Monday, September 15, 2014

The Great Outdoors

A day after I watched A Lonely Place to Die, I took part in one of those obstacle-filled 5K runs where savvy Groupon buyers get to climb (or walk around to avoid) temporary walls and crawl through mud in the name of emerging victorious with a novelty water bottle. As I reached such 'fun' stops as the traverse rope, monkey bars,  and balance beam, I came upon a sad realization: 

I would never make it out alive in a horror movie.

Particularly a survivalist one like A Lonely Place To Die.

Quick Plot: Allison (genre stalwart/not Radha Mitchell Melissa George) and four adventurous pals are scaling a few mountains in scenic Scotland. As they munch on controversially delicious mackerel and egg sandwiches, the group discovers that a young, possibly Croatian girl named Anna has been mysteriously abandoned underground in what seems like a living tomb.

With a language barrier and impossible cell phone reception, Allison and head climber Rob decide to scale a few big rocks to get help. Naturally, things go awry when Rob's rope is cut and Allison discovers the group is being hunted by two not-so-sharp shooters trying hard to reclaim Anna. What follows is a fairly tense cats-and-mice chase through some extremely effective wilderness, eventually diluted quite a bit by a third group of kidnapper retrievers.

A Lonely Place To Die is directed by Julian Gilbey, a man who clearly has a deep and symbiotic relationship with the outdoors and translates it well onto film. When his characters are wandering through the sprawling mountainside, this is a great thing. The batch of five friends (one married couple, plus Allison and two other men whose relationship to her isn't explicitly explained) manages to be compelling without too much exposition or theatrics. The couple mentions their daughter in passing, adding some weight to what might be their fate. Ed, Allison's friend (question mark, since everyone hates him), has an effective transition from spoiled jerk to dude you want next to you under pressure. As Allison, Melissa George doesn't necessarily get to display a deep and complicated back story, but we don't need it. What we're seeing in A Lonely Place to Die is five characters fighting for their lives in confusion. We don't need to know their history to care, so long as the material is done right.

For most of its running time, it is. Where Gilbey falters a little is in the explanation of not only his villains, but of yet another group of badass mercenaries tailing them. The overall script and pacing are by no means bad, but it just feels as the grandeur of wilderness horror can't be maintained once we see cars and pistols. Gilbey is smart to set his more 'societal' act against a pagan street celebration of sorts, but it still: to go from Cliffhanger-esque scenes of mountainous tension to bar stakeouts is a letdown.

High Points
Filmed on location in the Scottish Highlands, enough can't be said about the beauty and potential terror in A Lonely Place To Die's setting. Between sprawling forests, rocky rivers and huge mountains, cinematographer Ali Asad captures the wilderness in all its glory

Low Points
Unfortunately, the action eventually moves to a far less lonely place to die

Lessons Learned
Whiskey + gin = ginsky, and well, it's not good

When a crazed woman who's obviously being chased pounds her way into your home, it's probably a good idea to close the door after her

Those who don't surf, climb

I was slightly disappointed by the somewhat anticlimactic finale of A Lonely Place to Die, but the film is still better than your average Instant Watch. It's well-made, beautifully shot, and decently acted. Your life won't see any significant changes after it's over, but for 100 minutes of your day, it ain't bad.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Back In Action, Along With the Apocalypse

So I'm married!

It's exciting enough stuff to bring on a Spanish apocalypse!

It's always nice when you have something in common with someone, particularly when said someone is actually a pair of filmmaking brothers who like you, share a fascination with viral plagues and apocalypses. 

Hey, David and Alex Pastor...wanna meet up for nachos while we're at it?

Several years ago, I fell in love with a little film called Carriers. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it took the pretty popular world-in-peril trope and managed to successfully explore it from a different angle. The Last Days is the Pastor brothers' followup, also about a plague but of a very different tone and sort.

Plus, check out their adorable buddy shot
Quick Plot: Marc is a computer programmer struggling to keep his corporate job before an outside resources rep can ax him. At home, his girlfriend Julia longs to start a family, much to the total terror of Marc. His troubles get a little more complicated as the world succumbs to a mysterious disease that renders human into agoraphobes who can't breathe in open spaces. Within a few months, anyone who steps outside falls prey to a seizure-like condition that turns terminal in minutes.

Trapped inside his high rise office building, Marc longs to venture outside to be reunited with Julia, whom he last saw angry at him and on her way to work at a shopping mall. He soon discovers Enrique--the same corporate warrior who almost terminated him when the world had other concerns--has a GPS that might be the only way to navigate the city through underground subways and sewers. The pair reluctantly team up to venture deep into Barcelona, occasionally battling violent scavengers, warring survivors, and, well, bears.

You know how to make anything better? Add a bear.

Between Carriers and The Last Days, the Pastor brothers (who write and direct) demonstrate strong skills behind the camera. More importantly, the team seems to have a genuinely unique viewpoint and interest in exploring common tales (plagues, post-apocalyptic survival) from different perspectives. The plot of The Last Days isn’t that new, but the fact that the story is far more concerned with showing Marc’s progression from cubicle monkey with 21st century doubts to survivor helping to mold the next generation is what ultimately makes this such an involving film.

High Points
For a good stretch of The Last Days, I found myself annoyed at the lack of thematic foresight. Yes, the characters playfully discuss what might have caused the strain, but it almost felt as if 'agoraphobic plague' was simply a cool idea that wasn't going to be given any actual weight. It's really not until the final act that the film reveals what it's about, and I ultimately found that far more rewarding and powerful than if it had been hammered at us from the start

Low Points
There are a few leaps of logic and happy coincidences that might feel a little too sweet for what seems to start as a gritty tale of the apocalypse

Lessons Learned
As if we didn't already know this: it always pays to start stocking your apocalypse shelter, both at home and the office

Know your underground urban geography. Love your underground urban geography

Never forget: just when it all gets quiet and peaceful, BEARS

While I wasn't quite as impressed with The Last Days as I was with the out-of-nowhere Carriers, I still found this film to be quite good. The Pastor brothers clearly have excellent (and more importantly, interesting) instincts when it comes to filmmaking. Unlike Greg McLean's now-dull obsession with his Wolf Creek style, I'd be more than happy if David & Alex Pastor remained in the realm of the apocalypse, especially if they continued to explore it through different concepts and tones. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bridal Break(down)

Just a quick note to say the Doll's House will be temporarily closed for the next two weeks as I take care of some errands for this big upcoming party thing I'm throwing. 

Side note: did you have ANY idea that weddings involve a lot of work?

Shocking, I know.

I'll be back in September with more jewelry and a different tax status, but everything else should be as usual around these parts. I mean, from here on in I'll be blogging in a sensible pearl necklace with one hand on the computer and the other on the vacuum, constantly pausing to check on the pot roast and clean the fingerprints off the crystal, but you get the point.

Wish me luck!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Watch Your Back, Mickey Mouse

Sometimes the universe is just too generous. Sometimes you're browsing the internet with no real hopes of entertaining yourself when you come upon a Facebook post from friends who know you all too well urging you to abandon all duties and focus instead on acquiring a terrible shot-on-video Italian horror movie dubbed into earnest English about a haunted mummy theme park. 

You say to yourself, "sure, that SOUNDS great and all, but how do I know this "mummy theme park" movie is any good?

Then you find out that the title is, plainly and simply, "The Mummy Theme Park."

We live in a golden age. We really do. 

Quick Plot: Somewhere in Egypt, people are dressed in silly sparkly costumes and an earthquake happens. "One Week Later" (yes, there are quotation marks, the true sign of a lack of grammar knowledge/mind-game playing subtitler), a fashion photographer named Daniel and his horrid blond assistant are summoned across the world to document the opening of The Mummy Theme Park.

Yes, I did indeed just say "the opening of The Mummy Theme Park." You see, savvy reader, in addition to this being a movie about a mummy theme park and named so perfectly The Mummy Theme Park, the mummy theme park IN The Mummy Theme Park is called ever so succinctly, The Mummy Theme Park. Not Mummyworld. Not Mummy Studios or Mummy Center or Mummyland or Mummywood. Nope, nothing so misleading. It's just a mummy theme park. Why call it anything else but The Mummy Theme Park?

Obviously, I loved this movie.

I loved it even if it misused quotation marks and had a woman shaving her legs with a disposable razor and no shaving cream. Consider what else this movie has to offer:

- a fashion shoot that feels like a cross between Birdemic's extended model sequence and everything from every '80s movie ever

- every cast member that is Egyptian wearing copious amounts of glitter

- multiple girl fights

- a trying-on-clothes montage

The Mummy Theme Park in The Mummy Theme Park is, as you'd expect, adorably sad yet incredibly awesome. The concession stand features statue dispensers that let you tap a beer that pours out of a pharaoh's bronze beard. Because if there's one thing beer lovers ask for when they go to mummy theme parks, it's to drink a draft poured out of a pharaoh's bronze beard.

Such visual tricks are rather vital for a film that was apparently made without a screenwriter. We can thank Al Passeri for both producing and directing, but nowhere in the credits do we see the name of any man or woman cited as providing the story or script. There is, however, a brave soul who accepted the title of Dialouge Coach. No, I didn't mistype. There was a dialouge coach. 

Maybe that means something else in Egyptian or Italian.

High Point
Aside from EVERYTHING, the real MVP of The Mummy Theme Park is not actually the titular Mummy Theme Park but instead, the one uncredited actress who gets to play a super angry sexy dancer whose 'thing' is to constantly push the other harem girls out of her way and occasionally, smack them in such a manner that they swallow whatever they happen to be holding in their hands. This gal is all right.

Low Point
Really? It's The Mummy Theme Park. I refuse to answer that question

Lessons Learend
Egypt is rather a long way from the U.S.

When utilizing the adorable special effect that is the miniature, try to refrain from having full-sized actors and props anywhere near say, the miniature train set you have constructed if you're expecting your audience to believe it is life-size

Jars of dangerous acid are thankfully labeled 'dangerous acid' in mummy theme parks

The Winning Line
"It's time to put those skeletons back in the closet!”

Naturally, this is spoken when our hero(?) is battling a skeleton. It’s not the line itself that wins, but the conviction and pride with which it is spoken. Considering the film’s lack of a screenwriter or properly spelled dialogue coach, I have to believe that the poor uncredited voice actor dubbing the role was given something of free reign and came up with this triumphant pun with such excitement that I have to award it the victory.

Look, I’m not saying YOU should stop everything and find a copy of The Mummy Theme Park, but you--you know who you are, the one who’s been drooling ever since I revealed the name of the mummy theme park in The Mummy Theme Park was just The Mummy Theme Park--yeah, THAT guy should obviously stop everything and find a copy of The Mummy Theme Park. It’s exactly what you want from a movie called The Mummy Theme Park about a mummy theme park. Nothing less, nothing more. 

The universe is good.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What's the Buzz?

Every now and then, I remember to check out what Turner Classic Movies (better known as TCM) has airing at times when I’m not DVR’ing Jeopardy! or Step Up 3D for the nineteenth time. On one such occasion, I saw the intriguing title The Wasp Woman, written and directed by cult cinema’s official godfather, Roger Corman.   

Quick Plot: Janice Starlin is the founder and spokeswoman for a major cosmetics company that has hit a rough patch. To her investors, the cause is obvious: as the face of the brand, Janice’s fortysomething wrinkles are driving down sales. 

It’s a blow to her ego, but Janice doesn’t take such corporate insult lying down. When a controversial scientist named Eric Zinthrop walks in with a demonstration on the anti-aging effects of wasp jelly, Janice has volunteered herself to be its guinea pig before you can say Avon calling. 

As one might expect from any sci-fi monster movie made in 1959, said wasp jelly doesn’t quite succeed without a few side effects. In an age well before softly lit television commercials featuring happy people bike riding while a pleasant-voiced narrator speed talks through diarrheaconstipationimpotencenumbnesserectionslastinglongerthaneighthoursdrymouthinvoluntarybladderactiondepressionlossofappetiteweightgainandinsomecasesdeath, Janice has no one to blame but her own impatience. Sure, the initial facelift she gets from her first trial helps to instantly gain the confidence back from her board, but then Janice rushes the process before Zinthrop has the chance to warn her that, well, she might just turn into a wasp woman, she does indeed, turn into, a wasp woman.

If Masque of Red Death taught me one thing, it’s that Roger Corman is indeed capable of making an actual good movie. He just typically chose not to because such a goal costs valuable time and money.

Running barely an hour, The Wasp Woman feels like something in between a genuine attempt at filmmaking and a quick cash-in on The Fly. As Janice, Susan Cabot gives a strong, dedicated performance, taking the material perfectly seriously and in the process, creating a real person and unconventional villain. The basic theme of a woman who built a successful career only to have it questioned when her looks start to fade is extremely relevant half a century later, and Corman handles the concept with surprising restraint. For a nice stretch, I was predicting The Wasp Woman to reveal itself a hidden gem of the 1950s.

Then the movie ended.

I mean it: the clock struck one hour and the credits rolled. I guess Corman had another movie to make.

The shame of it is that The Wasp Woman had so much promise. Sure, the actual monster effects vary between being almost unsettling and somewhat laughable, but the underlying politics are prime material. Added to it is a minor subplot involving some of the male employees attempting to undermine Janice, something that could have easily lent itself to some interesting final showdowns. Instead, The Wasp Woman rushes to its conclusion, leaving plenty of potential in its nest.

High Points
Cabot really does give it her all, even when wearing a heavy wasp’s head and big ol’ antenna 

Low Points
Aforementioned race-to-the-finish-line ending

Lessons Learned
Friends don’t let their brilliant, daring, and one-of-a-kind scientists not keeping great records of their illegal research drive irresponsibly

‘Women’ is the excuse every man uses when he can’t find an answer

Just because side effects haven’t been joked about yet doesn’t mean they aren’t a serious danger

For a Corman joint, The Wasp Woman is more than decent. I was disappointed because I wanted more, which is generally a good sign for a film. No, this is no The Thing or Them!, but as a cheap '50s monster movie, the film makes for a fully watchable 60 minutes.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Found Shakeage

Break out your twig effigies and toss that map in the river! We’ve got some Blair Witchin’ en la casa.

Quick Plot: Teen siblings Christian and July Quintanilla like to film themselves investigating paranormal urban legends. This makes their Easter vacation to a secluded country home with their parents, little brother Jose, and lovable pit bull mix the ideal trip for their next installment since the surrounding land includes a maze supposedly haunted by a young spirit named Melinda. 

Naturally, Christian and July do as you do and embark on their cinematic mission to rouse Melinda and capture it on film. When their dog shows up mutilated at the bottom of a well and Jose goes missing, the Quintanillas must face some mysterious force armed only with night vision shaky cam.

Written and directed by Fernando Barreda Luna, 2010’s Atrocious is pretty much a typical found footage entry into the post-Paranormal Activity found footage boom. You get your 50 minutes or so of slightly ominous buildup followed by a chaotic, barely lit climax where all hell breaks loose and we’re left wondering why, when fleeing from a force of true evil, one never thinks to drop the added weight of a video camera.

I’ve come around on my stance on found footage filmmaking with a heavy dose of humility. Where at one point I found the very alliterative words frustrating, I now look at some of this recent generation’s strong output--Megan Is Missing, Skew, Grave Encounters to name a few--and realize that when done right, it’s simply another tool to tell a more immediate story.

The flip side is that when done poorly, the film is generally unwatchable.

Despite its easily usable title, Atrocious is not atrocious. It’s also not great, at least in my estimation. While I’m usually thankful for short running times, Atrocious actually needed more. The final chase is fairly effective, but the ultimate reveal (which I won’t spoil) comes, at least upon first viewing, out of nowhere. Considering the weight of said unrevealed reveal, there’s really no reason why the film’s first act couldn’t have set it up better.

High Points
In a world filled with obnoxious twentysomethings or bratty teens, it’s nice to have two adolescent lead characters who for the most part, seem like perfectly pleasant kids who get along well

Low Points
I understand the style of found footage and the rules it forces upon your camerawork. It probably SHOULD be shaky if your characters/directors of photography. And yet, your characters who are holding FLASHLIGHTS probably should just drop said cameras to better maximize their ‘running from something terrible’ skills. 

My point is, if you insist on being a slave to your format, make sure it makes sense within the scene. PARTICULARLY when the flip side is that it subjects your audience to the effects of motion sickness

Lessons Learned
Wide lens flashlights are great, but apparently, night vision on your 20 pound videocamera held is far superior

If you queue up Atrocious in a dark room and eliminate interruptions for 80 minutes, it may prove to be effective for some viewers. I could appreciate it after the fact, but while watching, I just found myself longing to see the same story told with professional camerawork.