8.17.2019

Anthropophagous (1980)


DIRECTED BY
Joe D’Amato

STARRING
Tisa Farrow - Julie
George Eastman - Klaus
Saverio Vallone - Andy
Serena Grandi - Maggie
Zora Kerova - Carol
Margaret Mazzantini - Henriette
Mark Bodin - Daniel
Bob Larson - Arnold
Rubina Rey - Ruth

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Thriller/Cannibalism

Running Time - 90 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
A group of tourists become stranded on an uninhabited island where they are stalked by an insane, violent and grotesque killer (George Eastman) that slaughtered the town’s former residents.

REVIEW
When it comes to the term “Video Nasty”, one of the first films that will quickly come to mind for those familiar with Video Nasties is 1980’s Joe D’Amato’s cult classic, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS. The word anthropophagous [of Greek origin] refers to someone who enjoys eating human flesh, which pretty much sums up the killer in this somewhat-slasher film that’s really a piece of Eurotrash on film that will divide horror audiences according to their tastes. While certain scenes in the film truly earn its inclusion in UK’s Video Nasty list of the 1980s, its reputation probably make the film better than it actually is. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS definitely has its moments, but it is sure a drag to get to them unfortunately.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is known for its gory sequences of murder and cannibalism. If you are into that sort of thing, this film is right up your alley! While I wish the film had a lot more of this stuff [believe me, the film really needed it], what we do get is memorable enough for many horror fans to still discuss it almost 40 years later, whether they’ve seen the entire film or not. I could only imagine what the film censors in both the United Kingdom and United States thought of those very scenes at the time of its release. They must have freaked watching a grown man in grotesque make-up ripping a womb out of a pregnant woman just to take a bite out of it in front of the father of that said baby inside of the womb. While the scene could have been more graphic if D’Amato and writer-actor George Eastman had wanted it to, just the very thought of seeing just a taste of it is disturbing enough. We also get a scene later at the end where the killer is cut open, to which he pulls out his own intestines and munches on them in front of the film’s surviving protagonists. In fact, the scene is made more notorious for being the actual film’s poster art! The rest of the gore is pretty standard in terms of slasher films and Italian giallo films in general. You get the typical stabbings. One person hangs themselves. And we get some nice throat chewing that look pretty realistic at the time. There are a lot of sick visuals in the film that will turn off some that don’t appreciate Italian horror, but the gore is without a doubt the best part of ANTHROPOPHAGOUS.

The acting isn’t the worst either, but nothing that really stands out. That being said, I watched the U.S. dubbed version and the voices range from good to laughingly bad. But out of everyone, George Eastman as our killer is really great whenever he appears. Eastman has a great presence in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, as he’s super tall, wears gross make-up, and provides this creepy stare with his eyes that sort of gives you chills. He only has a few lines during a flashback, but he’s just silent otherwise. I have a feeling Eastman was somewhat inspired by HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers in just the way he walks, moves and his portrayal as a force rather than a person. It’s a shame the killer only has a major role in the film’s final act, because having him do more throughout the film would have made ANTHROPOPHAGOUS less of a chore to watch. The only other actor of note is Tisa Farrow [Mia’s sister who appeared in 1979’s ZOMBIE]. For a main star, she unfortunately doesn’t really do a whole lot that’s memorable. This is Eastman’s show all the way.

The music score is good or bad, depending on which version of the film you watch. The original Italian version has music that’s so off-putting, it takes away from the visuals. It either sounds like it should belong in a circus, or is so bland that it adds nothing positive to the film to make it a stronger viewing experience. The US dubbed version may steal cues from TV episodes and the awesome KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, but at least the musical score fits in better with what’s going on the screen. The stalk scenes has musical cues that bring some tension to them, while the quieter moments has a nice score that tries to elevate these pedestrian scenes. If you cherish sound design, the U.S. version is definitely the way to go.

The direction by Joe D’Amato will probably only be appreciated by those who are familiar with his work. He doesn’t have a very stylish eye, directing scenes pretty standardly and without much flash or pizazz that could elevate the film’s storytelling. But he does manage to add a lot of atmosphere with the beautiful Grecian location and the great use of using Italy-as-Greece as the backdrop. The stalk-and-kill scenes, some with first person point-of-view, create mystery, suspense, and tension. And the gore effects are shot really well, as D’Amato never really overdoes it and just gives us enough of a taste to be disturbed and grossed out by a man eating a womb or his own guts. The pacing could be a lot better, but that final act is directed as well as one would expect out of an Italian horror film of its time. It’s not his best work as a director, but the visuals aren’t what bring this film down for me.

That problem lies within the script, which has some great elements sprinkled throughout but never cohesively works well enough to be interesting. The film starts off with a creepy moment of a vacationing couple getting murdered by our unseen killer. But then the film grinds to a halt as we meet our main characters, who honestly aren’t all that interesting or likable enough of anyone to really give a damn about them. They end up just talking and walking around for about 50 minutes, complaining about curses, dealing with one-sided love triangles and spouting expository dialogue that you’ll forget by the time the film ends. It’s not until the characters meet a blind girl who can sense the killer via smell of blood that the film starts to pick up. If this was a 40 minute film, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS would be awesome from beginning to end. The final act alone is worth watching this film, as it feels like a mean-spirited slasher film that’ll keep you engaged. But the first two-thirds of the film will test audiences not used to watching these kind of horror films, or want something with quick-paced action. They’ll probably give up halfway into the movie. It’s a shame because more kills in the middle, or just some well-written dialogue and eventful moments throughout the film would have added a great deal here. Instead, most people who haven’t seen this film will probably just watch the best parts of YouTube and forget about the rest. When the most interesting character in your film is the killer and he’s barely even in the film, you got yourself a problem.

THE FINAL HOWL
It’s easy to see why ANTHROPOPHAGOUS was listed as a “Video Nasty” almost four decades ago. The gore is pretty intense for the time, as watching a human being eat a womb out of a pregnant woman and then chew on his own intestines was probably more than some were ready to handle back in the day. It’s a shame the rest of the film is a mixed bag. While George Eastman’s performance as the killer is great and the final act is well directed by Joe D’Amato, it’s a struggle to get through the rest of the film with its slow, boring pace and forgettable characters who you won’t care whether they survive or not. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is a film that ought to be better than it is due to its notoriety, but it’s kind of a chore to sit through for the most part. If you love Italian horror, early slasher films or films by Joe D’Amato, check it out if you haven’t already. If not, just find the bits of gore on YouTube to see what all the fuss is about.


SCORE
2 Howls Outta 4



8.10.2019

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (2019)


DIRECTED BY
Andre Øvredal

STARRING
Zoe Margaret Colletti - Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza - Ramon Morales
Gabriel Rush - Auggie Hilderbrandt
Austin Abrams - Tommy
Dean Norris - Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows - Chef Turner
Lorraine Toussaint - Lou Lou
Austin Zajur - Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn - Ruth Steinberg

Genre - Horror/Fantasy

Running Time - 111 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
The shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large in the small town of Mill Valley for generations. It’s in a mansion that young Sarah Bellows turns her tortured life and horrible secrets into a series of scary stories. These terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real for a group of unsuspecting teens who stumble upon Sarah’s spooky home.

REVIEW
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a series of books that I was a huge fan of when I was younger. Each book had many different stories and urban legends play out in anthology form, told as almost campfire tales to creep one out. With the success of GOOSEBUMPS having been adapted to the big screen to critical and commercial acclaim, it was a no brainer that SCARY STORIES would get the film treatment. Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andre Øvredal [of TROLL HUNTER and THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE acclaim], the film had a lot of buzz going into its theatrical release. To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that impressed by the trailers for the film. Yet, I was still curious and knew I’d be supporting the project opening weekend. I’m glad I did because I really liked SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, even though I had issues with how the story was presented at times. 

Let’s get the positive things out of the way first. I think what I enjoyed most about SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is the film’s atmosphere. The film takes place in 1968 and it never forgets to remind you of that, which I appreciated. We get some great 60s music and pop culture elements of the time, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at a drive-in and classic Universal Monsters being talked about and appreciated. There are also many news reels and discussions amongst characters about the 1968 Presidential Election, which Richard Nixon won despite a lot of these characters not liking the guy. This is obviously an allusion to our current political and social climate, with both Øvredal and del Toro pretty much saying that history has repeated itself - especially if you see how the one Latino character is treated by a police officer and certain members of the community is any example. The best thing is the film never hammers it to a point where its distracting like some other films would in this day and age, so that was much appreciated. And considering the film occurs on Halloween and a few days after, SCARY STORIES captures the Halloween and fall vibe really well. I also liked the haunted house elements added as well, capturing a level of innocence and naivety that probably doesn’t exist in a modern and cynical world. It was really well done.

I also thought the actors were very good, as well as the characters written for them. The highlights were Zoe Coletti as main character Stella, Michael Garza as new guy Ramon and both Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur as comic reliefs Auggie and Chuck respectively. The young actors had great rapport with each other and I bought them as genuine friends who would natural come together to solve this mystery and save themselves. Could their characters have had more development? Sure. But the actors stood out and made the cliched characters their own for the most part.

And while the CGI effects weren’t the most realistic, I thought the monster designs were pretty spot on to their book counterparts. It was cool seeing some of the monsters in live-action, even though I wish there was more of them [I’ll get to that in a bit]. But when they do appear, the tension definitely spikes and some of the jump scares provided even works. I hadn’t read any of the books in a long time, but I definitely remembered whenever a creature would terrorize someone. I’m not sure if it will affect younger audiences the same way it did me, but nostalgia hit hard with this one.

And while the film is well made and well structured, I just feel like the whole “group of pop culture savvy kids solving mysteries together” trope is getting way played out at this point. And that’s where SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK failed for me. It’s generic and predictable, with nothing new added that I haven’t seen in films like THE GOONIES, THE MONSTER SQUAD, both versions of IT and even Stranger Things on Netflix. Yes, this type of storytelling works immensely and provides a lot of fun for audiences to watch these characters grow into themselves and as a group of heroes saving the day from supernatural danger. But I felt the film focused too much on this aspect, only using the tales from the book as a plot device whenever a character needed to disappear for a while. The monsters and the stories themselves honestly should have been the main attraction here, possibly done in an anthology type flick that would have used these popular tales to their fullest potential. Hell, there’s so many of them that you could easily create a franchise. But instead, we get the monsters in the background to the human drama that isn’t all that interesting because it’s been done to death. I’m not saying that the screenplay is terribly written, because it’s far from that. In fact, I liked the whole FINAL DESTINATION element of the stories being used to target a certain character and use their fear against them. But the film is called SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and it doesn’t really live up to its title other than the antagonists being used. I enjoyed myself watching it all play out and never felt insulted by anything on screen. But I think it was a missed opportunity to really go all out with the use of its source material. I felt that the film played it a bit too safe.

THE FINAL HOWL
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is a film that will definitely appeal to children and adolescents who are starting to build their horror film watch history without frightening them too much or turning them off in any way. For diehard horror fans who grew up on the books and may be expecting a close enough adaptation might come away from it feeling something was lacking. It’s a fun movie, without a doubt, as it breezes by with a great Halloween and Autumn atmosphere, solid young actors who are very likable, and a very good live-action CGI showcase of some of the book’s supernatural characters. However, the human story was a bit generic, cliche and safe, while the source material was a bit underutilized. I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities in this film and I was expecting a bit more out of it. Still, SCARY STORIES is definitely worth your time if you’re familiar with the books the film is based on, or if you just enjoy PG-13 horror that does more right than wrong. 


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4



8.01.2019

Lunar Cycle - July 2019



Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.



BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001) - *** out of ****

Director: Christophe Gans

Starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Emilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Mark Dacascos, Jean Yanne

Genre: Adventure/History/Action/Horror

Running Time: 137 Minutes


Plot: In 18th century France, the Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his native American friend Mani (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the King to the Gevaudan province to investigate the killings of hundreds by a mysterious beast.



Review: An ambitious hybrid of many different genres, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF is a bi-polar film that shouldn't work - but somehow mostly does. While containing horror elements involving a beast that's terrorizing a province in France, the film is mainly a period piece action B-movie with as big of a budget as its long running time. The characters are all interesting, all looking like suspects or accessories to these animal attacks through a captivating detective arc that makes you question who or what the beast really is. It truly takes a turn by the end, as things are never what they seem to be.

The direction by Christophe Gans is extremely stylish, fitting in well with other action films of the 2000s. It's expertly shot, with beautiful pans and tilts to showcase the scenery and capture the Victorian setting of France. The cinematography pops, as the film is very colorful and beautiful. The action scenes are well choreographed, with a nice use of martial arts and swashbuckling that will keep on entertained. And the horror aspect is well used, as the stuff with the beast is pretty gruesome. And the fight scenes are bloody as well.

The acting is solid across the board. This is especially the case for male lead Samuel Le Behan (played a great hero), Vincent Cassel (playing a weirdo as usual), badass Mark Dacascos, and the beautiful Monica Bellucci who almost steals every scene she's a part of.

If I had any issues, the film is a big too long for its own good. It drags at certain parts and could take audiences out of the movie. I also thought the use of slow motion got grating. I usually don't have an issue with "bullet time", but a film as good as this didn't need an overabundance of it. The beast's CGI isn't the most convincing either. And what was up with the love story that doesn't add much to the story at all? Meh.

But overall, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF has to be respected for its ambition and mostly successful balance of multiple genres to tell a pretty enthralling story. If you can get over its obvious flaws, the film is a fun time and a mystery worth investing in.





MIDSOMMAR (2019) - ***1/2 out of ****

Director: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter

Genre: Horror/Mystery/Drama/Comedy

Running Time: 147 Minutes


Plot: A young couple (Florence Pugh & Jack Reynor) and their friends travel to Sweden to visit a friend’s rural hometown and attend its mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly descends into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.


Review: Ari Aster’s second feature film within the last two years, MIDSOMMAR is another horror film that will divide the community like last year’s HEREDITARY [also by Aster] did. On the surface, the film is obviously inspired by folk horror - more specifically THE WICKER MAN - where a group of mostly ignorant Americans go to a foreign country and end up being part of a sinister celebration that not all of them will survive. Even when bad things happen in front of them, they’re so wrapped up in themselves that they fail to see why they’re really there and what’s really going on around them. It’s a trope that we’ve seen used many times in horror films, yet it still works really well in MIDSOMMAR. It increases the suspense, tension and sometimes unintentional humor as we wait for these characters to be “part of the celebration” in Sweden, knowing it’s going to be weird, disturbing and all-around captivating.

If you look deeper into MIDSOMMAR though, the film is really a story about loss, grief, and finding true happiness by cutting ties with those who either hold you down or don’t seem to care to comfort during one’s time of need. The story centers around Dani and Christian - a long-term young couple who have been together for four years [a fact that Christian doesn’t even remember] out of convenience rather than because they genuinely want to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Dani comes off as needy and a bit erratic at times, something that seems to push Christian away and make his friends dislike her. But Dani genuinely has bad things happening in her life and just wants to be loved and comforted by her boyfriend, who seems to do that out of guilt and fear rather than genuine concern. As they go on their trip and things happen along the way [I won’t spoil anything major], their relationship starts to fall apart to the point where one of them realizes that the only way to feel happy again is by cutting ties. While I felt that the family tragedies that occur in HEREDITARY hit me harder on a personal level, the relationship angle works well as we sort of see both Dani’s and Christian’s reasonings for wanting to stay together and understanding why it’s just making them bitter, angry and miserable in the long run. Obviously, you’ll feel more sympathetic towards one party over the other by the end of the film, but I liked how real the relationship felt and sort of understood where all the characters stood with it, even if most of them ended up being jerks for the most part. By the resolution, you feel sort of relieved their misery is over - even if the way it occurs isn’t the cleanest.

The direction by Aster is an improvement over HEREDITARY however, as MIDSOMMAR is a gorgeous looking movie with great angle shots, amazing looking scenery and a surprisingly great pace for such a long film. The first hour is a slow burn set up for the rest of the craziness that occurs later, but I never once felt bored or that the film dragged. That’s the testament to a well made movie that knows exactly what it wants to tell and how to execute it. And the gore and deaths in the film are pretty shocking and at times disturbing. There’s one scene involving lungs that made my eyes go wide. Just incredible stuff.

The acting is also solid, particularly by lead Florence Pugh. She was a highlight earlier in the year in the wrestling themed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY and continues to wow. I felt her anguish. I felt her confusion. I felt her fear. And I also understood her when her story arc came to an end. Pugh pulled it off convincingly and look forward to seeing her in more roles. I thought Jack Reynor was great as Christian, playing a boyfriend who was torn between being there for his girlfriend and just wanting to move on from a situation that was just bringing him down. Will Poulter was solid as the comic relief. And I thought the Swedish actors all played their roles perfectly mysterious. 

Overall, MIDSOMMAR is a bizarre film that’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a slow burn thriller that may feel pretentious to some due to its artsy storytelling and visual presentation. But if you really sit back and realize what the film is really about beyond the scary cult stuff, you’ll enjoy the ride as you watch relationships fall apart while others start being formed in the most disturbing of ways. MIDSOMMAR isn’t a film I could see myself watching a whole lot in my lifetime, but I’m glad I did because it was definitely a two-hour-plus experience that will sit with me for a while.

By the way, I’m crossing a trip to Sweden off of my bucket list. The meatballs aren’t that good.







2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983) - ** out of ****

Director: Joe D’Amato

Starring: Al Cliver, Harrison Mueller Jr., Daniel Stephen, Peter Hooten, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Sabrina Siani, Isabella Rocchietta, Geretta Geretta, Donald O’Brien

Genre: Action/Science Fiction/Dystopian Futures

Running Time: 91 Minutes


Plot: In a post-apocalyptic Texas, a band of warriors fight against a fascist regime that is trying to control of all surviving population.



Review: One of many Italian rip-offs of popular films, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is a mixed bag of a film that wants to be as cool as the films it was inspired by, but only made me want to watch each of those films instead. Co-written by George Eastman [of ANTROPOPHAGUS fame] and directed by cult filmmaker Joe D’Amato, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS wants to be the Italian hybrid of THE ROAD WARRIOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but never coming close to matching the quality of either one. Add in a Russian Roulette scene obviously inspired by THE DEER HUNTER and you have a film that wants to be a lot of things all at once.

Unfortunately, putting ideas from random films together in one movie doesn’t mean you’ll have a good story. The characters are pretty much cardboard and don’t have much depth besides “good” and “evil” and the premise is your standard “overthrow the oppressors” type of plot. The dialogue is pretty hilarious and most of the characters seem like caricatures rather than actual people.

However, the film does have memorable moments going for it. D’Amato and Eastman did manage to add in some wacky stuff like nuns getting raped and priests getting crucified in the first five minutes of the film [our heroes actually watch and let this happen before stepping in, which is…something]. We also have a lot of motorcycle and horse riding action involving lots of arrows, guns, fire, hatchets, and other different weapons to give the film some energy. We even have a disturbing moment of guy-on-guy rape, as well as the Russian Roulette scene I previously mentioned. Some will get a kick out of the exploitation vibe of the film, even if these scenes are for shock value rather than to move the story forward.

D’Amato shoots 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS almost as a Western of sorts, trying to pass off Italy for a dystopian Texas. I’m guessing the educational system goes to crap a year from now, since explosives is spelled “EXSPLOSIVES” at one point. The film isn’t all that stylish, but it does manage to maintain a decent flow and use its setting for all that it’s worth. I particularly keep going back to the Russian Roulette scene since it was shot very well and took place in a saloon type place, building tension and shooting nice fight choreography that Western fans would be able to appreciate. D’Amato did admit that Eastman directed the dialogue heavy scenes, which I felt were the weakest of the film. The silly action and over-the-top shock moments were the things that kept my attention. D’Amato has directed better work than 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS, but at least you can tell he’s trying to make a decent film for an American audience.

It’s hard to judge the acting because I watched the cheesy dubbed version. But I’ll probably anything Al Cliver is in because that dude is likable as hell. The actors also handled the action stuff very well and seemed to be having fun making the movie.

Overall, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is not my favorite post-apocalyptic cheesefest. 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS and THE NEW BARBARIANS are more my cup of tea. But what 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS lacks in an interesting story or characters make up for it in memorable moments that will make you so shocked you’ll want to see what’s next. You’re better off watching the films this movie ripped off, but it’s a decent Joe D’Amato film that deserves your attention if you’re fan of the man’s work.






LIFE (2017) - **1/2 out of ****

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Nguyen, Ariyon Bukare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 103 Minutes


Plot: The six-member crew of the International Space Station is tasked with studying a sample from Mars that may be the first proof of extra-terrestrial life, which proves more intelligent than ever expected.



Review: Part ALIEN, part GRAVITY with a sprinkle of THE THING
and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, 2017’s sci-fi/horror flick LIFE tries to be as good as any of those films, but not surprisingly coming up short in every instance. LIFE’s downfall is really its screenplay, as it’s commendable for trying to take the best parts of previous sci-fi/horror films and placing them together like a puzzle to create a watchable film. But on the negative side, it also sacrifices character development, as we barely know anything about these characters - at least enough to care whether they live or die. Say what you want about previous B-movie schlock like GALAXY OF TERROR or INSEMINOID. But at least those films had likable characters with personality, making us latch on to them while knowing they’ll most likely be victims to the film’s alien villain. The only character in the film that has a sense of urgency or fun is Rory, but that’s because Ryan Reynolds is given a character close to his real-life persona, instantly making us like him. As an international cast of characters, they all seem to have interesting backstories and depth dying to come out. But the film would rather focus on the alien terror haunting them, making them nothing but fodder. That’s fine when you’ve given the audience one or two people to at least gain our sympathy. Plus, most of them do really stupid things that end up getting themselves and others killed. Some say it’s human nature, but I say it’s just bad writing. It’s a shame too because you have a great cast, especially in Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, and the script really gives them nothing to do other than play stereotypes we’ve seen done better.

Not all of LIFE is negative though. The film does look absolutely stunning, with beautiful cinematography and a great use of special effects that make you believe we are watching people in space. Daniel Espinosa maintains a decent flow, never making the 103 minute run time feel like it drags. And while the alien creation isn’t the most novel, the CGI for it as it evolves into something deadlier is done nicely and probably would have been made more memorable had LIFE been a better film. I also thought Espinosa managed to build some decent tension and suspense at times, slowly building to the moments where the alien [called Calvin] stalks its prey and feeds on the astronauts. I also appreciated the nihilistic ending, obviously to set up a potential sequel [that probably won’t happen], but it leaves the audience with a sense of dread and shake-your-head syndrome at what’s obviously to happen in the aftermath. And while the actors didn’t have great material to work with, I thought they did enough of a fine job to keep me engaged in what was going on. I felt Gyllenhaal was the strongest actor, as that dude is great in anything he’s in. Reynolds played himself, which is more than fine. Ferguson was a bit bland at times, but she got better as the film went on.

Overall, LIFE is a clone of much better films spliced together. The screenplay is its weakest part, which is a big chunk of the overall enjoyment of this movie. But the acting is solid for the material given, the visual presentation is stunning with some nice CGI, and it has some tense horror moments that more people probably would have talked about if the film was better in its execution. It’s a decent B-movie with an A-list production. Worth your time, at least once, if you like sci-fi/horror in space films.





ANNIHILATION (2018) - *** out of ****

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time: 115 Minutes


Plot: A biologist (Natalie Portman) signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply.


Review: Alex Garland’s second directorial feature, ANNIHILATION, is a divisive film that audiences will either embrace for its intelligence or dismiss for its pretentiousness. I, personally, liked ANNIHILATION for the most part for its ambition to convey the many underlying messages the film wants to express. But compared to Garland’s first feature, 2014’s EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION requires more patience and thought to really get what’s going on. And even when you get answers, new questions pop up. It’s that kind of film and it’s definitely not for everyone.

I won’t spoil the story, as it’s better to go into it not knowing much since everyone will get something different out of it. But ANNIHILATION is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, where a group of female scientists enter this temporal and chemical flux dubbed “The Shimmer” - a place where all cells and DNA become refracted enough to change the living things that enter it. The film plays homage to other science fiction films, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE PREDATOR and THE THING along the way, leading towards an ending that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The characters all have sad backstories that influence their behaviors throughout the film, making them feel somewhat human even if they aren’t completely fleshed out. And the events that take place within the Shimmer are pretty memorable if you’re willing to get through a slow burn first half. It’s a film that will make you think about what you just watched once it’s over. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the viewer.

The direction, though, is spectacularly done in ANNIHILATION. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy [same team as EX MACHINA] really capture a beautiful movie with vivid colors and interesting shots of things that occur within the Shimmer. The special effects are more good than bad. Simple things, like plants growing into the shape of human beings, are quite lovely. Then you have some things in the final act which looked kind of video gamey and stood out not in a good way. And while people have claimed ANNIHILATION is a sci-fi and horror film, the horror aspect doesn’t have much of a focus here. Yet, there are moments involving this bear that I won’t give away. The film becomes a bit gory and tense during these scenes, giving us nice action that nicely breaks into the more dramatic moments. I think the simple work in EX MACHINA worked better for Garland and Hardy, but I admire their ambition for trying to stretch the limits of their imagination and capture what the novel was probably trying to express through words.

The acting is also very good. I thought all the ladies provided something different within the story. Natalie Portman continues very good acting work in a film that gives her a lot to do and play around with. Gina Rodriguez was very strong in her role as the sassy scientist whose attitude changed quite quickly within the Shimmer. It’s always great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in anything. Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny don’t get to do much, but are fine. And while a shorter than expected role. Oscar Isaac sure made it memorable. Solid cast in my opinion.

Overall, ANNIHILATION isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I liked it for the most part. The film didn’t wow me like EX MACHINA did, but I hardly call this a sophomore slump. It has interesting ideas that get answered while asking new questions about them. The direction and cinematography are spectacular. And the acting is more than solid here. A lot of people put ANNIHILATION in their Top 10 Best lists for 2018 and I’m not quite sure it would have made mine. But I can see why people would as it’s an interesting film that has something to say. If you’re into slow burn sophisticated science fiction “horror”, then this is the film for you.



7.30.2019

Firestarter (1984)


DIRECTED BY
Mark L. Lester

STARRING
David Keith - Andrew “Andy” McGee
Drew Barrymore - Charlene “Charlie” McGee
Heather Locklear - Victoria “Vicky” McGee
Martin Sheen - Captain James Hollister
George C. Scott - John Rainbird
Art Carney - Irv Manders
Louise Fletcher - Norma Manders

Genre - Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time - 114 Minutes


I wonder if anyone could have predicted how influential writer Stephen King would become after the release of his 1974 novel Carrie. Not only was the novel about a bullied teenager with telekinetic abilities a massive success, but its 1976 film adaptation by Brian De Palma was also a commercial and critical success that kickstarted the adaptation trend for any of King’s works. The 1980s, in particular, were a cornucopia of King film adaptations, all with varied success yet still highlights for any child of the 80s who were into horror.

One of these adaptations is 1984’s FIRESTARTER, based on King’s 1980 novel of the same name. A story about a young girl who is being targeted by evil scientists due to her development of pyrokinesis, FIRESTARTER seemed liked a reductive re-do of King’s CARRIE from years prior to many. Also, similar films had been released post-CARRIE like 1978’s THE INITIATION OF SARAH and THE FURY [the latter directed by De Palma himself] and 1981’s SCANNERS by David Cronenberg. We’ve also had similar films since, like multiple CARRIE films and even a FRIDAY THE 13TH film where Jason Voorhees battled a character with Carrie-like powers. But FIRESTARTER seems to be a film not many talk about for whatever reason, even though it has an impressive cast and had a sequel made in 2002 for cable. Even King himself has stated that the film adaptation isn’t all that good, making the film feel like its in a time capsule that only gets opened for nostalgic purposes.

It had been decades since I sat down to watch FIRESTARTER, at least in full, barely remembering anything about the film besides Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott, and the action-filled finale where a bunch of government workers burn to a crisp. And now watching it again after all this time, I can see why I barely remembered what happened in this film. I’m not saying FIRESTARTER is bad at all, because it’s not. It’s just one of King’s weaker adaptations and proof that sometimes being too faithful to the source material could be more negative than positive.

PLOT
While acting as volunteers for some experimental test, Andy McGee (David Keith) and Vicky Tomlinson (Heather Locklear) meet and fall in love. The experiments grant both of them psychic abilities, bonding them closer. They eventually end up getting married and having a daughter named Charlie (Drew Barrymore). Due to the effects of the experiment, Charlie has powers of her own - the power to create and control fire with just her mind.

While the three try and be a happy family, the evil government agency behind the experiments, The Shop, find out about Charlie and want to exploit her abilities. During an ambush at home, Vicky is murdered by Shop agents, making Andy and Charlie go on the run. However, The Shop has hired an American Indian assassin named John Rainbird (George C. Scott) - a man obsessed with Charlie for some sick reason. As both father and daughter are taken prisoner, Rainbird tries to befriend Charlie for his own personal reasons.

REVIEW
Produced by the legendary Dino de Laurentis, who would produce a few Stephen King adaptations in the first half of the 1980s, FIRESTARTER was one of two King adaptations developed for the big screen in 1984 [the second one being CHILDREN OF THE CORN]. And while, in my opinion, both films are pretty flawed adaptations of King’s work, I feel FIRESTARTER is slightly the better of the two. CHILDREN OF THE CORN has interesting ideas, but doesn’t seem to know where to really take them through a 90-minute runtime. FIRESTARTER, at least, knows what film it sort of wants to be because it’s mostly faithful to the novel unlike many of King’s adaptations at the time. This is both a gift and a curse because while the story definitely works cinematically, certain aspects should have probably been changed or taken out in order for FIRESTARTER to be more film-friendly than it actually is.

It would have been very interesting to see what John Carpenter’s version of FIRESTARTER would have been if Universal Studios had given him a chance. For those who don’t know, Carpenter was the original pick to be the film’s director. At time, he was already working on a King adaptation, 1983’s CHRISTINE, and felt like a natural fit. He had a couple of adapted screenplays to work with, all seemingly more suited for cinema than the actual screenplay that was used. But due to 1982’s THE THING flopping at the time at the box office and CHRISTINE not doing much better a year later, Carpenter was taken off of the project - along with the screenplays he had approved for his version of FIRESTARTER. Instead, Universal hired Mark L. Lester [of CLASS OF 1984 and later COMMANDO fame] to direct the film instead, leading to Lester to bring in screenwriter Stanley Mann to adapt a screenplay that was very faithful to the novel. While that’s commendable and ideal for Stephen King and the fans of the novel, doing that doesn’t always make for the most exciting movie. And that’s a serious issue with FIRESTARTER, as the film has very good moments that are dragged out by a story that stays too true to its source material.

FIRESTARTER is really a film of two halves in terms of quality. In my opinion, the first half of the film is the strongest part of the movie. Along with some much needed flashbacks that quickly set up what’s happening in the present, the first half is mainly a cat-and-mouse chase flick where Andy and Charlie are on the run from these evil government agents of The Shop. There’s a sense of urgency, danger, and dread as they soldiers want to harm an innocent child and her father - products of an experiment that they created in the first place. While the film does suffer from a lack of depth in terms of character development, this part of the film at least establishes the relationship between Andy and Charlie. Andy uses his psychic abilities to manipulate things in his favor to protect his daughter, while Charlie is confused, scared and frustrated over the situation and her lack in controlling her powers. You get a real sense that they’re a team, as Andy tries to control his daughter every chance she feels the urge of burning people that harm them. They meet kind strangers along the way, which end up getting them somewhat involved in the whole mess as well, building up stakes in the story that make us care about what will happen next. Even though John Carpenter was taken off of FIRESTARTER, this portion of the film sure feels like something he would at least produced in one of his own films. There’s small character development within a quick paced and action-filled section that tries to build us a world for these characters for us to understand.

It’s too bad the second half just plods along until the insane final 10 to 15 minutes of the film. In this portion, Andy and Charlie are prisoners of The Shop as they’re being studied on their abilities. Charlie, especially, is a focus because The Shop wants to use her as a weapon and challenge her as a way to increase her abilities. Also here, we learn more about the Rainbird character, who has a real interest in a young pyrokinetic girl - to the point where it borders on creepy enough to call Chris Hansen to sit this old man down for a talk. This portion is more focused on the drama and the science fiction aspect of the story, which would be fine if it wasn’t so generic and uninteresting. There’s no real sense of time, just moments where characters interact with each other. Then it leads to a scene of Charlie being told to use her powers so The Shop can gauge it, which then goes right back to these interactions before repeating itself. Andy and Charlie have sympathy because they’re obviously victims and we’ve been following them from the film’s first shot. But the last half of the film doesn’t really develop them in new ways to create any sort of depth. And the bad guys, besides Rainbird, are just bland stock mad scientists and followers.

Rainbird has a little more going for him since he’s a manipulator who has his own agenda with Charlie, whether that’s to kill her, use her for her power, or something more sinister that’s sort of implied. And while it makes sense for him to lie about who he is in order to slowly gain Charlie’s trust, not having a sense of time hurts these scenes because Charlie falls for this act way too quickly. In the first half of the film, Charlie also seems to sense when The Shop is close enough to her and her father to cause trouble, making her warn Andy when they’re near. If Charlie has this ability to tell who’s dangerous, why wouldn’t that work with Rainbird? They’re not drugging her to suppress this power since they want to become stronger. It just feels badly written, as if Rainbird gaining Charlie’s trust will turn her against the man who has taken care of her her entire life. Also, Charlie has trouble controlling her power whenever she feels frustrated, angry or moments when she doesn’t exactly get her way. Why wouldn’t Charlie force these bad guys to tell her where her father is so she can save him and they can escape? She may be a child but she’s been through enough to understand what’s the deal, I would think. It’s handled better in a novel where Charlie is the narrator, allowing us to understand her emotional state and reasoning through her own words. You can’t really do that in third person narration on film without giving the audience more information to close these plot holes. Plus, as much as I like slow burn science fiction, the last half besides the conclusion is just way too long and boring for its own good. Stranger Things [which was obviously inspired somewhat by this film with the Eleven character] handles the science stuff better because it doesn’t feel rushed and has deep characters we’re allowed to care about. FIRESTARTER tries to cram a 500 page novel into a two-hour film and that’s not nearly long enough to tell this story - and the film is already longer than it should be.

Mark L. Lester does a decent directorial job on FIRESTARTER. The first half is great because of the fast paced action and Carpenter vibe. The second half isn’t shot terribly, but the pacing is off and just feels bland. It has a TV movie feel that shouldn’t be part of any theatrical film. It honestly feels like a David Cronenberg film without the interesting characters or commentary that goes with it. The second half of the film could have lost 15 to 20 minutes and wouldn’t have changed much. I will say that Lester does handle action very well, especially when father and daughter use their powers. Andy’s mind control is very much like SCANNERS, with the nice touch of nose bleeds happening each other. And Charlie’s fire power is awesome and it’s used in multiple ways that keep our interest throughout. But other than that, there’s not much to say about FIRESTARTER’s visual presentation other than that it’s okay.

The acting is also a bit mixed. The film belongs to both Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, as this film would have been a lot worse without them involved. Scott is miscast as an Native American assassin, but does manage to make Rainbird a bit of a creep at times. He gives a good performance, but the role was probably better suited for someone else. Barrymore, however, is fantastic as young Charlie. Sure, at times it seems she doesn’t take the fire power stuff all that seriously, almost trying not to laugh as wind blows her hair while she stares blankly at the camera. But she’s believable as a young child who has an ability she doesn’t know how to control or understand. She has tantrums. She cries on cue. She’s charismatic and displays a maturity most child actors her age wish they had. She carries FIRESTARTER on her shoulders and does a commendable job. She feels like a real kid and I like that. David Keith is also quite good as Andy. He plays the heroic and protective father well, making him likable enough for us to care about what happens to him. A lot of the villains though, especially Martin Sheen as the head of the Shop, just feel wasted here. Sheen is just cliche villain of the week with no depth or life to him. An actor of his stature deserves a meatier role. You also have Art Carney and Louise Fletcher here as well, but they don’t get to do a whole lot either. Three Academy Award winning actors and two aren’t used to their capacity - a shame.

I also have to give a ton of kudos to all the stunt people who worked on FIRESTARTER. No CGI was used in this film, so all the fire effects were done practically on set. Watching people set ablaze for these action scenes still amazes me and I have nothing but respect for their hard work here. That’s scary as hell and they made the film memorable for me after all these years. The stunt people deserve more credit than they actually get - and I mean that for any film that has them involved.

And I can’t end the review without talking about the musical score by the great Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately, I think the group has made better scores for other films, as not everything I heard worked for me in FIRESTARTER. I thought the musical cues for the action and quicker paced moments were great, carrying a nice synth heavy groove that added a lot. But during the quieter moments, the score was just there and didn’t really capture my attention all that much. I have a feeling it’s less about the actual music and more about the sound design here. I think a lot of the score wasn’t used properly and didn’t elevate the visuals when they probably should have.

THE FINAL HOWL
FIRESTARTER is a film I probably enjoyed more when I was younger than I do as an adult. The chase aspect of the first half is pretty solid, while the weaker second half slows the film way too much to the point of almost dull at times [the film’s climax is pretty cool though]. Director Mark L. Lester handles the action scenes nicely [the stunt people deserve all the respect for allowing themselves to be set on fire like that], but the more quieter scenes feel like I’m watching a TV movie, hoping for something more interesting to happen in terms of style. The Tangerine Dream score is more good than bad, mainly due to how the music is used within the film. And while some big actors are wasted, Drew Barrymore carries the film extremely well considering her young age at the time. David Keith and George C. Scott help her out immensely in supporting roles as her heroic father and a creepy assassin respectively. The film doesn’t fire on all cylinders as a King novel-to-film adaptation, but it has enough things going on to make it worth at least a watch or a revisit.


SCORE
2.5 Howls Outta 4



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