Thursday, June 28, 2012

Live And Die On This Grey

Like just about anyone with an email address, I get a healthy dose of spam messages advertising products that will make my non-existent penis grow multiple inches. After watching Liam Neeson craft a makeshift pair of brass knuckles out of mini-liquor bottles in order to wrestle an entire pack of man-eating wolves in the arctic wilderness, I think I can safely declare non-FDA approved pills and air pump-like apparatuses unnecessary.

Now I’m no expert, but let me give you this piece of advice: if you want your penis to grow, just watch The Grey.

Quick Plot: Our stoic soon-to-be hero Ottway (Neeson) is just finishing up a job with a petroleum company located in the snowy emptiness of northern Alaska. It’s the kind of mission designed for, in his words, “ex-cons, fugitives, and assholes,” aka men unfit for the civil constraints of organized society.

Ottway himself is quiet and clearly deeply scarred. After an unhappy beer, he samples a taste of his rifle, clearly contemplating suicide following the end of his marriage (for reasons we’ll learn later). Instead, he writes an impassioned note and boards the plane home with his all-male team.

As you know from the trailers, the plane goes down in the remote arctic. Ottway emerges immediately as a leader, the only man seemingly fit for the job of telling it like it is to his doomed brethren.

Oh yeah, and wrestling mothah f’cking WOLVES.

26 minutes in, the real battle begins as our quickly shrinking group battles the elements, their tempers, and…you know, mothah f’cking wolves. Throughout the journey, director Joe Carnahan (working with a script by him and short story writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) finds a fairly brilliant balance in the wider imagery of the untouched tundra and the small, imperfect lives of these few survivors. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in both its dialogue and occasional lack thereof; when relaxed by a campfire, the men can dabble in crass humor or throw out a personal detail to stay sane, but will equally spend long stretches without saying a word. It works.

There’s also an incredibly sly amount of depth to what goes on in The Grey, and while I may be overthinking some of it, I honestly don’t know that I truly ‘got’ all of its meaning. On one hand, this is a movie about Liam Neeson and a few dudes fighting wolves. On the other, there’s so much—both spoken and unspoken—floating around the snowy air. Over its fairly brief runtime, Jeffers and Carnahan’s script flirts with the existence of God, the definition of an alpha, and what it means to want to live or die. While I’m sure the juggernaut theatrical success will lead to more movies exploring similar territory, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, The Grey becomes the kind of film analyzed and dissected in film classes and scholarly work.

And not just because all film critics want bigger penises.

High Points
Post-crash, there is an absolutely outstanding scene wherein Ottway surveys a mortally injured passenger and tells him so plainly, “You are going to die.” It sounds cruel of course, but it’s actually deeply moving as Ottway helps bring the unlucky young man to a peaceful end. As his fellow strandees watch with shock, sadness, and respect, we see with them the easy acknowledgement that this is the man—Neeson and Ottway—that we now need to follow. It’s a brilliant way to establish character while lending so much stoic emotion

Man that musical score is good

Low Points
Perhaps I would’ve preferred a little more character stuff BEFORE the crash so as to give us some form of loss. While the last few survivors do emerge as compelling characters, there are a lot of bodies that never seem to mean anything 

Stray Observation
It’s kind of shocking how similar in many ways The Grey is to another great genre film, The Descent. Obviously, the boiled-down premise (people entering no-people land and fighting it out with the natives) but even more specifics:
-Both feature a cast composed primarily of one gender

-Both are set in remote locations

-Both involve characters seeing the specters of their children before death or battle

-Both feature a major character mourning the death of a loved one

-Both have monsters that eat them

-Ottway’s mantra “Live and die on this day” calls to mind Juno’s necklace etched with “Love each day”

-Both kick ass

Lessons Learned
In a way, The Grey almost teaches us nothing. What, don’t fly over the chilly wilderness because wolves will eat you? Don’t do nothing when confronted by a wolf ‘cause it will eat you? Don’t fight a wolf unless you’re Liam Neeson because it’s a wolf and is therefore stronger than you unless you’re Liam Neeson? Seriously The Grey, I love you, but after watching you, I’m fairly certain in my assumption that if I ever end up stranded alone in the arctic circle, the sooner I develop hypoxia and freeze to death, the happier I’ll be 

Lessons Learned For the Film Industry
Hey big name production companies: see how good and successful a movie can be when it’s about people who aren’t necessarily 22 and gorgeous? Just sayin’

The Grey is an incredibly refreshing mainstream hit of a film, one that understands that audiences can be fully satisfied watching real-seeming men in a horrific situation. The photography is gorgeous, the performances, top-notch, and the entire vibe, wonderfully manly. Liam Neeson is fast becoming one of cinema’s fine wines, only a fine Chianti that not only gets better with age, but one that also can kick your ass with an AARP card. The DVD includes a commentary track, and due to its rewatchability, I would easily recommend a blind buy at the right price. Especially if you want a bigger penis. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Dreamed a Deathdream In the Dead of Night

Anyone who’s ever lost someone they love--be it a parent, lover, or beloved family dog--knows what it’s like to dream that he or she or it is still happily breathing as if nothing final ever happened. Bob Clark’s Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) knows that, and like many a similar tale before it (some even also called Dead of Night), the film taps into the innate sadness of mourning.

With skin peeling.

Quick Plot: Andy is a soldier in Vietnam meeting a quick end as a sniper bullet takes his life. Back home, his overbearing mother Christine begs him to come back.

He does.

Of course, those who've read The Monkey’s Paw or seen that Simpsons episode know that such a supernatural second lease can’t be good. Despite his mother’s happiness, Andy’s father Charles and sister Cathy can’t look past the utter oddness of Andy’s behavior. Even the family dog isn’t comfortable in his presence, and if that's not a sign that something is amiss, I'm not a crazy cat lady.

There’s also the small matter of a dead truck driver and family physician, both of whom saw Andy just before their grisly ends. The real strain, however, seems to be on Charles and Christine’s marriage, something that clearly came second on Christine’s list of priorities.

Deathdream was directed by Black Christmas’ Bob Clark with a screenplay by his Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things cohort Alan Ormsby. There’s nothing overly revolutionary about Deathdream’s story, but the Clark/Ormsby approach is something truly special. Rather than focus on the supernatural, Deathdream is far more concerned with its characters, namely, Christine and Charles.

Played by veteran actors John Marley and Lynn Carlin, Charles and Christine are the real heart of this film, a middle-aged married couple who might be more in love with other things. For Christine, it’s Andy, her favorite child and blatant obsession. Charles seems a little more balanced, although one gets the feeling that his monkey’s paw wish would be more aimed at resurrecting his beloved dog than wife. Lost in the middle is their daughter Cathy, a nice enough young woman who watches her family fall apart but doesn’t seem important enough to any of them to make a difference.

Deathdream is a sad, haunting little film that finds its true horror in the utter devastation of a family torn apart. We don’t know Andy before his enlistment, but an awkward double date is enough to show us how much everything has changed (and not JUST because, you know, he’s a talking zombie in a turtleneck). Deathdream isn’t a an out-and-out anti-war film, but the sentiment does come across in a subtle, never forced manner. The tragedy of the film stems more from a woman’s inability to accept her son’s death, but to ignore the implications certainly misses some of the deeper points.

Also, the film is FREAKY.

Though there’s never any doubt that Andy has come back as something of a monster, the slow reveal of just how awful his condition is comes across quite effectively. With huge glasses and a Joker grin plastered upon his pale face, Andy seems like a walking vampire in the sun. It’s incredibly creepy, and yet once we learn a little more about Andy, made much more sad.

High Points
For such a character-based genre film like Deathdream, it’s a strange but kind of perfect choice to open so quickly. Within seconds, Andy is shot, killed, and sent home. The economy with which Clark and Ormsby establish the basic plot is impressive and smart

Low Notes
I suppose youngest child Cathy gets a little lost in the shuffle of, you know, having her older brother killed in the Vietnam War then return in talking zombie form.

Lessons Learned
Never marry a man who can’t carve a roast beef

Everyone changes eventually

World War II was quite the war!

Deathdream is a hearty recommend but only when you’re in a particular mood for melancholy horror. The film takes its time in showing the unraveling of the Brooks family, and while there ARE some shocking moments, the film is more eerily sad than actually scary. Pour some wine, grab a nearby household pet, and watch Deathdream (currently on Netflix Instant) knowing everything is okay.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bear: It's about a bear

Perhaps my artistically inclined readers can enlighten me as to why so may paintings and sculptures are titled “Untitled.” It seems dreadfully lazy and worse, evidence that the artist didn’t actually know WHAT they were making. Calling a blank canvas with a dot of scribble something like “The War Between the Sexes” is of course quite pretentious, but doesn’t it seem incomplete to not call it SOMETHING?

I ask this question because a) I’ve always wanted to know the answer and b) I just watched a movie about a killer bear called, plain and simple, Bear. I almost wonder if the movie was written, filmed, and sold with the title “Untitled Bear Horror Movie” until someone in the art department charged with making a poster finally asked the question “Hey! Do we have a title for this thing?” The room got very quiet. Thankfully, it was Bring Your Daughter To Work Day. The graphic designer looked around for help, stumped until his 18 month old (who was just learning how to talk while playing with her Care Bear figurines) pointed to the working image and said so cutely “bear.”

And thusly Bear was titled...Bear.

Quick Plot: Brothers Nick and Sam are driving to an anniversary dinner for their parents with their ladies in tow. Oldest Sam is a smarmy yuppie type with bland wife Liz, while Nick is a rock star wannabe/recovering alcoholic early on in his relationship with the annoyingly free-spirited Christine. When their mini-van (it’s okay to laugh) breaks down just off the main highway, they meet a big ol’ grizzly bear mama and promptly shoot her dead.

Don’t you love these people?

Before you can get through one verse of “The Other Day I Saw a Bear,” grizzly mama’s old man is on the hunt. He’s bigger, meaner, smarter, and apparently, way more conniving than his late missus.

And he wants vengeance.

Bear is a very odd film in its construction. Rather than going the Grizzly Park tear-the-pretty-people-up route, it focuses tightly on its two couples and the never-quite-in-the-same-shot bear (who I’m just going to go ahead and name Charles Bronson for his revenge obsession). Our first kill comes well into the film, and perhaps because director John Rebel had what I imagine were limited monetary resources, it never really tries to make you think “yup, it would sure hurt getting mauled by a bear!” I *think* what it actually goes for is a “No! Not that character that I now know so much about!” effect instead.

In case that last paragraph didn’t give it away, I’m having an awfully hard time trying to figure out how to discuss Bear. Unlike the awful but enjoyable Grizzly Park, there’s nothing the least bit fun about this film. We’re given four characters who bicker obnoxiously, none with any real charm to make us root for their survival. At the same time, I have to appreciate the effort. The script (by Roel Reine and House’s Ethan Wiley) certainly TRIES to make Sam, Nick, LIz, and Christine into real, breathing detailed human beings. Considering my complaints about movies like The Darkest Hour (which assumes that just because they’re onscreen, we automatically care about the cast members), I do think Bear puts the right priority into crafting its characters, all of whom are capably played by their young actors. The problem though is that...well...they’re still kind of a drag.

For the first 45 minutes or so, we just get to hear Nick and Sam rehash old arguments about their differences in life. These are the kind of brothers who have discussions about how music isn’t a viable career and that’s why you’re not the favorite son! Then Liz and Christine bond over their own unhappiness with the kind of magical liquor bottle that makes you instantly drunk. It’s not the worst writing put forth in a direct-to-Netflix horror movie, but at the same time, there’s nothing overly clever or inspiring about it. I have no reason to care.

Well, I SAY that but then...well...then the bear has a flashback to the moment that played 10 minutes earlier where Sam shot his girlfriend dead, and suddenly, Bear becomes the greatest movie of all time. But then I realize there even though our titular grizzly howls with true pain, there’s no winking subtitle to translate the howl into “Nooooooooooooooooo” and I realize the film isn’t as smart as I hoped.

On the other hand, Bear is technically put together in a fairly impressive manner. Credit goes to young director Rebel and editor Herman P. Koerts for not making me realize until well after the film finished that no actor is ever ACTUALLY in the same frame as Charles Bronson. While the film never really inspires any true fear, it by no means embarrasses itself in how it uses a real-life grizzly stalking its young cast. Animals attack genre fans may at least find it a new twist on the old Cujo tale. That being said, I’d be remiss in my duties to not complain about some of the more contrived elements of the script, namely:


As things are looking dimmer and dimmer for our young leads, Bear finds irresponsible rock star brother sitting alone with his stiffer WASPy sister-in-law for what turns into a rather inane downward spiral of third act revelations. Liz slept with Nick! And Sam is in financial trouble! And might go to jail for embezzlement! Bring Sam back into the van (because after he ran to get help, Charles Bronson dragged him back to die with his companions because bears are the reincarnation of Native American shamans or something something) primarily so Liz can tell both men that SHE’S PREGNANT! Which is crazy because she hasn’t had sex with her husband in five months BUT she had sex with Nick in two so HE’S THE FATHER! And of course, in the rationalizations of these characters, the entire reason the bear is hunting them with such ferocity is because they were all unhappy with their lives and nothing says new start like being psychologically tortured and maybe physically eaten by a grizzly bear.

Look, I think it’s great that a tiny li’l nature gone wild flick wanted to try its hand at Bergman-like character drama. But ultimately, having the last 20 minutes of an 80 minute bear attack film turn into Days of Our Lives (minus the possession) is sort of the equivalent of ordering a hot dog from a $1 cart for a quick bite only to then wait an hour while the vendor shows off his origami skills with the bun. It just misses the point.

High Notes
It’s always a pleasure when the most annoying character gets eaten first

Low Notes
I understand that it’s nighttime and bears don’t have track lighting, but it’s still nice for the audience to see what’s actually going on most of the time

Lessons Learned
Pregnant also means ‘with child,’ or ‘in the family way’

Unlike rock ‘n roll stars, real people don’t bed someone new every night

As I recently pointed out with Basic Instinct 2, having a character smoke in a no-smoking zone doesn’t make her a rebel; it makes her disrespectful and obnoxious

Bear is not what you would traditionally call a good movie, but it does manage to rise above its natural limitations. The cast isn’t quite memorable, but they service the clumsy writing with all their hearts and newbie director John Rebel makes the best out of some fairly terrible material. I only recommend it as an Instant Watch stream when you really need a bear fix and feel like seeing an incredibly inconsistent attempt. It’s not satisfying in the least, but it’s strange and capable enough of a film to warrant some of your time. I’d prefer an origami swan hot dog bun, but sometimes you just have to compromise.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Am the Running (Wo)Man

It has probably been said by someone wise that in order to grow, one must face the things we hate.

I can think of three:



Boo hiss.

Thusly do I rationalize my decision to run (I’m already coughing) in a 5K being held at Yankee Stadium (already doing a Google search for priests that worship the Mets and are skilled in exorcisms) in the blazing heat of August (I’m also already dead). Why do such a thing, other than to give myself a taste of what hell might have to offer should I continue on the path of sin I’ve so carefully paved for the past 30 years?

The answer is: to help annihilate cancer. This is an annual fundraiser that raises money for cancer-fighting research through the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. ALL of the money contributed goes towards helping those nerdy/brilliant young scientists battle that demon that too many of us have had to see.

As any character on Lost might ask at least twice an episode, Why are you telling me this?

In simple terms, I’m asking for donations. I know times are tight for most of us 99%ers, but if you happen to be in a decent financial place between now and July 31st, please stop by this fancy link here and throw a few bucks towards Team Mary Alice, named in honor of my fella (and running partner)’s late aunt. As I said, 100% of all the donations go straight towards cancer research so you can comfort yourself knowing you’re not contributing to that shifty homeless guy’s glue-sniffing habit or a movie star’s glitzy but ill-administrated charity foundation and still get that good karmic bounce. I’m sure donations are tax-deductable and all that jazz that people who actually know about tax stuff know, so there’s that too.

Oh! And an added bonus I just discovered: Cabot is a sponsor. They make cheese. Quite good cheese. Good cheddar cheese. So, supporting me in this 5K is not only supporting the fight against cancer: it’s also supporting the good will of cheese.

I don’t care where your politics might lie: I KNOW you can all get behind that!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mother That Rocks the Cradle

I have a long, complicated relationship with the 1980 exploitation flick Mother’s Day. See, my dear parents are known for, among other things like being great parents, being fairly lax about regulating what I watched as a child. Hence, when my older brothers brought home what seemed like just another holiday-themed slasher from the video store, why WOULDN’T I be allowed to sit down in the basement and watch it?

For years, I just didn’t remember Mother’s Day as being anything other than another peg in the hillbilly horror field. Hence, when my friend asked me to bring a “scary movie” from my VHS collection to her 14th birthday party, there didn’t seem to be any obvious reason NOT to bring Mother’s Day. After all, she asked ME because I knew “scary movies” so wasn’t trusting my instinct enough?

There was a minor problem with grabbing Mother’s Day from the video pile: 

It’s a little rape-y.

Or a lot rape-y, depending on how you rank your rape-y scale. 

Needless to say, I was unofficially banned from choosing the movies for slumber parties for the rest of junior high, a shame since we never even got to watch Slumber Party Massacre

That being said, I hold no grudge against the original Mother’s Day. It’s a terrible film, but one with a fairly snappy satirical edge buried just beneath its oozing layers of sleaze. When I heard it was being remade (in what feels like a decade ago, based on Lionsgate’s odd 2-year holdout of the film), I was happy. Remaking a bad film makes a motherload more sense to me than mangling something as good as The Wicker Man or (breath held) Total Recall.

Quick Plot: It’s a dark night in the maternity ward when a woman disguised as a nurse sneaks out with a newborn, aided by a mysterious man who spills a ton of blood out of a night watchman. And that’s all before the credits start.

Cut to a nice and new suburban housewarming (or birthday, even though the lucky aging guest is never acknowledged) party in Wichita hosted by the Sohapis, a sad but (this being a movie) attractive couple. They’re just kicking back in the basement with an assortment of early thirtysomething friends amid tornado warnings when a trio of baddy bank robbers crash the living room. 

Bandit brothers Ike and Aadley frantically tend their youngest’s gunshot wound, wondering why their house looks so goshdarn different. Turns out, their family home was bought up by the Sohapis (and yes, there’s plenty of comment on that name) after mom Rebecca DeFrickenMornay and sis Lydia lost it. Of course, once a few partygoers come upstairs, the brothers can’t just hobble out with a few bodies in their wake...especially after they make a phone call to mom.

Played by the gracefully aging De Mornay, Mom is quite a piece of work. Polite, classy, and seemingly well-intentioned, all she wants is to keep her children safe and on their way with her to the international border, something that requires $10,000 that *should* have been delivered to her former home. Maybe it was, and maybe frazzled wifey Beth (My Bloody Valentine star Jamie King) or her cheating hubby Daniel have been hoarding it. Mother's Day uses the missing cash as a nice underlying threat. De Mornay might indeed have kept the evening (fairly) bloodless if there wasn't the slightest scent of distrust lingering in her old home.

But come one: is "fairly bloodless" what you're looking for in a remake of Mother's Day? Directed by Saw 2/3/4 and Repo! The Genetic Opera helmer Darren Lynn Bousman, Mother's Day certainly feels like a slicker, higher end straight-to-DVD genre flick. The cast includes plenty of recognizable faces, including  Frozen's Shawn Ashmore, Saw 2/3/4's Lyriq Bent, Step Up 2/Burning Bright's 65 year-old-chain-smoker-voice-in-a 20something body Brianna Evigan, and the stunning but generally awful Children of the Corn & Carrie remake's Kandyse McClure (in fairness, she's much more tolerable here). All are capable enough, though none quite rise to the icy coolness of Ms. De Mornay.

A little more problematic is the portrayal of her brood. The actors aren't necessarily bad, but there's just something lacking in the human monster aspect of the family. They're a scary bunch because of the things they do--pit friends against one another in a knife fight to the death, force pals into hand-to-hand combat to determine whose wife beds their dying virgin brother, etc.--but all are simply too clean and, let's face it, easy on the eyes to fully inhabit the Last House On the Left caliber monsters inside.

So yes, a little more sleaze would have been welcome. But isn't that always the case?

High Notes
At just eight minutes shy of two hours, Mother’s Day is certainly longer than most films of its type but never once did I feel the running length. Yes, there are a lot of characters, and while some are more memorable than others, it never feels like the film is wasting time on such a large cast. 

Between kitchen utensil combat and finding new uses for boiling water, Mother’s Day is quite enthusiastic about finding new means for violence. Even a grizzly gunshot is staged a little differently, with half a head just subtly (did I say that?) oozing in the background of a surprise kill

Low Notes
By no definition is the original a better film, but the one thing it had that seems mostly lacking in the remake is the slightest edge of satire. In the 1980 version's case, it came out in the hillbilly son characters, all of whose understandings of females and sex seemed violently culled from television. Bousman's Mother's Day has hints of subtext in how the family lost their home, but it's never fully explored in a way that makes it feel any more relevant than 'what have you done to my house?' 


I’m all for girl power, but having the ending miraculously revive not one, but two female characters so that they can have a Sex And the City-like epilogue (which, admittedly, is then crashed by kidnapping and stuff) feels a little cheap. Bousman DOES address this in the commentary and admits that the ending(s) were easily his least favorite part of the film, so it’s not entirely unfair to chalk it up to studio meddling


Lessons Learned
Don’t bark: wait, and then bite

The best housewarming gift one can give: Ginsu knives

When will people learn? Cut the hand ties first, gag next. The person you free can ungag themselves, and doing so yourself (first!) just wastes precious seconds of escape time

Random Law &Order: SVU Connections Galore
Let me tell you something folks: this film is a GOLD MINE of SVU guest star territory. Just about everyone in the cast stopped by Special Victims at some point, including Mother herself who got to play a parapalegic lawyer who, it turns out, has been faking her paralysis for years to guilt her husband after his affairs. It’s hilarious, but not quite as hilarious as “Families,” an episode that costarred “Ike” actor Patrick John Flueger as a young man whose girlfriend is found dead, discovered to have been pregnant by him, who, funny story, was disapproved of by her family not because he wasn’t a nice guy, but because his father actually had an affair with HER mother 18 years earlier and--get this--it turns out that those crazy lovebirds were actually siblings, thusly prompting one of my favorite soundbites in L&O:SVU history:

“I had SEX with MY SISTER?”

Not quite on the same level as “Can you think of any reason why someone would want to sodomize your husband with a banana?”, but still. You can understand my excitement at the IMDB path of Mother’s Day.

And fun fact: cowriter of the original’s script was Warren Leight, renown playwright and current showrunner of a little program called--whaddya know?--Law & Order: SVU. 

I found Mother's Day to be the definition of a pleasant surprise. It doesn't revolutionize the genre, but it's a GOOD genre film made with skill in front of and behind the camera. Considering how many easy routes Bousman could have taken with the material, I think what he does--create a fairly complex narrative for what is essentially a simple home invasion--is admirable. Why it was shelved for two years is beyond me, but let’s hope its possible DVD success is attributed to it being a good, hard horror movie and not just another lazy remake. Take notes folks! There’s a reason this film works, and it has next to nothing to do with being based on preexisting film material.