Monthly Archives: August 2012

Crash Analysis: THE DIVIDE (USA/Germany/Canada, 2011)

I’m stuck in a basement and missed the end of the world… 

Apartment dwellers hunker down in their building’s basement during the apocalypse

The divide is right: Most people having watched this sci-fi/horror fall into either two camps: love it or hate it. And from what I’ve read on the net, they’re at each other’s throats like politicians fear mongering for votes.

A group of people in Manhattan witness a nuclear attack, and rush into the basement for safety. Lo and behold, the building crumbles around them. Luckily, Mickey (Michael Biehn), the super, has prepared that basement as a shelter, so they can all survive for a long, long time… Well, not really. Mickey seems to be the only one with a survivalist state-of-mind, while the rest want to get out – as if there’s any other place to go. And with the nuclear winter in full swing, these New Yorkers must learn to accept their current and long-winded predicament as well as each other. No easy task, of course.

Some consider this one of the best post-Apocalyptic tales due to the characters and how they cope, or not cope, with their new nightmare. And for such a large cast of ten, this is pulled off quite well. Most of the characters seem quite balanced. This does not mean there is an equal amount of “good” or “bad” players, but those elements seem to reside in each of them. Granted, some characters lean towards being meek or hotheaded, and shell-shocked or confused, but there are no stock, one-dimensional personas to bore the viewer.

One of the actors to bring his character to life in the strongest fashion is Michael Eklund as Bobby. He’s brilliant in delivering a downward spiral transformation that is both emotional as it is logical. Eklund presented a rock solid, high quality performance worthy of the rental cost alone. Other standouts are Michael Biehn as the hard-wired super on a mission, Courtney B. Vance as the angry yet logical survivor, and Patricia Arquette shined in disturbing torment as broken mother Marilyn.

It’s clear Xavier Gens extracted the very best from the actors as he took us on a journey that makes the audience ponder about how they would handle such a horrific circumstance. To enhance the dull, dark aesthetic, while still allowing us to witness everything on screen, Laurent Barés cinematography is stark as well as fabulous. As for the screenplay, Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean delivered some wonderful subtlety concerning Mickey’s story and the rise and fall of the other characters.

So, why doesn’t this movie work?

Mueller and Sheean clearly focused on character development to bring us a grand character study. However, there are some major problems with the overall tale; they were too big for me to overlook, and they just happen to be the dominant issues that divide fans from non-fans.

 

*** SPOILERS ABOUND ***

 

Who nuked the United States? This is the open-ended question plaguing many. Some fans surmise that it was North Korea or maybe even the Saudis. Well, Saudi Arabia isn’t even on the nuclear watch list. To date, they have none. North Korea may have a stockpile of around ten, but the real key element people never seem to take into consideration is this: launch capability. North Korea can’t even fire a rocket from their own back yard. Furthermore, China can reach our west coast, but definitely not America’s eastern shores – yet. This would leave the following list of nuclear suspects: the Russian Federation, France, and the United Kingdom – and the United States government. Hmm… Moreover, we only see what the characters see: New York City in a nuclear meltdown. We have no clue as to whether or not the entire nation is under siege or even if this is World War III.

 

Our characters are attacked by a group of soldiers in extravagant, white CBR suits, which protect them from radiation. None of the soldiers sports ranking or insignia. However, one of the dead soldiers is later revealed as Tze Tao – and the ID card is in English. Now, Hai Tze Tao is a new religious movement in China based upon Taoism, or “living in harmony”. Doesn’t sound like people hellbent on bringing about mass destruction, though the writers haven’t revealed much about the name or implications.

 

Regarding the soldier, no one checked the suit for personal items or any clothing tags that might indicate nation of origin. Furthermore, no one looked for manufacturing information on the rifles. Now that’s pretty damn stupid for a group of people in dire need of knowing their enemy.

 

Another troublesome part is the enemy’s uniform. At one point, Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) puts on the suit, which fits him perfectly, and heads out on a mission of discovery. At story’s end, Eva (Lauren German), makes her escape in the same suit, which again fits perfectly. Amazing! Tailored combat suits are over-rated anyway.

 

The scene where Wendi (Abbie Thickson) is kidnapped by the soldiers, later to be found shaved and in a sort of cryogenic state with her “enemy” captors, also leaves the audience with many questions. Does the enemy want to extract her DNA to bring about a new order of humans to help replace a dead and dying world? We don’t know, but she’s with other children in an elaborate lab. Why did the writers even take us there?

 

If the filmmakers had left the entire “seeing the enemy” angle out of the movie, we could focus more on the character’s plight and the simple task of trying to survive in a hell hole. In fact the horrific theme of amorality or “how far would you go to survive one more damn minute” would have played stronger if we had remained with the characters in that basement without outside interference. Breaking that isolation, that claustrophobia, was a mistake.

 

If everything is nuked and destroyed, how is the basement getting power? At one point, a character mentions “batteries”, but we never know how much time has elapsed or how they’re staying charged. No one maintains a calendar. For all we know, by movie’s end, they could have been trapped in the vast basement for a month or a week.

 

The movie runs 112 minutes, when it could have easily been scaled down to 90, at least. Many scenes run a bit long, and the end of the second act/beginning of the third drags on too long.

 

Finally, the sole survivor (for now) is Eva, which is no surprise. After all, Eva is “Eve”, our new “first woman” of the species to head outdoors. However, it is extremely doubtful she could start a new world on her own. Nuclear fallout continues to swim down from the gray sky, and she’ll soon run out of oxygen – or the enemy will take her out. One can only hope this does not lead to some videogame like sequel.

 

*** SPOILERS END ***

 

Too many questions are left for the audience. And with a possible hint of organized religion and even biblical creation, one can also make the educated guess that our characters are in some sort of hell – if not purgatory – and a new day is dawning for a new kind of humanity. Granted, I don’t buy this idea, but it is an option depending upon how deeply one wants to indulge theme.

Fans and non-fans will continue to argue, and maybe that alone will bring THE DIVIDE to the level of cult status. Thanks then go to Mueller and Sheean who took one too many shortcuts, yet gave us enough to debate and ponder. Yet, it’s hard to argue that they did create a wonderful semblance of post-Apocalyptic characters that either rise (sanity) or fall (insanity) to the challenge of survival in a new world. Dystopia fans in general should enjoy the ride, at least.

Quality dystopic and Post-Apocalyptic fare you may enjoy (not all horror): WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (UK/USA, 1971), BLADE RUNNER (USA/Hong Kong, 1982), 1984 (UK, 1984), BRAZIL (UK, 1985), ROBOCOP (1987), AKIRA (Japan, 1988), 12 MONKEYS (1995), GHOST IN THE SHELL (Japan, 1995), STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), EQUILIBRIUM (2002), NATURAL CITY (Korea, 2003), CHILDREN OF MEN (UK, 2006) and the horror, STAKE LAND (2010). (Yes, there are many others, but these are my true favorites – and one of the few dystopian films I want to see remade, with better art production and no Hollywood flash, is SOYLENT GREEN.)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: MOTHER’S DAY (2010)

Ma Parker and her boys – but worse 

Criminal brothers crash a party with deadly results

There’s a lot of hype about this movie, and no, it doesn’t live up to it. For all you wishing and hoping MOTHER’S DAY fanatics, this will never receive widespread release since the DVD premiered in 2011 after the movie appeared in several festivals. However, it did find limited release in the United States in 2012. So stop the begging and pleading. It’s over.

Loosely based on the truly horrific “Wichita Massacre”, in which the Carr brothers invaded a home and ultimately brutalized and murdered two women and three men, MOTHER’S DAY brings us torture porn on a TV dinner tray. Granted, there’s suspense and tension, but the key problem is that one can’t buy the plot, and the worst: We’ve seen it all before.

Rebecca De Mornay plays Mother Koffin (yes, a hokey surname for such a tale), a woman who has raised her three sons and daughter to serve like grunts in the North Korean army. Her word is law and she is the one and only matriarch above and beyond all things. So, when her three sons fuck up a bank job and enter what used to be their childhood home with a wounded brother, they find the Sohapi family (another utterly ludicrous surname) and their friends. When momma and her family are together in the house, they collectively torture and brutalize to extract money to make their escape across the border.

The movie is cold, nasty, bloody and brutal, with wonderful effects by Allen Benjamin and company, and equally impressive cinematography by Joseph White. The acting is also solid throughout, from De Mornay and Jaime King on down, but even in such a movie, if the story doesn’t ring true, the acting can’t save the story. Regardless, the overused phrase of “tour de force” has come into play when discussing De Mornay’s performance. Yes, she was fantastic, but this is not one of those amazing performances for the ages – though it’s hard to get over the fact she’s now perfect to play Hillary Clinton in a bio-pic.

Story-wise, the movie is sorely lacking, and having an excessive amount of characters certainly doesn’t help (five Koffins and eight Sohapis and friends). Too many major players means everyone needs some screen time. This conundrum leads to shallow characters that many cannot connect with leaving the audience with an emotional void. From there, torture works on a base level and doesn’t draw the viewer in as deeply as it should. Instead of truly feeling for the character suffering on screen, more often than not, we only imagine ourselves suffering at the hands of a crazed family.

This is also one of those movies where you have characters not following through – on killing for instance. And we’ve seen it before in many a movie where a victim fails to finish off their attacker. This movie is no different. Time and time again, victims have the opportunity to take out the Koffins, and they always stop short in making certain their adversary is dead, which, of course, leads to more complications and consequences. Furthermore, when the victims do get the best of one of the criminals, the scene becomes comical since this is another tale where nail gun safety features are completely overlooked. And the “punch” after the climax, is all but predictable.

This is where director Darren Lynn Bousman’s SAW series influence comes into play, as he directed the second, third and fourth installments (with the second being the best of the series). He couldn’t shrug those SAW-like demons that left the series on the edge of campiness instead of true torture porn hell. Bousman and MOTHER’S DAY screenwriter Scott Milam, have joined forces for NINETY, which should be released sometime in 2013.

Finally, we’ve heard of lunatic families indulging in their own communal life of crime, but momma and her kids are something else. Granted, two of her sons are bonkers, but one, Ike (Patrick John Flueger) is well spoken and can analyze as well as keep himself in check. Hell, he can even reason as if he hasn’t lived in a bubble all his life – which he has. And since Mother Koffin uses heavy threats and punishment to keep her family in line, one would expect the four siblings to be far more emotionally unstable. This does not, however, detract from Flueger’s compelling performance.

Due to the shallowness of character and the fantastical nature of the family and story, the “disturbance factor” only goes so far. Most do for films of this ilk where one places bets on who lives and who dies between bites of popcorn. For some truly disturbing cinema, see my recommendations under the A SERBIAN FILM review. Regardless, I only hope to see more of De Mornay in anything, as well as King and Flueger. As for Bousman, I hope he makes the action/thriller NINETY with a serious game face instead of a smarmy, wry smile.

2 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: THE TUNNEL (Australia, 2011)

Below ground, no one can find you if you scream 

A news crew goes underground and gets what they wished for

This is your above average mockumentary with found footage: BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) meets LAKE MUNGO (Australia, 2008), with [REC] (Spain, 2007) and THE DESCENT (UK, 2005) thrown in for good measure. And the documentary-like element works extremely well because director Carlo Ledesma has directed two of them, including the dramatic segments for FOOD MATTERS (2008).

Ledesma and company create a legitimate tense infused atmosphere regarding a reporter, Natasha (Bel Delia) and her film crew as they venture “underneath” Sydney to expose why the homeless have gone missing.

The problem with a mockumentary, however, is the same as a documentary: By interviewing the participants, we know in advance who lives and who dies, which seriously detracts from the tension and suspense. Regardless, the acting is strong, especially from Steve Davis, who plays cameraman Steve Miller. In real life, he is a cameraman and this is his first acting role – and he’s flawless. And to know he was also the cinematographer for the project is equally amazing. With often minimal lighting or the steady glow of infrared, Davis manages to capture a wonderful element of suspense throughout, and often leaves the audience as disoriented as the characters.

The other actors did an equally fine job and brought us “regular people” thrust into a bizarre and frightening experience. However, because we have a pretty keen sense of who makes it, the tension does falter at times. Thanks to writers/editors Enzo Tedeshi and Julian Harvey, the movie maintains a serious tone and a steady beat that doesn’t leave the audience bored and waiting for something to happen. Even from the beginning, when the characters are being interviewed, we get the uneasy sensation that something really horrific has occurred, and we end up spending the time waiting for that nightmare to be made real.

What is it that lurks way down under? Of course, I can’t say, but I wish we had seen a bit more of it – with some darker moments thrown in for good measure. The movie did whet my appetite, but I was left hungry and wanted more.

However, if you want a solid, low budget horror with wonderful acting and great cinematography, THE TUNNEL is definitely worth a rental. As far as mockumentaries go, this is one of the very best I’ve ever seen. Enjoy your next trip to the subway…

3.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: ABSENTIA (2011)

The cold case that just gets colder 

Ever wonder why so many missing persons are never found?

Writer/director Mike Flanagan did his damnedest, but in the end, came up short.

The story revolves around Callie Russel (Katie Parker), who visits her sister, Tricia Reilly (Courtney Bell) after a five-year hiatus. What transpired during Callie’s absence is that her brother-in-law, Daniel Reilly (Morgan Parker Brown), has been missing for the last several years – and Tricia is getting ready to declare him dead. What follows is a dramatic story with very few scares and a narrative that doesn’t pay off. Yet, the acting is extremely strong with wonderful cinematography from Rustin Cerveney.

The key to this character driven tale is the acting. Callie, the drug addict looking for her footing, and the pregnant Tricia (Bell was truly seven months pregnant at the time and this was written into the script), suffering from guilt and longing are believable on a grand scale. Character wise, however, Detective Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine) is the standout. Sure, he looks like the type of cop out to bust heads, but Flanagan makes certain to avoid the stock stereotype. Instead, the good detective is the most complex character in the movie. At times, he’s love sick and confused, as for others, he’s angry yet procedural. But you can’t help feeling his predicament. Although the meditation loving and seemingly weak yet strong Tricia is compelling, Mallory’s character was far more multi-faceted and it’s a shame we didn’t experience enough of him – as well as his interchanges with his partner, Detective Lonergan (Justin Morgan). Both characters, and both actors, proved to be as strong a team as the sisters. However, James Flanagan (who played Jamie Lambert), in his only acting role to date, created a very compelling character for less than a handful of scenes.

So the director had it all: great actors, great characters and great lighting, but his own story lagged. This was a tortoise slow kind of movie, and although Flanagan went for subtlety, at times he took this to the extreme, he clobbered us ultra-hard during a couple of scenes in the third act that are weighed down with too much exposition. The movie did take an interesting turn, but Flanagan couldn’t maintain the shock and awe. And in one key moment, we’re left with one of the worst CGI effects I’ve ever seen. Granted, he had raised $70,000 with the help of Kickstarter investors to begin shooting, but he should have at least invested in a talented graphic artist for that compelling moment. You’ll know it when you see it, and when you use your remote to slowly advance through the element, you will know exactly what I mean.

If Flanagan had revised his script one more time, this should have worked. Instead, it’s a better than average also ran thanks to a plot that isn’t fully fleshed out. If he had only been invested in the themes of love and commitment he had instilled within the framework of the narrative, it might have paid off. Still the performances make it worth a rental.

3 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: THE THING (2011)

Add to your list of most disappointing prequels

Antarctic team finds one pissed off alien

Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivered a character as vapid as Kristen Stewart in real life. And that was the most creepy part of this prequel.

And yes, Matthijs van Heijningen really tried to deliver, but he came up short. Part of the problem is certainly his as director, but the other culprit is screenwriter Eric Heisserer. However, I have a funny feeling executive producers are to blame as well as the feature’s three editors. All will soon be revealed.

So, back in the early 1980s, John Carpenter helms THE THING (released in 1982), which apparently pays more respect to John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?” than THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1956). However, some Hollywood pinhead couldn’t keep their hands off one of the best horrors ever made and decided to greenlight a prequel.

Carpenter’s horror, which is one of my favorites of all time, has several elements that make it work: Characters you can route for, atmosphere (visuals as well as music), mysteries both the characters and audience can appreciate, and an alien on a mission. For Heisserer, he took the “fuck the intelligence of the audience” Hollywood approach, and made some very bad calls.

The “smart” alien of Carpenter’s grand tale simply wants to hide in a human body and curl up in the cold until a rescue party arrives. For whatever ridiculous reason, in the prequel he’s equivalent to a homicidal maniac with a visceral, animalistic instinct for survival at all costs, which is a far cry from an interstellar pilot who had crash-landed over 100,000 years before.

Another problem: Way too many characters. And when one sees nearly fifteen characters, two things are certain: Most will perish in a bloodfest, and since we won’t have time to know them, their deaths will be meaningless to us. Character development is sorely lacking. As for the heroine, Kate Lloyd (Winstead), she is not a reluctant hero, but a passive-aggressive pseudo-wimp that goes through the motions like a veteran prostitute. Kate lacked the character arc of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (ALIEN 1979), or even the post-teen zeal of a Princess Leia.

In 1982, the suspense and tension was quite gripping, thanks to Bill Lancaster’s brilliant script and Carpenter’s vision. But Heijningen and Heisserer brought no scares, no suspense and minimal tension – and the latter came about due to character conflict, not the life and death struggle with an alien species.

For special effects, Bob Bottin’s ultra-amazing work from 1982 still holds up. And no third-rate, cartoonish CGI garbage was used. In this story of THE THING, many of the makeup effects are rock solid, and some of the CGI is up to par. However, computer generated effects are clearly overused causing believability to diminish.

But if this was a legitimate prequel, why did the filmmaker’s copy from so many of Lancaster’s and Carpenter’s scenes? At one point, it was obvious that there was so much over-lapping in action as well as dialogue, I thought the notion of a prequel was ludicrous. Yet, I was surprised how by movie’s end the story had clearly become a prequel – and these latter minutes were the very best of the movie for the transition was handled beautifully. Sadly, the rest of the story didn’t hold up and left me releasing harsh breaths like a frustrated parent with triplets caught up in the “terrible twos”.

It was great for the filmmakers to replicate certain outcomes to fit the destroyed Norwegian camp we see in the beginning of the 1982 film, yet errors were made. In the Carpenter film, we see a VHS tape of the Norwegians blowing up the ice around the ship. In this story, a glacier-like cover hangs over the ship like an umbrella. Why? And if the ship was so damaged, and the alien had to step out into the cold, why did “it” jump in and start ‘er up to try and escape? Illogical. Another interesting element never explained in both films is how the alien ended up in a higher elevation than the ship. Yet, one only has to imagine a heavier object sinking deeper than a body that may rise higher due to geological maneuvers.

Finally, there is a major point of contention that some fans of Carpenter’s work have not even noticed yet. In the prequel, Kate realizes that the alien can only replicate organic life. This means, for example, someone with fillings would be mimicked by the alien – but with perfect teeth. This also means that since Childs (Keith David) was wearing his earring in the end scene with MacReady (Kurt Russell) in Carpenter’s film, he could not have been infected with the “virus”. However, this does not mean he could have been infected later and this does not mean Mac had the virus. For all we know, both could have frozen to death. Then again, we don’t know what happened to Nauls (TK Carter).

Overall, the filmmakers should have made a sequel about a team that discovers something in the snow rescue teams had missed when going through the Norwegian camp as well as McMurlte. Instead, they went the silly prequel route and didn’t even bother to come up with a new title.

We are left with a lackluster movie of shallow characters that pales in comparison to one of Carpenter’s very best. Watch it if you choose, but do not expect to be thrilled. You’ll most likely get more shocks and scares from people watching at Wal-mart.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: THE INNKEEPERS (2011)

Ghost story versus character study

A supposedly haunted inn gets ready to close forever

Poor Claire (Sara Paxton). She’s a bit lost like most of us and probably ponders what’s next in her life after the old Yankee Pedlar Inn closes its doors for good. Her “I’m so done with this” partner at the front desk is Luke (Pat Healy), a man devoid of ambition because, well, what’s the point? Yet what a pair of coworkers as they discuss whether Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) still walks the corridors.

Concerning ghost hunting, this movie gets it right, in a way. Since the property is being closed up, cleaning out the rooms may have disturbed the spirit of O’Malley, who had been murdered a century beforehand. And as amateur sleuth Claire gets to work, with camera and a recorder for EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon, where a ghost’s “voice” is recorded, though the human in the room may not have heard the utterings at the time of recording), we follow her along hoping to hear a hint of a wayward noise or a glimpse of vapor.

As Claire sets out to find evidence, Leane Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis) and her sixth sense checks in. She tells Claire to leave things be. Fearing the worst, Claire does and the movie’s over in twelve minutes.

WAIT!

Of course Claire doesn’t listen. After all, she did hear something… Plus, she doesn’t have anything else to do. Therefore, our intrepid main character marches on towards probable mayhem.

THE INNKEEPERS had a hell of a lot going for it: acting, directing, lighting, and suspense. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy were absolutely amazing in their understated roles, and their body language alone spoke volumes. Ti West, screenwriter and director, captured the perfect atmosphere from his canvas chair. But Eliot Rockett rocked it.

Besides great lighting, Rockett knew how to work the camera and where to place it – when to stay in too close and when to pull back too far. In fact, his treatment reminded me of William A. Fraker’s exceptional work in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Yes, it was that damn good. In one scene, Claire and Luke find themselves huddled in the basement. It’s black as dark matter and all they have is one working flashlight between them. Luke’s crouched down with his back to the wall and he’s scared as hell as he faces crouched down Claire. They’re both so shellshocked they can’t look away from each other – something might be in the blackness. So, they stare at each other and tremble. Instead of doing a two-shot, Rockett kept the camera up close to Luke for most of the scene. After all, if he’s too freaked to look around the basement, then we’re not allowed to look either. Rockett keeps us in the scene, in the fear, and the tension mounts. I found myself trying to peek around Luke as I tried to peek around the door to see Minnie Castevet in Polanski’s triumph.

Rockett, known to horror buffs for his work on HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) and CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING CLEANING (2009), will surely see the continued growth of a future grandmaster of cinematography.

We have the creep factor for certain, but we have a tale that is subtle, which is perfectly fine, but one sadly wonders of its substance. O’Malley’s story simply wasn’t fleshed out enough, and after decades and decades, more of the tale would have surfaced, though truth versus myth would clearly be a factor, because the legend would have grown. Worst of all, however, was the end scene with a police officer that did something no cop would ever do. In fact, the movie has such a tedious, overly contrived pace at times, that when the end comes, you may think THE INNKEEPERS is just getting started. Yet, the story is not about O’Malley or the haunted inn, but Claire trying to find herself in a palace of empty rooms in a little town. And since she’s not willing to explore herself and what she might become, she searches out O’Malley’s ghost. And that’s Claire’s grand folly: She searched for O’Malley when she should have been looking for herself.

The scene with the officer still pisses me off, but what can one do when Ti West is wearing the tri-cornered hat of a revolutionary: director, writer and producer. It’s hard to tackle a man wielding that much power and bringing his vision to light. Too bad cast and crew didn’t give him an alternative to keep the outside world at bay in the end.

Regardless, THE INNKEEPERS has a lot of beauty and atmosphere to capture the attention of many, thanks to Paxton and company – including Kelly McGillis whose career resurged after 2010’s breath of fresh air vampire fest, STAKE LAND.

If you love ghost stories, definitely check out THE INNKEEPERS.

Other ghostly greats: THE HAUNTING (UK/USA, 1963), THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (UK, 1973), THE CHANGELING (Canada, 1980), THE SHINING (UK/USA, 1980), THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), THE RING (USA/Japan, 2002), SHUTTER (Thailand, 2004), THE ORPHANAGE (Spain, 2007), PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) and THE SKEPTIC (2009).

3.5 out of 5 stars