take over the world. The only ones who can stop them? Yup. The Monster Squad: a group of kids who know everything there is to know about classic monster movies.

I'd like to take this opportunity and nominate The Monster Squad for "Geekiest Movie Ever Made". The way the kids banter and argue about monsters may not seem revolutionary or anything today, but it's exactly the way MY friends and I talked about this kind of stuff as kids. I remember it vividly. The movie plays like a weird sister story to The Goonies. It's silly, but it's equally kickass and just plain fun.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

City of Ember (2008)

City of Ember is tanking hard and fast at the box office. Not that it's really any surprise, because it's really difficult to figure out who exactly the audience for this movie was. In simplest terms, City of Ember is a sort of post-apocalyptic tale for kids and young teens with a retro, 1950s sci-fi aesthetic and themes about learning to help yourself rather than put your faith in a troubled world. Even when worded like this, City of Ember seems like kind of a hard sell. And it is.

The movie opens and we learn a few vague details about the end of the world. We don't know exactly what ended the world, but we do know that a team of scientists designed an underground city that would serve as the incubator for mankind while the Earth spent the next 200 years recovering. The key to returning to the surface was locked in a safe and entrusted to the city's mayor, who passed the box to the next mayor, and the next, until eventually the box becomes lost to time. After 200 years, the power generators are beginning to fail and the city as a whole is beginning to break down. Enter Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), two teenagers starting their first day as pipe worker and city messenger, respectively. Doon thinks he knows how to fix the city's generators, but at every turn his dad (Tim Robbins) and mentor (Martin Landau) tell him to just mind his own business. Lina discovers the previously mentioned safe in her grandmother's closet, and it's not long before she and Doon decide to flee the city before it inevitably goes dark forever.

What the movie lacks in character development it more than makes up for in an intriguing story and some fantastic production design. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) does a great job of establishing a world where Art Deco was the last thing society knew before everything went to Hell. If you've ever played the video game Bioshock, you know what to expect from City of Ember's visual style.

One of the things that the movie doesn't delve into as much as it maybe could have is the notion of autonomy and making decisions for oneself instead of letting groupthink dictate your actions. As Doon and Lina begin putting the pieces of Ember's history together, their snooping is met with nothing but denial from the city's mayor (Bill Murray) and his second in command (Toby Jones). There's also an odd thread dealing with what might as well be called the city's religion, and their annual day of singing praises to the builders of the city. The film doesn't delve into this concept very far, but then again, given the target audience, it would have either gone over kids' heads or sparked backlash among religious groups.

As the film is, though, it sort of plays like The Village for the younger crowd. It's not as dense as The Village, but City of Ember does deal in some of the same themes. As I stated before, the character development doesn't exactly mesh the way it maybe ought to, but the characters are at least simple enough that they don't take long to get to know. So overall, City of Ember is a beautifully shot film with some really great ideas behind it, but maybe a little light on the execution.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Monday, October 20, 2008

October 20th: The Blob (1988)

These days, the rule for horror films is generally that remakes are almost uniformly terrible. But in the '80s, decent remakes were the rule rather than the exception. The Thing. The Fly. The Blob. As far as '50s sci-fi/horror goes, the original version of The Blob was fun and offbeat, if not necessarily scary. However, Chuck Russell's remake is gory, frightening, and even kind of funny in its own bizarre way.

After a mysterious meteorite falls on the outskirts of Arborville, Colorado, people start dying as a gelatinous blob from within the meteorite begins eating the residents alive. The police are immediately suspicious of Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon), a loner teen who always seems to be on the wrong side of things. Flagg soon acquits himself when he and fellow escapee Meg (Shawnee Smith) discover a team of military scientists in biohazard suits inspecting the meteorite. Turns out the blob evolved out of a biological weapon being developed to fight the Russians. Flagg and Meg then must race back to town to inform everyone before A) the blob kills everyone in town and B) the military rope off the town and let the blob do its business.

What's immediately apparent about The Blob is that it subscribes to the same school of horror as films like Gremlins, The Monster Squad, and the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Play fast and loose with the genre, have fun with the conventions, offer some unique kills/gore/effects, and for God's sake, scare us a little! The Blob does just that. The first two or three kills are very unexpected, and nearly all of them are unexpectedly violent. Chuck Russell definitely knows what he's doing with visual effects here, and any unconvincing shots are simply badly aged rather than poorly executed.

Where the film tends to wobble is in the cast. Nobody is truly bad here, but Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith didn't win any awards for this film for a reason. Art LaFleur has a fun bit part as Meg's pharmacist father, and Jeffrey DeMunn appears here in his first of many films based on Frank Darabont scripts (see also: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film (and by no means a spoiler, because the film is pretty open about the fact) is the fact that the blob is a military weapon gone horribly wrong. Back in 1988, the Cold War was by no means over, and the idea of inventing new weaponry to fight the Russians was still a viable plot device. In the film, they state that the blob originated as a sort of biological weapon, but in the coldness of space, it evolved into the gelatinous blob in question. It's still a bit too sci-fi to ever be considered feasible, but it's a fun idea to think about.

Ultimately, The Blob is a lot of fun if you like your horror slightly goofy while still gory and disgusting. That fits me to a T.

4 stars (****) out of five.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

October 19th: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Watching Shadow of the Vampire, I'm not entirely sure who this movie is for. As a budding film scholar, I personally found the movie to be a fascinating take on the filming of F.W. Murnau's landmark film Nosferatu (1922). So the biographical aspects of the movie appealed to me, but that isn't necessarily the only way to watch the movie. It works as a biopic (though certainly taking a more fictional bent in the portrayal of Max Schreck), it works as a fun twist on the vampire genre, and it works as a drama about Murnau doing whatever it takes to make his film.

F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) takes his film crew into Czechoslovakia to shoot his legendary, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", Nosferatu. The only hitch is the fact that Murnau's vampire, method actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) takes the role more seriously than the cast and crew are prepared to deal with. As crew members become sick, disappear, or drop dead, those remaining begin to wonder if Schreck is, in fact an actor, and not actually a vampire.

What is immediately apparent with Shadow of the Vampire is that the filmmakers are keenly aware of the traditions and techniques of the silent film era. The film itself is steeped in camera tricks, black/white photography, iris flourishes, and other cinematic devices typical of the silent era. The film looks the part, and they pull it off well. So right off, one of the key components is well in place. Also, the two leads are fantastic. While Dafoe occasionally veers dangerously close to caricature, but we've always known he could play creepy, and he does it like a pro here. From frightening glances to a voice that's like nails on a chalkboard, Dafoe makes Schreck believable, someone to truly be frightened of. However, it's John Malkovich that threatens to walk away with the film. He plays F. W. Murnau as obsessive about his work, almost Faustian in the way he bargains with Schreck to do his job. As things get bleaker and bleaker, Murnau turns almost as dark as Schreck. It's a more subtle performance, but I think all the more powerful for it.

As stated before, I don't know to what audience Shadow of the Vampire plays best to. It certainly works as a dark tale of obsessive filmmaking. To that end, it almost feels like King Kong, swapping a vampire for a giant ape. It totally works as a vampire film. Schreck's ultimate seduction of Murnau being the film's big horror hook. The film does both of these well, and can be enjoyed either way.

I'm trying hard to think of anything wrong with this film, and I simply can't. I know it's not perfect, but I'd dare say it's one of the quintessential vampire films ever made. It takes the concept back to its roots (almost literally). This is a vampire that feels much less like an Anne Rice character and more like the Count written of by Bram Stoker. As such, Shadow of the Vampire is definitely one to check out.

4.5 stars (****1/2) out of five.

Friday, October 17, 2008

October 17th: 28 Days Later (2003)

I was first exposed to 28 Days Later during my brief stint at the NC School of the Arts. I remember a whole bunch of my fellow student filmmakers flocking to the theater to see this great, new spin on zombie movies. Or something. Back then, horror really wasn't my thing, and I didn't much care for it. So I took a pass. Cut to 2004, the year of the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead. All of a sudden, I'm fascinated by zombie flicks. So I decide to check out 28 Days Later.

What I expected was a cheaply produced, gimmicky horror movie with little in the way of actual plot. What I GOT was a horror movie that knew exactly how to go about putting the screws to the viewer within a scenario that still today seems very, very plausible. Of course, a virus that turns people into rage-infected killers is pure science fiction, but the way that Danny Boyle sets up his film is what hooked me. Typically, post-apocalyptic films will show you the world in the process of ending, with mass hysteria, people fleeing into the streets screaming, cities burning, that whole bit. But in 28 Days Later, what you see is a world where the world has already ended, and survivors struggle to pick up the pieces (and, y'know, survive).

Watching it again tonight, the first time in four years, I'm less invested in the story and more interested in the aesthetic of the piece. For a movie that was famously filmed on prosumer Canon video cameras, a number of the shots are really gorgeous. The wide vistas of open landscape, city streets, and long highway shots go a long way in establishing just how desolate the Britain landscape has become since the outbreak, and work to connect us with Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), and Frank (Brendan Gleason) more than we might have had the film followed a scheme of tight closeups and static shots. Speaking of which, with the cameras light and free to move, the film really, really moves. Fast camera motions and faster editing do a great job of keeping pace with the film's plot.

Of course, the one thing that didn't sit well with me in 2004 still bothers me today. The whole final act that takes place in the military compound is protracted and strange. I get the commentary that Boyle's trying to work with, it's something that was maybe done a little better in Day of the Dead (more on that film soon...). Christopher Eccleston is good as the outfit's leader, he's fittingly deranged and aggressive. But once the film goes this direction, it veers off dangerously into Rambo territory as Jim becomes quasi-feral and almost zombie-like in his rescue of Selena and Hannah (Megan Burns). It never quite fit with the rest of the movie.

I guess what I'll leave you with is the fact that as good as the characterization and aesthetic is in 28 Days Later, the thematic and horror elements work much, much better in the sequel, 28 Weeks Later.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October 15th: Bordello of Blood (1996)

Here's another film that I remember seeing on Comedy Central a lot as a kid. Watching it again now (the first time since seeing it on cable way back 10 years ago), I have to imagine it was edited to death, because there's certainly a lot of sex, violence, and profanity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but not the kind of movie you expect to see on basic cable.

Anyway. This was the second film released in an intended Tales From the Crypt trilogy. The first being Demon Knight, and the third film, Ritual, went straight to DVD in the US in 2006, even though it was filmed and released internationally in 2001. Bordello of Blood tanked at the box office, which caused the studio to hold off on Ritual. When delinquent Caleb (Corey Feldman) goes missing, his sister (Erica Eleniak) hires a private detective (Dennis Miller) to track him down. He soon discovers the guy in a brothel being operated by the vampire queen, Lilith (Angie Everhart). There's also a weird subplot about a guitar-playing televangelist (Chris Sarandon), who ends up tying into the plot in some odd ways.

Overall, watching this again, my opinion of it hasn't really changed. When I was 12, I remember thinking all the sex and gore was cool, but didn't really see much point to it. Now, I like it a little more. Sure, there's more nudity, violence, and profanity on the DVD, but to me that's all kind of ancillary. I at least expect it to be violent. It is a vampire movie, after all. The movie really lives and dies with Dennis Miller. If you like the way he snarks his way through a script, then you'll probably enjoy the movie. If you think Miller is as interesting as watching paint dry, the movie might not do anything for you.

Personally, I'm a fan. He makes the movie watchable. Without Dennis Miller, Bordello of Blood is really kind of an awful movie.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religulous (2008)

Your tolerance for Bill Maher and Borat director Larry Charles' documentary about poking holes and shedding some doubt on organized religion is likely going to be entirely based on your religious persuasion. I have my beliefs, but am not against considering alternatives or refuting everything entirely. So if you're like me, you'll enjoy Religulous, if only for all of the jokes, snarky comments, and facetious arguments that Maher provides along the way.

Maher's goal, he states at the beginning of the film, is to better understand all the intricacies and odd nuances of organized religion. Along the way, he targets Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism, Scientology, Judaism, and Islam. One of Maher's big arguments throughout the film is the notion that doubt breeds discussion. By allowing his interviewees to speak their piece with little prompting or baiting, Maher draws some a wide variety of responses; some truly odd, some downright frightening. Take, for instance, the museum curator whose prehistoric museum (which depicts early man's coexistence with dinosaurs) includes a model triceratops wearing a saddle. And this is presented as fact.

While most of what Maher and Charles offer us is often hilarious, it very rarely is eye-opening or informative. Now, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but this is a documentary we're talking about here. By its very nature, we're meant to learn something from it. Maybe some people of a particular faith might learn about the ins and outs of other religions, but the point of the piece is to prod, poke and scrutinize each of the religions it encounters. While Maher's jokes are well-timed and certainly very funny, it doesn't really make the documentary any more informative. Only when Maher turns his eye toward Islam does the film take a staunchly preachy tone, as he eventually declares all religions, not just Islam, as dangerous to mankind's existence on this planet. Its clear that Maher is shying away from taking potshots at the Muslim community, but was it necessary for him to instead end the film in a tirade?

The film feels very much like a personal journey (in fact, the film's codename during shooting was "A Spiritual Journey"). Bill Maher's intent at the beginning of the film is not necessarily how he comes to end the film. It sort of feels like an essay that comes to define itself and change it's thesis as it goes along. As I stated before, what you take away from Religulous depends entirely on how seriously you take religion. As a film that stands on its own and purports to be a documentary, I found more comedy than documentary. The topics that Maher chooses to poke fun of aren't anything I didn't already know, and I'm willing to bet the same can be said for most people. Therefore, what is the real point of the film?

(Here, Maher interviews an actor portraying Jesus at The Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida.)

Does it entertain? Yes. Is it informative? Not really. Will it offend? Almost certainly. Then again, what film about religion doesn't end up making somebody angry?

3 stars (***) out of five.

Monday, October 13, 2008

October 13th: Ghostbusters 2 (1989)

(I know, I missed yesterday too. So now I owe you two.)

Strange as it may sound, I've never actually seen Ghostbusters 2 from beginning to end. Sure, I've seen the beginning maybe a dozen times, and the middle and end just as many. But I just can't say for sure that I've ever sat down and watched it from start to finish. Which I think is weird. I can remember finding this movie on Comedy Central constantly as a kid. In fact, if I really think about it, I'm pretty sure I saw this long before I ever saw the original. If I think back even further, I'm pretty sure I was watching the cartoons long before I ever knew about the movies.

To this day, I know there's a lot of debate over Ghostbusters 2. Bill Murray didn't like the idea of a sequel to begin with, and he reportedly wasn't too thrilled with how the special effects overshadowed the comedy. Sure, I get that. But in the movie's defense, it's every bit as entertaining and goofy as the original. While a lot of sequels in the '80s tended to be sub-par in almost every way, Ghostbusters 2's only real drawback is that it's specifically NOT the first one, and just a tad on the ridiculous side. But then, there's really only so much you can do with catching ghosts before you start getting into outlandish scenarios.

It's one of the reasons why I'm sort of not looking forward to a third film. It's going to inevitably be stranger and sillier than the first two. But then, there are some things about Ghostbusters 2 that still strike me as odd.
  • The pink slime always looked like pepto-bismol, and therefore, looked delicious.
  • The Ghostbusters theme song had somehow become canon.
  • I always thought the sight of the Statue of Liberty in motion was endlessly creepy.
  • The dialogue during the Statue sequence always struck me as awful line readings.
  • Cheech Marin showing up long enough to stare agape as the ghost Titanic comes to port.
  • Slimer driving a bus = WTF?

I think the underlying theme of anger, the slime representing the increasingly palpable sense of hate in the world, is an interesting theme, and one that I'm sure could've been developed a bit more. I'll bet this movie would make an interesting triple feature with Gremlins 2 and Do the Right Thing (both also released in 1989). Yeah, Ghostbusters 2 might not be as original as the first Ghostbusters, but it's still way too much fun to just disregard completely. The ghost train, the slime guns, controlling the Statue of Liberty with an NES Advantage controller, Lewis suiting up in a jumpsuit and proton pack, there's just way too much to love about this movie for me to really, truly dislike it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

October 11th: The Terminator (1984)

Believe it or not, I actually came to The Terminator pretty late in the game. I'd seen T2 as a kid, and was understandably terrified by it. So seeing the first film was out of the question. It wasn't until I'd gotten over my irrational fear of T2 (sadly, well into my teens) when I first became curious about The Terminator. Just as I was becoming a budding film enthusiast, I was buying up as many cheap VHS tapes as I could find at second-hand stores and watching them on a small VCR/TV I had in my room. The Terminator was one of those movies.

Where T2 was all action, effects and spectacle (with a touch of horror tossed in for good measure), I was surprised to find The Terminator was darker, grittier, and yes, scarier. I mean, it's a scifi film about killer robots from the future. It's not going to be terrifying, but there is a whole lot of tension and the fact that it's a chase film only makes it worse. Watching it today, I'm more impressed by James Cameron's eye for visual effects and plotting than I am with Arnold's character. Of course, he's the whole reason the movie works. He makes the T-101 a truly frightening character. Having said that, I really think this is Michael Biehn's movie. The majority of the movie really falls on Kyle Reese's shoulders, and he does a really great job playing the hero.

Sure, T2 is now one of my favorite films of all time, but the original has a lot more urgency to it. There really feels like the world might actually be hanging in the balance as we watch Reese and Sarah Connor wander through the night trying to hide from the Terminator. While the visual style and musical score sort of give the movie a poor-man's-Blade Runner vibe, the movie doesn't really feel like anything else of it's time. And while I'm very, very glad that T2 came along and made the franchise even better, I really can't forgive Terminator 3 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles for reducing the franchise to mindless schlock. I have a little hope that Terminator: Salvation might change all that, but I'm not holding my breath.

Overall, I'd probably not call The Terminator a great horror film, but it's certainly one of the best sci-fi/action movies of the decade. Just like James Cameron's other two big '80s sci-fi movies: Aliens and The Abyss. Finally, for a little lesson on the movie's influence (even before T2 ever happened), check this out:

Friday, October 10, 2008

October 10th: Blindness (2008)

(Apologies for missing yesterday. One day this month, I'll be watching and posting two. Promise.)

So, what exactly IS Blindness? Should it be classified as a horror film? Well, it does show us a sort of post-apocalyptic world where an epidemic has destroyed society. Should it be classified as a science fiction film? Well, that epidemic IS blindness. I'd call Blindness more Children of Men than 28 Days Later, though you can certainly see influences of both in the film. While it's perhaps not as effective as either of those films, it's every bit as compelling, and a good deal more disturbing and stylish in its approach.

Blindness presents a scenario in which a sort of reverse blindness (meaning victims see all white rather than all black). The infected include an optometrist (Mark Ruffalo), his wife (Julianne Moore), a prostitute (Alice Braga), and an old man with an eyepatch (Danny Glover, who is literally credited as "Man with the Black Eye Patch"). The initial infected are quarantined in what can best be described as a deserted prison. There are facilities, food, everything they need. Until more infected arrive. And more. And still more, until they're filled to capacity, and all notion of society has been stripped away by a man who's proclaimed himself the king of Ward #3 (Gael Garcia Bernal). He takes control of the food, but our main characters' ace in the hole is the fact that Julianne Moore is not, in fact, blind.

What follows is a very tense sociological study of not only quarantine dynamics, but also how a large group of blind people might behave when sequestered in such conditions. Of course, the film very carefully tiptoes around the notion of those who've lived with blindness since birth, those who are already attuned to having no sight. Those in the blind community who claim this is a poor representation of blind people have no reason to be upset. Blind people are not vicious pack animals, but it is reasonable to assume that large populations who suddenly lose their sight might react this way. The film takes a page or two from the George A. Romero playbook near the end, almost casting the blind as zombie scavengers. It's not a statement on blindness, but rather how society ceases to function in the wake of an epidemic such as this.

Perhaps the best thing about Blindness is the cinematography. The film has a washed-out, constantly reflective aesthetic. There are a lot of out-of-focus shots, scenes shot from off a mirror or the reflection of a particularly shiny floor. Perspective is constantly being toyed with, and it goes a long way in not only properly disorienting the viewer, but also reorienting the viewer once the film settles into it's methodical, grim groove. It might be easy to pigeonhole it as simply a gimmick, but at least the film is never a bore to watch. Some might see it as distracting, but I found it really added to the experience.

Ancillary to this is the notion of a movie about losing the very thing that allows you to watch movies. There are a number of shots that take place completely in the dark. I was constantly tempted to close my eyes and experience the story that way, but ultimately decided to let the film show me what it wanted to show me. I guess the point is that I was tempted to induce blindness to possibly enhance the experience. Many scenes are filmed and scripted in such a way that, knowing the context, you very likely could get the gist of things with your eyes closed. I wouldn't recommend it on a first viewing, but it might make for an interesting experiment.

Director Fernando Meirelles is known for making very visually compelling films (City of God, The Constant Gardener). Blindness probably trumps those in terms of visual aesthetic, though it's probably not as thematically strong. The film takes a bit longer in reaching its conclusion than it maybe ought to, and there are moments where you can't possibly imagine any kind of happy ending. One does eventually arrive, and it's a fitting way to go out, but the route in getting there is a very dark experience. Blindness isn't for the faint of heart, but if you're willing to entertain its notion of apocalypse you might find that it's probably the best science fiction film 2008 has to offer.

4 stars (****) out of five.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

October 8th: The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I promised a review of Midnight Meat Train months ago, and by God, I keep my promises, albeit two months late. Sorry. It's a shame the movie's being dumped like this. I think this could've had a fair shot at box office success. Instead it was dumped into about 100 second-run theaters around the country in August, and now two months, later, it's available for free on digital cable.

Anyways... the film, written by Clive Barker and directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Godzilla: Final Wars), follows a photographer named Leon (Bradley Cooper) as he trails and takes pictures of the various people he encounters on the subway. If not for his interest in photography, the hobby would veer dangerously close to stalking. After one of his subjects goes missing, he begins following a shady character named Mahogany (Vinnie Jones, who needs more roles like ths), who is, in fact, murdering the nighttime commuters on the subway.

Just from that plot description, this movie seems like a sister story to the video game Dead Rising (in which a similar photographer is trapped in a shopping mall as he attempts to get to the bottom of a zombie outbreak). Director Kitamura shoots the film in a constant, very high contrast. The shades are black, and the shadows are blacker. All the flourescent lighting of the subway trains and tunnels give the movie a sickly, greenish tint, which makes all the blood splatters that much sicker. This works for the subway sequences, but during the day, when Leon and his fiancee (Leslie Bibb) are discussing the plot, it's nearly impossible to see what's going on. This is almost certainly by design, but it just doesn't work. What's the point in revealing details if we can't even see them right in front of us?

It's a slasher flick that acts like the best of the 80s genre, but looks and feels like all the rest of the garbage that tries to pass for horror these days. The plot and the hook (heh) are both great, but the execution just doesn't ever gel the way it should. The slow beginning is more than made up for by a very strong middle section with some decent, gory scares.

The way Barker and Kitamura parse out the scares is interesting, if not problematic. The film has a very stop/start, staccato approach to its scares. There are a couple of sections where they pile on the freaky, gory moments for what feels like a good 10 minutes of the running time apiece. Then, the horror takes a back seat to the plot, which will toss in a "Boo!" moment here and there just to keep you on your toes. Once you get into one rhythm, the other kicks in. It's very jarring.

Overall, the film is at least consistently interesting. They wisely don't pile on the gore or turn it into another in an already too long line of terrible torture porn films. While I genereally dislike the look of the film, the script at least moves at a decent clip. It never gets boring, and as the film barrels toward it's ultimate twist, it's anyone's guess where things might end up. Speaking of the ending, I certainly didn't see it coming, but it gives the movie a bit of a fun edge to it. Going into the ending, I was going to rate this movie lower. I gotta say, the twist worked for me. So if you're willing to indulge Midnight Meat Train it's one final, wacky excess, I think you'll enjoy what it has to offer.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

October 7th: Children of the Corn (1984)

How's that for a segue? Sadly, like a lot of movies I discovered in my younger years, I was introduced to Children of the Corn through an episode of South Park. In particular: this one. Cartman screaming "Outlander! We have your woman!" is a direct reference to this scene. Eventually, my own use of this line led me to seeing the movie.

And wow. While the movie itself isn't quite as suspenseful or as full of scares as it could have been, what it is is frantic, creepy, and just plain weird. You've got a farm village that's been taken over by a cult run by a kid named Isaac, whose diction is far too good for a kid his age. Linda Hamilton and Peter Norton wander into town, run across the cult, and all hell kinda breaks loose. The kids are after the two, looking to sacrifice them to "He Who Walks Behind the Rows".

Sorta like Jesus Camp, Children of the Corn is about the dangers of cults of personality, albeit in an extreme, deranged example. It's about the distortion of religion for sick, personal gain. I'm still not sure what Isaac's objective was in leading this cult, but the body count and general weirdness goes a long way in just kinda creeping me out.

So, Children of the Corn. Not too bad. It's a smaller movie, but effective in its own evil way. I have no idea how this movie warranted SIX sequels, but this first one is at least a decent little horror movie.

Monday, October 6, 2008

October 6th: Jesus Camp (2006)

I thought I'd toss in something a little more tangible tonight. I wanted a documentary that would expose the disgusting truths behind some of the more radical among America's Christians. So I chose Jesus Camp. In retrospect, maybe I should've chosen something more along the lines of Deliver Us From Evil. That's at least a subject everyone can agree upon.

Jesus Camp shows us the members of an Evangelical church that bring their kids to a camp called "Kids on Fire", where they are preached, lectured, and engendered into "God's Army". Over the course of the film, we meet some of the kids attending this camp, and learn that they have, more or less, been indoctrinated with this particular faction's beliefs to a frightening degree. The kids treat what they've been taught as the only way there is, and everyone else must be wrong, just as their parent have taught them. The film takes it's darkest turn as we begin to see just how certain these people are that they will bring about a change in American democracy through their faith.

The thing to keep in mind about this documentary is the fact that we are only seeing the lifestyle and school of thought of one branch of born again Christians. They don't speak for all Christians, they know it, and other Christians know it. But what makes Jesus Camp alarming is just how fanatical these people come to present themselves. The kids in this film are never once encouraged to question the things they're being told. The concept of questions is in no way ever mentioned. I don't want this to end up with me on a soapbox, but it comes dangerously close to the kind of blind faith that they themselves criticize radical Islamists for following.

One of the salient points that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady bring up is the danger that fanatical groups like this pose to the American notion of religious freedom, the melting pot, and the very multicultural idea of acceptance and tolerance that most other Christians tend to agree upon. It's scary watching these kids scoff at science for proving nothing, being encouraged to speak in tongues after being told that Harry Potter is evil, and watching as this camp's pursuit of purity and religious solidarity is inevitably corrupted by brand names, worldly indulgences (like using car washes), and other tiny hypocrisies that never once cross their minds, and are never brought up for discussion in the film.

The film is certainly compelling. Ewing and Grady keep their observances evenhanded. A born again Christian could easily watch this film and see a lot of positive things, whereas most other Christians, as well as agnostics, athiests, and people of other religions can watch this and see a frightening trend in American Christianity, and the threat it poses to future politics. The directors could have probed their subjects a bit closer, though it might have resulted in tipping the even balance that the film so carefully strikes. Jesus Camp is scary. It's also very real.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five

Sunday, October 5, 2008

October 5th: Idle Hands (1999)

Take all the best elements of Evil Dead 2, The Frighteners, and Kevin Smith movies, boil them down to a soggy base, and I'm willing to bet the result will look something like Idle Hands, a horrible little teen horror/comedy that's about as third-rate as it looks. And look, there's Devon Sawa. Again. In a horror movie where everyone around him keeps dying. Man, I wish this guy had built a career around that. But back to business.

The movie starts with Sawa's parents (one of them played by Fred Willard, dammit) getting murdered right before bedtime by some mysterious serial killer that we never see. Cut to the next morning (or later in the week, whenever really, the movie doesn't seem to care). Sawa (from here on out, let's just keep calling him that), gets up, does his usual slacker routine, and casually comments that he hasn't seen his parents for a few days. No problem. His friends Mick and Pnub (Seth Green and Fulton Reed from The Mighty Ducks) don't seem all that phased by it either. Nor are they really that bothered when Sawa's possessed right hand brutally murders them. No sweat off their back, they decide to stick around as zombies.

("Hi. I'm the only thing this movie has going for it.")

Then there's something about Vivica A. Fox hunting down a demonic force whose killing spree outlines a pentagram on her handy map of the US Southwest. She's out to kill Sawa before he can kill anyone else. And then Jessica Alba figures in as Stoner Sawa's unlikely hot girlfriend. She thinks he's weird, which totally works, because he is.

Just like it's main characters, Idle Hands is a movie that doesn't seem all that interested in either scaring you OR making you laugh. It just wants to get itself from A to B as quickly as possible. Which is perfectly acceptable. It's not that much fun anyway. I remember back when this came out, I thought it looked like it was made for the very idiots I hated in grade school. I watch it now, and I was right. It's the epitome of everything that was loathsome about late-90s pop culture. But two things save this movie. 1) Undead Seth Green is way funnier than regular, I-still-have-a-pulse Seth Green. 2) The Offspring totally get what they friggin' deserve:

1.5 stars (*1/2) out of five. Sorry, Lance.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Appaloosa (2008)

It's no surprise to say that the western genre isn't the box office titan it once was. Most people would agree that Blazing Saddles all but destroyed its credibility back in 1975 (despite the fact that Blazing Saddles is still one of the best comedies ever made). I'm not gonna give you a full history of the western genre, but suffice it to say that in the 21st century, there aren't all that many. So I don't pass up the chance to see one when it does come around. And thankfully, Ed Harris' Appaloosa does not disappoint.

It's 1882, and the town of Appaloosa hires gunman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris, who also co-writes and directs) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to take care of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a nasty rancher whose men have been terrorizing the town. Cole's law is strict, but it gets the job done. Bragg's eventual arrest and the arrival of a new widow (Renee Zellweger) in town cause Virgil and Everett to reassess their partnership, all the while quipping and fighting their way through every incident.

What first needs be said about Appaloosa is that it's about as faithful to the genre as you can possibly get without becoming entirely cliched. Ed Harris knows exactly what he's doing with this material, and stays true to the spirit of the genre. That's not to say that the film goes through the paces laconically. In fact, one of the more surprising aspects of Appaloosa is just how funny it is. There are dozens of great little character moments between Virgil and Everett that go a long way in telling us just how well these two know each other, and many of them are hilarious little lines or knowing glances.

Of course, what would a good western be without a simple theme to explore? The connections between Virgil, Everett and Allie (Zellweger) are dissected with fascinating precision, almost to the point where you know what each character is going to do even before the others. The film takes its time setting up all its pieces, and it's slow, deliberate pace will either work for you or drive you mad. There are a few well-executed gunfights, as there should be, and they're spaced out such that they keep things going just as the film starts to lag.

My one complaint is that the film itself feels like two separate stories. When Virgil and Everett face off against Bragg and gunman Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) about 2/3rds of the way through, it feels like the big final shootout. But hold on, because the film still has a ways to go before wrapping itself up. It works in keeping with the rest of the film, but the payoff feels uneven, if that makes any sense. The final act of the film almost feels like its own story. It works well in context of the larger story, but just feels like an epilogue that runs on longer than it ought.

Ed Harris directs the film well, with a fitting visual style that makes the whole thing feel like a forgotten Clint Eastwood yarn. Harris plays Virgil like a stoic hardass who wouldn't know a good time if it bit him on the ass. Everett knows this, and Mortensen does a good job of playing him as a man who's always picking up the slack, either professionally, intellectually, or otherwise. I wouldn't say Renee Zellweger is miscast, nor is she really bad here. She just is. She feels more like a plot device rather than a real, well-rounded individual. The same goes for Jeremy Irons. He snarls and shoots as the script demands, but doesn't quite make him a villain worth hating.

Appaloosa is not the definitive western for the 2000's, but it does succeed where I felt last year's 3:10 to Yuma failed. That wasn't necessarily a bad film, but compared with Appaloosa, that film was all about action, whereas this one is most definitely a character study. It's the kind of western that makes you want to see more westerns, if not a sequel with these characters. I, personally, would welcome another outing with Virgil and Everett. But only time will tell if the public agrees.

Four stars (****) out of five.