A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Toy Story 3

July 7, 2011

Toy Story 3

I know I’m going to cry tonight. I have the tissues out (and, yes, when I went to see this in the theater with Amanda and our friend A we stopped in at CVS on the way to buy tissues then as well, because I know how Pixar movies touch me.) Just remembering the final scene in the movie makes me choke up.

This movie takes the most tear-jerkery moment from the first movie – the bit where Jessie remembers being abandoned by her original owner – and expands it into a full movie. As the movie starts Andy, the owner of all the toys from the movies, is heading off to college. He hasn’t actually played with his toys in a long time and they’re beginning to wonder what is in store for them. Still, through all the years he has held on to a core group of toys he doesn’t want to give up. There’s Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Slinky, Hamm, Rex, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head and their three Pizza Planet children. Before Andy can leave he is tasked by his mother with the chore of choosing what he will keep in the attic, what he will bring to college with him, and what he will throw away.

He decides to bring Woody with him and packs all the other toys up in a garbage bag to go in the attic, but through a disastrous mix-up they end up on the kerb with the rest of the garbage. Woody rushes to rescue them, but the other toys decide after being thrown out (they think) they should just leave Andy, so they all climb into a box being taken to Sunnyside Daycare to be donated.

This movie goes to some dark and disturbing places. Especially for a movie about living toys. Sunnyside is one of the darkest and most disturbing. At first it appears to be an idyllic utopia for toys where they will always be played with for all time, run by a friendly cuddly bear named Lotso. But of course things are not as they seem. Sunnyside is a police state with Lotso and his thugs ruling through fear and intimidation. New toys are relegated to the “catterpillar room” where the youngest children maul, maim and misshandle them. I don’t really expect to see sinister dystopias in my animated childrens’ movies, but that’s the wonder of Pixar, isn’t it?

The brilliance of this movie for me lies in the extremes that it is able to portray. It’s not just the bleak world of Sunnyside with its exploited toys and Lotso’s megalomaniacal rule. It’s nit just when Buzz is co-opted to become a jailer for his friends (Lotso re-sets him to his factory setting so he becomes delusional and thinks he’s a space man again.) It’s that even if the toys escape from Sunnyside they have an uncertain fate. Andy has grown up and what is the purpose of a toy that doesn’t get played with? Things get darker and more bleak, an there’s a climactic scene which is so intense and hopeless that the MPAA have actually declared that they made a mistake giving this a G rating instead of a PG.

Then there’s the perfect, gorgeous, bittersweet ending which brings tears to my eyes just to recall, much less to watch. This movie proves once and for all that the folks at Pixar know better than just about anyone else in the world of cinema how to reach right into your chest and grab you by the heart. They are the masters of eliciting a powerful emotional response. This movie is so wonderful, touching and intense that it transcends its genre and takes its place as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s too bad that I don’t think I have the constitution to watch it more than a couple times a year though – it’s far too powerful.

July 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

July 5, 2011

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

Way back on the third day of our movie-a-day project we reviewed Hellboy: Storm of Swords. It was a direct to video animated Hellboy story inspired by Japanese folk tales and it reminded me of an anime I had seen years ago, but I couldn’t think of the name of it. Then again, when we reviewed Ninja Scroll a little while ago I was reminded of this mysterious and bloody anime from bygone days. It was so irritating – like an itch – to have this movie I only vaguely remembered and couldn’t therefore find. So I spent about an hour searching the internet until a title leaped out at me. “Curse of the Undead Yoma.”

This was it! This was that mystery movie I couldn’t remember! Amanda and I first sought this out when we saw this trailer and were instantly captivated. Just haunting, wistful song in the trailer made us curious. What was this strange looking movie filled with ghosts and demons? Luckily at the time we were working for TLA video and they had this in their vast collection of anime, so we were able to watch it soon after seeing the preview.

I think that version we watched way back in the nineties was different than this, which we picked up on DVD last week. For one thing, I don’t remember the other version being two separate episodes as this one is. For another I remember being utterly confused and befuddled by the goings on the last time I saw this, whereas tonight it seemed relatively simple and clear. Either I was very tired the last time I saw this or the version we were watching was compressed and edited. Maybe it was also dubbed, which could add to the confusion (this being in the days before DVD when everything was properly available in multiple languages.) Anyhow, back then this movie was just a series of interesting pictures strung together by only the vaguest of plots.

Tonight I was able to understand the plot pretty well. Young Ninja Hikage is sent to kill his childhood friend Marou after their master is killed by a mysterious demon. He tracks Marou to a lost village where nobody has any memory of their past. It’s an unsettling place where people with no direction seem to wash up, including the beautiful young Aya, who sings the haunting song from the preview and who has a distinctive scar or birthmark over half her face. As Hikage searches for Marou he discovers that something is brutally killing the villagers, although everybody he confronts about it denies that anything is happening. Soon he finds out that the villagers are sacrifices to a resurrected demon god of some sort. he kills the demon’s spider henchmen, releasing the villagers from their ensorcelled peace, and confronts the god himself, who of course turns out to be his childhood companion Marou.

Marou gets away and the villagers, released from their dreamlike state, all die. (They had been drawn to the village by their suicidal tendencies apparently.) Thus ends the first of the two episodes. The second episode catches up with Hikage two years later. He has been travelling all over Japan slaying Yoma, the demons being raised by Marou to overthrow the human race. He encounters a young ninja girl on a beach who is also coincidentally named Aya. The two of them strike out killing Yoma, encountering ghosts and whatnot until Hikage finally catches up with Marou and has his climactic confrontation.

Amanda is somewhat upset by the recursive nature of the coda to the film, what with the two Ayas, but I kind of enjoy that aspect of the movie as well. The entire thing has an otherworldly and mystical feel to it, so the strange sense of inevitability and rebirth works for me. It’s a ghost story, really. All the people in the first village are lost, perhaps lost in time even – so the Aya we meet there could perhaps be an echo of the Aya in the second half. Or perhaps Hikage is just fated to love a girl named Aya with a scar – who knows? The movie doesn’t present answers, and that’s just fine by me. It’s a movie about second chances and love and betrayal, and all of those themes fill it from start to end.

This was made in 1989 – around the time of Akira. As such I can’t help being impressed with the detailed animation throughout. It’s full of cool demons, ninjitsu and acrobatic fight scenes, and lots of gore and corpses. There’s a lot of imagery that is frankly disturbing and unsettling, which is exactly the mood that the film makers were going for I’m sure. The whole “childhood friends who have to fight to the death” might be a tired kind of trope in the anime world, but this is one of my favorite examples of it. My other favorite is a spoof in the short lived Here is Greenwood series.

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

The Brothers Grimm

June 20, 2011

The Brothers Grimm

I feel like a traitor when I say that I don’t love this movie. It’s a Terry Gilliam movie about the true fantasy and horror behind farie tales. It stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. It has big budget special effects and a cool look to it. It even has Jonathan Pryce for that Brazil/Baron Munchausen touch. It seems custom made to my particular tastes, and yet it somehow doesn’t capture me as it should.

I love the premise of the movie. It posits that the Brothers Grimm, who archived fairy stories in the 1700s, were actually con artists who used superstitious belief in the stories they compiled to trick people into paying them to get rid of witches and demons of their own creation. They are captured by the French authorities, who send them to a little German hamlet that the French believe is the victim of a similar band of hucksters. Of course it turns out that this little village is actually cursed and there is real magic afoot.

I can’t complain about the performances of the three lead cast members either. Matt Damon plays the elder Grimm, Wil, who is a cynic and a weasel. He wants only to find a way out of the fix he and his brother have found themselves in, and maintains long after it should have been impossible to do so that there is a rational explanation for all the bizarre happenings they witness. Heath Ledger is Jacob, the impulsive younger brother, who actually wants to believe that the stories could be true. Between the two of them is Angelika, played by Lena Headey. She is a tough, tortured hunter whose sisters have already gone missing and whose father was taken by wolves. She knows the mysterious ways of the forest, which interests Jacob and irritates Wil.

Take that plot and those performances and Terry Gilliam’s imagination and visual flare and put it all together and you should have an absolutely golden movie. So what went wrong?

I have two primary complaints about the movie. The first is the “comic” relief. We have the two bumbling assistants to the Grimms, for example. They are not particularly funny to start with, much to my disappointment because I enjoy both of the actors portraying them, and ultimately they meet grizzly ends, which just makes me sad. Then there’s the ruthless, torture-mad, crazily accented Italian assassin sent along by the French to keep the Grimms in line. Peter Stormare plays Cavaldi as though he’s trying to steal every scene he’s in – all mad Robin Williams energy – but he’s just not fun to watch. It also robs the movie of much of its power that one of the primary bad-guys (who is supposed to have this great redemption arc) is flamboyant when he should be sinister. The other primary villain, DeLatombe, has the same issue. He’s the despotic French general sent to subdue the superstitious peasants in the German countryside, and he’s the one who not only captures the Grimms but sentences them to their task on pain of torture and death. He’s supposed to be the engine that drives the whole plot, but he’s played so ridiculously by Jonathan Pryce that it makes me want to just skip every scene he’s in. (I liked Pryce much better as the officious bureaucrat bad guy in Muchausen.)

The other issue I have with the movie is that it tries so hard to fit the fairy tales into the horror of the movie. In some cases it works, like the abduction of a girl in a red hood. In some cases it feels laboured and forced, like Hanz and Gretta leaving their trail of bread crumbs. And in some cases it simply doesn’t fit the mood of the story at all and breaks the tension, like when one girl is abducted by a living mud blob (which is fairly terrifying since it steals her mouth and eyes) and it then turns into a ginger-bread man and makes a joke about how delicious it is. The movie is at its best when it keeps things simple and primal. There’s a bewitched werewolf which is a tragic sort of figure and very cool. There’s an evil witch who enchants people using her beautiful reflection. There’s a wonderful scene that Amanda describes as “good old nightmare fuel” when a horse with spiders in its mouth spits out webs and ensnares a helpless girl. And there are the shambling trees with their grasping vines. All of these elements come from no specific story but feel more honest and real than the contrivances meant to link to stories from the Brothers Grimm.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a great, dark, touching fairy tale for adults buried in this movie, but it’s not allowed to come out and be its own entity. Instead it is marginalised by the capering of the supposed villains and confounded by attempts to make the darker story into something that it’s not. It’s as though two movies collided here, and the resulting mess is neither as self referential and amusing as it wants to be nor as dark and sinister as it appears visually. Luckily for us we own the two movies that collided here in their more pure and unadulterated form. The light-hearted and satirical look at fairy stories is Into the Woods, which we’ve already reviewed. The dark fairy tale for adults is the brilliant and astonishing Pan’s Labyrinth, which we will have to review someday soon to remove the sandy taste of disappointment left by this movie.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

June 11, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

This overblown mess of a movie was the first Indiana Jones film I saw in the theaters. I don’t recall if I had seen the first movie on VHS before I got around to seeing this, but I know for certain that I saw this in the movie theaters. My recollection is that I was disappointed and a little disgusted by the movie, which is a pretty much universal reaction from what I’ve seen.

This movie has a couple of problems, but the biggest one is that it is too gruesome to really be fun. It still has some of the swashbucking adventure of the first movie, but it’s lost in a torrent of gross humor, a frightening cult that seems more in line with the Poltergeist movies than the first Indiana Jones movie, and a generally darker tone. In the first movie Indie was often outmatched, but in this one it goes beyond that – he spends most of the movie almost completely defeated. He staggers from one disaster to another and only at the very end gets a chance to fight back.

The movie starts out with a deal gone wrong in Shanghai. Indie is attempting to trade an artifact for a giant diamond with a crime boss named Lao Che. Lao poisons Indiana and offers the antidote only if Indie will return the diamond. So right from the beginning Jones is near death, at the mercy of his enemies. He doesn’t get the diamond back and only barely escapes with his life. He and his awesome sidekick Short Round fly away after a car chase through the streets of Shanghai, bringing along a singer named Willie from Lao’s club for no reason that is adequately explained by the movie.

I’d like to pause in my plot synopsis to rant a bit about the love interest for Indiana in this movie. Willie is my second biggest complaint about the film. She’s whiny, annoying, shrill and spends most of the movie either complaining or screaming. Indie’s girl in the first movie was Marion, who kicked a certain amount of ass. By contrast Willie complains about broken finger nails – she’s just poorly suited for adventuring and I don’t have any fun watching her.

When their plane crashes in India the three of them are asked by a village of poverty stricken peasants to go to Pankot Palace where an evil cult has stolen the villager’s sacred stone and all their children. After a dinner party filled with gruesome meals (which is what this movie tries to pass off as humor) and an encounter with a whole lot of insects and a room with your standard crushing spikes Indie discovers the titular Temple of Doom, where a Thuggee cult is performing human sacrifices and where all the children from the surrounding villages have been enslaved to dig up jewels in a mine and hunt for the remaining two mystical stones that the cult leader craves.

Indiana is captured, tortured with a voodoo doll, and brainwashed into becoming a cult member by being force fed nasty blood. Again, in keeping with the dark tone of the movie, Indiana is defeated from the get go. It’s not so much an adventure film as a sort of horror film, with a little adventure thrown in at the end with a fist fight on a conveyor belt and a big long mine-car chase scene. The cult sacrifice involves ripping a man’s still beating heart out of his chest and lowering him into a pit filled with lava. I suppose it’s intended to build tension for the later scene where Willie is set to be sacrificed, but it’s a bit much, really.

Luckily this movie does have one major saving grace. It has Short Round. Ke Huy Quan is the real hero of the movie, repeatedly pulling Indie’s bacon out of the fire. He’s also the source of most of the non gross-out humor in the movie. He’s charming and daring and indomitable – everything that Indiana was in the first movie. I wouldn’t say that he makes the whole movie worth watching, but he does a good job of salvaging what could otherwise have been an unwatchably depressing series of disasters for our supposed hero Indiana Jones.

Now that we’re done watching this movie I’m somewhat looking forward to tomorrow’s movie which was more of a return to form where Indiana Jones gets to be a hero again. Also – as with this movie – Indie’s sidekick is the best thing in tomorrow’s movie as well.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 458 – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962) – June 1st, 2011

It’s been an interesting evening here. We live in an area that’s more known for hurricanes than tornadoes. There’ve been some bitty ones here and there, not big enough to cause any serious harm, but nothing big enough to cause real damage in decades. Until today, when one touched down a little ways away from us and then continued to make appearances as it made its way in our direction. So! We had a tornado warning all evening and some nasty thunderstorms coming through and we were a little worried about power outages and, you know, having to hide in our basement. Therefore we picked something short that we’d seen before so we could pause if we needed to and hopefully finish it before the storms hit us too hard.

We did end up having to pause a few times to check the weather and we did take a break when the thunder and lightning got so intense that we wanted to know what was going on, but this isn’t a tough movie to follow. It’s got a fairly simple plot and a small cast and it’s not going to throw you for too wide a loop here. That’s not to say it’s a bad story. It’s just simple and simply told. We begin the movie seeing a drag race and a car with three young women going off the side of a bridge into a river. Over two hours later one of the women emerges from the river, seemingly unharmed. Young Mary Henry dries off and apparently goes on with her life, moving out of town to take a job as a church organist in another town. But something is amiss. Mary has periods where the world recedes from her. Sounds are muted and no one around her acknowledges her presence. And then there’s the ghoulish figure she sees every so often. A man with sunken eyes and a pale complexion. Someone no one else sees. Clearly something is very wrong.

In her new town Mary takes a room in a boarding house with only one other lodger, a somewhat overbearing man named John Linden. But the landlady seems nice enough and Mary makes a decent first impression on her new boss at the church. Then again, she’s also fascinated by an old concert pavilion out by a local lake. It’s been abandoned for ages and has fallen into disrepair and something about it beckons to Mary. I think you can probably figure out where this movie is going at this point. It’s not subtle and while maybe at the time it was made it wasn’t obvious what was going on, now? It’s pretty clear. I don’t know if it was even that much of a twist in 1962, but the thing is, it doesn’t need to be a twist. The point of the movie isn’t so much the twist. It’s seeing Mary’s growing detachment from the real world and her realization of what’s happened and happening to her.

Much of this movie depends upon star Candace Hilligoss as Mary. Her character is set forth as somewhat cold and unfriendly, but not unpleasant. She simply doesn’t have any need for boyfriends or socializing or really any of the things most people seem to thrive on. And the movie doesn’t make it very clear whether this is because of the accident or if it’s just how she’s always been. We don’t get to know Mary at all before the accident since the accident is the beginning of the movie. I go back and forth on this. She states outright that she’s never been interested in having a boyfriend and she goes back and forth when talking to Linden. He’s obviously interested, but she’s not. Not romantically, anyhow. But she’s also somewhat disdainful of company and sociability, which I’d be fine with as a long-term personality trait since I’m largely an introvert myself. Then again, she does crave company when things start getting too strange for her. She doesn’t want to be alone so much when she’s seen the strange man who keeps appearing, or had the whole world ignore her for a while. So it could well be just how she’s always been.

Then again, part of the movie’s story revolves around how Mary realizs she doesn’t quite belong in the real world anymore. So it would also follow that after the accident she might well have started to pull away from the world even as it pulled away from her. And if that was the intent, I really quite like it. I just wish it was a little clearer either way. Because either way would work for me, but there’s not much development to it. It just is how she is. That being said, I still like the character. She’s interesting and I like Hilligoss’ portrayal of her, which may not be the strongest performance I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly enough to carry this movie. There’s not much more to be said about most of the people around her. Linden’s a bit of a lech, the minister’s a one-note character, the landlady’s sweet and concerned about Mary but that’s about it. Mary sees a psychiatrist, but he’s just convinced that her problems are trauma-related from the accident and that’s all there is there. So it’s up to Mary.

Now, it should be said that this is a low budget movie. It’s pretty obvious, given a lot of the techniques used to work around what the budget couldn’t pay for. What dialogue is present is clearly ADR and there are vast stretches of the movie where there isn’t any sound or what sound is there is muffled or just birdsong or the like. Now, I don’t know if the muted sound came first and was then written in as part of the plot or if it was intentional and had the bonus of being a money saver, but it’s a well done trick regardless because it does suit the plot quite well. Having the story mostly be a character piece focused on Mary and what she’s going through means that there wasn’t a need for a huge cast of people with lots of lines. Both saving in sound editing and in paying actors. And really, I think it all works. I can see how it could have been improved in places, but it all comes together quite nicely even with the budget it had. And given how many horrible low budget films we’ve seen, that’s saying something. Take The Creeping Terror, for example. That movie’s actually missing half its dialogue and it doesn’t compensate nearly as well. It’s also got some piss-poor acting. So this movie’s got a big leg up on that.

It’s not a big flashy movie with lots of special effects. By today’s standards it’s rather quaint. But it does manage to have an eerie quality to it that enhances the story. Filming at the dilapidated Saltair pavilion was a fantastic idea and using the soundtrack to add to the disconnect from reality that Mary experiences is a fantastic touch. It’s never going to be a great movie and I did enjoy Mike Nelson’s commentary on it (which is why we own this – special edition signed by Mike and everything), but it’s something a lot more special than your typical low budget horror/thriller from the early 1960s.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Carnival of Souls

June 1, 2011

Carnival of Souls

This is in our collection because I couldn’t resist buying the limited edition signed by Michael Nelson. I bought it for his commentary track, but I actually respect it as a movie and awful lot. It doesn’t really deserve the derision that an association with MST3K (however tenuous) might imply. As I write this review I am somewhat reminded of my April Fool’s Day review for Manos. I reviewed Manos as the movie that I think the film makers wanted to make, but most of what I said then actually does apply to this movie.

This is one of the shortest movies in our collection (we watched it tonight because we were flipping back and forth to local tornado warnings and wanted to be able to evacuate quickly to our basement if we had to) and the plot is remarkably simple. Young organist Mary Henry is the only survivor of a tragic car accident. When she and some friends while out one afternoon have an ill advised drag race with some guys in a car they plunge off a bridge and into icy water. Three hours later rescue crews find Mary staggering onto land. She quickly picks up her life as though nothing had happened and drives to Salt Lake City, Utah where she gets a job as an organist in a quaint church.

Things are slightly off for Mary though. She has trouble forming friendships with people in her new home. She keeps seeing a mysterious pale man who seems to be following her and watching her. She becomes obsessed with an abandoned vacation spot. There’s something disturbingly off about her life and in addition to her mysterious stalker she also has these odd moments where she becomes strangely disconnected from the world, unable to interact with people at all.

What impresses me most about this movie is how effective it is at making the most of its micro budget. For example: this movie has one of those clear signs of an under-budgeted film from the sixties – it has missing audio on huge sections of the movie. In some of my favorite MST episodes, like Creeping Terror or Beast of Yucca Flats, the lack of a soundtrack results in hilarious work arounds. Creeping Terror has a narrator who explains what dialog we’re missing as people talk on screen. Hilarious! Beast of Yucca Flats may be the only movie I’ve ever seen where you never see an actor’s lips moving. Roger Corman (infamously bad director of Beast) uses constant tricks like filming the back of actors’ heads or filming from far enough away that we can’t tell that the all-dubbed dialog doesn’t match at all. Carnival of Souls starts out feeling a little Yucca Flatsish – the opening scenes are entirely filled with dialog recorded, poorly, in post production. It doesn’t always sync up with the actor’s mouths. It’s unintentionally funny, but this movie actually USES that detriment.

The scenes where Mary completely loses touch with the world have no soundtrack except for the echoed sound of her own voice and the sound of her shoes on the pavement. It’s creepy and intense and cool and probably wouldn’t have come about in a well funded movie. This movie is full of such creepy and clever moments. When Mary first sees the mysterious man who is haunting her he is outside the passenger window of her moving car. It’s an awesome moment. The abandoned summer spot that she becomes obsessed with and seems called back to is evocative of lost moments in life, and according to the trivia I saw it only cost fifty dollars to film there for a whole week. At every turn this movie takes its very low budget nature and makes it work to improve the psychological impact and the mood of the whole piece.

I also love Candace Hilligoss as Mary. She’s so great at looking out of place and she has a quite disturbing vacant stare that is used to great effect. She has a great character arc as well. At the start of the film Mary is all confidence and strength – a woman so sure of herself that she doesn’t really need anybody else. As the film goes on she becomes more and more desperate to form some human connection (even reaching out to her slimy and greasy neighbour.) When things reach their inevitable conclusion (and I wouldn’t call it a twist so much as a reveal) it becomes clear just why she has been so tortured and disconnected since the accident.

This film is just plain cool. It’s a supernatural psychological thriller filmed for a fraction of a percent of a normal movie budget. It’s an accomplishment in film making and it’s also pretty compelling in its own right. I see from IMDB that that there have been two remakes – one in 1998 and one in 2008. I have to think that somebody missed the point of what makes this movie so great. It’s not a film that could be made better if it just had some better known actors and a bigger budget. It’s a movie that perfectly captures a feeling of disconnection from the world and a film that almost revels in the restrictions that are imposed on it. I will say, however, that I had forgotten before watching this again tonight just how much constant organ music was in it.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

I Am Legend

May 18, 2011

I Am Legend

I’ll admit that Amanda and I had been putting off watching this movie. I love a good post apocalyptic tale, and I enjoy a Will Smith movie, but I could never bring myself to watch this. Ever since I heard that the dog prominently featured in the movie as his only living companion in the abandoned streets of New York died during the movie. Yeah, I know, spoilers, but it was that one event which prevented us from seeing this in the theaters and kept us from watching it ever since. I had heard what a powerful acting accomplishment this movie was – with Will Smith alone on screen for the vast majority of the film. I longed to watch it and see what the praise was all about, but I just couldn’t bear to watch it.

I bought it though. I had it sitting on a shelf against that day, sometime in the unknowable future, when I’d finally get around to it. Today we have my father visiting and we allowed him free reign of our collection to pick a movie to watch with us, and he chose this because none of us had seen it yet. So finally I’m getting a chance to watch it, and it’s every bit as intense as I thought it was going to be.

Will Smith is Robert Neville, the last survivor of an apocalyptic virus that has turned every other resident of New York City into an enraged zombie. They have pale skin and no hair. They have no apparent language or thought. They mostly come out at night (mostly) because they cannot stand the UV light.

I really like the way the storytelling is done in this movie. We’re introduced to Neville and his loyal dog Sam at the start of this film as they forage in the ruins of New York. The apocalypse is years in the past – the streets are overgrown and filled with wild animals. The events of the past that led to this situation are revealed slowly over the course of the film through Neville’s nightmares. I also appreciate that the movie doesn’t answer all the questions it raises. We discover over time that Robert Neville was somehow involved in the search for a cure to the super-bug back in the day, but it’s never established what exactly he had to do with things. He was in the military. He had a police escort. He has enough notoriety that other people know his name. That’s about all we get, though, which is okay because this movie is about the person he has become and not the person he was in the old world.

Not many actors could pull off this role. This is Will Smith’s movie and at least seventy-five percent of the time he’s the only human on screen. As we watch Neville’s daily routine we see his isolation, his desperation, and the way he is slowly losing his mind. By far it is this courageous and touching portrayal that makes this movie worth watching. It’s the kind of role that actors dream of. A solitary man slowly being driven insane by his own obsessive behavior and his loneliness. When he does eventually find himself in the company of humans again it is clear just how far gone he is. It’s a bold concept for a movie and it’s fascinating to watch.

I’m not a fan of the “everything’s gonna be alright” ending to the film, though. It doesn’t feel like a part of the movie (because it isn’t.) The original end of the film ties together clues from throughout that show that the zombies have some remnant of their human intelligence. We know they have because the alpha male appears to do planning. The zombies set a trap for Neville. They coordinate attacks on him. There’s also the recurring butterfly motif throughout the movie which makes no real sense with the current ending. Instead of resolution of some of these clues we have a Hollywood ending involving a grenade and a voice over explaining that the world has been saved. It’s an ending that doesn’t want you to think – which is disappointing after such an intense and cerebral movie.

The special edition we own has the original ending where the alpha male zombie is able to communicate to Neville that he only wants the woman Neville has been experimenting on back. They achieve an uneasy truce and Neville leaves New York in the hands of its new population. I really like the concept of this ending – the twist that it is Neville that is the monster, and not the zombies. It feels more in keeping with the rest of the movie, and I wish that there were a director’s cut so I could see the scene as part of the movie rather than as a bonus feature.

I’m glad that I didn’t hate this movie though. Even with its grafted on happy ending the movie is still cool, compelling and well worth watching. I enjoy it as a character study and as a thought experiment. What would it really be like to be the last man alive? This movie says in no uncertain terms that it would be hard. Perhaps cripplingly so.

May 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brotherhood of the Wolf

May 14, 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for ages. The very concept of it so intrigued me. A French wire-fu action movie about werewolves? How on Earth did such a thing come to be, and how could I possibly have gone so long without seeing it? What I was not expecting, and what nobody had told me to look forward to was a lush and beautifully produced period drama.

The movie takes as its jumping off point the true mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan, a creature that killed around one hundred villagers and peasants between 1764 and 1767. It features a large collection of actual historical figures and a meticulously designed and executed replication of the world of pre-revolution France. It looks realistic to my untrained eye, at least it looks like most other costume dramas I’ve seen before – only more lavish and higher budget. That’s the end of the realism though. This is decidedly an action/drama/romance/horror/fantasy/mystery. So not so much with the historical accuracy.

Instead what we get is a film that almost defies description, which makes it kind of hard to review. For one thing it has a wealth of characters and some political intrigue which, when combined with reading subtitles to follow what was going on began to stress my plot-following capacity around the first time a whole room full of French aristocracy got together to gossip about the beast and the various efforts made to stop its brutal murders. There’s our hero Gregoir de Fronsac and his Indian companion “Indian Companion.” I mean Mani. Gregoir is a naturalist, taxidermist and scientist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Mani is a kickboxing Mohawk, last of his tribe, mystic and spirit walker. The two of them have come to the Gevaudan region of central France to investigate the creature and assist in hunting it down.

As I said there are whole awful lot of characters here, like the local priest Sardis and the elderly healer and his epileptic daughter and such, but there’s only a few you really need to know. There are Gregoir’s two main love interests: the sheltered but independent young Marianne and the worldly and mysterious courtesan Sylvia. There’s the snide one-armed Jean-Francois who delights in hunting and causing trouble. It took me about half the movie before I figured out that he was Marianne’s brother.

The first half of the movie illustrates just how uncatchable this mysterious creature is. We are introduced to it in what appears to be a direct reference to Jaws when it grabs a fleeing young woman and throws her around like a rag doll without ever appearing on screen. Gregoire is unconvinced that it is any simple wolf, and tries to scientifically understand what it is. he measures bite marks (enormous) and examines wounds (revealing the surprising discovery that the beast seems to have metal fangs when one breaks off in a victim.) He cannot make any sense of the data though – this beast defies all common sense.

Then before Gregoire can complete his research the King dispatches a well regarded toadie to eliminate the threat. This agent of the King has Gregoire mock up a fake beast corpse that can be paraded about Paris to prove that the beast is dead and that nothing can escape justice in France. Of course the real beast remains at large, and now it is not just a fearsome and mysterious predator but a threat to the national security since the King cannot afford to be embarrassed by having his ruse exposed.

Gregoire returns to Gevaudan against the express orders of the king’s agents and soon finds himself embroiled in a battle between conspiracies. There’s politics, betrayal, murder and secrets revealed. Things go particularly badly for Gregoire and everybody who is closest to him. Ultimately his quest goes from one of scientific curiosity to bloody vengeance.

This movie is such a unique and beautiful creation. It has intense martial arts fight sequences. It has long quiet scenes that can only be described as melancholy. It has mysticism and magic blended with science and rational thought. It has a mystery at its heart and a horror theme of the unstoppable beast and political intrigue and romance… it’s like about ten movies all blended together into a single film and what is most amazing of all is that it works. Damned if I can figure out how, but it works as a whole. It’s beautiful and haunting and thrilling and touching.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hollow Man

May 8, 2011

Hollow Man

We simply cannot resist a cheesy bad movie. This should be obvious from the titles in our collection but I feel I need to point it out to make sense of the fact that we’re reviewing this movie tonight. When we were making our recent mass DVD purchase this movie popped up and we said “a widely panned Paul Verhoven movie? How could we not?” After all, we’ve already reviewed Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Robocop. The thing is – although you’d think after Showgirls we’d know what kind of sleaze Verhoven is capable of; I just didn’t appreciate how his particular brand of depravity would influence this movie.

I can understand the intent of this movie. It’s trying to be a sci-fi horror along the lines of Alien or Predator or Deep Blue Sea where a supernatural killer (here an invisible scientist and not an alien or shark) is picking off people trapped in an enclosed space (here a secret underground lab complex.) It has a couple problems that keep it from working as part of that genre though. For one thing it takes an awful long time to get to the meat of the movie. Easily two thirds of the film involve the creation of the insane invisible killer, which doesn’t leave much time for the actual sci-fi horror plot to play out. Another problem is that is doesn’t have any heroes. The movie is packed with likable victims, but there’s nobody that I really find myself rooting for by the end.

The story here is of the brilliant Sebastian Caine, a scientist who heads a team that has perfected a means of making animals invisible. Of course, as anybody knows, being made invisible drives animals mad, but this slight flaw in his process doesn’t much concern him. Not much concerns him, to tell the truth, because he’s a raging ego-maniac and sleezeball. His ex-girlfriend is part of his team, and she’s come to the realization that she doesn’t like him much – and is sleeping with a different team member without his knowledge. At the start of the movie Caine succeeds in perfecting the means to make some of his experimental creatures re-appear, which means that he is in danger of losing control of his project to the military group that fund it since he’s accomplished his goals. Naturally this means that he must immediately inject himself with the invisibility serum otherwise the movie would end quite suddenly without the plot getting going at all.

In very short order Caine is naked and invisible – which accentuates all of his egomaniac tendencies and removes the necessity to behave himself. Or something. He was pretty sleazy to begin with but no sooner is he invisible than he’s creeping up on sleeping colleagues and taking their clothes off. When it becomes apparent that the reversal serum they’re cooked up doesn’t work on humans for some reason Caine really starts to go crazy. Soon he’s breaking out of the facility and raping his neighbours. (Well it’s implied in the movie that he rapes his exhibitionist neighbour with a penchant for stripping in front of her windows and very fake looking breasts – but according to the trivia on IMDB the rape was actually part of the movie until test audiences objected.)

Okay, so that does a great job of establishing that Caine is an insane power mad bastard who gets off on using his invisibility to hurt others. But nothing is done to establish a counter-weight. When Caine traps his science team in the facility and goes on his inevitable killing spree we don’t really know anything about the people he’s hunting except that they are inoffensively nice and have an asshole for a boss. Even his ex-girlfriend Linda, who would seem to be the heroine of the movie, is almost completely without character or motivation. Her new boyfriend, Matt, is even less of a character and I find that I have no emotional investment in either of them. In fact the only partially interesting character in the whole science team is the first to die, which just sucks the fun out of the whole rest of the movie.

One thing I cannot deny is that this movie involves some simply astonishing special effects. It is packed with clever digital tricks which remove Kevin Bacon from the scene and show us only the impression of him. His face in smoke or water or smeared in blood. There are also the fantastic digital models which allow the effects meisters to strip away his body layer by layer so we have him with no skin, no muscles, no blood vessels. Or any combination thereof. I don’t know if it’s worth watching the movie again just for the effects, but they are certainly the best thing in the movie. I appreciated it for that at least.

As for the rest, well I think I’ve said it all. It’s a sleazy story of an unappealing man turned invisible and the completely forgettable group of people he kills off one by one. It has a very Verhoven feel to the entire thing, but it’s the salacious and voyeuristic Verhoven and not the master of action cheese that I’ve come to enjoy so much over the years. More than anything else right now I regret that we don’t have Total Recall to watch tomorrow to ease the pain of this movie.

May 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 422 – Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The Little Shop of Horrors – April 26th, 2011

Today I had an unpleasant experience. I won’t say it was bad, because it went fairly well, but it was a root canal. And let’s face it, even the smoothest root canal in the world is still a root canal and involves getting shot full of anesthetic and having the nerves in one of your teeth drilled out. That’s unpleasant. Sure, I had a really great endontist and all, but yeah. No fun. So we decided to watch the only movie out of our collection that features a dentist. Sadly, we don’t own the musical version of this story, but we do have the classic, directed by none other than Roger Corman.

I went to check on various versions of this story after we finished watching it and was amused at how many of them prominently showcase Jack Nicholson’s involvement in the movie. He’s only in one scene and while he steals it quite handily it’s still just one scene. Still, out of everyone else in the movie he’s the biggest name now. Makes sense. But it’s still amusing. And it really is a great scene. Nicholson plays Wilbur Force, a young man who just loves going to the dentist and prefers to have his fillings and extractions done without novocaine. “It dulls the senses” after all. He positively delights in the promise of the pain of dental procedures. I’m sure he’d have loved a root canal. And his scene is what I thought of when I decided we should watch this today.

To be honest, I know the musical better. When I was in high school I was involved in a rather large production of it, involving the huge rented plant props and all. I was in the production crew and had to squeeze myself behind the plant with another crew member to hold the arms near the end. It was a fun production to work on and I’ve had a fondness for the show ever since. I only saw this version after I’d seen the musical and it immediately struck me as such a strange movie for someone to make a musical of, but at the same time it’s perfect. It was already a dark comedy that poked fun at itself and that brand of humor really translated well to the stage.

The movie definitely has a low budget 1960s feel to it. There’s an intangible quality to certain films made at that time that’s simply instantly recognizable. But this is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It’s not truly a horror movie. It’s a comedy parody of a horror movie. It’s a movie about a young man who raises a carnivorous plant to impress his boss at the flower shop and ends up having to feed it human corpses to keep it growing. Sure, you could play that seriously and given what else I’ve seen from Roger Corman, he might well have. But this was certainly played for laughs. How else do you explain a character named Siddie Shiva who has a new dead relative every time you see her? Or Nicholson’s gleeful dental patient? Seymour’s hypochondriac mother who makes cod liver oil soup? Detectives named Fink and Stoolie? A flower shop customer who eats what he buys right off the stems (salting them first, of course)? No, this is parody, plain and simple.

So, to the story. Seymour Krelboin is a young man who works in a flower shop. His boss is the grumpy Gravis Mushnick and his coworker is the sweet Audry Fulquard. Seymour’s in danger f losing his job if he can’t impress Mr. Mushnick, so he brings in a plant he’s been cultivating at home. It’s a fly trap of some sort, raised from mysterious seeds. He’s named it the Audry Jr. and it turns out it’ll only grow if fed blood. So the movie continues with the reluctant Seymour bringing dead bodies to Audry Jr. and the plant growing larger and more impressive as the day go by. It attracts new customers, gains attention from a horticultural society and seems to be the ticket to Seymour’s life getting immensely better. Aside from all the killing he has to do in order to keep the plant fed and happy. Because yes, it talks to him, demanding food.

Put that plot together with the humor of the whole thing and you’ve got a truly bizarre movie that just seems to somehow work. It’s self-aware enough to parody itself, which is a difficult thing and I honestly couldn’t say if it was intentionally written in ahead of time or if it just worked out that way thanks to direction and acting. After all, this was shot over a very short period of time and at least one of the writers reports that they were drunk while they were writing it. But two of the customers are a couple of teenage girls sent to find a florist to provide flowers for a parade float. They latch onto Audry Jr. as the centerpiece of the float and are thoroughly thrilled by it even when it blooms to reveal the faces of the people it’s eaten. In fact, that makes them all the happier. There’s just this odd and perfect vibe going on through the whole thing and while I think some of it was simply the lucky convergence of actors, script and plot, some of it shows that with the right tools you can get a classically great film on a small budget in a short time. And it helps if you have Jack Nicholson.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment