Archive for April, 2013

Geisha of Gore Review: BLACK RAT (2010)

Posted in 2013, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Enigmatic Films, Foreign Films, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Killers, Revenge!, Slasher Movies with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by knifefighter

GEISHA OF GORE REVIEW: BLACK RAT (2010)
By Colleen Wanglund

762blackrat1

BLACK RAT (Kuronezumi) is a 2010 Japanese horror film written by Futoshi Fujita—whose only other writing credit is for a film titled KILL (2008)—and directed by Kenta Fukasaku, son of legendary director Kinji Fukasaku, known for such films as BATTLE ROYALE (2000), THE GREEN SLIME (1968), and the Japanese sequences of TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) (after the studio fired Akira Kurosawa for going way over budget). As a matter of fact, Kenta worked as an assistant to his father on BATTLE ROYALE and finished directing the sequel BATTLE ROYALE II (2003) after Kinji’s death.

Six high school friends each receive a text message telling them to meet in a classroom at their school at midnight.  The message comes from Asuka, who committed suicide a few months earlier.  Four of the teens arrive on time where they are greeted by a girl in a rat mask—the big kind that team mascots would wear.  The masked girl takes attendance and tells the teens there will be “tests” that they must pass in order to gain her forgiveness.  She communicates with them through the use of flash cards. Upon challenging her, the kids are presented with the bloody body of one of the friends who didn’t arrive to the meeting place on time.  He clearly was beaten to death.  “Rat Girl” then attacks the four kids in the classroom, sending them all scattering throughout the dark building. 

The rat girl catches up to one of the boys outside and tells him his test will be to stop her from scoring on a penalty kick on the soccer field.  The boy fails to stop the goal and is put out of his misery, to put it mildly.  One of the girls—a brainiac type—is strapped into a chair wired for electricity.  Her test is to score at least one hundred points in karaoke….which she fails to do.  As another of the friends arrives late to the party, the remaining boy and girl—a tough guy and his Lolita-styling girlfriend—face off in a dark hallway against “Rat Girl.”

The chronology of the film gets a bit skewered after a bit.  There are a myriad of flashback scenes showing how mean the teens were to Asuka.  Asuka had an idea for the school’s year-end festival.  She wants them all to do a variation on a dance they all learned as children that tells the story of seven little black rats who were friends (thus the reason for the mask).  Each one of the teens, we discover, is supposed to represent one of the little rats.  This is also why the girl is wearing the rat mask….to remind the friends of what they did to Asuka.  There are other scenes where the teens were supposed to meet to rehearse the dance but were goofing off, instead.  Asuka manages to smile and stay positive through all of the crap she gets from her supposed friends….though why they’re still her friends is anyone’s guess. There are a few interesting twists and we do eventually discover who the perpetrator behind the mask really is, although as with all good Asian horror, the identity of this person (or persons) is still a bit vague.

One thing that drew me to BLACK RAT is the fact that it is a slasher film…a genre sorely lacking in Asian cinema.  The best example of Asian slasher flicks is probably BLOODY REUNION (2006, South Korea), whose original title is TO SIR WITH LOVE, which makes no sense, but I digress.  BLOODY REUNION, directed by Lim Dae-wung, is a very good movie with some intense torture and death scenes, as well as some psychological terror.  It’s better than a lot of American slasher films.  BLACK RAT, on the other hand, tries to be a really good slasher flick—and it succeeds in some ways—but for the most part it falls short.

The film does a good job of insinuating violence without showing it, particularly with the death on the soccer field and the electrocution after the karaoke failure.  The focus here is on the psychological aspects of the horror.  What makes it effective is the viewer’s imagination making the deaths more gruesome than anything that could be shown on-screen, so it makes your heart race a little faster in anticipation of further horror.  Where BLACK RAT fails to deliver are two particular fight scenes that don’t ring true to me and are pretty much just filler—although one leads to a decent beating where again, the final kill blow is off-screen. 

The story ultimately falls flat, as well.  The film begins with Asuka’s suicide—a jump off the top of the school building—but nothing in the story that follows convinces me that these teens should or could be held responsible for her death.  Nothing they did could even be construed as bullying.  Yes, they were cruel, at times, but nothing to the degree that would convince me this chick was suicidal. And there is nothing else to make me believe that this girl had (or thought she had) reasons to kill herself. There is virtually no character development.  Am I supposed to feel empathy for Asuka and rally behind her, or whoever the rat girl is, in the quest for vengeance?  Am I supposed to feel sorry for the teens who are the objects of misplaced vengeance?  I don’t know because I’m never really given a chance to learn who these kids are.

On the other hand, I appreciated the fast pace of the film (minus the flashbacks).  The blood begins to flow very early on and the kills themselves are well-done.  The rat mask, which is mangled and bloody (Asuka wore it when she jumped) is quite creepy. The only SFX issue I had was a scene where a motorbike explodes.  It was a bad CGI job that was completely unbelievable in how it translated to film. 

Comparatively speaking, BLOODY REUNION gives a better and more original story effectively mixing slasher and psychological horror, and the characters are more fleshed out.  There’s also the subtext of mental illness and obsession that BLACK RAT doesn’t have.  BLACK RAT is not an original story and is full of clichés, which is fine, but it becomes so convoluted that whatever I found interesting can get lost.  I admit I’m a bit schizophrenic with BLACK RAT.  It’s not a film I would recommend to any hardcore slasher fan, but I still found it fascinating.  Even after everything I found wrong with it, I still don’t feel as though I wasted my time—and it’s a short 75 minutes. 

© Copyright 2013 by Colleen Wanglund

The "rat girl" shows them a particularly disturbing flash card in BLACK RAT.

The “rat girl” shows them a particularly disturbing flash card in BLACK RAT.

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PAIN & GAIN (2013)

Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Based on a True Story, Cinema Knife Fights, Crime Films, Dark Comedies, Detectives, Satire, Tough Guys! with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: PAIN & GAIN (2013)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Pain-Gain-Poster

(THE SCENE: INTERIOR of the Sun Gym. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are working out on exercise machines)

MA: Welcome to another edition of Cinema Knife Fight. This time around, we’re getting some cardio, to get in the mood to review the new movie PAIN & GAIN.

LS: That’s funny. You told me we should go to the gym because a lot of hot chicks work out here.

(MA shushes him and then smiles for the camera)

MA: Why don’t you take a break from the treadmill to tell us a little about this week’s movie?

LS: Okay.

PAIN & GAIN is the new movie from Michael Bay, the director who gave us such cinematic “classics” as ARMAGEDDON (1998), PEARL HARBOR (2001) and the TRANSFORMERS movies. I have to admit, I’m not really a fan. But the trailer for PAIN & GAIN looked pretty good, so I was curious to check this one out.

MA:  I wasn’t sure what to make of the trailer.  I couldn’t tell if it was going to be a quirky comedy crime thriller with an edge, or just plain dumb.  Well, now I have my answer, but more on that after your plot summary.

And I certainly hope you were being sarcastic by calling the TRANSFORMERS movies classics.

LS: What do you think?  In the movie, Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a bodybuilder who also trains other people at the Sun Gym. He has actually done pretty well for himself, considering he spent some time in prison for fleecing elderly people out of their money.

MA:  Also considering he’s an idiot.  There haven’t been too many other lead characters to have an entire movie built around them who have been this stupid.  Inspector Clouseau comes to mind.  But this is an unfair comparison.  Clouseau was funny.  Wahlberg’s Lugo is just plain sad.

LS:  I don’t know, he made me laugh a few times. And I think that’s the point. That this really happened, even though Lugo and his guys were pretty dim bulbs.  But back to the synopsis.

Despite his checkered past, Lugo wows the gym’s manager, John Mese (Rob Corddry), during the job interview, even betting he can triple the gym’s membership or he will resign. Lugo makes good on his promise, and is climbing the corporate ladder at the gym. But he wants more.

He is also a big fan of Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong, from the HANGOVER movies), a motivational speaker who says the world is made up of “do-ers and don’t-ers” and Lugo is determined to be a “do-er.”

His plan to get the money and lifestyle he thinks he deserves involves kidnapping and torturing an obnoxious client at the gym named Victor Krenshaw (Tony Shalhoub, from the MONK TV series, 2002 – 2009), a very unlikable character who, nonetheless, has been very successful at amassing a fortune. The plan is to get him to sign over his money and assets to Lugo and his partners, since Lugo thinks he deserves the money more than Krenshaw does.

MA:  And Lugo thinks he can get away with this because, as he tells his partners, “I watch a lot of movies.  I know what I’m doing.”  That’s the level of competency where talking about here.

LS:  Once again, I think you’re missing the point.  It’s supposed to be funny.

MA:  Well, it would be funny if these guys were bumbling idiots, but they’re not.  They’re very dangerous men, mostly because they’re not too swift up here (points to his head) if you know what I mean, and they go about committing crimes like they’re experts, when in reality they’re sloppy amateurs.

And that’s the word that dominates this movie:  amateur.  Why in the world am I at all supposed to be interested in a group of guys who commit crimes who are strictly amateurs?  I really didn’t get this movie.

LS: What’s so hard to get? Don’t you ever laugh at police footage of morons who try to get away with crimes and screwing up?

MA:  Yeah, when it’s two minutes worth of footage.  But two hours and ten minutes worth of these guys?  Ugh!

LS:  I dunno, it went by pretty quickly for me.

Lugo’s partners include Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), an African-American guy who also works at the gym and who is also obsessed with bodybuilding, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a muscle-bound ex-con who comes to the gym looking for a job. Paul has become born-again since his prison days, but that doesn’t seem to prevent him from going along with a plan that involves kidnapping and inflicting bodily harm.

The problem is, Krenshaw is a merciless jerk who won’t break under weeks of captivity and abuse, and it takes a while for our criminal trio to complete their get-rich-quick scheme. Afterwards, Krenshaw vows to get revenge, with the help of a very capable retired detective, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris). Lugo and his friends also get into some serious trouble when they get greedy and decide they want more money.

(ROCKY comes over)

ROCKY: Yo, like that’s the treadmill I use whenever I’m here.

LS: Good for you.

ROCKY:  It’s my favorite treadmill.

LS:  So?  What’s your point?

ROCKY:  Well, if it wasn’t too much trouble, I’d like to use it.  I’m training, and I came here to use my favorite treadmill.

LS:  Why don’t you go chase some chickens or something?  I’m busy reviewing a movie here.

ROCKY:  You know, you’re kinda rude.  (turns to MA)  Your friend has a big mouth.

MA (shrugs): Some people find it endearing. Anyway, I’m sure we can find another treadmill.  (turns to LS)  Hey, you don’t want to piss this guy off.  It’s Rocky Balboa, for crying out loud!

LS:  I piss off whoever I want to piss off.  It’s a free country!

MA (to Rocky):  We are in the middle of a movie review.  Would you mind coming back later?

(ROCKY glares at them for a few minutes, in stony silence, contemplating whether to pound them to pulp)

ROCKY:  You got five more minutes.  (Exits.)

LS: Go drink a protein shake or something.

ROCKY (outside gym door):  Yo, Mick.  Where did you put those chickens?

LS: Based on the true story of a crime that happened in Miami in the 1990s, PAIN & GAIN is both a crime movie and a dark comedy. The funniest aspect of the movie is that, as we already made clear, these three criminals are actually pretty dumb, and make some pretty awful mistakes along the way.

MA:  See, I just didn’t find this all that funny.  I found it painful.

LS:  Well, that’s good right? Pain and gain?

It is amazing they are able to get away with as much as they do. Their stupidity involves everything from Paul (Johnson) befriending (and being easily manipulated by) Krenshaw, when he is supposed to be keeping the man prisoner; to supposedly clever, elaborate plans that just aren’t very well thought out. As Lugo says at one point, they actually do their best work when they “wing it,” because thinking doesn’t come very naturally to these guys.

MA:  And that’s part of what I didn’t like about this movie.  It’s incredibly obvious that Paul is being manipulated by Krenshaw, so obvious that it’s anything but interesting.  The story here is just about as stupid as the three main characters.  I found this one hard to like.

LS:  Despite the fact that I wasn’t expecting much, since it’s directed by Bay, I found myself enjoying this movie. It has a good story, and some very funny moments, and the acting is probably the biggest plus going for it.

MA:  I can’t argue with you there.  The acting is all very good.  Trouble is, they’re playing characters I couldn’t stand.

LS:  Wahlberg has been in some good movies and some awful ones, but he really shines in a role like this one, and is spot-on as Lugo, who thinks he is much smarter than he actually is.

MA:  You’re right.  Wahlberg is spot-on as Lugo.  I can’t take away from his performance, because he succeeds in creating a character I couldn’t stomach.  My problem with PAIN & GAIN isn’t with the performers or the performances.  They’re all excellent, across the board.

LS:  Anthony Mackie is also good as Doorbal. But for me, some of the best scenes involved Johnson’s Paul Doyle. I really think that the man formerly known as The Rock has come a long way as an actor over the years. I find him very likable onscreen, and despite his intimidating size, he’s able to bring real humanity to a lot of his roles. The first time I really started becoming a fan was in the above-average revenge drama FASTER (2010), and while I don’t think PAIN & GAIN is as good as that movie, I thought it was a decent flick, and Johnson was my favorite actor in this one.

MA:  I have to agree with you yet again.  Johnson is excellent at Paul Doyle, and I also agree that he has a very likeable screen persona.  This role also gives him a lot more to do than in the last film I saw Johnson in, the awful G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013).

LS: Yeah, I’m sorry I missed that.

MA: Sarcasm, again?

LS: But of course.

MA: Sadly, this movie isn’t much better.  PAIN & GAIN is an ugly film with unpleasant characters who make boneheaded decisions.  Frankly, they have no business being in a movie that is over two hours long.

Again, I like Dwayne Johnson here, but he’s playing a character I grew tired of right after I got to know him.  Any one of these three guys might have made for a memorable stooge if some of the other criminals in the movie had some smarts, skills, or vision, but there’s none of that here.  These guys are all idiots.  It’s like watching Dumb and Dumber, and Even Dumber.

It’s like watching The Three Stooges become criminals.  Well, shouldn’t that be funny?  I don’t know.  If they start hacking up dead bodies with chainsaws and barbecuing severed hands on an outdoor grill, I’m not sure how funny that would be.

LS: I thought that stuff was funny!

Pain and Gain poster #2

MA:  You know, I wanted to laugh, and in another context I might have found this funny, perhaps if these guys weren’t complete numbskulls, or if the movie generated some style, some pizzazz.  It tries, but its attempts at being quirky are quashed by a general sense of simplicity that keeps this one from taking off.

LS: And I liked that it wasn’t afraid to get gruesome at times. But I get what you’re saying, and the movie isn’t a total success over all. But, for most of its running time, I had fun with it.

MA: I don’t mind gruesome, but in this case I just wasn’t laughing.

 (ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER comes over)

ARNOLD: I do not know why you like that big wrestling man so much. I was the Governor of California you know. I was a much bigger deal than him.

MA: That’s nice, but we’re not talking about you right now.

ARNOLD: Well, maybe you should be. I am much better than any of the new action stars. Just because I took some time off for politics doesn’t mean I’m not a big star anymore.

LS: Relax, Arnie, we’re not putting you down.

ARNOLD: And I want to use the elliptical machine. That’s the one I use every time I come to this gym.

MA: But I’m using it.

ARNOLD: It’s mine.

MA:  Could you wait just a few minutes?  We’re almost done with our review.

ARNOLD:  Let me hear you say that my movies are better than the one you’re reviewing today.

MA:  For me, that’s easy.  I didn’t like PAIN AND GAIN all that much, so yeah, I like your movies better.

ARNOLD:  I’ll be back— to use the elliptical machine.  (Exits)

MA:  Let’s not be here when he returns.  He looked a little agitated.

LS: Let’s go use the weights.

MA: Okay.

(We jump to the weight room, where LS is lifting a huge barbell over his head)

LS: Wow, I like it here in Cinema Knife Fight Land. I can lift 500 pounds without breaking a sweat.

MA: Yeah, we’re like superheroes here.

LS: Makes you think twice about going back to the real world, huh?

Anyway, back to the review. I was talking about the cast of PAIN & GAIN.

Ed Harris is another stand-out as private detective  Ed DuBois. He doesn’t appear in the movie until later on in the story, but he’s the kind of actor you can count on to elevate whatever movie he’s in.

MA:  I don’t know.  I thought Harris came into the film a little too late to be much of a factor.  I mean, I wanted to know more about him, but he doesn’t really do a whole lot here, so I can’t say I liked his performance all that much.  It’s hard to like what amounts to a pretty standard and very small supporting role.

LS:  And Bar Paly (previously in the horror film, THE RUINS, 2008) is extremely hot as Russian stripper-turned-co-conspirator Sorina Luminata, whom the boys trick into believing they work for the CIA.

I also liked the supporting cast, including Rob Corddry as gym manager John Mese, Rebel Wilson (who, after roles in movies like BRIDESMAIDS, 2011, and PITCH PERFECT, 2012, is on the verge of becoming a star in her own right) as Doorbal’s girlfriend (and eventually wife) and Emily Rutherfurd, who has some funny lines (even if she’s not onscreen very much) as Ed DuBois’s wife, Carolyn.

I didn’t think PAIN & GAIN was a great movie, but I thought it was a lot of fun, and I liked the cast a lot. This one surprised me, because I didn’t expect to enjoy this movie as much as I did. I give this one two and a half knives.

What did you think, Michael?

MA:  I think that this one suffers from a case of the stupids, and unfortunately, for me, there was nothing else about it to make up for the fact that its characters were unlikeable and its story unworthy of my time.  Even the film’s strong cast couldn’t save it.

We’ve already talked at length about the cast, which we both agree was good, so let’s get to the real culprit here, the writing.  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote the screenplay, and these are the same guys who wrote the screenplays for CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) and the NARNIA movies.  While I liked CAPTAIN AMERICA, I can’t say that I liked the NARNIA movies, but the point is these guys are capable writers, and their screenplay here is fine as well, in terms of dialogue and characterizations.

But the characters they create here- or at least write about—since it’s based on a true story, as we’re constantly reminded —are so difficult to like, I just couldn’t get into this one.  I found these folks unbearable to watch.  This movie should have been called PAIN AND PAIN.

I didn’t like any of the three lead characters, didn’t care what happened to them, and really just wanted to see them behind bars ASAP.  They’re a bunch of idiotic losers.  Even Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle, the most sympathetic of the three, is such a sad character you just want him to go away.

That’s how I felt about all three of these guys.  Just go away!  I don’t want to watch a movie about you anymore!

And then, the guy they kidnap and steal from, Victor Kershaw, is the most unlikeable guy in the whole movie.  He makes the three demonic stooges seem like saints!  So, just who am I rooting for here?  I can’t even root for Ed Harris’s detective because he’s hardly in it.

LS: I dunno, why do you have to root for anyone? Why not just sit back and enjoy the movie.

MA: That’s a fair point.  I guess I just had difficulty enjoying a story about people who I didn’t like all that much.  I mean, if I were sitting at a bar listening to these guys talk, I don’t think I would have stayed there very long.  I would have picked up my drink and moved somewhere else.  They were just too shallow.

LS:  But that’s the point.  That these shallow guys actually got away with this crime, at least for a time, anyway.

MA:  But I also didn’t think the jokes worked.  Most of the laughs come from situations that are so ridiculously painful you can’t help but emit nervous laughter, like when Paul Doyle barbecues those hands.

LS: They looked kind of yummy to me.

MA: Any attempt at real humor doesn’t work here.  The lines and jokes just aren’t sharp enough.  When Daniel Lugo throws barrels containing dead bodies into the water and then doesn’t make an effort to make sure they go down to the bottom, I’m wondering why am I watching a movie about these clowns?

The best scene in the film is when porn king Frank Giga (Michael Rispoli) tells them he won’t do business with them because they’re obvious amateurs, and he tells Daniel that the things he says are laughable.  It’s the one scene in the movie that ring true.  And the one guy who speaks the truth in the film, Giga, is rewarded by getting his head smashed in.

LS: Maybe the truth hurts.

MA: PAIN & GAIN is a wannabe cutting-edge thriller – think Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES (2012) only without the stylish direction and edge-of your seat writing.  In that film, there were real characters and real threats.  Here there are just a bunch of idiots pretending to be criminals.

LS: Isn’t it ironic that SAVAGES was based on fiction, and PAIN & GAIN was based on magazine articles by Pete Collins about real-life criminals.

MA: You make a good point.  A good fiction writer will write solid well-constructed stories.  All kinds of weird crap happens in real life, a lot of it unbelievable, but just because it really happened doesn’t make it a good story.  And I think that’s the problem with this movie.

I can’t say that it worked as a comedy either.  The jokes aren’t very funny, the writing isn’t all that witty, and I found myself laughing only when things got so ridiculous it was easier than crying.

Perhaps I’ve missed the point of this one, and if so, I’m guilty as charged.  For me, watching PAIN & GAIN was like imagining what it would be like if The Three Stooges starred in an R rated crime movie directed by Michael Bay.

LS (doing Curly imitation): Coitainly

MA: Now, if the director was Quentin Tarantino, then that would be a different story!

LS: No argument there. Michael Bay is no Tarantino. But he’s also not as horrible as I previously thought. He is capable of making a decent movie, and PAIN & GAIN is a decent flick. But I understand your dilemma. If it didn’t work for you from the get go, then it probably felt like a long movie to sit through. I just was more receptive to it, I guess, and I thought it was a fun night at the movies.

MA: I give it one knife.

Okay, that wraps things up.  Thanks for joining us everybody.  We’re outta here

LS:  We’ll see you all again next week.

(ARNOLD returns.)

ARNOLD:  I’m back.  And I’ve brought my friends with me.  (A group of beautiful strippers accompany Arnold into the gym).  We’re ready for the ultimate work-out.

STRIPPER 1: Ready to work those abs, Arnie? (the other strippers giggle)

MA:  On second thought, maybe we’re not outta here.

LS:  I don’t think I’ve reached my target heart rate yet. It’s time to take a page out of Rocky Balboa’s playbook and chase some chicks around.

MA:  Er, actually he was chasing chickens, but I like your idea better.

(ROCKY pops his head in)

ROCKY (angrily): Yo, can I use my treadmill now?

—END—-

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives PAIN & GAIN~ one knife!

LL Soares gives PAIN & GAIN~two and a half knives.

Friday Night Knife Fights Presents: SHAUN OF THE DEAD vs. ZOMBIELAND – Part 3 (of 3)

Posted in 2013, Friday Night Knife Fights, Horror-Comedies, Zombie Movies, Zombies with tags , , on April 26, 2013 by knifefighter

FRIDAY NIGHT KNIFE FIGHTS:  SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) vs. ZOMBIELAND (2009)
PART 3 (of 3)
With Michael Arruda, L. L. Soares, Daniel Keohane, Paul McMahon, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel, and Colleen Wanglund

2013-03-13-shaun_of_the_dead_ver2

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome back to Friday Night Knife Fights.  Tonight it’s Part 3 of our battle of the zombie comedies, SHAUN OF THE DEAD vs. ZOMBIELAND.

So far, SHAUN OF THE DEAD has opened up a very wide lead, as it’s ahead of ZOMBIELAND by a score of 4 rounds to 1.

PAUL MCMAHON:  As it should be.  SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a much better movie than ZOMBIELAND.

ARRUDA:  Says you.  But that’s what we’re here to decide.

Once again, L.L. Soares and I are joined by Dan Keohane, ZOMBIELAND hater Paul McMahon, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel, and Colleen Wanglund.  Thank you all for joining us tonight.  We’ve got a great panel, and tonight’s the night that we conclude the debate.  Even though SHAUN OF THE DEAD has a comfortable lead, there’s still time for ZOMBIELAND to make a comeback.

Okay, it’s on to Round 6.  

Which movie has the better screenplay?  Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick for ZOMBIELAND, or Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright for SHAUN OF THE DEAD?

SHERI SEBASTIAN-GABRIEL: ZOMBIELAND has a better screenplay, I would say.

The plot is less predictable than that of SHAUN OF THE DEAD. As I mentioned, I like SHAUN, but ZOMBIELAND is written better and executed more effectively.

The ending of SHAUN seemed a little odd. Life kind of goes back to normal. It doesn’t really ring true. At the end of ZOMBIELAND, the characters are changed, but there’s no illusion that things go back to “normal.”

MCMAHON:  This is so obviously SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

If you take the zombies away, Shaun was the story of a man whose life was crumbling under his own complacency. He embarked on a journey to win back his girl, distance himself from his mooch of a best friend, make amends with his mom and stepdad and generally “sort his life out.” The zombies made the film awesome, but they weren’t the main focus.

ARRUDA:  Come on!  Do you really think without zombies SHAUN OF THE DEAD would stand as having a decent story?  I don’t think so.  Take away the zombies and you’re left with a bunch of losers fighting over pub food.

MCMAHON:  It’s a better story than ZOMBIELAND.

In ZOMBIELAND, you had one putz following the standard zombie movie plot by searching for his family, you had two brainless putzettes who believed zombies wouldn’t enter amusement parks, and then you had the biggest putz of all on a nationwide hunt for Twinkies snack cakes. Take the zombies out and you’ve got squat.

ARRUDA:  I wouldn’t want to take the zombies out of either movie, actually.  But I think the characters in ZOMBIELAND are just as satisfying as the characters in SHAUN, perhaps more so since they’re so over the top.

MCMAHON:  Nah.  SHAUN OF THE DEAD by a landslide.

ARRUDA:  Well, I think both screenplays work.  Both are hilariously funny, and both manage to be excellent zombie movies to boot. 

How to choose?  While this one may seem too close to call at first, after thinking about it— now don’t fall out of your chair, Paul— but I give the edge to Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright for SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  Their screenplay works from beginning to end. 

MCMAHON:  I told you.

ARRUDA:  While I enjoy Reese and Wernick’s ZOMBIELAND screenplay, their story runs out of steam somewhat as the movie approaches its final act at the amusement park.  And the Bill Murray scenes, while funny the first time, didn’t hold up as well upon further viewing.

L.L. SOARES:  I think both scripts are good. But I think SHAUN is a little smarter.

ARRUDA:  SHAUN OF THE DEAD wins Round 6.  Our updated score is SHAUN 5, ZOMBIELAND 1.

It’s time now for the seventh and final round.

And since ZOMBIELAND is so far behind, the only way now that it could win this contest would be by a knockout.  A knockout occurs when one movie sweeps the round, meaning all the panel members vote for the same movie.  Something tells me, though (looks at Paul McMahon) that that’s not going to happen today.

Bienvenidos_a_Zombieland-565000159-large-e1339351714563

Anyway, on to Round 7.  Which one is the better movie?

COLLEEN WANGLUND:  They may both be horror comedies, but the movies are very different from one another. 

I did like ZOMBIELAND, overall, enjoying immensely the title sequence using Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

I thoroughly enjoyed both movies and would watch either one again.  The acting and directing were superb in both.  I will give SHAUN OF THE DEAD a slight edge here, however because the characters just feel more real to me.  I do appreciate the fact that it doesn’t go full-on apocalypse, so it’s a bit different than most zombie films. 

So my pick for which one of the two is the better film goes to SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

DAN KEOHANESHAUN OF THE DEAD is a quieter, more subtle film that builds the laugh, and tension, as it goes along, and breaks as many of the zombie “rules” as it celebrates. It’s a British film, so the humor and social references are, well, British. If you’ve never been able to get into their sense of humor, you’d probably say ZOMBIELAND was better, especially as an American film – jumps right into the action, with in your face jokes and humor (and American cultural references – “Twinkies” versus “crisps” for example).

I love British humor as much as American. So my pick would probably depend on my mood at the time.  Yes, this is a long-winded, borderline pompous way of saying, “Neither, they’re just as funny in their own way.”

My final pick:  I call it a draw.  It’s a tie.

SEBASTIAN-GABRIEL:  I think ZOMBIELAND is an overall better film. The plot works better for me.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD suffers, I think, because the first half of the film is largely expositional. Sure, in ZOMBIELAND, we have “the Rules,” which are expositional, but it’s done in such a funny way that we hardly notice.

SOARES: Yeah, “the Rules” were clever.

SEBASTIAN-GABRIEL: In ZOMBIELAND, we don’t know much about the characters, and we learn about them as they learn about each other. The problem with SHAUN OF THE DEAD is that by the end we can kind of figure out what’s going to happen because it’s all been set up for us.

My choice for the better film is ZOMBIELAND.

ARRUDA:  This one is a very difficult question to answer.  I tend to prefer ZOMBIELAND because I prefer its in-your-face zombie style to the more reserved British humor of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but does that make it a better movie?

I’m not sure.

I think the acting in both movies is equally as good, although I prefer the cast in ZOMBIELAND, so I give a slight acting edge to ZOMBIELAND.  Both directors do phenomenal jobs, but I think Ruben Fleischer is a bit more creative with his style, so again I give the edge to ZOMBIELAND.  I give a slight writing edge to SHAUN, but again the scripts are both terrific.

Based on this model, ZOMBIELAND wins two of the three rounds, so heck, I’m going with ZOMBIELAND.  I choose ZOMBIELAND as the better movie.

MCMAHON (to Michael and Sheri):  Poor misguided souls, the both of you.

Do I have to say this yet again?

SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I’ve seen it twelve times at least.

ARRUDA:  I’m so very happy for you.  What do you want? A medal?

SOARES:  Hey, don’t be rude to our guests!  That’s my department! 

MCMAHON:  In all the time since I watched ZOMBIELAND, I have not once wanted to go back and see it again. The only reason I did was to refresh my memory of it for these answers. I’m still underwhelmed. Without George A. Romero, SHAUN OF THE DEAD wouldn’t exist. Without SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ZOMBIELAND wouldn’t exist. Winner: SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

Can you tell I hated ZOMBIELAND?

SEBASTIAN-GABRIEL:  I’m beginning to see that, yes.

WANGLUND:  You’ve made it loud and clear.

KEOHANE:  And yet there’s still a modicum of obscurity, a morsel of doubt.  I’m not sure.

MCMAHON:  Very funny.

SOARES:  So it’s my turn, huh? What’s the best movie? Well, that’s very subjective, isn’t it? I would say, from a quality standpoint, SHAUN OF THE DEAD has the edge. But as to “What movie did I enjoy more?” Which movie do I personally like better, that’s more neck and neck.

I guess a good yardstick is which one would you watch again, and my answer this time around is neither. I like both of these movies, but I don’t love them. If I was channel surfing and found one of them, I might watch it, but I wouldn’t consciously sit down and watch one of them from start to finish again. I’m just not that big a fan of most zombie movies.

If I was going to rewatch any zombie flick, it would be either one of Romero’s classics or an especially good episode of THE WALKING DEAD. That’s about it.

So that means I’m the tie-breaker here. Colleen and Paul went with SHAUN. While Michael and Sheri went with ZOMBIELAND. And while I am sort on the fence, I refuse to take the easy way out like Keohane did and call it a tie.

I would say that, as far as pure enjoyment, and both of these films are meant to be entertaining above all else, I would have to go with ZOMBIELAND.

ARRUDA: Oh my God, I think it’s an upset! That means three votes ZOMBIELAND,  two votes SHAUN OF THE DEAD and one tie for Round 7 – which is the Knockout Round.

MCMAHON (to SOARES): I don’t believe you just did that, you bastard.

SOARES: Blame Keohane. He couldn’t make up his mind.

****

ARRUDA (reads the rule book): Errr.. not so fast. I just read the rules. The final knock-out round has to be unanimous. So ZOMBIELAND didn’t win after all.

SOARES: Dammit! I thought it was just whatever won the final round wins by TKO. That’s a stupid rule! If one movie is ahead all the way through, the chances of everyone unanimously agreeing to the other movie in the final round is pretty much impossible.

(Takes rule book from ARRUDA and rips out that page)

ARRUDA: Actually, you’re right, that probably is never going to happen. I guess it is a stupid rule. But, we can’t just change the rules at the last minute.

So here’s the solution. From this point on, the Knockout Round does not have to be unanimous. If a movie is ahead, but the other one wins the final round, then it wins by TKO, unanimous or not. That will make things more interesting.

But for this contest, we really should stick with the original rules.

MCMAHON (jumping up and down): So that means….SHAUN OF THE DEAD WINS!

ARRUDA: It sure looks that way.

MCMAHON: Yay! Now I don’t have to hang myself.

ARRUDA: Which movie is the zombie comedy champion of the world?  Well, tonight, it’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD!

On behalf of L.L. Soares, Dan Keohane, Paul McMahon, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel, Colleen Wanglund, I’m Michael Arruda saying so long and thanks for joining us on Friday Night Knife Fights.  We’ll see you again next time.

(In the background, PAUL MCMAHON is chasing L.L. SOARES around with an axe)

MCMAHON: How dare you scare the bejeesus out of me like that!

ARRUDA: Good night everybody!

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Daniel G. Keohane, Paul McMahon, Sheri-Sebastian-Gabriel and Colleen Wanglund

Bills’ Bizarre Bijou visits the COMMON LAW WIFE (1963)

Posted in "So Bad They're Good" Movies, 2013, 60s Movies, B-Movies, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, Campy Movies, Drive-in Movies, Exploitation Films, Hillbillies, Just Plain Fun, Revenge!, Romance, Swamp Movies, William Carl Articles with tags , , , , , , , on April 25, 2013 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

by William D. Carl

This week’s feature presentation:

COMMON LAW WIFE (1963)

VideoBox Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made.  If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it.   Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.  Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.

In the wild, wild world of exploitation films, bits and pieces of one movie can often make a ‘guest appearance’ in another film, spliced into the new film as padding for the running time, or as a way to save on the budget.  Most of the time, this created annoying sequences that have nothing to do with the movie you’re viewing at your local drive-in, distractions to the main plot.  Other times, the footage was inserted so well a casual viewer never noticed he’d been duped.  A lot of film buffs, such as me and you, my fans in the dark, take great pleasure in noticing such scenes and shouting out, “Hey, that was stolen from INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES!”  It’s a fine, old exploitation tradition, and we at the Bijou salute the filmmakers who managed to pull it off.

In 1960, Larry Buchanan, the infamous director of such sublimely awful fare as THE NAKED WITCH (1961), ZONTAR, THING FROM VENUS (1966), MARS NEEDS WOMEN (1967), and THE LOCH NESS HORROR (1981) started shooting a hicksloitation epic called SWAMP ROSE.  Starring Lacey Kelley (NUDE ON THE MOON – 1961, THE DEAD ONE – 1961), the unfinished film dealt with a moonshiner obsessed with a woman of easy virtue.  This footage was purchased by M.A. Ripps, who wanted to make it into a hit drive-in feature, as he so famously transformed the movie BAYOU into POOR WHITE TRASH (1957).  New director Eric Sayers used many Buchanan regulars: (Anabelle Weenik (going by Anne MacAdams) of CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION (1967), A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY (1970), DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973); Max W. Anderson of HIGH YELLOW (1965), IN THE YEAR 2889 – (1967); and THE NAKED WITCH herself Libby Hall (as Libby Booth)).  Sayers shot a whole new storyline with these actors, including an unbilled woman to take Lacey Kelley’s role (and they don’t look much alike) using only bits and pieces of Larry Buchanan’s SWAMP ROSE.  There is a scene with Lacey Kelley walking down the street, her boom-boppa-boom stride mocked by a little girl, some scenes in a park, and a chase between a crazed hillbilly moonshiner attacking Lacey that make up most of the old footage.  Everything else is newly shot with actors from other movies.  Confused yet?  You won’t be once you watch COMMON LAW WIFE (1963), Sayers’ adults-only white-trash melodrama set in Texas.  It’s easily one of the greatest exploitation films from the period.  Other than a few film stock mis-matches and a character that switches actresses several times, you’d never know this was once two films edited into one trashy grindhouse gem.

But what about the story of COMMON LAW WIFE?

The film opens on a typical night at the Raineys’ rather tacky abode.  Old man Shug is playing darts in his bathrobe before drinking the biggest damn glass of wine in existence.  When his live-in mistress, Linda, tells him he’s not supposed to drink, he throws five darts at her head, embedding them into the wicker chair behind her.  He asks, “Do you want me to put one right between your eyes?”  Turns out, she’s lived with him for five years, and it’s taken a toll on her beauty.  He wants her to get out so his niece Jonelle (“Call me Baby Doll”) can come live with him.  “What’s she got?’ she shrieks.  Shug answers, “My attention right now, which you haven’t.”  Linda, shocked says, “Why she’s your own blood niece!  That’s incest!”  He replies, “Words don’t mean much to me.  I’ve already sent for Baby Doll.  Go pack your things.”

In New Orleans, we are introduced to Jonelle, a gorgeous stripper in a nightclub who resembles Traci Lords.  She packs her dresses and heads for rural Texas to stay with her uncle (Eww).  Turns out, Jonelle’s sister, Brenda, is married to the Sheriff, Jodi, who was having flings with both sisters during high school.  Jodi’s more than a little interested in rekindling his torrid affair with Jonelle, while good wife Brenda stays at home.

Shug and Jonelle, what a cute couple!

Shug and Jonelle, what a cute couple! (Ewwww)

Meanwhile, Linda consults a lawyer and discovers she’s lived long enough with Mr. Shug Rainey to be his common-law wife.  Mrs. Rainey buys herself a wedding ring and informs Shug that she is his legal wife, and if he wants his niece serving him in his house (Eww), he has to divorce her and pay alimony or give her the house.  Secretly, though I have no idea why, she loves the old dude.

Jonelle kick-starts her affair with Jodi (what a nice sisterly thing to do), but she throws a hissy fit after he says he doesn’t want to help her murder Shug for the old man’s money.  In spite, she gets up and starts stripping and dancing in front of what looks like several farmers and their wives who are either shocked or bemused.  She leaves with another old beau, Bull, who takes her out to the swamp to see his moonshine still.  Ah, romance in Texas!  When he gets fresh, she runs away through the swamp.  This whole part is Larry Buchanan’s, and it’s a bit rougher and grittier than the newer footage. 

She runs all the way back to her sister’s house (the actress changes here), but Brenda has figured out what’s happening between her husband and Jonelle.  She tosses her sister out of her house, but not before Jonelle steals the booze.  With nowhere to go, Jonelle hunts down Bull and they return to the swamp (wait, wait, didn’t he try to rape her the previous night?  Ah, romance in Texas!) 

The original Jonelle.

The original Jonelle.

Jodi goes after her (the heel!) and tracks her to Bull’s house, where a gunfight erupts over Jonelle.  He abducts her to his home, where the cold facts about their past relationship come to light.  Brenda catches them together and holds them at gunpoint!

Will Jonelle get one over on Linda?  Who will get old man Shug Rainey’s money when he dies? What about the cyanide-laced bottle of whiskey?  Will we ever get to see a full print of SWAMP ROSE?  Probably not, but this common-law version is a real hoot!

COMMON LAW WIFE is filled with great, hateful dialogue delivered in authentic, delightful accents.  It was Grace Nolan’s only writing credit, and I wish there’d been a lot more.  Some choice cuts of the nasty, mean-spirited dialog include:

“I was a stray cat lookin’ for a home, and I took it however I could.”

“Folks around here might think the circus has come to town.”  “They might be right!”

“From now on, this is my house.  And I don’t want any tramps hangin’ around it!”

“The only way I’ll see any of that old man’s body is over his stinkin’ dead body.”

“You couldn’t hit a bull with a bass fiddle.  Let alone that cap gun.”

“I met a couple of strangers in town today, and they claimed they didn’t know you.  You want their names so you can bat a thousand?”

“You’ve put on weight.  City food must be good.”

“A girl can learn a lot of lessons in the dark.”

Vengeance, thy name is Linda!

Vengeance, thy name is Linda!

The black and white photography is crisp and full of noir shadows.  The music is great jazz, heavy on the sax and trumpet, but the composer is unbilled.  Who knows where that great score came from?  The acting is campy and over-the-top, as it should be in a swamp melodrama like this one.  And the ending is brutal and shocking in a way few films of that era ever were.  COMMON LAW WIFE may be confusing sometimes, what with actresses switching and film stock not matching, but it’s loads of fun.  It’s like Douglas Sirk on tainted moonshine. 

I give COMMON LAW WIFE three and a half revolving actresses out of four.

© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl

CRITERION AFTER DARK: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

Posted in 2013, 60s Movies, Art Movies, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, Enigmatic Films, Family Secrets, Foreign Films, Garrett Cook Articles, Lovecraftian Horror, Madness with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2013 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: ELDER GODS WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM
By Garrett Cook

throughaglassdarkly

It’s been forever since I’ve written one of these columns. People and cities and ideas and lives change and mine did in several big ways in the last year. I missed writing for Cinema Knife Fight, and now I’m gonna do it again. I thought maybe I would start by finding a weird, shocking, filthy, perverse Criterion film. Something that would blow your mind and take you to the very edge of perception. And I did. Did I ever.

Cronenberg? Bunuel? Malle? Nope. Asian horror? Nope. Some kind of Swedish erotic art film? A little warmer. Imagine if Tennessee Williams and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a family drama set on an isolated island, a place tinged with madness, with the stench of malevolent cosmology hanging in the air. And there’s sin and sexual dysfunction and a sinister play with a dark truth at its core. So let’s add a little Robert “The King in Yellow” Chambers to the mix. Moody black and white cosmic horror. Yeah, that’s the stuff. So, who pray tell is the twisted mind behind this?

The man whose work inspired Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and who had a knight in plague-stricken medieval Europe confront the grim reaper himself. A true master of the horror genre. Who knows terror like…Ingmar Bergman? That can’t be right. But it is. Bergman is the genius behind THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which was later remade (reimagined?) as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and pitted a knight in a chess game against death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). His film THE MAGICIAN (1958) had all of the elements of one of Val Lewton’s classics of psychological horror: from a man terrorized by doubts in his psyche to a murder that may or may not have been in the province of the supernatural. THE MAGICIAN is, as well as being a period piece and an excellent story about the power of art, a masterpiece of quiet horror.

And so is THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961).

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is one of those movies that defines in people’s mind what an art film is, or what a drama is. It looks on the surface to just be a story about a disintegrating family. The setup is not particularly horrific: a novelist takes his son, his daughter and her husband on vacation. His daughter is schizophrenic. She finds out his novel is about her and gets upset. Why is this of interest to a column on horror culture and filth in the Criterion Collection?

Because as I said, there are traces of cosmic horror and weird fiction here that are hard to ignore, but enjoyable to savor, as they seem to be in the wrong place. Near the beginning of the film, the son puts on a play starring the daughter, involving a knight’s strange relationship with a ghost. It’s cool that it calls back to the questing knight facing death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, but fans of vintage weird fiction might see another connection, another great “Death and the Maiden” play, embedded in a narrative: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow centers around an ominous play where the heroine’s sad song freezes the heart of the viewer. This play hints at love and death interweaving on a cosmic level, and at there being something deeply wrong in this family and on this island. The King in Yellow terrorizes you with evil in the walls of a metanarrative, and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY does the same. Something is wrong with this play. Something is wrong with reality. Something is loose in the theater.

Karin comes to a realization in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Karin (Harriet Andersson) comes to a realization in Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Although her father feels Karin is incurable, Karin’s husband is trying to remain optimistic. He does not believe her condition will have to eat away her life. And it doesn’t seem to, until Karin finds her father’s manuscript. In her father’s manuscript, the heroine is an incurable schizophrenic, in her father’s manuscript, Karin his hopeless. When Karin reads this, she is naturally upset, but it seems to go beyond that and once again into the realm of weird fiction and magic. The fictional Karin is sick, so the real Karin becomes sick. The fictional Karin is too crazy to heal, so the real one must be as well. It works like a voodoo doll and warps the world like the sinister play in Chambers’ story. It has even, in some ways, turned into a grimoire like the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s books.

Karin begins describing her hallucinations about people behind the walls watching her, judging her. She seems to have a strange sixth sense that she’s not just the protagonist of a novel, but that of a movie as well. She seems to see the framework and that there’s no difference between life and art and reality and fantasy. She faces the realization of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, who discovers that the hideous paintings of his friend Pickman were modeled after a photograph from life. So the movie returns to the Pickman’s Model/King in Yellow delusion, the stuff that Lucio Fulci’s A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990) and John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) deal with, along with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (made into a film by George Romero in 1993). The reality-warping power of madness shines in Karin’s dialogue, because Bergman has isolated the movie from the rest of reality. On this little island, all we have are people’s opinions on Karin’s madness, and Karin’s madness itself. Like Shakespeare’s power to conjure images, Karin’s makes things happen in your head, turning words into imagery, and therefore turning her words into reality.

Karin succumbs not just to insanity, but to her worst urges, performing an act of incest. Her behavior has gone from simply crazy to truly aberrant, committing on of the worst sins imaginable. This is a pretty sordid world Bergman has created, one without hope or moral high ground or a chance to gain rectitude, a world ruled over by a force that is less than benevolent. Without a single tentacle, we have the feelings Lovecraft sought to convey of smallness, depravity, insanity and isolation. And the feeling that Karin’s visions are right. There are people outside the screen watching and judging her and waiting for her to fall apart on both sides of these realities. And she is under the power of a man behind a camera who is frankly not going to be very nice to her.

As Karin finally cracks, she does so in fine Lovecraftian form, terrified by confronting the image of God. Creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu appear before the eyes of Lovecraft’s heroes to shatter their minds or prove that the minds of the hero have been shattered.

“God is a spider,” Karin says.

And while Bergman does not show the spider, we have now gotten the idea in our imagination that Karin has seen some dark god. Does it matter that she is crazy? Has this god driven her crazy? We can’t say definitively that Lovecraft’s protagonists have seen the Elder Gods, and we can’t say with any certainty that Karin doesn’t know something in this Swedish art-house gothic that shows no monster at all, THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY has as much in common with Val Lewton’s deep psychological thrillers for RKO in the 40s, in fact sharing a lot of themes with CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943),. and other films of their ilk. And all leave you with the same horrendous impression that something is out there and that mad and malformed as the human mind can get, there is a grain of truth to all of the hallucinations and all of the cosmic horror.

The discriminating viewer is not just one who finds meaning in the depraved and the weird and the horrific, but also one who finds the depraved, the weird and the horrific in the things that academics and squares and stuffed shirts say are meaningful and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY has that stuff in spades. So, if you like Lovecraft, Hitchcock or Lewton—or just an uncomfortable chill and a lump in your throat—Ingmar Bergman might be the scare you need.

© Copyright 2013 by Garrett Cook

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)

Posted in 2013, Demons, Devil Movies, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Monster Babies, Nightmares, Rob Zombie Films, Strange Cinema, Witchcraft, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by knifefighter

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Lords-of-Salem-horror-movies-25727552-1172-1772

I’ve been a fan of Rob Zombie’s for quite a long time now. First his music, then his movies when he started directing, beginning with HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003), which I liked a lot, and then THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), which I pretty much loved. Then he made his two movies in the HALLOWEEN franchise (2007 and 2009), and while they had some good moments, they were disappointments over all. So I’ve been really itching to see him back to making low budget films based on his own characters. The HALLOWEEN stuff just wasn’t a good fit.

His new movie, THE LORDS OF SALEM, is a step in the right direction.

Gone is the studio oppression. And a lower budget means Rob can stay true to his vision. So just what is his vision for LORDS OF SALEM? Well, I better add a disclaimer. Not everyone is going to dig this movie. But I had a lot of fun with it.

It begins in 1692 Salem, Mass. with the coven of Margaret Morgan (an almost unrecognizable Meg Foster, who was also in John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, 1988, and a lot more movies and TV series). Margaret is a genuine Satan-worshipping, baby killing monster of a witch. No Mother-Earth loving Wiccan is she. When she cuts open a pregnant woman, in order to sacrifice her child to Satan, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine, star of lots of cool 70s flicks like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, 1971) has her and her coven rounded up and executed for their crimes. But, of course, Margaret curses Hawthorne and his bloodline before she dies.

Skip to modern-day Salem, Mass., where the Reverend’s descendent, Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), is a recovering drug addict and a DJ at a local radio station, along with Herman Jackson (Ken Foree, who you’ve got to remember from Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips, looking a lot like a stand-in for Rob Zombie, he was most recently in the above-average revenge movie FASTER, 2010). The three of them do a “morning zoo” type show during the late night hours, and things get weird when they get a visit from a death metal singer named Count Gorgann (Torsten Voges), who goes on a blasphemous rant about his philosophy of life. Things get even weirder when a mysterious vinyl record shows up for Heidi in an antique wooden box, addressed simply from “The Lords.” The music it plays has a very strange effect on Heidi and some of the women of Salem who hear it.

The-Lords-of-Salem-poster #2There’s also Heidi’s deceptively friendly landlady, Lacy (Judy Geeson, TO SIR WITH LOVE, 1967) and her “sisters” Sonny (Dee Wallace, whose resume includes such classic films as the original HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977, E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, 1982, CUJO, 1983, and more recently in Chris Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s THE LOST, 2006) and Megan (Patricia Quinn, Magenta herself from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975). These three ladies would fit in just fine in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, if you know what I mean. They set Margaret Morgan’s curse into modern-day action.

The curse manifests itself in Room # 5 of the house where Heidi lives – an apartment long empty (and presumably un-rentable) that has now become some kind of portal into Hell, complete with a very strange-looking dwarf monster in a rubber suit at one point (the scenes with this dwarf demon are equally funny—because of the low-budget look of the monster —and weird, but actually work in a bizarre way). As Whitey slowly becomes aware of his true feelings for Heidi, he tries to save her. Also in heroic mode is Bruce Davison (WILLARD, 1971 and THE CRUCIBLE, 1996), as a writer and expert on historical witchcraft who is a guest on Heidi’s radio show, and figures out what is going on. But they’re up against some particularly formidable nasties.

There’s a scene towards the end that is pure Rob Zombie, a series of images that play out as a prolonged acid trip, and it’s stuff like this that makes THE LORDS OF SALEM so enjoyable. Yesterday, Michael Arruda and I reviewed the new Tom Cruise movie, OBLIVION, and opined that, despite the huge budget, the movie was kind of hollow because of a weak story, and a sanitized feel. THE LORDS OF SALEM is the exact opposite of something like OBLIVION. With a very low budget, Rob has to be more creative in putting his vision onscreen (thus that funny-looking demon) , and yet, because it is such a personal vision—and he has such a unique style—LORDS just seems more satisfying. Where OBLIVION is sterile and perfectly manicured, LORDS is dirty and depraved— coming at us warts-and-all—but that’s fine, because this is a horror movie after all.

There are parts of this movie that reminded me of Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968, an inevitable comparison), and some of the flashbacks from the 1600s had a slightly BLACK SUNDAY (1960) feel to them; there’s also a bit of the insanity from something like Andzej Zulawksi’s 1981 film, POSSESSION (that crazy dwarf demon) and the films of Alejandro Jodorowksy. The acting is mostly right on, especially Sheri Moon Zombie, who is becoming quite an effective leading lady for this kind of thing. There are some scenes that have her doing very bizarre things, but she’s a trooper, and you truly care about her character (frankly, I wanted an even deeper look at her life before the curse kicks in). I found myself wishing that more directors would use her in their movies (although Mr. Zombie has been giving her some plum roles over the years, it’s not just because she’s his wife –  she has actually done a good job with them).

I would have had liked to see more of Ken Foree’s character (we only get a taste of what he can do as an actor here), and Jeff Daniel Phillips and Bruce Davison are good as the forces of good (I’m actually a big fan of Davison, and have been since the original WILLARD, and was happy to see him here, as well as the great Andrew Prine in what is, unfortunately, little more than a cameo). And the witches—well, they’re just terrific here, and probably the main reason to see the movie (aside from Sheri).

There’s also a very strong 70s feel to the movie, starting with the opening credits-on, which should come as no surprise to fans of his films. Zombie has been strongly influenced by the horror films of the 1970s, which is just fine with me. I consider the 70s to be one of the two main golden ages of cinema, the other being the 1930s. And, like some of the witch films from the 70s, there are some clichés of the genre here, but there’s also enough originality to keep things fresh.

THE LORDS OF SALEM is in limited release right now (only one theater in my area was showing it, so it’s not going to be easy for some people to find), but it deserves a wider audience. Also, before the movie was released, a book came out by Rob Zombie (with B.K. Evenson), which is a novelization of the film. Or rather, it is based on the first version of the script, before budgetary constraints forced Zombie to change a lot to save money. Reading the novel, which is presumably what he originally intended to do on film, it’s fun to compare this to what actually got made. I’m about 100 pages into the book, and already there are some interesting changes between his original concept and the finished film.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

Since the HALLOWEEN films, I have been eager to see Rob Zombie go back to his roots and give us something that was truly his own. He really should try to avoid directing remakes of other people’s films. His style is just too idiosyncratic to be used to present other people’s ideas. Like a Jodorowsky or a David Lynch, his best work is that which originates with him.

As I said before, a lot of people might not enjoy this movie as much as I did. The attempts at characterization might be a little slow for some people, and Zombie’s style during the weird stuff might be too bizarre for them. But for me, everything kind of clicked, and I was really pulled into this film. I loved the feel of it, the strong sense of atmosphere, and the imagery here. I do not think it is Rob Zombie’s best work (that remains THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), but after two steps back, this is a big step forward toward getting him back on track in making the kinds of movies only he can make, and I hope he gives us many more films in the future.

Welcome back, Rob. I give this one three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE LORDS OF SALEM ~three and a half knives.

OBLIVION (2013)

Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Aliens, Apocalyptic Films, Based on Comic Book, Blockbusters, CGI, Cinema Knife Fights, Clones!, Dystopian Futures, Science Fiction, Special Effects, Tom Cruise Movies with tags , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  OBLIVION (2013)
by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

Oblivion poster

(THE SCENE: A spaceship high above Earth in the future.  MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES sit at the controls.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Shouldn’t one of us be down on the planet’s surface fixing drones?

L.L. SOARES:  No.  We both should be up here reviewing today’s movie.

MA:  Good point.  Shall I begin?

LS:  Sure. I’m going to check out the swimming pool out back, to see if there are any nude female assistants swimming about.  That was one of the highlights of OBLIVION!

MA:  No, you’re going to sit right there and review today’s movie with me.  Although I do agree with you, about that scene being a highlight.

LS:  As usual, you’re no fun.

MA:  Anyway, today we’re reviewing OBLIVION (2013) the new science fiction movie starring Tom Cruise.

OBLIVION isn’t exactly the most emotional movie you’ll ever see.  Its interior sets are dominated by one color, white.  As such, the film presents an almost sterile environment.  Likewise, it evokes about as much emotion as a sterilized white room.

In the future, Earth has been attacked by aliens.  Humanity won the war, but lost the planet, because in order to defeat the aliens, we used nuclear weapons, in effect making Earth uninhabitable for life any longer. Now, in 2070, humans live on Titan, Saturn’s moon.

LS: I didn’t realize Titan had an Earth-like atmosphere. Why the hell did they choose that as the new home for mankind?

MA:  Beats me.  Plus it’s not exactly in our backyard.  The trip would take several years.  Can you imagine the kids in the back seat?  Are we there yet?

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) remains on Earth, working with a young woman named Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Their job is to repair the drones that are defending the planet against the remaining aliens, known as “Scavs.”  They report to their commander Sally (Melissa Leo) who’s stationed in the space station above them known as the Tet.

(C3PO and R2D2 from the STAR WARS films, enter the cockpit)

CP30: Excuse me, gentlemen, did you say “droids?”

LS: No, he said “drones.”

C3P0: See R2D2, I told you you were mistaken.

(R2D2 beeps and whistles)

MA: What did he say?

C3P0: He said that OBLIVION sounds rather dumb. And I must say, its lack of droids is quite suspicious.

LS: I agree.

(R2D2 beeps again.)

MA:  Now what did he say?

C3PO:  He said he’s bored and he can’t wait to piss off more Stormtroopers in the upcoming STAR WARS movie.

(R2D2 beeps some more.)

C3PO:  No, R2, I don’t think these gentlemen know if there are any Stormtroopers in the area.

MA:  No, but there’s some drones down there on the planet you two could annoy.

C3PO:  Oh, splendid!  Let’s go, R2.  (The two droids exit.)

MA:  Back to our review.

All is well, except that Jack is haunted by images, perhaps memories, of a mysterious young woman whose identity he can’t remember.  Later, he finds this woman asleep in a kind of metallic coffin which has arrived on Earth from a spaceship called the Odyssey. He awakens the woman, and she reveals to him that she’s his wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko).  She tells him that his memory has been erased, opening the door for some dramatic revelations and plot twists.

Jack is later captured by some remaining humans, who are living underground. Needless to say, they aren’t supposed to be there. Their leader, Beech (Morgan Freeman) asks for Jack’s help in defeating the true enemies of Earth.  Jack then has to decide who to believe, who to fight for, and where the truth lies, but since he’s being played by Tom Cruise, there’s little doubt whether or not Jack will make the right decisions.

I can’t say that I really liked OBLIVION.  I never really got into its story, which wasn’t all that interesting.  I also wasn’t crazy about the characters..

The “aliens” are boring.  We never really see them.  The real menace in this one is Sally, and as played by Melissa Leo, she’s nothing more than a face and a stern voice on a video monitor.

LS: Yeah, that was major problem with OBLIVION. I thought it looked great, with the flying machines and drones. But to what end? I didn’t really care about these characters all that much. There are a couple of scenes that show us Jack’s humanity, the most obvious one being scenes at a cabin he made in the mountains, by a lake. It’s his one sanctuary from the world around him, and it’s a potent image. But otherwise, there’s not a lot about OBLIVION that has any emotional value.

 (The robot from the 1960s series LOST IN SPACE enters the cockpit)

ROBOT: Warning! Warning! We are entering the planet’s atmosphere!

MA: I thought you turned off the engines.

LS: You didn’t tell me to do that. It’s been on autopilot.

ROBOT: Warning! We have entered Earth’s atmosphere.

LS: So what? We have to land sometime.

ROBOT: This does not compute.

LS: Be quiet you bumbling bucket of bolts!

MA: You’re starting to sound an awful lot like Dr. Smith.

LS: Why thank you!

ROBOT: Humans. I will never understand them.

(ROBOT leaves the cockpit)

MA: Are you sure entering landing on Earth is a good idea?

LS: Why not? (looks out the window) Ah, home sweet home.

MA: Ahem. Time to get back to our review.

Tom Cruise is fine as Jack, but he was better as Jack Reacher in JACK REACHER (2012), as that character was more fully developed.  Jack in this movie is just your average standard hero.  I didn’t buy into his mission on Earth, nor was I all that intrigued by his love story with Julia.

LS: Oh yeah, JACK REACHER was a much better movie, and probably made at a fraction of the budget. No fancy special effects in that one.

MA: I did like Andrea Riseborough as Victoria. There was something very sexy about her in a quirky, offbeat way, but she’s not the main character in this one.  That would be Olga Kurylenko as Julia, who I didn’t enjoy as much.

LS: I liked both women, but I agree that Victoria gets short shrift. My main problem is that Jack and Victoria seem to have real feelings for each other, but when Julia shows up, Jack pretty forgets all about his feelings for Vicky.

MA:  I definitely agree with that point.  I really had the impression that Jack had genuine feelings towards Victoria, and so I agree with you it played out as strange that he simply forgets about her.  I expected some angst on his part, some tension, perhaps a love triangle, but as I said before, this movie’s too sterile for that.

LS:  Yeah, a love triangle would have been more realistic, and would have provided a bit of drama to the stale proceedings here. Sure, Victoria is uptight, is afraid to break the rules, and is an all-around stick in the mud a lot of the time-hey, she sounds a lot like Michael Arruda!

MA:  Hey!  I resemble that remark!

LS:  —but we’re led to believe they have a strong bond, and it’s not believable that Jack would be able to just sever that without a second thought. It would have made more sense if he had a real conflict about which woman he wanted. Instead, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble making a choice when this new woman shows up. Sure, he has had dreams about her before he meets her. But I just didn’t like how Victoria was tossed aside so easily.

MA:  I agree.

Oblivion poster #2

LS: By the way, Olga Kurylenko who plays Julia was previously in movies like SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012), Neil Marshall’s underrated CENTURION (2010) and was even a Bond Girl—she was Camille in 2008’s QUANTAM OF SOLACE.

MA: Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman.  He’s fine, but he doesn’t do anything here we haven’t seen him do before.

LS: I’m not sure what I feel about Morgan Freeman at this point. When there’s the big scene where he reveals himself for the first time, I felt it was almost—laughable. Like he was doing a parody of himself. But the thing is, his role in OBLIVION isn’t funny. Maybe he’s just played so many roles like this that I just can’t take him seriously anymore. He can’t be a convincing character—you just think of him as “Hey, it’s Morgan Freeman.”

MA:  Maybe he should just stick to narrating.

LS:  I liked the women in this one, and I liked Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Sykes, another leader of the human rebels on earth (kind of Morgan Freeman’s right hand man). Most people may recognize Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in the great HBO series GAME OF THRONES. But while I liked seeing him in the OBLIVION, he really isn’t given very much to do.

MA: I thought the visuals and special effects were just okay.  They didn’t wow me.  Neither did any of the battle scenes. I thought it was pretty  ho hum throughout, and in this day and age, where movies can look so good visually, I thought OBLIVION was just average.  There weren’t any memorable images to go along with this one either.  The movie had its chances, with various images of Earth after the nuclear holocaust, but few if any of these images resonated with me.  There’s only so many times you can see the Washington Monument or the Empire State Building looking beaten and dilapidated and feel something, especially when these scenes don’t look all that real.

LS: I thought the machines and high-tech contraptions looks convincing enough. I thought they were all well done. But I didn’t felt “wowed” either. There’s just something about OBLIVION that wasn’t very exciting. And you’re right about the battle scenes. They were kind of boring. The first time we see Jack confront a drone, it’s kind of interesting. But after a while, they just become tedious.

MA: The screenplay by director Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt did little for me as well.  It’s based on a comic book by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson.

LS: It’s called a graphic novel.

MA: Comic book, graphic novel. What’s the difference?

LS (shrugs): Beats me.

MA:  I thought the story was confusing at times, but worse than that, it didn’t win me over emotionally.  I cared little about these folks, mostly because they themselves didn’t seem to care much about what was going on.  I also didn’t find that Cruise and Kurylenko shared much chemistry, which didn’t help the love story.  I thought Cruise shared more onscreen chemistry with Riseborough, but they’re not the main love focus here.

LS: I didn’t find the story very satisfying, either. And while I am not as down on Kurylenko as you, I do think Cruise had better chemistry with Riseborough, too. I just found OBLIVION to be kind of bland and sanitized and despite its various plot twists, it seemed like something we had seen before.

MA: Director Kosinski also directed TRON:  LEGACY (2010), and I would say both films score about the same in the quality department. Neither one wowed me.

LS: I didn’t see TRON-LEGACY, so I don’t know if I’d agree with you. But I’ll take your word for it.

One thing that did interest me a little was the movie’s soundtrack. Kosinski has been making some interesting music choices in his films. In TRON: LEGACY, the soundtrack was done by French electronic group Daft Punk. This time around, OBLIVION was scored by another band I like, M83. Truth be told, however, I wasn’t really all that aware of the soundtrack while I was watching OBLIVION, maybe because I was kind of bored a lot of the time. I am curious to see if I listened to the soundtrack without the visuals if I would have enjoyed it more.

MA: OBLIVION is also nowhere near as ambitious in theme or scope as last year’s science fiction hit PROMETHEUS (2012) but the results are about the same, mixed.

LS: I don’t know. I thought PROMETHEUS was a little disappointing, but I thought it was much better than OBLIVION.

MA: I feel a chill in here, and that’s because I never warmed up to OBLIVION.  It was cold and emotionally detached throughout.

I give it two knives.

LS: I’m pretty much in agreement with you on all counts here. I give OBLIVION two knives as well. I thought it looked great, but it had no soul. Nothing meaty to grab onto.

(The DROIDS and ROBOT have returned)

C3P0:   Excuse me, gentlemen, but how do you get off this ship?

(R2D2 beeps and whistles.)

C3PO (pointing out window):  Look, there are those pesky drones come to attack us.

MA: I told you it was a bad idea to land here. Didn’t you learn anything from OBLIVION?

LIS ROBOT: Warning! Warning!

LS: So long, fellas.

(LS pushes a button that ejects the section of the craft where MA and LS are)

MA: I hope they know how to fly the ship without us.

(There is the sound of drone fire and an enormous explosion)

LS: Oops,

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives OBLIVION ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives OBLIVION ~two knives, as well.