Sunday, January 29, 2012

MA$$ACRE: Immortals (2011)

Tarsem Singh is one of the filmmakers that I've kept a close eye on ever since I was caught off-guard by The Cell back in 2000. Despite the fact that his output thus far has only consisted of a handful of films, he's been able to construct a distinct visual style that favors meticulous composition and generally awe-inspiring imagery. This keen attention to detail might seem better suited to the arthouse, but Tarsem isn't afraid to tackle stories rooted in reputedly lowbrow genres. In The Cell, he was able to elevate an otherwise unremarkable serial-killer on the loose police procedural to a surreal exploration into the subconscious mind. Without a doubt, his visuals were the defining factor of that film, and worked perfectly to establish a hellish and disturbing tone that would have otherwise remained absent. His second film, The Fall, also boasted beautiful visuals - this time the result of years of location scouting, which allowed him to almost entirely free himself from CGI. I was looking forward to Immortals since first hearing that it would mark Tarsem's attempt to take on Greek mythology. Early trailers seemed somewhat lackluster though, and the reaction upon release seemed to be mostly... eh. Despite the flaring of my fanboy instincts, I was reluctant to risk the full price of a ticket on this one. Now that it's hit the dollar theater though - bring it on.

From the opening montage, it's clear that Tarsem is playing fast and loose with the traditional tales of Greek mythology. Here we're told that the titans and the gods were once on par with each other, and after a long war, the gods successfully imprisoned the (evil) titans. Of course, nothing truly evil stays locked up for long, and Mickey Rourke steps in as Hyperion (who in the original mythology was a titan himself, but here is just a bitter human). Bitter at the gods for a life of misfortune, Hyperion seeks to unleash the titans with the fabled  Epirus bow and then go stomp on some gods. Theseus (Henry Cavill) is just a farm boy whose town is caught in the wrath of Hyperion's ruthless quest for the bow. When he accidentally stumbles upon it himself, he's forced to enter a game of cat and mouse with Hyperion while the gods watch from heaven, occasionally meddling in the chase when it suits their whims.

It's relatively apparent from early on in the film that this material is hindered by its script. It's relentlessly talky in the first half, and filled with the same kind of overblown and essentially meaningless dialogue that serves only to move our heros from point A to point B. Thesus is essentially a non-character. He's a hero placeholder to drive the story along, utterly without personality traits other than say, bravery or something. The foils do little to flesh him out, and are there only so that dialogue can flow. Rourke as Hyperion is one exception, but largely because in a pulpy movie without acting, overacting seems like a blessing.

Tarsem's strength is his visuals, so it's unfortunate that the characters won't shut up long enough for you to absorb them. The costume design isn't quite as outlandish as in The Fall, but does hit some high points with the oddly revealing burqa-esqe costumes of the Oracles and Hyperion's scorpion-claw helmet. The villains look appropriately evil and inhuman, buried underneath sinister masks - until they open their mouths and start talking. Again, these things destroy the mood that the imagery is trying to establish. As a result, the super-stylized visuals feel somewhat forced - and the abundant CGI doesn't always help.

The exceptions are the scenes involving the gods on Mount Olympus, which are shot in a hazy sort of unreality. In soft focus and with an unnatural illumination that seems to come from within, they almost appear to have walked out of a painting. And when they start fighting - wow. The battle sequences are the best parts of this film. Some might compare their use of slow-motion to 300, but I thought these were much more carefully edited. The slo-mo isn't used as punctuation for kill shots here, but as a weird sort of god-power; whenever a god hits a bad guy, the enemy immediately slows down so that they can be decapitated, sliced in half, pummeled to a pulp, or otherwise obliterated. It might not be the most judicious use of CGI, but I was willing to embrace it during the battles.

While all of this makes for some pretty scenes, there's no unifying vision behind the art direction here. The main flaw in this film seems to be a lack of separation between the supernatural and the mundane. Tarsem's previous films all relegated the truly spectacular imagery to scenes taking place in dream worlds, stories, or the mind. The real world served as a grounding mechanism that ended up increasing the sense of unreality when we left it. The logical extension of that to this film would be to save the fancy visuals for the realm of the gods and keep the scenes in the human world relatively restrained, so that when the two worlds collide the effect would be that much more dramatic. Instead, there's very little distinction between the realm of the gods and the realm of man. The gods do have a sense of unreality about them, present mainly in their battle scenes, but the introduction of "weirdness" throughout the whole film undermines this somewhat.

While I enjoyed this film, I can't deny the fact that it's incredibly faulty. The drag of the first half is only barely made up for by the explosive violence of the second half, and the film is never able to shed the trappings of its unremarkable dialogue or the uneven visual style. For any other director, this might be considered a failed experiment. Tarsem was unusual in that he sprung onto the scene with his style apparently completely formed, so here it feels as if he's diluted it somewhat. I'd speculate about where he intends to go in the future, but I don't need to. His next film is the Julia Roberts fairytale rehash Mirror Mirror, which looks to be truly atrocious. Hopefully this doesn't signify a trend for Tarsem, because there'd be nothing sadder than seeing his talent pissed away on family films and soulless big-budget action epics.

6 / 10 = Worth a look

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

DOUBLE CAPSULE REVIEW: William Castle at Retrofantasma

If there's one gap in my horror viewing, it's material that dates to the 1960's and before. So I jumped at the chance to brush up on some early stuff thanks to Retrofantasma's first show of the year: a William Castle double feature including both the classic House on Haunted Hill from 1959, and the little-known Let's Kill Uncle from the tail end of Castle's career in 1966.

Castle directed an ungodly number of films, and seems to have broken into his role as schlocky horror director toward the end of the fifties - right around the time that House on Haunted Hill debuted. I remember picking up a cheaply packaged DVD of this film for a buck at Wal-Mart ages ago. (For some reason it was packaged along with Don't Go in the Basement... possibly because they're both in the public domain?) Nothing from the film really stuck with me though, aside from a few select scenes near the end: something about a pit of acid and a remote controlled skeleton...

A loose retelling of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, House focuses on a group of individuals invited to a party in an old, reputedly haunted mansion by a reclusive millionaire (played by the always delightful Vincent Price). The catch: if they can stay in the house all night, they'll be rewarded with $10k each. It's a solid premise, especially when the house's violent history is slowly revealed and the tension between the millionaire and his estranged wife becomes murderously palpable. While the material is somewhat campy, it's not afraid to lapse into full-throttle theatrics, which gives it the feel of an old haunted house tour or dinner and murder party. There are a bunch of nice touches along the way too - "party favors" of guns contained in tiny coffins, the constant question of how real the ghosts are, and constant reversals where evil characters are revealed as good, and vice versa. There's also one scare early on that caught me completely off guard, proving that slow pans are way scarier than jump cuts. It's a quick, fun film that takes a number of enjoyable turns. If you're willing to go along with it, it's a good time.

6.5 / 10 = Worth seeing

Let's Kill Uncle is a harder film to classify. Is it a kid's film? From the outset, it seems like it. Surely nobody would cast such an irritating pair of kids front and center in a movie targeted at adults. But the premise is far too violent to go over well in a family film. When young Barnaby's parents pass away, he's sent to live with his veteran uncle on a remote island in the Pacific. Barnaby's sizable inheritance attracts the attention of his uncle, who informs him that "you're cute, but not five million dollars cute." Very true, uncle. Uncle tells Barnaby that a game has begun. The rules: uncle is going to try to kill Barnaby, but not inside the house (too messy), and not if Barnaby can kill him first. Barnaby and his annoying friend Chrissy (played Mary Badham, intent on destroying the potential child stardom she'd built up in To Kill a Mockingbird) start plotting to bump off uncle, all the while trying to keep the "game" secret from the other inattentive adults on the island. Sounds dark, right? It's really, amazingly, not. It's just way too over-the-top to ever take seriously. The weird tone is probably why this film was (and in a sense still is) forgotten. The 35mm print was pristine, and reputedly never before shown to a public audience, but it's a shame that this just isn't that remarkable of a film.

4.5 / 10 = For completists only (if you can track it down)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Favorite Cinematic Memories of 2011

I realize that we're well into 2012 now, but I wanted to recount a few of my memorable film-related highlights of 2011. 2011 was a great year in terms of the opportunities I had to see some wonderful things, particularly on the big screen in 35mm - the way I wish everything could be shown. Here are the five best experiences I had at the movies in 2011.

Nevermore Film Fest 2011

This was by no means the first time I've devoted an entire weekend to movie watching, but having the chance to do it in a festival setting with an enthusiastic audience made it that much more fun. How awesome is it to get a chance to see some really great independently-produced features and shorts, interact with the directors, and catch some great revivals? I'm one-hundred percent sold on the small fest experience, and can't wait for Nevermore 2012.

Jan Svankmajer's Alice, presented by China Mieville

I caught this show while in Boston for a work-related conference, and it almost seemed too good to be true. Mieville has been one of my favorite authors for a long time now, and he was in town promoting his new book Embassytown. The signing took place at the Brattle Theater in  Harvard Square, which gave him a chance to present one of his favorite films - the disturbing stop-motion animated version of Alice in Wonderland by Jan Svankmajer. While not a direct influence on his new novel, Svankmajer's bizarre junk-drawer take on Lewis Carroll's classic tale no doubt inspired the sinister edge that magic often has in Mieville's novels. While looking as if it takes place largely in the mundane world, it nonetheless captures how wrong magic would look if it were to actually occur. (Embassytown turned out to be a great book as well.)

Finally watching some beloved old series from beginning to end

There are some movies I've seen so long ago that my memories of them are hazy, fragmented, and in most cases reduced down to a few images and a general feel. Nonetheless, these have stuck with me for years, sometimes decades, and the strongest ones are from childhood. Saturday mornings were a blast in the early 90s, and the after the obligatory cartoons were over, the networks would air feature after lurid feature: horror, martial arts, action, monster movies. Nothing seemed out of bounds back then, at least to my young and impressionable mind.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series was a staple of the early-afternoon horror series. While I'd seen bits from the franchise here and there since then, I'd never watched the entire series in sequence. This October gave me a chance to do that, and I had a blast rediscovering what made these movies so much fun. The quality wastes no time dropping to the bottom of the barrel, but still, the fun that Robert Englund brings to the role of Freddy carries them through the low points, even if there is a little too much comedy in the later installments. The quirks and warts somehow make them endure a little more (as all ANoES 2 fans know)... except for maybe Freddy's Dead. Although now I finally have a movie to attach to the image of Freddy killing a guy with a two-foot long Q-tip! I'd been trying to remember that one for years.

Lone Wolf and Cub, on the other hand, is a series that has only improved with age. It was known to me initially as Shogun Assassin, and remembered mostly for the bloody swordfighting. Revisiting this one gave me a chance to really appreciate how beautifully filmed it is. And what's even better is that the battles are no less awesome than I remember them.

The one-day Actionfest experience

I headed out to Asheville with some friends on more or less a whim last April. I heard about ActionFest far too late to make any plans to spend the weekend there, but decided that even if a day trip was all that was feasible, it'd still be worth it. I was right - what a great and unlikely place for a film fest of this caliber. Not only did I get to catch 13 Assassins, and Hobo with a Shotgun, but also live stunts, a couple of hours exploring the fringes of the Blue Ridge parkway, and awesome food in downtown Asheville. I also ended up taking a chance on Bellflower, which I can't reminisce too fondly about, but meeting the director and seeing the Medusa made it somewhat more enlightening. I'm looking forward to planning ahead for the full Actionfest 3 experience.

Learning to love Deep Red

Deep Red was the second Argento film I ever watched - years ago, on the uncut Blue Underground DVD, in my apartment with the lights on, the volume at a reasonable level so as not to disturb the neighbors, with frequent breaks for food and probably more than a little wine. I hated it. It took until this year (and lots more Argento to put it in context) for me to discover that the problem wasn't the film, but the way I watched it. Fast forward to this October, when it played at the first half of a double feature, in beautifully worn 35mm, with the volume so high it almost hurt at times... The difference was incredible. I love this film now. Nearly everything about it shows how meticulous Argento used to be with his crafting: from the gothic story underlying the modern-day mystery, to the incredible framing and surreal kill sequences. And the Goblin soundtrack - how did I miss that the first time around? This jumped orders of magnitude toward the top in my opinion, and I'm so glad I had the chance to re-evaluate it by seeing it the way it's meant to be seen: in a completely immersive theatrical setting.

Here's to lots of fruitful filmgoing in 2012!

Friday, January 20, 2012

CAPSULE REVIEW: Angel (1984)

"High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night."

The tagline makes Angel sound way more heinous than it actually is. What's most surprising about this film is how it goes out of its way to make the typically savage streets of 80's Hollywood seem a little more friendly and welcoming. They're even downright warm at times, provided you're running with the right crowd. Angel follows the typical "killer loose on the streets" plot, and throws in a little bit of tension as the titular protagonist tries to balance a busy school career with her nighttime friends. The good guys here are a batch of friendly and cartoonishly eccentric prostitutes, drag queens, and street performers. They're almost enough to make you forget that this movie is supposed to be gritty, although the introduction of a serial killer who single-mindedly works out and sucks eggs when he isn't killing prostitutes is enough to ground the story from time to time. Despite the requisite violence and lurid subject matter, the feel is more or less light-hearted - something that can seem rare among the typically nasty exploitation shockers of this era. It's a fun ride overall, and worth checking out.

As always, thanks to Cinema Overdrive for kicking off the 2012 season with style.

6 / 10 = Worth a look

Thursday, January 19, 2012

MA$$ACRE: Real Steel (2011)

Robot boxing? Sounds like it has the potential to be a great dollar movie. Though it does bear a certain resemblance to Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, and may in fact be the precursor to an incoming flood of board-game adaptations, I was hoping it'd be a rekindling of the sort of future-sports film that flourished in the eighties. Robot Jox, Arena, The Running Man - all these movies take something I don't care about (sports) and add in all elements I love (gladiatorial combat, aliens, robots, razor blades, death). Also, Hugh Jackman seems perfect for the role of bad dad who has to learn to step up to the plate in the game of fatherhood. Throw in a little Lost flashback with Evangeline Lilly, and you've more or less got a pitch that seems pretty solid to me.


There's one enormous misfire in this film. Enormous, but condensed down to the pint-sized protagonist who eventually takes center stage. The precociousness of the child in this movie is massive - so much so that it raises the bar for annoying kids in cinema. (The jury is still out as to whether Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will surpass this one.) It essentially spells doom for this film when coupled with a script that trips up the sports drama formula in a few critical places. What might have been a simple movie about robots beating the shit out of each other becomes a young boy's wish-fulfillment fantasy that'll likely annoy anyone over the age of twelve.

Starting at the beginning - first we're introduced to Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who now pilots robots in what are essentially giant robot cockfights. Boxing is apparently illegal, because it's too dangerous. Robot boxing apparently is not, but try telling that to the audience members in the stands who dodge flying robot parts in the first fight scene. When Charlie isn't fighting robots, he's drinking. Sounds like a great time to me. Nothing needs to change about this man's life, and we could easily have an enjoyable movie with just these few ingredients. But Charlie has screwed up too much in the past. His robot skills have become rusty, and he apparently fathered and ditched a child about eleven years ago or so.

When that kid's Mom dies, guess who gets custody? Enter Max (Dakota Goyo), a sarcastic, loud-mouthed boy who seems not the least bit broken up about the fact that his mother died days ago and his father very clearly doesn't want him around. No, this kid is so confident that he doesn't let little things like that phase him. He wants to fight robots with Charlie, and he wants it NOW. The pair end up finding a junked training bot buried in the mud, and Max insists that he and Charlie take it on the road to robot fights. Charlie doesn't believe that it'll work, which is perfectly rational given the circumstances. What he hasn't learned yet is that to truly grow as a human being he must realize that his son is always right and he should do what the kid says every time without hesitation.

Essentially, that's the point of the movie. Once all other characters learn that this kid knows all, everything turns out okay. And this flips the father-son dynamic completely to one side, because it's only the errant father who has to develop. Every character in this film exists merely to feed the kid's ego and exemplify his better qualities. He learns nothing, grows not at all, because he's apparently popped out of the womb knowing how to fix robots, fight robots, program computers, dance, speak Japanese, rekindle his father's career, and maybe, just maybe bless the robot with a bit of sentience. So the pair's slow climb to the top of the robot fighting league is never in doubt. You know what's going to happen from fight one.

All that aside, the robot fights aren't bad. The motion capture process is brought front and center here, as the characters are able to control the bots by moving along with them. This is a really cool concept, and makes for some nice fight sequences. My one complaint is that the fights aren't creative enough - why not go all-out with the robots? The enemies are all essentially the same humanoid shape, save for one robot with two heads, which doesn't really impact the fight in any way.

Other than that, you've seen the same plot if you've ever seen an underdog boxing drama. This had the chance to be a perfectly inoffensive movie, but the presence of the kid just poisons everything. Still, it careens along with all the reckless and self-destructive enthusiasm of an eleven-year-old. It's hard to not get dragged along in the absurdity from time to time, and it's possible to mistake this for having a good time. If you're willing to go with it for the full two hours, you'll probably have a blast. (Other dollar theater-goers actually cheered at the end. Ironically? I'm not sure.) Unfortunately, this movie is laughable 95% of the time due to the literally unbelievable child at the center of it. Another big-budget bungling of a relatively cookie cutter formula? Come on Hollywood - you should be able to crank these things out without screwing them up by now.

3 / 10 = Skip it

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

CAPSULE REVIEW: From Beyond (1986)

From Beyond is just a blast - Stuart Gordon, riding high after the release of the classic Reanimator, jumped straight into another Lovecraft adaptation in the 80's. The result is this ultra-dimensional body horror mutation. The film doesn't take much from Lovecraft's original story - the opening act is essentially the short piece in a nutshell. But from there, he does extrapolate upon it and bases the events on what might happen if the ill-fated Dr. Pretorius returned as a horribly transformed extra-dimensional entity. Jeffrey Combs, famous among genre fans for his role as Herbert West in Reanimator, reprises his role as a slightly unhinged grad student. This time, he's been left haunted by visions when Pretorius vanished after an attempt to run an experiment to stimulate the human pineal gland. His attempt to re-create the experiment to free himself from murder charges goes awry, and the result is body horror chaos. Pink and purple goo-covered corporeal transformations are everywhere, all lovingly rendered with the finest  practical effects. What more could you ask for?

7.5 / 10 = See it

Friday, January 13, 2012

MA$$ACRE: In Time (2011)

In Time really wants to be a clever sci-fi movie - really. But much like a kid who tries really hard in school and just keeps on failing, this movie is a depressing reminder that ambition can't always make up for brainpower that just isn't there. I imagine the brainstorming session for this film went something like this: "You know that saying 'time is money,' what if, wait wait, what if, time was money, like for real! Whooooa." Thus, we get a futuristic society where everyone is allocated 25 years of life, after which they're forced to work to earn additional days which are kept track of on their arms through a magic clock tattoo. If you can earn enough time, you'll effectively be immortal, but anyone who runs out of time dies on the spot. (Seems like the mortuary arts would be a pretty lucrative profession.)

Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a young man living literally day-to-day in the poverty-stricken areas of an unnamed future city. People in the slums routinely come dangerously close to having their clocks run out, especially since they're burning time to buy material goods on top of letting it run out naturally. What a nightmare: a world where it's twice as easy to drink yourself to death. When an incredibly wealthy man shows up in the slums and flashes his clock with reckless abandon, young Will dutifully helps him escape from some local thugs and finds out that the guy actually wants to die. Living for so long apparently gets boring, and the stranger slips Will all his remaining time before throwing himself off a bridge.

Now ridiculously wealthy, Will heads into the rich center of the city, which is conveniently segregated from the slums by a series of enormous walls with toll booths to keep the poor out. Among the 1%, Will meets Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a snobbish aristocrat at a luxurious party. She's disaffected with her life, and after being kidnapped by Will and shown the dirtier side of life on the streets she eventually agrees to help him bring the system down.

The hallmark of good science fiction is that it's able to take a relatively simple idea and extrapolate a lot from it. It's not necessarily the internal logic or scientific accuracy of the initial seed that are terribly important, but the way in which the consequences are followed through to the end. With such a one-dimensional premise, In Time is more or less bound to fail. Other than the fact that running out of time means instant death for a person, the metaphor is so thin that we might as well be seeing a future society divided strictly by socioeconomic class. While on the surface it might seem relevant to the current economic climate, the portrayal of rich and poor are too extreme and the solutions offered too simple. Unsurprisingly, redistribution of wealth is the solution that the film falls back upon. It's the easy way out, and it's taken without regard to any of the subtle consequences it entails. Sure, giving away time to everyone will ensure that the poor live longer, but (as the villain says) it'll also completely cripple the economy. The ideas here don't extend beyond the grasp of something you'd see in a poorly written freshman term paper on Marxism. Only here, we get a bunch of bad puns to boot. I give this paper a D. With every film he directs, Andrew Niccol adds another data point which supports the hypothesis that Gattaca was just a fluke.

3.5 / 10 = Skip it

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

REVIEW: Chillerama (2011)

Anthology horror films seem to be making a minor comeback, with a slew of them released last year, and mega-anthology The ABCs of Death currently in production now. Creepshow is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite movies, so I'm glad to see these coming back. While I don't like Trick 'r' Treat to the level that some seem to, it definitely seems to have been the spark that rekindled interest in the anthology format. Chillerama sounded like it was right up my alley, and boasts the talents of Adam Green (Hatchet, Frozen), and Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2). So guys... what happened?

It makes sense to talk about the segments in the order they're shown. There are three main shorts, all framed and bookended by segments whose characters are watching the three films along with us in the final late-night show of a dilapidated drive-in theater. Let's start.

First: Wadzilla. This chapter comes courtesy of Adam Rifkin, whose previous work I'm unfamiliar with, but seems to span mostly mainstream comedy/family films as of late. Family-oriented this part is certainly not, as Rifkin chooses to shoot a story in the vein of a giant monster movie with a giant killer sperm as the antagonist. That self-explanatory piece of info is essentially all you need to know about the plot. The first half or so of this short is entertaining, and has some really nice (and gross) creature effects to help show how the monster is, er, born by way of some anti-impotency drugs gone horribly wrong. The colors are ultra-saturated, and the camera angles exaggerated, giving it a nice sort-of comic book / Raimi feel. It falls apart in the second half though, mostly because Rifkin allows the plot to disintegrate and the characters to become lame stand-ins for jokes. As the monster grows in size, the nice creature effects are marred by sloppy green-screen work. I get the impression that this was intentional (more on that later), but I'd have preferred a little consistency. Overall, goofy, and not awful, but forgettable.

Next: Tim Sullivan's I Was a Teenage Werebear. This seems to be the segment that's getting the most flack in reviews that I've read. While I'll agree - it's bad - compared to the other segments, I can't say it's worse. The central concept of a gay-themed werewolf coming-of-age story would have been more than enough material to fill a short, but Sullivan also forces it into a beach/surf-movie context which drags along a gaggle of really unfortunate musical numbers. The story focuses mainly on a closeted teen's encounters with a gang of gay werewolves, excuse me - were-bears, who beckon him to join their gang. Think Lost Boys with the subtext brought to center stage. There's just too much going on here for it to work well, and the result is a garbled mess. The music is bad, and the actors don't have the vocal talent to pull it off. The beach setting is jarring and reduces the sets to just a series of outdoor locations, even though it's supposed to be set largely inside a high school. Am I missing a reference here? Did this genre need to be spoofed? The jokes are beyond lame, in particular the recurring gag about the main character's girlfriend, who's hit by a car early in the film and returns again and again, brain-damaged and mumbling. This segment was when the film started to get tough to watch.

Third: Adam Green's The Diary of Anne Frankenstein: I was hoping this one would salvage the wreck that this film was fast becoming, and trusted Green to do it, since I enjoyed both of his Hatchet films. This short is a different animal though, and mocks the old black-and-white studio horror pictures of long ago. Get the pun in the title? It's a Frankenstein story set during World War II, where Hitler steals Anne Frank's "diary" (here an ancient Jewish spellbook) to create a gigantic monster made from the parts of dead Jews. It sounds far more offensive than it actually is, mostly because Green treats it as the lightest of comedies, filled with slapstick and Mel Brooks-style jokes. Joel David Moore hams it up to the max as Hitler, and doesn't speak a word of authentic German in the entire short. Like most of the jokes, it's just too over-the-top for me. When someone tries really hard to be funny and fails it just makes me uncomfortable. I was checking my watch during this one.

Finally, we return to Zom B Movie, who has been trudging along between the previous films. This was actually my favorite segment, as it takes its time between the other shorts giving us reasons to relate to its movie-nerd characters. There's also a hint of nostalgia as they attend the last-ever show at their beloved drive-in theater. We also get to know Cecil B. Kaufmann (Richard Riehle) as the owner and projectionist, who's reluctantly closing the doors to his theater as the drive-in era is ushered out by more modern forms of entertainment. Meanwhile, a local necrophiliac has contracted a sexually transmitted zombie virus that's slowly spreading through the drive-in, using the popcorn butter as its main vector of contagion. Don't ask how it happened - it makes sense, mostly. By the time we're through the first three shorts the fourth (Deathification - which I won't spoil) is interrupted by a full-scale sex zombie outbreak, and our fellow moviegoers are thrust into the roles of protagonists in their own real-life horror film. Of all the segments, this is the one that I can honestly say I enjoyed. Although it falls into zombie-movie cliches relatively quickly, I was invested enough in the characters to actually care. Good job Joe Lynch - you remembered to do the one thing that the rest of the shorts didn't.

As a whole, I can't recommend Chillerama. The humor is too overplayed for my taste and drowns out any of the horror elements present. While some of the ideas had potential, particularly Sullivan's, the execution is sloppy. What's more of a turn-off for me is that it appears to be deliberately sloppy, with the excuse that the directors are "poking fun" at the unintentional cheesiness of the horror movies of yore. Sorry, but this is something I'll never let a film off the hook for. I don't mind homages to older styles of film making. In fact I enjoy them when they're done well, particularly when they adopt a lot of the things that older films did right. But basing your film around laughing at the shortcomings of older material is not something that's fun for me, and what's more, it's a lazy technique used to excuse bad, sloppy filmmaking. There's none of the lack-of-self-conciousness that you'd find in an old Troma flick - this film is ultra-aware of what it's doing, and it's convinced that it's extremely funny. What it's missing is that while there is a subset of people who enjoy laughing at the faults of old "bad" movies, there's an equally large audience that respects these films for the edge they had and their willingness to push beyond the limits of their budget to make a great film despite their shortcomings.

Sorry, but this shit just isn't that compelling. Chillerama tries to be deliberately "so bad it's good," which is a strategy that very rarely works. If you're fond of goofy, irreverent humor, and cheap laughs that aren't entirely earned, you might have a great time here. If you're looking for something like Creepshow, which was an effective homage as well as being a film that stood on its own merits, you'll have to keep looking.

2.5 / 10 = Avoid it

If you have to sate your curiosity, Chillerama is available to watch via Netflix Instant.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

MA$$ACRE: The Ides of March (2011)

Based on the title alone, you'd guess that there's going to be a little bit of backstabbing going on in George Clooney's political thriller The Ides of March. You'd be right, and although character assassination is usually bloodless, that doesn't mean that it can't be downright messy. Not only does Clooney direct here, he also co-wrote the screenplay (adapted from a stage play by Beau Willimon) and he co-stars along Ryan Gosling. If there's one thing that suffering through The Room taught me, it's that taking on so many roles usually leads to disaster. Clooney pulls it off here, mostly due to a tight script and a really strong supporting cast including Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Marissa Tomei. Gosling takes center stage as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic young campaign manager for the seemingly indestructible Mike Morris (Clooney). Morris is a governor on his way to the top of the democratic primaries if only he can cut through the staid traditionalists currently in office. When a seemingly innocuous meeting between Meyers and the manager of the opposing campaign (Giamatti) threatens to oust him from his job entirely and the dirty underbelly of Morris' personal life begins to threaten the campaign, Meyers is forced into a decision between maintaining his idealism for the greater good of the campaign or tearing down everything to expose the corruption. Clooney's candidate is a little too one-dimensionally perfect (until you find out he's not), but the rest of the cast does a decent job at showing the particular form of indecision they're struggling with. Giamatti particularly (who in my opinion can do no wrong) really captures the frustration of a man who's been forced into compromise after compromise and is just trying to get by without sacrificing too much more of his soul. The politics are really secondary to the story, and all in all it's a nice quick thriller with a few unexpected turns and decent performances throughout. A pleasant surprise, and worth all $2.

6 / 10 = Worth checking out.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Five Movies a Lot of People Are Leaving off Their 2011 Lists

I didn't want to post an end-of-year "best of" list simply because I'm so tired of reading them at this point. Also, to be honest, a lot of my picks would coincide with what everyone else seems to be saying. But the more I see float by, the more I realize they've sort of averaged themselves out at the expense of some really good stuff. So here are five films (not my 'top' five necessarily) that I think deserve a little more attention. Many of these got tons of praise within their respective genres at their time of release, and rightfully so, but right now they seem to be getting overshadowed by a lot of films that are more or less shoe-ins for the end of the year "best-of" roundups. If you haven't had a chance to check these out yet, by all means take the opportunity to do so now.

We Are What We Are

While this one technically made its debut in the fest scene in 2010, it didn't become widely available until last year. The premise sounds sort of hackneyed at first - a family of cannibals struggling to keep the larder stocked when the father dies unexpectedly. Who's going to bring home the, er, bacon? But the remaining family's quick fall into disarray among the the grimy realism of the Mexican streets makes it one of the most suspenseful and disturbing films I've seen in a long time. It's also great on multiple levels, whether you're just in it for the cannibalism or want to read deeper into what the film has to say about ritual, patriarchy, and obedience. By far one of the best directorial debuts in a while.

Hobo with a Shotgun

The film that beats Troma at their own game. Jason Eisener's depiction of vigilante hobo justice brought by Rutger Hauer to the streets of Fucktown was one thoroughly enjoyable ride. Despite the ironic faux-grindhouse title, this is no half-assed homage, but a genuinely enthusiastic and unapologetic piece of splatter cinema. Eisener isn't afraid to turn up the violence to 11 and drench everything in neon and gore. Add to that a killer score and the introduction of The Plague (definitely the coolest villains I've seen in a long time), and this is one that's earned its place in the spotlight.

The Woman

Lucky McKee's neo-exploitation shocker pulls the rug out from those who think they can watch horror strictly for the social commentary and occasionally let loose a detached chuckle from the back row. While I can't by any means say I enjoyed the entirety of this film, it's one that had me thinking about it long after the credits rolled. Now that the initial discomfort has worn off a little bit, I'm thinking it deserves another look. Don't think you know what it's about, just see it before reading too much. (And afterwards, check out my review for more thoughts.)

The Skin I Live In

This was actually my introduction to Almodóvar, and I had no idea that the baroque plot structure, slick visuals, and inexplicably unsettling atmosphere were setting me up for such a gut punch in the second half. Antonio Banderas plays a rogue plastic surgeon whose pet project is a woman who's confined to a room in his house. As the story unfolds backwards in time, it becomes even more sinister than it first appears to be. This is like if Eyes Without a Face took on the style of The Face of Another and adopted a wonderfully sick revenge plot.

Another Earth

After seeing this, I thought it would turn out to be the sleeper hit of the year, much like Moon a few years back. Then it disappeared without making too much of a fuss. Ignore the teen-angst tedium and pretense of the other "new planet in the sky" film Melancholia in favor of this quiet character study about a girl who sees the possibility for redemption and the renewal of lives she's destroyed when a mirror image of Earth suddenly appears in our solar system. The acting can't always carry the weighty themes, but the ideas here are profound enough to drive the film forward.