Saturday, February 27, 2010

Water Water Everywhere But Not a Drop To Drink

The Crazies is a perfectly passable horror movie.
But it’s not nearly as frightening as The Blind Side.
Sigh. I’ll get to what I’m declaring The Most Racist Movie To Ever Probably Win An Oscar in another day or so (it’s horrific, hence I’m reviewing it) but for now, here’s Breck Eisner’s decent, if uninspired spin on George Romero’s imperfect (yet perfectly loved by me) 1973 non-zombie zombie-esque film.
Quick Plot: In an idyllic Iowan town where the sun beams and stars twinkle, a high school baseball game is interrupted by the reformed Town Drunk stumbling into right field with a shotgun. Town Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant, forever holder of a free movie pass following his way-better-than-it-had-to-be performance in A Perfect Getaway) saves the day by blowing his face off. This seems to upset School Principal, but David’s understanding (and expectant) wife/Town Doctor Judy (Silent Hill’s Radha Mitchell) and loyal Deputy Russell (The Ruins’ brokeback Joe Anderson) are there for support. Town Historian, Local Undertaker, and Mayor don’t comment, although Local Farming Family soon follows the opening disaster with another tragic fate.
Two things you’ve probably noticed from my review:
  1. In terms of the cast, there’s a fair amount of modern horror cred (The Signal’s Justin Welborn and Friday the 13th: Part XII’s Danielle Panabraker round it out)
  2. Just about every character is quite easily defined by Sesame Street's Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood style professions.
If you’ve seen George Romero’s flawed, but weirdly effective original, you know the basic hook. A biological weapon has been accidentally released on the sweet hamlet of Ogdan Nash--I mean, Ogden Marsh--and its major downside is that it drives the general population violently--and occasionally, giddily--bonkers. The government quickly swoops in to stabilize the situation, but anyone that’s ever seen a movie knows that a civil employee in a HAZMAT suit brings less good vibes than a Red Sox fan at Yankee Stadium.
Chaos quickly ensues as the townspeople are rounded up by menacing soldiers. Where the original soared in these messy moments of government order failing to hold up in rec centers and school gyms, 30+ years later, these scenes are standard to almost any contamination zombie flick. Eisner offers nothing new in that department, although a moment of suspense involving a pitchfork and a gurney is a decent thrill. 

Where The Crazies works best is, surprisingly, in a few more pointed and quiet moments of actual human emotion. Even hardened city folk such as yours truly can’t help but be charmed by some of Ogden Marsh’s sunshine, making the eerily empty streets lined with mom ‘n pop shops slightly poignant. At one point, Judy and David approach the perfect home where they were going to build a family, now having seen their neighbors tear each other to pieces in the school their child would have eventually attended. That in itself is horrific, as is the slow realization that one of the more likable characters is infected.

It’s strange that I would find those smaller beats so much more interesting than, say, night shots of Crazies climbing over government guarded fences. Perhaps it’s a testament to the solid cast and surprisingly strong script in contrast to the uninspired direction of Eisner, but the actual attacks are simply kind of trite. A car wash ambush is filled with tension, but like the characters, we can’t really see a thing going on and therefore have very little sense of what the danger actually is. 
I realize this review is taking a very negative turn, which is unfortunate because I liked this movie. It’s fine. Well-acted. Pretty landscape. Some neat violence. Appropriately downbeat when it needs to be. Adequate in every way, and even fairly respectful in nodding to the original while being a thing of its own. I just wish “its own” meant that, and not like every other slick remake made in the past ten years. I dare you to not think about some of the more visceral thrills of Alexander Aja’s Hills Have Eyes during much of The Crazies’ action sequences. I double dare you to be nearly as impressed.

High Points
A quietly eerie cameo from Lynn Lowry provides a knowing, but not annoying wink to fans of the original
Part of the messiness of Romero’s original comes from the lack of focus in storyline, as it volleys between the civilian heroes and the government trying in vain to solve the problem. One of the remake’s best decisions is to view all the action from David and Judy’s point of view. All we know about the Trixie virus is filtered through the bits of intel from randomly stopped soldiers, keeping the audience as in the dark as our desperate characters
Low Points
While Eisner proves his competence behind the camera, all of the close combat action sequences are either terribly staged or dreadfully edited. The first major fight between David and a buzz-saw wielding Crazy is intense, but there’s no sense of where the two men fighting hand-to-hand are in relation to each other, something not helped by speed-of-light cuts. Similarly, a moment where Judy hides in a closet with corpses lacks any suspense since we have no idea how the closet is laid out. When a very tall and assumedly strong Crazy opens the door to look for life, we see a shot of him, rather than his point of view. It’s a ridiculous moment when even we don’t know where he should be looking.
One shoot-the-guy-just-before-he-kills-a-protagonist scene is a relief. Three is pushing it.

Lessons Learned
Iowa weather is a mystery. You can wear a winter coat on a sunny afternoon only to take a dip in a swimming pool ten minutes later
Town Sheriff never pays for coffee
“Wait here” are two of the stupidest words you can say to a loved one when martial law is in effect and psychotic super strong humanoids are on the hunt
It takes a really long time to strangle a man to death (although, as A Perfect Getaway proved, Lord Olyphant is really hard to kill)

See/Skip/Sneak In
As theatrical horror remakes in 2010 go, The Crazies is perfectly adequate, much along the same lines as another remake of an imperfect, but important 1970s film Last House On the Left. Those sensitive to jump scares may have a great time, while others who prefer the strange madness of the original (like the uber creepy scene where Day of the Dead’s Dr. Frankenstein puts the moves on his own daughter) will find the film lacking in anything memorable. To endorse R-rated horror, give it your matinee money. Otherwise, slip in after something better or wait for the sure to be “unrated” DVD (meaning, as is standard for the ‘00s editions, filled with four extra minutes of exposition and eleven seconds of additional CGI blood). 

Friday, February 26, 2010

Academy Awards, The Way They Were Meant to Be

As much as they break my heart every year, I can' help but be an Oscar junkie. The forced smiles of generosity stinging the heavily made-up faces of the losers. Women tripping on dresses that cost more than most of the films nominated in the Best Screenplay category. A young starlet proving that either a) reading from a teleprompter is hard or b) she's illiterate. Jack Nicholson patiently waiting for the party to end and boozin' to start. The inevitable obituary montage complete with applause-o-meter, only slightly more tasteful than the typically garish musical numbers that try to force choreography on.

Yup, I love 'em, but you know what would make me love them more? If instead of this Vera...

We got this one:

Sadly, she never had a chance for Joshua, nor her fine work beating up a little girl in Orphan. Unless, of course, we're talking Doll House Oscars , where we judge the current Academy nominees the right way: based on the past genre films.

Penelope Cruz
Vera Farmiga
Maggie Gyllenhaal 
Anna Kendrick

The easiest Oscar race, providing you're using the genre film formula. Mo'Nique may have played one of the most hatable villains of the year in Precious, but what else is on her resume? Half Past Dead with Steven Seagal? Should we just assume it's the same as Hard to Kill or On Deadly Ground without Alaska? Blah. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn't fare much better, as the closest she comes to horror is being the subtle object of desire to her brother--real and fictional--in the sci-fi-ish Donnie Darko (although that is admittedly creepy, particularly if you have a fear of oversized bunnies or incest).Penelope Cruz tries to borrow some Oscar luck from Halle Berry in Gothika, but apparently some of that Catwoman charm dripped over because the movie is messier than Garfield's litterbox following a lasagna bender. Having not yet subjected myself to the Twilight series, I refuse to instantly damn the name of star Anna Kendrick, but her only other credit comes from an episode of NBC's fear itself, so meh. But let's face it: not one of these woman can hold an ice pick to Vera Farmiga, now mother to not one, but TWO genuinely evil cinematic preteens. Any woman who birthed the sociopathic piano prodigy Joshua is not to be trifled with, something she further proved by going head to head with evil Esther in the movie she SHOULD have been nominated for, Orphan. That’s right, I’ll say what you’re all thinking.

Matt Damon
Woody Harrelson
Christopher Plummer
Stanley Tucci
Christoph Waltz

I’m almost tempted to throw out all other criteria and just give my firstborn cat to Christoph Waltz, but that implies overlooking Christopher Plummer’s contributions to the horror genre, namely a straight-to-video Canadian slasher called The Clown At Midnight. The sight of Captain Von Trapp dressed like Pagliacci on a murder spree in an opera house trumps even a twinkie hunting zombie fighter Woody Harrenlson, Talented Mr. Damon, and Monkey Shining Tucci. Hamlet with a clown nose? That my friends, is a bingo.

Sandra Bullock
Helen Mirren
Carey Mulligan
Meryl Streep
Gabourey Sidibe

Perhaps the weakest selection on the ballot, as not one of these admittedly talented---if cursed with bad agents--actresses have any genuine genre films of note to their name. You could stretch the idea of Precious to call it a certain form of urban horror, but that's something of a cheat and by something, I mean total. Similarly, the ingenue Carey Mulligan needs an education in genre choices, since aside from what I assume to be a hard-boiled British mystery movie based on an Agatha Christie tale (I assume this because IMDB credits the title as Agatha Christie Marple: The Sittaford Mystery), she's got nothing. Sandra Bullock's 28 Days is often confused for another little film, but contrary to The Office's Pam and probably many a video renter without sharp reading skills, there are no infected cannibals to be found in the rehab center. For that alone, we'll discount any other genre cred she may have tepidly earned for The Net or, dear me, The Vanishing.  That leaves us with two of the classiest dames in pictures, neither of whom  really has a genuine horror to claim. Helen Mirren danced for Malcolm McDowell’s Caligula and cursed King Arthur in John Boorman’s fantastically dark Excalibur, while Meryl Streep racks up the deeply black comedy points for Death Becomes Her (an actual Oscar winner!…for special effects) and She-Devil. I suppose Streep wins an extra point for earning legendary (to us horror fans) director Wes Craven with a nod for Music of the Heart, besting Mirren and the most awesome child death of all time in Caligula, but it’s a lackluster win. I guess this really was a bad year for women in the movies after all.

Jeff Bridges
George Clooney
Colin Firth
Morgan Freeman
Jeremy Renner

Now I love The Dude more than a White Russian made with skim milk, but Jeff Bridges, I regret to inform you that your fine work in such classics as TRON and, um, movies like King Kong and The Vanishing simply don’t come close to some of the contributions from your competition. George Clooney once shook his ebony curls all over the ‘80s in both Return to Horror High, and, far more impressive than any bloody scone eaten by Colin Firth, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Note the lack of exclamation point in Pride & Prejudice, thank you. Morgan Freeman gets a solid vote for his grizzled Detective Sommerset in Se7en, but you’d have to be a vegetarian cannibal gone loopy from anorexia to compare anyone to Jeremy Renner. Not only did the Current It Boy play a believably likable military hero in 28 Weeks Later, he also crawled under many a skin with his creepily spot-on work as the titular villain Dahmer. Hand him the statue please (just fill it with chocolate rather know).

So non-Academy member readers, any predictions on who should take home the fake genre earned gold?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Origin Story

Every wonder how and when the Doll's House was born? See, when a writer really loves--wait. I forgot. You'll need to take this permission slip home first and obtain a parent or guardian signature. In the meantime, the esteemed Iloz Zoc (code name John Cozzoli) has chosen to profile lil ol' me over at his ridiculously fine (and well-punctuated) blog, Zombos' Closet of Horror. This is part of a weekly series that spotlights horror bloggers, and I'm honored to be a part of it, and not just because I'm a raging narcissist pent on spreading my history throughout the Interwebs.

Now you're probably thinking, I've read about Emily's childhood fears already, so what more do you need? Well let's face it: I've always been something of a mystery.

I've been meaning to get that thing removed

Or not at all, but I still go into a little more detail this week about exactly why I started blogging, what inspired me not just to watch more of the movies I'd been enjoying my whole life, but to actually do something productive other than barrage bored friends with zombie survival scenarios. Head here to learn a few more fun facts and as a measure of good faith that that's exactly what you're going to do, here's a more suggestive photo of me and some oregano.

It totally made sense at the time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mill Creek Madness!

Back in November, I vowed to take on Mill Creek’s 50 packs to deliver full disc reviews every month.
I lied.
Not intentionally, of course. I never wanted to break my promise, particularly when I later declared it my  New Year’s resolution (screw weight loss!). It's just that I'm a really bad person.
Apologies aside, today marks the triumphant return to my Mill Creek project as we tackle the Tales of Terror 50 Pack and it's electrifying Disc 5.

Side A
1. War of the Robots, aka Reactor, Robots, Stratostars (I dare you to say the last one ten times)

Warp Speed Plot: Somebody decides to cash in on the success of Star Wars with laziness, spandex, and a convoluted plot involving space travel and sexual harassment in the workplace. That sounds far more awesome than the film, which is notable solely for the decision to dress evil henchmen with blond pageboy haircuts.
Celebrity Cred: Antonio Sabato. And lightsabers. Make of that what you will.
Verdict: This should have been tacky goodness to the extreme, but War of the Robots ultimately felt like a neverending story akin to space purgatory. It’s colorful and has moments of laughable joy, but to actually devote its 99 minute running time is something that should only be done when punishing small children.

2. Hands of Steel, aka Fists of Steel, Atomic Cyborg, Arms of Steel, Return of the Terminator

Warp Speed Plot: In the near future, truck stops remain happening joints and the government is investing most of our tax money into creating cyborgs based on Sylvester Stallone’s lead in Over the Top. Paco (Daniel Greene) is its best experiment and has been dispatched to assassinate a scientist. Cursed with a moment of conscience slip, he leaves the would-be victim alive and heads to a dingy rent-by-the-hour bar and motel where nightly arm wrestling matches take place. Shootouts happen, trucks crash, and I keep giggling.
Celebrity Cred: John Saxon snarls and George Eastman sweats, all under the restrained directorial watch of one Sergio Martino. What more do you need?
Verdict: This is the kind of ridiculously amazing extravaganza that makes these 50 packs worth that $15 price tag. Over the top action, non sequitur dialogue, and simple cinematic gluttony (arm wrestling is fun; arm wrestling where the loser’s arm releases a poisonous viper=awesome) make Hands of Steel simply smashing. I was inspired to watch this film after the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema (a podcast you all should be listening to) gave it one of the most entertaining discussions I’ve heard in some time. This is by not means a great movie, except that it is. 
Side B
1. One Frightened Night

Warp Speed Plot: An elderly millionaire decides to split his vast estate amongst a random assortment of soon-to-be murder suspects, all because the only person he’s ever really cared about is his MIA granddaughter. Naturally, the long-lost young lady returns home just in time for the signing of the will, but things get rather complicated (we’re talking jowls shake as the camera zooms in complicated) when a second woman shows up claiming the same identity. Oh oh, but complication reigns SUPREME when the first lucky lady gets murdered and one night of mystery gets rolling.
Celebrity Cred: Charley Grapewin, better known as Uncle Henry in a little film about a girl from Kansas who isn’t afraid of scarecrows or little people.
Verdict: At just 66 minutes long, One Frightened Night is decent enough for background entertainment when cleaning or toaster or doing your taxes (note to self: do your taxes). Fans of old timey whodunits might enjoy this early mystery, but others will probably prefer a more stirring round of Clue.

2. Vampire’s Night Orgy, aka Grave Desires, Orgy of the Vampires, and the more grammatically correct Vampires' Night Orgy

Warp Speed Plot: A random assortment of dull travelers end up stuck in a quaint little village clearly run by a cult of lazily sensuous vampires who really like Shakespeare and hospitality. People die and orgies don’t happen.
Celebrity Cred: Jack Taylor. No, I don’t know who he is either, but IMDB credits him as “Priest” in Conan the Barbarian, so he must be awesome.
Verdict: I enjoyed this one for tis occasionally cheeky humor and amazing overuse of complicated translations in dubbing. It definitely lacks the all-out trashiness the title suggests, but anyone who gets a kick out of poorly transported vampire films might have some fun. If not, just flip over the disc and rewatch Hands of Steel.

Cumulative Lessons Learned
You’ll never own a man until you control his heart
In the 1930s, nights were capable of being frightened
Surprisingly enough, Snuggies will be popular amongst space emperors sometime in the distant future
Asking “No, please don’t do that” will not stop raiders from tearing your shit apart
Your bus driver dying at the wheel is a disagreeable situation
If you’re blond and the female protagonist in a 1980s film, there’s a more than likely chance your name is Linda
If you’re blond and somewhat attractive in a a 1970s Italian vampire film, there’s a more than likely chance that every single male character will hit on you
The meat of a human leg is quite tender

Lastly, when costume designing a film set in space, think realllllllly hard about how plastic hair wigs will age 30 years later

Knock Knock, Cough Cough

Few shows have held up quite as well as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It never ceases to amaze me how a TV program--perhaps one of the most time sensitive formats out there in the modern world of art--filmed when I was not even a glimmer in my elementary school aged parents’ eyes can still terrify, fascinate, and teach me so much about humanity, America, philosophy, morality, and the sheer awesomeness of Burgess Meredith.

But why bring up that black and white social landmark when today’s topic is 2006’s Right At Your Door? Mostly because this indie thriller is one of the closest examples I’ve seen of a modern tale with the Serling spirit. Tight as Shatner’s Kingdom of the Spider’s jeans at 96 minutes and suspenseful as watching a gremlin toy with a plane’s engine at 20,000 feet, this is an extremely well-made and truly tense film that combines modern fears with timeless human dilemmas.
That was awfully pretentious sounding, wasn’t it? Let me clear my throat of the toxins inside and continue.
Quick Plot: It’s a sunny day in LA when Brad (Rory Cochrane), an unemployed musician, kisses his career woman wife Lexie (Mary McCormack) goodbye as she heads down the freeway. Newly moved into their modest home, Brad plans on spending the day calling the cable company and unpacking. 
Remember the last movie you watched about cable installation? Didn’t think so (unless you’re a fan of those underrated gems, Stay Tuned and Cable Guy and if so, good for you)--which is probably why Right At Your Door has another storyline in mind. With nothing but a radio for audio entertainment, Brad soon learns that a bomb of mysterious nature has been dropped downtown. Because Lexie forgot to charge her phone (obligatory d’oh), Brad has no way of reaching her and can do nothing but frantically drive to roadblocks, grind his teeth, and return home to pace.

This is one of  the early decisions that instantly told me Right At Your Door was going to work. Brad is a regular guy, caring and concerned, but well-aware that he’s a human civilian. We’ve seen enough fantasy disaster films where mere mortals travel through apocalyptic landscapes on foot to ‘save’ their loved ones. In reality, if your wife is stuck at ground zero in one of the country’s largest cities, what can you possibly do? Yes, most of our instincts would be to get as close as we could to at least be near them, but deep down, even the most passionate lovers would probably realize the best solution is to sit home and hope.
Back at the house, the power flickers on and off but with no TV, Brad is stuck with radio news (interesting enough in itself at establishing true chaos without spending another dollar on the budget). The neighbor’s handyman breaks in and gives a little more info: a dirty bomb was dropped, releasing highly radioactive toxins now floating in the air. Homes must be sealed before the breeze turns and anybody who was near the blast is likely carrying a contagious, probably deadly viral strain in their bodies.
About 30 minutes into Right At Your Door, a character makes a shocking decision that I, like the Netflix sleeve, am about to spoil. This isn’t “the big twist” of say, Martyrs proportions, but if you really want to watch this film fresh--and I REALLY want you to--then leave me now and queue up your Instant Watch. I won’t give away the second major revelation, so those who don’t mind knowing a little more can stay, but the first is a key action that both surprises the viewer and determines the rest of the story. I simply can’t talk about the film without giving away this detail and you know what? I want to talk about this film.

Okay brave souls or those with poor reading skills, read on:
Windows coated in bubble wrap and duct tape, Brad chokes back tears as he seals the last entrance. Then Lexie, the love of his life and bank account of his existence, comes knocking.

He doesn’t open the door.
That’s right, the man who nearly crashed his van to find his wife has now had a little more time to fully digest the situation. And he knows. There’s his wife, coughing in pain and covered in gray dust, and Brad simply refuses to let her contaminate him or the stranger in the next room.
I loved this choice for its bravery (in, of course, its very cowardice). How often do we see a character act on his head instead of heart? My jaw dropped hard when I realized Brad wasn’t going to cave in, even for the women he’d just spent an hour pre-mourning.
Back to the story, Brad and Lexie, now separated by a few layers of plastic, can’t quite look at each other the same way. As Lexie slowly accepts this, the poor hacking beauty is now also faced with what seems like imminent, phlegm-filled death. Writer/director Chris Gorak handles this in a truly human manner, allowing McCormack plenty of room to show a normal woman coming to realize her fate. What would you do if you could feel the clock ticking in each breath? Call your family to hear their voices, knowing they’re hearing the pain in your own? How do you deal with the man you love choosing his own life over comforting you when you need him the most? There’s no time to argue, but also not quite the spirit to put it behind you and savor the final joy left.

There are no major effects or battles in Right At Your Door, but Gorak is masterful at creating an atmosphere of impending doom and state-wise chaos. On a shoestring budget, he manages to make you believe this normal couple is experiencing 9/11 in their backyard. Hearing the radio reporter with a muffled voice is all you need to visualize a frantic Diane Sawyer shouting to her microphone with her face covered in a cardigan. Anyone who’s a sucker for gas masks gets all they need when Darth Vader voiced soldiers stop by. And while I wouldn’t dream of spoiling anything further, I’ll end by saying that the final turn is a twist worthy of that cigarette smoking upstate NYer himself.
High Points
From the music to the camerawork, an extended scene where Brad drives through the almost-chaotic suburban streets is extremely effective, letting you feel every pump of his racing heart as the disaster around LA fully sets in

Like many a Twilight Zone episode, Right At Your Door relies heavily on its everyday core characters in an extraordinary situation, and both McCormack and Cochrane deliver sympathetic and natural performances the whole way through
No spoilers here, but leapin’ lizards did i love that ending!
Low Points
The introduction of a mysterious mutual friend named Rick feels like both a distraction from our core characters and an awkward plot convenience to get from point A to B
Lessons Learned
Meet your newest best friends: duct tape, plastic wrap, Ziploc bags, and a truly handy handyman swiped from your new neighbor
Avoid dealing with your mother-in-law in the event of a national disaster
If zombie survival has taught you nothing, let this be the film that convinces architects that ground floor windows are death sentences to homeowners

It’s been a few days since I watched Right At Your Door, and writing about the film has made me like it even more. As a 96 minute Instant Watch, there’s really no reason to not watch it when you feel like you need a solid fix of human drama with paranoid leanings. It may not fit into the typical definition of a ‘horror’ movie, but Right At Your Door is both thoughtful and scary in its own right. Twilight Zone fans may be especially impressed by how it ultimately succeeds. Chris Gorak shows a whole lot of skill all around, from the powerful instrumental score to the strong performances and tight script. It’s a simple story told well, and for a low budget thriller set in modern times, it’s definitely worth a buy if found at the right price, particularly since my extensive research (i.e., points to the DVD being refreshingly full o’ special features. 

Telly Savalas & Talking Tina, just 'cause