Cropsey (2009)

Back in junior high in Norfolk, Nebraska, the other kids used to talk about how the old mental asylum was haunted. Never mind, the building was still operational and remodeled. It was on the edge of town, back in the woods and, well, seemed creepy. One fall night, we got into an older kids car and drove out there to look for ghosts. I remember being a bit scared. At the time, I read a lot of haunted house books and was really into it. Amityville Horror was my favorite book. I got twenty feet from the car when an older kid jumped out and scared me, I might have spent the rest of the evening in the car. Nobody even got close the the hospital.

I’m not really sure. Memory, especially mine, is a fuzzy affair. I don’t even know where the legend that the mental hospital was haunted and why. I never got any details on the story. I probably made up a few new details.
Every town has haunted spots filled with legends and mis-remembered ‘facts’ about why it’s haunted. It’s just in our nature to fill in the blanks in our knowledge with something, anything.

Cropsey is a documentary about an urban legend that becomes real then spins back out into folklore.

Staten Island is a dumping ground—for NYC’s garbage, for mob bodies and for a short time in the 70’s and 80’s for mentally challenged dead children.

Parents used the all-purpose boogeyman Cropsey to keep kids away from Staten Island’s wooded areas and abandoned buildings. Cropsey took kids. Teenagers ran with the story and Cropsey became a man with a hook or a mental patient or homeless man. He may have set any number of fires or belonged to the Satanic Church. A local boy scout group spread the legend up and down the Eastern seaboard. A lot of towns have their own Cropsey legend, but few have an actual person to pin the legend on.

Albert Rand was picked up in 1987 in connection with the disappearance of Jennifer, an adorable 10 year old girl with Down Syndrome. Suddenly, Albert Rand, a homeless man who lived in the woods near Willowbroook, an abandoned mental institution for children, suddenly became the real Cropsey. There was never any physical evidence tying Rand to the girl, but there were lots of stories. And when Jennifer turned up dead, after he was in custody, Rand eventually went to prison for kidnapping (but not murdering) the girl. And Cropsey’s legend spun out to the disappearance of up 12 other children, mostly mentally handicapped, over a 15 year span. And Rand became tied to many of them, even though there was no physical evidence.

The documentarian couple who originally set out to research the Cropsey legend then turned their focus to trying to find out the truth against a real life man. Quickly, their problem became evaluating what is true and what is not. And it’s a problem that just never will be solved. Too much time has past, people’s memories change, too many people have worked on the various missing child cases and they all have their own ideas, ideas that become facts to others and still, there’s just nothing concrete. Plus, Albert Rand isn’t helping, he’s bananas, both proclaiming his innocence, but using the power he obtained from pretending (or actually having) the secrets of the case.
During the filming, just two years ago, Rand is brought up again on a missing girl case. Once again, it’s all thirty year old witness testimony from alcoholics and drug users and no physical evidence. I won’t tell you the results, but it’s not surprising.

To the documentarian’s credit, they don’t come out fully for or against Rand. This may be frustrating for the crime docu junkies where guilt (almost always) or innocence is spelled out in a tidy 48 minutes. Admittedly, at the end of the movie, I felt a bit gypped by the “you decide” stance on Rand’s guilt or innocence. There was no bombshell. In fact, their exclusive jailhouse talk with Rand fell through. But that’s the way life just is sometimes. You just can’t know. And that’s the real point of the film, you sometimes just can’t know.

I certainly can see why many parents would want to hang the disappearance of their child on Rand, but the truth is, they’ll never probably know the truth. It’s heartbreaking.

I’m fascinated by how people fill in the gaps in their knowledge and then how they justify this gap as actual truth. Urban legends are fueled by this line of thinking. As is religion. And politics. And emotions.

Technically, the documentary is a mix of the straight ahead crime docs you see on basic cable mixed with a few touches of the more personal, documentarian as participant-style of most indie documentaries. Narratively, the movie is a bit scatter-shot, casting a wide net to emphasize the broadness of the urban legend and Rand’s case. The effect is that there always seems to be something left out, some piece of tying information that would bring the case in sharp focus. Sadly, there just isn’t. There is just interview after interview of people speculating what they think actually happened, much of which just plain has to be untrue because of all the inconsistencies and errors in the case and other people’s stories. Someone could easily come along, omit a bunch of testimony, and make a movie proclaiming Rand a Satanic worshipper who sacrificed children or as a completely innocent man.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was clips from a 1972 Willowbrook documentary from a young rising star, Geraldo Rivera. The shots of the severely mentally handicapped kids, naked and covered in their own shit, warehoused in a gigantic crumbling facility were downright haunting. It was so bad that when Rand was shown the tape (he was an intern there in the ’60’s), he becomes practically catatonic. I guess I have to give Rivera a pass next time he does something sensational and stupid.

Cropsey is on Netflix Streaming and while it has a few narrative flaws is an interesting look at a time and place and how emotion and circumstantial evidence can become accepted truth, how the nightmare duel of urban legends can ignite with some spark of real life.

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The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)

Dear The Girl…. Movies,

Not all balding middle-aged white men are pedophiles. Yes, many are, but some pedophiles/rapists are younger or have a full head of hair. Or are of another color. Please keep this in mind when making the upcoming The Girl Who Dies of Cancer From Smoking Too Much.


A not quite middle-aged, not balding, non-pedophile/rapist male (white).

The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from Big, Dumb, American Sequel syndrome. Yes, it’s a Swedish film, but it so badly wants to be an American thriller like The Firm or some such nonsense. Too bad, because the characters are interesting, but the plot and plot points are a bit generic and uninteresting. This is the same complaint I had with the first movie, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, also on Netflix streaming. Interesting characters, boring plot….
The good, who doesn’t root for the punky, chain-smoking, distant, bad-ass lesbian? No one that’s who. Yea, she’s a tech genius (which has become a crime procedural cliche) and she had a horrible childhood. The first film had so much rape and torture of our heroine, Lisbeth, that it felt less like a tragedy and more like a lazy way to let Lisbeth do what she wants. You see, she hates men (understandably) who are mean to women. She commits all sorts of felonies in her pursuit of bad men. Classic vigilante plot line, however in a weird way, it feels lazy. The actress (Noomi something) is so good that it’d be nice if she had a story to match.
The second lead, the older male journalist, also is interesting and complex, but in the second film, he’s three steps behind Lisbeth instead of collaborating. There’s just not much for him to do. So, there’s basically two plots going on simultaneously, one much more interesting than the other. Both plots come to the same conclusions in solving the mystery just by different means. The two main actors are only onscreen in the last scenes. You could almost do the whole movie from her point of view.
As in all sequels, the stakes are upped. Basically, Lisbeth is accused of crimes she didn’t commit. Yawn.

Now, I’d forgive the plot for being generic if it didn’t fall into so many bad and cliched narratives.
Example. You want to get in contact with someone you only know their PO Box. So, you, obviously, mail them with the ‘Lottery Scam,’ tell them they’ve won a big prize only if they’d meet you in person and answer some questions. And you’re a relatively smart pedophile, so yea, you fall for it and meet them. Who does this? People who still believe a Nigerian prince has a lump of cash they just need to send a small amount of money to collect?
Ok, later, you still need to find yet another man who just has a PO Box address. So, naturally, you camp out in front of the post office and wait. Now, even though you’re wanted and on the run, no one notices you and second, the person you’re looking for is looking for you and is also super busy. But of course, not so busy, as to drive twenty miles to go pickup their mail. Like an hour after you set-up.
Dumb. The movie, although very slick and Swedish, is filled with these little plot cliches. Unnecessary car chases, a giant blond henchman, super hacking, it’s almost like a Bond movie recast with a Goth kid.
I’ve been watching a lot of Swedish films lately, and most of them have been interesting, with small plot cul-de-sacs and weird turns, but these Girl movies are the ones Americans will think of, especially with the American remake (I can only imagine the extra stupid in the remake) on the way. This and Let the Right One In (which was good with a kind of weak ending).

The takeaway from this review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire are overrated, especially if you’re a fan of the thriller genre. The acting, look and characters are top-notch, but not enough to overcome the plot. Like the first film, the more I thought about TGWPWF, the more annoyed I became.

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The New York Ripper (1982)

Last weekend, Shells out of the blue wanted to watch a horror movie. That’s one of the reasons why I love her. So we settled in with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween 2. His first Halloween wasn’t fantastic, but certainly had a great 1970’s look and struck the right tone. Zombie, after four movies, has developed a nice grind house style. I remember reading a bunch of negative reviews of Halloween 2 when it first came out, maybe the horror press has grown tired of Zombie, but I thought Halloween 2 was a fine sequel–a lot of nice cameos, the Zombie look, interesting pacing and a bunch of twists over the original (which disposed of the original’s plot after the first fifteen minutes). No new ground was broken, but I do enjoy how most of Zombie’s so-called good guys are not much better than the bad guys. Basically, I’m a sucker for his look. He knows when to pulp it up and when to pull back.

So, I realized Halloween is on the way and I’m feeling more in a horror mood. October is easily my favorite month of the year. Hopefully, I can load up on a bunch the next two weekends. After combing all the movie channels, there’s not much playing I haven’t seen already (although AMC is making a good run at it this year), so it’s off to the dark reaches of Netflix streaming. (The Roku box does have a few all-horror channels, but they’re pay and the movies are mostly Z-list. More research is needed.)

The best thing I liked The New York Ripper, an Italian slasher film, is all the shots of New York City circa 1982. I was in NYC in 1985 and the film looks like how I remember the city—The Staten Island Ferry, the grimy graffiti-covered subway, the sleazy porn district, the weird peeling apartments. And of course, just the clothes and hairstyles of the people who live there. It’s strange how we remember places we only been to years ago. It’s like Brooklyn still looks like it does in Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t, but memory messes with you.

Plus the high-def transfer of a low grade film made all the griminess pop more. Maybe I should go back and watch After Hours.

The New York Ripper has many of the trappings of Italian horror of the time, the overdubbed English, narrative cull-de-sacs, eye gouging, many suspects, graphic violence and plenty of full frontal nudity.

So, out of the gate a win. Director Fulci made one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Beyond, so while Ripper didn’t live up to the gore and strangeness of that film, it is a pretty decent Gallo with heavy sexual underpinnings.

The New York Ripper is crazed madmen who slashes pretty young women while quacking like a duck. The killings start out as standard TV fare with a hard boiled detective trying to track down the killer with the help of a college professor. Kind of yawn. But after the first third, Fulci starts to follow other, almost random characters, a creepy hustler and a sexually dangerous rich woman. Suddenly, there’s a live sex show, the worst place to put a broken bottle and toe sex. Lots of anonymous stranger toe sex.
Then the red herrings start piling on and the movie turned into a full-blown mystery by the beginning of the third act, the point where the detective thinks he has the right guy. The killer at this point could literally be any character still alive.
Of course, by the end, all is explained and the killer’s motive ends up being pretty unique. He quacked like a duck while he slashed young ladies FOR A REASON. Neat.

If you’re not a fan of Italian horror, especially Gallo, The New York Ripper won’t make you a fan, but if you’re a fan of late ’70’s/early ’80’s slasher pics, the Ripper should satisfy the itch, bad English dubbing and all.

Kind of Black Christmas meets Serpico.

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Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

In November of 2008, I developed a sort of political amnesia. All of the bad stuff of the past 8 years somehow just seemed forgiven and in the past. It wasn’t because I thought the new Obama administration would be extremely good, he was just Not Bush. He’s the political equivalent of the rebound girlfriend. America just needed two or three bland presidents to reset the stage.

One trope about life, especially American life, is that you can always have a fresh start, completely re-invent yourself if you want. Well, remnants of the past are always there, lurking in the back ground. You may spend a life dodging the past as the past worms it’s way out in strange ways. Our political system is ripe with old corruption and problems that are not only systemic, but encouraged by not only the wealthy, but the unwitting public who’s bought into the free market myth.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the new documentary from the guys who did Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, follows the rise and fall of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The film connects him to all the major Republican power players of the last thirty years, but more importantly reinforces the point that lobbyists are the real legislation engines running the country.
This isn’t a wonky film, but a breezy one, clearly laying out a life of small corruption unchecked until he was finally caught and what his capture and modis operandi means for American politics. It’s a spy movie masquerading as a political documentary. While many on the right would call it a polemic, I didn’t find Casino Jack to be overtly politically bias toward the right, they were just the current set of douchebags in power.
If you followed the news, you probably know about Jack Abramoff bilking Indian Casinos in the mid-2000’s. However, it’s the story before that one that’s so interesting. Abramoff represented the Russian mob and sweatshop owners in a tiny American pacific island country. He basically got legislators to rubber stamp illegal Chinese immigrant abuses in sweatshops on US soil. That’s the value of the true free market.

The documentary is mostly comprised of Republican interviews, some who saw no harm and others who do have regret. Abramoff helped to create the revolving door of politics and lobbyists in the last thirty years. He truly believed government can and should be bought. It’s pretty horrifying.

See this film. It, oddly, isn’t a downer nor a polemic, but does highlight a problem-the lobbyist problem and how it buys access to power. Obama last week was complaining about the anonymous 503 PAC groups giving to the Republican party. This is how lobbyist control candidates. A modern politician is nothing but a 24/7 fundraising machine to keep his campaign alive. These PACS outspend Democrat by a measure of four to one, but Democrats are not immune. They just aren’t as successful as Republicans at raising money.

I have a simple voting rule. If an issue is on the ballot and one side carpet bombs the TV with ads and there’s almost nothing on the other side, I cote for the side that didn’t spend money. If someone has to spend that much money to convince me, it’s probably not in my best interest to vote for it. The same goes for candidates. We could fix the political system in 20 years if we eliminated money from the process, but that just ain’t gonna happen. For every Abramoff that’s caught, another hundred lobbyist are working within the law doing 90 percent of the unethical crap he did.

Now, I know why I developed political amnesia. It’s just plain better for my day to day happiness.

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OSS 117- Lost in Rio (2009)

Finding a new movie on Netflix Streaming with the Roku box can be a strange process. First, I hunt through my 300-plus list in my queue. I’m almost never in the mood to see any of the movies I’ve put there and that’s why there’s 300 movies there. Also, much of it is for the rest of the family. Then, I go through what’s recently released. Netflix has a strange idea of what constitutes ‘recently’ as some of that stuff’s been in there for months. (Fortunately, the website and iPhone app Instant Watcher is a Godsend for seeing what is absolutely brand new at Netflix streaming). After that, Netflix has a bunch of lists like ‘gritty crime dramas’ and ‘comedies with a strong female lead’ to suggest movies to watch. Honestly, this is where I usually settle on to find something to watch. Also, if I’m feeling antsy, I’ll start two or three movies, watch the first ten minutes and stop before I settle on something I’ll watch all the way through. Most nights, finding a movie takes about 15-30 minutes if there’s nothing new I’m excited about. Sometimes after all that searching, I’ll decide I’m not even in the mood to watch a movie or will only watch the first half.

Yea, it’s a real first world problem. To me, it highlights the new entertainment problem for this generation. It isn’t that we can’t afford new entertainment—the poorest of the poor still seem to have broadband—but that it’s all about maximizing our time with entertainment. Even with the trend toward narrowcasting, the narrow niches are still overcrowded with content. I mean, I just saw someone tweet how excited they were that all of the He-Man cartoons were now on Hulu. Even little kids don’t have the time or patience for ALL the He-Man cartoons. So, now we just know that they are there and that’s like a form of media consumption. Netflix should have a good idea of what I like, I’ve been using the service for over ten (?) years and rating stuff, but still it’s filled with recommendations I’ve seen or have zero interest in.

So, for these reviews, I’ve been trying to go off the mainstream grid more, watching strange old horror movies or foreign films. Just picking shit at random until I stumble upon something good.

I picked OSS117-Lost in Rio after turning down a Bolivian miner documentary (still feeling good about the Chilean miners) and yet another 10 people trapped in a sadistic house torture porn flick.
OSS117-Rio is a French comedy and sequel (hadn’t seen, didn’t know) to another OSS117 movie. It parodies the low hanging fruit of ’60’s spy films like Matt Helm and James Bond. Yea, it’s been done before with the insufferable Austin Powers and half a lifetime of MST3k and Beastie Boys videos.
That said, OSS-117-Rio is pretty agreeable because it’s so aggressively French. They have the clean, campy, split-screen style of the 60’s spy flick down cold. The look is fantastic–plenty of hot bikini-clad girls, bright colors and great locations. The fight scene on top of the giant Jesus that overlooks Rio is genius.
As in parodies of it’s ilk, OSS117’s leading spy is an idiot. On top of that, he’s a misogynist, racist, self-absorbed, vain and over-confident. So, in short, pretty funny. The actor plays it with such wide smile glee that the horrible things he says works in the long stretches of awkward silence. My only complaint besides a few obvious jokes, almost a guarantee in a movie this broad, is that the movie overplays the awkward silence angle too much.
OSS117’s (I spaced learning names) partner is a more stoic female Israeli spy, mirroring Beyonce in those Austin Power movies. The plot concerns OSS117 paying off a Nazi to get a microfiche list of French sympathizers in WW2, so pretty French approach to plot. There’s an American spy whose only English is swearing, a buxom Nazi and an ongoing plot as Chinese assassins try unsuccessfully to kill OSS117 (like the old Pink Panther movies).
There’s not much in the movie that’s ground breaking comedy-wise, but the film is put together in such an agreeable way and played out with such energy, it doesn’t matter much. For example, I’m a sucker for a film that has ten guys shooting at our hero (killing off all the innocent bystanders around him) from five feet away and completely missing him as he picks them off one by one. What’s Up Tiger Lilly did that joke 40 years ago, but it’s still funny.

I’ll probably watch the first OSS117 movie some Saturday afternoon, but I do recommend OSS117-Lost in Rio as a nice diversion for the blues.

Oh, if you’re looking for a great parody, check out Black Dynamite on Netflix Streaming. It’s easily the best 70’s Blacksploitation parody since I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. I laughed my ass off at that one.

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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

I’ve been wanting to see Nicholas Cage go full-on crazy for while now. I’m talking late 80’s, early 90’s freak-outs like Wild at Heart and Vampire Kiss. Too many generic action movies have made Cage a bit soft. I know he’s a big star, but he makes 10 movies a year it seems like, one could be nutzo bananas.

So, I had high hopes for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call. I vaguely remember the first movie from 20-odd years ago with Harvey Keitel, a mess of drugs, sex and bad behavior. Plus, director Werner Herzog’s a good director with some adventurous tendencies. The cast also seemed hopeful–Val Kilmer needs to go psycho every once in a while, Joukim Phoenix is having an oddball year, and Brad Douriff is reliably crazy. Boy, Crispin Glover, where are you?

Bad Lieutenant is an amiable enough of a failure. Everyone does fine in the picture, but the movie never really gains enough weird momentum. It needs to go to eleven, but stops at, say, seven. Nick Cage is a nice assembly of strange ticks, the pained walk, the sad-dog puss you see above, a mumbly delivery and occasional sharp turns into wild-eyed manic territory. Unfortunately, the film seems a bit shy to let that freak flag fly. There’s a few oddball drug-fueled moments, usually involving iguanas and alligators.
The whole final third should have had the nervy energy of the last third of Goodfellas, but only hinted at it.
Plus, the ending is a giant 180. I can’t talk about it, but I must say I was surprised and not really in a good way. I honestly thought it was a dream sequence.

Ok, Nick Cage is a bad lieutenant. He does drugs, gambles, blackmails girls for sex, but at least he won’t murder. And he does care about his job. Generally, he does these things for what he thinks are good reasons. The TV show, The Shield, did this conflicted character study much better. (Granted, they had more time.) In the first half of the film, his smaller crimes don’t really work out and compound into bigger problems. These bigger problems cause him to go darker and be a badder lieutenant. The central murder mystery is generic, but the post-Katrina Nawlins backdrop (a new sub-genre of film) is used well, especially in the poorer areas of town.

I do like Nick Cage’s slightly mannered weird performance. He seems like a alien, especially up against rapper Xzibit’s subdued bad guy and a more earthy performance by Eva Mendes as his call girl girlfriend. (She’s in lingerie in one scene, so that’s a plus.)

At the end of the day, this movie sets up a promise to take a journey to crazytown and sort of backs away from committing on all levels–story, acting and directing. Maybe I’m jaded and others will find Port of Call New Orleans completely captivating, but I just wanted more.

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Parasomnia (2008)

Feeling thinky last night I sat down to watch the French drama Seven Days. Ten minutes in and the rape and murder of an 8 year old girl later, I was more depressed than thinky, so I switched to the Lovecraftian sounding horror movie Parasomnia. (I know I said a few days ago, I like horror movies that aren’t afraid to off a child, but dramas are a different story. Child murder can both be a cliche and too hard a story to do right. Plus, there will be zero levity in this seven days story.)

I had weaker reasons to watch a movie, but watching a movie just so you can learn a new word, the title, probably isn’t the strongest endorsement for a movie. Parasomnia is a disease, according to the movie (although WebMD doesn’t really bear this out), where you sleep all the time, like 90% of your life. Admittedly, this sounds like the best possible disease to contract if you had to contract a life-crushing disease.

The film starts with noted Hollywood nutcase Sean Young casually walking off a skyscraper to her grisly death. She’s barely mentioned in the rest of the movie and doesn’t appear again. I believe every movie should start this way, it keeps her employed and guarantees a crowd-pleaser right up top of every movie. The Godfather, Out of Africa, Up, every Batman movie—improved by Sean Young’s grisly unexplained death up top. Look into it Hollywood.

The story concerns Danny, an art student and 60’s record collector, and his growing infatuation with the impossibly adorable Laura, a parasomnia sufferer locked up in the world’s laxest mental hospital. Of course next to her room is a Hannibal Lector like mesmerist named Volpe, hooded and chained after a string of hypnotist-related murders. He’s evil incarnate and he’s next door. Like I said, world’s most lax security. The hypnotist/mesmerist is entering Laura’s dreamscape nightly and trying to control her. You know, standard movie stuff. You’ve seen the X-Files.

So, Danny’s visiting his recovering junkie friend when he sees Laura. (Yes, sleep disorders, rehab and serial killers all on the same floor.) Within two days, he’s kidnapped her (um, a felony) and moved her back into his apartment. The problem with an attractive young woman who’s been asleep 90 percent of her life is that she has the intelligence and personality of a beagle puppy. Seriously, she scoots around in the grass and rubs ice cream on her face. (Fortunately for the audience, this leads to topless sponge bath clean-ups.)
Oh, and she violently murders people under Volpe’s psychic projections in her sleep. That’s a problem.

This modestly budgeted film has a Lovecraft/steam punk vibe and generally looks good. There’s even a steam punk art show held by Lector, ur, Volpe at the end of the film. The movie does have some decent character actors in it besides the aforementioned Sean Young including Timothy Bottoms, Jeffery Combs, and a cameo by Allison Brie (Community, Mad Men) and director Joe Landis.

A note to any movie about Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, other awesome horror movies): If you use Jeffery Combs in your movie, make sure he goes batshit crazy at some point. That’s what he does best. No one chews the scenery better than Combs. Crazed scientist is his specialty. In Parasomnia, Combs plays a cop and plays it straight until almost the end. C’mon, twitchy, unhinged, arrogant and paranoid is what he does. Not low-key energy and stoic cop.

Low-key energy is how I’d describe the first two-thirds of the film. The film doesn’t really catch fire until the last part. This is due mainly to the guy playing Danny. He’s not bad and certainly be fine in a best friend role, but he’s just not interesting enough (even when he’s committing multiple felonies) to hold the main role. The girl who plays Laura (an ‘introducing’ credit) does better, but does better because she’s suppose to be dumb, innocent and a bit flat, but she sure is adorable. (One pet peeve movie: why does Laura always have lip gloss and make-up on? In dream sequences? Coming out of a long coma? Underwater?)

One thing I like about moderately budgeted horror movies is they generally have the freedom to pursue the kind or horror they want to do, more creative freedom. As a reviewer, they also generally have very identifiable strengths and weaknesses. A miscast actor really stands out, or poor lighting or an effect. Also, you can see because of budget, the director put all his eggs in a particular strength in a film, a quality actor, a sequence, the script. Rarely with a smaller budget does every area of the film get the same high effort. So, this is another note to small budget horror films (and this film didn’t have a tiny budget because it generally looked good and had some name character actors): STOP USING CGI! You’re not Avatar, be creative with set work and physical effects, even old school optical effects can get the job done better. Parasomnia uses CGI for all of Laura’s dreamscape scenes and it looks really fakey, as does 90 percent of CGI in movies with a budget under 20 million. Funny thing is, all of the movie’s physical effects—the throat slashing, gut spilling, head exploding kind—all look great. Then the CGI shows up and it’s like we’re in a video from the 80’s waiting for Night Ranger to show up. And everything they did in the dreamscape could have certainly done as a physical effect with some creativity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of CGI as my first thought is almost always, “Hey, that’s CGI, not ‘that’s awesome.'” When ever some guy’ss head is blown off with a shotgun with the old exploding blood melon head you’ve seen a hundred times, I almost always buy it instantly even if upon further, later inspection, I spot flaws. That never happens with CGI.

Overall, a mixed recommendation for Parasomnia. There’s some interesting visual style in the film, the villain is well played, the physical effects are good and there’s a few surprises. On the down side, some poor performances, a few big plot holes and bad CGI. It ain’t the pathos of Lovecraft.

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Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009)

Let’s deconstruct the title first. Who wouldn’t want to see Zombies of Mass Destruction? Though, the movie came out in 2009, so the whole “…of Mass Destruction” joke is about 6 years too late. It’s the “Got Milk?” of the 2000. In the film’s defense, it’s set in 2003 and is a satire of sorts. The cheesy title (although IMBD says another Zombies of Mass Destruction is coming out in 2011 and unrelated to this one) made me want to see it, not see it, than see it again. With low-budget horror, the title is 90 percent of the marketing.

Late at night, I often want to zone out to a zombie movie. Netflix streaming has a ton of them, all with a decent poster and no budget. I’ll start watching and usually give up after 15 minutes. Here’s why: the lighting sucks, the audio’s all badly looped and the actor’s are obviously just the director’s friends. And everyone plays a stupid redneck. Look, I’m not looking for Avatar and except new film maker mistakes like poor editing and some sloppy story-telling. But, it should have a tiny bit of technical competence.

So, image my surprise, ZoMD is fairly competently made. It’s a small budget flick, but it’s all on the screen. The acting’s okay. And it’s a satire. That’s why we make zombie movies—gore, humans screwing up, and satire.

The movie’s sort of a red state/blue state thing, firmly siding on the liberal side. Our heros are an Iranian girl and a gay couple. Besides the tiny sub-genre of gay horror, never are the heros gay and never, never Iranian-Americans. I like that. These are the side kicks who are killed off early in other movies.
Yes, the caricatures all a bit broad, but not offensive. There’s the Republican, preacher, flaky liberal teacher, love struck teen, stoner, conservative Iranian dad, and true-blue American torturer dad and a fox-like news network. Their conflicts are played out, broadly, because some think the zombies are caused by terrorists and others see it as God’s Armageddon. There’s even a political debate during a zombie attack with one side turning into a zombie.

The story takes place on a small Washington island over, as in most zombie flicks, the course of a night. The first third of the film, the zombie’s are lurking singularly in the back ground. No one notices them. That’s funny. It isn’t until night there’s enough of them to cause trouble.

The gay couple is returning to the closeted one’s home to tell his mom he’s gay. The good side, if you’re mom turns into a zombie at dinner, she doesn’t care if your gay. Fighting zombies can strengthen any relationship. (Also, if I were gay, I’d totally be the kind to get an ‘I’m with him’ T-Shirt like the closeted one’s partner.)

Everyone thinks the Iranian girl is Iraqi and a terrorist, of course, she’s all-American, but her hard-working dad is a more conservative Muslim. She spends the evening trying to convince people she’s not a terrorist.

And fighting zombies. After all, isn’t a zombie movie all about the zombie fighting. After a slow start, there’s plenty of fun zombie killing. The effects are pretty decent and don’t fall into the zombie beginners effect of just doing the same effect over and over. There’s some unique kills, but nothing super elaborate or a set-piece. You can tell everyone involved at least worked on other projects beside this one.

Oh, the movie did have one plot that almost always like a horror movie. A cute young kid is introduced as someone the hero has to protect. Usually, the kid is okay at the end of the movie. However, if a movie kills the moppet, it’s an automatic thumbs up from me. Yea, it’s stupid. In ZoMD, they introduce a little girl and she dies 30 seconds later, horribly. But later she gets to be a zombie, carrying her own arm. Awesome.

Is ZoMD a great zombie movie? No. Is it good? Not particularly. But if you like zombie movies or broad satire, ZoMD is certainly worth seeing. It’s well-executed and has a decent script. Better than most.

Hey, they’re making a sequel. Can’t be all bad.

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The Kingdom Series 2 (1997)

Kinda lazy today. I recently finished the Swedish TV miniseries The Kingdom which I talked about the beginning here.
In that review, I compared the emerging plot lines to a really strange paper Role Playing Game. After seeing all that Lars Von Triers had filmed on The Kingdom, the strangeness is ratcheted up ten fold.

There was to be a series 3, but a few key actors had died. Triers sent the season 3 scripts to Stephen King for the American version of The Kingdom, but ABC canceled season one in 2004 after just a few episodes. Too weird for the states even with King’s name attached. I did see it was on DVD, so I may seek it out.

I don’t have much more to say about the series after what I wrote before, but I did watch all 11 hours of sepia-toned Swedes and their (here it comes) shenanigans.

So, just some highlight to clue you in on how odd the whole thing was.

—A doctor wants the world’s largest diseased liver to research. The family wouldn’t sign the death consent form, so he has the organ donated to himself (as the organ donor card was signed), so he could own the liver. The surgery goes bad, he’s stuck with the liver. (in The Twilight Zone)

—A woman has sex with a man she didn’t know was a ghost, possibly The Devil. She gives birth to a baby who has a grown man’s head (Udo Kier) and can talk. The baby grows at a rate so astounding, his arms and legs are 10 feet long after just a few days, very brittle. The baby begs to die. The mom, after much agonizing, releases the baby from the large rigging holding him up and kills him when all the bones snap. Pretty cool.

Um, wow, that was probably the weirdest plot line. But every one of the twenty or so characters had strange stuff going on and to the shows credit, it all kind of worked because the production was pretty low-key and all the smaller moments were kept real.

If those two story lines interested you, check out The Kingdom on Netflix streaming. I can’t possibly see how the giant man-baby plot line would work in America (although, strangely enough, I saw Lake Bell give birth to Nick Kroll on Children’s Hospital the same week.)

It’s vacation time.

Going into low power for the next week and a half. Hopefully some game reviews to come.

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Carriers (2009) or why I hate modern PG-13 horror

And it isn’t because there’s no nudity or much gore. A lot of classic horror movies would be PG13 movies today, most of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the Hammer Horror films, Jaws. Also, television is mostly PG13 and there’s plenty of quality adult fare on TV.

And that’s the word I’m looking for, adult. PG13 movies are made pre-teens (Heck, most teenagers watch R rated fare). This means the story lines and story telling has to be dumbed down for the audience. I know I’m not saying anything new here, it’s just I saw a good rating for Carriers on Netflix and decided I was being hard on PG13 horror. It wasn’t until I was bored stiff midway through the movie that this occurred to me.
You don’t need heads exploding like watermelons or girls running around showing their watermelons to make a good movie, you just need interesting characters, writing and plot. (Oh and many a bad movie has been lauded for it’s numerous watermelons which was just there to patch over a crappy film)
Also, the pay cable stations need daytime programming, so PG13 horror will always have money thrown at it to fill time. So they’ll always look better than many of their more adventurous R-rated content. And Carriers looked like it had a decent budget, it was just so stripped down to appeal to people who have never seen this type of movie. It lacked the details that make a good horror (or any) a rich world. You could drop in at any point in the film and not miss anything or even feel like you missed anything.
I was flipping through cable the other night and stopped on Couple’s Retreat (because, well, Kristen Bell in a bikini) and although the film was two-thirds done, I was caught up in 5 minutes because the characters kept repeating the skimpy plot and fit into such pre-defined molds. It was both depressing and a waste of all of those good, slumming actors.
That’s how practically every movie that runs on HBO at 2pm is, a generic genre film that could be dropped in on at any time.
It’s funny, even though TV is filled with all kinds of generic tropes, I almost never just start watching a show midway through it’s run. But I have no problem with that and the more generic pay cable movies.
Maybe it’s a strange bias, but I’d never watch a movie mid-way through, pre 1980. And this includes the MST3K-bad sci-fi movies, as they may be bad, but at least they were awful in interesting ways. But rarely generic and rote.

That poster is probably the most frightening thing in the movie, it at least let’s you use your imagination. However, Carriers, leaves little to the imagination. Fortunately, there’s little plot to explain and almost no detail to create the world. There’s been a worldwide pandemic, most people have died from a contagious disease, blah, blah, blah. Ok, here’s where detail is important, what are the details of this new apocalypse? How are the survivors surviving? The details are how the director comments on who we are today. Look at Children of Men, Goddamn, did that movie create a whole new dystopia through detail. But here we just get the broadest of broad strokes. Empty highways, rotted out farm houses, etc. Ugh.
Of course, being a PG13 aimed, I suppose, at pre-teens the cast are four twenty-somethings. The douche (Chris Pine post Star Trek so guess who’s featured most prominately), the weaker younger brother who’s the obvious eventual survivor (gee, does he stand up to his brother?), his girl friend and the hidden infected (the biggest zombie movie/disease movie trope).
They run into other infected people, abandon them, all act a bit like jerks, but fortunately, Chris Pine overshadows them. The cast is trying to get to their childhood vacation spot to run away from the infected. Guess who makes it and guess what, it’s changed. Ugh.

There’s no beat or plot point I haven’t seen before and seen better in other movies. I actually stopped 45 minutes in and watched the rest later, just so I could complain about PG13 horror movie. So, so generic, how did it get such a good rating on Netflix?

The only good parts, Chris Meloni and the girl who plays Sally Draper on Mad Men as an infected family (why couldn’t the movie follow them instead of the whiny, douchy cast. I’ve seen that movie before as well, but it’s a class above generic)

Oh, they played an M Ward song I liked for ten seconds.

See, I’m not a total hater.

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The Art of the Steal (2009)

Many people want a life after death, to be remembered throughout the ages. We build monuments, write books, make art or work in the sciences.
Truth is most of us won’t live much beyond our grand children in memories. I’m pretty sure that after my death, any true nature of my being, philosophy, etc will die with my theoretical grand children. We’re not much of an oral society anymore. Maybe I’ll get a game published or something else, but that’ll just be a name on a box. Sure, everything I’ve ever written on the Internet will still be available, but with the churn and mulch nature of online life this pretty much ensures any creative output on the Internet a) has so much more noise to cut through and b) is forgotten the next day.
Dramatic Prairie Dogs don’t live forever. Everyone’s 15 minutes is sliced up ten million ways and consumed like wieners at a hot dog eating contest.

I’m not too interested in a legacy, don’t build a monument to me. I’ll be good if my ideas only help those I care about. Plus, I’m not rich enough to manufacture an effect on the world. Poor men can’t build pyramids for their tombs.
That’s okay. I’ll be dead. Wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it. So, What’cha gonna do?
You try and enjoy those people, both personal and public, that change your life for the better. Today.

But what happens to those ideas you create that actually do change the world? The idea or creative endeavor that has legs and actually effects the world writ large. The Mona Lisa, The Shakespeare, The Beatles, The Bible.

Sadly, the curse of the gifted is a misappropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding of their legacy. It’s almost unavoidable as people’s views and values change and as this changes, so does our relationship to the past.

Look at the Bible, the New Testament. Some have estimated that the unchangeable word of God had been altered tens of thousands of times in it’s 1900 year history. They recently unearthed the oldest bible in existence, circa 400 AD, and it doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to the one in today’s church pews. It’s the subject of many books and really the topic of another essay. (It’s just a pet peeve of mine)

The documentary The Art of the Steal is the story of how one man’s legacy is stolen and his ideas on Art become corrupted by monied and powerful interests.
Alfred Barnes grew up poor, boxed to pay for college and became rich young by inventing a vaccine to prevent VD in infants. With his money, he traveled and just as an interested outsider collected the artists he liked and met. He became friends with the artists. Monet, Cezanne, Mattisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and many other Post-Industrial painters. These artists weren’t valuable at the time, but today his collection is worth upwards of 35 billion dollars. 35 billion brings a lot of hungry wolves to the door.
In 1922, Barnes set up a school for his collection outside Philadephia. He didn’t arrange his paintings like a museum and kept viewings of the art to a minimum. As a school, he could ensure the value of the ideas of the painting were kept alive, that the pieces didn’t become a commodity.
Barnes hated museums as a rule. I sympathize. I’m not a fan myself, not because I don’t like art, but because it seems to me most museums turn art into artifact. The pieces are part of collection, put on a pedestal that glorifies not the art (although there is an air of forced reverence), but the museum showing the piece. It isn’t about the ideas inside the frame, but about the cost and categorization and cattle call of tourism dollars. I’ve been to many famous museums and have enjoyed the art only to be soured by the experience of elitism (even at small museums) and the notion that these ideas and artwork are owned by another, so I couldn’t even understand if I wanted. No wonder everyone hates those Art World fuckers and especially the businessmen and politicians greasing the wheels.

I’m a populist (philistine!), as is everyone else who doesn’t run the world.

Barnes didn’t like the Philidephia establishment because they used art as a commodity and tourism lure. He set-up in his will that his art was never to leave his school’s walls and that the school would never become a museum. He didn’t even arrange the art work by category. His prodigious African-American art collection was mixed with the post-industrialists. I’m categorizing the art more than he did, feeling a bit slimy about doing so.

The bulk of the documentary shows how Barnes Art collection was stolen after his death. Shouldn’t everyone on earth have greater access to these great works? That’s the basis of the argument of the villains of the film. They’re villains because their motivation is greed, pure and simple, even if the the stated outcome meant more could see the works.
At it’s heart, The Art of the Steal is a crime movie. The theft of a legacy, a will’s intent and an idea about art and art presentation.
But like most crimes for people above a certain income, it isn’t a crime if you change the playing field to make something that was illegal to do (in this case, breaking a man’s clear and legal will) into something legal.
Time and money and power heals all good intentions.
I won’t go into the specific nature of how this crime is carried out. The film is well-constructed, gorgeous (HD on Netflix Streaming) in presentation of the art pieces and the films players, and gripping. Of course, as the documentary takes a stance as do all these days, the movie can be a bit of a polemic. However, the opposing side is well-represented, even the films first villain, attorney Robert Gandon, comes out cleaner than how he started.

See it, humanities peeps. You could probably even show it in a class.

It’s funny, all of this notion of Art as artifact and commodity. I think through time, even some of these negative motivations, will fade. We live in an age were almost all art can be free to the common man with the Internet. Do we steal? Yea, we’re a nation of thieves. The weird result may be that the ideas of this ‘free’ art can propagate freely as ideas unburdened with the baggage of class or elitism.
The downsides, we consume so much art that the ideas get lost. Also, many people evaluate ideas solely on their worth. It’s an important idea because other important people think so, because it is worth a lot of money, because of popularity.

One more side note about criticism, as I’m fully aware how badly I’m unpacking this suitcase of thought, I don’t want to write about what I see others writing about or what the critics find important. I only want to write about what spawns ideas in my view of the world, in my thinking. It’s why I like to write about odd Italian horror films. I like to make jokes and I enjoy the personal dream-like nature of the films. What others often find important, I find boring, passionless and obvious.

Like I said, a populist.

But hey, junk is still junk.

What? Huh? Once again I’ve devolved into incoherence. Back it up, Cezanne.

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Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Yesterday, I read about a Zombie Studies course now being offered at the University of Baltimore (Go Fightin’ Omars!). The professor had written a book about Zombie movies and is using his ‘publish or perish’ to put butts in the seats. The course will examine zombie influences on culture and the various zombie symbolism in the Romero movies. It’s one of those movie watchin’ classes. Kids love the movie watchin’ classes. Except westerns. (Sorry, JV. You’ll never read this so I’m only joshing.)

I know a lot of my Humanities peeps are scratching out lures for students and classes. C’mon, Humanitiods, know you’ve read those sparkly vampire books and watch True Blood religiously, so why aren’t you pursuing developing some kind of Vampire Minor course study. Bloodsucking in the Modern Age or The Business Savvy of Vampyres.
A lot of today’s students already think Wikipedia is the most trusted source in knowledge and that you should be able to Twitter your term paper.
So, why not go for it? Integrity? Bah!
As the Kinks once sang, “You gotta give the people what they want…” Or maybe it was Barnum. To the Wikipedia!

I’m counting today’s review as a college course-level credit. I’ll submit it to the University of Phoenix with a twenty attached and by this time next year, I’ll be Nebraska’s foremost Gallo Expert. (Look it up, they most likely exist.)

All part of my master plan to meet horror FX master Tom Savini.

To the IMDB!

Hatchet for the Honeymoon‘s John Harrington is a paranoid. He says so in the movie’s opening voice-over. He’s really a psycho and you could certainly see Brett Easton Ellis ripping off this film for American Psycho. Although you can see echo’s of Hitchcock’s Psycho in Honeymoon.
So, psycho’s all around.
While certainly not the best Gallo or Italian horror or even Bava’s best, Honeymoon is still fun to watch for all the melodrama, camp and pulp. Harrington has all the hallmarks of a good psycho lead—cartoonish good looks, a shrew of a wife, mother issues, a penchant for a singular method of killing, he makes out with mannequins and confuses reality with said mannequins, brooding, scene chewing stares into the camera as his sanity slips, profuse sweating, some flourishes with femininity like wearing bridal veils and his fey way with doves and other animals, and some great b-a-n-a-n-a-s internal monologues.
From IMDB:
My name is John Harrington. I’m 30 years old. I’m a paranoiac. Paranoiac. An enchanting word, so civilized, full of possibilities. The truth is, I am completely mad. The realization which annoys me at first, but is now amusing to me. Quite amusing. Nobody suspects I am a madman. A dangerous murderer. Not Mildred, my wife. Nor the employees of my fashion center. Nor of course my customers.

[scoops a fly out of his drink]

Poor little fly. Why are you so daring? You’re so fragile? Yet you’re born, you reproduce yourself, and you die like man. The difference is you don’t think. And, you don’t need to remember. You don’t fear death because you ignore it. You’re insignificant life is a mere accident. But death exists I assure you, and that’s what makes life a ridiculous and brutal drama. But the fact remains that I have killed five young women. Three of whom are buried in the hothouse. Carol, Mary and Margaret. They were the friendliest, the most attractive ones. There is one problem. I must go on wielding the cleaver. It’s most annoying. But when I begin to hear the footsteps. Those stealthy footsteps, I know I just kill. And shall have to keep on killing, until I find out the truth. That’s it, the whole truth.

Of course, it’s said in this slow, menacing way. Scenery is chewed.

Ahh, to heck with it. Great and even good Italian horror movies are mostly the sum of many awesome parts and I just want to list the parts:
Harrington is a wealthy bridal fashion designer, so there’s plenty of awesome clothes and bloody hatchets being wiped on wedding garb.
The music is very Douglas Sirk romantic bombastic with swells and hypnotic wistfulness. It isn’t typical horror music. It’s the score to a romance novel.
The mystery here isn’t who the killer is, but why he kills. It’s real easy to figure out why, but he kills because each time he kills, a clue is revealed in his warped mind, it’s a neat twist.
The mechanical cymbal-smashing toy monkey. Every mausoleum to a warped childhood should have a whole table of them.
A great scene where he’s just killed, the body is at the top of a circular staircase dripping blood and the police who are interviewing him are unaware. Drip, drip, drip. Very Hitchcock.
A reverse ghost. Not going to explain it, but it’s a strange twist on an old trope.
Nice foes in his bitchy wife (Never utter the phrase “Until death do we part” in a horror movie) and the slow Columbo-esque detective.
The location–the real home of dead Spanish General Fransisco Franco. As Chevy says, he’s still dead. His house looks great.
The odd colors, the strange zooms, the weird visual cul-de-sacs, the non-blinking stares and the actresses with haunting eyes, yep, it’s all there.

There isn’t a lot of blood, but that would actually hurt the tone. Honeymoon doesn’t want to be remembered for the gory set-pieces, but for the slip into insanity.
On the negative side, the ending is bland compared to a strong first act. One of my favorite Bava Films, Bay of Blood, has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, very unexpected. Check out Bay of Blood, it’s a strong precursor to slasher films like Friday the 13th and Black Christmas.
And done.
College credit please. I mean I used the phrases cul-de-sac, mausoleum, and bombastic.

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