Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review: "A Perfect Getaway": A good hike spoiled

Milla Jovovich (top) and Kiele Sanchez
in Hot Bitches With Knives!

When I was around ten my parents decided I should take golf lessons. Three days a week they shoved me down the gravel path at the Thunder Hills country club toward a bunch of golf-crazed tweens and then hopped into a cart to zip off to the back nine before I could attach myself to their plaid-wrapped legs.

This went on for an entire summer, but little did my folks know that even though they may have succeeded in delivering me into the Lacoste-emblazoned bosom of the enemy, I never played more than a single hole of golf. Because as soon as the class teed off for the second hole, my neighbor Abby and I would duck into the woods, circle back to the clubhouse, and spend the next two hours sitting at the bar sucking down pineapple smoothies and watching MTV.

Anyway, this doesn't have anything to do with anything other than at some point during my miseducation I heard someone use the following quote by Mark Twain: "Golf is a good walk spoiled."

Which brings me to A Perfect Getaway.

An entry into the "claustrophobic thriller" genre that doesn't trouble itself with the whole "claustrophobic" part, Getaway takes place entirely on the breathtaking open cliffs and beaches of Hawaii. Likely written and produced as an excuse to write off a hell of a tropical vacation, the story places three couples (and a few assorted extras) on a trail through the Hawaiian wilds, where a gruesome double-murder has just been committed by - you guessed it! - a couple that could potentially match the description of any of the three.

First and foremost there's Cliff (Steve Zahn, looking like he's been hitting both the gym and the HGH pretty hard) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich), relatively bland and annoying newlyweds who are on their honeymoon. While driving to the trail they almost pick up hitchhikers Kale (Chris Hemsworth) and Chloe (a near-unrecognizable Marley Shelton), grubby neo-hippies who look like they could be dangerous ... or at least smelly (hence the "almost").

Once in the hills Cliff and Cydney meet Nick (Timothy Olyphant, looking extra-edible) and Gina (relative newbie Kiele Sanchez), a free-wheeling couple who seem decent enough, although Nick's Black Ops background and Gina's way with a hunting knife don't exactly put Cliff and Cydney (whose name becomes more and more infuriating the more I have to write it) at ease. And when the new tennis doubles run into Kale and Chloe on the trail, the plot thickens (by exactly 50%).

Of course, the "oooh!" factor is supposed to be driven by our wondering which of the couples (if any) are the murderers, but honestly the lean plot and rote genre machinations are overwhelmed and eventually pulverized by the sheer gorgeousness of the location. Great pains are taken to get the actors near-naked as often as possible (including an impressive butt-shot for Olyphant ... no tan line!) in order to compete with the landscape, and although I greatly appreciate the effort, it's a vain one.

"It's okay, I'm still hot!"

As far as the mystery goes, I'm actually a bit flummoxed by the whole thing. Getaway seems to think itself very clever - something of a riff on Natural Born Killers but with a brilliant second-act twist and a couple of great red herrings. And why do I imagine the movie thinks these things? Because it actually tells us.


As in, in the dialogue.

Using the dubious device of having Cliff and Nick discuss thriller screenwriting throughout the hike, the movie pretty much tells you what's going to happen next, which isn't terribly ... well, thrilling. Add on the fact that if you pay any attention whatsoever the big "twist" is more or less spelled out in smoke signals and semaphore in the first 15 minutes of the movie, and you're in for a very long walk, indeed.

On the plus side, the photography is quite impressive (when it's not being hacked to death by some of the most annoying editing I've seen this side of a Rob Zombie video), Olyphant and Sanchez in particular are a lot of fun to watch, and ... well ... did I mention the butt shot yet?

Oh. Well, I'm done, then.

See you at the bar for a pineapple smoothie.

(out of 5)

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: "Orphan" is the pick of the litter

Ladies and germs, the shark movie of the summer has arrived.

Let me back up a skoodge: A decade ago (Really?! Put a fork in me!) a bona fide cinematic gem swam into theaters almost entirely under the SONAR. That gem was Deep Blue Sea, and it was the sleeper hit of the summer thanks to the combined forces of smarts, Thomas Jane in swimming trunks, one of the best surprise kills in movie history, and the most important point of all: No one outside of the production staff ever had the slightest inkling that a movie about intelligent sharks who kill people indoors could be anything other than a steaming heap of direct-to-video crapola.

Orphan, the bisected corpse of Samuel L. Jackson welcomes you and all your twisty, nervy, OMG-I-can't-believe-they-fucking-just-did-that gorgeousness to the fold. And fans of solid, out-of-left-field genre entertainment, rejoice: This summer's shark movie may very well be the most fun you'll have being suckerpunched by a tween all year. Is it trash? Sure. But it's trash that knows exactly what it's doing, which is more than I can say for some movies with ten times its budget and none of its balls.

"Pounder? I don't even know 'er!"

A wonderfully tense wolf-in-sheep's-clothing mystery about a distraught couple who adopt a creepy talking Russian doll after losing their own unborn child, Orphan starts off with a bang - or, rather, a splat - in the form of the most disturbing childbirth nightmare since The Fly 2. Only this time, instead of Daphne Zuniga it's The Depahhted's Vera Farmiga in the stirrups. So it's ... you know, watchable.

We quickly learn the basics: Kate (Farmiga, which sounds more and more like a gourmet cheese the more I have to say it) and John Coleman (adorable bear-in-progress Peter Sarsgaard) have two children, pre-teen Daniel and wee Max, an impossibly adorable little girl who is also deaf and mute. (Not that that's going to end up being important or anything.)

Turns out Kate miscarried the couple's third child, Jessica, and also had some issues with the bottle and almost killed Max by accident, or something. And there's a pond. I don't know, it gets a little Don't Look Now (for more reasons than I'll get into) but it's all good because before you know it, the Colemans are off shopping for a new kid, and for some ungodly reason settle on Esther, a Russian 9-year-old who sits in a room painting all day and singing songs from Beaches to herself.

"I said no more chocolate pudding!!!!"

Esther is played by 12-year-old Isabelle Furhman, a DC native who does a killer job with both the role and the accent, which would have tripped up actors three times her age. I can't get into too many details without spoiling the Big Twist, but I give this little chicklet mad props for pulling off a virtually unplayable role very convincingly both before and after the character's big secret is revealed.

Anyway, back to what I can talk about: Kate starts to think that There's Something Wrong With Esther but her hubby doesn't see it, and of course it starts to tear the family apart, which is exactly what Esther wants. Why does she want it? Well, figuring that out is part of the fun. And how far will she go to get what she wants? Farther than many filmmakers would dare, which is what makes the movie such a hoot to watch.

Again, without spoiling anything major, Orphan manages to squeeze in a host of evil-kid standbys (playground "accidents", treehouse mishaps, nasty drawrings) and then raises the bar by adding in some extremely intense and graphic murders. It's all in terribly bad taste, really. But you know what? It kind of works. And what's more, I'd already been accidentally spoiled on the Big Twist going in, so I knew what was going on from scene one and I STILL had a blast watching it all unfold.


And for that I credit Farmiga, Sarsgaard, and Furhman (extra credit for the always-glorious Margo Martindale, although she has almost nothing to do as the couple's therapist), who somehow make this tawdry, nasty little package actually believable. It just goes to show that if you get actual actors to play these roles, you can make what otherwise might have been a laugh-off trifle into a legitimately creepy, intense bit of fun.

Will you see every plot turn (and possibly even the Big Twist) coming? Sure you will - they're not re-inventing the bloody tricycle wheel here, and anyone who has seen The Omen, The Bad Seed, The Good Son or numerous other bad-kid movies will know exactly what's coming next. But the actors somehow make the sickening inertia of it all palpable and just real enough to work, without making it so believable that you'll be unduly concerned about the young actors involved (because be warned, there are LOTS of inappropriate moments for these kids).

Once the secret is out and the blood has dried, it's clear that in the end this wasn't really about Esther or her wacky neck and wrist ribbons, it was about what makes a marriage tick. And for balancing well-rendered melodrama with an impressively ballsy genre flick, Orphan is the pick of the litter.

(out of 5)

Alternate review title: "John and Kate Plus Hate"

For more horror movie reviews from a picky sissy, check out the Reviews repository.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

Confession time: I've burned off the brain cells where I once stored my Harry Potter knowledge. Granted, given that I'm a thirtysomething gay man who categorizes the age of anyone under around 20 or so as either "walking" or "crawling", the continuing adventures of the most put-upon little can-do in Hogwarts aren't exactly designed to stick in my particular grey matter.

But even I was shocked at just how little I remembered about the storyline of the sixth novel, which arrives on screens this week. Heck, I'd even forgotten who the titular Half-Blood Prince turns out to be (hint: he wasn't in Purple Rain). But either because or in spite of my fuzziness on the details, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. And while the plucky child-wizard cash cow isn't specifically a horror series, per se, I thought it deserved mention here because of the horrific quality that the franchise has taken on in its later installments ... and no, I'm not just talking about some of the acting. (Emma Watson FTW!)

Much like its equally solid predecessor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is dark, violent, loaded with startlingly scary images (spells that make people bleed from their skin, zombies, hexings, Maggie Smith in close-up) and on the whole a pretty big downer - and not just because of the Very Bad Thing that we all already know closes the chapter. Although the film is quite an investment (it clocks in at over two and a half hours), it's an impressive and troubling work, boasting a dark and nightmarish undertow that many more "adult" or "legitimate" films attempt but fail to achieve.

This installment also has an epic quality that the series hadn't achieved to this point. Everything seems grander, more urgent and as profound as a mythology that features chocolate frogs and obsessive-compulsive elves has any right to be. Much as the characters' relationships mature significantly in this installment (including two important central romances), their awareness of their own mortality seems to have really hit home at last ... which is no small feat considering that they've all cheated death about a dozen times apiece already.

At this point the series is pretty much critic-proof, so it's all the more exciting that the producers are continuing to challenge themselves and their audiences with these characters and stories. Really, go back and watch the first two movies after you see this one and you'll wonder that they're even related.

The tone here is pervasively somber (much time is devoted to the moral fall of Draco Malfoy, who is finally explored as a deeply tormented person and not just a one-note schoolyard bully), the production values are stellar (there are huge scenes of widespread disaster and panic), and the emphasis on loss (of innocence, of loved ones, of the good fight) is consistent and deeply disturbing.

Freddie Stroman plays Cormac McLaggen

It's also a fairly fun and satisfying ride, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit to myself that it's a lot easier to enjoy these films now that most of the supporting cast is in their twenties and kind of hot (Cormac McLaggen, CALL ME!). And a beloved character is finally given a moment of pure majesty that will likely affect fans very deeply (I know it's going to be a lasting image for me).

In all, Half-Blood stands up alongside The Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Pheonix as challenging, visionary mainstream entertainment that more than lives up to the fan fervor, merchandise and Value Meal-ing surrounding it. While you probably won't walk out of the theater with a smile on your face, you won't be cursing the ticket price, either.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Drag" your scabby ass to the theater this Friday, or I'll curse you myself

Guys and gals, seriously? I know I haven't written much at all lately. I got married, am toiling away at a job that takes up far too much of my time, and am generally rather over-extended. So please believe your beloved (if generally absent) Head Counsellor Buzz when he tells you this:

You need to get your fucking shit to the theater this Friday to see Drag Me to Hell.

I caught a press screening of the movie last night and I have to say, for me to have been laughing so hard mere hours after Proposition 8 was upheld by the California Supreme Court (whom a colleague of mine aptly referred to as the football-snatching Lucy Van Pelt of the State courts) is downright shameful. But such is the gooey, frenetic, raucous and mind-meltingly clever black magic of this mean, hilarious, and fabulously compact little morality tale.

This shit was so good that I actually forgive
Sam Raimi for the three-hour back-alley abortion that was Spiderman 3.

I don't want to spoil too much of the already amazingly lean plot, but let me just say that this movie has balls to spare, and it is probably the most perfect horror movie for the current economic climate imaginable. Remember when horror movies had points? When they were about societal evils and demons and zeitgeist and comeuppance? That's what we have here, wrapped in zingy, kitty-covered wrapping paper and tied with a big fat bow. I seriously can't imagine any studio giving the greenlight to this kind of uncompromising thriller being made today, and I love Raimi for deciding that now was the right time to unleash this hellish vision of our profit-driven culture.

Aside from all that, Drag Me is screamingly funny (both thanks to clever gags and writing, brilliantly executed sequences and the over-the-top wacky violence that made us all fall in love with Raimi as a director so many moons and poorly-dubbed VHS copies of Evil Dead ago) and wonderfully disgusting, and boasts a killer central performance by Alison Lohman in her first lead role. I wonder what made Ellen Page (who was originally attached) drop out at the last minute, but honestly I don't care, because Lohman is awesome (there's a scene when she meets her boyfriend's parents' cat that pretty much encapsulates how good this girl is).

Her character, Christine, is kind of what you'd get if True Blood's Sookie Stackhouse stopped banging vampires, got her shit together and moved to the big city, but she's infinitely more complicated (and, as we learn in the opening scenes, has trained herself out of that accent). The other characters are pretty much props for her to bounce off of (literally and figuratively), but Lohman is so damn watchable that it works.

I really can't say enough about this movie, but I'll stop here because half the fun of this fucked-up thrill-ride is letting the master behind the camera lead you along. Sure, you'll figure out the twists long before they arrive, but you're supposed to ... the fun is in how Raimi still doesn't give you what you expect, and gives it to you with a staggering amount of skill and humor. There's more creativity in a single minute of this movie than in all of Rob Zombie's movies combined, and more legitimate grossness without any of the leering ick.

If you liked The Entity but could have done without all the rape, or if you wished Serpent and the Rainbow had the pacing of an MMA cage-match, your white knight has arrived. And all this with a PG-13? Fuck me to hell - this guy's still got it.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review: "Last House on the Left" is the last remake I thought they'd be able to actually pull off

If you've been a reader of this shambling mess of a website for any amount of time, you'll know that if there's one genre of horror I generally can't stomach, it's the "rape revenge" movie. And my overall distaste for this particular flavor of exploitation film likely stems from the fact that I was forced to watch Wes Craven's notorious video nasty Last House on the Left at a Little League barbecue ... when I was eight.

So when news came out that they were remaking the film as a glossy, studio-backed mall movie, I was pretty shocked. What's the point? Isn't the original's scuzziness and overall lack of polish (or even basic competency) its calling-card? Tossing $15 million and a bunch of TV actors at this premise would do rape and torture one worse by making it palatable to the mainstream. No, I thought: Let's leave this particular bit of ick to the grindhouses of days gone by.

So I was as surprised as anyone to find that The Last House on the Left is a pretty damn good horror movie.

First and foremost, the remake maintains an even, deliberate tone that from the first shot assures us that the filmmakers are not taking this project lightly. There are no blaring emo-rock transitions, no bitchy, disposable co-eds or killers with whom we're supposed to laugh as they carve their way through the idiot locals. This is not "B-movie exploitation" as Rob Zombie understands it, full of empty threats, bad acting, gratuitous nudity and unconvincing violence. This is legitimately disturbing, intense stuff, and the movie makes it clear from the onset that it isn't enjoying telling this story any more than you are watching it.

The film actually improves on some of the weaknesses of the original. The character of Mary (the daughter, well played by Sara Paxton) is vastly improved upon, and is given a much larger part in the overall story, which helps to connect the film's first and second acts. Gone is some of the icky debasement of the original's torture sequence (there's still a graphic rape, but it is handled as appropriately as that kind of thing can ever be handled, and with respect to the actors involved) but the forced lesbianism and other unnecessary exploitative elements have been dropped. The film also improves on the dynamic within the group of killers, with special emphasis being placed on Krug's son, Justin.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the actor cast as Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is hot as a fucking brushfire and runs around shirtless for half of the movie.

In a day when wide-release horror is in a state of diminishing returns, it's almost a shame that a well-rendered, carefully-considered like this one will no doubt be dismissed or unfairly compared to its source material (which, let's face it, is not all that great, sorry). If you're a fan of "home invasion" horror like Funny Games, The Strangers, Inside, Them and the like, this is a solid and worthy contribution to the subgenre that has mood, tension and gore to spare.

And as a side note, can I just say how laughable I find it that many of the mainstream reviews complain that the movie lacks the "gritty edge" of the original? First, they all apparently got the same memo that their journalistic integrity would be called into question if they didn't do so. And second, I doubt most have them have even SEEN the original, much less recently, or they might recall that the movie is considerably flawed. I was happy to take this remake at face-value, which I think it deserves.

And did I mention Krug's furry bitchtits? Yes? K. Guess I'm done then!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

"Friday the 13th": Jason goes to hell

Alright, I know I haven't been updating much (coughATALLcough!) lately, and I actually don't even have the time to be trying to address this topic with any degree of thoughtfulness, but I of course had to weigh in on the slick, CW-stuffed remake of Friday the 13th that is hacking its way into theaters tonight.

I caught the movie the other night with a heart full of anticipation and a head full of dreams of sugarplum fairies and sliced coeds and all sorts of other crap. See, you may remember that I actually LIKED the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake that these fellas churned out a few years back, so I figured that if anyone could manage a successful reboot of a beloved horror franchise, it would be they. (And not, say, Rob Zombie, who can forever suck my ass for his back-alley abortion of a Halloween.)

So it is with a heavy heart that I inform you that this remake kinda shits the bed.

It's not a disaster. I wouldn't go that far. But it misses the point of what really makes Friday Friday, and instead tries to turn it into Chainsaw 2: Leatherface Joins the Mighty Ducks.

First problem: Jason lives underground in a tunnel and keeps prisoners. Wha-wa-WHAAAAAT?! Oh please. Jason is far too busy to be bothered with houseguests, even if they do vaguely resemble his mother. Which brings me to the biggest gaping logic hole in this whole thing: If Jason was indeed alive and saw his mother beheaded in the woods (this reboot conveniently says that the tot wasn't dead, which takes care of the "aging dead kid" continuity issue that the originals had), then why was momma killing the counselers to begin with? This version makes a HUGE deal out of Jason's connection to his mom (who, sadly, is in the movie for all of 23 seconds), so why was the kid pretending to be dead and following his mom around while she killed everyone to begin with?

After a rather disturbing opening 15-minute sequence in which the filmmakers are probably hoping to confuse us, as they kill off the entire cast (saw that one coming from the trailers, thanks), the movie totally flatlines for the next hour. It's not as mean as the first segment (the sleeping bag barbecue in particular is NASTY!) so it doesn't maintain the kind of grueling intensity as Chainsaw, which is okay since it's a body-count movie, not a survival flick. But they also miss the mark by making the characters so humorless and loathsome and the murders so gruesome and unpleasant that it's hard to have fun watching the bodies pile up.

Case in point: Every female character who dies (save one) shows her tits. Even former pop princess Willa Ford has to first waterski topless - TOPLESS! - before getting a machete in her head with her ya-ya's out. The girls are uniformly piggish sluts, and the guys are no better. In fact, in this age of diverse casting, the filmmakers are actually so lazy as to basically say, "Well, if we cast a black guy and an Asian guy we really don't need to give them any other defining characteristics." Um, not exactly, guys.

Go ahead and rewatch the originals - while the characters were horny and ridiculous, they weren't total assholes. The couples actually enjoyed one another, where here all the sex is grudgefucking where the guys slap around the girls and the girls like it.

Body-count movies are supposed to have an element of fun to them. Otherwise the experience of watching over a dozen people die horrible deaths starts to become grating, or even unpleasant. If you look at this Friday remake versus the My Bloody Valentine remake from a month ago (which had its own faults, sure), the Valentine guys clearly "got it" in terms of how to gruesomely hack up dozens of people and make it into a good time, and these guys didn't. Hell, Valentine even managed to put a full 5-minute chase scene where the victim is fully nude and in 3-D, and it still didn't feel exploitative or tasteless like this one does.

But this brings me to the only real reason to sit through all of Friday to the end: The bodacious ta-tas of one Jared Padalecki. Like his Supernatural boyfriend - er, brother - Jensen Ackles, he's using a horror reboot to make his mark on the winter box office. And while Ackles' movie is a better one, Padalecki has clearly been hitting the gym to fill out his costume, and his perky nips may just be enough to guide you out of the woods once and for all.

So while not a total disaster, this wasn't the return to Camp Blood that I was hoping for. It's an unduly misogynistic and occasionally rather boring reimagining that downgrades one of our greatest masked men to being yet another retard in the woods with mommy issues and no sense for decorating. And if I wanted to see that, I'd rent Nell.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

"The Strangers": Not as strange as we may have hoped

If you're like me (and I pray for your sake that you aren't ... or at least that you have more storage space for all that Pyrex), you saw the preview for the new horror film The Strangers and became unduly excited at the prospect of what might be an honest-to-Xenu scary-ass movie heading to theatres for the first time since ... oh, The Descent?

Well, The Strangers gets about halfway to Terrifying, but pulls off to buy Beef Jerky somewhere around Creepy and ends up using the wrong ramp, and winds up in Half-Baked instead.

My biggest problem with the film is that it's just been done, and done well, too many times before. I will grant that the whole "two helpless people are beseiged by nameless killers whose intentions are never known for no reason" thing hasn't been done in an American studio film before, so maybe it deserves some credit for being relatively uncompromising in its meanness.

But we're not the average multiplex-goer, and we've seen this thing too many times. After the movie's rather laughable final shot, I kept thinking, "It's like
Them but without the inter-generational sucker-punch!", or, "It's like Inside but without the pregnancy and buckets of gore!", or, "It's like Funny Games but without all the pesky social commentary", or even, "It's like Vacancy but without the snuff film angle and Frank Whaley's pornstache!"

I'm not saying that a horror movie must - or even should - have a "point". But if not a point, at least give us a plot, or a compelling lead performance, or a really innovative villain. As impressive as it is to be able to create some legitimate suspense (which The Strangers does), is that really enough? Is that how beaten down we are by bad studio horror?

On the plus side, the score and sound design are magnificent, and there are a few good scares and those masks are kinda creepy the first few times you see them. But when a movie starts out with lame FBI murder statistics and a ridiculously somber voiceover telling you how horrible what you're about to see is and then delivers exactly what you expect it to (seriously, from the opening text it's impossible not to know how things are going to play out), it's hard not to feel a bit let down when the filmmakers don't offer any surprises.

After all, suspense and surprise are a director's greatest tools, so why have one without the other?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Teeth ... Like I need another reason to avoid vajayjay

Seriously, the new horror-comedy Teeth gives all new meaning to Oprah's oft-used "My vajayjay is painin'!" soundbite.

It's also way more fun than it probably has any right to be, and it's oddly enough the brainchild of a gay writer/director (Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the painter Roy and star of gay-themed films The Wedding Banquet and Streamers).

I wrote an article/review about what killer nah-nah has to do with sissies like me (and you ... just admit it already) over here.

Enjoy it as much as you can reasonably enjoy a review of a film about murderous female genitalia.

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