Sunday, September 2, 2012

V/H/S (2012)

If you peruse the internet and read the oodles of articles that have been written on this film, you will mostly find that people are either saying it's the best horror movie of the year or they are saying that it's terrible. I'm somewhere in the middle of the debate. It's true that the "found footage" horror movie premise has long outworn its welcome and it is still incredibly baffling that it still makes anyone filthy rich. Most recently The Devil Inside (2012) which cost one million dollars to make, made 100 million at the box office. Its profits multiplied its budget by one hundred times! I guess Hollywood found a cheap formula that works. The Paranormal Activity trilogy also proved that people still want to see that crap, even if they've already seen it before and afterward will just talk about how awful it was. I guess negative publicity is still publicity, and most of these people want to see it for themselves. Which is actually a good thing. Critics serve a purpose, I truly believe that. But I also think most people can tell from a trailer if it's going to be the kind of thing they want to see or not. This is why I am always amazed by whenever I go to the theatre and someone always walks out in the first few minutes. I just shake my head and say to myself, "Really? Did you actually think this was going to be your kind of movie?" 

So we've established that V/H/S is a "found footage" film, but it does something clever and combines that with another sub-genre of horror- the anthology. Horror anthologies go back to the 1920's, but they started to get more popular in the 50's. They are essentially several short films tied together with a frame story. Television series like The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Amazing Stories are the kind of tales you usually find in an anthology film. And many of them are directly influenced by horror comics and pulp magazines. My favorite horror movie so far this century is an anthology film- Trick 'r Treat (2007). It was much more of a throwback to the older anthology films which always had a distinct visual style, whereas V/H/S really cranks up the terror and reinvents the sub-genre. Its five segments are also directed by five different directors. 

The frame story of V/H/S involves a group of guys who make a living by going around with a video camera and assaulting young women and recording the act. They say that they get 50 bucks a tape. This sets up the film the way too many horror films are set up- with the viewer hating the protagonist. The reason these guys are the protagonists is because they're the ones being tormented in the film. The film is not about their attacks on women. So when the torment comes, there is very little sympathy. These guys get a job breaking into a house to steal a tape. In the house they start going through a stack of tapes and view the five segments that make up the anthology. 

Even though the five segments are directed by different directors, they fit together well and the whole thing is very cohesive. But some of the segments work better than others. The first is incredibly strong and has some intensely startling visuals. It also has some amazing casting on the part of a young dark haired succubus with haunted eyes. But again, the males are all unlikeable and overblown with stereotypically macho personalities. 

A clever segment is made entirely with a recorded conversation using web cams via a Skype like service. One problem with this one, is that there are several times where one of the characters asks if he was recording at that moment and he says he wasn't. So how we got to see the entire interaction, we'll never know. V/H/S does that a few other times too. We see things that would not have been caught on tape, but for the purpose of putting together a complete story, they had to throw it in somewhere. Much of the material is so strong and so entertaining, that this flaw can easily be forgiven. 

One other complaint I have about the film is its length. I read a suggestion somewhere that I absolutely agree with, saying that they could have taken one of the stories out and made it shorter. Second Honeymoon or Tuesday the 17th would not be missed if either had been saved as a DVD extra. But other than that, the movie is pretty strong. Much of it is actually scary and almost the whole thing is a lot of fun. And for me, that is the most important element of a good horror film. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Return to Horror High (1987)

This film is not a sequel to another movie. I know the "Return" in the title seems to suggest that it is. What it refers to is the filmmaking process. For all of the "Based on true events" films that come out these days, it kind of seems like a pretty novel idea in 1987. Before the opening credits, words roll down the screen telling us that brutal murders took place at Crippen High School in 1982 and the killer was never caught. Years later, a film crew has returned to the very same high school to make a film about the very same murders. What the film crew is about to find out is that the killer is back on campus too. 

The killing starts immediately and the production coincides with the police investigation, which would obviously never happen. One incident and the whole thing would be shut down and turned into an official crime scene. But we don't watch these movies for truthiness (as Stephen Colbert would say) we want to see blood and gore, we want to be scared and have fun. This film doesn't have much of any of that. It has a lot of red paint that looks like real red paint, but the effects in general leave a lot to be desired. Oh yeah! And school's still in session too. This is the worst school district ever. 

The cast is interesting and could have helped elevate the film as a whole, but it doesn't. Alex Rocco, most recognizable as Moe Greene in The Godfather (1972) plays a film producer in Return to Horror High. He has quite a bit of screen time and his acting is good, providing some of the film's comic relief. But it's all so cheesy and not funny. Maureen McCormick or Marsha Brady from The Brady Bunch, plays a police officer on campus as part of the murder investigation. She's actually pretty good. She wears her uniform and hat in a way that parodies stereotypical female cops, she stands up straight with her chest out and talks tough- think Sgt. Callahan in the Police Academy films.  

The most famous cast member of Return to Horror High is George Clooney. This movie was made while he was on the television series The Facts of Life, but it was his first motion picture. He plays an actor who is playing a police officer in the movie that is being made. We see him on the set at the beginning. He walks off down a hall by himself and into a closet. This is where he meets his demise, just 10 minutes into the film. 

This movie is terrible and barely even watchable. It's almost worth sitting through for the last 15 minutes when all is revealed. It's not so much that the ending is a shocker, it's not. But the setting and some of the props used are so sufficiently creepy, it's as if the channel was changed on the television and someone put on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then comes another twist and we don't care about anything anymore. Remember, I see these movies so you don't have to.

Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)

Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) is to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) as Beware! the Blob! (1972) is to The Blob (1958). Okay, so Attack of the Killer Tomatoes doesn't have anyone like Steve McQueen, but it does have Jack Riley from The Bob Newhart Show. Beware! The Blob has the late, great comedian Godfrey Cambridge and Return of the Killer Tomatoes has George Clooney. I can probably stop there. This should at least be a curiosity piece for most people who want to see a young George Clooney in one of his first movies. He did Return to Horror High a year earlier (I know both titles start with Return... there was no Horror High, this one's not a sequel), but if you must choose, I'd go with Return of the Killer Tomatoes. As its title suggests it's a sequel to the equally ridiculous Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and even though it's ridiculous, it's one of those movies that is fun to watch with a big group of friends while cracking jokes and howling at the screen. This one is also noteworthy for starring veteran actor John Astin as Professor Gangreen. 

Return takes place ten years after the original. Tomatoes are now illegal. Wilbur Finletter, who was a hero in The Great Tomato war, has opened a pizza place that serves tomatoless pizzas. Early in the film, we get the backstory from Finletter (let's face it, we'd be lost if we didn't) the war on tomatoes wasn't won until it was discovered that their weakness was the song "Puberty Love" ...the worst song ever recorded

Professor Gangreen is planning to start up another tomato war. He swears that this time music will help them and not be their downfall. He has a staff of employees including a lovely assistant and some muscle bound gardeners who he has all made from tomatoes. Gangreen's assistant Tara is tired of his abuse, so she takes off and goes to the pizza place, since the owner's son Chad (Anthony Starke) is the only person she knows. This setup makes way for lots of jokes about her naivete. Since she is not human all she wants to do is have sex, cook and clean for him. But his nervousness is also part of the joke and he seems pretty bewildered by the whole thing. Chad's roommate and co-worker is George Clooney. He's much more confident and convinces Chad to go with it, because this kind of thing never happens to people like him. When Gangreen notices that Tara is missing, he sends Igor, one of his creations (played by former Olympic swimmer Steve Lundquist) out to find her. He's also not too bright and more hilarity ensues. He needs him to hurry so he can start another tomato war and break his partner out of prison and make him President of the United States thus taking over the country and eventually the world. All of a sudden Mitt Romney doesn't seem so bad. And get this, his imprisoned buddy is played by the notorious reality T.V. personality Rick Rockwell. You may remember him as the guy who married Darva Conger on live television in 2000, on that silly publicity stunt gone wrong called Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Whew! The reasons to see this movie just keep on coming, just like the mutant tomatoes rolling down the street chasing after terrified citizens. 

If you haven't seen the original classic from 1978, you really should. It was given the special edition DVD treatment a few years ago and there's some entertaining stuff on there to go along with the film. Then you need to see this one for all of the reasons I've already given. But skip The Killer Tomatoes Strike Back (1990) and The Killer Tomatoes Eat France (1991). You just get more silly Rick Rockwell, who actually has a writing credit on those. Just how did he become a multi-millionaire anyway? It couldn't have been from these movies. The only multi-millionaires in this movie that deserve any real recognition are George Clooney and John Astin. John Astin really hams it up in this, and George Clooney actually plays it pretty straight, but they are both always fun to watch.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)

It has been thirteen years since the Japanese Toho Studios released the last Godzilla film for American audiences. A few more have been made since, but none of them made it to screens out west. But in 2013, the US will see a reboot of the Godzilla franchise that will either breathe fire and new life into the giant monster genre or it will sink to the bottom of the Hudson River like the creature did at the end of the 1998 big budget summer blockbuster along with Matthew Broderick's career. 

At the turn of the Millennium, Godzilla is now considered a force of nature, just like an earthquake. There is even a system in place called the Godzilla Prediction Network that lets the country know where Godzilla will attack next. The film features a typically convoluted yet somehow original storyline involving a UFO hiding in the ocean (that looks just like the ship in Flight of the Navigator) and another attack from Godzilla. The aliens aboard the UFO want Godzilla's DNA so they can learn to regenerate the way he does. This all leads up to a battle between the UFO and Godzilla and ultimately a battle between Godzilla and a monster called Orga that was a further mutation resulting from a mutant squid. You can't make this stuff up, folks!

If you have ever seen even one of the almost 30 Godzilla films, you know that you don't watch them for the great acting or the wonderful writing or the top notch visual effects. One thing you do watch them for and can absolutely count on is that the series never deviates from its visual style. Most of the effects done in the original Gojira (1954) are still done the exact same way today. I didn't detect much, if any, CGI in this one. Godzilla is still a guy in a rubber suit, wading through water, walking past hillsides, and in front of projections of cities and oceans. He still crashes through power lines while toy size army tanks and houses are destroyed in his path.

Some Godzilla films are better than others. I tend to enjoy the earlier ones more. But it's still interesting to see how the series evolved and stayed relevant by actually not changing very much at all. Even in 1999, the look of the people is still very 1950's. Godzilla is obviously something that you get or you don't, but one thing is certain- it's timeless. 

Wanderlust (2012)

This film opens with a scene that features Linda Lavin as a real estate agent. This made me smile, because I don't think I've seen Linda Lavin in anything since the show Alice ended in 1985. Her appearance is the best thing about this movie, and it's brief and its only purpose is to set up what follows. What follows are poorly written scenes with badly timed comedic situations and this goes on for over 90 minutes. 

George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are a married couple from New York. They have just purchased a loft in the city and the next day they each lose their job (it's slightly more complicated for the sake of yucks, but I will spare you the details for the sake of sanity). They decide that their only option is to sell the loft and move in with George's brother in Georgia. George's brother is a jerk and his wife is a ticking time bomb. The time spent there is short lived and George and Linda decide to hit the road. 

Apparently this is the "wanderlust" that the title suggests, but there really isn't much wandering at all in the film. They drive all day and never leave Georgia before they finally happen upon a hippie commune in the middle of nowhere. They find this place when a nude man appears in their headlights. At first they are terrified and desperately try to reverse the car only to flip it upside down. Left with no other options, they must let the naked man offer his assistance. While this new setup may sound humorous, the description is better without the visuals and forced comedy from some usually competent actors. The naked man (Joe Lo Truglio) takes the couple back to the rest of the commune. Dumb jokes abound about how out of touch the hippies are how hippieish they are. The funniest scene involves Jennifer Aniston's character taking the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuaska. But even this just made me laugh with a single "Heh" sound. If she had actually succeeded at trying to fly the movie may have ended there. Instead we get the usual plot development where the evil people in suits want to take the land away from the peaceful hippies and a battle ensues. The whole thing is yawn inducing. Some incredible actors and comedians are completely wasted. Alan Alda plays the aging founder of the commune and gets very few laughs. This is very sad considering his Hawkeye character on M*A*S*H is one of the greatest television characters ever. Wanderlust also features several cast members of the classic MTV sketch comedy show The State. Most of them were also on the show Reno 911 and that material, while repetitive at times, was light years ahead of the stuff in Wanderlust

I don't know what anyone was the thinking during the writing process of this film. I don't understand how it got made. I don't understand how it got released. And anyone who enjoyed this movie- I don't know how they live with themselves. Wanderlust only made back like 2/3 of its budget at the box office, so maybe there aren't many of these people around anyway. Thank goodness for humanity. 

The Shape of Things (2003)

I've never noticed anything particularly odd or different about Paul Rudd's nose. It's not too big, it's not too small, but to be perfectly honest- this is the first time I have ever thought about his nose at all. In Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (2003), Paul Rudd's character wears glasses and his hair falls over his forehead. His nose looks huge. If it's some sort of prosthesis, it looks amazing. Like Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood amazing. But if they just used the glasses and his hair style and lighting and other tricks to change the shape of his nose, then that's pretty remarkable as well. One thing that is worth mentioning is that Paul Rudd is acting along side the beautiful Rachel Weisz, so maybe that contributed to the illusion. 

The question about his nose is answered in the film and I won't answer it here. But Paul Rudd's appearance and his quirky mannerisms are crucial to the development of the story. Paul Rudd plays Adam Sorenson and Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Ann Thompson. They meet in an art museum where Adam works. She has stepped over the velvet ropes to photograph a statue of a nude with a fig leaf over the crotch. He approaches her to try and stop her, but they get wrapped up in a long conversation. She admits that she intends to deface the statue and he eventually agrees to look the other way, but first he gets her phone number. 

The pair begins to spend a lot of time together. Adam's friends Phillip and Jenny, who happen to be an engaged couple, notice changes in Adam, both physical and inward. One night when the two couples are spending an evening together, Evelyn blows up in a rage leaving the other couple stunned. But later, when Jenny notices the changes in Adam, she seems to think Evelyn may be a great influence. Jenny follows that up with trying to make out with Adam. 

The writer and director of The Shape of Things is the one and only Neil LaBute. He adapted the story for the screen from his own stage play. The play has the same name and the film features the same four actors that were in the original stage production. LaBute is a great playwright, one of the best, and his films usually have a play-like quality. Dialogue is the most important thing and he uses it to show the flaws in his characters. But sometimes, and this film is a great example, his characters seem to behave in a deliberate and intentional way that cause others pain. This is not a character flaw, this is just evil. The outcome packs a similar punch to LaBute's In the Company of Men (1997) but this time the audience is not in on the joke. We are just as blindsided as the victim. But the film does a great job of setting up the sense of impending doom that is sure to come. No one seems to be very trustworthy and someone, maybe several people are going to get hurt. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Daisies (1966)

It's hard to say if Daisies is really about something, but I will do my best. Two young women, both named Marie, have decided that everything in the world is bad- so they should be bad too. The films narrative is not at all straightforward and often jumps around and doesn't make much sense, but it mostly follows these two around while they amuse themselves and make other's lives miserable. 

I know it sounds crazy. It's often extremely mean-spirited. But the two lead actresses have an impish charm that makes it hard to not like them. They seem to be in the middle of a manic episode the entire film. After a while I did hate them. But I loved the movie. 

Daisies is a part of the Czech New Wave movement and it was written and directed by Věra Chytilová. Some consider it a feminist work and I can understand why. But its message is a little unclear. I am not well versed in feminist theory, but I do believe that in order to affect the mainstream, you should be a part of it. This film is more Anarchist than Feminist in my opinion. And the ending makes you rethink everything that the first 70 minutes made you feel.  

The visuals are brilliant. It is absolutely a product of the 1960's with flower patterns and oranges and yellows, some sequences bordering on the psychedelic. The film also pays tribute to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and even French director Jacques Tati, who was known for his slapstick comedy. The two girls in Daisies are sort of like younger and less jaded versions of Tati's bumbling, technology challenged character Monsieur Hulot. If they make it, they will certainly become just like him on 30 years. 

As an aside, I want to mention something I always liked about the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Sometimes the person committing the crime would get away with it at the end of the show, but Hitchcock would always come on the screen after and assure the audience that the law and Karma eventually caught up with them and they were sent to prison. I wonder if Marie and Marie have ever seen that show.