Friday, March 25, 2011

One A Week Reviews #12: Fido

Even if you're as sick of the never-ending,, shuffling hordes of zombie movies as I am, it's easy to be charmed by the opening minutes of Fido. As a promotional newsreel for Zoncon, it sets up the world Fido is set in: one where zombies have been domesticated as "help" by a corporation. Timmy Robinson lives in a world of big steel fences and photo IDs so the Zoncon corporation knows who everyone is, but he still rides his bike home and has a crush on Cindy, the new girl at school. If you don't fit in there's always the threat of getting thrown out into the Wild, beyond the fence. Your Sunday drive is to the latest funeral, since having one is the height of social chic. This is the sunshine, nostalgic Fifties politely with zombies standing in for the fear of the other and the Atomic Bomb. Mind you, a middle school with a rifle range is nothing to sneeze at.

There's probably some easy, too obvious subtext going on here. The glossy, worry-free Fifties of sparkling Formica where the help is collared zombies doing the easy labor instead of just Beulah. What would undead milkmen and crossing guards do to the economy, though? The aesthetic of the movie is rather stunning, actually. Gorgeous cars, houses, and suits capture that artificial gloss of the Fifties and fill it with glossy, candy colors.

Dylan Baker and Carrie-Anne Moss are a darling "Ward and June" as Bill and Helen Robinson, even if their "problem with the Beaver" is his Funeral Savings Plan. Moss especially seems to be having a good time. Comedy is a big leap from most of her Trinity-dry ass-kickers and government agent types. She gets to rebel against conformity and get a tad smitten with her undead domestic help. Mom wants to keep up with the Jonses while Dad has a healthy, sensible aversion to the undead. Under the Fido makeup is an unrecognizable Billy Connolly, who looks to be enjoying the slapstick comedy involved in playing a silent, shuffling character. It's a surprisingly dialed-down character for the wild comedian.

It's nice to have a man around the house who's handy, but Fido does tend to eat those hands on occasion. He and Timmy become fast-friends when Fido comes to his defense against some bullies. They have a "boy and his dog" dynamic that's quickly put to the test when Fido eats the rancid bitch of an old lady neighbor, Mrs. Henderson. There's never a doubt where the audience's sympathies lie in this black comedy: with the ten year old boy covering up his pet zombie's murder. Timmy somehow stays as sweet and innocent as his namesake from Lassie while the body-count rises. (One wonders how Fido would have solved the tongue-on-the-flagpole issues from A Christmas Story if he'd been there.) In a way, this is a perverse episode of Lassie, just replacing both "dog" and "well" with zombies, or Leave it to Beaver where the gentle humor is death and June burns corpses when not vacuuming in pearls.

I do wish a little more time was spent with the next-door-neighbor subplot. Mr. Theopolis seems to have an undead "Gidget Geisha" in pony-tailed Tammy. For a gal with a grey face and clawed hands, her gams are still smashing. It's subtle, but gives another great layer of "ick" to the proceedings. Same as when you find out Fido can be soothed by something as simple as a Chesterfield. Fido is fleshed out, high concept, and really too good to be flying under the radar. A sick sitcom that's also sly zombie fun for the whole family.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One A Week Reviews #11: DeepStar Six

 DeepStar Six was part of a mini-wave of underwater alien/monster movies released in 1989, along with Leviathan and The Abyss. However, it gets extra points for having a good, trash pedigree. Directed by Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th, A Stranger Is Watching) and from wonderful ol' Carolco and Tri-Star, it's also an enjoyable little potboiler of a monster movie.

The crew of the DeepStar Six are trying to establish a missile base on the bottom of the ocean for the Navy. When they decide to blow up and collapse some undersea caves they wind up unleashing a monster of the depths. Scattered between various underwater vehicles and the DeepStar base, the crew quickly start getting picked-off in the best sci-fi monster movie ("Haunted House in Space") fashion. For what's definitely a B-movie, they establish some good tension in scenes involving radar screens and a rescue from the edge of an undersea cliff. Many of these films set in space rarely play up the threat of the void outside the ship. Here they do a good job of invoking the crushing depths and ocean that's right outside every few minutes. Right before the hour mark, there's a nice sequence where, thanks to a hot-headed disposal of weapons, they nearly crush the complex and find out they're springing leaks, out of air, and a few hours away from exploding. More tension is built through "man v. technology" than "man v. giant flapping-mouthed squidmonster."

The body count doesn't really start racking up until after this, once the undersea critter gets into the complex. It's first action is to chomp through a steel diving suit designed to withstand high pressure, and the man in it - insert "canned ham" joke here. Tempers flare as they try and escape while not getting eaten...

Eschewing the big stars of the other films, in place of Ed Harris, Peter Weller, and Richard Crenna, here you've got Greg Evigan, Miguel Ferrer, Nia Peeples, Matt McCoy, Cindy Pickett and Taurean Blacque (first billed, first bailed). Evigan is ridiculously baby-faced underneath that beard, must be why he cultivated it. (Also, Sigourney Weaver looks far butcher and more rough'n'tumble in a wifebeater than he does.) Ferrer is especially good. His usual "smug bastard" role has an extra dimension as the cover attitude for a guy who just wants to go home and winds up making mistakes with his every action. This might be the most empathetic the actor's ever been. Mostly, though, they all just get thrown around some decent looking sets and act tense with hair combed to look wet and bedraggled all the time. Not really a fashion forward look.

Carolco made very expensive (and expensive-looking) B-movies, and this is no exception. Whatever was saved in the B-list cast (all very capable) was spent on the DeepStar Six set - perhaps a little too spacious, but not "warehouse standing in for a space-ship" like many films of the type. Most of the effects are passable, even though there's some terrible miniatures and mattes - and they abuse the studio-bound "horizon tank" at the end. What that budget was not spent on was the script, it's a collection of cliches and cannon fodder characters, (the minute Pickett mentions her farm back home you know she's toast) but the hurdles they have to deal with get laid on so thick and fast it hardly counts. On the whole, it's better than I'd remembered it being. More a sci-fi disaster movie than the Alien-underwater monster flick it's marketing implied.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One A Week Reviews #10: Ghost Story

Although thirty years old and featuring a cast of movie stars in their seventies and eighties, Ghost Story is worth revisiting. Based on the Peter Straub novel, it plays with all the richness of a well-told story; one given room to breathe.

The Chowder Society - made up of John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Melvyn Douglas - are in the winter of their lives in a wintry, upstate New York town. When one of the twin sons (both played by Craig Wasson) of Edward Wanderley (Fairbanks, Jr.) falls to his death after being scared by... something in his bed, he calls home his other son, Don. Next thing you know, Wanderley is falling to his death after a visitation of his own and Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire) is having run-ins with the fearsome Gregory Bate and his somewhat feral brother, Fenny. The Chowder Society must confess a secret to Don they've held for fifty years if they want to save any of their lives, one that has something to do with the spectre who keeps appearing in various states of rotten decay.

Don has his own memories of an aborted, passionate affair with Alma Mobley (the buttoned-downed Alice Krige) who may just have ties to Eva Galli, the woman who bound together the Chowder Society. Is the the ghost out for revenge, a reincarnation? While Don withdraws from Alma's spookiness, the Chowder boys had to take a far different approach to their Eva. They all followed her around like puppies and fell in love with her. Their foolish, childish bravado in youth- their stupidity- leads to Eva's doom and binds them for life (maybe they shouldn't have put the hats on the bed?). 

The four old goats of the Chowder Society are movie stars through and through. They still bring all the poise and talent of their distinguished careers. The actors who play them in youth (Ken Olin is the best known, playing Houseman's character) acquit themselves, but none match the freight of experience their older counterparts bring. Patricia Neal appears as Astaire's wife. Does being 27 years younger than the 80 year old actor make her a vixen in a May-December romance? I like to think so. Wasson's star never really took off, but he's just as compelling here as in Body Double.

It's really Alice Krige's film in the end though. Even when not seen, her allure, simmering under her glacial poise, runs through - haunts- the film even before she actually appears in the wintery settings. Wasson and Krige are both in their mid-twenties when the film was made, but both seem much older. (They also indulge in copious levels of nudity that you just don't see much anymore in "A-pictures.") Krige, well-known to genre fans as everything from The Borg Queen to Lady Jessica Atreides (in the Children of Dune mini-series) earns her horror and fantasy bona fides here alone.

The jump scares and grotesque make-up effects still play effectively. (Seriously, there are some disgusting make-up effects in this movie.) The slow, sumptuous, storytelling gives the effects space and the story room to unfold. That said, the story keeps chugging along, even if it really is mostly constructed out of two extended flashbacks and nightmares. Beautiful, sometimes startling, well-crafted and acted, Ghost Story is a must see.

Friday, March 4, 2011

One A Week Reviews #9: Devil

I got stuck in an elevator once. About 13 of us, only two of whom would probably qualify as "slender," all crammed in like sausages and totally exceeded the weight restriction for the machine. I used a cell phone to call the front desk and we were out in probably less than ten minutes, which is good as the agoraphobic started sweating it one minute in and by nine we were plotting who to eat.

Devil opens with a recovering alcoholic who's lost his family has a crisis of faith while investigating a suicide which leads him to a skyscraper (333 Locust Street, no less) where the story takes place. He's a stock character but that's okay as short-handed caricatures are kind of the point in Devil. The movie is a supernatural version of a "locked room mystery," tight, short, and sharp at eighty minutes.

We then turn to an establishing scene in the foyer that establishes time and place like tribute to Brian De Palma, where an obnoxious salesman (Vince), a pretty young lady (Sarah), an older woman (the only recognizable face, long time TV actress Jenny O'Hara), a security guard (Lawson), and a mechanic (Tony) are entering an elevator. (Those names hardly matter either.) The action takes us into the elevator where things quickly get tense and the outer building, where the maintenance and security crews deal with the rapidly declining, jump-scare-filled day. Before long, one of the trapped has a shard of jagged mirror in his neck and a security guard is saying it's "The Devil's Meeting." The body count stacks up, and tempers flare, but what's real and what's a trick of the Devil's? After all, one of them is the devil punishing everyone for their sins.

Devil is a speedy, spooky B-movie morality play "Whodunnit" with an And Then There Were None flair and PG-13 restraint. Recommended for an entertaining night at home.

PS: When asked to guess based on the trailer who the Devil was, I guessed correctly. It's the sensible choice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

One A Week Reviews #8: Repo Chick

Well, this week is slightly tardy, but let's take a look at a true curiosity. Alex Cox's Repo Chick may not be embraced by fans of the original cult classic, but it's certainly a bid to make a new one. Sadly, such bids never work. My review for
Repo Chick

Official Synopsis:

Spoiled rich girl Pixxi De La Chasse has been disinherited by her family due to her numerous arrests for bad driving, her failure to get a job and her overall lack of some semblance of a responsible life. When her car gets repossessed, Pixxi ends up getting hired by repo men Arizona Gray and Aguas, and she soon becomes the best repo chick around with the help of her entourage – punk girl confidante, model-looks bodyguard and flaming stylist. While on the hunt for some antique railroad cars which carry a million-dollar bounty reward (also being sought out by a secret government agency!), clueless Pixxi ends up on a wacky train ride which is actually a plot by a terrorist organization. If their demands for the criminalization of golf are not met, then the train (whose caboose is carrying long-missing growler bombs from the Soviet Communist era!) is headed straight for downtown Los Angeles.

It's up to Pixxi De La Chasse to save LA!

Our Take:

I guess it's a testament to creativity and connections – there's no other explanation for why this movie exists. The box copy, for all it's wild, head-scratching exaggeration, doesn't quite do justice to this stylish-but-flawed movie. Squaring the cold war off against the current financial meltdown, the frenetic "Paris Hilton gone rogue" Repo Chick has nothing, really, to do with Cox's legendary cult favorite Repo Man. This is not only an obvious bid to make a "future cult classic," it's more a noisy children's program with slumming actors and sit-com allusions to sex and violence.

Filmed almost entirely on very obvious green screen sets to enable cartoonish, fantastical composites, Repo Chick builds a world of miniature sets and photo collage backgrounds, substituting toy cars and trains for the real thing. Pixxi, our Hilton stand-in dressed like an Attack of the Killer Bimbos wannabe, with her bubblegum pink life, reminds one of Cher from Clueless, except without the humanity. It's okay to have all the life of a doll, though, when the sets are dollhouses and the dream car belongs to Barbie.

The pacing, the exaggeration, it's all way too much. The story barrels along disjointed and enamored of it's own creativity in front of weirdly cutesy, candied visuals. Choppy and in love with it's own glamour, this is what Gregg Araki would have made in the nineties if he had the computer effects and no interest in sex. Seeing the actors superimposed amongst the miniature toy trains actually irritates after a while. The staging, the indulgence, the cheapness can only make the audience ask "is this just a joke? An expensive joke?"

I'm thinking "yes, it is." .
 If you're not alienated by the first act set-up, when Pixxi introduces herself to a family she's about to foreclose on by shooting their dog will neatly wall off whatever sympathy you may've had left. She seems to be an excellent repo agent solely by being an overdressed, obnoxious jerk. She takes down her own family and falls in with terrorists who ban golf. Read that again and let it sink in as that's most of act two right there.
 Famous faces abound. Xander Berkley, Frances Bay, and Karen Black are Pixxi's family. Miguel Sandoval and Robert Beltran become Pixxi's father figures. Chloe Webb and Rosanna Arquette pop up mostly to show they're aging well, though get saddled, respectively, with enormous false teeth and big scars. One is unsure if they're just there for a paycheck or the chance to work with Cox. Unknown Jaclyn Jonet is Pixxi and she's... perfectly serviceable. She has potential, but she's barely a center to build a film around.

The problem with being a DVD reviewer is that, ethically, you should watch the film all the way through. I did... but I predict Repo Chick will drive at least one of us to give up the business.

Special Features:

Presented widescreen in Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound, Repo Chick features English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, and a 27 minute behind-the-scenes featurette.


In a perfect world this film would be headlined "Alex Cox presents Paris Hilton as "Stephanie Plum" in a Amy Heckerling movie by Gregg Araki."

I don't know what happened to Alex Cox, but this is a more a creative curio than anything else. Is the target audience teenage girls on heavy medication? Repo Chick is Clueless as a Janet Evanovich novel, with packaging more appropriate to pornography. If issued by Troma. In the Eighties.
For fans of "WTF" cinema only.

Overall Picture:
Movie: D-
Extras: C