Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Slaughter (2009)

Two young women finding themselves on a farm--not what you think

This somewhat misleading title of a movie--that should have been called something like "The Back Room" or "Scarred Life" or anything else--was marketed with the other After Dark Fest features that are typically horror films. However, this is a more tame feature that plays out more as a simple drama at first with the everyday problems of family, friendship and relationships, turns over to a possible crime story, then for the last third it steps up with more suspense and thrills than it lets on to be with a nicely timed twist where the tables get turned.

"Slaughter" starts out with a bound woman being dragged to a dock, only to be pushed into the water and a cinder block to make sure she stays down. In Atlanta, a woman named Faith is running away from boyfriend trouble when she by chance meets the loose and lively woman named Lola in a night club. They connect right away and Faith decides to move to Lola's family's pig farm for work as her controlling ex-boyfriend Jimmy is getting closer and closer to finding her. Lola and Faith return to the clubs at night and usually Lola comes home with a new man who's along the lines of a sugar daddy. The older brother is somewhat cruel and the all-blinds, no-words father is put off by the daughter with distasteful looks, not to mention they don't seem to like their new guest hanging about. Faith looks out for her friend and suspects something is going on in the slaughterhouse that's closed off to her when the men disappear by the morning time.

The mystery element is partly obvious from the title and opening scene, though the reason why and full scope is eluded to. The clues in the meantime aren't exactly Sherlock Holmes type material with some filler bread crumbs with a wrist watch here and a set of keys there. Faith's character also seems to be generally suspicious without the script always giving her a really solid reason to be so. She often heads in the right direction as if she has some kind of hidden instinct that we don't know about. There aren't always enough clues given out to nail you to the seat of what's going on behind the scenes, though the story isn't always sensationalized with excessive blood and there's no nudity. The finale is somewhat manipulative when the tables keep getting turned, though it's also somewhat depressing and sad that its cold conclusion was inevitable. This doesn't always wander into the exaggerated, over-the-top cinematic experience with loud and overly stylish filmmaking mechanics, as this attempts to go for some realism with its scenarios and character motivations--even if some are far-fetched it makes it easier to accept them. I originally thought this was going one way, helped by the "Texas Chainsaw" homages--camera flash sound effect and all--and it ended up being more a red herring in a way to something else. It's building up to something unexpected that involves all characters shown and has a story to unravel and finalize than going for shock value alone.

The performances seem to come into themselves, by at first coming across as a little stale, probably more so at what they have to work with in the drama department, but as it progresses the two leading women reveal a little more depth about themselves. The supporting cast comes across more for script development and to pad this with more bodies; like a game of chess with only two pieces doing the main work but the rest filling out the board. The boyfriend Jimmy seemed the pawn of the roles with less authentic power. The youngest brother had a form of charisma and represented some innocence amongst the darker aspects. In case you're thinking it, the premise might at first glance seem like something out of a softcore film with two highly attractive women at an isolated farm finding out who they are in life with some experimenting going on. Settle down, settle down. It dodges eroticism with a cold dash, but still plays on moralless sex and violence as if they're implicitly linked. Should you be able to freely let yourself indulge without problems from family, friends or even yourself? Even on a personal level emotions usually follow and some people either move on before that happens and while the enjoyment lasts, or possibly get their feelings hurt in the meantime, while others are at it for different reasons than the mentioned

Rating: 6/10

Director: Steward Hopewell (Going to Pieces - second unit director)
Stars: Amy Shiels, Lucy Holt
Link: IMDB

Autopsy (2008)

A hospital where the doors don't revolve

A group of 20-somethings--two gals, three guys--are reveling on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. They decide to drive back in their present state and not surprisingly crash into a tree "somewhere in Louisiana." Before the audience can say it, "Does anyone have a working phone?" "It doesn't matter. There's no signal." The budget shows with more pictures of their partying and only the after effects of the crash, rather than the actual impact. Somehow a man in a hospital gown is found underneath of their car. Out of nowhere an ambulance arrives moments later to take him away with a story that he escaped after surgery. They go along for possible aide themselves at the local facility called Mercy Hospital. There it plays on reassurances that it will all be okay, but soon turns from suspicious to then a means of survival because, that's right, this ain't gonna be a normal hospital folks.

The staff consists of four members--a nurse, two orderlies and a doctor--and they treat the newly arrived with stern attitude to distract them. It goes to show how far authority figures are trusted and can carry a command when a uniform is put on. No one's allowed to roam about or see a patient at the same time they're being examined, which leads to them becoming worried that something isn't right. One by one they're taken in and disappear to different rooms that reveal experiments and odd procedures. One of the woman named Emily, with a coincidental medical background and a questioning mind, sets about to find some answers to where her friends are and stumbles onto something that's inherent to mad science.

This is a horror story with people using medicine for evil and manipulative purposes, except they don't even try to make this a real possibility to put some paranoia into you when traveling about, or even a truly unique situation for that matter. New Orleans--might as well have been herd farmers and a shack in Mongolia. The innocent characters are thrust into "some" place, with "some" random people who all share the "same" morbid disposition. It also includes the same ol' characters that represent a body count or have to survive from some horrible and unexplainable situation they've found themselves in, except with some kind of cheap twist that momentarily changes the convention around but makes even less sense as the rest of the story. The experience just unfolds so middle of the road without even a steady subtext that it causes itself to drag its feet along rather than be on top of itself.

"Autopsy" is quite an easy film to the point--I'd imagine to a share of people--of not holding up past the first viewing. Not to mention this attempts to take itself more seriously instead of sustaining the tongue-in-cheek humor for the far-fetched and ridiculous storyline they're working with. There are a few jokes here and there but it's not to the point of making anyone roll on their side anytime soon or in the way of performing miraculous CPR to revive the picture (sorry, had to). How the story itself unfolds feels a little too hokey and over-the-top in a forced way. The out-of-reach location and overly sadistic villains that enjoy what they do a little too much makes it feel less likely to happen to you than getting struck by lightning. If this is fun, it's in the context of solely making fun of it. What they don't show you brings down the credibility of the story, such as the hospital having full use of utilities. Not to mention some of the motivations seem exaggerated to the point of not adding up, such as being on a hallucinogenic drug, unconsciously performing self-mutilation and then in the next scene being able to speak lucidly and with reason.

Its moments of scares feel somewhat forced with lightning and rain and random people popping in and out of rooms with a loud sound effect to jar senses. There are some rewarding moments where the bad guys get it in just as cruel ways as they dealt out originally. It's not exactly challenging stuff with a black and white template that makes answers--such as necessary violence to protect yourself and friends--easier to solve and digest. Some of the gore effects are a little on the cheaper side at points with some exposed guts coming out of stiff looking surrounding skin. Though there are some effectively grisly moments that range from amputation to a face caved in from blunt force. At one point towards the end there is an inventively maniacal contraption that consists of stringed together body parts.

The lead actress, Jessica Lowndes, is somewhat versatile in that she can be both tough, emotionally sympathetic and astute in character. She definitely takes it all out at points and goes beyond what was called for than treating this as a mere stepping stone, which makes it such a shame that her glowing talent was wasted on the overall turnout. Robert LaSardo takes his lines with a little more measurement, though the other bad guys, even the recognizable Robert Patrick as the head doctor, lack any kind of range to work with. Even "The Dentist" had a kind of philosophy, this just has card-board cut outs of evil medical professionals that do look the part but are only out to get people for some diabolical plan that's not even fully fleshed out. It closes with some questions of morality in which someone innocent who should have died is now living, but at the expense of others. Though quickly reverses its stance to give a little ambiguous shock value that seemed thrown in as an after thought.

Rating: 3/10

Director: Adam Gierasch (writer "Toolbox Murders," "Mortuary," "Mother of Tears")
Stars: Jessica Lowndes, Robert Patrick, Robert LaSardo
Link: IMDB

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Broken (2008)

Scared of your own reflection?

An English radiologist named Gina gives her father a surprise birthday celebration and during the festivities a mirror suddenly breaks. She gets a strange feeling at work as if someone was in her office. Then on the way home, she spots a woman that looks identical to herself driving her same car. She follows the look alike and enters her apartment only to see a photo with her image and her fathers. Puzzled, she leaves but gets into a car wreck on the way out. Gina wakes up in the hospital with a fuzzy memory regarding the crash and a sneaking suspicion that her boyfriend, Stefan, is not really her boyfriend. The doctors call it Capgras Syndrome, which can result from a brain injury. With the help of a therapist, she unlocks bits and pieces surrounding the accident. From a dripping ceiling, to more mirrors being broken and others acting strangely to her, Gina sees danger at every turn where more people are out to get her due to a delusion made worse by the crash or something else.

"The Broken" is mainly a mystery/suspense film that for a share of it does the genre justice with little nuances and slight shifts that make those films so gripping. Revelations come about as it gradually paces itself and the audience is let on to more and more of its secrets. Unfortunately the growth of the plant slows down and it eventually squeezes less and less of the nectar out of its storyline. After a certain point it goes from a kind of Hitchcock-esque pacing to a sort of extended Twilight Zone-like episode that pulls out a magnifying glass and inspects a tainted situation underneath everyone else's nose. Its drawback is that it's too light on some of the rules and mechanics and then motivations for its antagonists, which makes it more easy than encapsulating the full potential that it could have been. It had every right to be a thoroughly challenging classic but didn't take it that extra few steps. I liked the engaging experience it laid out but the more it's thought about, the more it comes with contradictions.

If one can look past that, the film's major strength is getting full use of its surroundings with an atmosphere to lock a viewer into the direct moment. It's not everyday that films can make one forget their surroundings and responsibilities. It's to the point where every other person and object becomes suspicious and paramount as a result. A neat idea is employed with abrupt flashes to remember the past and some surreal imagery to translate Gina's troubled state. This uses basic but still powerful mechanics due to built-up anticipation and careful crafting beforehand, such as deja vu, sleeping next to someone you immensely distrust, being vulnerable in the shower, and also someone you recognize that doesn't act like their old self, making you instead question your own self and mind. Needless to say, this has a share of creepy and unsettling moments, rather than going for the throat with its shock value. It's titillating at points but not always forceful like other horror films.

There's a share of stringed instruments that no sane person could listen to and not tense up. "The Broken" seems to be made to play on nerve endings by not letting the viewer relax for long till another pulsating situation arises. It has that down pat though it could have used a few more areas in its story that hint more at what's going on, especially for motivational reasons, otherwise the viewer is left too much in the dark as to what, how and why after the credits roll. It seems to be a film less for the theorists and more for those that appreciate the ride and surface sensations in the moment. I have to admit, for the most part, it did keep me from thinking outside of the box that it presents when I was actually watching it since there was always something either intriguing or rousing going on. This still works with a shred of ambiguity, but the scales are still tipped a little more away from the viewer. It mainly plays on a general sense of paranoia for those that are broadly suspect, as well as has some calculated areas for the logical minded, even if it doesn't go full steam ahead for the skeptic's sake.

Some parts carry a message of sorts, such as securing and appreciating your life as someone or "something" else might take over when you have your guard down. It's more of an undeveloped "what if?" question that will make some people fascinated just because of the idea itself as well as gravitate towards its heavy use of mood while at it. However, with some others I'd imagine it might leave a person more puzzled or frustrated without fully fleshing out a bigger picture from the questions it posed itself. It's not to the point of ambiguity like "Silent Hill" but should be kept in mind before stepping into its alleyway with dark and looming shadows that you might never figure out what's always a step behind or what they're doing there...

Rating: 7/10

Director: Sean Ellis (Cashback)
Stars: Lena Headey, Richard Jenkins, Melvil Poupaud
Link: IMDB

Voices (2007)

An explanation for why murder/suicides really happen

Have you ever wished someone around you would just die or go away but kept your actions to yourself? Hey, hey, not all at once. Well, getting along with those you normally have to isn't even an option here. One thing that should be learned about the experience is that it isn't very liberating, just a dark and deplorable look at primitive emotions that were thought to be left back in the cavemen days. This is a supernatural horror tale from Korea that centers around a teenage girl where those that get too close try and kill her.

After a horrific opening scene with a family getting mudered, it plays out with some humor and good natured vibes, until a woman named Ji-sun falls off a balcony at her own wedding. If that wasn't enough, when she's in the hospital her sister brutally stabs her to death. There appears to be certain violent tragedies in the family with kin killing kin dating sometime back. Her niece, a teenage girl named Ga-in Kim, is having nightmares about "something" out to get her, which makes her ill. She's in the nurses office when she gets attacked by someone who is jealous about an earlier event. The morose new kid at school gives her advice that it wasn't just an "accident" (must have been a mistranslation to mean "coincidence" instead) and that she shouldn't trust anyone--friends, family and herself included. Soon enough more attacks happen and she tries to piece it together that it may be a curse by asking her auntie and older relative about what's making people out for blood.

Part of the story doesn't transition as smoothly as it could have, that she would just go with it that it is a curse. The people don't always look ghostly and often speak with her during the attacks. Now, from an audience's point of view it may be more effective at making you think back when someone has killed their family or friends that they didn't look any different either. Though from her character's point of view, they're just jealous of her happiness. Possibly Asian culture has a closer acceptance of superstitions, but for some skeptical western audiences there isn't always more of a convincing element to make you cross over with her. The rules of its mythology are spread about, so part of its own mechanics don't always line up about when certain people become violent and when they don't. Or what pulls them out of the trance and what can keep that going for a longer period of time. There are some effective uses of anticipation but this usually jumps right into them to make sure you still have a functioning heart beat. It makes the events happen more at random than the filmmakers intended them to since it tries to do the whole one-by-one format like a slasher and string it along till an ending revelation that might make sense then but not always during.

There's a kind of hidden moral message here with jealousy, rage and hate fermenting inside for those that might have better opportunities than you. It deals with temptations to erase that person from this world that is causing you so much pent up turmoil. Whether you give in or not is possibly an option I'd imagine--at least I'd hope for the sake of the human race--but this keeps it downbeat in that everybody is susceptible to a risk of seeing nothing but red. There are no heroes here and the relating points that you might find to the character's lives are trampled at some point for scares and shock. This is told from Ga-in's perspective, so at certain points the story is heavily elusive--more like a never-ending nightmare than a typical narrative unfolding--and it's hard to make heads or tales for a share of it till the end as a result. The atmosphere is somewhat depressing in that she has to eventually avoid human contact and goes around in a state of confusion.

"Voices" tries to make you lower your guard by showing a scary scene, then a positive one, then back to putting the fear of murder back in you. It delivers a sort of black-and-white, tense-and-relax type of formula that sprinkles some personality and dramatic moments into the characters to make it more impactful when a senseless and unexplainable situation of violence ensues. This mode of filmmaking doesn't always come with a natural tone and flow by at times resembling a template to manipulate the audience into a certain emotion. Part of that keeps this just a cinematic experience than an organically occurring possibility. This is cruel and bloody for the morbid onlookers, and the performances are well-received in either behaving normally or crazed. "Voices" has some neat ideas to work with, they just weren't all told in an appropriate order, and would have made more sense watching this from the ending to the beginning. Sometimes I wonder if surprise endings are worth it, as some filmmakers, western ones too, want to hold on to that twist for dear life, even if it can jeopardize part or all of the rest of the picture.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Ki-hwan Oh (Art of Seduction)
Link: IMDB

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Rite (2011)

A man's struggle with the immaterial

A mortician's son named Michael wants to pick a different career path away from his father and heads to seminary school to become a priest. He aces psychology and art history but not theology. He decides that after four years he has a lack of faith and sends in his resignation. Before it can be turned in he says last vows to a dying woman and his superior Father Matthew wants him to stay on for another purpose that he might be just right for. He heads to Rome to take a course on exorcism due to the church receiving an alarming number of reports. After viewing the class with some derision, the teacher sends him over to a Father Lucas who's approach is unorthodox and matter-of-fact, but still honest when need be to deal with Michael's questioning, logical mind. Rather than tell with a verbal lecture, he shows right from the moment Michael arrives with a pregnant teenage girl that appears to him as someone with a clear case of mental health. The younger priest-to-be is still skeptical despite evidence before his eyes, yet he keeps returning to see more of the mysterious man who might be the real deal or someone who acts like one so his clients maintain their faith and not go elsewhere for help.

This starts out like a drama, turns into something of a psychological film with some thrills and chills regarding the potential existence of demons, then turns over to a climactic closer when someone close comes down with something and the person at hand has to finally answer a nagging question. Instead of producing a puzzling mystery with enough layers to keep a viewer guessing, this spreads out its plot elements and typically takes on one aspect at a time as it progresses, ending up revealing its formula in the process. That storytelling approach makes this feel more like a luring system till the final scene that has all of its bases covered of what they'll refer to up to that point, rather than a naturally evolving storyline. No one wants a confusing or conflicting film, but I'd be willing to bet others don't want things unraveled so orderly either. In one sense it takes deep subjects and delivers them somewhat easy and unmuddled, yet not always as an engrossing challenge. The performances come with their charms and some street talk despite their holy personas to give a real sense. Anthony Hopkins' captures the screen with a performance that often comes with guesses as to where he stands and he's able to handle the different sides without a hitch. Colin O'Donoghue does the part with some conviction whether it be a logical side or lowering his defensive guard, even if he's shuffled from one place to another in the script. Alice Braga plays Michael's friend whom he shares his thoughts but also reveals who she really is and what she's searching for. His teachers are capable of acting like authentic people either by being lenient and reasonable, to being strict and commanding.

At times the transitions feel too smooth and the answers in the story laid out before the viewer gets time to take them in or throw out guesses themselves, which somewhat limits its participation value. It attempts to be a thinking-person's movie rather than a straight horror/thriller but doesn't always give more to contemplate on during its duration despite its gradual pacing that seems more for tone and mood to make omens and signs match when they come around. This follows Michael rather than mainly the exorcism itself, so essentially its main relating points are targeted more so at that person who straddles the fence on the subject, and the believer getting some validation, though the unbeliever left more to the wayside. So you get a character based film with some horror tacked on for reasons of entertainment and to loosen up the viewer to give an ear for the subject matter, rather than the other way around like "The Exorcist" that's also about losing faith...and possibly scaring it back into you with everything it's got. In that respect this is handled with more tact on the subject than the usual suspects with films dealing with possession.

"The Rite" can be looked at like a man on a religious journey to finding faith, but part of it can still be looked at as someone who does anything without a driving passion or purpose, kind of riding between places until something powerful comes along to question why you're doing what you're doing in the first place. Fighting with half a heart is a sure way to get defeated is the message, because others are going to come around to take that away just because they can. Though it's not to the lengths of watching a sports movie about, say, US football with a player who has the talent and no driving point, as you can usually not be a fan of the sport to see where they're coming from. Usually those films are about the emotional impact surrounding the subject, while "The Rite" reveals more of its inner playbook than tiptoeing around for more relating points to outsiders looking in, which can make the film at points feel a little distant by coming with more of a specific purpose.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Mikael Hafstrom (Drowning Ghost, 1408)
Stars: Colin O'Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones
Link: IMDB

The Last Exorcism (2010)

A film crew, a Reverend and a troubled girl

"The Blair Witch Project" wasn't the first of its kind, but it did spawn a share of pseudo documentary films in the last decade. More recently "Diary of the Dead," "Quarantine" and "District 9" have embraced the style to give a level of in-the-now reporting, as well as to show how modern times have evolved with our obsession with recording anything and everything. "The Last Exorcism" has significance for the events that unfold with a special case that takes a different spin on the possession genre. It uses the format to put the audience in the moment by moment with some poetic license to make it less stiff and more entertaining than the usual documentary feature.

A Reverend named Cotton Marcus in Louisiana serves up his stimulating gospels at a small town church. Instead of getting his audience to pay attention with studious words and fine lessons, he's more gifted with a knack for enthusiasm and energy. He's a showman who loves attention and does everything from novelty magician's tricks to yelling and rapidly moving about to achieve that. He's full of tricks up his sleeves and isn't shy about that fact on camera. His honesty leads to coming right out by stating that he doesn't actually believe in demons--or possibly God--but provides a service to people to heal their mind regardless. He's still a people person despite what looks to be manipulation. Besides being good at it, one of the other justifications is money to provide for his family and to maintain the establishment of the church. Not only have preachers been in his family for generations but exorcists as well. The goal for doing the documentary is to expose exorcisms for what they really are from a little boy who suffocated in a past case from another practitioner who took things too seriously. There's a sort of self-made philosophy to his lifestyle but at times he still comes off like a too-smart-for-his-own good joker that mocks what he does.

Until he meets his match...

He goes out on a job with the usual antics and spiffy attire. On a small farm, he encounters the belligerent and unpredictable brother, Caleb, then a nice and somewhat naive teenage girl named Nell in question, and also their straight-shooting, meat-and-potatoes father. Their livestock is being indiscriminately killed in unusual ways and despite the girl's bloody clothing, they can't say for sure if it's her or not. Caleb is pushing away from a strong Christian upbringing from a previous family death, even though the rest are trying to keep their spiritual ties strong. Rev. Marcus plays right into the hands of what they want to believe anyway and declares that an exorcism is the only answer at this point to save the girl's life. Even after using his well-timed tricks, more truths come out after all the slick, prearranged smoke and mirrors clear about what's going on under the surface. Some of the characters are more dangerous than they originally let on and the film crew sticks around despite the new challenges ahead of the severely dysfunctional family.

For a story with interesting drama and charismatic characters, this movie definitely nails it to entice a viewer to want to see the rest of the story unfold. Patrick Fabian puts on an engaging performance as the Reverend and makes you believe he actually could be this guy due to there being a number of layers to his background story. Ashley Bell does both the nice and tormented transitions by being believably friendly or expressing hostility. For scares and atmosphere, this is the portion that has areas of feeling more scripted since it's more chaotic than the moderate pacing beforehand and you can notice some of the transitions don't always feel lined up as convincingly. For the latter portion this plays on a panicky cam that's usually accompanied by nails-against-the-chalkboard music to carry the state of confusion further. It's a transitional storyline that evolves at the same time as it escalates with more and more to show and tell.

Since this goes from a documentary/drama storyline to a horror, the fear portion behind "The Last Exorcism" was to catch the skeptics off guard rather than starting out by stating its intentions. Yet at times it went over its mark to not make a defensive viewer completely uncross their arms. Its beginning was often gradual and controlled but still intriguing, and then its conclusion was explosive, making it feel like it came out of no where and less grounded than it intended. The idea in itself is shocking, but where it came from or how it came to be was skipped over and it made this feel more fictional rather than going with the realistic perspective it wanted to originally achieve. It made the faux-documentary style feel a gimmick when it carried the same amount of suspension of disbelief as a conventional film. The ending tries to simultaneously wrap up the biggest questions it posed beforehand, show where the documentary takes the Reverend--since he's kind of riding between places--and then it attempts to make the experience shocking by being abrupt all at the same time. It does the last two somewhat effectively, if riding a little too much on its punchline, but it makes the first come with more riddling questions than when it began. I can imagine some might like that direct approach, as it gives the opportunity to get in and out and move onto the next film without lingering about, though it made the picture more distant to others that get a little more latched onto a concept.

The limitations of the documentary style come out after it's able to unfold the background of the characters with one on one interviews, but it doesn't always get a chance to evolve the inner workings of the background of the town's people or even the surroundings, which at first makes it seem like some random area, instead of something tainted or unique, until it's too late to get under your skin. They mention it in passing, but that's as far as that goes. I can't say it was a total cop out because it uses the same ingredients as some other horror features, just the timing and amount of foreshadowing beforehand is what makes that kind of picture truly come together and feel like one solid, culminating piece. It's like a magician who performs his magic act by setting the stage, gaining your attention and then wowing its audience with the final slight of hand trick. The timing has to be precise as it's a culmination of everything before it to a single, highly devised revelation of its total parts. This was a little more elusive about its actions and didn't give its audience enough time to truly take it in. It can catch people off guard but I can't say it sustains that effect for very long. This is definitely worth the rental but not necessarily the purchase price for that reason.

It looks that "The Last Exorcism 2" is announced for 2012 and might clear up some answers.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Daniel Stamm (A Necessary Death)
Stars: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones
Link: IMDB

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Camp Hell (2010)

Doesn't the Devil have anything better to do?

A young man named Thomas/Tommy is going to summer camp in New Jersey, not just any summer camp, but a religious one in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are enough rules in place to almost make the campers temporary nuns and monks for what's supposed to be their carefree, once-in-a-lifetime vacation that everyone else at that age usually partakes. It's the time of raging hormones and rebellious tendencies, so temptations are going to come up in the youngster's minds. Instead of the adults leading by example, they use harsh scare tactics. That place is Camp Hope, but to the attendees it's more like "Camp Hell."

This is a mess when it comes to exposition, foreshadowing, mystery, pacing--you name it. Its idea of atmosphere seems inconclusive with outlining its plot, and also intrusive either with abrupt music or visions tacked on almost as if it was an after thought. Who knows? Maybe it was, because this must have been hell to market--hence the presently popular actor in a cameo only on the cover and their camp shirts stating 2006/2007 despite the release date of 2010. After awhile it makes you wonder what and where the focal point is. Are they bracing me to be fearful? Scared? Worried? Intrigued? Looking for relating points at the time of teenage angst? If it wasn't for the preview I saw earlier, I would have thought I picked up a different movie than intended. Eventually it gets around to Thomas explaining about his demonic dreams. Their camp leader, Father Phineas, tells of another that experienced visions before and ended up in a mental institution. This is Jesse Einsenberg's small bit part in the beginning, and then "poof."

Before that they go through spiritual exercises and give learning lessons. It's hard to say if there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor at first since the people are the epitome of dedicated to their cause. You have different characters among the boys: the blind followers, the smart alecks, the believers, and Tommy: a shaper--someone who everyone around him wants to mold like putty without always asking him what he feels first, or lambaste him when he actually expresses himself. Being absent of the things they normally do for fun leads to pranks and scary story telling to bide their extracurricular time, apart from the evil-less sports, spiritual singing (down with rock music!) and dancing they do on their own. Forbidden love is on the rise between Tommy and childhood friend Melissa. When you finally think things have kicked into gear or turned for the worst, it becomes a little teaser. Though at least you know that some kind of bad guy is laying in wait. To what purpose? They still don't give that up till later, with more waiting in the process.

For what it's worth, the acting was adequate and was able to get itself across without being distracting, though it still doesn't overcome its other setbacks or put this into a better light. As a horror movie or a film going for atmosphere, or even a drama or whatever it was trying to be, it falls short on defining and unraveling itself, leaving the viewer to frustratingly guess, speculate and reach. I'm not a gambler, but I'd be willing to put money down that this was written with the ending first and gone backwards from there. Somewhat shocking depending on which side of the fence you stand, or possibly an eye opener or a statement no one is willing to say, though everything before it wasn't worth the wait and tedium of getting there. It felt like a hyped up amusement ride with too much clutter (people in front of you), and then an actual experience that doesn't live up to its climax. This attempts to build up to a "something"-lurking-in-the-shadows type of movie, except it leaves the audience in the dark half the time that there is something even there or even why it's there for that matter. Scared? Well...of what? They might as well have dropped the background horror fodder and made this a drama because it might have made the experience less frustrating trying to figure out its "mystery" element or message in the mean time.

Rating: 2.5/10

Director: George VanBuskirk
Stars: Will Denton, Bruce Davison, Valentina de Angelis
Link: IMDB

The House of the Devil (2009)

A trap in the making

The '60s/'70s-esque title grabbed my eye when I first got ahold of this. I didn't even read up about it, which lead to being caught off guard as to how much of a homage it was to the '80s, not just with storyline but in style, music and even filmmaking mechanics and look. If Dee Wallace didn't look so much older in a guest appearance, I would have said this was a lost and restored find. They literally went all out with the recreation of this decade that had a mind and flair of its own. Yet they didn't completely capture the flashy and trendy side in actual '80s films, which still leaves room to also give nods to earlier time periods as well. Back when old Hammer films, "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" were new and shocking with evil thoughts and questions about the stronghold of religion.

A young college student named Samantha Hughes wants to get away from her roommate situation and get a place of her own but first needs some extra cash to make that happen. By chance, she finds an add on a bulletin board at her dorm and sets out as a do-it-herself independent woman in the decade of the fitness craze and Walkmans. After some setbacks, the client desperately needs her that night and would pay double. How could she possibly pass that up? In her eagerness, she misses some of the subtle warning signs: eclipse that night, odd call backs, getting easily hired, must be there tonight, pays double, out of reach location.

With the exception of the opening title sequence, the film is often handled in a basic manner, where the pacing moves gradually and the performances are more unadorned to portray regular people. This is a horror film that doesn't always go for the throat even like other films that came out in the '80s. The tone is more '60s/'70s despite how everything looks. It builds up to a kind of realistic uncomfortableness at first, whereas other filmmakers would have had the settings look like something out of "Beetlejuice" to make the point obvious. The little things count though: the freakishly tall man with a cane, the overly inquisitive wife, the bait and switch. She's locked into the situation in an unfamiliar place and by now can't look back, not because of some supernatural hypnosis but instead due to manipulative forces that don't want to set off any red flags, not to mention are waiting for just the right time.

A little curiosity and snooping leads to finding out some information that puts her at unease. The locks of the doors and lights inside become her only friend, even her mind detecting different senses works against her. This is a slow creeper with some events here and there that would pertain to what it's building up to. The inevitable is coming, you just never know when, how or what--the key word is anticipation, with the title of the film looming over like a large and ominous shadow. They could have used a few more scenarios in the meantime as the balance is more tipped towards being nearly veiled. After a certain point, it played a little too much on the realism shtick since the audience is well aware of the house and an established atmosphere. The idea wasn't to force it, just some areas were played out somewhat safe and go in a circle. This works on your basic senses, such as being constantly uncomfortable and knowing something is not right, but not knowing what that "something" is, which leads to a series of doubts and second guesses. Ever been in that nerve-wracking situation before where you get to laugh it off later? Well, you've never been to "The House of the Devil"...

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Ti West (The Roost, Trigger Man)
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov
Link: IMDB

Rubber (2010)

One tire to rule them all!

This is an ambitious project that could have been one thing but decided to be multiple. It's a film that balances theory and entertainment. The former is going to put some viewer's off, but in both respects it's going to still produce some debate in whether someone thinks it's warranted or too basic and unoriginal. It starts out as a movie within a movie with the "audience" represented by spectators with binoculars and a member of the cast explaining that things in cinema often imitate life by happening for no reason. The irony is that part of what he's saying happened for a reason--yet that's all a matter of perspective, which is supposed to be the film's sublime message since so many other movies spoon feed their viewers. Truth is stranger than fiction, right? Well, maybe not so much here.

"Rubber" isn't a health conscious XXX film but rather a picture about a possessed tire that plays out like a dryly humorous horror tale with a slice of adventure. It's almost as if it was penned by another pseudonym of Stephen King with inanimate objects that move about and have psychic powers. Like King, the mundane is taken with a bit of refined thought with its own rules and special powers. The funniest aspect is it has actual character development before it sees the world despite being a basic, ordinary tire in look. It rises from the sand strewn landscape and rolls about with a curious mind of its own. Like a serial killer, it graduates up to greater threats, such as a crushed water bottle, leading to a dead scorpion, leading to a beer bottle destroyed by supernatural powers. It roams about and gets tired just like the rest of us. Our stock spectators are periodically shown with comments and complaints about what's going on as well as puns to other films.

If anything can be learned about what not to do in possession films, it's "Maximum Overdrive," with some lame excuse for what's going on and the laziest scientific reasoning behind it as if its research dodged the library and went on pure speculation. "Rubber" doesn't explain how or where it came from, but it still has plenty of basic motivations and behaviors outlined, such as forming a love interest with a young brunette, watching TV, strolling about and indiscriminately exploding peoples' heads like "Scanners" gone wild. It's such an odd premise that any context it finds itself in seems to be humorous. It's almost cartoonish at points, which makes me believe this could have been a hit series on Cartoon Network for adults with short episodes to keep the novelty going. That's probably another reason for including other aspects here since its gimmick might have worn thin otherwise. The film spends a share of time on its aesthetics with style and mood. Its lead, even though it's supposed to be an inanimate object, ends up being this oddly cool antihero with his certain ways, a distinctive roll (gait) and hip music to follow.

There are a share of shots of the surroundings to development an atmosphere. The camera angles are often very explicit about what they want you to focus on, and if you don't you'll often see a blurry background like taking off your glasses in a 3D film. It takes awhile to get used to as something can be framed up in the center yet what's around it is clear instead. It plays on some horror jokes with close-up creeping shots almost out of "Jaws," as well as a young kid that no adult believes. This is a little too unhurried at points with not much in the way of significance going on at points but it does leave some room to think about what you're viewing and also to maintain a level of intrigue to see what happens next. It plays around a little too long with its concept by showing misadventures rather than a narrative story. That seems to simultaneously help it and hold it back when not much is going on but just giving a presence or aura. Like you're just hangin' loose with it.

"Rubber" has a lot of potential and produces some fun times. The biggest let down is how its replay value becomes diminished when it tries to move from being an odd genre mesh that's off on its own, to giving a message heavy satire on Hollywood films while using an absurd plot and easy time to make you go along with that notion. It's riding a fine line between poking fun and having an ulterior motive. It's odd considering that if you caught it, you're already capable of thinking on your own anyway. So why the reminder and pat on the back? Not to mention each time you put this on you might be reminded and if something miraculously does a turn around over there in Tinseltown, this will look short sighted. If you didn't, then hopefully you at least had an amusing time and were able to interpret it in your own way. It's a film that doesn't worry about its critiques. That prior mentioned aspect might have bothered myself. Though others might be put off by its areas of contradictions in plot or ideology, slowness or lack of hitting your particular funny bone. And guess what? All of those people would be right in a way, because it's a certain type of film that takes a certain type of person to appreciate it. Then on the other hand, it takes a certain type of person to hate it as well. What's interesting here is that they equally balanced both their adorers and disqualifiers in the same film. Most movies do that by accident, though this is going to be a lot more self-aware, which even that itself can make one put up crossed arms.

One could say the film does the same things that it points out other movies as not doing, which makes it okay, right? I guess that will be up to you. "Rubber" often plays both sides of the fence and you can't always tell what side it's really on. Possibly neither; possibly both equally; possibly one side and using the other as a guise. It exercises with contradiction and its diet consists of irony. It can have both a reason and not a reason for doing something. It can be both artful and fluff. Exciting and dull. Original and unoriginal. Pretentious and simple. I have to say it was a neat idea with its share of ambitions with a goal in mind to set up a kind of ambiguity. To do that it often spoke its limitations through its mock spectators, even if that self-degradation doesn't exactly excuse everything, but it still leaves enough lingering about to have an amusing time during and then a productive discussion/debate afterwards.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Quentin Dupieux (Steak)
Stars: Stephen Spinella, Wings Hauser, Roxane Mesquida
Link: IMDB

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Crime pays...with a fist to the face

This is still a frustrating experience to when I first seen this in a nearly vacant theater in the month of December while everyone else was watching warm holiday features. "The Punisher" from '04 took a simple approach and had its sights on pre-CGI films and flashy editing techniques, which I thought worked for what it was. I'm also a fan of gory action films like "The Machine Girl" and "Tokyo Gore Police" that came out earlier in 2008. Whatever it is that's put in front of me I'll judge it accordingly since I'm a fan of films in general. I'm all for what this movie is about, but I still can't excuse the final result. "Punisher: War Zone" took far too many liberties with what it wanted to ambitiously do and it doesn't always feel grounded as a result. Flashy, loud, crude--if it pertains to being excessive, you can count on it to deliver in that mindset, which had potential to be a thoroughly entertaining experience for not holding back and letting loose, but it doesn't always clean up the party wagon that it left behind.

Frank Castle, aka "The Punisher," takes out known criminals that continue to beat the rap sheet of the justice system. He brutally kills the head of the Cesare crime syndicate along with the raspy voiced man's family and most of his henchmen during a dinner party, which leaves Billy Russoti and later his brother Loony Bin Jim to move up the crime ladder with their former boss out of the way. Castle shows up at Billy the Beaut's hideout to finish the job but gets cut short--which makes the thug rise out of the rubble as not a phoenix but a worn catcher's mitt--when the FBI is already there doing a sting operation and he accidentally shoots an undercover agent. It throws a bolt in the machinery of his unorthodox system when the government is actually doing their job and Castle wants to call it quits. Big Brother sends a man over to look into The Punisher's practices when a share of the police look the other way.

Agent Budiansky gets partnered up in the basement on the Punisher Task Force. The actor portraying Budiansky feels so out of place with look and performance, it's as if his character motivation was to just stand there excessively tall and read lines without prep or accommodation to tailor the part to himself. It reminded me of "They Live," due to a particular big-dude-vs-big-dude fight scene, but the rest of the performance fell to the wayside. The head guy--and formerly "only" guy--in charge of the Punisher Task Force named Soap was made out to be strange and eccentric as he works by himself on something no one else takes seriously, but doesn't match with an almost positive, nice-guy, somewhat street un-wise quirkiness to the cold and gritty atmosphere. The Punisher wants to get out of the city but sticks around one last time as the FBI agent who got killed by Castle, Donatelli, has a wife and daughter that he has to protect from the two sadistic Russoti brothers. Budiansky gets in the way but realizes The Punisher is on to something after all, as the Russoti brothers keep on finding different ways to rule the city with their terror.

The dialogue here isn't too far off from what Marvel Comics typically had in their captions, apart from the profanities. Though movies are still another medium and should be translated as such to accommodate the new format because a lot of those lines look much better on paper surrounded by more picture than words for the imagination to fill in the blanks. The art direction and atmosphere comes alive as you finally get to see a three dimensional scope of the city that The Punisher does his, well, punishing. Out of all of the characters, Ray Stevenson fits the part with a crude but comely look and readable expressions on his face. Also Julie Benz does an adequate job even with what little she's given. Instead of being a wise-crackin' antihero who always knows his next move, Frank Castle is a loner who's guns speak more words than his mouth and comes with emotional turmoil that drives him on from an incident years earlier. That portion is still kept fairly simple as this is more concerned with style, physicalities and action than the narrative that trails behind. Towards the end he gets a few more lines in to which should have been left silent as they're downright cringe worthy. The one odd thing that doesn't transition too well is him running around in the open in the streets with full gear on just seemed less cinematic than when he's going from rooftop to rooftop or if he had an actual vehicle.

Other than Punisher, it seemed like the performances and line delivery were farther down on the list of priorities to nail down and it makes you wonder if anyone took it seriously on set or were just told to go for broke and stepped over when more fun got in the way of measurement. Either way, it makes the experience distracting. Performances shouldn't always be an issue with these off-kilter genre films as they're usually more about the action and here grit and violence than pulling off something dramatically poetic. But this just felt all over the place and it didn't cohesively come together in the overall experience. I mean "Dick Tracy" had the crime angle with its share of cliches and exaggerated characters but still came together as out of place as any one of them would have been apart from the film--it essentially made you forget that the outside world exists.

This film has some of the worst accents from this many characters I've heard as a whole since watching "The Sicilian." There are so many misplaced ones going on it makes you wonder if they did it on purpose, but then to "what" purpose? You get cartoonish New York mob men that sound like they grew up in all different neighborhoods, an Irish sounding Rasta and even a hokey "The Godfather" impersonation. The humor feels in such contrast to the dark and dirty settings; it's as if they built all these deplorable sets only to fool about when filming on them. The mechanics can go from flashy and stylish to an attempt at trying to be realistically savage and gritty without always connecting the transmission in between; which makes you think they just borrowed mechanics from other films instead of working up from scratch on their own. The gun fights are all over the place with consistency: sometimes dead accurate, other times you think the guys are blind when the target is right in front, even with two guns in hand or high powered weapons.

Ray Stevenson's portrayal, the violence and the art direction are about the only things to see here that worked towards smooth transitions without having to call foul. This is bloody and I don't say that lightly. There are stabbings through every other soft and hard placing on the body that you can imagine and gun shot wounds that show all of the gory bits--unfortunately in CGI at times. Some might be put off by it since there isn't always a solid reason in the moment or build up to it, then again, it translated how much rage is boiling inside our comic book friend and then sends a bloody message that what they're doing isn't to be tolerated. A slap on the wrist gets turned over to an expensive lawyer. That's probably why, for instance, Lex Luther and The Joker keep showing back up as pesky villains because other superheroes get caught up by their own moralistic rules, whereas The Punisher is a self-admitted walking contradiction who visits the church no less. This has dark, cold and dirty sets to show that greed and corruption is everywhere you turn. There is a share of panning to get a lay of the tenebrous and dank land that needs more than a couple of street sweepers, paint jobs and repaving to clean up. There are cool lighting effects that project neons of the city that give a strange contrast. Though what's so frustrating, is it's a shame that the rest frequently missed the mark.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Lexi Alexander (Fool Proof, Green Street Hooligans)
Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Julie Benz, Mark Camacho, Keram Malicki-Sanchez
Link: IMDB

Story of Ricky (1991)

Bullies beware!

This was a Hong Kong made martial arts film that was based on a Japanese manga. The result was a mash of cultural ideas that came with relating points for either society--unlike the usual competitiveness and animosity towards each other--and then who could forget plenty of violence that came out of the collaboration. If someone in passing just says "Story of Ricky" was gory it would be doing it a disservice, because this is quite possibly THE goriest martial arts film at that point, that's even over "The Street Fighter," "Lone Wolf and Cub" and others in the '70s when rabid audiences wanted to see copious amounts of blood shed when fists and blades connected with soft human flesh. This is more in line to the '80s ultra violent Japanese animes that took the fascination of carnage further such as "Fist of the North Star" that weren't as limited by what movements and characteristics they displayed. As a live action feature, the budget is going to be less grand in scope, though this still manages to capture some of the over-the-top and colorful scenarios that are usually only done in inked pen. Essentially you can transparently see its limitations at times but it still doesn't stop it from being effective and intensely entertaining partly because of those setbacks.

In 2001, all forms of government have become privatized and turned into franchises, including prison systems. It's the future mainly in mindset as it hardly looks like it apart from a few different aspects switched around. The prison is headed by a rich warden, his power hungry assistant, nameless guards and then four gang leaders in charge of their own cell block to keep fearful inmates in line. A bus full of new prisoners show up and regulars attempt to treat them as fresh meat. One of them stands out, Ricky, a complete mystery with superhuman strength and a strong conviction to the point of feeling no pain except when it comes to reference of his girlfriend, not to mention he's an expert flute player to the point of playing in perfect key and harmony with nothing but a leaf! He doesn't need an entourage to back him up, as each one of his limbs counts as a mini army anyway. You could probably substitute his name with any one of the current Chuck Norris jokes. The movie is ridiculously cruel and violent by making some of the worst prisons in the world look like a daycare center. The weakest literally get beaten into the ground until they're nothing more than helpless shells of themselves. Ricky shows up as a modern superhero with a strong distaste for bullies, which is how he got there in the first place, with bullets in his chest as a souvenir to show for it. There are some flashbacks that show Ricky was once in an overly happy, positive state. He's more an antihero than the usual Marvel or DC superhero fare that US readers are used to, though he still comes with the bulging muscles and rules to govern his conscience despite not being afraid to get his hands dirty from time to time.

This is kept fairly simple in that it's more a series of events than a typical layered storyline. Essentially Ricky has to single handedly dismantle the corrupt prison system by acting as a self-sacrificing martyr for a widespread epidemic that's gotten out of hand against other human beings. Part of that doesn't always work towards justice or righteousness as they're all criminals first and foremost, though the film does emphasize a few that were wrongfully locked up. Ricky doesn't always just jump right into the carnage as even taking the life of an enemy is still a life taken. He's more a televangilist's best friend with a tendency to cripple and humble his opponents, since he realizes in order to make a form of peace blood must be taken. There are more veins exposed and guts spilled than your everyday janitor would care to clean up. Punches don't just bruise, but decapitate and rip through mid sections. Makeshift weapons are plunged into people in the most cringe worthy and tortuous fashions. If there is a message to it, they nailed it home and then some. The special effects are all over the place with quality. Some of the simple wounds get the job done of looking nasty, though others, such as model faces and bodies, you can blatantly see its limitations. Especially when someone grows Hulk-like strength, it's hard to tell if it was on purpose or they just ran out of money and didn't want to cut it out of the script. Then again, this style of movie isn't going to be appeasing to a large share of audiences and that usually means less backing for all that snazzy stuff.

For what the story lacks, the over-the-top characters carry their own. There's the assistant warden who is so fat and greedy that you can't help but not like him. There are the gang leaders who have flamboyant dress and unusual abilities up their sleeves to keep things amusing, either by accident or on purpose--probably both. The synthesizer music ranges from fumbling around with filler to actually producing a harmony on occasion. The opening piece reminds me of some of the horror scores by Goblin from the '70s/'80s--maybe it is, you never know with Chinese films. "Story of Ricky" often falls short, but tries so hard while at it that it's easier to overlook its many faults and setbacks. The performances and English dubbing are going to catch more laughs than some comedies due to being the epitome of boisterous and exaggerated to make a point--the film doesn't know what the word reserved or subtle means, but who says it needs to? On the other hand, this has an enormous amount of random surprises in the form of contraptions and scenarios, inventiveness, style and enough eccentric characters to get by. This is an off-kilter film that invents its own rules and does things that are downright impossible and unimaginable outside of itself, but it does them well enough towards suspending your disbelief that it often thumps logic where other films would fall flat from some of the same shortcomings.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Ngai Kai Lam
Stars: Siu-Wong Fan
Link: IMDB

Monday, September 19, 2011

Death Tube (2010)

Make way You Tube!

Other films from Japan such as "Suicide Club" and "Battle Royale" dealt with questions about death and how social pressure can come into play about how we view the end-all. "Death Tube" doesn't carry such an ulterior motive as, say, the western made anti-thriller "Funny Games" because in one sense it can still be viewed as a cinematic snuff/torture film that delivers human suffering on a tasty platter. Then on the other, there's a certain kind of fear with a message or a warning, if you will, buried underneath for the person who has a little more hope for the human race. Since it's straddling the line, it neither delivers in an overly gory manner (even though this has some the same makers as "Grotesque") nor in an intellectually profound way. It's a low-budget film with its shortcomings, stretched scenes and overly dramatic performances with characters that have little relating points, which limits either side from being truly effective as its predecessors with a proclamation.

Enter "Death Tube": an Internet show that broadcasts murders a few times a year for only a week to select audiences. On this particular episode a man named Inoue is sent a link to the site from a friend, not believing it's real since the video quality looks at times sketchy and the acting questionable, until he wakes up in the same room that he watched a man pleading for his life in earlier. If it's not happening to you at first, then there's no reason to care, right? Reminded me of a 2008 case in Florida with a live suicide involving a late teen. If you already guessed that this is a Japanese offshoot of "Saw," you wouldn't be too far off the mark. Instead of a doll with a tricycle that speaks, you get a yellow bear with a top hat and mustache called Ponkichi. It turns out there are seven others in the same dire straits as Inoue in different rooms that can speak to each other through a laptop. The victims have to go through a series of random objectives or simply they die. The viewers can help if they want to but just type messages egging everything on.

This first challenge is to put together a Rubik's Cube with a phrase they must abide by. Seven are left when Ponkichi gives them seven tasks that one person has to complete in each hour. If one fails at a task they might die at the end. Though if they collectively complete a total of four tasks then they are all safe. Soon enough they find that this was just one game among many that involve different inescapable rooms, puzzles and trivial objectives to get through to the end that pits each person against one another but at the same time has positive mottos hanging on banners that they should stick together. It essentially plays on their emotions as if they're going to make it or not or force them into decisions for the audience's entertainment. Ponkichi goes from being displayed on a small television to being a person dressed in a bear suit like a mascot with little signature moves and dances but in one hand a deadly gun to take out anyone who loses or doesn't follow the rules.

"Death Tube" has a fairly low budget, so there's going to be less on picture quality and production costs, such as poor lighting set-ups and effects, and there's often misplaced music in the background to what's actually going on. Those production pitfalls aren't the main issues as it's not always so distracting to keep one from following what's going on. The tone itself feels all over the place when trying to take the story into different routes over the course of an extended two hour run time that should have been shortened up. At one point it tries to be horrific, then a spoof, then fun as well as dramatic and heartfelt. The issue is it doesn't properly connect all of them together since it frequently misses on its timing with anticipation, suspense and even an attempt at black humor. It's like they had some of the right ideas in the direct moment of filming a scene, but when putting it all together it doesn't always flow as one centrally driving piece where the subtext gives you something more to contemplate on as it goes.

Even with all of the desperation and violence (more on blood spray and suggestion than gore) that ensues, it's not able to maintain a steady amount of intrigue as a result despite what looks like an original idea. The motivations of the actors and their emotions are often over-emphasized to nail the point home. In one sense there's no miscommunication of what feelings are projected, but it can also make a lackluster scene more dressed up when the character goes well over what was called for. It makes a share of this feel unnatural and forced rather than more involved. After throwing all of the characters through the wash so to speak, not to mention the perplexed audience along with them for what's actually going on, you eventually get to the long overdue end result and see the message of the exercise that by that point lost its impact.

Rating: 3.5/10

Link: IMDB ?

Grotesque (2009)

Lesson: walk around with a gun and chastity belt at all times

There aren't any productive statements to be made here or intellectual contemplation to be had as this is a film that primarily plays on a titillation of the senses. Instead of going to the hilt, it stabs one inch of the blade in at a time. It's an amusement park ride "cinematic snuff" film that comes with anticipation, some climaxes and false hopes for scares and revulsion. If you're looking for a narrative story or strong performances then you best look elsewhere. Though the gore effects, which are shown in full view and close-ups, are effective and that's what gets the message across more so. This is basically a series of events that moves into more dangerous levels till it finishes. It's not always loud and in your face but at times silent and calm or with some serene music that's counter to what's going on visually.

It makes it so you can't rely or guess what's going to happen next. It turns into a human endurance test for the will to live, though this isn't like watching a dramatic tale of survival where there's a positive place to reach in the end, which curbs any relating value. The tone of the film is grim with violence, perversion and sadism, though I'm not going to lie here, I actually laughed out loud quite a few times. I didn't do this for "The Devil's Experiment" or "Aftermath" but here I did. Not because it was witty or had punch lines or any of the usual suspects of humor but because the film has a tendency to screw with its audience. It's the prank hand-shake pull back except with people's lives at stake. It's a joke of the blackest kind, that's so cruel you wouldn't think anyone had the capability of doing it, until you see it in action with a deadpan expression to show for it.

This got banned in the UK, which causes hyped word of mouth to get spread about of how intense a film really is. Though if you've seen a few torture movies so far, it's hard to take "Grotesque" completely seriously as none of the characters feel grounded. Not to mention some scenes in their attempt at being over-the-top come across as comically exaggerated. I mean, donning full surgical gear and then instead using a brute weapon to operate on your victims had to be on purpose. Or performing one form of torture, only to stop because the victim broke the "rules" and isn't playing along "fairly," and then perform a bonus punishment with a lesser means of torture had to be a tongue-in-cheek statement. "Saw" and the like are at least more effective because you know where the characters and villains are coming from.

"Grotesque" has an innocent woman and man that are forming a budding relationship over lunch when they get abruptly kidnapped on the walk home by a completely perverted man whom we know nothing about. It seems so one-and-a-million to not make me put the dead bolt on at night or to even put me directly in their shoes. Yeah, we can see what he's capable of doing, but not how or why he's capable of doing it. In one sense it gives a certain level of repulsion from uncertainty and a wasteful, all-for-nothing outlook, but not so much that you want to turn it off and miss what sadistic new move he has up his sleeve. It feels more like the ancient days of cruel gladiator fights and modern bull tournaments than the kind that causes people to morbidly fixate at a car accident because you know there isn't anything amusing about the latter despite all dealing with people's lives on the line. There are some breaks here instead of being one giant brutal mess, which makes it exploitative but not entirely desensitizing. He performs distasteful things but doesn't always return to the same form of punishment, which is sort of a new chapter to its "story" rather than a typical tale with engrossing dialogue and character development.

The object of the game, explains their capture, who can calmly listen to classical music while having tea and cake, is to excite him with their will to live, or else they die--yep, the Oscars are recanting their ballots as we speak. He starts out by fondling, kissing and licking the woman while she's tied up and gagged. This has nudity here and one person touching another privately, but this is about as unerotic as it can get. There's shady lighting in a seedy setting and then silent protests as she tenses away with humiliation and embarrassment from every movement while the friend watches on helpless, only to take the degradation further when the capture reaches over and touches him. What makes this somewhat disturbing is he seems to be calm and reasonable at points, as if everything he's doing is logical and comes with everyday, normal and practical purpose, which causes the captives to get beaten down physically and mentally and at one point form Stockholm Syndrome. He frequently tries to play on their emotions by asking if they would die for the other one or if they are capable of being tortured in place of.

Essentially the point of "Grotesque" by my guess is to mess with the audience with their morals, judgments and stances. Also by making a viewer think the characters are safe, then pulling the rug out from underneath. It will let up with one scene only to go balls to the wall in the next--literally. I can't say the experience is returnable or worth an expensive purchase for that matter. There's not much to learn from here, just a hand full of scenes to remember of how far it was taken. This is the kind of experience that I'd imagine would be effective in a group setting though. Either to pass on the magic of grossing out a new person or playing a game of seeing how long it can take for someone to look away or turn it off for lack of personal understanding or purpose can make people squirm in their seats.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Koji Shiraishi (Ju-Rei: The Uncanny, A Slit-Mouthed Woman)
Stars: Tsugumi Nagasawa, Hiroaki Kawatsure, Shigeo Osako
Link: IMDB, information on ban from Dailymail

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mimic 3 (2003)

You'll never see them move in next to an exterminator

One could point to numerous areas of where this film doesn't play out like the first two and be completely right in that respect. It's not a special effects showcasing or a thriller with action packed scenes, as it plays out as a different kind of suspense feature. In one sense it does go for mystery for a majority of the time by giving snippets of clues till a final series of blows. This was handled by another director/writer and filmed in Romania, which gives the setting an off-look to portraying the US. "Mimic 3" tries to take a different route with the tone, pacing and story element, which fans should be all for to include diversity, but in its bold leap forward is still missing something to effectively further the series or completely encompass charging power on it own.

A 24 year old housebound man named Marvin, who was one of the last to get Stricklers disease 10 years ago, bides his time with voyeurism and photography outside of his high-rise apartment bedroom window. Yep, they did it on purpose with an indirect reference to "Rear Window" and all. His sister Rosy has a flair for the wild side, including getting high and hanging out with drug dealers, making her frequently spaced out and dressed in skimpy outfits. She brings a woman named Carmen over that Marvin spies on but they often get caught in awkward situations with his lungs burning from her smoke and perfume. He has no social life and snoops into other people's lives with a view from afar. Him and his sister think they saw a murder and report it to the police, though the detective, who has more an eye on his mother, believes it's a case of the boy who cried wolf and the girl who can't keep her mind focused. Soon enough Rosy and Carmen play amateur detective across the ways with Marvin only to look on helpless to the fact, until the murderers start to kill in the open and get closer and closer to his residence.

"Mimic 3" is essentially about one man who's locked up with little in the way of physical capabilities and then how he's able to overcome attacks against humanity on the outside even though he's one of the weakest of us in strength but not in conviction. Marvin often acts out the mannerisms of something like the "Rain Man" at points to give you an idea. In order to pull off a steady amount of on-screen power requires an amazing amount of range as an actor and the performer doesn't always nail it. He droops his shoulders, dodges physical touch and eye contact, not to mention can't live normally like others: all of which sets up sympathy. Not that much grows from him like other films that go for character development that starts as a seed and springs into a tree, as he essentially acts and maintains the garden and then perseveres despite outside obstacles. Nearly the entire film rests on the shoulders of the lead actor with his movements, emotion or how information gets passed solely through him. The biggest problem here is there isn't an equal balance of information and mysteriousness/wonderment to create a locked in driving point. As a result, a share of this feels like you're in the room with him but still a stranger.

The messages of the film don't come right out and say it, since little is told in the way of narrative, whereas the first two films had Dr. Tyler and then Remi to explain firsthand knowledge of what's going on, making those the more science fiction oriented films. In one sense, this doesn't retread like part two but in the other it's not always more contemplative despite its gradual flow that feels much longer than its hour and 17 minute run time. This is a subtle film where the messages are signaled from afar. It nearly takes the complete view point of Marvin to the point of only seeing things through his zoom lens, often times in the form of snap shots and then odd violin music frequently going like they're filming some 18th century aristocrat instead of some guy held back in modern times. It leaves a lot of questions open and it doesn't create the world of intrigue it wanted to like its predecessor "Rear Window" did. It takes a share of time before anything happens that is significant and this more or less plays on if he's imagining it or is it real and then why no one believes him. If you haven't seen the first two films, there's going to be more surprise with that sentiment, but otherwise it's not the best luring system for an acquainted viewer. The Judas Breed element is somewhat elusive as to why and how they're there, and then what explanation is told is said so quickly so as to miss the focal point. It makes the film wind down inconclusively and feel less part of the "Mimic" series, which is somewhat disappointing even if this tried to be different.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: J.T. Petty (Soft for Digging)
Stars: Karl Geary, Alexis Dziena, Rebecca Mader, Amanda Plummer, Lance Henriksen
Link: IMDB

Mimic 2 (2001)

Mimic this!

The Judas Breed never completely died out and is killing again--the franchise making company Dimension Films should have told you that as these things never go away, unless it becomes a trilogy, of course. This time it's taking out people that are related to a grade school teacher named Miss Remi Panos who has issues finding men with a wall of shame to show for it. She was Dr. Tyler's assistant from the first film: the strange woman with red hair who liked her Polaroid camera. A detective is attempting to put two and two together of what the connection might be or if she's directly involved in the murders that came with flayed faces. At the same time, the defense department shows up with their equipment and a chip on their shoulder that it's their investigation now--who called them or why they got an inkling, who knows? Remi, a younger student who's aunt forgot to pick him up and a former pupil that is now a homeless alcoholic with an attitude, get trapped in the delipidated school building after hours. Their paths are blocked with obstructions and they spend their time coming up with survival tactics, such as a camera with a blinding flash, to escape the clutches of the giant Judas bug who's got an ulterior motive and is getting closer to its knack for mimicry.

This starts out fine with momentum, though after awhile there doesn't feel like there is enough story to keep the continuation intriguing. The Remi character has some connections to the first, and some areas bring a tone of amusing quirkiness, though halfway into it and we're getting the same explanation retold to a new person of how they work. Instead of a valid new chapter, it feels like a retread. The performers have to react to their newly found situation but still don't carry this as if you care what happens to them. They're just caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. This has some decent suspense scenes come and go, cinematography, setups and effects. There's nothing necessarily wrong with how it was shot, even though some might initially think so--myself included--with the direct to video tag and being the first full length feature from a TV director. Filmmaking wise, this surprisingly wasn't that bad. However, it feels like "Mimic 2" doesn't always kick into high gear or put something in front of the audience that would glue one's attention to move beyond the first film. It tried to wrap up with a state of gripping anticipation with a final twist, except it felt like they didn't have enough to work with, then held it out there too long and made it obvious a few steps ahead, terminating its effective culminating impact.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Jean de Segonzac (Homicide: Life on the Street (TV), Oz (TV))
Stars: Alix Koromzay, Bruno Campos, Will Estes
Link: IMDB

Memorable quote:

"You two, go to the door and keep an eye on the hall."
"'Cause I'm the fucking teacher and I said so!"

Mimic (1997)

Something's lurking in the subway...big rats...think again!

"The Relic" came out as a hybrid science-fiction-thriller-horror early on in '97. Later in the year, "Mimic" wasn't an identical movie by any means in story or character but it still follows a similar genre setup and pacing template that audiences would consciously recognize. This was a story that could have been made in the '50s with science gone wrong and smaller organisms turning into monstrous size--outsourcing us at the top of the food chain, or destroying everything humans have built as payback for killing off nature to make room for concrete jungles. Those films, to an extent (some more than others), tried to make science (or fact) relative to real life, though were often times guess work and were more so playing on fears of what you wouldn't expect to catch a viewer off guard. They posed "what if?" questions to cinema goers in the form of sudden events: What if a cousin of that spider or ant I love to squish under my shoe comes back to get me? Also the "how did they come to be?" was somewhat pushed to the wayside, and the "how do we patch up the crisis?" was usually the main question, especially during a state of confusion and panic. "Mimic" has the moderately enormous creatures of the yesteryear, and it plays on fear, if a little more contained, though it gets somewhat complex with its biggest question posed: Should science play God by creating life of one species in order to save an existing one? As the characters soon find out that dabbling in one area can create another unforeseen catastrophe.

A disease called Strickler is debilitating and killing children when it suddenly comes to New York without a cure. A Dr. Susan Tyler (Sorvino) created a hybrid bug called the "Judas Breed" to attack the resilient cockroach--which was the main carrier of the disease--before it would become a widespread epidemic elsewhere. Three years later a man is being chased by something humanlike in look though with superhuman strength on a roof top. An autistic boy who can imitate just about anything witnesses the event from outside of his rain beaten window. Later at the cops-left-and-right, taped off scene, Tyler's husband Dr. Peter Mann (Northam), who works for the CDC, is instead called in for signs of yellow fever from immigrants in a nearby basement. Meanwhile, to her surprise, Dr. Tyler gets ahold of a Judas insect--which was only supposed to have a short life expectancy and be unable to breed--from young street kids who are selling it to her for a collection. The mysterious person-like thing in a trench coat visits her lab and takes the bug. She needs another specimen to confirm her findings and goes with her husband down in the subway terminals where the boys last seen the bug they sold her.

The beginning portion plays on mysteriousness and moody elements by panning shots, showing rainy and abandoned alleyways, and then giving snippets of information in a gradual unveiling till it's ready to jump in with both feet into a culminating finale. The beginning half is essentially there to build up to a showdown. So the film earns some bonus points for spending a little more time showcasing the characters beforehand until their various story threads eventually interlink. There are those that are directly involved to the bugs, while others find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. The directly involved use more brute force than their background knowledge to combat the enemy and it makes this look like it could have been any warm blooded human with a conscience to save humanity. I'm guessing out of convenience the scriptwriters didn't want to include another hero so they made the same characters jump over and take on both personas. Some of the scenarios make sense in the direct moment but when looking back or with an overview some motivations don't always line up or just seem a little too handy to further the story. It makes this start out with the tumblers working and ends up in the same boat as others that go directly for the throat. The first time I saw this, I remember thinking "Mimic" was a slightly better movie and was somewhat impressed, till that esteem lessened when I tried to get more out of it on repeat comebacks. There are still plenty of filmmaking mechanics to keep one busy and the production looks much better than most other films of the type.

They also play on something among us that isn't what it seems in a big city where everyone is so busy they don't even have time to pause, never mind check if you've got two legs under a trench coat. I couldn't help but be reminded of Raphael from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" without the jokes, of course, but something that big and awkward going mostly unnoticed to busy New Yorkers in the city who move forward like they've already seen it all or as if time is money. The creature effects were a blend of CGI and prosthetics. Their faces are somewhat eerie looking, in that you wouldn't want the normal bug behind your fridge to look similar to your ugly neighbor. This has some violence, though it's not used excessively where blood is spraying this way and that, but more at exposed bug guts and insides than human--I'm sure there's no complaints there as it's either us or them, right?

Unlike some other films where the characters are similar or cut outs, the casting is definitely varied here. They're memorable with their diversity, though what's disappointing is it wasn't always taken further with remarkable performances. That can also be blamed on what range they're given. The weakest link is Jeremy Northam. He feels a little stiff and uncharismatic when attempting to inject emotion. It's like he nailed the everyday guy a little too well with a basic tone of voice and simple look to the point of being easily lost in a crowd. Mira Sorvino does all she can with her role with some intelligence and strength, but they don't always make her glow beyond what's she's given to do, like, say, Ripley in "Alien," which this gives some reference to. The boy and his Geppetto looking father add a contrast here but at times feel like extra bodies that pad the running time. The subway cop, Leonard (Dutton), and CDC agent, Josh (Brolin), represent the loud and colorful personalities. This is part of where some light jokes and fun come out in the meantime. However, the cop quickly gets annoying with nearly every single line he spews being a complaint, until two seconds from the finish line, he decides to be a team player. There isn't much on growth here--bugs excluded--except there is some rewarding resolve with attention to anticipation, which makes it more effective, as over-the-top and cinematic that may have been.

The major strengths of this movie are its aesthetics rather than its story or characters. You could tell Guillermo del Toro had an eye for detail in this early film of his, which I didn't realize till some time later that it was him. There's an ordered structure with a concentration on smooth transitions and getting the frame lined up just right or in a unique fashion--sometimes to a fault, as some scenes are so simple in idea that it feels like it's dressed up to be more than it is. "Mimic" still has a certain atmosphere and enough entertainment and involvement that made a turn around from being just an otherwise below average creature feature.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Guillermo del Toro (Cronos)
Stars: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, Alix Koromzay, F. Murray Abraham
Link: IMDB

Facts from the Black and Red:

- Cockroach derives from the Spanish word cucaracha.
- Cockroach skeletons are external.
- Roaches are omnivorous.
- Cockroaches mate facing away from each other.
- The mouths of cockroaches work sideways and they don't have a tongue.