Archive for Movies

Tricks, Treats, and Scares

Trick ‘r Treat

Just a day left ’til the best day of the year, so let’s get one more review done — namely for this, the best horror movie about Halloween ever made.

“Trick ‘r Treat” is a movie that many of you have never seen and many have never even heard of. Thank the studio for that — it was finished and in the can, but got held back for two whole years ’til it was finally released direct-to-DVD. What can you say — sometimes, the studios are dumber’n stumps.

The film was written and directed by Michael Dougherty and produced by Bryan Singer. The stars included Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, and scads of others.

So what’ve we got here? It’s a good old-fashioned horror anthology — four different stories, all taking place in the same town on the same Halloween night. All of the stories are based around various important Halloween traditions — don’t blow out a jack-o-lantern before midnight, wear a costume, give candy to trick-or-treaters, and check your candy before you eat it — and about the dangers that can befall you if you break those traditions.

We get stories about a young couple — one a Halloween fan, the other a Halloween hater. We get a school principal who has some unusual holiday traditions to share with students. We get a bunch of kids playing a prank on an awkward friend and what they learn about the urban legend of the Halloween School Bus Massacre. We get a young woman hoping to lose her virginity on Halloween. We get the cantankerous old man who hates Halloween and how he deals with a persistent trick-or-treater. And wrapped in and around these stories is one recurring character — Sam, a little kid wearing a tacky orange clown suit and an ugly, ominous burlap sack over his head.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This isn’t the scariest movie in the world — in fact, it’s really fairly tame, as horror movies go. Not to say it doesn’t have its share of scary moments — but this movie doesn’t aspire to be “The Exorcist.” This one is basically a nice little love letter to Halloween.

It’s probably more accurate to call this a horror-comedy, as it has a lot of funny or at least morbidly funny moments. Probably the funniest episode is the one focusing on the principal, though that one has some really outstanding tension. All the rest have some great humor in them, just enough to give you a short break from the scares. Probably the most purely terrifying episode is the one featuring the Halloween School Bus Massacre, which mostly sets the humor aside in favor of giving you nightmares.

And the setting and mood help make this one a winner, too. This is set in a small Ohio town that manages to have the best dang Halloween celebrations I’ve ever seen, complete with huge, anarchic street festivals, costumed marching bands, people who decorate their yards with scarecrows and hordes of jack-o-lanterns, and more kids out trick-or-treating than I’ve seen in at least a decade. This is what I wish every Halloween could be like (minus the supernatural murders, of course), and watching it really hits you in the nostalgia-bone.

It’s a fantastic movie. Rent it, stream it, buy it, whatever you gotta do.

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The Haunt of Horror

The Haunting

I’ll come right out and say it — in my opinion, this is the best and most frightening horror movie ever made. I don’t know why it isn’t better known….

Anyway, this one was released in 1963 (There was a remake in 1999. Don’t watch it. It’s not good.), produced and directed by Robert Wise. The script was written by Nelson Gidding, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. The stars included Julie Harris as the frightfully nervous Eleanor Lance, Claire Bloom as hip lesbian Theodora, Richard Johnson as level-headed parapsychologist Dr. John Markway, and Russ Tamblyn as skeptical rich kid Luke Sanderson.

The plot involves Dr. Markway inviting a small group of people to Hill House, a notorious haunted house, in an attempt to prove the existence of ghosts. Hill House is not the sort of haunted house that brings headless spirits, levitating candelabra, or ladies in white — it’s a malevolent house, seemingly alive and capable of its own devious thoughts. It manifests itself as cold spots, unpleasant smells, and doors that are hinged just barely off-center, so they never stay open or closed for very long.

In the daylight, Hill House seems almost sane, but in the night, in the dark, it conspires to separate people, slams invisible cannonballs down the hallways, and giggles, moans, screams, weeps. Whatever walks there may walk alone, but it doesn’t want to be alone — it wants company in its madness, and it ruthlessly exploits every weakness to get what it wants.

Eleanor soon finds herself as the focus of the house’s obsessions — but we can’t tell if she’s really that upset by the attention. She’s emotionally unstable, desperate for friends and acceptance, but wracked by guilt because she thinks she may have let her elderly, overbearing mother die. And Hill House offers her a place where she’ll be loved and accepted forever — granted, she’d be surrounded by the mad cackling and shrieks of the dead, but maybe she really wants to be the center of all that attention.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Like I said, my very favorite horror movie. It doesn’t look like much — it’s in black and white, it doesn’t have a lot of big-name stars, and incredibly, it has almost no special visual effects. It accomplishes almost all of this wonderful terror with great cinematography and amazing sound effects. The mood, the creepiness, the genuine fear are all there in spades.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have monsters crawling through the walls, it doesn’t have chainsaws, it doesn’t have pea-soup vomit, it doesn’t have buckets of gore, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that everyone expects from horror films. It’s quiet, it’s subtle, it gets under your skin, it grabs that part of your brain that wakes up after nightmares and wants to cower underneath the blanket because this time it really might be real.

If you love horror movies and you haven’t yet seen this one, you owe it to yourself to watch it. Go find it, pop it into the DVD player, and find out what it’s all about. It’s almost Halloween, and you deserve some truly excellent scares.

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Madness Takes its Toll

It’s a week and a half ’til Halloween, the best holiday of the year, and I’m tired of reviewing regular comics. So let’s spend the rest of the month focusing on stuff that’s scary — whether it be comics, movies, or anything else. And heck, today, let’s start with a movie.

Session 9

This movie was directed by Brad Anderson, written by Anderson and Stephen Gevedon, and released back in 2001.

The movie’s characters include Gordon (Peter Mullan) who runs a small asbestos removal company and is under a great deal of pressure by a new baby and lower profits from his business. He employs Phil (David Caruso), his rock-steady partner who hates fellow employee Hank (Josh Lucas) for stealing his girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, one of the writers) is a former law school student who everyone agrees is too smart to be working such a lousy job, and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) is Gordon’s nephew, grateful to be working for his uncle.

They all get introduced to the Danvers State Mental Hospital, where they have just one week to clean up the asbestos at the site — an almost impossible task. Gordon hears voices calling his name. Everyone gets their heads filled with stories about lobotomies and murders and madness. Hank discovers a cache of money and valuables. And Mike starts skipping out on his duties so he can listen to old reel-to-reel tapes of a psychiatrist interviewing a patient named Mary who suffers from multiple personalities, some innocent, one very, very malign. There are nine tapes, each covering a single psychiatric session with Mary and the voices in her head.

Hank disappears. And everything goes to hell.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I like this movie a lot. It seems like it’s been specifically designed to appeal to my personal sense of what makes the scariest movies — not a lot of gory violence, no monsters jumping out of closets, just a lot of quiet, creepy stuff.

The introductory premise alone is enough to get many viewers squirming — asbestos can cause cancer and other serious conditions with the right exposures, but in popular culture, the risk is even higher and more dire. Just imagining working around such a dangerous mineral, always looking for a way to worm its way into your lungs to wreak havoc, can be enough to make many audience members nervous.

All the actors do a great job — nothing really spectacular, just good work by good actors. Even Caruso does a fine job — his eccentric performances in “CSI: Miami” are nowhere in evidence.

But the star of the film is, without a doubt, the Danvers Hospital itself.

It used to be a real mental hospital that operated from 1878 to 1992. It was said to be the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium, and thus for the Arkham Asylum from the Batman comics.

In the years since its closure, the facility has remained beautiful and stately (but also ominously threatening) on the outside — but on the inside, it became almost unspeakably decayed and claustrophobic — as pure a metaphor for madness as can be described. The building is a maze of peeling paint, cracked windows, and dark, shadowy corridors. Little work was needed to make the sets scarier — real-life age, neglect, decay, and dust had done the hard work for the set designers. The building looks genuinely terrifying, inside and out.

There are shocks and scares here, but they’re not the ones that come screaming down the hallways, scraping talons on the walls and slinging viscera over the landscape. These are quiet, whispering, intimate fears. They hide just on the other side of your own worries and quirks and distrusts and paranoias. Gordon, Phil, Mike, Hank, and Jeff have the same weaknesses we have, and any of us could share their fates.

It’s a wonderfully scary movie. Go pick it up.

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Kickstart the Goon!

What the heck, another new post? I’m gonna spoil you guys for new content.

Nevertheless: HOLY EXPLODING ZOMBIES, PEOPLE, THIS IS BIG.

Surely you’ve seen the preview trailer for the film of “The Goon,” right? It looks awesome, doesn’t it? Well, the rotten thing about that (other than that zombie) is that it’s not in production and hasn’t been able to get funding. Because Hollywood is stupid.

But now there’s a Goon movie Kickstarter to get things rolling. Eric Powell is in it. David Fincher is in it. Other people are in it. Yeah, $400,000 is pretty steep, but you don’t have to provide all of that cash. (Unless you want to, in which case, could I also mention that bloggin’ don’t pay squat? Thanks, rich pals.)

Just wanted to mention it, people, so you’ll go out and help fund that there Kickstarter. The Goon needs to be up on the silver screen!

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The Power of Rock

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I finally (finally) (FINALLY!) got off my lazy butt and watched this movie. I figure I won’t step on any toes if I review it now.

Basic plot: Scott Pilgrim is a Canadian slacker. He’s dating a high-schooler with the endlessly awesome name of Knives Chau! Until he meets the love of his life, Ramona Flowers. Standard angsty romance stuff. At least until Ramona’s evil exes start coming out of the woodwork to engage in video-game-inspired duels to the death with our hapless Canadian bass player. Can Scott defeat all seven of the exes? Can he win Ramona’s love? Can he master the Power of Love and the Power of Self-Respect?

Verdict: A great big fat thumbs-up. I’m really sorry I didn’t see this when it was in the theaters, ’cause that woulda been awesome.

Probably the only thing I didn’t like about this movie was that it wasn’t as insanely epic as the trailers made it out to be. But that’s a problem of my own expectations, not with the movie itself, which is a great big bucket of fun.

Of course, no movie is for everyone. Some people don’t like Michael Cera, ’cause he’s generally played the predictably dorky guy with a shaggy hairdo, but that works out pretty well in this one, ’cause Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be a dorky guy with a shaggy hairdo. If you’re not going to like movies that traffic heavily in video game jokes — like defeated enemies who turn into coins or being able to grab an extra life or power-up weapon from time to time — this may not be the movie for you. If you don’t like movies with over-the-top cartoon violence and stunts, there’s something wrong with you, but you probably won’t like this. If you don’t like movies with comic-book elements, like outlandish written sound effects or superpowers — well, I don’t know why you’re reading this blog, but this movie may not be for you either, you poor soul.

If all of that sounds awesome, then you’re probably going to enjoy this movie.

I can’t compare it to the comics — I haven’t finished reading all of them yet. I can tell you that there are some pretty big changes from the comic to the movie. Some elements are eliminated, some characters are combined or mixed together, but these don’t do too much damage to the final product. Lots of other reviewers have noted that Ramona’s story in the comic is a lot more important — there’s a complete storyarc for her, and she’s more than just The Girl Scott Pilgrim Loves — that’s probably a legitimate criticism, though I’m not sure how they would’ve squeezed more story into a feature-length movie already filled with a whole lot of plot.

I can tell you some of my very favorite bits. Every single bit of the fight with Matthew Patel is brilliant — it’s definitely the best fight in the movie, and it’s too bad they couldn’t re-create some of that mad energy for some of the other battles. I loved the animated sequences designed to look like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s artwork in the comics. I loved the Bass Battle, I loved “Ninja Ninja Revolution,” I loved all the hilarious background jokes. I even loved the way the Universal Studios theme was played as an 8-bit video game theme. And I loved the fact that Edgar Wright, director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” is now three-for-three when it comes to awesome movies.

And the characters really are excellent. Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Alison Pill as Kim Pine, Mark Webber as Stephen Stills, Johnny Simmons as Young Neil, Brie Larson as Envy Adams, Chris Evans as Lucas Lee, Brandon Routh as Todd Ingram, Mae Whitman as Roxy Richter, and especially Ellen Wong as Knives Chau. Wong completely owns every scene she appears in, and I’m glad they expanded Knives’ role in the movie, just so we can see more of Ellen Wong acting awesome.

If you haven’t seen it yet, then you should definitely give it a watch. I loved the stuffin’ out of it.

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What? A superhero movie? Filming in Lubbock?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised — we’ve actually managed several comic conventions in recent years, which I thought would never happen… so why not a superhero movie?

I actually feel a bit guilty about this — I’d been hearing some folks talk about this “Alike in Dignity” short film project and always assumed it was being filmed in California or New York. But nope, it’s being filmed locally right here in Lubbock. Why didn’t I ever catch on to this? I have no idea. Just completely spaced it for months and months. Egg on my face? Yeah, that’s me — pretty much totally dropped the ball on this one.

Basically, here’s the situation: Daniel W. Ballard is a film student living in Lubbock but taking classes out of San Francisco — good ol’ online coursework means you can take classes anywhere as long as you’ve got a good Internet connection. He and a friend named Tim Kuhn wrote a script for a movie, and a guy named Daniel P. Ballard (no relation to Daniel W.) is going to direct it.

The full title is “Alike in Dignity: A Super Love Story,” and it’s about a guy and a girl in love — but the guy and all his family are superheroes, and the girl and all her family are supervillains. Thanksgiving with the in-laws gets interesting when everyone wants to shoot you with plasma blasts and laser beams, ya know?

You can read William Kerns’ article about the movie here. And Daniel W. Ballard put together a site and video to help fundraise for the movie here — they’ve met their fundraising goal, but any additional money will just help make the movie (and Ballard’s other thesis projects) that much better.

If you want to get an idea of what the movie will look like — without fancy costumes or special effects — you can watch a sample here. Looks pretty good for a bunch of people yelling “PCHOW! PEWW! PSHH!” while running around in their underwear — just imagine how good it’ll look with real costumes and effects…

Hopefully, that makes up a little bit for not helping to do any promotion of it before…  :/

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Essential Salts

I really try not to blog about movies very often — the A-J has a perfectly awesome film blog already, and it ain’t like William Kerns ever runs up and reviews comic books out from under me, right? But I’m gonna make an exception this time…

Any of y’all living in Lubbock — Texas Tech is going to be offering a free showing and panel discussion on a movie called “Salt of the Earth” this Wednesday, March 31, from 6-9 p.m. in Room 101 of the Mass Communications Building.

I’ve only seen this movie once, years ago, while taking a film class in college, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal film. It was made in 1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman and written by Michael Biberman and Michael Wilson. It starred a few professional actors, like Will Geer, and a bunch of non-professional actors — in other words, many of them had never acted before.

It was based on an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico and dealt with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who unionized and went on strike to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. The film has a strong feminist theme, because the wives of the miners, against their husbands’ wishes, play a pivotal role in the strike.

Quite a few members of the cast and crew, including the director, Will Geer, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and producer Paul Jarrico, were members of the Hollywood Ten, who had been blacklisted for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After the movie was completed, the filmmakers had trouble finding anyone who would process their film, much less release it. The film was denounced as pro-Communist, and the movie was in theaters for a very short period, thanks to angry protestors and skittish theater owners. Lots of people still don’t know the movie exists, which is too bad, ’cause it really is an excellent film.

I’ve got to assume all the hoopla about its pro-Communist leanings was just panicked hype, because from what I remember of it, the major themes were pro-union, pro-feminism, and pro-civil rights. It’s really a pretty mellow film — quiet, subtle, not too flashy, heroes with feet of clay, and all that. The acting is really one of the most amazing things about the movie — there are so many non-professional actors — only five of the actors were pros, but if you don’t know which ones they are, you’ll never figure it out, ’cause everyone on the screen just comes across as a serious, 100% professional actors, even the people who were hired from the nearest town and never made a movie again.

It’s an outstanding film, and it’s free, fer cryin’ out loud! If you’re in Lubbock, go see it.

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The Casting Call of Cthulhu

‘Tis the season to review a Lovecraftian movie that’s a few years old…

The Call of Cthulhu

People have been telling me I should see this movie forever, and I finally broke down and gave it a watch.

If you’re any sort of fan of H.P. Lovecraft, you know “The Call of Cthulhu” as his best known story, written back in 1926 and consisting primarily of a series of notes and accounts of various strange phenomena, blasphemous cults worshiping a monstrous squid-headed deity called Cthulhu, and panicked speculation about what it could all mean. It reads better than it sounds, because Lovecraft was a master of taking bizarre ideas and making them sound, if not plausible, at least fun to imagine. It’s also one of the few Lovecraft stories that no one has ever made a serious attempt to film — because how do you turn a bunch of scribbled and typewritten notes into a film?

Back around the early- to mid-2000s, the folks who run the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, already very well experienced with creating realistic props for “Call of Cthulhu” RPG campaigns, decided to do what was thought to be impossible — make a film adaptation of Lovecraft’s most referenced story. And they went with a suprisingly low-tech, low-cost strategy — a silent movie.

What’s cool is the fact that, if anyone had made a movie of Lovecraft’s stories while he was still alive, this is what you would’ve gotten — a black-and-white silent movie. They actually use a combination of vintage filmmaking techniques and modern digital effects — they use digital compositing to turn a small number of actors into a horde of cultists, while they go with old-school stop-motion animation to create Cthulhu himself.

How’s it turn out? It turns out pretty darn awesome. You’ve got excellent editing, cinematography, lighting, and low-tech but very cool special effects. You’ve got sets, acting, and makeup that call to mind German Expressionism. You have an amazingly effective musical score. (True story: First time I watched this, I accidentally watched it without the sound, thinking, hey, silent movie, right? The second time, I realized my mistake and turned the speakers on — Wow, what a difference. Turned a cool movie into a seriously awesome one.)

I doubt it ever had a shot at any serious hoity-toity film awards, but it’s very, very popular with Lovecraft fans. Heck, even film connoisseurs may get a kick out of a recent-vintage old-school silent movie. And yes, it does look like they did the impossible — this is the most faithful adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s works, and it’s also pretty spooky and suspenseful, too. Lovecraft fans, this should be on your Must-See list, if you haven’t seen it already.

Not sure this is going to be available at local retailers of any sort, but you can find it for sale online.

Go pick it up. It makes great Halloween viewing for Cthulhu worshipers of all sorts.

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Capes in Hollywood

Here was my interesting inspiration for the weekend: a fan-made trailer for a “Green Lantern” movie that doesn’t actually exist. It includes snippets from everything from “Serenity” to “Iron Man” to “Star Trek” to “Prince Caspian” — and thanks to really wonderful editing, it all makes sense, and it looks like it would make a wonderful movie. I’d never thought of Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan, but now I think he’d be perfect for the role.

But in the real world, DC can’t seem to get a movie made to save its life. Compare Wikipedia’s list of DC movies to their list of Marvel movies, and it’s pretty clear that Marvel is stomping DC when it comes to getting movies on the big screen. Heck, Marvel is getting actually making sequels of movies that weren’t successes the first time out (like the Hulk and Punisher movies) — and while that may not mean they’re going to win any Oscars any time soon, it also means that when you watch the entertainment programs and read the entertainment mags, they’re all talking about those low-rent Marvel movies. I mean, Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse,” was champing at the bit to make a “Wonder Woman” movie, and DC blew him off. That’s not a publisher who has a single clue about film, don’tcha think?

If DC (and of course, their corporate parent, Warner Brothers) were smart, they’d follow the Marvel method of filmmaking — throw everything you’ve got at the wall and see what sticks. Yes, that means you’ll get some stinkers like “Elektra” and “Daredevil” and the third “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies. But holding your fire in the hopes that the third “Batman” movie will again do boffo box office is a great way to guarantee that, even if you make hundreds of millions with that one movie, you’ll still just be a Hollywood also-ran.

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"I like this ship! It’s exciting!"

startrekmovie

Star Trek

Yeah, it’s movie-review time again.

As you’ve already heard from every other reviewer in the universe, the new “Star Trek” movie is pretty spectacularly awesome. I’m not a big enough Trekkie to have made the first showing (I’ve got a severe allergy to people who show up for movies wearing costumes), but my brother and I took a break from installing insulation Sunday afternoon to hit the theater. I’d been taking the early reviews with a grain of salt — I remember how wildly enthusiastic the “Star Wars” fans were when “Phantom Menace” hit the big screen — but I got won over very fast.

No spoiler here — all the action here takes place in an alternate universe from the standard “Star Trek” continuity, which gives the filmmakers the opportunity to reboot classic “Star Trek” into something new for the 21st century. And even better, they gave the whole thing to a guy with no connection to previous “Star Trek” movies — J.J. Abrams, a dude who is best known for producing and directing action movies and wildly complicated TV shows. As a result, you get a movie that, while very respectful of classic Trek’s history and performances, doesn’t feel duty-bound to precisely replicate them, especially when audiences would rather enjoy some brawling, some stuntwork, some thrills, and some shocks.

I was expecting the least from Chris Pine, the guy who was picked to play the new version of James Kirk, but he ended up being the best surprise — he doesn’t try to channel William Shatner, but he does bring the essence of Kirk — the brash, cocky, womanizing bad boy — to the screen. Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and especially Simon Pegg as the uncommonly funny Montgomery Scott are pretty much perfect, and everyone else is really close to perfect. Eric Bana’s genocidal Romulan Nero is an extraordinarily appealing character — party psycho, part charmer (I’m wildly in favor of his initial greeting to Captain Pike), and almost as good a villain as Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh or Christopher Plummer’s General Chang.

I’ve seen some complaints that it’s got too much action. I’d consider that a legitimate complaint if it was bad action or pointless action, but it’s not. It’s good action that serves the plot and doesn’t get in the way of character development. Yes, McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, and other characters don’t get as much screen time as Kirk, Spock, and Uhura — I certainly would’ve loved to see Pegg and Urban get some more time in front of the cameras. But this is an ensemble cast — there’s just no way to make sure all of them get equal time.

I think it’s a great movie, and a great way to reboot the series. I’m looking forward to the sequels.

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