Saturday, September 30, 2017

From the Czech Word Robota, or Thoughts on The Machine

Equal parts Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Ex Machina (2014), The Machine (2013) envisions a dystopian future involving an AI arms race with China to develop killer cyborgs, essentially an updated Terminator/Nexus 6, and it goes just about as well as you’ve come to expect, given that you’ve seen all those movies, not to mention Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is still the gold standard for madmen creating beautiful yet scary women.  From Welsh director Caradog James, who would go on to make Don’t Knock Twice (2016), the film is a thoughtful and ambitious first movie stuffed with gorgeous art design and a fully realized vision of a bleak, militarized state where cybernetic implants are handed out like the latest smart phones.
Caity Lotz (I really liked her as Black Canary in Arrow) is Ava, the AI designer and also, (coincidentally because she’s, you know, pretty) the Machine, the beta version of the aforementioned indestructible killer cyborg upgraded with cool fighting skills and super strength.  Toby Stephens, Gustav Graves from the underrated Die Another Day (2002) is Vincent, the tortured genius and head of the program.  There’s a conspiracy of course, and it’s no spoiler to say that there’s also the inevitable robot uprising, because we have learned nothing from our dealings with Skynet, or, now that you mention it, Season 1 of Westworld.









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Friday, September 29, 2017

A Haunted House Road Trip Gets Real, or Thoughts on The Houses That October Built 2

I didn’t bother to watch the first The Houses That October Built (2014), though from what I can surmise from the sequel it involved a group of haunted house reviewers and one of them starring in a buried alive viral video.  Equal parts The Blair Witch Project (1996, and these filmmakers are just about as annoying as the kids from Blair Witch) and the mind games from Saw (2004), The Houses That October Built 2 (2017) has the cast filming real-life attractions, while being pursued by the mysterious Blue Skeleton group from the first movie. 
The Blue Skeleton group (thank you Wikipedia) infiltrates haunted houses and I guess, kidnaps and kills people?  Perhaps this movie would have made more sense or been emotionally compelling if I had watched the first one, but there are only 24 hours in the day, people.  What I did get to see is a lot of cool regional haunted house with a vague found footage story stapled to it.

The haunted house as a concept seeks to reproduce a horror movie in three dimensions, removing the barrier of the screen and creating a more interactive audience experience.  The irony of this movie is that the filmmakers flatten that conceit by filming it, placing the experience behind the screen once more while showing the illusion of interactivity with the found footage and ad-libbed performances.  It’s interesting on a film school level, that is, I would give these kids an A if this were their senior project, but as a feature film I feel cheated, unimpressed, and far more importantly, unafraid.








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Thursday, September 28, 2017

I Am the Post-Modern Movie Blogger, or Thoughts on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), a classic and traditional gothic, very literary film filled with narration and composed, painterly shots that build over time features English actor Ruth Wilson from The Lone Ranger (2013) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013) as Lily, a live-in nurse in an old New England, possibly haunted house.  She’s caring for Paula Prentiss from Catch-22 (1970) and The Stepford Wives (1975) in a nearly silent performance as gothic author Iris Blum, suffering from dementia and confusing Lily with one of the characters from her books.
Reminiscent of the novels of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, like all great ghost stories there’s a murder mystery at the heart of it, and the requisite supernatural or madness ambiguity.  It’s set at an indeterminate, non-modern time, there are land lines and fat CRT TVs, her jeans look a little 80’s, but the CGI is state of the art and very contemporary.  And as I’ve said many times before, a ghost story is one of the only seamlessly effective uses for computer graphics.  Watch out for Bob Balaban in a serious role as Mr. Waxcap, the lawyer, and Lucy Boynton from Don’t Knock Twice (2016) as Polly.
From writer and director Osgood Perkins of The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), which follows a similar theme at an upstate New York girl’s school.  Perkins is a common name but in this case he’s the son of Anthony, which lends a certain notoriety and Hitchcock shadow to his work, but even without his famous father I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House shines as an effective and compelling ghost story.










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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Kara Thrace Fights A Russian Witch in Wales, or Thoughts Don’t Knock Twice

A simple premise done well can be far more effective than a complicated plot that goes nowhere and in Don’t Knock Twice (2016) we have the bare bones: a spooky house haunted by the Baba Yaga, and if you knock on her door (twice!) she’ll answer, and boy are you in trouble then.  From Welsh director Caradog James of The Machine (2013), Don’t Knock Twice features Katee Sackoff as Jess, an American sculptor with an estranged daughter, Chloe, as portrayed by Lucy Boynton, Polly from I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in The House (2016).  Of course Chloe knocks on the door, the witch kills her boyfriend, follows her back to her halfway house and then all the way to Jess’ country mansion (she married a banker), and it’s not long before she’s finding teeth in her soup and throwing up human feet.  There’s also some mother daughter bonding too, in between witch sightings.  All of this could have been avoided if Chloe had simply not knocked twice, you know, left the witch alone, but then again teens need to make stupid decisions if you want to have movies like this one.

Stylish and creepy, it’s almost a J-horror movie except for the fact that it was filmed in Wales.  The movie succeeds as a modern fairytale with an evil witch for the digital age that’s still going after kids, and it’s always nice to see what Katee Sackoff is up to after Battlestar Galactica (so say us all!).





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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Clive Barker’s Cirque Du Soleil Monster Festival, or Thoughts Nightbreed

Written and directed by Clive Barker from his 1988 novella Cabal, Nightbreed (1990) remains one of the best and most underrated of the author’s adaptations.  Craig Sheffer is Boone, a troubled young man who dreams of monsters in the necropolis Midian.  The dead town calls to him, and he knows not why, so he visits with psychiatrist David Cronenberg as Dr. Decker, who unfortunately for Boone is a serial killer who frames Boone for his murders, much like Dr. Thredson would do two decades later in Season 2 of American Horror Story: Asylum.
But the real stars of the movie are the monsters, which are stylish and visually arresting.  Their personalities and looks are individually defined, and include Moon Head, Porcupine Lady and Skin Peel Dude (I just made all of those names up).  Watch out (or listen for, because he’s unrecognizable) Doug Bradley, the Lead Cenobite you may know as Pinhead as Lylesberg (the one with the gill-face), and the soundtrack by Danny Elfman.  Dr. Decker also has a killing mask button eyes that is more disturbing than any of the monsters, but that may be the whole point of the film.








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Monday, September 25, 2017

That Time When Rowdy Roddy Piper Had to Repopulate The Earth, or Thoughts Hell Comes to Frogtown

Ironically, the same year that Roddy Piper starred in his breakout film They Live he made a second dystopian science fiction action movie with far different results.  It’s like two sides of a coin with him, on one side we have an 80’s classic with political metaphors that are still relevant today and the world’s longest fight scene, and on the other side was have Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988); with mutant frog people wearing giant frog heads like the Gorn from Star Trek and Roddy wearing an exploding cod piece, sort of like Snake Plissken’s subdermal implants but you know, dick jokes.
Roddy Piper is Sam Hell, one of the last fertile men in the post WWIII radiated landscape, where a new species of frog people have developed from the fallout.  Sandahl Bergman, Valeria from Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Queen Gedren in Red Sonja (1985) is Nurse Spangler of the new matriarchy that arose after all the guys were killed off in the last war.  Sam (and his sperm count) is recruited by Nurse Spangler to help restart the human race, starting with a rescue mission of a bunch of virgins kidnapped by the frog mutants, who live in the aptly named Frogtown.  The rest of the movies is a montage of boobs, bikinis and gunfire, interspersed with Roddy’s hammiest lines and signature sneers.
Writer and director Donald G. Jackson of The Legend of the Roller Blade Seven (1991, I love that title) made two sequels, Return to Frogtown (1993) and Toad Warrior (1996, also known as Max Hell, Frog Warrior).  Roddy didn’t return for either of them.









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Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Korean Professional With A Unique Skill Set, or Thoughts on The Man From Nowhere 아저씨

The inspiration for John Wick (2014), Lee Jong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere (2010, 아저씨) tells a familiar story; a solitary pawn shop broker befriends a neglected neighbor kid, kid gets kidnapped by South Korean black market organ dealers, but it turns out that this pawn shop broker has a special set of skills and goes on a killing spree to get the kid back.  This story has been told before, many times in the West with movies like Leon: The Professional (1994) and Taken (2008).  However as always it’s not the story, but the telling that makes the movie and The Man From Nowhere takes those familiar elements and manages to spin them into a modern, violent fairy tale.

Cha Tae-sik portrays Won Bin, the ex-special forces op in a sharp suit surrounded by thugs who constantly underestimate his abilities while 10 year-old actor Kim Sae-ron steals every scene she’s in as the troubled So-mi.   With a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the brutally elegant fight scenes are reminiscent of The Raid: Redemption (2011), the underrated Ninja Assassin (2009) and the dystopian gun-fu epic Equilibrium (2002).  Relentless and efficient, showy but not in your typical Hollywood jump cut manner; the camera stays with the action from the start to the bloody end.  And again, this not being a Hollywood movie or a Tarantino film, there’s a lot of blood.







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Friday, September 22, 2017

Haunted by Love and Loss, or Thoughts Truly, Madly, Deeply

A poignant, bittersweet and uplifting film on love and loss, Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) was writer and director Anthony Minghella’s first film, featuring Juliet Stephenson in her BAFTA award winning performance as Nina, mourning the death of her boyfriend Jamie in her arty, bohemian, and rat-infested Highgate flat.  Surrounded by patient, friend-zoned male admirers, she’s unable to move on from the sudden and random death of Jamie, as portrayed by Alan Rickman, two years out from his breakout role as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and decades away from the role that would define his career as Severus Snape in those movies about wizards and trains.
The film is never quite specific as to the existence of the paranormal; Nina may be manifesting Jamie’s ghost character as an elaborate coping mechanism (he does speak Spanish, after all, like Nina, though he never did when he was alive) or you can take the low-brow road (ghosts!) and the movie is equally provocative and sentimental.  But then again, you would expect no less from the director of The English Patient (1996) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).  Also pay special attention to the gloriously sublime soundtrack by Barrington Pheloung, the composer of my favorite TV theme, Inspector Morse (though to be fair I also like the themes to American Horror Story, Deep Space 9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman 1966, so I may not be the best judge on music).









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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Not Really A Ghost Story, or Thoughts A Ghost Story



I admit it, sometimes I am impossible to please; I want my ghost stories thoughtful, sensitive and haunting, the movie has to be more than a series of jump scares, skeptical boyfriends and big reveal séances.  On the other hand, I do want to be scared, if the filmmakers put the word “ghost” in the title that creates an audience expectation for a certain amount of woo-woo moments.  Arty, sentimental and thoughtful, A Ghost Story (2017) is sorely lacking in those woo-woo moments, though it does make up for it with Rooney Mara as M, a grieving widow haunted by C, as portrayed by Casey Affleck.  C is your traditional, analog ghost, literally a guy in a sheet, like the Barbara and Adam Maitland before they met Beetlejuice.
If a ghost story is not a murder mystery then it’s a love story, a tragic romance, and this ghost story is a meditation on loss and desperation from the ghost’s point of view.  There’s a circular, time travel element in the sense that life moves on for everyone except the ghost, who is stuck in an endless loop of pining over Rooney Mara and really, who can blame him.
And I’m not complaining (I totally am), but CGI is the only genre where it works effectively is the ghost story and is actually a welcome and embraced.  I understand that the ghost is a metaphor and this is not that kind of ghost story, but dude, this close to Halloween I want a spook show, not a whiney millennial Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990).







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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Just Another Post-Modern, Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian Cannibal Romance in The Desert, or Thoughts The Bad Batch

Writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour of A Girl Walks Home Alone, at Night  (2014) does her best to make her own vision of a post-apocalypse Mad Max-style action horror movie filtered through a David Lynch lens in The Bad Batch (2016).  Suki Waterhouse from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) is Arlen, or Bad Batch 5040, (which is tattooed behind her ear), who is quickly processed by anonymous guards and dropped off at the Texas border on the wrong side of the wall.  She’s left in the desert with a gallon of water and a pair of watermelon short shorts. and subsequently captured by a tribe of cannibal bodybuilders living in an airplane graveyard who saw off an arm and a leg before she manages to escape.  Normally this would be the whole movie but dude, all of this happens in the first ten minutes.
The bad batchers are all the rejects from modern society, and at times the movie seems heavy handed and preachy about that.  It’s a slow, meandering, and almost silent movie with the bare minimum of dialogue, the narrative, such as it is, is advanced with great visuals and a cool music festival soundtrack.  Jason Momoa is Miami Man, a nice cannibal bodybuilder (all movies require a certain suspension of disbelief, and it’s a tribute to Jason Momoa’s on screen charisma that audiences are willing to accept him in this role) that Arlen meets in her adventures (I told you it was a romance), and the ensuing love story would be at home in any Jim Jarmush film (and if you don’t get that references, I don’t know if we can hang out anymore).
With Giovanni Ribisi as a madman in the desert, Jim Carrey as another madman in the desert, and Keanu Reeves as a cult leader in the desert.  What with the success of Imperator Furiosa I would suspect that we’re going to see more amputee action movies, partly as a reaction to our current political climate and the veterans who return home.  And let’s not forget Rose McGowan from Planet Terror (2007).  I will concede the excellent use of CGI for Arlen’s stump, but on the whole the Bad Batch comes across as a disappointing Burning Man experience.










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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Heathers Named Colleen Fight Some Canadian Nazis, or Thoughts Yoga Hosers

Is there such a thing as too much Canada?  From director Kevin Smith, the Canadian Robert Rodriguez, Yoga Hosers (2016) is an affectionate if confusing horror comedy starring the director’s daughter, Harley Quinn Smith as Colleen McKenzie and Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, (who inherited her father’s cheekbones) as BFF Colleen Collette.  High school sophomores, aspiring musicians and clerks (this is a Kevin Smith movie after all) at the Eh 2 Zed Convenience Store, their chemistry and on-screen enthusiasm is easily the best part of the movie, and before the night is over the director will have them singing their little hearts out, fighting Canadian Satanists and the Bratzis; Canadian Nazi/bratwurst clones straight out of Puppet Master (1989).
Equal parts South Park, Ghost World (2001) and Ginger Snaps (2000), which I suppose one could argue is the gold standard for teen girl Canadian horror, the movie was a box office disappointment, owing to the meandering plot and inconsistent humor.  I mean, it''s kinda funny, I appreciate the effort. But if you love Canada, and really, who doesn’t, the movie is layered with so many jokes and references that only our friendly neighbors to the north could truly and fully appreciate.  Stay for the Colleens' Oh Canada rock cover during the end credits (also en francais)!
There are so many cameos, including an unrecognizable Johnny Depp, doing his best Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau in disguise impression as Guy LaPointe, Tony Hale, Natasha Lyonne, Vanessa Paradis, Stan Lee, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith and Haley Joel Osment as Adrien Arcand, the Canadian Fuhrer.  It’s a literal hot mess, and I like it far more than I should, considering the movie currently has a rating of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, but when did I ever listen to the critics?








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Monday, September 18, 2017

Rick Deckard Cheats on Michelle Pfeiffer With a Ghost, or Thoughts What Lies Beneath

A New England mash-up of Rear Window (1954, a favorite Hitchcock movie of mine), Vertigo (1958, my #1 favorite Hitchcock movie, in case you care, and I know you do), Gaslight (1944) and Les Diabloliques (1955), What Lies Beneath (2000) features Harrison Ford as brilliant scientist Dr. Norman Spencer and Michelle Pfeiffer as his equally brilliant wife Claire.  The scares come quick as Claire dreams of drowning in the bath and sees the neighbors arguing and later that night, loading a body-shaped package in the trunk of their car.  But all ghost stories are murder mysteries at their heart, and Claire also starts investigating the disappearance of one of Norman’s students, Madison, as portrayed by 90’s supermodel Amber Valetta in one of her first big screen roles.  Which I guess explains how a fella could pass on Michelle Pfeiffer.
I’ve often thought of director Robert Zemeckis as a more mainstream, conservative Tim Burton.  He explores the same myths and fantasies in his movies, but he’s reined in and his movies appeal to a more mature audience.  The supernatural elements remain vague and unconfirmed, just like they should be.   They’re there if you want them to be, but with or without the ghosts, What Lies Beneath is a modern gothic romance with some nice twists.  Whatever happened to Michelle Pfeiffer, who is absolutely radiant in this movie?  All you fanboys and fangirls of Jennifer Lawrence take heed; this is your future.  And watch out for Miranda Otto, Eowyn, Shield Maiden of Rohan, as Mary Feur, the neighbor with the healthy set of lungs.








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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Childhood Nightmares Not of Clowns but Wolves, or Thoughts Silver Bullet

Stephen King at his best is evocative of Ray Bradbury, and a great example is Silver Bullet (1985), a quiet coming of age story in a small town in Maine that just happens to have a series of werewolf murders.  From the Author’s 1985 novella Cycle of the Werewolf, 80’s powerhouse Corey Haim is Marty, the young paraplegic and owner of the Silver Bullet, his motorized custom wheelchair.  The film is told in retrospect with a narration from Marty’s older sister Jane, and coupled with the portrait of the typical Stephen King New England Small Town it becomes a twisted version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but with slasher werewolf murders.
And these are great looking werewolves, reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London (1981) with a combination of guys in suits and animatronics.  The town tears apart from the strain of the horror, a theme Stephen King would revisit again and again in movies like The Mist (2007) and Needful Things (1993).
Director Dan Attias would go on to work for HBO and direct episodes from Six Feet Under and True Blood in addition to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  Watch out for Gary Busey, less crazy in the 80’s but ad-libbing his lines (according to IMDb) as Marty’s Uncle Red, the designer of the Silver Bullet, and Everett McGill, Big Ed from Twin Peaks as Reverend Lowe.  However don't watch out for a Stephen King cameo because, alas, there isn’t one.









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