Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Netflix Files Presents: Halloween Horror Week - A Salute to Wes Craven

Earlier this year, the horror genre lost arguably it's most influential icon: Wes Craven. Nicknamed the "Sultan of Slash", the writer/director's contributions to the genre spills across the cinematic landscape, even to this day. Remember how production company Lions Gate Films went from obscure indie company to a legitimate powerhouse, thanks to the the success of the Saw film series; even dubbing it, "the house that Jigsaw built?" Craven did the exact same thing for New Line Cinema with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, even bringing actor Johnny Depp to prominence. What about how Jigsaw, Michael Myers and Jason have become twisted main characters that you want to root for? Again, that bears a debt to Mr. Craven, as actor Robert Englund's Freddy Kruger became the main draw to the Elm Street sequels, mostly for his dark sense of humor and creative ways he slaughters his victims. Even the ways Jigsaw makes and plants traps for his victims to be brutally killed, maimed and slaughtered owes a tip of the hat to Wes, as he makes the scenes of intense violence and bloodshed as gross, twisted & unpleasant to watch as possible, from films like the highly controversial Last House on the Left in 1972 and The Hills Have Eyes five years later; to the Scream movies.

There's also another added element that can be felt and that has been used numerous times: Craven's use of meta-humor; a way for filmmakers to call attention the tropes and cliches in their own movie, as well as in other movies. Today on Halloween, I'm going to review Craven's first foray into horror/satire, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It's been a full ten years since Heather Langenkamp (who plays herself) took on the iconic role of Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and New Line Cinema calls her for a pitch meeting to reprise her role in a new installment of the Elm Street series. At the same time, Heather has been having dreams about gruesome murders on set, as well as seeing Freddy Kruger in her dreams, terrorizing her and her son, Dylan. It isn't until her co-star Robert Englund, the man who plays Kruger and writer/director Craven himself begin having nightmares about this new Kruger that Heather realizes that she is being drawn into Freddy's world - this time, the glove-wearing serial killer is playing for keeps.

Let me blunt: of all the movies I've reviewed for my holiday-themed week, New Nightmare is by far my favorite for a variety of different reasons: first, I love the clever, and tight script by Craven, by using the world her created as his play box for this installment. It's a film about making a film, but as we go further into the story, our sense of reality is thrown into question: is this all happening in real time, or is is this all a part of someones imagination? Despite seeing the picture through Heather, we're still not entirely sure if the third act is her playing Nancy while the cameras are rolling, or if Langenkamp is dreaming about the scenario in her head, or in Craven's. As a result, we're kept on our toes and guessing as to what's happening in the story. Whilst the writer-director is playing with our perceptions of reality, he's also making statements about how film plays it's own role - specifically how we respond and how it shapes our own perceptions in life, and the people who make it. Heather is hesitant to return to the franchise after two movies and how "Freddy" died in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, especially since her character Nancy perished battling him in the third installment of the series, Dream Warriors. She's also afraid of being synonymous with "Nancy" through her career and what that persona, being attached to the Elm Street series, means for her young son. Those perceptions play out across the film, from being prank called by a Freddy-voice, to the scenes where Dylan is kept in the hospital for an extended period of time, due to the head nurse's suspicion that Heather is abusing her child and because of her past history of appearing in the horror movies.

Perhaps what's most enjoyable about this fresh take on the series is the how Langenkamp, not the new iteration of Freddy Kruger, nor Robert Englund himself, is the star of the movie. The earlier scene where she appears on a talk show, only to get upstaged by Englund in full Kruger costume is commentary about how this horror favorite has become the star of the franchise. We don't even see this newer, meaner Freddy until midway through the second act, and by the third act, where he becomes the primary antagonist, the focus is still on the fictionalized Heather character and her journey to come to grips with how she'll always be tied to the franchise, for both the good and bad. It's a stellar performance by her, plain and simple.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a perfect example of the legacy of the famed horror filmmaker, and what makes him so special: lacing the fears of the characters as a backdrop for a physical manifestation of what they fear, sharp moments of comedy and commentary, and well-rounded performances by the actors, including Craven playing himself. There have been other films and filmmakers who have used the horror genre as a launching pad for larger ideas, and a few of them I consider to be solid to modern-day horror classics, like Craven's own Scream, Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, and You're Next! Sometimes you get stuff like The Purge and Diary of the Dead, which aims to be clever in it's social commentary, but ends up being muddled and/or not completely fleshed out. And then you get icky, pointless and mean-spirited crap, like the final movie I'm reviewing for Halloween Horror Week: Tom Six, you're no Craven, Goddard, or George A. Romero, and your disgusting meta torture flick Human Centipede: Full Sequence proves it.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Horror Week: Beware of Crimson Peak!

As I said yesterday, if Tim Burton's Corpse Bride were realized in live-action form, it might look like Guillermero del Toro's Crimson Peak, with the Gothic undertones, the themes of death and the supernatural and the semi Victorian-era setting. That's where the similarities would end, though. Whereas the former is a family-friendly fantasy musical/comedy, the latter is a dark, sinister and haunting picture that's gorgeous to watch in every regard. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), like Haley Joel Osmet in The Sixth Sense, can see dead people. Kidding, but she did experience some paranormal activity when she was a little girl, as she witnesses her mother's ghost, warning her of a place called Crimson Peak, and yes, that will be the last time I make a lame horror pun in this review. Years later, she's still fascinated with the supernatural, as she's writing a ghost story, in addition to being married to the charming and mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who visited New York to get a loan for his clay mining invention. Once Edith leaves her home to live with Mr. Sharpe in England, she quickly realizes that not everything is what it seems, as the old, dilapidated estate she is now confined in has things going bump in the night, buried secrets of the estate hidden in the lower levels, and one cold ans sinister sister-in-law in the form of Lucille (the great Jessica Chastain).

I really can't go into anymore detail than this, because the film is just too good to spoil. What I can say is that del Toro's eye for stunning visuals and detail for mood and atmosphere is as good as it's ever been. If 2013's Pacific Rim was one big, glorious CGI set piece after another, then his latest mostly gets away from using digital effects and just goes for practical ones - gorgeous art direction and production design by Brant Gordon and Thomas Sanders, respectively, gorgeous camerawork and terrific use of light and shadow by Dan Lautsen and a sprinkling of CG use to enhance the overall look of the film. The thrill and the fear of venturing down to the lower levels, of uncovering these dark, almost-Freudian secrets both brother and sister have tucked away is at the heart of the film, and it should be no surprise that actors are more than up for the challenge. Hiddleston, best known for playing delusional demi-god Loki in the MCU installments of Thor and The Avengers wears the bad boy trope like a second skin, and he's solid as a baronet born into money but consumed by guilt. As our lead protagonist Wasikowska shines as the inquisitive Edith, as she struggles to understand the riddle of this old estate and to come to grips that the man of her dreams isn't who she thought he was. But it's Chastain as Lucille who owns this picture. She's playing her cards (as well as her demons) close to the chest, and she's willing to do anything to keep it that way. When as is revealed, she becomes a sort of Amy Dune of sorts - a woman who you, despite her actions, come to understand and have a sort of sympathy for the devil she's become. Plus, seeing Chastain as the heavy is deliciously fun to watch, and I hope we get to see more of the actress in that part in the years to come.

Crimson Peak is, on a technical level, Guillermero del Toro at his best - the sets, costumes, cinematography and use of practical effects all combine to craft a haunted house/ghost tale that feels like a send-up to movies like The Shining, The Haunting and Poltergeist where the house itself both acts as a character and the bogeyman itself. The performances by its three central leads are all damn good, but in terms of scares, they're few and far between. There are unsettling moments and the ghosts themselves are more eerie and disturbing that downright frightening. And the script by del Toro, while interesting, tends to let slip its secrets a bit too early, cultivating in a predictable third act. Still, despite those miscues, this is an entertaining and gorgeous blend of haunted house/ghost story/mystery genres that never gets old to get lost in. And sadly, speaking of ghosts; tomorrow, I salute the man who's found new ways to keep us up at night, as well as have bloody good fun poking fun at a genre he had defined again and again, by taking another turn down Elm Street.

*** stars out of ****

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Netflix Files Presents: Halloween Horror Week - A Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Despite the title, this series is, at its core, just a list of great and not so great movies I feel like talking about. And despite Halloween being a night to hang out with friends and watching slasher flicks, ghost stories, zombies and creatures & things that go bump in the night (at least for me sometimes), not all movies are like that. Sometimes the best movies to watch on Halloween are the ones that you remember as a kid growing up. Films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus and the Halloweentown series are probably some of the most fun flicks I remember seeing during this time of year, before I found Ju-On: The Grudge, The Ring and other creepy movies from Japan - both the original and American counterparts. Today's installment has to do with the man who probably loves the twisted side of life - Tim Burton.

To me, Mr. Burton really doesn't need much of an introduction: if you're a child of the 80's or the 90's (like yours truly), then you've come across his dark, Gothic movies, like Beetlejuice, Edward Sissorhands, the comic book adaptation of Batman & the Stephen Sodenheim Broadway musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, among many others. His luck outside of the realm of macabre, Gothic humor and drama has greatly varied, from the brilliant and poignant Big Fish and effective remake on Roald Dahl's classic children's lit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the dismal reboot of Planet of the Apes and the obnoxious 3D adventure Alice in Wonderland. Today, I'm talking about one of Burton's best in the form of the stop-motion animation fantasy-comedy Corpse Bride.

Our lad Victor Van Dort (voiced by Burton regular Johnny Depp) is having a bit of a crisis: his family has planned for him to be wed to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), her parents are snobbish and rude and he's not entirely sure he can go through with a forced marriage for the sake raising the family's social status. Oh, and he's been kidnapped by a beautiful woman named Emily (Helena Bonham Carter, another Burton regular) who just happens to be dead. But just because she's a corpse, her feelings toward Victor are real, and the afterlife is one fun place to be. Victor has a choice to make: does he stay in the underworld with the lovely corpse bride, or will he return to the land of the living and take a chance on Victoria?

Okay, so the plot sounds like a prelude to Twilight, but Corpse Bride is anything but a soulless romance. There's real feeling between Victor and Emily, despite the fact his heart still beats and she's cold as death. In another world, you can see these two could be a great pairing as husband and wife, especially since the reception in the Afterlife both looks and sounds like it would be a hell of a party, compared to the Land of the Living, which, to quote Gimli from The Lord of the Rings movies, "You'd find more cheer in a graveyard," ironically enough. Speaking of: Burton has the flare for the dark and Gothic, and this animated movie is no exception. The quaint town (which feels like an 18th century Victorian-era setting) takes on the personality of...well, a graveyard, full of muted colors, dashed hopes and people who are either barely alive or almost dead. Contrast that to the Afterlife, which is vibrant and alive with skeletons acting as a house band, worms and spiders who can make for decent conversation and animals that still contain spunk without a flesh-and-blood body. The contrast between these two worlds are like night and day, and you can easily get lost in how both worlds act as opposites to one another.

Another Burton regular, the great composer Danny Elfman, helps this tango between realms feel both fun and chilling. Here he also writes the musical numbers for the film and again, it's a study in opposites: the opening number, "According To Plan" is very Gothic in it's undertones and downbeat in how both the Van Dort's and the Everglots' are using their children for their own selfish ends. Once Victor is sucked into the Afterlife, the citizens go into their number, "Remains of the Day", and it's a fast, jazzy melody about how Emily fell madly in love with a mysterious suitor, only to end up murdered before she could say "I do". "Tears to Shed" is the standout for me, because it's Bonham Carter singing (yes, she sings in this movie) about how, despite being a corpse, still feels heartbroken that Victor could never fully love her as she is. It's quietly heartbreaking and you feel her her character as she laments about how she can be cut open with a knife and feel nothing, but still feel sorrow for an unrequited love.

Probably the best thing I love about Corpse Bride is how Burton works with appealing to kids and adults. It's a dark movie, yes, but the director trusts that his audience can handle themes such as death, murder and the double-edged sword that love can be. He doesn't patronize to the young ones, and he doesn't resort to using pop culture references and sexual innuendo to keep the parents awake. Burton simply allows us to get swept up into these world of the living and the dead, and after 77 minutes, we wish it were longer. It does make one wonder what would a live-action film might look like, and would it be anything like the wold Tim created. In tomorrow's installment, we get an answer of sorts, but not by Burton, but by another visionary director: Guillermeo del Toro.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Netflix Files: Halloween Horror Week!

Ah, it's good to be back! Yes, I've been gone for weeks, and yes, I've got a ton of movies I need to review, and I hope to get to them in good time, but for the next five or six days, I'm diving head-first into the horror genre to review five or six movies that deal with slashers, the supernatural, and remembering the Maven of the genre himself. To kick things off, I'm reviewing horror's newest icon on the block - Jigsaw.

Back in 2004, director James Wan bust onto the scene with his psychological thriller, Saw. Written by his writing partner Leigh Whannell, the film dealt with two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a photographer, Adam (played by Whannell himself) awake to learn they are chained in a dingy room by a sadistic serial killer known as "Jigsaw" (Tobin Bell). His motive is that he wants to play a game of survival with the two men: one must kill the other and escape in the time provided, of they both will be trapped in the room forever. As both men try to work out of their dilemma, they begin to realize the meaning of their entrapment, as well as neither person are really what they seem to be. There's also a subplot about a former cop (Danny Glover) who's on the trail of the Jigsaw killer to satisfy his own agenda, but that is basically the jist of the first movie. Saw, while made for just over 1 million dollars, became a cult hit with horror buffs, and grossed more than fifty times its small budget at the North American box office, cultivating in the sequel I choose to begin Halloween Horror Week, Saw II.

Like any sequel to a popular hit movie, the second outing ups the ante by adding new characters, crafting more bizarre death traps, and having more scenes of gore and dismemberment than the first go around. Unfortunately, bigger doesn't necessarily equal better and the film does suffer as a result of it. Wan himself didn't director the film, nor would he direct any of five sequels in the series, thought he is listed as an executive producer thought the series. Taking over in the director's chair would be Darren Lynn Bousman, who also co-wrote the script, along with returning writer Whannell. One thing that becomes obvious is that while the original had a foreboding sense of unease and tension, this sequel starts off with a gruesome death of a man with a metal Venus fly trap across his neck. From there we're introduced to Detective Eric Matthews (Marky Mark's older bro, Donnie Wahlberg) who's currently tracking the whereabouts of the Jigsaw killer. A SWAT team corner Jigsaw at an abandoned factory, only to learn that he is a weak cancer patient and that he has eight victims trapped in a room on monitors, including his son, Daniel and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith, returning from the first movie), the only known person to escape from Jigsaw's deadly game. The game is simple: in two hours, the victims will all die from breathing in a nerve agent, unless they can find the antidote hidden all around the house, which sets the stage for traps, grizzly deaths and drippy gore.

As I said earlier, the violence is more gruesome and frequent in this sequel than it was in the first movie. Yes, there were scenes of a cop getting his face blow clean off and a guy hacking off his foot, but there was a good amount of restraint with the grizzly violence, and the most terrifying scenes were of the two men trying to work out of their bondage without resorting to killing one another. The last 15 minutes where Cary Elwes fears that his wife and daughter are dead, he loses his sanity and resorts to his primal instincts to "win", thus making the trap frightening because of how broken down Dr. Gordon became psychologically by his ordeal. This installment has little of the original's unease and mistakes sadistic acts of violence as scary, when in reality, they're not the same thing. Sure, the traps are more creative, like the inferno trap and the glass box trap (complete with razor blades inside the handles), but why should any of us care about the characters when they're written as one-dimensional bits of meat to be slaughtered for the sake of checking off horror tropes?

The lack of characterization and poor acting is another fatal flaw in Saw II. In the first installment, Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell had a pair of decent performances as the two men chained up and stuck playing Jigsaw's twisted game of survival. Whannell's Adam and Elwes' Dr. Gordon were both sympathetic character who, despite having moral failings - the latter being a cheating bastard and a workaholic dad, the other tailing said cheating scumbag to pay rent and put food in his mouth, they were both not annoying prats who constantly bicker at each other, and actually tried to work together to escape, making their fates all the more horrifying to see unfold. In the sequel, the characters here are mostly thoroughly unlikable and under-developed, and it makes it hard for me to feel for them when they get killed because they're constantly combative with each other. Donnie Wahlberg is reduced to being a walking cop cliche with problems on the homefront, a distant son who hates him, and finding out he's a dirty detective who's fudged reports and evidence to put the very same people behind bars who are currently in the trap. Franky G is a drug-dealer who's one of the victims in the latest Jigsaw game, but he's such a misogynist/dickhead caricature that you begin to hope he dies swiftly and quickly, and the other two female characters are basically disposable, with one being a former prostitute, and the other being a blonde who just happened to be kidnapped to fill out the body count. Terrific female writing there, filmmakers.

The only two people that manage to turn in decent performances are Shawnee Smith as returning survivor Amanda, and Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell. Speaking of the former, there is one dazzling and terrifying set piece, the needle pit. In order to unlock a steel-plated door and escape from this hell hole, Jigsaw tells the drug-dealer to get into a pit of used drug needles and search for the key to escape. Being the coward that he is, he throws Amanda into the pit, given her past as a heroin addict. The scene is brutal and terrifying to watch, partly because we understand her previous life, and partly because we feel every skin-crawling moment she's in that scenario, and it reminds me of how well done Wan made the first movie by playing to our psychological fears, as well as gross-out scenes like the barb-wire trap. But even there, you know that she's an obvious femme fatale, because she said how Jigsaw saved her in the first movie. Bell himself has more to do in this sequel and his reasoning for committing these atrocious crimes of torture makes him a twisted philanthropist. Instead of using wealth to help others, he puts them in diabolical scenarios to make the victims appreciate the one thing he's taken for granted all this time: life itself. It's twisted logic, but Bell is convincing enough to make us understand this new devil.

Apart from those aspects, Saw II is essentially bigger, gorier, and grosser than it's predecessor, but it's hardly better than the first. The characters are underdeveloped and almost unlikable, the acting is simply bad almost all around, and the sequences of torture and violence is gratuitous to the point of being mean-spirited. Unfortunately, this series would serve as the blueprint for dozens of horror movies and spawn the torture-porn sub-genre, where relentless, sadistic scenes of torture and shocking violence counts as "scary". And yes, there are two more movies that will be reviewed which cashes in on the torture-porn craze. To quote Jigsaw himself, "Oh, yes...there will be blood." Oh, deep joy.

* 1/2 stars out of ****

Friday, October 2, 2015

I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane (And a Cruise Ship)...

For the next week and a half, chances are ya'll won't hear much of me and I won't be watching many new fall releases. I'm going on a cruse ship to the Dominican Republic, and in a few hours, I board a flight to Miami overnight to get there. So, if you're wondering about the silence, that'll be why. Even movie nerds, like yours truly, need a vacation every now and then.

 See ya'll in 10+ days time!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Never Have I Pined More for Madonna's Die Another Day

In October of 2012, I heard Adele's contribution to the latest 007 picture Skyfall, and I thought the title track of the same name would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song, which tuned out to be spot on. So far, I have a perfect 1-1 track record in predicting what will win the Academy Award in music, so I'm going to make another accurate prediction: not only will the theme song to this new James Bond film, Spectre, will not only miss a Best Original Song nomination, but it will also go down as one of the worst 007 tracks in the franchise's storied history.

I hate to do this, because, in general, I do think Sam Smith is a very good singer-songwriter. I love that he goes for a mix of soul, lush melodies and emphasis on production value. I think tracks like "Stay With Me" & "Not The Only One" are solid pop tunes. The problem is that his soft falsetto voice does not mix with the theme of a Bond song; and furthermore, the track comes off as another one of his yearning love ballads. Instead of feeling like Bond's conscious is telling him he's headed for his potential doom, the song comes off as obnoxious to listen to. Say what you will about Madonna's "Die Another Day" and the duet between Jack White & Alicia Keys' "Another Way to Die" (from the films Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace, respectively), but those songs, while terrible, were at least interesting in what they were trying to accomplish, and felt like, on their own, they were listenable, just not Bond songs. "Writing's On the Wall" is just terrible from start to finish.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trailer Talk: Farewell to Prim

Geez, Hunger Games franchise: I know Mockingjay - Part II is the last movie in your sci-fi YA series, but there's no excuse to all but announce that Prim (Willow Shields), Katniss Everdeen's younger sister, is going to end up biting the dust!

Basically, the latest trailer is an extend montage between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her younger sister, from the first movie in the series, to the clip of the two of them dancing at Finnick's wedding. All thought this is the two of them conversing from previous exchanges of dialogue from various moments in the series, which, along with the music attached to it, makes it even more obvious that the younger Everdeen is going to die. And why would the Lion Gate's PR team spoil such an important plot point in the first place? I get they're playing on fans who have already read the book, but for those who haven't read Mockingjay, this trailer is just a big, fat announcement that a major character isn't making it out of this series alive.