Sunday, March 28, 2010

Planet 51 (2009) - Over Kids' Heads

On the Menu: PLANET 51 (2009)
Ingredients: Voices of Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel, Seann William Scott, Gary Oldman and John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martínez. Run time: 91 minutes. Rated: PG.

At First Bite: I laughed at the scene in the preview where the astronaut is planting the flag while humming his own theme music. I needed a non-thinking movie for once, and I've enjoyed the last couple of kids' movies I've watched: UP and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.

The idea here is it's a 1950s alien invasion film put in reverse, so the human is the alien.

Astronaut Chuck Baker (Johnson) thinks he's found an uninhabited planet, but ends up in the backyard of some English-speaking green beings in the middle of a cookout.

Lem (Long) works at the conservatory, and ends up harboring and befriending the "alien."

The townspeople fear Baker is there to destroy their planet, but he just wants to get home. The problem of getting home is much harder when the army has your ship and plans to study your brain.

Tough to Swallow: There's a scene where a street lamp falls into the street as a car drives away, but it disappears when the shot reverses to show the front of the car.

Sometimes it looks as though the animation of the characters' lips doesn't match the dialogue (like there's a lag).

The Rock has proven he can be a real character, but his voice doesn't stand out in this movie. This was a role for Patrick Warburton. And, it doesn't really make sense that the astronaut is so dumb. Also, why did they waste Biel on such a small, not-so-hot character? The forced love story slows the movie down.

It would have been nice to know how the green guys can speak English.

This movie has a lot of references to the 1950s and other films, which isn't a bad thing, but the references/jokes are going to fly right over the kids' heads.

Something to Chew On: The aforementioned references include black & white TVs, '50s music, drive-ins, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, ALIEN, "Star Trek," THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THEM!, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, STAR WARS, E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE TERMINATOR, THE RIGHT STUFF, SPIES LIKE US, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and GREASE. The kids might get the E.T. reference. Rover also looks a little like Eve from WALL-E.

Writer Joe Stillman also wrote the first two SHREK films. This is the first film from Ilion Animation, which is based in Madrid, Spain.

The film's budget was $70 million (really?), and it's box office numbers were $42 million domestically and $104 million worldwide.

The film currently has a 6.1 user rating on (6,421 votes).

Sides: The DVD includes 3 extended scenes, an obstacle course game featuring Rover, animation progression reels and 9 movie trailers. "The World of PLANET 51" is a tour of all the animated sets. "Life On PLANET 51" is a longer, behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew interviews. "Planetarium - The Voice Stars of PLANET 51" is a shorter version of the featurette I just mentioned. And, to round it out, there's a music video montage with scenes from the movie.

Aftertaste: If not for the two "dog" characters, Rover and Ripley, kids might lose interest. Granted those characters provide most of the laughs for adults as well. There's potty humor, but references to butt plugs, probes and suppositories will also be lost on kids as will the human-as-alien storyline.

I kept thinking Glipforg, the city or planet's name, was a word scramble like the town of Nilbog in TROLL 2, which is quite possibly one of the best worst movies of all-time. Alas, Glipforg is just a silly name.

The animation is all right (the "aliens" seem to have bananas for hair, but they ARE otherworldly). The characters are okay. The voices are so-so. The references are kinda funny, but more mature.

I'm afraid that might not be good enough for most kids. I never thought SHREK was really a movie for children either, but that didn't stop parents from taking their kids to see it or its sequels. "Don't judge a book by its cover" is a great moral to teach to children though. For me, I like PLANET 51 for its allusions to other films and its spin on the '50s sci-fi horror flicks.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - Honorable Classic

On the Menu: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)
Ingredients: James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Eve Arden, Arthur O'Connell and Kathryn Grant. Directed by Otto Preminger. Run time: 160 minutes. Rated: Unrated.

At First Bite: I had always thought this was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and I still thought it was as I was watching the opening credits. Then, of course, I saw Preminger's name instead. Within the last year, I have seen two of his other films: CARMEN JONES (1954) and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965). I enjoyed the latter far more than the former, but figured this one would be good just because of Stewart and Scott.

Paul Biegler (Stewart) is a small town lawyer, who spends most of his time fishing. His alcoholic, elder lawyer buddy, Parnell McCarthy (O'Connell), tells him about a case that has come to town. Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Gazzara) is in jail for murdering a bartender who allegedly raped his wife the same night.

Biegler decides to go with "irresistible impulse" as the defense. Unfortunately, he's stuck with a judge he doesn't know and the assistant district attorney is helping the prosecution. It also doesn't help that Mrs. Manion (Remick) is a seductress, and her husband is prone to fits of jealous rage.

The case really seems cut and dry, but the prosecution has seriously underestimated the country lawyer.

Tough to Swallow: When Parnell comes over to Paul's house in the beginning of the film, there are two shots where it's as though the cameraman bumps into the wall or doorframe while walking backwards. They're both pretty noticeable. I know Preminger uses long shots, but I would think you would cut and shoot it again.

Maybe it's just 1959, but the prospect of witness coaching doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, and I didn't understand how the prosecution could possibly keep the motive (rape) from being part of the murder case initially.

Something to Chew On: Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker wrote the novel, which is based on a 1952 slaying just north of Marquette, Michigan. Voelker used the pseudonym Robert Traver.

The film was shot in two months, and just a month later it was already cut, scored and in previews.

During its original release it was banned from Chicago. It stirred controversy by including the words "bitch," "contraceptive," "panties," "penetration," "rape," "slut" and "sperm." James Stewart's father took an ad out in his local paper telling people not to see it. The film was one of the first Hollywood movies to challenge the Hays Code (censorship guidelines); the others were SOME LIKE IT HOT and PSYCHO.

Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives were offered the role of the judge, but it went to former U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch. Lana Turner was offered the part of Mrs. Manion, but Preminger turned her down because she wanted to only wear gowns by Jean Louis. With Turner in talks to play Mrs. Manion, Preminger had asked Remick to play Mary Pilant. Remick refused, but was later given the bigger role once Turner was out of the picture.

The entire soundtrack was composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and performed by Ellington's orchestra. Ellington took home a Grammy for his efforts. He also has a cameo in the film as Pie-Eye.

The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Scott and O'Connell), Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Film Editing, Best Picture and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). However, the film did not win any Oscars.

The American Film Institute voted Preminger's film to be the 7th best courtroom drama of all-time (June 2008).

The film currently has an 8.2 user rating on (15,502 votes).

Sides: The DVD only includes a photo montage, some talent files and vintage advertising.

Aftertaste: I love courtroom dramas about as much as I enjoy prison movies. And, to have Stewart and Scott playing off of each other made this one brilliant. It's kind of the same situation you see in A TIME TO KILL; the country lawyer, with help from his colleagues (at least one drunk in each movie), goes up against a big-time prosecutor.

I still question why and how the issue of rape could have been ignored in the case. It was the motive. The defense actually had to put up a fight to get anything involving Mrs. Manion included. To me, it was a little strange. Neither side had a problem with witness coaching, which goes to show Biegler and Dancer (Scott) have their own problems with what is right or wrong.

The movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, but it doesn't feel that long. And, I think that has a lot to do with the verbal sparring between the lawyers. They're intense. They make it fun, and you're interested to see how they're going to one-up each other with every witness.

As much as I've talked about Stewart and Scott, the supporting cast is just as great. O'Connell and Arden, who plays Biegler's secretary, are wonderful complements to Stewart. Remick is a cutie, and plays the flirtatious wife to perfection. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out where I had seen Ben Gazzara before. I finally realized he was the crime boss in ROAD HOUSE. I do think though Remick and Gazzara, whether through acting or looks, make it harder to believe in the innocence of their characters.

The verdict is in: ANATOMY OF A MURDER is guilty of greatness.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Scapegoat (2009) - Possible Hot Commodity

On the Menu: SCAPEGOAT (2009)
Ingredients: Ben Puckett, Dan Clancy, Cory Boughton, Paula Orr and Jason Garcia. Directed by David Saich. Run time: 106 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: The director of this movie is one of my coworkers at WLOS, which is the ABC affiliate in Asheville, NC. He was a news photographer, but now works in promotions/creative services. We've worked together for nearly four years, which is about as long as it took him to put the movie together. However, I didn't know about the movie until a few weeks before the cast and crew screening on Oct. 23, 2009.

A week ago, he asked me if I would like to write the first official review for his directorial debut, SCAPEGOAT. I agreed.

Charles Duncan (Clancy) has stolen $4.2 million from his clients, and the FBI is now investigating. They can't pin it on him yet, but he's the prime suspect. Enter John Capra (Puckett). Capra is a professional fall guy. It's his job to create an alibi for his client and shift the blame to himself.

Capra has a friend on the inside, which helps things go a little smoother, but they didn't expect Duncan's firm to hire a "heavy" to retrieve the stolen money.

Second Helping: Normally, I'll only watch a movie a second time if it has commentary, but I feel I wouldn't be doing my friend justice by basing my review a single viewing. The second time around did help. There were things, good and bad, that I missed before.

Tough to Swallow: If a policeman pulled you over for suspicion of drunk driving, would he put you in the passenger seat of his cruiser before administering a field sobriety test or breathalyzer? Well, there are a lot of dumb cops, I guess. Because another group of them puts the same guy in the back of a car when the driver of said car isn't a cop. Huh?

I never really understood why Mr. Duncan, who appeared to be rather successful, i.e. he had a nice job and apartment, would risk his livelihood by stealing a monumental sum of money from his employer. I know his ex-wife is getting remarried and he might only see his daughters on weekends, but $4.2 million seems a tad extreme.

Aesthetically, there were some soft focus issues here and there, but I think the down-conversion from HD is the culprit. Saich did mention he used a lens adapter that uses 35mm Nikon lenses, and at times it was "really tricky to follow focus."

I am not a big fan of the font used for the opening credits/titles. They reminded me of the stuff we used back in college on the Chyron in our TV production class.

The beginning chase sequence and the "raid" at Mrs. Duncan's house, though well done, have a tiny problem. For each scene, almost in its entirety, there appears to be a spot of dirt on the lens of the camera (bottom center for the chase, top left for the raid).

There were also times where there wasn't enough lighting in a shot, actors might look orangish or lighting would change in the middle of a scene. It was weird to see a meeting held in a dark office during the daytime; the blinds are shut, but the only inside light source is a desk lamp. Or sometimes the blinds were open during the day, but the desk lamps were still being used. Here's the thing though: I imagine lighting for a film is a difficult task on a super-small budget, especially if you're trying to stick to the three-point lighting method.

Budget is also a factor as far as casting goes. Most, if not all, of the actors are locals either involved in Asheville's theater community or employees of WLOS. The main issues here are emotion and line delivery. Mr. Duncan doesn't seemed too shocked or scared that someone has broken into his apartment; his first line to the intruder defends his choice of Scotch. The same thing goes for Mrs. Duncan (Susie Sabala) when she confronts her ex. Excluding Puckett, Boughton and John Le, oftentimes the dialogue doesn't come across as very conversational and some lines seem forced. There is one instance where the word "soil" is pronounced "soul," and it just leaves you shaking your head. Also, the first time Frank (Garcia) tags along with the FBI, he has a line - "Any other family?" - that must have been added in post because his lips clearly aren't moving, and it sounds different than the rest of the audio.

In the credits, Ryan Felten's name is misspelled as Felton, Blue Ridge Motor Lodge is listed as Blue Ridge Motor Inn, Carmel's Restaurant is listed as Carmels Restaurant, and Gene Burns is thanked twice (which could be on purpose).

Something to Chew On: The budget for the movie was under $500, including a $100 day rate for the movie's lone SAG member (Sabala), a permit to shoot outside the federal court house, a stunt car and refreshments.

The film was shot using a Panasonic AG-HVX200 and included 22 shooting locations.

The entire filmmaking process took almost a year apiece for writing, shooting and post-production (3 years total). The first cut of the movie was 2 hours and 11 minutes long.

The original lead actor lost interest about 3 months into the shoot, so Saich and crew decided to scrap what they had and start over.

If my tallies are correct, there are 19 current WLOS employees and another 6 former employees in the cast.

The invitation-only cast & crew screening took place at Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Road. Nearly 170 people were in attendance.

Sides: The disc I was loaned did not have any special features. There wasn't a menu or chapter list either.

Aftertaste: I think it's a great premise for a movie, and for most of the stuff I listed in the "Tough to Swallow" section, I think all of that could be remedied with a bigger budget.

Aside from a few abrupt cuts, the editing was top-notch. I loved some of the transitions between scenes; my favorite is early on when Agent Wood (Orr) asks Agent Quick (Boughton), "What have you heard?," and we fade to a police scanner in Capra's car. The early scene where Capra describes how he works (beginning with the zoom on the crowbar) is another great sequence. And, I thought the shooting location by the railroad tracks looked freakin' awesome.

Saich knows how to frame a shot. I don't see any issues with composition. A couple of shots stand out for me: 1) the merging of Capra's reflection and his father's picture, and 2) the reflection of Duncan in the alarm clock.

Puckett, as the leading man, does a commendable job. At times he seems to channel Edward Norton. Garcia is intimidation personified, but I think he would be more menacing and mysterious with fewer lines and his traditionally shaved head (I say traditionally because I've only seen him completely bald at work).

The twist you'd normally find at the end of the movie is actually introduced about 18 minutes into the film. There's an unexpected hero and no love story. Who needs conventions?

All in all, for an amateur film with a near-$500 budget and local actors, it's pretty decent.

With a little tweaking, it could get some love in the film festival circuit.

For those of you not in the area and interested in viewing the film (or working with/hiring David Saich), Saich is on Facebook.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) - Gratuitous Included


Ingredients: Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, Judd Nelson, Peter Fonda and Clifton Collins, Jr. Directed by Troy Duffy. Run time: 118 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: BOONDOCK SAINTS is easily in my Top 25 when it comes to my favorite movies, but I never thought it needed a sequel. I found out about the new installment back in late September or early October, and watched the trailer around the same time. It looked all right. I wasn't necessarily excited to see the movie based on the trailer since Willem Dafoe was absent, but his replacement, the hot Julie Benz, did grab my attention.

The movie opens up in Ireland where the fully-bearded McManus clan has apparently been hiding out for the last 10 years being shepherds. They're drawn back to Beantown after someone, imitating their style, kills a priest.

Bringing the brothers back is all a ploy by Concezio Yakavetta (Nelson), the son of the Italian mob boss from the first film. The FBI gets involved again, but this time there's no Smecker (Dafoe). Instead, his protégée Special Agent Eunice Bloom (Benz) takes the case and teams up with the three local policemen from the original.

So, the brothers return to clean house, but another mob boss has been pulling the strings on the entire plot.

Second Helping: With two commentary tracks on the DVD, I was pretty much forced to watch the movie three times.

You won't really learn anything from the first commentary that includes the actors, which they recorded the night of the premiere. As the closing credits start to roll, they end the commentary and are headed to opening night. Anyway, they spend the whole movie cracking gay jokes and doing impressions. At one point about halfway through, someone asks, "Are we supposed to talk about the movie?" Well, it would have been nice.

The second commentary is more informative. Duffy provides some insights into casting and storylines. He spends the first hour by himself, but then is joined by one of the actors for the last hour. It's funny because Duffy has stories from the first film involving the actor, but the actor doesn't remember ANYTHING that happened on or off the set 10 years ago.

Tough to Swallow: It's All Saints' Day. There's an apostrophe.

After an Oscar-nominated performance in THE WRESTLER, Joan Rivers was just mediocre in this one. Wait. That was Sean Patrick Flanery?! Oops. My bad. Seriously, the years have not been kind to him... and neither have the plastic surgeons.
Also, Benz's Southern accent is awful, she tends to mug for the camera during her Paul Smecker moments (the crime-scene reenactments), and I'm still not sure why she is taken off the case later in the movie. Fonda as an Italian mob boss didn't really work for me either. Oh, and Collins is too over-the-top.

There's a grooming montage while the boys are in Ireland. Music plays and the shots shift as the brothers cut their hair, shave their beards and take showers. There's also a drinking montage that is said to be a nod to fans who have told Duffy they'd like to have a drink with the brothers. Regardless, both montages are dumb.

During the big shootout in the hotel, the brothers are attached to rope and swing through the windows from outside. However, as they bust through they're shooting as they continue to slide across the floor on their knees, the rope magically disappears.

The scenes with the "midget" shooter and the dream sequence are all pointless, in my opinion. The movie could easily have been 30 minutes shorter. Plus, the black cat in the dream sequence is supposed to reference Rocco's girlfriend's cat from the first film, but the original cat was gray and white.

Personally, I think we were better off NOT knowing the backstory of Il Duce (he was cooler because of the mystery). The three flashbacks used to tell the story slow the movie down. The conversation in the greenhouse near the end is all that was needed to explain his background.

Something to Chew On: The production budget was $8 million, and it grossed over $10 million at the box office in its 112 days in theaters. Now, compare that to the first film. BOONDOCK SAINTS was made with $6 million, but only grossed $30,000 because it spent just 20 days in 5 theaters (its theatrical release came just nine months after the Columbine High School massacre). The original has tallied about $50 million in video sales though.

Eleven of the original cast members are back this time around.

I'm not too sure how many people who will watch this movie will have seen "One Tree Hill," but Paul Johansson, who plays Dan Scott on the TV drama, makes an appearance as an FBI agent. Others may recognize Robb Wells (Jimmy the Gofer) from "Trailer Park Boys."

Gerard Parkes, who plays Doc, the bar owner who suffers from Tourette's, also played Doc (the lone human) on "Fraggle Rock."

Duffy is working on a black comedy set in the 1600s called THE GOOD KING. He's also working on a serial killer movie. Despite these projects, he already has a working title for a 3rd SAINTS film: BOONDOCK SAINTS III: SAINTS PRESERVE US. Word is there will also be a comic book released in May 2010.

The film currently has a 6.9 user rating on (8,349 votes).

Sides: Aside from the two commentaries, there are 2 deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled "Unprecedented Access: Behind the Scenes" (approx. 25 minutes). There is a featurette called "Billy Connolly and Troy Duffy: Unedited" where the two talk with each other over some tea (approx. 9 minutes). Fourteen trailers are also included, but none of them are for either BOONDOCK SAINTS movie.

Aftertaste: Duffy took everything the fans liked from the first movie and tried to ramp those things up for this sequel. There are bigger shootouts, more quotable lines and more gay and racial jokes. Really though, it seemed like every other sentence was written to force a laugh out of the audience. To me, this movie seems more like a parody of the original. And, even with watching the movie three times (twice with commentary), I'm still not sure how much, if any, of the self-parody is intended.

Aside from Connolly and Fonda, the actors give over-the-top performances. The threesome of local cops played well off of Smecker, but turned into bumbling and paranoid buffoons here because Bloom didn't have the same intelligence or intensity. I don't understand how you decide to replace the brilliant Willem Dafoe with the unproven Julie Benz. Fans of the first film will probably be satisfied with the ending though.

BOONDOCK SAINTS had a flow to it. BOONDOCK SAINTS II is a little disjointed. They actually wrote some of the stuff the day of shooting, e.g. the dream sequence. But, like I said before, that sequence doesn't fit in the movie. Duffy says it's a "man-ifesto," but so what? What does it have to do with anything? There are a lot of moments that seem to happen or not happen because it is convenient to where Duffy wanted the story to go next. I can only imagine the conversations on the set during the making of the movie:
"How are the brothers going to figure out who is framing them?"
"Um, we'll have them hear his name on a talk radio show, and they'll realize he's related to someone they killed before."

"Okay, we just had this character rat out his boss and give his location to the brothers. Now what?"
"I don't think they should go there immediately. They should have an unrelated shootout at a Mexican restaurant instead."
See, it's just stuff like that for the entire movie. Maybe putting action and humor ahead of story and editing was what Duffy thought the rabid SAINTS fanbase wanted. The guy had 10 years to sit down and write a coherent sequel, and he failed. He also states in one of the commentaries that there are numerous times where he only shoots one take per shot. Hmmm. That explains a lot, too.

Here's a tip: Don't make a 3rd SAINTS movie.

That's just my two cents.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Army of Shadows (1969) - Wrongfully Shelved

On the Menu: Army of Shadows (1969); Criterion Collection

Ingredients: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet and Christian Barbier. Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Run time: 145 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: After watching FLAME AND CITRON (a film about the Danish Resistance during World War II) not too long ago, I read up on the movie and found out that ARMY OF SHADOWS was a big inspiration for the movie. I hadn't heard of ARMY OF SHADOWS before, but I thought Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE was brilliant (having watched it back in October 2005).

The movie follows a small group of a Resistance network in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Its leader is Philippe Gerbier (Ventura), and he spends most of the film just trying not to get caught by the police. His companions, Félix (Crauchet), Le Bison (Barbier), Le Masque (Mann), Jean-François (Cassel) and Mathilde (Signoret), do likewise.

When someone does get caught, then the group must figure out a way to break him/her out. The group must also, no matter how agonizing it seems, deal with those who betray them.

Second Helping: My second viewing of this Criterion DVD was accompanied by commentary from film historian, and author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, Ginette Vincendeau. She breaks down some of the scenes and themes, makes comparisons to Melville's other films and provides some historical background.

Tough to Swallow: There were two things I noticed that kinda took me out of the film (even if just for a second or two). The first was in the beginning of the movie when Gerbier is being transported by the French police. It's raining, but the rain doesn't cover the entire shot. The manufactured rain seems to follow the police vehicle. The second moment is when Jean-François sits down to write a letter. A wipe occurs as he begins to write, transitioning to the point where he puts the pen down. So, the actual writing of the letter is skipped over, which doesn't really make sense and is visually disturbing.

Oh, and I spent the whole movie thinking Ventura looked like a mix of Peter Sellers and Robert De Niro. That's not a bad thing, but it was distracting at times. 

Something to Chew On: ARMY OF SHADOWS is the film adaptation of the 1943 Joseph Kessel novel of the same name. Melville was a member of the Resistance, and this is his 3rd and final film dealing with the German occupation of France. THE SILENCE OF THE SEA and LEON MORIN, PRIEST are the two others.

The opening of the film where German soldiers are marching down the Champs-Élysées was originally at the end of the film. Melville made the change after the film's first showings.

The film premiered in France on September 12, 1969, but it was denounced by French critics for glorifying Charles de Gaulle. Since the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma felt the same way, the film wasn't released in the United States. The magazine re-evaluated the film in the mid-1990s, and it was restored and finally released in the States in 2006.

Meurisse and Signoret both starred in LES DIABOLIQUES, which, I think, is one of the freakiest horror films of all-time.

Jean-Pierre Cassel is the father of actor Vincent Cassel, who was almost 3 years old when ARMY OF SHADOWS was filmed.

The film currently has a 8.1 user rating on (5,009 votes).

Sides: The Criterion edition is a 2-disc set, but only the first disc is offered by Blockbuster Total Access.

Disc One includes the aforementioned commentary and two versions of the trailer. 

Disc Two provides interviews with Pierre Lhomme (director of photography) and Françoise Bonnot (editor) and on-set footage featuring Melville, Kessel, the cast and real Resistance fighters. A short documentary on the final days of the German occupation, and a short program on Melville and the film are also on the second disc.

Aftertaste: ARMY OF SHADOWS is pretty minimalistic when it comes to action and dialogue, and focuses more on the dirty jobs of the Resistance fighters. Relationships are based on loyalty and trust. Each of the characters is dealing with paranoia, anxiety, desperation, fear of death and the ethical/moral dilemmas of having to kill one of their own. It's not a typical war film. It's a tragedy. In war, death is imminent and chasing you around every corner.

Another thing I found interesting was the look of the film. Its blue/gray color scheme reiterates the bleakness of German-occupied France (those years were actually known as the Dark Years). Sunlight and vivid colors are used for places like Marseilles (free zone) and London.

I said before that this isn't a typical war film. Honestly, sometimes it seems more like a mob/gangster movie. There are Resistance fighters waiting in getaway cars. There are Nazis in trench coats. There are even drive-by shootings. I guess it makes sense because ARMY OF SHADOWS is sandwiched between four gangster films at the end of Melville's filmography.

The movie is gritty, heroic and real, and it makes the Resistance out to be more intellectual than political. Tell that to the critics who put the movie on the shelf for nearly 40 years.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pontypool (2008) - Recipe for Success

On the Menu: PONTYPOOL (2008); Blockbuster Exclusive DVD

Ingredients: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Rick Roberts and Hrant Alianak. Directed by Bruce McDonald. Run time: 96 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: I don't remember exactly which film I was watching that included the trailer for PONTYPOOL (I think it was FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN back in January), but I immediately made a mental note to watch it.

Former shock jock Grant Mazzy (McHattie), fired from his big-city job is now the DJ of CLSY, the station in the small town of Pontypool. The station is broadcast from the basement of a church, and employs Mazzy, producer Sydney Briar (Houle), assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Reilly) and traffic reporter Ken Loney (voiced by Rick Roberts).

Mazzy has a strange run-in with a babbling woman on his way to work. While trying to incorporate this story into his morning show, all the while battling with Briar over content, reports are phoned in of a riot about 5 kilometers away outside of Dr. Mendez's office. The news wire has nothing to confirm the stories, but Loney keeps calling in with increasingly frightening stories.

Turns out the townspeople have become infected with a virus, and have resorted to attacking each other. Dr. Mendez determines the virus is spread through words. Apparently, some words are contaminated, and the virus takes hold when the word is understood.

Well, Mazzy is on the radio. Should he be talking about it?

Second Helping: I watched the movie again to count the use of any terms of endearment. There were 17 uses of the word "honey" (with another 3 implied). "Sweetie" was said 3 times and "sweetheart" was mentioned twice. Obviously, the recording at the opening of the movie might have a lot to do with what goes on later, although we have to assume the virus just appeared with no real explanation of its origin.

Tough to Swallow: The movie tries to imply that terms of endearment might be contaminated words, but a couple of characters seem to catch the virus without hearing anything of the sort. And victims get hung up on words like "sample" or "kill," which is even more confusing. The scene after the closing credits was just as confusing.

I think they could have sent out a better distress signal (maybe even using Morse Code). Oh, and all of the characters suck pretty bad at playing the quiet game.

Also, this version of the DVD has no special features aside from the theatrical trailer.

Something to Chew On: The movie is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess. Burgess also adapted the screenplay. According to director Bruce McDonald, the script only took Burgess 48 hours to complete. The movie was shot in Toronto and Pontypool (both cities are in Ontario). The entire shoot lasted 15 days and was done in chronological order.

PONTYPOOL was simultaneously produced as a motion picture and a radio play.

The movie was, according to McDonald, to be distributed in South Korea with the tagline "Fear English!"

McDonald, at the Rue Morgue's 2008 Festival of Fear, had this to say about the virus (which would have been a better explanation than what Dr. Mendez gave):
There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it's words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can't express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
A copy of Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash can be seen in the film. Its plot is similar in that a language-born virus infects the brains of its victims.

McHattie and Houle are married in real life and have 3 children.

A sequel entitled PONTYPOOL CHANGES is in development.

The film currently has a 7.0 user rating on (2,899 votes).

Sides: This Blockbuster Exclusive DVD includes the trailer. Whoop-dee-freakin-doo.

The retail DVD has a commentary track from McDonald and Burgess. It also has the hour-long radio play, as well as 3 unrelated short films. I've also read that the UK release includes cast and director interviews, and a documentary of the sound design. So, depending on whether or not the UK version is Region 1, a double-dipping of this movie on DVD might be worth it.

Aftertaste: PONTYPOOL is a very claustrophobic film. The movie's first 2 and a half minutes are the only significant moments we spend outside of the radio station. Also, most of the gruesomeness is merely suggested by phone calls from eyewitnesses. That's a good way for a horror film to maintain its suspense and foreboding. Monsters are a lot scarier when you have to use your own imagination. Sure, you're implanted with the descriptions, but you call upon your fears to personalize the images that appear in your mind. I don't know how many horror movies I've watched where I've been really freaked out by the implied monster(s) only to be severely disappointed with the actual visual representation of the monster(s) -- JEEPERS CREEPERS and THE DESCENT are prime examples.

McHattie, who looks like Lance Henriksen, is super intense, has a great voice for radio and is so believable. You can really feel the dread in his character's words and expressions.

This IS NOT a zombie movie and has VERY LITTLE blood and gore. So, there are certain horror fans who might feel gypped. It's definitely more of a psychological horror film. It really reminded me of listening to Orson Welle's radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Of course, I later found out that broadcast was the inspiration for the screenplay.

I loved the idea of a language-born virus. It definitely puts a new twist on the zombie/virus subgenre. Most of the contaminated words seem to be terms of endearment, e.g. "honey" and "sweetheart." The kicker is that the movie is set on Valentine's Day. It's just genius.

I would be remiss not to mention the satire. Only the English language is affected by the virus. Well, the movie is set in Ontario, Canada, so it's possible that the movie is alluding to the culture war of the French language versus the English language. Do you lose your culture when you adopt another?

Or better yet, it makes me think of what seems to be happening in today's political world. Think about it. In the movie, people become infected and eventually become zombie-like beings only capable of repeating someone else's words. Glenn Beck, anyone?

Although, if you factor in that the radio station is in a church basement, maybe it's a commentary on religion.

Regardless, minus the blood and guts, it has all the ingredients you want in a smart horror film.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shrooms (2007) - Not Very Jarring

On the Menu: SHROOMS (2007)
Ingredients: Lindsey Haun, Jack Huston, Max Kasch, Maya Hazen, Alice Greczyn, Robert Hoffman, Don Wycherley and Sean McGinley. Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Run time: 84 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite:  I found out about this movie almost two years ago. One of my friends, Matt, had reviewed it on Flixster (a movie application on Facebook). It wasn't a glowing review. He gave it 1 1/2 stars, and warned it was a waste of time. Obviously, I didn't run out and get it. It wasn't until about a couple months ago that I realized SHROOMS was brought to us by Magnet Releasing (BRONSON, et al). And, since I've developed a particular affinity for Magnet movies, I had to snag this despite Matt's review.

The story has five friends traveling to Ireland to meet up with another friend, Jake (Huston), who is a mushroom expert. Jake plans for everyone to set up camp in a forest where there are choice 'shrooms. Come to find out, an abandoned youth prison and two brothers straight from DELIVERANCE call the woods home. The female lead, Tara (Haun), misses out on Jake's Poisonous Mushrooms 101 class and almost kills herself with her first bite.

Tara's trips seem to give her ominous premonitions about her friends. She keeps seeing a hooded figure creeping through the woods. No one else sees it, but they're all tripping on mushroom soup, so reality is muddled.

Second Helping: Surprisingly, I did take the time to watch the movie again. The DVD provided a commentary with Breathnach, producer Paddy McDonald and writer Pearse Elliott. It's always interesting to hear the filmmakers' take on a movie, especially when you, as a viewer, have a few questions you feel need to be answered. They definitely shed some light on camera tricks and how they wanted the film to look. Elliott apparently had previous knowledge of tripping on mushrooms, which led to the screenplay. Breathnach said he thought of MINORITY REPORT when doing the premonition scenes, and, looking back, you can definitely see the resemblance.

Tough to Swallow: Well, personally, I didn't connect with any of the characters. None of them are very likable, so it didn't bother me who got knocked off next.

The movie mixed together different horror genres (psychological, slasher, supernatural/ghost story), but it disappointed with the twist ending.
The killer's point-of-view is shown numerous times in the movie. The killer spies upon every one of the six main characters, plus the two brothers. Just saying. Despite the movie being full of hallucinatory trips, it's highly illogical that someone can be in two places at once.

Plus, they're not really premonitions if they're presently happening.

I wish the movie would have given us more of the two brothers, Black Brother and the creepy character wearing the bag over its head. And, one of the main characters is named Bluto. Really?

There were also a couple of tiny mistakes in the deleted scenes. The title for Deleted Scene 004 is Halo of Pirhanas. It should be Piranhas. The first alternate ending is numbered 007 (as if it were sectioned off with the alternate scenes), but the second ending is numbered 002.

Also, it would have been really nice to have had English subtitles available for the movie (and the commentary actually). The DVD does provide Spanish subtitles, which were of no help to me.

Something to Chew On: It's highly doubtful, but some of you might recognize Huston from ABC's short-lived "Eastwick." In this movie, watching him is like watching a mediocre Johnny Depp voiced by Colin Farrell.

Breathnach previously helmed BLOW DRY with Josh Hartnett, Bill Nighy and Alan Rickman. It's a romantic comedy set around a British Hairdressing championship, and it was surprisingly good (I'm not a big Hartnett fan).
Haun wrote and performed the song "Curveball," which is on the movie's soundtrack (it's the last song played during the closing credits).

The movie garnered nominations for Best Film and Best Director for Film at the Irish Film and Television Awards. I guess 2007 was a slow year for Irish filmmakers.

The film currently has a 4.7 user rating on (4,659 votes).

Sides: Aside from the commentary, the DVD includes 5 deleted scenes, 6 alternate scenes, 2 alternate endings and 2 bloopers.

Aftertaste: I will say that I was impressed with some of the editing techniques used to show us the ins and outs of the trips. Some frames were doubled, superimposed or delayed to create the illusion of an altered state. I also liked how they braced the camera onto Haun for when Tara awakens from a "premonition." They also utilized day-for-night shooting very effectively. I'm sure they shot that way because of budget reasons, but I think the hallucinatory scenes at night worked better with the bluer look along with the frame delays. I liked the DVD cover art, too. They created the look of a skull using mushrooms (similar to how CABIN FEVER did the same thing with trees).

The location couldn't have been more perfect as far as look goes. The trees are so close together that oftentimes they blur together and make it appear that something is lurking between them when there really isn't.

I didn't care for any of the characters, but, then again, none of the characters seem to like each other and they are supposed to be friends. They are all stereotypical (pothead, jock, hippie, hussy, etc.), but I have to admit I was impressed with Haun's acting.

All that being said, as a straight horror movie, SHROOMS disappoints. There's only one satisfyingly original death scene (however, there is an oddly amusing scene with a talking cow and another one with the two brothers). There's only one bloody scene, and there aren't any real scares either. The creepiness lies in the atmosphere and the hooded figure, which owes a lot to Asian horror a la RINGU and JU-ON.

For me, the twist ending didn't work only because throughout the movie we see each character through the killer's eyes, so the end just didn't make sense. It would have been a good, although unoriginal, twist otherwise.

I think the filmmakers should have stuck to the supernatural and psychological horror, and not relied so heavily on the slasher element. We only see one death through the skewed perception of someone on drugs. Shouldn't that have been the way all the kills were done?

Instead, SHROOMS is a mediocre trip.