Monday, October 29, 2018

Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)

Over the past couple years I’ve been exploring the 1990s vampire series, Subspecies. Today we dive into the third film of the franchise (or Subpecies cinematic universe if you prefer). When it comes to horror series, it is usually a case of diminishing returns. But a couple of things give this film an edge. They planned to make this particular sequel and the surviving cast returns from the previous film. All they need to do is finally get a decent script. Should be easy, right?

Summary:

The film opens moments after Bloodstone: Subspecies II ended. Rebecca (Malanie Shatner) left her vampiric sister Michelle (Denice Duff) in a tomb to wait for nightfall. The plan is to return with help and then… um… well Rebecca’s plan is unclear. But it doesn’t matter anyway because the decaying Mummy (Pamela Gordon) is still alive! She seizes Michelle and drags her back into the depths of the tomb. There she performs blood rites to resurrect her son Radu (Anders Hove). The three then transform into mist (with a lot of over the top chanting, laughing and screaming) and escape, just as Rebecca returns with American diplomat Mel (Kevin Spirtas) and skeptical Detective Marin (Haiduc).

Now the hunt returns to Radu’s mysterious castle as Rebecca, Mel, and detective Marin attempt access the fortress via the crypts. Meanwhile Radu and Mummy continue to train Michelle in her new vampire powers and force her to embrace the darkness. Villagers are abducted, blood is spilt and Radu gets to drool a lot more gore. Finally Mel contacts his CIA pal Bob (Michael Dellafemina) to lead the attack against the castle. But will a trained military operative be enough to defend against Radu’s Bloodlust?

Good Points:
  • Feels like a natural continuation of the previous film
  • Hove is still horrifying as the vampire Radu
  • When the movie goes over the top it is at its best 
Bad Points:
  • There doesn’t appear to be much of a script to this film
  • So many ideas are brought up, but never explored
  • Never gets into a solid and entertaining flow
Overall:

When it comes to these films the script has been the major issue. We run into that again. But this time it feels like they added a bunch of padding because they only had a few ideas (and locations) to explore. The result is a movie that has some of the best scenes of the series surrounded by scenes that meander in circles. The climax is impressive and fitting to a trilogy, but I will say it is the weakest of the three films.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

"Oh yes, I'm back, and droolier than ever!"
Ah Subspecies, you try so hard, and yet sometimes I wonder if you are trying at all. There is so much potential in the series as a whole, and specifically in Bloodlust: Subspecies III (calling it Subspecies III from now on). But time and again the movie unravels at the seams and just never quite recovers. I was entertained for most of it, but as a whole the movie falls flat.

So what happened? Mostly the script (or lack of one) happened. Just about all the production elements remain the same. Visually the movie looks a lot like the previous one, with some excellent location shooting in Romania. But we’ve seen many of the locations already, like the castle and Bucharest. There is a new village we get some time in, and some more scenes in the forest surrounding the castle, so that helps things a bit. The familiarity of the settings isn’t a deal breaker, but it was one of the advantages the previous films had over your typical vampire horror. 

"No seriously its just marina sauce, and a little blood. But not my blood. That makes it OK, right?
The acting remains solid over Subspecies III. Duff and Shatner do a good job as the tormented sisters. I actually came to really root for Rebecca in this one, and Shatner’s acting is a big part of it. She really convinces me that she is desperate to save her sister, even if she isn’t sure how to do it. Duff gets to embrace her dark side (a little bit anyway) over the course of this film. When she is haunting the village and using her new powers she does a good job of getting us to believe her dark desires are taking over. The script stumbles a bit with her motivations as the film progresses, but Duff’s acting is not the issue.

I think Spirtas is actually a bit better this time as Mel. He as a little more to do here, becoming a full-fledged vampire hunter. His interaction with Shatner works well, and his disgust and horror at Radu and Mummy is palpable. As for Detective Marin, well Haiduc is playing the same skeptical clueless detective he played before. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, and he doesn’t really succeed. But it’s a thankless and pointless role anyway. He just takes up too much screen time for so little payoff. I never laughed or really even smiled when Marin was around.

Not really comedy gold here, more like comedy pyrite. 
Now when Pamela Gordon was around as Mummy, I was entertained.  She is just as over the top, gross and ridiculous as she was in the previous film. Her antics are quite entertaining, especially when she ends up arguing with Radu over the fate of Michelle. There is less for her to do in the film, which is both good and bad. She brings some energy to her scenes, but I still don’t like the way the character dilutes the horror of Radu.

Still Anders Hove has so much presence and goes for the blood drooling with such gusto that he overcomes a lot of the issues within Subspecies III. He has some really good scenes with Michelle, and manages to show some kind of affection for her, in his own twisted way. Hove is absolutely fearsome when he faces down those that would attempt to separate him from Michelle. When Radu is on screen the movie is usually at its best, and it is a shame that the script is so flimsy because we could have had a real winner here.

"See I have the Bloodstone right here. It isn't going to impact the story, but I still have  it."
The sound effects and music remain in the same realm they were in previously. The sounds support the film well enough. The music is an assortment of tracks that build some mystery, chime in with the recognizable title theme and other times use the screechy violins to denote horror. Not bad stuff, but lacks some of the punch of other horror scores of the time.

So lets look at the culprit right in the face – the script. Subspecies III builds on the events in the previous two films, but only in a halfhearted way. It almost feels like they had a series of ideas they wanted to explore over the two sequels, but never really fleshed out a full script until they were close to shooting. With most of the intense stuff captured in Bloodstone, they were left with not a whole hell of a lot for Bloodlust. The result was sequences and scenes that just kind of go in circles. 

Looks like someone had one hell of a night... get it, hell... see what I did there.
One example happens right off the bat. Subspecies II ends with Rebecca saying she’ll wait for Michelle outside the tomb until nightfall. Then Michelle is seized by the roasted Mummy and hauled into the tomb screaming. Rebecca heard that right? Well according to Subspecies III, Rebecca leaves the tomb right after saying she’ll wait. She goes off to find some help, and comes back with Mel and Detective Marin. In some ways it makes sense, but we needed a quick scene of her making up her mind to get help, or something. Because it just feels arbitrary that she wanders off into the woods. And keep in mind the film starts off with a montage of moments from the second film, including the scene where Rebecca promises to wait. So her decision to leave feels even stranger.

Then there are a number of scenes where characters go the castle, can’t get in, talk for a bit about how they need to get into the castle, and then drive away. It happens about four different times and doesn’t do anything to forward the story. From a narrative point of view you only need that to happen one time and then have Rebecca and Mel head to the town to regroup and come up with some kind of idea (maybe contact agent Bob at that point). Detective Marin adds nothing to these scenes and we spend way too much time with him and his “funny” antics.

Mel and Rebecca doubt the veracity of your claim.
That is the main issue with Subpecies III. It doesn’t realize that the more interesting story is the power struggle between Radu, Michelle and Mummy. All the best scenes in the film occur with these three characters. The main issue here is that the script never clarifies where Michelle stands on any of this. Sometimes she seems to have accepted her fate as a vampire. Other times she seems to be resisting it. Sometimes she begs for death. Other times she begs Radu to teach her more about the vampire’s powers. Michelle needed the evolution of character here and one that is pretty easy to chart. After being dragged into the darkness at the end of Subspecies II she could have embraced her darkness, and even decided that she didn’t want or need Radu. Her whole goal cold be to surpass him in power and then destroy him. Then her interplay with Radu could be more effective, and her natural conflict with Mummy would have more bite.

Mummy just hates Michelle on principle and you don’t have to do too much with her. But I think she remained around a little too long. I love that Radu kills her (and the way he rips off her arm and beheads her with the knife still clutched in the desiccated hand is wonderfully ghoulish) because she just keeps trying to kill Michelle when he isn’t around. 

Oh yeah, Michelle goes all femme fatale goth style in this moment.
Finally if we go this way with Michelle’s character (as the vamp femme fatale) then it fits the idea that Radu is easily controlled by women, and supports the ridiculous relationship between him and mummy established in the previous film. Because some of those conversations between Michelle and Radu work really well. I love how he reflects on the fact that he has wiped out his whole family because of his passions. I feel the pleasure he takes in teaching Michelle to use her powers. It would work great if she was manipulating him (he could even figure out what she was doing part way through the film), and then as she was really delving into her dark nature be faced with her sister again. Lots of natural drama right there to explore.

The vampire scenes have less padding but they still suffer a bit because Michelle keeps changing her motivations and seems to reset to whimpering and helpless every other scene. This worked fine for Subspecies II, but by the time we get to Subspecies III we need to do more with her character. 

Nice little chat about finger demons.
I’m coming down a bit hard here because I see the potential for a really good movie buried in there. They could have doubled down on the drama and gothic horror. Or they could have embraced the over the top madness of two scenes that make Subspecies III memorable.

The first is Bob the CIA agent. When he shows up, it feels like you popped in a whole new movie about one liner spewing army heroes storming Dracula’s castle. Bob is a surreal character that comes out of nowhere with his machine gun and camo gear. His first reaction when he sees the desiccated Mummy is to shout “Heads up Granny” and open fire. It is hilariously silly and then his demise is just about the funniest thing in the entire Subspecies series. If the film had embraced this horror comedy feeling it would have been wonderful. Instead, it just feels like an odd moment that sticks out in the meandering film.

Bob and Mel: Fearless Vampire Slayers!
Then you have the climax of the movie. Hove finally gets to dive into his diabolical performance and chases our heroes through the castle, looming out of the shadows and growling at them. His intensity and their fear work so well, you feel like you are watching a genuine horror film. Then you have Rebecca trick Radu into trying to catch the Bloodstone as she hurls it over the castle wall, and into the open, as the sun ascends into the sky. (Side note, the Bloodstone once again appears and is once again completely pointless to the plot – what a waste of a great MacGuffin). Radu hurtles into the light and then proceeds to melt, burst into flame, hurtle over the castle wall and then land impaled on a dead tree as he roasts and melts. Yeah we get wood right through his oozing skull. It is gross and over the top, but a fitting end to the vampire. 

"Oh man I should really pay attention to my Swatch!"
This over the top ending to Subspecies III helps redeem it a little bit. I just wish he whole film had doubled down on this type of approach… or any type of approach really. The movie is a mess, but so were the previous two, but this one feels more disjointed and little less fun. The meandering characters and plot distract from the good and great portions of the film. It gives the Subspecies series an ending and that is good. It makes for fun viewing in October with you expectations adjusted. But I did end up wishing it had been given a bit more attention with the script. Once again, if Hollywood must keep remaking movies, the Subspecies films have a lot of potential in them. They could be improved and we’d have a fine horror trilogy ready to unleash on an unsuspecting public.

I think Michelle has a little surprise for her sister.
Would you trust these two to do anything right, much less slay a vampire and his Mummy?
I don't know who is more offended in this picture.
"No problem. Everything is fine. I'm sure there will be another sequel or two."

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

When Marnie was There (2014)

I assumed that Studio Ghibli had gotten all their spooky antics out of their system with the amazing Spirited Away. But it turns out that one of the last films the studio made was a supernatural puzzler… but you know, for families. I was just as surprised as you were. Could a studio long known for their family fare actually pull off a movie that has more in common with Vertigo than Kiki’s Delivery Service?

Summary:

Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is at a rough age. She feels awkward and misunderstood at school. Her home life became difficult after she made an unwelcome discovery. It caused her pull away from her foster mother. After suffering a stress induced asthma attack, Anna is sent to the coast to live with her aunt and uncle. At first things don’t go much better, as Anna’s discomfort around strangers causes her to snap at the people around her.

But things change when she spots a strange mansion on the coast that is accessible only at low tide, but requires a boat to visit otherwise. Anna finds herself returning to the place again and again to sketch it and peer into the abandoned interiors. But one night she sees a young blonde girl inside the house. She eventually meets the girl, Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) who is the same age and also going through some tough issues at home. Anna is drawn to her new friend; despite the fact that no one else acknowledges Marnie or the parties her parents throw. And why is everyone in the old mansion dressed in 1920s fashions? Is Anna suffering a mental breakdown, or is she looking into the past, at a time When Marnie was There?

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful animation immerses viewers in the setting and atmosphere
  • Effective performances by the English voice cast
  • Keeps the viewer’s wondering just what is happening to Anna, and the mystery of Marnie
Bad Points:
  • Moves at a very measured pace
  • Looking for an outright thriller? Not in this film.
  • Why is this animated?
Overall:

I was impressed by how well this film works. Anna is a very relatable character, even if she can be difficult. The more we find out about her, the more we understand her reactions to others and especially to Marnie. The film does a good job of never giving away too much about Marnie until the right moment. An easy recommendation if you are looking for a coming of age film meshed with a psychological mystery.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

For Anna it is easier to focus on her sketches and ignore people.
It is difficult to write too much about When Marnie Was There without giving away the mystery of the film. That mystery is one of the key elements that engages the viewer. But the core of the movie is the excellent characterization of Anna. When these two elements merge When Marnie Was There becomes a very effective and moving film, one that children around Anna’s age, and adults can relate to.

Anna arrives at her new home in the coastal town.
Visually Studio Ghibli did some wonderful work here. Don’t come in expecting those wonderful action flourishes or flying moments that thrill in the films of Miyazaki. Instead director Hiromasa Yonebayashi focuses on creating a sense of place and atmosphere in the movie. The coastal town where most of When Marnie Was There takes place feels like a real location. We see plenty of details in the buildings, the countryside and of course the mysterious mansion to have them crystallize in our minds. As Anna explores these locations we take them in with her. Details like a flapping curtain in an “abandoned” building or the way the tide creeps in closer and closer as time passes establish the feel of the town. Like Anna, we find it a bit strange at first, but soon come to enjoy its oddities.

Anna's first glimpse of the mysterious house where Marnie awaits.
For atmosphere Yonebayashi doesn’t go for anything as overt and mind bending as Satoshi Kon did with Perfect Blue. Obviously this isn’t a horror/thriller. But he does use some of the more subtle techniques that Kon would utilize, such as holding some shots just a little too long; building the mystery using pacing. He also uses light and shadow to great advantage, especially as Marnie and Anna meet more and more frequently. Darkness seems to be overtaking Anna and it adds a disconcerting feeling to the whole friendship. The strange hazy light during the parties creates a dreamlike feeling to those scenes. Even simple moments with Anna and Marnie on the boat and talking feel slightly off center. It all builds into in a wonderfully subtle feeling of unease..

Meeting Marnie by moonlight.
The sound and the score do a good job supporting When Marnie Was There. The sound work is mostly real world sound effects, keeping the film grounded, even while are doubting our eyes. The score by Takatsugu Muramatsu works fine. It is low key, supporting emotions and atmosphere without drawing attention to itself. Some of the key emotional scenes at the end do rise to the occasion and work very well in the moment. But the score didn’t really draw me in with themes. That is fine, not every score has to. But I usually expect something a bit more colorful from Studio Ghibli films. The song during the final moments of the film Fine on the Outside by Priscilla Ahn is a soothing piece that works well in the film.

Looks like someone is ready to party!
The English voice cast did a very good job in the roles. Steinfeld and Anna and Shipka as Marnie have the most challenging parts, and both ladies do an excellent job. Steinfeld keeps Anna relatable, even when we think she is being unreasonable. Anna’s struggles come through in the voice acting as well as the animation and Steinfeld’s performance is key. Shipka is also very good at making Marnie feel like a genuine girl, but also keeping a bit of the mystery to the character. It is a tough balancing act, and the animation surely helps. But some of Marnie’s lines need to be said in just the right way, and Shipka is up to the task. Aside from that the voice cast included several well-known names (Vanessa Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis and John C. Reilly to name a few) keep things appropriate low key and believable.

"Come play with me Anna..."
Where When Marnie Was There really shines is in the execution of the story and the character of Anna. The film has three parts. The first establishes Anna and her life in the city. The second brings her to the coastal town and into contact with Marnie. The third comprises Anna’s attempt to figure out who Marnie is and the impact it has on Anna’s life. Each portion of the story must be told completely and well for the ending to have the necessary emotional impact.

Visiting the house later, Anna sees that it is a real fixer-upper opportunity.
Pacing is important, and I know the slow pace is not going to work for all viewers, I feel it is necessary. The story does a good job of establishing Anna in the first portion of the film as an introverted pre-teen that is having trouble coping with growing up. Her asthma attack seems to be a symptom of her anxiety. As the film continues we start to get more and more clues about Anna’s life. We find out that she is a foster child. We find out that her parents died when she was very young. Her natural insecurities are increased when she finds out a secret about her foster mother. Each piece of Anna’s puzzle gives her more depth as a character, but more importantly it allows us to understand her relationship with Marnie.

Marnie marvels at the meticulous sketch.
The build up to the first encounter with Marnie is handled so well. It is mysterious and dreamlike all at once. Because we know that Anna has some emotional issues already, we begin to wonder if any of this is really happening. That balancing act is maintained throughout When Marnie Was There. It makes it a very engaging watch the first time through, but I dare say that the characters of Anna and Marnie will draw me back for repeat viewings.

A stormy night in a dangerous tower, what could go wrong?
Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few correlations between When Marnie Was There eand the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of these may be unintentional, but I get the feeling they were not. The obvious one is that Hitchcock directed a film called Marnie. Next is that the mysterious woman in this film is the classic Hitchcock cool blonde with blue eyes. A key sequence takes place in a silo that could be dead ringer for the tower in Vertigo, and we even get a moment where the Vertigo zoom is used when Anna experiences a revelation. Anna spends quite a bit of time peering into window and watching the mansion from a distance, very much like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. You could say that the coastal town in When Marnie was There is a sister city to Bodega Bay featured in The Birds. I haven’t seen all of Hitchock’s films, but I’m guessing there are a few more nods to his work in the film.

A lot could go wrong.
But cast those aside and you still have a really engaging film. When Marnie Was There may not go down as one of the best films from Studio Ghibli. But it is well worth seeking out and watching. It shows that even at the end the famous studio could still craft a movie that draws viewers in and allows you to feel along with these animated characters.

Anna and her new pal are ready for some sleuthing.
Marnie takes us on a little voyage to her home.
Is Anna sketching her new friend... or something else entirely?
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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Movie Musing - Excuse me... who are you?

Haven't seen this poster before, dare
I say it is perfect?
I recently revisited Satoshi Kon’s fearsomely good thriller Perfect Blue. It is one of those movies that I can revisit and get something new out of each viewing. This time I was struck by how Kon seeds certain ideas early in the film and then gives us payoff by the end. Most of the stuff is subliminal. For example there are several scenes where Mima crosses a busy street. She has a dream where a truck hits her. She has a dangerous encounter inside a highway tunnel. All these things just seem like part of the tale, but build to the climax of the film involving a desperate foot chase in the busy city streets and a truck careening toward one of the characters. Brilliantly foreshadowed, and something I’ve never really noticed until this viewing.

But why do I keep coming back to Perfect Blue after all these years? Because it is one of my favorite kinds of horror film. It is based around the fear of self; or to put it another way, the fear of loss of control.  It is related to my least favorite scare genre: possession. But the stories and films that work for me, don’t allow me to question the “why” of the situation. That is my primary issue with possession films, I keep wondering why a demon or devil would go to these extremes. 

But with these other variants on loss of control it feels more relatable. We have all had moments where something we saw, heard or felt can be brought into question. We’ve all been sick and our bodies seem to rebel against our mind. Horror films and stories take this concept to the extreme.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Perfect Blue does it especially well, but putting the viewer into Mima’s world from the earliest scenes. Kon does some masterful editing during the opening sequence switching from scenes of Mima’s final performance with the pop group Cham and her daily life. These edits are hard cuts with the only visual link being Mima’s pose or motion. This allows us to see what Mima is like as a member of the idol singers and as a regular woman. It also plants the seeds for the later editing techniques and reality warping style that Kon will use as Mima’s condition tilts further and further to the extreme.

Mima's Idol life in the opening scene.
Mima's real life in the same scene about 2 seconds later.
We come to understand Mima, she’s a nice girl who is reaching toward a dream – but one that isn’t really hers. Already she has control of her career removed from her before the film starts. As we watch she loses control of her personality (having to act as someone else in a film), of her body (participating in the rape scene and the  photo shoot that turns into cheesecake shots) and finally her mind (she has conversations with the pop version of herself and sees the sinister Mr. Me-mania everywhere she looks). Kon often puts us in Mima’s perspective and it gives us the feeling of loss of control. He takes the reins and shows us things that couldn’t possibly be – they are just part of the film Mima is working on, right? She isn’t really killing people, that was just a dream, right? Perfect Blue allows you to feel Mima’s insanity and her fear and does so with amazing skill, especially for the first full-length film from a director. 

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Mima’s first line as an actress is “Excuse me… who are you?” It is a question she ends up asking herself many times over the course of the film. In that way it reminds me of a similar film made the same year, Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In that film the prime suspect of a series of murders only answers in questions. And his primary question is, “Who are you?” That question seems to get various disturbing reactions from different characters throughout the film. It is a question at the heart of many of the relationships in Cure. It is a question that protagonist detective Takabe answers in the climax of the film and one that seems to settle his mind… until the final scene shows him acting as the catalyst for a whole new set of murders (at least it appears that way… we can never quite be sure).
At some point both of them ask "Who are you?"
We define ourselves in so many ways including: actions, feelings, our past, our goals, our physical presence. A good horror film has the protagonists question these, and lose control of these. David Cronenberg does this masterfully in many of his films. The Fly is the manifestation of loss of control over an experiment as well as the physical being. Videodrome does something similar with a protagonist losing control of his reality, his mind and possibly his flesh. Might be why I enjoy Cronenberg so much.

Didn't your mother ever tell you not to sit that close to the TV...
especially if David Cronenberg if filming you!
One of my favorite David Lynch films basks in this concept too: Lost Highway. Fred loses control of his anger, convinced his wife is cheating on him. This causes him to snap and kill her. His mind shatters at the same time. He becomes someone else completely. He physically changes into Pete, a different man with a different life. But is Fred insane? Is the whole episode with Pete a delusion, or is this another manifestation of the uncontrollable rage within? The movie is a dark twisted puzzle that is filled with horror and fear. Lynch’s surreal imagery makes it more impactful, you feel like you’ve lost control as well, hurtling into the darkness along the Lost Highway.

Insanity noire.
Interesting that Lost Highway also came out in 1997. Something must have been going around that year, fear of losing our identity maybe? Fear of the world spinning out of control? Y2K looming in the horizon. Who knows, but having Lost Highway, Cure and Perfect Blue all come out the same year seems like more and a simple coincidence... or is it just my mind playing tricks on me.

Two women... one woman... don't think about it too long, or you won't
stay sane.
I could go on and on, but this type of horror film will probably always be my favorite. Because, yeah I’m a bit of a control freak, and losing control can be terrifying. In many of these films the characters find a way to get back in control, or accept that some things are out of their control. It ends with someone looking into the mirror and knowing exactly who they are… even if that is a deranged killer.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Just had to add this. Seems like quite a few
of us want Criterion to release the Perfect Blu-ray.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Most of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. Most film adaptations decide to put the stories in the era they were filmed, but a few take the leap for period production elements. Then you have this film, which moves the action to the 40’s, has a character named Lovecraft, contains the Necronomicon and a huge monster rising up to destroy the earth. It is as if the pulp magazines of the war years exploded all over the screen.

Summary:

It is 1948 in Los Angeles, and everyone uses magic. Well, everyone except for private detective H.P. Lovecraft (Fred Ward). It makes his job a bit tougher, since the police are using spells to catch the rampaging criminal gangs summoning demons to whack targets. Let’s not mention the werewolves, vampires and unicorns wandering around. Things take a turn for the weird when Amos Hacksaw (David Warner) hires Lovecraft to retrieve a stolen tome: a little book called the Necronomicon. Before you can say Cthulhu, all kinds of craziness starts to happen.

Turns out that the local crime lord (and former pal to Lovecraft) Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), may have sent his hulking zombie after it. Lovecraft’s old flame Connie Stone (Julianne Moore) has a few clues of her own to share, but is the price worth it? Let’s not forget the car full of gremlins, a creature bursting from a pot of oatmeal and the sacrifice of a lovely virgin. Lovecraft has his work cut out for him, especially since he won’t stoop to actually Cast a Deadly Spell.

Good Points:
  • Fred Ward is a hoot as the hard boiled, square jawed detective
  • The concept and production are handled really well
  • Never takes itself too seriously, which helps with all the crazy creature effects

Bad Points:
  • Some of the humor falls pretty flat
  • None of the monsters are all that scary
  • The tone of the film never quite gels

Overall:

Oh man, how badly do I want to love this movie? I really do. But in the end it just never quite comes together. The concept is fun, the actors are game and the visual effects are pretty darn impressive. But the humor doesn’t always land, and contrasts with some of the over the top gore that ends up splashing around. Instead of going for slapstick humor, the film should have embraced a drier and darker variety of comedy, that would have fused well with the horror and noire overtones. It is a fun film.  If you’re looking for something a little bit different, this sure fits the bill.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting:  4
Script:  3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Score Sample: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I've done a few Halloween themed score samples over the years on this blog. So how did I manage to avoid putting some Danny Elfman up? Not sure, but it is time to remedy that. I picked one of Elfman's most gothic scores. It is one that has all the hallmarks of Elfman's style, but blown up huge and dark, with those haunting vocals and imposing proportions. That means we get some Sleepy Hollow music today.

While I'm not the biggest fan of the film, I can't deny that the powerhouse score is one of Elfman's best from the 1990s. It matches the over the top visuals that Tim Burton concocted for the film. It builds on the suspense and horror the situations in a deliciously in your face way, and it is a lot of fun to listen to. Lots of great tracks to explore on the soundtrack, but I'm going with the end titles which are some of Elfman's best.

So here is End Credits from Sleepy Hollow composed by Danny Elfman.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The Devil’s Candy (2015)

One of my favorite quotes from MST3K comes from Pod People, and it goes something like this “What is it about the gates of hell that compels people to walk right in?” It is a valid question and one that is often explored in horror films. But sometimes the gates of hell aren’t physical, sometimes they are in the mind. This film takes a look at that concept with a helping of heavy metal, because Satan is pretty metal.

Summary:

The film starts as many horror films do, with a family moving into home with a bit of a history. A double murder occurred in the house. Jesse (Ethan Embry) loves the home’s barn so he can paint his huge canvas’s and listen to heavy metal as inspiration. His wife Astrid (Sheri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are a little less enthused dealing with a greater distance to drive to work and a new school.

But everyone agrees that the house has a real problem attracting the imposing and obviously disturbed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ray is hearing a voice and it is driving him to do some horrible things. But the twist is, Ray used to live in this house and the voice started there. Too soon, Jesse starts to hear the same voice and his paintings become more and more deranged. What strange connection does Jesse have with Ray? And how will it doom this family when they come to understand the horror of The Devil’s Candy?

Good Points:
  • Creates an eerie atmosphere and building dread
  • The film keeps the viewer guessing at how dark it is going to turn
  • Impressive performances by the entire cast 

Bad Points:
  • Feels a bit choppy in places
  • There are small elements of the story that don’t seem to have a payoff
  • If you aren’t a fan of loud guitars then some of the music and sound design might aggravate you

Overall:

Liked the way the film portrays the corruption that seems to spread from the home, and creates this feeling of dread. We see early on what happened to Ray and how he is (not) managing it. But as we get to know the family, we fear for them. The performance are what make this work, we like the dysfunctional family, and we fear Ray. The movie feels a bit uneven in places, and has a few elements that don’t really pay off, but overall the camerawork and pacing build the horror until you are never sure just how dark this movie is going to get. Well worth checking out if you are in the mood for some heavy metal dread.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals:  4
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script:  4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

I think it is safe to say that Star Trek Into Darkness wasn’t what most people expected in the follow up to the 2009 reboot film. Even though I enjoyed the film and found a lot to get behind, I was still disappointed that the movie went in the political thriller direction. For the third film in the franchise I was hoping the writers would get us into actual space exploration with the adventures and moral quandaries that tie to it. The first good sign was that the third film was going to take place during the five-year mission into deep space. The first concerning sign was that it was going to be directed by a man known for his work on the Fast and Furious franchise. Maybe this film was going to go a little too far Beyond.

Summary:

About half way into the five-year mission into the frontiers of space and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a bit of malaise. He struggles to live up to his father’s famous heroism. It is as if all the exploring isn’t yielding anything new for the crew. To top it off, his birthday is just around the corner. Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) tries to cheer the captain up with some fine liquor and the prospect of docking at the impressive new star base: The Yorktown.

While at the Yorktown the crew is contacted by a survivor of a downed survey mission deep in a mysterious nebula not too far away. Kirk gathers his people and hurries off to help. While exploring the nebula, the Enterprise is attacked and decimated by a swarm of alien vessels. Most of the crew is captured and brought before a being called Krall (Idris Elba) who is crafting a dastardly scheme to wipe out the Federation presence in space – and he’s going to start with The Yorktown. It is up to the Enterprise crew to work together with a new ally, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to figure out Krall’s plan and stop it . All the series regulars return to their roles including Spock (Zachary Quinto), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Checkov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg). Will this be the Enterprise’s final Star Trek Beyond?

Good Points:
  • Includes some great moments for the crew, especially Spock and McCoy
  • Sports impressive visual effects and sound design
  • The action scenes are well executed 

Bad Points:
  • Focuses so much on action that we lose the wonder and scope in the story
  • Some may find the 20th century touches to be too distracting
  • Feels obligatory instead of special

Overall:

This film is a solid entry in the franchise, but never rises to more than that. The acting is very good as usual, and the main crew has some great moments of interplay. But the main antagonist and his plot aren’t terribly interesting, although they provide some interesting thematic elements. Overall it is the rigid focus on action over all else that hurts the film. It keeps Beyond from being all the memorable or engaging. Not a bad film, but a hollow one.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Take a good look now, because she isn't going to look this good for long.
I planned to write about Star Trek Beyond a lot sooner than I actually did. But I kept running into two problems. The first was that I wasn’t terribly motivated to watch the film again: never a good sign. The second was that I was having trouble separating what the film was trying to be versus the film I wanted it to be. Those two things were just not going to line up no matter how badly I wanted them to. What frustrates me most about the movie is that all the ingredients are in place to make this entry in the franchise one of the best, but time and again decisions were made that keep the film swerving from what Iwanted it to be.

We weren’t going to get a true adventure of the Enterprise on her mission. I wanted to see something like a supersized episode of the series, but with major impacts to the crew and even the Federation. It didn’t have to include an antagonist at all (I would have cheered if it didn’t’), but it would pose a challenge to them and force them to work together to solve the problem. Or maybe the outcome wouldn’t be quite what they hoped. They could have taken an existing episode of The Original Series and adapted it, twisting it for the new timeline. Or they could have come up with something original and intriguing. Elements of this do happen in Beyond, but not in the way hoped.

I think the little guy just photobombed this screenshot.
But let’s put aside all that for now. As I mentioned, this movie had a different target in sight and let’s see how well it works with that target in mind. But what is that target? Well it really feels like they were looking to crank up the action and intensity in Star Trek Beyond. They were shooting for some big budget visual spectacle and they were looking to keep all the members of the crew involved in the challenge and use all of them to stop Krall. They were also hoping that Idris Elba’s natural gravitas would convey through the heavy makeup and provide a villain for the ages.

When it comes to the visuals, Star Trek Beyond brings us some really amazing stuff. As a whole the revamped series has done a great job with the visual effects. This film goes for some really dynamic and interesting sequences that require a lot of impressive visuals to pull them off. You have The Yorktown itself, a sprawling space fortress encased by a clear sphere. It looks spectacular, and when we get some close up travel sequences through it near the end, all that detail and work really comes through.

Nice shot of The Yorktown through the Enterprise view screen.
I also like the insect-like design of Krall’s swarm ships and artifacts on the lost planet itself. They give us a new and otherworldly culture to examine (if you can slow things long enough to get a good look at the design). Krall’s soldiers and the antagonist himself are formidable designs as well, vaguely reptilian but with a mix of other looks reflecting all the castaways left on the planet. Jaylah is probably the most visually dynamic design with her white skin and stark black markings. But we get several non-human species in this film and they all look pretty interesting, and very tied to the look of the aliens from the previous two films.

Where the visuals really step things up a notch are the creatively conceived and executed action scenes.Star Trek Beyond is packed with them and they offer plenty of wow factor to the film. The attack and destruction of the Enterprise is unlike anything we have really seen in Star Trek before (and admit it we’ve seen The Enterprise destroyed quite a few times now). They fluid motion of the swarm as they rip the ship apart is really something else. Later in the film while Kirk and Chekov search the downed Enterprise saucer for key information another action scene erupts. This one ends with the mammoth saucer flipping over as its thrusters fire. It creates a constantly moving and dangerous battleground for our heroes, and a smashing doom for one of our villains.

Um... yeah, this is a thing that happens. Did they learn nothing from the
dune buggy incident in Nemesis?
Jaylah’s holographic projectors play with illusions in the film, and that makes for a couple of interesting action scenes. It was fun to see multiple Jaylah’s kicking butt all around a befuddled Scotty. But it is the use of them with the motorcycles that really creates one of the most unusual scenes in any Star Trek film. Of course it is also one of the scenes that some fans of the franchise feel goes a little too Fast and Furious and less Beyond. I think it works well enough and leads up to an exciting finale for that scene.

Then you have the escape of The Franklin, the battle against the swarm and the final threat of Krall on board The Yorktown. These action scenes occur one after the other and give us so many different and exciting visuals that it really is impressive. We have never seen Star Trek tackle this kind of action before, hell even Star Wars would be hard pressed in this comparison. The finale involving shifting gravity with Kirk and Krall facing off is really handled well, and ratchets up some nice tension.

The villains lair has a very interesting look.
Director Justin Lin continues with Abram’s constantly moving camera work for Beyond, and combined with his well-executed action it all works great. Lin also opts to return to the brighter color palate of the 2009 film, and I’m really pleased with that. This movie is overall much less dower and grim than the previous one in a visual sense. That is pretty impressive especially considering they destroy The Enterprise in this film.

Matching the visuals is the sound work. Everything here sounds like Star Trek as envisioned in the modern age. Added to it are all the action-oriented sound effects. That means plenty of explosions, metal ripping, ships zipping by and phasers firing. We get some great rumbles as The Franklin attempts to take off. The swarm provides some of the most dynamic sound of the whole series. It’s just a real treat of sound design and Beyond’s action focus gives us plenty to chew on.

Bones knows that Spock is in serious trouble when he sees the Vulcan smile.
We can’t have a modern Star Trek film without Michael Giacchino returning to compose the score. This means he brings back his main theme from the 2009 film, as well as the Spock theme created for that film (although it is hardly used). None of the new material for Into Darkness makes an appearance, but that makes sense considering all the new themes for that film were specific to characters in that movie. Instead we get three new themes.

Sadly his theme for Jaylah isn’t all that interesting. It feels pretty light and never makes much of an impression. Giacchino gives it a couple of full-throated renditions during the film, but most of the time we hear it in fragments. I wasn’t even aware she had a theme until I got the score and heard the suite version of it.

"Sorry Krall, you're uglier than Thanos."
More impressive and often used in the film is Krall’s theme. Like many of Giacchino’s villain themes, this one is simple but powerful. It is played in many guises throughout the film, sometimes flowing like the swarm, other times bombastic and oppressive. It is a malleable theme and one that suits the villain quite well.

The best new material is for the star base Yorktown. Here Giacchino takes a page from James Horner and creates an almost romantic track for this location. It is lovely and can be adapted with choir to have an impressive power behind it. Giacchino gets to use the theme as bookends, and it provides a bit of a respite from some of the more bombastic action tracks. The performances of The Yorktown theme are the highlight of the score and well worth seeking out on their own.

She doesn't look at that friendly here, but she is one of the good guys.
As a whole the score to Star Trek Beyond is a solid effort. Giacchino does some spectacular stuff with his main theme for the series, really putting it through the ringer during the destruction of the Enterprise sequence. But it is the Yorktown theme that is most memorable musical concept for the score. To me it is the weakest of the three Star Trek scores he created, but it is still very good and well worth adding to your Star Trek film music collection. As always it supports the film very well.

The cast of Star Trek Beyond nails the roles, with the material they are given. Pine feels like a more mature and in control Kirk, closer to the version we are familiar with in the series. He adds a weariness to the part that is much different from what we saw in the previous films. The rest of the cast fills in the parts we are familiar with; a bit more time is spent with Scotty and his interaction with Jaylah. We also get some wonderful sequences with Urban’s McCoy and Quinto’s Spock with the banter that we expect between these two based on their interaction in the original series. It makes me realize how much I missed that kind of dialouge in the previous films.

"Uh, you're not gonna hurt me with that, are you lass?" "Only if
you keep calling me lass."
For the new characters, the performances are solid. We have Boutella doing a very good job as Jaylah. She gets the most screen time of the new characters and gets to develop her personality a bit more. Her interactions with the crew are handled well, and she does a very good job in her hand-to-hand fight scenes.

Idris Elba is fine as Krall. The part doesn’t give him all that much to do other than threaten and glower for the bulk of the film. When we finally get his backstory and the film allows Elba to do some more with the role it is almost too late. By that point the film is moving at breakneck speed and can’t afford to slow down to allow Elba’s talents to shine. In some ways it is a thankless role and one that just about any good actor could have handled, no need to get one of Elba’s talents. I’m guessing there was more to the character before rewrites and editing whittled him down so much.

"Ok that is a little too strange for a strong new world."
The script is the main issue for the film. Star Trek Beyond came out on the fiftieth anniversary of the whole Star Trek franchise. As such, I think a lot of fans were expecting something celebratory and impressive. Something that encapsulated everything they loved about Star Trek. But that is a tall order for any film, and in most cases they can’t measure up to it. Just see how Die Another Day and Spectre were handled for key anniversaries for the James Bond franchise.

For a lot of fans the script to Beyond didn’t really capture much of the spirit of Star Trek. But what defines Star Trek is different for many fans. Instead it felt like the creators were looking for a new audience with this film, one that was more focused on over the top action set pieces and cool characters than the wonders of space exploration or a thematic look at the human journey. I’ve seen some folks accuse Paramount looking bring in big audiences in from overseas (specifically China, going by the huge Chinese corporations credited in the opening of the film) and thus reworking the script to suit the potential new audience.

Star Trek doughnuts! You'll love 'em!
But Star Trek Beyond feels like a creation that is trying too hard to please everyone and ends up not really pleasing anyone. Fans of the classic series don’t feel like the film represented what they wanted. Fans of the new cast from 2009 didn’t get a whole lot of time to spend with them (since most of the movie moves from action set piece to action set piece). Finally you have the new audiences that were supposed to flock to this film for the big spectacle, but were not given a real reason to care about any of these characters.

A good example of this is the destruction of The Enterprise. It was included for a number of reasons. First because the Enterprise was destroyed in Star Trek III, and since this is the third film of the new series, there is some interesting symmetry there. Second, it made for an amazing action scene. Third it would raise the stakes in the narrative, making it nearly impossible for the crew to escape the planet.

Um, you dropped a little something back there.
But Beyond stumbles here. Yes The Enterprise was destroyed in Star Trek III, but it was also destroyed in Generations and in the last two movies alone we’ve seen the ship take a hell of a beating. Seeing massive destruction on board the ship and to the ship doesn’t have the punch it should. This is compounded because we have only spent a couple films with this Enterprise. So seeing her desteroyed will not have the same punch as the same action occurring in the previous films, because both of those ships had years and years of television episodes aboard her. And finally, this film suffers from the same issue that Into Darkness had with the “death” of Kirk. It is resolved so easily that there is no time for us to feel any loss. In the 1980s we had to wait years and through the bulk of The Voyage Home before seeing the “A” edition of The Enterprise. Here is happens during an epilogue.

Beyond does do some things right. It gives us a few moments of character interplay that works great. We get a thematic core about the power of unity and cooperation versus hate and divisiveness. You don’t really get more Star Trek than that. It gives each character a moment: to save the day, or come up with a clever plan, or be a key actor in their scene. And yes, it has some impressive sci-fi spectacle moments that are hard to top.

And Kirk crashes the Franklin too. Just keep him away from star ships!
Yet the film stumbles time and again. Krall’s motivation is interesting, but delivered in such a throw away manner that it become unimportant. He is a threat because he hurts people and plans to hurt more. But his presence is not really felt in the film, despite the fact you have Idris Elba playing the part. And by writing a story that centers around the actions of an antagonist, you need to do the work to make that antagonist feel dangerous and ever present. Beyond never manages that, and I will say that Into Darkness did a better job building up Khan, even though he was a retread villain.

On some level the movie is entertaining, and fun popcorn entertainment at that. It does have nods to all the previous films and even to some of the episodes from The Original Series (I’m looking at you HUGE GREEN HAND). Director Justin Lin did an outstanding job with the action scenes. They are some of the best of the series and he creates a great pace for the film. It never slogs, it balances the humor and surprises pretty well. He never really lets up off the gas once the swarm attacks the Enterprise, and yeah, that is an impressive feat.

See! The huge green hand from "Who Mourns for Adonais"!
But does it make a good Star Trek film? Well, good is about as far as we get here. I think most of us were hoping for great. The shackles were off and the alpha quadrant was wide open to explore. What we got was an action packed thrill ride that ended up feeling a bit empty by the end. Star Trek Beyond will join Insurrection and The Search for Spock as solid entries in the series, but not ones that you revisit all that often. If this is the final voyage with this crew, it is a bit sad, because I think they were capable of much more. But at the same time, it was an enjoyable journey, and there is always a place for that.


"So, who is up to save some whales?"
Had to include this nod to the poster to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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