Author Archives: CZombie

Review: Grave Encounters

Starring: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko

Directors: The Vicious Brothers

 ”I don’t know how much longer we can last. We’re not alone in here anymore.”

Paranormal investigation show, Grave Encounters, is now on its sixth episode and presenter Lance Preston and his team are locking themselves in the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital for the night. Expecting the kind of anti-climatic experience which has let the show down so far, the team find quite the opposite.

I’m a big fan of the increasingly prolific ‘found footage’ genre of horror movie. For some reason, its ratio of good to bad is unusually impressive. So I was very much looking forward to Grave Encounters, the debut from writer/director team The Vicious Brothers (who are not brothers and do not have the surname Vicious). Based on those often cheesy TV ghost-hunting shows which have found popularity over recent years, Grave Encounters simply takes the format and demonstrates what would happen if these people actually found something during one of their episodes. The filmmakers also expressed a desire to take a genre that is by nature often restrained to maintain realism and throw something a little more excessive into the mix. In this regard the filmmakers succeed, although not always to the movie’s benefit.

Grave Encounters takes it slow at first, giving us time to get to know Lance Preston, played with an amusing earnestness by Sean Rogerson, and his team of pantomime presenters and technicians as they settle into the impressive location for the night. The problem is that they are so convincing as they kind of people who usually front these shows that they are also, inevitably, rather irritating; all pretentious looks and solemn pronouncements. You are waiting for them to find out what being scared really is, and therefore never completely on their side when things go to hell.

It is when the hospital haunting begins in earnest that Grave Encounters both scales its heights and scrapes its lows. Those who have grown weary of the lack of incident in these types of movies will find much more going on during this one. In fact, the filmmakers seem at great pains to ensure that, if nothing else, their movie will never be accused of being boring. Where most other entries in this genre are content to tickle the back of your neck, Grave Encounters simply slaps you round the head. It is not subtle and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, with some very effective frighteners but also a few scares a little too heavily signposted to truly shock. It doesn’t help that one of the main scares appeared in the trailer.

Who ya gonna call? Art students!

There are a few inspired moments amongst the horror movie clichés and classics, particularly in the way that the movie plays with your expectations as morning arrives, very little has happened and you wonder where the movie will go next. However, one thing Grave Encounters can lay solid claim to is the fact that it is a whole lot of fun to watch. Once the action kicks off it barely relents and the last forty minutes provide a breathless ride that will have you either jumping, screaming, laughing, or all of the above, depending on how you take to the various shaky-cam assaults which the hospital throws at our not-so-intrepid TV crew.

Grave Encounters is probably not one for the high-brow horror enthusiast. Yes, there is the odd CGI embellishment. Yes, it wants to entertain rather than convince. It’s a bit of a crowd-pleaser with a hit-and-miss, kitchen sink approach that may grate with some. However, watch it on its own terms, don’t take it too seriously and the chances are you’ll have a blast.

Rating – 3 Stars

 


Review: Super 8

Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

Director: J.J. Abrams

“She used to look at me… this way, like really look… and I just knew I was there… that I existed.”

Summer, 1979, in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. While 13-year-old Joe Lamb and his friends are making a zombie movie on a Super 8 camera they witness, and barely survive, a horrific train crash. Shortly afterwards, strange things start happening in the town and Joe begins to suspect that something less than human was on that train.

One suspects that J.J. Abrams always fancied himself as a natural successor to Steven Spielberg, and this collaboration with the Grandmaster of fantastical cinema really does go a long way to proving that assumption true. Abrams, of the same generation as this reviewer, grew up during the heyday of Spielberg and his ‘movie brat’ contemporaries and Super 8 is nothing less than a beautifully crafted love letter to those magical cinema experiences of the late seventies and early eighties.

In paying homage to his hero and, in this instance, mentor, Abrams gives us what almost amounts to a greatest hits of Spielberg themes. Small town Americana, broken families, kids who are much smarter than the adults, an oppressive military and a heart as big as the alien intruder abroad in suburbia. All are present, correct and served with the kind of loving nostalgia that could only be brought to life by someone whose inner-child was there at the time. And, in turn, it’s impossible for the inner-child of the viewer not to be carried back to that sense of wonder which permeated the movies of that time.

The young cast are uniformly excellent, and Abrams certainly seems to share Spielberg’s knack for bringing the best out of his adolescent actors. Joel Courtney, as the reserved, wide-eyed Joe and Elle Fanning, as the confident, sassy Alice are both engaging and sympathetic leads. And if the adults sometimes feel a little one-dimensional it’s only because this is not really their movie. They’re just there to make the kids look smart. Which, of course, they do.

Abrams manages to bring his own style to proceedings while still shooting the movie and moving the camera as if he were the young Spielberg. Indeed, it often feels as if you are watching Spielberg’s lost movie, made somewhere between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but with shades of Cloverfield thrown in.

You think these haircuts suck, boys. Be thankful the movie wasn’t set in 1985.

However, it’s this overwhelming nostalgia, and accurate imitation of a style of moviemaking long gone that will probably be the making or breaking of Super 8 for much of its audience. Many of a younger generation will doubtless find it a little too passive and a little too otherworldly for their liking, whereas those a generation behind them will be reminded of a time when movies didn’t need to smack you round the face, or leap out of the screen, to bring into their embrace, enthralled and enchanted, for two hours of whimsical fun.

Rating – 5 Stars

.

.


Review: The Beaver

Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence

Director: Jodie Foster

‘You’re nothing without me, Walter. Nothing. I’m the only part of you that works.

After two years of severe depression, toy executive Walter Black retreats completely and begins communicating with his long-suffering family through a glove puppet. Meanwhile, his estranged elder son fights to avoid becoming his father.

Having been trapped in limbo for over a year, waiting for the dust to settle on Mel Gibson’s public meltdown, The Beaver is finally released into the world. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting role for Gibson to have chosen, even if it was chosen and performed before the event.

Walter Black, so lost in a black hole from which he feels there is no escape that he is forced to hide within an alternative persona, is such a perfect fit for Gibson that it’s hard to believe that he was second choice for the part and equally hard to believe that original choice Jim Carrey could have brought half the pathos that Gibson delivers to The Beaver. With every flicker of his eyes, every hunch of his shoulders, Gibson portrays a man trapped in his own personal Hell, while still managing to mine the ridiculous premise for nuggets of comedy. Foremost in this regard is the English cockney accent Gibson utilises for the beaver puppet itself. Apparently coached by Ray Winstone, you would swear in several places that Winstone was dubbing the puppet himself, so accurate is Gibson’s delivery. It’s the ideal voice for a puppet that becomes increasingly sinister as the movie progresses.

The always excellent Foster who, like Gibson, is no stranger to acting and directing in tandem, turns in a solid performance as Walter’s exasperated wife, torn between wanting to escape her husband’s destructive condition and wanting to save him from it. Anton Yelchin is not entirely sympathetic as Walter’s teenage son, who keeps a list of similarities between himself and his father with the intention of ridding himself of each one. It’s a sub-plot that, like The Beaver itself, is weakened by skipping over the depth, never quite fulfilling its potential.

Where the movie as a whole fails is in its rather half-hearted exploration of Walter’s underlying depression, or analysis of why he chooses to disengage from himself the way he does. That he creates a persona through a glove puppet for his own rehabilitation is a fascinating conceit. It deserves to have been explored with a little more depth, rather than simply rely solely on Gibson’s nonetheless accomplished performance.

I was going to make a gag about hands in beavers but this is a family site. Sort of.

The Beaver is by no means a bad movie. Foster has an assured touch behind the camera and the movie has real heart at its core. It is also anchored by one of Gibson’s best performances, without which it would certainly have been less of a success. By turns heart-breaking, sinister and funny, rarely has an actor seemed more at home in a part. However, the titular character itself never quite manages to become more than a puppet on the end of Walter’s arm, which seems like a failing given the importance it plays.

Ultimately, The Beaver gets caught up in trying not to be too much of any one thing. Torn between the tragic and the comedic aspects of Walter’s tale, it never quite reaches the heights of either.

Rating – 3 Stars

 .

.

 


Counting Bullets: The Dirty Harry Movies

The Sixties, with all of its commendable trumpeting of tolerance, restraint and free love was always going to be too good to last. Sooner or later there’s always a rebound and in Hollywood few movies represented that rebound better than 1971′s Dirty Harry. Peace, love and understanding proved to be no match for the most powerful handgun in the world and an actor who, at that time, was best known for playing a different kind of cowboy.

The project had been floating around Hollywood for a few years by the time Eastwood came on board. Originally written under the title Dead Right as a vehicle for either Frank Sinatra or John Wayne, it began to do the rounds after both actors turned it down, Wayne because he felt it was too similar to his other roles and Sinatra because a wrist injury left him unable to carry the weight of Harry’s hand cannon. Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum also declined the role, both objecting to the character’s violent, right-wing persona. The script itself went through a number of revisions, including drafts by John Milius (unsurprisingly) and Terence Malick (very surprisingly). Eventually the script was offered to Clint Eastwood, on the recommendation of Paul Newman (after he, too, turned it down) and Eastwood, who found some sympathy for Harry’s dedication to victim’s rights, agreed on the condition that his old friend Don Siegel direct.

What the screenwriters, Siegel and Eastwood created was a movie, and a man, who polarised audiences and critics alike (New Yorker critic Pauline Kael denounced it as ‘fascist’) and who continues to do so today. The character of Harry Callahan is one of cinema’s more challenging propositions, especially for those of a liberal and left-leaning disposition. Unlike many other anti-heroes, such as Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken (who sounded a lot like Eastwood) or X-Men’s Wolverine, Harry exists in a wholly non-fictional world and as a result asks much more uncomfortable questions about that world. It is entirely possible to be appalled at Callahan’s disregard for the rights of those he pursues, but also to cheer him on when he puts the bad guys down. Harry represents an animal justice which must resonate somewhere in everyone, even if the necessary application of law and ethics make his actions just plain wrong.

You could debate the rights and wrongs of Harry Callahan for hours, and that’s what makes him such a potent and important fixture in the history of cinema. _________________________________________________________________________________

Dirty Harry

Don Siegel (1971)

‘You gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky?’

A serial killer is holding San Francisco to ransom and rigidly self-governing Detective Harry Callahan, at constant odds with the city’s policy of tolerance and liberalism, is determined to stop him at any cost. But preferably at the cost of a few .44 bullets.

Having been offered to just about every A-list star in Hollywood, the role of Harry Callahan finally came home to the only actor, at least in retrospect, who could have played the archetypal anti-hero cop. Dirty Harry is Eastwood’s Man with No Name in a contemporary setting, only with an added sense of righteousness and humour. And while the movie can look and sound rather dated, very much a product of its time, it set the template for a thousand loose-cannon-cop movies that followed it but never managed to better it.

Eastwood and his mentor Siegal, always a great pairing, create a taut, brutal classic in which rooting for the cop is not always as easy as it usually is. Few actors could make such an objectionable character so likeable but Eastwood’s frosty charm works perfectly. Here is a complex character masquerading as a simple one; a character whose perceived callousness is actually a result of a fervent, concrete belief in right and wrong. Dirty Harry makes you question yourself and your morals in a way that few cop movies had before or would again. 

The Punk: Serial killer Scorpio, based on the real-life San Francisco killer who called himself Zodiac (do you see what they did there). Actor Andrew Robinson had to be sent on gun training to stop him from flinching every time he shot his gun, but turns in a signature performance as the deranged, whiny lunatic. In fact that for many years he had trouble getting any roles that didn’t involve being a deranged, whiny lunatic.

Rating – 6 Shots

_________________________________________________________________________________

Magnum Force

Ted Post (1973)

‘A man’s gotta know his limitations.’

After a series of high-profile San Francisco criminals are murdered in broad daylight, Harry Callahan begins to suspect that a rogue hit squad exists within the police department, even as he begins to attract the attention, and admiration, of four rookie cops.

Magnum Force was a direct and intentional attempt to answer the critics of the first movie by demonstrating the difference between Callahan and a group of genuine police vigilantes. Although Harry is still the same play-by-his-own-rules cop as before, he stands in total contrast to the group of executioners with badges who are slaughtering criminals in cold blood. Even when they go as far as to offer him membership of their group, he turns them down. Callahan may be ruthless and trigger-happy, but he’s not a vigilante.

Although Eastwood’s preferred choice of Don Siegel was absent from this sequel, it didn’t seem to hinder the quality at all. Ted Post, who clashed with the now far more powerful Eastwood both during and after production, does just as good a job as his predecessor, even upping the action a little as well as the violence. And it’s to the movie’s credit that it resists the easy route of simply retreading the original, by finding a way to extend the moral complexity and present and even larger grey area for Callahan to work in. 

The Punk: Make that punks. Officers John Davis, Philip Sweet, Alan “Red” Astrachan, Michael Grimes and their leader, the unctuous Lt. Neil Briggs make up the hit-squad within the department. Looking a little like Village People when they all turn up wearing the same outfit, the group features quite the list of future stars in David Soul, Tim Matheson, Robert Urich and, err, Kip Niven. Plus the ever reliable Hal Holbrook as Briggs.

Rating – 6 Shots

_________________________________________________________________________________

The Enforcer

James Fargo (1976)

‘Here’s a seven-point suppository, Captain.’

Having just foiled a robbery by driving a car through a liquor store window, Inspector Callahan is taken off homicide and made to work in Personnel. But when a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force engage in a series of escalating crimes, culminating in the kidnap of the Mayor, Callahan is reinstated. Only this time his new partner is a woman, much to Harry’s disapproval.

The series loses its legs a little with this third instalment, although it remains an enjoyable slice of debatable Callahan behaviour. Eastwood, despite delivering some of the funniest lines of the franchise, seems to be a little on autopilot here. In fact, The Enforcer is notable for being the first Dirty Harry movie in which Eastwood fails to remain the centre of attention, upstaged as he often is by a charming, engaging turn from Tyne Daly as the brash, inexperienced Inspector Kate Moore. The banter between the two characters is certainly the highlight of this one. The Enforcer also suffers from rather lacklustre action scenes, compared with the franchise’s two previous outings, although the finale on Alcatraz Island is a series high point.

Director James Fargo was originally set to be Assistant Director to Eastwood, but the actor decided not to direct due to a lack of preparation time after completing The Outlaw Josey Wales. Ultimately, The Enforcer is a worthy addition to the franchise but did mark the beginning of the decline.

The Punk: Baby-faced psycho Bobby Maxwell and his motley group of get-rich-quick hippies, layabouts and bums. DeVeren Bookwalter was primarily a stage actor and following The Enforcer primarily remained one. Unlike the foes of the previous two movies, Maxwell is never really explored in much detail, just a background character awaiting his magnum bullet. Imagine his surprise when he gets a bazooka shell instead.

Rating – 4 Shots

_________________________________________________________________________________

Sudden Impact

Clint Eastwood (1983)

‘Go ahead, make my day.’

After yet again upsetting the mayor and police chief, despite the positive results, Inspector Callahan is shipped off to the small town of San Paulo to investigate a murder. There he meets artist Jennifer Spencer, who, as Harry begins to suspect, is hunting down and killing a group of men that raped her and her sister 10 years ago. 

The fourth outing for Harry Callahan is also the first and only Dirty Harry movie to have been directed by Eastwood himself, which is surprising considering he had been directing since 1971. As with Magnum Force, the maverick cop is again contrasted against an out-and-out vigilante, although this time a far more sympathetic and understandable one. An interesting premise in what had become an otherwise increasingly tired franchise. By this time, of course, the rogue cop was becoming a familiar movie figure and Sudden Impact suffers from being just one in a crowd.

The odd thing is, Sudden Impact probably introduces more change into the franchise than any other instalment. Moving the action from San Francisco makes for a refreshing change of scenery, the introduction of a female and uncomfortably justifiable murderer, with whom Harry develops a relationship, returns the series to its morally questionable best and Harry even gets a brand new gun. But somehow it all manages to seem like the same old same old, only without the 70s grit that elevated its predecessors.

The Punk: Rapist, bum and all-round pantomime scumbag Mick and his equally sleazy crew serve as the cannon-fodder for either Harry or Jennifer. Paul Drake, who went on to enjoy a dazzling career in lo-fi TV shows, couldn’t have been more of a ham if he wore a top hat, cloak and twiddled his pencil moustache while tying hapless maidens to railway tracks. Dreadful. Shoot this guy, already. 

Rating – 3 Shots

_________________________________________________________________________________

The Dead Pool

Buddy Van Horn (1988)

‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.’

After putting away a major crime boss, Harry finds himself dealing with more fame than he is comfortable with. And when celebrities begin dying in mysterious circumstances he becomes aware of a betting ring among the elite predicting which celebrities will die next. As one particular list of celebrities proves to be too accurate to be coincidence, Harry discovers his own name has been added.

The last Dirty Harry movie, and its easy to see why. The Dead Pool takes both a promising idea and a cinematic icon, and fritters them away on a lazy, flat and badly made attempt to make Harry seem at home in 80s cinema. He doesn’t, and so iconic has the character of Harry become that he no longer elicits the same sense of moral uncertainty as he did way back when. Instead, we get unexciting scenes of Callahan shooting bad guys to a triumphant soundtrack and are left feeling nothing. Eastwood even looks as bored doing it as we are watching it. The character, the actor and the franchise has simply become too old for this shit.

The Dead Pool is notable for featuring early appearances from a young Liam Neeson and an even younger Jim Carrey, but it’s the older Eastwood who ultimately disappoints, portraying an older Callahan who is apparently exactly the same man he was back in 1971. There is one great scene involving a car chase through the streets of San Francisco as Harry is pursued by a remote controlled car, but when Inspector Callahan finally dispatches the bad guy with a huge harpoon gun, he takes that last step toward becoming a parody of himself.

The Punk: The Dead Pool is the first and only movie in the series to keep the identity of its main villain a secret until the end, leading you to believe that Neeson’s movie director is the killer. However, when the true identity of the murderer is revealed to be a nobody stalker we haven’t seen before called Harlan Rook, it has a rather overwhelming ‘so what’ factor to it. Yawn.

Rating – 1 Shot

_________________________________________________________________________________

.

.


Review: Stake Land

Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis

Director: Jim Mickle

“I hate vamps.”

America has been laid waste by a plague of vampirism, giving rise to scattered pockets of humanity trying to survive the growing number of infected. When young Martin loses his parents in a vampire attack, he is rescued and taken under the wing of a hardened drifter known only as Mister. The two travel north toward ‘New Eden’, adding to their number while trying to survive both the vampires and a ruthless Christian cult, known as The Brotherhood, who believe the vampires are God’s instrument of Judgement.

Rejoice, for vampires are the bad guys again. No place for pale-faced, brooding teenagers or angst-ridden guys in long coats here. Just vampires the way they should be; ravenous, snarling animals who wouldn’t even know where their navel is, let alone want to spend hours gazing at it. It’s a mark of how far the vampire genre has drifted that a movie where they are actually monsters should be so refreshing. The second feature from director Mickle who, having started out as a Key Grip (you know, appears in all the credits and no-one knows what it is) gives hope to would-be directors everywhere, takes the vampire back to its parasitical roots.

Coming off like a cross between The Road and Zombieland, with all the gloom of the former and none of the humour of the latter, Stake Land is a rather bleak viewing experience. That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable, on the contrary, but its apocalyptic and violent landscape makes for a rather dark hour and forty minutes that some may find hard to equate with entertainment. Not being one of those ‘some’, of course, I enjoyed it. Much like The Road, it’s this bleakness that gives the rare moments of lightness in Stake Land such a power when they come; a smile, discovering a friend is still alive, a gift. Against such a backdrop of hopelessness and horror, such moments of humanity take on a greater resonance and Stake Land never loses sight of this fact.

Like many good horror movies, Stake Land shines a light on humanity and finds the horror from within as well as from without, its prime focus being on fundamentalist religion as represented by The Brotherhood. Religion and apocalypse are willing bedfellows and it is hinted at several times that The Brotherhood are largely responsible for the spread of the plague due to their penchant for dropping vampires into populated areas, thereby delivering God’s wrath. In this world, vampires are weapons of mass destruction and the terrorists’ weapon of choice. It’s an inspired twist.

Dave couldn’t figure out why no-one was giving him any loose change

Co-writer Damici turns in an understated performance as the taciturn Mister, a character who says little and gives away less. So much so, in fact, that as the movie ends we know as much about him as we did when the movie started. He’s tough, morally immutable and kills vampires. You need know nothing more about Mister, it seems, but the lack of growth or exploration may leave some feeling a little short-changed. Joining him along the way is an almost unrecognisable Kelly McGillis as a nun, Sister, who brings some balance by representing the best of religion and also provides an amusing rhyme with Mister.

Stake Land is a good addition to a genre that has long been suffering from tediously romanticised visions of its creature. Reclaimed from the teenage market, the vampire finds its teeth again. It’s brutal, violent and sometimes scary, but there is an honest, human heart beating at the centre of Stake Land which is more potent and more real than a thousand Twilights.

Rating – 3 Stars

.

.