Halloween movie reviews…

John Dies at the End

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So I took a little longer to write this because I wanted to finish reading the book before I gave my opinion of the movie.  I know they’re not the same thing, but sometimes reading the book helps put the movie in better perspective.  If you like surrealistic humor mixed with horror told in a sort of stream of consciousness style, this is your jam, homes.  I love how the movie followed the book pretty much verbatim for the first half but then I felt that the climax of the movie was all wrong and totally not a climax.  When I read the book, it became clear that there was a megaton of action, characters, and incidents that had to be combined (sometimes unsuccessfully) and cut to make it film-length.  This hurt the movie as it didn’t have the right pacing and depth.  Still, lots of fun, unpredictable and great acting all around.  Look for the cameo by Doug Jones!

 

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Halloween movies continued…

You’re Next

 

you're next

A great little horror from graduate of Ithaca College, Adam Wingard who gave himself a nifty cameo in the film where we get to watch him get his shit ruined.  This movie is part home invasion, part whodunit.  This didn’t do so well in the theaters but that may have been attributed to being released in late August (vacation time) and having followed after The Purge (which I have not seen) so maybe people were “horror-ed out” by then.  Reviewer Ryan Turek has a very good breakdown as to possibilities:

 http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/175763-4-reasons-why-youre-next-whimpered-at-the-box-office/

Synopsis – a family and their significant others gather at the lovely if somewhat rundown Tudor-style vacation estate out in the woods to celebrate the parents’ anniversary and dad’s retirement.  An attack begins shortly thereafter and chaos ensues and the killers assure us, “You’re next.”

It’s not terribly hard to figure out who and why this is happening, but that doesn’t detract from the story at all.  Waiting to see how it plays out is still worth it.  There is enough gore to fulfill the bloodhounds, and enough tension and decent acting and script so as to not devolve into a mere gratuitous bloodbath.  Adding  just the right touch of comedy relief makes for a very scary, fun and watchable movie.
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Halloween Movie Round Up

The first in a short series of reviews for recommended Halloween horror films.

Ratings as follows –

pumpkindon’t bother, this shit is unwatchable

pumpkinpumpkinsome good points but ultimately failed as a film

pumpkinpumpkinpumpkinsome issues but I was willing to overlook them and overall it was enjoyable

pumpkinpumpkinpumpkinpumpkina solid movie from start to finish and recommended watching

 

the caller

The Caller – Recently divorced Mary moves into a run down super-seventies style apartment and begins receiving calls from what appears to be a either a crank or perhaps the creation of an over-stressed and fragile mind.  When she realizes this is no joke, Mary attempts to end the relationship with dire consequences.  Starring Rachelle Lefevre and Stephen Moyer, a nifty little thriller with some plot holes I’m willing to forgive as there are some truly creepy moments and the underlying premise is a fun one.  Did not like the voice acting for the young girl on the phone (can’t say more because it would be a spoiler).  Good acting overall and a lovely cameo and voice work by Lorna Raver (Drag Me to Hell).  Very dark and atmospheric, would work really well as a play.

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I love monkey puppets.

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Dear friends, I have been remiss in not mentioning one of my all-time favorite performers who is a crossover talent–the scintillating Nina Conti.  Ventriloquist, comedian, actor, and sometimes-singer (check out the clip at the end of the post).  Now some of you may groan and picture some cheesy–or worse, creepy, Vaudeville-esque wooden dummy with a sad sweaty guy trying not to move his lips.  Throw that shit away promptly.  Nina is smart, creative, and dare I say lyrical in her interpretation and use of ventriloquism as a comedic art form.

Somehow she slipped under my radar for a while, but lucky for me she’s back again, front and center.  I recently watched a documentary of hers that came out in 2012 entitled, Her Master’s Voice (not to be confused with the erotic novel of the same title, and you can throw that away too).  It follows Nina on her pilgrimage to the Vent Haven 2009 convention which is held annually in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.  Words are almost not enough to paint the scene to which the viewers are privy.  There are more puppets and puppeteers/ventriloquists than I could have possibly imagined existed.  If you are a young person interested in puppetry and/or ventriloquism, nag your parents into visiting.  Even if you can’t go to the convention, you can always be inspired and amazed by the collection of “retired” puppets at the Vent Haven Museum (which is open May – September by appointment only).

I don’t want to say too much about the film’s narrative except that it is a very strange and moving story with some wonderful bright moments of intense humor and it features some really fantastic bifurcation or “voice throwing.”  We also get a very personal window into Nina Conti’s creative inspiration; including information to pique your interest to learn more about the incomparable and sometimes incomprehensible work of Ken Campbell.  What’s also a super-treat is we can watch her interacting with a much wider variety of puppets than seem to be typically featured in her act.

At the end of the day though, I would like to point out that Nina once and for all proves ventriloquism and puppetry can be as relevant, vibrant, and entertaining as any theater art form.  Her website http://www.ninaconti.co.uk, a.k.a. “Monk’s Treehouse” is a bit broken and barren, but there are Youtube clips galore where you can enjoy Nina and the antics of her snarky, foul-mouthed simian hand-puppet.  Pure genius.

P.S. One of my favorites is her short “One Free Hand.”

Belated Horror Movie Reviews

Sorry friends for the delay.  As you may know from my previous post, I have been working on a massive project of a house.  Still, this post has been gnawing at my insides for weeks and I ditched some responsibilities this evening to nurse a minor sinus headache and finish it up.

I like to spend free time in October leading up to Halloween watching (or re-watching) various and sundry horror films, and playing/replaying horror video games.  Now that I am catching up on life, I have had time to pen some proper reviews.  Following are my thoughts and recommendations for a selection of films, on a scale of zero to five stars (*).

A Tale of Two Sisters – * * *

An interesting little K-horror movie which I read was the basis for the recent American horror flick “The Uninvited” which is NOT to be confused with the classic 1940’s ghost story/romance of the same name, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey.  I have been looking forever for an original recording of “Stella by Starlight” from that movie but to no avail.  I digress.  A Tale of Two Sisters was, for this audience member, intriguing but ultimately a bit confusing.  The story is about self-deception and massive delusion/hallucination so it’s not quite  clear what is real and what is fantasy.  It is well acted, and the main character, Su-mi, has just the right amount of pathos.  A bit of gore but not too much and some truly creepy moments that punctuate periods of calm which allow the tension to build.

Pontypool – * * * *

A sort of zombie apocalypse/rage virus plague story which relates to linguistics and semiotics (I’m getting a word-nerd boner just getting to use those terms!)  Steven McHattie who plays the hero has the most unbelievably smooth, sexy, sonorous radio voice ever.  He plays a sort of Don Imus-y, crusty old radio shock jock who witnesses and narrates the events as they unfold outside his church basement studio.  There were some heavy-handed metaphors about bigotry, and misunderstanding other cultures but this offered some of the comic relief, so the obviousness didn’t bother me as much.  You can positively feel the chill of the Ontario winter and the claustrophobic atmosphere is wonderful.  The actor playing Dr. Mendez is atrocious and one of the very few sour points for me.  I also didn’t understand why he would be speaking Armenian if his name were “Mendez.”  Didn’t make sense.  Now, I’m going to have to read the books by Tony Burgess upon which this movie was based (though from the book reviews I’ve read, the film and books are miles apart).

Blood and Donuts – *

This is (for the record, it’s properly spelled “doughnuts”)—a Canadian horror flick starring actor, Gordon Currie.  He looked familiar so I looked it up and turns out he was in a fun little creepy, pedophilic coming-of-age story called “Ripe” which I’d seen a while back.  While he is pretty good, this movie is not.  Sidenote—I’ve always been amazed by the ability of excellent actors to shine even when a script is terrible.  Sometimes it’s worse to have good actors because it highlights how shitty the plot and the other actors are.   I’m a big fan of vampire stories so I will usually watch one even if it got “m’eh” reviews in hopes that the critics were wrong.  I had heard that this one garnered a bit of a cult following even though it didn’t do well box office-wise.  Sorry, but this time, the cult is wrong.  The actor (Louis Ferreira) playing the “lovelorn cabbie” is doing this weird, terrible foreigner-cum-Christopher Walken impression.  Methinks the actor (Helene Clarkson) playing the doughnut shopgirl looks a bit too old to be playing some chick who works in a doughnut shop to put herself through school, and unfortunately they didn’t give her much of a character to work with, so she’s stuck doing this lame tough-girl cliché.  It’s not believable in a movie that the vampire would fall head-over heels at first sight for someone with an okay face and a bitchy demeanor.   Aside from this, it had an anorexic plot, mostly mediocre performances, and laughably bad special effects.  And I’m sorry, but you cannot use a car battery as a make-shift AED to bring someone back who has likely suffered massive internal bleeding.  Dumbass should have driven himself to a hospital, not a loading dock.

Blair Witch 2 –  * * * *

Bitchy, back-lashing haters be damned; this was a pretty darn good B horror flick.  After the monumental success of arguably the first online viral-video advertising for an independent film, people just didn’t have anything nice to say and the audience stayed away in droves.  BW1 was groundbreaking, pretty well acted, but ultimately flawed with plot holes.  Still, it was an achievement.  This movie picks up where that one left off, but doesn’t attempt to be another “found footage” type, though it does incorporate the use of cameras as a narrative device and pays homage to the first film.  It creates a nice little story with some interesting subplots, and keeps the scares coming with ambiguity and suggestion; toying with the viewers’ ideas of what is really happening.  As a side note, as the credits roll you will hear a wonderful and atmospheric track from one of my favorite 90’s act – Poe.

House of the Devil – * * * * *

This is a very slow paced, but incredibly well done film in the style of late 1970’s to early 80’s Satanic Panic horror.  I know it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere for a long time, but trust me and stick with it, slasher fans.  Furthermore, I defy the average viewer watching this to find a single anachronism without resorting to an internet look-up.  From the super high-rise stone washed jeans (which are weirdly back in fashion) to the foam-cushioned earphones on her walkman, right down to the acting style.  This is spot-on.  Fun fact: the actor playing the main baddie was also the baddie in Manhunter (the original 1986 film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ book  Red Dragon).  I knew that guy looked familiar.

Gingersnaps/Gingersnaps Back,  – * * * * *

(not to include Gingersnaps: Unleashed which only gets * )

I include these together because the second is basically a continuation of the first, though they have very different stories and styles.  Fun script, fresh story, pretty good acting all around (loved Mimi Rogers as the sweet, clueless mom!)  What Jennifer’s Body wished it had been.  Stop after the second one.  Gingersnaps: Unleashed was a period piece (Why? And the connection it was trying to establish with the modern films made no sense) that was loosely related to the characters from the first story.  It was filmed concurrently with the sequel (GSB), had the biggest budget and best special effects, but a completely disappointing story.  The first two had way lower budgets and thus worked so much harder.  Also, I don’t like when movies set in “olden times” have characters use modern dialogue.  Acting in GSU was still pretty good despite that and a pretty cheesy, predictable plot.  The first two make a very nicely done coming-of-age metaphor while looking at relationships between female siblings, and women’s roles and positions in society.  It’s a werewolf-teen comedy-slasher-chick flick all in one tidy package.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

 

Recently, I attended an IMAX showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the adventure classic by Spielberg and Lucas, starring Harrison Ford.  Seeing it on the very big screen was fantastic, and they did a good job of cleaning up the image without making it look “done.”  During the scene where Indy faces the cobra, you used to be able to see reflections on the glass that stood between them.  That appears to have been fixed.

Yet, watching the film years later as an educated adult, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with some glaringly apparent errors in continuity, geography, and cultural inaccuracies.  Also, there were some things that just didn’t seem to make sense.    Now, I’m not talking about the continuity errors that you would have to be paying super-close attention to have noticed; i.e. the position of a particular object from shot to shot (visit www.movemistakes.com for a fairly comprehensive rundown of that stuff).  I’m talking about mistakes that positively cannot be ignored.

Why is the Ark hidden in the Egyptian city of Tanis if it was stolen from Solomon’s temple by ancient Babylonians?  Wouldn’t they likely have brought it to their capital city of Babylon?  How would the Babylonian Empire ever fall if they possessed the power of the Ark of the Covenant?  We would all be under their rule by now, don’t you think?  Then again, how would the kingdom of Solomon ever have been defeated if they had the power of the Ark to back them?  Doesn’t make any damn sense.

When Indy gains control of the truck which contains the Ark and is fleeing the Nazis, he moves quickly from a bleak, craggy desert (which Belloq told Marion is “three weeks in every direction”) into a lush palm forest.  What the what?

I feel like a modern moviegoer almost knows a bit more and/or can easily access so much information now via online sources that it can be pretty difficult for some movies to hold up to even the slightest scrutiny.  It didn’t ruin the film, but it lost some of its magic for me.  I guess that’s a function of watching it with the eyes of an adult.

Nevertheless, I still love this film on the whole and it is my favorite of the entire franchise, followed closely by Last Crusade.  Don’t even talk to me about Crystal Skull which was such a massive disappointment.  The Beef is annoying as hell, and they couldn’t get a decent story together.  It was further ruined by the fact that pre-Columbian crystal skulls are a bunch of hooey.  While I admit some are very beautiful, they are not true Mesoamerican artifacts.  Get over it.

War Horse: I love puppets.

Ever since I was very young, I have loved puppetry.  If I hit the lottery tonight, I would quit my job to study the art of puppet construction and performance.  While puppetry was only part of the show and not the whole thing, they used it very successfully as a tool to allow full-sized horses to be present on the stage with actors.  I thought it was so great to illustrate to the American theater-going audiences how puppets can contribute in a beautiful and important way to adult theater performance.  As a nation, we seem to think that puppetry is for children or a lesser theater art form than human acting.  Fortunately, some cultures and countries are more open-minded and understand the amazing and entertaining applications of puppetry and have organizations to promote adult puppet theater.

So often in films, I am disappointed by the sort of “liquid” and plastic-looking CGI.  I would prefer that many creature effects were done with puppets and animatronics instead.  If you’d like to widen your horizons and see an wonderful film that makes excellent use of the art of marionetting, watch Strings, an international film (English and Swedish, I believe) made in 2004 whose story is an allegory for the war on terror.  It is voice-acted beautifully by actors including Derek Jacobi, James McAvoy, and Catherine McCormack.

Film Review: Cabin in the Woods

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An enjoyable homage by Drew Goddard (Lost, Alias, Angel, Buffy) and Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Toy Story, Titan A.E., Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) to the classic horror sub-genre of “teens go away for fun weekend of sex, booze and drugs; murderous mayhem ensues.” 

A bit horror, a bit splat-stick (some scenes not for the squeamish), a bit dark comedy, a bit sci-fi, a bit fantasy.  An excellent cast  all around (and surprising– Sigourney Weaver?!  Richard Jenkins?! Jodelle Ferland, I would recognize you anywhere) who treated the script just seriously enough to make it more fun than Scream.  Some aspects reminded me of the “Cube” movies, in a good way.  Nice twist at the end too.  Go see, says I.

I love monkeys.

I not only love monkeys, but I love the word “monkeys.” It has the right amount of syllables, it includes a bilabial, velar, and sibilant consonant, and in the plural form, it is one of the rebellious nouns that ignores the rule of changing from “y” to “ies.”  I admit that I use this term improperly, since I love not only monkeys but most species which fall under the Order “Primate,” which includes: monkeys, apes, prosimians, and humans.

But I am certainly not alone in my love of all things simian.  When at a zoo featuring our phylogenetic cousins, I have noticed that the time and attention spent on these guys is rivaled only by time spent with the “big cats.”  They are so like us in so many ways that it’s positively mesmerizing to watch their interactions.

I think we connect with monkeys and apes on a deep level because whether we know it consciously or not, we share over ninety percent of our genetic code with them; more than 95% with our closest relative–the chimpanzee.  Sorry creationists, but DNA don’t lie.

Back in the 1970’s, there was a documentary by Barbet Schroeder that centered on Koko (full name: Hanabiko), a gorilla that was part of a psychological experiment to teach animals a form of American Sign Language to determine if they have intelligence and emotional responses on par with a human’s.  One of the key members of the project, Francine “Penny” Patterson, has devoted her entire life to training Koko and assessing her communicative intent.  Watching the documentary, I was disappointed that Penny was so intent on “humanizing” Koko–asserting physical dominance while acting as Koko’s mother, imbuing her actions with human moralistic value judgements of “good” and “bad,”  and even offering her make-up; telling her it’s to make her “pretty.”  Give us a break, Penny.

While I agree that we don’t afford primates enough protection and we don’t give them credit for their high levels of intelligence, they are not people.  The differences between us are critical and it’s inappropriate to treat monkeys and apes like our children or pets.  That’s how people’s faces get ripped off.  For goodness sake, we share over 90% of our genome with mice, yet we don’t treat them with commensurate respect.  I believe strongly that animals should be allowed to form social bonds with their own species.  If this experiment had given us undeniable, solid results, then I feel we might have been justified in they way we’ve experimented with these animals.  Unfortunately, the studies have fallen prey to the criticism that too much of the evidence is  subjective and there aren’t enough controlled empirical studies.

Koko is now forty years old and she has failed to mate thus far.  This to me, is a great tragedy as her species is dwindling in the wild due to interference from humans.  We clearly don’t know how to encourage mating in captivity, which I believe, should be our number-one focus before teaching them to “talk.”

If this has sparked your interest, check out Readings In Animal Cognition, edited by Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson.  In particular, give Chapter 18,  Animal Language: Methodological and Interpretive Issues a read.