Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Company Of Wolves Review

For as long as anyone can remember, Werewolves have been a very popular literary element for myths, legends, fairy tales, books, comic books, movies, music, puppet shows and every other form of storytelling ever invented. They can represent the frightening changes that one feels in their bodies as they develop from children into fully-grown adults. They can also represent the dark and suppressed desires of man that may erupt uncontrollably at any given time and without remorse or respect. Who hasn’t felt the call of the wild at some time or another? On a full moon in a clear, black sky, who doesn’t suppress the urge to get on all fours, bay to the night and rip apart the person standing next to you? I know I have.

For those of you who have ever enjoyed either werewolf mythology or fairy tales the way they are supposed to be told (you know: dark, gritty and full of death), there is little reason you would not enjoy this film. The Company of Wolves is a series of tales about Werewolves told through the nightmares of Rosaleen, a young woman living a suppressed and unfulfilling life. In her nightmares, she lives in an ancient forest town with her mother and father and spends much of her time with her Granny (Angela Lansbury). Granny takes a particular shine to Rosaleen due to the recent death of her sister, who was eaten by wolves. Granny knits Rosaleen a bright red shawl and tells her folk tales of the dangers of wolves and men whose “eyebrows meet”. The biggest critiques I have for this film all stem from the technical aspects of the production, specifically, bad lighting and cinematography. Despite this, the acting, writing and special effects are pretty spot on. I like to tell people this movie’s heart is in the right place, because of its frank and authentic respect for its subject matter. Most importantly, like all good fairy tales, it captures an intrinsic message about the natures of good, evil and the call of the wild within all humans on a subliminal level. If I do say so myself, this film seizes the essence of a Grimm Fairy Tale better than any other film I have ever seen (feel free to throw me some recommendations for others…I’d love to see them).

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. It has been a long time since I have seen a film with this high a budget and this level of blatant misuse of lighting and cinematography. The entire time I was watching, I struggled to believe that the scene took place on anything other than a set built on a sound stage. Interestingly enough, the set looked really cool. What killed the illusion was the over use of master shots and the incredibly harsh and unrealistic lighting. So who is to blame? That was a very tough question to answer but damn it if I wasn’t not going to try. My first instinct was to blame the director, Neil Jordan. Neil is a veteran writer/director in Hollywood and was the mastermind behind such films as In Dreams, The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. He is also the man most responsible for making the film, having co written it, directed it and pursued the writer of the original short story, Angela Carter, to achieve the rights for it in the first place. Despite that over half way through the movie the production value increased, the majority of the film is flat, fake and unimaginative with its visual storytelling. Isn’t the director the mastermind behind every aesthetic and creative decision on a film production? Surely he is the one to blame, I thought to myself. But as I was busy grinding my axe and readying myself to pay Mr. Jordan a visit at his home, I decided to give the film a second chance. 

On my second screening, I realized how unfair I had been for laying the blame on Mr. Jordan. After all, it wasn’t really the film as a whole that was a problem; it was the technical aspects. So I got to thinking, who is the head of the lighting and camera departments? The answer is the Director of Photography, Bryan Loftus. I have never seen this man’s work before in any other movie, so I am not in a position to bash his skills as a cinematographer. But I feel more than privileged to condemn the job he did for this picture. Perhaps at the end of the day Mr. Loftus is not the cinematic devil of film making (cough, cough, Tommy Wiseau. Cough, cough). For all I know, he could have excelled to cinematic excellence since the 27 years this film was made. But I get the feeling that with a better DP, Mr. Jordan would have made a much more classic and memorable piece of cinema. Finally, I won’t spoil it, but the ending definitely leaves you wanting more. Perhaps this is a good thing, but I found myself scratching my head a little longer than I wanted too. Oh well. This is an early Neil Jordan piece, and that is evident specifically from the costume and makeup designs. It looks like the characters are prototypes for Jordan’s 90’s mainstream classic, Interview with the Vampire. Specifically, their style of dress and the long flowing hair on top of the heads of the rugged mythical beasties make them look suspiciously like Louis and Lestat. But this isn’t really a bad thing.

The movie had some stellar special effects. It’s chock full of decapitations, werewolf transformations, mutilations and fairly innovative visual effects. It is clear that Jordan was profoundly inspired for the transformation sequences by the two heavy weight champions of the modern day interpretation of the Werewolf, The Howling and an American Werewolf in London. However, he makes the sequence unforgettable by adding his own creative spin to it, which to my knowledge had not been used before (the werewolf clawing its way out of the mouth of its human form). The only flaw I saw in any of this was that I sometimes saw too much of the transformation. Looking at an animatronic for too long takes away It’s believability, and as such, I wish the werewolf transformations were masked just a tad more with slightly dimmer lighting and less inserts of the effect (once again, I blame bad lighting and bad cinematography). The decapitations were awesome. My favorite gag is when the husband of a young woman chops off the head of a werewolf and it falls into a bucket of milk. The wolf head is completely submerged in the milk and bobs back up as a human head, all in one shot. Classic. Though to be fair, I should mention I raised an eyebrow not once but twice when I saw Rosaleen’s childhood toys come alive and attack her sister when she shrinks down to their size. Those costumes are laughably bad. But this sequence was simply not enough to make me hate the art department.

The writing was very impressive. The story was fairly intangible and may not sit well with major blockbuster audiences. But it offers a great deal of insight into the mind of young people, specifically young ladies. We watch Rosaleen learning to cope with the darkness of the world as she grows from her innocent self to a more sophisticated and in some ways, corrupt individual. I have definitely seen more linear stories about the loss of one’s innocence, but this fairy tale reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass (the original literary piece, not the Disney movie). The environment is dream like and fantastical, but it is frightening and dangerous as well. The allusions to Little Red Riding Hood are very clear and speak to the post-punk young teen audience of the 80’s effectively, and even many young people today. Ironically the only thing to make this movie dated is the bad mother fucking lighting and bad mother fucking cinematography!

The cast oozes with talent. We’ve got David Warner, Angela Lansbury, Terence Stamp (playing THE DEVIL!), Stephen Rea and a million other celebrities from across the pond. I don’t know what it is about the British, but they have a great deal of integrity in every performance they put on, no matter how silly the film they are in may be. Perhaps it is because they understand the implications of coming from the land of the immortal bard and wish to live up to that standard. But such a speculation would be a digression to this review, perhaps saved for a future blog (or to be forwarded to a professional, like this blogger I once read from with valuable insight on Shakespearian history and acting http://blackswanditty.blogspot.com/).

Do yourself a favor and see this movie. If you like such dark fairy tales as Legend, Labyrinth, the Dark Crystal, Mirror Mask and The Never Ending Story or if you like Werewolves or the werewolf genre at all, this is going to be worth your time. Sit through the bad parts, they are mostly clustered in the beginning. You might even benefit from a second viewing.  I know I did.  Remember, the ending is far better than the first half.  It picks up fairly quickly and the payoff with Rosaleen and the Wolf is awesome.

These Are Not You're Groupies For Team Jacob

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Brain Damage Review

This is an old review I wrote for another blog.  I polished it up and wish to share it with all of you.  Enjoy.

Brain Damage is a film about a young man living in New York City who throws all of his aptitude in the local gutter by becoming horribly addicted to drugs…and when I say drugs, I mean a hallucinogenic secretion pumped into his Medulla Oblongata by a brain-sucking parasite.  This film is particularly rare, as its topic of choice is mature, but the execution of the film and the subject matter is pretty silly and over the top (in a sadistic sort of way). Though to be fair, despite the silliness, Brain Damage does a very good job keeping a straight face with its dark tone and consistent reminder that our main character suffers from a very common and down to earth disease; addiction. In all my years, I can’t imagine anyone not comprehending the feeling of addiction; to want something so much that it becomes the only thought on your mind.  Time literally stops, because nothing can distract you from your craving.  But this film allows you to take a back seat to your addictions and see how ridiculous the compulsion truly is. We see the truth that what most people are addicted to is not only unimportant, but also incredibly harmful to them in every possible way, whether it be alcohol, cigarettes, cupcakes or brain sucking leech juice. 

Our protagonist’s name is Brian. He is a young man with a loving girlfriend named Barbara, a supportive and jealous brother named mike, and an addictive personality.  Brian meets up with a creature who looks like a googley eyed leech named Aylmer, yet encompasses the suave mannerisms of the Devil himself. Its weapon is rational and seductive persuasion. It doesn’t need to intimidate or frighten Brian because he has his drug, which he knows Brian cannot live without (now if only I could put my borders on my chopping block so willingly, I’d be on easy street!  Too bad their fucking kid can’t stop crying every time I sneak into his room from his closet with an ice pick).  Once Brian discovers the grizzly nature of his new friend, he struggles to quit the drug despite the futile helpful hands of Barbara and Mike.  However, the plot thickens as Brian sinks deeper into his addiction and Mike begins to make moves on Barbara.

I’d be comfortable with saying that 90% of the time, a good film in this genre is measured by its antagonist.  Aylmer is one of the most charming and likeable of demonic abominations I’ve seen in a very long time. I mean, look at him, with his smug face and unblinking soulless eyes. It takes a very charming personality to get you to look beyond this creature’s hideousness and trust the things he says. Without the smooth talking and hauntingly imposing voice acting of Horror Host John Zacherle (the Cool Ghoul is in this film!) this monster would have absolutely no power over anyone.  The best part is that they give him enough screen time that you don’t feel like you have to be sifting for gold. 

I love this movie because it manages to avoid talking down to me despite the fact that it doesn’t try to hide its obvious message.  Its beauty comes from its simplicity; the protagonist is addicted to drugs and the drug is blatantly unhealthy (I mean, come on! Have you really looked at the turd-leech with the fangs parking itself on the back of your neck!?).  But if one were to truly take themselves out of one’s body and look at the world from a wider perspective, it would become very clear that all recreational drugs are blatantly unhealthy in a very similar way. The basic fact is that no matter how good a drug can make you feel, consistent use of any substance will over time deteriorate your body and your mind. This isn’t to say that I am against you humans taking drugs.  Be my guest, so long as you don’t judge me for snorting the ground up finger bones of my victims.  You gotta get your kicks somehow.  I get mine from murder.  But whether taken with a grain of salt or not, Brain Damage paints a very common picture of a scenario we see all the time in the real world. A fairly likeable human being becomes dependent on a substance not indigenous to his body chemistry and goes through a metamorphosis for the worst, which affects everyone around him in a very negative way. 

Some have told me that they cannot take this film seriously because they refuse to believe that anyone would trust a talking leech, no matter how persuasive he can be.  But I really must beg to differ. As I stated before, this sort of thing happens all the time.  I know most drug dealers aren’t necessarily the snake eyed monsters many of the 80’s and 90’s PSA’s would have us believe. But seriously, unless you were buying heroin from your grandma, why would you ever trust a stranger on the street to keep your best interests in mind? The truth is that Brian needed no persuasion to take drugs. We see clearly how his downward spiral begins not from the persuasion of a monster, but from his desire to get high.  That is where the true horror lies. Though I must admit, this film is a lot sillier than I am giving it credit for.  Not since Return of the Living Dead have I seen such brain consumption. There’s monster fallacio, spaghetti and pulsating brains, blue leech juice and a never-ending fountain of blood, and oh so much more. This film does suffer from a fairly miniscule budget and does indulge in the occasional illogical, yet visually amusing gimmick or two (how does a leech the size of your forearm hide inside of one’s throat without impairing one’s ability to speak or breath?).  Still, if you happen upon this film and enjoy a good horror/exploitation romp like I do, I highly recommend checking it out for yourself.

Notable Tidbits

-Kevin Van Hentenryck from the movie Basket Case makes a cameo as Duane Bradley from that same film. Frank Henenlotter is the director of both films, which both take place in New York City and both involve young and healthy men whose lives are bogged down with the unfortunate burden of a needy monster.

-There are inconsistencies with the spelling of the monster’s name in the credits. They specifically introduce him half way through the movie as Aylmer (pronounced like an ailment) however; they spell his name E-L-M-E-R in the credits. There is actually a scene in the movie, which goes into minute detail of his name and the meaning behind it.

Care for some sqashed octopus?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Uncle Sam Review

July 4th is here and that means its time to light those fireworks, boil them hotdogs in Samuel Adams and pull out your favorite film to celebrate this wonderful holiday. Or, if you’re feeling brave, guzzle down some vodka and pop in Uncle Sam, because there is no mere mortal alive who could possibly stomach watching this movie without at least a blood alcohol content of %0.1. This film has all the shit; bad writing, bad acting, bad directing, bad lighting and very bad pacing. What makes it such a shame is that the concept of a murderous Uncle Sam is intriguing enough to make me want to watch it. Little did I know that I would be so frustrated by the end of the screening that I felt the need to kill my Border’s son and wrap the remains in an American Flag*. It’s enough for me to open my door and shout out to the streets, “I hate you, Uncle Sam!”

Why do I knock this film so much when I’ve given brownie points to Ice Cream Man and Monsters Crash the Pajama Party? After all, these movies suffer from bad writing, acting, directing, lighting and pacing too. Well, the answer is that Uncle Sam wasn’t entertaining. What made those films good was their level of slap-in-the-face absurdity. Bad films are fun to ridicule, the more absurd the film is the better. Whether its level of absurdity is accidental (like in The Room) or completely on purpose (like in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), you get the feeling that the filmmakers had such passion while making it, the experience of watching it becomes enjoyable. Although there are a few occasions in Uncle Sam where you almost feel like the filmmakers are cutting lose and having fun, it does nothing to live up to its full potential of silliness. The majority of the film is slow and vapid, making it a complete waste of my time. Because watching this movie made me feel like an asshole, I’m going to tear it a new one.

Just for fun, let’s talk about what makes this a bad film. All the characters are idiots and frequently behave in inconsistent ways. The protagonist is a young man named Jody (who the hell names their son ‘Jody’?!) who is in love with his Uncle Sam Harper, who was gunned down by friendly fire in Desert Storm. Jody won’t shut the fuck up about how heroic his Uncle was and how he wants to grow up to be just like him. However, it turns out that Sam was actually a cruel individual, who verbally and physically abused his family and friends every chance he had. Jody’s fascination with Sam puzzles me. I understand Jody barely knew his uncle and never got the brunt of his cruelty, but why does he feel so attached to someone he doesn’t know? He even goes so far as to defend Sam when people talk about how cruel of a person he was in life, proclaiming he doesn’t “believe” what they are saying. This kid’s one-dimensional personality annoyed the hell out of me so much that I couldn’t help but punch the TV screen every time it showed his smug face. And now my fist hurts. Thanks Jody.

A good example of a character behaving inconsistent and idiotic is Jody’s mother. She offers to keep Sam’s body in her house until the funeral when Sam’s wife expresses a fear of having it in her house. I don’t blame her; after all, Sam was verbally and physically abusive. She also implies he was sexually abusive. But then why does Jody’s Mom agree to keep it? Can’t they keep the body at the funeral parlor? Unless she was holding a procession at her house, there’s no reason for her to keep the body of a madman in her living room, even if they were siblings. You’d think she would hate to have Sam’s body there, given their violent history. This is bad enough, but the most inconsistent and idiotic character of them all is the Monster. Sam’s body is sent back to his hometown, where for some unexplained reason he is brought back to life to wreak havoc on the unpatriotic citizens. I can believe a story about a zombie ex soldier killing the unpatriotic. But Sam is embittered by his death and subsequently, his experience in the army. The moment he is gunned down, he shoots a fellow soldier who tries to help him just to deliver the witty quip “Don’t worry, it’s only friendly fire”. He even tries to kill Isaac Hayes (yes, the late Mr. Hayes is in this film) for inspiring him to join the army in the first place. If he regrets taking part in defending his country, then why does he go out of his way to kill people who disrespect it? I don’t mind my antagonist doing crazy things; I just hate having to ask myself these questions and never having them answered at the end of the film. I never had to raise my eyebrow at why Freddy Krueger did anything. Or the shark from Jaws.

The technical aspects are also atrocious. Just about every scene has the worst use of voice over ADR put to film. If I had a dollar for every moment I saw someone’s voice completely off sync, I’d be able to buy a new Cannula for my embalming machine. There were technical problems for every department in this movie; The pants on Uncle Sam’s costume changes, wires are clearly visible for stunts, but these particular problems didn’t bother me nearly as much as the ADR. Bad ADR is a pet peeve of mine. watching this movie feels like watching an episode of Speed Racer.

I could forgive all these problems, so long as the film was funny and entertaining enough. Monty Python didn’t make sense either. But Monty Python made me laugh. Uncle Sam is billed as a comedy horror, but there was only one sequence in the movie that made me laugh, and none that made me afraid. That sequence is toward the end, when Uncle Sam sabotages the town’s fireworks to murder a bunch of people. I loved watching the families flee in terror as fireworks were shot off into the air. Some time during this sequence, Sam impales a man on an American Flag. That made me chuckle too. But besides that, there were absolutely no funny jokes, not even dark ones. I’d say all this film needs is a few more ridiculous sequences to get a pass. When I see a gimmicky cult movie, I want it to milk the hell out of its gimmick. The writer of this film is Larry Cohen, the writer/director of It’s Alive. I was shocked to learn this because Larry Cohen is usually very good at milking his gimmicks. His resume encompasses such movies as Phone Booth and Cellular and he’s directed the best Masters of Horror episode ever made. I only bring this up to emphasize a powerful lesson I have to re-learn once or twice a year; good filmmakers can make bad movies. It makes me wonder how different the script may have been from the final cut.

You wanna know the worst of it all this? This film just had a Blueray DVD release. That’s right, in case VHS or DVD is just not good enough, you can now watch Uncle Sam in clear crisp High Definition. Why the fuck hasn’t this movie disappeared into the anus cracks of cinema mediocrity? Look, I can appreciate those out there who were suckered into buying Uncle Sam as kids and now that 14 years have gone by, they keep a copy to capture some of their lost childhood. But I’ve been on this planet for over 800 years and I’ve haunted many houses in my time. I guess I’m just tired of seeing films that don’t do anything. This film did nothing to build from the basic idea that a man dressed as Uncle Sam kills people, offering absolutely nothing new to the genre. I watch films for the same reason I kill people, to have fun. I want to see the passion in my movies that I see in the eyes of my desperate victims. Wasting time on a bad movie is like taking a sip of blood and realizing you’ve just accidentally filled your mouth with fresh clamato juice.

*I couldn’t find a flag, so I poisoned the brat and dressed him up in a little Benjamin Franklin suit and hid him in the closet of his neighbor. I can’t wait to see how Mr. Trumble explains THAT to the police.