Friday, April 29, 2011

One A Week Reviews #17: Leviathan

Leviathan: The other underwater movie from 1989 knocking off The Abyss that isn't DeepStar Six. Since I took a look at that one recently, I thought "why not see how the other half lives?"

As we suffered bravely and beautifully thru DeepStar, let's now take a look at MGM's crack at beating The Abyss to the punch. Let's start right with the opening. An MGM and De Laurentis Family presentation of a George P Cosmatos film with Peter Weller, Hector Elizondo, Lisa Eilbacher, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Meg Foster and some guy you've never heard of named Michael Carmine. Stan Winston effects. Jerry Goldsmith score. This is clearly the "middle" picture, budget-wise. The Abyss got the very luxe treatment and DeepStar Six was essentially the "Corman" crack at things. (Nowadays, that one would be from The Asylum and a year ahead of what it's knocking off.)

An aside about Michael Carmine: if he hadn't passed away at age thirty of heart failure, it's a good assumption you would be familiar with him. He's the only actor here who didn't have "name recognition," yet, but having appeared in Band of the Hand, Longtime Companion, and *batteries not included before his death. I get the impression he'd have enjoyed continued success.

16,000 feet down in the Atlantic, the crew of the Nostromo... sorry, I mean the Tri Oceanic Mining Corporation are digging up silver and other metals. There's a lot of "dry for wet" photography in this movie, where smoke, blue lighting and fluff in the air stand in for water. But there's no worries for this crew as they get to return to the surface in three days... or they did until they tempted the movie fates by stating that out loud. They also establish their white collar, sci-fi post-Alien bona fides sitting around the dinner table for colorful character interaction. Daniel Stern is the boor, Hector Elizondo the grown up, and Pays and Eilbacher split the sexy scientist spot.

Richard Crenna's doctor at least goes for "slick" over "grizzled." The always colorless Peter Weller plays the man in charge, who reports to topside boss Meg Foster. Her cool blues and cooler style are wasted in a part confined mostly to TV screens. Meanwhile,Weller has a lot of shots where he's speaking while looking directly into the camera. It's a tad disorienting and I think the film would have been much better had these two had swapped roles.

They putter around and squabble, filling time before we get to the good stuff. Between the clashing personalities and state of their facilities (so overplayed it may as well be "the gun in the first act"), by 20 minutes in we are CLAMORING for a monster. Anyhow, on what is their last day of drilling (equivalent to "I'm two weeks from retirement." in cop movies), Stern's character winds up falling off a ledge and down into a field of tubeworms (they're the most amusing effect here). When Pays goes to find him, they wind up discovering a sunken Russian vessel named "Leviathan." They find out that the crew must have died, but they did have some vodka on board.

Not just any vodka, though. Evil, mutation-causing vodka... yeah, let that soak in a minute.

Stern's character drinks it and soon enough is sprouting "organisms of unknown origin." You have to admit, liquor is one genius way to deliver the cooties. He drops promptly dead, though when Ernie Hudson comes in to talk to him, the sheet-covered lumpiness that was once the narrator of The Wonder Years starts moving around. Elibacher comes down with the rash next, but kills herself when she sees big, throbbing, put-spurting wounds on him. This is actually the sensible move, since he quickly turns into a giant, mutating bunch of muck that absorbs her into a gooey mess. Everyone else throws these "Bobbsey Twins of Yech "out into the ocean, but it leaves a chunk behind.

That big ol' ham-hock of critter starts regenerating itself, growing like a starfish.. What isn't lifted from Alien here comes straight from The Thing, but I love good, juicy body horror enough that I don't mind. While we watch lovely Amanda Pays look all nubile and vulnerable, poor Michael Carmine gets eaten by what is now a slimy, black lamprey-thing. (Good for him for not going first by virtue of being lowest-billed!)

Things now move on to a nice "armament montage" with Weller and Hudson, now the poor man's Kurt Russell and Keith David, try out a variety of handy tools for their weapon potential like they were members of The A-Team. Richard Crenna's jackass of a doctor considerately gets rid of their escape pods in a bitchy attempt to save the world from what they've found and from here on out it's our wholesome heroes versus slimy monsters. Hector Elizondo's "Hairy Palm 2.0" ensures he's outta the way and we wind up in a "three against one" human-calamari hybrid.

I'd personally rather face that than Meg Foster's breathily butch middle manager of evil.

An aside about Meg Foster: She attended the 2010 Horrorhound convention in Cincinnati. While I didn't get to speak with her, she was seen mingling with fans and generously giving everyone her time all weekend... and, even behind glasses, her eyes are as amazing in person as on the screen. She also sports some truly amazing arms.

The third act is all stuff you've seen before but still enjoyable. Lots of running around a set rife with steam and sparks, avoiding the slimy "Pumpkinhead-Catfish" made up of a few other characters. There's complete disregard for physics and biology with the underwater version of Alien's climax, but it all wraps up mercifully quick.

I would bet their arrival topside (and we'll just assume their diving suits can handle extremely rapid changes in pressure, mmmkay?) was even filmed in the same tank the climax of DeepStar Six was. I mean, it's pretty much the same ending with a monster that looks just as cheap in daylight as it was impressive on sets. Sadly, they knock off one last character more as plot contrivance than anything else, and the ending punch is stolen straight from the Die Hard films.

Verdict: Entertaining enough, icky, but finally forgettable. Being big budget doesn't make it special and, of the two, I think I'd return to the honest trash of DeepStar Six before the horror-movie-in-a-blender bigger bucks Leviathan.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One A Week Reviews #16: When A Stranger Calls (2006)

I'm not even sure why I chose to finally sit and watch the When A Stranger Calls remake. I mean, I hated the Prom Night PG-13 rehash, and this seemed more of the same. In the end, I was so apathetic I'm not even sure I'll copy-edit this post...

The original has one of the tightest first acts in the history of movies, and if you haven't seen seen the film, you REALLY should. The ringing phone, the mysterious "Have you checked the children?" It's great stuff. In this age of cell phones you'd figure it'd be riper for great horror than it is.

This time, Camilla Belle is Jill Johnson, babysitter. Since her parents are so shortsighted as to not have her on an unlimited calling plan, she's stuck grounded and sitting for a family with a fabulous lake house that's out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, she was so wrapped up on the phone with her boyfriend problems and missing the school pep rally/bonfire thing that she didn't watch the prologue where it's implied some poor teenage gal is torn to literal bits by a Lance Henrickson-voiced mystery caller.

Now, I don't have kids. I also lack a huge, modern home with a bird and butterfly conservatory at it's heart and a live-in maid on the third floor. (The birds show up later in what might be the only really eloquent moment in this whole fiasco.) I would assume most people with a live-in maid could impose on her to watch the children on occasion, but what do I know? Thankfully, I also only babysat a handful of times in my life. But I do know that the suburban home had a familiarity that was a lot spookier than having this set in a mansion with a remote controlled fireplace. People who shell out for rooms that turn their lights on when you enter them also have phones with Caller ID for that matter.

I also know that the calls coming from inside the house made for seventeen scary minutes in the original, and for eighty flabby ones in this. Seriously, showing off the house-porn is great and all, but not the most ripping entertainment. Unless you watch a lot of house-hunting shows, I suppose.

Anyhow, we're 22 minutes in before the landline first rings (at this point in the first one were off on the awful act two digression with Colleen Dewhurst as a terrifically blowsy drunk). By this point you realize that even an 87 minute long movie, including credits, can drag madly. The sequence of Belle stalking what turns out to be the ice machine confirms it. Seriously, if you're going to always have us squinting into the dark background behind Belle waiting to see something back there, you have to eventually have something back there.

There's more characters here, too. Blond, self-described "bitch" Tiffany gets to have the world's most dramatic driveway experience and boyfriend Bobby calls from a bonfire that looks more like a cross burning.The calls don't really amp up until the halfway mark, either. By now, anyone experienced in these films realizes all you have here is the trappings of tension (shots, score, pacing) without any actual tension.

Things pick up a little for the last half hour or so. She's finally asked if she's checked the children and we start having some actual shadows moving and stalking going on. Lots of running around and ringing phones follow, but at this point it's hard to try and actually scare people after pretending -or is it aspiring - to for nearly an hour. Thank you, PG-13 rating. The kick off the third act with the "inside the house" bit and an actual body. Even this isn't that fearsome. I was kind of hoping it's all turn out to be some awful bit of sadism by the couple who hired her, but, like everything else in this, the truth is much more pedestrian... and much more boring.
The baddie moves slowly and measured. His ease is the one creep-tacular bit going on here.  He counters Belle's near-constant, oddly husky panting nicely.

The take away from both the original and the remake of When A Stranger Calls is this: Jill Johnson is the worst babysitter on the planet. (She also exhibits the awful judgement shown by most horror heroines. Not killing the sick fuck who's tried to kill them when she had the chance.) Just let her go to her damn bonfire, already. There's also a lot of other movies that could have been made with this gorgeous house set. This isn't the one you wanted to see.

Friday, April 15, 2011

One A Week Reviews #15: Salt

So, yeah... I watched Salt.

Specifically, the Unrated Director's Cut, one of three versions available on the Blu-Ray. First off, I don't have that much to share on it. I think that's partially because I tend to prefer talking up my beloved B-movie curios to Hollywood "Tent Pole" pictures. If I'm talking about a big crowd-pleaser, usually it'll be a disaster movie.

Salt is a very "deluxe" movie. Philip Noyce directing Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a BIG budget, big effects story of a CIA agent who has a whole country after her because just might be a Russian "sleeper agent." (How quaint. The "Cold War." Thankfully, in the hands of Noyce it still chills) The cinematography is luscious and the CGI seamless. About the only things flawed here are Jolie's wigs, much of the logic, and most (read: all) of the physics.

A Russian defector named Orlov shows up at the CIA with a story implying that Lee Harvey Oswald was a substituted, covert assassin and that agent Evelyn Salt is a spy named Chenkov (which should technically be Chenkova in Russian, right?) raised since birth to eventually kill. In this case, she'll be after the visiting President of Russia. The game from there, as she escapes and goes on the run, becomes "Is she or isn't she?" Is she breaking out to go find her missing husband, or to save her own hide?

Missing now is some of the unpredictable wildfire that makes Jolie so exciting, probably less due to age than the burdens of being "Angelina Jolie," but she's still ferociously and technically impeccable. (At least this came out before The Tourist, where she's so calcified under her maquillage you'd think they were fleeing Sodom, not Venice.)  Her "action hero" mode is getting familiar (Milla Jovovich keeps it fresher), but here "Lara Croft" is spiced up with some Macgyver and latter-day Bond. Her "weekend bag" turns out to hold a hilarious amount of weaponry and she never stops moving. Everything is arranged to keep the guessing going, which is good as her acting seems part craft, part "stalking about with purpose"... done for large swaths with Cheshire-like inscrutability. About the only thing clearly conveyed in this part is her character's love for her husband. Their scenes together are the only genuine, unguarded character moments in the film.

She's matched by the always-measured, always-muttering Liev Schreiber. Personally, I've always found him underrated and compelling, but he's an acquired taste for some. I think the opacity all the main characters exhibit comes more naturally to Schreiber than Jolie, but she seems to "wear it" more comfortably now. Is that an opinion about their acting, or about the baggage I project on the most famous woman in the world? Either way, they're great when they get moments to actually act, even when the movie escalates in ridiculousness.

(Thar be Spoilers (alluded to) Ahead - click below!)

Friday, April 8, 2011

One A Week Reviews #14 Dark Fields

A surprise in an unassuming package this week. This review for dvdsnapshot dug into Dark Fields, a novel of a film worth checking out.

Official Synopsis:
When the drought-stricken farming community of Perseverance resorts to human sacrifice to bring healing rains to their land, a terrible curse is unleashed that haunts the bloodlines for generations. More than a century later, one of their descendants is struck by a horrible affliction and must commit an unspeakable act of murder to remove the curse once and for all.
Our Take:
Originally called The Rain, Dark Fields is auteur-stamped by Douglas Schulze and certainly a crack at an artistic statement. Three intertwined stories make the film up, set in the town of Perseverance in the 1880, 1950s, and the present make for a surprisingly accomplished, low-budget novel of a film.
In the 1880's David Carradine stars, in one of his final appearances, as a man who brings a curse on his home town. During an awful drought, a deal with a Shaman brings rain to save the people, but it carries a price that goes on to affect 1950s matriarch Dee Wallace, forced to hide her daughters and her drinking water from her husband. Thanks to what the curse does in your adulthood, her mother's love may not be able to save the sacrifice the curse requires. Collegian Cari in the Present Day is a shy thing, using college as a way to avoid Perseverance. Unfortunately she can't hide from the curse. She returns home to a ragged Richard Lynch,, who show her the way of the cure... and it's perverse care and feeding.
With sacrifices to a low budget and loose pacing, the overall feel of the film is "unrefined." It looks grim; all flat,cool lighting and grainy resolution. It's rarely high tech. If anything, some scenes towards the end are filtered down to the point of inscrutability. The three time periods have different looks, but it holds together nicely. They segments flow at a pace that allows the story to breathe more than drag. Things do start to feel too long towards the end.
While the CGI "dessication" was eye pleasing, the rest of the other effects come of as extremely professional. There's an inspired, not-flashy composite shot that's the most ambitious I've seen in a B-movie in quite some time, while other CGI is over the top. There's also some nice squirmy moments, though this is a film more about building unease than just jump scenes.
Thought and work went into this film, and the three stories play like variations on a theme. Added to that are some moments of genuine inspiration. It doesn't all make sense, but it feels like an original, reminiscent of Larry Fesenden and Don Coscarelli, and certainly the sign of a promising future.
Special Features:
Dark Fields is presented in 16:9 widescreen in Dolby English audio with English SDH subtitles. The DVD includes trailers, a behind the scenes featurette, deleted scene, animated storyboard and an audio commentary track with the director.

Dark Fields walks a fine line between measured and slow. This trio of stories narrate a family curse filled with some old tropes, but still manage some inspired, if occasionally convoluted, moments. Original, it prefers growing creepiness to shocks, and does a good job of subtle disturbance. Doug Schulze put his name all over this, and with good reason. It's a calling card of a film, and worth a watch.

Overall Picture:
Show: B+
Extra Features: B+

Friday, April 1, 2011

One A Week Reviews #13: Sugar Boxx

This review for brought Sugar Boxx into my life. It's an affectionate tip of the hat to Women In Prison movies from the Sexploitation era and is undemanding trashy fun. Enjoy the review and see if you might be interested in giving the girls of Sugar State Women's Prison a spin. Just be warned that the timing of this being review #13 and on April Fool's Day is definitely appropriate...

Official Synopsis:

Sexy reporter Valerie March (Geneviere Anderson) goes undercover inside Sugar State Women's Prison to expose a prostitution ring run by the sleazy and seductive warden (Linda Dona). But all hell breaks loose when the scantily-clad inmates decide to take bloody revenge on their captors.

Our take:
Let us now pay homage to the Women In Prison picture. Exploitation pictures from the seventies and eighties like The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and -especially in this case -Black Mama, White Mama; locations usually in the Philippines, and stars like Pam Grier, Ajita Wilson, and Laura Gemser. These were not, shall we say, high-brow entertainments. They were pure sexploitation, naked girls and faux lesbianism along with some sadism, bloodshed and gunplay.

This no-budget, Seventies-set cheapie is ostensibly about an anachronistically modern TV reporter (for, ahem, WPNS) going undercover to bust a sleazy Women's Prison. It's no spoiler to say things stay sleazy. Our intrepid reporter Valerie March leaves behind a comfortable life and wife (played modernly, as opposed to the "otherness" and suicidal tendencies this character would have if made 35 years ago) to be "Angel" and wind up in a Federal Prison that seems to be nothing more than a public park. The prisoners sleep in tents and have free range of the grounds and seem mostly there to be sexually assaulted and get into the occasional knife fight.

Director Cody Jarrett adds the wokka-wokka music and stylistic touches, but his cast of generously-called-"starlets" don't quite measure up to their WIP forebears, though Linda Dona's Warden respectably carries on the tradition of butch scenery-chewing likes of Stella Stevens and Mary Woronov.

Tura Satana and director Jack Hill show up as judges, and 60's TV regular Jacqueline Scott appears to get the plot rolling. Russ Meyer's muse Kitten Natividad seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the cast as the lewd Matron.

They seem to be aiming for "affectionate throwback" but the slow pacing and sporadic humor don't quite make it. The "somebody's living room" sets don't exactly scream "prison authenticity," either. (Hanging a Red Cross flag above a twin bed does not a hospital make.) The prison flick parts are weak, while other sequences suggest Jarrett has an excellent Charlie's Angels spoof in him. 

However, nothing about it's PC, and the impression that fun was had making it comes through. There's not much else to recommended Sugar Boxx but the breasts. They show up a lot. If you want a film that recaptures the look and feel of seventies sexploitation, pick up Boogie Nights or Viva. If you want a WIP, get one of the originals, or the better spoof, Reform School Girls.

Special Features:
Sugar Boxx is resented in widescreen 16x9 Format with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound English Audio. English SDH subtitles are available. Extras include trailers, the featurette "Inside the Boxx: The Making of Sugar Boxx," a short film starring Tura Satana called "Tura Breaks Shit" and an audio commentary track featuring the director along with members of the cast.
Exploitation without titillation, this affectionate rehash of Black Mama, White Mama is low-budget, tongue in cheek, and more dumbly inert than amusing. You'll want it to possess more charms than it does - there's the seed of a killer Charlie's Angles spoof here - but it does have a few chuckles and is graded accordingly.
Overall Picture:
Movie: Double-D
Extras: C