Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jay's One A Week Reviews #28: Fan of the Dead

The fine folks at MVD sent me a DVD of Fan of the Dead a while back, and I'm a shamefully tardy reviewer with a too-busy schedule that I'm just now getting a review up about it.

Fan of the Dead is a short documentary by an Italian fan of the films of George Romero. French fan Nicolas Garreau, dubbed over in English, shoots himself with a hand-held home-video camera as he goes on a tour of the locations of his movies. The feel is somewhat similar to the feature in HorrorHound Magazine named "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" where a film's locations are visited and photographed. It's traditionally a surprisingly comprehensive and fascinating feature, the most recent issue visiting the locations of Salem's Lot. I have never personally understood the allure, personally, of commemorating a location for no other reason than something once happened there, but in the magazine it's an interesting, educational monthly feature. On video, it's just travelogue. (An exhausting one at that. Should I be rewarded to know that the office where Ken Foree finds the keys in Dawn of the Dead still exists? It's now... used as an office!)

Along with interviews filmed at the Pittsburgh Comic Con of many of the actors from Dawn of the Dead, he visits the locations of that film along with Creepshow, Day of the Dead, and the 1968 Night of the Living Dead. What looks most fun is a tour of the Monroeville mall from Dawn lead by Ken Foree. It quickly dawns on you, though, that this is literally a home movie of a weekend vacation made good.

It's clear Garreau knows Romero's films quite thoroughly. He navigates his way through the graveyard from the 1990 Night by the names on the headstones. I think the obsessive attention to some details, like where a medicine cabinet was hung and where a particular shot was photographed from is a level of minutia that's really a bit beyond the pale, but I can't find fault. A little slip of a documentary, and not even an hour in length, it's a home movie with credits, distribution, and some guest stars. This is also good-natured and surprisingly not cheesy. It is was it is, but I found in an enjoyable watch almost in spite of myself. The DVD has a photo gallery, but it all reproduces shots you've already seen in the documentary, and a cute trailer collection straight from the Drive-In. It's about the only place you'll ever find Julie Andrews around Zombies.

I appreciate Garreau's fascinating way to document a vacation to the US to meet some movie stars -and that he got it a distribution deal. I wish I'd taken a camera when I went to HorrorHound weekend in Indianapolis... because then the trip would have been a tax write-off.

Monday, June 28, 2010

One A Week Reviews #27: Stolen

A thrilling, sobering thriller reviewed for dvdsnapshot.com, this one is definitely worth checking out!

Golden Globe Award winner Jon Hamm of Mad Men stars as Detective Tom Adkins, a devoted cop haunted by the unsolved disappearance of his young son eight years earlier. But when Adkins discovers the buried remains of a boy who was brutally murdered more than half a century ago, he becomes obsessed with investigating the long-forgotten crime. Is the 1958 mystery surrounding down-on-his-luck family man Matthew Wakefield (Josh Lucas of Glory Road) and his own abducted son linked in any way to Adkins' tragedy? And even if Adkins can prove a connection, can he face the shocking truth about the killer? Rhona Mitra (Boston Legal, Doomsday), Morena Baccarin (Serenity) and James Van Der Beek co-star in this harrowing thriller about the parallel lives of two men for whom secrets will not stay hidden when hope has been Stolen.
There's a kind of pornography to the exploitation of parental fears that comes with any film about desperate searches for kidnapped children. Even when well done, I feel there's a cheapness to it, and I don't even have kids. It's such a raw, crazy, vast fear to even try and conceptualize that it does, at least, make it easy for a movie to gain the sympathies of an audience. Stolen (aka Stolen Lives) illustrates idea that a stranger can enter the world of a family and rip it's very center apart twice over.
When Tommy Adkins vanishes on the 4th of July, his parents are at a loss until the discovery eight years later of a similar body that's been buried for fifty but with some of the same clues opens up parallel storylines of loss. His father is a Police Detective who, never able to find his own son, grasps onto solving this long-past mystery as a way to perhaps find a key to getting answers.
Fifty years prior, Matthew Wakefield finds himself in dire financial straits with a suicidal wife and three young sons. As he makes sacrifices for his family, he crosses paths with a married woman and a mystery man who's stalking his son. Solving the mystery of what happened to the Wakefields may just help Detective Adkins find answers in his own son's disappearance.
Non-linear storytelling skips us across 2000 to present day to 1958 to the parole hearing of one Bert Rogianni, who may or may not have taken Tommy. For a first film, director Anders Anderson keeps the story moving, the audience engaged and has an excellent eye. The pace is a slow build, but smooth. enough that you won't mind the pacing. Be warned that things get dark and chilling as the film unfolds with the structure of a well-written mystery novel.
Jon Hamm and Josh Lucas both turn in good work here as stalwart, all-American fathers under unimaginable pressures. Rhona Mitra, however, has been presented as an exotic European Sex Vixen for so long that it's hard to buy her as a tortured small-town mother, and sadly that typecasting overshadows a decent performance. Even worse, an American accent does not suit when you have a voice and accent like hers. It's also hard to get past Morena Baccaran's looks to see her as a frowsy 50's housewife with an oppressive husband. Joanna Cassidy, a very naturalistic James Van Der Beek, and the underrated character actresses Beth Grant and Kali Rocha put in welcome appearances. Don't let the don't let the heavy handed names get to you (Matthew's sons are mark Luke and John. A trio of women named Pearl, Coral, and Rose) and in you're in for a treat of a potboiler.
Also: don't read the imdb page for this film before you watch it. The cast list alludes to major spoilers.

Stolen is presented in widescreen format with English Dolby 5.1 Audio and subtitles in both English and Spanish. The DVD also includes a 12 minute "Behind the Scenes" featurette and trailers for Life in Flight, Uncertainty, Five Minutes of Heaven, Swedish Auto and The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Stolen tells a pair of parallel kidnapping stories that strike at a parent's worst fears and illustrate how the repercussions of crimes change lives forever. Just don't look at the imdb page, since it includes a spoiler and pay attention as the non-linear storytelling leads you through the film's novelistic structure. A well-crafted quality entertainment, but also a very dark film.



Friday, June 11, 2010

One A Week Reviews #26: These Are The Damned

An "odd duck" that's part of the Hammer Icons of Suspense collection, These Are The Damned kicks off fast. With a jangly theme song called "Black Leather" that WILL unfortunately lodge itself into your brain, there's rapid-fire introductions to boring American tourist/Man of Mystery Macdonald Carey;dapper biker-thug Oliver Reed and his sassy, hip-swinging sister-moll, Shirley Ann Field with her inexplicable attraction to Carey; and exotic beatnik sculptress Viveca Lindfors.

With gorgeous black and white cinematography and an intriguing English Seaside town setting, Damned is engaging from the get-go, where you're expecting a character story. Something about the wild youth of "today" rebelling against staid society, even if here it's represented by the stately, stuffy Carey. Oliver Reed, in an early role, is already expressing the magnetic lunacy that will make him a compelling and repelling screen presence for his whole career. You have the "dapper biker gang" trying to roll the American, but this little "social drama" soon turns when a military conspiracy is revealed. One involving a classroom of very sheltered, black-clad children (These "damned" are the aesthetic flip-side of the Village of the Damned kids).

It's all very intriguing and by 25 minutes in you're hooked, committed to find out just where the hell this is all going. The story goes from "social drama" (I keep turning to that phrase but I don't know how else to describe it's dynamic. Maybe "kitchen-sink drama"?) to chase thriller to Sci-Fi-W-T-F? while keeping a fair pace. It does drag in a few places, but that's acceptable in a nearly 50 year old film. You're not sure why Carey and Field get together beyond the perfunctory needs of the script, yet they have an oddly calm chemistry. Lindfors and Reed share a very interesting scene, something out of a social drama. They seem to be two very damaged kids who could just somehow make it work.

Joseph Losey was an accomplished director and here created a real below-the-radar gem. I can't recall encountering this film before, but I'm definitely glad to find it now. I'm not going to spoil too many of it's secrets because it's worth a watch. An artifact of the "Atomic Age" and a curious glimpse at early sixties youth counterculture, this is a unique film. Seek it out!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jay's One A Week Reviews #25: Vamp Vixens (with a surprising twist at the end)

Read to the bottom, as that's where I "Buried the Lead," as it were...

Vamp Vixens 

 The kind and lovely people over at MVD Entertainment Group saw my review of their recent release I Am Virgin and most generously proceeded to send me a big ol' box of fab DVDs for my perusal and review. Typically, I took that opportunity to flake out for a month and am only now turning my weary, bleary little eyes back to their box of delights.

What can I say about the oddity Vamp Vixens? As it launched from a menu featuring a gal with plastic fangs and silicone implants and into credits that state it's "Hosted by Mistress Luna Moon" (her given name, I'm sure), I wondered what was in store.

What I didn't expect is a woman in a leather getup and Betty Page bangs lisping around her mouthful of fake vampire teeth introducing a series of vignettes... which turn out to be all the sex scenes that felt shoe-horned in to I Am Virgin. It's no wonder they felt so awkwardly injected into that film's storyline, as they're a kind of multi-purpose semi-porn. She has a "pet" man on a chain and aims for the witty aside, a la Elvira, but doesn't add much spark to the dire, simulated, and very unconvincing scenes of (ahem) "erotica."

Ok, seriously, it does take marketing balls to sell this as a separate item. Kinda smart to repackage these soft-core sex scenes featuring tattooed, kinda "Suicide Girls"-style strippers simulating sex with each other or a couple of nondescript hunks who don't have much more presence than the gals do. Even in terms of appealing to those with the fetish for vampire-play or the near-"Rollergirl" look, I find it hard to imagine Vamp Vixens delivering for them.

Slowly paced and, yes, almost depicting intimacy on occasion, on the whole the aesthetic is just off. Dime-store Halloween fangs added to shot on video soft-core do not make it somehow hotter. Also, even though they have discretely labeled this DVD as being "Rated X," this is definitely soft-core. If you're going to watch adult programming designed with fetishes in mind, and something this completely lacking in storyline, you may as well go "balls out," as it were, and watch the real hard-core thing.

Awful, awful, awful. Sorry, folks, there's just no point to this flick.

And now, the "surprising twist"...
In the end, I suppose you could play this in the background at parties and bars, but the only thing really recommending this DVD is the "special feature." Surprising and timely, the "Also from Brookland Brothers" link leads you first to the trailer for Palin: Erection 2008, a satire-porn featuring Stephen Hill, AKA Steve Driver, the porn actor who murdered a coworker and attacked two others with a prop samurai sword and then fell to his death off a cliff June 5th, 2010 after a 9-hour standoff with police that ended in a tasing that may or may not have contributed to his fall. A surprising coincidence to see the same day on a DVD in my home I'd received a month before. Ah, coincidence...

Monday, June 7, 2010

One A Week Reviews #24: Neowolf

This stinker may very well be one of the worst movies I've ever had to review. Enjoy...?



"A rock band of werewolves will tear your heart apart!" Torn between the girl he loves and the dark side of fame, a young musician is seduced by a touring rock band called "Neowolf" with a mysterious past and a hungry habit that comes with the full moon!

Ever see Near Dark, where a guy gets hooked up with a roaming band of vampires thanks to his "Star-crossed love" for a bad girl? Well, here we have a band that's a Band and they're Werewolves. They're also style victims. Neowolf is a barely-coherent mess directed by the estimable "Alan Smithee." (A pseudonym for Yvan Gauthier in this case).

Essentially, college boy Tony returns to try and patch things up with his girlfriend Rosemary and her sidekick Kevin when he's seduced away by Paula, the distaff member of Neowolf, a touring rock band made up of Werewolves. When she decides he needs to be a Lycanthrope as well, it's up to Rosemary and Kevin to trudge their way to a plan of rescue.

From the very beginning this film is a derivative, badly-constructed mess. Most shots are framed awkwardly. One of the opening scenes reminds one of some weird super-slow-mo fashion commercial set at a gas station. Weird, cross-fade montages are the structure of every scene, along with jittery action camerawork for when the badly-costumed werewolves attack. This editing can barely camouflage the wooden acting or completely random leaps of logic the characters take.

Veronica Cartwright and Tiffany Shepis show up here in bit parts. They both have just enough audience goodwill to forgive them these trespasses. I just hope they didn't lower their quotes for the job.

There's also some uniquely bad lip-syncing in this movie. The special effects and kill-scenes (rather important in a horror film) are pretty atrocious, too. CGI morphs that would have looked amateur in 1995 are show-piece effects here and a website-insert  that looks like it came from '95 as well. Everything about this is amateur and disjointed, but I think the filmmakers went in with good intentions. (Gauthier has made other films) That said, this is aspiring to compete with The Room more than it is The Howling.

is presented in widescreen with audio in English 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital along with Spanish subtitles. Some trailers are included.

"Alan Smithee" is a pseudonym a director uses when, due to either quality or control issues, he wants to remove his name from a movie. Neowolf may ruin his career.

This isn't just bad. This is The Room of Horror films.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

One A Week Reviews #23: Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon

A huge, gorgeous historical epic that feels like it's either on fast forward or cut down to 100 minutes from 240? Don't mind if I do. Dvdsnapshot.com had me check out this good-time eye candy, and it's certainly defferent enough from the day to day to be worth a watch.



In 228 AD, a time when China was plagued by constant war and divided among three kingdoms, a hero would arise. Zhao Zilong was a common man who rose from humble roots to command the army charged with liberating the land from an evil warlord. He engaged in numerous battles of strength and wit, but now he must fight back against the impossible to defy the fate of his nation.

From the opening credits, played against a background of roiling storm clouds, to a gracious CGI prologue of an old map setting up the legend that fades into warring sides facing one another on a battlefield strewn with bodies, you know that with Three Kingdoms you're in for Grade-A Sweeping Historical Drama.

As three different kingdoms face off in historical China, Zhao Zilong is a "hero on a journey," in the tradition of Luke Skywalker, who we follow as he grows to be a great general. This is mostly telegraphed because the storytelling is fast moving, simplistic, and pretty choppy. The narration by Sammo Hung's sidekick character Ping-An, covers gaps in the action as it plays over wide vistas and quick-cut action sequences. Almost every shot is so epic it gets draining after a while. Too many men, too much scenery. If anything it feels like a film cut down in length by half, with scenes so condensed that their length doesn't justify the magnificence of the staging. The warfare is darn pretty though, with sweeping knives and blood spurting in slow motion. An early scene of staff-fighting is especially engaging. Also, that's the first time the story slows down to breathe for a minute. A later fight, with a wound you'd be unlikely to survive and a baby involved, inter-cut as it is with the slow-motion death of a horse is just too, too much. Another sequence where Zilong makes very quick work of the sons of an opposing army's leader makes excellent use of the films economy of pace and decent fight choreography.  All in all, pretty exhilarating.

The development of hte romance in the film is so slight as to be not worth including. In fact, when Maggie Q's character shows up again, an hour into the film, it's so howlingly nonsensical  you wish they'd just left her behind. Characters come and go in an instant, banished as soon as they're introduced. The interest here is not story-telling, but in massive fight scenes and beautiful ceremonies with an enormous, well-costumed cast. That said, there's nothing wrong with that. This is a gorgeous, easy watch, even if it moves so quickly the story barely registers. Both Andy Lau and Maggie Q are easy on the eyes, and Hung displays the charm that's made him a well-loved figure in International cinema. For gorgeous visuals and decent action, this is a nice way to while away 100 minutes.

Three Kingdoms
is presented widescreen with audio in both the default Mandarin and dubbed English 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. Extras include interviews with director Daniel Lee along with stars Andy Lau, Sammo Hung, and Maggie Q. Trailers are included for Three Kingdoms, along with Unrivaled, Wrong Side of Town, Fireball, Jackie Chan Presents: Wushu, and Jade Warrior.


There's nothing wrong with "Sweeping Historical Epics" but this lush production of Chinese warfare is stunning eye-candy, but glances over the surface of the story like a pebble skipping on a lake. A film overripe in the best tradition of Hollywood biblical films of the 50s. Too violent for the kids and perhaps a little bloody for teens, Three Kingdoms is still certainly worth a watch if you're in the mood for a "quickie epic" of 3rd Century warfare.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

One A Week Reviews #22: Never Take Candy From A Stranger

The DVD release of any Hammer film is cause for celebration for those of us who love them. This "Icons of Suspense Collection" includes four non-horror titles. I plan to see 'em all and review a few for you.

1960's Never Take Candy From A Stranger may be viewed as a departure for Hammer Studios. Known primarily in America for their horror pictures, they were in fact a full-fledged movie studio, not just a boutique outfit. As such, they branched out into all kinds of fare.

Racy and shocking for the day, Stranger is a Canada-set potboiler that's something like The Crucible for child molestation and adopted from a play named The Pony Cart that I've never heard of before this.

Little new-in-town Jean Carter loses her candy money and her friend Lucille says she knows what to do. This leads to Jean (rather blithely) telling her mother and school principal father (Sally and Peter) that the ominous Mr. Oldeberry made them dance nude in exchange for candy. Being that he's mentioned ominously in the very first scene, there's very little doubt that Clarence Oldeberry will turn out to be a monster par excellence.

The shock for a modern audience starts when realizing that Jean has no idea something inappropriate happened. Growing up in the age of "Stranger Danger," we always had the awareness that there were monsters outside, even if we grew up in suburban cocoons that blessedly left us more worried about the ones under our beds. Jean has no sense at all that there was an agenda going on that wasn't innocent. (That this is all old hat for Lucille is pretty disturbing, as well.) Also, Grandmother's dismissal of a flasher from her childhood strikes one because that's honestly how many dismiss some of the shocking peeks at the adult world they get as children. She would rather be stoic than rock the boat in their new city.

The police match Grandmother's attitude. The Carters are new and foreign and shouldn't be throwing accusations and drawing attention to citizens of long term social standing. Evidently the whole town knows Old Mister Oldeberry is a giant pervy letch-king but nobody bothered to tell them in time. The town doesn't understand why they didn't have the good sense to keep her away from there and people even start ostracizing Jean for what happened. Oldeberry's son is ready to turn the whole city against the Carters for doing nothing more than having the temerity to expose his father's actions. Was there always a code of silence in small towns to protect the crimes of their more eccentric and prominent citizenry? Probably...

In the end it's the Carters versus Society in a scandalous trial. Oldeberry just sits in the dock, not speaking, while the trial goes on around him. Lucille's parents seem so afraid to jeopardize the status quo they actually ship Lucille out of town so she doesn't have to attend.

For a stiff, mannered and reserved 60s film, the overall pace and especially the trial scenes are surprisingly gripping. I think my response is to the simple, clean, broadly-drawn depiction of a town closing up against exposure. Us versus them. Just as frustrating as all the stories of lawyers maneuvering and criminals released on technicalities are nowadays. Nothing like watching a lawyer try and take apart a child on the stand through goading and confusion. For a crisp, mannered British film, the sleaze oozes out of the oddest places.

I'm not going to spoil the outcome of the trial, or the surprisingly discomforting conclusion of the film, because I do recommend this one. Never Take Candy From A Stranger is engaging and unsettling. One reveal of Mr. Oldeberry shocks as much as if Freddy Krueger had shown up in his place. Also, it's a very contemporary story that plays at points like a leisurely, layman's edition of Law & Order. Sure, again, it is painted in broad strokes of black and white, both literally and figuratively, but the clear moral choices make the various character's shades of gray all the more involving.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

One A Week Reviews #21: Gamera, The Giant Monster

I know number twenty is about three weeks late, and frankly, I shoulda known better than to think I could keep up with the schedule of a review every Friday with everything else going on. Now my goal is to just get 52 of them up by the end of December. Why not?
A curio of Atomic-Age filmmaking and one nostalgic trip back into my own childhood fandom of giant monster movies on Saturday mornings, I can't recommend Gamera, the Giant Monster highly enough. I had a great time reviewing this film for dvdsnapshot.com and I think you'll like it too.


During the height of the Cold War, East-West tensions lead to a nuclear disaster when a Soviet bomber is shot down over U.S. airspace in the Arctic! Massive radiation from the atomic explosion awakens an ancient gargantuan creature - a long-forgotten legend of the lost continent of Atlantis - GAMERA! Unleashed from it's glacial tomb and proving impervious to all man-made weapons, the colossal chelonian smashes a cataclysmic swath across the globe! Can the scientists of the world, lead by Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi, Fires On The Plain), find a way to stop this invincible supermonster... or is mankind doomed?

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa (who would oversee all eight of the original Gamera entries of the 1960s and 1970s) and created by the same studio that bought Zatochi to the screen, Daiei's titanic terrapin became the only true rival to Toho's King of the Monsters. Gamera was able to hold its own at the box office and secured a place in the hearts of kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) fans around the world.

Now, for the first time on DVD, Shout! Factory presents the original Japanese version of Gamera with new English subtitles and anamorphic widescreen from an all-new HD master created from vault elements!

The 1965 Daiei studios answer to Toho's successful Godzilla was a giant atomic turtle from Atlantis who becomes Japan's defender of children named Gamera, who went on to star in his own long-running series of films. The later, color features from the 60s and 70s were Saturday staples of my own childhood, and while I could never make much sense of them, many reflect on them with warm, indulgent nostalgia. So how does the original hold up after all these years?

The action here just jumps right in with showing off it's incredible model-work as a group of Japanese scientists arrive by Jeep and Ice-breaker ship at an Eskimo encampment and immediately note a group of spy planes overhead.  I don't think it takes much reading-into of the channeling of Atomic-Age memories and fears involved when the US Air Force shoots down one of the spy planes, causing an explosive crash immediately assumed to be an Atomic Bomb test by the Japanese scientists. They release the Atlantean monster Gamera (in a still-impressive sequence that runs with the credits of the film), "The Devil's Envoy," who can breathe fire and fly by spinning while spraying Atomic-flame. He goes on and stomps his way through most of Japan while subplots featuring a group of scientists and a young woman and her turtle-obsessed little brother spin out in the best disaster-movie tradition.

Give yourself over from the beginning to the still eye-pleasing miniature special-effects shots right off the bat.  Sure, to the critical eye of 45 years later, the miniatures convince, and we've seen everything here perfected, but for the time -and even for now - the effects work. Gamera is a striking film visually, with some truly amazing sets and perspective work featuring the large Man-in-Suit turtle creature. The attack on Gamera staged at the thermal power plant is a delight for a film of any era.

I find it hard to judge performances in languages I don't speak, but the Japanese actors seem uniformly capable, talented, and to be enjoying themselves (The English-speaking actors are all uniformly awful). The storyline proves that the tropes of the disaster movie are truly universal.  There's some plot holes (I thought Japan couldn't have a standing army after WWII?), and really, a freeze bomb? But in the end who cares about that? An educational exercise in illustrating the Atomic Age fears of the cold war, along with a yarn of global destruction featuring a giant, fire-breathing turtle,  this is fun, nostalgic, quality film-making for the whole family from beginning to end.

A terrific-looking remastered print arriving in handsome packaging, Gamera is presented Widescreen and includes a commentary track by August Ragone, the author of "Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters," the terrifically-engaging trailer, a Publicity Gallery, and the 23 minute featurette "A Look Back at Gamera," a loving and exhaustive look back at the history of the giant turtle and his films.  As an education on a genre of film most of us don't know enough about and for the playful recreation of an unproduced Gamera concept, this little featurette comes HIGHLY recommended.


A film from 1965 that channeled Atomic-Age fears and memories of the A-bomb while simultaneously knocking off a film who did it first, Gamera could perhaps be considered just as timely for our Global Warming age. A handsome curio of still-pleasing cutting edge special effects for their time, the film holds up as a great entertainment treat. You really should catch it at least once.