Archive for June, 2010

MASS EFFECT 2

Posted in 2010, Michael Louis Calvillo Columns, Video Game Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , on June 30, 2010 by knifefighter

MASS EFFECT 2 (Video Game Review)
by Michael Louis Calvillo

Every few years, we get some video game or other touting the latest in technological innovation. Sometimes they make good on their promise, raising the bar and spawning an army of clones. Sometimes they don’t live up to the hype. When Bioware’s MASS EFFECT 2 was released a few months back it did well critically and commercially. It gets a bunch of Editor’s Choice Awards, and sold a ton of copies (half a million right out the gate). It made about as big a splash as any other AAA title, and then it had its day in the sun and made nice, dropping off and making room for the next shiny game. When I finally got around to playing it, I expected to get my money’s worth, no more, no less. I enjoyed the first installment and was ready to hero my way through another rousing space opera. What I didn’t expect was just how monumental the damn thing would turn out to be. Though video game pundits aren’t exactly doing back flips, I kind of think they should. The game play elements are all in place and everything looks phenomenal, it’s technically sound, but Bioware has done something truly revolutionary with story.

Like most video game sequels, MASS EFFECT 2 is bigger and better than its predecessor. The game play is refined, graphics sharpened, and everything runs as smooth as butter. Unlike movies, where sequels tend to suck, games fix things the second, or third or fourth time around, and since story is generally secondary, these improvements work well enough to keep me intrigued. While I enjoy a solid video game story as much as the next geek, they’re rarely deal breakers. So long as I can still blow crap up and do cooler stuff than I did the first time around, most sequels can skate by on a thin narrative.

Here is where MASS EFFECT 2 brings the innovation. For the first time ever (as far as I’m aware), the game imports your save file from the first MASS EFFECT allowing you to continue the story with the same character from your first play through. Decisions you made the first time around actually come back to bite you in the ass. NPCs (non-player characters) react accordingly. I remember reading about this while playing the first MASS EFFECT and I thought it sounded cool, but I didn’t really grasp just how awesome it is. I figured, neat-o, my stats, and weapons, and powers, and what not, will carry over, but no, in fact, none of that crap survives, what remains aren’t your ancillary tools, but your consequence-heavy sense of morality. I played the first title as the biggest a-hole in the galaxy. I even named my guy Action and every chance I had to screw someone over I took it. I trashed talked and was disrespectful and uber-selfish. Well, Action is back and many of the characters from Game One are none too happy.

Morality is so important to the MASS EFFECT universe, that the story arcs aren’t just window dressing. Your interactions have lasting consequences and blowing crap up (oh, how I love thee) plays second fiddle to intrapersonal relationships. Usually when I play these things, I get a decent handle on the narrative and then power through, splattering pretty backdrops with the blood and guts of my adversaries. If you asked me to wax poetic on sci-fi epics like RESISTANCE FALL OF MAN 2 or HALO 3, I’d probably be able to rattle off a few broad impressions, but my mind would be more apt to hone in on strategic battle plans and intense firefights. A review would detail weaponry and talk tactics. This is all well and good, nothing beats carefully wrought death and destruction, but with MASS EFFECT, I actually feel like I am taking part in a really cool science fiction trilogy. I actually feel like I am an integral part of the story, a driving force, a vital protagonist, not just a faceless cog in the ever-churning war machine.

It breaks down like this: in the far future, alien technology has enabled intergalactic travel via Mass Effect Relays, huge hubs that utilize dark matter to instantaneously blast spaceships from one relay to another. Turns out, the universe is bristling with sentient life. In fact, humanity is a little late to the party. By the time they discover a relay and begin galaxy hopping, a UN like outfit, The Citadel, has already been established. Eight different species hold court, some welcoming of humanity, some less receptive. Humans being humans, work themselves right in and begin politicking. The game story picks up a few hundred years later and though all seems peachy keen, tensions run deep. Soap operatic resentments generate heat between each of the alien races and this friction gives MASS EFFECT an emotional heft worth investing in.

Everybody has a modicum of disdain for humanity – we are kind of like the selfish rich kid who has everything and wants more. The Krogans, warrior toads with bad attitudes, hate the Salarians, science geek lizard types, because hundreds of years earlier the two species aligned in battle against the nefarious Rachi (long extinct) and then after the war, the Salarians introduced a genophage (disease) into the Krogan gene pool to thin out their battle hungry population and quell the possibility of a Krogran uprising. Fighting extinction, the Krogans have extricated themselves from the Citadel and distrust all species. The Quarians, nomadic humanoids in full body suits (since they live in hermetically sealed space stations and ships, they are allergic to EVERYTHING terrestrial), are responsible for creating the Geth, super-smart, sentient machines that have turned on organic life and have become the scourge of the living universe. Needless to say, everybody hates them. And on and on and on: the drama doesn’t stop there. There are twenty distinct races in the game (four of which have gone extinct) and they each have mountains of baggage and interconnected back story.

You got a nice feel for this in the first game – your character, Commander Sheppard, dealt with all kinds of racism. MASS EFFECT 2 takes everything up a notch. It works the bigotry angle for all it’s worth, imbuing choices with complex moral decisions that (sometimes) force you to choose sides. It’s just a game, I know, I know, but things can get a bit uncomfortable. The overall goal is to solve the mystery of The Collectors, evil aliens that are abducting humans, but the majority of the game’s plot revolves around building a team to fight by your side in the final battle. This team-building component takes you from one end of the universe to the other, where you mediate racial and personal feuds in order to keep your crew happy and willing to assist you in your mission. You recruit a Salarian and a Krogan and a Quarian (amongst others) and get to play Dr. Phil while fending off baddies and saving the universe (which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds).

The game is billed as an RPG (role playing game) and for the most part it is, you still level up and assign attribute points, but Bioware has streamlined it in such a way that it feels more like an action-adventure title. There’s no pesky inventory system or need to worry about over-encumbrance (the bane of RPGs) and while the combat occurs in real time, it utilizes RPG elements to enhance the action. You can blast away with your M-4 Shruiken Machine Pistol and fire Biotic powers (space magic) ala third-person action adventures like GEARS OF WAR (though the combat isn’t nearly as intense), then you can pause the action and bring up a Power Wheel that allows you to assign your party members to attack or evade or use a particular weapon or a Biotic power. The combat is a little rudimentary at first (especially for someone used to games like the aforementioned GEARS OF WAR), but it gets cooler and cooler as you get stronger and stronger. Unlocking new abilities allows you to combine Biotic powers. This livens things up considerably and brings a bit of depth to combat scenarios. Assigning one party member to fire off something like PULL (it does exactly what you’d think – pulling a victim toward you) and then another to use WARP (which hurts!) and then finishing up with say…SHOCKWAVE (a powerful blast), ignites a combo that whips your enemy into the air, cripples him with some agony, and then racks him with a burst of white-hot electric death. Awesome! A nice arsenal and a slew of upgrades rounds things out, bringing the pain to wave after wave of organic and mechanized foes.

You spend just as much time talking (probably more) as you do blasting, so manipulating the Conversation Wheel becomes just as vital to your character’s success as do weapon load outs and Biotic combos. I choose to remain vigilant in being the biggest jerk in the cosmos and I only selected the crummiest things to say. I wasn’t too happy with some results – being a douche kept me from certain side quests (though unlocked others not available to those golden boy hero types). If you really can’t get into the involved story and are too ADD to take the long conversations, then the MASS EFFECT series might not be for you, but if you can give yourself over and get lost, every little exchange is inspired. The game features zillions of hours of audio and each NPC has their own distinctive personality. Seeking out side missions and exploring bits of the universe not crucial to the main storyline deepens the experience and fleshes out the world. And watching what you say (or how you say it – it’s all about tone) means all the difference in matters of love (yes, you can have relationships, and yes, you can consummate them) and allegiance. Characters you invest in (spending attribute points to upgrade them) can (and will) die, if you make careless decisions or piss off the wrong people. The conversation system is impressive, nuanced and your choices really do matter.

The rest of the game play is filled out with mini-games. Hacking involves memorizing and then linking diodes. It doesn’t sound that interesting, and it’s not, but I didn’t mind, especially when success unlocked a secured door or rewarded me with a cache of loot. There’s also a planet mining game which is equally blasé, but oddly addictive. As you traverse the galaxy, steering your ship from planet to planet and then through Mass Effect Relays from system to system, you are given the opportunity to scan and harvest planets for precious minerals that you can use to upgrade your character’s abilities. Watching the mining process is akin to witnessing paint dry, but collecting scores of Element Zero or Iridium, or any of the other precious minerals needed to boost Biotic power or max out gun damage, kept me at it (for hours upon hours).

If you haven’t played the first MASS EFFECT (or if you were unhappy with your initial character), you can start fresh and still enjoy the ride. But then, it’s just like any other slick RPG space shooter. To truly get the most out of the game you need to dig your heels in and tackle the whole trilogy from 2007’s MASS EFFECT through the forthcoming MASS EFFECT 3 (rumored to drop in 2012). And don’t worry, if you were a goober the first time around, though some of your past transgressions will haunt you, a fresh storyline gives you the chance to redeem yourself. Not that I took it. I went on being the biggest jerk in the universe and I look forward to behaving just as badly in MASS EFFECT 3. Action, out!

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Louis Calvillo

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THE GATES

Posted in 2010, LL Soares Reviews, TV Shows, Vampires with tags , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2010 by knifefighter

THE GATES (TV SERIES REVIEW)
by L.L. Soares

Actress Rhona Mitra, as a sexy vampire, might be reason enough to
watch ABC’s THE GATES, airing Sundays at 10pm EST

I’m always hoping that good new horror TV shows will turn up. It’s not impossible. Sure, there have been a lot of clunkers lately, but then there’s also been TRUE BLOOD, the excellent HBO vampire series, based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” books by Charlane Harris, which has just started its third season by introducing us to a few hard-as-nails werewolf characters. TRUE BLOOD proves that horror can still be done well in series television. Hell, it’s more than a well-done show. It’s downright addictive.

Network television isn’t immune to a good horror show, either. It’s just harder to come by. A few months back, ABC debuted a new ongoing drama called HAPPY TOWN, about a strange little town where people occasionally disappear. The disappearances are attributed to a mysterious figure known as The Magic Man. I’ve already reviewed that show for this site, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. While it does play up the “quirkiness in a small town” factor, reminiscent of David Lynch’s groundbreaking 1980s ABC television show, TWIN PEAKS, I thought the show was a quality series and deserved a chance. However, ABC canceled it after only two episodes. But it’s not all bad news for HAPPY TOWN. The rest of the episodes that were already in the can have been playing throughout the summer. While I’m enjoying it, and I think the show continues to be very good, there is no chance it will receive a reprieve.

In the meantime, ABC has introduced a few new shows during the summer months. One of these is THE GATES, which premeired on Sunday, June 20th at 10pm. This one is about Nick Monohan (Frank Grillo), a Chicago cop who was involved in some kind of scandal (about shooting a possible unarmed man). While he was cleared, he’s looking for a change of location and accepts a position as the police chief of a gated community. As the show begins, he’s just moved his family to this place, which is like a complete town (even has a shopping center) inside the confines of gates, to keep undesirable elements out. This sounds like an easy job after policing the streets of Chicago, but right off the bat Nick finds that there’s something a little “off” about this place.

But this is not your typical gated community. This one has strange secrets. Residents include a couple of vampires, one of whom (Rhona Mitra) has trouble resisting any kind of temptation; competing witches, one of whom appears to be trying to blackmail as many members of the community as she can (foreshadowing her demise, perhaps, later in the season?); and a star football player who happens to be a werewolf with anger management issues.

And the more I see of the Monohan family, the more I wonder if they have some supernatural secrets of their own that we just aren’t privy to yet.

Aside from the personal lives of The Gates’ residents, there are also some crimes for Nick to solve, including the murder of the previous police chief, who is found shot to death outside the perimeter of the gates. Even though it’s technically outside his jurisdiction, Nick takes charge of the investigation, uncovering lots of strange things the former chief was trying to cover up about himself and several of the community’s residents.

While the show does not break any new ground, and I don’t think it is as smart or anywhere near as good as the much-maligned HAPPY TOWN, I think THE GATES is entertaining enough to keep people watching. It is also on at the perfect time, since TRUE BLOOD airs on Sundays on HBO from 9 to 10pm. Those looking for a vampire fix after TRUE BLOOD can simply change the channel to ABC for THE GATES.

I’ll continue to tune in and see if the show gets any better. But so far, the very striking Rhona Mitra (veteran of such television series as THE PRACTICE, BOSTON LEGAL, NIP/TUCK and SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE – not to mention having been the love interest in the movie ALI G INDAHOUSE (2002)), playing a very sexy vampire, is reason enough to watch.

© Copyright 2010 by L.L. Soares

THE CHILDREN (2008)

Posted in 2010, Cinema Knife Fights, DVD Review, Evil Kids! with tags , , , on June 28, 2010 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE CHILDREN (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(THE SCENE: a beautiful home in the English countryside, tastefully decorated for Christmas. Inside, a group of adults laugh and converse over wine and cheese, while little screaming children run around them. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES enter the room. The children’s screaming is loud and unbearable.)

MA: You know, this scene by itself is scarier than a lot of the stuff we see in the movies.

LS (to kids): SHUT UP!

ANNOYED ADULT: We don’t say “shut up” to children here.

LS: Did I SAY it? I think I SCREAMED it. You’re lucky I didn’t add a few choice adjectives along the way!
MA: I think it’s best we review today’s movie in the next room.

(MA & LS exit room and enter what looks to be a large den. They close the door behind them, somewhat drowning out the loud screams of children from the other room.)

MA: Today we’re reviewing THE CHILDREN (2008), an effective thriller by writer/director Tom Shankland, now available on DVD and the cable channel FearNet.

THE CHILDREN is the story of two families that get together in one house to celebrate the Christmas holiday. What can be more enjoyable than that? Truth be told, as anyone with children can attest, holidays with kids and extended family members can be stressful and difficult in and of itself. In this case, there’s more trouble than the usual family inconveniences, as the children quickly succumb to an illness that alters their personalities, turning them into devilish, murderous imps.

There’s Elaine (Eva Birthistle) and her husband Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore), who in addition to a young daughter and son, also have a rebellious teenage daughter, Casey (Hannah Tointon). They arrive at the home of Elaine’s older sister Chloe (Rachel Shelley) and her husband Robbie (Jeremy Sheffield) and their two young children.

Trouble brews immediately, as Elaine’s young son hasn’t taken two steps from the car to the house when he starts to vomit, and naturally, Elaine thinks he’s just carsick. What follows is the problematic stuff anyone who has taken young children on an extended family get-together knows all about.

There’s sibling rivalry between Elaine and her “supermom” sister Chloe, there’s tension between Elaine and her hubby Jonah, as she has a bad habit of putting him down on occasion, and there’s even stress between couples, as Jonah tries and fails to get Chloe and Robbie on board one of his money-making schemes, involving natural medicine. And don’t forget the teenage daughter Casey, who wants to be anywhere but there, and has even made plans with a friend via her cell phone to leave and go to a party.

LS: Can you blame her?

MA: All of this stuff is exacerbated by crying and irritable children, and they’re crying and irritable because they’re all catching the same illness. Quickly, without the adults noticing, the illness spreads to the children’s minds and takes over their personalities, and when this happens, bad things start to happen, and people start dying, in painfully horrific ways.

(The door opens and a BOY resembling a young Macaulay Culkin runs into room and shoots a dart with a rubber tip at LS, hitting him square in the forehead.)

LS: Ouch! Knock it off, you little jerk!

MA (laughing): I guess you forgot to duck.

(BOY points a remote control at ceiling and presses button. A bucket of glowing green paint spills out on MA’s head. BOY runs away back into other room, laughing and slamming door behind him.)

LS: What was that you were saying about ducking?

MA: Never mind. (wipes face and head with towel) Kids today!

LS: Tell me about it. When we were kids we used REAL darts and oil-based paint. You had to use turpentine to get it off you, and scrub like hell, none of this water-based crap!

MA: Anyway, back to the movie.

When teenager Casey finally sees what these kids are doing and tries to warn the adults, they find it hard to believe her. In fact, they suspect Casey is the one with the violent tendencies, which is too bad because these kids mean business. It’s a bloody and brutal last act, a fitting end to a superior thriller that pushes all the right buttons throughout.

I really liked THE CHILDREN. Even though it came out in 2008, I have to say it’s one of the better horror movies I’ve seen this year.

LS (starts laughing): You’ve got to be kidding me!

MA: Not at all. This film does a lot of things well. Let’s start with writer/director Tom Shankland. He gives the movie a sense of tension and dread from the get-go, and he does this by showing us a slice of life that is real and all too painful. The characters in this one act the way a lot of us do at family gatherings, which usually means not at our best. So, we’re on edge even before the children start doing the nasty things.

LS: I didn’t find this movie very tense at all. In fact, I think Shankland’s pacing is all off. There are some very slow stretches in this movie, where I just wanted something – anything – to happen. And the bad stuff that does happen just doesn’t seem bad enough!

MA: Really? I found the pacing fine, as the film’s brief 80+ minutes shot by quickly for me. And I thought the bad stuff was sufficiently bloody, even stylish.

(Door opens and woman enters, crying. Another woman joins her and consoles her.)

CONSOLING WOMAN: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to criticize your parenting skills. You’re doing a good job. Just because Joey burned down his school isn’t a reflection on you. (The other woman starts crying hysterically.)

MA: Do you mind? We’re trying to review a movie here!

CONSOLING WOMAN: Who the hell are you? This is my house!

LS: We’re your worst nightmare!

WOMAN: I thought you looked familiar.

MA: Would you mind continuing your conversation elsewhere? We’re in the middle of a review. (Behind him, LS makes horrific evil faces at them. The women flee.) You just have to be firm sometimes.

LS (nodding his head mockingly): Yes, you were very firm.

MA: I thought the largely unknown cast was excellent. The four adults stood out. I especially enjoyed Eva Birthistle as Elaine and Stephen Campbell Moore as Jonah. They were vulnerable without being weak, which made them really interesting. There’s a moment after a bloody sled accident scene, where all hell is breaking loose and the kids are running into the woods screaming, when Elaine screams in panic “I don’t know what to do!” It’s such a real moment, a refreshing moment, as opposed to some cliché line or behavior.

LS: That scene was okay, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t care about these characters. I found them all pretty annoying. Elaine is one of the less annoying parents, but her husband Jonah is irritating and pretentious. Between conversing with his younger daughter in Chinese and trying to sell the other couple on some scheme of his – I thought he came off as a real yuppie jerk. I felt bad that Elaine had to put up with him. And, of course, he’s quick to come to the wrong conclusions and he doesn’t seem very smart at all. His behavior actually adds to the bad situation, and he struck me as a real phony. Not that there aren’t people like this in real life, but I didn’t care for his character.

MA: Yes, Jonah is somewhat irritating, but he also came off as very real, and I liked this. It was this sense of realism in the film that really sold me.

LS: Sure, there are people like him. It doesn’t mean I want to spend 90 minutes with him.

MA: Rachel Shelley and Jeremy Sheffield are also very good as Chloe and Robbie. They’re the “super parents” who are just likeable enough to prevent them from being annoying.

LS: Robbie’s okay. Chloe (played Rachel Shelley who some people might recognize as Helena from the Showtime series, THE L WORD), however, IS annoying. She’s always judging her younger sister and making snide comments, trying to imply she is the better mother. She’s also very petty. When she sees her husband hanging out with Casey (he notices her tattoo and she shows it to him, when Chloe enters the room), she gets jealous. She then purposely brings up the tattoo to Casey’s parents to create problems. I found her character very shrill and aggravating.

MA: But she had a reason for giving Casey a hard time, and even though it was based on petty jealousy, I understood why she did it, and it wasn’t like she was being annoying just to be annoying.

LS: So YOU say!

MA: My favorite performance, however, belonged to Hannah Tointon as Casey. I thought she did a knock-out job as the unhappy teen. It’s a role that we’ve seen countless times before, but Tointon does a great job keeping Casey from being cliché. She downplays elements such as rolling eyes and exasperated sighs, and instead acts exactly the way someone her age should act: unhappy, uncomfortable and unapologetic. She’s also somewhat amused by what she sees as the predictable behaviors of the adults around her.

LS: I thought Casey was the ONLY really sympathetic character in the whole movie. Frankly, when characters start dying off, I couldn’t care less. And that goes double for the children. Casey is the only character who I cared whether she lived or died.

MA: Of course, this movie isn’t called THE CHILDREN for nothing! The kids in this film are almost perfect! They are exceedingly well-cast. At first, they seem like irritable ill little kids who’ve been staying up too late around the holidays, but once they turn, they become quite the creepy little critters. They are scary.

LS (yawns): I didn’t find them all that scary, unfortunately. In fact, they were irritating little brats.

MA: Really? I found them creepy!

LS: I’m a big fan of “evil kid” movies, and I’ll tell you, the kids in this movie wouldn’t last a minute with the kids from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), or the ones from the classic WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976). Even Damien from THE OMEN (1976 and beyond) movies or Rhonda Penmark from THE BAD SEED (1956) would make mincemeat out of these snot-nosed tykes with one hand tied behind his back. I didn’t find anything especially interesting about the childrens’ performances and I didn’t find their antics to be all that horrifying. I kept waiting for something truly frightening to happen, and it didn’t. There are a few interesting moments, but not enough to make this movie stand out.

MA: You didn’t think that sled scene was intense?

LS: Actually, the camera jumps away so quickly, you almost don’t realize what happened. The aftermath, with Chloe’s hysterical reaction, is effective enough, but the scene over all just didn’t impress me that much.

MA: I thought the direction of that entire sequence was superb. And I was actually glad we didn’t see these kids running around aggressively attacking people, a la Chucky the murderous doll. That would have been over the top and phony.

LS: I don’t think the kids should have played it over the top, but they could have been scarier than they are here.

MA: I thought the screenplay by Shankland and Paul Andrew Williams was excellent. They created realistic characters, gave them real dialogue, and crafted a neat little horror story that ultimately is a helluva movie.

The other thing I liked about THE CHILDREN is it’s not campy or played for laughs at all. You think, evil children, and the jokes come. “I’ve know some evil kids, heh, heh!” There’s nothing funny about THE CHILDREN. It’s a hard-hitting, scary, R-rated thriller that holds little back in terms of horror.

LS: I’m not really sure why it was rated R. It’s not all that intense or excessively gory. There are a couple of bloody scenes, but nothing incredible. While it is a plus that it doesn’t play it for laughs, I didn’t find it all that hard-hitting. And the slow pacing was a real problem for me.

MA: I thought there were several hard-hitting scenes. For example, when Elaine falls from the jungle gym and breaks her leg – that packed a punch.

LS: That was okay. A better scene was when Elaine is confronted by two of the children later on, and can’t bring herself to defend herself. This has been a strong motif in a lot of these kinds of movies – the inability to hurt a child, even if they are trying to kill you – and I found that believable and tense.

But I just didn’t find that enough scenes packed that kind of punch.

MA: Now, just what it is that is causing the children to become these murderous beings is not clearly explained, but in a movie as well done as THE CHILDREN, it doesn’t need to be. It definitely seems to be some sort of biological cause. We see the first boy sick at the outset, and as he coughs on other children, and they sneeze and wipe their noses on items around them, well, you get the idea. It’s easily spread.

LS: Yeah, it’s some kind of virus. And the way is spreads is believable and makes sense.

MA: The film also was helped by a strong music score by Stephen Hilton. It’s a very haunting score.

There’s a lot about THE CHILDREN that I found haunting. From the weird disconcerting little stares from the ill children, to the more obvious scenes of violence, including a terrific scene in which Casey and Elaine are attacked inside a greenhouse.

There’s also an interesting dynamic between Casey and her Uncle Robbie. There’s some sexual tension going on there, which of course would be completely inappropriate. Robbie allows Casey just enough leeway to prevent her from being embarrassed or uncomfortable by her behavior, but he never crosses the line, nor does he give any inclination that he would, but to the others, Casey’s behavior around her uncle is suspect. Like the rest of the movie, it’s intelligently done.

LS: You’re right. The relationship between Robbie and Casey doesn’t cross the line, but you can see where it could be misconstrued. The thing is, I didn’t like any of the other characters, and I didn’t really care if what they thought about it.

MA: I found THE CHILDREN captivating from start to finish, and it’s scary to boot. You can’t beat that combination. I give it three and a half knives. (To LS) What do you have to say about it?

LS: For some reason, I just didn’t care for this movie. I didn’t like the parents, and I didn’t like the children. I liked Casey, but while she was good, she wasn’t good enough to make this a better movie. I thought it had some potential, but because of the slow pace and the irritating characters, it just didn’t impress me very much. It never goes far enough, and it’s not scary.

I also don’t know if it was because I saw it on FearNet, but there were certain scenes where the children are doing something bad, and the camera pulls away too fast, so we can’t really tell what’s going on. I assume movies are shown uncut on FearNet, but I could be wrong. For example, there is one scene where Casey walks in on her (very annoying) younger sister, and she’s doing something that upsets her. At first, I thought maybe she was doing something to the family’s cat, but I found out later she was doing damage to the phone lines, but this is not something you could tell from what we see.

Over all, I just didn’t like this movie. I give it one and a half knives, mainly because of Hannah Tointon’s performance as Casey. But there is nothing special about this movie to distinguish it in the “evil kids” subgenre. It definitely didn’t blow me away.

MA: I disagree completely. THE CHILDREN is exactly the kind of horror movie I enjoy watching the most. It’s competently directed, written, and acted, the violence is highly stylized, things that happen make sense, and unlike you, I found it scary. To me, it was the whole package, the real deal.

(The door opens and THE BAD SEED enters the room. She is dressed in a starched little dress and looks very proper)

BAD SEED: What are you people doing here? I’m going to tell my mommy.

MA: I think she already knows.

BAD SEED: Then I’ll scream my head off unless you give me some candy.

LS: Another brat!

BAD SEED (shrieking): I WANT CANDY!

MA: Listen, kid, why don’t you go back and see your mommy. I’m sure she misses you.

LS: I’m sure she doesn’t!

BAD SEED: CANDY!!!

LS: Here, have a tasty candy cigarette.

BAD SEED: Thanks!

MA: They still make those?

(Off camera there is a great BOOM!)

LS: Nope. Made that one myself.

MA: The old exploding candy cigarette trick.

LS: An oldie but a goodie.

MA: There you have it. Another explosive CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.

LS: And with that, we’ll see all of you next week, with a review of another new movie.

—END—

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

***

Michael Arruda gives THE CHILDRENthree and a half knives

L.L. Soares gives THE CHILDRENone and a half knives

In The Spooklight: THE THAW!

Posted in 2010, In the Spooklight, Michael Arruda Reviews, Science Fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2010 by knifefighter

This one’s a newbie, hot off the presses, as it only just appeared in the June 2010 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER.  Even though I review lots of old classic horror movies IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, I review new ones in this column, as well.  THE THAW (2009) is a movie I saw for the first time just a few months ago on cable TV, and I liked it so much I wanted to get the word out and promote it.

—Michael Arruda, 6/25/10

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE THAW
by Michael Arruda

Ah, spring!

Winter is over, the weather is beautiful, and summer is right around the corner.  Things have thawed out rather nicely.

Except that is, in THE THAW (2009).

THE THAW, a scary science fiction thriller by writer/director Mark A. Lewis and starring Val Kilmer, tells the tale of some rather unpleasant things that have thawed out in the Arctic due to global warming.  There’s nothing nice about these thawed-out babies.  They’re not pleasant at all.  In fact, they’re downright horrible!

Val Kilmer plays Dr. Kruipen, the leader of a scientific expedition in the Arctic.  Kruipen is also an environmental activist who is fed up with society’s lackadaisical attitude towards global warming.  Kruipen and his associates discover the remains of a woolly mammoth, partially thawed out in the ice.  Unbeknownst to the scientists, the carcass also contains something else that is thawing out:  parasites.

A group of college interns arrive at the research site, along with Kruipen’s estranged daughter, who is looking to make amends with her father.  When they arrive at the camp, they find it abandoned, and while they search for the inhabitants of the camp, they encounter the parasites.

The parasites appear as tiny bugs which bite like fleas but then enter the person’s body where they lay eggs.  The host victim begins to suffer from horrible symptoms, including vomiting thick black sludge.  Eventually, the victim dies, as the flesh literally bursts open, unleashing more parasites into the world.  Very nasty stuff!

THE THAW is a well-made thriller that has a lot going for it.  Written by Mark A. Lewis and Michael Lewis, THE THAW presents a realistic tale that is very believable.  In reality, could a parasite survive all those years inside a frozen mammoth, and then come back to life as it thawed out?  Probably not.  But this movie does a good job convincing us otherwise, so that we have no trouble buying into the premise, and that’s because the film takes a logical matter-of-fact approach to its science, and it succeeds in convincing us that such events are highly probable.

The film is also scary, which is its strongest attribute.  The effects of the parasites on their human hosts are horrible, and these effects are shown in all their horrific glory.  Vomiting thick black sludge is downright nasty.  Yet, the movie doesn’t go overboard with its gross-out effects.

Director Mark A. Lewis keeps things tense throughout, and the suspense builds as the movie goes along, as the students fight to survive in what appears to be a losing battle.  And there are a lot of neat touches along the way.  One of the students suffers from a bug phobia— not a good thing to suffer from when you’re stuck in the Arctic with prehistoric parasites from hell!  And there’s a gruesome “severing arm” scene as one of the expedition members decides to attempt to save his life by cutting off his arm which has been infested with the parasites.  Needless to say, this attempt doesn’t go well.  Gulp!  You might want to avert your eyes!

The acting is very good.   While no one performer stands out above the rest, everyone holds their own.  And Val Kilmer is very good in limited screen time.  As a result, the characters are all very believable.

The make-up and special effects are also excellent, and the ending doesn’t disappoint.

Though it was released in 2009, THE THAW is one of the better horror movies I’ve seen this year.  It’s definitely worth a look.

But a word of advice.   You might want to keep some mouthwash handy. That thick black goop that everyone keeps upchucking will make you want to wash your mouth out.  And then some!

—END—

© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda

Suburban Grindhouse Memories: HITCH HIKE TO HELL!

Posted in 2010, Garbage, Slasher Movies, Suburban Grindhouse Memories with tags , , , , on June 24, 2010 by knifefighter

SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES #7: The Grindhouse Goes Rural!
By Nick Cato

The first time I saw Tobe Hooper’s iconic classic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) was during a 1981 re-release.  The film freaked-out my friends and I, and I couldn’t wait to see it again.  My wish was granted a few months later when my family took a trip to North Carolina.  We were there for close to two weeks and I had grown a bit tired of the church picnics and (seemingly) constant community softball games.  Imagine this young suburbanite’s thrill when he scanned the local paper one day to see an ad for a double-bill of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and something called HITCH HIKE TO HELL (1977).  I was excited enough at the prospect of seeing CHAINSAW again (remember this was a few years before the VHS boom of the early ’80s) and was ecstatic about this second feature that was mentioned in small type at the bottom of the ad.

Now my only problem (being I was only 13 at the time) was to con either my dad or one of my older cousins into taking me.  Thankfully, I showed the ad to one of my “cuzzin’s” (that’s Southern for “cousin”) and he said he’d take me and tell my parents I was staying at his house that night – but to keep my mouth shut.

To make matters better, the films played at a drive-in that had one of the coolest “snack bars” I ever saw: right next to the popcorn/soda concession stand, some old guy was bar-b-queuing chicken, burgers, and ribs!  YEE-HAW!

So, with a well-done burger and a large Coke, my cuzzin’ and I (along with a few of his friends) kicked back as the first feature, HITCH HIKE TO HELL, began.

While I’ve seen my share of trash on TV up to this point in my life, HITCH HIKE TO HELL was my first exposure to something THIS BAD on the big screen.  After some really silly opening song, we’re introduced to Howard, a nerdy-looking mama’s boy (cue PSYCHO music) who delivers laundry for a living in a van that looks like it’s about to break down at any moment.  Howard picks up a seemingly endless line of hitch hikers…and while I haven’t seen this one since attempting to sit through it a second time on VHS in the late ’80s (I FF through most of it), I recall Howard would strangle certain hitchers to death if he found out they didn’t like their mothers!  Yep, there’s PSYCHO-influence-a-plenty here, along with just-about no gore, blatant gay-bashing, and near-talent-free acting, with the exception of Russell Johnson as a police captain (you read that right—the same Russell Johnson who played The Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND!).  I still recall the warm, silent air of the drive-in bursting into laughter the moment he came onto the screen.

While HITCH HIKE TO HELL is a total waste of celluloid (even for most lovers of bad films), there’s one sequence that, to this day, I can’t believe happened (keep in mind that this film was shot in 1968, shelved for two years until 1970 for a limited release, then was more widely released in 1977, until finally resurfacing as a co-feature for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 1981, shortly before finding a home on VHS thanks to exploitation king Harry Novak’s former video company): While Howard picks up mostly older teenagers, he eventually meets up with an 11-12 year old female runaway.  It’s never shown what Howard did to the poor kid, but the Professor—err—I mean the police captain—finds her dead body in a dumpster at the end of the film.  Although her lifeless body is only shown for a split second, the audience I saw this with groaned in disapproval.  I remember my stomach dropping a notch as I attempted to digest my burger and believe that this nerdy character would TRULY have it in him to kill a young girl just for running away from home!  Amazing that this plotless, scare-free “horror” film actually had a jolt in it.

HITCH HIKE TO HELL is a horrible film.  It’s tedious for most of its running time, and I’m betting the majority of horror fans wouldn’t bother with it even at the mere mention of an (implied) child murder.  But, considering this chunk of sleaze was filmed in 1968, at the dawn of the hippie love generation, it’ll make you believe these producers took the bad brown acid long before it was available at Woodstock.  Regardless of all its faults, it’s nonetheless an interesting piece of semi-groundbreaking underground American horror.

And to this day I never told my old man my cuzzin’ took me.

(END NOTE: For those of you who just HAVE to see this, Something Weird Video released it a few years ago on a deluxe DVD edition with a second equally-as-bad feature, KIDNAPPED COED

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED).

© Copyright 2010 by Nick Cato

Michael Arruda Answer This Month’s MONSTROUS QUESTION

Posted in 2010, Monstrous Question of the Month with tags , , , on June 23, 2010 by knifefighter

And now, our final response to the June edition of the MONSTROUS QUESTION OF THE MONTH:

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THE MONSTROUS QUESTION OF THE MONTH – JUNE

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a horror movie icon.

Who among the pool of today’s actors would you like to see work exclusively in horror films over the next 10 years and become the next horror movie icon?

MICHAEL ARRUDA RESPONDS:

Okay, I’m going to bend the rules a little bit.  Otherwise known as cheating.

I’m going to choose two actors.

Yeah, part of it is I can’t make up my mind, but the other part is the horror icons we knew and loved often worked in pairs:  Karloff and Lugosi, Cushing and Lee, Carradine and everybody. (Seriously, who didn’t John Carradine make a movie with?)

So, here goes, my new horror movie partners:

One of my favorite performances of the past few years was Robert Downey Jr. as IRON MAN.  He carried that original movie with his energy level and oomph, and it truly was a remarkable comeback performance.

I’d love to seem Downey channel that energy and drive and use it exclusively in genre films.  Like the best horror movie stars, he could play both sides of the fence.  He could be the hero, the man chasing the monster, or he could be the monster.  Couldn’t you just see him as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  I can easily see him playing the Peter Cushing- style Baron Frankenstein, dedicated and ruthless, chilling and violent, yet charming and likeable to the last.

My second pick is someone I think is the scariest guy out there working today, and that would be Willem Dafoe.  He just looks at the camera and he scares me!  He’s already appeared in genre films, and he was great in them. I loved him as Max Schreck the vampire in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000), the fictional tale of how the silent classic NOSFERATU (1922) was made.  Dafoe is great in that movie.

I also enjoyed him as the hero in the recent vampire flick DAYBREAKERS (2010).

I could easily see Dafoe as the lead monster/villain in some new horror series.  I don’t know what that series would be, but Dafoe seems to have been born to play such a role.  Yeah, I know, Dafoe has already played the Green Goblin in the SPIDER-MAN series, but I’m talking horror movies here.  He’d give such a sense of evil and villainy to the role.  There’s got to be a horror series out there waiting for him.

And wouldn’t it be cool if these two actors appeared in a horror movie together?  May I suggest Robert Downey’s troubled alcohol-addicted Police Inspector vs. Willem Dafoe’s twisted, demented, unstoppable Jack the Ripper-like killer?  Now there’s a film I’d like to see!

—END—

Colleen Wanglund Answers the MONSTROUS QUESTION OF THE MONTH

Posted in 2010, Monstrous Question of the Month with tags , , , on June 22, 2010 by knifefighter

THE MONSTROUS QUESTION OF THE MONTH – FOR JUNE 2010

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a horror movie icon.

Who among the pool of today’s actors would you like to see work exclusively in horror films over the next 10 years and become the next horror movie icon?

COLLEEN WANGLUND repies:

I’m sure most people pondering this question will automatically think of MALE actors.  Being a female, I’m tired of the “Horror Film Babes” or “Fresh Meat Vixens” and the stereotypical portrayal of women being either damsels in distress having to be saved by men or being punished for their behavior by becoming the easy victims of male antagonists.  One woman I wish would have become a horror movie icon was Sigourney Weaver—she broke the mold in the ALIEN movies.

Milla Jovovich from RESIDENT EVIL (2002)

That being said, there are two people I would love to see become the next horror movie icon.  The first is Milla Jovovich for her role of Alice in the RESIDENT EVIL (2002) series and as Violet, a woman with a virus that gives her superhuman powers in ULTRAVIOLET (2006).  Both Alice and Violet are strong female characters in genres that are typically dominated by men, but their femininity was not covered up or hidden (think Jason’s mom in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH).

Eihi Shiina in Takashi Miike’s masterpiece, AUDITION (1999)

My second choice is Eihi Shiina (big surprise).  Yes she’s a Japanese movie star, but I think she can easily become international.  She was creepy as hell pretending to be a damsel in distress but really having murder in mind in Takashi Miike’s AUDITION (1999), and was killer yet still beautiful wielding both chainsaws (two at a time!!) and a Samurai sword in Yoshihiro Nishimura’s TOKYO GORE POLICE (2009).  She portrays a strong female lead, as both protagonist and antagonist, while staying wholly feminine.

I think both Milla and Eihi would scare the crap out of a lot of men.