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The Best Episode of "NIGHT GALLERY" You Never Saw...
Already an award-winning film, director Anthony G. Sumner's lyrical and haunting BY HER HAND, SHE DRAWS YOU DOWN took its Dallas debut bow at the Blood Bath 2 Film Festival, to an attentive and very appreciative audience already sated by a steady diet of cinematic gore and grue.
The artistry and care that went into making this film is more than apparent, and absolutely a welcome breath of fresh air. It's also a huge testament to the talents of not only director Sumner, but multi-hyphenate indie wonder-dervish Alan Rowe Kelly, whose mere stamp on a project seems to raise its profile and caliber so much more than with practically anyone else in the indie horror realm. Here, Kelly co-produces with Sumner, who wrote the screenplay based on Douglas Smith's acclaimed short story.
The retro-but-recent feel gives it that "NIGHT GALLERY-ish" vibe that primes you with this kind of semi-anticipation: if Rod Serling had stepped out onto the pier in the opening shots to introduce the story, I don't think anyone would've been the least bit surprised. (It would've been quite a feat to pull off, though!) As it is, no setup is needed. The images, beautifully lensed by Sumner and Bart Mastronardi, and the acting are effective enough all on their own.
This is the story of Cath (exquisite Zoe Daelman Chlanda) and Joe (Jerry Murdock), a couple brought together by destiny and by a needful hunger. Cath is a vampire of sorts, very reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve's tragic immortal, Miriam, in Tony Scott's THE HUNGER. But where Miriam fed on human blood, Cath feeds on human energy via a ritual that involves sketching an eerily lifelike portrait of her victims, that enables her to then drain their essence into herself, slaking her hunger for at least a little while longer.
It's not clear exactly how their relationship came to be, but Joe is her protector and conscience of sorts, and obviously very much in love with her, but not with what she has to do to survive...even if he is complicit in the horror that results from it. As BY HER HAND unfolds, there is conflict between them as Cath dares to cross a certain moral line that she promised Joe she never would...but her need to feed has other plans. And that is one of the great things about the story and the way it's told. It's all about the relationship and the strain placed upon it by Joe's co-dependency on her, and Cath playing that card to get what she wants, what she needs. The energy vampirism could be replaced by drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, whatever...and the core of the story would still hold up well.
The conflict between them reaches critical mass, when what seems like an off-hand comment alerts Joe to the fact that they have now gone beyond the point of no return...that nothing is off-limits anymore to satisfy Cath's hunger for "food," regardless of who has to die to feed her. The agonizing decision Joe has to make leads to a tragic but inevitable ending.
Longtime Alan Rowe Kelly associates, Zoe Chlanda and Jerry Murdock have proved their versatility time and time again, handling everything from humor to horror with an almost scary ease. Though they have worked together before, the roles they portrayed were never quite this intimate. Zoe keeps her portrayal of Zoe tightly contained when other actors might've gone for histrionics, and her chilling moments of resigned stillness allow Jerry to use his potent combination of masculinity and vulnerability to convey Joe's dilemma. How do you let go of the one person you feel it's impossible to live without? In his own way, he is as addicted to Cath as she is to her 'drug.'
It's also a credit to Jerry's talent that he wears his unrequited love for Cath and the torment of her duality like a second skin. We never really see him break down and cry to express what he feels, but it's not necessary. The face and the eyes say it all.
BY HER HAND is a near-textbook example of subtlety that is missing in so many genre films today, and yet it's never yawn-inducingly boring, and avoids all the pitfalls that turned many of the original NIGHT GALLERY'S episodes into near unintentional farces.
Which is why I restate my bottom-line opinion: it stands as the best episode of that beloved series that you never saw. I do hope that Alan will see fit somehow to reassemble this same team to do more work of this caliber. I've no doubt that the results will still be as exceptional.
Psychic Experiment (2010)
A Multi-Story "HOUSE" That Towers Over The Screen...
First and foremost, no matter how ambitious they are or how wide-ranging, Mel House is fascinated by ideas. He's not afraid to show it, and not afraid to spend some quality time exploring those concepts. This is not a man for whom 'babes, boobs and blood' are the staples of genre filmmaking, (and when you have a beautiful, talented and intelligent spouse like his frequent repertory player, Melanie Donahoo, they'd sure as hell better not be.) For Mel, it's always been about putting meat on the bones of the story, before ripping it off the bodies of his cast.
And herein is where WALKING DISTANCE'S greatest strength lies, along with its "Achilles heel." This is a cornucopia, a visual and visceral smörgåsbord of ideas... A film that not only merits, but probably DEMANDS repeat viewings before you can actually take it all in. Which may have been part of the plan from jump, but for an average fanboy for whom the height of intellectual cinematic bliss is watching SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE for the umpteenth time, WALKING DISTANCE is the equivalent of asking someone whose favorite author is R.L. Stine, to briefly describe the joys of reading Marcel Proust.
Though the opening sequence is something right out of Dante Alligheri-meets-Salvador Dali on a crack bender, it settles into a tale of what seems like two completely separate individuals: research scientist Cole Grey (Denton Blane Everett) and convicted pedophile Joseph Webber (PHANTASM alum Reggie Bannister, knocking the hell out of typecasting in a vastly different role). Dr. Grey has recently been hired by a nameless corporation that runs and sponsors a self-contained, peaceful, storybook little community, whose inhabitants live and work at the hub of the enclave, known only as "The Facility." Everything is situated for maximum efficiency and convenience - always within "walking distance" of wherever anyone needs to go.
But this is not "Wisteria Lane", folks. More like "HYSTERIA Lane," and then some. There is corruption of all kinds simmering under the surface. Corruption of the land and of resources - much of it deliberate, and even a gross corruption of the very minds and bodies of the people themselves. And all of this yet for Dr. Grey to discover, as he is escorted onto the premises by his new boss, the Facility's leader, Louise Strack, played with panache by "FRIDAY THE 13TH" vet Adrienne King, who returns to acting in this meaty role, her first since taking down Pamela Voorhees (and then being taken out by her son in return.)
On the other hand, recently released sex offender Webber, unable to find residence anywhere else that he won't be beaten up, harassed and otherwise ostracized, has been given what basically amounts to free housing in the Facility's community. Usually the motivation for such an arrangement would indicate something along the lines of blackmail or some sort of cover-up, but the reasons behind assisting Webber is anything but humanitarian. In fact, it's about as diabolical and arcane as anything you could find in a Lovecraft or Ellison story.
And in-between the two men, interconnecting them in various ways are the cast of characters who will all play their parts in bringing Grey and Webber together, bringing the true motivation and machinations of the Facility to startling, horrific light, and to reveal the most frightening truth of all about the tranquil-appearing little compound - the corner store is not the only thing within "walking distance." So is are the very depths of Hell itself.
As Cole, Everett is everything a Cronenberg fan could wish the controversial Stephen Lack had been in SCANNERS. (And it's safe to say that just as in his previous film, CLOSET SPACE, a strong Cronenbergian vibe runs through every pore of DISTANCE.) And Bannister finds just the right note to make you angry at yourself for having pity on the pitiful, pathetic mess who is Joseph Webber, who comes to realize that not only has he lost control of his impulses to commit his horrible crimes, but also of his very mind, used and manipulated by others for unimaginable evil.
Behind them is a large, dependable cast that includes Melanie Donahoo and James LaMarr (CLOSET SPACE), Shannon Lark (BLOOD BATH 2 Film Festival Best Actor in a Short for LIP STICK), indie horror genre icon Debbie Rochon in one of the most standout roles as Cole Grey's mother, James Furey (KODIE, EXHIBIT 7-A), Katie Featherston (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) and jaw-dropping performances by character vets Glenn Morshower ("24") and Kathy Lamkin (THE Texas CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake), whom you will never think of in quite the same way again.
It's like a new, sprawling tale by Stephen King with its interwoven plot and character threads (just like those pesky signature House Tentacles!), and all the hints and outright revelations of corporate malfeasance, chemical dumping, mass murder, tele-and-psychokinetic manipulation, intimations here and there of the laws of physics being obliterated, if not outright mutated by pure evil (echoes of Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, anyone?) But instead of King, Mel House is at the helm this time around, meaning you have no idea where things are going until they get there, and you may have to brace yourself for what you're going to find, since you never know what that might be.
So, in a nutshell, I still recommend WALKING DISTANCE, even if it might be a film that contains too many ideas to absorb in one viewing. The last film I saw that I could say that about was INCEPTION. Which is company I think that Mel should be damn proud he's keeping, especially in a world where intelligent design and rational thought are rapidly being discarded for creationism and a tainted kind of "magical realism." Come to think of it...very much like some of what happens in the movie. What's the frequency, Mel? Are you trying to tell us something?
The Super (2010)
Grindhouse Comes Roaring Back...With A VENGEANCE!
When filmmakers love to make movies, and they really love the genre they're working in, it is apparent from the very first frame to the last. You don't have to question it, you don't have to analyze it very deeply. It's there. Period. It's like the old sayings about both pornography and art: "I don't know exactly what it is, but I'll know it when I see it."
THE SUPER is the grindhouse-infused labor of love from New York indie filmmakers Evan Makrogiannis and Brian Weaver, and there's no mistaking from the word "go" that this writing/directing team cut their B-cinema teeth on all the gritty, grimy classics of the Seventies - most definitely William Lustig's controversial masterpiece MANIAC, but also the work of everyone from Lucio Fulci, Frank Hennenlotter and Gary Sherman, to Alfred Sole and Abel Ferrara. Weaver and Makrogiannis followed the trail of bloody breadcrumbs left to them by their predecessors, and they've used it to take the audience by the hand and lead them to a cottage of carnage, the likes of which hasn't been seen since directors like David Schmoeller and Charles Band first picked up a camera.
Another first premiere at Dallas' Blood Bath 2 Film Festival, this was probably the initial introduction of these gents to many, and it won't soon be forgotten (the Festival's Best Feature Film prize is overwhelming proof of that.) The terrifying, tawdry and ultimately tragic tale unfolds as we are introduced to George (the amazing Demitri Kallas), the super of the title to the rundown tenement somewhere in the city that he owns and somehow keeps together. This immigrant jack-of-all-trades, who is also a Vietnam vet, appears congenial and friendly on the outside...the kind of character who certainly wouldn't be unwelcome even in the fantasy confines of a place like Sesame Street. But underneath that sweet, hard-working facade lies the jagged shards of a shattered soul, fractured by the scars of war, the loss of many of the only people who understood and helped him - his war buddies, and the pressures of an ever-changing world he is finding it harder and harder to understand, let alone fit into.
One of the few bright spots left in his life is his wife, Maureen, beautifully played by genre veteran Lynn Lowry, (THE CRAZIES and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD). As a beacon of light, she alone helps to chase away the dark shadows, at least for a time. Until that darkness encroaches in its most compelling and most overpowering of forms: a darkly seductive, menacing tenant named Olga (a star turn by indie staple Manoush), who is in turn attracted to the darkness she senses lurks within George, and helps to draw it out of him in twisted and terrifying ways that will effect and explode within the lives of everyone they come in touch with...meaning just about everyone in the building.
Dark, brooding and as industrial-strength vicious as the best of anything the Seventies had to offer, THE SUPER is not for the faint of heart. Even so-called jaded, hard-case grindhouse fans may find themselves temporarily taken aback. Which is even more proof that the hard work that Weaver and Makrogiannis poured into this movie is eclipsed only by the level of their talent. These guys know exactly what the hell they're doing and how to do it.
And it shows especially in the casting. Kallas and Manoush are rare indie finds, and the chemistry they spark on-screen together electrifies every scene they share. They are easily slasher horror's answer to Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett...if old Nellie were more into leather, whips and chains, rather than making human pot pies.
The "innocent antagonists" side isn't as well represented, but in classic form, you learn just enough about them to care before they wind up on the business end of George and Olga's "new friendship." The standouts, of course, are mostly the more unpleasant characters: Tony Bava, the racist, narcissistic bodybuilding meathead of a tenant (Bill McLaughlin); a detective named Sardusky (Ron Braunstein), so soul-deep despicable, he could make Vic Mackey look like Mother Teresa, and the comic relief which arrives in the form of the completely-off "Franny The Tranny" (the unforgettable Brandon Slagle). Rounding off the "victim's corner" are Edgar Moye and Ruby La Rocca as an attractive interracial yuppie couple you just know aren't bound for "happily ever after"; Kathryn Zarwiski as a tenant who's just unlucky enough to be around when George has a REALLY bad day, and in an all-too brief cameo, indie goddess Raine Brown, whose unfortunate fate practically introduces the picture.
If you fondly remember the old days of Times Square, when taking a stroll through could mean taking your life in your hands, and the theaters that showed the greatest of the genre movies of that period (when they weren't showing porno of every stripe imaginable), either your name is Quentin Tarantino, or you were actually there. In any case, you have the day to look forward to, when you can catch THE SUPER at a festival near you, or (fortune being kind) pop it into your DVD player when it becomes available. (Squishy theater seats and sticky floors not included.)
Films produced with micro-budgets and little to no time at all can produce pretty unpredictable results, usually on the very good or the very, VERY bad side. I am happy to report that director Marcus Koch's psychodrama FELL, well, "falls" into the former category rather than the latter, thanks to a strong cast led with a gut-wrenching performance by his lead actor, Jeff Dylan Graham.
Premiered here in the States at the second annual Blood Bath Film Festival in Dallas, Graham (who also snagged the Festival's Best Actor prize, and deservedly so) portrays a deeply troubled young man named Bill, who at the beginning of the film is grappling with the aftermath of a relationship gone very, VERY wrong. We have all been there, of course, but hopefully not to the level of agony and encroaching madness that 'Our Hero' is unfortunate enough to be experiencing. And to make matters worse, other than the steadfast presence of his best bud, Derrik (Kristian Day), Bill has to weather the storm of his depression, anger and stress dealing with his "problem" pretty much alone. And that's not even the half of it.
The influence of filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Roman Polanski is pretty apparent here (with nods especially to REPULSION and to some extent, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM). But Koch's sure hand at the helm and the strong support from both Day and Katie Walters as Bill's girlfriend help to make FELL a remarkable little indie effort in its own right.
But what makes it work is really Graham's performance as its centerpiece. Bill could have very easily just been one more sobby, whiny, sad-sack, emo slacker/loser who would eventually get on your last nerve. But Graham mines the role for every ounce of vulnerability and pathos he can wring from it, and thank GAWD for that...otherwise it would've been an hour-plus of sheer cinematic torture that no audience in their right mind would suffer sitting through.
Here's hoping that Koch and Graham will become the indie answer to 'Scorsese/DiCaprio' and team up for many more projects to come.
Do I Look Fat? (2005)
Documentary Takes A Closer Look At Gay "Taboo" Subjects
Not one single social group reveres and objectifies the Male Body Beautiful more than the GLBT community, and there are several documentaries that go into the subject to varying degrees. None, however, approach it with quite the tack that DO I LOOK FAT? takes, which is to look hard (if not nearly hard enough) at the Taboos That Dare Not Speak Their Names: body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, and how these maladies affect and decimate the gay community-at-large, resulting in everything from depression, self-mutilation, alcoholism, domestic abuse, AIDS infection rates, you name it.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC this is not, which is probably why this doc hasn't received the attention or exposure it truly deserves. I had never heard a thing about myself, before I received an invitation from a friend to attend a screening and a discussion group afterward, which was very informative and enlightening...maybe even more so than the documentary itself.
Which leads me to probably the one complaint I have about it: that the way it roots itself into one location (San Francisco) dilutes the power of its message somewhat, since it opens the door to the possibility of alienating or leaving cold those viewers who are not familiar with or have no investment in the SF/Castro scene or its GLBT community.
Other than that, the interviews with subjects from different backgrounds, age groups and nationalities, combined with retro stock footage from the Fifties and beyond delivers a simple yet powerful message about a universal truth that faces anyone concerned about their weight and their dietary habits...whether you are a "gym god" or someone who has struggled with weight your entire life. It's never about what you're eating, but ALWAYS about "WHAT'S eating YOU."
A documentary I would highly recommend for its educational value, to GLBT people, and also to those who are GLBT-friendly. You'll be surprised at what you might learn from seeing this.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Heavenly Hype, Earthbound Execution
Now that the considerable hullabaloo has died down around this flick, I figured this was the perfect time to finally see it. Like its predecessor, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the bombastic campaign that was used to roll this movie out was a marvel of hyperbole that the late, great schlockmeister showman William Castle would've loved. He had the P.T. Barnum-method of selling movies almost down to a science, understanding instinctively that as long as you have a gimmick and great pitch-line to sell it with, what did it matter if the film was crap?
And the producers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, along with writer/director Oren Peli have done absolutely NOTHING to prove him wrong. The film itself is neither as horrible as some people have made it out to be, nor is it "THE MOST TERRIFYING MOVIE EVER MADE." There are much better films made with even lower budgets that can rightfully lay claim to that title.
But in Peli's defense, even though the premise is nothing new, (think of this as a much more 'up-close-and-personal' version of an episode of the Discovery Channel series A HAUNTING), he does err on the side of subtlety and understatement in the movie's more effective moments, where any other director would've opted for a maelstrom of CG effects and a thunderous soundtrack to beat the audience into the desired response. The greatest problem lies in the moments in-between the supernatural incidents, when the characters' responses to the extraordinary circumstances can leave you scratching your head in wonderment and more than a little skepticism.
Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat - and that's pronounced "MEE-kah" and not "MYE-kah", BTW) are experiencing some strange occurrences in their house as the film begins. Micah, a baby of the "techno-generation" through and through, has bought an expensive camera along with all the latest trimmings to try and capture these incidents, and couldn't be happier about getting to play with his new toys. Katie, on the other hand, couldn't be less enthusiastic, or more put out about Micah's connecting more with his gadgets and less with her sense of growing unease and distress. See, this is not her first time at this particular rodeo. Seems that there's an eerie history of this whole "things-that-go-BUMP- in-the-night" problem in her family background, and though little things have happened that reflected this in their nearly three-year relationship, the incidents have never been as bad as they've gotten when we meet them. And of course, things are about to go from bad to a whole lot worse.
As I mentioned before, the problem is not with the sequences where "things" happen...doors move, bangs and creaks emerge from the walls at unexpected times, objects in the house get moved to places where they weren't before, amongst other things. The biggest obstacle is in the way the characters are written as a couple. Katie fares a lot better than Micah on the sympathy front - she doesn't understand how or why the phenomenon has followed her for so long, and just wants to find a way to stop it or at the very least, make it all go away. Micah, on the other hand, is just about completely oblivious to the glaring fact that he's facing forces that can't be taken care of by simply yelling them down or pointing a night-vision lens at them. As much as my dislike for his character grew by leaps and bounds, Micah Sloat the actor did a great job in capturing the self-centeredness and immaturity.
I won't go into the complete "WTF" moments that take the audience out of the spell of genuine terror the movie is attempting to weave, but you'll know them for sure when you see them. And by the time it reaches what is pretty much the expected denouement, you might be left feeling the sentiment expressed in the old Peggy Lee song: "Is That All There Is?"
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY gamely tries to apply classic tropes of otherworldly tales of spookery to our very post-modern, gadget-obsessed world, but for this viewer, it ultimately misses the mark. For egg-sized goosebumps, at least for my taste, you still can't beat classic films like the original version of THE HAUNTING or even THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.
True Beauty (2009)
Vicarious, Vacuous, Vapid Vanity....
Sorry, I had to do it...I will probably never get the chance to give a lot of the words in the 'V' category this kind of a workout again...
They are apt descriptors for the reality-show twelve-car-pileup that is TRUE BEAUTY. A show that gives the rest of us "ugly Americanos" the chance to sit back and revel in the irony, that yes, all the beautiful people who gave you hell through grade school, high school, college and maybe even now where you work or live - they have flatter stomachs, bigger boobs, brawnier biceps, fabulous faces that cameras make love to, and will never stop reminding you of it every chance they get. But the majority of them also have so little brain power, it's a wonder how their parents ever let them out of the house. Amoebas look like Einstein's progeny next to these dim bulbs.
The show's biggest Achilles' heel is that the same thing can be said equally for the featured judges. This most recent season saw the addition of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY'S Carson Kressley, "Mrs. Howard Stern" (I can't even remember her name, so that's what I call her), and of course, the faux-fabulousness of "head judge" Vanessa Minnillo.
I rather enjoyed the "let's-rewind-the-car-crash-scene-again" nastiness of the first season, wondering all the while if the concept would catch on, and how in the hell the producers of this frothy summertime slop would pull it off for a second season. I needn't have concerned myself...disguising the competition as the "Face of Vegas" contest was a no-brainer...as were quite a few of the contestants this time around. After all, TRUE BEAUTY features GOOD- LOOKING people, not SMART ones. Otherwise, there would be no show.
The only thing more endlessly amusing than watching these people "try to be fly" is observing the panel of judges who pronounce over them, and supposedly come up with the "challenges" that will reveal whether or not the players-in-question are equally possessed of the kind of inward attractiveness that matches their gorgeous outsides. In other words: A SOUL. Really? Is it feasible or even fair for already vacuous (there's that word again!) celebrity fame-whores to assess the humanity of those who are - at least to some degree - their peers? Isn't that kind of like chronic alcoholics being given the task to test other drunks for their sobriety?
But, back on track here. I wish I could quit reality shows altogether, or at least limit myself to a diet of the somewhat 'classier' varieties, like THE AMAZING RACE.
But watching telegenic atrocities like TRUE BEAUTY is just too much damned FUN! Kind of like eating a pound of M&M's in one sitting - except without the guilt, the bloated feeling and the hour spent on the treadmill working them off that follows.
The only question I have is this: Is the very existence of this show a way for executive producer Ashton Kutcher to pull the "Ultimate PUNK'D prank" on co-executive producer....TYRA BANKS? Yes, she's behind this mess, too!
The mind wonders...and wanders...
No One Here Gets Out Alive...
Texas Frightmare Weekend is the best place I could ever imagine to be able to screen some of the best work on display from the young, hard-charging up-and-comers in the the thriving field of independent horror. Last year, I was wowed in equal parts by Robert Hall's impressive hard-core gorefest, LAID TO REST, and the epic struggle of Good Vs. Evil (or Evil Vs. REALLY Evil) in Stacy Davidson's microbudget epic thriller, DOMAIN OF THE DAMNED, which looked, sounded and played better than 2/3rds of the bigger budget Hollywood-made pieces of crap that had the audacity to classify themselves as "horror films".
The mark of a great filmmaker is seeing how they raise the bar for themselves with the efforts that follow their previous work. Looking forward to the future offerings of both Hall and Davidson, I was pleased to see that Mr. D. was first out of the gate this year with his sophomore feature, SWEATSHOP. I am happy to report to fans of true, out-and-out, balls- to-the-wall mayhem, that the director of DOMAIN has delivered in spades, giving us everything we'd hoped for and nothing we expected.
The movie bucks the trend right out of the gate when it establishes its premise. As enjoyable as a great part of the series is, the Friday THE 13TH franchise does defy logic in more ways than one (how many groups of kids would have to be butchered at Camp Crystal Lake, before the authorities simply closed it and razed the place to the ground?), asking audiences to suspend their disbelief roughly the height of Mount Everest.
SWEATSHOP, though it hardly tries to reinvent the wheel in this respect, does NOT suffer from this problem. The scenario is still kept pretty simple: a rave promoter and her friends, all involved in that lifestyle, do what ravers do best: find an old abandoned warehouse, break in and set up a party in order to score some quick and easy cash and party down at the same time.
Their mistake? Not asking permission of the previous tenant. Who never left. Who isn't happy with their intrusion, and who walks not so softly, and carries the biggest freakin' stick you have ever seen in life. And actually, it's not a stick. It's a pipe...with an anvil attached to the end. No, that is not a typo, either.
When you witness what this character, known only as The Beast (Jeremy Sumrall) does with this brutally improvised implement, you will never think of the phrase "getting hammered" in quite the same way again. In the same F13 tradition that was well-established as that series progressed, there are few likable characters to root for here, and the ones that do have your empathy or sympathies? Don't get too attached to them.
Having said that, plenty of time is still taken to establish the dysfunctional dynamic between the friends, including Charlie, the organizer (Ashley Kay), DJ Enyx (Naika Malveaux), slovenly equipment handler Wade (Brent Himes, making Larry The Cable Guy look as cultured as Basil Rathbone by comparison) and his put-upon assistant, Kenny (Vincent Guerrero), amongst others. All of which makes little difference as it turns out, once The Beast begins to decimate the group in a fashion not seen since grindhouse ruled the drive-ins and the dilapidated urban movie palaces back in the Seventies.
Which brings us to the most impressive thing about SWEATSHOP: the technical aspects. Lighting, camera-work, sound design...everything is on point here, and it makes you wonder how in the hell Davidson and crew managed to pull it off, and make this look as good - or better than - a watered-down, PG-13 piece of dreck from a major studio. And that goes double for the FX work. Though the death sequences are far from pleasant, this is a whole different animal than the 'gore-ture porn' offered by series like SAW and HOSTEL. Kristi Boul, Marcus Koch and Mike Oliver are not beneath giving The Beast multiple and cruelly creative ways of dispatching his victims, but the monster seems to be as much about his business as he is about dealing out unimaginable suffering. He wants to teach these interlopers a lesson they'll never forget, and does so with a vengeance that YOU'LL never forget.
And then there's that ending. If you're the kind of horror fan who loves to rewind the prom scene in CARRIE and watch it several times, you cannot miss SWEATSHOP'S hell-bent-for-leather conclusion.
When it comes to a well-done indie horror entry served up straight, no chaser, Stacy Davidson and company have delivered, firing on all cylinders with this one. So strap in and prepare for a bloody, terrifying ride.
And don't forget to thank them for putting the "hard-R" back into "hoRRoR" again.
"Baby Jane" Without The Camp
L&O: SVU is pretty much consistent when it comes to solid writing and getting really good performances from its cast and the revolving roster of guest stars, but this episode really hits it out of the park. The promos made as much as possible out of the appearance of THE BLIND SIDE'S Quinton Aaron, and his character does indeed play an important role in the story. But R&B singer Jill Scott, whom I've never seen act until now, had me wanting to climb into my TV set and THROTTLE HER! I haven't seen PRECIOUS, but I think her performance in this is probably every bit as good as Mo'Nique's will be when I do. Here, Scott plays the bitter, angry and physically abusive sister of a former opera diva (the equally stunning Lisa Arrindell Anderson) stricken with a particularly cruel and aggressive form of MS, who besides being abused, has now also been raped.
If you don't wince with horror at certain scenes in this one, check your pulse for signs of life. Where WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? mined its take on a toxic sibling relationship for shock and camp value, "Disabled" takes the subject seriously, not pulling away from the indignities and the cruelty that disabled, chronically ill and handicapped people must face every day, more often than not at the hands of loved ones.
Not to take anything away from Quinton, who is perfectly fine as Scott's sympathetic son, but it's Scott herself and Anderson who truly deserve the kudos, receiving solid support from the cast regulars. Another outstanding episode.
Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)
The Man, The Myth, The Misanthrope...
If you are, or ever have been, an avid reader of fiction, especially the SF/Fantasy genre, you can probably recall at least one author whose work was so vivid, potent and visceral, it changed the way you looked at everything - not just reading, or writing, but your entire world view - for the rest of your life. I recall that very moment well: I wasn't even into my teens yet, when I picked up a copy of DEATHBIRD STORIES and read "The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs." Whatever sense of true naiveté I had gasped its last breath that day, when I read the last page of that story.
Not necessarily a bad thing, either. So when I heard about this documentary all these years later, I had to know if the man responsible for that story and that book, was every bit as cynical, angry, vitriolic, nihilistic and insanely brilliant as the reputation that preceded him. I can now verify: he is that and so, so much more.
Perhaps it's most telling that at the opening of DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, we are introduced to Harlan through the eyes, perception and quicksilver wit of one of the author's closest, long-time friends: Robin Williams. Harlan is at his calmest (if the word can be applied to him) and most amiable when he is in the company of like-minded, intelligent and especially famous people, many of whom chime in here to help tell his story: Neil Gaiman, Ron Moore, Dan Simmons and his own fifth wife, Susan among them (and she gets not nearly enough screen time, more's the pity.)
Through rare home movie footage, recited excerpts of his work, various rants, tirades, anecdotes and reveries, we get a sense of who the man is apart from the author, and it's certainly a complex, perplexing, funny and often times very sad picture. For long-time fans, it will be a validation of everything you've heard over these many years since he began writing pulp paperbacks under a pseudonym barely out of his teens.
If you're not a fan or haven't read a single thing by him, I would suggest you pick up an anthology like DANGEROUS VISIONS or even just a story or two if possible. That way, he'll look a lot less like just one more short, angry old man screaming "YOU KIDS GET THE F*** OFF MY LAWN!!!"
Trick 'r Treat (2008)
It's Not The Tale - It's How It's Told That Counts!!!
TRICK 'R' TREAT sat by my DVD player for a good little while before I finally popped it in. The most recent mainstream horror offerings have been such letdowns of late, that I proceed with caution on almost anything I see that's not a remake. (And don't get me started on remakes!) Now I regret having waited so long.
Writer/director Michael Dougherty obviously knows and loves his anthologies...everything from the classic CREEPSHOW to the Hammer Studios greatest hits of yore like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and ASYLUM. There isn't any particular tale in his film that I could call strikingly original, but it's been one helluva long time since I've seen a film more stylishly or even-handedly presented.
Weaving together about a half-dozen interlocking stories, rather than doing each as a stand-alone tale as in George Romero's cult hit, TRICK 'R' TREAT employs everything eerie, unsettling and ghoulishly fun about the holiday to explore the classic campfire tropes that everybody knows and loves, but this time with plenty of fatalism mixed with liberal doses of good, hearty black humor.
The lone virgin in a group of her costumed girlfriends is stalked by a shadowy figure; a small-town principal moonlights as a serial killer, who treats himself to more than a few gory tricks at his victims' expense; a group of teenagers single out one of their peers for a Halloween Night prank that goes wrong in a way they could've never imagined; the neighborhood curmudgeon who is basically the "Ebenezer Scrooge" of All Hallows' Eve, gets his comeuppance when his secret past comes to call, and a couple of partygoers find out the hard way why you should NEVER, EVER blow out your Jack O' Lantern early on Halloween Night.
Featuring a cast of actors who either weren't big names when they did this, or recognizable character actors who are known for their great performances, the lineup includes TRUE BLOOD'S Anna Paquin, BSG's Tahmoh Penikett, CSI's Lauren Lee Smith, Dylan Baker and Brian Cox, who gives a well-done turn as the grizzled "mean old man", that CREEPSHOW'S late, great E.G. Marshall could appreciate.
Co-produced by Bryan Singer under his Bad Hat Harry Films banner, it's obvious from the production values that Dougherty was given plenty of resources (read: $$$) to go out and make the film he wanted. It's not so much puzzling as it is infuriating that it never got the full promotional push from Warner's that it deserved, (possibly because of the angle of putting kids in jeopardy and not flinching from the horrific consequences, even in a fantasy context.)
However, it's a fortunate thing that the DVD format allows films like this to find an audience, rather than slipping unnoticed into a dusty archive somewhere, never to see the light of day. Kudos to Mr. Dougherty and his cast and crew for putting together what deserves to become a Halloween staple. For my part, it's going on my library shelf right between perennial favorites CREEPSHOW and CARRIE, and like them, it will get played a lot more often than just at "candy-and-costumes" time.
Meloni Is Masterful In This "Personal" Episode
Though I think in L&O: SVU's over-a-decade-long run, that the writers have done their best to "spread the love around" when it comes to the more personal stories involving the detectives, I used to bitch and complain about Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson getting the lion's share of the Emmy-worthy episodes, (and don't get me wrong - I LOVES me some Mariska.) Goodness knows that the more intimate details of these crimefighters' lives are usually meagerly doled out in service of the story, and when there is a character-rich episode, it's always a "very special two-parter", or a one-shot deal that blows the doors off.
This particular episode, putting Elliot Stabler's woes front and center for our perusal once again, is a stunner. He gets pulled off of a pretty serious rape case when something more intense happens: his son, Dickie and a ne'er-do-well former junkie pal of his come up missing, and even worse - they're connected to the very same case.
Over the course of solving this crime, Elliot is forced to deal with some issues that he has to admit he's done a less than stellar job of addressing: his temper (BIG surprise there...NOT!), his inability to connect or communicate with his son, and his own personal prejudices, which prevent him from seeing a crucial piece of the puzzle in the case, that could've prevented a senseless tragedy from occurring.
Because he makes playing Stabler look so easy, we might be tempted from time to time to forget that Chris Meloni is an actor who has a pretty damn good handle on his craft. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the closing scene of this episode, when he is faced with what has to be every father's worse nightmare: the prospect of losing their son for good. That scene alone is Emmy-worthy, in my not-so-humble-opinion, and it definitely makes up for the times when such opportunities have been few and far between for Elliot...and for Chris.
Before seeing this episode, basically all I knew about Taylor Swift had more to do with the Kanye debacle than anything else. I'm not a particular fan of her music, her videos or much anything else she's done, in spite of the Mack-truckload of awards she won last year. And when I first heard about this episode, I glumly thought, "Oh, GAWD! More 'stunt casting' to draw in the tweener audience. Just PEACHY."
But you know what? Not only did Taylor NOT suck in this role, she was actually pretty damn good, as a girl whose unfortunate destiny is already set in stone before Nick Stokes even knew of her existence. She gets to show some range as a character with more than just a "Polyanna" side, and you do feel for her when the awful and inevitable happens.
Good thing for Taylor that she leaves a great impression, because the "closer" here is not her, but George Eads. Nick hasn't really had a chance to show his more "sensitive" side since the trauma he went through about two seasons back, in that unforgettable Quentin Tarantino two-parter. The entire CSI team has to build up emotional calluses in order to do an effective job, but for each one of them, there is still that one case that comes along that reminds them that they still have feelings - they're still human, not super-human. And this one definitely brings home another wake-up call for Nick. REALLY good episode.
For Fans of ST:TOS and Both Versions of BSG...
I know it's just my opinion (that's what IMDb reviews are for, right?), but of all the post-Grissom episodes, this might be far and away the best AND the funniest. The producers and the writers are obvious ST: TOS and BSG fans, because the care they took in lovingly spoofing the details in Hodges' and Bryce's fantasies is a dead giveaway. And throwing in cameos by Ron Moore and Grace Park? HUGE plus. If you are a fan of either or any of the imitated shows, but not necessarily a CSI watcher, this is the episode that may just get you hooked. Bravo to cast, crew and especially David Weddle, Bradley Thompson, Naren Shankar and Michael Nankin. Can we have more like this, please?
The Things We Do For Love...Or Not.
Ben (Mark Duplass) is a young married man, settling in with terrific wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), and preparing to complete their "white picket fence" suburban lifestyle with a new addition. Well, they DO get an unexpected new addition, but it comes in the form of footloose bohemian adventurer Andrew (Joshua Leonard, channeling a cross between Owen Wilson and a once-younger Jack Nicholson). Andrew just shows up on the couple's doorstep one night with the notion of reconnecting with his old college pal, and once the initial ambiguity about the situation is worked out between the three of them, the two buddies fall back into a familiar rhythm of sorts.
The following night, Andrew invites Ben over to a house where he's having dinner with a new 'friend' and her free-thinking, free-love minded compatriots, (the house is even called "Dionysus" for the chronically clueless). Good food, strong drinks and even stronger cannabis follows, loosening tongues and inhibitions, and the talk naturally turns to sex. Local free paper "The Stranger" sponsors an indie art film festival, which features amateur porn entries, called "HumpFest." In the 'joie de vivre' of recalling the macho bravado and one-upsmanship of the early days of their relationship, Ben and Andrew make a proposition for their own radical "HumpFest" entry: two straight guys having gay sex. Starring...each other.
And I will stop right there, since that's about all you need to know. As titillating and improbable as the whole thing sounds, what unfolds instead is a very adult, very smart comedy about that nebulous space between the kind of people we thought we were in our salad days, and the kind of people we'd like to think we are, even in the face of such bothersome concepts as social conventions and adult responsibility.
In some ways, HUMPDAY brings to mind the more controversial and provocative CHUCK AND BUCK, but where that dark comedy reflected on bringing an unusual relationship full circle at any cost, this one is more about self-discovery, self-acceptance, and about the unspoken boundaries of that modern conceit known as the "bromance". Can male bonding between straight guys be pushed into that uncomfortable gray area where homoeroticism bumps up against homophobia? And when it does, what happens when things start to get 'weird'?
Duplass and Leonard are wonderful flying by the improvisational seat of their pants as guided by writer/director Lynn Shelton. Delmore is even more fantastic as Anna, who initially is pole-axed by the whole idea of what her husband is proposing to do, but ultimately comes to understand it because of her own doubts and issues that - unbeknownst to him - she has been struggling with.
I would definitely agree with other reviewers here, about how this could've benefited from some judicious editing, and it would've probably made a more brilliant short than a full- length feature. But other than the aforementioned CHUCK AND BUCK, and another film to which it has been compared, the more daring SHORTBUS, HUMPDAY is a deeply observant human comedy that deserves to be seen and discussed as widely as possible. And for what it's worth, without giving out a major spoiler, the ending for me felt very realistic, although I still would've like to have had more questions answered.
Having said that, Judd Apatow should watch this. And take lots of notes.
The Last House on the Left (2009)
Remake Of A Classic '70's Shocker Undermined By A Ridiculous Ending...
First of all, I was a little surprised at myself for being intrigued by the trailer for this particular "remake/reboot", whatever you want to call it. It had been years since I had viewed the 'uncut' version of the the original film, which was an uneven, but unforgettable and unparalleled exercise in the graphic display of man's capability for inhumanity to others of his species. One time was all I needed to watch it, because once was nearly more than enough.
Nevertheless, I see so few movies these days, let alone horror movies. The contempt most studios have for them is palpable, the way that films from the last two or three decades are being remade and watered down to the lowest PG-13 common denominator, for maximum profits made with minimum overhead. And for the most part it shows.
But with original filmmakers Craven and Sean Cunningham on board as executive producers, I saw a faint glimmer of hope that this wouldn't come across as yet another piece of Hollywood tripe.
So now, having seen it in its Unrated form, I can weigh in on the pros and cons. First, the pros: there are more than enough nods to the original to satisfy the die-hards out there who can recite the movie chapter and verse, and I give kudos to both the director, Dennis Illiadis, and screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth for showing a little backbone in the way they incorporated these acknowledgments. For example: there are two cops in this new version as in the predecessor, and their presence as the bumbling backwoods "comedy relief" was one of the more controversial aspects of the first film. Fans and the curious need not be worried: what happens with these cops is anything but comedic, and that particular subplot gets resolved quick, fast and in a hurry, as if to effectively "fix" the past mistake.
Another questionable "pro" is the way the sequence in the woods is handled. Mercifully, the torture/disembowelment is not nearly as graphic or protracted and Paige's demise is pretty swift. What happens instead is that the rape of Mari by Krug is the longest, most realistic ordeal I have seen yet on film. Several times I wanted to either get up and leave the room or put the movie on 'pause' - it was that disturbing...more so than in the original, which I didn't think was possible. I don't know if I should congratulate the actors and the director, or recommend that they all go into intensive therapy. If the sequence was meant to justify the parents' actions later on in the film, it definitely succeeded.
As for the cons, one of the first of many is the subplot about the dead older brother. I don't remember any of this from the original, nor the sense of marital strain caused by the residue of the tragedy. And the additional wrinkle of the father being a surgeon in a hospital ER. I know that details like these go a long way to "flesh out" the characters, but one of the things that made the original so shocking was the simplicity. We didn't know the girls, the killers or the parents that well and we didn't have to. It was about the action of the senseless slaughter of two young women, and the violently equal and opposite reaction from a couple of "decent human beings" who accessed their inner savageness to avenge the death of a loved one.
The BIGGEST con, of course (at least for me) was the ending. Everything leading up to it was brutal, violent and harrowing (ignoring some glaring plot holes), but not outside the realm of possibility. The only way I can define the absurdity of the ending is that it was like watching what would've happened if De Palma had grafted the climax of THE FURY onto the end of BLOW OUT. It takes you out of everything that happened before with a cartoonish, jaw- dropping sequence. Which is a shame, because the rest of the film is actually not bad for a remake.
The casting fared a little better, but the anonymity of the actors from the original wasn't there to lend this a more realistic feel. Not to say the performances were bad. Tony Goldwyn (GHOST) and Monica Potter (ALONG CAME A SPIDER) are very good as Mari's parents, and a buffed-out Garret Dillahunt (DEADWOOD, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) goes for the gold as Krug, nearly out-smarming the role's creator, David Hess. But unlike the remainder of the cast, their familiarity keeps you from that sense of having to repeat the old tag-line: "It's Only A Movie...Only A Movie."
Sara Paxton and Martha McIsaac as Mari and Paige, respectively, are okay, but their biggest problem is underwritten roles, but especially in Paige's case. But the places that Paxton and Dillahunt had to go with that rape scene are hard to imagine, and I credit them for being able to trust one another to deliver something that raw and intense. Special note has to be made here to recognize Spencer Treat Clark as Krug's son, Justin, who comes across as much a victim of his father's psychotic sadism as anyone else in the movie. He is as vulnerable, sympathetic and memorable as a Ben Foster or Elijah Wood - keep your eye out for this young actor.
All-in-all, I want to give LAST HOUSE an eight, but have to dock it a point for the ending. As much as the chief villain deserved to get his comeuppance, it would've been much more satisfying, less of a gimmick and more in keeping with the tone of the film, if Justin had been given the chance to blow the bastard's head off. Just my opinion.
"HARD" Lives, "HARD" Choices...
Newly-minted detective Raymond (aka "Ramon") Vates (Noel Palomaria) is walking a fine line between two worlds. A rookie promoted from the streets when another detective is caught 'in flagrante delicto' with a dead hooker (and is equally as dead as she is, by the way), Vates must learn to live and work with the jaded, nihilistic, testosterone-laden meatheads who are his colleagues, while he conceals his biggest secret: he himself is gay.
He somehow manages to walk with one foot in both worlds, until a series of murders he is investigating with his new partner, Det. Tom 'Lucky' Ellis, (Charles Lanyer), brings his entire world crashing down. He's taunted, enraged, aroused and entranced by an alleged witness named Jack (the disturbingly good Malcolm Moorman), whom he picks up in a bar for a night of wildly passionate sex. When he wakes up, though, he discovers that Jack isn't merely the "screw-and-run" type. No, more like "screw-run-and-kill". Because he reveals himself to a handcuffed Vates to be the serial killer that he and Lucky have been hunting, just before he steals the captive detective's badge and issues a challenge: Can Ray face what he fears most - being exposed to the department and to the world as a gay cop? Because that's exactly what it will take to catch the deranged Jack.
From the very first scene, HARD immediately lets you know that it's not going to be your average gay thriller, and with its harsh message sharply delivered like a ball-peen hammer blow to the solar plexus, it goes way beyond the trappings of a noxious thriller like William Friedkin's reviled CRUISING, which had similar things to say about homophobia and indifference, only with a more exploitative bent.
It probably helped me appreciate this movie all the more that I saw the 'new' "FRIDAY THE 13TH" remake beforehand. After ninety minutes of practically mindless wall-to-wall gratuitous sex and nudity, followed by the spectacle of cardboard characters I could care less about being made into human sushi, it was refreshing to see scenes that were a lot more intense and better acted, produced with what probably equaled the catering budget on "FRIDAY".
Sure, the acting wasn't exactly Oscar-caliber and the low-budget seams were definitely showing. But Noel Palomaria's Ray Vates is an earnest, hard-working guy who only wants to do his job to the best of his ability and maybe have a life beyond it without the risk of being persecuted, while Malcolm Moorman's Jack has turned his back on the slightest possibility of love, embracing instead the virulent hatred he feels society has for him and all his kind, using it as the weapon of choice to do "exactly what everyone wants him to do", and never feel any remorse about it whatsoever. More than any other actors in the film, Palomaria and Moorman's scenes together crackle with dangerous chemistry, which is a big part of why the film works.
Lanyer lends solid support as Lucky, while the other actors are pretty much stock company-level. But that's not the important thing. HARD delivers its message loud and clear for those open-minded and thoughtful enough to listen. It is not delivered in a polite, cultured or genteel way, but it's not supposed to be, and couldn't be in order to get people's attention. And it's my hope that more viewers will take notice, since what it has to say is more topical and timely now than ever before.
Righteous Kill (2008)
Thoroughbreds Go To A "Horse-and-Buggy Show"...
When you have such a monumental occasion as two giants of American acting royalty truly going 'mano-a-mano' on screen for the very first time, you would fervently hope that the project they choose to do together would be a worthy one. Unfortunately, RIGHTEOUS KILL comes across as one of those scripts that Dick Wolf probably wouldn't have looked at twice, even as a so-so LAW AND ORDER episode.
Russell Gewirtz should've either been given the opportunity to take a few more passes at this one, or maybe one of Hollyweird's fabled script doctors should've had a session or two with it. As it is, the characters reduce De Niro and Pacino to caricatures. At the very first glimpse of Al on-screen, I had to bite the inside of my cheek to stifle a guffaw - he actually looked more like Steven Van Zandt as THE SOPRANOS' Silvio Dante, doing an Al Pacino impression, than the man himself. And De Niro at times looks more like he's doing a favor for and with a good friend, than actually relishing a role worthy of his considerable talents.
They portray (or try to portray) longtime partners Turk and Rooster, grizzled NYPD vets who've played the Big Apple's garbage collectors long enough to fall prey to the desire to remove some its trash from the streets permanently. They engage in a one-time deal of fabricating evidence to take down a child rapist/murderer whose case "fell through the cracks" of the hugely flawed judicial system, but their undercover act of vigilantism soon comes back to bite them both, as a mystery serial killer takes up the mantle and starts offing street scum left and right. Because said scum have all been associated with cases they have handled, soon even their colleagues are giving them more than cautious looks askance.
And I wish this movie was as good as it sounds on paper, because trust me...it's not. Any fan of procedurals who hasn't even watched anything beyond Miami VICE in its heyday, will figure out the twist in five seconds or less, as well as the identity of the killer.
Redemption Or Retribution? Guess Which One This Episode Has...
If you've been watching this particular extension of the L&O franchise, you know the writers' M.O. all too well - any characters, especially new or recurring ones, are never inserted into an episode or a particular story arc without a reason; even if that reason is to do little more than serve as one of those classic "McGuffins" - a temporary distraction from the REAL focus of a story.
When the insufferable, obnoxious, almost ridiculously irritating character of CSU rookie Dale Stuckey came barging into the cast at the top of this season, I should've suspected something. As cute as a puppy and as infuriating as that same puppy who won't stop doing his business on your brand new Persian rug, Stuckey...well, STUCK OUT like a sore thumb whenever he'd show up, trying the patience of everyone within his proximity, but especially the man in charge of "reigning him in," senior forensics tech Ryan O'Halloran (Mike Doyle).
With each episode featuring key scenes that included Dale, you suddenly began to get the feeling that something was up...some ominous event or series of events coming together, building to some climax that usually caps one of those classic season-ending cliffhangers that this franchise is notorious for.
And wonder of wonders, we fans found out that our gut instincts were jaw-droppingly correct. In "Zebras", TERMINATOR movie alum Nick Stahl (also from HBO'S chilling fantasy series CARNIVALE) delivers a knockout performance as the most dangerous kind of paranoid schizophrenic: one who has a knack for making use of survivalist tactics from the internet. Killing innocent people he suspects are "agents who are out to get him", Liv and Elliott have their hands full trying to bring him in while not getting killed themselves, in the interest of keeping him from racking up more victims.
Enter Dale Stuckey, (you KNEW this was coming!), who in a blunder of mind-boggling proportions, manages to foul up evidence so badly that it gets Stahl's character released. Supposedly to kill again.
Naturally, the demoralized CSU ne'er-do-well is galvanized to take action in order to make things right. But even on a series known for pulling bloody rabbits out of its hat kicking and screaming, I can promise you that the denouement for "Zebras" is something you won't see coming. Yes, it puts our favorite detectives in peril, as any good slam-bang finale always should (and does in this case), and as an appeasement to the "Ratings Gods," a likable and solid character you never realized you liked so much will be sacrificed with bloody, shocking speed - another sad tradition of season-enders of this type.
But the biggest surprises of all to be found here lie with the way the writers maintained the quality and continuity of a story arc with an importance that was cleverly concealed until the eleventh hour, and the dawning realization that actor Noel Fisher, whose character seemed little more than peripheral at best, has been acting his butt off the entire season, just waiting to sink his teeth into this memorable finale. The caliber of acting from the principal cast is something I've always come to expect and everyone delivers as expected, but to Mr. Fisher especially, I have to say: Well-played, sir.
A Horror Movie That Gets Right To The 'Point'...
Ever since George Romero and his friends sneaked off with some "borrowed" resources to make a cheap little shocker, (and ever further back than that), the low-budget, independent horror film has been the vehicle to fire up the imaginations of many an aspiring filmmaker. It also tends to follow a certain blueprint: take a group of people with clashing personalities and agendas, isolate them, and then have them challenged by some internal or external force that will either unite or divide them in the quest to achieve a common goal: SURVIVAL.
Depending on the resourcefulness, dedication and talent of the people making the movie, following this recipe can either result in one remarkable feast of fear, or a very sorry, sunken soufflé of scares that just don't work. Fortunately for first-time director Toby Wilkins, SPLINTER is a nifty little terror treat that falls into the former category rather than the latter.
Working from a script co-written with Kai Barry and Ian Shorr, Wilkins smartly helms the story of two couples meeting, and to say that it's not one of those "meet cute" situations is putting it rather mildly. Seth (Paulo Constanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) are returning from an aborted camping trip, meant as a celebration of their recent anniversary as a couple with a little 'sex under the stars'. Though things don't work out as planned, they're still determined to maintain their sense of high spirits, opting to continue the weekend in the more agreeable confines of a roadside motel.
But plans, like luck, can change in an instant, and what alters Seth and Polly's plans is a car-jacking. Dennis (the excellent Shea Whigham) is a con on the lam with his strung-out girlfriend, Lacey (Rachel Kerbs), and he only has two goals in mind: getting her clean and getting them both South of the Border ASAP. The desperate duo count on a tried-and-true ruse that will hopefully motivate Seth and Polly to play the "Good Samaritan" card. Which they do, only to get 'jacked for their well-meant efforts. Things are definitely "going South" for both couples at this point, but the foursome have no idea that the situation is about to go from worse to mind- bendingly horrific.
A close encounter with some of the strangest roadkill in movie history forces them to stop at the first gas station they come to. Unfortunately for them all, what's waiting for them there is not the station's attendant, and to say anymore would be a disservice, since it would ruin the grisly and insidious surprise.
Not since FEAST or SLITHER (two movies with which SPLINTER has much in common) has a setting or a situation been so claustrophobic or chaotic, but because the cast here is so minimal, the opportunities to ratchet up the suspense and the scares are a lot more plentiful, and director Wilkins doesn't miss a chance to exploit each and every one. He's definitely helped by a game cast who all take their moments to shine, especially Wagner, who shapes up to be more than your garden-variety damsel-in-distress, and Whigham, who reveals more layers to his redneck Neanderthal than one would believe possible, especially in a situation as strange and unpredictable as this.
With great assists from DP Nelson Cragg, a fantastically isolated location, a classically creepy score by Elia Cmiral and an antagonist the likes of which you've never seen, SPLINTER is one of those DVD gems that is a wickedly entertaining sleeper and a welcome find in a genre that is usually bogged down with a lot of DTV dreck. Highly recommended.
Star Trek (2009)
Back At Full (Warp) Speed...
When it was first announced that J.J. Abrams (LOST, FRINGE) was being handed the keys to the Roddenberry kingdom, I couldn't have felt more trepidation. LOST had me in its grip until about the end of the second season, when things started to get way too "TWIN PEAKS-ish" for me and I bailed out. Ditto with FRINGE, which just managed to escape the pitfalls of becoming "X-FILES ULTRA PLUS."
But damned if they didn't manage it. Abrams, writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and producer Damon Lindelof have turned out to be the "vitamin B-12 complex" shot that this ailing series needed in its behind parts, and they have done it while still remaining mostly true to the characters and ideals held dear by devoted fans everywhere. Best of all, because of the way it has been cleverly written and directed, you need not have seen a single frame of any of the many entries in the franchise to appreciate what Team Abrams hath wrought.
The casting is dead solid perfect. Chris Pine is the exact combination of bravado, recklessness fueled by a testosterone overload and the unflappable courage of feckless youth we knew that James Tiberius Kirk was in his younger days. Not one time does he hit a false note, and the "Shatnerisms" are completely avoided (until a certain point...you'll know when that is, but by then, you won't even mind.)
HEROES' Zachary Quinto and THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK'S Karl Urban are nothing less than astonishing as the younger Spock and Dr. Leonard McCoy, respectively. Both actors avoid imitating their predecessors as well, and both deliver skillful performances without turning into the SNL caricatures we were afraid they would be. Urban is especially unexpected, capturing the physicality, the vocal inflections and the mindset of the great DeForest Kelly's performance in what can only be described as a loving tribute to the character. And Quinto should be ready to kiss his TV career as the chimerical Gabriel Sylar goodbye. The impression he leaves here as Spock will find him facing all the good and bad aspects of being associated with such an icon of the series.
One would hope he already discussed this with the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who well into his twilight years, can still hold our rapt attention on-screen, and plays a pivotal part in the storyline of this new alternate version. The moments he shares with the key members of the youthful cast are both energizing and poignant with their symbolic importance. You can almost see the torch being passed again, into very capable hands.
As the beautiful and brainy Uhura, Zoe Saldana does Nichelle Nichols proud as her new incarnation, and I hope the revered singer/actress is flattered, because Saldana really brings it, completely unfettered by the chauvinism that hog-tied so many of the strong and capable females featured in the canon back during its inception.
John Cho (HAROLD AND KUMAR), Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and Anton Yelchin round out the principal cast as Sulu, Scotty and Chekhov respectively. Though they are given woefully little to do compared to the leads, (and this really is more about Kirk and Spock than anyone else), each makes the most of the moment they were given to shine. I kind of had my doubts about Yelchin as Chekhov first because of the accent that veers dangerously into stand-up comedian territory, but if one thinks back to Walter Koenig creating the role, you realize that the accent didn't sound all that convincing at first then, either.
Plus, for lovers of the vital secondary characters important in the lives of the core characters, as well as serial movie buffs who love to play "name that actor", there are plenty of juicy surprises that I will not reveal here. I do need to mention the outstanding performance of Eric Bana as the villain of this particular piece, the deranged and inconsolable Romulan captain Nero. A little more time should have been given to this character to give us deeper insight into his motivation, so that his evil deeds are given even more chilling and despicable power, thereby making our heroes' actions that much more noble.
There are plenty of nods to TREK folklore and insular references that die-hard fans will lap up like Ben and Jerry's, and the tag lines that certain characters are known for that will elicit applause and delighted laughter as they should.
I have not been this excited about the success of a TREK-themed film since the very first time I saw WRATH OF KHAN, and this is definitely on par with that installment, considered by many to be the best TREK sequel ever made. Which brings to mind the one key thing to remember here - this is not a sequel, or a "reimagining" or even a prequel. Much in the spirit of what Chris Nolan did with BATMAN and Richard Donner achieved with SUPERMAN, this is a new lease on life for an old friend.
I have heard the tag-line "This is not your father's STAR TREK," used to the point where it should drive me to complete distraction bordering on insanity. But I can't think of a more apt way to describe it.
There was only two ways this project could go, warts and all - it could become a complete and utter failure, very close to the ill-advised ENTERPRISE series, or it could be that once- in-a-great while success that blows the doors off everyone's expectations.
So which is it? To use a horse-racing reference, Team Abrams' new entry is the "Mine That Bird" of the franchise.
It's official, folks. STAR TREK is back - full ahead, maximum warp speed!
The Unusuals (2009)
Cop Show That Throws "Procedure" Out The Window...
Having watched everything from LAW AND ORDER to NYPD BLUE, I have a pretty good idea by now how police procedural shows work. You get a sense of the personalities of the main characters while they solve a boatload of cases week after week, but since the shows are mostly about the cases and not about the characters, nuggets of information about the heroes' quirks, family lives and other intimate details are about as rare as actually finding a real cherry in a Hostess Cherry Fruit Pie. And then they're doled out maybe one or two every fifth or sixth episode.
Which is why THE UNUSUALS is so darn refreshing. Like a fighter who actually leads with his chin, this series wears its characters odd qualities on its sleeve. And what gets doled out just like those aforementioned cherries, are bits and pieces of a puzzle underneath all the weirdness: the real secrets these characters are hiding underneath the "WTF" moments.
I never watched a single episode of JOAN OF ARCADIA, but I was immediately intrigued with Amber Tamblyn, who plays Det. Casey Shraeger. What makes her "unusual": she's a trust- fund baby from a VERY wealthy blue-blood background, who has been working in Vice "on the stroll" for two years, when she's plucked off the streets from her hooker gig and teamed up with stoic Det. Jason Walsh, played by Jeremy Renner. (You may remember Renner as the heroic and doomed soldier from 28 WEEKS LATER.) Two of the things that make him "unusual": off-duty, he runs a hole-in-the-wall diner where he cooks and serves dishes you could never imagine yourself wanting to eat, and he has been covering for his corrupt partner, who suddenly ends up looking like a slab of beef in a slaughterhouse. Since said partner was also into hookers, hence his sudden, reluctant partnership with Shraeger.
In an inspired bit of casting, two of the most watchable "unusuals" seem to have the most conventional secrets in any cop show going this far over-the-top: Adam Goldberg (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) and Harold Perrineau (LOST, OZ) play partnered Detectives Leo Banks and Eric Delahoy, respectively. Banks wears a bulletproof vest both on and off-duty (he's terrified that he will die at age 42), where Delahoy suddenly becomes a suicidal "super-cop", who isn't afraid to do anything that might get him killed (he has a brain tumor and has been given mere months to live, if he doesn't get the operation he's determined to avoid.)
Riding herd on these and several other off-beat personalities constantly clashing in the precinct is Sgt. Harvey Brown (OZ alum Terry Kinney), who has pulled Tamblyn's seemingly squeaky-clean character in for a very specific reason: to help him clean house. Not surprisingly enough, there are several cops in their shop who are on the take and worse, and he wants to expose and take them down before his superiors are motivated to do it for him. "Nothing is what it looks like," he warns her - or something to that effect.
If the show has any problems, which are definitely not with the strong ensemble cast, it's some of the cases piled on top of everything else to heighten the weirdness. No explanation is given as to why a perp is brought in wearing a hot dog suit, or why their caseloads include everything from a serial killer of neighborhood cats, to a dangerous gang that goes on a rampage which includes virtually every male member of the family, down to the youngest brother who is an honor student in high school (so why weren't the aunts, the mother and the grandmother in on it, too?)
The goings-on with the main characters would be more than enough to keep things interesting without any more embellishments, but in a blasted landscape littered with the corpses of shows long past their prime, being fed on by the fly-blown vultures of reality TV constructs, at least THE UNUSUALS is trying by daring to be...unusual. And it's for that reason I fear that this show will be over before it even gets the chance to find its feet and its potential audience.
But I really hope I'm wrong.
Fillion is "King" Of This CASTLE...
Oh, yeah, we've seen this one before....Irresistible-force-meets-immovable object. Opposites attract. Oil and water. Fire and ice...you know the drill. The problem is that when you have a pairing that mixes snappy patter and grudgingly mutual admiration with just a touch of sexual tension, the recipe is only going to be as good as the charisma of the two leads involved, whether it's a sitcom, dramedy or police procedural.
CASTLE wants to be a mix of all three, and fortunately one of the most valuable weapons in its arsenal is the rakish charm of its featured lead actor, former FIREFLY star Nathan Fillion. I can count the number of actors on one hand who can pull off the "charming rascal" vibe in a way that never gets old, and Nathan can do those guys in his sleep. (And probably has.)
But he also knows how to modulate them as the occasion warrants, and where in his former role as Captain Mal Reynolds he could definitely play the bad-ass card when needed, here as womanizing bad-boy, party animal and bestselling novelist Rick Castle, he's a whole lot less serious. Bored with the cop character who has been his bread-and-butter for a string of chart-busting crime thrillers, Rick has decided in his latest tome to blow his hero's brains out, thus making a continuance of the series a little difficult to say the least. It wouldn't be a problem if the laid-back Lothario weren't suddenly faced with a major case of writer's block. But inspiration is coming in the most fortuitous if unlikely of ways.
A serial killer has decided to rehash some of the more gruesome deaths from Castle's earlier novels, and it's up to the very attractive (of course!) and no-nonsense detective Kate Beckett (newcomer Stana Katic) to crack the case...which of course will require the assistance of a certain writer of whose books Detective Beckett is a closet fan. But a fan of smart-alecky guys who like to make very unsubtle passes at her? Not so much. Let the games and one-upmanship begin!
At first blush, you could easily accuse CASTLE of trying too hard, especially since matched with the seasoned experience of Fillion, the jury was out on Katic's ability to keep up with him in the first few episodes (at least it was for me.) And to enhance its credibility, the pilot even threw in some heavy hitters in guest cameos - James Patterson, no stranger himself to the crime fiction genre, and Stephen J. Cannell, who used to crank out pilots for series just like CASTLE over breakfast.
But creator Andrew Marlowe left nothing to chance with this one, knowing full well that no matter how great a character is, he's nothing without a good backstory and some fascinating support players. Here these come in the form of Rick Castle's teenage daughter, Alexis (Molly C. Quinn), whom of course is the real 'adult' in their relationship - probably her way of rebelling against her lovable father who nevertheless lives the lifestyle of a guy half his age, and their temporary roommate who also happens to be his mother, former stage and screen star Martha Rodgers (Susan Sullivan in a turn that makes Shirley MacLaine in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE look like a dowdy matron). Once you meet Martha, suddenly Rick's personality makes perfect sense.
As with any new series, this one will take some time to really settle into the groove it needs to capture a wider audience, but with the growing ease of the push-and-pull relationship between Fillion and Katic's characters, it could very well become the next "MOONLIGHTING" or "REMINGTON STEELE"...which wouldn't be a bad thing. Crime procedurals have been missing that fun element of late, and CASTLE could very well bring it back, without having to resort to a less-successful springboard of surrealism to build from (sorry, LIFE ON MARS).
Medium: A Necessary Evil (2009)
Reunited And It DOESN'T Feel So Good...
Alison has faced some pretty dark characters from "the other side" before, and some have even made return appearances. But none of them like the 'late' FBI profiler and part-time vigilante serial killer Edward Cooper (Kurtwood Smith), who just can't seem to get enough of our favorite medium...a sentiment she most certainly does NOT share.
Cooper's return is heralded by one of Alison's trademark disturbing visions - this time a slaughter at a roadside diner, by a man distraught after being jilted by a waitress who works there. Awake and online trying to find evidence of the massacre, she's met with something even less comforting...the presence of Cooper, who's there to make her a deal, no strings attached. He wants to strike up an 'alliance' with Alison that involves using his newfound 'insight' in the after-life to provide her with information about dangerous criminals the police have been trying to catch with no success. Of course, Alison's no fool...With a deal like this, especially when you're talking about Cooper, there are ALWAYS "strings attached"...and the catch to this little arrangement is a doozy.
On a side note, when Joe is saddled with a completely unlikable and untrustworthy new employee he's pressed into hiring by his new boss/business partner, it's Ariel's blossoming gifts that come to his rescue to help him solve the conundrum of how to get rid of him.
If only 'Mom' had it so easy. Once again with another excellent performance by Smith, this episode proves why vigilante justice, even in the guise of saving lives and gaining retribution for victims, only succeeds in making more victims out of people who are innocent, and results in the end with justice being found for no one.
Tool Academy (2009)
Congratulations, VH1. In your race to the bottom with Fox, MTV, Reality Show Channel and everyone else to pander to the lowest common denominator with shows like ROCK OF LOVE, FLAVOR OF LOVE and I LOVE NEW YORK, you managed to win hands down with this 'gem' of a competition. At this point, I can see why Jerry Springer threw up his hands (AND his lunch) and decided to become the full-time host of AMERICA'S GOT TALENT. How could he possibly compete with this drain sludge?
If it were possible for any woman to "turn" lesbian, boy, would this show make a good PSA to list all the reasons why it wouldn't be such a bad thing. (Hear that, Religious Right? There's something a lot worse than 'the gay agenda', and that's shows like THIS!) It's even an insult to TOOLS, which are mostly useful instruments one can use to build and repair things. If you think any building and repairing actually goes on here, you're dreaming.
Presented in the guise of being a "tough-love boot camp" for maturity-deprived man-boys, TOOL ACADEMY is supposedly the heart-warming story of a group of desperate women who have nominated their worthless boyfriends to participate in this eight-week fiasco to change them of their douchey, nasty, womanizing, 'ghetto' ways, and turn them into the "Prince Charmings" they've always known were hidden beneath the facades, (yeah, and Adolf Hitler could be changed into Gandhi in five easy steps, too, right?)
How touching, noble and naive of them. And how much more evident is it that these girls have no sense of self-esteem, self-worth or pride of any kind, that they'd bend over backwards to keep these serial cheaters, rageaholics and redneck neanderthals in their lives? They haven't been dating guys with some issues, they've been dating cartoon characters, (I mean, c'mon! Two of these walking hard-ons even nicknamed themselves "MATSUFLEX" and "MEGA (Makes Every Girl Amorous)". WHO does that???)
Granted, all of the guys are in their twenties and they are on a reality show, so I REALLY hope that what they were doing was putting on an act. Because if not...the future of our country is in serious trouble if these are the people we're entrusting it to.
Yes, it would've been so much easier for the girls to simply leave these braying asses and find some decent guys. But this is what happens when you give people the platform of a TV show to air all their dirty laundry...and promise $100,000 dollars to the couple that can manage to come off as the 'least douchey' at the end. Be still my heart.
Well, I guess the only people who should feel worse about this show than the ones who participated in it, are the ones who actually watched it, even for a few episodes (present company included.) I wonder what it says about all of us, that there probably will be a second season?