Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Drag Me To Hell

If all you know about Drag Me to Hell is what you’ve seen in previews, then it isn’t the kind of movie you think it is. Trailers and TV spots have done their best to make Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre look like a mere Saw or Hostel clone, but in reality it has very little in common with those movies. While Raimi is best-known by many people today as the director of the Spider-Man films, his best work is undoubtedly the Evil Dead trilogy, which mixed low-budget (but entirely believable) scares with physical comedy to create an experience that was at once hilarious and horrifying. Raimi revives his own tradition with Drag Me to Hell, which is more than worthy as a spiritual successor to the director’s previous work.

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer who evicts a creepy old woman from her home in order to curry favor with her boss. The woman’s response? She puts a curse on Christine, giving her three terrorizing days to live before demons will quite literally drag her down to Hell. With the support of her loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and a helpful fortune-teller (Dileep Rao), Christine sets out to stand against the forces that are after her and to avoid the fiery fate that lies ahead.

One of the movie’s biggest draws is how fully-developed these characters are. Lohman has never been a particularly notable actress, but her convincing portrayal of Christine should definitely cement her reputation among horror fans. Long’s performance is also surprisingly genuine, and you can’t help but feel for him as his character sticks with Christine despite his increasing skepticism towards her. Their relationship is the most endearing part of the film, making it tough (but still funny) to see it put through the wringer – for instance, when evil spirits sabotage Christine’s first meeting with Clay’s parents.

But the real stars of the movie are Raimi and his special effects team, who offer up plenty of sticky, oozing and frequently cartoonish frights. There’s fairly little actual blood, and it goes to show that excessive amounts of hyper-realistic gore aren’t what make a horror film worthwhile. Although Drag Me to Hell doesn’t rely on slapstick as much as Evil Dead and its sequels, it certainly pays homage to the series with its claustrophobic camera movements, creaky sound effects, and the occasional flying eyeball. The movie’s intermittent computer-generated effects aren’t nearly as convincing as Raimi’s signature low-budget techniques, but thankfully they’re not used all that often.

What I love most about Drag Me to Hell is that it’s both a breath of fresh air and a campy, nostalgic look back at what horror can and should be. There hasn’t been a horror movie quite like it since Evil Dead II, and there may not be another until after Raimi has finished with Spider-Man 4. I hope there will be, though, and that Drag Me to Hell proves popular enough among the legions of Saw and Hostel fans to warrant more films that cleverly blend horror and comedy. I’m tired of the gore-for-its-own-sake, torture-porn trash that rakes in the big money each and every Halloween – it’s time for us to return to the idea that horror can be scary, funny, and original at the same time, and Drag Me to Hell shows us that it’s possible.

Rating: ***½ (3.5 out of 4)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Lord, Why??

Honestly...what did the human race do to deserve this kind of punishment? And is it too late to redeem ourselves??

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is a perfect example of the fact that sometimes, a movie is actually less than the sum of its parts. The story is absorbing, and some of the performances are very believable, but for me, there was just no escaping a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something about this movie was wrong.

The set-up is undoubtedly interesting. Kym (Anne Hathaway) has gotten out of rehab just in time to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and she returns to a home now filled with dozens of strangers all getting ready for the big day. At the heart of the hustle and bustle is her dad, played by a sincere and engaging Bill Irwin. The first to defend Kym as she and Rachel clash, he’s also deeply haunted (along with the rest of the family) by the consequences of Kym’s drug-induced actions years earlier.

Tensions eventually give way to a lot of screaming and crying, and even a bit of interfamily violence for good measure. No one can truly forgive Kym for her past, least of all herself, and her attention-seeking antics as the wedding draws nearer don’t help. The constant arguments are convincing, but they all play out in roughly the same way. What’s more, it’s hard to take anyone’s side for more than a few minutes because not a single character comes out unscathed.

Alone, that wouldn’t be a tremendous problem if the movie was a lot more focused. Director Jonathan Demme spends altogether too much time on the festivities of the occasion itself, and it’s here that the story really falls flat. Between rambling congratulatory speeches by characters we never see again to seemingly unending shots of people dancing the night away, at least half an hour could have easily been cut from the picture. Rachel’s future husband is so underdeveloped that it’s clear the wedding is only a plot device, so spending such a large portion of the movie on it is just silly. This is Kym’s story, and every scene spent on something else is an utter waste of time.

In the end, Rachel Getting Married is a lot like watching your family fight – while it’s fascinating at times and certainly commands your attention, it’s just not a very pleasant experience. I won’t deny that its portrayal of a family in crisis is realistic and well-acted, though, and if that had been the primary focus I might have enjoyed it slightly more. But the movie’s near-schizophrenic nature as it bounces back and forth between meaningless revelry and a family’s despair is quite off-putting, and it makes it extremely difficult to recommend.

Rating: **½ (2.5 out of 4)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sci-Fi Sundays #2 – The Giant Claw

The Giant Claw (1957) is a bit unique among the dozens of giant monster movies that were made in the 1950s. Its subject isn’t a spider, cockroach, or some other insect; its size isn’t attributable to the wayward effects of nuclear radiation. Nope, it’s a giant buzzard from space that’s come to Earth to terrorize mankind.

But first, the set-up: a lone test pilot spots a UFO that no one on the ground picks up on radar, which convinces his superiors that he’s gone crazy. It takes the disappearances of several other aircraft to convince everyone that something strange is going on, and that the test pilot may in fact be right. Although the mysterious shape that constantly appears in the sky is clearly the silhouette of a giant bird, every single person that sees it describes it as a “flying battleship.” This even includes the governments of foreign countries, who haven’t conferred with American military forces even in the slightest. Apparently, the fear of giant flying battleships is universal.

Their misconceptions aren’t helped by the fact that no one seems to know what the term “UFO” actually means. Each time a pilot radios back to base with the exclamation that he’s seen a UFO, the response is always “What is it?” or “Can you see what it is?” or something along those lines. Of course he can’t see what it is, you dimwits, or he would have just told you rather than saying he was unable to identify the flying object that he saw.

Figuring out what the UFO really is turns out to be a simple matter of setting up a hidden camera on a high-altitude balloon. Making things easier, the bird-monster looks right into the camera for half of the pictures. Speaking of which, the space buzzard is both one of the stupidest and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on film. I would try to describe it to you, but words really can’t do it justice…so instead, I’ve posted a picture of it above. And if you think that looks ridiculous, then let me assure you, it’s even more absurd in motion.

What’s even funnier is seeing what the bird does to its victims. It’s always careful not to outright destroy the jet fighters that attack it (to no avail) throughout the movie. That way, it’s able to eat the parachuting pilots with a uniform crunch that sounds like a clip from a Pringles commercial. The reason that no one can harm the creature at first isn’t entirely obvious – as it turns out, it’s protected by an antimatter force field that can only be destroyed by a “focused meson emitter,” whatever that is. After they hit the bird with that, it’s a fairly easy matter of shooting the thing out of the sky.

As dumb as the movie sounds, parts of it are actually somewhat cleverly written. One scene has the main character and his love interest exchanging baseball jargon in a way that’s so overtly sexual I’m not sure how it got past the censors. There are a few similarly funny scenes, and while they’re not pure comedy gold, they don’t need to be. After all, that’s what giant space buzzards are for.

Movie Rating: ** (2 out of 4)
Entertainment value: ***½ (3.5 out of 4)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Pure Michigan Rules

If you watch much television, you’ve probably seen these “Pure Michigan” advertisements that have been running for a while now. If you haven’t, they’re basically a series of commercials put together by Travel Michigan to promote tourism in their state, with narration by Tim Allen. Here’s an example:

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the advertisements at all. In fact, they kind of make me want to spend some time in Michigan. I just wonder why they decided to go with the theme from The Cider House Rules – a movie that was actually set in Maine! It works surprisingly well, but it’s still a bit puzzling to me.

On a completely unrelated note, I thought some of you might be interested to know that I had two comic book reviews published on IGN this week. The first is a back-up review for Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, and the other is the main review for Dark Reign: Young Avengers. Please leave a comment either here or on IGN, if you feel so moved!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sci-Fi Sundays #1 – Night of the Blood Beast

I love science fiction movies because even when you know the general premise of a sci-fi movie going into it, you never know exactly what you’ll get. There are common themes, sure, from robots to aliens to spaceships, but not in any other genre can you find such a wide variety of movies based on such a concentrated number of shared concepts. In each Sci-Fi Sundays post, I’ll talk about a different science fiction movie – old, new, good, or bad, but always interesting in its own way.

Night of the Blood Beast is a 1958 B-movie about what happens when the first man in space unwittingly brings an alien creature back home with him. The action begins during the opening credits, as images of a crude-looking, hand-drawn spaceship “fly” through “space.” The reason I use quotation marks is that I’m not wholly convinced the astronaut ever left Earth’s atmosphere, seeing as his ship was surrounded by clouds. Of course, never having been to outer space myself, I guess I can’t say for sure that the filmmakers are completely wrong. Maybe they have been to space, or just know something that neither I nor anyone else with a rudimentary knowledge of physics or outer space does.

It isn’t long before tragedy befalls the space vessel. From what I could gather, the astronaut, John, had digestive issues while a smoke machine malfunctioned in the background – never a good combination. Anyhow, John’s little episode sends the ship to a fiery crash (at least, I assume it was fiery, since it happens offscreen) in a mountainous region near Cape Canaveral. The filmmakers again show how much smarter they are than me, this time in terms of geography. Silly me, thinking there are no mountains in Florida!

Scientists from the nearby research base find the ship, which is still perfectly intact other than a small hole in the side (the smoke machine still seems to be on the fritz, though). Peering through the hole, the scientists see John’s body – also in one piece, surprisingly enough; John apparently took lessons from Indiana Jones on how to survive falling thousands of feet in a small metal box. Even though he shows absolutely no signs of life, the scientists take him back to base and decide to put him on a table in the lab and stand around watching his lifeless body anyway.

Unfortunately for the scientists, some guy in a cheap Halloween costume - I mean, an alien - has hitched a ride back to Earth with John and his ship. Once everyone has gone to sleep, it sneaks into the base and eats half of the lead scientist’s head. Why half? I’m not sure, to be honest; maybe he got full, or perhaps he just realized that human beings don’t taste very good. Conveniently, the other scientists only realize what has happened after the alien is gone, and shortly thereafter, John decides to stop playing possum and begins to walk and talk again. He reveals that he’s pregnant with the alien’s babies, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone else too much. In fact, the others seem relatively bored by this revelation. Perhaps John has cried wolf about this sort of thing before.

Not one for subtlety, I guess, the alien takes this opportunity to just sort of barge into the room and stand in the doorway, at which point it’s predictably shot at. Bullets have no effect on its Swamp-Thing-meets-Black-Lagoon hide, but one of the researchers scares it off by chucking a lamp at it and setting the place on fire. Luckily, pillows prove just as good as flame retardant when it comes to putting out a fire.

Apparently forgetting that the alien ate half of another guy’s head, John insists to the others that the alien means well and that everyone should just give it a chance. They eventually hunt it down to a cave, where it tells John (in the voice of the scientist it killed!) that it belongs to a dying race which needs humans to give birth to alien babies in order to continue to survive. John, finally realizing that he’s been used, stabs himself with a rock and dies while the others shoot the alien to death with flare guns.

So as you’ve likely concluded by the sarcasm throughout this synopsis, Night of the Blood Beast is both an absolutely terrible and an incredibly funny movie. I can’t imagine either of those qualities were intended by the filmmakers (including Roger Corman, who executive-produced), but regardless, credit really must be given where it’s due. My favorite part comes at the very end, when the scientists walk away from the remains of John and the alien and basically pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They seem to have forgotten that John’s alien babies are due to be born at any moment, and that an alien invasion can’t be too far behind after that. Oh, well – if John is any indication, the human race is so gullible that it might actually deserve to be wiped out of existence.

Of course, most of the film’s comedy comes from the fact that the creature the scientists are so terrified of looks like a Power Rangers villain reject. If only it had had more time on screen, this movie would have been perfect for just sitting around and ripping on with friends. Even after adjusting for inflation, my guess is that Blood Beast couldn’t have cost more than a hundred dollars to make – fifty for the alien costume, and another fifty for the actors to sort out amongst themselves in a steel cage match set against the mythical mountains of Florida. Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea for a sequel.

Movie Rating: ½ (0.5 out of 4)
Entertainment value: **½ (2.5 out of 4)

New Post! New Look!

Sorry to take so much time off since my last update – I’ve been really, really busy. So busy, in fact, that I’ve watched a grand total of two or three movies since my last post. But with the spring school semester over, I finally have a bit of time on my hands again, and I thought I’d make the most of it by getting back onto the blog scene and making a few changes to the site:

1. As you’ve probably already noticed, the site has a slightly different background and layout. I was tired of it being practically identical to so many other blogs on the web, although I may still fiddle around with it a bit. Question to everyone reading this: do you like the current look, or would you rather see something that fills an entire widescreen monitor?

2. I won’t be doing a Movie of the Week anymore. As much as I like the idea, after a while it just became impractical for me to be able to do one every single week…kind of a self-defeating point for something called “Movie of the Week.” But don’t worry – I have more interesting things planned, which I think will eventually make this site a bit different from your average movie news/reviews blog. I hope you guys will like ‘em.

3. I’ll still be doing reviews of newer (i.e. released in the last year or so) movies that I happen to watch. I’m still working my way through a lot of 2008 releases, so you may see reviews for the ones that I get from Netflix. And as long as I’m on that topic…

4. Reviews of Star Trek and Wolverine are coming…just as soon as I see them. I’m dying to check them out, but like I said, I’ve been quite busy. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch at least one of them early this week.

5. This one’s a bit unrelated to the others – but as I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, I’m a big fan of not just movies, but comic books and graphic novels as well. I’ve set up another blog for reviews of graphic novels; I haven’t had the chance to post in it yet, but the first post should go up in the next day or two. I’ll try to post two or three reviews there per week, so feel free to check it out if you’re interested. It should be pretty accessible, so don’t be afraid to give it a look even if you don’t know much about comic books and graphic novels.

Well, I think that’s about it for now. Feel free to post any feedback in the comments section, and I’ll see you for another update later today!