Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fair Game


  There's a scene in this movie where three crazed poachers tie a woman to the front of their evil looking truck, cut up her clothes and decide to go for a pedal-to-the-metal joyride. (Pictured above.) Either you're someone who says "That sounds awful!" and actively avoids ever watching this movie, or you're someone who just said "Woah! I gotta see this!". This movie was made for the latter audience. It's not complex, or deep, but it's lean, over-the-top and fast paced. Amazingly, it even has solid acting and some surprisingly good cinematography. It's grade-A exploitation trash. If you're a fan of the genre... it rarely gets better than this.

  The characters are exactly what they need to be for the movie to work and nothing more. The heroine is a compassionate animal lover who runs a wildlife preserve where she also lives, somewhere in Australia. The villains are three poachers who think they can just... do whatever and get away with it. What's worse is, they pretty much can. The law enforcement in this movie is a joke, but of course they are because the plot of the movie necessitates it. Just like the heroine might've not been brutalized and tormented if she had just stayed out of the poachers way on a few very specific occasions. Granted, the movie usually has us believe that her love of the animals far exceeds her most basic self-preservation instinct. Sometimes it's hard to buy it... but overall it works.

  Thus you have all the pieces laid out for a truly insane game of cat and mouse. The movie is exciting and scary, at times even nerve wracking. Simplicity was key here and the makers seemed to know that. They didn't over-complicate things, they kept the movie very lean. Which totally works. It's hour and twenty-some minutes runtime is breezy and never dull. There are plenty of exploitation flicks which are boring up to a point, and then something insane happens and only then does it really draw you in. Fair Game is a cut above those movies. Whether it's the subtle creativity in the production design and the cinematography or the cracking pace of the movie, it avoids being that typical 2/3rds dull.

  Worry not though, despite the fact it keeps the tension ramped up from the go, there's still that absolutely crazy scene with the heroine tied to the truck. Afterwards, what does she do? She picks herself up, bruised and bloodied, dusts herself off... and gets back at them. It's one nerve wracking encounter after the next, with each one eclipsing the last in scale and intensity. There's no time to worry about a thin plot or a threadbare story. The filmmakers knew exactly what kind of movie they were making and they made sure it was a damn good one at that. It is a bit campy at times, pretty darn dated, and the sound mixing is really odd... but it overcomes all that and a repetitive music score, ending up being wholly and completely entertaining.

  I keep calling the lead, "heroine", instead of addressing her by her character's name. That's because I don't remember it. Nor do I remember the poachers' names. I suppose in a movie so lean and rather devoid of any serious character development, names are a default obligation but far from necessary. We remember these characters by what they are, not who they are. Such is the case for many movies like this. Especially here though. Names are irrelevant, as are many other things, because movies like this operate on a set of rules outside of the Hollywood norm. Fair Game was lucky enough to avoid the bore of some other low budget thrillers that don't know quite how to spend their budget. Those movies end up being 90% dialog- and not just any dialog. Boring dialog. In a movie where names are forgettable and dispensable, why ever would you want to hear those characters talk for 2/3rds of the movie? This movie is gritty survival, start to finish.

  If the movie sounds good to you, but you don't know a lot about exploitation cinema (or more specifically ozploitation with this one) I suggest doing a bit of due diligence and googling it a bit. Understanding the genre, it's origins, and what it's all about will go a long way towards boosting your enjoyment not just of Fair Game but movies like it. Movies like Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Vanishing Point, Cannibal Ferox, Coffy, and the notorious I Spit On Your Grave are all exploitation. Yet under the banner of exploitation, there are probably a dozen sub-genres. Blaxploitation, Oszploitation, Nazisploitation, Sexploitation, Shocksploitation- and no I'm not making these up. Exploitation movies took a theme, and often a low budget, and tried to exploit said theme to the fullest extent.

  These movies usually have a major shock factor originally used to get people to see their movie and to have it get around via word of mouth. (i.e. the girl-tied-to-hood scene in this movie) That's sort of the spirit of exploitation. Making something over-the-top and crazy in order to grab people's attention. These genres still have a huge following. I for one am a massive fan and I watch whatever I can get my hands on. Often due to their smaller budgets though, they'd have to save a lot of it for the big spectacle, usually at the end. Sometimes this resulted in dull movies with a cool climax, other times the movie had an even and well paced tone that completely masks the small budget. Fair Game is one of those movies. At worst it looks like a well produced TV movie, at best it looks like a forgotten 80's gem that's surprisingly good- cause well... it is.

  I can't say it's forgotten among exploitation fans, I wouldn't know either way, but I'd like to think this movie has a little following all it's own. It certainly deserves it. From the freaky poachers' truck named "Beast" to the ever-resilient heroine, Fair Game packs a punch, and has all the trimmings for an unusual yet absolutely fun time.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Scribbler


  Now, if you know me, you know I like odd movies. Better than that, I love downright weird movies. Whether intentionally weird, or just fringe interests. You haven't lived until you've done a double-feature of Brazil and City of Lost Children. Just saying. I also happen to love psychological thrillers, movies based on comic books/graphic novels, and all that stuff. So The Scribbler looked like it was right up my alley. It took me a crazy long time to finally get around to watching it, but I did! The question now is, am I glad I did? I really don't know.

  The movie is about a young woman named Suki who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) and has been subjected to a new treatment called the "Siamese Burn" which successfully 'burns' away some of the extra personalities. When she shows progress, she's put in a halfway home/apartment building called Juniper Towers, affectionately dubbed 'Jumper Towers' due to the incredibly high suicide rate. Anyhow, her doctor gives her a portable Burn Unit and prescribes a schedule on which to burn away the personalities. Suffice to say, between the cadre of other insane characters, and the unfolding mystery about Suki's personalities themselves, the movie gets crazy.

  It feels woefully unfocused though. The tone is a bit all over the place, does it want to be horror? A dark comedy? Sci-fi? A superhero story? Somehow it tries to be all of this, and instead of being a groundbreaking success, the movie fails to blend all these genres to any adequate end and instead we get a rather unfocused mess, albeit an ambitious one. Ambition always earns brownie points with me no matter the end result. Anyways, the movie is not without it's upsides. Actress Katie Cassidy is exceptionally watchable as Suki, making her manic enough to be fun in a dark way, and messed up enough for us to feel sorry for her. She grew on me.

  The rest of the cast is also really solid. Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) plays Suki's doctor who's forced to languish between a half-hearted evil mad doctor vibe and a good-hearted but misguided physician. If he had been able to play up one of those angles to it's fullest, it would've been great. As it is, we're not sure what we're supposed to feel about him. He's reckless, but it seems at times his heart is in the right place. Or is it? He was a frustrating character who was ultimately too bland to make any sort of impact, but you can feel the potential he had and it's a bit sad it wasn't realized. Suki's mental case friends are all kind of neat, and they're all well played. Not too much to say there either unfortunately since they don't have much to actually do.

  In fact most of the movie plays out like a bad drug trip. Really, stuff happens... but not a lot of stuff really happens. The movie also tries to generate a big murder mystery, but it doesn't work. We're not quite sure what's going on until the very end of the movie, and at that point the climax is a super-powered fist fight on the roof of the building. I don't even know how we got to that point. I mean, plot-wise, yes... but it was incredibly out of left field. Which brings me to another complaint, not enough is explained about anything. How the hell did the doctor devise the Siamese Burn unit? We need to know more about it. And we need to know more about... just, everything. I feel like even though we got answers, they just led to more questions.

  The movie would have us believe that it's some strange origin story to a brand new superhero, but mostly it just feels like it's uncertain and should've just stuck to being punk-ish psychological drama. The sci-fi/superhero angle is just nuts. Not entirely bad or anything, just really nuts. Technically speaking, the movie is proficient in pretty much every aspect. There's some fantastically neat visuals. The acting is all well and good. The movie is unique. The score is good. But something is just off. The pieces don't gel well together. The movie is memorable, but not exactly good. In fact, the more I think about it... the more I think it was kind of a waste of time.

  I didn't really enjoy it, and I wouldn't watch it again. It was uncomfortable and ultimately pointless. Not that it wasn't well made, but it needed a lot more focus and more streamlined story. There were lots of inconsistencies and plot holes. And after a while I stopped caring about any of the characters. It was exhausting. Avoid it, if you're super curious... watch the trailer I guess. The movie was disappointing, which is sad because I was really looking forward to seeing it too. Ah well, can't win em all. Gotta press on!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring


  1 part horror, 1 part drama, 2 parts romance. That's Spring. It's a fantastic and unique flick about a young man named Evan who in the wake of his mother's passing, leaves behind his dead end job and meaningless life for a trip to Italy. It's there he ends up falling for a beautiful and secretive woman. This is definitely not a case of "What he doesn't know, won't hurt him." because her secrets are very... very dangerous. Spring could have easily squandered tons of wonderful character development and descended into run-of-the-mill cliche. It keeps you guessing while it matters and lets you develop feelings for the characters. Believe me when I say, it's worth the slow pace.

  I feel like this is what we'd get if we commissioned David Cronenberg to make a modern fairytale romance movie. There's definitely a good bit of Lovecraft peaking through in the movie. And I've seen plenty of slow burn dramas about people rediscovering themselves via falling in love in a foreign country. The movie wears it's inspirations on it's sleeve, and that's okay because it doesn't feel overly familiar. It does very original and neat things with the concepts it shows us. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition between full-on romance drama and gory horror stuff makes the movie feel uneven when it shouldn't. Mainly because the makers seemed dedicated more to the romance angle. It really is a romance movie with horror trappings as opposed to a horror movie with a romantic sub plot.

  Despite feeling uneven at times, I was surprisingly okay with it. The movie was trying to tackle two separate moods and merge them under one roof. It's hard enough to make a horror movie effective with characters you care about, it's arguably even harder to make a romantic drama that makes you really feel what the people are going through and avoid coming off as excessively sappy or cliche... and then to try and turn both of those movies into one? Somehow they pulled it off. It's a little rough around the edges, and depending on how you wanted it to turn out you might be disappointed but- when all is said and done the movie does exactly what it sets out to do.

  We actually care about Evan, and against our better judgment we really care about the woman, Louise, as well. To me, that's impressive. We care what happens to them. We want them to work out their problems and we want love to triumph all. Yet we're also on the edge of our seats waiting for that other shoe to drop because... shit, this is a horror movie. Louise has some dark stuff she's hiding from Evan, and we can't quite tell what her intentions are. We don't know if Evan is going to be a victim of some sort or what, but the movie doesn't allude to anything good. Homie's in trouble. Or is he? When he's not taking Louise out on dates, he's found a job working a small farm for an old man named Angelo. Evan and Angelo have great chemistry and their scenes together were great.

  In fact, most of the supporting characters, of which there aren't too many, are all great. All the characters come across as genuine and impeccably acted. Evan himself is great. He's a bit detached, a bit distant, but he also knows he's found something he doesn't want to let go. He's a simple, quiet guy who can be a party animal and yet also appreciate the simple things in life. It's a very thin line to walk and keep straight, but actor Lou Taylor Pucci does an exceptional job. Both leads turn in fantastic performances, both Pucci and Nadia Hilker who plays Louise. They play off of each other's strengths and carry the movie when it seems to drag. In fact, just like in another great movie I saw not too long ago, Honeymoon, the leads don't just distract us from the slow pace, they make us wish we had even more time with them. That's rare.

  So, yeah. The pacing is rather glacial depending on what you expect from the movie. But I didn't even notice the pace until I started really thinking about it afterwards. It took me a little bit in the beginning to really get into the characters and invest, but not too long at all. Once I was invested, I was down for wherever this movie was going to take me and however long it was going to take to get there. It was a hell of a ride. Without spoiling anything, there is some 'supernatural' stuff in the movie, but interestingly enough the movie goes out of the way to explain that supernatural things are only "supernatural" because science hasn't caught up to it yet. In fact, science is a major theme in the movie once certain things are revealed.

  Horror movies are probably the worst offenders of tossing logic and science to the wind. They so often resort to using 'magic' or 'voodoo' as an easy scapegoat to get away with nonsensical ideas and concepts. Spring tries it's damndest to explain everything as scientifically as possible without ever stranding us in some sterile lab. The setting is still cozy apartments and picturesque outdoor cafes with views to die for. (No pun intended...) Suffice it to say the feel of the movie is very unique for one so firmly couched in scientific themes. Anyhow, with Evan as our anchor, the more questions he gets the answers to, so do we. It's a really convenient set up and a downright clever one at that. Unfortunately it's this same dedication to logic and explanation that renders the last act of the movie less thrilling than it is more emotional and exposition heavy.

  If you came for something twisted and gory, you might be disappointed with the last act, to some extent. Because most movies that juggle horror along with a secondary genre tend to defer solely (or at least mostly) to horror for the last act where they pull out all the stops and deliver the most thrills. Zombieland, Ghostbusters, Evil Dead II, all these are perfect examples. However, Spring is a romance drama first and a horror movie second. In fact, I'd argue that the horror aspects are a tool this movie uses to create tension and drama between characters. No different than... say... drug abuse, alcoholism, or mental problems. So when all is said and done, after a lot of retrospective thinking, Spring isn't a horror movie. It's a romantic drama with scary stuff in it.

  My ultimate point is that, if you came for the horror, you might not like the last act because the last act is the ending to a romance movie, not a horror movie. If you get my meaning. The horror stuff is part of the plot, but the usual 'kill-the-monster' focus that's front in center in most other creature features is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Evan and Louise. If you invest in the characters, and enjoy the movie for all it has to offer, the ending might satisfy you. It worked for me. It's a strange movie, but I loved it. It's a romantic, body-horror, drama that would easily fit in the filmographies of guys like David Cronenberg or John Carpenter. The difference? This is a heartfelt love story more than it is a practical effects laden gross-out horror flick.
But make no mistake... it is both.

  And can I just say... those effects, whether they were digital or practical (so good, I could't even tell at some points) are friggin amazing. Also, the movie has a surprising sense of humor. There are several laugh out loud moments, and they're all well earned. It's certainly not a comedy, but even in balls-to-bone horror movies or dramas there are always funny moments to break up a relentlessly dour atmosphere. Spring is no exception. It's humor is timely, earnest and very well written. It's a huge plus to this movie which is already completely worth watching. Regardless of how flawed and uneven it is, with a potentially underwhelming ending, Spring is still worth every second of your time and attention. It deserves to be seen and we need many more movies willing to take risks as bold and unique as this one does. I loved Spring and I hope to buy it as soon as possible.

Resolution


  Another fantastic indie horror film that I put off watching for way too long. It's a love it or hate it movie I think. Though I sincerely hope it stays out of the reach of people who would hate it because this brand of filmmaking needs to be encouraged and supported. It's next level thinking. Resolution trades in your traditional go-to movie villain/monster for a higher concept altogether. The movie is about a decent guy named Mike who's trying to save his best friend, Chris, from the throes of meth addiction by chaining him up in an abandoned cabin and inducing withdrawal. Tensions are exacerbated however when strange "stories" start finding their way to Mike and Chris, stories with grisly endings.

  I really don't wanna give away too much else, so if this sounds remotely interesting to you already, add it to your Netflix Instant Queue like... right now. If you'd like to read on, find out in detail why I really enjoyed the movie, my exact thoughts on it, and such- by all means, read on! Anyhow, despite all it's lofty concepts, the movie would've been moot if the leads were played by dull or stiff actors. You can really feel some genuine history between these two characters. There's a bit of familiarity in both of them. I think I personally know people who are like Mike and Chris to some extent. Both characters are basic archetypes, but it works. We don't need to know every single detail about their lives. Mike is the upstanding straight laced guy with a wife, and Chris is a crack addict who squats in a shitty unfinished cabin out in the woods.

  It might be hard to glean at first, but these two definitely have chemistry. As things get harder on them both, we can see glimpses of the friendship they once has. There are times when despite the insanity of their current predicament, they end up reminiscing about old girlfriends and high school drama. They end up really coming to life in those moments, and I ended up caring about these two. A lot of movies have that same sort of dichotomy but few make it feel so natural. Another perfectly serviceable movie that springs to mind is Scenic Route. Nothing really wrong with that movie, but at no time do you feel that sort of genuine friendship-lost between the leads. In Resolution, it may be achieved solely by exploiting emotional shortcuts and visual shorthand, but I'll be damned, it actually works.

  Thus when things gets crazy, I'm glad that the movie didn't drive a bigger wedge between our leads in order to create tension. The plot supplies it abundantly from many other sources. As the viewer it was key for us to be on Mike and Chris' side, not pick one or the other. Lets just say that Chris' withdrawal is the least crazy thing that the duo has to endure. Dogged by Chris' drug dealers, the cabin's owners, and those mysterious stories- they go through quite a bit by the end. The movie manages to generate a richly suspenseful and creepy atmosphere while also avoiding tipping it's hand or hinting towards any answers too strongly. A big chunk of the movie is basically a mystery as Mike is trying to find out who or what keeps leaving these 'stories' for him and Chris to discover. His discoveries are as interesting as they are haunting.

  I stress that this is not a conventional horror movie, and that is precisely why it works. There's no slasher, no demented psycho, no typical antagonist of that nature. One imdb reviewer posited the theory that the only real antagonist is... well, us. The viewer, the audience. We are the antagonist. I won't explain how or why he came to that conclusion, nor will I say if I agree or disagree with it- but it just goes to show that the movie is a thinking man's movie. It's all food for thought. Something to talk about, analyze, and scratch your head at. It's semi-ambiguous ending is fitting, if not a little confusing... but it works. It's haunting and scary and we wonder exactly what's been going on.

  If you're looking for a typical monster-in-the-woods movie, Resolution is not for you. Nevertheless, as an avid movie watcher who's always down for new things, Resolution delivered something very different, unconventional, and thought provoking. Not many movies do that these days. It really hit the mark for me. I think it had something to say about people who watch movies, not directly, but hopefully if you're interested and you watch the movie, you'll understand what I mean. If you're really looking for movies like this, I can also recommend Triangle, Pontypool and Honeymoon. I suppose when all is said and done it'd be more proper to call Resolution a cerebral thriller, depending on how loose your definition of a horror movie is. I wholeheartedly recommend Resolution. Go see it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ghost in the Shell


  I've always appreciated the animation of Ghost in the Shell more than the movie as a whole. It doesn't click with me. It never has. This time was no different, for the most part. Despite lots of bullets and blood, it's not a very action packed movie. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Instead, the movie is a bit more introspective. It has things to say about the path our society is on, and the line between man and machine. Unfortunately I don't find much of the movie all that engaging. Fortunately, it still has some impressive animation that is used to great effect in creating moods and visuals that extend far beyond each scene and reach right into you. There's a lot to love about Ghost in the Shell, but maybe even now after all these years... I'm still missing something?

  I don't need my anime to be super action packed in order to be entertained by it. I loved the sequel to Ghost in the Shell, it clicked with me more than this one did. I even felt the absence of Major Motoko. But you'd be forgiven for missing her in this one as well. She's almost a non-character for most of the movie. Her somber personality and stilted dialog render her largely inert except for a few key moments. She's not fun to be around. She's not even that interesting. Things happen to her that are interesting, her partners have the potential to be interesting, but she's not. She has issues and ideas that are engaging and worthy of screentime- if only they had any. She identifies as female, has a human brain, but a cyborg body that hasn't the capacity to menstruate. For all intents and purposes, it's a genderless body.

  Themes like that are only ever skirted around in the movie because the plot propels it forward at such a rate that I couldn't help but feel it was breezing right over all the interesting stuff. Fortunately, the "villain" of the movie is really interesting, but he's hardly in it save for a few scenes. I mean, there's a lot of interesting concepts and ideas in Ghost in the Shell but it doesn't have the runtime to accommodate them. I feel like the movie has a lot to say about personal identity, loss of identity, sexuality and how we define it. But again, you'd be forgiven to think the movie is simply about hackers, terrorists, and artificial intelligence. It's somehow about all of that and then some.

  I can't put my finger on it quite precisely but the things I wanted more of from Ghost in the Shell it didn't deliver. Even it's action scenes, of which I can't even really remember if there was more than one or two, aren't and can't be the selling point. There's one fantastic sequence that evolves from a chase, to a shootout, and finally ends up in a hand-to-hand showdown. This scene is great because it showcases the creativity and inventiveness the makers had. There's some dazzling stuff on display there. But these scenes are largely singular and contained. They are neat and exciting highlights of a movie very unconcerned with raw thrills or adrenaline fueled pacing. Thus, these scenes are bookended on either side by some really solemn and peaceful moments.

  Motoko is not unlike Neo from The Matrix. She's a one-note character, but the movie wouldn't work if she was any different. Those aforementioned peaceful moments have a lot to do with her nature and her personality. They reflect her thought process in many ways. Motoko frequently seems to have her mind somewhere else, contemplating deeper issues. Focusing on existential problems. This kind of thing is highlighted by a particular scene, among others, that seems to be a visual tour of the city as it rains. It's gloomy, dour, and stunningly atmospheric. It's also calm and relaxing. Something that most of this movie is not, but it's also a distinct mood that is evoked more than once for sure. It's in these scenes that I found myself deeply involved with the movie.

  Those quiet scenes of contemplation and reflection are the engaging stuff. The plot and story are deftly written and executed, but they fail to garner the level of interest that it's more somber scenes do. Only in the end do we see where the movie was taking us. It makes sense and is actually really interesting, if not outright thought provoking. The climax of the movie is almost emotionally moving in a way, but we remember that these characters have done nothing to earn my affection. It's been visual shorthand from the beginning. Should I be interested and care about these characters simply because the movie has us follow them around as they do what they do? Is there something larger at stake? We hardly care, so what does it matter? Unfortunately, the characters are just not given too much to do.

  They are not unlike pawns on a chessboard the movie is playing both sides of. They're shuffled about from one inert revelation to the next, allowing us glimpses of staggeringly impressive potential, but I hesitate to say that hardly any of that potential is ever fully realized. I'm well aware this movie has legions of hardcore fans who might actually jump at the chance to tear my review apart and shove my opinion down my throat. But I fail to see how so much ire can be mustered over characters so inert. Then again it's also entirely possible that I've missed the point of this movie. That because I don't "get it" it's failed to connect with me in any significant way. I like the movie. I feel that despite a lack of active interest, it ends up being... interesting.

    Undeniably, there is something about this movie that sticks with me. Something I'm waiting to pinpoint, because I haven't been able to so far. The movie has stuck with me, and in my head for years. That's important. Not many movies can really do that. It does speak volumes about the quality of the film in and of itself that despite my lukewarm reaction to it after two viewings, I'm willing to see it more times in the future. I've even bought it. It's a solid movie, but maybe undeserving of the excessive praise it gets. It seems to excel only in being exceptionally watchable, doing nothing to avoid the vague "something" preventing it from being anything that might stand out in my memory.

  It doesn't have the punch and energy to be a popcorn action flick nor is it emotional enough to resonate as the brainy drama it so desperately wants to be. It's a 'mood movie'. Much like Taxi Driver, or Equilibrium. It's strengths are in the meticulously crafted visual language it's honed in order to impart very specific feelings and moods to it's audience. It takes serious skill and craft to do that.
In closing, I reiterate that I believe the movie is more than the sum of it's parts. It manages to be a moody and dramatic sci-fi thriller that I can only hope gets better with each re-watch.

There is something in Ghost in the Shell that keeps me coming back for more, and I hope maybe I never find out what it is so I will always have an excuse to keep looking.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Fantastic Four


  If you're a Marvel nerd, comic geek, or even just a movie lover you probably have heard of the 1994 Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie. You've heard all about why it was never officially released, you've probably seen images, or even seen a bootleg copy of it yourself, but if you haven't... contrary to popular opinion, I think you're missing out. With a new Fantastic Four reboot looming on the horizon with nothing but bad pre-release buzz, I figured I owed it to myself to see this one. After all, I am a comic geek, a Marvel nerd, a movie lover, AND a Roger Corman fan. There was no downside to this little venture. With my expectations set to abysmal, and a Papa John's pizza on the way, I settled in to feast my eyes on... The Fantastic Four.

  Well, the movie opens with some neat outer space shots behind the opening credits. The sort of low budget space stuff that still manage to look really cool? (see: Forbidden World, Galaxy of Terror) That, coupled with incredibly catchy theme music kinda got my hopes up that maybe, just maybe, this movie had been unfairly maligned. I'll say it right now, the establishing parts of the movie are kinda great. Sure it's a bit campy and some of the dialog is hokey, but we actually get to see Reed Richard's (Alex Hyde-White) friendship with Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp). Something the newer movies never show us. Despite Reed's best efforts, everything goes south once Victor's calculations land him in the morgue after a failed experiment. Then we cut to ten years later or so. Everything so far is actually really solid. I expected utter garbage, but the sets are really well made, the acting isn't bad, and I'm just... stunned.  I mean, either it's good, or I'm conditioned to Corman productions.

  Maybe it was my low expectations going in, but I was thoroughly entertained throughout. Especially as Reed assembles his crew for a revolutionary mission into space, where they plan to study some cosmic rays or something. I dunno why I'm explaining all this. We all already know the story. The point is, that the movie follows it really closely. Admirably so in fact. There are some odd sub-plots that they weave in there, which do nothing but needlessly complicate the movie. For example, Reed has a diamond crystal thingy set up to absorb the cosmic rays so it wouldn't hit the crew instead, and this Mole Man-esque jewel thief steals it, swapping it with a fake one. Which isn't bad, but this Mole Man dude isn't the main villain. Doctor Doom is. You could've had Doom's minions do the same thing, and the story might've started to make a little more sense.

  As it is, it follows adequately from scene to scene as each group of characters go through the plot, acting and reacting as necessary. And speaking of acting, it ranges from surprisingly convincing and serviceable, to hilariously bad. Fortunately the hilariously bad bits are rather far and few in-between and usually those scenes are victimized by bad camera angles and/or crappy writing. Unfortunately, usually both. I really stress the fact that on the whole, most of the acting is decent. Nobody was going to win any awards here, but they all get an A+ for effort. Their line delivery is only as strong as the dialog allows it to be. When Reed starts explaining how their powers reflect their personalities... it was kind-of groan worthy, but somehow Alex pulls it off with a straight face, and as a viewer I felt compelled to keep a straight face as well.

  It was the least I could do since It really does seem like everyone involved, on-screen and behind it, were really truly trying to make a fun movie. All things considered, they succeeded. It's a crying shame that Captain America (1990) got a theatrical release and this didn't. Relegated to bootlegs for all eternity, I think that The Fantastic Four might've found an apologetic and dedicated cult following. Especially in the wake of super dark and serious superhero movies like the Nolan Batman trilogy. The pendulum swings one way, and then the next, and had this been officially released, I could see people being a little kinder to it these days. But it's back-alley black market distribution hurt it's reputation at the outset. In no way was the final quality unacceptable for a low-budget 1994 movie.

  But then again, I have a soft spot for tripe like Street Fighter, Captain America (1990), and Doctor Mordrid (A Doctor Strange inspired flick also made under the Corman banner of New Horizons). But it bears mentioning that the bright colorful comic book feel of the movie saves it from being at odds with itself. The Fantastic Four's outfits are true blue, the Thing looks ripped from the pages of the comic, and Doctor Doom has an extravagant throne room in his sinister clifftop castle-lair. The movie is pretty much in love with it's comic book roots, and it shows. It's a blast. A cheesy, hokey, low budget, blast- but don't hold the shoestring budget against the movie. It's still fun if you have the right frame of mind. The Fantastic Four themselves make the most of their low-budget superpowers as they disappear, punch, stretch, and flame their way through Doom's minions in completely unabashed fashion.

  The whole cast looks like they're having fun, and I think that translates rather well into the movie itself. Nobody is having more fun than Joseph Culp though. In full comic-faithful regalia as Doctor Doom. He chews scenery with an insatiable hunger. But it works. He's so over the top, he hit the perfect note for Doom. He also manages to be more scary and intimidating than the last iteration of the character seen on-screen. Culp plays Doom like he's a villain in an old Flash Gordon serial. This Doom is Ming the Merciless, Skeletor and even a dash of Darth Vader, all rolled into one. He points and gestures and makes broad sweeping movements with his arms, knee deep in full-on bad guy melodrama. He even has the voice right, that is... when we can hear it. For some reason, I don't think they bothered to ADR (re-record) any of his lines. So a good portion of them are muffled behind his mask. It's ridiculous, and kind of hilarious. Sadly undercutting the delightfully evil performance Culp had worked up so far. He's still one of the best things of the movie, nonetheless.

  The movie does have it's fair share of humor, but it's situational, and never (intentionally) dares to descend into slapstick. The score tends to make some scenes sound sillier than they actually are, as does the occasional mishap in the editing department. However, when all is said and done, the movie is flashy, colorful, and full of creative special effects. Alas, it's is creativity born out of a nearly non-existent budget but still, they were trying. It's impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the money they had to work with around every corner because you can tell if they had a bigger Hollywood-sized budget, this movie would've been absolutely great. As it is, it'd destined to forever be derided by bandwagon haters on the internet who'll never fully give it the time of day. I found a lot to love in this campy little flick. It has the energy of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the flashy visuals to match.

  If you're not expecting something on par with the likes of Batman (1989) or Superman: The Movie, you might just have a decent time with it. It's better than most superhero sequels from that era, and manages to be a really fun movie throughout. Or maybe I'm so used to the production value of Corman movies that the badness of this movie never phased me. I reiterate, it's campy, it's cheesy, but it has it's heart in the right place and manages to be rather exciting in a childlike way. I ended up watching it with a couple little kids, and these are kids who are used to the big budget extravagance of modern superhero cinema like The Avengers and Man of Steel, and not once were they anything less than enthralled with The Fantastic Four. If watching movies like this with the eyes of a grown-up skeptic hinder me or you from enjoying them, then maybe we've something to learn from those little kids. Sometimes having fun with something means it doesn't need to be perfect or convincing. Sometimes rubber suits and crappy computer effects can still be exciting.

  I was 8 years old all over again with this movie, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Necronomicon


  If you follow my blog, read my reviews, you'll know I'm a big Lovecraft fan. Being a Lovecraft fan, I've observed that in general, fans of him and his works fall into two categories. Ones who think his stories make great movies, and ones who think his stories would make great movies... provided they ever made them properly. I feel really bad for the fans who fall into the latter category because Necronomicon is really freakin' cool. As was From Beyond, Re-Animator and Dagon. All these movies, including Necronomicon, were made by the same people (more or less). They should release all of them as a set. They work so well together! So let me just start by saying, if you didn't like Re-Animator (and I don't know why you wouldn't) you're not gonna like the rest of these and especially not Necronomicon.

  If you did like Re-Animator, then you're in luck! Necronomicon, despite several shortcomings, is precisely the type of slimy, gore-filled, practical effects extravaganza that you'd want it to be. When it hits it's stride it also manages to serve up good acting, and solid writing. Not to mention some seriously disturbing stories as well. Yes, I said stories, plural. Necronomicon is in fact an anthology movie. It has three different segments, and a wraparound starring Jeffrey Combs as Lovecraft himself. The wraparound is one of my favorite things about this movie because Combs is brilliant as Lovecraft and manages to exude the kind of mysterious charisma he brought to Doctor Mordrid (a low budget riff on the Marvel character, Doctor Strange).

  The first story, "The Drowned", is kind of convoluted, but still good. It stars Bruce Payne (Passenger 57) as a man who inherits an old clifftop mansion by the sea, Apparently somewhere inside lies the secret for him to bring his dead wife back to life. Of course, when has bringing the dead back to life ever been a good idea in movies? Things go horribly awry in a spectacular fashion, exceeding even my own expectations of just how crazy this movie was going to get. I knew by the end of the first segment I already loved the hell out of this movie.  Yet, segment 1 was not without flaws. Like I said... it's pretty convoluted.

  All the segments are excerpts being read from the Necronomicon itself, by Lovecraft in some sort of strange library. Then in segment 1 we have a flashback and then a completely separate flashback, and I almost lost track of what was happening altogether. A flashback in a flashback in basically, yet another flashback. This is like the friggin Inception of flashbacks. If you manage to keep everything straight, the story pays off well more or less. Early on in the opening, Lovecraft explains to us that the fate of all mankind rests in the balance and it's up to him to save it. However, we're never really sure how or why transcribing stories from the Necronomicon is supposed to do that. It's never explained or elaborated on. In fact, if anything, Lovecraft seems to accidentally make things worse. But alas, who knows?

  Anyways, segment 2, "The Cold" stars David Warner as a scientist who's discovered the secret to eternal life. Of course, that kind of crap comes with a price... and a murderous price at that. Segment 2 is also largely told in one big flashback. It works slightly better here, but unfortunately the story itself isn't as interesting and the characters are uniformly annoying. Warner is great, but he's sort of peripheral until towards the end of the story. The rest of the characters chew scenery like they're starving and overact like there's no tomorrow. I enjoyed the concepts and the practical effects, especially the fantastic gore scenes, but overall segment 2 wasn't all that great.

  Of course the movie doesn't let up and moves right along into segment 3. Now, I found it odd that all of these stories seem to be set close to modern day (the 90's), and the wraparound with Lovecraft is set in the 1920's. It's not exactly clear if he's having visions of the future, or if he's reading these stories from the book itself and the book has recorded future events in it... which would be cool, but it's just never explained. I could spin theories all day, but the movie should've explained this better. It just seems like they omitted some dialog or a few scenes that would've clarified it better. Segment 3 however, is honestly the best one.  It's about two cops who end up being led into some creepy tunnels far below the streets of the city... like lambs to the slaughter.

  Segment 3, "Whispers", is the goriest, scariest, most disturbing and unnerving segment out of all of them. It's also probably the most depressing despite having the most likable protagonist. Whispers flies off the rails, turning into one of the hands down craziest things I've ever seen in a horror flick like this. With some of the best gross-out practical gore effects I've seen in a while, Whispers had me squirming in my seat like a little kid. It was great. As was the final part of the wraparound. Jeffrey Combs kicks so much ass as Lovecraft it's ridiculous. He has leading man charisma while also preserving that natural nerdiness he has. The movie wraps up with a bang as Lovecraft apparently averts some sort of mini-Armageddon I guess, it's not too clear.

  But who cares? The movie manages to generate more squirm-worthy visuals than any ten modern mainstream horror movies. It's wall to wall practical effects and has Jeff Combs as Lovecraft himself. It's a far cry from perfect, or even great, but it's so much fun. A damn good time to be had by horror fans everywhere. It's the kind of crazy, over-the-top, diamond in the rough that I think more people should see. It has all the visual insanity of From Beyond, but with the Gothic creepiness of Dagon. It's adventurous at times, and downright mean-spirited at others. But despite everything you can see a lot of effort and care went into making it. I liked it so much I think it's fair to say I loved it even. A must own for my collection and a full recommendation to boot.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why Don't You Play in Hell?


  This is a movie about a group of young amateur filmmakers who through a series of wild coincidences end up in the middle of a brutal Yakuza feud, and with the participation of both sides, set out to document their climactic bloody showdown... as an action movie. Let all that sink in for a moment. Crazy, right? Well however crazy you think it sounds, the movie is crazier. It's a drama, a comedy, and on the outside edge, it is an action movie... within an action movie. I didn't watch the trailer for it, and stumbled onto it via a random suggestion on an internet message board. Best random suggestion ever? It just might be. Why Don't You Play In Hell? is like a Japanese Tarantino flick turned sideways. It's amazing.

  This movie is all over the place, tonally. Parts feel like a childhood adventure movie with a gang like The Goonies, and other parts feel like A Better Tomorrow, or a Chan-wook Park film. It's everywhere, all over the place. It doesn't ever really settle into one mood. Yet it decides on a style very early on. The movie is abuzz with an infectious frenetic energy that brings even the most mundane moments to life in spectacular fashion. Characters boldly strut into scenes, quickly state their business, and before we know it, we're at the next scene watching someone else do something. It's so tightly edited that we feel like the movie's moving along at a breakneck pace.

  This is good... and bad. On one hand, the movie isn't actually moving as fast as you might think. In fact, it drags a bit in the first half. On the other hand, the fact that we feel like it's speeding by helps to cover up the fact that in reality, it's lagging. You almost can't complain because the movie is full of madcap characters in even crazier lives. You can be certain the movie starts in reality, but after a certain point, reality is subjective in this movie. It's over-the-top nature has us seeing things that couldn't normally happen. Most of the times, this is for either shock effect, or a strong visual effect. It works incredibly well either way.

  For all that alone, I recommend this movie. It's insane, it's off the wall, and it's the kind of movie we don't get enough of. It's honestly about the love of movies and filmmaking. At times, it's downright endearing, and then before you know it, it's dangerous and serious. Somewhere in the middle of those two things, it's also ridiculously funny. You can't find a better cinematic grab bag anywhere. Unfortunately, it's feel good tone wasn't meant to last. The ending is actually quite disturbing, but in a very sad way it makes sense with the internal logic of the movie. I don't wanna give it away, because it's still awesome, but at the same time... I didn't walk away feeling so great. And with a movie about childhood dreams, true love, and following your dreams... the ending was real downcast.

  Again, on the flip side, it's also a movie about the Yakuza and the consequences of violence and revenge. A lesser movie would feel uneven, but not this one. It juggles all of it really well. It does slip up here and there, where we go for long stretches of time without seeing certain main characters as the story sidelines them completely. It's only then does the movie feel a bit disjointed. The payoff is fantastic though. When all the characters inevitably get together and the stories all converge, it's freaking great. No complaints there.

  The acting is fantastic, pretty much across the board. Again, the world of this movie has it's own set of rules. Characters age ten years, and still wear the same clothes. So when someone is hamming it up or chewing the scenery... it fits. Moreover, it's that kind of energetic insanity that permeates this movie on just about every level. From the music to the settings, and especially the visuals. The casting is great, and the characters are great. It might feel like a bit much at times, but like I said, when everything comes together, it's great. Not unlike a bunch of puzzle pieces clicking into place and somehow the final image is crazier than you could've possibly expected.

  It's a sideways meta movie that's a movie inside of another movie. And while Why Don't You Play In Hell? could've been stronger, a little more refined, but I feel that the answer to that is within the movie itself. Sometimes you don't have all the time in the world to get it right, you just have to be in the moment and get it made. What ever you come up with is a labor of love. Which is definitely written all over this movie. It's certainly not perfect, and has a fair share of issues, but it's a damn fun trip that had me laughing and gritting my teeth throughout. If you're looking for something crazy that'll hold your attention, you could a lot worse than this movie. If you ever get the chance, check it out. I definitely think more people should see it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dagon


  I saw this a couple weeks ago, being a big fan of Stuart Gordon's H.P. Lovecraft movies, I figured it was about time I sat down to watch Dagon. Unfortunately Jeffrey Combs wasn't in this one, as he was in more than a few of Gordon's other Lovecraft adaptations, but Gordon cast some guy who's got the Jeff Combs look and mannerisms down. Next best thing and all that. Anyways, the movie wastes no time landing our protagonists in the creepy fishing village of Innsmouth. Oops, sorry, in this movie the village is called "Inboca". Cause it's set near Spain and "boca" is Spanish for "mouth". Oh. The movie is hampered by some stiff acting, and some really dated early 90's CGI, but you shouldn't hold that stuff against it. Dagon is still a damn fine horror movie.

  With their boat wrecked in the midst of a terrible storm, Paul and his girlfriend make it to the shore of Inboca and seek out help. What they find instead is unspeakably terrifying. Fortunately for anyone after a few good scares, that's not just a tagline. The townspeople are all members of a murderous cult, worshiping an ancient entity, one of the 'deep ones' known only as "Dagon". The movie follows Paul around as he's separated from his girlfriend and chased through the dark rainy town by the townspeople, who he slowly starts to realize are all slowly mutating into fish-like creatures. It's weird on top of strange, and deep fried in terror.

  As a movie, Dagon is often uneven in most regards. Sometimes the dialog is natural and flows, and sometimes it's stilted and forced. Same can be said for the momentum, the acting, and the effects. However, make no mistake, when the movie is good- it's really friggin good. Ezra Godden, the Jeffrey Combs lookalike, does a great job as the lead. His arc has him facing some downright disturbing shit, and he soldiers through it, not like an action hero, but like a man profoundly scared out of his skull. He plays his role with gusto only faltering where the script does. Everyone else is spot-on for the most part. The acting itself was good enough where I never really noticed it one way or the other unless I really thought about it. Everyone played their part, and well.

  There's lots of special effects in Dagon. Some of these effects are computer generated and those effects are kinda shitty, unfortunately. Things don't feel as real as they need to in order to have the impact should have. Impact and effect are the bread and butter of a movie like this. On the other hand, there's loads of practical effects too. Those are absolutely great. In a town full of mutant fish-men you can bet there's some disturbingly good practical effects to be seen. There are some scenes that drag on too long, and others that feel out of place, but whenever the movie has a big effects moment, everything clicks for the most part.

  The strange visuals and downright creepy atmosphere of the movie is enough to recommend it in my point. Even as the movie gets deeply mean-spirited, something keeps you glued to this movie. An uneven blend of greatness and mediocrity, Dagon is cheesy, unsettling, horrific, and ultimately a job well done. I had to step back and look past it's shortcomings. There's a great movie under all this. It's there. You just gotta pay attention. It's low budget and has too much filler, but it's also a delightfully strange and haunting tale that deserves a look-see. Is this the foremost ideal Lovecraft movie? No, for that, I direct you here. Nevertheless, while Dagon is knee-deep in blood and guts, it doesn't forget it's roots and never sacrifices it's atmosphere for anything. It sticks to the cold and rainy darkness that seems to envelop this movie completely.

  Not enough horror movies are even capable of generating a atmosphere this rich and creepy. Props to the makers of Dagon. It may never get mainstream appreciation, but for Lovecraft fans, and horror fans, all you have to do is look around, scratch the surface of what the internet has to offer us, and you'll find excellent word of mouth about this movie. To which I am gladly contributing. Not every movie is perfect, and neither is Dagon, but it's a valliant effort held back only by lack of resources and money. One thing they never seemed short on was passion. This project seems like it was backed by people with big respect for the source material and who really wanted to make a good movie. Not enough movies nowadays have a crew like that behind it. In this day and age, we need more movies like Dagon. Thus, if you're a horror fan, you should see it. No doubt about it.