A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 583 – The Silent Scream

The Silent Scream – October 4th, 2011

When we started this project we knew there were a few things we’d be adding to the collection. For one, we were missing some movies we could have sworn we owned. For two, we knew that the collection was heavily influenced by Andy’s particular tastes since he’d purchased the vast majority of it, so we wanted to even it out a bit. For three, we knew there’d be things we’d think of or that hadn’t come out on DVD. And then there was everything else we’ve added. It’s an odd assortment, really. Things we’d never really considered owning until they were recommended by friends or that we’d decided we really wanted not just to watch, but to review. This is one of those last types. Because it was directed by Andy’s uncles.

Horror and slasher films aren’t really my thing. And while I can enjoy a suspenseful movie, suspense and horror together aren’t my favorite combination. I get tense and that tension takes a while to dissipate. So I admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this. I wanted to watch it, yes, but I wasn’t really looking forward to how I’d feel afterwards. Fortunately, it turned out to not really be what I was expecting, in a good way. There is suspense and there is some blood, but it’s not the sort of “oh god oh god something’s coming to get me” tone that I can’t deal with. It’s more of a “who will survive and how exactly will all of this play out” tone. That, I can deal with.

The story begins with college student Scotty Parker looking for a place to live after transferring to a new school. The actress playing Scotty, Rebecca Balding, reminds me so strongly of Elisabeth Sladen that I found it impossible not to imagine that Scotty was somehow a clone of Sarah Jane Smith. I imagine having Daleks or K-9 show up mid-movie would have run the whole thing right off the rails, but still. That’s how my brain works. Anyhow, Scotty ends up moving into a rather large house right by the ocean. Mrs. Engels and her son, Mason, have plenty of extra space so they’ve let out four rooms. The other residents are all students. There are Doris and Jack, who already live there, and then there’s Peter, who shows up when Scotty does. And all seems fine, until one of the four gets killed after a night out. And I think you can probably predict at least part of what happens next. I mean, this is a slasher movie. Of course someone else dies.

The interesting thing here is that there really aren’t that many bodies. It’s not a movie full of gore and death. It’s full of odd people and suspicious circumstances. I suppose most horror fans would be disappointed at the lack of blood, and most suspense fans would want more tension. And that’s fine. I understand that. But I like that the tension comes not from wondering what’s going to jump out at the main characters so much as from when they’ll be attacked and who it will be who attacks them.

If I was going to make a complaint about the movie it would be that the eventual reveal of the Engels family secret has so little to it. I mean, it’s a good one and all, and it’s clearly hinted that there’s something terrible in the house and once you know what it is and what’s happened it makes for good background. But it gets so little time because it’s the big secret. On the other hand, I know that there was more footage filmed that would have tied into the background (you can see Mason watching some of it at one point, as if it’s a movie he’s flipped to on television) and it got thrown out as unusable. In fact, a fairly large portion of this movie was reshot entirely and then edited together with what was usable from the original material. And I’ve got to hand it to everyone involved that I couldn’t spot the shots and bits and pieces that were from the older material in with the new. Fantastic editing there. But that those scenes were taken out says something. Either they were really poorly done and simply couldn’t be used in any form other than as a cameo on a tiny television screen, or they didn’t fit the narrative. Since they weren’t reshot, I’m going to have to go with the latter. And while both could be true, their absence in the movie as it stands definitely points to a problem in fitting them into the story. You don’t want to lessen the dramatic tension by giving away too much, but you also don’t want to bog down the climax with too many flashbacks at the end once the secret’s been revealed. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for more foreshadowing. Something to point back to and say “Oh! So that’s what that meant! That’s why that was there! That’s why that character said that!” Something to make it feel like more of a cohesive part of the story instead of just a twist.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t quite what I expected and that’s a good thing. I expected it to be about as far from my preferred genres as possible and I expected it to leave me tense and/or disappointed and I wasn’t either by the time the credits rolled. It’s not a big budget horror masterpiece, obviously, but it’s still fun. And hearing the interviews with Rebecca Balding and Ken and Jim Wheat, I’m really pretty impressed with the process involved in making the movie, taking existing footage, editing down to what was still usable, bringing the cast back, reshooting, editing, etc. I’m not saying it doesn’t have flaws, just that I enjoyed it despite what flaws it has and I think it’s pretty damn cool that it holds up like it does.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Silent Scream

October 4, 2011

The Silent Scream

The latest “Scream” movie came out today at my local Blockbuster today. Number two thousand I think. Amanda and I don’t own any Scream movies of course, but we do own this seventies slasher film, which has “Scream” in the title. Not because we wanted to own a seventies slasher film but because this movie marks the grand Hollywood debut of my famous film-maker uncles.

The history of this movie as I understand it is this: film-maker Denny Harris had an incomplete and not particularly good slasher film he had made, and he brought the Brothers Wheat in to do a re-write and shoot some pick up shots to complete the movie. So they got a couple of the actors who had been in the original project back and shot around the existing footage. At least that was the plan. What actually happened was that Ken and Jim pretty much made an entirely different movie that uses a little footage from Denny’s cut (and for a fraction of the budget.)

I had never watched this before tonight (since I was eight when it came out and far too young to see it then.) I’ve always had the impression that my uncles were a little embarrassed by this movie, though as I watch it tonight I couldn’t say why. It’s a perfectly good murder mystery and horror film – heavily influenced by such films as Psycho.

The movie starts out wit a bit of a teaser. A group of policemen and detectives are investigating an old house. It’s a gruesome crime scene with multiple corpses and blood coating the wall. The mystery lies in the identity of the bodies and how they came to be there.

To find out we have to follow a young college student named Scotty Parker who has just transferred to a new school in LA. (It’s not stated to be Occidental but it’s pretty easy to recognise it in shots that take place there.) There’s no student housing available so she ends up having to hunt down an inexpensive place to live off campus.

The house she ends up renting out a room in is a large place on a hill with a collection of other college students already living there. There’s an annoying preppy twerp who is rolling in his daddy’s money. There’s a handsome blond hunk. There’s a friendly girl who bonds with Scotty right away. Then there’s the creepy introverted teenaged son of the owner of the house who shows the kids their rooms and tells them the rules. Chief among the rules? Don’t disturb his mother Mrs. Engels, who lurks quietly in her attic.

This being the kind of movie it is kids eventually start getting stabbed to death. The question is, who is the killer? Is it the mild mannered Mason Engles? Is it his quiet an disapproving mother? And what’s up with the secret stairway leading up from the basement. Who is the mysterious figure behind the walls?

I will say that the dramatic plot twist (which probably came from my uncles and not from the original film because it involves actors who were only in their re-shoot footage) is almost ludicrously over the top. As I said earlier there is some Psycho influence here and I think that might be what they were going for. It’s not as weird as the famous twist at the end of Sleepaway Camp, but it’s up there. Maybe if there had been some hints earlier in the film to set it up it would have been less jarring, but I do understand the difficulty of getting footage to match between different productions three years later which would make it hard to add any subtle hints in. Still – when Mrs. Engles says “haven’t you guessed the truth about her… and yourself?” I felt there wasn’t any particular need at that point in the film for a twist like that. Not only had I not guessed, I had no idea that there was even a hidden truth there TO guess. I suppose it does let Mason go around the bend, and that’s fun to watch.

As I watched this for the first time tonight I played a kind of game with myself. I tried to figure out what bits were the original movie and what bits were written and shot by my uncles. Knowing that the movie is eighty-five percent “reshoot” it’s pretty seamless. I honestly don’t know where the original ends and the new begins. The end product, though, is a fairly good movie that deserves some recognition for at least being better than it might have been.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 556 – The Host

The Host – September 7th, 2011

I have probably asked Andy what this is every time I’ve looked at our movie list. It wasn’t something I recognized and his description of it wouldn’t stick in my head. Probably because I’m pretty sure his description was usually something very short, like “It’s a Korean monster movie” or “It’s a Korean horror movie.” And to be honest, that just doesn’t grab me. Nothing about that tells me what the movie’s story is or how it’s done. Really, that’s a very generic description, and as I’m not a horror fan and he didn’t give me much in the way of details about the monster, it had very little to set it apart in my mind. I thrive on details. Telling me something is “a period drama” or “a musical” isn’t going to get me excited either. There had to be a reason why this Korean monster movie and not another, right? But without details, how am I supposed to know that reason?

Turns out the reason is that it’s a very well done monster movie with a sense of humor I’m beginning to consider a staple in Korean movies. It’s not a comedy. Far from it. But it has comedic aspects to it that would feel bizarrely out of place in most other serious monster movies. And make no mistake, this is also a serious movie. It has Things To Say about the government and pollution and the United States military. And the monster kills people. This isn’t some goofy monster that just causes panic or something. It doesn’t destroy buildings but leave the people unharmed. No. It kills people and eats them and saves some to savor later. It belches out the bones of its prey after digestion, leaving no doubt that it’s a killer. It is a malicious force and the movie sets that out right at the beginning. There is no question.

Still, there is humor here. Mostly from the main cast and their interactions. The Park family runs a snack cart near the river, serving up fried squid, instant ramen and beer to people relaxing on the riverbank. The family consists of the owner of the cart, Park Hee-bong, his three adult children (unemployed college grad Nam-il, archery champion Nam-joo and lazy eldest son Gang-du) and his eldest son’s pre-teen daughter, Hyun-seo. The whole family loves Hyun-seo, but derides Gang-du for always being asleep and for not even attempting to do anything with his life. Really though, the whole family has problems. There’s Gang-du, obviously, who spends all his time working at his father’s cart and sleeping. Nam-il finished college (paid for by his father’s tireless work at the snack cart) but all he’s done since is drink. And Nam-joo has the makings of a gold medalist, but hesitates every time and always lands lower than she should. Hyun-seo obviously loves her family, but is exasperated by her father and uncle and saddened by her aunt’s failure to live up to her potential. And the movie takes the time to introduce all these characters to the audience and make them at least a little sympathetic as individuals and more sympathetic as a family. And then it has the monster kidnap Hyun-seo.

The monster is created early in the movie, well before we meet the Park family. An American military doctor tells a Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles in the morgue are too dusty and to dump all of it. The assistant argues that dust on the bottles doesn’t mean they have to dump it all and that the chemicals are dangerous and shouldn’t just be dumped. But the doctor insists and so the formaldehyde is dumped down the drain and into the Han river in Seoul. I suspect it’s meant to be more than just formaldehyde. I have a vivid recollection from high school of being told to be careful mixing formaldehyde with other chemicals. And given the results, it seems like it would make sense for it to be a combination of noxious chemical liquids that produces the giant fish monster that is the basis for the movie. Formaldehyde alone just doesn’t work for me, so even though it’s the only chemical mentioned by name in the English subtitles, I’m going to run with “formaldehyde et. al.” to describe what gets dumped. Formaldehyde alone would be boring.

So this big fish monster with legs comes up out of the river one day and attacks a ton of people hanging out on the shore. Gang-du runs, tries to fight it along with a American dude, sees it kill people by the dozen, then tries to grab his daughter to keep her out of harm’s way and finds that he’s grabbed a similarly dressed stranger by accident. The monster has Hyun-seo. Everyone who was present for the attack gets quarantined, especially Gang-du, who was in direct contact with the creature. And in the middle of all of this somewhat serious monster movie drama the entire Park family engages in over-the-top hysterics and slapstick fighting while grieving for Hyun-seo. It is one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a movie recently because it just seems so unlike what I expect from the tone of the rest of the movie. And it’s not the first or last time there’s a bit of slapstick comedy tossed into an otherwise serious plot. I’ll just have to make a point of watching more Korean movies to see if it’s a cultural thing I’m just not personally familiar with. I like it! I’m just a little bemused by it.

Anyhow, it turns out that Hyun-seo isn’t dead. She’s been stashed in a sewer for the monster to snack on later. So the family breaks out of the hospital and cashes in everything they have to pay for weapons and a map of the sewer system so they can go find her. Things escalate and one member of the family gets killed. The government bans people from the whole river area and news comes out of the US that the monster transmitted a deadly virus to the American guy Gang-du fought the monster with. It all turns out to be a smokescreen for the Americans to save face after being the cause of the monster’s existence in the first place and the movie’s pretty clear on that. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the monster and the action and the family drama. Reading over some analysis done by people native to Korea, it makes me wish I knew more about the culture and country. There’s some very obvious messages, such as the dumping of the formaldehyde (et. al.) in the river and the US lies about the creature. But then there’s some subtle stuff I didn’t pick up on at all. It was an interesting movie, and a well made movie. It also wasn’t at all what I was expecting, which is a good thing, because I was expecting something generic and forgettable and that’s not what I got.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Host

September 7, 2011

The Host

Many times in the last year and a half that we’ve been doing this movie-a-day project Amanda has looked at our list of movies to review and asked “What’s The Host?” A couple of times I’ve had to stop and think for a moment. What is The Host? Oh, yeah. It’s that weird Korean monster movie. Now Amanda doesn’t have quite the same fondness for monster movies that I have from my youth, so this hasn’t been high on her list of must-see films. Indeed, as we started watching tonight she wondered aloud just what possessed me to buy this in the first place. The short and easy answer is that I was intrigued by the glowing reviews I read in Entertainment Weekly which hailed this as a new Godzilla. here’s more to it than that though. I’m always on the look out for well regarded foreign films because I like to see viewpoints I’m not familiar with represented in my collection. And let’s face it, I’m a sucker for a cool creepy beast that eats people. This movie delivers well on both those fronts.

This movie is decidedly not American. Indeed the primary villains (aside from the monster I mean) are all Americans. They’re responsible (through their irresponsible pollution) for the creation of the beast. Then they’re the ones who start the entire virus scare that pretty much drives the plot. In point of fact the Americans in this movie are rock stupid and obstinate. Then there’s the strangely comedic elements of the film which seem out of place in a tense horror film. There’s a distinctive sort of tongue in cheek sense of humor that Amanda and I have noticed in all of our Korean action films.

The protagonist of this movie is a bit of a loser. he’s a dim, mouth-breathing, semi narcoleptic screw up named Park Gang-Du. Gang-Du is an embarrassment to his father Hie-bong, who allows him to work in the family refreshment kiosk and to his seventh-grade daughter Hyun-seo. His brother Nam-il is a wastrel and a drunkard. His sister Nam-Joo seems to be the most successful of the whole family as a championship archer, though she has a strange emotional detachment to her.

The other star of the movie is of course the monster itself. It is a kind of giant lumbering fish thing that rises up out of the river near the Park family stand and starts killing people. It moves quite quickly considering its ungainly bulk, dragging itself around on its misshapen fore-limbs and swinging from its prehensile tail. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job of keeping the creature enigmatic. It’s so malformed and bizarre that even when it has considerable screen time it is difficult to figure out its anatomy. It has a fish like mouth with no teeth but prominant gums like a parrot fish, but with multiple mandible like jaws and fangs surrounding its gullet. It has sort of toe-like protuberances on its flippers and multiple twisted limbs projecting from its sides and back.

When the creature first emerges from the river and starts menacing people it ends its rampage by grabbing Gang-Du’s daughter and carrying her off. At first he and his family think she is dead, and they mourn her rather over dramatically. Then the government starts to quarantine survivors, claiming that the monster is host to a deadly virus. While in quarantine Gang-Du receives a phone call from his daughter who, it turns out, has survived and is being kept by the monster, presumably as a midnight snack. Nobody will listen to or believe his tale though, so he and his misfit family must break out of the hospital to search for her on their own.

This movie has so many familiar elements. The plucky normal people forced to take matters into their own hands when their government lets them down. The strange government cover up and attempts to use the event to dominate people and drop poisonous “agent yellow” on the river banks. The lone survivor of a devastating attack trying to stay alive and escape. All of it has a distinctly foreign air to it though. It just feels slightly off kilter, and I think that’s what I like about it most.

This movie reminds me most of District 9 out of the films in our collection. It has the corrupt powers that be attempting to perform sick experiments on their own people. It has that air of an independent film made with cutting edge special effects which defies Hollywood convention. It’s simultaneously slick and well made and strange and unfamiliar. Some of it is the cultural divide between myself and the probable intended audience, but some of it is that this movie just isn’t trying to be the same as the films I’m used to. It’s a huge blockbuster hit, but it wasn’t made to sell popcorn and carbonated sugar water to bloated Americans. It was made for an altogether different demographic, and that was just the kind of movie I was looking for when I added it to my collection.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donnie Darko

August 31, 2011

Donnie Darko

I bought this movie because I was reassured by a wide range of people how unbelievably messed up it was. And, yes, it is a strange, what with its dreamlike daze state, time travel and visions of the future. It’s more than just random weirdness though. It’s probably the quintessential movie about teen angst – and I have to admit that I absolutely love it even though I was in my thirties when I first saw it.

Donnie is a troubled teen. There’s nothing in particular wrong with his life – his family is a typical eighties yuppie clan. He goes to a clean looking school with your typical mix of wasters, pretty people and rejects. He’s prone to sleepwalking. He’s in therapy and medicated because of a senseless act of arson he committed a couple years ago. For some reason he finds himself compelled to do things and he doesn’t know why.

Then things start to get weird.

An extremely creepy rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie and tells him that the end of the world is just 28 days away. The detached engine from a jet airliner crashes through the roof of his house and into his bedroom while he is out sleepwalking. Donnie proceeds to drift farther and farther out of touch with the world, while at the same time he finds himself caught up in some kind of time-travel paradox. There’s a sense that some of his actions are predestined – he can almost see what people are going to do before they do it, and his own actions feel like something he has no control over.

On the one hand he’s being forced by the voice of Frank to do some things that are dangerous and destructive. Such as flooding the school by smashing a water pipe with an axe or burning down the palatial estate of a loathsome self-help guru. He finds himself getting his father’s gun from his closet. He takes a knife to the bathroom to try to break through an invisible wall to reach Fred.

At school Donnie becomes prone to outbursts. He talks back to his gym teacher during an insipid ethics class based on the work of a self made guru named Jim Cunningham who offers thin platitudes and sells advice about the eternal battle between love and fear. Strangely only Donnie seems to realize that Jim is a scam artist who is lining his pockets by selling his courses and lectures to the school.

Everything builds to the climactic moment where it is revealed why Frank has been haunting Donnie and why he has the bunny suit. There’s time-travel involved and a convergence of multiple plot lines in an instant that has been pre-destined since the beginning of the movie. Which is cool and all, but it’s not really the point of the movie for me.

Okay – some spoilers now. Donnie dies at the end of the film, which wraps back around to the beginning so that all the events of the movie are shown to be an alternative universe. My interpretation of the movie is that what we get to see of Donnie’s life is a sort of idealised wish fulfilment. Before he dies he gets to see what life would be like if he came out of his shell and did the sorts of things that teenaged boys wish they could get away with doing. he floods the school. He talks back to teachers. He gets the girl. he knows the answers. It’s sort of one last hurrah for him because everything comes crashing down and he has to accept his fate.

This movie is so layered and complex that it necessitates multiple viewings. It could be read as Donnie coming to grips with his fear of death and accepting that death is not such a dreadful fate. Or you could view it as wish fulfilment as I do. Of you could see it as an exploration of multiple parallel universes. I enjoy the fact that it’s ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation.

No matter how you chose to understand the film it cannot be denied that it’s wonderfully made. Richard Kelly, who went on to direct that utterly impossible to describe Southland Tales, directs here with flare and panache. This movie combines a fever-dream feel accomplished with muted sounds, cool digital effects, and lots of manipulation of the film speed with a more normal feel at times. There are lots of scenes that are very slickly edited together with intercut views of different unrelated events which heighten the tension. There are parts of the movie that feel almost like a horror film (one of my favorite moments is when Donnie is hypnotised by his therapist and is describing his terror at the impending end of the world and he looks up and sees Frank right there in the room with them. “I see him right now!” he exclaims and chills run down my spine.)

There’s a great cast of talented actors from Drew Barrymore to Mary McDonnell to Patrick Swayze. Jake Gyllenhaal really steals the show though as Donnie himself. he’s so sinister and sullen, so dangerously hard to read. You get a sense that his family and therapist don’t just not understand him – they fear him a little. It’s a fantastic performance full of desperation and pain.

Add to all that an absolutely astonishing soundtrack. Every song here is so perfectly suited for the tone and feel of the movie – even more impressive given that some of the music is apparently last minute replacements for temp tracks that the producers couldn’t secure the rights to. It makes me want to download the soundtrack right now (although in truth I don’t tend to buy compilation albums – I’m more likely to buy all the original albums the songs came from. I need more Tears for Fears and Duran Duran on my iPhone.)

The world needs more slick, inscrutable, inspired movies like this. Any movie that forces you to think about it as much as this one does for me it a big plus in my book. And of course the creepy bunny mask that Frank wears will be forever burnt into your mind once you have seen this. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 537 – Pitch Black

Pitch Black – August 19th, 2011

Would you believe I hadn’t seen this movie before tonight? Wild, right? Because I’ve seen the sequel about eighty million times and I’ve got a family connection to it. How could I not have seen it? I have no idea. There is no reason, logical or illogical, for me not to have seen it. I just didn’t. I knew of it, of course. I knew the basic plot, I knew a couple of twists, I knew that the writers who came up with the story are Andy’s uncles. Yeah. I knew all of that. And yet this somehow never made it onto the television while I was in the room. I never flipped past it while exercising. I had never seen it. A truly bizarre situation, if you ask me. But I suppose I have only my own laziness to blame for never putting it in when I had the time. Except in the past year and a half, because we’ve been saving this.

Going into this I already knew I liked the main character. Riddick is one of the baddest of bad-asses and he’s snarky too. I do love a snarky bad-ass and I hope you do too. So I was excited to see the movie where he was introduced. Sure enough, he’s a bad-ass here too. Which is to be expected, but I was definitely not disappointed in him here. He’s a good solid character and Vin Diesel does a great job with him, so I think he works as a center to the movie, which he has to be, because the rest of the cast might as well be named Prey.

We start out with a ship full of passengers getting ripped a few new holes thanks to some space debris pinging through the hull and acting like a bullet in a torso. I’m not going to quibble with physics here, so let’s just run with the fact that while there is a lot of damage and there are a few casualties, the ship is largely intact and can be landed. The ship’s pilot wants to jettison the passengers to save herself and the other surviving crewmember, but he stops her and then dies when the ship lands so she doesn’t have to tell anyone she doesn’t give two shits about them when it comes to her own survival. Anyhow, moving on! The survivors are a motley bunch whose notable members are a merc, an unattached minor, a group of religious pilgrims, a fussy rich dude and a fairly generic couple who don’t get nearly enough time on screen to give themselves distinguishing features before they die. Oh, and the pilot. And Riddick.

The ship has crash landed on a desert planet orbiting multiple suns, so when one sets another is rising, leading to a lot of blindingly bright scenes in the beginning. The survivors quickly realize they’ll need to salvage supplies from the ship and make a shelter or find one. Riddick gets loose, of course, so when one of the survivors dies while digging graves everyone assumes it was him. Which come on, that’s a logical assumption given that he’s known to have killed people before. They find an abandoned geological research station with a model of the solar system and a little emergency ship they decide to try and use. The trouble is that they’ve now realized that there’s something alive on the planet, below the surface, and when a huge planet rises to eclipse the suns, those somethings come out to play.

From there on the movie becomes a survival action movie. I mean, it was to begin with too, but the beginning of the movie is a stark contrast to the end. Where the blinding sun and white-yellow palette of the beginning combined to make the movie feel oppressively hot and tense, the darkness of the eclipse and rush of the alien creatures makes the rest of the movie cold and claustrophobic and fast-paced. Honestly, I can’t praise the visuals enough. There’s a really nice sense of environment in this movie and the contrast between the two sections is, while a little obvious, necessary to the specifics of the creatures and nicely done.

So we’ve got survival horror/action/sci-fi going on here, but an added bonus is that the hero of the movie is a criminal. Sure, he’s a bad-ass who actually faces down one of the creatures near the end, but he’s also a killer. And there’s some question as to whether he’s actually going to help save the people with him or leave them to their deaths. And I like that extra tension. The aliens on their own are pretty good monsters but with an additional human monster? And one we’ve been guided to like with the help of snappy dialogue and snarky attitude? That’s well done. My only real complaint there is that the pilot, Caroline Fry, is also set up to be someone who’s been willing to sacrifice others for her own survival. And there seems to be something there. An attempt to set the two, Fry and Riddick, against each other. Two rogues who care mostly about their own survival, one a criminal no one expects to care and one a pilot who was supposed to. But it never quite works. The material is there but the plot never makes enough use of it to really impact the movie in a meaningful way.

There’s a heck of a lot this movie does right, so I don’t really want to bog down my review by nitpicking things that don’t work quite so well but here are a few issues: Some of the characters are pretty shallow. I wanted a little more time spent on the “It’s been 22 years since that geology station was abandoned – maybe that means something!” deal, because I assume that was a reference to the eclipse, but it’s never really explained. Where did the rain come from? Given the notes I’ve read from Ken and Jim Wheat, they had a whole ecosystem in mind for the planet but it didn’t make it into the final product. Which is understandable, given that the movie as is exists mostly on the surface, so explaining the underground ecosystem would have been hard to work in. The tricky thing is that when things like that are stripped out, a concept like this planet with its dark-dwelling denizens ends up without as much depth to explain things left in because they’re necessary. The rain provides a good additional mood to the darkness and a contrast to the stifling dry heat of the light, but without the ecosystem, it doesn’t make as much sense.

The one other issue I have with the movie is the character of Riddick himself. Now, I’ve already made it clear that I love him. I think he’s a fantastic character and Vin Diesel inhabits him very well. The shiny eyes that see in the dark are only a bonus, really. They give the character something distinguishing that sets him apart from the norm, and they make him essential later on (and I do love his night vision – the visual effects of his vision and the creatures’ vision are nicely done). But were you aware that the main character wasn’t going to be a man named Riddick? As written, the original main character was a woman named Taras Krieg who was supposed to be more of an outlaw than a murderer, but still. Much as I enjoy watching Vin Diesel be awesome, I would have loved to see a bad-ass woman being all awesome and cocky and morally grey just as much if not more. And I find it frustrating that the movie didn’t get made with her. There are all sorts of reasons why it didn’t happen. Why it got changed. Reasons I don’t have the energy to delve into. But I can’t help but sigh wistfully at what might have been.

August 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitch Black

August 19, 2011

Pitch Black

I get a special thrill watching this movie. Not because of the movie itself, but because this, with the second Ewok movie, is one of the most famous projects that my uncles have been involved in. Of course this is not completely their film. Indeed if David Twohy had his way they’d have only been given story credit for it. After a bitter battle, and arbitration from the screen writer’s guild, it was determined that they had written enough of the screenplay and had created enough of the story that they get a credit right at the start of the movie. “Written by Ken and Jim Wheat.”

I never read their original script but I do understand that this movie isn’t exactly what they had envisioned. It’s mostly there. They wrote a cool sci-fi horror movie about a stranded group of people on a planet about to descend into a lengthy night haunted by vicious monsters. Most of the cast of characters is, from what I understand, directly from them. There’s one notable character death near the end of the movie that they didn’t write. And the biggest change is that the villain at the heart of the movie who turns out to be the hero – the wanted unstoppable serial killer – was not written to be played by Vin Diesel. Riddick was originally written to be a woman. What a cool idea that was.

My uncles have stressed to me however that for most people in Hollywood it doesn’t pay to get too attached to your particular vision of a project. Pitch Black was a big time hit for them, and getting that recognition (and that paycheck) sometimes comes at the price of losing creative control. (They also often bemoaned the fact that they chose to use the pseudonym Scott Pierce for the re-writes they did for Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – which until this movie came out was one of the biggest commercial successes they had anything to do with.)

I’m glad I can claim some familial connection to this movie because it is steeped in cool. What we have here is a somewhat familiar horror movie story with several cool twists. The first twist is the setting. This movie is a futuristic sci-fi film about passengers on a space freighter that crashes on a distant planet after being riddled with holes by a meteor shower – or something. The ship is struck while the crew and passengers are in suspended animation and right at the start the captain is killed, leaving his second in command and a brash but not used to command pilot in charge. The pilot, Fry, (whose name made me expect Philip from Futurama even though she’s a woman named Carolyn) manages to bring part of the ship down for a landing after jettisoning much of the cargo and threatening to jettison the remaining survivors to save her own hide. There aren’t many people left here – and that’s just the very beginning.

So now we’ve got our collection of misfits on a deserted desert planet. There’s the pilot (her co-pilot associate is killed in the crash) and an Imam making a pilgrimage to New Mecca with a small group of followers and a wealthy dealer in antiquities and a young child who seems to have run away from home and a bounty hunter and Morrigan from Dragon Age. There are also a few red shirts just along to be chomped. Then there’s the anti-hero of the movie: Riddick. He’s a wanted killer with a price on his head who was being brought in on the freighter, and now he’s loose.

At first it appears that the biggest problem the survivors have to contend with is the escaped killer somewhere out on the planet’s surface. Well, that and finding a way off world. They do find an abandoned research station, but there’s something else going on. The planet has more than one sun and never experiences night, until there’s a massive eclipse that throws the entire night side of the planet into darkness. Then it becomes apparent that there are subterranean monsters that mostly come out at night (mostly) and these people need to find a way out. They only have one hope – to get some power cells from their crashed ship to the little skiff at the abandoned camp before they’re all eaten. Luckily (for some of them) the meanest monster on the planet is not one of the nocturnal flying hammerhead sharks – it’s Riddick himself.

So much of what is fabulous about this movie is in the cinematography and the extensive special effects work. The monsters are awesome. The look of the planet with its constant heavily hued color correction. Riddick’s night vision and his shiny eyes. It’s all slick visuals, awesome badassery, and deadly digital monsters. I can’t help loving this sci-fi horror mashup. I just wish I knew how much can be attributed to Ken and Jim Wheat and how much to David Twohy.

August 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 525 – Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning – August 7th, 2011

We had originally purchased this in case we needed an extra Shark Week movie. Sure, it’s not about sharks, but from its description it seemed like it would fit right in. And then we ended up watching all the Jaws sequels and that filled our week, so we tacked it onto the end, finishing up with a little miniature killer fish movie like a wafer thin mint at the end of a huge meal. Of chum. We don’t own the first movie that this is a sequel to, nor am I about to go out and buy it. This one was more than enough for me, thank you very much. I’m perfectly fine with this being the one and only piranha movie in our collection. I’m not planning on starting a Piranha Week now.

I haven’t seen the movie this is supposedly a sequel to and I highly doubt that I ever will. Granted, I did enjoy watching this on a cheesetastic level, but unlike, say, Sharktopus I don’t see myself putting it in again for fun. But I will say this: This movie has a fantastic monster. I mean, who doesn’t love flying salt water piranhas that make squeaky styrofoam noises? Aside from my mother, who doesn’t understand how I can watch crap like this and come away amused. As with many of the shark movies, the whole point here is the monster and its attacks on people. There’s an attempt at plot, but really, who cares about plot? I can tell you, it’s going to be nice to get back to movies with actual stories and characters and things to care about.

The supposed plot of this movie revolves around a separated couple, their son, the lothario trying to get into the wife’s wetsuit and an island resort that would, of course, be ruined by actually caring about the safety of its guests. Anne Kimbrough and her son are living at the resort while Anne gives SCUBA lessons and guided dives to the guests. Her husband, Steve, is the local chief of police. He’s also kind of a jackass, but that’s par for the course in this movie where I think almost everyone but Anne and her son are at least a little loathsome. Anne and Steve are separated (probably because Steve’s a controlling ass) and Steve makes it clear he hates what Anne is doing, calling it “guided drowning” or something like that. And granted, in this movie yes, diving in the area is super dangerous what with the piranhas, but when he gets all assy about it the piranhas have only eaten two people, and they were going without SCUBA gear to have sex underwater at a sunken wreck, so I’d say they were well outside Anne’s safe diving guidelines.

Anyhow! It’s clear that the whole set-up of Anne and Steve and Steve’s insistence that Anne is risking people’s lives and all is there so that when people start showing up chewed on and dead he has an excuse to tell her to stick to dry land. Of course Anne doesn’t. Instead, after a diver on one of her dives gets chewed up she breaks into the morgue to take a look at the body and ends up getting a lecture from Steve implying that he thinks she did it. Or she’s responsible. Or something. One could read it as concern on his part, wanting to keep her out of the way so she doesn’t get blamed for something he knows isn’t her fault. And one could argue that given their estrangement he couldn’t really express said concern in any way other than yelling at her. But I don’t know if I want to give this movie that much credit for emotional nuance.

Complicating the whole thing is a guy who’s been taking Anne’s classes and trying to get her to go out with him. Turns out he’s mixed up in the whole piranha thing, which is, of course, due to some sort of secret government project that got loose. He’s trying to cover it up but he knows Anne is doing the Nancy Drew thing and investigating. And I guess I can almost forgive him the skeevy insistence that she have drinks with him since she ends up getting him to help her break into the morgue in return and he did have other reasons. Still, this is a crappy horror movie, so of course they end up in bed together. Come on, did you think they wouldn’t? Women love skeevy guys!

The entire thing comes to a climax with the resort’s big fish fry during a spawning night where the resort encourages the guests to go out to the beach and bash up the fish that congregate at the shore to spawn. And, like you haven’t already guessed, the fish who show up are the piranhas and they come buzzing out of the ocean on their little wings, zipping through the air to chow down on annoying resort guests left and right. I honestly don’t know if the resort owner got nibbled, but I hope he did. If he didn’t then I would count it among the movie’s failures (which are many), because so very many people get eaten and it seems silly to make this guy out to be such a money-grubbing jerk and then not have him at least lose an eye or something. The movie kills off friends and foes alike, from the two women who initially show up topless and get all their meals by scamming resort staff to the fisherman and his son who seem to be good folks on friendly terms with Anne and Steve. Even the annoying but ultimately innocent newlyweds at the resort for their honeymoon get attacked.

It’s really just a thoroughly ridiculous movie that’s mostly an excuse to show women in bathing suits (and out) and get people all covered in holes from the piranhas. There are some great moments with the piranhas, I admit. Such as when one camps out inside a corpse for hours and hours, then pops out to attack the morgue attendant. The noises they make are fantastic regardless of anything else in the movie. As monsters for a cheesy horror movie, they deliver. They deliver well. The trouble is that the rest of the movie is such a complete mess. There’s cheesy comedy, with the desperate older woman trying to hit on every young stud who walks within a 20 foot radius and the sterotypically nerdy couple who, I believe, manage to escape from the spawning unscathed. And then there’s the drama with Anne and Steve and Steve’s insistence that Anne is somehow at fault here. There’s the government cover-up. And there’s the young love subplot with Anne and Steve’s son and the daughter of the rich guy whose boat the son is helping out on. It’s very much a “toss some plot threads at the wall and see what sticks” sort of movie, with bonus gratuitous breasts and plenty of blood. Amusing enough, but nothing terribly special.

August 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Jaws: The Revenge

August 6, 2011

Jaws: The Revenge

I knew that this was going to be a ludicrous movie going into it. I had actually seen the climactic scene at the end once long ago when I tuned in to it just as the movie was drawing to a close and knew just how stupid this movie was going to get before it was over. I also remembered reading reviews of it when it first came out and how badly it was panned. As such I was pretty much prepared for the mess we witnessed when we put this in as the last movie in our second Shark Week, but even being fully braced for it I found myself somewhat amazed by just how insane and lazy this last Jaws sequel really is.

This movie picks up years after the other ones. Sean Brody has taken over for his father as Police Chief on Amity Island and his brother Mike is working down in the Caribbean as a marine biologist gathering data on the migration of conches. Their father has died (of a heart attack, although their mother is sure it was fear of sharks that did him in.) Then tragedy strikes. A giant shark (imagine that!) kills Sean just before Christmas. In fact – the shark lays a clever trap for Sean and lies in wait for him. Or so it seems.

Mike’s mother Ellen Brody, played as she was in Jaws and Jaws 2 by Lorraine Gary, becomes convinced that this giant shark is specifically hunting her family. So sure is she of this that she begs Mike to give up his job and abandon the ocean lest the shark get him too. Instead Mike convinces her to go to the Caribbean with him to those warm southern waters that apparently no great white shark has ever ventured into. Here is where the movie starts to get surreal: it turns out that Ellen is right, and the shark actually follows them somehow to hunt her, Mike and his daughter Thea. There’s even a kind of psychic connection between Ellen and the fish – she’s able to somehow sense it when the fish attacks Mike while he’s diving for conches.

What’s happened here is that this Jaws movie has become more of a supernatural thriller than a serious horror movie. The first Jaws, and even the second one, was somewhat grounded in real life, and that’s what was so terrifying about it. It actually did make people afraid to go into the water because who’s to say that there isn’t a giant shark out there somewhere in reality? The shark in this movie has more in common with Freddy Kruger than with Jaws. It’s a supernatural nightmare creature with a vendetta against one particular family and the ability to find them no matter where they go.

I suppose that makes sense in terms of the time when this movie came out. This came out in 1987 during they heyday of cheesy supernatural horror films. This movie was trying to share the same genre as Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th – and it came out one year before the half-spoof Child’s Play. If you were making a horror movie at that time you had to have a cheesy supernatural undead villain and wise cracking heroes.

Sadly, Jaws doesn’t have the same flair as Freddy. For one thing a shark isn’t able to deliver witty one-liners (although this particular shark does have a throaty roar of a kind – maybe it’s half bear.) For another Robert Englund’s make-up is more convincing and more frightening than this shark. Jaws in this film is a ponderous, lumbering shark (if you can picture such a thing.) It plows inexorably forward gnashing its teeth but seems incapable of stopping or turning. It looks exactly like what it is – a styrofoam shark mock up built around an inflexible torpedo shaped submersible. One of the many problems this movie has is that the film makers allow the lumpy, seemingly semi-paralytic fish too much screen time.

Another problem the movie has is its comic relief. I can mostly tolerate the neverending witty repartee of Michael Caine as Ellen’s romantic interest the dashing airplane pilot Hoagie because he’s Michael Caine. Sure he’s playing an aging Lothario with a million anecdotes of his mis-spent youth, but he’s just so damned charming. Less charming is Mario Van Peebles as Mike’s partner Jake. I spent a lot of the movie wishing he would just stop it with the banter already! The only way I was able to tolerate him was to imagine that he was actually Hermes Conrad from Futurama. I kept expecting Bender to show up and beat up the shark after that.

I do actually quite like Lance Guest as Mike – he’s charming and caring and deosn’t want to have anything to do with the shark most of the time. Lorraine Gary is also pretty good. This movie is mostly about Ellen, and it’s nice to see Lorraine, who was a bit part at best in the first two movies, given more to work with. I just wish the movie itself weren’t so disappointing.

It’s not cheesy enough to be amusing. It’s not scary or funny. Most of the time it doesn’t even make sense (although I highly recommend reading Amanda’s review for an alternative interpretation of the movie that actually works pretty well.) To me the supernatural elements come of as feeling like lazy writing because if you just establish that your shark is a psychic monster bent on revenge then you don’t have to find a reason for anything that happens – it can all be explained as just being supernatural. At the same time the movie tries to pay homage to the first film both by imitating the touching scene of Captain Brody interacting with his son at the breakfast table and by inter-cutting the climax of the original Jaws with the completely ludicrous ending of this movie. It feels like a cheap rip-off when it does these things.

I can completely see why this movie got panned as badly as it did when it came out. It’s an utterly stupid movie, and a kind of sad way for the Jaws franchise to swim ponderously off to die. A part of me wishes it could have been better. Still – at least the first movie remains as great today as it was when it first came out.

August 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 523 – Jaws 3

Jaws 3 – August 5th, 2011

This movie was bought for a very specific reason: I have semi-traumatic childhood memories of it. I say semi-traumatic because while I remember being terrified of it as a kid, it didn’t carry over into my adulthood. I have no lingering fear of underwater tunnels or sharks or drowning. Just the memory of what happened while the movie was on. And looking back on it, it’s so clearly silly. So we bought the movie and I was remembering it correctly, but I’d also clearly glossed over quite a bit in my memories. Or maybe I was just hiding under the blankets for the rest of the movie. I can’t be entirely sure.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw this. I was younger than I should have been, that’s for certain. Maybe six? Maybe seven? My parents had gone to a wedding and were going to be out late and my regular babysitter’s parents were friends of my family so they offered to let me stay at their house until my parents got in. My babysitter could look after me for the evening, but not have to stay out that late herself. So when I arrived I was sent down to the rec room in the basement, where my babysitter and her older brother were watching movies. And this is what they were watching. I distinctly remember the older brother playing shark attack while I hid under the blankets on the couch after the shark attacks the Sea World underwater tunnels. I have no idea if I was terrified or thrilled. I do remember him coming at me with a red vinyl beanbag chair during the next movie (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes). Fond memories now, but at the time I remember wondering if a shark could really do that.

The Mythbusters crew did do a Jaws episode with all sorts of shark stuff, including ramming a boat with a shark stand-in, but I don’t think they’ve done this one. I suspect it’s a little out of their range, but hey, they could prove me wrong. Not that it matters. This movie isn’t going for realism anyhow. It’s going for a twist on the original premise of the series, which is more than I can say for the second movie. This one takes place some time later, with Mike Brody, Chief Brody’s eldest son, working at Sea World along with his wife or girlfriend (I didn’t note whether it was mentioned and it doesn’t really matter). Younger brother Sean shows up for a visit and it quickly becomes clear that Sean was traumatised by his childhood experience in the second movie and avoids the water whenever he can. And you know, I like that bit of continuity. It at least makes it clear that someone involved in the script was keeping track of the characters.

Of course there’s a shark to be dealt with here. In this case it’s a pair of great whites, a mother and baby, who end up inside the SeaWorld lagoon where the park has recently built a revolutionary new system of underwater tunnels that explore different areas of the lagoon like a man-made wreck. Guides lead guests through the tunnels, telling them about the animals they’ll see. Now, the baby shark gets captured, but it dies in captivity because the director of the park is obsessed with money and puts it on display well before it was safe to do so. This is a common theme in these movies, with someone in control doing something risky or refusing to do something safe because it will hurt their bottom line. I suppose it’s an easy way to go. I mean, we need some reason for the shark to start attacking and we need some reason for people to not be warned. After all, what do we do now when a shark shows up? We close the damn beaches.

So anyhow, the mama shark is pretty pissed that her baby got captured and then died, so she does what you’d expect. Well, she does what you’d expect if you know you’re watching a shark attack movie: She rams the tunnels, then the control room window. And I will now take this moment to talk about the 3D aspect to this movie. See, we don’t have a 3D version. Andy tried, but failed to get one, so we watched a regular 2D version but in places it was very much like watching a 3D version without the glasses on. Certain images would be popped out on the screen, clearly meant to look as if they were floating in front of it, reaching out towards us. When the shark attacks the control room there’s one of those and without the 3D it is so very distracting. The image quality of the whole movie suffers from being processed for 3D but not being viewed in 3D. It’s a pity, because it feels like the 3D thing is really this movie’s major reason for existing.

Anyhow, the shark attacks, people panic and the tunnels seal off, trapping a tour group inside. So really, a good chunk of the rest of the movie revolves around how to rescue the tour group while a giant shark is lurking in the water nearby. And let me say, that tour leader? Deserves a damn raise for keeping the group calm and relatively safe throughout the entire ordeal. I honestly don’t recall much in the way of specifics for the rest of the movie. People scream and the shark tries to kill people and the dolphins Mike’s wife/girlfriend/fiancee has been training help out and neither of the Brodys get chomped on so it’s all cool.

Overall this movie isn’t anything particularly special. It was meant to be a 3D scarefest, with shark bits exploding out into the theater and people jumping in their seats. It does try to do something new with the concept, which I appreciate after the snooze that was the second movie. But overall it’s just not that interesting. I wish I’d been able to see it in 3D, but I’ll live without it and besides, when I was a kid, watching the shark smash up the underwater tunnels, I wasn’t wearing any 3D glasses and it was terrifying enough. I’ve got those memories intact, so I can’t hate on this movie too much.

August 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment