Archive for the Intense Movies Category

MANIAC (2012)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, Based on Classic Films, Cult Movies, Disturbing Cinema, Exploitation Films, Grindhouse, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, Joe Spinell Films, Kinky Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Psycho killer, Remakes, Serial Killer flicks, Sleaze with tags , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by knifefighter

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

 Maniac

Yet another in a long list of  movies that do not need to remakes, William Lustig’s original MANIAC (1980) featured the amazing Joe Spinell (who also provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay) as Frank Zito, a violent psychotic who kills women and then scalps them, so he can attach their hair to mannequins that surround his bed like lovers. Visceral stuff, made all the more effective by the teaming of Lustig, Spinell, and effects maestro Tom Savini at the peak of his powers. This was one movie that lived up to its title, and yet there were tender moments as well, focusing mostly on the friendship (and blossoming romance?) between Spinell’s Zito and Caroline Munro’s photographer, Anna D’Antoni. It didn’t hurt that Munro was one of the most beautiful women to grace celluloid at the time. But Spinell somehow, through this relationship, made you sympathize with a man who is otherwise a deranged animal. You somehow cared about Zito and wanted to see him redeemed. Of course, in these kinds of movies, redemption eventually gives up and steps aside, so that punishment can take control of matters.

In the new version of MANIAC (2012), Franck Khalfoun gives us a strange recreation of the original film, with just enough quirks and differences to make it enjoyable on its own terms. Even if it comes nowhere near the gut punch of the original. This time, the script is co-written by Alexandre Aja, the director who has given us such recent horrors as the HILLS HAVE EYES remake (2006), MIRRORS (2008) and who is currently adaptating Joe Hill’s HORNS for the big screen. As for Khalfoun, he previously directed the murder in an underground parking garage flick, P2 (2007) and has acted in Aja films like HIGH TENSION (2003) and PIRANHA (2010).

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The new MANIAC stars Elijah Wood, oddly enough, perhaps the exact physical opposite of Joe Spinell. Where Spinell was genuinely creepy and yet always had a strange vulnerability to him, Wood seems slight and wimpy, but has a kind of strangeness to him that could easily be perceived as a capacity for violence. This aspect of Wood has been exploited previously in SIN CITY (2005), where he played an intense and merciless hit man with a penchant for eating human flesh. So this is hardly the first time someone saw Elijah Wood and thought “Hey, he might actually be an effective psycho.”

In MANIAC, however, Wood’s appearance and attributes are given only a small chance to shine, since the movie also adopts the rather odd gimmick of giving us the story from the killer’s point of view. What this means is that, throughout most of the film, we see everything through Frank Zito’s eyes. So whether or not Wood looks the part, we only see him occasionally, when he happens to look at himself in a mirror, for example.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

This POV seems very artificial, making us very aware that this is not a gritty tour of the gutter like the original film, but something different. The new MANIAC strives toward art, towards being something more than just another killer on the loose flick. And yet, considering the subject matter, this arty direction doesn’t always work. We’re not watching a MANIAC film for artistic merit. We want to see a psychotic on the verge of complete madness, and the POV actually distances us from the meat of the film, even as it thinks that it is bringing us closer to the madman, by showing the film from his eyes.

The POV works some of the time. It’s not a bad thing, per se. There are some scenes that use this to nice effect. But in a movie like this, it doesn’t really elevate the story in any way. It’s just a fancy trick that tells us “No, you don’t have to really see Frank get his hands dirty.”

I actually like Elijah Wood. I’m not really a fan of projects like the LORD OF THE RINGS movies (or the HOBBIT films), but he’s been in plenty of other things that have impressed me. I think I first noticed him in Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997), and he has a kind of intensity that gives him a lot of range. I even enjoy him in the odd FX TV series WILFRED, where he plays a man whose best friend is a man in a dog suit (the rest of the world sees it as an actual dog). But the point is, Wood is kind of fearless and open to playing a wide variety of roles, however offbeat, and for what he does in MANIAC, I think he does a decent job. In a way, though, I would have preferred to see the whole “from the maniac’s eyes” viewpoint ditched, so that we could have really enjoyed Wood’s performance to the fullest.

In the new movie, Anna is played by Nora Amezeder as a French photographer who is drawn to Frank via his strange little shop where he carries on his family’s business of restoring antique mannequins. She uses mannequins in her photographs for artistic effect, and his equally artistic display of actual mannequins might just be the perfect complement to her photos in her upcoming gallery show. Can she borrow some of his work? He catches her taking pictures of his shop’s display window and invites her inside. The fact that she sees beauty in the same objects he does creates an immediate connection. And the groundwork is there for the one normal relationship in Frank Zito’s life.  Sadly, whatever normality there is between them won’t last for long. There’s no way it could.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell's performance in the original film.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell’s performance in the original film.

Wood’s Frank Zito has mother issues, after all, that go as deep as Norman Bates’s. We see flashbacks to Frank as a child, forced to watch as his mother has sex with all comers, whether its two sailors at once in her bedroom as he peers out from between the slats of a closet door, to a late night assignation in a parking garage, Frank wants his mother as much as he is repelled by her, and it is only a matter of time before relationships he has with other women dovetail into his feelings for his mother—even the one he has with poor Anna.

Feeling a possessive jealousy for whatever woman he comes across that he finds attractive, that same need to have them always turns into a stronger need to punish them. And therefore, he can’t really have any enjoyment with them while they are alive. He can only truly possess them (and come close to “loving” them) when they have been recreated, with their bloody scalps stapled onto the heads of his mannequins. In the darkness of his apartment, he convinces himself that the mannequins are the real women, and that they are now in an environment he can control. It is only then that he can show them that he cares.

So he drives around the city late at night, picking victims at random based on how they elicit lust in him, and making quick work of them. He tries to break the cycle, even joining an online dating service and meeting Lucie (Megan Duffy), a tattooed beauty who actually seems to act motherly towards him (uh oh!) when he complains of a migraine at the restaurant they agree to meet at, and who takes him back to her place afterwards for some almost-successful seduction. You really think Frank might finally loosen up and enjoy himself, but in the end, we know that’s impossible.

There are some interesting set pieces, including Frank hunting down Anna’s agent, Rita (Jan Broberg), breaking into her glorious Manhattan apartment to kill her in her bath tub. This sequence is done quite well

I liked this new version of MANIAC. It’s a good film, despite its flaws. It’s just easier to judge it as a stand-alone film about a psycho played by Elijah Wood. To compare it to Lustig’s original is to its detriment. There is no way this movie could deliver the goods like the original movie did.

I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives the 2012 version of  MANIAC ~three  knives.

 

(Despite being made in 2012, the new version of MANIAC is only now getting limited release in theaters in some cities. It is available on cable OnDemand in some markets as well.)

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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

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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.

STOKER (2013)

Posted in 2013, Family Secrets, Intense Movies, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Thrillers, Psychos, Serial Killers, Women in Horror with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by knifefighter

STOKER (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Stoker-Official-Trailer

Most people who read Cinema Knife Fight regularly will recognize the name Chan-wook Park. He is the Korean director of such highly regarded films as J.S.A.: JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000), the vampire movie THIRST (2009) and his renowned “Vengeance Trilogy”: SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002),  OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005). His new movie, STOKER, is something of a milestone, since it’s his first movie made in English. For someone known for his violent, uncompromising brand of cinema, the question that immediately springs to mind is, how much did he have to tone things down to work in America (and within the MPA’s rating system)? The answer is, not too much.

STOKER is kind of a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), with its story of a young girl and a visiting Uncle Charlie. Here, the girl’s name is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and her father has just died in a car accident. She has a strained relationship with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). And, just as they’re burying India’s father, dad’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) makes a surprise appearance and announces he is going to stay with the two women for a little visit. The thing is, Uncle Charlie is a dangerous man.

He’s also a man of mystery. He has traveled around the world and is eager to meet his niece, even though she had no clue he even existed. For some reason, India’s parents never told her about her uncle, and she finds this kind of odd, especially since Uncle Charlie is such a larger-than-life character.  With his  sunglasses, cool demeanor, and charismatic charm, Charlie is a breath of fresh air in India’s life, which has been reduced to just of her and her mother, who seems a bit “unbalanced.” Mom sleeps most of the day, drinks to excess and has mood swings. Charlie, in contrast, always seems completely in control and gives India all the attention she could want.

At first, things are strained between India and her uncle. She refuses to speak to him, gets angry when he shows up at school to give her rides home (she avoids him and takes the bus instead) and seems to regard him as an intruder. But over time, India warms to him. A very sexually charged duet on piano – a very intense scene – clinches the fact that they are destined to be co-conspirators of one kind or another. Although it’s not clear at first if he’s more interested in her mother or her.

By the time the bodies start piling up, we know Charlie for what he is, and slowly uncover his past and where he really was when he was supposedly traveling around the world. But the big question is, what is India? Is she a soul mate to Charlie, like the older man surely wants, or is she a strong-willed individual who will make the ultimate moral decisions on her own?

It doesn’t help that she feels completely isolated as the movie begins. It seems that her father, who she went on regular hunting trips with (there are taxidermied animals around the house—mostly birds that India killed), was her only friend and confidante. Her relationship with her mother is terrible. At school, she’s the “weird girl” who does well in academics, but is a complete outcast among the other kids. A group of boys who have targeted her are especially cruel. Constantly insulting her, making innuendos and basically harassing her, these boys seem more like predators than schoolmates. In one jolting scene, a school bully actually tries to punch her when she refuses to be cowed and insults him back, but his fist meets the sharp end of a pencil instead of his intended target. It seems as if India isn’t safe at school, and yet, she knows how to keep enemies at bay and survive.

When she meets a boy who defended her at school in a parking lot (an action that is in direct reaction to seeing her mother and Charlie sharing an intimate moment), even this degenerates.

So India is more than ready for someone like Charlie to step into her life and offer a way out. A different way. And while it seems enticing at first, she is bound to have reservations when she has to make real life and death decisions.

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While not as physically violent as the Korean films that made Chan-wook Park’s reputation, STOKER seethes with an internal violence that colors most of what we see. Speaking of which, the cinematography by Park veteran Chung-hoon Chung is pretty remarkable here. There are some strong images, like children making angels in the sand (or on their beds); a spider crawling up a nyloned leg; flowers sprayed with blood (an image that reminded me of something similar in Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, a very different kind of movie); an overhead light in a basement rocking back and forth; that all add another layer to the proceedings.

The script here is by Wentworth Miller, who is also an actor (you may remember him as Michael Scofield, one of the leads on PRISON BREAK, 2005 – 2009), and it’s a good one. Park makes it his own, though, and even if he is not proficient in English, his images transcend language.

The cast is top-notch. Nicole Kidman continues to take on quirky roles in interesting movies, when she could be appearing in more Hollywood blockbuster fare, and I enjoyed her here as the damaged mom, who finds herself competing with India for Charlie’s affections. She doesn’t seem all that broken up when her husband dies. Days later she’s playing tennis with Charlie.  But there’s something in her eyes at times, that there’s a part of her that’s crushed. Goode is suitably creepy as Uncle Charlie (he also played Ozymandias in WATCHMEN, 2009) and believable as a psycho who can seem unhinged at times, and other times is completely calm and collected, and pretty cool. But the main attraction here is Mia Wasikowska, who previously played the character  Sophie in the great HBO series, IN TREATMENT (the 2008 season),  but who is better known for playing Alice in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). Here, she plays a tortured girl who might just have murder in her DNA, and it’s an especially brave performance.

My only complaint is that sometimes India seems a little too wrapped up in her own world. Not that I don’t think there are real girls like this, but she seems a little Wednesday Addams-ish at times. And while she is the target of cruelty from the boys at high school, just where are the girls?  In the school scenes we see, she appears to be the only girl in her school. Or rather, any other girls seem to disappear on the fringes in these scenes. Not that I would expect someone like India to have female friends, but you would think the girls in her school could be as cruel as the boys. Instead, they simply aren’t there.

And speaking of people who simply aren’t there, some characters “disappear” rather abruptly and no one seems concerned about them. A maiden aunt, Gwen Stoker (Jacki Weaver, who also played Bradley Cooper’s mom in last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) comes to visit, intending to perhaps warn the Stoker girls about delightful houseguest Charlie. It doesn’t take long before she’s among the missing, but none of the characters seem to notice or care. She’s not the most likable character, but you would think someone would at least wonder where she went.

And the title is a bit off-putting. With a title like STOKER, most people are going to assume it has something to do with author Bram Stoker, the man who gave us Dracula, and maybe vampires are involved. They’re not. And ol’ Bram has nothing to do with the storyline here, either. The family’s name could be anything, and naming them Stoker just seems too much like an annoying red herring.

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Despite its flaws, I really liked this movie. It has a great cast, it looks great, and while it’s not Chan-wook Park’s most uncompromising work, it’s got enough of his DNA to make it extremely watchable. While I don’t think it’s as good as Park’s Korean films, it’s a dark piece of mischief in its own right. And where it doesn’t erupt in utter carnage the way a movie like OLDBOY does, it does have an inner violence to it. A psychological pressure, threatening to pop.

I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives STOKER ~three and a half knives.

BULLET IN THE HEAD (2013)

Posted in 2013, Action Movies, Buddy Movies, Cop Movies, Crime Films, Gangsters!, Intense Movies, Killers, Michael Arruda Reviews, Sylvester Stallone!, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2013 by knifefighter

MOVIE REVIEW:  BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013)
By Michael Arruda

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This movie earns its title and then some.

BULLET TO THE HEAD is one brutal action flick, featuring more bullets to the head than a Corleone family reunion.

James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) is a hit man who hates cops, mostly because he’s spent his life in and out of jail and doesn’t trust anybody, cops included, as he’s seen his share of crooked law enforcement officers in his day.  After he and his partner finish a hit, they are double-crossed by the folks who hired them, who send in a hit man of their own, an ex-military beast of a man named Keegan (Jason Momoa, who was CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the 2011 reboot of that franchise), who promptly slays Bonomo’s partner—- displaying some vicious knife work— but fails to complete the job, as Bonomo turns the tables on him, sending him fleeing from the scene with his tail between his legs, at least for the time being.

It turns out that the man Bonomo and his partner killed was an ex-cop from D.C.   The man’s former partner Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) arrives in New Orleans to investigate his death, and his investigation leads him to Bonomo.  Kwon wants more than just Bonomo.  He wants the men who hired him, because he wants to get to bottom of the whole sordid affair by taking down the men at the top.  Bonomo wants these men too, because they killed his partner, tried to kill him, and never paid him his money.

Bullet to the Head

Faster than you can say buddy cop movie, Bonomo and Kwon find themselves working together to find the men behind the murders.  The trail leads them to a slick lawyer, Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater), who throws huge parties where beautiful women prance around in their birthday suits, and to the man he works for, Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) a baddie who went to the Lex Luthor school of villainy, as he’s obsessed with purchasing real estate.

Morel of course hires Keegan to kill both Bonomo and Taylor, and when that plan fails, he sends Keegan to kidnap  Bonomo’s daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), for leverage, since Bonomo and Taylor have in their possession a flash drive containing incriminating information against Morel.

As you might expect, Bonomo doesn’t like having his daughter kidnapped, setting the stage for a confrontation between Bonomo and Keegan that is worth the price of admission.

I really liked BULLET TO THE HEAD.  In the triumvirate of recent action movies I’ve seen the past month— Schwarzenegger in THE LAST STAND (2013), Jason Statham in PARKER (2013), and now Stallone in BULLET TO THE HEAD, I liked BULLET TO THE HEAD the best, as it’s the most complete movie of the three.  That being said, I liked Statham’s take on the character of Parker a lot, with his unique set of rules and sense of honor, and so I liked PARKER just about as much as BULLET, but in terms of sheer brutality, BULLET TO THE HEAD takes the prize.

Sylvester Stallone, at his age, 66, still makes for one convincing bad ass tough guy, and when he looks at Jason Momoa’s Keegan at the end of the film and says “I’m going to kill you,” the audience believes him.  Rarely has Stallone played a colder killer than Bonomo.

The deaths are up close and personal.  Director Walter Hill, a veteran of these buddy cop movies, going back to the 1980s with films like 48 HOURS (1982), with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, brings the camera in close for some jarring execution style murders that are actually quite wince-inducing.  I found myself looking away a few times, and the two gentlemen in the seats in front of me, not tiny men by any means, jumped on a couple of occasions.

There are also some memorable fight scenes in this one, as again, Stallone still looks like he can really bring it.  The concluding bout between Stallone and Jason Momoa is every bit as good as the clash between Stallone and Van Damme at the end of THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012).  One of my gripes about the concluding hand to hand fight in THE LAST STAND was that Schwarzenegger’s opponent looked so wimpy.  Not so here.  Momoa looks like he could handle both Stallone and Schwarzenegger at the same time.

Speaking of Momoa, he’s quite impressive as the unstoppable killer Keegan, and he delivers one of the better performances in the movie.  Often these big tough guy villain roles come off like robots, but Momoa’s Keegan is infused with personality.

Sarah Shahi is also very good as Bonomo’s daughter, Lisa.  She’s a tattoo artist who moonlights as a doctor, helping her dad patch up his buddies from their various bullet and knife wounds.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Robert Morel, the guy in a suit pulling all the strings, played a similar bad guy role in KILLER ELITE (2011), making life miserable in that movie for Jason Statham and Robert De Niro.  Akinnuoye-Agbaje, you might remember, played Mr. Eko on the TV show LOST. 

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Christian Slater is sufficiently slimy as shady lawyer Marcus Baptiste, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen Slater do before.

Perhaps the only weak link in the movie is Sung Kang as Stallone’s cop buddy Taylor Kwon.   Kang’s acting is decent enough, but the clean-cut pretty boy Kwon stands out like a bright cheery light in an otherwise dark gritty movie.  I would have preferred a Mark Wahlberg-type in the role.

The screenplay by Alessandro Camon is a winner.  While the plot is nothing more than your standard buddy action flick, an excuse, really, to allow Sylvester Stallone to make tough guy wisecracks and beat up on the bad guys—and because Stallone is so good at this, it lifts the material above what it otherwise might have been without him— there were still some nuances to the story which I really enjoyed.

I liked the character development of the hit man Keegan.  As we learn more about what makes him tick, we find out that he’s driven by a sense of honor more than the almighty dollar, and when his boss Morel shows no loyalty to the men he employs—he’s only interested in money— this doesn’t sit well with Keegan.  Keegan actually cares about the men who work alongside him.  Of course, he also loves killing.

The story also does a good job convincing us that Stallone and Kang want to work together.  At first, I thought, no way, Stallone’s Bonomo hates cops, so there’s no way I’m going to believe he’d want to work with Kang’s Kwon, but screenwriter Camon succeeds in pulling this off.   In one instance, for example, old school Bonomo is clearly impressed with the wealth of information Kwon has at his fingertips on his smart phone and realizes the advantages of working with the officer outweigh his personal disdain for his profession.

BULLET TO THE HEAD is a completely satisfying action thriller.  It’s brutal, dark, and intense from its opening execution scene to its closing clash featuring Stallone and Momoa going at each other with axes.

Sure, its buddy action movie plot offers little we haven’t seen before, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in ferocity.

I give it three knives.

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda  gives BULLET TO THE HEAD ~three 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.

COMPLIANCE (2012)

Posted in 2012, Based on a True Story, Controverisal Films, Intense Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Thrillers with tags , , , , , on September 2, 2012 by knifefighter

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

 

It seems like every movie these days – especially horror – likes to declare it’s “based on a true story.” Yet, as we know, most of these are either based on the tiniest shred of something real (maybe a newspaper headline) exaggerated to the nth degree. Or they’re an outright lie.

So along comes COMPLIANCE, which is declares right away that it is “Based on True Events.” This time, however, it’s not an idle boast. Not only is COMPLIANCE based on a very real news story, it’s also pretty faithful to that story. Even if you’ll be scratching your head while you watch it.

A few years ago, there were a string of incidents where a man called fast food restaurants, claiming to be a cop, and getting managers and other employees to awful things, based on the “voice of authority” on the phone. COMPLIANCE is based on the most famous of these cases, and I remember the news story well. It was the kind of story you found yourself wondering, “How could anyone be so stupid?” But these people aren’t necessarily stupid (well, some of them are); they’ve just been trained since childhood to obey authority, just like most of us have, and it’s so engrained in them, that they react without really thinking.

COMPLIANCE begins on a Friday night at a fast food joint called ChickWich, that specializes in fried chicken sandwiches. Friday is one of their busiest nights, and the crew at this particular restaurant are understaffed and overworked. Enter franchise manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who’s having a lousy day. Someone left the freezer open the night before, thawing out (and ruining) over a thousand dollars worth of food, and everyone is rude to her, including her staff. I’m sure this isn’t anything new for an older woman who is in charge of a workplace, and we feel for her right away.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets manipulated by a prank caller pretending to be a police officer in COMPLIANCE.

The other main character here is Becky (Dreama Walker), a nineteen year old cashier who’s cute and perky. She’s worried that Sandra thinks she left the freezer open, and she’s scared of losing her job.

With these things in place, along with a very hectic work environment, Sandra gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He says that he is sitting with a customer who claims that Becky stole money from her purse. He explains that he is in the middle of another case right now, and can’t come there right away, but Becky will be arrested and locked up once he can. In the meantime, can Selena do a few things to help his investigation? He also claims to have her superior on another line, and that the man has said she should cooperate.

Frazzled by her workload, depressed about the freezer, and eager to please a voice of authority, Sandra is more than happy to help out. This involves looking through Becky’s pockets, her purse, and eventually asking her to remove her clothes so that Selena can look through them for the stolen money.

When Becky gets undressed, Sandra asks one her female assistant manager, Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), to enter the room, since she asserts that this is company policy during a search (something Officer Daniels doesn’t argue with). As this continues, Sandra makes it clear that she doesn’t have the time to wait around for Daniels or any officers he may be sending, so Daniels tells her to go back to work, but is there a male employee she can have stand guard in the room until the police get there? This is when things start getting really weird.

COMPLIANCE is a small movie, but it’s well-written and pulls you into the story right away. There’s not much preamble before the phone call comes, just a quick introduction to the characters—enough for us to sympathize with them. Becky, for example, is obviously a good girl who most probably would never steal. And the caller, despite whatever lunatic things he tells the people to do, keeps everyone off guard by seeming to know everything he needs to (he does this by tricking the people on the phone into giving the information he wants, by asking just the right questions), he really does sound legitimate, and whenever his story gets a little ludicrous and anyone questions him, he pulls the “fear of jail” card, demanding that people call him “sir” and threatening to arrest anyone who doesn’t go along with him as a possible accomplice.

Is COMPLIANCE a horror film? Not really, and yet what happens in this film is horrific, and is bound to make most people squirm in their seats. I have heard that several audience members for this movie have walked out during the film, for example. As for me, I found the whole thing fascinating, especially keeping in mind that these things really happened. And the movie makes a great case for how this could have transpired.

Toward the end, we finally get to see the caller in his home (and there’s a reason he’s so good at manipulating people on the telephone), and things continue to escalate, until something truly despicable happens. All of this makes for very uncomfortable viewing, and yet not once does COMPLIANCE seem to be straining too much for believability.

Dreama Walker turns in a gutsy performance as Becky, who is victimized by a sadistic prank caller in COMPLIANCE.

A lot of people have dismissed this movie—including some critics—by saying that the movie is unbelievable. That most people would catch on earlier and prevent the situation from getting out of control. But I disagree with that assumption. I think a lot of people would react very similarly to the people in this movie do. As people in the real life case did. And it’s not all about how intelligent people are.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen people do awful things “because they’re told to.” The Nazis spring instantly to mind—the most obvious and extreme version this concept—and yet we don’t even have to go to that far. There have been several psychological test cases where people showed they were more than happy to obey orders to awful extremes. Like the Stanford Prison experiment, where subjects are broken up into groups of prisoners and guards, and as it progressed, the guards began to physically abuse the prisoners in their care. Or, even more famously, the Milgram experiment, where a psychologist tells people he is going to ask someone a question, and if they answer it incorrectly, the assistant is supposed to deliver an electric shock to them. In this experiment, the “assistants” slowly increased the “shocks” until they thought they were at an incredibly painful or almost lethal degree, yet felt justified because they were following orders.

In order to maintain order in a civilized society, we are told that there are certain authority figures we must obey. Teachers, clergy, policemen, bosses. And it is this passive response, this ingrained reflex for submission, that has allowed so many people over the years to abuse their power. Because people were afraid to say no. And COMPLIANCE shows a perfect (and perfectly awful) example of this.

This is not a pleasant film, but then again, it’s not a pleasant subject. But I found myself riveted throughout.

Craig Zobel does a great job here, writing and directing, and the cast is pretty solid, too. Ann Dowd is completely believable, and almost sympathetic (any sympathy we have for her diminishes as they story goes on, however), as the harried Sandra. Dreama Walker (currently one of the stars of the new ABC series DON’T TRUST THE B– IN APARTMENT 23) turns in a vulnerable,  gutsy performance as Becky. The rest of the cast is quite good, too, from Philip Ettinger as Kevin, a co-worker who is uncooperative with the phone caller and is the first one to actually question what’s going on, to Bill Camp as Evan, Sandra’s  fiancée, who is dragged into things when they get really ugly. And Pat Healy as the caller is quite effective playing a complete sociopath.

As we’re told in the film’s denouement, over 70 such calls were placed to (mostly) fast food restaurants in 30 states, so this was not a solitary incident. Although the case this movie is based on is the most notorious one.

I can see why some people wouldn’t like COMPLIANCE, because of its storyline, but there’s a difference between making an unpleasant film, and making a good film about unpleasant subject matter. I think Zobel handles this story well, and makes us understand how such a thing could occur.

I give it three and half knives. And if it’s playing near you, it deserves to be sought out.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives COMPLIANCE ~three and a half knives.

 

Suburban Grindhouse Memories – Double Feature of MOTHER’S DAY (1980) and NIGHTMARE (1981)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2012, Bad Situations, Disturbing Cinema, Gore!, Grindhouse Goodies, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, Killers, Murder!, Nick Cato Reviews, Nightmares, Slasher Movies, Suburban Grindhouse Memories, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2012 by knifefighter

SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES:
“If You Survive the Day, Will You Survive the Night?”
By Nick Cato

Sometime in 1983 (despite racking my brain, I can’t recall if it was March or October), a double feature hit the NY/NJ area that turned out to be one of the most brutal experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Someone had decided to re-release 1980’s MOTHER’S DAY and 1981’s NIGHTMARE (a.k.a. NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN) on the same bill, and this young gorehound couldn’t have been happier as I had missed each one upon their initial release. I couldn’t find the actual newspaper ad, so I attempted to recreate one (see above), only a tag line placed above the twin posters said “If You Survive the Day, Will You Survive the Night?” And by the time the second feature ended, I saw that a few people almost didn’t!

MOTHER’S DAY ran a wicked late night TV ad campaign when released in 1980; horror fans thirsted at its promises of Drano and electric knife attacks (YouTube it if you don’t believe me) and in my case, my parents had said “Who the hell do they make these movies for?” I silently said “ME!!!” Needless to say, I was psyched when I entered the (now defunct) Fox Twin Cinema and the first feature began to unreel.

If you haven’t seen it, MOTHER’S DAY is not exactly a pleasant film, despite its few instances of dark humor and the three entertaining antagonists (two murdering/rapist sons and their slightly unbalanced mother).  The plot is pure exploitation: Three girlfriends go for a weekend get-away camping trip and become victims to the crazed clan. After the two sons (named Ike and Addley) kidnap the girls by making their sleeping bags escape-proof , they dump them in the back yard of their isolated two-story home and proceed to rape them under the moonlight…as their spooky-looking, elderly Mother cheers them on and takes pictures. The audience, which was made up of mostly high school-aged patrons, remained silent throughout this uncomfortable sequence. To this day I list this as one of the top ten most disturbing scenes of all time, mainly due to the mother’s gleeful facial expressions during such a horrific attack.

The film does build some fine tension; after being raped and severely beaten (one of the girls is even killed), the two survivors plan their revenge, and this is where MOTHER’S DAY becomes more than a standard rape/revenge film: it turns into a slasher/revenge hybrid and features the aforementioned scenes of Drano being poured down one brother’s throat, a TV being smashed over another brother’s head, a plugged-in electric carving knife put to good use, plus an antenna shoved into one brother’s throat, and more mayhem than you can shake an amputated arm at. AND…just when our ladies think they’re safe (SPOILER ALERT!), a mutated sibling of the brothers named Queenie hops over some hedges to extract her own revenge in a genuine shock ending.

Brothers Ike and Addley are ready for total mayhem in MOTHER’S DAY (1980).

There’s a lot of goofs in this one (even during the infamous opening decapitation scene, where blood splashes across a woman’s face even before her boyfriend’s head is hacked into!), but its flaws still don’t hurt its overall intensity factor. MOTHER’S DAY is one of the most brutal R-rated horror films I’ve ever seen, evidenced by the audiences’ complete silence throughout the film.

Next up was 1981’s NIGHTMARE (known more commonly as NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN), a film I remembered seeing TV commercials for, but never paying it much mind. By the time it was over, I had become a head-over-heels fan, and have written extensively about it over the years on top of showing it to countless people on both VHS and DVD. And the odd thing is, NIGHTMARE is a standard, by-the-numbers, “psycho released too early from a mental institution” film, complete with bad acting and a couple of tedious stretches. But for some reason, it WORKS in ways few other slasher films do.

George Tatum is released from an institution after being placed on experimental medication (which is barely explained in the film). He travels from somewhere north of New York down to Florida to murder his family, wasting innocent bystanders along the way. Unlike most films of its kind, NIGHTMARE’s graphic gore sequences are actually scary and hard to watch, especially the infamous double-homicide finale where George flashes back to the time when, as a child, he murdered his dad and his mistress with an axe…a scene that’s shown in quick hints throughout the film, making it nearly impossible to handle once it’s finally shown in full. It was the first time I actually SWEATED watching a horror film, and afterwards, I saw about six people standing outside the theatre, leaning against the wall, actually collecting themselves over the insane images they had just seen. How many FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels ever did that to someone?

You better hope George Tatum isn’t calling YOU! From 1981’s NIGHTMARE!

This grueling double feature was unique from all of my other grindhouse experiences due to the fact both films kept the crowd in submission: both were serious doses of hardcore horror that—at the time—no one was expecting, other than those who had seen them a couple years earlier. My friends and I agreed we felt like someone had punched us in the face for the past three hours, and with a very few exceptions, we had not gone through a single or double feature quite this barbaric since.

Both of these films hold up well today, although they may not be as intense to hardcore horror fans in light of some of the ultra-graphic splatter films that have come after them. But it’s not just the gore FX that made MOTHER’S DAY and NIGHTMARE so gruesome and horrific: each film was a rebellious work of no-holds-barred anarchy that’s seldom seen in the theater today, in any genre. They’re films today’s multiplex crowds just won’t get to behold.

(MOTHER’S DAY will be released on blu-ray in a deluxe edition in September, 2012, and NIGHTMARE finally came to DVD the summer of 2011 and quickly sold out. Today it can be found on the second hand market for as high as $99.00).

© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato

Mama just loves her boys! From MOTHER’S DAY (1980)