Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dolly's Gone Haywire!

Dolly Parton is easily my favorite living celebrity, an entertainer with enough cheerful spirit and musical talent to make Tennessee a worthy vacation destination (I’m heading there for the third time this spring). Hence, when the South’s favorite blond was line dancing back to the big screen, it seemed a natural recommend for my other favorite below Mason Dixoner, T.L. Bugg.

That’s right homefries: The Lightning Bug’s Lair is brimming with Joyful Noise, so hitch up yer horse and gallop on over for Zack’s what-I-imagine-must-be-rave-review. On my end, the Bugg sent me out on a covert mission to see Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. There’s less gospel singing and more ass kicking, but balance is important in this day and age. Just ask Dolly’s bras.

Quick Plot: Mallory Kane (MMA star Gina Carano) sits down for a cup of tea in an upstate diner when the boring guy from the only bad Step Up movie comes in to talk and fight. REALLY fight.

Winning round 1, Mallory enlists the aide of a curious customer with wheels and speeds away on the snowy road, telling her story to him and more importantly, us.

See, Mallory has one of those jobs that we only know about because of movies like Haywire. She’s a covert operative something something, an esteemed professional who negotiates and executes super duper dangerous plans around the world. Her last mission in Barcelona—to grab a journalist that had been taken hostage—went so well that she now gets a quickie job in Dublin via her boss and ex-lover (the young Obi Wan Kenobi) to pose as the wife of fellow operative/hot person Michael Fassbender. When a few details become suspect, Mallory finds herself back in combat and on the run.

Steven Soderbergh is easily one of modern cinema’s most interesting directors, both behind the camera and away from it. In terms of technique, he’s created some genuine marvels (Traffic, The Limey) and plenty of worthy experiments. As if flicking on a light switch, he can seemingly shoot out a commercially appealing mainstream vehicle without pandering to a less arty audience, only to turn around half a year later with a made-for-peanuts indie that butts any theater formula. Oh, and he’s currently working on a film based on Channing Tatum’s experiences as a male stripper.

Why aren’t more people as shocked/fascinated by this as I am?

Anyway, Haywire falls somewhere in between Soderbergh’s experiments and crowd pleasers. It’s an action film, to be sure, but one clearly crafted by someone with ambition and more importantly, creativity. We’ve seen badass hot chicks in hand-to-hand combat, but Soderbergh stages his battles in a way that lets you actually SEE them, pulling the camera back and stopping the music to let each punch and bang resonate. Thinking back to my annoyance with the well-received Crazies remake (which I disliked for its close quarters-with-no-context fight scenes) makes me appreciate the patience and trust someone like Soderbergh has in his work.

And yet American audiences seem to essentially hate Haywire, awarding it a cinemascore of a D+ and spending their cash instead on George Lucas’ Lando apology or Kate Beckinsale’s leather workout. Did moviegoers feel victim to a bait ‘n switch, expecting ‘splosions and shootouts only to be insulted with storyline and a smidgen of dialogue?

I don’t understand the odd venom for Haywire because you know what? I rather liked it. Gina Carano isn’t an Oscar ready actress, but you know what? She doesn’t have to be. She’s believable, likable, and most importantly, great to watch and that in itself keeps Haywire as a film to care about. The supporting cast is overflowing with Soderbergh vets (Michael Douglas!), personal faves (Bill Paxton!) and underrated stars playing against type (sleazy Antonio Banderas!). While the storyline occasionally feels a tad more complicated than it has to be, it tracks back easily enough once we reach the third act.

Maybe the ending wasn’t big enough for some audiences? I can imagine some viewers may have felt like each fight follows the same beats, meaning the ending (no spoilers) doesn’t satisfy in the more obvious Big Boss Battle route would have. It’s a fair criticism if that’s how you felt, but sit back to consider the fact that this is probably how these fights WOULD flow, and just because MacGregor knows how to use a lightsaber does not mean we should see some Jedi mind tricks in a stylized but reality-based action film. Plus, the final line of the film is kind of hilarious in a simple and wraparound way.

High Points
Ewan MacGregor. Bill Paxton. Antonio Banderas. AND Michael Fassbender?

Apparently Steven Soderbergh has the same taste in man as me.

One of my main irks with the action genre is the cold blooded ambivalence it generally has towards civilian bystanders, giving the audience minor laughs or thrills as random passerbys get caught up in gunfire or used as human shields (I still love you though, Total Recall).  While some unlucky folks do find themselves in the way, the character of Mallory actively tries to prevent them from being killed, whether it’s warning some proud state troopers, non-fatally putting down some Spanish officers, or guaranteeing the safety of her game driver

Low Points
Channing Tatum, I understand that you have physical appeal and a weird muse-like hold over your new bestie Steven Soderbergh but please, for the love of all your muscle tees, OPEN YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU SPEAK!

Lessons Learned
Never let an enemy order hot coffee when sitting across from your face

iPhones might have their charms, but nothing says superspy like a burner Blackberry

Don’t forget about the deer. NEVER forget about the deer

See/Skip/Sneak In
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Haywire on the big screen, but my $11 could easily have been spent on the latest Paracinema Magazine and a few rolls of toilet paper (I ran out). It’s a good film and more importantly, a genuinely special action movie so if you have the time and means, use that cash to make a point about what kind of cinema you’d like to see studios make. Or go see Joyful Noise because Dollywood could always use a new rollercoaster. The choice is yours, but you know what’s not? The freedom to choose which website to visit next. That answer is right here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

2011 Awards, Emily Style

Hey, not every movie can be awards chloroform like The Artist or Hugo. Some need a little help, even if they already have Mickey Rourke's badass headgear Nicholas Cage's non-accent-in-a-period-film to help them out. Hence, head over to the Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema for my very own version of the Emily Oscars. There will be clowns, there will be brazen bulls, there will even be Muppets, but sadly there will never, never ever never, be enough dinosaurs.

Go figure out what I mean.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Bloody Gaekkebrev

Abandoned mines! Ouja warnings! Zombie attacks! Funny accents!
Eh, we’ll leave the intro right there.
Quick Plot: A nineteenth century pre-credits flashback tells the tale of Andries Martiens, a child killer with a thing for heads-on-stakes. 

It’s pointy.
Flash forward to the present day, where a young woman named Kristel wants to take time off from school against the wishes of her historian father. After partying with her not great, not awful friends, Kristel gets a ride home with dad only to end up in a fiery collision that kills him. Survivors guilt is on its way.
To close down some business, Kristel teams up with her okay enough pals for a road trip to a Belgian mine, home to her late father’s final manuscript. What begins as something I would consider an awesome after hours haunted tour (there’s a cheap animatronic and EVERYTHING) turns into disaster when the gang,  plus enthusiastic tour leader are stuck underground with the saucy spirit of a 200 year old murderer who can possess dead or dying bodies with zombie-like urgency.

Having based what I knew about Slaughter Night simply on the quick recommendation of my Girls On Film cohostess Cristina and Netflix’s basic description, I was expecting a breezy slasher about pretty Europeans getting face axed, something along the lines of the good, if rote Cold Prey. I *kind of* got that, but Slaughter Night actually offers a lot more. The backstory of the killer is fairly gruesome, and setting the film in a My Bloody Valentine-esque mine (complete with the danger of methane explosions) offers plenty of natural potential. More neatly, the fact that instead of one big lug wielding sharp objects on our young pretty heroes is replaced by the victims rising with glowing eyes and bitey teeth...now that’s new.

High Points
Much like the aforementioned Norwegian Cold Prey, Slaughter Night utilizes excellent gore effects, making head rip-offs wet, juicy, gross, and realistic. Not that I’ve ever SEEN one, but I have my ideas
Low Points
While the teens of Slaughter Night are certainly an improvement over the last few young people in peril films viewed here, they still don’t really register as anything overly special to root for, especially when the seemingly endless supply of blond boys never seems to dwindle

Lessons Learned
Spirits are lousy at spelling

Nothing like popping a pill down a mine!
Having an adverse effect to drugs is never fun, but having an adverse effect to drugs when trapped in a haunted mine is a sure way to kill your buzz

I was more than pleasantly pleased by Slaughter Night, an excellently made slasher with a clever and well-executed zombie twist. The film won’t change your life, but it’s a great way to kill 90 brutal minutes with some great jumps and even better gore. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The 28 Best Movies I Reviewed In 2011. Also, Happy Birthday This

Don't worry folks. I still have another seven days before I cross a very big milestone in my own count of years (code: I turn 30 next week) but in the meantime, allow me to wish a very happy third birthday to the Deadly Doll's House! As is tradition, I like to take this anniversary to lavish praise upon some of the better films I watched and wrote about this past year, linking to each review via the title. 

Let the countdown commence!

Filmmaking team Adam Mason and Simon Boyes annoyed but intrigued me with 2006’s nihilistic Broken, so it was refreshing to see a followup that further developed their strengths. A mental patient (cleverly played by Andrew Howard) leads a team of psychiatrists to an abandoned house where the titular furniture provides a gateway into a Silent Hill-like dimension of brutality. Filled with terrifying imagery, strong performances and surprising twists, it's a great argument for the continued fight that Modern Horror Is Not Dead (it's just sitting in a chair).

By no means a masterful film, the third installment of this never-been-great franchise takes Warwick Davis' Irish scamp to Las Vegas where the expected Elvis impersonations ensue. On paper, there's not a whole lot to the pint-sized villain's exploits, but in the hands of genre vet Brian Trenchard-Smith, Leprechaun 3 becomes something truly joyous, a fun but not cloying ride into controlled goofiness. Sometimes the act of enjoying a film is enough to make it number 27.

26. Pieces

What a terribly ridiculous collection of awesome, a 1982 slasher that uses everything from chainsaws to kung fu to tell the story of a college killer being hunted by a geek, a tennis pro, and the most useless batch of police officers since Plan 9 From Outer Space. Pieces is an awful, awful film, but one that exists in that wonderful realm of so-bad-it's-laughably-amazing, a realm I like to call heaven.
25. Pin

If V.C. Andrews had a mannequin fetish, she might have written Pin. Instead, it turns out her future ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman had a mannequin fetish and wrote…Pin. Quirky but not cute, Pin tells the story of a doctor (Terry O’Quinn!) who confuses his children’s understanding of sexuality, thus leading to a promiscuous daughter and repressed son who would rather spend time with a medical dummy Dad used to break bad news. It’s not perfect by any means, but Pin is also something truly unique and special enough in its weirdness to make this list.

Thought I didn’t see the universally panned remake, I have my doubts that 1980’s Jamie Lee Curtis disco fest was THAT much better than its PG13-rated reboot. Despite the presence of Leslie Nielson, Prom Night was a mediocre slasher that had one excellent stalking scene amidst a sea of blandness. Imagine my surprise to discover that the 1986 sequel was actually FUN, a self-aware slasher that incorporates wacky kills with high school humor and, hold your breath, Michael Ironside. 

Released around the same time as the goofy (but great) Rumplestilskin, the straight-to-VHS Pinocchio’s Revenge never had much of a positive reputation. I sat down to it expecting a Child’s Play ripoff and silly doll kills. Well, the movie IS a Child’s Play ripoff, but not in the way you think. Instead of a pint-sized fairy tale stabbing ankles around him, Pinocchio seems to put the dirty work in the little hands of his owner, a troubled little girl who might be using the guise of a toy to take vengeance on bullies and would-be stepfathers. Or maybe he’s possessing her. Ambiguity is hardly something I’d associate with ‘90s killer doll films, but this one has a little more ambition in its beady blue eye.

Horror anthologies tend to offer the very best and worst of the genre. On one hand, the concise format allows for simple scares or twists. On the other, it can sometimes lead to undisciplined shortcuts or lazy and trite been-there campfire tales. Drive-In Horrorshow takes the anthology and juices it fully with five unique stories that range from clever comedy to dark body horror. Like any anthology, some tales work better than others, but combined in a tight runtime and framed with a groovy post-apocalyptic drive-in setting, this 2009 indie does it right.

"I like people."
"Yes son, but they don't like you."
That exchange has stayed with me ever since I sat down to watch Simon Rumley's horrific little drama about a schizophrenic (an incredible Leo Bill), his broke but aristocratic father, and sweet but cancer-ridden mother, all living in a decaying mansion isolated from modern times. Rumley gets a little too eager to boggle his audience's minds with his surreal experimentation, but this film remains a powerful portrait of a failing family unit. Both this and the soon-to-be-mentioned Red White & Blue show Rumley as an exciting new filmmaker who's willing and able to create characters that are too interesting to be classified as good or bad, and all the more tragic for it.

When it comes to zombies in the 21st century cinema, there are really only two paths to take: 1. Use them as background or a means to explore a deeper topic (Deadgirl, Dead Set, They Came Back) or just tell it like it is REALLY GOOD. Hence, the French action horror The Horde, a fast-paced, fast zombie siege film that does nothing new but everything right.

Misrepresented as a new entry into savage Santa cinema, Rare Exports is something much more special and, well, weird. Part fairy tale and to a lesser extent, horror movie, this yuletide treat keeps you truly surprised with which direction it will take, a rare feat in modern cinema.

I’m often baffled by the lack of war-set horror films, and seeing something as good as Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch does little to curb that. Set in the already terrifying trenches of WWI, Deathwatch follows a crew of British soldiers (including Love Actually’s Kris Marshall, Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, and Gollum himself, Andy Serkis) as they face impending evil. It’s tense and genuinely scary, marred slightly by cheap-looking CGI but ultimately effective straight down to its final reveal.

One of the most pleasant theatrical surprises of 2011, James Wan's low budget ghost story (of sorts) actively engages in horror cliches and flicks them away for a good hour. Haunted house? Move out! Lurking figure? Turn the lights on! Evil gnomish demon? Have him dance to Tiny Tim! Yes, it doesn't carry that brilliant energy into its last act, but for almost 75 minutes, Insidious is a scary and strangely funny tale that finds new ways to tell an old story.

While many of my peers gush over the very mention of blood, boobs, & black gloves, the giallo genre has never done much for me. Unnecessarily complicated plots that try to cover up a contrived mystery killer no intelligent person could ever solve? No thanks. Yet when my blogging cohort  T.L. Bugg assigned Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, I was hugely surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The cast is top notch ‘70s stars and the killings come from a definite place of motive. Most importantly, however, Don’t Torture a Duckling features the most awesome use of a dummy stunt double in the history of mankind.

Larry Cohen doesn't make seamless films, but nearly all the ones I've seen soar with a rare sense of fun present in every frame. Q the Winged Serpent is pure Cohen using his favorite tools: a dingy '80s era New York City, over the top effects, and most importantly, a classically insane Michael Moriarity. Less disturbing than something like God Told Me To and not quite as bombastic as The Stuff, Q makes for the kind of watch that is simply entertaining in a big ol’ monster kinda manner.

My bias must be confessed: big bugs kick ass. Infestation is a gleefully intentional B-movie about a likable mixed bag of survivors who awaken to discover...big bugs. Spider people, flying beatles, and you know, big...really big...bugs. Like a more fully realized Eight Legged Freaks, Infestation revels in its cheese in a so much smarter-than-you-think style. We can only pray to our giant aphid overlords that a sequel scurries our way soon.

Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011 for genre fans, this go-crazy-in-the-woods horror movie proceeds with echoes of everything from The Blair Witch Project to The Wizard of Oz yet still manages to be its own original and genuinely surprising treat. The cast of mostly unknowns is universally believable, while the script toes dangerous lines between black comedy and visceral scares. Although the ending doesn’t quite satisfy the strengths that came before it, YellowBrickRoad remains a scarily good trip into modern horror.

George Sluizer’s infamous 1988 thriller is every bit as intense and nail-biting as its reputation leads you to believe. Even if you know the big surprise of an ending (as I did), the film remains a fascinatingly stark look at both obsession and sociopathy. Skip Sluizer’s own American remake (complete with Jeff Bridges speaking like his mouth is stuffed with marshmallows and a token Hollywood happy ending) and save this original dark tale for the kind of day when you need to remember there’s evil in this world.

Less horror than...philosophy? magical realism? It's hard to say. This French film begins on a perfectly novel idea: one sunny summer day, the dead return to life not to eat the living's flesh, but to just...sort of...be there. Your late fiancee now lays in bed next to you not sleeping. Your tragically killed child now sits in a park...not playing. Tax collectors get confused. City councils meet in frustration. They Came Back could be considered a metaphor for a lot of things--the grieving process, immigration policy, local administration--and that's kind of its beauty. This is a quiet, thoughtful film that opens itself up to questions with no easy answers.

When accepting movie recommendations, one could do worse than following the advice of Martin Scorscese. 1964's The Innocents has long topped those lists of forgotten horror classics, often being overshadowed by the better known The Haunting. It's a shame. Starring an effectively cold Deborah Kerr as a frigid governess, the film adapts Henry James' The Turn of the Screw into chilling gothic black and white horror. From the eeriness of British children laughing to the masterful use of shadows, The Innocents represents subtle horror at its best.

Legendary is my love of the pseudo sequel Class of 1999, but this youth-gone-wild punk rock trip is a surprisingly strong piece of ‘80s Canuxploitation. Director Mark Lester imbues his film with grand energy, from the kicking score to over the top costume design and most importantly, fully committed performances from the likes of a baby-faced Timothy Van Patten and a brilliantly losing-his-mind Roddy McDowell. 

If I could give an award for Film That Most Improves The More You Sit Back From It, Red White & Blue would be wearing a tiara and cup waving from on high. Director Simon Rumley already demonstrated a harsh sense of filmmaking bravery (as well as a strong hold on performances) with the aforementioned The Living and the Dead, and with this 2011 followup, he takes horror to a new level. Three strangers--fantastically played by a terrifying Noah Taylor, complicatedly likable Marc Senter, and astoundingly understated Amanda Fuller--find their lives tragically intertwined through an endless cycle of disease and violence. I wouldn't dream of spoiling this film, and while it's not for the weak of heart (or stomach) and won't make you want to smile (ever again), it's a feat of filmmaking and--broken record alert--more proof that genre cinema is doing just fine.

Sion Sono is easily one of the most unique filmmakers working today,a former poet who now uses his camera to explore everything from true love to adolescent angst to parental incompetence and, when in doubt, crazy religious cults. Cold Fish is one of his more disciplined journeys through these kinds of places, following a timid tropical fish store owner/frustrated father through a terrifying friendship with an enigmatic serial killer. It's as funny as it is twisted, and while it doesn't necessarily blaze new trails in the way Suicide Club made viewers rethink schoolgirls on subways, it's still a juicy ride somewhere you've never thought to go.

The fact that Michael Ironside headlines this film was already enough for me to endorse it as a hearty recommendation, so the fact that it's actually A REALLY GOOD FILM is just gravy on the mozzarella cheese fries. This recently rereleased Video Nasty (Brits are such squares) immediately became one of my all-time favorite slashers boasting a formidable villain (sociopathic Ironside with mommy issues galore and pleather tanktops in his closet), strong final 'girls' and a superbly haunting hospital setting. A true hidden treasure of the 80s.

I imagine--and hope--that I'm not alone as a cinema fan in finding true joy when I get to watch enthusiastic filmmakers grow and improve with each project. Director/writer Jim Mickle and actor/cowriter Nick Damici's Mulberry Street showed incredible promise, but it's their epic post-apocalyptic vampire yarn that demonstrates the goods. Much like Mulberry Street, Stake Land's biggest strength lies not in its cast, but in the filmmakers' castING. Most horror films--low budget indies in particular--grab the nearest nubile bodies and slap them with sexy clothing and bland backstories. But let's face it: when the apocalypse hits, there will be as many able-bodied soldiers as there are middle-aged nuns, 40something men with weathered skin and scrappy orphan boys learning the trade. Stake Land makes its wasteland environment all the more believable because its occupants are people we know. As its heroes wander through a hell filled with supernatural cannibals and murderous religious fanatics, Mickle and Damici ground their tale in its survivors, pausing to remember life's treasures before vampires are dropped on top of it.

The essence of A Simple Plan is--forgive me--quite simple. A good man's soul can be corrupted by a bagful of money if he lets it happen. In the hands of Sam Raimi and his able cast, it's a great thing that said good man is Bill Paxton, his wife, a Lady MacBeth in the making Bridget Fonda, and brother, an incredibly sympathetic Billy Bob Thornton. The film flows like a modern Shakespeare tragedy about everyday folks who allow themselves to dream too high, only to then become all too ready to do what it takes to make those dreams come true. 

I've never been the biggest Dracula fan, making the fact that Werner Herzog's 1979 adaptation (don't let the title fool you) landed the top spot of my year-end list all the more impressive. From Klaus Kinski's shivering vamp to Isabelle Adjani's haunting expressions, Herzog zeroes in on his instruments' strengths and amplifies them to his own tune. Along the way, we get breathtaking imagery from every direction and even, just for kicks, a full plague subplot. It’s the equivalent of drinking the best cup of hot chocolate you’ve ever had, complete with fluffy marshmallows, the world’s finest whipped cream, elite chocolate shavings grounded fresh from Willy Wonka’s factory, and stirred with a decadent cinnamon stick. The only catch is that it might have been made with read dead rats, but hey, everything has its price, and great cinema is rarely not worth it.