Archive for the Based on a True Story Category

THE CONJURING (2013)

Posted in 2013, Based on a True Story, Cinema Knife Fights, Demonic Possession, Demons, ESP, Evil Spirits, Haunted Houses, LL Soares Reviews, Paranormal with tags , , , , , on July 22, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE CONJURING (2013)
By L.L. Soares

246460id1c_Conjuring_INTL_27x40_1Sheet.indd(THE SCENE: A house that has been plagued with paranormal disturbances. The doorbell rings and the family’s FATHER opens the door to see L.L. SOARES standing on the front steps)

L.L. SOARES: You called for a demon specialist?

FATHER: Yes, I did. You sure got here fast.

LS: Yes, I hopped on my broomstick, er, I mean I hurried right over.

FATHER: Don’t you have a partner you do these paranormal investigations with?

LS: Professor Arruda? He’s busy right now on the astral plane. But fear not, I will have the situation under control in no time. What happens to be the problem?

FATHER (pulls out a list): Well, there’s a whole bunch of things. People having their feet grabbed late at night; we’re hearing spooky voices; there are birds slamming themselves into the windows; ugly faces keep popping up in mirrors; mothers are being possessed by demons so that they can kill their children…

LS: Hold up! Not so fast. You sound like you’re reading off a list of haunted house clichés. Are you sure this has all happened to you?

FATHER: I swear it. This is based on a true story.

LS: Very well. Let’s deal with these things one at a time, shall we? But let me move around the house first and see if I feel the presence of any spirits.

(LS stands in the middle of the room and closes his eyes)

LS: I feel it! I feel it!

FATHER: You sense the ghosts?

LS: No, I feel my hay fever coming on (sneezes)

You know, this dilemma of yours sounds an awful lot like a movie I just saw called THE CONJURING. Have you seen it yet, by any chance.

FATHER: Err, no, I’ve never heard of it.

LS: I can tell you’re lying, but no matter. I will pretend as if I believe you and I’ll tell you a little about it.

FATHER (looks around): Okay, I guess.

LS: THE CONJURING is the latest movie about a family that moves into a house that is haunted by ghosts. Except, it’s not ghosts. It’s demons! And if they move somewhere else, the demons will follow them. We saw pretty much the same exact plot in everything from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies (which began in 2007) to INSIDIOUS (2010) to every other recent haunted house movie.

THE CONJURING begins with an interesting scene where two women talk about a doll in their house that was possessed by a demon. The doll is actually pretty friggin weird looking, and they keep showing its face in close-up. The women’s story is pretty good, too. But then we learn this movie isn’t about them. They’re just part of a film that paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are showing a class full of eager students of the supernatural.

Instead of this cool story about a crazy-looking doll, we have to sit through yet another normal American family moving into a house where things start getting weird. One girl wakes up every night when someone grabs her foot and tries to pull her off her bed. Another girl has an imaginary friend who just might be a spooky demonic creature. The family’s mother is on the verge of being possessed by an evil spirit. This would all be interesting, if we hadn’t seen this exact same thing a hundred times before.

Sure, THE CONJURING has a few nice, original moments. I really liked the part about the clapping game, where the kids, five girls of various ages, run around their spooky new house playing a game of hide and seek, where one of them is blindfolded and can demand that the others clap their hands when she gets near. The fact that a spooky supernatural creature decides to play along is actually pretty effective.

I liked that one of the kids finds a strange music box where, if you wind it up, it plays music and a swirling hypno-wheel mirror spins around. If you stare at it long enough, you’re supposed to be able to see a spirit over your shoulder. It’s a fun prop. There’s also a very cool room in the Warrens’ house where they keep supernatural souvenirs from all of their case studies, including that creepy doll I mentioned earlier that sits on a chair in an air-tight glass case. I wanted to know more about this room, and explore its contents more. But we only get to see it a few times briefly. I was much more interested in that room than I was about what was going on in the Perron family’s house.

I also like a lot of the people in this movie. Like Lili Taylor. Over the years, she’s been in a lot ofgood movies like SAY ANYTHING (1989) and DOGFIGHT (1991) and Abel Ferrara’s THE ADDICTION (1995). She was Valerie Solanas in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (1996) and was in John Waters’ PECKER (1998). She’s been in tons of good independent movies, and it’s good to see her in this movie, too, in a role that’s more than just another supporting character. Except, despite this one having a little more meat than her usual Hollywood roles, she’s really just…another supporting character. The movie isn’t really about her. It’s about Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are supposedly real-life demonologists. This movie is “Based on a True Story” after all.

FATHER: That always scares me when a movie is “Based on a True Story.” That means it’s real, right?

LS: Actually, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a trick to scare dumb people.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are really good as the Warrens. I’ll give them that. Wilson has been in some good movies like HARD CANDY (2005). LITTLE CHILDREN (2006) and was even Nite Owl in WATCHMEN (2009). As for horror films, he was also in the previously mentioned INSIDIOUS, which a lot of people seemed to like. INSIDIOUS was also another movie about a house haunted by demons that was directed by James Wan, who also directed THE CONJURING. Wilson is also going to be in INSIDIOUS 2 later this year.

Ron Livingston is also here as the family’s father, Roger Perron; I’ve liked Livingston ever since he was in OFFICE SPACE in 1999, even though he’s not given a lot to do in this movie.

As for Farmiga, she first got noticed in dramas like THE DEPARTED (2006) and UP IN THE AIR (2009), but has been doing a lot of horror-related stuff lately as well, like ORPHAN (2009) and she’s been great as Norma Bates, Norman’s mother, in the new TV series BATES MOTEL. Farmiga, as the clairvoyant Lorraine Warren, is the best thing in this movie. Like the kid in THE SIXTH SENSE, Lorraine “sees dead people” and once she gets to the house where the Perron family lives, she starts to see spooky dead kids and witches hanging from trees and lots of other things no one else sees. I really liked her character, and wished the movie was even more about her. Why do we need this family that’s being tormented anyway? Why not have Lorraine Warren go head to head with that spooky doll from the beginning of the movie?

Well, the main reason is because if they don’t introduce the family and the haunted house, then they can’t go through the checklist of haunted house clichés that are recycled yet again in this movie. If you’ve seen any of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, you’ll know them all by heart. The ugly, ghostly creatures that pop up out of nowhere, the tons of fake scares to keep you hopping until the real ones arrive, the speech about how “it’s not ghosts that are haunting the house, it’s demons that are haunting you!” The thing is, despite the fact that there are some interesting characters here, THE CONJURING really offers nothing new to the latest paranormal troubles trend. We’ve seen it all before.

Vera Farmiga is the best thing in THE CONJURING, but even she can't save this movie from the mountain of cliches.

Vera Farmiga is the best thing in THE CONJURING, but even she can’t save this movie from the mountain of cliches.

I would have loved to see the Warrens in a story that was more original, that wasn’t so damn predictable. There was a woman behind me in the theater who screamed at the top of her lungs every time something “scary” happened in THE CONJURING, even though we all knew it was going to happen before it even did. I felt like asking her “Haven’t you ever seen a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie before, lady?” Or, better yet, “Shut the hell up, you big mouth.”

THE CONJURING is directed by James Wan, as I mentioned before. He directed the similarly-plotted INSIDIOUS, but you might also remember him as the guy who directed the first SAW movie back in 2003. Wan also directed DEAD SILENCE about creepy ventriloquist dummies and the vigilante movie DEATH SENTENCE, both in 2007. I like a lot of these movies, and I likeWan. I don’t have a problem with him, really. Except that he seems to be in a rut lately. He keeps trying to cash in with these movies that take the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and remove the “found footage” aspect and just present things in a straightforward movie way. But it seems like he’s making the same movie over and over. His next one, INSIDIOUS 2, which will be about yet another house haunted by a demonic presence, comes out later this year. Enough! Come up with something new already!

It irritated me that they couldn’t come up with a new spin on this material. Even the scene where Lili Taylor is possessed by the demon witch and has to have an exorcism, is business as usual. She spits up blood, she levitates, she throws people across the room. Ho hum. It’s just the same old thing.

So I didn’t really love this one. I felt like the script was by the numbers, even if it did have some characters that were more interesting than usual. The movie pretty much squanders any chance it has to do something new with this subgenre. Even if there is a mention of another “haunted” house in Long Island toward the end (can you say Amityville?).

THE CONJURING could have been great, but instead it’s just so-so. I give it two and a half knives.

FATHER: Well, that’s all nice. But I thought you were here to get rid my demon!

LS: Yeah, yeah. I’m done with my review, so you can stop badgering me. Just show me where the evil sucker is.

(FATHER takes them through a living room full of kids, all sitting around a TV set watching old reruns of THE BRADY BUNCH and leads LS to a door that leads down to the cellar)

LS: Yet another story where a demon is down in the basement. I bet something really bad happened down there once.

FATHER: Yup. A murder.

(CUE DRAMATIC MUSIC)

(They go down the stairs, where a demonic presence awaits them, rocking back and forth on a rocking chair, with its back toward them)

FATHER: Can’t you help us?

LS: Certainly I can.

Turn and face me, oh demon. Turn and meet your master!

(MICHAEL ARRUDA turns around in the chair, wearing a shawl)

MA: There you are! I’ve been waiting forever for you to show up. And it’s really damp down here!

LS: I thought you said you were going to practice astral projection. Who knew you were the demon haunting this house.

MA: Demon, schmemon. I’m just scaring this family because I was bored.

LS: Fair enough. And they are pretty stupid.

MA: Let’s get out of here and get a pitcher of beer. I’m buying.

LS: Sounds good to me.

FATHER: Hey, where are you going?

LS: I’m done here. Oh, and by the way, I’ll send you my bill in the mail. I guarantee, when you see my fee, it will scare the living hell out of you.

MA: Then maybe you should pay for the pitcher.

LS: Be quiet and get up those stairs!

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE CONJURING  ~two and a half knives.

 

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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.

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Based on a True Story, Compelling Cinema, Espionage, Intense Movies, John Harvey Reviews, War Movies with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by knifefighter

ZERO DARK THIRTY Provides a Taut, Heavy Military/Spy Drama
Review by John Harvey

zero-dark-thirty-poster

ZERO DARK THIRTY is on many levels not your average military/spy drama. Let’s start with the fact that we rarely see movies examining such complex, controversial, and historic events in such a short span of time after the event itself—Osama bin Laden’s death occurred on May 2, 2011. Normally, it takes many years, even decades, before we view history through the lens of filmmaking (at least with anything resembling accuracy). At that point, the specifics (and the key players) have aged enough for us to look at how events unfolded with a kind of clinical detachment. If we see things we don’t like, then it’s easy to say, “Well, that was another time.”

ZERO DARK THIRTY, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, doesn’t provide that luxury. Just a hair over 1 ½ years have passed since the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), more commonly known as Seal Team Six, choppered into Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden. It can be assumed that many of the key players in that top secret operation are still in their jobs and the morally-questionable practices used during the hunt for bin Laden remain … well … morally questionable.

But we’ve apparently entered a time when details of top secret operations get leaked to the major news networks and published in books (written by DEVGRU operators) almost moments after the events themselves have transpired. Like it or not, ZERO DARK THIRTY is likely the start of a trend and not a one-off event.

The movie itself details the journey of a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a green recruit stationed in Afghanistan who dedicates herself to finding bin Laden with what eventually becomes monomaniacal fervor. The very first scene is Maya shadowing a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke … an amazing performance) as he waterboards and humiliates an al Qaeda money handler named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Scenes like this, and others in the film, pull no punches. The torture is brutal, visceral, and hard to watch. Within the narrative of the film, it’s also made clear that while torture didn’t provide US intelligence agencies with the magic key to finding bin Laden, it did provide helpful information.

And here is where you locate the core of the controversy surrounding the film. It’s well known that Mark Boal based his script on first-hand interviews with military and intelligence officials who took part in the search for bin Laden. While the film is still intended to be entertainment and consumed as a work of fiction, it’s a brand of fiction that likely hews close to the truth in areas. Which areas? Well, that’s unknown and that’s why a lot of people are upset.

I have seen news commentaries stating that ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “red state” audience by endorsing torture as a means to gather good intelligence. I have seen news commentaries stating ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “blue state” audience by portraying torture so graphically that it’s a testimonial against the practice. I have even read a news story stating that Bigelow and Boal cynically steered straight down the middle in a crass effort to capture both liberal hand-wringing moviegoers and fist-pumping conservative moviegoers.

Personally, I think they’re all wrong.

For me, these scenes pose a moral dilemma / question to each audience member.  The question boils down to whether or not you, the person sitting in the movie seat, want to be a citizen in a country that tortures … even if it works … especially if it works. One of the smartest yet frustrating aspects of ZERO DARK THIRTY is that it doesn’t try to spoon feed you an answer to that question. You’re on your own to sort it out during your drive home.

Looking past the torture scenes, ZERO DARK THIRTY provides a taut (though longish … 157 minutes) CIA tradecraft procedural that manages to be suspenseful even though you know how the movie ends. Without being boring, the movie makes you feel the tedium and the drag of time as Maya and her peers sift through data, follow leads, bluff, struggle against bureaucracy and politics, lose friends (sometimes tragically), and do it all to the occasional historic exclamation point of a building, bus, or market being bombed and innocent lives being lost. That’s the first two hours of the film. Roughly, the final 30 minutes details the DEVGRU raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Again, we know for the most part what happened there (assuming you watched the news anywhere), but via Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s writing, the climax remains tense, suspenseful, and a little unsettling.

That the movie is solidly constructed is not surprising. Boal and Bigelow were the writing/directing team for THE HURT LOCKER (2008), an amazing Iraq war drama that won the Oscar for Best Director. Even if you don’t like ZERO DARK THIRTY for its controversial elements, you can’t deny that Bigelow and Boal have established themselves as a rock-solid presence in filmmaking and storytelling.

All around, the acting is terrific. Chastain’s Maya gives us an obsessive character with a single-minded focus that borders on a mania, but at the moment where you start to think of her as a robot, she reveals a human side that is convincing and genuine. It’s worth noting that Maya is based on a real person (referred to as “Miss 100%” in the book NO EASY DAY by DEVGRU operative Mark Own (pseudonym)).

Another notable performer is Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a fellow CIA analyst and Maya’s closest friend during the hunt for bin laden. It is in scenes with Ehle’s Jessica and Clark’s Dan that Maya shows her more human and sympathetic side. Without these two characters, Maya’s character would come off as entirely unlikable and inhuman.

And in a movie that is quite nearly bereft of humor, the scant few scenes that provide a welcome chuckle feature James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta (he’s credited as “CIA Director” … but yeah, it’s Leon Panetta). It’s not goofy fun and the movie’s tone remains intact, but Gandolfini’s subtly-played scenes come at a time when the audience needs someone to open the pressure-release valve on all the heavy serious stuff.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is not your typical military/spy drama. There’s no sentimentality and nobody tries to pound a socio-political message into your head. The final mission is not portrayed with a sense of jingoist triumph so much as stark, detached ambivalence. Bigelow and Boal don’t tell us whether or not torture, American policy, or the war on terror is right or wrong. They leave it to us to walk out of the theater and think critically about bin Laden’s assassination and decide if it was worth it in terms of means and ends.

It’s a very good movie, but you know how when you leave a crowded movie theater everyone is laughing and chatting lightly. Yeah, I didn’t see a lot of that as I exited ZERO DARK THIRTY.

I give it four out of five knives.

Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours & 37 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, and Kyle Chandler
(Editor’s Note: while ZERO DARK THIRTY was released in a few cities in late 2012 to be eligible for Oscar Nominations, it was not released to the majority of the country’s theaters until 2013.)

— END —

© Copyright 2013 by John D. Harvey

John Harvey gives ZERO DARK THIRTY~four knives.

GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Based on a True Story, Cinema Knife Fights, Crime Films, Gangsters!, Michael Arruda Reviews with tags , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)
By Michael Arruda

Gangster Squad poster

(THE SCENE: A ritzy jazz nightclub circa 1949.  MICHAEL ARRUDA approaches a BEAUTIFUL WOMAN at the bar.)

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  So, what’s your racket?

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  I’m a Bible salesman.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  You lookin’ to take me away from all this?

MA: No, ma’am.  I’m just lookin’ to take you to bed.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Okay.

MA (looks at camera):  This has to be a movie.

Welcome everyone to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.  I’m flying solo tonight as L.L. Soares is off on another assignment, (looks at woman at bar) but that’s okay.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  So, what are you really doing here?

MA: I’m reviewing a movie.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Anything I’d like?

MA:  Maybe.  Ever hear of GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), the slick-looking gangster movie starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone?

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Nope.

MA: Let me tell you about it.

It’s Los Angeles 1949, and gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is taking over the city.  This doesn’t sit well with tough police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), who is frustrated that Cohen owns half the police force and judges in L.A.  So, Parker privately approaches Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and tells him he wants to establish a small unit, operating in secret and off the books, for the sole purpose of destroying the empire of Mickey Cohen.

O’Mara accepts the challenge and puts together a crack squad of police officers, including his friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Officer Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), Officer Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and Officer Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi).  These guys have as their sole goal to make Mickey Cohen’s life a living hell, as they constantly strike at his operation with guerilla-style tactics that continually catch him off guard.  But Mickey Cohen didn’t reach the top of the gangster food chain by accident, and it’s only a matter of time before he figures out who is inflicting the damage on his empire, and he sets his sights on seeking some cold-blooded revenge.

Further complicating matters is Sgt. Wooter’s girlfriend Grace Faraday ( Emma Stone) also happens to be Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze.  Oops!

GANGSTER SQUAD isn’t going to win any awards for most original screenplay—its story is nothing we haven’t seen before—but it does win lots of brownie points for being extremely entertaining.

First off, the film looks great.  It’s colorful, the costumes and sets are dazzling, and they bring 1949 Los Angeles to life.  Sure, things look a little comic book-like, in that the film doesn’t so much aim for realism as it does for pulp.

The cast also acquits itself well.  Josh Brolin makes a sturdy, solid hero as Sgt. John O’Mara.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Oh, I like Josh Brolin.  He’s handsome.

MA:  His O’Mara is a family man, with a pregnant wife and a nice home, but with a sense, as he describes it, of not knowing what else to do but fight after his return from the war. He’s a self-proclaimed warrior, not a thinker, and he has no issues steamrolling his way through Mickey Cohen’s empire.  He’s fearless, and all the more likable for it.

This just might be my favorite Josh Brolin performance.  It’s certainly his most likeable.  While he was dark and intense in such films as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), JONAH HEX (2010) and TRUE GRIT (2010), here he’s much more complete and enjoyable, as he takes a heroic character and makes him his own.

Ryan Gosling’s Sgt. Jerry Wooters offsets the intensity of Brolin’s O’Mara by exuding coolness and levelheadedness throughout.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  I like Ryan Gosling.  He’s sooo sexy!

MA:  He’s so cool and laid back, that in one scene where he sneaks into Cohen’s mansion to place a bugging device, and Cohen and his entourage return early, he gets discovered by Grace Faraday, yet he takes the time to kiss her before making his exit.

The rest of the team is also very agreeable.  Anthony Mackie, who has been in a lot of movies lately, from THE HURT LOCKER (2008) to last year’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN:  VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), is good here as Officer Coleman Harris, an officer who’s as quick with a knife as he is with a gun.

Then there’s Robert Patrick as Officer Max Kennard, the elder officer of the group, who comes off like a western gunslinger.  He reminded me a lot of Lee Van Cleef, and was one of my favorite characters in the movie.  In his younger days, Patrick, you might remember, played the T-1000 Terminator in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991).

Giovanni Ribisi plays the nerdy Officer Conway Keeler, the guy who’s responsible for coming up with all the tech-savvy ideas, like bugging Cohen’s home, and Michael Pena plays Kennard’s loyal right hand man, Officer Navidad Ramirez.  Both these actors do nice jobs with these roles.

Emma Stone is sexy and stunning as Grace Faraday, and she makes for an effective 1940s femme fatale that would make Lauran Bacall proud.

(to Woman)  Do you like Emma Stone?

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Of course.

MA:  Me, too.  I found her incredibly sexy in this movie.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Sexier than me?

MA:  No one’s sexier than you, baby.  (Looks at camera and shrugs)

In a supporting role, Sullivan Stapleton is memorable as Jerry’s friend Jack, a guy who plays both sides of the fence, and even though he’s not part of the gangster squad, he was one of my favorite characters in the film, and he enjoys a key scene late in the film where he defends Grace Faraday from Mickey Cohen and his thugs.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  I like him, too.  He’s an attractive man.

MA (to bartender):  Get her another of whatever it is she’s drinking, and bring one back for me too.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Should you be drinking when you’re working?

MA:  Truth be told, in my case, it’ll just be a prop, a glass of soda water.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN: But I get the real thing, don’t I?

MA:  Nothing but the real thing for you, baby.  (mouths silently at the camera:  “I can’t help myself.”)

So, let’s get back to the movie.

And, of course, there’s Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Sean Penn is so tough.  I can’t help but like him.

MA:  You sure do like a lot of people, but in Penn’s case, I like him a lot too, and he makes Cohen a hardnosed and ambitious villain that is a worthy successor to Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson.  And while his make-up didn’t look as fake to me as it did in the trailer, I wish he had worn less of it and relied more on the strength of his acting performance.  While the make-up wasn’t a major distraction, Penn would have been scarier without it.

There are some really cool scenes in this one.  There are the obligatory gun battles and lots of explosions, and there’s also a really neat car chase scene in which director Ruben Fleischer cranks up the intensity.  It’s one of the more exciting sequences in the film.  Fleischer also directed ZOMBIELAND (2009), and I liked GANGSTER SQUAD just as much as that gem.

There’s also a brutal and very satisfying physical fight between Brolin and Penn at the end of the movie which really rocks.

As a whole, GANGSTER SQUAD isn’t as stylish as Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), although at times, with its slow motion photography, it tries to be.  The film scores higher when it’s being its own movie and not trying to imitate others.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  I loved THE UNTOUCHABLES!

MA:  Let me guess, you love Kevin Costner because he’s so handsome.

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN:  Of course.  And don’t forget Sean Connery.  What a sexy man!

(SEAN CONNERY sits at bar next to BEAUTIFUL WOMAN)

CONNERY:  You got that right.  Anyone who says otherwise, I’ll kick him in the arse!  (grabs his drink and leaves)

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (swoons):  I’m in heaven.

MA:  I’m in trouble.  (to Woman)  So, as I was saying, about GANGSTER SQUAD?

(Woman faces him again.)

MA:  There are some other drawbacks as well.

First and foremost, it’s not original in the least, and the screenplay by Will Beall, based on the book “Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, while inspired by a true story, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.  Bad guy owns city, cops vow to strike back, bad guy hits them even harder, and the last guy standing wins.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this formula, and the folks behind this movie do a nice job bringing it all to life, but it’s not going to lob surprises at you.

But probably the most glaring weakness of GANGSTER SQUAD is that in spite of its R rating, it’s not all that intense.  It’s edited like a PG-13 movie.  Sure, there’s plenty of blood and some violent scenes, but missing is the realistic human agony.  The opening scene of the film is a brutal sequence where Mickey Cohen has a man tied to two cars and to send a message back to the folks in Chicago, he has the cars speed away, tearing the man’s body apart.  This does happen on screen, but it’s edited so neatly to have minimal effect.

I’m not talking about the need for more gore here.  I’m talking about the raw emotion of people dying.  There’s very little of that in GANGSTER SQUAD.  Most of what happens in the movie is neat and tidy.  I would have liked it had Mickey Cohen made me feel more uncomfortable.  I never really felt the ruthlessness of his character.  There are plenty of opportunities for the story to take that direction, but the film chooses not to.

But overall, I liked GANGSTER SQUAD a lot.  In spite of the fact that it’s not raw enough to make an honest statement about gangsters and their battles with the police, it’s a colorful, likeable production that perhaps will excite modern audiences enough to reignite the gangster movie genre.

I give it three knives.

Well, that’s it for tonight folks.  Thanks for joining me, and we’ll see you again next weekend with another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.

(to WOMAN)  Want to blow this popcorn stand and go back to my room?

BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (smiles):  Sure.

MA (to camera):  I really love Cinema Knife Fight Land!

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda gives GANGSTER SQUAD ~ three knives!

This Year’s Christmas Turkey Review: BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2010)

Posted in "So Bad They're Good" Movies, 2012, Animals Attack, Apocalyptic Films, Based on a True Story, CGI, Cult Movies, Disaster Films, Horror, Indie Horror, Just Plain Bad, Man vs. Nature, Message Movies, Strange Cinema with tags , , , , , , , on December 25, 2012 by knifefighter

A Special Christmas Day Movie Review

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2010)
Review By L.L. Soares

birdemicCover

Ever since PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), started showing up on critics’ “Worst Movies of all Time” lists, people have been on the lookout for comparable bad cinema, and it’s not hard to find.  But movies that are truly bad and yet very entertaining aren’t always so forthcoming. In recent years, we’ve seen some great examples of “So Bad It’s Good” cinema with films like TROLL 2 (1990) and Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM (2003).

For the past year or two, I’ve been hearing a lot about BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2010) and how it deserves a place in the bad movie pantheon. I’ve been reluctant to check it out for some reason (what could be better than THE ROOM?), but figured that the time had come to finally subject myself to this one. And, it actually does a good job living up to its hype. It’s certainly bad, and yet it’s also quite enjoyably bad.

Directed by James Nguyen (who also wrote the screenplay), BIRDEMIC is what he calls a “romantic thriller,” in that the movie really starts out like a romantic film, but, as it progresses, the “thriller” elements make themselves known. In this case, the thriller elements amount to a low-budget “homage” to Alfred Hitchock’s classic, THE BIRDS, but with only birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons) involved.

The film begins by introducing us to Rod (Alan Bagh), a telemarketer who is waiting for that big day when someone buys the company he works for a fortune, and he can cash in his stock options and retire young.  The thing is, Rod has a little trouble expressing his emotions, because he talks in the same monotone whether he is talking about stock options or declaring his love for someone (do you think it could be the fault of Bagh’s awful acting?). This guy just doesn’t show enthusiasm or passion very well.

So, his job is going well (and guess what company gets bought up by a rich parent company soon afterwards?), but Rod is lonely. One day, while eating breakfast in his usual diner, he notices that a girl at another table, Natalie (Whitney Moore), looks familiar and goes to meet her outside after she leaves. He gives her the line, “Don’t I know you from someplace?” and immediately your eyes will start rolling in your head, except she says, “Hey, yeah, you do look familiar.” Turns out they went to high school together, where she was pretty and popular, and he was probably invisible (she has no clue they were in the same English class back then).

Natalie is now a fashion model, and at first it looks like Rod is irritating her, but she soon gives him her number and suddenly shows interest. He says he’ll call her.

When his dream of early retirement becomes a reality, Natalie is the first person Rod calls (while he seems to be friendly with a guy at his job, I guess he doesn’t have a lot of friends). They go out to dinner and find themselves falling for each other. This is the romance part of the film.

About 30 minutes in, however, something goes wrong. After a chaste few dates, they decide to finally go to a motel together (although she leaves her underwear on and he’s fully dressed in their “love scene”). When they wake up the next day (still in their clothes!), there are birds screeching outside their window, trying to get in.

What the hell is going on? It seems that some of the world’s birds have suddenly turned deadly. The reason that most of the characters in this movie give for this scary turn of events is global warming. In fact, before the birds show up, Rod and Natalie double-date with another couple and go to the movies. What do they see? The Al Gore documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006). Not very heavy-handed, is it?

Rod and Natalie wait until the birds go away before they leave the motel room. They find another couple downstairs who have survived as well and, armed only with clothes hangers, somehow make it to a SUV alive and drive away.  The birds hover above, constantly screeching. We never see them actually bite anyone, but after they hover around you long enough, you’ll end up on the ground, bleeding. Probably with your eyes poked out. Scary stuff!

With a seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition, the survivors drive around, shooting at the birds, hitting a lot of them (they spurt blood and drop to the ground, kind of like in a video game). Eventually they save two kids whose parents have been killed by the birds, and they just drive around, trying to figure out what to do next, and where to go. But nowhere seems safe.

Along the way, they try to save people in trouble. One particularly hilarious scene involves a double-decker bus where the birds have trapped some passengers who are screaming for help. Our heroes stop and Rod starts shooting at the birds (they just start shooting in the direction of the bus, but somehow don’t break any of the windows or hurt any of the people inside), while some of the others go inside to grab the people in there and pull them out. Turns out they were better off inside the bus. Once outside, the people who have been “saved” get splashed with some kind of liquid by the birds (bird poop?) and start to scream and disintegrate as if they’ve been doused with acid. So much for saving the day!

Sometimes you just shouldn't get out of the bus. Just asking these unlucky souls from BIRDEMIC.

Sometimes you just shouldn’t get out of the bus. Just ask these unlucky souls from BIRDEMIC.

We’re also never sure how many people are left in the world. Most of the time, Rod and Natalie and their “friends” drive around empty highways with no signs of other people. We think they’re the last people left on Earth. Then they’ll be parked somewhere, and we’ll see tons of cars driving by in the distance (oops!). So is this the end of the world or not??

Another funny scene involves them getting to a gas station where a guy who can barely speak English tells them that because of the gas shortage it will cost them a hundred dollars a gallon! Instead of just shooting the guy, they pay him, but drive away in the middle of pumping the gas when some birds show up. Soon afterwards, a guy in a cowboy hat (Joe Teixeira) pretends to have car trouble. When they pull over to help him, he holds them up, pointing a gun and demanding their gas. Rod goes in the back to get an extra gas container. The guy takes it and is immediately killed by a low-flying bird that slits his throat with its beak. He drops the container of gas and—instead of grabbing it and putting it back in the car—Rod just leaves it there and runs back to the driver’s seat and drives away. Maybe five minutes later, they run out of gas! Duh!

They stop at a few places, and this gives them a chance to hear some words of wisdom, as cheesy characters pop out of nowhere to pontificate about the consequences of global warming. These include a doctor wearing a surgical mask named Dr. Jones (Rick Camp), who goes on to explain what’s going on (that global warming crap again). Later, they come across a character called “the Treehugger” (Stephen Gustavson), some weird hippie guy who lives in a treehouse up in some redwoods and who speaks for the trees (what is he, the Lorax?).

If they hover around you and screech for ten minutes, you are probably doomed.

If they hover around you and screech for ten minutes, you are probably doomed.

The acting is just short of abysmal. Whitney Moore as Natalie is easily the most talented one here. But male lead Alan Bagh as Rod is just laughably bad in every scene he’s in. Even funnier is an interview on the disk (one of the extras) where director James Nguyen speaks glowingly to a (really bad) interviewer on cable access television about how good BIRDEMIC is. You just know that after it became a cult classic for being so bad, he probably went the Tommy Wiseau route, declaring that he made the movie so bad on purpose. That it was meant to be a comedy. But here, in this interview, Nguyen is pretty serious and talks as if BIRDEMIC is a really important message movie.

Oh yeah, and there is an appearance by a big-name actor in this one. It’s Tippi Hedren in some footage from an earlier James Nguyen movie, JULIE AND JACK (2003), that is used again here in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment. How’s that for star power? The thing is, I watched the movie twice, and I still can’t tell you where the scene is.

With bad acting, lame-ass gunfire (it’s obvious the guns are fake and little CGI blasts show up around the nozzles when they’re fired, along with sound effects), really pathetic CGI birds (the screeching alone will drive you mad) and a script that gives you more belly laughs than life lessons, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR  is a completely inept, but thoroughly entertaining, journey in the land of truly awful cinema.

And if you’re good in 2013, Santa might just bring you a special treat called BIRDEMIC 2: THE RESURRECTION, which is rumored to be coming out next year.

What are you waiting for? Go check this one out. As William Carl would say in his “Bill’s Bizarre Bijou” column, “You won’t believe your eyes!” Especially if they’re pecked out by CGI birds.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

Coming to an abandoned theater near you in 2013.

Coming to an abandoned theater near you in 2013.

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou Visits SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972)

Posted in "So Bad They're Good" Movies, 1970s Movies, 2012, Adult Fairy Tales, Bad Acting, Based on a True Story, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, Campy Movies, Family Films, Fantasy, HOLIDAY CHEER, Just Plain Bad, Magical Movies with tags , , , , , , on December 20, 2012 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

William D. Carl

This week’s feature presentation:

SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972)

bbbsantaposter

 

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.

The Christmas Season is well known for its holiday music and movies, but there is a dark side to the trend of luring kids into matinees to bear witness to forced holiday cheer.  For every MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), there is a SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964).  For every IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), there’s a corresponding SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984).  Actually, there are probably more dreadful Christmas movies than good ones.  Somewhere far below the schlocky entertainment offered by the likes of serial-killer turned snowman JACK FROST (1997), the Mexican drugged-out inanities of SANTA CLAUS (1959), or the hell on earth that is JINGLE ALL THE WAY (1996), there is the cesspool entitled SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972/1970 – I’ll explain the date mix-up later).  I’ve watched hundreds of Christmas movies over the years, but this one is the true low point, lacking anything even closely resembling entertainment or Christmas cheer.  It is a gut-punch to all that is beautiful and holy.  It is the first Christmas movie made for children that seems designed to suck any happiness from every starry-eyed child in the world.

You think I am exaggerating?  Super glue your eyelids open and turn this baby on.

Behind the credits, kids dressed as elves in outfits made by the producer’s grandma sing an unintelligible song.  The only words I can make out are  “la-la-la-la-la.”  They pet toys, while the credits announce “Thumbelina Insert by B Mahon!”  One elf looks outside for Santa and spots stock nature footage of a herd of moose grazing in a summer field!  What season is this?  A female narrator who sounds like Truman Capote on downers informs us that Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the sand on a beach in Florida.  It was so hot, the reindeer have all gone away, and Santa sits in the sleigh, sweats a lot, and waves his hat in front of his face.  Sure enough, a too-skinny Santa sits in his sleigh looking around and perspiring, then sings a song through dubbing, “Woe is me…who will give me a helping hand…and get my sleigh out of the sand?”  Yep, that half inch of sand is really keeping him trapped and preventing lift-off.

Random kids are shown doing things like skipping rope, playing with dogs, wrestling like gay Greeks, and jumping off the garage roof wearing a parachute.  Then, Santa falls instantly asleep, as if his meds just kicked in.  The racially diverse group of children, resembling a Benetton ad from the late 1980s, hears an echoing Santa voice calling them and run to the sleigh.  Even Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (and their pet raccoon on a string) steer their raft to the beach to a kazoo band playing Old Man River from the musical SHOW BOAT.

The kids rush off to find something to pull the sleigh from the half inch of sand, leaving Santa alone to sweat again for another couple of long minutes.  Santa, instead of being proactive, just sits in the sleigh bemoaning his predicament.  This guy gets around the world in one night delivering millions of toys?  I doubt he could get to the cupboard for the Doritos.

Santa and the kids strap a pig to the sleigh.

Santa and the kids strap a pig to the sleigh.

Eventually, the kids return with various animals to help pull the sleigh out of the sand.  First, a little girl brings a man in an ape suit, but the sleigh is stuck too tightly.  Then, two kids bring a mule, then a screaming pig, a terrified sheep, a brown cow, and a horse.  Then, Santa bitches for several more minutes about how he has to get out of the sand so he doesn’t disappoint the children all over the world, but he does nothing to actually escape!

The kids return, so Santa decides to tell the kids a story, and so begins Barry Mahon’s 1970, filmed at Pirate’s World Amusement Park film, THUMBELINA.  A hippie-chick with terrifying eyebrows wanders the amusement park while a whole new set of credits play again (is Santa relaying the credits to the kids in his story?).  Eventually the mini-skirted chick ends up in a room full of dioramas portraying the tale of Thumbelina, a girl no larger than a clothespin, all narrated by a disembodied voice over a PA system.  A single lonely woman goes to a witch to have a child and is rewarded with a freakishly miniscule daughter.   The tiny girl leaves her spinster-Mom’s home to get married to a horny frog.  She escapes, lives with a woman in a mole costume and eventually falls in love with a rich old mole.  They all resemble a relatively restrained furry convention.  And, yes, everyone sings a lot of dull songs on semi-professional sets.  To be honest, although THUMBELINA is pretty bad, it’s a typical kiddie matinee from the 1960s—no better or worse than most.  These things were churned out with ridiculously low budgets and actors from local amateur theater troupes all over the world.  Other examples of this odd sub-genre include THE MAGIC LAND OF MOTHER GOOSE, 1967 (directed by the Wizard of Gore himself, H.G. Lewis!), THE PRINCESS AND THE SWINEHERD, 1968, and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND TOM THUMB VS. THE MONSTERS, 1965, which I would love to see!  So, if you remember after the hour of Thumbelina, yes, Santa is STILL telling this story to the children on the beach!

As bad as the Thumbelina segment is, it’s like CITIZEN KANE (1941) compared to the Santa segments . . . where we are again, watching Santa sweat while the kids watch him.  Nobody seems very motivated to get Santa back to the North Pole.  Oh, to return to the cut-rate flower power hippie musical from Pirate’s World.  The one directed by Barry Mahon, yes THAT Barry Mahon, who directed PAGAN ISLAND (1961), FANNY HILL MEETS DR. EROTICO (1969), A GOOD TIME WITH A BAD GIRL (1967), THE GIRL WITH THE MAGIC BOX (1965), and THE DIARY OF KNOCKERS MCCALLA (1969).  He was the obvious choice to helm a kid’s feature based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale!  It does, however, explain the strange erotic tension between Thumbelina and Mr. Digger, the mole.

Thumbelina meets a mole woman in the "movie within a movie" in the movie SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY.

Thumbelina meets a mole woman in the “movie within a movie” inside SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY.

Back to Santa in the sand. . .

The kids suddenly run away, as if learning Santa Claus was a sex offender…or an algebra teacher.  Santa strips off his coat and belt, and an antique fire truck (helpfully pushed by a visible production assistant) driven by a guy in a cheap white rabbit suit arrives, and all the kids are piled up in back.  It’s a vision of horror as the fire truck is shoved through Pirate’s World and down to the beach.  I’m starting to see why this film was made—it’s a 90 minute advertisement for a pathetic amusement park!  Yes, this could be the best WTF! moment ever in a children’s production.  And it goes on forever!  For.  Ev.  Er.  Santa exclaims, “Why my old friend the ice cream bunny!”  The hell-spawn rabbit, which had to terrify children everywhere, gives Santa a ride in his fire truck.  Then, Santa teleports the sleigh back to the North Pole.  What?  Why didn’t he just do that at the beginning instead of complaining for what seemed like days about being stranded?  Plus, why is this an ice cream bunny?  There isn’t a scoop of ice cream to be seen!

Full of padding (including an entire film from two years previous), SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY is easily the worst Christmas movie ever made.  From the terrible direction, the lousy acting and dubbing, the bad songs, and the freaky sexy vibe between tiny hippie chicks and earth-burrowing mammals, to the ridiculous ending and scary/evil rabbit suit, this is a movie that can honestly only be enjoyed under the influence of controlled substances or while RiffTrax pokes fun at it.  There has never been another movie like this one.  Thank God!

I give SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY one closed-down amusement park out of four.

The Santa image that haunts William Carl's nightmares.

The Santa image that haunts William Carl’s nightmares.

© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl

HITCHCOCK (2012)

Posted in 2012, Alfred Hitchock Films, Based on a True Story, Movie Directors, Movie History with tags , , , , , , , on December 4, 2012 by knifefighter

HITCHCOCK (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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You would think that with a title like HITCHCOCK (2012), you’d be getting the story of a person’s life. In this case, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and the guy who gave us everything from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), to REAR WINDOW (1954) to VERTIGO (1958) and THE BIRDS (1963). But nope, it’s not a biopic. It focuses on just one year of the director’s life, 1959, when he was trying to make the movie, PSYCHO (1960).

Okay, PSYCHO is arguably his most important film, at least here in horror circles (and yes, even though we review all kinds of things these days, Cinema Knife Fight’s heart still beats in the horror genre), so if there’s a story there, it’s worth telling. But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that this movie wasn’t more ambitious. I wanted to know more about Hitchcock than just one year of his life. I wanted to know where he grew up, how he got into the film business, how he got the ideas for so many great films. But we’re going to have to wait for that movie, and it most probably won’t have the title HITCHCOCK, since that’s already taken.

So, as the movie begins, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) has just been released (another of my favorite Hitchcock films), and the director is wondering what to do next. He can’t seem to find the right project. Then he stumbles on the novel PSYCHO by Robert Bloch, and the rest is history, except it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Nobody wanted to do this movie.

See, it starts with the inspiration of the book and the movie, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who was big news in the 50s. It might be that the crimes were a little too fresh in the public consciousness of the time. And the case was beyond “sensational.” Gein didn’t just kill a several people, he also wore their skin, made furniture out of them, possibly practiced cannibalism, dug up his mother and slept in bed with her corpse, etc. But I don’t need to tell readers of this site about Gein. He’s pretty notorious, even now, as the inspiration of everything from PSYCHO to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), DERANGED (1974) and countless others, as well as, more recently, a biopic of his own, ED GEIN (2000) starring Steve Railsback, who, you might remember also played Charles Manson way back in the 1976 TV-movie, HELTER SKELTER.

Gein was considered a little too lurid for the movies of 1959. This was in the days before splatter movies, after all. Herschell Gordon Lewis had yet to unleash BLOOD FEAST (1963) on an unsuspecting world. But, clearly, there would have never been a BLOOD FEAST if Hitchcock made that maiden voyage into extreme horror called PSYCHO. And you can argue all you want about PSYCHO being pretty tame by today’s standards, but back in 1960, it was the most extreme thing moviegoers had ever seen.

So his studio at the time (Paramount) wouldn’t touch it. Hitchcock then went to other friends in the business for possible funding, and they weren’t all that thrilled with the idea either (maybe it was the real crime scene photos he passed around at the party he threw to find backers?). Hitch ended up doing it for a low-budget (by his standards) and mortgaging his house to pay for it. If it failed, he would have been in dire circumstances. But, of course, we know the outcome, so the Master of Suspense’s story isn’t as suspenseful this time around.

Which doesn’t mean HITCHCOCK isn’t entertaining, because it is.

So why was Hitchcock so dead set on making this particular movie despite all the opposition? Well, the movie seems to suggest that the years doing his television show ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955 – 1962) had made Hitch a little bit bitter about his career. As the show’s host, he was now a celebrity in his own right, not just behind the camera but now in front of it. And your loveable Uncle Hitch was starting to feel like he had sold out. Given up his artistic integrity to appear in America’s living rooms every week (no matter how lucrative it was). Reacting to this, he wanted to make a movie they would never have made for television, something with a true edge that was more than a little dangerous. Something to put him on top again as a director who could push his audience’s buttons and throw a scare into you. Hell, he probably saw it as a need to FEEL some excitement again as a movie director.

Once he gets the cash together, he makes a deal with Paramount to distribute it after he does all the work on his own dime. He then goes about gathering a cast, including big star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) to play a character who dies 30 minutes into the film; an actress he was previously obsessed with but who got pregnant before she could become his “star,” Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), reduced to a supporting role in PSYCHO for letting him down; and a very high-strung closeted gay man, Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), with mother issues of his own, in the lead as Norman Bates. We get insight into the whole “cool blonde” obsession Hitch was famous for (which led him to cast that “type” throughout the years from Grace Kelley to Tippi Hedren).

And once the movie starts filming, the problems don’t stop. Paramount, personified by studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) wants to interfere and see if the film is marketable, and he keeps showing up on the set. And the censor bureau, led by Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) fights him to the bitter end about what can be kept in to get the vital seal of approval that decides whether the movie is released in theaters at all.

Somehow, Hitchcock is able to maneuver through all of these obstacles and get his movie made. His biggest supporters are his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), his assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) and, most of all, his extremely supportive wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).

In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable to wonder whether HITCHOCK is really about the making of PSYCHO, or if that’s just the backdrop for a kind of love story between Alma and Hitch. When they met back in England, early in Hitchcock’s career, Alma was his boss. Then, as he became one of the biggest names in cinema, she stood by his side, his most fierce and loyal supporter. She rewrote the scripts, she helped decide casting, and she put her foot down when Hitchcock couldn’t make it on the set.

But there’s a conflict in HITCHCOCK, because she feels unappreciated and is getting a little sick of being the woman who hides in the shadows while Hitchcock gets all the glory. She wants to make a name for herself, and she thinks she might have found the right project to do it. Her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who worked with Hitchcock previously (in real life he wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and 1950’s STAGE FRIGHT), is always around, her closest companion, and he suggests they work together turning his most recent manuscript into a movie script. She sees their relationship as validation and a strong friendship, Cook might be seeing it at something a little more,  and meanwhile, Hitchcock fumes, convinced that his ever-loyal wife is now cheating on him, and he’s feeling abandoned by his staunchest supporter.

Working on a movie that no one else believes in, feeling completely alone, Hitchcock forges on. Until the moment when he gets sick, and Alma has to decide just where her loyalties reside. Like I said, it’s a love story of sorts, so you know what her decision will be.

hitchcock-good-evening

Of course, PSYCHO got made and became a humungous hit. Probably the biggest movie of Hitchcock’s career. But it is interesting to see how much of a struggle it was. There are dozens of times when it could have simply stopped production and never been made, and we all would have been poorer for that. Luckily, we didn’t have to do without this cinema masterpiece.

I found HITCHCOCK fascinating and highly entertaining, but it’s not a perfect movie by any means. And the biggest problem I have with it might just be Anthony Hopkins in the lead role as Hitch. The way he plays Hitchcock, it’s almost more like a parody than an impersonation. With his fat suit and bugged eyes, Hopkins appears to be in a perpetual state of constipation. Maybe there is some truth to this – maybe Hitchcock was one of these people who never felt comfortable in his own skin – but Hopkins plays it so cartoony that it’s hard to take him seriously at certain points in the film. When something that should be bad happens, you almost want to laugh when Hopkins responds in an exaggerated manner. It’s just very hard to take this HITCHCOCK seriously.

And remember me talking about Ed Gein earlier? Well, he appears throughout the movie as well. He’s a kind of hallucination that only Hitchcock sees, embodying his self-doubts and anxieties. Well-played by Michael Wincott, Gein is a spooky presence, but this kind of thing is always iffy, and it doesn’t totally work here. Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that there’s “a little bit of Gein in all of us,” I didn’t totally buy Hitch’s bond with the Wisconsin serial killer. It was a gimmick in the movie that seemed unnecessary to me.

The rest of the cast does a decent job grounding the film, especially the always-terrific Helen Mirren as Alma, even when she appears to be abandoning Hitch (even though you know her gripes are legitimate, you almost despise her for abandoning this highly talented but extremely needy man-child for the shallow Cook).

Two really great sequences involve the shower scene from PSYCHO. In one, Hitchock does the “stabbing” of Janet Leigh  himself when no one else can get it right. The other involves Bernard Herrmann adding his classic music to the scene – when Hitchcock originally wanted no music at all. It’s amazing how much creepier the scene is with that terrific, screeching score (and shows us how invaluable a great film composer can be).

If there’s one regret I have, it’s that we don’t get to meet author Robert Bloch, the talented writer who gave us the novel, PSYCHO. There’s a scene where screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who also gave us the classic series OUTER LIMITS, 1963 – 1965) shows up in Hitchcock’s office and agrees to write the script (he’s played by Ralph Macchio, the original KARATE KID himself, and his cameo got some chuckles from the audience), but no sign of Bloch.

HITCHCOCK was directed by Sacha Gervasi, who also directed the entertaining documentary ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008) about an influential heavy metal band that never got its due, and who also wrote such movies as THE TERMINAL (2004) for Steven Spielberg and HENRY’S CRIME (2010). Despite its flaws, HITCHCOCK is a mostly impressive debut for Gervasi as a feature-film director.

All in all, a good movie. But, if I could have taken Hopkins more seriously, this could have been a great film. In the end, it seems to fall short. Someone as important as Hitchcock seems worthy of something better.

I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives HITCHCOCK ~three knives.