Movie Reviews 228 – Dreamcatcher (2003)

July 28, 2015

DreamcatcherThose reading this blog regularly may have noted that in the last few years I’ve gained some admiration of Stephen King and have not only been trying to catch up on my reading (if that was even possible for such a prolific writer) but have developed a keen interest on the many movies and television series developed upon his written works.

I’ve actually been amassing a sizable backlog of DVDs of Stephen King material and so far they have all been enjoyable if not outright fantastic. At the same time I’ve read some not so positive reviews of other more obscure films that I have yet to watch and have been bracing myself for a dud. Dreamcatcher does manage to fall in the questionable category, but it is all the more frustrating because at the same time it has a lot of promising points.

Drawing on the elements of King’s own alien invasion novel/movie “The Mist” and town quarantine films like “The Crazies“, Dreamcatcher also lightly taps other King material including “Stand By Me” (A.K.A “The Body” in novella form) and even a few mystical elements like “The Green Mile“. Add a stellar cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, Tom Sizemore and even Donnie Walberg (he’s actually pretty good for a change) to all those King ingredients and it begins to sound like you can’t lose. But while Dreamcatcher sounds like a great King amalgam that would be sure to satisfy, drawing on so many elements at once seems to be the Achilles’s heel in this case as the story becomes disjointed and plagued with logic flaws.

As kids long ago, four young boys came to the aid of a mentally challenged kid named Duddits who was being bullied. When they befriend Duddits he later endows each of the boys with unique powers in addition to giving them the ability to communicate telepathically with one another. Years later, the boys, now young men, all meet up for their annual winter cabin in the woods get together with plans for later going to see Duddits again after so many years. But when some of the men bring a rescued hunter to the cabin, the hunter’s body soon undergoes some ghastly transformations and soon releases an inner horror. We soon learn that there is a very localized epidemic of such horrors and an elite super secret branch of the services are here to end the onslaught. It seems that this isn’t the first incursion of some grand alien plan and the rescuers will stop at nothing to quash the invasion, including killing any innocent people caught in the net. It’s up to Duddits and the boys to save the day, although whether that means simply stopping the current incursion or stopping the so called ‘good guys’ is up for debate.

There are some decent scenes and nifty wormlike CGI creatures, but there are so many logic lapses and unexplained events that the movie as a whole fails entirely. We have the leader of the elite fighters (Freeman) going a bit bonkers, but even then it’s hard to argue whether his drastic measures were in fact warranted or not. The boys using their ‘powers’ almost comes as a distraction to an otherwise already muddled story. Each of the four protagonists have a glaring character fault, but why that is or how it fits into the story is never reasoned out.

The boys exclaim their favorite tagline of “SSDD” (“Same Shit, Different Day”) throughout the movie, but this may as well apply to the movie itself and there really isn’t anything new or unique. I suppose that this may just be a bad adaptation of the original source, but even given what was filmed, I’m not particularly interested in ever reading the novel to see if it was much better.

Movie Reviews 227 – Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)

July 18, 2015

The Cat O Nine TailsDario Argento practically created the Italian Giallo thriller film movie genre single handedly with his first film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and this his second feature, Cat O’ Nine Tails, uses all the contrivances that define ‘Giallo’. A murder mystery in which the audience experiences part of the film through the eyes of the murderer’s leather gloved perspective,  an accidental witness that becomes entangled in the solving of the crime, one or more Hollywood borderline B-rated actors, all presented in a cut-rate Italo-Euro production. That’s Giallo!

In this case the Hollywood imports recruited were James Franciscus and Karl Malden. Malden having just completed Patton and would go on to fame and acclaim the following year with the television cop drama The Streets of San Francisco while Franciscus had just recently gained star billing in Beneath the Planet of the Apes the year before.

Blind retired newspaper reporter Franco Arnò (Malden) is walking along the streets one night with the little niece under his custody. As they walk beside a parked car, Franco’s sensitized hearing pickups up an odd conversation from the car’s occupants. He stops slightly ahead of the car and asks his granddaughter to get a closer look at the car.

The next day Franco learns of a break-in a the nearby medical complex and joins the throng of curious onlookers in front of the complex. As the police begin their investigation he makes the acquaintance of Carlo Giodano (Franciscus) who is a reporter. When he gets back home his niece tells him that the front page of the news paper has a picture of the man that was in the car the night before. Franco then joins Carlo to put all their pieces together to find out exactly what is going in since the break-in curiously enough did not result in any theft.

This slowly developing puzzle which is concentrated on the many doctors and administrators of the medical complex slowly starts to untangle, but as it does so, personnel start dying at an alarming rate. There is the enigmatic complex owner who wishes to quash any investigation. His strikingly beautiful daughter who soon joins Carlo and Franco. And the many doctors and researchers, some involved in the plot and others innocently dragged in.

But what exactly is the mystery? That, my friends is the Cat O’ Nine Tails of the title. It has nothing to to do with a multi-tip whip per se, but a reference to the nine leads the reporter duo have and that need to be sorted out in order to answer all their questions, and get to the bottom of the murders.

While the characters aren’t very deep, there are nice touches like the fact that by day the blind Franco works on putting together newspaper crossword puzzles. Not solving them, but creating them with a blind-friendly alphabetic tile contraption.

There is very little sleuthing and while the ending isn’t very satisfying, it’s the trip their that’s part of the fun. Enjoy the stylized garish 70’s furniture, the incessant smoking and the mandatory car chase with sub-compact cars as you enjoy this vestige of a bygone era in cinema.

Ciao!

Mindscan – Robert J. Sawyer (2005)

July 13, 2015

Mindscan-SawyerChances are that if you’ve read a few other novels from Robert J.Sawyer you may have discovered that he likes to add court room conflict to his stories (Illegal Alien, Hominids). He also likes to play around with the definition of human, or more accurately, what constitutes human souls and sentience (The Terminal Experiment, Rollback). In his 2005 novel Mindscan, he tackles both and, as always, with a special twist.

In a near future where mankind has just developed the capability to place a person’s consciousness into a robotic body, some of the affluent but elder begin taking up Immortex corporation’s new Mindscan process. Basically a snapshot copy of your brain is deposited into a robot body mimicking your own (or a slightly improved version). They idea is that your consciousness in the robot becomes an immortal instantiation of yourself. People signing up remain in their current bodies, but they go to pasture on the Moon in a specifically isolated Eden-like community to live out their remaining days. Meanwhile, their new robot selves take up the lives on Earth of the former flesh and blood versions.

No problem, right?

Of course there are problems. When wealthy young Jake who has a brain condition that may turn him into a vegetable at any moment takes the Mindscan plunge he doesn’t take into account certain factors that will make him regret his decision. Unfortunately for Jake, he soon realizes there are obstacles to coming back and resuming his own life. Is it really even his to take back? Meanwhile, his robotic self has also hooked up with a woman who has undergone the process. But when her ‘skin’ dies of natural causes on the lunar surface, her son decides that he is entitled to his inheritance, robot copy be damned.

While a precedent setting court case investigates all the science and philosophical implications on Earth to decide the issue of the inheritance, Jake is staging a showdown of his own with the Immortex cronies on the Moon.

Coming off the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, Hybrids) one and the overlapping plot points, one can easily imagine that this novel was conceived while writing the latter series. The characters are interesting enough, the science is cool, but as always it’s the deeper implications that are driving factors in the story. Sawyer always provides interesting (and cool) stories even if the prospects aren’t exactly ‘near future’.

One problem I had was that those undergoing the procedure gave little thought to the fact that their current entities would indeed remain in their current bodies, thus really negating any benefits for the current ‘self’. The procedure makes a copy that lives on, but the original is left right back where they were before the procedure. Indeed, it’s clear that they are agreeing to being shuffled off (literally) to the far side of the Moon for their remaining years. This seems to come as something of a shock for our protagonist Jake which seems outlandish.

While it has a few logic flaws there is never a boring moment and with his ever present touch of Canadiana, this is another fine novel that Sawyer fans will be delighted with. Oh, and given that Rob is a devoted fellow Planet of the Apes fan, be sure to be on the lookout for a nice nod to the original movie.

Movie Reviews 226 – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

July 4, 2015

The Serpent and the RainbowWes Craven has given us a lot of great movies over his illustrious career from his debut with Last House on the Left, right on through the Scream series of movies. But his production has been decidedly peppered with a few clunkers along the way and The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of those that missed the mark.

A story of Haitian voodoo and zombies (long before Zombies were über cool I might add), the plot is superficial at best, devoid of any real thrills or action, and even boring at times.

After dabbling with some of the local concoctions doled out by a Haitian shaman and being surprised by the potency of the hallucinogenic results, scientist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) returns home where he is approached by a pharmaceutical firm with a special request in mind. Presenting evidence that they believe proves the existence of a miraculous anesthetic, they tell Dennis they want him to go back and find the source. The ‘evidence’ purports that a man buried seven years earlier has been confirmed to be alive and well and to be stalking cemeteries.

Dennis, however skeptical, returns to Haiti where he meets a nurse, Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who helps him in his quest, but not before he falls under the suspicion of the dreaded “Tontons Macoutes”, the paramilitary force sustaining dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s corrupt regime. The cat-and-mouse game between Dennis and the commander of the Tontons Macoutes, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), includes both induced visions and genuine acts of aggression, but that is what the rest of the movie boils down to.

How the presence of a zombie is supposed to prove the existence of the anesthetic is never made clear, but that’s the least of confusing parts of the film. Evidently an allegory for the evil regime being represented by the evil’s encountered by Dennis in his quest, the best the film has to offer are a few light scares and actor Paul Winfield in a too brief role as friendly Voodoo priest.

Wes must have been indulging in some of that elixir when he made this one. Skip it and check out many of his much better films like The Hills Have Eyes, Cursed, or even any one of the Scream quadrilogy.

Movie Reviews 225 – El Mariachi (1992)

June 18, 2015

El MariachiI’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez for some time. Quentin Tarantino’s best buddy and partner in crime is a multi-talented director, cinematographer, musician and applies all those aptitudes in every film he makes. He’s got horror and action cred and even charms the kids (and adults) with his Spy Kids series of movies, and best of all knows how to make a film look slick even on a measly budget.  But the one thing that consistently pervades any Robert Rodriguez movie is his unabashed love for his Mexican heritage (while not his home country) and fellow Latino film talent.

El Mariachi was Rodriguez’s first feature film, a simple tale of mistaken identity which lands an aspiring traveling Mariachi player (Carlos Gallardo) in trouble when he arrives in a new town.  As he lugs his black guitar case from one establishment to another seeking work as an entertainer, a local gangsters who also happens to use a black guitar case as a weapon carrier has just escaped from the local jail. But the gangster, Azul, wants his share of the money from the heist that landed him in jail. The gang leader Moco isn’t in a sharing mood and decides that killing Azul and his loyal men is easier.

El Mariachi is caught in the middle and can’t figure out why a bunch of thugs are trying to kill him. Luckily he finds a sympathetic restaurateur willing to put him up in her place. As it so happens, Domino (Consuelo Gómez) also happens to be Moco’s old girlfriend. And things really get out of hand later when the two guitar cases get switched.

There are chase scenes, gunfights aplenty, and the occasional sweet ballad as El Mariachi slowly connects all the dots together and falls for Domino who tries to save her new beau.

El Mariachi it isn’t a fantastic movie but it has all the earmarks and charm of Rodriguez’s later films and is more than entertaining enough to warrant a watch.

¡A huevo!

Movie Reviews 224 – Project X (2012)

June 13, 2015

Project XMove over Jonah Hill, Micheal Sera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse! Where Superbad was just funny, Project X takes that same basic story of three young guys trying to stake their territory in the teenage partying scene and raises the raucous events to a new level of insanity.

When I first picked up this DVD all I knew was that was going to be some ‘party gone wild’ movie and the first few minutes even had me worried that this was just going to be a cheap rip off of Superbad. Three young seniors want to party and two of them take advantage of the third when his parents leave the house for the weekend by coercing him into having a rogue birthday party. The ill at ease and unsure host Thomas (Thomas Mann) is egged on mostly by the boisterous Costa (Oliver Cooper), with ‘fat kid’ JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) adding the last push to finally convince him.

The scene of the crime is a beautiful house with a huge pool, and of course daddy has left behind his precious sports car with the strictest ‘don’t touch’ instructions. Of course we all know the car isn’t going to survive the night and the house will be a wreck before end of the movie. But even so, the route from A to B is filled with unimaginably funny side trips to drug pushers and an party invite plan that goes viral. It doesn’t take long for the slow starting party to evolve into a category five storm of sizzling and intoxicated bodies and several war fronts with police, neighbors, irked drug front-men and a midget just for good measure (pun intended).

But as in all good movies, it’s not just the events, visuals or gags that make it exceptional. The main characters are fully developed, and there is a lot more going on than just the fun. The movie take a stabs at high school cliques, jocks, love interests, parenthood, and even explores the aftermath of the eve of destruction.

And to think when I ordered this movie based on the title alone, I was hoping it was going to be the Matthew Broderick space monkey flic. (Yeah there really is such a movie.) Sheesh!

Movie Reviews 223 – The Legend of the Psychotic Forest Ranger (2011)

June 8, 2015

Legend of the Psychotic Forest RangerWith a title like The Legend of the Psychotic Forest Ranger, I couldn’t resist getting this DVD when I saw it. (In fact I accidentally ended up buying it twice, but that’s another story.)

I don’t mind film makers using the same cliché storyline of kids going to a remote cabin for a little innocent (and not so innocent) fun, but it only works when they bring something new to the table and don’t just retell the same story over and over. Aside from some Smokey the Bear and Yogi Bear jokes the rest of the film lacks any bite (Smokey, Yogi or otherwise) and was barely (bearly?) tolerable.

A dimly presented preamble of some forest ranger having gone a little insane a few years in past, we cut over to the kids making their vacation trek. Instead of ending at their intended destination however, they get lost, run out of gas, and stumble upon a conveniently isolated and empty house in the woods. The mismatched foursome are soon joined by another group where each of the kids in group A conveniently match with a counterpart in group B. And then the loonie, excuse me, psychotic, ranger starts taking them down one after another.

There is an over reliance on fake scares coming in a steady stream, followed by one lame joke after another. Most of the gore is splashback blood from psycho’s kills although there are one or two where they actually spent a bit of budget to show some FX.

The psycho ranger (Michael G. MacDonald) maintains a smirky grim at every appearance delivering at least one corny line of dialogue before every kill. I’ve got to admit that he does come off with a slightly chilling demeanor, but even that gets tiring and repetitive after a while. Once you’ve seen his evil grimace a few times it becomes a ‘by the numbers’ performance without any change.

The movie doesn’t live up to the great poster art (as so few do), although there are some nicely lit shots of the Ranger is shadow. Another odd thing about this movie is that most, if not the entire movie, seems to have been re-dubbed and voiced over. Not sure if this was intentional, due to problems recording, or maybe even due to some quirky sound editing which only made it sound re-dubbed, but it just added to the list of annoyances.

Instead of a “Hi ya Boo Boo!” this one gets a “Bye Ya Boo Boo” from me.

Movie Reviews 222 – The Funhouse (1981)

May 27, 2015

The FunhouseDirector Tobe Hooper will forever by synonymous with his classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but he has given us a few other great flicks over the years including Poltergeist and Life Force. While it had all the right ingredients to become yet another cult classic, The Funhouse which he directed amid all those other hits, isn’t all that fun and misses the mark just like in a rigged shooting gallery.

A kid whose life revolves around creepy things goes too far in pestering his older sister (he actually bursts into her showering to stab her with a rubber knife while wearing a latex monster mask) and as a result she reneges on her promise to take him to a traveling carnival show.

Warned by her parents not to go herself, she is persuaded after being goaded by her boyfriend and a couple of other friends. The carnival features the usual assortment of freakshow, thrill rides, hammer game and even a “Girls, Girls, Girls!” adult exposition (well you’re going to have to make your own judgment on the definition of ‘girls’) all whipping up public frenzy by carny barkers. The highlight is The Funhouse coaster ride that carts couples into a maze of creepy mannequins and animatronic nightmares which is manned but a rubber handed and facemasked ‘Frankenstein’ creature.

Towards the end of the night one of the kids has the bright idea of hiding out in the The Funhouse for overnight stay and some lustful frolicking. Nestling on the tracks on the second floor, their late night passion party is pooped when they hear and see “Frankenstein” in the floorboard cracks trying to buy the favors of the Psychic Fortuneteller with his keeper’s petty cash reserves. When he is repelled by the greedy clairvoyant (guess she didn’t see what’s coming) he kills her, but not before his mask is discarded and the kids learn that the horror under the mask is worse than any Frankenstein monster.

Meanwhile the kid brother has snuck out of the house and has made his way to the carnival on his own and having seen his sister and friends enter The Funhouse and then failing to exit, knows that they are inside. As he is helplessly locked out the older kids are locked in and at the mercy of the creature and his keeper. From there it becomes a bloody body count to see who survives.

I was particularly envious of the young brothers bedroom decorum, a kiddy dream room with tons of Universal Monster posters and toys, but the entire plot line featuring the kid is almost neglected after he makes his way to the carnival. Instead of adding to the story in any significant way, the character is disposed without use or consequence.

The horror and gore during all the chase is fine, but the highlight is makeup artist Rick Baker’s gruesome split face creature design which stands along some of his finest works. If only it could have been used in a more solid story.

Movie Reviews 221 – Curtains (1983)

May 22, 2015

CurtainsWhat kind of personal gain could entice an otherwise peaceful, law abiding citizen to become a (literal) cutthroat serial murderer? Money? Sex? Drugs? How about the leading role in a play? The yearning for fame on the stage has been a movie premise since it was immortalized in the original silent-era The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, albeit in that case it was not personal fame, but rather favoring one particular artist and just clearing the way for her.

Curtains, another fine Canexploitation film from the 80’s, not only revisits that premise but also happens to have a freaky mask wearing antagonist.

Seasoned stage actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) wants the lead role in Audra, a play about a psychotic woman. So desperate is she to play the part that she concocts a plan with her friend the director Stryker (John Vernon), to fake insanity so that she can spend time in an real asylum.

But Stryker has plans of his own. He instead puts out a casting call for the part while she languishes in the nut house and soon a handful of beautiful young hopefuls arrive at the reclusive mansion where Stryker wants to assess all the girls over a few days. Even before the last of the girls arrive one of the hopefuls is killed and just as Stryker begins his auditions he is surprised to she that Samantha has managed to escape and intends to retain her promised leading role even if she has to compete with the others.

Thus begins the expected cycle of women meeting grisly and gruesome ends one at a time as we, the audience, try to figure out which is the killer. The story is spiced up with casting couch antics, hot tub frolicking, a weird creepy doll that seems to be everywhere and a memorable ghastly looking hag rubber mask that is not only worn by the killer but is also an innocent prop in other scenes.

Is it one of the jealous girls, Samantha being the obvious leading suspect? Stryker’s weird cabana boy helper? Or is it Stryker himself who set up the audition and has already shown he can’t be trusted?

Aside from the confounding the lack of clarity on that damned doll this is a good, if not great, cheesy thriller. The scenes featuring the masked killer are alone worth the watch, and both Vernon and Eggar are at their maddening best. Let the play begin!

Movie Reviews 220 – Phantasm II (1988)

May 13, 2015

Phantasm 2The first Phantasm movie was unlike anything I’d never seen before. A movie that defies comparison by creating a unique mood from a blend of horror and fantasy, but falling into neither category. The story of a young boy named Mike who gets a glimpse into the mysterious on goings of a towering undertaker who transforms dead bodies into midget zombies with the ultimate goal of world domination, the human element was magnified by the fact that the boy recently lost his parents. The indie acclaimed hit by writer-director-producer Don Coscarelli featured a mausoleum with a portal to another world, metallic flying balls with spring loaded blades, suped up cars, an ice cream vendor confidant and a reality bending ending. What more could you ask for?

Filmed nearly a decade later, and with the tagline “The ball is back” Phantasm II picks up that same mind bending vibe without missing a beat with the exception that the role of Mike is played by James LeGros, a different and more subdued actor for this installment in the franchise.

Mike, now in an mental institution, convinces his keepers that he has accepted that his crazy story of a Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) exhuming the recently deceased in order to transform them in midget hooded zombies was nothing but his imagination. But as soon as he is released he heads for the cemetery to dig up his parents grave to confirm that they were indeed victims of the Tall Man. Joined by his brother’s old buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister), he tries vainly to convince him that what the experienced in the first movie was all real, but at this point Reggie has doubts and even exposing the empty graves doesn’t convince him. It’s only as they return home and when Mike’s dream of an explosion killing Reggie’s family becomes a reality that Reggie joins Mike on a armed mission to hunt down the Tall Man and they begin their hunt going from one small town to another.

Meanwhile another girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) has also had dreams of the Tall Man and after her grandfather dies her grandmother is snatched by the Tall Man. Her rescue journey puts her on the same path as the boys and with the addition of a mysterious hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) the newly forged quartet finally confront the Tall Man and his minions in small town Périgord, Oregon.

There are plenty of cool shenanigans including a priest gone wild, acid tainted embalming fluid, chainsaws and of course the requisite brief portal excursions to the Tall Man’s planet. It’s as insane as the first movie with the expected slight decrease in novelty, but just as enjoyable as the first time. I did miss the old Mike (formerly played by A. Michael Baldwin) but the producers corrected that mistake in the two installments that followed, and the fifth movie that is still awaiting a release.

I want more balls!


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