Monday, September 29, 2014

One Flew Over the Martian's Nest

I don’t think I’ alone in remembering movies from my childhood more as moments than full narratives. I couldn’t tell you much about my family’s VHS copy of Invaders From Mars, save for those specific images that stuck: a mother eating raw beef, icky open wounds on the back of adults’ heads, and Louise Fletcher practicing Grandma Foxworth’s diction screaming a-e-i-o-u (in my own re-imagining, she adds “and sometimes y”).

Naturally, when it popped up on Instant Watch, it was a natural experiment to see how Tobe Hooper's little loved sci-fi/horror remake played to my adult sensibilities.

Quick Plot: Young Hunter Carson lives happily in the suburbs with his mom and NASA employed dad. One night, he spots what a possible UFO landing just over the hill outside his window. Dad takes a walk to investigate and returns a little ... off.

Just give it one more day and a parents-only walk before Mom is serving up blackened bacon and eating raw chopped meat. At school, Hunter begins to suspect his teacher may also be under some form of extraterrestrial influence, and not JUST because she happens to be played by Nurse Ratched. 

Thankfully, Hunter is able to convince the friendly school nurse Linda (genre stalwart Karen Black) that something is amiss. Together they discover a series of underground tunnels occupied by giant, fleshy ball creatures with long legs and almost adorable t-rex arms, plus their master who resembles what I assume would happen if a baseball had sex with a meatball, the meatball took thalidomide when pregnant then drank steroid-infused clamato while breastfeeding.

Slightly cute, but mostly ugly.

Invaders From Mars is a remake of a classic (though unseen by me) sci-fi film from the golden ‘50s. This version starts with a fair amount of complicated pedigree: Alien creator Dan O’Bannon on script duties and Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper behind the camera. Fresh off of the alien (and boob)-filled Lifeforce and slightly distanced from the controversial Poltergeist, Hooper seems to approach Invaders from a rather in-between style. With its child protagonist and PG rating (although a 1986 PG is generally translated into a 2014 PG-13), Invaders From Mars certainly feels like it’s made for a younger audience. On the other hand, some of the violence and general theme of Martians landing on our planet to possess your parents, eat your teachers, shoot your war heroes, and poke a hole through your neck is rather rough stuff for the kiddie crowds.

More problematic is the pacing. My understanding of the original film is that it follows a similar feel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a slow build of suspense with special attention to its Cold War analogy. Hooper’s film has other aims. We get one quick but sweet scene setting the Carsons up as a happy family before immediately pulling them apart. It’s not that every monster movie with a child lead has to include the obligatory ‘only the kid knows the truth!’ trope, but Invaders moves so fast that there’s not even time for the intelligent adults to question him.

It’s strange. There’s so much about Invaders From Mars that’s almost awesome. You’ve got a super duper supporting cast filled with the likes of Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman (with a Coneheads reference to boot!), and James Karen, all of whom clearly relish the chance to go big. The effects by Stan Winston and John Dykstra are genuinely great, and plenty of weird touches (Fletcher’s zombie-teacher-intimidating-through-vowel-reciting, for one) that keep the film on a kind of special radar.

It’s not really enough. I enjoyed watching Invaders From Mars, but to call it a good film would be a lie. And reader, would I ever lie to you?

High Points
Enough really can’t be said about the creature design of Invaders’ Martians. Gooey, ugly, and genuinely not of this world. Also, they shoot lasers. That’s never bad

Low Points
I don’t really want to even talk about the ending because it made me that mad, so we’ll just leave that right there

Lessons Learned
Always keep a sack of pennies on you. They might cause you to run with a limp and almost get caught by clumsy martians or schoolteachers, but it's worth it

Marines have no qualms about killing martians (although they never carry spare change into combat)

Astronauts need to stay up late

Just 90 minutes on Instant Watch, Invaders From Mars is certainly worth a look for those interested in sci-fi, heavy practical effects, or true ‘80s genre cinema. I can’t imagine anyone will declare this an unheralded classic, but it’s a weird little oddity that should prove entertaining on one level or another. I mean, lasers. Who doesn’t love ‘em?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Vegans, Beware

For such an easy gross-out effect, it’s surprising that there aren’t more cannibal-based films readily available on Instant Watch. Sure, one could kill quite a few hours rewatching Junkyard Dog for endless lessons on how not to make a serious movie that’s hysterical, but sometimes, you want something sharp and Spanish.

Quick Plot: Some time ago, a young boy named Dimas was left alone in an isolated hunting lodge with his dying mother and a hefty appetite. As soon as she said her final goodbye, Dimas apparently wasted no time devouring her body.

As you do.

Thus begins the prologue to Omnivores, and if you're guessing little Dimas grew into a wealthy man of mystery who hosts secret invite-only dinners wherein human flesh is the star dish, you'd be onto something.

We visit said secret invite-only dinners via Marcus, a successful bachelor journalist who gets his leads along with some naked time from the attractive young women who also attend these gourmet soirees. Meanwhile, Dimas' personal chef scouts the streets to find the perfect meat subject. 

Madrid is a busy place.

Written and directed by Oscar Rojo, Omnivores is sharply made all around. As Marcus, actor Mario de la Rosa manages to project a stoic yet charismatic presence that's perfectly fitting to the film's intentionally cold tone.  This is a world filled with wealthy people who can throw thousands of dollars around on one evening's worth of meat and wine. There's a sleek, rather dispassionate energy around the characters and their quest for culinary satisfaction. It even seems like intentional casting that the one actor with a warmer, softer face ends up, well, tenderized.

High Points
The way that Rojo shoots the actual carnage is quite impressive. He never spares the incredibly icky gore, but because his butcher is carving up his bodies for dinner, it somehow manages to be both horrifying and not gratuitous

Low Points
Without spoiling anything, the final beats of Omnivores are rather bizarre. We get a rather badass climax, followed by a strange coda that isn't very clear (what exactly is the subject of that book?). Is the film just opening the door for a sequel?

Lessons Learned
It's better to pay more than to go on a vegetarian diet

When you've victoriously escaped from a seemingly impossible imprisonment in an isolated location, never, ever, and really, never accept help from the first car on the road

Always keep your kid well-fed. Otherwise, he'll figure things out for himself way too quickly

I’m glad I came across this fairly low radar film. Fangoria tends to have a mixed track record with their releases (although between this, Grimm Love, and Hunger, they seem to REALLLLLLLLLY like their independent films to involve cannibalism), but Omnivores is strong in most aspects: well-shot, well-acted, and appropriately unsettling. As I said earlier, I don’t exactly understand what the ending was going for, but it didn’t damn the film for me. It remains a strong recommendation.

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.