The Lighthouse

If you were to take “Brokeback Mountain” and cross it with “The Shining” and add a little Herman Melville to the mix, you might get what this picture attempts to be. It is sort of a sea shanty about madness from isolation. Now sprinkle in a little tentacle sex and you start to get a clearer picture. What I have given you here is a far more coherent description of the film than you will get from watching it for 109 minutes. This pretentious piece of dreck has little to offer and everything to frustrate.

I will be honest, I was not a fan of the much admired first film from writer director Robert Eggers. “The VVitch” was slow, ponderous and the end of the film undermined what the movie seemed to be trying to accomplish. I don’t know what this movie was trying to do, but I can tell you what it did for me, it pissed me off. Both of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe, dive in whole-heartedly to the proceedings, with Dafoe  hamming up the arcane dialect in a manner worthy of a pirate movie. Half of the dialogue will get lost in the style of delivery, but it won’t matter because there is no consistent voice to what you are seeing anyway. Oh, and by the way, you won’t be seeing nearly as much as you should. Eggers has decided to shoot this film in black and white, mainly at night, in a location with one source of illumination that can’t be turned into the camera.

At one point one of the characters suggests that the whole experience was just in the head of the other character. That would have been an indicator of where we might go, except that a dozen other things happen which suggest that the two characters might even be the same person. Which doesn’t make any sense even in a horror film, which this may or may not be classified as. I had no idea what the story was about, all I knew was that the two actors are in a lighthouse. After watching the damn thing, that’s still app I really know. The camera pans up slowly, then it holds on something for a while, then it pulls back, and then there is a close up, none of which contributes to suspense, terror or drama. There were some people laughing, so maybe it is supposed to be a comedy, but it did not strike me as funny at all.

It looks like I will be an outlier on this, there are great ratings on many of the mega sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I will try to listen to some of my fellow bloggers and podcasters as they talk about this, but if you hear a foghorn in the background it may simply be me calling “bullll…shiiit.” If I see Mr. Eggers name on future projects, I will be sure to let those who appreciate his torpid style and incoherent narratives enjoy themselves. I’ll be looking for something human beings might like.

Zombieland Double Tap

The original Zombieland was a joy 10 years ago. It came out a year before I started keeping this blog so I never included it in any rankings or evaluations, but it certainly would have been on a list of my favorite films from 2009. I was pleased with the idea of a sequel, but the notionthat it would take ten years to get here never crossed my mind. As it is, the timing seems just right. The way the story develops, there is some character justification for actions, ten years into the zombie apocalypse.

I said I would keep today’s entires short, and that’s easy to do with this film. It has the same sensibility Director Ruben Fleiser had a big success with last year’s “Venon”, a film I never felt a strong need to see. This on the other hand is right up my alley and if you liked the first Zombieland, than D”DoubleTap” is for you. It has the off kilter humor, the action pacing of the first film, and some reasonable reasons for existing. There are a few new wrinkles and Woody Harrelson gets to vent against the kind of person he probably is in real life.

If you are an Elvis fan, there are things which you will enjoy. There is some non-partisan political humor, and best of all, there is a surprise sequence at the end which people who get out of their seats and race out the door will miss, and they will hate themselves for that. This movie completely fulfilled my hopes and expectations. It should be on repeat play at the house in the not too distant future.

Judy

I am potentially doing four posts today so I plan on keeping each of them brief. I will be gone for a week or so and I want these to be fresh for anyone who is interested.

Biopics can be hit or miss. The personality of the subject may be the biggest factor in their success, but you should never underestimate the importance of casting and performance. J.Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney did not get a proper treatment, one because of miscasting and the other due to the script. I’ve seen some criticism of this movie as being uninspiring, but I think it works the way a lot of these biopics do, by focusing on a particular point in the subject’s life. Darkest Hour and Lincoln both did that and succeed, I think for the most part Judy accomplishes it’s task in the same way.

The film focus is on the period of time she was performing in London, less than half a year away from her death. There are a few flashback sequences, but the main story is set near the end of her life.  I made a comparison that might seem a bit strange when I was talking about this film, it reminded me of “Joker”. The subject is the emotional and mental breakdown of of our subject. The childhood abuses in both stories are mentioned, but the real tragedy is the self destructive behavior that each is unable to extract themselves from. The audience will be frustrated by the wrong turn that the character makes and that is where we will feel the most emotional connection to the film.

Renée Zellweger is well cast with the kwepie doll face and diminutive stature. She nails Garlands voice and as far as I could tell, many of her mannerisms. The vocal performances are also very impressive. She is not recreating the original versions of the songs, but how those songs might have sounded at this stage of Garland’s life and her physical stamina. I think come awards time her name will be prominently featured. I hope along that of her costar here Jessie Buckley, who turned in my favorite performance this year in “Wild Rose“. That the two of them appear in this movie together is kind of a treat.

There may be things in the film that are not historically accurate but the movie feels emotionally accurate. The main performance is enough to recommend it but I think there is more than just the performance, it is a well crafted story of talent and self destruction. Probably a well worn path at this point in pop culture.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Eight Legged Freaks

[Originally Published on Fog’s Movie Reviews, Fall 2013]

Here is a Halloween Special for you all.

There is a long history of movies where nature strikes back at the human world. From the “Island of Lost Souls” to “The Happening”, Mother Nature proves that she is not someone to be messed with. (Although running away from the wind may just be the one way to mess with her that would cause her to crack up and just stop trying to wipe us out). The most fertile period of time for these far fetched stories was the post war atomic age when exposure to radiation causes giant ants, killer rabbits, and irritated amphibians. In the lengthy annals of horror films featuring monsters that are simply real creatures pushed to the brink, no animal, fish or insect has been more widely used to terrify us than the spider. Most people instinctively withdraw their hands from proximity to a spider. The hair on the back of our necks raises at the thought of one normal spider crawling across our flesh. It is therefore no surprise that out sized spiders have been a go-to critter whenever a film maker is looking for a way to scare us. Our fear of spiders is also something that is regularly mocked. In “Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character jokes ” Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.” It is this combination of the frightening and the ridiculous that makes “Eight Legged Freaks” a movie that I want everyone to see.

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This 2002 horror comedy has a enough to recommend it despite being cheesy as hell and way over the top. While there are a couple of legitimate scares and  plenty of creepiness to make this a fun horror film for anyone who doesn’t want their terror too gory, the biggest selling point is the humor. This film is a hoot and should give you a couple of laughs to brush off the ickiness of watching spiders. Most of the laughs are intended unlike some other films in this unique category. A small dying Arizona town ends up being over run by spiders that have  been contaminated by toxic waste.  It seems a spider wrangler named Joshua is planning on making a fortune selling these quickly growing arachnids to collectors and spider enthusiasts. The creepy Joshua is played by genre veteran Tom Noonan. His friendship with the bright preteen son of the local sheriff allows a little time for exposition on the spiders and their habits, once that is done, exit Joshua after providing a convenient start to the story. There is not much doubt that we will need that information later, because we get some nice quick little illustrations of what each breed of spider is capable of. Unfortunately, young Mike falls into “Wesley Crusher” syndrome and becomes the one source of knowledge that anyone needs for the rest of the movie.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442581-2100-1377 Mike’s mother is the sheriff and she has eyes for the  returning son of the deceased owner of the local mine. A largely superfluous romantic plot that gives star David Arquette something more to do when he is not reacting to big damn spiders.

Most of the plot details don’t matter because the movie is an excuse to use CGI spiders that are huge and have them do creepy things to the locals. The number of other films referenced here is pretty substantial. There is a “Dawn of the Dead” vibe based around the location the locals choose to make their stand against the spiders. “Gremlins” is cribbed from as the spiders begin to overtake the town. The 1950s creature features are acknowledged with a clip from “Them!” playing on the TV in the background of one scene. “Eight Legged Freaks” plays out sometimes like a Frankenstein version of a horror film with a part inserted here and some leftover ideas from there being added on.

So if the movie is derivative and it is not really scary, what is it that would make you need to see it? The answer is twofold; fun shots of CGI Spiders and occasional Three Stooges type humor. The weaker of the two elements are the jokes. It is a hit or miss proposition, For every well placed L.Ron Hubbard crack, there is a bad piece of camera mugging by one of the actors. There is a cute oblique reference to a Monty Python Parrot sketch and then at some other point there is a slightly unfunny double take done by Doug E. Doug. Arquette actually ad-libbed his line about the big bugs being “eight legged freaks” and it is one of the pieces of dialogue that works and it became the title of the film as a result. If only all of the script’s dialogue had had that sense of crazy frustration. There are a few too many Alien conspiracy jokes that involve anal probes. The film is directed at a tween audience, so there are romantic subplots and potty humor. This would be a pretty good Halloween Film for your 8 to 12 year old kids.

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The stronger argument for seeing the film concerns the spider shots. There are some cool ideas that work despite the ancient CGI technology involved. At one point a teen is being chased by spiders that can jump twenty yards at a time, he rides his motorbike through the hills and makes a jump himself that has a fun kick to it. Of course a dozen other kids get taken and are never heard from or referenced again. This is a comedy after all not really a horror show. The old barber who take refuge in the sporting goods shop, is followed by an animated tent across the floor of the store. It is a corny joke that works because none of this is being taken seriously. Even the sections where you don’t actually see the spiders are visually interesting. Trap door spiders start taking down ostriches at a local ranch and the vanishing birds are the punchline. There is a great showdown between a cat and one of the big spiders that takes place inside the walls of the deputies home. It is visualized in an amusing way and it sets the tone for the film early in the stages of the spider invasion.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442634-2100-1153The initial stages of the spider invasion feels like that section of “Gremlins” when the gruesome little monsters take over the town. All hell breaks loose and there are panicked citizens running through the streets. Some people get wiped out and others stare in disbelief as it happens. Then they run and some comic bit with a spider trying to eat a stuffed moose-head is inserted. The lead up to the town being over run is sometimes not as fun as it should be but once the shooting of spiders starts the mayhem turns into the goofy monster-fest the film has wanted to be from the beginning.

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The last act of the film features a march of arachnids not seen since “Starship Troopers”. Hundreds of giant spiders crawl over the screen and the locals try to shoot, squash, stab, fry and puncture them. Plenty of green splatter fills the edges of the movie, instead of the blood that would be there from the humans being shredded. The use of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as a musical motif keeps things light in spite of the dozens of casualties the townsfolk run up during the attack.

As I re-watched this, I experienced many cringe worthy moments of humor that failed and acting that isn’t. The kids in the movie are wooden, including a very young Scarlett Johansson. Her next movie would feature that shot of her behind that opens “Lost in Translation”, but here she is playing a little younger and sexy is not really the mood they were looking for. David Arquette is better suited for a role like the weird deputy in “Scream” than he is for playing action hero. Doug E. Doug and Rick Overton are the comic relief and both of them mug shamelessly for the camera. The human element is not the movies strong suit.  Don’t worry though because big ass spiders are coming and once they start overrunning the town, you will have a pretty fun time.

There are better horror films and there are better horror comedies. “Arachnophobia” may be the best analogous movie but it lacks spiders  the size of a tank and visuals of people being dragged off and spun into webs. Even though this is the mildest recommendation I have yet made for “Movies I Want Everyone to See”, there is something that makes me push the button for this movie. It’s probably just that I’m tickled by shots like this:Wallpaper-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442625-800-600

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

John Carpenter’s “The Thing” at the Million Dollar Theater

Let me give you a list here; “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Alien”, “The Thing”, “Dune”, “The Man who Would be King”.  Can you guess what all of these films have in common? If you have been a regular on this site you will probably figure it out. These are films, that I will never pass up an opportunity to see on the big screen. It’s not simply that they are among my favorites, they all have qualities that make a theater presentation worthwhile. Yesterday was a chance to once again experience John Carpenter’s masterpiece of science fiction horror in it’s natural environment, 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide.

This trip was a lot more than just a screening of the film however, it was a chance to go back in Los Angeles History a little bit. L.A. rightfully is criticized by some as not being a city so much as a collection of neighborhoods. There is a downtown section, and it does resemble a big city, but for many years it has been neglected. The classic movie palaces that lined Broadway have not necessarily been maintained as well as they might, but more and more, the residents of the city have begun to appreciate these venues and they are being reused for a variety of purposes. I think I visited the Million Dollar Theater as a child, but I know I have not been there in more than a half century. This month however, Cinema Phantasmagoria is offering horror films at the theater, along with an immerse experience, plus a tour if you are so inclined. So who can resist?

Parking in Downtown L.A. is iffy most days but Sunday evening it was exceptionally packed in the lot we chose, which was just around the corner from the theater.

We were about 45 minutes early to the tour time we had scheduled so we took a side trip to a different part of L.A. history, we went across the street to the Bradbury Building. Movie fans will recognize the inside of the lobby of this building from dozens of films. Two fairly prominent examples are “Double Indemnity” and “Blade Runner”.

The interior continues to be spectacular, and it’s use in “Blade Runner” also made it relevant to this post because the theater is prominently seen as Rick Deckard is entering the building for his confrontation with Roy Batty.

Our view of the theater from the front of the building shows only a few changes to the Marquee but otherwise the location and the general look are the same.

After we checked in, we went on the “haunted” backstage tour of the theater. Entering in a creepy alleyway on one side, we went into dressing rooms, the green room and several locations where a mysterious death occurred at the theater. The story is part of the charm of the tour so I will not repeat it here, but it does enhance the history of the theater a bit.

The prologue to the movie was not as elaborate as in the old days but there were costumed characters doing some skits as part of the haunted theme. “Archie” was our host and he invited one of the other dead ushers up to share some talent.

When the movie finally started it was the same great experience that has frightened fans for 37 years now. The dog in the opening section is really the best actor on screen during that time. The dozen guys who make up the camp are also pretty darn good.

It was just a couple years ago that I wrote about this film for a screening at the Egyptian Theater. That presentation featured a 70mm print that had not been modified so the colors were off from it’s original presentation in 1982. Still it had a lot to recommend it, including the awesome soundtrack and the correct aspect ration. I’m certain this was a digital presentation, there were no film signatures and the screen reflected no wear and tear at all. The sound was solid but not as impressive as the system and acoustics at the American Cinematique.

Three sequences of horror always standout when I watch this film. The first is the discovery of the alien organism as it attempts to take over the other dogs in the pack shed. As great as the special effects are, it is the dog trainer’s talent that comes through the most in this sequence. Those “real” dogs seem to be terrified and struggling to get away. The one dog trying to yank the chain link fencing of the kennel apart is particularly convincing. The sound effects here add to the confusion and fear among the human team, as the animals sound pitiful and frightening at the same time.

A second scene that gets us jacked up with fear adrenaline is the moment that Charles Hallahan’s character of Norris appears to be having a heart attack, and the Doctor tries using a defibrillator on him. We are treated to a gaping chest cavity opening up and chewing off the Doctors arms, but even more gruesomely, Norris’s head becomes it’s own entity, springing legs and crawling around like some nightmarish spider.  David Clennon’s Palmer has maybe the most quotable line from the movie at that point.

The third great sequence has less to do with Rob Bottin’s brilliant special effects and make up, but rather the suspense that goes along with it. As each of the characters tied to the couch awaits the verdict from the blood test, we feel tension mounting. The discovery that one of the guys there is not really their co-worker but a manufactured version, we get a visual treat to go along with it, but the payoff is another quote that got a great audience reaction. Garry, the CO played by Donald Moffat shares a controlled piece of impatience and then explodes with a stinger that provokes laughter.

We can have a discussion about the ambiguity of the conclusion of the film some other time. For now, I am going to wrap this up with a few more pictures of the venue to commemorate a great Sunday evening in October.

40th Anniversary Screening Alien

I know I am an old man in comparison to most of those doing movie blogs, but it is still hard for me to believe that it has been forty years since “Alien” first showed up on screen. It sure does not look like a 40 year old film, with maybe the exception of some computer graphics. This movie is one of the great examples of production design enhancing the movie at every turn. Since I have written about this film before, I’m going to try and develop some of the aspects of the movie that may be sometimes overlooked but are crucial to making it work.

H.R. Geiger and Jean ‘Moëbius’ Giraud deserve the rightful praise for the creature and environmental design work they did. Oscar nominees Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian and Ian Whittaker should also be saluted for turning this movie into a template for future Science Fiction films. The first character we met in the movie is The Nostromo, a mining ship returning from an extended mission to the outer rim of the galaxy. There is a long slow pan across the outside of the ship that moves across it’s underbelly and shows us the haphazard placement of unidentified technology that makes up the ship. When we slip inside the vehicle, the camera moves around dark dank corridors of the mining platform, through to the command module of the ship and then to the crew quarters. There are empty coffee cups and food containers and a variety of nick knacks that might be left around by a group of people on a long term project. We can see objects on stands shimmy with the movement of the space craft, and there is one of those perpetual dunking ducks, that is still working, even as the crew slumbers in hibernation. As the computer comes on with new instructions to awaken the crew, we see the screen reflected on the visor of a flight helmet. This is an interior that we come to understand. It is complex but also well used. 

The hibernation chamber is probably the cleanest hi-tech room we see, and after that, the med-lab. When you get into the mining platform, it is all dark corridors and steam pipe fittings and condensation falling like rain down on equipment and people. The escape shuttle looks sufficiently cramped and dark so it was not hard to imagine why Ripley did not see the Alien tucked into a tight space at the start of her escape. Of course the vessel on the planet is also a design of gargantuan proportions and it is otherworldly through and through. 

For other comments on the film, let me direct you first to my original project, where Alien was the focus of the 11th post I did.  Four years ago I did a special screening of “Alien” and “Aliens” at the Egyptian theater, which included some special effects guests and was very good. 

 

It was a nice day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this essential film.

Evil Dead Franchise Look Back

The LAMBCAST will be featuring “The Evil Dead” Franchise as our Halloween Horror lookback episode of the month. Recording is tomorrow but I just spent two days catching up with all four theatrical films and thought I’d put my notes down in a supplemental post for readers of this site.

The Evil Dead (1981)

I’d seen Evil Dead II before I saw the original, and I’d been told that the film was basically a remake of the first film. I would disagree to a large extent. The original Evil Dead is a straight horror film with a huge amount of gore and imagination to drive it. It practically invented to “Cabin in the Woods” trope found in so many horror films. Although the story is basically the same, it is told in a vastly different manner and should be approached as a distinct piece of work from the two “sequels”.

The inventiveness of the film is certainly due in part to the budget restrictions of Sam Rami and his partners. Creative camera shots and vivid makeup effects mark the film as being distinctive from most horror films of the era. The cast feels haunted before they even get to the cabin, based on the way they are shot while traveling in the car to their weekend location. The stop motion animation that caps off the climax of the film uses very basic tools that require patience and a clear vision. It may look a little cheezy by today’s standards but it works.

Bruce Campbell is launching his acting career with this movie and you don’t see the cocky smart ass that he plays in most of his subsequent roles, but rather a more simple male lead. He was clearly abused by the effects team and I suspect his weariness reflects not just the character but the actor’s real situation. Many be the most memorable incident in the film and the whole series is the “rape” of Cheryl  by the possessed trees of the forest. It is disturbing in the imagination, but much less graphic and exploitative than it might have been in another film.

Evil Dead II : Dead by Dawn  (1987)

So this was my gateway drug into the series, first experienced on home video at a Halloween party after all the small children had gone to sleep. This is the place where Bruce Campbell creates the character of Ash as the real star of the movie. His monologues with inanimate objects, and his moments as possessed Ash are very memorable. This is where the Chainsaw becomes a part of his body and he becomes a ninja warrior against the dead.

While still full of horror, the film can rightly be classified as a comedy because of the consistent use of humor. Rami’s sped up camera work and point of view material supplements the Dutch angles of the horror original with a hyper realized sensibility that is slightly silly and easy to fall into rhythmically.   The whiplash dialogue responses of Ash to moments in the film also accelerate it’s tempo, making it a more frenetic experience and again, a lot funnier. There are a couple of quotable moments but that line of delight waits for the third film to turn into a tidal wave.

Once again, the horror aspects are highlighted by very good 1980s practical make up effects. The reason these 80s films hang around and are beloved by so many is that they seem real. This is not a computer generated cartoon of a movie, these actors had to look this way as they were filming and their performances are more manically gleeful as a result. Everything in this film tries to double down on the original. Instead of calling this a sequel, we should rightly classify it as one of the original reboots of a concept. The events of the first film are never referred to, this is a first time experience for all of these characters. Instead of a group of five friends, it is a collection of sets of people who encounter the Evil Dead and respond in different ways. This adds a little culture clash to the humor as well.

Bonus: Here is a shot of my Special Blood Red Edition of the Laserdisc

Army of Darkness

You can almost exclude this from the horror category, it is an action/adventure comedy with horror elements but it really is a far cry from either of the first two films. The budget is bigger, the action is bigger, the cast is bigger and Ash’s ego is bigger. Universal did not want the film to just be seen as the third in a franchise that was not necessarily that big to begin with. So they changed the title and forced some other alterations on the original version. Most cinephiles loathe when studios interfere with the director’s vision of the film, but sometimes they are right and this is one of those cases.

For instance, the end of the picture was re-shot with an action sequence and some comedy that was more in line with the film we had seen up to that point. The original post apocalyptic ending feels like a retread of the ending of Evil Dead II, landing Ash in another location for further adventures. Rami and company were forced to come up with some things that fit the spirit if the main part of the movie, and “Hail to the King,baby” is the perfect exit for this character in this storyline.

I have always been a sucker for stop motion animation and effects. The Ray Harryhausen films and the original King Kong were my idea of perfect special effects. This movie uses a little of that technology, a lot of rear projection, some costuming and make up and a large amount of puppetry to achieve it’s goal. This film is goofy fun, through and through. Bruce Campbell becomes the man-god that will be his persona for the remainder of his career, probably preventing him from achieving legitimate stardom, but projecting him to the cult deity that he remains today.  For a more elaborate discussion of this film, feel free to look at this other post:  Army of Darkness.

Evil Dead (2013)

This is a complete do over of the concept and it was controversial as a result. There is no Ash, and the comedy elements are all gone. What you have here is a reworking of the original premise as a contemporary horror film, but done in the spirit of the original. So the question is simple, does it work?  Hell yes!

When I see a horror film, I want to be scared. This movie scared me. I like 70s and 80s gore films, and this movie replicates and expands on those approaches with copious amounts blood, guts, vomit. dismemberment and simply sick special effects. One of the things that was most appealing about this version is that it eschews the use of CGI to achieve it’s results and instead relies on the traditional make up and effects magic which made those early films so memorable. There were many times when I needed to draw a breath or turn away from something that was taking place on screen.

There was also an effort to update the movie in a way by changing the reason for the group being at an isolated cabin from a leisure activity, to a drug intervention. The members of the group have had good relations in the past, but they are severely strained by the current circumstances. This adds to the drama and it also creates some justification for the slow reaction to the supernatural events that begin to happen.

One thing that is a little different, the protagonists develop a plan for trying to get through this. It is nuts, but you can tell that it was justified by the characters in the movie and it seemed reasonable under the circumstances. All of these kinds of movies have to be taken with a grain of salt. You cannot patch a chest wound to the lungs with a band aid and if you cut off a body part, you will bleed to death without some sort of tourniquet. There is a nice emotional undercurrent to the film as well, one that concerns family and not just horror. If we can’t see some human connection between the people in the story, they will be cardboard figures to cut down. That is a problem that so many horror films don’t overcome, but I thought this one did. [My original review from 2013 is here.]