Archive for August, 2015

I take a look at “George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act Three” #4 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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Do those title-page recaps that Marvel runs on the first page of all their books these days bug you? I have to admit that they usually work my nerves and that I see them as a less-than-clever way to shave a page off the actual story and art in any given issue while still enabling the publisher to cynically claim that their books offer “21 pages of editorial content.” In the case of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead, however,  I’ll make an exception, for one simple reason : as we all know, Romero uses his zombie tales as  allegory for socio-political commentary here in the “real world” (think of Night Of The Living Dead‘s cautionary messages about racism and prejudice, Dawn Of The Dead‘s bleak examination of rampant consumerism, and Day Of The Dead‘s gleeful deconstruction of Cold War paranoia), and the intro page that’s…

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I wanted to like this one. I really did.

When I heard that Tony Burgess, writer of Pontypool (as well as the novel on which the film was based, Pontypool Changes Everything) was back with a new independent Canadian horror effort called Ejecta (released theatrically in its country of origin last year but just making its way onto “home viewing platforms” here in the US within the last few months), and that it was going to star one of my all-time favorite Great White North actors, Julian Richings, I was stoked. And when I heard it was going to be about one man’s “possession” (for lack of a better term) by an unseen alien intelligence, I was even more stoked. After all, Burgess had pulled off the “off-camera monsters” bit so well with the just-mentioned earlier flick that I figured, hey, this must be a new sub-genre of his own creation that he is setting out to be the absolute lord and master of. Seriously — what could possibly go wrong?

Sadly, it turns out that the answer to that question is “a lot.”

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Let’s start at the top, shall we, since it seems that’s where most of the problems with this one emanate (and, consequently, trickle down) from.  Pontypool had the distinct advantage of being directed by Bruce McDonald, one of the most criminally-underappreciated cinematic auteurs of our time. Ejecta, on the other hand, was lensed by the tandem of Chad Archibald and Matt Wiele, and in between the constant back-and-forth shuffling from “found footage” horror to more conventional “omniscient camera” film-making, the two seem to lose any probably-flimsy-to-begin-with grasp they may have had on their material somewhere along the way. It’s probably not so much for a lack of trying as it an inherent lack of understanding as to how to pull it off, but having your heart in the right place just isn’t enough to salvage a movie most of the time.

Not that the material itself is all that strong, mind you. The story focuses on recluse-by-choice William Cassidy (Richings), who is losing his already-tenuous grasp on sanity as a result of constant “close encounters” of the most intimate kind — namely, the alien invader (or invaders) he’s being plagued by come right on into his body and mind and take over. Of course, people are skeptical of his claims, and that’s where documentary filmmaker Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) comes in. He’s on hand to catch one of these “visitations” with his handy HD videocam, but unfortunately he’s not the only person who thinks Cassidy is probably telling the truth — a mysterious quasi-governmental paramilitary force is also on hand to do what those sorts of outfits do, namely snatch the beleaguered “vessel” for this supposed extra-terrestrial “contact,” put him in front of their boss, Dr. Tobin (Lisa Houle, another Pontypool holdover), and extract the facts out of him by any means necessary.

Cue some torture and all that shit.

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I dunno. Maybe in the hands of Bruce McDonald all this could have worked marginally better, but even then I think Ejecta would come up short in terms of delivering the scares. The “auditory evil” conceit worked much better the first time out, and rather than building upon his own foundation, Burgess’ script for this one feels like a textbook example of diminishing returns in action. The performers (including Burgess himself in a supporting role) don’t seem to buy into it much, either, with the exception of Richings, who’s the only member of the cast with the chops to transcend the inherent weakness of the material. I don’t want to accuse the rest of  simplygoing through the motions, but — it feels like they’re simply going through the motions (particularly Houle, whose character should flat-out drip with menacing ill-intent, rather than come off as somebody who just read their lines off a cue card before sitting down).

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To Archibald and Wiele’s credit, a number of their visual effects do work, particularly those that are heavily reliant upon “trippy” lighting, but all told the subtle nature of the terror at the heart of Ejecta (which is now streaming on Netflix as well as being available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory) probably requires the deft touch a genre veteran to make it come anywhere close to working, and our (I’m assuming) youthful duo just aren’t up to the task at this stage in their careers.. I’m a huge supporter of the sort of “intelligent psychological horror” that Burgess seems to want to make his stock in trade, and of Canadian independent cinema in general, but at the end of the day this is a movie that I honesty can’t recommend to anyone.

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I’m so sorry, dear readers, for concluding our mini Lovecraft round-up with this one, but somebody had to watch Ulli Lommel’s 2007 bastardization of The Tomb (or, as it’s fully titled, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb) so that you don’t have to. And I guess that “somebody” is me.

What we have here, then,  is a shot-on-HD micro-budget “torture porn” quickie that bears absolutely no resemblance to the story upon which it’s supposedly “based” (concerning, for those of you not in the know, a man who becomes obsessed with an ancient tomb and begins to secretly visit it only to have the horrors it contains begin to infringe upon his existence) and instead plays out like the gutter-level Saw rip-off it is, with a couple of idiots named Tara (Victoria Ullmann) and Billy (Christian Behm) imprisoned by a sadistic piece of shit who calls himself “The Puppetmaster” and gets off on making life hell for random strangers that he captures for the sake of his depraved “amusement.”

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Okay, sure, there’s a little more to it than that — but not much. We get some backstory meant to explain the origins of our masked fuckhead’s idea of a “good time,” and it turns out some other hapless losers are being held in his supposed “warehouse,” as well, but honestly, you’ll be so bored with this flick by the ten-minute mark that all of that will just sort of whiz right by you. The horseshit special effects and completely listless, going-thought-the-motions performances of all the cast don’t help matters much, either, and all in all you seriously have to wonder both why this movie was ever made in the first place, and what Lovecraft’s name is doing anywhere near it.

I suspect the answer to both queries is the same : Lommel did it because he could.

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One thing he absolutely can’t do, though — as he’s demonstrated time and again — is churn out a film that anyone would give a flying fuck about. So at least he’s kept his streak intact with this one. Beyond that, there’s really nothing much more to say about this fetid pile of celluloid (okay, taped) excrement other than”the less said, the better.”

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The Tomb was streaming on Netflix until a short while ago, but now they appear to have had the good and/or contractually obligated sense to take it down, so if you want to torture yourself worse than this “Puppetmaster” nob ever could by actually watching the thing, you’ll have to resort to DVD. I’m not going to give you the specifics on who released it or where you can find it, though, because I have no desire to be party to your pathetic masochistic tendencies. I’ve done my part by warning you not to waste your time, my conscience is clean.

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Next up in our mini-round-up (we’ve got one more to go) of films based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft in honor of his 125th birthday we come to 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, a reasonably faithful take on its “source material” filtered through a distinctly late-’60s/early-’70s psychedelic lens that hard-core Lovecraft fans might view as little more than a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the original story but that nevertheless manages to capture at least some small frisson of New England Gothic horror in between all the dated (but in a fun way, I assure you) trappings and references.

A lot of that is down to the superbly OTT creepy job Dean Stockwell does as Wilbur Whateley, the villain of the piece — we all know he’s the master of cut-rate disturbed characters, and he’s certainly in fine form here, chewing up the entire screen whether he’s positioned in long range from the camera or staring right the fuck into it with his narrow-but-somehow-still-beady eyes. Modern audiences aren’t likely to take him as much of a serious “threat,” of course, but so what? This is a guy who knows his gig and does it well, never moreso than here. He’s worth the price of admission (which these days is free, given that this flick is streaming on Netflix — it’s also available on DVD from MGM should you wish to go that route) alone, and if you can’t have any fun watching him work his “occult lothario” bit, well — maybe you just can’t have any fun, period.

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This Roger Corman production isn’t simply a one-man show, however, and the rest of the cast do a pretty nice job with the admittedly limited jobs they’re tasked to perform, as well, whether we’re talking about Sandra Dee as mesmerized college girl Nancy Wagner, Donna Baccala as concerned best friend Elizabeth, Ed Begley (Sr.) as professor of ancient lore Dr. Armitage ( the only guy who might be able to piece together why Wilbur has taken Nacy under his wing), Lloyd Bochner as kindly country doctor Cory (who apparently has no concept of doctor-patient confidentiality, but whatever), or Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s ailing grandfather, everybody comes up trumps. And be on the lookout for a pre-The Godfather and Rocky Talia Shire (credited here under her actual last name of, as I’m sure you already know, Coppola) as Dr. Cory’s nurse.

Oh, and since playing the game of “scanning the credits for names before they became famous” is a key component of any Corman movie, it’s probably worth noting that future “A-list” director Curtis Hanson (of L.A. Confidential and The Wonder Boys fame) is among the gaggle of screenwriters whose job it was to bring Lovecraft’s other-worldly vision in line with his paymaster’s always-slim budget. I’m sure he did what he could.

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The same can also be said for director Daniel Haller — yeah, the Cthulhu monster looks like something out of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, and the dialogue can get a bit clunky and expository, and we won’t even talk about the thoroughly unconvincing “thunderstorm” at the end, but in addition to coaxing some fine (if occasionally  camp) performances from his cast, Haller’s film also has some genuinely impressive set designs and does a splendid job of capturing the “town trapped in time” setting that the story requires to be (admittedly only partially) successful. All in all, it’s a job well done from a guy who probably couldn’t even be too sure that his paycheck would clear the bank.

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Obviously, The Dunwich Horror is far from a masterpiece, but given who was backing the project, that was never in the cards, anyway. All you can ask of some films is that they do more or less the best  they can with what they’ve got, and measured by that scale, Haller and company deserve, as Roger Ebert would have said, a fairly enthusiastic “thumbs up.” The entire production feels more like a 90-minute episode of Night Gallery than anything else, I suppose,  but around these parts that’s definitely a compliment.

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H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 years old the other day, and given that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence has proven to be the impetus for the biggest “Lovecraft kick”  I’ve experienced since high school, I figured, what the hell? Why not mark the occasion by reviewing a few Lovecraft-inspired flicks over the next handful of days? And given that pretty much everybody has seen the Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna productions of Re-AnimatorFrom Beyond and Dagon (my personal favorite of the bunch), we’ll avoid those and try instead to zero in on a few celluloid Lovecraft adaptations that are easy enough to find, but that haven’t been seen by many apart from seriously hard-core fans.

First up is legendary B-movie auteur Albert Pyun’s ultra-low-budget, shot-on-HD-videocam 2006 take on Lovecraft’s Cool Air, a film that is, admittedly,  tempting to dismiss before even seeing it simply because any movie that sits unreleased on a shelf for seven years before quietly being dumped out on DVD (and DVD only, I might add — no Blu-ray for this one) is probably bound to not be all that good, right? LionsGate, who owns the rights to this number, surely would have seen fit to get it into the hands of fans sooner if they’d felt it was worth the effort to do so, wouldn’t they? I mean, anything shot this cheaply (IMDB lists the budget at being just over $1.5 million, but watching the film it’s hard to see where most of that went) that has Lovecraft’s name attached to it in any capacity whatsoever is bound to at least break even, wouldn’t you think?

Well, evidently the suits at LGF disagreed, and let Pyun’s filmed-entirely-in-one-house opus gather dust until 2013 — which was when, I’m guessing, some catalogue- and -archiving intern stumbled across it and reminded his or her bosses that, hey, we’ve still got this thing sitting here and we may as well do something with it. So they did.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all — the film’s original production company (a one-and-done outfit composed of Pyun himself and a couple of financiers)  sat on it until 2012, trying to figure out how best to get the thing out there, and ended up entering it into the 2012 Las Vegas Grindhouse and Horror Film Festival, where it was something of a minor hit, then LionsGate picked it up for home video release the next year (it’s also available streaming online for $2.99, which is how I caught it). But dammit, I like my version of the story better.

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To be brutally frank, things  don’t appear too promising at first here, with what has to be the one of the dullest extended opening-credit sequences I’ve ever been forced to sit through (in fairness, the “run snippets from the movie you just watched with the actors’ names underneath” that rolls at the end is probably even worse, though — that didn’t even work well in ’80s “ensemble” comedies, why would it fare any better in a low-key horror flick with a grand total of five cast members?), but if you can stay awake through that, the good news is that once events (finally) start rolling, this is actually a pretty faithful adaptation that has a lot going for it.

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Now, if you’ve actually seen this thing, this is the point at which you’re probably going to stop dead in your tracks and question my sanity. Allow me to paraphrase what’s likely  going through your mind : “Faithful adaptation? Are you nuts? The story’s been moved to the present day, it’s set in Malibu, and the the main ‘villain,’ Dr. Munoz, has been gender-swapped for a female character named Dr. Shockner! Shit, the 20-minute adaptation Rod Serling did of this story on Night Gallery is more faithful than that!”

Okay, fair enough — on paper, the story of a down-and-out Hollywood screenwriter named Charlie Baxter (played by Morgan Weisser) who’s lost his apartment and has to rent a room in a “McMansion” from a secretive landlady (Wendy Phillips) who has a couple of secretive tenants (a former Disney animator named, believe it or not, Deltoid, who’s played by Norbert Weisser, and the aforementioned Dr. Shockner, who’s played by Crystal Green) bears only a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s original premise, but Weisser’s voice-over narration directly lifts huge passages from the story verbatim, and really, those cosmetic changes are about the only major difference on offer here, apart from the whole-cloth invention of a character named Estella (Virginia Dare), who’s the landlady’s autistic daughter. In terms of overall theme and tone, though,  Pyun and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan get things more or less exactly right, and in the end, isn’t that what counts?

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Any film with production values this abysmally- low-by-dint-of-necessity is going to have its problems, of course — visually, the flick is dull as un-buttered toast, and a visible boom mic during a scene that has no dialogue whatsoever is jarring to say the least, but you know how things work around these parts : we’re generally a pretty forgiving bunch. On the whole the acting is actually pretty good apart from Weisser being asked to have one of the least-convincing heart attacks ever committed to film (or, in this case, to tape), and Green in particular is flat-out superb in a role very few established actors could make a go of, namely that of a classic Lovecraftian amoral semi-monster re-interpreted as a MILF (and damn, her voice just oozes sex appeal), so it really does appear that everyone is giving their all here for a production that, let’s not beat around the bush, hardly demands any such professionalism. Also, it’s worth pointing out that, purists be damned, most of those “cosmetic changes” I just droned on about in Curnan’s screenplay actually work and go some way towards making the dated concepts at the core of Lovecraft’s yarn relevant to a modern audience. Let’s face it : these days you can find an air conditioner that will keep your room below 55 degrees at all times, which is exactly what Dr. Munoz required in the original story, so that whole “crazy-contraption-that-runs-on-ammonia” thing just isn’t going to fly with folks unfamiliar with the, to use a term I fucking hate, “source material.” Some sort of updating was very much in order here, and while this Cool Air may deviate here and there from what’s on the printed page, it does so not in a way that corrupts or trashes the story, but rather brings it into the modern era with its soul intact.

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Now, obviously, this being 2015, it’s pretty hard to talk Lovecraft without talking Providence, and yes, the short story as originally scripted features prominently in the first issue of Moore and Burrows’ ongoing masterwork (is it too early to call it that? I think not). Pyun and his small crew can’t compete with that, it’s true. But they’ve also got a budget — and a very tight one at that — to work within. The comics page has no such restrictions (nor does the imagination of Alan Moore). Cool Air does what it can with what it has, and manages to squeeze a lot of blood from a rock. It’s far from stylish, far from flashy, and in many technical respects it’s fair to say it’s even far from competent — but it’s still good. What more can you ask than that?

Next up : we keep the Lovecraft train rolling with a look at 1970’s The Dunwich Horror — which is streaming on Netflix right now if you want to catch it in advance of my review. Hope to see you back here in a few days!

 

Rest In Peace, Little Buddy

Posted: August 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

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This is Oscar. We got him and his brother, Marty, about nine about nine years ago when one of the cats owned by our former downstairs tenants had a litter of four , which proved to be just too damn much for them to handle (understandably, I might add). They spent the first four months of their lives living in separate cages in our basement while they were — uhhmmm — “de-worming,” but as soon as they got a clean bill of health we brought two of them up to our home to stay with us. Our lives were never the same — and that’s a good thing.

Marty was pretty quick to claim my wife, Deinell, as “his,” and that made Oscar “mine” by default. Until we lost Marty to a urinary tract infection on Christmas day four years ago, and Oscar started to spread his love and affection equally between Dee and myself. He was a crazy little guy who never did anything that made a lick of sense, but fuck it — we loved him anyway, and he let it be known that he was pretty fond of us, too. He was the kind of cat that would jump up on your lap or stomach anytime he wanted — even when you were fast asleep in the middle of the night — and jut purr away. I’d sometimes get pissed at him for waking me up, sure, but that was before I had to come to grips with the fact that he’d never jump up and sit on me again at any time, day or night. Now, of course, I miss it like crazy. Hell, I miss him like crazy.

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In case you hadn’t figured it out already, we lost our little guy earlier this evening. He’d been shedding a dramatic amount of weight in recent months, despite eating like a horse and drinking like a fish, and didn’t look much like the fat and happy little fellow you see in the photo above. It turns out he was diabetic. Irony of all ironies, we actually picked up his first insulin prescription earlier today — good-bye $300 — but it was too little, too late. Oscar seemed to lose interest in food and water yesterday, and today he wouldn’t eat a bite or sip a drop. We took him to the emergency vet and it turned out his kidneys were failing. He put up a heck of a fight and did so silently and bravely. He didn’t make a bunch of noise, throw up, or even wince in pain. He just sat there, silent and listless, his little heart beating away even though he could barely stand up. A real trooper right to the end.

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It wasn’t an end any of us were ready for, though, to say the least. 48 hours ago he was running around the house without a care in the world, mewling for Fancy Feast at the top of his lungs and generally doing all the stuff cats do that drives us nuts until they’re not there to do it anymore. Now, in less time than it takes to smoke a goddamn beef brisket, he’s gone. And there’s no other way to put it than this really sucks.

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People use the term “fur babies” a lot these days, and Oscar was definitely that. Deinell and I don’t have kids, but even if we did, I think it’s safe to say that this little guy would still be front and center in our family unit because he’d make sure of it. He wasn’t always the easiest cat to love, that’s for certain — he was neurotic, demanding, pushy, and would shit on the floor when he was mad. But the fact that nobody else in their right mind would probably put up with him made us love him all the more. He needed us, you see — even if you’d never be able to get him to admit to that.

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And you know what? It’s more than fair to say that we needed him, too. I guess you’ve got to be an animal lover to fully understand the bond that develops between humans and their hairy four-legged friends, but the weird thing is, I was never the world’s biggest animal lover myself until Marty and Oscar came along. They won me over without even trying, and now they’re both gone and I honestly have no clue how to process how lousy that makes me feel. They had good lives, to be sure — trust me when I say that neither one of them ever lacked for food, affection, or attention — but it’s a raw-as-all-hell deal that both of those lives were cut waaaaayyyy too short.

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All you can do is move on, I guess, and be thankful for the good times. There certainly were a lot of those. Here’s what it all boils down to, though — yeah, cats cost you money in terms of food, vet bills, litter, all that good stuff, but they do a lot more for you than you do for them. I was a better person with Oscar sitting on my lap, purring away while I read, watched TV, or wrote blog posts like this one. Don’t ask me why or how that works, it just does. And now there’s an empty spot on my lap — and in my heart. We’ve still got his psycho step-sibling Trixie (seen with him in the photo below) to keep us company and make us pull our hair out, sure, but I’m seeing the ghost of our Oscar scurrying along the kitchen floor out of the corner of my eye already. That’s sort of comforting, I guess, but I’d rather love a real, live cat than his shadow — or his memory — any day.

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Our memory is where he lives on now, though — as well as in our hearts. And those hearts are a heck of a lot bigger and better thanks to him. We’re going to miss you every day for the rest of our lives, little buddy, just like your brother. You guys were the best thing that ever happened to us, and while you may not be here to feel it or to hear us say it, we’re gonna keep on loving you crazy hairy monsters forever anyway. RIP Oscar, Sept. 9th 2006-Aug. 22nd, 2015.

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If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that director Josh Trank’s new Fantastic Four flick just isn’t very good, right? I mean, yeah, the troglodyte faction of comics fandom has been out to bury this one since the day it was announced that an African-American actor, Michael B. Jordan, would be playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (of course, if you ask them, racism had nothing to do with their petulant reaction — rather they claim, embarrassingly, that they just wanted the movie to remain true to the “source” material. Which, ya know, came out in 1963 and was aimed at an all-white audience of 12-year-olds. Good luck with that in 2015), but there’s just gotta be more to it than that, right? I mean, the movie only has a 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes and absolutely toxic word of mouth has poisoned its chances at the box office.

Sure, the usual top-down “whisper campaign” from Disney/Marvel, who wanted this movie to tank so that they could buy the rights to the characters back from Fox on the cheap, certainly played a part in this new FF’s immediate DOA status, no question (any movie based on Marvel characters needs to be absolutely pitch-perfect from start to finish, it seems — unless it’s a movie coming from Marvel Studios itself, in which case it can completely suck and people will still delude themselves into thinking it’s good out of sheer, stubborn, stupid brand loyalty), but come on — even that, combined with the ignorance and prejudice of stick-in-the-mud, nostalgia-addled, aging comic book readers still isn’t enough to account for just how reviled this film already is. Any reception this poor has got to be honestly earned on some level, doesn’t it?

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I’ll be honest — for about the first 45 minutes of Trank’s feature, I thought everybody was nuts. And part of me was really hoping that everybody was nuts, simply because if there’s one group of folks that I take great pride in pissing off on a regular basis, it’s the intellectually-stilted, emotionally-subrnormal (thank you Alan Moore) segment of comics fandom who openly “roots” for all these Marvel properties to “come back home,” but who could give a rat’s ass about the fact that  the creative geniuses from whose imaginations they sprung, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, got positively fucked by Marvel for decades on end. These are people who are loyal to characters, not creators, and whose reading tastes were permanently arrested at a junior high level thanks to their sleazy and despicable hero, Stan Lee (who at least doesn’t show up for his customary nauseating cameo here — nor are he and Kirby listed as “co”-creators). Never mind that it was Lee’s horseshit skills as a wannabe wheeler-dealer in Hollywood that saw all of these Marvel characters licensed out to other studios at a relative pittance in the first place. So,uhhmm, where were we? — oh yeah,  the first act of Fantastic Four isn’t just good, it’s flat-out great, and I was relishing the chance to come home, sit down, and talk about what a delusional bunch of assholes the majority of the Marvel-loving public is once again.

I admit, I had my doubts going in, as well. The idea of Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (played by Miles Teller), Sue Storm/The Invisible Girl (Kate Mara), Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell) and the aforementioned Johnny Storm/The Human Torch being “re-imagined” as kid geniuses under the tutelage of the Storm family patriarch, Franklin (Reg E. Cathey) sounded like a dicey proposition, at best (I understand that this set-up borrows heavily from writer Mark Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comics series, but not having read that, I can’t say for certain how true that is or not), but damn if Trank and his army of screenwriters don’t make it work — for awhile.

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During the film’s second act, though, the wheels really come off. Or maybe that should be “slowly and gently roll off.” The story sputters along at any ever-decreasing speed until finally grinding to an absolute halt, and while Trank does his best to inject a David Croneneberg flavor into the proceedings by emphasizing the “body horror” aspects of the various characters’ new-found abilities after their trans-dimensional jaunt (an updating of the origin story that actually makes sense given that the idea that “cosmic radiation” would transform space explorers on a cellular level was pretty well shot down six years after the FF’s creation once we sent astronauts to the moon — assuming you believe that we did) and tossing in a very gory-and-nifty homage to Scanners, it’s simply not enough — especially if, like me, you’re one of the few people out there who actually read future MythBusters producer Eric Haven’s fine (but tragically short-lived) black-and-white indie comics series Angryman back in the early ’90s, where he did a much better job of telling more or less the exact same story in a short back-up strip in issue #2. Seriously, hunt it down and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, back to the business at hand. Trank tries to kick things back into gear for his big finale, which sees the team going back to “Dimension X” to battle their fifth member (who’s got every reason to be pissed off since they left him for dead), Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell),  but he’s too far behind the eightball at this point to possibly regain all the ground he’s lost. Reed starts talking in extended info-dumps, Dr. Doom’s plot to destroy our reality makes no sense, and the surprisingly cut-rate CGI often borders on the flat-out laughable. Really, for a big-budget movie Fantastic Four starts to look and feel like it was done on the cheap, and by the time we reach the eyeball-rolling “so what should we call ourselves, anyway?” conclusion, you’ll have to admit, as I did, that all those stick-in-the-mud, hyper-conservative fans were right. This just ain’t a very good movie.

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I’ll say this much, though — not only is this better than previous cinematic iterations of the FF (I’m damning with faint praise there, I know) it’s also nowhere near the complete train-wreck its legion of detractors claim it to be. Its chief problem isn’t so much that it’s an abomination of unprecedented proportions as that it’s just a really boring and predictable movie. You know, like Ant-Man. Or Guardians Of The Galaxy. Or The Avengers. Or Iron Man. Or  — well, just about any of ’em, really. Fantastic Four is in no way appreciably different than most officially-sanctioned “MCU” garbage, and during its first act, it’s actually a damn sight better than a lot of its Marvel step-siblings. Unfortunately, it just couldn’t keep that standard — or even anything close to it — up for the remainder of the ride.

As we’ve all seen, the recriminations are coming hot and heavy now. Trank tweeted on the day of his film’s release that he had a version that he was really happy with about a year ago, then implied that meddling from studio higher-ups resulted in the mess we see before us today. Good luck getting work at Fox again, buddy (although, given that he’s only 31 years old, it’s way too premature to say that this movie has torpedoed his chances in Hollywood permanently). Reports are coming out that the set was so fraught with tension that the director and one of his stars, Teller, damn near got into a fist fight (never mind that this kind of on-set drama is actually pretty common, it’s just that when a movie does well, we don’t hear about it until years later).  And more un-substantiated reports of more problems will be forthcoming, I’m sure. So Marvel and their self-proclaimed “zombies” will probably get their wish, and if and when we see the next FF re-launch, it will probably be under the “MCU” banner. Which means that I don’t expect it to be any worse than this — but I highly doubt that it’ll be any better, either.

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Let’s be honest : when it comes to balls-out post-apocalyptic action, few people can do it like the Aussies. This fine cinematic tradition dates all the way back to George Miller’s original Mad Max, and continues in fine form to this day not only with the recently-released Mad Max : Fury Road, but with last year’s much-more-modestly-budgeted indie feature Wyrmwood : Road Of The Dead (or, as it was more simply titled for theatrical release in its country of origin, Wyrmwood), a true labor of love shot on weekends over a four-year span by co-writer (along with his brother, Tristan)/director Kiah Roache-Turner that one-ups Miller, at least on a purely conceptual level, by throwing zombies into the mix, as well.

When the infection (and by the way, kudos to the Roache-Turners for adding the cool effect of having their undead breathe a sort of greenish gas) hits, hard-working mechanic and family man Barry (Jay Gallagher) has to do the unthinkable : kill his own wife and daughter. But he’s still got one reason to live — he needs to rescue his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), an internet bondage-porn videographer who had one of her “shoots” go really wrong and ended up in the hands of quasi-governmental military thugs employed by an honest-to-god mad scientist known only as “The Doc” (Berynn Schwerdt)  who makes Richard Liberty’s lab-coated goofball in George Romero’s Day Of The Dead look positively tame by comparison.

Barry’s got some help in the form of sure-to-be-audience-favorite Benny (Leon Burchill), and aboriginal survivor who he meets when — ahhh, shit, the less said about that the better — but there’s a whole outback full of zombies between the two of them and their hastily-assembled ragtag crew and Brooke and and her batshit-crazy captor.

Can you say “bad times ahead”?

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Fortunately for us all, in a flick done right like this, bad times also mean very fun times (at least for us), and Wyrmwood : Road Of The Dead is pedal-to-the-metal insanity from word “go” to word “stop.” Sure, there are plenty of gaping plotholes along the way (the most notable being that the whys and wherefores of how the “zombie mutation” spreads are unclear and/or completely random at best), but so what? You need to slow down to think about those sorts of pesky details, and if there’s one thing the Roache-Turner brothers don’t do, it’s take their foot off the gas.

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That’s entirely as it should be, I think, since they know that what we’re here for is blood, guts (in this case a mix of CGI and practical effects, both utilized in superb fashion), guns, and cool-ass homemade survival armor and battle vehicles — and hey, they serve all of that up by the truck-full. The story might be as brainless as the shambling corpses it features, but that’s all part and parcel of the fun here, and if you can’t stop taking yourself so fucking seriously for 90-or-so-minutes, then you’ve got no business watching a flick like this in the first place.

If you do want to watch it, though — and you should — the good news is that Wyrnwood : Road Of The Dead is now available on Netflix instant streaming, as well as on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory. I caught it via Netflix myself so I can’t comment on the specifics of the physical storage-format technical specs or extras, but a brief glance at Shout!’s website is enough to convince me that they’re put together a typically impressive package. Given that this is a movie you’ll probably want to watch again and again over the years, buying it doesn’t seem like a bad option at all.

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In fact, I may just do that right now. The term “instant classic” gets thrown around a bit too freely for my tastes, but this bears all the hallmarks of being exactly that.

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Well, are you? Huh? Are you?

Nah, I’m not, either (yours or mine), so let’s just talk about someone else’s shall we? Better yet, let’s talk about somebody who’s altogether fictitious, so we can all  be nice and comfortable.

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Specifically, let’s talk about 16-year-old Carson Morris (played by Lara Vosburgh), the subject of director Seth Grossman’s 2014 “found footage” indie-horror Inner Demons, who was apparently once a bright and promising young girl, but fell in with the wrong crowd once her admittedly dysfunctional parents (dad’s a lush, mom’s a religious fanatic) started sending her to a prestigious Catholic prep school that strikes me more as the sort of place you enroll your kid in to get them away from the wrong crowd, but whatever.

Little Carson’s just not the same anymore. She dresses in black and wears “goth” makeup and listens to heavy metal music and, of course, is shooting heroin and popping pills. Because, ya know, all kids who are into “goth” and metal do that, right? But her folks are sick and tired of supposedly “enabling” her, and have signed her up to be on an Intervention-style “reality” TV show. She, of course, thinks she’s just the subject of some sort of “cautionary tale” documentary, but in due course they’re gonna lower the boom on her, sit her down with a shrink, and ship her off to a rehab center. That’s how these things go.

There’s just one little wrinkle — Carson claims she’s possessed by a demon and that she’s turned to drugs to dull the constant pain that comes with having an evil otherworldly entity living inside her body and mind. I swear, teenagers today say the craziest things.

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Before we go any further here — and there’s really not much further to go — I’ll just come right out and admit it : I fell for the old Netflix “we’ve just added a new movie you might be interested in” email again, and despite the fact that I pretty much always get burned by these things, I gave Inner Demons (which is apparently also available on Blu-ray and DVD from MPI Home Video) a go. The idea of drugging yourself into a stupor in order to “beat” possession sounded like a nifty new wrinkle to me, but rest assured, there’s absolutely nothing on offer here you haven’t seen somewhere else at least a dozen times, and the law of diminishing returns is definitely in full effect in screenwriter Glenn Gers’ heavily-derivative, supremely un-involving script.

By and large the no-name cast (literally the only actor I recognized was perennial “D-lister” Sewell Whitney, who plays Carson’s pastor — which is weird, since the story seems to imply that she’s Catholic, and they’ve got priests)  manages as well as they can with some pretty weak material, but when your primary visual cue that something is amiss is the tired old “camera going fuzzy when the evil gets to close to it” thing, well, not even Laurence Olivier can do much with that.

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Still, as “been there, done that” as the film’s opening 2/3 are, they’re positively Oscar-caliber compared to the laughably absurd third act, when Carson flubs out of rehab and the wheels come off. One of the show’s camera guys, Steve (Christopher Parker) has taken a shine to the troubled young teen (despite the fact that she’s jail bait), and when he confirms — via tactics that are both unethical and flat-out illegal — that all her “demonic possession” talk is the real deal, he goes over to her house in the middle of the night, TV producers in tow, and performs an off-the-cuff exorcism, despite having no training in the field and only one store-bought “occult” textbook that he hasn’t even read yet to guide him through the process. Yeah, that oughtta work out great.

Do you already know how this thing is gonna end? Because you really should.

And, of course, you’ll be exactly right. Inner Demons is a movie that has no clue how to deviate from its by-the-numbers formula, and honestly can’t even get that much right. It has only one real “twist” on offer, it happens at the very last second, and you’ll see it coming from 666 miles away. Better to just turn around and head in the other direction right now.

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Admit it : Jason Bateman has been playing smug, insincere assholes for so long now (am I the only one old enough to remember him as Derek on Silver Spoons?) that you just sort of assume he must be one in real life himself. Which isn’t to say that he’s been a “one-note Johnny” his entire career, but —oh, who the hell are we kidding? Of course he has. But he does it so damn well that I honestly don’t hold the fact that he’s never exactly “branched out” against him.

Here’s the thing though — for whatever reason, he’s pretty much always confined his shtick to the comedy genre (specifically the TV sitcom), and as a result, his characters have always been relatively redeemable. Yeah, he’s gonna stab you in the back, get one over on you, and generally fuck up your life, but gosh — he just can’t help himself, and it’s all in good fun. For that reason, a good number of folks were surprised to see him playing the lead in the new psychological thriller (being marketed as a horror flick, even though it’s not — blame the Blum House production company label, I guess) The Gift, but honestly, the yuppie scumbag named Simon that he’s portraying isn’t even a small step out of his “comfort zone” at all — it’s just that this time his actions have consequences, and drastic ones at that.

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The Gift is the brainchild of writer/director/co-star Joel Edgerton, and is a deceptively simple modernized take on Hitchcock that lures you into its web quietly but confidently right from the outset as we meet Simon and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who are aiming for a fresh start in life after a rocky couple of years in Chicago. Robyn had a miscarriage that triggered a downward spiral of chronic depression and prescription drug addiction, and Simon has taken a semi-prestigious job back in his old northern California stomping grounds in the hopes that a change of scenery will get their marriage back on track. When he runs into former high school classmate Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Edgerton), though, things go from promising to weird to dangerous in no time flat.

Gordo obviously hasn’t been the capitalist success story that Simon is, and seems socially awkward and maybe even a little bit menacing once he starts popping by with gifts a little bit too frequently. Simon finally decides that enough is enough and that he’d better tell his “old friend” to back off, but Robyn, for her part, seems to think their newfound “third wheel” is harmless, to be sure, and maybe even a little bit endearing. Still, she agrees with her husband’s decision to tell the guy to ease out of the picture and, after a semi-scary bout of revenge (killing the fish he gave them, stealing their dog), the worst appears to be over when Gordo writes them a note saying that he was “willing to let bygones be bygones” but, since Simon doesn’t seem interested in that, he’ll just quietly fade into the rear view mirror and allow the couple to get on with their lives. Besides, Robyn’s pregnant now, and they’ve got other stuff to worry about.

That one line, though — “let bygones be bygones” — sticks with Robyn, and despite Simon’s steadfast assurances that he has no idea what Gordo’s talking about, she can’t help but feel there’s a whole lot more going on here than meets the eye.

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Which, of course, there is. As it turns out, Simon’s whole “successful nice guy” act is a complete crock of shit, and she’s married to a monster — one who’s left a trail of victims in his wake. And that’s probably about as specific as I care to get, aside from stating the obvious, which is that one of his victims is, of course, Gordo. But just when you’re ready to have some genuine sympathy for him, Edgerton reveals that his own character’s  desire to even the score has made him every bit as malignant and irredeemable as his one-time antagonist.

No doubt about it, The Gift serves up a fairly toxic stew of corruption and neuroses, and while the film’s sexual politics are “iffy” at best — with Robyn falling into the unfortunate role of a pawn in the sick game being played out by two men — the performances are so universally “spot-on,” and the pacing of the revelations so expert, that you’re willing to let that slide until the movie is over and have it trouble your conscience later. A few deftly- placed “cheap scares” add to the overall vibe of slowly-encroaching inescapable dread, and Edgerton’s moody, understated visual style gives things a uniquely “warm yet clinical” feel that suits the material to a proverbial “T.” Yeah, there are a few less-than-authentic instances along the way that strain credulity somewhat, but all in all Edgerton is in fine command of his project here, and manages to hit that “sweet spot” so few contemporary “thrillers” do where the audience knows it’s being toyed with like a fish on a line, but can’t help but allow itself to be reeled in anyway. In other words, this is supremely confident stuff.

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Full disclosure : I got a free pass to see this thing, but you know what? I can say without hesitation that The Gift is worth the full price of admission, even at today’s hyper-inflated weekend evening rates. It’s a movie that never lets you feel as though your feet are on firm ground, and leaves an indelible “stain on the brain” once it’s over. The “feel-good movie of the summer” it most assuredly isn’t, but it’s probably the finest cinematic rumination on the ultimate emptiness of revenge since Coffy, and an amazingly polished and disturbing psychodrama that probably has Sir Alfred himself looking down (or up, depending on where you think he’s at) and giving a quiet, knowing, respectful nod of approval.