Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: The Monster (2016)

A couple years back I learned about a movie called The Monster that looked pretty cool, but I was pretty busy and let its short theatrical release--I'm not 100% sure it was even playing in Atlanta but I think it was--slip by. I injured my back about three weeks ago and was advised to rest and relax, and it's a lot easier to do that with movies.

So I jaunted over to Videodrome, the last video rental shop in Atlanta, and guess what movie was there?

The Plot

Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a divorced alcoholic raising her ten-year-old daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and doing a pretty terrible job of it. She's on her way to her former husband's house for his turn at custody--a turn that's strongly implied to be permanent--but on an isolated road late at night, she hits a wolf, wrecking her car. And the wolf has already been injured fighting something else, which has left a big nasty tooth embedded in its body.

The two must wait for the tow-truck and ambulance to arrive, but there's something else waiting in the woods, something big and unpleasant and hungry...

The Good

*The acting in the film is phenomenal. Kazan does a great job portraying the terribly flawed Kathy, who knows she has a problem and isn't able to fix it. Ballentine does a good job with Lizzy, who has to be mature beyond her years and even act as the surrogate parent to her dysfunctional mother but still in some ways acts like a child. Their chemistry and acting skills are the best part of the film. In the DVD extras writer/director Bryan Bertino was concerned about how he could make a good movie where, most of the time, the two characters are stuck in one location (their car), but it works. It actually reminded me a lot of Cujo, only with something far more dangerous than a rabid St. Bernard.

*Per the above, the script does a good job illustrating how dysfunctional the situation is. In the first five or so minutes of the film we know something is very wrong--Kathy is absent and Lizzy is the one straightening up the house (including throwing away empty bottles of booze), fixing breakfast, etc. And although I'm generally not a fan of telling stories out of order, interspersing too many flashbacks, etc. Bertino makes it work.

*The movie rolls along at a nice quick pace and is particularly riveting in the latter half, when Kathy and Lizzy have to survive the rainy night alone against something that's very rarely seen but very dangerous.

*Although the poster for the film and the Blu-Ray/DVD covers undermine this by showing full-body and head-shots of the titular creature, the monster is handled classically by never showing too much of it. We first see it out of focus lurking behind Lizzy during one of her trips out of the car and we hear its cries, but we never see very much of it until the very end. That's a good thing because in one of the sequences at the end, parts of it look a bit...plasticky.

*Per the above, there's no bad CGI here. All practical effects--it's a man in a monster suit and it's a good monster suit.

*The way the creature sounds is very well-done. Although its precise nature is never explained, it has both reptilian and avian characteristics. It sounds like a combination of, say, a big alligator and a predatory bird.

*And although the trope of the Super-Persistent Predator is often mocked--most predators, particularly solitary ones that don't have kin to care for them if they're injured, aren't going to go after prey that's persistently able to harm or elude them--it makes sense for something that's living in the shadow of human civilization. Assuming the titular creature is intelligent--and it probably is, since it knows what cars are and how they work--it knows that it cannot permit any witnesses to survive lest it be hunted down and destroyed. The creatures from The Flock and especially Wolfen operate the same way.

*The setting makes a lot of sense. The road the women are stranded on is an isolated and near-abandoned one that's been bypassed by a newer road--that happens to have a lot of construction on it, forcing them to take the back way. The fact there's a wolf there along with...something else...makes sense. Animals will quickly move back into an area humans have left, especially if there's a big reserve of natural territory nearby.

The Bad

*There's a missed chance for suspense and drama early on when the friendly tow-truck driver Jesse (Aaron Douglas, who played Chief Tyrol in Battlestar Galactica) arrives. Kathy and Lizzy are alone in an isolated area and dependent on him for help. Even though Jesse has no negative intentions whatsoever, Kathy (and the wise-beyond-her-years Lizzy) would have reason to think he might try to take advantage of them. This could be played up as an early scare, even though it would be a false alarm.

*The early parts, before the titular monster arrives, kind of drag a bit even though they're needed to establish the characters and establish audience feeling for them. I don't have any suggestions to change them without risking the bond the audience builds with them, so maybe it's best to leave them as they are.

*I didn't have a problem with this, but by trying to combine two genres, the movie might end up losing both. People who want family and addiction drama aren't going to be overly interested in a monster attacking people and people who are into monster movies aren't going to be into the family-drama stuff, even though it builds up the characters. Just FYI.

The Verdict

9.0 out of 10. This is the dysfunctional mother-daughter drama with a monster in it you didn't know you wanted to watch. Definitely check it out, at least for a rental.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Movie Review: Priest (2011)

Back in 2011, a movie called Priest came out. It looked pretty cool--in a Judge Dredd looking future, humanity has defeated the vampire menace under the leadership of the Catholic Church, but it turns out the enemy isn't quite defeated--but I must've been very busy at the time or dissuaded by negative reviews, so I never saw it.

Well, I've recently suffered a back injury that's necessitated lot of rest to help it heal. I've filled in this free time by watching a lot of movies, and guess which one was one of the ones I decided to see if it was any good?

The Plot

Vampires are real, and over the long years humanity has waged war against them. Humans have technology, but the vampires are faster and stronger and slowly but surely, humans are losing. The survivors retreat into fortified cities ruled by the Catholic Church, which discovers how to create "priests"--superhuman warriors able to match the vampires' physical ability.

The vampires are ultimately defeated and the survivors herded into reservations where they're tended by disease-ridden vampire-worshiping "familiars." The warrior-priests have been discharged from service and seek to reintegrate into a society that fears and shuns them. Most people remain in the cities under the control of the totalitarian Church, but some have filtered back out into the wilderness beyond and established an Old West frontier lifestyle.

One such family is that of Owen Pace (Stephen Moyer), his wife Shannon (M├Ądchen Amick), and daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). One night they're attacked by vampires, who kill Shannon, abduct Lucy, and leave Owen wounded but able to summon his brother, the titular Priest (Paul Bettany) for help. Priest defies the leadership of the Church, which claims the vampire threat has been defeated and fears any attempt to undermine the social order. Priest sets off accompanied by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), the sheriff of the small town of Augustine his brother and family called home, to rescue Lucy, pursued by several other reactivated priests sent to arrest him.

Only it turns out it wasn't the dregs of the defeated vampires or common bandits pretending to be vampires that attacked the town, but a new and far more dangerous threat commanded by an all-too-familiar face.

The Good

*The world the filmmakers created is really quite fascinating. Vampires have coexisted with mankind since the beginning apparently, creating an entirely different history (although there're still recognizable medieval knights, the Catholic Church, WWI-style artillery, and nuclear weapons are implied). There's definitely room for lots of stories to be told in this world.

*The aesthetics are all really cool. We've got Blade Runner like urban hellscapes where most people live in the totalitarian safety provided by the Church, you've got the Old West type environments (complete with lowlifes peddling worthless patent medicines) where those who are willing to risk their safety for freedom try to rebuild the ruined world, you've got the in-between of the "overlap zones" like the bigger towns that apparently trade with the cities (they're connected by functioning rail lines), and the totally alien aesthetic of the vampire hives.

*The vampires' biology is really interesting. They're eyeless subterranean creatures resembling to some degree naked mole rats, which makes sense since naked mole rats are mammals who have evolved along a path more akin to that of insects. They're a completely different life-form rather than mutated humans (The Strain) or supernaturally-affected individuals (most other vampire lore) and its clear the film's creators put a lot of thought into it.

*Although I'm usually kind of anal about faithfulness to the source material, I looked into the Korean graphic novel the film is based on and the movie is a lot more interesting. It reflects well on the filmmakers that they included the comic-book creator in the film production, consulting him on the visuals and the like, but the only thing the film and the comic seem to have in common is the name and some of the aesthetics. The movie to me is a heck of a lot more interesting.

*It's made explicit that the Priest and his allies' rejection of the authority of the Church leadership does not mean they're rejecting Christianity, belief in God, or even specifically Catholicism. Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, etc. did not immediately decide that since the Church was wrong on some things that it must be wrong on everything and the Christian God doesn't exist.

*Karl Urban plays the villain, who is never named but often referred to as "Black Hat." I'm not going to go into a lot about him for reasons of spoilers, but the character is quite interesting and Urban does a good job playing him. Not only is he clearly physically powerful and strategically clever, but he's very good with people and uses that to his advantage.

*There's an obvious Sequel Hook, although given how the movie didn't make a profit (at least in theaters), it doesn't seem like there'll be one. A pity--this is an incredibly cool world with characters that had a lot of potential (more on that later) and I'd have loved to see the story continue.

The Bad

*Most of the performances are mediocre except for that of Karl Urban. I've never heard of Paul Bettany and (others) to be particularly bad actors, so I imagine it's probably the director's fault. A pity, as there's so much potential in the characters. The Priest and Priestess are veterans who don't fit back into society, the Church leadership is self-serving and corrupt (but could made grayer if they honestly think keeping order even if it means hiding the revived vampire threat as the lesser evil than potentially causing a mass panic or causing people to doubt the Church), and Karl Urban had the potential to be a Dark Messiah transcending humans and vampires. However, this isn't touched on enough and could have been developed more.

*The problem with vampires overrunning and annihilating humanity is that they're destroying their own food source. The film does imply they can survive on non-human blood--a familiar is seen draining blood from chickens--but it would have been more interesting if the vampires had enslaved and farmed humans, with the familiars as their enforcers, rather than the implication the vampires in the process of exterminating their own food supply. The Church-ruled territories and the vampire-ruled territories could have, at the end of the day, looked awfully similar--just with a different ruling caste and different justifications for their actions.

*The priests' not having names makes it hard to differentiate them as characters, especially the lesser male priests. It might be better if they kept their first names but abandoned their last names, as the Church is now their family. After all, although I'm not Catholic, it's my understanding priests are referred to as "Father (FIRST NAME)" and these are supposed to be Catholic priests who've undergone some kind of advanced training or augmentation.

*Much is made of the priests' vows, but if the priests have been discharged from service, would they still apply? The titular priest isn't working as a mundane Catholic clergyman, but seems to be just another proletarian. So his vows of celibacy, obedience to the hierarchy, etc. would no longer be binding, correct? Owen at one point suggests Priest could have returned to Augustine and Priests states that it wouldn't have been right, which given some things that get revealed later in the film makes a lot of sense.

It would make more sense if the warrior-priests were all serving as ordinary clergy--still bound by their religious vows--and simply not fitting in, as is often the case with veterans returning to ordinary lives after service in war. Priest seeks permission to abandon his religious duties rather than simply to leave the city and search for his niece.

*Some of the dialogue in Lily's argument with her father when we first meet her doesn't sound like something actual people--especially rebellious teenage girls--would actually say. This negative review here accurately describes a lot of the problems with the film, beginning with the dialogue, but be ye warned, there are spoilers.

*There's a lot of stuff that's revealed but not adequately foreshadowed.

The Verdict

So much potential not developed enough. It's worth seeing once. It could've been so much better and it's a pity it didn't make enough to spawn a sequel, given how cool the world they've created is. Maybe the story could be remade as a television series? The events of the movie could be the first season and then things could go from there.

7.5 out of 10. It's worth seeing once and I might see if I could snag the DVD used (especially since it turns out there's an unrated special edition) so I could learn about how it was made. Also check out this podcast I'm on about the film.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Shrieker (1998)

Once upon a time, I was in the habit of staying up late watching movies on the Sci-Fi Channel (they spelled it correctly then) and one I remember in particular was Shrieker. I recall enjoying the movie and trying to find it on DVD or VHS (that's how long ago it was) and ultimately finding it not worth the bother.

(The film was ultimately released to DVD, apparently in multiple editions.)

Well, I found it on Amazon Instant Video and since I'm laid up for a few days with a back injury, I needed something to do. Time for a "Blast from the Past" movie review that's not related to Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. In the immortal words of the Heath Ledger Joker, here we go!

The Plot

College freshman and math major Clark (Tanya Dempsey) is looking for a cheap place to stay. She's invited by Zak (Jamie Gannon) to squat with him and some others at an abandoned hospital near campus. Said hospital has been abandoned for a reason--back in the 1940s, a series of grisly (and unsolved) murders took place.

Occultic shenanigans ensue. Does the mysterious Robert (Thomas R. Martin), who has been living in the basement unbeknownst the others, know what's going on? Can our heroes find out more before they all end up dead?

The Good

*The beginning features some discussion of the titular monster's origins and the wider occultic world that fuses both Christian and Lovecraftian elements. I'd have loved to see more on the cosmology.

*The filmmakers know that it's better to leave stuff to the imagination than show your hand (or monster) too early. In the beginning of the film all we get of the monster are its screams and brief glimpses and it's more than a little spooky. There are few if any full-body shots of the creature.

*There are some legitimately tense and scary moments in the film. I was actually surprised to find this.

*The movie starts with a bang with the Shrieker's first appearance in the 1940s. When we get to the present day, things get started pretty quickly. Clarke moves into the abandoned hospital and meets her fellow squatters, the Shrieker makes its first modern appearance, and Clarke meets the oddball Robert within the first fifteen or twenty minutes. It's rarely if ever boring.

*Some of the characters are pretty amusing, like the aspiring revolutionary Tanya (Alison Cuffe) or the property- and guns-rights enthusiast David (Parry Shen). Given today's concerns about representation, the depiction of David as something other than a wimpy nerd or a karate master might be attractive to some. I found Tanya and David's contrasting politics amusing.

*There's a joke involving the characters comparing their situation to the musical Rent I actually found amusing.

The Bad

*The acting in general really isn't much to write home about.

*There are some transitions of questionable quality, including what look like commercial-break edits from the television version. There are also some obviously reused shots. The film could've used a better editor.

*The film's run-time is a little over an hour. It would have been better if there was more to it. They could have fleshed out the cosmology and characters a bit more.

*In the prologue introducing the mythology, one of the ancient alchemists looks like they're sketching the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser. Umm...would it have been that hard to come up with some original Evil Eldritch Writing? Especially when they do have plenty of that elsewhere in the film.

The Verdict

Good bones, so to speak, but a little bony. Just rent it or watch it on TV. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Interview with the Vampire (1994)

I vaguely remember when the film Interview with the Vampire, based on the novel by Anne Rice, came out, but I don't remember whether I wanted to see it. Although I've read the werewolf novels of Rice's sister Alice Borchardt (I strongly recommend The Silver Wolf), I never really had much interest in Rice's vampire novels or seeing the movies based on them.

Well, thanks to Myopia, I'm seeing a lot of movies I'd never otherwise watch, so here we go. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In the modern day, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) takes aside Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) and reveals to him that he's an immortal vampire. He begins telling his story, taking the viewer back to when he was a planter in French Louisiana in the late 18th Century. After the death of his wife and child he sought death, only to encounter Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), a French vampire. With Louis's permission Lestat transforms him into a vampire and the two of them form a hunting pair, eventually adding transformed pre-adolescent Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) to their crew as they live through the centuries and have various adventures.

The Good

*The acting is very, very good. Brad Pitt does a great job as the tormented Louis, who has to kill others to survive but hates himself for doing it. When we first meet him, he gets his unnatural nature across very subtly and without unnecessary drama (i.e. popping out fangs and hissing). Kirsten Dunst is good as Claudia, who grows frustrated that she's stuck in the body of a child for eternity and will never become a woman and acts quite like a teenager for much of the film. She eventually manages to pull off acting like an adult woman even though she's physically around 10.

*Tom Cruise as Lestat merits his own entry. He's appropriately obnoxious as the arrogant elder vampire, who soon after transforming Louis moves into his house and discusses his home and property as though it's "ours" and not "yours." Per some of the on-screen commentary that comes with Amazon Instant Video, Cruise watched videos of lions hunting gazelles to get the predatory aspect right. He's even more overtly creepy and predatory than Louis and seeing the brunette Cruise as a blonde is even more off-putting. Although at least some of Louis's slaves care about him, they're all quite justifiably terrified of Lestat. Cruise provides both slyness and manipulation (as this article points out, it resembles an abusive heterosexual relationship with Louis as the battered wife) and manic energy that's often quite funny (his training of Claudia in how to be a vampire). Whatever you might say about Scientology and Cruise's other...eccentricities (the above link, among other things, compares Lestat's relationship with Louis to Tom Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes)...he's probably the best actor in the film.

*There's some stuff in the film that's legitimately funny. In addition to how funny Lestat can be, Louis's "poodle massacre" is timed so well that it's hilarious.

*In the credits Anne Rice is listed as writing the screenplay. Although writing for film and writing for books are two vastly different skill-sets--with a novel you can throw in everything but in a screenplay everything must be explicitly on-screen or at least strongly implied on-screen--if a novelist can write a good script, having them at least involved in the script is a great idea. They'll know what's most important, they won't get stuff wrong about their own work, etc.

*It functions well as a period piece--in the 1990s frame story there's a lot of smoking, people are recording stuff on analog tape, etc. It also works well as a period piece for antebellum Louisiana, although there are some historical problems with the 1870 visit to Paris. Paris at that point was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War and nobody's going to be having balls, high culture, etc. there. The costumes are great and the filmmakers even gets into the subtle details of slave culture--in Catholic Louisiana, the slave religion is a lot more likely to have elements of voodoo (you see slaves sticking pins into dolls, some of the dances and ceremonies resemble stuff I've seen in documentaries about the Caribbean, etc) than in the Protestant U.S.

*The makeup crew got the vampires' unnatural nature done with great subtlety. The veins in the vampires' faces stand out and their eyes are strange--no need for elaborate special effects.

*There's also a nice bit of social commentary in making Louis a slave-owner. He's already a parasite--making him a vampire just makes it more overt. And as I noted above, Lestat is even more blatant--while Louis feeds on animals and hates himself, Lestat feeds on Louis's slaves.

*Since Louis cannot go out in daylight, there are certain colors he simply can't see anymore, like the blue of oceans. He's grateful for the advent of movies so he can see these things again. That's something I've never thought of and it's pretty clever.

The Bad

*The movie is a little slow in places. Louis is, after all, telling the story of his entire life, and it's not always going to be interesting. I'm not totally sure what the actual storyline is--Louis manages to escape from the need to have a quasi-boyfriend (Lestat, Armand), Louis figures out how to live as a vampire while maintaining his morality (okay they don't really do this, but he could feed only on criminals or work out a behind-the-scenes deal with the military or state government to serve as a soldier or executioner), etc.

*My Myopia co-hosts really liked Armand, but he felt kind of meh to me. Louis has his Catholic guilt thing and Lestat is over-the-top and often hilarious, but what makes Armand interesting?

*Even though the vampires can move so quickly people can't see them and heal wounds very quickly and Lestat seems to pay at least lip service to their need to hide their activities, one wonders how nobody notices Louis and especially Lestat are killing so many people. Louis remarks that Lestat kills two or three people per night and in one scene, they kill people at a high-class party. In another scene they wipe out a whole family coming to see Claudia play the piano, while Claudia herself kills people in public. There's also all the bloody clothes that presumably are getting laundered somehow. Louis's slaves seem to figure out something is going on pretty quickly (and at one point descend on "the big house" with torches), but Louis and Lestat never seem to need to get out of town quickly. Given how slaves in the antebellum South had a plantation-to-plantation gossip network that came in really handy for the Underground Railroad and Union forces during the Civil War, I imagine rumors would have spread of Louis and Lestat's behavior very quickly rather than being restricted to the slaves of Louis's estate. And that says nothing of their killing people in New Orleans, especially upper-class people who'll be missed.

*It's not clear whether being bitten by a vampire instantly kills or not. Lestat feeds on Louis once before transforming him and that renders him sickly but not dead, while the tavern girl Lestat kills when first teaching Louis to hunt doesn't seem to lose any blood at all. Claudia's bites seem to kill people pretty quickly, faster than Louis and Lestat's attacks, while another vampire we meet later in the film has a mortal child servant whom he seems to be nibbling on fairly often without killing him. In none of these situations do people seem to lose much blood. Dracula and the television series True Blood seem more realistic--people have quite a lot of blood and it would take multiple feedings to kill a person. That could have been an opportunity to contrast Lestat and Louis--Lestat demands blood from the slaves to the point it kills them (when he simply doesn't kill them immediately), while Louis (who is depicted as a relatively benign slave-master) tries to minimize Lestat's predations on them?

*As a brief conversation on the podcast alludes to, the film's depiction of slavery has some...problems. Louis's house slave Yvette (Thandie Newton) says the slaves are worried about newly-vampirized Louis because he's not going out into the fields (i.e. supervising them at work, which would require him to go out in the sunlight) or visiting the slave quarter? She asks him if he's still their master, which one can read as either her wondering if he's still the same person he was before (it's later revealed the slaves think he's turned into the Devil) or that she's upset that he's not supervising them and micromanaging their lives. You can see it in the script here and make your own judgments. Now, one could read visiting the slave quarter as him simply checking on them rather than something more sinister, but most slave-owners were NOT benign father-figures no matter what the Lost Cause nonsense teaches, and their visits to slave quarters might have had more sinister purposes. I initially thought the visits to the slave quarter she referenced were sexual in nature; it would be pretty screwed up if Yvette acts like him not doing that anymore is a bad thing. In Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868, which I read for graduate school, it depicts the racial environment of French Louisiana as less strict and cruel than the Anglo-American order that came with the Louisiana Purchase, but still.

I'm not going to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, so perhaps the reactions to Louis's strange behavior among his slaves could be depicted as being more mixed? Yvette might be concerned for Louis's well-being and want Lestat gone because she was hoping to take the place of his deceased wife (in French Louisiana there was this whole legal institution in which slaves and free women of color could advance their positions by romantic relationships with white men) and is actually jealous of Lestat. That's what I meant when I commented in the podcast about how Yvette being jealous of Lestat would further emphasize the homoerotic nature of Lestat and Louis's relationship--she would view Lestat as a romantic rival. This would still allow for the dialogue between Yvette and Louis without suggesting that the slaves in general actually miss their master and would show Yvette exercising agency despite her not really having a lot of choices.

Meanwhile, other slaves are glad Louis isn't bothering them and perhaps take advantage of the fact he's drinking the blood of livestock rather than eating actual meat to improve their diets? Much African-American cuisine is based on parts of animals the slave-owners didn't want, and some accounts I've read of slavery involve slaves taking food from "the big house" to supplement their crappy rations and getting punished. Given how we see slaves mourning friends and relatives killed by Lestat, perhaps there could have been a scene where we see slaves sneaking around with dead chickens and other birds killed by Louis (and commenting on Louis's behavior as they do so), only for Lestat to ambush them? Then we see the slave voodoo rituals and the like, culminating in them marching on Louis's mansion with torches. One doesn't need to spend a whole lot of time on this issue--it would only need the tweaking of some of Yvette's and Louis's dialogue and maybe an additional scene of Lestat being a predatory scumbag.

*Later in the film, some other characters do Louis a great wrong (not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers) and he gets away from them and they know he's gotten away from them, but they take no precautions. Then he comes back for revenge. How stupid are these people?

The Verdict

A little slow in places, but overall a very well-done film. 8.0 out of 10