Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Arrival II (1998)

Aliens and maple leaves

This time around Zane's Canadian step-brother--who's a wizard of a computer geek underneath that '80s looking hairdo--must pick up the pieces from where his distant, paranoid relative left off in a similar DIY investigative fashion for, that's right, humanity's sake. Except he's laid back, shows late for work and would rather run from a situation than get his hands dirty, especially about theories concerning covert extraterrestials. Yeah, those guys...and now gals.

The pacing is along the lines of a made-for-TV mystery with a few thrills to grease the wheels. Production expenses are tighter, so in turn, there are a number of scenes that are overdrawn. The acting isn't expected to be award winning but with the flow being at slower speeds than its predecessor, it makes what comes out of their mouths forced and far from giving the believable sense of actually being there in this state of looming danger. Not to mention the one-dimensional villains that are just shy of being animated over and turned into cartoon characters.

The first film, while not mind-blowing, was fresher with ideas. "The Arrival 2" retreads similar mechanics and the story meddles on with superficial attempts to personalize the experience with little quips, along with token love interests and by-now dated gizmos. Overall, this feels straightforward, anticlimactic and, aside from a few redeeming qualities to keep it afloat, a waste of a sequel.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Kevin Tenney (Night of the Demons, Peacemaker, Pinocchio's Revenge)
Stars: Patrick Muldoon, Jane Sibbett
Link: IMDB

The Arrival (1996)

The truth is out there but closer than we thought

Certain media has come along ranging from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "The X-Files" that made it possible for the kooks to buddy up with the crossed-armed cinema goers who are on the fence about intelligent lifeforms from outside of Earth. "The Arrival" is a film that appeals to a wider audience due to its continual action, along with a global message in its wake that affects us all.

Zane Zaminsky, a radio astronomer, works in a job that in real life would be about as exciting as watching cows graze to most folks. Though for cinematic effect, this paranoid chair-jockey catches on to a massive conspiracy theory that the public has not a clue. It's a good thing we have Mr. ZZ flat top to undercover the truth no matter if it might risk him his job, family or freedom. He's a big-screen archetype that's self-sacrificing in his ways and uses his convenient scientific skills to fence off bad guys that range from charismatic to cookie-cutter at every turn.

"The Arrival" on the surface is meant for basic entertainment. Apart from watching the main character figure out all his steps and moves on his own, the only time the brain starts to kick in is towards the latter part of the film with the truth coming out. Locales change and nifty devices are shown with state of the art CGI for its day. Though some of the film mechanics are dated as this is a "movie-movie": something that isn't grounded with real characters and full of events that are meant to look like trial and error but feel guided to go a certain way with the story. Its main perk is its constant traction forward, which makes it feel more like a suspense thriller than a sci-fi/action movie like "Independence Day."

Rating: 6/10

Director: David Twohy (Timescape, writer - Warlock, The Fugitive, Waterworld)
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Crouse, Richard Schiff
Link: IMDB

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Truth in the title

A memory impaired man (Daniel Craig) awakes with a strange metal shackle on his wrist and a wound on his side. After showcasing hidden skills like a 19th century Jason Bourne on some rough and tough dudes, he heads to the nearest town of Absolution only to find more hassles. He deals with a spoiled, troublemaker named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who's father is a not-to-be-messed-with head honcho of sorts. Percy lands in jail and soon enough the man with no memory ends up in the cell next door, as he turns out to be the infamous Jake Lonergan who has a rap sheet longer than the Oregon Trail. When Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) gets word of his incarcerated son, he storms the streets with his cowboys. Right before a tense showdown, the alien part of the equation shows to make things go boom and people disappear. Jake's bracelet suddenly turns into Mega Man status and he blasts one of the ships down with an energy beam. The creature that operated the vessel flees and they round up a posse to track it back to where their kidnapped loved ones are.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is more about the journey to the final showdown involving various characters that it incidentally never fully scratches below the introductory surface on. It makes a few of them at times more plot devices than natural, especially the woman who feels penciled in after the fact to conveniently solve or perpetuate Jake's issues. Along tags a bartender who's more business than brawn; a mysterious woman who eyes Jake; a practical preacher who knows how to pray and shoot; a young boy who's not yet a man; a loyal Indian who looks at his boss as a father figure; and the former colonel Dolarhyde who's got a thing or two to teach the youngins about battle. Now, where westerns in the past had everybody out for their ruthless selves, this uses the enslaving extraterrestrials as a means to get along for the greater good of humanity, including fierce outlaws and warrior Indians who are in the same dire straits. In the meantime, no one ever claimed the abominable aliens didn't have punctuality as they make a few well-timed appearances to the point of predictably just before a human vs human conflict is about to get all gun crazy. Though like throwing a rock at a tank, these basic, booze-drinkin', boot-wearin' westerners look to be completely overrun and overwhelmed. That is until they have to get sneaky and use strength in numbers to put a stop to the aliens, which at this point are so one-dimensional the movie plays out like an easily sold good vs evil template with nothing left over to put in the bank to accumulate interest.

This is more the former than the latter of the title. The western portion on its own isn't groundbreaking to the genre, and the sci-fi side isn't inventive enough to blow the lid off a long time fan, even if the combination is definitely original. Other aspects to fall back on like the pacing can feel like it revs the engine, then levels at a lower gear. This wouldn't be such an issue but it's not that contemplative of a film to hit the locker room in between for a break, and as a result creates a building list of questions from the viewer that never end up answered about certain plays. It's a film that treads more on mystery when it comes to its antagonists, by at first seeing a shadow, a claw and then a quick full frontal, as well as it only gives little snippets of information for the viewer. Problem is, it doesn't create that intriguing enough of creatures to pull the enigma off--no communication, no interaction with each other, very few distinguishing elements with behavior or appearance--or even go further into why they're on Earth other than laying out a questionable reason at face-value.

Daniel Craig played a simple but commanding presence, as he said little but when it came time for action delivered with full force as if he meant it, and then some. It causes you to focus in on him to not miss his next move, despite getting knocked about with a lesser blow or two on occasion. Clancy Brown plays a memorable role as a tough holy man that adds humor to the situations, but Chris Browning includes cartoon flavor with his crusty chompers and oafish demeanor. Paul Dano, as much as he tried and has the most range, his performance felt misplaced as if he's a tortured man rather than just a fearful kid with no perspective from growing up safe and spoiled. Harrison Ford's character is built up and built up, with other people making not only a legend of him but a power not to be reckoned with, though by the time it comes for him to show his stuff, he falls somewhat short on punch. It's a shame that some of his gruff lines come off as unflattering imitations rather than truly compelling. On an entertainment level, you get massive explosions, O.K. Corral-thumping gun fights, built up thrills, mystery, situational humor, potential love, tragedy, resolution and you get to see two separate genres at the same time. It sounds like a lot, but it didn't always come one after the other or always in a smooth, edge-of-your-seat transition together. The mentioned certainly made this enjoyable and an interesting concept to see but unfortunately it wasn't capable of thoroughly traveling beyond expectations for such a cool premise even with all the budget and all the talent it mustered for a central goal with two contrasting but potentially complementing sides.

Rating: 6/10

Director: John Favreau (Made, Iron Man 1 & 2)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Olivia Wilde, Noah Ringer, Clancy Brown
Website: IMDB

High Plains Invaders (2009)

A group of unlikely citizens fight aliens in the west

It's 1892 in a little mining town called Avaranth in Colorado. Sam Danville is going to be hanged for various crimes ranging from train robbery to murder when suddenly a spider looking alien attacks the town. It's up to Sam, the shopkeeper, a female bounty hunter, a nurse, an outlaw, a scientist and the Sheriff to fend them off till they can get away, die trying or save the day.

This begins like a "Night of the Living Dead" setup where they get holed up in the Sheriff's headquarters, only to periodically come out when finding a different way to kill one. The situation is looking hopeless as every time a bug is taken out another pops right back in its place like a weed. To make matters worse, a woman is injured inside and the loud mouthed bounty hunter named Rose postures and all the while threatens Sam that she's going to collect on his reward dead or alive. The nurse and Sam are attempting to rekindle their relationship that went sour from something that happened with his criminal history. With the exception of the bounty hunter and the opportunist outlaw that was formerly Sam's friend, the rest attempt to use the situation for redemption and turn into self-sacrificing heroes no matter the cost to save humanity from space invaders who are drawn there for a specific reason.

This is derivative but to its benefit "High Plains Invaders" is short and also painless in that the main characters don't make very many stupid moves, in part to how simple it's kept instead of going well beyond its means like many Sci Fi Channel/Syfy made-for-TV movies have done in the past. The majority of the film is a pretty straightforward from-one-thing-to-the-next type with a little down time to somewhat personalize the characters in between random attacks. The performances are passable, nothing that you haven't seen before with people trying to survive from something attacking them, albeit kept a little more realistic than over-the-top cinematic. The tone at points rides a fine line between trying to be humorous and serious, but usually more of the latter. Their western accents come and go per scene and occasionally come off as a caricature but the simplistic dialogue is still said with some meaning.

"High Plains Invaders" is catered to the neck deep genre addicts who are given a little taste of a gimmick when two genres are combined. If you separated both portions, then this would be left standing with two below average movies, with the final result itself hitting around middle road. The look of the western times comes with some harsher color templates such as grays and browns to make it feel more authentic than characters standing around on a pristine movie set. Science fiction fans have seen what invasions can do in the modern day with countless movies on the subject. But if anything, how the west is utilized here seems to limit the level of intensity and big action scenes as the resources were less than spectacular compared to modern weaponry such as tanks and aircraft. It makes the events seem somewhat basic: run, hide, shoot, plan, fight over what to do. Sure it's not going to be "Wild Wild West" or even "Independence Day" due to restrained budget reasons, but they don't always take advantage of what they have and get as innovative as one would like to make up for the fact. Even their shoot outs are fairly uneventful the way bullets bounce off the large bug creatures' hard backs like it was nothing. Though the projectiles the creatures themselves shoot come with some gaping wounds from being quicker on the draw than their western counterparts. Comparing then and now, it goes to show that humans haven't changed all that much even when aliens enter the picture. Some are good, some look bad but are really good, and some are just plain ugly despite looking good.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Kristoffer Tabori (Pursued, The Accidental Witness, Fireball)
Stars: James Marsters, Cindy Sampson, Sanny Van Heteren, Sebastian Knapp
Link: IMDB

Wyvern (2009)

Turning up the heat in Alaska

A large creature awakens from its slumber in a glacier after temperatures warm near a northern Alaskan town called Beaver Mills with a population just over 300...and slowly dwindling. After a serious of deadly accidents in the woods the Chief of police holds a town meeting to report that a predatory "something" was seen flying through the air to everyone's disbelief and annoyance that the town's festival is threatening to be canceled as a result. Speculation is in the air and nothing's set in stone just yet until that something makes a surprise appearance in the open at the worst time when everyone's exposed. It's called a "Wyvern": a dragon from Nordic legend that feasts on a bottomless pit of men's flesh.

The story is somewhat loose after the creature appears and makes everyone scramble in a panic from not knowing what to do till more of a game plan is implemented from learning its weaknesses. They wing it, so a few coincidences come up but these are made out to be real people instead of instinctively combative or over-the-top cinematic by doing complex and impossible maneuvers. Communications are out, escape routes are blocked and for a share of the film they're desperately held up in the diner in the center of town hoping to outsmart an age old beast that only knows how to do one thing: kill. The creature has a one track mind but still keeps it a challenging sport the way it manages to pick off people by hiding and lunging out or adapting the way it hunts.

The atmosphere is somewhat light with its thrills and kept fun than overly serious or nail bitting tension filled. People are killed and the reaction is: "Do that again! But next time bloodier!" Though once the group gets narrowed down to a select few, this reveals some quirky characters and light hearted situations to personalize them. Nick Chinlund, who plays Jake the former truck driver/main hero, managed to pull out an effectively moving scene amongst the playfulness and carnage about his past and what it means for him to stay in the small town. Erin Karpluk, as Claire the waitress, is the second lead with an eye for Jake and an easy going but tough attitude when it calls for it. To its benefit, the filmmakers managed to put together a cast that an audience doesn't mind becoming familiar with for the entire duration. There's the perverted female deputy, radio DJ, old redneck with tales of legends, war veteran who likes his guns, batty old lady who imagines people and others that come and go. The performances are mostly spot on, with a few hiccups here and there, though they still manage to take the movie with measure despite the premise being somewhat outlandish.

"Wyvern" is an easy made-for-TV movie that uses a template that's been done before and knows its plot is ridiculous. Yet they don't even try and hide that fact by taking it too somberly to the point of stepping over its worth or making it overly dramatic. It's still a sincere delivery that's enough to maintain a steady pacing and some charging power that one can get engaged in for a simple bored afternoon diversion where monsters are terrorizing poor, unsuspecting souls and you're sitting comfortably in your living room with a bowl of popcorn.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Steven R. Monroe (House of 9, It Waits, Left in Darkness)
Stars: Nick Chinlund, Erin Karpluk, Don S. Davis, Tinsel Korey, Barry Corbin
Link: IMDB

Rise of the Gargoyles (2009)

You thought stealing from a leprechaun was bad

In Paris, a young professor and failed author named Jack Randall goes to an old church at the recommendation of a friend named Carol to check out the architecture before it's to be torn down. They sneak in at night and spot some strange anomalies that are far more ancient than expected. They're chased out by something in the shadows--that was just awakened by two greedy construction workers prior--but not before Carol innocently takes some souvenirs. Out to eat, a person is dropped from above on their car. Then later that night Carol is killed with Jack being the primary suspect with flying creatures from the church out of the question to the skeptical inspector looking into the strange case. As more bodies start to pile up Jack gets the attention of a sensationalist reporter with video evidence and they--including her cameraman and the steadfast priest of the church--make an attempt to put a stop to the creature since no one else believes them.

"Rise of the Gargoyles" feels like the porno of horror films, of course, without the nudity but the rushed feeling and that everything is thrown together to get right to the meat of it (no pun intended) and move on. The film doesn't feel very measured out: awkwardly misaligned camera angles, inconsistent sound, over lit settings, stock music. It's as if they didn't even story board some shots and just winged it half of the time. The physical effects are shoddy and thrown together to say the least. This had two blatant dummy looking bodies limply thrown after they were killed in the beginning. If you've ever seen old episodes of "Married with Children" and how people's stand ins were chucked for comic effect, then this might come with unintentional laughs than incurring any shred of shock value. The revelations of where this is leading about a dangerous creature quickly gaining strength to threaten humans isn't anything new that hasn't been seen before. That might be fine but on top of that the driving point of doing what's right to save the day despite being accused and not treated fairly by others also felt tired and formulaic from being slapped together. A share of it feels lazy and half-hearted: what was the point?

With the exception of Ifan Huw Dafydd playing the inspector--who went well over the mark, as he must have thought he was going to be in the next "Pink Panther" with his over-the-top accent--I feel bad for the performers since a share of the faults were done behind the camera and in the story. They actually try and attempt to inject some personality into it but it's nowhere near enough to save the entirety. This was a weak attempt and I can't say to waste time with it when there's plenty of "Gargoyles" the animated series episodes to mine through, even if it's a repeat.

Rating: 2/10

Director: Bill Corcoran (21 Jump Street, Mutant X, Falcoln Beach)
Stars: Eric Balfour, Caroline Neron, Tanya Clarke, Ifan Huw Dafydd
Link: IMDB

Carny (2009)

A beast as savage as its prey

What makes this made for TV Canadian film shown on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel--I know, I know "Canadian"--a cut above the usual creature-running-amuck type of B movie is it takes itself somewhat seriously, it lifts part of the screen away when people actually die and there are a few different themes going on at once to give it some meaning. The film carries the usual hit and miss CGI, though it doesn't look entirely thrown together and there are some actual grisly prosthetic gore effects when the immaterial attacks the material. It rushes into a few of its scenarios--especially how it opens up--but the saving grace of "Carny" is it doesn't entirely feel cheap overall.

A carnival hits a small, crime free town called Reliance with a new oddity up its sleeve that's going to be more outrageous and far more dangerous than the usual human deformity. That's because it's not a human at all: a shady and eccentric showman named Cap gets ahold of the Jersey Devil with curious spectators lining up but to the by-the-book Sheriff's unease. The local pastor goes about his usual ramblings, but this time at least he can say "I told you so" when the winged beast escapes to the nearby woods and attacks and kills unsuspecting locals till a full blown creature hunt with every available gun is assembled. If there's ambition with this carnival then it sheds rivers of red and sees through green eyes since Cap and his even shadier assistant are playing along but are currently trying every which way they can to reacquire it for a buyer willing to pay a pretty penny.

Some of the performances are better than others. Matt Murray, as the pastor's son Taylor, plays the tough and rebellious but scared on the inside persona like a caricature. Vlasta Vrana, as the hypocritical pastor, seems to start out somewhat innocently but escalate to someone far more threatening when people actually listen to his incessant ramblings. As the Sheriff Lou Diamond Phillips manages to act naturally but isn't always given opportunity to play a charismatic leading man with so many others gaining side parts around him. Simone-Elise Girard, as Samara the vision seeker and potential love interest, represents someone as a character but is somewhat stiff in her delivery and tone. Alan C. Peterson, as Cap the showman, keeps up both appearances with the shady dealings behind the scenes and not letting himself being found out in the front.

If one can get over there being no build up to acquiring the Jersey Devil and that there was only minimal effort made with explaining how or why it actually exists then this was a somewhat diverting experience. There are some inconsistencies here and there but the pacing is somewhat steady and moves from one thing to next to cover up a few. The film deals with some indifference and how a situation can escalate out of control with the creature as well as the town's folk against their own kind. There's a sense that every other person wants to control the next, anywhere from the pastor's son not being treated as an individual to the assistant of Cap being pushed around despite having capability. It makes you wonder who is more the villain or darker in nature: the Jersey Devil or the thought to be normal citizens with facades. The deaths are actually treated like who was killed was a person. A share come as a surprise as to who gets it next as the filmmakers aren't afraid to kill off their leads, even when there was a scene with drama to establish who they were prior. Not to mention who saves the day gets shifted around with all of the different people who could have done it, which keeps predictability down and anticipation up.

"Carny" is more bleak than it is fun at points and more of the scary moments come from how the humans treat each other than how the beast mindlessly torments them. The Jersey Devil is still kept somewhat obscured at times, that way to conceal where it's going to come flying or creeping in from next. Likely to happen? No. But it goes to show that the deformed and odd looking carnies on the outside are the only ones that don't act monstrous on the inside when they aren't performing.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Sheldon Wilson (Shallow Ground, Kaw, Screamers: The Hunting)
Stars: Lou Diamond Phillips, Alan C. Peterson, Vlasta Vrana, Simone-Elise Girard, Matt Murray
Link: IMDB

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Forget Me Not (2009)

Friends: till death do us part

A group of overindulgent teens are living up the party life after high school when they decide to return to the cemetery they used to play a spooky but innocent game at. One person pretends to be a ghost, while everyone else hides and then once caught that person turns into another ghost to go after the rest--last one alive/not tagged wins. There they meet a mysterious girl their age who wants to play, only to be seen jumping over a cliff by another girl named Sandy as soon as she won. She's nowhere to be found, until she shows up to take out those that awakened her in a series of gruesome accidents where each person that she kills everyone else forgets all except Sandy. There are some flashbacks to when Sandy was young and had a bff named Angela who she used to exclusively play with until boys and other more adventurous kids entered the picture. This starts out with some fun and games until Sandy starts to crack up and go into hysterics from none of her friends believing her while certain aspects of their lives get altered like a butterfly effect once someone else is removed from the picture.

This is treated like somewhat of a formula where the bad guy systematically takes out screaming and confused victims that don't have a fighting chance to save their own skin. Once the villains show up, you know their fate is sealed. Like a slasher film: what's going to happen to the characters is predictable but how they get it just before that point comes with some variation. A share of the attacks occur in an isolated or cornered area away from their friends, which makes nowhere safe including walking around in broad day light. Though the only character aware of that is Sandy--even then it's not all put together yet--while the others go about their merry way none the wiser which takes away some of the imminent danger and omnipresence of it all. They're superficial characters that represent a pretty face and body that live life on the edge and in turn get knocked off without a care except for the waste of genes. These are some strange and somewhat unique looking villains--a blend of CG and make-up--that shake, twitch, growl and hiss with gaping mouths and sizable teeth. They don't seem inherent to this particular story but that might just be to keep the viewer from being able to wrap their head around them.

The cinematography, with a crisper picture quality and some wider angles, makes this seem higher budget than it really is. The cast interacts somewhat naturally with each other like they could really be friends, even if they only come with a general outline and limited range: macho/slutty/drunk/high, then for a short period yell, plead or scream when their time comes. The underlying story is a neat idea itself about promises as a friend and then redemption for those that have been slighted in a highly elaborate game of pay back and revenge. Not to mention how it circles back in a roundabout way was an effective twist. What's disappointing is the concept is only taken so far when it doesn't have another driving point apart from including a share of filler scenes that show how these kids live on the wild side. It could have been more effective if they were clued in or have significant reasons to separate from the group and put themselves in danger than accidentally walking into it. Or show that they are more than mere acquaintences. Neither does it make this as thrilling as it could have been when the characters don't have much going for them or little to look forward to even when out of school. The expression "the world is yours for the taking" only took them as far as their parents' wallets, then over to the liquor and condom aisle at the local gas station. Are they missed? Probably not.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Tyler Oliver
Stars: Carly Schroeder, Brie Gabrielle, Cody Linley, Jillian Murray
Link: IMDB

Albino Farm (2009)

Backwoods inbreds meet their intellectual matches from the city

This is based on a real life place that combines religious fanaticism, backwoods inbreds and an urban myth surrounding it when four, clueless youngsters are doing an assignment for rural history and they take a wrong turn into a town called Shiloh that's so remote it's not even on a documented map. On the outskirts they get a flat tire and head over to the local gas station where the blind attendant spouts some gospel mumbo jumbo and warns them about a local legend which makes them only more intrigued to check it out.

Despite their driver, Stacey, having some sense and a desire to play it safe, the rest are just made out to be bonehead, thrill seekers egged on by their resident party animal Brian that leads them to make one stupid move and test one dangerous limit after the next. They find out about the hush-hush legend of the Albino Farm through some locals with odd deformities and an upbringing of their own interpretation of the good book that keeps the fear in them. Not surprisingly they get separated when putting one foot forward before their thought processes can catch up. They're neck deep, with no turning back and now have something more out of the ordinary than the town's folk stalking in the woods after them.

Should they save their friends? Should they run? This isn't exactly challenging stuff but more the characters just dodging, crying and tripping, only to repeat in different variations until a random, all-too-convenient solution shows itself and the curtains close with an ambiguous, use-your-own-interpretation brief summary. It's hard to see one's self in their situation since the majority of their mistakes could have been avoided. The acting gets the job done--if not over, occasionally under--for the type of standard material they're given: low budget, tongue-in-cheek horror with shallow dialogue of the everyday kind till they get to the extraordinary events and then the tears roll and their feet go every which way but the right way. The villains look as expected, along with their straightforward motivation: grotesque to the sight and then sadistic and violent to the teeth. You get what you pay for, no more to be considered new or overly shocking, no less that hasn't been done before that you can count on it.

The performers playing the locals carry the look but not always the right sway of words to put an extra ounce of fear in a viewer or make someone uncomfortable enough to produce real shivers--especially if you've seen even a few for the subgenre. Up and starting actors from other entertainment areas, Richard Christy and Chris Jericho, one playing more of a I-told-you-so jerk than the next, still have some ways before they perfect their acting chops. Christy is somewhat wooden and playing catch up to his lines, though Jericho did better than I thought he would have by changing around his appearance and mannerisms as the town troublemaker. Duane Whitaker, who's been around in the horror scene for a while, tends to reach over the mark but serves his purpose as the local gas station attendant who's either crazy or too right--probably both.

"Albino Farm" starts out with jokes and games, only to make an attempt to be more serious as it goes along. This was too playful and also self-aware of its own faults in one too many areas to be scary, not to mention too quickly paced to give enough setup to be tension filled. The movie moves in a forward motion but this is just too easy to be taken with any bit of lasting integrity or laugh along with it more than a cursory chuckle. To its benefit it doesn't stall or look back but it also doesn't give room to enwrap the viewer in layers of wonderment regarding this tainted, small town and real location of the Albino Farm that they would have otherwise never heard of. Instead it feels stretched thin and turns out to be only a light diversion of the come-and-go, not-to-be-remembered kind after it's over and done due to being kept so formulaic and predictable.

Rating: 3/10

Director: Joe Anderson, Sean McEwen
Stars: Tammin Sursok, Chris Jericho, Richard Christy, Duane Whitaker, Bianca Barnett
Link: IMDB

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nine Miles Down (2009)

Science, superstitions and madness in Africa

The story of "Nine Miles Down" is something in the vicinity of "The Shining" meets "The Thing" meets "The Andromeda Strain" with, of course, their own characteristics and not as overblown of a budget. This is a psychological thriller about an ambitious science project that comes with its share of local superstitions. This is what "The Devil's Tomb" wanted to be from the same year about security sent out into the desert to investigate mysterious happenings at a remote site but then a routine job turns into a life changer with what is found lurking in the shadows.

A lone security officer named Thomas Jackman arrives at a location in Central Sahara, North Africa called Jebel Afra that houses a drilling site. An entire team was supposed to be there but all he finds are empty hallways with puzzling and somewhat disturbing evidence left behind--such as overzealous video diaries, an eviscerated jackal and bloody writing on the walls done by the local superstitious workers--till he runs into a Dr. Jennie Christianson who was a research colleague of the head of their team Professor Borman. She explains Borman was killed by Dr. Ivanov, their chief geologist, and another man named Dr. Varga died of a heart attack.

Despite having a murder investigation on their hands, the company is stretched thin and headquarters wants Jackman to stay put in case others show up but with Christianson somewhat pushy to get out under suspicious reasons. Both are at odds when there is some discussion about science and losing human emotions versus the supernatural and giving into fears, to which Christianson leans towards the former and Jackman the latter. They question whether Hell is a state of mind or actually physical and if it's possible to dig towards it. Apart from their tentative talks, something doesn't add up about her suave demeanor and Jackman interrogates her to find out the truth of what happened and what she's not saying. As he gets more deeply involved the more he can't trust his own perceptions that he's being played and seduced by something evil released from the drilling site nine miles below or is it all in his head from never getting over his wife's death, or possibly both or something else?

There are memorably framed and atmospheric shots of the surroundings that give the isolated setting some personality. This has some pretty effective looking visual effects that take Jackman's hallucinations to abstract levels, such as a continuously endless mirror shot in front and back where some of the images stand still and go with the person's movement while others come alive. The dialogue and delivery has some miscues and misfires on occasion either the way something was phrased awkwardly or came out somewhat too simplistic for what is portrayed. Kate Nauta, who plays the sexy blonde Jennie Christianson, carries the right presence and poses though some of her actual line delivery felt like just that at times without always giving more. Fortunately there were other aspects to cover up for the fact and her character is still able to elude giving away her true nature and motivations. Adrian Paul's character seems to take his performance in stride at first to represent how a normal person would perceive the extraordinary events. Though he slowly--partly due to tight direction and editing--steps it up till there's no looking back from at first being scared of his own shadow to having a full blown, paranoid breakdown that includes maniacal laughs, cries and head grabbing states of confusion from seeing what's really there or not seeing it at all.

"Nine Miles Down" opens up somewhat averagely and downplayed as the tension and atmosphere isn't always constant, but more in the form of periodic intervals with rises and falls of warning tremors. There are some basic areas that aren't as dressed up and other portions that are ineffectual to keep the audience at bay and from guessing the outcome. The ride is still steady, just not a rip roaring adventure till its latter portion when it turns full blown into a psychological pulse pounder of madness and second guesses of who can be trusted. Just when you think it can't get any worse and the storms have subsided, it keeps pulling the viewer back in and leaves one with a few different angles to debate.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Anthony Waller (Mute Witness, An American Werewolf in Paris, The Guilty)
Stars: Adrian Paul, Kate Nauta, Amanda Douge, Anthony Waller
Link: IMDB

Blood Ties (2009)

Overeager students, shady faculty and a masked killer in the midst

Back in '85, a reporter named Michael Archer and his significant other were heinously killed. He uncovered a scandal that accused a football coach at Hollow's Pointe University named De Luca and a quarterback named Jake "The Snake" for the Red Devils for accepting a bribe from a rival school to throw the game. Eighteen murders and twenty something years later, a group of students decide to write a paper surrounding the subject to four staff member's panic who still work at the school. They're trying to figure out how to silence the students that made the connection when one of the shady staff gets brutally slain after hours at the school. The group of youngsters put their lives at risk to investigate further, as well as the remaining staff try to stop the slayings in order to save face from their past involvement that's resurfacing. Yep, no one here are police advocates, because their egos might just be bigger than the killer's blade.

"Blood Ties" was no doubt made by a couple of diehard, aspiring movie nerds that are probably so wrapped up in celluloid that the brightest light they've seen in years is the stage light shining down on their locked away set. The result is a pure cinema invention so far gone from the real world that it feels about as overly coincidental and far fetched to be a Scooby Doo like story for adults. Depending how easy you are, it still comes with a quicker pacing and, apart from some confusing plot twists, a share is laid out to do the work for you. These amateur students are brighter than detectives that have been at it for twenty years and connect dots in a short amount of time like it was a cakewalk between their rambunctious partying and jokes.

The performers have moments of being over-the-top and exaggerated and it's hard to say if they're just badly acting or it's on purpose--possibly both--to get an instant reaction from a viewer than a gradual one that will grow. Jason Carter is the most believable of the bunch as their British accented professor named Fredericks who taught them the ropes but is now their rival in the ring. The story feels like it combines parts of an episode of a soap opera murder mystery, a generic slasher, a softcore porno and a trendy National Lampoons movie into one. The tone feels all over the place: one moment cartoonishly surreal, raunchy with sexual references and drugs, the next serious with melodrama and danger, or be it sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. The filmmakers show they have an array of potential for future projects but it feels like they tried to make several movies at the same time without always being tuned in as to how to put them together cohesively so the audience could get some breathing room and move at the same time as it's speeding by them.

This has a lot of personality but it feels like one too many inside jokes that aren't always enough for outsiders to fully enjoy what's so funny, cool or exciting. Maybe on the third time or with a cast member to shed some light from coming on too hard and too fast the first go. Some are obvious, such as "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" rivalries, but still feel too random and misplaced regardless. A frat party where a guy does magic tricks that converts money and makes a girl's top disappear, had to do with what again? Or just little odd comments and banter that seem to come out of nowhere. Their brand of humor feels like a YouTube video with an actual budget that's more for long time friends and family of the participants that would get them more than a newcomer.

I can see where "Blood Ties" was going: to give a little pep before they get to the usual darker elements, but the late transition over doesn't always make this tension filled, shocking or scary, not to mention the audience could really care less when the characters get knocked off because they were just pure and simple entertainment monkeys prior to switching over tones. After going through the filmmakers channel surfing for the first half, it narrows down to a more serious and steadier picture as shown in the trailer--definitely misrepresented before that--where upstarting ambitions, built up reputations, tarnished pasts and the innocent and guilty have their lives hanging in the balance from an omnipresent homicidal maniac with a mask and superhuman strength. Some answers come about with an over-the-top explanation while others are brushed under the rug for brevity's sake. It includes an ambiguous finale that seems more a sacrifice for getting your senses riled in the direct moment rather than lining up 100%.

Rating: 3.5/10

Director: Nathaniel Nose (Talent)
Link: IMDB

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Staunton Hill (2009)

Degenerates and hippies square off in 1969

What makes this horror project from Cameron Romero--George "Of the Dead" Romero's son--a head scratcher, is how do you take something so basic in concept and make it so confusing and jumbled? The direction, editing, cinematography, continuity and character motivation--you name it--are all over the place at times for a story that's just a simple "Texas Chainsaw" outing that takes place some decades ago on a farm with a group of unsuspecting individuals against a family of weirdos that live life on the twisted side for a crazed cause.

Three gals and two guys are traveling through Virginia to get over to the rallies in D.C. in 1969. They hitch a ride with an accommodating guy named Quintin after getting snubbed by passersby and the locals who don't like their colored friend. Quintin's car overheats and they're out of water in the middle of nowhere. They take a shortcut over a hill to get to the highway, only to find a barn that appears to be uninhabited. They stay the night with one couple getting frisky, the other only heating up and the last turning cold when Quintin suddenly starts to act off put like he's anxious for something to happen or just wants to get away.

This takes far too long to establish their story and characters, only to end up with little to say and cardboard cut outs in vacant scenarios for the wait. There are bits and pieces of info scattered about to pick up on but they aren't laid out in a very intriguing or mysterious way to make this engaging. The time period has a few tidbits of terminology dropped, along with social subjects such as animal rights, but then not picked up again or carried over with dual meaning. It made it seem more a gimmick than anything useful, except to possibly dodge modern technology such as cell phones. Not to mention the picture quality looks far too sharp without any added filters to give it more of a warmer or vintage look than a modern one. Some of the motivations of what they're portraying doesn't always line up between scenes, to the point of where it makes it confusing as to what hints you're supposed to be paying attention to for later or not. Their "twist" is obvious from the get-go but then for some reason shown on two separate occasions in flashbacks as if you didn't get it the first time.

Some of the editing has tendency to jump, such as one character doing one thing or in one position and then in the next moved around or gone without explanation. It seems like they bit off more than they could chew with too many people and then couldn't decide which perspective it wanted to concentrate on: the protagonists or the antagonists. Some of the camera angles seem more concerned with the scenery and surroundings than the characters themselves. You don't even get an actual shot of their facial features till much later, which makes them seem less like people than devices to be moved around at leisure. It doesn't exactly make a viewer shake in their boots when they can't see themselves in the same position.

Even when the going gets rough, the characters lack all intuition to put up a challenging fight against a dim wit, obese woman and another in a wheel chair who's an alcoholic no less. A farmhouse with tools and contraptions laying about aren't capitalized on for weapons and then people who travel the country don't have an ounce of survival skills? It makes most of the action scenes anticlimactic and lack tension or anticipation. I've seen more spirit and less bonehead moves from high school cheerleaders in slasher films. They didn't even play up the potential to make them hippy pacifists that realize violence is necessary in certain circumstances. There are flashbacks to the insignificant good and innocent times they shared earlier in the movie as if to be sympathetic, but it makes them seem like they had no life prior to the movie.

The biggest problem with "Staunton Hill" is the filmmakers tend to lose the audience over and over again to the point of being unconcerned even with people getting hurt or when gore is shown. It lacks a central driving point with a tone that feels too general, only to move along in a zig zag that causes one's senses to go haywire from confusion. There is some kind of dry as toast humor thrown in that doesn't help its cause neither. This had potential to be a simple horror film that you can count on but it feels rushed from most likely getting messed up somewhere in the behind the scenes. Not sure what happened but the final result is less than even mildly entertaining or redeeming even for the short time invested watching it.

Rating: 2/10

Director: Cameron Romero (Plant Life, The Screening)
Link: IMDB

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In My Sleep (2009)

Sleep kills: trust no one...including yourself

Marcus has a disorder in which he sleep walks and is able to perform different activities--such as getting frisky with different women and dumping them later--but then has no recollection after the fact and usually wakes up naked somewhere else. After regretfully sleeping with Ann--his best friend Justin's wife who is also his boss at the day spa--he sees a doctor who tells him he has a rare condition called parasomnia. The headstrong playboy enrolls in a sex addiction group to calm his pants-open-for-business-24/7 ways but keeps getting distractions from women in the L.A. scene. At his birthday party, with various ladies he can't remember that Justin invited from his address book, he receives an anonymous gift of a knife and a mysterious card. Soon enough he wakes up with bloody hands and that same knife along with the police banging at this door from a 911 hang up call. Justin's wife Ann is dead from stab wounds and all evidence points to him or someone who wants to use or back stab him from screwing them over in the past. And the list is long...

This is more lighter and charismatic than other murder mysterious that travel on the darker side with stern expressions and graver encounters. It's oddly quirky and upbeat with a brand of awkward humor and situations that play it more safe than overly dangerous or gratuitous. It's PG-13, so there's no cursing, nudity and no gore but just blood and suggestion. "In My Sleep" feels like a far-fetched TV pilot with so many various coincidental threads all happening at the same time but the movie has a lot of personality to show for itself in the form of pure entertainment. What helps is there isn't a lot of down time to think if something's exaggerated or not and the gears of the story, editing and direction are usually greased to keep the engine running smoothly.

The emotions and expressions take it more in stride than stepping over to be a straight drama. So while people are getting mishandled and killed, the performers don't always go full fledged, which keeps the pacing lively and moving forward with more to do or say than getting stuck. The main driving point is its mystery element with a series of clues and characters to meet along the way that are kept interesting as well as potential suspects, such as his overly helpful neighbor and a newly met doctor at the meetings. Then there are those that you don't see that might be working in the shadows, along with a past history with the disorder involving nightmarish visions that keep leading to Marcus' late father and off put mother. There are a few overextended scenes, others that overreached and some of the jokes cross the line into sitcom territory without the laugh track. Though there are enough bread crumbs and red herrings tossed about to keep one hungry till the pay off when it all gets unraveled with a few different threads of deceit coming out in the open.

I found this to be an interesting concept, as it's a film--something in the vicinity of "Memento" with memory loss but not as hard edged--where a person can't trust themselves if they'll use others, never mind those around them who they can't trust that will use them back. The tension isn't always palpable and it's an easy popcorn type fare though to its credit it's largely unpredictable and unmuddled. It's not the tightest character study piece but it still comes with some relating aspects to think about with trust and maintaining relationships of friends, family and romance. Not to mention there are plenty of "what would you do if that happened to you?" kind of scenarios that makes this a diverting experience that's definitely worth at least a watch.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Allen Wolf (Harlem Grace)
Stars: Philip Winchester, Tim Draxl, Lacey Spencer, Abigail Spencer, Kelly Overton
Link: IMDB

The Burnt House (2009)

This relationship is destined to burn

Megan and Joe are going through a rough patch in their marriage after their baby accidentally died. Joe carries blame and Megan seeks comfort with another guy named James. Suddenly Joe's mother dies and he suggests they both go out to the house he grew up with in rural Pennsylvania to get away from distractions and start anew their relationship from life in New York City. From then on out the story comes to a slow, dragging, give-me-something-more-for-my-time halt as they figure out what they're doing there except without actually doing much of anything substantial apart from everyday ordeals.

The atmosphere is drab and the storytelling is dismal as you watch the characters loosely go about their tedious habits and then fight and make up over and over again for the course of four long and enduring days that make it feel like months on end or as if time itself is going backwards. Don't we have our own issues to worry about in real life already instead of watching something else unexceptional? There's apparently a curse in the area that makes the husbands homicidal maniacs that go after their family like something out of "The Amityville Horror." Except, the picture hints it's been following around Joe's lineage since his great grandfather but not actually what caused it or what it is exactly that leads them to violence. In between their squabbles, the characters hear some random noises and get nightmares. There are also abrupt cuts to horrific visuals with a burnt face that are strategically placed enough times to feel like signature commercial break montages that you can count on instead of being more frightening. At times they're revealed for the audience's eyes only instead of establishing more foreshadowing with the characters that would grow and be a challenging puzzle to unlock.

"The Burnt House" is a lonely and depressing experience, they got that part down, but it still doesn't turn that around to feel like an engaging diversion since it retreads and goes in mundane circles. Nor does it give something to take away from the experience such as "Downloading Nancy" did for the complex and deep rooted ruination of a relationship that gave progressive stages albeit about a degradative subject. This also isn't "Antichrist" with a couple in the woods trying to figure out their problems from a child dying with enough enigmas to keep the audience intrigued and engaged for unsaid answers that can bring one back again. Not to mention there are periodic narration pieces by Joe placed in to concisely explain the past and present but it seems strange that whenever he speaks to his wife out loud he can't solve the problems at hand. It makes you think it was more a filmmaking shortcut than actually matching the personality of the character. Eventually Megan gets bored and searches the attic for the house's shadowy history, while Joe goes off to who knows where and is getting suspicious of James who is leaving messages on Megan's phone. Instead of getting better, everything is boiling over as Joe is starting to act stranger and stranger and more and more distant from the problems at hand or something else.

If there's any chemistry between the two, it feels more like brother and sister than a former romantic couple. It's as if they ran out of things to say or do together to the point of running the well dry. Why they're together or what they saw in each other to hold on like this, who knows? Not to mention they're literally two of the most average and uneventful people you'd meet since they have no ambitions or other angles to themselves besides the 3 Cs: complaining, cigarettes and a cell phone. The kind that you've met countless times at barbecues and parties and forgot them as soon as you walked away. The main actress Monica Knight does a decent job for what little she's given by acting natural and not as if she's taking someone else's direction or reading someone else's lines like so many do on these little stepping stone projects. J.D. Brown, playing Joe, feels boring and miserable. He delivers his dialogue in such a stale, passionless way as to lose the command of the audience. Maybe that was the point, but then I'd have to ask to what point? He's like an unlikable Silent Bob in the way he slouches around and constantly smokes like a chimney, except when he speaks doesn't carry the charisma to be mysterious, cool or important between the wait from puffs.

Apart from being a drama about a couple on thin ice, this is essentially a haunted area/house film that carries a curse, but the latter is so elusive and buried by other aspects as to lose focus and become confusing for something so simplistic at heart. "The Burnt House," for lack of a large budget, tries to be abstract and stylish. Though with all of the excessive areas of attempted innovation, the film loses a driving point and it ends up bogging down the pacing to the point of feeling excessively tiresome. Even with the melodrama and supernatural events in the midst it fails to keep the audience concerned. The beginning, with its slow and sad montages mixed with kill-yourself-now piano pieces, can't stand still long enough to feel like a film but instead a sampled preview. It's almost like a cologne commercial for the manic depressive consumer. There was also an over-the-top gore scene that was shocking for the first couple of seconds but then went on to make itself desensitizing. There was potential here at its inception and I can see where it was going by doing something heavily moody and different from the same ol', but very little worked towards the filmmaker's benefit and this ambitious project ended up being far worse than a formulaic, run-of-the-mill horror movie that it was distancing itself from. It was a risk because you couldn't have done this halfway, with the final result either being brilliant or falling flat and looking a fluke. This just happened to be the latter.

Rating: 1.5/10

Director: Adam Ahlbrandt (Sight)
Stars: J.D. Brown, Monica Knight
Link: IMDB

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Crypt (2009)

Don't enter the crypt (by "the crypt" I mean this movie)

What a mess of a film. "The Bleeding," "The Goatherd" and "The Graves" were severely lacking but this is possibly the worst I've seen of 2009 so far. Even just the audio of the most easiest, throwaway "Tales from the Crypt" episode is more entertaining than this. There are moments where they actually try here, but it feels like it was slapped together in such a forced, formulaic and haphazard way as to be a long lost reminder that this has anything of value. I feel bad, I really do...just donate the budget to the homeless next time as it will at least make someone's day.

Five women and a guy go to rob jewels from a secretive crypt from the depression era. The moment they pocket the valuables from the stiff and cold grips of the dead, they get random, animated visits from ghostly, zombie-like figures that want to teach them a lesson. Inside they argue about which way to go, get separated and injured--all in the most mundane way. Not to mention, the vengeful spirits attacking at their leisure killed the atmosphere from feeling exactly like the filmmakers were using it to stretch out their picture from lack of a full length story. They try to make it claustrophobic and uncomfortable but the events don't move as in the moment or steady as they wanted it to in order to pull that off. It might have helped if the characters were outlined or even a single one concentrated on in the beginning so the viewer can get a definable focus.

The "don't mess with the dead" message to put fear in the viewer didn't even feel flush since they're, 1: criminals (no honor, remember?), and 2: they were just involved with a friend that got killed stealing a car and then have moral issue with long dead corpses? Even the close up shots of the women in provocative positions--a la "Entrapment"--weren't enough to trick your mind. There's a quick topless scene to get your attention but then oddly it breaks into drama talk that kills a potentially steamy moment. They try and throw random areas of two of the character's backgrounds in without success due to not going further with it but instead lazily running through it like they had to toss in some meaning somewhere. The man gets released from prison, spits out he's thinking of going legit and tentatively tries to reestablish a relationship with his girlfriend, who also partakes in the job all for the sake of love. Yeah, touching, too bad the viewer doesn't know anything about their past situation. Do they expect us to be sentimental fools and accept it at face value?

This has got to be the worst looking group of robbers I have ever seen outside of a comedy that's doing it on purpose. It's not surprising that a lot of the cast are first time actors or just starting out and I'm going to guess "were available" rather than finding a specific person to fill the part. The guy looks like a trendy freestyle dance performer--something like a twin to David Belle's character in "District 13"--and the women are manicured to the point of looking like customer service representatives at the mall that have never gotten their hands, nor nails dirty. For low life people that steal cars, their apartments look like something out of a Bed, Bath and Beyond catalog. They chew gum and make sarcastic remarks to show they're tough before going into the crypt, then the filmmakers decided to make them immediately switch over to being sympathetic to get through the nasty situation. This isn't "The Descent" where you get a proper set up beforehand to create actual tension or concern. This didn't jive from the getgo and they seem like they belong to another movie, with the audience themselves being reminded every moment that they should have put on something else instead.

The lack of resources wouldn't have been the biggest issue--mostly the primitive sets are covered up by shadows and fog, and they use simple set-ups with water and gates to block the way--but when the story, pacing and performances are heavily slacking it makes the other aspects even worse, such as tape hiss, low and high volume, jumping editing and some hit and miss digital effects. Not to mention a pointless pull-the-rug-out-from-under-the-viewer ending if the punishment wasn't enough. This was the director's--who also wrote, produced, composed and shot--third feature length picture in 2009 and he should have slowed it down to actually get one of them down pat before moving onto the next. Even Takashi Miike didn't put out one this terrible with the sheer amount he's taken on.

Rating: 0/10

From Black to Red Recommends instead: "The Descent": This tightly shot movie with a group of back stabbing women in a cave with something lurking in the dark was nail bitting, tension filled and capable of bringing about anxiety.

Director: Craig McMahon (Sportkill, Orville, Machined Reborn)
Stars: Who cares?
Link: IMDB

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Familiar (2009)

Spirits love to torment priests and the innocent

This carries more of a specific Christian lesson and message for the reaffirming-your-faith type of supernatural drama/horror than giving in to more shocking theatrics for regular cinema goers as seen years ago in the '70s with the likes of "The Exorcist" with more effective results. This is the equivalent of their catering budget, so the actual filmmaking experience requires a share of compensating to get through it, not only for resources but also since they cut out a lot of the over-the-top scenarios or anything in the way of titillating to keep the messages more down-to-earth and positive when they arrive. It tries to play both sides of the fence and ends up not being able to share itself equally to where it would be entertaining and also carry something away for the watch.

Sam is a former small town pastor in Oklahoma that has nightmares from a supernatural incident that happened twenty five years ago. Sam and his childhood friend Charlie brought pentagram laced porno mags to their home with demonic results. Five years ago his wife Katherine died under unknown circumstances and he currently drinks away his sadness and sells and shoots guns. He hangs loose with Charlie, who's now the local jolly sheriff, and follows a simple routine until his now-grown-up sister-in-law Laura shows up at his front door step unannounced from wanting a change from city life. Laura is smug and overly confident to the point of stepping over her bounds. Sam turned his back on his faith along with those that want to help, including his friend, his father and his new house guest, though who's coming on strong to the point of literally filing in the cloths of her former sister that she had a falling out with.

Laura mentions her involvement with the Light Seekers: an alternative group that believes in spiritual presences. She's naive and thought one of the spirits was good until she says the name of Jesus and the presence reveals its true black colors with an omnipresent voice that shows its mocking scorn. Already in poor shape himself, Sam tries to help Laura who's beginning to stray but doesn't always have the insight or strength himself. Soon enough she starts to act differently and Sam being lonely gets blinded to the fact that she may be influenced by one of the bad spirits until he's in well over his head and has to make a life altering choice instead of turning his back and feeling sorry for himself. He turned to guns but found something he can't shoot.

"The Familiar" is a measly budget feature that dodges bigger special effects or grossly horrifying or shocking events but tries to instead establish its characters as regular people and have them go through self-destructive mistakes that the viewer might not have to. Yep, it's going to be a life lesson of sorts, which can be appreciated for an effort that carries meaning and relating points. Though what makes the experience a hard watch are the messages come on a little strong, despite a few that hold back or are balanced for the other side; which I'm sure this might still be slightly controversial in the head-stuck-in-the-book Christian community as a result, but nothing like "The Exorcist," for which author William Peter Blatty penned it from a Catholic perspective. At one point the film truly showed its budget when Sam commented to his father at how to stop the evil presence to then cueing "tension" filled music and their supposed "action" scene with boots just kicking over rocks that formed devilish signs. At least they know their limitations.

The message about partaking in premarital sex, looking at suggestive material and exposing your body on camera--no nudity here or actual events shown--are going to fall on deaf ears to a modern, sexually liberated person outside of a smaller town or religious setting already. Soon after giving in to impulses and temptations there are some appearances of random shadows or a creeping camera with red filters--none of which works towards making a viewer flinch, building tension or putting a fright into someone for the transgression. The impression is that a bad spirit is going to immediately show up next time you slip up (no pun intended), so you better watch out! The fear is in you! Compare this to actually showing the possible mistakes and effects and it might have partially gotten through I'd imagine more so. As is, it feels like a reconfirmation and pat on the back for those that abstain already.

The biggest issue here is it becomes a chore to watch as the pacing jumps back and forth and starts to retread over familiar ground. This moves along in a revolving circle that, instead of creating captivating drama or interesting scenarios, has tendency to drift along or jerk with some unsmooth transitions. Its sense of mystery doesn't always carry punch with how the wife actually died or who the elusive "cousin" Rallo is. This would have worked much better as a shorter feature as it feels padded and stretched out than being moment by moment engaging.

The dialogue feels obvious and the performances are stifled in areas as if they're playing catch up than always speaking their lines with command. When the dialogue isn't telling the viewer what to think or feel, the reverbed out piano montages with sad and extended violins typically cue up in case the tone or meaning was somehow missed. Bryan Massey, who plays Sam, doesn't carry his own with the various transitions of the story: little backing power with expressions, to then the next overstepping what was called for. How the character of Laura transforms from her normal self to possessed often comes with conflicting results. Instead of giving a gradual change over, it's not even made sure of which was ever which till a final blatant stand off scene where the spirit speaks through her and is more effective to capture the moment and your attention. But that might have been because whatever happened before it didn't stand out by much in comparison.

Rating: 3/10

Director: Miles Hanon
Stars: Bryan Massey, Laura Spencer, Jeff West
Link: IMDB

Friday, November 18, 2011

Coffin Rock (2009)

The simplest answer isn't always the easiest answer

A couple, Robert and Jessica, near the coast in Australia, have a large house and established business to their name but want to fill in the whole picture with a child before biological clocks run out. The wife is enthusiastic but the husband feels some shame from his boys failing to swim the channel home. They go to a clinic to check sperm count when the receptionist, Evan, takes a liking to Jessica from a distance as she waits in the lobby. He travels to their little fishing village and blends in with a job at the local crayfish factory. She's a simple but outgoing small town woman in a largely male workforce who's only dealt with the occasional jerk in a bar. Evan acts imposing towards her all the while berating and muttering to himself. Soon enough he waits till she's drunk and emotionally torn with her husband and they have a spur-of-the-moment quickie.

She flat out states her regrets for their brief entanglement but Evan quickly turns emotionally attached to the point of obsession. It's more than just puppy love but some kind of psychotic abandonment issue, along with volatile tendencies of anger. Jessie has a conundrum on her hands, as someone else spied the incident, she doesn't want her husband to find out and she's now pregnant with the strong possibility Evan's the father. Robbie sees that she's pregnant and gets their friends and family excited over what he assumes is his. Though the best news turns to the worst as Jessie is getting shaken up with random visits from Evan that are getting more and more dangerous with not only herself but loved ones caught in the middle as well.

The film turns over to the destruction of relationships with one side worse and far more calculative in their deceit than the other to the point of a cat and mouse game looking like the former animal upgraded to a starved lion. It makes the experience more depressing than a challenge to correct what went wrong or coming with something more to leave with for contemplation for the audience besides the obvious: I'm not going let that happen to me! It was strange to set the tone with some authenticity, only to then turn over to an over-the-top, somewhat straightforward psychotic thriller of the cinema invention kind. It made the story go from marching to the beat of its own drum to producing shuffled around scenarios that only come with the territory of the genre.

The movie gives little to grab onto in the downward spiral after tentatively going through the messages of trusting strangers too soon and cheating aspects. It makes the experience harder to watch as it shifts more and more over the deep end with little fighting chance in sight to the point of begging, squirming and pleading of the lead actress. Not to mention, the motivations, as kooky as they are, aren't always outlined--such as the initial hookup being jumped into like an everyday thing, or why others were terrorized or made to suffer. The film creates some fear of the what-if-it-happened-to-you type, though momentarily grabbing your chest from the possible what-if compared to actually watching it play out are two different things. It turns into one stupid move after the next when more than enough opportunities are presented that are usually of the simple communicating kind. Honesty versus hurting someone? This was more than just a little case of irresponsibility.

As a thriller it's paced well enough and there are still some scenes that carry tension, some here and there memorable quality and an uncomfortable feeling as she gets stalked and pushed against a wall with an omnipresent breath in her face. There's a different range of emotions used as the story progresses from, Lisa Chappell, as Jess, being the regular, easy going woman and supportive partner at work and at home, to then trying to get out of a mud slicked hole with her hands behind her back. I'm disappointed that they didn't make her a little more tough with her above average height and confident ability to work side by side men in the town. Sam Parsonson, as Evan with an Irish accent, definitely takes a few of the scenes all out and manages to create some distinctions to his personality that come with a few unpredictable situations of what he'll do next. This gives room to make the characters and the setting carry some realism--even starting out with light drama and their day to day lives, some humor and raw innocence--though it still carries some melodramatic and exaggerated scenes past a certain point to up the ante and make it more of a cinematic experience than something that you'd actually believe could happen.

Rating: 6.5/10

Director: Rupert Glasson
Stars: Lisa Chappell, Sam Parsonson, Robert Taylor
Link: IMDB

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Haunting (2009)

Moving to the outskirts never helped anyone's health

This gradually paced supernatural film from Spain gives a little twist on its own history and unfolds with a leaning more for human drama than popcorn entertainment. "The Haunting" is also a deeply involved mystery with several, sometimes cluttered layers that eventually narrow into a main point. It gives more subtle hints than outright telling the viewer what is going on at first to the point of a tinkle or a text message later and you could have missed a key element till they re-explain in the latter portion of the film.

Blanca is found barely alive by priests in a room with others dead around her. She awakens from a coma at an elderly age and gets released by a priest named Miguel de Azpeitia in the sanatorium she's been cared for at. Azpeitia picks up an old film clipping on the ground that Blanca dropped and confronts another priest about feeling guilty for sinning from a prior incident involving a prostitute who could produce miracles but was locked away against her will, only to end up killing herself. Meanwhile a maternity ward doctor named Francesca moves with her husband Pedro, months old baby Pablo and daughter Rosa to a large country manor that was used by a recently deceased bishop called Juan Lorenzo Prada but was a school some 50 years before that. Her husband is worried about her obsessively protective nature of the baby. He's at work while she stays home on leave, only for her to become worse and worse when she claims to hear unexplainable noises and has random hallucinations of little girls that lead her to the attic where something of a dark nature happened. The daughter and Blanca confirm her suspicions, though her husband and boss think that it's her mental health causing her to act erratic from someone lost that was close to her ten years past. Francesca believes differently and contacts Azpeitia through Blanca who looks into it with an investigation to unlock the truth and to possibly absolve himself from his past sin.

"The Haunting" deals with religious politics and hypocrisy in how saints come to be named and miracles made official to the public. The behind the scenes process is selective to the point of manipulation and misconduct. The film is also about letting go of someone from your past, along with trust from mother to son, to then husband to wife even when the odds are stacked against. The movie has some predictability and more than a few cliches but it also manages to throw in some unique qualities and red herrings to its story--some confusing, others a nice diversion--to where it will go next. Though it doesn't always treat its material as edge-of-your-seat gripping or more dangerous when something bad does happen. It seems like Francesca is more helped and warned than harmed to the point of dodging any physically threatening elements and aiming more towards righting those wronged. There are still a few confrontations but the film is more laid back in its delivery of how it gradually unfolds with a sense for drama and mystery than outright horror. It still gives enough pauses and layers to give room to think and develop even if it lacks a continually nervous or jarring nature. The acting--in Spanish--is adequate and believable but the weaving story and well-timed direction seem to be doing a little more of the leg work than having them lug this solely on their backs.

This carries a formula of the upstarting-family-moves-into-a-haunted-house subgenre--ominous signs, local priest, random appearances with ghosts pointing in certain directions instead of telling what they want, along with writing in blood on the walls and all--but it comes with its own individual backstory and characters that feel like people instead of devices put into scenarios to just produce a scream. This is a borderline case of an R rating with one sexually suggestive situation and a few scenes involving blood. Ghost fans just looking to turn their hair white might be disappointed as this isn't outright terrifying as it's more made to be steadily evolving and intriguing with more revelations than sensations. This still has a few chills and a certain secretive atmosphere that's for your eyes only till the truth is unlocked...but can it ever really be with such powerful opposition on both sides of the fence? There are some eerie sounding choirs accompanied with an organ that can be heard in the background that are more demonic than divine sounding. This uses a neat idea to connect scenes of past and present with old, scratchy film reels from the Franco era that gives a little twist on Spanish history that can be appreciated by others not from said country as well.

Rating: 7/10

Director: Elio Quiroga (The Dark Hour)
Link: IMDB