Rock the Belles, and Bills, and Beavers - Shorts on Screen


Time once again to round up some of my recent viewing. 31 Nights of Halloween was intended to clean out a lot of my backlog, but I think I actually finished the month with more things to watch, so now I'm REALLY clearing things out.  It still skews strongly to horror and I'm heading into a trend where I'm going to be watching a lot of old school stuff from the 80s (thanks largely to Call Girl of Cthulhu), but I am starting to get back into comedy and drama.

Once I'd watched Annabelle and Jessabelle, I felt obligated to watch Belle, which had been sitting in my backlog for some time.  Glad I did.  It was easily the best of the three (which really isn't a fair comparison), although the other two are perfectly serviceable horror movies as long as you go into them with restrained expectations.

Annabelle -2014
Written by Gary Dauberman
Directed by John R Leonetti
with Annabelle Wallis & Alfre Woodard

This film is marginally related to The Conjuring, but in no way a sequel or prequel or anything but a side-story that tangentially exists in the same universe.  The connection is the creepy-faced doll that the exorcists from The Conjuring keep in their Closet of Doom, and the main similarities are the themes of possession and the startling effect of loud noises.  Where The Conjuring was a recent high watermark for scary movies, Annabelle is more of an also-ran.  I admit, I got a few chills, but they were melted by the heat of my frustration when the characters did predictably stupid things that trumped normal human behavior.  It's actually not a bad story with some distinctly creepy elements despite feeling pretty predictable and having some major logic challenges.  A pivotal sacrifice in the climax  simply isn't credibly supported by the narrative.  Of course the biggest bafflement is that ANYONE, EVER thought that that was an appealing doll design.

Jessabelle - 2014
Written by Robert Ben Garant
Directed by Kevin Greutert
with Sarah Snook & Joelle Carter

An erratically paced bayou haunting.  It spends a lot of time trying to nurse the slow burn, which results in some rushed business once Jessabelle finally gets closer to the center of the mystery.  Good creepy elements, mixing a haunted house, videotapes from beyond the grave, voodoo, a wheelchair-bound protagonist and family secrets rising from the swamp.  Wastes a lot of time on a peripheral relationship that viewers are sure not to care about and introduces aspects central to the mystery far too late in the film, and without establishing their relationship to the climax.  As such, the climax is burdened with the jobs of explaining and thrilling at the same time, resulting in it doing neither satisfactorily.  As with Annabelle, there's a lot of good stuff here, but it could have used another pass at the script stage and a more conscientious director..

Belle - 2013
Written by Misan Sagay
Directed by Amma Assante
with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon & Tom Wilkinson

Only part way through Belle did I begin to expect that it was based on a true story.  That's a compliment as far as I'm concerned, since so many "true stories" fail to have as engaging a structure as the other kind.  Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of a West Indie slave woman and an officer in the British Royal Navy.  He takes her home to England to be raised by his aunt and uncle before returning to the naval career from which he will never return.  Think Guess Who's Coming to Pride & Prejudice.  It combines all of the fussy English manners of one's place in society and what constitutes "marrying well" for women of a certain class in Georgian England with the added element of racial politics and identity.  Dido is heir to a noble father, but being black, occupies a virtually unique and confusing societal position, and this was a society that didn't tend to like piece that didn't fit neatly into their place.

Now me, I can't freakin' stand all that Jane Austen "marrying well" bullshit, so parts of this really grated on me, although that was kind of the point.  All of the courting practices that Dido and her cousin had to go through with a bunch of douchebaggy wanna-nobles filled me with some serious loathing.  It got much more interesting when Dido began to take an interest in a case before her great-uncle, who also happened to be Lord Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  The case involved the Zong massacre, in which a shipload of slaves were cast overboard and their owners tried to collect on the insurance.  This was a real case that led fairly directly to abolition in England.  Once that plot thread and the accompanying romance took the fore, it became a much more enjoyable film with less sense of hopelessness.

The Legend of Hell House - 1973
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by John Hough
with Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin & Clive Revill

I was under the impression that The Legend of Hill House was based on The Haunting from 1963 which was adapted from a book called The Haunting of Hill House.  The thing is, even after watching The Legend of Hell House, I still thought it was based on The Haunting, but evidently it's adapted from a book (by the screenwriter) called Hell House, which is NOT based on the Haunting.  Well, you could have fooled me.

Both movies are based on the same premise; a wealthy benefactor pays a group of experts to discover proof of the afterlife in a notoriously haunted mansion.  The scientifically oriented team leader takes his wife along, and the other characters essentially fill the roles, albeit slightly shuffled around in terms of talent or demeanor.  House is super haunted and bad juju goes down.

I'll get right to the point.  The Haunting is in every way the better picture.  Legend of Hell House is ridiculously slow and far stingier with the haunting.  It's not even the slow pacing that drags it down but the huge stretches utterly bereft of energy.  Pamela Franklin, as the team's mental medium (Excuse me waiter, I ordered a mental large) brings some enthusiasm, but Clive Revill as the snotty scientist is like a human speed-bump for movie momentum and even Roddy McDowell who brings some serious spookiness to his role sucks the viewer into his creepy pathos, and then never really delivers on it.  He needed to get possessed or turn out to be a secret killer or discover his own body in a closet or something.

Anyway, see The Haunting instead.

The Gate - 1987
Written by Michael Nankin
Directed by Tibor Takacs
with Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton & Louis Tripp

The 80s were much more willing to blue the line between horror and juvenile adventure, which makes perfect sense to me given the interests of juveniles, but which sometimes looks startling in our modern context.

Two middle school age boys go digging for thunder eggs in the back yard, and discover a gateway to Hell.  While the parents are away for the weekend, leaving teenage sister in charge, a number of freak events occur that just happen to fulfill the requirements of the spell that will open that gateway, releasing all kinds of stop-motion beasties upon the world.  Fortunately, heavy metal has all the answers!

I watched it for the old-school special effects and the retro camp value, and I got what I wanted.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -1989
Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Directed by Stephen Herek
with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter & George Carlin

And old favorite.  I always remember that it's fun, but I also always forget that it's actually pretty good.  It's like the dream that guys like Bill & Ted would have, only much better structured.  It's certainly picked up a sheen of irony now that the 80s version of the future it presents looks so dated and quaint, but that also gave it a certain poignancy when one considers the hopefulness that we've lost.  Yeah, think about it... we were actually more hopeful about the future in the EIGHTIES than we are now.  We have not been very excellent to each other.

Nightbreed: Director's Cut -1990/2014
Written & Directed by Clive Barker from his novel
with Craig Sheffer, Ann Bobby & David Cronenberg

Nightbreed originally came out when I was going through my Clive Barker phase, so I saw it in theaters and generally liked it.  It was full of interesting monsters, and not-so-interesting protagonists.  Over the years, I almost completely forgot about the serial-killer psychiatrist who manipulated the situation to serve his murderous agenda.  I watched the original theatrical cut again earlier this year and I was really impressed.  It would be an incredible pilot for a cable series about a bunch of monsters as they try to create a new home, or better yet, expanded into a full first season which then continues into seasons about searching and building.  The new Director's Cut doesn't make a lot of changes that are obvious to me, but it conveys an overall sense of being more itself.  The role of Cronenberg as the psycho psychologist is smaller in relative terms, containing him more within the role of troublemaker than sinister leading character.  The role of Boone is given a little more context in terms of his relationship with the Nightbreed, giving his leadership role more weight.  The actor is still terrible (as is his girlfriend, "We were lovers."), but the role is a little bit better defined.  If anyone ever made a series, they would definitely want to start fresh, and here's hoping that the Director's Cut can stimulate some interest in such a project.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey -1991
Written by Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson
Directed by Pete Hewitt
with Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves & William Sadler

The rushed-feeling sequel presents a mixed bag of elements.  On the obvious side, the performances are down a couple notches from Adventure (yeah, even KEANU'S performance is down -- whoa), the story is all over the place and the jokes just aren't as funny.  On the other hand, it introduces a lot of great elements like Evil Bill & Ted robots, Good Bill & Ted funky robots, a Bergman-esque personification of Death and the Martian inventor Station.  It was interesting to revisit, but it was never as good as Adventure and it doesn't hold up as well.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare - 1994
Written & Directed by Wes Craven
with Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund & Wes Craven

When is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie not a Nightmare on Elm Street movie?

Wes Craven's New Nightmare both is and is not a Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  Following the "Death of Freddy," I'm sure that New Line was humping Craven's leg to get him to think of a way to renew the series and keep the money trains rolling in.  Craven, looking at the disjointed nature of the sequels after his creation of the original saw something without continuity and wasn't interested in just doing "another" one.  So what he did was to jump totally outside of the established world of the series... into ours.

Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy, the heroine in the original Nightmare is back as Heather Langenkamp, the actress.  She's having nightmares about Freddy, only a darker, more real Freddy, and her nightmares are starting to be reflected by reality.  It turns out that Wes Craven is working on a new script for a new "Nightmare" based on his real nightmares, which have a way of sneaking into real reality.  It's all very meta like that, which I absolutely loved.  It creates a level of psychological surrealism that augments the visual surrealism that was always Nightmare's stock in trade.

It's no coincidence that Wes Craven's New Nightmare (and yes, I believe it's essential to include "Wes Craven's" in the title, as it is indeed HIS nightmare) falls between his films The People Under the Stairs and Scream (we're ignoring Vampire in Brooklyn which has "work for hire" written all over it).  It's a developmentally apt position for it, showing the evolution of the artist and his exploration of self-aware horror craft.

Urban Legend -1998
Written by Silvio Horta
Directed by Jamie Blanks
with Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayeheart, Robert Englund & really a lot more!

From the post-Scream (but less self-aware) I Know What You Did/Final Destination class, this college campus slasher comes with the twist that the murders reflect various urban myths, which, conveniently, is the subject of a class that everyone in the school is taking.  In retrospect, I realize that the mystery was completely irrelevant.  The motive is exposed about midway through the film, but virtually anyone could have been the killer based on the motive and the absence of character histories.  There IS an interesting twist to who it is, and I must admit that, even when it became evident that there weren't any other main characters left alive, I still didn't quite see it due to preconceived expectations.  I wouldn't use the word "good" to describe it, but I was definitely entertained.

Feast -2005
Written by Martin Dunstan & Patrick Melton
Directed by John Gulager
with Navi Rawat, Krista Allen & Balthazar Getty

A bunch of people are trapped in a bar while some kind of ravenous creatures attack them, intent on eating them.  And that it pretty much the whole story.

It reminded me a lot of Tales from the Crypt presents: Demon Knight.  We've got a bar full of people who do and do not know each other defending themselves from the onslaught of evil creatures.  The evil creatures get far less (read: no) story of their own, and that turns out to be perfectly okay.  It's kind of a drag, however, that in addition to being undefined contextually, they're poorly defined visually too.  I couldn't draw one of them if you paid me.  We have more bar patrons with more specified personalities, and that works pretty well too.  In fact, the film really has its most fun introducing these personalities, acknowledging that they're character "types" and then toying around with our expectations for each type.

Some nasty gore, some tense moments, some brutal action, and a lot of laughs.

Inside - 2007
AKA A L'interieur
Written & Directed by Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
with Alysson Paradis & Beatrice Dalle

Ugh, I hated this thing like Illinois Nazis.

The idea didn't appeal to me, but it kept popping up on lists of well-regarded horror and "People Who Liked This..." suggestions.  I am nothing if not fair, so I finally decided to give it a chance.  Why don't I listen to myself?  I am so rarely wrong about my impressions of things.

Part slasher, part torture porn, all ugly.  A pregnant woman is stalked and attacked by another woman with the intention of stealing her baby by any means necessary -- but scissors seem to be the means of choice.  Throughout the Christmas Eve siege at her home, various other people stop by to get murdered horribly, pointlessly, and all too easily.  The cops acted like fucking Shaggy & Scooby, wetting themselves and getting killed quickly and with little meaningful resistance.  Meanwhile, the crazy woman is pretty much indestructible and has mad ninja skills.  Being all po-faced or po-mo or just French about it doesn't make it anything other than what it is; a nihilistic gore-fest.  Fuck this movie and fuck the trash-humpers who keep calling it good.  By definition, it is not.

Hick -2011
Written by Andrea Portes from her novel
Directed by Derick Martini
with Chloe Grace Moretz, Blake Lively & Eddie Redmayne

Luli (Moretz) is a 13 year old girl from Nebraska who just up and runs away from her fairly shitty home one day. It's not hard to imagine why she would run away; her parents are train wrecks, but the character's motivations and intentions are poorly established.  She just decides she's going to Las Vegas and starts hitching.

On the road, she gets rides from a sort-of sweet, sort-of creepy cowboy named Eddie and a sassy-sign-of-things-to-come-if-she's-not-careful, Glenda.  It turns out that Eddie and Glenda both know each other and have a history as well.  Luli gets caught between the sides of that history and the creepy side of Eddie and becomes an example of why it's really gawdam stupid for 13 year old girls to go hitchhiking.  In the end, I guess she learned a lesson, and I guess there's a hopeful edge to it?

The performances are fine, but there's just a lot of meat on this one, and the persistence of illogic becomes wearying.  It's like an After School Special written by someone who's given up on life.

The Beaver - 2011
Written by Kyle Killen
Directed by Jodie Foster
with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin & Jennifer Lawrence

At first I wasn't sure why this was in my inbox.  I've pretty much washed my hands of Mel Gibson at this point in both of our lives, but when I was looking for something to watch and I came across The Beaver, I decided to go ahead and watch it, of for no other reason than to have two "beaver" movies in this round-up.  Then, when I saw the cheerleader that made me say "Hey, is that Jennifer Lawrence?" I remembered why I had planned to watch it in the first place.  It's hard to believe that it's really only been within the past two years that she's become our ubiquitous "It" girl.

So, The Beaver...  presents a series of mixed impressions for me.  In one respect, it's a totally transparent effort at image rehabilitation for Gibson following some pretty appalling behavioral episodes.  It's directed by his personal friend and public defender, Jodie Foster, and it's about a man who goes into and epic depression and after he fails to commit suicide, experiences a psychotic break wherein he communicates through a hand puppet, the eponymous Beaver.  "Aw, he went crazy but he means well! We should forgive him!"

Gibson IS still a good actor, mind you, and his commitment to the role does sell concept to a large degree, although not to the degree to which it overreached.  The thing is, once he starts acting through the Beaver, the Beaver becomes some kind of miracle worker, instantly drawing his younger son out of his shell, re-endearing him to his wife and making him the superstar of the toy industry in which he works.  Too much, too fast.  The film works better when it stays small.  On the less convoluted side of things, there's a whole subplot between his older son (Yelchin), who hates his father and has a knack for writing term papers for other students, believably in their voices, and the valedictorian/cheerleader (Lawrence) who has her own family issues and wants him to write her commencement speech.  This part of the story, while certainly less grandly dramatic, I felt to be more satisfying with less straining of credulity.  it's not a bad movie.  Heck, it might even be a reasonably good one, but it would have been a better one if it hadn't tried quite so hard to make you like it quite so much.

Zombeavers -2014
see link for writing team
Directed by Jordan Rubin
with Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins & Cortney Palm

Exactly what it sounds like, and it knows it, which is what made it startlingly fun and funny.  Does spilled toxic waste turn beavers into zombies?  Does a group of young people go to cabin on the lake?  Does some creepy old man warn them at some point?  Do the zombeavers gnaw down trees to block the road and chew through the cabin's barricaded windows?  Do the infected humans grow beaver teeth when they turn into zombies themselves?  Do the film makers totally set up a sequel called Zombees?

You're god damned right they do.

Guardians of the Galaxy - 2014
Written by James Gunn & Nicole Perlman
Directed by James Gunn
with Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana & Dave Bautista

Okay, NOW I get what all the excitement is about.

Sure, if you hold it up to the light, you'll see the exact same structure as every other action movie they make these days, but once you put it back down and let it run around on its own, it has a bunch of fun characters and action set-pieces, plus quite a few actual jokes!  That's all we're askin' for... although one of these days we really ought to ask for a little bit more on the story end.

Dracula Untold - 2014
Written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless
Directed by Gary Shore
with Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper & Sarah Gadon

Let us be 100% clear about something.  Dracula Untold IS NOT HORROR.

What it IS, is just another action movie, and by "just another" I mean "cookie cutter."  For being "untold" is was entirely predictable.  It has been referenced by some (including people behind it) as a "dark superhero" movie, but even compared to superhero movies, it's way, way behind the curve.

Purporting to be the origin story wherein Prince Vlad becomes a vampire, it follows a completely paint-by-numbers formula that first establishes him as a badass with a heart who stands up to the Turkish bullies.  When they threaten to drop the hammer on his people, he seeks out a cave-bound vampire to gain the power he needs to defend his people.  The vampire gives him 3 days' worth of powers OR ELSE.  "Gosh, I wonder what will happen" said absolutely no one who saw this movie.

He then proceeds to piss around and pout when he should be killing Turks, allowing them to get the drop on his people, thus necessitating a "last second" crisis that didn't need to be telegraphed because you could see it clearly from space.  Oh, also, all of the people for whom he sacrifice himself got killed.  Ace job, champ!

The action simply wasn't that engaging, so even the one thing it decided that it could do, it couldn't.  It certainly didn't help things that Luke Evans, who pretty much always looks like a greasy creep to me, was at his greasy creepiest with his thin & patchy beard, hair so limp and manky that Severus Snape would say "Damn, dude, get some Prell up in that shit," beady eyes and all.

Dracula Untold should damn well have stayed that way.

Come Back to Me - 2014
Written & Directed by Paul Leyden
from the book "The Resurrectionist" by Wrath James Wright
with Katie Walder, Nathan Keyes & Matt Passmore

This one really came out of left field.  I had almost no idea what to expect, and what I had read was fairly misleading in the way it represented the story.

Josh and Sarah, a young couple in Las Vegas is going through some of the difficulties that young couples do; he works odd hours as a croupier, she's working on her thesis about the effects of internet porn, they're rarely on the same page when it comes to gettin' it on.  Dale, an awkward-bordering-on-creepy new neighbor moves in across the street and Sarah starts having night terrors; waking up in places she hadn't gone to bed and wearing different clothing.

The film is a surprisingly slow burn, and during the part when you think that it's just a stalker thriller, that slow burn gets a little frustrating, but there are a couple major twists in the third act that really make Come Back to Me startling and unique.

The Devil's Hand -2014
AKA Where the Devil Hides
Written by Karl Mueller
Directed by Christian E Christiansen
with Alycia Debnam Carey, Rufus Sewell & Colm Meaney

Mostly dumb.

Some religious cult with their own community and backward ways (but they're totally not Amish, you guys!) has their own version of Christianity with some random-ass prophecy about six girls born on the sixth day of the sixth month leading to doomsday, and sure enough, they're all born within about six minutes of each other.  The father of one keeps the preacher from murdering them all in their mothers' arms, and now, almost 18 years later (you know, because the devil cares about age of consent, I guess), someone is determined to take care of some unfinished business.  The funny thing about a movie like this is that you can tell all along that there's going to be a "twist" ending that ends up not being a twist at all.  Halfway-decent pacing, but really nothing much of a story or a reason to care.

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