Sunday, July 20, 2014

Horror Film Review

The Last Days (2013):  Post-apocalypse flick from Spain that depicts what may be the strangest affliction I've encountered in all my years of movie going.  No zombies, no cannibalism-inducing virus, no alien invasion, no thermonuclear Armageddon.  So what, then?  Folks are scared to venture out of doors, and if they do, they die of fright.  Or something. Unfortunately for us pragmatic science nerds, the physiological mechanics of the ailment aren't explored in any kind of detail.  While this oversight fails to appreciably affect the narrative per se, not knowing the "why" drives me fucking crazy.

Ensconced for months in an office building with his coworkers after the bizarre ailment sweeps Barcelona, Marc (Quim Gutierrez) assists with the tunneling project that will allow them access to the city's subway system.  He's desperate to return home to his girlfriend Julia (Marta Etura) and blackmails the company hatchet man Enrique (Jose Coronado) who procured a portable GPS unit.  (Cell phone towers are out but the satellites are still functional.)  Tunnel complete, the two men set off for Marc's apartment but encounter a number of obstacles, not the least of which are fellow survivors.  I did enjoy the grizzly bear in the church scene.  Not something you see every day. 

Julia's not home.  Marc thinks she might be at her shop in the mall but Enrique insists on going to the hospital where his father is in hospice.  They find the hospital to be a smoldering ruin.  Enrique is devastated and slightly suicidal.  Marc goes on to the mall alone, finds Julia's sister Andrea (Leticia Dolera) who explains that Julia had gone to see her doctor.  From the building across the street from the doctor's office, Marc sees her.  And she sees him.  The problem?  Underground access isn't possible.  Tunnel collapsed.  Yes, you guessed it.  Marc has to go outside and cross the street in order to reach the woman he loves.  Did I mention she's pregnant?  Yeah, you can already see where this is going.  I like to call it generational immunity.  Scientifically questionable, but a convenient plot device. 

The chemistry between Marc and Enrique is magnetic, and while they may have begun their journey as wary rivals, they develop a respect for each other that's just shy of real friendship.  It's fascinating to watch.  Julia, on the other hand, is the opposite of fascinating to watch.  A rather annoying character, if I'm honest.  She's either laughing or crying.  Her sister Andrea was more interesting, but of course she just had to die.

Here's my major complaint:  A person can stand in a glass-walled room and be perfectly fine; however, if that person takes a car from an underground parking garage and drives outside, he dies.  For the love of God, why?  It's these lapses of logic that drag The Last Days down.  The filmmakers may claim artistic license, but by that same token, they could have used artistic license to explain it.  Just make some shit up.  We'd probably buy it.

The Skinny

Acting:  Gutierrez and Coronado nail their performances.  Quite groovy.
Story:  I'm almost 100% certain agoraphobia has never been utilized as a catalyst for a global calamity.  Weird, but...okay.
Direction:  Many opportunities for disaster, including the use of interspersed flashbacks.  All disasters were, however, deftly averted. 
Production Values:  The five million euro budget was used to maximum effect.  Filmed in Spain and Catalonia, it has that certain...European feel about it.  Not cheap, but also not Hollywood gloss either.
Gore/FX:  A dribble of blood here and there.  Nothing to make you upchuck your popcorn.  A great deal of CGI for the wide shots of Barcelona.  I've seen worse.  I've seen much worse.
Scares:  One, sort of.  Nothing to worry your dry cleaner.
Ending:  Truth be told, it confused and confounded me.  Why did the kid have to go?  And why have only one kid?  It's one of those times I'd love to have a chat with the screenwriter.
Verdict:  Should you see The Last Days?  Si.  If you can ignore the scientific silliness, it's worth it for the Marc/Enrique dynamic.  If you're agoraphobic, you may want to pass on this one.

Rating:  3 out of 5

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Horror Film Review

The Returned (2013):  Spanish zombie flick, in English, filmed in Canada.  Yes, muy loco, eh?  Anyway, it's a drama set in a post zombie apocalypse world where they've learned to suppress the affliction via drug injections.  I know, it sounds like a rip-off of the mostly decent British TV show In the Flesh.  These "aftermath" stories seem to be gaining popularity.  For that you can confidently blame/credit The Walking Dead.  As I am not a great fan of aftermath tales, The Returned caused me no little trepidation.  My concern, as it turns out, was not without foundation.  By the by, what follows is chockablock full of spoilers.

The film focuses on Kate (Emily Hampshire) and her husband Alex (Kris Holden-Ried).  She's a doctor, he teaches music.  He's also one of the returned.  Kate's position ensures a steady supply of the drug; however, since it's concocted from the spinal fluid of the afflicted who didn't survive, and since the number of those dying is dwindling, supplies have begun to run dangerously low.  Never fear!  The government is working on a synthetic version which will be ready any day now.  Uh-huh.  Panic ensues.  The returned are rounded up and places in secure facilities "for their own safety."  Right. 

Seeing the writing on the wall, Kate and Alex flee the city for the mountain home of friends Jacob (Shawn Doyle) and Amber (Claudia Bassols).  Unfortunately, these besties are anything but as they steal Alex's remaining supply of anti-zombie juice and bolt.  Turns out, they forgot to mention Amber is also a returned.  Resigned to his fate, Alex chains himself up and awaits the inevitable.  There's much sobbing and lamenting.  Kate's got the gun and does what's necessary.  At this point, I must ask a question:  Did you see the film The Mist?  The one based on the Stephen King story?  Remember the ridiculous ending?  Yes, the government came through in the end and got the new drug to work.  Too bad Kate and Alex weren't watching TV or listening to the radio or checking their phones or...  What an annoying way to end a film.  Contrived and manipulative.  Although to be fair, this is somewhat ameliorated by Kate's subsequent decision to hunt down and kill Jacob and Amber.  Now that's realism, folks.  It's what I would do.

The Returned is slow and cerebral.  It spotlights prejudice and forces you to question how far you'd go to save the one you love.  That is to say, it's not a horror movie.  It's a drama.  Zombies just happen to be a convenient (and wildly popular) conceit.  Not the first time filmmakers used the undead to make a sociological statement.  Hell, look at Romero's films. The only problem, though, is that those most likely to watch a zombie flick will avoid The Returned like the plague.  Why?  No running and screaming and munching on a scale they're accustomed to.  And then there's the ending that will make you want to punch your flat screen.

The Skinny

Acting:  I can't fault any performance, and boy, I really wanted to.
Story:  We've seen it before but probably not in such a dramatic context.  Close but not quite in the realm of soap opera.
Direction:  Ponderous.
Production Values:  You know how films and TV shows shot in Canada have that certain look?  Yeah.  Like that.
Gore/FX:  There are one or two scenes of acceptable, if not too-quick, carnage.  If CGI was used, I don't remember it.
Scares:  It's the same in English and Spanish.  No.
Ending:  Since it's no longer PC to say retarded, I'll stick with annoying.
Verdict:  Should you see The Returned?  If you're a zombie nerd like myself, it may be worth a look simply as a curiosity, or if your goal in life is to watch every zombie flick ever made.  Otherwise, go watch The Walking Dead or In the Flesh.  These are aftermath stories you can (sorry about this) really sink your teeth into.

Rating:  2 out of 5

Horror Documentary Review

Doc of the Dead (2014):  From the guys who brought us The People vs. George Lucas comes this heartfelt if not breezy look at the history of zombie films.  Breezy because the focus wavers from the cinematic to the sociological.  While interesting up to a point, I'd have preferred footage over frivolity.  For example, an inordinate amount of time is spent on why zombie walks are popular.  Do you care?  I don't.  Also, we all know where the concept of zombies originated (imported to Haiti from Africa) so why rehash it in a doc about zombie flicks?  They didn't need filler.  There are literally hundreds of films to discuss and show clips of.  So why were so many overlooked?  Only one explanation makes sense: those who own the rights refused to participate.  That said, Doc of the Dead isn't awful by any means.

It begins with Bruce Campbell and Simon Pegg reading fake news stories (Ash and Shaun!).  You know, how the news might sound at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.  It's cute but the filmmakers wisely don't push it too far.  After that, we have the George A. Romero lovefest.  At least half the doc is dedicated to the creator of the iconic Night of the Living Dead.  And rightly so as he's the father of the modern zombie movie.  I enjoyed the little-known facts, such as Romero didn't want to call his creatures zombies but rather ghouls.  We're then taken through his next two films, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, in some detail.  They only touch on Land of the Dead.  I don't think either Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead is mentioned. 

Much is also made of The Walking Dead.  Interviews with the creator of both the comic book and TV show are fairly extensive.  So what does The Walking Dead have to do with zombie movies?  Beats me.  I'm a fan of the show so I'm not complaining as much as scratching my head.  Given how it's become this insanely popular cultural phenomenon, I reckon they had no choice but to talk about it. 

As a card-carrying member of The Zombie Research Society myself, it was nice to see an interview with its founder.  One would imagine his earnestness on the subject would be quite tongue-in-cheek.  One would be wrong.  The man truly believes his own press.  Gotta respect that. 

Wondering what films were and were not featured in this doc?  Notable ones that were:  World War Z, Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, Army of Darkness, Reanimator, Resident Evil, and Romero's, of course.  The likes of Evil Dead and 28 Days Later were eschewed because, in my nerdy opinion, neither are true zombie flicks.  Demon possession and pandemic, respectively.  More unforgiveable, however, is the dearth of foreign zombie films in this documentary.  From France, The Horde is one of the best ever made.  It ranks up there with Romero's best.  No joke.

Should you see Doc of the Dead?  Well, yeah.  You'd have to be brain dead not to.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Horror Film Review

Haunt (2014):  Another angry spirit flick where a hapless family moves into a haunted house and thinks what happened to the previous owners couldn't possibly happen to them because ghosts, of course, aren't real.  Right.  Watch a horror movie, people! 

It starts with an older guy trying to communicate with members of his dead family via a steampunk spirit box.  No explanation how it's supposed to work, but it does look pretty groovy.  Anyway, the angry spirit shows up, possesses him, and forces the guy to kill himself.  Sort of.  So who's the angry spirit?  No clue.  Do we ever find out?  I watched this film weeks ago and the answer to that question still pisses me off.

The Asher family moves into the house that locals deem "cursed."  The odd thing about them is that unlike families in most horror flicks, they're well adjusted and actually get along.  No insipid soap opera drama crap with pouty children, angst-ridden teens, or abusive parents.  It's a nice change, to be honest.  Eighteen year-old Evan (Harrison Gilbertson) is a sweet kid who runs across a crying Sam (Liana Liberato) in the woods.  Sam's father isn't so sweet.  She and Evan get close, she hangs out at his house, and they discover a steampunk spirit box tucked away in the attic.  Only good things could come from this, right?  Sam's obsessed with finding out if there's an afterlife...and what happened in Evan's cursed house.  See, she's much more than a neighbor.  Turns out her real father (Carl Hadra) had cheated on his doctor wife (Jacki Weaver) with Sam's mother who, after giving birth to Sam, was murdered by the wife who also killed her own children.  Here's the perplexing part...the wife didn't get caught and still lives in the area. 

In the end, Evan and Sam are in the house alone, crank up the spirit box, and bad things follow.  It's at this time my enjoyment of the film ended.  SPOILERS FOLLOW.  Sam becomes possessed, kills Evan, and then tries to tear up the attic floorboards to get at what's underneath.  Before she can, Evan's family returns and she's carted off by the police.  What was she trying to uncover?  A skeleton that we're led to assume once housed the spirit that's now angry and possessing Sam.  But whose skeleton?  Ah, now we're back to what pisses me off.  I.  Don't.  Know.  Probably Sam's murdered mother. But why would she possess her own daughter and then kill her boyfriend?  I'm sure it was all clear in the heads of the filmmakers.  Too bad they forgot to share it with the rest of us.

I really did like this movie up until the cocked up final act.  Good pacing, likable characters, dialogue that doesn't make your eyes roll, and a mildly interesting plot.  What an unbelievable waste. 

The Skinny

Acting:  Brian Wimmer as Evan's dad is a bit of a goofy ham, but Ione Skye as his mother is excellent.  The other kids do well.  And Weaver's understated performance borders on disturbing.
Story:  Nothing new here.
Direction:  Rarely have I seen a narrative flow this seamlessly.  Up until the end, that is. 
Production Values:  No budget information but it's not a cheapie.  No complaints regarding the technical aspects.  They shot it in Salt Lake City so the exteriors aren't exactly ugly.
Gore/FX:  Very little blood and no gore.  The obligatory CGI ghosts aren't bad at all.
Scares:  Oh, yes.  One of the few movies I've seen that got me.  Repeatedly.  You may just want to save yourself the trouble and wear a diaper.
Ending:  See my previous comments.  Grrr....
Verdict:  Should you see Haunt?  If you like ghost flicks that make you feel stupid, then go for it.  To be fair, you will jump and you will be scared.  Maybe that should be enough...but it's not, is it?

Rating:  3 out of 5

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Horror Film Review

Odd Thomas (2013):  Novelist Dean Koontz used to be on par with Stephen King when it came to writing scary stories.  Then something changed.  He became more philosophical, swapping horror for the metaphysical.  His novel Odd Thomas was a hybrid of the two with a dash of self-important humor tossed in.  So how well did it translate to the big screen?  Quite well...for the most part.

Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin) is a short-order fry cook in Pico Mundo, CA who sees but can't hear dead people, and, with the help of his girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin) and police chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), uses his ability to solve crimes.  When swarms of bodachs (demonic shadow creatures only Odd can see that cluster around places and people that will be involved acts of horrific violence) start appearing in town after Odd has a disturbing premonition, it's a race against time to solve the mystery and save the town.  There is, of course, much more to the plot but going any further increases the odds (no pun intended) of spoilers. 

In the book, Odd is followed around by the ghost of Elvis.  That didn't make it into the film, which is a good thing.  It would have been distracting.  Unfortunately, the most interesting character in the book, Odd's friend Ozzie (Patton Oswalt), has only a cameo in the movie.  One other disappointing aspect of the film is the constant wink wink, nudge nudge comments about how strange Odd's life is.  We get it. We got it after the first 10 minutes.  Otherwise, I couldn't find much else to complain about, and trust me, I was looking. 

The Skinny

Acting:  Yelchin is likable and plays Odd to near perfection.  Timlin as Stormy is too pensive.  Dafoe does a goofy turn as Porter. 
Story:  The adaptation of Koontz's novel is virtually seamless.  Unlike the majority of his stories, this one translates well to the screen.
Direction:  No slow spots, no unnecessary exposition or silly subplots .  The 97 minutes simply flies by.
Production Values:  With a $27 million budget, there's no worry regarding the quality. 
Gore/FX:  Not a lot of blood but there are a few really gross scenes.  Odds discovers body parts in a fridge.  And then there's the corpse in the gas chamber.  The CG bodachs are done well enough.
Scares:  Not so that you'd notice.
Ending:  Bittersweet doesn't begin to cover it.
Verdict:  Should you see Odd Thomas?  Yep.  It's fun, funny, exciting, and most importantly, interesting.  Nothing odd about that.

Rating:  4 out of 5