Movie Reviews 191 – Dead Calm (1989)

July 29, 2014

Dead CalmA simple plot in which a couple, Rae (Nicole Kidman) and John (Sam Neill), seek solitude and isolation on their yacht to console their hearts after the recent tragic loss of their child only to be terrorized by a young man they encounter on the high seas from another drifting yacht.

Their visitor Hughie, (Billy Zane) who frantically rowed over in a dinghy to their yacht, spews tales of a food poisoning outbreak that took the lives of the others who were on his boat. Perplexed at first, especially when Hughie stoutly refuses to return for any reason to his now abandoned vessel, John, a career senior naval officer is suspicious. As Hughie catches a few winks he decides to ride the dinghy back to Hughie’s ship where he has a few surprises in store for him.

But that leaves Rae alone with Hughie and it is she that must somehow survive the whimsies of the obviously deranged Hughie. All she has is the hope that her husband is still alive on Hughies boat and her dog.

The stark isolation compounds the suspense that the couple face and even with a cast of only three people there is enough tension and action to live up to the best of any high seas battle. It’s a game of minds and chance that will determine the outcome but even on such a limited set there are plenty of surprises.

I think Dead Calm has flown under the radar of most people although I remember enjoying it years ago. If seeing these three stars early on in their careers isn’t enough to entice you, the dog certainly will!

Movie Reviews 190 – Coffy (1973)

July 18, 2014

CoffyShag carpets, red velvet fedoras, chrome bumpered caddys and polyester bell-bottomed jumpsuits propel viewers back to the groovin’ 70’s in Coffy, a low budget Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle from director Jack Hill. Most viewers will be more familiar with Grier’s title role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but that role itself was just a tribute to Grier’s title role in Foxy Brown, another Jack Hill movie.

Grier plays a Nurse named Coffin, nicknamed Coffy (Coffee, get it?) who takes on drug dealers and kingpins with vigilante vengeance when her little 11 year sister is lured to a world of drug addiction. Her pillars of support include a childhood friend Carter (William Elliott) who is a one of the few honest cops left on the force and her lover Howard (Booker Bradshaw) who`s just announce he`s running for congress.

After blowing off the head of a street lord and injecting his flunky with a bad dose of drugs like that given to her own sister, Coffy learns that she has to reach higher into the echelons of the drug distribution system to make a dent. For that she targets street pimp and pusher King George (Robert DoQui) and his own European supply boss Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus, doctor Sid Friedman on M.A.S.H). Coffy (sporting one of the worst fake Jamaican accents ever) gains the confidence of King George and gets in a cat fight free for all with a bunch of the pimp’s girls at a party. Vitroni however delights in the fight and the ensuing generous display of boobs as a result of the girls tearing off one anothers clothes as they trash. He takes exceptional note of the buxom Coffy and invites her to his hotel that night, but before she can waste him she’s subdued by Vitroni’s head henchman (Jack Hill regular Sid Haig from Spiderbaby and The Devil’s Rejects). But Coffy eventually escapes only to be surprised to learn who some of the other members of Vitroni’s team are before one final rampage and heading off into the sunset.

The plot is nothing to write home about but there is plenty of action. To be honest, Grier’s acting is quite dreadful (nothing like her refined and acclaimed performance in Foxy Brown much later in her career) and her looks probably influenced her getting the role. But the best aspect of this movie is how it captures that 70’s instant in time where ‘black was were it was at’. You know that you could never get away today with a scene where a city councilman has a meeting with the chief of police at a tittie bar and not only does no one notice, but when Coffy joins the duo they all joke about drugs.

If a retro jive talkin’ blaxploitation movie is what you’re looking for, this is it.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm – Greg Keyes 2014

July 11, 2014

firestormFirst off, let’s get something straight from the start. I’m a devoted Planet of the Apes (PotA) fan. I don’t mean I just like the movies and think they’re cool. It goes way deeper than that. The original series of movies were always a favorite of mine even as a kid, but as the years wore on, instead of just relegating the memories of the ‘Planet of the Apes” mania that occurred during my formative years in the 70’s to the back of my mind, the allure has grown. When discussion groups on the internet started popping up in the late nineties I stumbled upon a few PotA ones and it just took off from there. My interest has lead me to consume books, magazines, comics, fanzines and really anything that I can get my hands on. I now have just about every one of the above printed material and much more. Tapes, DVDs, Soundtrack CDs, Cups, posters, cards, super 8mm reels, and of course toys including puzzles, plastic models and action figures. (The more refined collector’s prefer the term “action figures”, but who’s kidding who? They’re toy dolls.). I’ve got them all. All this to say that when it comes to Planet of the Apes, count me in, baby! So you may want to consider that as you read this review.

Touted as a novel that bridges the events between the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Firestorm picks up immediately after the events of the first film. And in case anyone was curious, there really isn’t much for readers to summarize the story so far and what happened in Rise. So if you haven’t seen Rise, a lot of the book will be confusing (as will this book review). To recap, Caesar has led his troop of escaped apes across the Golden Gate bridge and into the Muir Woods forest just north of San Francisco. The same medicinal gas that Gen Tech was producing as a potential cure for Alzheimer’s, and which gave rise to intelligent apes, was also found to be deadly in humans.The last scene from Rise indicated people showing signs of the virus and then we got to see graphics of the viral spread across the globe as the credits roll.

We now learn about the effects of the virus as the very first victims begin flooding into hospitals and how the growing numbers become a concern. Caesar in the meantime, having reached temporary safety of the woods, must now decide his next move and what to do with his group, many of which are injured. For Caesar, it is not so much a battle with humans at this point as it is one of survival for his troops of renegade apes.

Meanwhile, there has been a whitewash by the current San Francisco mayor’s office, where most of the events of the insurrection and battle on the bridge has been downplayed or silenced altogether. Anvil corporation, a sister company to Gen Sys which developed the smart serum and released the retrovirus now afflicting the population has hired professionals in their hunt of Caesar and the escaped apes. Clancy, a female anthropologist is teamed with Malakai, an African mercenary with practical knowledge of ape psychology. But both are standout reluctant participants with the rest of the Anvil crew. At first, there are mixed messages as to whether Anvil want to capture the apes or just kill them, but they have to rely on Clancy and Malakai to find them first regardless.

As the magnitude and spread of the deadly virus grows, the apes are oblivious to what is happening in the cities and must simply contend with finding sources of appropriate food and keeping one step ahead of the humans. Eventually they clash and it becomes clear that Anvil is trying to kill the apes, who are mistakenly being blamed as the source of the virus.

A large focus of the novel is on the Mayoral race going on in San Francisco where the recently retired police chief, Dreyfuss, is a major contender. Clearly one of the ‘good guys’, helping to quell skirmishes and fomenting riots, he eventually becomes the de-facto mayor as his city and the rest of the world crumbles.

Aside from Caesar, we also share much of the story with Koba, the one-eye, slashed and bedraggled looking fellow lab specimen we briefly encountered in Rise. We basically retrace his entire wistful life via flashbacks, some of which include scenes from Rise. Koba comes to understand his augmented intelligence and learns that he must refrain from violence and revenge for the sake of the other apes. We also get a lot of interaction between Maurice, the sign language savvy Orangutan as he shares his wisdom with Caesar.

Most of the action is all about apes outwitting humans, but we also get to experience of lot of human on human violence as the city and civilization itself goes down the tubes.

While I certainly enjoyed the novel, especially the first half where we get some interesting human characters dealing with their own personal crumbling lives, the latter half was not as engaging, being more action oriented as the apes elude capture, for which the outcome was preordained.

I think ape enthusiasts like myself will certainly enjoy this novel. But you really have to have seen, and enjoyed the first movie in order to relate to it.

How much is relevant to the new movie Dawn? Without having seen it (it opens today!) I can say that it’s a pretty open ended story that won’t impact anything in the movie itself with the exception that the character of Dreyfus will be in the movie (and played by favorite Gary Oldman no less, so that alone is promising!)

Movie Reviews 189 – Decoys (2003)

July 3, 2014

DecoysIt only recently came to my attention that Decoys was filmed right here in Ottawa. It sat unwatched on my DVD shelves for quite some time so upon learning this interesting fact I immediately made it a priority to watch.

Touted as a ‘low budget’ movie, it’s really a mid-budget endeavor produced by several Canadian government funds and the Space channel. Marketed as a ‘sexy’ science-fiction/horror movie, the DVD packaging description and photos of bra wearing young women all allude that this may be closer to a ‘quick buck’ soft core porn. Even the pre-movie rating banner gives it a surprising R rating, warning of “nudity”. But aside from a few scant boob scenes (I’ve seen more cleavage in some light comedies) it is nothing of the sort and does a disservice to the movie which was much better than I expected.

Swiping plot elements from SpeciesThe Hidden and a touch of The Arrival, all of which would otherwise relegate this to being a mediocre mashup movie, the plot adds just enough novelty to the premise to distinguish the movie. But some great characters (and all round fine casting and acting), a decent script, and some last minute surprises makes this eminently enjoyable.

Set in a university campus ghetto,  Luke (Corey Sevier) and his best friend Roger (Elias Toufexis) are lamenting their ineptitude and recent misfortunes with women when suddenly two new, hot students girls move into their complex. Lilly (Stefanie von Pfetten) and Constance (Kim Poirier) quickly prance and tease their way into the boys lives and the rest of the university functions. Meanwhile the frozen corpses of male students are popping up at an alarming rate around the campus which puts detectives Kirk (Richard Burgi) and Watts (Nicole Eggert), Luke’s old flame, on the case.

Luke discovers that the new girls are not what they seem, and a preference and immunity to extreme cold temperatures are not the least of the girls unique characteristics. Despite the discovery, he falls for Lilly while Constance starts taking a shine to Roger. But are the boys simply their next victims or are they genuinely falling in love? But in order to accomplish their goal, which includes successfully copulating with a male, the girls have to unleash their inner beasts and that can be a problem for mere mortal humans.

Some nifty (if now outdated) effects satisfy the horror and creepiness factors but the movie is more focused on the interesting relationship angles and all the academic hijinx one would expect in the chosen setting. The true accomplishment of the movie however is how it actually manages to garner a sympathetic stance towards the girls in the final act. It’s far from perfect (the whole ex-girlfriend cop angle is completely useless and should have been left on the cutting room floor), but still a fun movie with just the right amount of horror. I particularly liked how the cold  Canadian climate is weaved into the story and setting and all the snow and slush really made me feel right at home. And the best part is that I recently found out there is a sequel,  Decoys 2: Alien Seduction. Cool, eh!

And in case you were curious, there were no wooden or plastic ducks in this movie.  Not sure about the sequel.

Movie Reviews 188 – Helter Skelter (1976)

June 25, 2014

Helter Skelter movieBased on Los Angeles deputy district attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive book documenting the Manson family crime rampage of 1969, Helter Skelter was shot as a short two-night TV miniseries movie by CBS.

Lead by Charles Manson as some sort of Messiah figure, his ‘family’ of young lost souls camped at various remote ranches and terrorized the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles in August 1969 with two consecutive house break ins in which the occupants were senselessly and brutally murdered. The first murders took place at the house of director Roman Polanski (Polanski himself being away at the time), the most gruesome aspect of that night’s terror being the blood curdling death of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant at the time. The second house murder was not far away at the LaBianca residence two nights later. While the two night spree culminated in the death of seven people, it was only, piecing together the murders, that authorities determined that Manson, both alone and with his followers, probably killed more than 30 people.

Disillusioned with authority and intent on starting a revolution, Manson hoped that the murders would be blamed on African Americans and that as a result of the accusations a race war would ensue. Splattering lyrics and titles of Beatles songs using the blood of his victims at the crime scenes, the musician Mansion believed the Beatles and other groups were hinting at the revolution and  he took it upon himself to spark the battle.

While not the first such killing sprees in history, the Hollywood locale, brutality of the murders and the uncovering of the past deeds of The Family and made Charles Manson a household name during the trials and his continued imprisonment to this very day day more than 45 years later (his original death sentence being commuted to life in prison when California dropped the death penalty) has relegated the Manson name to the top of serial killer notoriety list.

A rationale of simply being crazy was not the norm (not sure if that can be said today) and they really had to struggle with the fact that they were really dealing with an entire group of people basically following orders from a Messiah figure.

Steve Railsback as Manson nails the crazed look of Charles Manson, but there are so many other aspects of the investigation and other characters that his role is a lot smaller than you would expect. Indeed the central character is that of deputy DA Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) himself and all the authorities piecing together the crimes and trying to comprehend the motives.

Interestingly, Railsback went on to portray another serial killer in the title of role of the movie Ed Gein .

Helter Skelter bookHaving read Bugliosi’s book many years ago, I can attest that the movie, through no fault of it’s own, barely captures the horrors that really played out all those years ago. In order to get a sense of the carnage that took place, a lot of details and events have to be put under the lens, something that can’t be captured in a highly cleansed for TV and mere 3 ½ hour movie.

If you really want to understand the Manson story, I highly recommend reading the book. I can honestly say that it is the scariest book I’ve ever read even when comparing it with the numerous horror fiction titles I’ve read over the years. The fact that is not fiction, but depict real life atrocities is what makes it so compelling.

But if haven’t got time to read the book, then this movie will convey the big picture, but only marginally so.

 

Movie Reviews 187 – Cabin Fever (2001)

June 21, 2014

Cabin FeverCabin Fever was writer/director Eli Roth’s film debut just before achieving even greater fame with Hostel. The title alone reveals that it employs the clichéd and overused Evil Dead ‘kids in a remote cabin’ plot, but it does bring a few minor twists to the table.

Unlike many such movies where a bunch of cozy friends group together and endure whatever sordid ordeal awaits them once they get to their cabin, this bunch quickly turn on one as they deal with a some weird hyper skin rash that slowly kills its prey. The infection starts with a hermit walking the woods (well his dog really) and eventually gets to the kids, but not until one of the boys accidentally kills the hermit. It doesn’t take long for the group to put the first girl infected into the shed for the night but needless to say, the infectious spread continues.

The kids are the usual stock of ‘cabin kids’; the jock, the princess, the goofball, and of course the ‘good guy’ trying to get noticed by the pretty girl who is oblivious to his pandering. While I had no problem with the characters, there wasn’t anything really new or interesting either. They get visits from a nearby weed smoking camper and a young idiot cop investigating the disappearance of the hermit and is blind to all the clues at the cabin as he tries act cool himself.

One saving grace of this movie is the high production values and dishing out some pretty gruesome gore. But other than that, I did not find it especially memorable compared to other movies like it. In fact, some of the setup scenes where the kids run into some of the locals before getting to the cabin are better than the actual cabin scenes. The best part of the movie is a particular one-liner at the beginning of the movie by the old store keeper that is preamble for the parting joke in the movie.

Not satisfied being an Evil Dead cabin clone, the movie does have a number of other subtle and not so subtle homages to other movies (Deliverance, Rituals) but the final scene ripping off the climax from Night of the Living Dead was a little hokey.

Seen better, seen worse.

Movie Reviews 186 – Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

June 13, 2014

ChildrenoftheCorn666The last Children of the Corn movie I reviewed, Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror was pretty brutal, but Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return manages to do the impossible and is even worse than that one. (And there are still more movies to go in the series. Eek!)

As per the title of the movie, they actually went and revived the character of Isaac (John Franklin) who lead the band of evil worshiping kids way back in the original Children of the Corn. And by ‘revive’ I mean that literally as he’s been asleep all the years since then (nineteen according to this movie, but more like 16 years in real time if you go by the movie release dates).  One of the long lost kids, Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), has come back to the town of Gatlin searching for her biological mother and she revives Isaac from his slumber the instant she touches him.

Hoping to spare her from the festering evil in Gatlin at the time of the children’s  insurrection, Hannah’s parents had sent her away when she was still very young. Only curiosity about her parents impels her to return, but she doesn’t really know much about what really happened in Gatlin. Supposedly her return was all some preordained event that the followers of the cult have prophesied and been anxiously awaiting. It’s also something some of the ‘good’ town folk have known about and been hoping to avoid.

The rest of this muddled story revolves around the prophecy extolling who will be the new ‘chosen one’ and ultimately wield the evil powers of “He who walks behind the rows”.

As silly as it sounds, Isaac now has an elder son who presumes to be anointed the chosen one, but he’s got other contenders trying to get in on the action. (But wait a sec, wasn’t Isaac just a kid himself when he went into the coma and he’s been comatose all these years until now? How is he supposed to have fathered a child along the way?)

I guess this can be considered a direct sequel to the first movie in that it is one of the few that actually features a recurring character. But at the same time there is so little connecting the two that you don’t really don’t need to have seen any of the other movies. This movie manages to be silly on it’s own and it didn’t take long for me to not care about who is the ‘chosen one’ or what happens to Hannah and her quest to find out about her family.

Not totally devoid of some entertainment, we have a yet another roster of ‘former Hollywood stars’ to provide some interest. This time around we have Nancy Allen (of Carrie and Robocop fame) as Hannah’s mom  and Stacy Keach as the town doctor trying to spare Hannah from the prophecy.

None other than Isaac himself (Franklin) is credited as co-writer of this made for TV slumber fest which explains some of it. All I can say is that I’m one movie closer to completing my Children of the Corn cornucopia. God, I hope the next one is better. It couldn’t be worse. Could it?

Movie Reviews 185 – Sorum (2001)

June 5, 2014

SorumIt’s been a while since I popped in a Tartan K-horror DVD so I was really looking forward when I finally  got around to Sorum, one of those convoluted stories in which the actions and doings of most of the characters are all somehow dictated by events in the past.

Yong-hyun (Myung-min Kim), a young taxi driver, rents out an apartment in a dilapidated building only to find that apartment 504 was the scene of a recent fire, as evidenced by the scorched ceiling above his head. Down the hall is a wannabe writer working on novel while down the other end of the hall lives Sun-yeong (former beauty queen Jang Jin-Young although you wouldn’t know that given the shambled look she ports through most of the film), a woman constantly being beaten up by her husband.

Yong-hyun takes a shine to Sun-yeong, and makes it a point to pass her walking home from her job as a convenience store  clerk so that he can offer her a ride home in his taxi. At first, the rides are quiet, Sun-yeong not even bothering to answer Yong-hyun’s polite queries. But she eventually makes small talk. The writer neighbor on the other hand is incessantly talkative. His discussions and those of the other tenants in the building often get around to some obscure tragedy that occurred in the building 30 years ago when another fire took place in which a baby was rescued.

Like many such Korean movies, the pace is agonizingly slow and we have to put all the hints and pieces into place to get down to what the movie is really all about, but it’s a neat story once the puzzle is complete. You won’t find much gore or violence as this is Korean horror with a little ‘h’. But it is strange and offbeat enough to enjoy until the big reveal at the end.

One odd thing you won’t help but noticing is that every character seems to be a chainsmoker in this movie. Not sure if this was supposed to be some subtle hint to the building fires around which the story revolves or if I’m missing some other aspect. You figure it out.

 

Movie Reviews 184 – Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

June 1, 2014

Exorcist II The HereticI was warned. The first week of it’s release back in 1977 a friend of mine went to see this sequel to The Exorcist with great anticipation and eagerness in his eyes. He can back a rambling, shambling man spewing tales of locust infestations and gesticulating swirling motions with his arm. It seemed like he’d lost his mind. One thing was clear though, this was no exorcist movie at all and he absolutely loathed this movie. He was not alone. The reviews were brutal. Enough for me to stay away for nearly 35 years.

I finally caved in and watched it for two reasons. The first was my surprise in hearing that the third installment, The Exorcist III, was actually quite good so I was going to have to endure this one if I was going to make sense of that one. The second reason is that I’m somewhat a completist and skipping any movies in series (as you’ve probably learned as I held up watching the first seven Children of the Corn movies no matter how they deteriorated in quality over the run).

So, fully aware that I was probably in for a rough ride, and with only a mild hope that everyone else was wrong and this couldn’t be as bad as everyone said it was, I plunked it into my DVD player.

Regrettably, they were all correct. This movie is an unqualified mess and a greater abomination than the devil Pazuzu we’re supposed to be afraid of. Not being scary in the least is only a minor problem considering the other failings in this movie. The first thing we learn is that Linda Blair’s  acting talents did not blossom as she did in the intervening years between The Exorcist and reprising her role as Regan in this sequel. Hey, she was either a cute kid or cursing a blue streak when possessed by the devil in that one, not much of a range when you think about it. But she’s just playing a straight adult here and she just doesn’t hold up. True the script doesn’t give her much to work with, but she just doesn’t cut it.

Next we get to more bizarre aspects of the movie. It’s really hard to explain being so convoluted. On the one hand you have Louise Fletcher running a child psychiatric unit, but, get his, she has a device that allows one person to synch up their mind with another person to experience their dreams. As silly and absurd a device one can imagine, it becomes the focal point of the movie when Regan’s is put under it and her dreams focus on the inhabitants of some long lost African Savanna. Seriously, I can’t make up this shit.

The icing on the cake is having Richard Burton come is as a priest to take the ride with Regan on the gadget so that he can figure out what is really going on with her. And of course there are the locust infestations I mentioned.

Confused? Try watching the movie. I honestly don’t know how such a hackneyed script can get the go ahead. I can just image the reaction of all those people who went is expecting a sequel to The Exorcist felt like those during it’s theatrical run. I waited 35 years, knew it was going to be bad, and I still feel robbed.

Now where is my Exorcist III DVD…?

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield (2013)

May 21, 2014

Chris Hadfield - An Astronaut's Guide to Life on earthThe greatest Canadian contribution to space science is not the space shuttle’s robotic arm system affectionately named Canadarm. Opulently displaying the name “Canada” and our flag every time the shuttle was doing payload manipulations, it was what defined the Canadian presence in space for years. But the Canadarm has been surpassed with our contribution of Chris Hadfield to the astronaut roster. His first two short term flights on shuttle missions were fairly routine (although that too is a misnomer as every flight has some irregularity or crisis to deal with). But his third flight was historic from many aspects. Just being a foreign commander of the ISS for six months comprising ISS mission 35, was commendable on its own. But when he started tweeting, making YouTube videos, and even singing in space, his notoriety, and more importantly the visibility of space exploration, exploded, making him one of the greatest space ambassadors of the modern age, an a Canadian icon.

I picked up a signed copy of his book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” at this years Yuri’s Night (an annual commemoration of Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural human space flight) Ottawa event from the Canadian Space Society’s booth.

The book describes Hadfield’s adventures in space and all it took to get there from his earliest days as a cadet, submitting his candidacy for the Canadian astronaut program, being selected and then working until he reached the ultimate goal of getting into space. We get to read about the mundane and monotonous aspects (and there is a lot more of that on the journey than you would think) as well as the more exciting training preparation aspects.

One difference about this book that differs it from other astronaut and space biographies is that, true to the title, this is really a book as much about Hadfield extorting how one should live their lives in general, and is not only about his space exploration. He goes in great detail about how his positive attitude was a large contributing factor to his success and how he advocates his lifestyle of hard work and dedication, all supplemented by a positive attitude. He makes strong arguments how his attitude was the prime reason behind his success and gives examples of how the wrong attitude has shortened the careers of others.

Which brings us to the main fault of the book. The recurring theme regarding positive attitude is drilled with abundance bordering on being preachy. It becomes a distraction that we have to read over and over when, lets face it, we want to get to the good stuff. It’s not something that will have me not recommending the read, just something that could have been tamed a bit to make the read more pleasant and interesting.

The best part of the book is of course his month long ISS stint and being teamed with two cosmonauts we also learn a lot about Russian culture and how they really do some things so differently from others while at the same time being just as proficient and technologically advanced. He also goes in great detail how he came about using the social networking sites to make the most of his trip and what made his mission there so memorable to so many people enjoying his antics.

I did have one minor quibble, but this was not related to the contents or even the book itself. I bought what was presented to me as a ‘signed book’. But it was one of those books not signed directly, but where a sticker with his signature was applied inside. So technically I have a signed sticker, not a signed book. I just hate it when authors do that. It’s a cheap shortcut and essentially means that they never have to actually handle the book itself and can just sign a bunch of stickers that are later applied to the book. This is really not what a signed book is supposed to represent.


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