Friday, October 30, 2015

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) Review:

The whole decade of the 1970s brought on a lot of change in several areas of life. People were advocating for peace rather than war. Some were fighting for civil liberties. Others were making strides in space exploration and some were pushing the limits that were everyday filmmaking. The 1970s for Hollywood received a jumble of new people who were making films that attracted audiences like never before. The horror genre was being exploited and tested to see how graphic directors could get away with showing their material to casual audiences. Science fiction movies were also on the rise with a number of films that inspired many future film crew professionals. For director William Sachs, having produced only a few films before this, took a hand at the horror and sci-fi genre. What turned out being only a literal 2-week shoot, has also been regarded as one of the worst films ever released. It is pretty bad, but it isn't the worst. It does have some moments to point out but it's more for if you just want to laugh at how silly the execution is.

Burr DeBenning
The story is about an astronaut named Steve West (Alex Rebar - probably his most memorable role) who went on a trip with others to Saturn to see the Sun of our solar system. Scientifically the trip doesn't make sense, but that's the least of the problems. After receiving some type of radiation trauma from the rays of the sun (via public domain stock footage), West is the only survivor. When he awakes, he discovers his skin is beginning to fall off. Expecting the worst, West begins to rage with fear and develops an appetite for human flesh. Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning), a friend of West is ordered by Gen. Michael Perry (Myron Healey) to find him before word gets out and also figure out how West got that way. This plot would be okay if it held a little more weight. Sachs was also the writer for this project. The screenplay is too light on exposition and hardly develops its characters. There are subplots, but much of the material is just filler making them pointless. Padding is really a big one. The whole running time is just an extended cat & mouse chase.

Also not helping that is 99% of the acting is dull and unconvincing except for maybe Sheriff Neil Blake (Michael Alldredge). The actor who's possibly the worst is Burr DeBenning. As the lead, his delivery is banal, carrying barely any hint of emotion. This is made all the more obvious when certain characters make extremely dumb decisions or lack any kind of deductive reasoning. Nobody can find a man who is literally melting and leaving trails everywhere he goes. Probably one of the more frustrating parts is not really getting to know the star of the film. Sachs script loves to indulge in giving its audience numerous playbacks of the first scene to West's poisoning. Yet, some viewers might actually like to get to know what's going on in West's mind other than the fateful day he went all brain stew on everyone. Audiences aren’t given any reason as to why West went after people he knew other than he needed buckets of blood to survive.

The creature idea itself isn't the most unique either (although only one film has been made about such a creature) but how it's treated visually is another story. Practical effects whiz Rick Baker (getting his kick-start from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)) was head of special makeup effects. Wow is the melting man actually believably unappealing. Alex Rebar in costume as the slimy fall apart man is visually nauseating and that's good. Taking into account the budget and how long it took to shoot the movie, that alone is a feat in itself. The rest of the horror relies on more gore than anything else. There is nothing to be scared about because of how quickly the acting takes one out of even remotely feeling that it could happen. There is a funny moment though. The credits aren't exactly clear but there is a scene involving two old folks driving. There acting is by no means good but if anything they provide the most energy to the film. It's truly ironic that two older actors can show up the rest of the entire cast when it comes to showing any emotion beyond seriousness.

Alex Rebar in makeup....yuk
The last two components that need to be mentioned are camerawork and music. Willy Kurant took care of cinematography. Although mostly doing more of his native work for Belgian productions, Kurant does however give the film somewhat of a professional look. The lighting is clear and bright where it needs to be. The camera is also steady and that's always good. Arlon Ober composed the musical score. Ober who is more familiar with orchestrating and conducting still makes use of whatever he saw in this below average film. It's not a good score because of its typical 1970s sound using flutes, electronic piano and guitar. It’s an odd combo and it would be one thing if it was experimental, but this film was trying to appeal to mainstream audiences, so no. It also doesn't help with bad acting that it makes the scenes feel over dramatized. What does work however is the motif theme for the melting man. The theme consists of sad sounding strings in full orchestra, which makes the character feel that more tragic. Unfortunately, it's still not that good of a film.

The (though all too 70s) film score, well-lit cinematography and makeup effects are mostly well put together, nothing else is really that acceptable. Most of the acting is not even comically dry, almost all characters are one-dimensional and the padding makes the sit painfully slow.

Points Earned --> 4:10

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Babadook (2014) Review:

There always seems to be a common trend for the horror films that truly scare its audience. Some examples from the past several decades are films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). They were all films with meager budgets but received positive reviews critically and box office draws commercially. They also had green lit sequels not many people enjoyed, except for the hardcore followers. There's a subtle difference between making a film independently Vs with the help of a studio. Unless the studio really believes that the director knows what they're doing, most of the time studios will intervene at some point and begin tampering with the director's vision. This leads to cuts, edits, reshoots and changes that most directors do not intend on doing thus fully altering their dream product. Meanwhile for indie filmmakers, directors have a much more limited cabinet of tools such as money (mainly) and resources, yet there's no studio to get involved.

Noah Wiseman & Essie Davis
Making her directorial/screenwriting debut, Jennifer Kent heads this Australian horror film that demonstrates that most horror films continue to be more effective when made independently than working with big budget studios. The story is about a widow named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) being stalked by an ominous entity known as The Babadook that's making their lives more stressed than it already was. Being that there have been multiple times when films do poorly because the writer to the script was also the director, it's surprising to see how this movie escapes most of those blunders. The majority of the surrounding subplots are presented for the right reasons and help the viewer understand how they affect the main characters. Also the writing barely, if any at all contains the typical horror tropes one would expect to see in your everyday mainstream ghoul flick. One area that stands out as none productive to the plot, is the subplot of Amelia's coworker Robbie (Daniel Henshall) who initially feels like he wants to be with her but it is quickly dropped half way through. Once realized, it didn't feel necessary to begin with.

There's also the case of continuity errors and why some things are left unchecked. Yet, these are things that usually happen in every film and it's not the most abundant here. If there's anything else that doesn't make sense it’s the antagonist's motives. Clearly heard in the movie, the character states "give me the boy", but for what? What's the purpose? Some backstory or mythology would be appreciated for such an iconic figure. This is it for gripes though, the characters are likable and the audience will care for them and the situations they are put into - specifically dealing with sweet neighbors like Mrs. Roach (Barbara West) and the cautious Aunt Claire (Hayley McElhinney). Even The Babadook (played by Tim Purcell) himself is somewhat likable because of just how strange and demonic the character is and how he goes about scaring the living daylights out of this family. The method that The Babadook goes about doing his business is not exactly the newest of things but it certainly is effective.

Initially, The Babadook is introduced via bedtime story book that has pop-up figures and its own little nursery rhyme. However as the pages continue to turn, the images become darker and darker foreshadowing possible events. Mind you that's just the beginning. The Babadook is a creature that loves to play mind games. Its movement is rigid, makes cockroach or cicada-like sounds and its voice is raspy almost like its speech being choked out. The design is also something noteworthy too, resembling that of a scarecrow. The violence is not hefty either. There are a couple moments that look painful but nothing that is on the dismemberment level. Jennifer Kent's direction relies more on scaring her viewers by giving them minimal elements to work with. That includes just seeing things for a moment and then disappearing or focusing on a simple object that may have a bigger purpose. It's those kinds of scenes that can give a viewer chills because of the insecurity that it generates.

The Babadook's book
Radek Ladczuk as the cameraman for this production made good use of his surroundings. The house Amelia and her son live in, is exactly what other characters mention it as - depressing. It's a house of melancholy colors that accentuate the mood and tone of the story ten fold. What's best about Ladczuk's work is treating the camera as if they were eyes. By this, if the camera moves in on a character and a sound is made, the camera stops completely. After a brief pause the camera moves again. It actually creates more tension in the scene. Ladczuk's other method is not moving the camera at all. There are some shots where the lens just focuses on a dark hallway or a shadow of a stairway railing. It gives the feeling that there's something else inside the house. The musical score composed by Jed Kurzel is surprisingly effective even though much of the film is silent. There are some intrinsic tunes provided by thumping timpani and bells. It's a foreboding sound that will definitely create uneasiness. Plus, no jump scare stings!

Rarely do mainstream horror films produce such chills when it comes to ghosts and midnight ghouls, but not here. It's unfortunate that it still has some problems either having a useless subplot or motivations left unexplained but that doesn't stop it in its tracks. With sympathetic characters, an iconic villain, unconventional cinematography, direction and music, this indie horror film surpasses several other horror properties popular studios have exploited.

Points Earned --> 7:10

Friday, October 16, 2015

Trick r' Treat (2007) Review:

The holiday of Halloween, "All Hallows' Eve", "All Soul's Night" or whatever people prefer to call it is quite a lucrative holiday for all sorts of people. Retail stores and costume designers get a ton of money for selling their work to the international distributors. Plastic mold and makeup companies also receive lots of money because everybody loves to look wounded during Halloween for fun. These days however, not many of the newer generations were taught or understand of what Halloween was originally all about. For this comedy horror film, that's more or less the idea of what the movie tries to get across to its audience. To have knowledge of the old practices and comprehend what they mean, what's their purpose and whether or not you should follow them. The problem is, its execution needed to be better than what it is already set at. As writer for films like (X-Men 2 (2003)), Michael Dougherty disappoints as he debuts as director (and writer) to this compilation horror story.

"Let's carve a pumpkin"
The plot is about five different interwoven stories that all occur on the same Halloween night, all of which have strange run-ins with other individuals. A school principle (Dylan Baker) has a desirable craze to harm "trick or treaters", a couple briefly argue over whether after partying they should immediately take down the decorations, another group of "trick or treaters" (Britt McKillip, Samm Todd and a few others) set out to prank one of their friends, another group of party girls (Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delainset and Anna Paquin) head out to find one of their friend’s the perfect match and lastly, an old man (Brian Cox) faces off against a very aggressive "trick or treater". Unfortunately, Dougherty's writing isn't very strong when it comes to characters and it shows in his execution.

For one, much of the main characters are thinly written with barely any development. Only a couple have a glimpse once or twice to display a background to a certain character’s history. Other than that, it's all questions. Why does the principle enjoy killing so much? Who is this mystery "trick or treater" with the potato sack head? This does not mean the actors who star in this film don't perform well though. They just suffer from a lack of depth. However for the rest of the writing, Dougherty demonstrates that he's not fully incompetent. The film's strong aspect is its connectivity. Most times when a film tries to recap on certain events, it misses points and forgets to show how various stories intertwine. Not here though, there are several areas to notice when it comes to seeing this. Also credit must be given for having some unexpected twists and instilling the main moral behind each story. Halloween spirits fight fire with fire. If anything, it should make each viewer that much more respectful of the holiday.

Again though audiences will run into problems for other parts aside from the writing. Sadly for effective as it is with setting up the rules and informing its viewers what's expected on the holiday, it really isn't scary. There are a couple of jump scares and they don't help but again there were creepy moments too. Those creepy moments were effective when they appeared. The scary component may not be as effective though because the film is part horror part comedy. Unsurprisingly, the comedy bits are only occasional too. There are some moments where the viewer may chuckle at how silly some characters act and the lines they say but it's not fully dark in its comedy either. The gore is thankfully a plus. There are a couple of nasty moments that can make the skin crawl. The idea of hiding razor blades in chocolate bars are just gag worthy. I would never want to realize that after I took a bite. Trick or treating can be a dangerous activity.

I have to admit, the costume is creepy
The cinematography is also well crafted. Handled by Glen MacPherson (Walking Tall (2004)), the camerawork ably moves to hide whatever Dougherty does not want his audience to see until its needed. This mostly goes for the connectivity for each plot thread that intertwines with each other. And like any film that recaps its story, it is done in such a way one will not have to sit and watch the exact same scene exactly as they saw it before. Instead, the scenes are shot at different angles to get a different perspective. Then there's the film score composed by Douglas Pipes. Essentially, Pipes last name fits appropriately to the horror films he's worked on. Pipe organs are not always used in his music but they are still associated with creepy/horror films. Aside from not having a main theme however, Pipes does include unsettling singular tunes brought on music box. This particular motif represents the aggressive trick or treater. It also sounds very similar to that of his previous work from Monster House (2006), which was a good listening experience.

It's too bad that a film like this that entirely focuses on Halloween’s lore and traditions that it falls short of telling a compelling narrative. It has good camerawork, story thread connectivity, violence, and music but it focuses too much on details. Thus although the actors perform decently, their roles are not that interesting. It's not even that scary or funny for what it was originally trying to go for. It's a mixed bag of treats.

Points Earned --> 5:10

Friday, October 9, 2015

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) Review:

Ben Stiller and director/producer Shawn Levy have worked together for quite some time now. It may not seem like much but Levy has been attached to a number of Mr. Stiller's films. For a partnership to occur, there are always pros and cons. A positive side to this would be that the two are comfortable with each other. They know their quirks, habits, preferences, attitude and whatever else. This means the possibility of having conflicting ideas is slim to none. However, the downside to this kind of double act is that if not looked after, the method of which going about making certain projects becomes repetitive and no longer unique. In other words, the people working on the project begin to get lazy with what they are doing and do not put much extra thought into it. Unfortunately it seems as though the sequel to the hit family film Night at the Museum (2006) went more of a marketing direction.

Hank Azaria as Ahkmunrah
Audiences who saw the first movie reconnect with now ex-night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) as the owner and inventor of Daley Devices. Turns out a few months after Daley found his dream job, which was working at the Museum of Natural History, his own business took off and left the museum to pursue his own goals. As a result, the owner Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) agreed with the board of directors that it is time to retire the physical models and put in new technology for people to enjoy because "everybody loves new technology". With that, all of Daley's friends from the first movie get shipped off to the Smithsonian in DC where they get stored with all the other kinds of ancient artifacts. But when it turns out the mystical tablet that brings everyone to life was also shipped to the Smithsonian and Ahkmenrah's (Rami Malek) brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) wants the tablet to release his army from the underworld, Daley decides he needs to get it back before the whole Smithsonian becomes a mess.

The script penned by the writers from before (Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon) demonstrated that they favored more special appearances than anything else. The plot exists but it takes a backseat to a lot of special effects and a forced subplot. Seriously though there are a lot of appearances by other characters/actors. There's scenes with Eugene Levy, Jonah Hill, Clint Howard, George Foreman, Caroll Spinney, Christopher Guest, Jay Baruchel, Alain Chabat, Jon Bernthal and even a dark lord of the sith (and that doesn't even go with a museum). That's also just the tip of the iceberg. Then you have the main new additions consisting of Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart and Bill Hader as General Custer. Now add that to the original cast of the first movie and you see there's a lot to look after. It's nice and all to see these various individuals show up but some of it feels rushed while others feel out of place. One of those parts that feels really out of place is the romance between Larry and Amelia Earhart. The idea of having Teddy Roosevelt and Sacajawea having a romance is acceptable because they both know where they stand. However, a human and a wax figure? Who thought of including that in the script? Wasn't Daley's life turned around at the end of the last movie anyway?

The humor to this movie does feel like it was improved a little but unfortunately it still misses several times. Ben Stiller finally doesn't react so jitterishly but his character is still forced to do things he doesn't want to do. Either that or incessant bickering between him and Kahmunrah. The actor who probably had the best comedic moments was Hank Azaria as Kahmunrah, there are some moments that feel more spontaneous than scripted. The special effects although overabundant are creative in a number of ways and it is interesting to see how all the other pieces of artwork come to life due to the tablet. It does bring up a question as to what's the signal strength of this tablet? At first it seemed as if it only reached from with inside the Museum of Natural History. Now it seems as if it go beyond state borders. How does that work? That's also not the only noticeable thing left unchecked. There are lots of damages that occur and yet later on none of it is spoken of? And how does one sneak into the Smithsonian with nobody else seeing what's going on? Don't they have night guards?

That forced relationship though
The cinematography shot by John Schwartzman who has worked on all ranges of projects either wide scale (Armageddon (1998)) or small (Airheads (1994)) looks adequate for this film. Some of it is CGI driven but most of the scenes nicely capture the grand scope of how vastly enormous the Smithsonian is and how many things are kept locked away. Schwartzman also went on to film for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Jurassic World (2015). Creating the film score is returning composer Alan Silvestri from the first film. Silvestri maintains the wondrous main theme from the first entry and expands on that by including new tracks. One specific track is more synthetic because it involves Larry infiltrating the Smithsonian. Another track sounds more like his work from that of The Mummy Returns (2001) because of Kahmunrah's army from the underworld. Is it worth collecting? Not exactly, but it still is an easygoing listening experience.

This sequel really tries by giving its fans some improved humor and loads of historical characters and other actor cameos but that's really where it gets hung up. The music, cinematography, acting and special effects are all commendable, but it attempts to tackle more than it can handle leading to a forced romance and a lot of continuity errors.

Points Earned --> 5:10

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Fast and the Furious (1955) Review:

The mid-1900s was a time when film was still working its way into being less conservative for certain thematic material. Unlike today, when somebody hears the term "fast" or "furious" in the same sentence, many people think of the Universal Studios' billion dollar franchise that has soared to endless heights with its insane car stunts and character driven writing. Jumping back into the middle of the 20th century there's this film that Universal had acquired the title rights from and it's important to understand times were much different then. Not only is it super tame in its action and stunts but several other elements are slimmed down as well. Kiss those 130-blockbuster minutes goodbye, this feature rolls in at a tiny 72 minutes; barely enough to pass as a theatrical film these days. Believe it or not, these points don't sound promising but the film does stand on its own. It's just not anything beyond a one-time watch.

Yeah, most of the background effects aren't great but they tried
The story is about a wrongly convicted truck driver named Frank Webster (John Ireland) who is trying to escape to Mexico before the authorities can get a hold of him. Upon leaving a diner, he takes a lady named Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone) and her brand new Jaguar cruiser hostage in order to escape quickly enough from being arrested. The film was directed partially by main actor John Ireland and Edward Sampson; both of which were relatively new to directing. This was Sampson's first credit, Ireland's second and their last for both. For directing quality, it's focused but more or less uninspired. The script that was originally conceived by Roger Corman and then adapted by Jerome Odlum and Jean Howell is slightly better because the viewer will get an understanding of how and why Frank Webster is who he is. Also, those who fondly enjoy The Fast and the Furious (2001) will be able to see what pieces of the script of this film were lifted from. Other than the title and fast cars; sabotaging trucks, street races and wrongly convicted individuals go hand-in-hand with that of the 2001 film.

The screenplay still has its problems though with character motivations and dialog. Most likely due to the short run time, the speed at which characters change their opinion on certain matters feels unnatural or is just illogical. The problems with the dialog are simple to notice too. Much of the dramatic heft and delivery of lines range between cheesy 50s acting to stiff as a board. The cheesiness comes from when police officers are trying to get information from a suspect and it feels overly silly. The actor that is the most rigid in their role is surprisingly John Ireland. Considering Ireland had practically a decade to hone his acting chops, his deliver is emotionless here. Plus, what may be annoying to some viewers is that Ireland's character was written to always have the last word in a conversation. Yes, we understand Frank Webster is not a man to be messed with, but making him get in the last word to every conversation makes him sound immature.

For racing action, a lot is seen that it is all stock footage. For 1955, people most likely believed or found this to be adequate special effects. For today's standards of course not, but it should be appreciated for what is depicted and the effort that went into making it look as realistic as possible. There are some moments where producer/writer Roger Corman did act as a stunt driver and its not the easiest to tell actually. The time when Corman is a stunt driver is about as equally concealed as to today's films that try to hide certain stunts into a film. Either way there is some swift moving, sleek looking cars shot in this movie. If there's one thing this film highlights, it's how races used to be conducted back in the 1950s. Something of which many people don't see anymore and is a much different experience. There are also some crash and burn moments too but again, it is much less than what today's audiences have seen.

That scowl is on John Ireland's face practically the whole time
The cinematography handled by Floyd Crosby was decent too. Crosby, best known for working on House of Usher (1960) along side Corman demonstrate his ability to keep the camera focused on what's important on screen. Unfortunately it does suffer from shaking occasionally but not from today's "shaky-cam" issues. The problem arises more from the fact that some shots are filmed of which looked like the camera was physically on the back of a car. At that point in time back then, it is most likely that the right technology hadn't been created yet, or the budget did not allow for such fancy gadgets. But for as problematic as it may sound, those shots are actually the best because they feel the most real in the film without using green screen or other cheap effects. The music composed by Alexander Gerens was okay. It wasn't anything special with a main theme but it did give the film that classic 1950s sound that only a certain era of film making could provide. Can't knock that.

It's by no means even a very involving film, but it does have decent effects, camera-work and music. It also showcases retro cars along with other things that are different from that time. It's screenplay even gives somewhat of an understanding to where the parts in The Fast and the Furious (2001) came from. However, the rest of writing has shifty character motives and some unimpressive acting. At least it's only an hour or so long; it'll go by quick.

Points Earned --> 5:10