Movie Reviews 234 – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

August 26, 2015

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterI’m beginning to wonder if creating the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves was Abraham Lincoln’s greatest achievement or whether slaying hordes of vampires is really the reason we ought to be honoring this most celebrated past US president. While the Battle of Gettysburg weighed heavily on his mind, according to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter his biggest battle was when he was cornered in a southern mansion teaming with blood suckers and managed to slay dozens of them in gravity defying leaps and lurches. I think my history books skipped that part.

The movie is basically the life of Abe (Benjamin Walker) reimagined, focusing on his trials and tribulations from boyhood right up to the fateful night he goes to his last theater show. Historical aspects including the American Civil War and the underground railroad are the background but his secret life as a vampire hunter (and a good one at that) form the core of the film.

His secret vocation is nurtured after being attacked by a vampire (who consequently was responsible for Abe’s mother’s death) and being taken under the watchful eye of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) a man who coaches and leads other disparate reclusive hunters. Beginning as a meager store clerk, Lincoln ascends to becoming a lawyer and eventually seeks office. All the while he surreptitiously learns the craft of vampire hunting and the necessary weapon training skills. He falls for and eventually weds Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but, for the most part, manages to hide his true calling from her.

I thought this was going to be just a slipshod production vying for audience dollars in the twilight of the …um Twilight craze. Instead I found it to be quite entertaining, managing to balance a quaint love story while still delivering the excitement of good old fashion bloodsucker mayhem.

Sure you have to suspend a little belief and adapt to a few new rules. Vampire’s cannot kill each other, daylight just brings out the glow of vampire’s rosy cheeks, and silver now kills vampires instead of werewolves. But hey what did you expect? The title pretty much says it all.  I wonder if we’ll get to see Franklin Roosevelt: Werewolf Trapper next? It would still be better than that Twilight dreck.

Movie Reviews 233 – Pumping Iron (1977)

August 21, 2015

Pumping IronNot my usual type of movie review, but then again Pumping Iron is not your usual movie, even for a subject specific documentary.

The setting; the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest. The pinnacle of bodybuilding excellency. An event created to determine the one true best bodybuilder in the world. The contenders; reigning five time champion Arnold Schwarzenegger facing younger, taller unseasoned Lou Ferrigno. The former is brash, ambitious and already primed for to advance his career beyond the podium. The latter is quiet, coached by a domineering father, and grew up with a slight hearing defect that also gives him a faint speech impediment. The clash pitting these two diametrically opposed titans at that particular instant in history is simply fascinating.

At the time, both men were obscure other than to those active in the sport while the sport of bodybuilding itself was but a small cadre of practitioners and fans. The Mr. Universe and Mr Olympia contests themselves were created to elicit recognition and a showcase for the then relatively unknown sport. That all changed with the release of Pumping Iron.

The success of this movie was what made Arnold a household name, and a harbinger of his Hollywood and politician careers that would follow. Filming training, travelling and interviews, we are immediately exposed to Arnold’s assertive and cocksure nature and even his ambitions to move on. His overpowering and condescending interactions with his opponents, Ferrigno in particular, emphasize his upper hand, if not with his physique, definitely with his psychological mind games. Lou on the other hand is young, inexperienced and has to deal with his vocal sometimes overbearing father. The outcome was practically preordained. Arnold won his sixth Mr. Universe, Lou coming in third after a surprise showing by a French competitor.

Pumping Iron-Arnold inset

What makes this movie so compelling is the foreknowledge of what later became of these two brawny men. While Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood elite status soon followed the documentary,  Ferrigno later became television’s conveniently silent Hulk. But even Lou has since become a fan favorite and ironically is now just as famous for just being himself in both television comedy roles and as a speaker at conventions. Arnie of course followed up with a stint as Governor of California, and remains as slick as the body oils he used during his competition days. The rest as they say, is history.

Regardless if you have any interest in the sport or not, Pumping Iron is a definite must see documentary for both fans and critics of the Governator, and Ferrigno. But it also harkens back to a time when the world had yet to discover Venice beach and Gold’s Gym workouts.

If you have the 25th Anniversary DVD edition I also highly recommend watching the extra features which includes Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron which gives not only some behind the scenes footage, but greater context as to how the movie got off the ground, reflections from the stars, how Arnold did not even plan to enter the contest that year, and many other surprises. Again all captivating viewing.

Movie Reviews 232 – Dead Alive (1992)

August 19, 2015

Dead Alive (Braindead)Long before director Peter Jackson became famous for filming hobbits, orcs, trolls and some fancy story about a ring (good Lord!) he put together a lowly special effects laden horror comedy called Dead Alive and the world hardly noticed… at least at first. But over the years the horror romantic comedy began to be noticed and finally get the recognition it deserves.

Set in 1957 in a picturesque New Zealand port city of Wellington, a mysterious ‘Sumatran rat-monkey’ is brought to the local zoo after being snatched from the Indonesian Island.

Paquita María Sánchez (Diana Peñalver) runs a local corner store and takes interest in timid Lionel (Timothy Balme), a young man under the thumb of his domineering, prim and proper mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody).  Wanting to scuttle the burgeoning relationship, Vera follows the couple on a date at the zoo and gets attacked by the rat-monkey just before it gets it’s skull crushed by the zookeeper. But the bite on Vera’s arm isn’t healing under the bandages, and overnight becomes a big gaping hole of oozing puss. As she vainly tries to maintain her composure entertaining members of a social society the next day, her appendages begin falling off at an alarming rate.

Hoping to hide his mother’s affliction from everyone, Lionel tries to end his relationship with Paquita, but once again mom (or what’s left of her) interferes, only to be run down in the streets. But Lionel brings his evidently living dead mom and hides her in the basement. She is soon joined by the house nurse that was helping Lionel and a few other mother-created zombies after hoodlums try to desecrate a hastily dug grave in which Lionel tries to dispose of her.

Lionel discovers that his zombie horde can be temporarily pacified with injections of anesthetics that he repeatedly pumps into them, but when the zombies start procreating and give birth to a giggling beastly baby, even he can barely contain his sordid situation.

With a sizable inheritance that includes the house, Lionel is visited by his garish uncle who turns the screws on him when he discovers Lionel’s throng of zombies locked below. The uncle decides to celebrate his fortunes by having a raucous party, which ends up with almost every one of his guests being turned into living dead in a slapstick comedy sequence of wild chases, screams and flaying body parts. The end to the party culminates with Lionel coming to the rescue, doing for lawn mowers what Evil Dead’s Ash did for chainsaws.

The real stars are the low brow caricature creatures including multiple versions of the ever degenerating Vera who eventually transforms into a behemoth of quivering flesh. The boastful buckets of blood makes the party scene memorable, but it’s the non-stop fun that make this entire kiwi delight unforgettable.

I should point out that the original movie title of Braindead had to be renamed for North American release due to another movie of the same name, so keep you eye out for both titles.

Movie Reviews 231 – The Collector (2009)

August 12, 2015

The CollectorThe DVD box for The Collector clearly makes it a point to highlight the fact that the movie was written by the same guy who wrote some of the later Saw installments (Saw IV and Saw V if that makes a difference). While this may or may not seem important, it is a telling indicator of what to expect here.

Like the Saw movies which go to great lengths trying to devise clever new ways to ensnare hapless victims in timed ‘do or die’ mechanical contraptions, what we get in The Collector is an endless procession of deadly booby traps in a house. Another similarity between the Saw movies and this movie is that the machinations are all put in place by a mysterious masked adversary and we’re not sure what his motivation and intentions are. And finally, one last common component is a protagonist that straddles the line between good and evil.

But where Saw delivers genuine intrigue and mystery, The Collector stutters with a ramshackle and incoherent storyline with lots of gaps we either have to rationalize ourselves or, failing that, just go with the flow and hope things will sort themselves before the end. The problem is that they don’t and all these holes leaves the main plot as a smelly swiss cheese.

Seasoned safe-cracker Arkin (Josh Stewart) scouts a wealthy jeweller’s house while posing as a contractor during renovations. As the family is about to leave for vacations, his intent is to break in that evening when they are gone and get to a hidden safe. But that night he gets a nasty surprise as some other hooded prowler slithers through the rooms on his heels. As the cat and mouse game continues Arkin discovers that the homeowners have been savagely beaten by The Collector and are now being held in the basement. But the biggest surprise is that not only has the home become a veritable jungle of blades, nails, knives, bear traps, and sticky acidic goo, all exits are now obstructed, making Arkin a prisoner as well.

There is some tension building as Arkin tries to help the homeowners and even rescue their young daughter who has so far eluded The Collector, but not enough to salvage the film.

Who is The Collector and what does he really want? There is brief plot point that demonstrates that the The Collector is a recurring offender who begins each new household victimization by bringing one of his precursor victims, alive and boxed in a wooden container. His newest victims first begin their precarious journey innocently discovering the mystery box in their homes before being terrorized themselves. But why he does this is never explained at all and it just adds more confusion to the story.

Another problem here is the film makers tried to come up with a lame excuse as to why Arkin was determined to rob the house in the first place and how he has until midnight to get the job done. But the reason is a semi-coherent story about how his wife desperately needs money by the end of the day, and somehow even though Arkin finds himself in a ambulance at the stroke of midnight with a chunk of something he took from the safe (looks more like a lump of rock) he seems content on having ‘made it’ in time. (Say what?)

Much like the Saw movies themselves, if implements of torture and death are enough to satisfy you you’ll get a kick from the movie. But even the Saw movies provided a well defined antagonist in the form of Jigsaw over the course of the series. The Collector remains a figure cloaked (and masked) in mystery. Perhaps the producers ‘fleshed him out’ in the sequel, The Collection, but I’m not sure I’m interested enough to care.

Movie Reviews 230 – Summer of Sam (1999)

August 7, 2015

Summer of SamI remember the Summer of Sam very well. I wasn’t living in New York city, or even in the same country, but regardless of where you were in 1977, you knew that New York was being terrorized by a crazed gunman killing innocent citizens. You could not avoid hearing about it the news, and as the killings piled up, so did the rhetoric, carnival like speculation and fear.

New York city itself wasn’t anything like it is today. Having just scraped by declaring bankruptcy two years earlier, it was in dire straits. Seedy, grimy, and already crime ridden before this latest murder spree, it seemed the perennial murder capital of the world averaging two thousand homicides a year. The birth of grindhouse exploitation (and blacksploitation) movies can be traced to NYC roots and later movies like Maniac used the squalid city as a backdrop. Cop shows reigned on TV, often set in similar decaying metropolises and even situation comedies like Good Times focused on tenement housing and poverty.

But at the same time, New York was still The Big Apple and the center of the world. Times Square was still the place to be on New Years Eve, Saturday Night Live was just gearing up (and arguably at it’s satirical best) and much to the chagrin of hard rockers everywhere, the city’s discotheques, notably Studio 54, was popularizing the disco glitter while at the same time raunchier clubs were quickly adapting to English punk rock.

Given the title Summer of Sam, I thought that this Spike Lee movie was a straight up drama about David Berkowitz’s assault on the city. But while this is a movie about the murders, it is as much a time capsule of the seventies. Lensed from the view point of young and troubled couple Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino), the city embarks on a manhunt where every suspicious character is suspect. Vinny’s old friend Richie (Adrian Brody) becomes the focus of that microscope as he adopts the punk lifestyle, among other secretive indulgences. The drama, both related to the crimes and the troubled relationships, are interesting enough, but what I enjoyed most was the trip to the past as the essence of the seventies is captured here better than in some movies actually made in the seventies.

Just like the era itself, it can be a bit hard to swallow. But if you lived the times it’ll bring back those memories of all that was good, bad, and yes ugly.

Movie Reviews 229 – Sinister (2012)

July 30, 2015

SinisterBlending a mix of haunted house, serial murder mystery with a touch of out of this world mysticism, Sinister serves one of those oh so rare movies that actually delivers something new and yes, sinister, to even the most jaded of horror fans.

A writer who researches actual savage murder mysteries is once again looking for that one big bestseller to replenish his fortunes. His latest project has him renting out the home where the crime took place, a house where all but the youngest family member were hung at the same time from a tree branch in the back yard. Moving in he discovers a lone box in the attic with 8mm home movies and a projector. Playing the films he finds that they are surreptitious recordings of the family before the grisly murders with the end end of the reel being with a recording of the actual event from the perspective of the perpetrator. There are a few tapes in the box and each contains the demise of a different family. Each family is murdered using a different, although just as morbid manner of group death. A bit of research uncovers the fact that in each case the youngest child in the family were never to be found and are presumed to died as well. But the children’s bodies are never found.

The terror is slickly layered with a few red herring leads but always becoming all the more mysterious as the facts unravel. But it’s the double whammy ending that delivers the shivers as all the pieces fall into place and the true extent of the horror is uncovered.

It’s nice to see Ethan Hawke get a decent role for a change and he makes the best of it here as writer Ellison Oswalt. He has to juggle his own insecurities as a writer while trying to keep his family together all while trying to compete with his own past. There are a few other nice touches like the police chief that would rather see Ellison just leave well enough alone while one of his junior officers, much to the chief’s consternation, adores the writer and secretly becomes embroiled in the investigation.

I was impressed enough that I now have to sit down watch director Scott Derrickson’s earlier The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While not directed by Derrickson, Sinister II is about to hit theaters. I’ll be crossing my fingers for that one, but I’m sure the movie will once again have other body parts being crossed.

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.


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