Archive | March, 2013

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Lethal Weapon 2” is a sequel that is just as good as the original film, “Lethal Weapon.” “Lethal Weapon” was a smartly written, well-portrayed, gripping, and action-packed buddy-cop movie and “Lethal Weapon 2” brings back the wonderful main characters, has as much intriguing action as the original, has a certain intelligence that made the original film work, and adds more comedy in a fantastic supporting character that serves as terrific comic relief.

Danny Glover and Mel Gibson are back in the saddle as the cops who are different in personality but similar in themselves. Glover returns as Sergeant Murtaugh, who may be “too old for this <bleep>,” but that doesn’t stop him from getting into more <bleep>. In the meantime, he’s a family man with retirement plans. Oh, and he isn’t too happy to know that his teenage daughter is the star of a condom commercial. Gibson returns as Riggs, who still lives in a trailer near the beach and enjoys making people think he’s crazy. He’s not as tense as he was in the original film, but that’s not saying much. The relationship between Murtaugh and Riggs remains at the center of both this film and the previous film. It’s an interesting balance of trust and irritation.

But the movie’s best character—in that he’s the funniest and most memorable—is Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), a fast-talking accountant who barely stands at five feet tall. Murtaugh and Riggs are assigned to protect him because he has found a way to swindle illegal drug money and has the dealers coming to kill him. I described him as “fast-talking,” didn’t I? Well, not only that. He never shuts up. That makes Murtaugh and Riggs’ job of protecting him a little more than they can bear.

Leo is a likable guy, though. He’s just trying to make people like him. But he tries too hard and that’s why people like Murtaugh and Riggs can’t stand him. Joe Pesci plays Leo with a great deal of enthusiasm (I love his indistinct shouts during a car chase scene) and I guess that’s why he’s so funny and leaves an impact.

The villains of the film are ruthless South African diplomats. Murtaugh and Riggs stumble onto their plot to illegally deal gold…or something like that. A weakness of the film is that I wasn’t quite sure that their plan was. But these are real villains—actual characters, and not just violent bad guys. Riggs makes them his own personal enemies—watching them like a hawk until he finally comes across at least one piece of evidence to prove what they’re doing. At one point, he makes his way into their building and shoots their fish tank. Along the way, he strikes up a relationship with Rika (Patsy Kensit), their secretary. Riggs tells Murtaugh that she reminds him of his deceased wife.

“Lethal Weapon 2” has some good action scenes, including a car chase that didn’t bore me but got me excited (that’s also the same car chase that I mentioned has Leo rambling, loudly and indistinctly). Then there’s the scene that has suspense and comedy in which Murtaugh’s toilet is booby-trapped…with Murtaugh on it, pants dropped and all. And the entire bomb squad (and some press, too) comes into the bathroom trying to save him.

Then there’s the explosive action climax that you would expect in a film like this. It features Murtaugh and Riggs fighting all the bad guys and rescuing the kidnapped Leo. It’s not as interesting as anything else in the movie, but it is still kind of exciting.

“Lethal Weapon 2” isn’t like most sequels that try to repeat the previous film to attempt to recreate whatever magic they accomplished the first time. They have the two main characters continuing their relationship while going a different, new crazy adventure. This isn’t a retread, but more of a continuation. Glover and Gibson keep their characters real and exciting, the wit is nice, the action is compelling, and of course, credit has to be given to the great comic relief delivered by Joe Pesci as the irrepressible Leo Getz. “Lethal Weapon 2” is a thoroughly entertaining movie.

The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” is supposedly based on the second in a series of popular fantasy novels by Susan Cooper—apparently so popular that J.K. Rowling actually used them as partial inspiration for her “Harry Potter” book series (I believe so, anyway). And this film adaptation is also proof that if you want a dignified, on-the-numbers book-to-film adaptation, don’t give the project to Fox. From what I’ve seen in “A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Eragon,” adaptations that apparently have little to do with their source materials, Fox has little interest in expressing the interests of the followers of the original material, and just trying to give what they think the audiences will go for. This can’t be a coincidence.

But seriously, just say the project’s name, and a majority of the audience will come running because most are fond of the original. When you practically thrash the source material, and you show how you’ve done it in the film’s trailers and TV spots, you don’t get a very large audience. That would explain why “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” was a box-office bomb.

I’ve read the original novel, entitled “The Dark is Rising.” It’s a great read. It’s a fantasy tale playing with Arthurian legend and telling a compelling story of a boy who discovers his true identity through an ancient magical process. A great film could have been made from this novel—this isn’t it.

Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) is a young American boy living in England with his huge family—he has many siblings, including an older brother who comes home from college and takes over Will’s bedroom, forcing him into the attic. Will is nothing special—he’s socially inadequate and very shy around girls. His fourteenth birthday arrives and he experiences certain changes—more than just puberty. He learns from a group of mysterious rich folks, who are actually a secret group of Old Ones who serve the power of the light, that he is actually the Seeker for the Old Ones. This means he has the power to travel through time and collect these mystical little trinkets called Signs that, when put together, can restore the power of the Light and vanquish the Dark before it rises again and covers the world completely in darkness.

Will’s main enemy in the army of darkness is the Rider (Christopher Eccleston). The Rider rides his horse throughout the outskirts of London, and sends many menacing subjects to stop Will from succeeding in his mission. In particular, he sends ravens, snakes, and a mysterious hooded figure, to be revealed later.

The way that the movie handles Will as being an Old One is very clumsy. See if you can follow this—the leader Merriman (Ian McShane) tells Will that he is the “seventh son of a seventh son.” Then why isn’t Will’s father (a “seventh son,” apparently) an Old One? What are the limits? Does the power just skip a generation or something? And wait a minute—Will claims he isn’t a seventh son because he only has five brothers. But wait a minute! He finds a hidden box in the attic where he lives, and his mother (Wendy Crewson) reveals that Will was a twin. Apparently, when Will and his brother were babies, someone came into the house (presumably the Rider) and stole the other twin away.

Are you serious? Will is just finding out now that he was a twin all his life? How does that slip by? But there you go—Will is a seventh son, and therefore, he is the Seeker. By the way, why is he the one chosen to be the Seeker? Were the other Old Ones just not special enough or something? I don’t get it.

Then there are the time-travel sequences themselves. Each sequence begins with the camera spinning around the actors until they’re suddenly in a certain location in the past. And then, Will winds up in places that should be interesting, but are unfortunately background spots for battles. Look at the scene in which Will and his older brother (Gregory Smith), who is a dropout in college and has just been controlled by the Dark. They travel through time together, and engage in one of the worst choreographed fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time. And never mind that we’re in a Viking village at this point—we have this to watch.

By the way, since we’re going with time travel and family involvement, there’s something that just bugs me. Will and his younger sister Gwen (Emma Lockhart) are suddenly back in time and in the middle of a slaughter. Will has to protect Gwen from the oncoming attackers while still trying to find the Sign. What happens after this grand adventure? They never talk about it again. They don’t even say one word to each other after that. Gwen never questions why her brother has these powers. She just sort of…forgets about it.

Other flaws include: A girl character that Will falls for, and whose intentions will be obvious to anyone with a brain cell; a forced subplot involving Will’s physicist father who had his own search of the Light and the Dark; and of course, the lack of explanation as to what will happen if the Dark wins—I guess the world will end. But then what?

There are a few things that “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” does do right by its own standards, and it’s fair to point them out. One is that the film actually deals with the issues of a fourteen-year-old teenager having to play savior to the world, despite the fact that he is no superhero. There’s even a nice scene in which Will actually talks to Merriman about this new great task he’s been given. (Merriman, however, is no help—most of this role is to constantly tell Will that he is the Seeker. OK, OK, we get it already.) Some of the action scenes are pretty good—though, strangely enough, they have nothing to do with the time travel. The first time Will is chased by the Rider in the woods is pretty intense (although the camerawork is all over the place—extreme closeups, upside-down cameras). And also, there’s a frightening scene in which Will is cornered by security guards in a mall, who are actually ravens in human form working for the Dark, and a gritty sense of tension in the scene where Will is being interrogated and being told to give them “the Sign.” And also, there’s a scene involving giant impaling icicles that threaten the lives of Will and his family in the final act, before the big battle between Will and the Rider, that’s well-put-together and quite thrilling.

Of the acting, nobody really stands out except for Christopher Eccleston, and that’s because he’s more funny than frightening, particularly when his supposedly-menacing character of the Rider is posing as the town doctor to fool Will’s parents as he visits Will’s home. His jolly accent used to fool them just cracks me up, and I love his line as he leaves—“Cheer up, Will. It’s not the end of the world…not quite yet.” And he smiles during that line too! I loved that!

Alexander Ludwig as Will is OK, while Ian McShane as Merriman is just doing the same thing over and over again that be summed up in four words—“You are the Seeker”—because that’s practically all he seems to say for advice.

I’ve already mentioned a lot in “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” and I may have left something out. The point, though, is that this film adaptation of the popular novel is not only a very loose adaptation, but also a muddled and confused mess of events.

NOTE: By the way, if they were trying to start a film franchise from these “Dark is Rising Sequence” books, then why start with the second story?

Time After Time (1979)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here’s a wonderful premise for a movie. H.G. Wells, author of “The Time Machine,” has actually created a working model of a time machine, only to have Jack the Ripper come in and use it to escape into the future—our time. And so, Wells must use the device to travel into the future to track him down, finding himself amongst this strange world of automobiles and fast food, among other things. That’s a great idea for a movie and that movie is “Time After Time,” which is just about as delightful it sounds.

The first twenty minutes takes place in London, England, 1893. Jack the Ripper (David Warner) is on the loose, murdering women he meets on the street. He’s also one of the guests of a special dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who knows nothing of his friend’s deeds. He shows his guests the time machine, kept down in his basement, and explains every detail to them (and to us). He announces that he plans to use the machine to travel into the future, which he’s sure will become a social utopia.

Soon, Scotland Yard detectives search the house for the Ripper, who makes a quick and easy escape via the time machine. So, Wells decides to follow him to the year 1979 and somehow track him down and take him back to 1893.

He awakens in the history museum in San Francisco, California, inside the model of the time machine at the H.G. Wells display. Though the city is not exactly what Wells thought of when he expected “utopia,” he finds joy in exploring this new territory (and new time) and solving every riddle he can come across—he sees a newspaper headline “Colts Maul Rams,” attempts through the banking system to get some money, orders a “Big Mac, fries, and a tea to go, please,” and in the movie’s funniest bit, tries his hand at hailing a taxi.

The main joy of “Time After Time” comes from the fish-out-of-water portion that takes up a lot of the movie. It’s great to see this bright, intelligent Englishman from the past exploring the cultures of America’s future. Because Wells is so smart, innocent, and quick-witted, it’s easy to sympathize with him as he goes through all of this. The screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (who also directed this film) also has a share of sly wit in the dialogue, such as a scene in which Wells is told by his lunch date that she likes his suit—“Is that what they’re wearing in England?” she asks. “It was when I left,” he says. It also allows some social commentary in which Wells meets the Ripper in a hotel and is taught why he belongs there and Wells doesn’t—he shows him violence on TV and proclaims that he’s home. “The world has caught up with me and surpassed me,” the Ripper explains. “90 years ago, I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

The screenplay also allows a romance to take place amongst the comedy of the fish-out-of-water tale and the quick action of H.G. Wells’ pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It occurs between Wells and a helpful, flirtatious banker named Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), who later in the movie finds herself about to be the Ripper’s latest modern-day victim.

The romance is written well, and so is the character of Amy, I suppose. But the problem I have with this movie is Mary Steenburgen’s performance. Steenburgen speaks her lines in such a flat, artificial matter that you have to wonder how this fun actress was directed to play the role. She’s just too awkward and uncomfortable in this movie. That’s a strange criticism, because I would have expected Steenburgen, a wonderful actress, to be one of the best things in the movie. Now, she’s my least favorite element of the movie.

But the two lead actors—Malcolm McDowell and David Warner—own the screen. McDowell is wonderful in this role of the intelligent H.G. Wells. And he’s funny when he doesn’t know he’s funny, which means he owns the comedic moments. David Warner is suitably menacing as Jack the Ripper, playing it straight.

If I am going to complain about Mary Steenburgen’s performance, I should point another quibble I have with this movie. There’s a crucial plot point that is so obviously set up at the beginning, only to have us wait and wait until it pays off at the end. And since we know the outcome of the plot point, there’s no surprise.

But “Time After Time” does have a lot to like about it—particularly Malcolm McDowell and the fish-out-of-water story. This is a fun movie about time travel with an appealing lead character and a sharp-witted screenplay.

Aliens (1986)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If 1979’s “Alien” is considered a science-fiction thriller, or rather a haunted-house movie set in space, then 1986’s “Aliens”—sequel to “Alien”—would be considered just a relentless series of sci-fi action sequences. And there’s not a thing wrong with that. “Aliens” is a gripping, adrenaline-fueled powerhouse of thrills, tension, and action. It throws just about everything it can think of right at you and hardly backs down.

Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley from the original “Alien.” She was the lone survivor of the terrifying events in “Alien”—when an alien creature found its way on a space ship and killed off the rest of the crew before Ripley was able to kill it. Now, a salvage crew has found the ship with her (and the loyal cat Jones) in cryonic sleep. Ripley is brought back to Earth, where she realizes how much time has passed and that her daughter is now deceased. She is also met with skepticism when she delivers her story about the alien. But an agent from the corporation—Burke (Paul Reiser)—has his suspicions when contact is lost on a vacation-planet, which also turns out to be the same planet where the alien was discovered. He plans to send a military team to check it out, and goes to Ripley to act as an advisor.

Reluctantly, she agrees, but only if none of the alien creatures of brought back to Earth.

That’s the setup to “Aliens,” which leads to absolute madness once Ripley, Burke, and the team reach the planet and discover just exactly what is living there. What they encounter are some of the nastiest, vicious, slimiest alien-monsters you’ll come across. And give special praise to Industrial Lights and Magic for making distinctive, realistic creatures that are so convincing that at times, you could actually be terrified of them, which is mainly the point of a monster movie.

Then the action picks up once the crew is forced to fight for their lives against an ever-growing army of aliens. With director James Cameron coming off the action-packed “The Terminator,” and Ridley Scott—director of the first “Alien” movie—not returning, it seemed necessary to let Cameron come in and see what he can do. Like “The Terminator,” Cameron uses a hostile, limited scenario to set up his action sequences before letting them upon us with suspense, tension, and just as important, a brisk pace. These are some pretty nifty action scenes.

Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role from the first “Alien” movie, is fantastic and makes an interesting heroine to follow. She plays Ripley as a psychologically distraught woman, stuck with the remorse of how everything on Earth has changed except for her, and now she’s forced to fight for her life, as well as the life of her surrogate daughter, on that planet. And speaking of the “surrogate daughter,” I forgot to mention the little girl that the team finds lost and alone on that planet. Her name is Newt (a nickname, I hope) and she’s put under the team’s protection as the aliens attack. This is where the human-interest part of the story kicks in—the mother/daughter relationship between Ripley and Newt. While the camaraderie among the rest of the crew is fun to watch, this relationship is the most touching in the film. I can think of many action films that don’t contain heart with its human characters amongst all the action and effects (and if the filmmakers realize that, they just force it anyway), but “Aliens” is not one of them.

The supporting actors do game jobs and their characters are fun and memorable. There’s Burke whom I’ve already mentioned, faced with the choice of doing the right thing while constantly…not. Then there’s the rest of the team—in particular, there’s Apone (Al Williams), subdued Hicks (Michael Biehn), smartass Hudson (Bill Paxton), and unflustered Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). My favorite was Bishop (Lance Henriksen)—the quiet android on the ship that Ripley doesn’t trust, seeing as how the android on her last expedition tried to kill the crew himself in “Alien.” Ripley is on edge around him, though Bishop tries to keep his good nature and trying to remain trustworthy. Truth is, though, he may turn out to be more human than the actual humans, kind of like Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.”

From beginning to end, “Aliens” has us invested in its story. From the introduction to the discoveries to the many chases to the supposed final struggle to its twist ending, by the time this movie is over, we are exhausted by everything that has been thrown at us, but glad to have taken this journey. This is one wild ride.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

31 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Twilight Zone” took television viewers where no one else ever imagined being before. Even though it was a TV show, we felt like it really took us through another dimension. Now many years later, here is the attempt to suck us in again with “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” This movie contains four short segments as long as the original “Twilight Zone” episodes, directed by four different directors—John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. But the surprise is that the best known of those four—Steven Spielberg—has made the worst segment in the movie.

There are two bad segments, one good third segment, and one great last segment. So as a whole, “Twilight Zone: The Movie” is only worth recommending for the second half, which doesn’t make for a positive recommendation as a whole.

The movie opens with a nicely-done prologue (also written and directed by John Landis) in which Dan Aykroyd is a hitchhiker and Albert Brooks is the driver that picked him up. They sing many well-known TV show themes before the unexpected (and very frightening) occurs. That’s a great opening scene that lets us know that we’re in another dimension. But then with the two segments that follow, the movie starts to falter.

The first segment features a racist man, played by Vic Morrow, who is taught a lesson the hard way when he finds himself in Nazi Germany and Vietnam. This one is so predictable and unsurprising that it’s weak. At one point, he finds himself at a Ku Klux Klan rally—what is trying to be said here? It also doesn’t help that we know that Morrow died in a helicopter accident during filming.

The second segment is directed by Steven Spielberg. This really brings the movie down. This segment is so whimsical and full of its whimsicality that it becomes…not very whimsical and more condescending. It stars Scatman Crothers as a mysterious old man who visits a nursing home and grants them the feeling of being young again. This segment looks great and its message is good (one lifetime is enough), but it’s just full of itself.

Then we come to the third segment by Joe Dante. The movie redeems itself after the bad segment that came before this. Kathleen Quinlan plays a schoolteacher making her way through a small town when she almost hits a young boy. This boy may look cute, harmless, and heartfelt, but he holds a secret in his house that brings the woman into another dimension where cartoon characters come to life and the boy’s wishes come true…for better or worse. This segment is so weird and offbeat but it’s also very inventive and great-looking. The special effects and the art direction are especially good when the most surreal events happen in this house.

And then at last, we arrive at the segment that is the real reason to see this movie—a remade version of the original “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 5,000 Feet.” This segment stands above the others. Made by George Miller, it’s well-made and powerfully-acted and also, very scary. This segment really gets into the “Twilight Zone” tradition—it really makes us feel like we’re in another dimension. John Lithgow is phenomenal as a man who has a phobia for flying and sees a monster on the wing of the airplane he’s traveling on—or does he?

The two last segments (especially the very last one) makes “Twilight Zone: The Movie” worth seeing. If you want a truly frightening modern-“Twilight Zone” type of experience, skip ahead to about 45 minutes. You won’t miss a thing and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the movie a whole lot more. I just can’t believe that Steven Spielberg would make the worst segment in the movie—maybe he should have watched some more episodes of the original “Twilight Zone.”

The House of the Devil (2009)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Ti West is obviously an enthusiast of classic horror films, and indeed, his film “The House of the Devil” feels like an affectionate homage to horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. He not only uses the same filming procedures to refabricate the style of these films, but he also used similar technology (for instance, a 16mm camera to give the film a vintage look). The film also opens with a disclaimer stating that it is based on “true unexplained events.” Isn’t that what the makers of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” wanted people to believe in 1974?

“The House of the Devil” also uses elements of the “haunted-house” story and the slasher-film subgenre. It also uses the plot element of the “satanic panic” that swept the 1980s and inspired Ronald Reagan’s infamous speech about good and evil.

Oh, and get a load of this—the film is also set in the 1980s. A specific year isn’t mentioned, but you can tell from all sorts of vintage basics that this isn’t set in the 2000s. There are gigantic Coke cups, payphones, answering machines, a Sony Walkman, and feathered hair.

With such ambition, “The House of the Devil” is a terrific old-school thriller with so many interesting touches put into it. This is the kind of callback to the old-fashioned horror films that I looked for and missed in Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever.” Ti West seems to understand his elements more.

The setup involves an easygoing young woman, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), who is saving money for her own apartment so she doesn’t have to deal with her skank of a roommate anymore. While checking posters on college-campus, she notices a call for a babysitting job and decides to take it. Samantha’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the big Ulman house on the night of a full lunar eclipse…in the middle of a dark forest far from society.

Oh yeah! This isn’t going to go well!

Once Samantha introduces herself to the strange Ulman couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), she is told that there is no “baby” to look after—instead, it’s Mr. Ulman’s aged mother who stays upstairs. Nonetheless, Samantha stays to earn some much-needed cash, while Megan sees this as a red flag and practically begs Samantha to come back home with her. Samantha stays; Megan leaves, but promises to come back later (the Ulmans didn’t want to pay for two). How much do you want to bet that Megan isn’t coming back later?

Now, without giving much away, something shocking (and worthy of the first murder scene in “Psycho”) happens midway through the movie. And when it does, it raises the tension level for the rest of the movie, which is mainly Samantha roaming about the house, trying to relax and enjoy herself in the huge parlor. She doesn’t know what’s happened, but we know that something may or may not happen to her and the rest of the film keeps us on edge until she finally realizes that something is wrong.

The feeling of being alone in a strange house (though not entirely alone with “Mother” upstairs in her room) creates a constant feel of anxiety, so that when the scary stuff does happen, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been set up—when it finally happens, we’re still prepared for it. That’s how it was for me, anyway. It seems to me that West understands that the best thing about this sort of horror film is not the ultimate occurrence that is scary; it’s waiting for it. It’s the anticipation that something is bound to happen that is more fun than anything else. What does happen, and you’ll probably guess from the opening disclaimer (and even the title of the film) that it involves a satanic ritual, is not necessarily as successful as the buildup, but that’s sort of the point.

I loved Jocelin Donahue in this movie. She has such an appealing, easygoing presence, and made for a very likeable protagonist to follow and fear for. She has no trouble in earning our sympathy. Tom Noonan has been suitably creepy in many roles before; this is no exception, as Mr. Ulman. Greta Gerwig is likeable, and also scores a few laughs with the attitude she brings to her cynical character of Megan.

Ti West truly gets the horror genre and knows what it takes to make a satisfactory horror film. This is also true of his later feature “The Innkeepers,” and I wonder what his personal cut of “Cabin Fever 2” (which was not the cut that was ultimately released, leading to West disowning the film) was like, because I’m sure something that sounds as dumb as a sequel to “Cabin Fever” would get my attention if Ti West directed it. I really think he’s that good. And “The House of the Devil” is a terrific horror film, making Ti West a new potential “master of horror.”

Madison County (2012)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Give the five central young people in the horror film “Madison County” credit—at least they don’t take the Obligatory Wrong Turn. Midway through their trip to Madison County in rural Arkansas, they encounter a Mysterious Pickup Truck Driver who asks where they’re going. He responds by giving his own directions. Do they take his advice? Surprisingly, no…but here’s a bigger surprise—they still endure all sorts of slasher-film-type torture nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many movies, but that was a refreshing move.

To be sure, “Madison County” is standard stuff. A group of attractive young people embarks on a seemingly harmless trip far from home, and they stop at a practically-dead town, where they encounter the wrong guy who just wants to stalk and kill them. It goes all the way back to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” (You could call this film “The Arkansas Axe Slaughter.”)

But that doesn’t make “Madison County” a bad movie. In fact, I found myself rather enjoying this film. It’s competently made and knows how to satisfy the average horror fan. I was surprised by how much I liked the film—it brought back fond memories of when I was exploring the slasher-movie genre for the first time as a young teenager (and yes, that included watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), and how since then (especially now that I’m a film critic) I’ve found some to be acceptable (with some sick, recognizing enjoyment to them) and others to be deplorable (that just feel like an overcoming sickness). The truth is, however, that slasher movies have existed for decades and there’s no sign of stopping anytime soon. But so few of them are as satisfactory as “Madison County.”

The film follows a group of college kids (Colley Bailey, Matt Mercer, Ace Marrero, Joanna Sotomura, and Natalie Scheetz) as they hit the road for a small mountain town called Madison County, Arkansas, in the hopes of interviewing the author of a novel that is based on a legendary murderer named Damien Ewell. One of the kids needs the interview for a class project, and yet he and his buddy bring their girlfriends along with them (with a fifth, the protective older brother of one of the girlfriends, in tow) in the hopes of having a good time. (And let’s face it, it’s also because a standard slasher movie requirement is to have five young, attractive people—not four or six; five! But I digress.)

Once they do make it to Madison County (again, without taking that Obligatory Wrong Turn), they snoop around private property, encounter a strange group of locals at the local diner (including an elderly woman who just seems all too polite), and are warned to turn back before they get into trouble. But wouldn’t you know it—while exploring the woods, trouble does find them. And it’s in the form of a psychotic killer with an axe and a pig-face mask.

I was surprised by how well the first half was set up to prepare us for what the blood hits the fan. It establishes the mystery that the characters are trying to find about, and by doing so, the first half of the film maintains a quiet level of creepiness and eases us into the violence that will occur in the second half, which is composed of the young outsiders racing to survive the predatory Damien. Also, I give the first half credit for setting up the characters in a plausible way, and I found myself liking them as well—they’re not the obnoxious goofballs you see in Eli Roth’s horror films; they’re people you want to root for. This isn’t really an actor’s movie, but the actors playing the five do adequate jobs—in particular, Ace Marrero as the broody, protective “older brother” (mentioned above) adds an unaffected confidence to the role that makes him stand out.

And the film is genuinely scary at times. In particular, there’s a chase between Damien and two young women in the woods, as Damien gets closer and closer to a hiding spot while the woman is too scared to run (and also, give the scene credit for having the other woman make herself a decoy to save the other one). That overly-polite woman at the diner that I mentioned steals every scene she’s in, because you know something just isn’t right with her. And I should also mention the film’s terrific opening scene that shows a young, half-naked, unconscious woman in the back of a moving pickup truck. She wakes up and has no idea where she is, and I’m thinking that I feel her pain. That opening scene got me hooked, and prepared me for what was to follow. (Who that woman was is part of the mystery, by the way.)

“Madison County” is certainly better than most independent slasher movies in recent memory, and most of the credit for that goes to the writer-director, Eric England. He knows that the slasher-horror genre is done to death (so to speak), and doesn’t do a lot to change most of its elements and gimmicks, making it all the more welcome in the way that most of its familiarity works in the film’s favor, in my opinion.

Red State (2011)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red State” is yet another ambitious project by Kevin Smith (“Dogma”) to try his hand at many story aspects that are as complicated as anything else you’d see in an overstuffed picture. However, he plays more to his own hatred of many things that his detractors seem to let loose on him—they’re mostly boycotters who take offense in his story ideas and constant profanities in his scripts. Smith practically refers to them as idiots, dullards, and hypocrites. “Red State” can be seen as an attack on those kinds of people. Its antagonists are all horrible in their own ways, despite constantly claiming that they’re better than most people, and they get their comeuppances because they go too far. But what the others, the ones we’re supposed to root for, realize slower than we do is that they all have their flaws as well. The antagonists in “Red State” are more than hypocrites—they’re psychopathic killers running by their own rules. They’re a religious cult, led by pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who, as we discover in one of the longest acting monologues in movie history, believes that the best way to rid the world of sinners, particularly homosexuals and horny teenagers, is by executing them. He preaches the “good word” to his subjects as he explains why these people must die, right here in front of them (even when children are present). They tie their latest victim to a central pole on the stage, wrap him up in cellophane, and leave an open spot on the tip of his head so they can use a gun and shoot it, using the cellophane to keep blood from spilling on the floor. Watching this sequence, I recall the reason the thriller “Frailty” frightened me—the idea that people do dastardly deeds in this world (because of what they believe will happen in the next) is very chilling. The pastor is completely off his rocker (I’m hoping) and his followers are just as sadistic. Before the moment of doom, one of the female attendees chants repeatedly, “Send the sinner straight to hell, send the sinner straight to hell.” And did I mention that this group has full weaponry hidden in their basement?

The group’s latest prey is a trio of horny high school teenagers (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun). As the movie opens, they’re looking online at a site that is like “Craigslist for people who want to get laid,” as one of them states. That night, they drive to a trailer in the middle of nowhere to meet a middle-aged woman—Cooper’s daughter Sara (Melissa Leo)—guaranteed to put out with all three of them. But it’s a trap—she drugs them, has Angarano and Braun tied up downstairs, and has Gallner put in a cage on display in the auditorium so he can get a good dose of the cult’s deeds.

“Red State” starts out as a teenage sex comedy, develops into a parable of heavy fundamentalist groups, as well as a horror film, and then turns into an action picture, as John Goodman, quite good playing an ATF agent who, after a series of complicated reasons, has a team set up outside the church. This leads to a full-out attack in which the cult members and the agents fire their artillery at each other. Many people perish, others get deserved comeuppances, and the rest learn something about themselves that they didn’t want to realize. All I can say is that the characters that are stupid, hypocritical, or judgmental (some of which are all three) are on display here, and the movie is a direct attack on them. The teenagers become the prey after hoping to be potential sexual predators, the religious cult is all for peace on Earth even though they’re engaging in brutal murder and bloody shootouts, and the agent knows his actions are most insubordinate, as the killings of those from the congregation were more personal.

“Red State” is all over the map in its storytelling. Nothing about this movie is consistent, except for the chilling performance by Michael Parks as the rambling, delusional fanatic who takes joy in appeasing his angry god by killing all who aren’t worthy. This man makes Adolf Hitler look like a tea party guest. There’s not a rooting interest for the three kids when there should be—in fact, the movie just forgets about them, even though it starts with them. The action at the end is too brutal without much of a purpose. I’m all for parables that say something worth telling, but “Red State” is mainly an ambitious mess.

Feast (The Project Greenlight Movie) (2006)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Feast” was the third (and final) film to be made out of competition for the “Project Greenlight” contest, which if you recall was sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore as a contest for screenwriting and directing (amateur filmmakers get to make a film for Miramax, or in this case, Dimension Films). And also if you recall, any film that gets made for “Project Greenlight” is documented by a camera crew for the reality-TV series, aptly titled “Project Greenlight.” I would have loved to see that series to see what the making of “Feast” was like, because it was probably more fun and interesting than the actual film itself.

“Feast” is a mess. I know what it’s trying to be—a self-aware horror film that wittingly makes fun of itself. And while I can’t deny that some parts are kind of fun in a recognizing sort of way, the rest of the movie is very dumb, quite weak, and sometimes disgusting without the proper humor to offset it.

The movie starts out promisingly—we’re introduced to an entire group of stereotypical characters in a bar out in the middle of nowhere. With each person introduced, we’re given a helpful pause and caption. The caption states that person’s stereotype (Bozo, Beer Guy, even Jason Mewes, who plays…Jason Mewes), “fun facts” (“About to rob the bar in 20 minutes”), and of course, “life expectancy” because it’s obvious this bar is about to be subjected to a monster attack. (For example, when the film introduces a wheelchair-bound young man, dubbed “Hot Wheels,” his Life Expectancy is: “They wouldn’t kill a cripple, would they?”) What’s great about this opening, and these captions introducing these stereotypes, is that it’s ironic. This is how we would predict their “life expectancies” to turn out. And then, the Hero busts into the bar, with a monster head, and warns everyone that there are some vicious, nasty, hungry beasts coming this way, and he’s “the one that’s gonna save your ass.” And wouldn’t you know it—he’s the first victim of the monsters when they arrive immediately, so the movie can make way for the Heroine; hopefully, she does a better job than the Hero.

And so, you have the group of ne’er-do-wells banding together to stand and fight off the attacking creatures and survive the night. And…yeah, that’s about it, plain and simple. While I couldn’t begin to guess anymore who was going to live and who was going to die, the humor continued to fall flat with jokes about stereotypes that go on for far too long and sell out their welcome. By the end of the movie, I just didn’t care much for the horror-comedy aspects because if the film itself didn’t care much for where it was going, other than to keep padding to the story, I shouldn’t either. You have to wonder if the director John Gulager (son of Clu, who plays the Bartender) actually knew he was making a bad horror movie. There are no scares (the best horror-comedies have scares to offset to the humor) and hardly any suspense because let’s face it, who truly cares about these people since they’re mainly just walking punchlines for the script?

Also, most of the action is inexplicable. Why? Because those sequences are cut so quickly it’s hard to make out what’s going on. I guess it’s meant to keep the creatures obscure until the final act, when you can see them a little better. But it’s hard to feel tense and on-edge when the cinematography is blurred and the editing is too quick.

The actors do what they can with their roles, the creatures (when you actually see them) are admittedly suitable H.R. Giger designs, and a few jokes and visual gags work. But “Feast” is not much fun, nor is it very memorable, and it needed further study of its genre. I noticed that Wes Craven was credited as “Executive Producer”—what the film really needed was Kevin Williamson to bring the script some of the wit brought to the “Scream” movies.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

30 Mar

142224__texas_chainsaw_lSmith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When filmmakers dare to make a film as violent and as gruesome as “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” it’s hard to make it well with effectiveness. But “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is effective, well-made, and well-acted, yet violent and gruesome as I mentioned. As the title suggests, people die—teenagers, to be more specific—after being stalked by a maniac wielding a chainsaw (that never seems to run out of gas, but who cares?). Strange, yes, but what really got to me was the news at the beginning of the movie saying that this was based on factual events. I’m not quite sure I believe that, but with the things we hear about Ed Gein in the past, something like that might have happened.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” focuses only on the five youths who fall victim to the maniac and his psychotic family. Not once do we identify the psychos—there is no motivation, no back story, and no proof that this happened before. That’s a risky move to make in a horror movie, but all the more disturbingly effective.

The five youths (one of which is in a wheelchair) are taking a drive through Texas in their camper van. These are just ordinary, everyday teenagers (or as ordinary teenagers could be in the mid-‘70s) who have something unordinary and something that DOESN’T happen everyday happen to them. It starts when they pick up a weird hitchhiker who likes to cut himself and talk about “head cheese” (the remains of animals’ heads when they’re slaughtered). He slices at the kid in the wheelchair and is kicked out of the van. Before he leaves, he smears blood on the van—an ominous sign that he will be seen again.

The teenagers stop at an old house in which two of them were raised. They decide to have a good time before they return home. But as two of them leave the house to find a swimming hole, they find instead an old shed. The Boy walks in and never comes out. The Girl is worried, so she goes to find him. She gets snatched too—well, she is hung by a meat hook. The Heroine’s Boyfriend sets out to look for the crazy couple after a while. He falls victim too. Soon, it is dark and the Heroine and her wheelchair-bound Brother are about to fall straight into terror, after looking for their friends.

This film is very violent—it shows characters being hit on the head with sledgehammers, clubbed on the hand, hung on meat hooks, and chased around by the chainsaw-wielding psycho. We see rooms with human bones all around, a decomposing skeleton sat upright in a cemetery, and if that’s not enough, there’s a sequence in which the Heroine is captured and tied to a chair, sitting with the psychotic, cannibalistic family, seeing just how sick and bizarre and weird and violent they truly are. She is going through pain and torture at the same time. I also should mention the bit in which the Heroine’s finger is cut so that the psychos’ corpse-figured grandfather will suck her blood. Ech…

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is not for everyone; it may hardly be for anyone. It’s sick, depraved, and violent—But I’m recommending it because it is, like I said, well-made, well-acted, and effective. I can think of a lot of other movies that are also sick-minded, but those probably feature phony performances and too much rely on the villains. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” doesn’t feature any of that.