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Quarantine 2 – Review

Quarantine 2 – Review

Aug 26, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by John Pogue, 2011
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Quarantine 2 has one of the odder trips to the screen in recent memory and much of that journey turns off hardcore horror fans.  The original Quarantine was a near shot-for-shot remake of the excellent Spanish zombie film REC.  Quarantine shared so much of the original film’s vision and style, and came so closely on the heels of REC, that horror fans were up in arms.  “Why does Hollywood think we are so stupid we can’t appreciate a film with subtitles?”  It didn’t help that there were a number of solid foreign horror films getting the Hollywood makeover about that time.  Quarantine became a lightning rod for the negativity.   Now, Sony Pictures and director John Pogue bring us a sequel, and it isn’t based on the Spanish film REC 2 but is, instead, an original sequel to the US remake.  What a mess.  Expectations for the film dropped even lower when Sony decided to release the film direct-to-video and not even give it a token theatrical run.  I enjoyed the first film, and I thought in some ways it improved on REC, though it wasn’t as good a film overall, and I went into my viewing of Quarantine 2 with as open a mind as possible given the film’s history.  What I discovered was a solid low-budget “zombie” movie with a unique, interesting setting.  It isn’t ground-breaking by any means, but Quarantine 2 is definitely worth the price of a rental.

Quarantine 2’s plot runs in parallel with the events in Quarantine, but that isn’t obvious at the start of the film.  The film opens by introducing us to two flight attendants who are on their way to the airport for a flight.  The two characters are one-hundred percent cliché (one is a bit easy, the other has a father who tried to pressure her into being a pilot), but they are attractive and likeable enough to make for good protagonists (and potential zombie fodder).  Once on the airplane, we are introduced to one cliché character after another: a kid with divorced parents who is flying between them and trying to appear tougher than he is; an elderly woman and her Parkinson’s stricken, wheelchair bound, husband; an aggressive businessman who won’t turn off his cell phone; a portly passenger too fat to fit in the standard seatbelt, another older woman with a cat in her handbag, and a few more not worth mentioning.

The only passenger of any real interest is an elementary school teacher carrying a hamster cage.  Now, anyone who has seen the first film will know that the “hamsters” (and the cats for that matter) are going to be important.  The teacher is quickly revealed to be the male protagonist as the horror elements in the plot are introduced.  Those events are pretty predictable in light of the first film’s plot, but the setting is novel enough to build up tension and suspense.  Hey, it’s a zombie outbreak on a plane.  It would be hard to make that boring.

And Quarantine 2, even after it leaves the nicely claustrophobic plane and moves into an abandoned airline terminal (which is still novel but really could just be any nearly-empty warehouse),  isn’t boring.  There is a good deal of suspense, a little mystery, and a healthy amount of gruesome deaths.  Anyone who is not totally turned off by the film’s ancestry* should find it to be an enjoyable horror film.

* Speaking of the animosity out there in the horror community, I find it interesting that this film has an 83% positive rating from critics on Rottentomatoes.com but only a 4.5/10 average from the users at IMDB.  Considering that it is pretty rare for a low-budget horror film to have a positive critical response, I have to think the regular viewers responses are a little skewed because of the whole REC/Quarantine controversy.

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Super 8 – Review

Super 8 – Review

Jun 16, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by J.J. Abrams, 2011
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When I returned home from seeing Super 8, I had to fight the urge to look through my VHS movie collection to make sure I didn’t already have it on tape.  It is that much of a throwback to the works of Spielberg and his halo of directors in the 70’s and 80’s.  Add some additional hints of Stephen King, and the overall effect is one of almost overpowering nostalgia.  If that was all the film had going for it, it would be ultimately unsatisfying, but Super 8’s real strength is its characters and their stories, which in the end are far more compelling than the sci-fi horror fiction that serves as their backdrop.

Super 8 opens with a wake for protagonist Joe’s mother, who has been killed in an industrial accident.  At the wake, we meet not just Joe, but his group of friends who are in some ways stereotypical adolescent film characters but ones who lean much closer to the underlying truths of the stereotypes than to their flat shadows.  This becomes more and more evident as the film progresses and we get to see the characters behave realistically to a variety of fantastic events.  I was especially glad to see (as weird as this will sound) one of the friends vomit in panic as one particularly frightening event played out.  Unlike so many genre films, we never get the sense that Super 8’s characters are taking the extraordinary situations for granted.

Those extraordinary events start when the kids witness the spectacular wreck of a military train carrying some unusual cargo.  Pre-release publicity makes it pretty clear that there is an alien on board the train, but I’ll avoid any more details since learning about the creature and its motivations is so closely intertwined with the young characters learning about themselves, and that character growth is, refreshingly, the real meat of the story.

At the heart of those stories is the relationship between Joe and his deputy father.  Apparently estranged before the mother’s death, the father and the son are struggling.  Refreshingly, Joe’s father is a good guy, and he is trying to make up for the past.  For his part, Joe can’t get separation from his mother’s memory, a fact symbolized by the fact that he carries his mother’s locket with him at all times.

This is clearly Joe’s film, but, like Goonies and Stand By Me, it is the ensemble of characters around him that truly make the film work.  It is such a success that it seems ridiculous that it has taken this long for a Hollywood to get back around to this model.  Of course, it takes great young actors to make the formula work, and Super 8 has an abundance of them, led by the stand out performance of Elle Fanning as Alice, a the troubled daughter of the man whose failure to show up for his shift put Joe’s mother in harm’s way.

For the first two and a half acts, Super 8 gets everything just about perfect.  It isn’t until the ending that Abrams’s film breaks down a little.  Clinging so closely to Spielberg’s conventions means Abrams is forced to give us a larger-than-life conclusion.  Here, it is not so visually spectacular to truly impress and, worse still, comes at the expense of not allowing the film’s sub-plots to come to a natural conclusion.  There is a hurried reconciliation between the two troubled teens and their estranged parents and then, “Cue the awesomeness.”  For a film that has spent so much time allowing us to learn about and care about its characters, the rush to climax is especially disappointing.

That quibble aside, Super 8 is a remarkable film and a great time at the theater.  In many ways, it is Abrams’s best movie and one that leaves me wondering just how great a director he is capable of being.

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[Rec] – Review

[Rec] – Review

May 6, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Jaume Balaguero, 2007
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“REC” is the abbreviation seen on a video camera screen while recording, so it should be obvious going in that this Spanish horror film is in the hand-held, shakey cam tradition that first gained fame with The Blair Witch Project.  Unlike that film and its many imitators, [Rec] eschews all of the other bare-bones, amateurish elements from BWP in favor of a tight, beautifully simple plot and plenty of old school scares.   [Rec] is also a zombie/killer virus film that does that genre just as well as it does the found footage genre.  My only real issue is with how the film explains the outbreak, but, to be fair, I’d always prefer the cause of a zombie outbreak to be mysterious.

[Rec] follows a young reporter assigned to do a puff piece on the local fire department.  It opens with the kind of standard chit-chat with the firemen that we would expect from a news magazine piece, but when the station gets called out, things begin to go bad quickly.  They arrive at the scene to find that the emergency is that an old lady in the apartment building has gone a bit crazy.  Before long, she is attacking and ripping the flesh from one of the policemen on the scene.  By the time the crew gets the wounded policeman downstairs, they find the building surrounded by police and under quarantine.  So there is your basic premise—a small group of residents locked in an apartment building with zombie-like creatures.

Once the action gets started, [Rec] barely pauses to give the characters or the viewers time to breath.  Despite seeing the action unfold from through a camera lens, we are witness to some solid special effects, lots of gore,  and beautifully framed set-pieces.  I was especially impressed with a scene where the characters have to rush past a zombie handcuffed to a staircase railing.  It would have been so easy for that scene to become impossible to follow, but it is handled perfectly here.

Of course, the camera goes through the same shakiness and oblique angles that we often get in these films, but I was always able to focus on the action and follow the physical elements of the plot.  To accomplish this, our brave cameraman is often shooting in a way that makes no logical sense (like shooting our protagonist while being stalked by a zombie in a dark room—I’m pretty sure I’d have that night vision trained on the thing that was trying to eat me).  This concession was made in order to make the film easier to follow and to keep the protagonist central to the story, so it is hard to complain much about it.

During the films climatic scenes, we learn what has caused the outbreak.  The theological explanation for the zombie outbreak is just as ridiculous as George Lucas using metachlorian count to explain a Jedi’s use of The Force in the Star Wars prequels.  Wait a minute—make that more ridiculous than metachlorians, especially when one factors in the explanation for why the disease control people have locked down the building.

Click Here to purchase Rec

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Scream – Review

Scream – Review

May 1, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Wes Craven, 1996
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Note to the Readers:  Scream is nearly fifteen years old and is one of horror’s most recognizable films, so I likely don’t need to say that the review is full of spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, but I will do it anyway.  Attention:  SPOILERS AHEAD.  APPROACH WITH CAUTION

With the release of Scream 4, I began to become a bit nostalgic for the original trilogy.  I’ve been wondering a lot lately about the effect of time on my perception of the films I have always thought of as genre classics.  I’ve revisited a number of them recently, and while most hold up, many are starting to either show their age or reveal themselves to be less in reality than they were in my memory.  With that in mind, I loaded up the Wes Craven’s original Scream to see how it had held up.  Scream was released in 1996 to widespread acclaim and commercial success.  It left in its wake a mini-explosion of self-referential horror films that featured a lack of quality, shallow understanding of the genre, and dearth of originality. Those films have, unfortunately, tarnished the reputation of Craven’s classic.  Despite its less-than-inspiring progeny, re-watching Scream reveals a film that clearly deserved its original reception.

Scream‘s opening sequence is iconic.  It is one of the most famous opening scenes in horror and the years have done nothing to dim its luster.  The taunting, stalking, and eventual murder of Casey is tense, visceral and disturbing.  We learn quickly that Scream’s killer isn’t the silent, demonic archetype spun off of Halloween’s Mike Meyers and Friday the 13th Part Two’s Jason Vorhees.  The film will get around to recognizing and, to an extent, parodying those films, but in this opening shows a a killer who is smart, talkative, and undeniably cruel.  Had the rest of Scream been awful, this opening sequence would still be considered legendary.  It is just that good.

After that opening, the rest of the film is bound to be a bit of a letdown.  Few films are capable of maintaining that level of suspense for their entire running time.  Scream doesn’t quite pull it off either, but it comes surprisingly close.  The standard exposition reveals a group of only barely likeable characters and our protagonist, Sidney.  Sidney is very likeable.  Despite having lost her mother to a brutal murder and going through the turmoil of a highly publicized trial, Sidney remains grounded and, we will learn, resilient.  Her friends are a different story.  The script by Kevin Williamson gives all the characters very funny things to say and for the most part the actors handle the comedy and the drama well, but not a single character in the film talks or behaves like an actual teenagers—which was likely intentional on the part of Craven and Williamson.  In fact, other than Sidney and her goofy brother, Dewey, none of Scream’s characters seem like real people at all.  They all seem like movie characters.  This would ruin the film’s ability to invoke suspense and horror if not for the fact the Sidney feels real and, surrounded by jerks, remains someone we can root for throughout.

The above thoughts might make a reader think that I disliked Scream’s script. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fifteen years ago, I loved the one-liners, the subtle spoofing of genre conventions, and the twisty plot.  I still love it all today.  The writing is undoubtedly vastly better than we normally get in genre films.  If it were released for the first time today, I think it would find the same level of success and cultural impact that it had fifteen years earlier.  I just can’t help but feel that Williamson and Craven traded some of the potential impact of the film’s plot for a smarter-than-thou attitude that is both the films legacy and its weakness.

Certainly much has been said about the film’s final plot twist.  It is hard to remember if I had it all figured out back in the day, but I think Craven did an excellent job keeping the audience vacillating back and forth between potential killers.  It wouldn’t have been a surprise at all if either Billy or Stuart were revealed as the killer at the end of the film.  The fact that they were working together and, at least Stuart, had a real, emotional reason for his hatred of Sidney, was effective, if not truly surprising.

Scream manages to keep its status as a classic by virtue of talented artists who are on top of their game.  Williamson’s script is remarkable.  The core of actors, especially Campbell, Lilliard, and Ulrich, are outstanding.  Finally, Craven’s direction from the  iconic opening through to the equally iconic ending is masterful.  I’m pretty confident that if I were to visit the film once again in another decade, I’d find that these elements had continued to age well.

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Monsters – Review

Monsters – Review

Mar 31, 2011

reviewed by danny
directed by Gareth Edwards, 2010
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I don’t believe I have ever used the word “lyrical” to describe a giant-monster movie before now, but that was first word that popped into my head after watching Gareth Edward’s powerful, touching Science-fiction/horror film Monsters.  Monsters is the story of two travelers who, after a not-so-cute meet, find themselves allies on a hike across a dangerous landscape.  Often in horror films, the personal stories that filmmakers include seem perfunctory and get lost among the more fantastical, high-concept elements of the plot.  In Monsters, the “little” stories drive the plot.  The film explores how personal tragedy and conflict can dictate how we behave even during a large-scale disaster.

The details on what has happened on earth are sparse.  We learn that a NASA ship crashed while carrying evidence of alien life. Six years later, Northern Mexico is under quarantine because it has been “infected” by the alien life forms.  Monsters follows a photojournalist, Andrew, and an American tourist, Samantha, who, unable to book passage to the US when the army shuts down the region, decide to hike to America across the Infected Zone.  These characters, not the giant monsters are the heart of the film.

As the two characters make there way across the beautiful but ravaged landscape (Edwards experience filming natural disaster documentaries certainly shows), we learn through flashbacks about what was going on in each of their lives before they found themselves stranded in Mexico.  Their stories are common and familiar.  Being so, it would be easy for the stories to be simple character development.  Not here.  It becomes obvious that it is the alien crisis that is playing in the background as the characters work through these smaller issues.  All along, the two characters are also growing closer together.  It isn’t a film working its way inevitably to a kiss, but there is always the hope that together they can deal with the pain they each carry.

We really don’t see the aliens for most of the film.  We hear them off-screen, see parts of them during an attack, see them in the distance battling soldiers.  This delay in gratification builds a great deal of suspense.  We wait to see what the creatures are going to look like, how they are going to behave.  When our protagonists finally see the creatures up-close, the film doesn’t disappoint, but it also doesn’t give us what we might have been expecting.

It is strange.  The movie doesn’t have a big twist in the end or any real surprise plot points, but I am wary of giving many more plot details for fear of playing spoiler.  This is a film that it is best to come to fresh because it challenges so many conventions, albeit in a quiet, non-jarring way. All I feel safe saying is that the big reveal of the monsters and the final scene with our characters feature a powerful juxtaposition.  The main theme of the film is revealed in these two scenes.  I think it is that theme, not the plot, that I feel so wary of spoiling.

Lyrically paced, beautifully shot and deeply personal, Monsters is a film unlike any I have seen before.  At a time when mainstream horror is stuck in a deep, depressing rut, I am ecstatic that independent horror can come up with something so fresh and powerful.  Monsters gets my highest recommendation.

Click Here to purchase Monsters

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Asylum – Review

Asylum –  Review

Mar 6, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by David Ellis, 2008
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The idea that places can have memories is a powerful one.  We often hear of acts that are so awful, so unbelievable in their evil that it is easy to imagine them leaving a permanent impression on their physical surroundings.  Some great horror films have been based on this concept;  unfortunately, Asylum isn’t one of them.

Asylum is the story of Madison, a college freshman with considerable baggage.  When she was a young child, she witnessed her delusional father kill himself while battling imaginary foes.  More recently, her older brother has killed himself—at the very college she is now going to.    Those facts alone would make for a pretty rough freshman year, but then she arrives at her “dorm.”

Apparently, business is good at Richard Miller University because they have had to remodel an old mental hospital on campus and convert it into a co-ed dorm.  Well, they converted half of it.  The rest is left as is, connected only by a single door at the end of a dorm hallway.  A note: rarely in the history of film have establishing shots and interior shots looked more disconnected than they do here.  At no point did it feel like the action of the film was actually taking place in the buildings they were showing on the outside.  As a young kid, I did a short film that used the outside of our local hospital as an establishing shot and then cut to an interior shot that was just my bedroom with no attempt to make it look like a hospital room.  I got the exact same feeling watching Asylum, which is odd considering they apparently shot the film at a real university and presumably used the actual exteriors and interiors.

Back to the plot—we soon learn that bad things happened in the dorm/hospital in the past.  The doctor who was supposed to be helping troubled teens was actually mutilated and torturing them in order to “heal” them.  His spirit (though we are assured it is not a ghost at one point) still roams the building where he can “get inside” students heads and manipulate them.

Madison quickly hooks up with a bunch of students as troubled as she is, forming a perfect little group of victims for the evil doctor.  The problems exhibited by her new dorm mates read like a list of troubled-teen cliches.  Biff’s a drug addict.  Buffy’s boyfriend used to abuse her.  Brainy is so smart he is an outcast.  Rocky used to be fat and now is addicted to fitness.  Yes, I’m making those names up.  They should work as well as the real names for characters as flat, stereotypical and uninteresting as inhabit this film.

We are soon treated to a series of “dream” sequences as the evil doctor gets inside the heads of the co-eds, causing them to face their worse fears.  For entertainment’s sake, this is a good section to play a little game.  Pick a character, consider his or her psychological problem and then guess what the dream sequence will consist of.  If you are right, give yourself a cookie.  If you are wrong, you need to watch more horror films.  The only real surprise here is just how blatantly one of the scenes rips of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

As I saw how these sequences were going, I began to hope that when we got to the jerk with an eating disorder that we would get an homage to the scene with the walking pastries from Young Sherlock Holmes.  No such luck.  Just a fat mom yelling at her fat kid to clean his plate.

There are more cliches and rip offs of better movies as the film progresses and it culminates in one of the most overused cliches in all of modern horror—the releasing of the souls of the victims when the bad guy is killed.

Asylum isn’t just bad—it is depressingly so.  This is the point in the review where I usually point out a group of viewers who would like the film.  In this case, I’ll demure.  There are simply too many better options out there to make this film even worth a rental.

Click Here to purchase Asylum

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