Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Grey (2012)

It used to be that the only natural environment I was truly scared of was the jungle. Animals and bugs and heat and humidity... there's things in the jungle that you've never even heard of that can kill you. Now after watching The Grey, I'm adding the Alaskan wilderness to the list of places you'll never get me anywhere near. Anyway, The Grey was all kinds of awesome and fantastic, a big highlight for 2012, and one of the best movies I have watched recently.

A plane carrying a group of oil workers crashes in the middle of nowhere during a horrific blizzard in Alaska. Only seven men survive the crash, but though they are alive, they soon find out that being lost and dealing with the extreme weather is probably the least of their worries. A pack of ferocious grey wolves lurk nearby, thwarting the men at almost every turn and picking them off one by one.

So the weird thing is that I didn't really know much about what this movie was about before I saw it. Liam Neeson... snow... wolves... That was kinda all I got. But the not knowing made the experience of watching the movie so much better, as I was wholly unprepared for what was revealed to me on screen. And it wasn't just the scary element of the film that was so surprising, either. The heavy emotional side was also unexpected, and is what helped save the movie from being just a movie about some guys getting eaten by wolves.

Do I even need to write anything about how awesome Liam Neeson is? Well, he is. You know it, everyone knows it. He's not his new "bad ass" self so much in The Grey, although there is a touch of that in the way his character, John Ottway, takes charge of the situation with his wolf knowledge - his job with the oil company was to watch out for and kill wolves so that they did not attack the workers. Ottway is a smart, sincere man with fierce loyalty and morals, things that he seems to pass on to the other men during their ordeal. At the same time, Ottway is also a troubled man whose lost his wife in some way (it is subtly revealed later on just how) and who actually attempts suicide in one of the first scenes, which is in contrast to how hard he fights to survive through the rest of the film. I got the impression that his survival instincts in the beginning of the film were more for the other people's benefit than his own, that he had the knowledge to help them and it was his obligation. That changes as the movie goes on, and Ottway does not want to punk out and kill himself anymore, but rather wants to make a stand and accept his death, however it may come.

In some specific scenes, The Grey was actually a lot scarier to me than some horror films. Like, I was completely stressed out and terrified the whole time I was watching it, not knowing when a wolf was going to attack or when something else might happen to hinder the men's chance of survival. Mostly though - yeah, it was the wolves that were the scariest bits. Still at the site of the plane crash, Ottway is attacked by two of them, and because you know that Neeson is not going to bite it this early, your only thought is how fucking huge these wolves are, and it makes them that much more scary whenever they appear. And there are a surprising number of scenes that almost make you jump out of your skin - the glowing sets of eyes that appear in the dark, the wolf that suddenly appears behind Diaz, the many times that a wolf will jump out of nowhere to attack somebody - all of these scenes are done in an incredibly effective way. The howling of the wolves is also used to create tension and fear in the scenes where the men are around their fire, listening to them in the distance.

The direction by Joe Carnahan is wonderful and beautiful throughout - with such a stunning location, I would have expected nothing less. His style is very arty and he shoots some scenes very differently than you would expect. I loved the scene on the plane right before the crash where the camera moves backward down the aisle and you can see the breaths coming out of each of the men's mouths, which is a very clever and chilling (haha, pun) way of letting the audience know that something bad is about to happen (because it shouldn't be that cold on an airplane). The crash itself is shot in a very realistic and believable way, and all the flashback-daydreamy scenes with Ottway and his wife (and Ottway as a boy with his father) blend seamlessly with the other scenes and don't take you out of the central story like many flashbacks tend to do. The wolves at times looked a little unrealistic but I wasn't exactly expecting to see real wolves in the same shot with an actor anyway, so that can be forgiven.

As a thrilling tale of emotion and survival, The Grey succeeds beautifully. Liam Neeson and the rest of the cast all portray very likable guys in the most horrible of situations, each fighting like hell to not only survive but to hang on to that which was most important in their lives during their ordeal. Many people will probably watch the movie just for Neeson (in a way, I kinda did) but they will get so much more than they thought - a truly beautiful and engaging movie that holds your heart and your breath right until the very end.

Also, speaking of the end, a word of advice - stay tuned after the credits.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weekly Movie Roundup: 9-9-12 to 9-15-12

Hey! It's been a while since I did a roundup, yeah? Did you miss it? No? I don't blame you. Anyway, here are some movies I watched this week.

Freedom Writers (2007)
Yeah, I liked this movie. When it was called Dangerous Minds.
Okay, not really. The two movies are pretty similar - white female teacher gets a class of rowdy inner-city kids and changes their lives - but I still dug this one. Hilary Swank is my woman and she's kind of great in every role she's ever done (yeah, even The Next Karate Kid - you loved it, you know you do) so she helps sell the movie. It's basically one of those feel-good, do-gooder movies that you know is going to have a happy ending, but sometimes you need a movie like that. Kinda makes you a little more motivated to do something better with your own life.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)
Slums of Beverly Hills has always been a favorite little cult classic of mine. A comedy and sometimes-drama set in the 1970s about dysfunctional nomadic family in Beverly Hills, this is a movie that to me gets just about everything right. Natasha Lyonne is fantastic in the lead role of teenage Vivian, a girl coming into her own and wanting to get away from her crazy family and their lifestyle. All the other supporting characters are equally well played by people like Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin, and David Krumholtz. The comedy is spot-on all the way through, and it's not exactly peeing your pants funny, it's just hilarious because of the crazy situations that the family finds themselves in and the completely non-incredulous way they react to it. Weird is normal for them and weird is always funny.

Elevator (2011)
I felt compelled to put this movie in my queue because this particular scenario is one of my favorites to watch on screen. I love movies with a minimal cast and only one setting. Oftentimes, these movies tend to hold my interest much more than any kind of big action, blow-em-up movie because you have concentrate on the characters and what is being said. Having said all that, however, Elevator is not my favorite of these movies. It starts out really good and in fact stays really good through most of the run time - it's just the ending that brings the whole thing down. Basically it doesn't have one, the movie just ends and doesn't leave you anything to ponder when it's over. The acting is very believable and there are some recognizable faces here for you to enjoy. There's also some bloody good parts, if you know what I mean, but only if you have some imagination because nothing is really seen. Give it a go if you're like me and dig these movies, but otherwise I think most people will be a little disappointed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Catching Up On The Classics: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls is one of those movies that I've been looking forward to seeing for a long time. It is constantly being regarded as one of the best movies you've never seen, and a classic among black-and-white horror, despite its low budget and limited release. Already knowing the famous shock or twist ending to the movie, though, I wondered if this would hurt my first-viewing experience. And sadly, it kind of did.

After Mary is the lone survivor of a car accident that killed all her friends, she goes on with her life and moves to Utah where she has taken a job as a church organist. But strange happenings follow Mary wherever she goes, like seeing a ghostly man around corners and in mirrors. Mary also seems to be inexplicably drawn to an old pavilion in her new town: Does this place hold the answers to what's been going on with her?

Candace Hilligoss is surprisingly quite perfect in the lead role of Mary Henry. That still frame of her up there is one that I've been seeing around for years, and I have always just loved it - even though I hadn't seen the movie at the time. The look on her face and her body positioning almost looks like a painting to me, like an artist that captured a perfect moment in time, of confusion and fear. And now that I've seen the movie, I love that image even more. 

Anyway. Hilligoss does wonderful through the whole movie with a role that is never clearly defined. Sure, Mary seems somewhat confident and clear in her ideals and what she wants, but she's also very much a mystery. She doesn't much like the company of other people, and though she plays the organ for a living, she is not a church-goer herself and instead seems to see religion as a little silly and unimportant. But has she always been like this or is the result of her experience in the car crash? Mary is indeed a mystery and remains so until the end, and Hilligoss's mannerisms and facial expressions clearly convey all the conflicting personality traits of the character.

The only thing that bothered me about Hilligoss, and which in turn hurt some of the more possibly effective scenes, was that she did the "old movie scream." I hate the old movie scream. Do you know what that is? It's the really, really annoying way that women used to scream in old movies - hands flying up to the face or into the hair, screaming in a way that is far too dramatic for the situation. Hilligoss does this a couple of times here and it definitely annoyed the heck out of me. 

Sound becomes a important element in this film at times, or rather the lack of it in certain scenes. These are perhaps the best parts of the movie - the two scenes where Mary realizes that she has become invisible to those around her and that she cannot hear any noises in her environment. The sound of the pipe organ that Mary plays, a monstrous instrument that sounds incredibly creepy, is also important as it adds to overall eerie feeling of the movie. 

But the movie goes a little off from this feeling in the scenes with Mary's pervy neighbor, John Linden, which I frankly did not get the importance of. I get that she doesn't want to be alone because she fears that the ghoulish man she has been seeing will come after her if she is, but what of the rest of the scenes with this guy? Subtlety is not Linden's forte. In so many words, he quite boldly lets her know that he wants to get into her pants even though he doesn't know her at all, and that is the only purpose that this character serves - to be pervy and annoying. He is not needed and all his disgusting innuendoes take away from the main point of the story and Mary's character.

Some of the editing choices in Carnival of Souls were a bit hackneyed for my taste, as well. In the scenes with all the ghosts that Mary sees, whether real or when she goes into those weird trances, the editing and camera made things confusing at times. I hated the part where Mary jumps onto a bus and sees it full of the ghosts. There's an outside shot of her getting on the bus, then a POV of her seeing all the ghosts in the seats, and then a shot of her running away from the bus again. The lack of a reaction shot from Mary or something that established that she was on the bus with the ghosts made this part look very amateur, as if they forgot to get a shot during production but didn't really care during the editing process how it looked. 

At the same time, many of these scenes have wonderful individual shots that were very creepy and effective. Loved the scene of the ghosts dancing around all fast, and the shots of the various ghosts coming up one by one out of the water. Very cool looking. There's also a great overhead shot at the beginning where Mary is sitting at the pipe organ and you just see how incredibly massive this thing is and how small and insignificant she looks next to it. The scene where the ghost turns around in the doctor's chair could have been a lot scarier if Hilligoss didn't do that stupid old movie scream. And of course, my favorite shot of all is when Mary is emerging from the water after the car crash onto the muddy bank. I still don't know what it is about that shot, but I love it, and it's iconic, so you should love it too.

Now, I said before that knowing the ending to Carnival of Souls - that Mary actually died in the opening car crash - almost ruined the experience of watching it. I was very confused and frustrated throughout because, knowing she was dead, I was expecting a movie of her wandering around trying to figure out what happened to her or something. Instead, Mary almost immediately goes about her normal life, remembering the crash but just not how she survived it. If, as the title suggests, the ghostly man and the people at the carnival were other souls trying to take hers, and it was just her soul that went on living, how is she able to interact with other people and touch things? Wouldn't she be more like a ghost than a corporeal being if her body was still in the car?

So while this cult classic didn't completely live up to my expectations, I can't deny that I still love the story, the main character, and some of the really great standout sequences that make Carnival of Souls a movie worth a look for anyone who studies or just loves film. Some kind of variation on the twist ending has been done to death by now but this is one of the originals, and you should definitely watch it. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Movie Review: Night Train Murders (1975)

I'm slowly becoming familiar with the Italian filmmakers. Aldo Lado is not as prolific as a director as some of the others like Argento and Fulci, but even though I've only seen two of his movies, I really enjoy his style and approach to different stories. I loved his earlier 1972 film Who Saw Her Die? and this one, Night Train Murders (a.k.a. Last Stop on the Night Train, The New House on the Left, Last House on the Left 2, Don't Ride on Late Night Trains...) was much better than anticipated.

Friends Margaret and Lisa are taking a train from Germany to Italy to visit Lisa's parents for Christmas. A delay and a run-in with two thugs makes them change trains in the middle of their trip. The second train is far less crowded - but the thugs are still there and they've brought with them an equally sadistic woman who talks the boys into humiliating the girls. But the situation doesn't turn out like any of them imagined.

Yes, this movie has similarities to Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. Don't think I wasn't mentally taking note of all the parallels: two pretty girls, a couple of aggressors including another woman, rape and humiliation, murder, attackers end up with one of the girl's parents, father is a doctor, mother notices one man wearing an item belonging to her daughter, father gets revenge on attackers for daughter's murder. And just as Last House had its share of ups and downs, so does this movie - although I would say that it has a few more ups than Last House did.

One thing I like that Lado did with Night Train Murders was the controversial slow build of tension. Half of an audience will say this makes the movie too boring and the other half will appreciate the time the director took to really tell the story. The opening scene is a long 4 minutes of an outdoor Christmas celebration where we are introduced to both the two main girls and the two criminals (they even jump and rob a man dressed as Santa Claus). It's enough to get the basic idea of who these characters are.

Then when we finally get on the train, there are some seemingly unimportant short scenes of different passengers on the train, including the woman known only as the "Lady on the Train." I didn't find any of these points slow at all but was rather more intrigued at how this whole scenario was going to play out. The attackers' motives for tormenting and killing the girls seem to be nonexistent - like they are just doing it for fun - and that should be enough to make the audience think they deserve the harshest punishment for it, but these earlier scenes of the three of them leave a bad taste in your mouth from the beginning. These people are immoral and frankly, they suck as human beings. And apparently, so do some other people on that train...

Remember during the rape scene in Irreversible where there's a shot of a person approaching the end of the tunnel, stopping, witnessing what's happening, and then walking away again? Didn't that piss you off?! Well, it sure pissed me off, but oh boy, does Night Train Murders have a scene to top that. After making Lisa jack off one of the guys, they strip Margaret. A well-dressed older man is standing outside the compartment watching all this and when the woman discovers him and invites him in, he gladly and immediately starts raping Margaret. Then when he's done, he just leaves and jumps off the train at the next stop. Shocked face! Oh my gracious, what kind of people exist in this world?

The violence, including the rape scene, is mostly subdued. There is no nudity and all the slapping and hitting is not as bad as it could have been. Even the most brutal act in the movie - i.e. stabbing a girl in the freaking vagina - is done in a way where the focus is on the victim's pain and the horrific look on her face during her eventual death, giving you more reason to hate these loonies. The revenge that the father takes on the harmonica-playing baddy is actually rather silly and not that satisfying, though. Nor is his chasing the other guy around with a gun for a while before finally fatally shooting him off-camera. NOR is the fact that the most vile one of the group, the woman, gets away with it all in the end.  That probably pisses off everybody who watches this movie.

Harping on a few bad things, though, won't really make me reconsider my initial reaction to Night Train Murders. I like it. It is well shot and directed, and does not show anything all that explicit to titillate any viewers who may just root for the bad guys as I know some of them do. The acting is pretty good, I guess, but it's always hard for me to judge somebody's acting when they're being dubbed over so horribly.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Movie Review: I Sell the Dead (2008)

Though this movie has been sitting unwatched in my instant queue for so long, it often seemed to beckon to me whenever I was scrolling along, looking for something to enjoy for the evening. "Hit play, already! You know you're going to like me!", it would call to me. A comedy about the infamous 18th century grave robbers who used to steal corpses and sell them to doctors? Heck yes, I should freaking LOVE that. And you know what? I did.

With his fellow grave robber Willy Grimes having already been executed, Arthur Blake is about to meet the same fate for murder. A few hours before his own date with the guillotine, Arthur confesses to Father Duffy, telling the fantastical story of how he got into the grave robbing business - and the strange things he encountered along the way.

I Sell the Dead is at first a cheeky little black comedy about the wacky antics two funny dudes who dig up dead bodies, and I was totally cool with that and enjoying it a lot. As the story progresses though, they introduce a few different horror-related elements that could make the story go off in a totally different direction than audiences are not expecting. What are these two bumbling fortune hunters going to have to deal with next? Vampires? Aliens? Zombies? Turns out its a form of the latter, although no other information is given about them other than the fact that they are basically zombies and getting bitten will turn you into one. Not that zombie lore was really important to the story or anything. Just sayin'. This turn of events makes the movie all the more fun to watch

Dominic Monaghan is quite cute and adorable as Arthur Blake, and Ron Perlman seems to have fun with his small role as the priest, but I loved this Larry Fessenden guy as Willy Grimes. He's the perfect cheeky drunkard with unbelievable comedic timing and wonderful physical comedy. His look is great and his actions are spot on, but Fessenden is really a job to watch in the final scene of the movie, where he completely steals the show. Did I mention that Angus Scrimm is also in the flick? Yup, he totally is. A bit of a small role, like Ron Perlman's, but genre fans will get a kick out seeing him.

The style of the movie also makes it quite interesting and adds to the comedic element. There are lots of CG backgrounds under the live actors and comic book-like sketches in specific scenes, plus a few awesome transitions like push wipes (ala Star Wars) which is something that is hardly ever used. Call it cheesy or amateur, but I love these kinds of transitions, especially in comedy movies because it obviously adds to the comedy. And I gotta say that I love an Irish accent, which is just funny on its own. So I Sell the Dead definitely does a good job with the comedy part of the film - but what about the horror part?

The scenes that stand out the most for me are when Arthur is telling the story of two "very unusual" grave robbing jobs that he and Willy were involved in. In one hilariously tongue-in-cheek scene, they start digging into a grave that is frozen solid, with the coffin almost frozen too. Though they of course don't know what it is, inside the coffin is small alien. The scene seems so out of place and yet so perfectly in place at the same time. The other part I like is when the men find one of their corpses with a string of garlic around her neck and a wooden stake through her heart. I won't describe this brilliant scene in too much detail because it's best to just watch it for yourself, but I will say that it is a sort of old school vampire attack scene with a gothic feel - plus, of course, a bit of light comedy. It's great. I loved it.

I'm probably gushing over this movie a bit too much, but I Sell the Dead seemed to have the power to bring a little joy into my day with its wonderfully candid and tongue-in-cheek attitude toward a fairly gruesome and disturbing idea. The movie sometimes feels like it moves too quick, and that's more of a sad thing than a bad thing. I wanted more fun but I was really happy with what I got.