Alice, Sweet Alice – Review

25 Feb

The 1970s was a big decade for the horror genre, especially when it came to slasher films. In 1974, Tobe Hooper gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in 1979, John Carpenter’s Halloween was released. I’ve talked about and referenced these movies many times because I feel like they are very important to the genre. If you look hard enough, however, hidden between these two movies is the 1976 film Alice, Sweet Alice directed and cowritten by Alfred Sole. This is a film that has now become a cult classic, but should really be considered a masterwork in the horror genre.

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Karen Spages (Brooke Shields in her first role) is a 9 year old girl who is more than ready for her First Communion. Her older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard) on the other hand is more of a problem child and causes her mother Catharine (Linda Miller) to be stressed. During Karen’s First Communion, she is brutally murdered with evidence pointing at Alice as the culprit. Catharine’s ex-husband, Dom (Niles McMaster) comes back to town for the funeral, but also to start his own investigation. As Dom keeps snooping around, more of the Spages family and other tenants in the building begin getting attacked and killed in a variety of ways while Alice fights back against the accusations of being a murderer.

This movie felt like a combination of so many cool things. It felt like Alfred Hitchcock meets Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or John Carpenter meets Dario Argento. Really it’s like they all just mushed together and this is the result. It has the feeling and pacing of a giallo film by Argento, thy mystery of Hitchcock, the horror of Carpenter, and the oddball scenes found in a Jeunet movie. It really is baffling how a movie with this much creativity and thought remained so unnoticed. Alice, Sweet Alice belongs in the upper echelons of horror films, especially since it was so successful on such a small budget.

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It’s easy to make people jump, but it isn’t easy to make people feel uncomfortable. Horror movies now seem to aim to give people a momentary scare with a cheap build up, but this film is something entirely different. Just look at that picture. Just look at that god damn mask. If that isn’t one of the freakiest masks you’ve ever seen, than I don’t even know what. There’s also plenty of other great scares in the movie. Remember that scene in Psycho when Norman Bates walks out of his mother’s room and stabs the guy on the stairs? It’s so out of nowhere and unexpected, and a lot of the scary scenes in Alice, Sweet Alice reminded me of that. Things happen so suddenly and without any warning.

There’s also a really interesting use of the Catholic faith in this movie that only strengthens the eerie atmosphere. I’m not saying that the Catholic faith is eerie, but it isn’t very hard to make it seem that way. In one scene in particular, the murderer is doing their thing and the camera keeps cutting away to the faces of different statues, almost as if they’re all watching this happen. That, along with the use of church hymns and the receiving of communion while there’s a murderer present is just a weird thing. It’s a very off putting feeling that sets this movie above the average horror film.

Alice, Sweet Alice is a memorable and effective horror movie that has undeservedly only received the honor of being a cult classic. This is a very strange and unsettling movie, but that should appeal to horror fans even more than most other generic films that have gotten way more recognition. This film isn’t only creepy, it’s also provides genuine scares, suspense the whole way through, and a great mystery story on top of it all. To those horror fans who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this one, I highly advise you get on it right away.

In Time – Review

23 Feb

One thing that I look for in movies is originality, and while the story for In Time may have similarities to previous works in science fiction, it’s still one of the most original movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time, especially in a world of sequels and reboots. Andrew Niccol showed his talent for science fiction in the memorable and boring sci fi film Gattaca, and here we are once again in a futuristic world of his creation. In Time shows a dystopian world that seems fresh and new and for that I give it a lot of credit. Unfortunately, the execution could have been done a hell of a lot better.

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In the future, humans are being genetically engineered to live to the age of 25 and the only way to live longer is to earn more time on a biological clock that is implanted and shown on the left forearm. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a poor worker who lives day to day with less than 24 hours on his clock. After receiving over 100 years from a suicidal businessman, Salas comes to see how unfair the system is and how the wealthy can live forever. Soon, Salas begins a campaign to break the system along with his hostage turned partner Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) who comes from a wealthy background herself. As the duo continues stealing from the rich to give to the poor, a determined Timekeeper, Ray Leon (Cillian Murphy), remains hot on their trail with a mission to uphold the system of economics already in place.

When this movie first started, I was all for it. The dystopian world that was created was both believable but also anchored in a sort of unspoken history if that makes any sense. I could believe that, by the way people spoke and acted, the world actually got to this point. Also the whole idea of the currency being measured in time made me stressed out. I’m the kind of person that always has to know what time it is, how much time I have to do something, and if I’ll have any time left over. This world would be impossible for me to live in, so the stakes were high. It got the exact reaction out of me that was intended, so I’ll definitely give it that.

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Now let’s take a step back and look at the movie as a whole. The idea is fantastic and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is great as you would suspect, but that’s really where the excellence stops. The word I would use to describe this movie is “serviceable.” Maybe part of the problem was that I went into In Time expecting a whole lot more than I actually got. What the movie turned out to be was a lackluster science fiction Robin Hood/Bonnie and Clyde type story. That’s totally cool, but when the pacing is so weird, the movie just begins to feel uneven and often boring. There isn’t a whole lot of action, which is fine, but when the movie slows down, the scenes of drama and dialogue aren’t especially hard hitting.

The acting talent in this movie is also questionable. Justin Timberlake and Cillian Murphy were just fine in my opinion, but everyone else was either underutilized or not good. Both Olivia Wilde and Johnny Galecki, two actors who were giving good performances, were in it for a total of 10 minutes each. Amanda Seyfried, a main character who was in most of the movie, blew the big one. I never really was a fan of hers, and this just solidifies my opinion. Every line she delivered was hollow or phony and I just didn’t believe her at all. Isn’t that kind of a main requirement for an actor?

In Time works as a mediocre film with a strong sci fi story that just isn’t used well. The acting is hollow and the pacing is just plain awkward. It’s so disappointing that a movie with so much originality and such a great premise is wasted on something that ends up being a derivative popcorn flick that could’ve used a double shot of excitement and cleaning up. I mean, really.

Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy” – Review

20 Feb

I absolutely love the horror films that were produced by Hammer production company from the 1950s through the 1970s. Now me saying I love them means I love quite a few of them, while others are absolute crap and don’t even qualify as being so bad that they’re actually good. By the 1970s, Hammer was running out of steam and began to get tired of releasing sequel after sequel instead of creating something new. The answer to their problems (sort of) was found in a novella Sheridan Le Fanu called Carmilla. The result is the uneven, but totally Hammer-esque, Karnstein Trilogy.

The first of these films was released in 1970 and titled The Vampire Lovers while the other two were both released in 1971, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil.

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While these movies are called a trilogy, it’s kind of hard to find any sort of continuity among them. The only real connection is that all three implement the Karnstein family of vampires as the villains. In The Vampire Lovers, Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) is a bisexual vampire who begins to prey on the young women of Styria, turning entire households against the people who know what she truly is. After his daughter falls victim to Marcilla’s bloodlust, General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) gets a band of men from the town together to march on Karnstein Castle and put an end to the evil once and for all.

Lust for a Vampire tells the story of the vampire Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), who may or may not be the same vampire from the first film. I really can’t be sure. Anyway, Mircalla finds her way to a finishing school where she once again(?) begins preying on the students. Meanwhile, the school’s new English teacher, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) begins falling in love with Mircalla, which begins an unholy and forbidden relationship that can only end in tragedy.

In Twins of Evil we see twins Maria and Frieda (played by Playboy centerfold models Mary and Madeline Collinson) arriving in the town Karnstein after losing their parents. Their new guardian is the uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), a strict puritan who is also the leader of the “Brotherhood,” whose mission is to hunt the witches and other servants of the devil and burn them at the stake. While Maria begins settling in, Frieda becomes more and more attracted to the mysterious Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), an evil count that has recently been turned into a vampire. As Frieda becomes mixed up in his evil, Maria must try and protect her from the wrath of Gustav and his Brotherhood.

Let’s start with The Vampire Lovers. Like I said before, at this point in time, Hammer was running out of steam and their ideas for their movies were getting stranger and stranger. Just look at Dracula A.D. 1972 which came out a few years later. The good thing about The Vampire Lovers is that it still has that classic Hammer feel to it. There’s plenty of great scenes and the atmosphere is spot on with the traditional town inns, to the foggy cemeteries, and the ominous castles lit in the moon light. That and also the obscene amount of sex and nudity. That was Hammer’s draw with this movie, and it works to a point but begins to get pretty silly with its gratuity. All in all, this is a good entry and a fine start to the trilogy.

Then there came the sequel, Lust for a Vampire and… oh man… it’s something. It’s almost as if the film makers didn’t know if they were doing a softcore porno or a horror film. I get that they were trying to draw people in with the promise of boobies, but this is just ridiculous. The movie starts off cool enough with the creepy architecture and vampire horror stuff, but it soon goes away. Instead we get a cheesy love story between man and vampire, horrible music, and a stupid amount of gratuitous nudity that was thrown in just to get people in to see the movie. This isn’t a horror film, it’s too funny for that. Some of the actors who worked in this movie have even said it’s the worst movie they ever worked in. I can believe that.

You would think that after a movie that bad, the third film would only be worse. What if I was to tell you that it’s not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best Hammer films I’ve seen. Twins of Evil combines vampires and witch hunting and features Peter Cushing as a violent puritan who burns “witches” during the night. We also get a fantastic vampiric villain played by Damien Thomas who seems to relish hamming it up any chance he gets. This is a super entertaining horror film that actually poses a lot of good points about the gray areas in morality and also has two villains working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cushing’s character is a zealot for God while Thomas’ vampire is a zealot for Satan. It’s surprisingly smart and has its fair share of creepiness and gore.

The Karnstein Trilogy certainly isn’t the greatest work that Hammer film studios came up with, but for the most part it certainly is entertaining. The first film is fun, the second is the closest thing to career suicide you could see, and the third is an un recognized masterpiece. Fans of Hammer films should really get a kick at seeing how far they were willing to go in the final days of their productions. These movies certainly aren’t going to convert anyone who doesn’t like their other films, but for those of us who do they provide the creepy, gothic atmosphere that we’ve come to expect and the horror and gore that we’ve come to love.

American Sniper – Review

17 Feb

When told right, a war movie can really make you think and try desperately to understand what soldiers all over the world have to face everyday when they wake up in hostile territory, but also how they react back home far away from the battlefield. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to see Fury, which worked very well as a thought provoking war film, and now I’ve finally gotten the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s Oscar contender American Sniper. The biggest thought I have in my mind is that if the Academy really needed a war movie for a nomination, why couldn’t it have just been Fury?

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After seeing coverage of the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) decides that it’s his duty as an American to enlist in the military to do what he can to protect his country. After the 9/11 attacks, he is deployed to the Middle East where his talents as a sniper become quite apparent to the rest of his brothers in arms and also the enemy. Each time he comes home to his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children, it becomes more and more clear to Kyle that he belongs in battle alongside his fellow soldiers, but he also feels the need to be at home with his family. As the these conflicts become more intense, and more of his friends are killed, Kyle’s stability becomes more and more fragile, encouraging him to do something before it reaches the point of no return.

I know I’m probably a minority in my opinions about this movie, and excuse me for saying this, but I really can’t get behind this movie or all of the praise it’s getting. Everything from Bradley Cooper’s performance to the way director Clint Eastwood handles the complicated subject material is getting way too much positive attention in my honest opinion. The basic formula of this movie has been done before and done a lot better, especially with Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional psychological war film The Hurt Locker. This film, on the other hand, follows the formula step by step and fails to bring anything new or particularly thoughtful to the table. I can’t say that American Sniper is a “bad” movie but I can definitely say that it is bland, generic, and boring.

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When I first saw trailers for this movie, I was really all about it. I couldn’t wait to see it. The scenes showed in the trailer looked like some of the most intense shit ever, and that’s what I really wanted to see. Think about it. A whole war film seen through the eyes of a sniper, the man who’s far away from the action but holds the lives of the squad in the palm of his hand. One wrong decision could be fatal. Thank goodness I got at least two intense scenes out of this movie. The rest of the war scenes were really nothing special. The time he spent at home where the effects of the war could be examined were completely underutilized and the editing between the two was so sloppy and jarring I couldn’t really believe they got away with it. I don’t want to keep comparing this movie to The Hurt Locker, but I can’t help it. That movie just did it so much better.

Bradley Cooper has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood recently through his comedic efforts in The Hangover movies but also his more dramatic roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Now he’s nominated for Best Actor for the third year in a row for his performance in American Sniper and I just am left to sit here and wonder how. For most of the movie, he just grumbled his dialogue in a typical tough guy manner. It was just annoying to listen to, and the movie didn’t spend enough time developing his relationships to other characters to make their interactions really amount to anything.

All I can really say about American Sniper is that it’s a missed opportunity. I love war movies and respect all of the work that goes into making one, but this was just too formulaic and bland. There were definitely some really great scenes in the movie, but other than those few moments, nothing in this movie ever really amounted to anything much. It pains me to say this, but American Sniper is a big disappointment of 2014 and a Clint Eastwood movie that I’ll do my best to never have to watch again.

Selma – Review

14 Feb

It’s a fact to say that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most important historical figures of the past 100 years. The victories he won and the lengths he went to to secure those victories are incredible accounts of perseverance and bravery, so it’s kind of strange that Hollywood hasn’t really released any films that show his accomplishments. I mean, how many people saw that 2001 release Boycott? Luckily now we have a movie that not only shows Martin Luther King as an activist and a soldier for equality, but also a human being who faced despicable threats of violence to achieve basic human rights.

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In 1964, the Civil Rights Movement has been going strong, but African Americans are still restricted through stringent laws from being able to freely vote. That combined with a bombing of a church pushes Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and other activists to travel to Selma and begin a protest for the right to vote. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), after talking with King, feels a reluctant need to help, but feels confined to dealing with other national problems. King then feels that the only way to get Johnson’s attention and the attention of Americans is to push through lines of police, face beatings from the vicious officer, and march to Montgomery, Alabama in protest. As the planning begins, and violence against African Americans intensifies, King begins to fear that this plan may not be feasible and victory impossible to reach.

After thinking about this film, I’ve really come to respect it. As I was watching I kept seeing some major flaws in it that really brought down the entire experience, but they aren’t enough to completely ruin the movie. Most of the problems that I have are with the screenwriting and the pacing. There are many really intense scenes involving the politics that King had to work with but also really moving scenes involving the protests and marches. In between those, however, there are a lot of scenes that just don’t move really well and are filled with melodrama that I just didn’t need. I understand that they were trying to humanize King, but that happened in much better scenes throughout the movie. The scenes that they were trying to humanize him with came of as slow, fake, and overly dramatic.

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So despite there being scenes in this movie, a lot of scenes actually, that didn’t really serve a purpose or weren’t executed well, there were much more powerful scenes to counterbalance them. Selma is one of the more intense movies of 2014, and I say that with the utmost confidence. The terrible thing is that all of this really happened (despite some minor historical accuracies) and it happened in the not too distant past. The first attempted march to Montgomery is actually one of the most startling scenes I’ve seen in recent film making. Director Ava DuVernay did a great job at making history seem to come to life on the screen with cinematography that looks like it could have been ripped right from a moving history book.

I can’t really talk about Selma without mentioning David Oyelowo’s brilliant performance as Martin Luther King. It’s even more impressive considering Oyelowo is a British actor and how well he nails the accent and also King’s way of speaking. The entire cast is all really good, but it really is Oyelowo’s performance that stands out over everyone. Now that I’ve seen the movie, it’s pretty fair to say that he definitely got snubbed at a Best Actor nomination.

Selma may not be my favorite movie of the year or even the best movie of the year, but it is one of the more impressive films of the year. There’s a lot to really love and appreciate with this movie, but there’s also a lot more work that could have been done in trimming up the screenplay and getting rid of some scenes that didn’t really need to be in there. That being said, there are a lot of those unimportant and relatively boring scenes, which almost spoils the entire movie, but luckily there are enough really exceptional and powerful scenes that help work against them. Even though this film is flawed, the history that it presents and how well it presents it should make Selma required viewing.

Whiplash – Review

13 Feb

Have you ever been watching a movie and thought that in the same situation you would have just given up? That’s pretty much how I felt all through out Whiplash. Going into this movie, I knew it was going to be great, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be about, and after watching it I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. The bottom line, however, is that it’s giving Birdman a run for its money as my favorite movie of 2014.

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Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a nineteen year old jazz drummer studying at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York. His entire life is built around drumming and what he can do to perfect his skill and be remembered as one of the greats. This dream seems to be underway when he is accepted to join a prestigious school band led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher who will do whatever it takes to push his students to perform at the best of their abilities. What Neiman soon learns is that Fletcher’s motivations takes the form of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse and punishment, which leaves Neiman wondering how far is too far and if this dream is even worth the punishment.

Writing a summary for Whiplash is very hard because there is so much happening beneath the surface of the story that’s really important and made me want to include, but I could really go on all day about how great and deep this movie is. It would be easy to have made a movie about a kid following his dreams to be an excellent jazz drummer, but writer/director Damien Chazelle went for a much more complicated approach. This is a movie about jazz and dreams, but it’s also a movie the explores complex human emotions and psychological warfare. If that wasn’t enough, Chazelle also created one of the greatest onscreen character relationships of all time between Neiman and Fletcher. Love/hate isn’t really what I’d call it. In fact, I’m still trying to completely wrap my head around it.

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This movie is being recognized in many ways as one of the best movies of 2014, garnering 5 Oscar nominations, but I just want to briefly mention the editing and Simmons’ performance. The editing in this movie can be so rapid fire and rhythmic, I really just wanted to look at the timeline the editor was using. As Neiman’s drums roar and saxophones burst with melodies, the editing matches it all, capturing Chazelle’s beautiful camerawork at the same time, but also capturing Fletcher’s rage. Simmons has always been known to be a good actor, but now it’s established that he’s fantastic. His performance as Fletcher is one of, if not the best performance of the entire year. One minute you hate him, and the next you begin to understand him. He’s such a complex character and Simmons managed to pull it off so perfectly.

What’s incredible about Whiplash is how intense it is. I never thought that a movie that takes place in a music school could be so insane. A lot of people have been comparing this movie to the beginning of Full Metal Jacket, and I do see where they’re coming from, but Whiplash managed to sustain that level of intensity without ever firing a shot and taking place not in the military, but a music school. Everything comes together so well that it creates a story unlike anything you or I have seen before.

Whiplash is plain and simply one of my favorite movies of the year. I knew that I was in for something great but this was just awesome. The music, the performances, the editing, and the nail biting, gut wrenching, butt clenching intensity were all note perfect, pun intended. It kind of shares the same themes as Black Swan, in the sense that you have to wonder how far people can go with what they love before it completely destroys them. It’s an interesting look at the fragility of the human psyche and also one of the best film of 2014.

The Last Stand – Review

12 Feb

In 2003, action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger reprised his famous career making role in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. Since then, he became the governator of California and made small appearances in The Expendables and The Expendables 2. In 2013, however, and for the first time in a decade, starred in an action film. This was Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, a movie that runs on all cylinders, hits you like a shotgun blast to the chest, and renewed some of my faith in modern action films.

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After a violent past working as an L.A.P.D narcotics officer, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) moves to the small town of Somerset, Arizona where the only crime is keeping some drunks or local gun nut Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) quiet. Hurtling towards this small town at over 200 mph is an escaped cartel kingpin named Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) who fled from his transport in Las Vegas and is now making his way to the Mexican border. Hot on his tail is FBI Agent John Barrister (Forest Whitaker) who also warns Owens that this criminal and his army are making his way to his town. Low on men and weapons, Sheriff Owens, his deputies, and Dinkum turn the town into a blockade and prepare to fight the criminals off with Dinkum’s arsenal of heavy firepower.

Wow. Honestly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I loved this movie. After recently watching Parker and spring boarding off that to think about how action movies just haven’t been impressing me, it was great to watch The Last Stand and really enjoy it. Right from the beginning, this movie’s filled with humor and action, and anyone who tries to deny that obviously hasn’t seen the movie. Even the story of this movie makes me smile just thinking about it. Sure it has some cliches, but it’s more original than a lot of action movies Hollywood is producing. Having a speeding car jetting towards a small town that’s been turned into a blockade is something I wish I wrote. It was exciting and engaging the entire way through.

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Another great thing is that the movie does a great job at making you care about its characters. While there is plenty of action and comedy, I was surprised that there was a large heaping of drama to go along with this movie. The characters aren’t really anything different from what you’d expect in an action movie of this kind, save maybe for Knoxville’s character, but there was still enough personality to make them three dimensional. When the action starts, I wanted to see all of the heroes get out alive. Unfortunately for them, the action in this movie seems bloody and relentless at points, which was just a joy for me.

The only problem I had with this movie was some really weird pacing and cuts in the scenes. At a certain point in the movie where the shit begins to hit the fan, we are literally all over the place and in three states at once. It made for some really awkward cutting. The characters in Somerset are obviously the main focus, but at the point I’m talking about the scenes in Vegas with the FBI was more important. Instead of staying with a certain group of people for an appropriate amount of time, I felt like I was being thrown all over the place to get a ridiculous amount of information really quickly. It was like riding a wooden roller coaster that has seen too many years.

All in all, The Last Stand was a really fun movie that I’d love to watch again and again. This isn’t a movie where you have to think too hard or really put effort into it, but if you want to see an action movie, then you really can’t go wrong here. It’s full of bullets, blood, laughs, drama, and an exploding torso. Doesn’t that just sound like a recipe for success right out of the Action Movie Cook Book? It may not become a classic, but it is one of the better films of the genre to be released in a very long time and I think The Last Stand has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it.

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