Friday, January 18, 2013

MAMA Said Knock You Out

The films of Guillermo Del Toro trade in a very specific type of fairytale dread. Whether it’s the insectile horror of Cronos and Mimic, the wartime fantasia of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, or the heroic monsters of Hellboy and its sequel, The Golden Army, Del Toro takes a weirdly childlike approach to things that go bump in the night. And even though he only produced Mama—it was directed by Andres Muschietti, who co-wrote it with his sister Barbara—the film has Del Toro’s stamp all over it, even beginning with a title card that reads “Once Upon A Time”.
In a prologue, an investment banker (Game Of Thrones’ Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) murders his colleagues and his wife, then flees with his young daughters Lilly and Victoria down a snowy mountain highway. The car crashes, and, wandering through the forest, the family finds a creepy, deserted shack. A murder-suicide seems imminent, but is prevented by the arrival of an out-of-focus something that dispatches dad and befriends the girls. Fast forward five years later, where we learn the banker’s twin brother Lucas has never given up the search for his nieces. A pair of hunters find the girls living like animals in the wilderness. The girls claim that they survived with the help of a supernatural guardian they call “Mama”, and a psychiatrist allows their uncle to take them home. Lucas’ wife Annabel (Jessica Chastain, nearly unrecognizable with close-cropped hair, tattoos, and heavy eye makeup), has no interest in raising a pair of feral girls…particularly once it becomes apparent that their not-quite-imaginary friend has followed them home.
Mama was adapted from a short film by the Muschiettis, and the strain in adapting a two-and-a-half minute short to feature length is visible. It’s a slow-moving film, with plenty of lingering shots of half-open doors and lonely hallways. Sometimes, this approach works; Mama is one of those rare films that can find the quiet eeriness in a big house in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a scene early on where the girls’ bedroom is visible in the foreground, and Annabel can be seen doing laundry at the end of the hall. It looks as though the girls are playing with each other—Lilly is seen tugging at one end of a blanket—but then, Victoria appears at the end of the hall near the laundry room. Who is tugging on the other end of that blanket? we wonder, as Annabel unknowingly goes about her business. But any momentum gained by these early scenes is slowed down by a dull subplot where the psychiatrist (Daniel Kash, a dead ringer for Tony Shalhoub) tries to piece together the backstory behind the mysterious ghostly figure. When “Mama" does finally make her startling full appearance, it’s a hackles-raising tour de force—the spectral, spider-limbed hag has a head full of hair that always appears to be floating as though in water, and can race across a room like a sped-up video image (the unbroken shot that precedes her entrance is impressive; the entire scene is pretty much a remake of the original short film). But the movie quickly falls apart in the third act, as it becomes worn down by a series of unlikely coincidences and sloppy last-second voiceovers designed to smooth over the bumpy plot. The PG-13 rated film opts for chills over gore, which is fine, but after awhile the logy pacing will make you sleepy. Strong performances from Chastain, Coster-Waldau, and especially Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse (as Victoria and Lilly, respectively), combined with a handful of effective scares keep Mama from becoming a complete snooze, but that kind of faint praise is probably not the fairytale outcome Del Toro and the Muschiettis were hoping for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zombies Need Love Too, Apparently: WARM BODIES Advance Review

One of the reasons I quit watching AMC’s The Walking Dead—other than the fact that it was terrible and I hated about 95 % of the characters—was that it was so damn depressing. I don’t think anybody on the show or watching the show ever has any delusions that the series’ zombie epidemic is ever going to end or be cured, so the protagonists simply muddle through from one possible safehouse to the next, losing more and more series regulars along the way to increasingly gruesome fates. Making things worse, unlike a zombie movie where, no matter how bad things get, it’ll all be over in about two hours or less, The Walking Dead has the potential to run for years (and with its blockbuster ratings, it probably will). Granted, the zombie genre is not exactly the most hopeful or uplifting category of movie anyway, which is why the new teen-oriented romantic horror-comedy Warm Bodies is such a pleasant surprise; it may be the most optimistic movie ever made about a zombie apocalypse.
When the movie begins, civilization has already collapsed under the endless assault of flesh-eating ghouls. The surviving humans have walled themselves up inside heavily armed compounds, where they desperately seek a cure for the epidemic. Outside the walls, the zombies shuffle through their un-lives, seeking live flesh and brains to feed on. We are treated to the inner monologue—who knew zombies had such a thing?—of one such zombie, a young, hoodie-wearing slacker named R (About A Boy’s Nicholas Hoult, whose spiky black hair and angular features make him look like an anime character come to life). Shuffling around an airport all day, every day, R (the only letter he still remembers of his real name) fills us in on the details of zombie existence. He and all the other relatively fresh corpses, like his best friend M (Rob Corddry), all seem to have faint memories of their actual lives, but are trapped in a gruesomely monotonous existence. Some of them continue to reenact their old day jobs as though they were malfunctioning robots. Others give up any pretense of their old humanity and become “boneys”--skinless, eyeless ghouls possessed of a relentless hunger. One day, R and his zombie pals come across a group of human survivors raiding a pharmacy, and he finds himself strangely drawn to one of them, Julie (Teresa Palmer). The fact that R has just munched on the brains of her boyfriend (21 Jump Street’s Dave Franco, little brother of James) might have something to do with it; we’re told that eating brains gives zombies a taste of the victims’ life, thoughts, and feelings, and is the closest the living dead get to experiencing actual life again. Whatever the reason, R feels compelled to rescue Julie, helping her to pose as a zombie to escape the massacre, and taking her back to his lair inside an airplane wreck. As the two grow closer, R feels his heart actually beginning to beat again, a contagious phenomenon that eventually spreads to M and the other airport-dwelling zombies. Unfortunately, Julie’s dad is the hard-charging leader of the human resistance (John Malkovich, either reining it in or phoning it in, you decide), and he’s determined to wipe out all the zombies whether they have skin or heartbeats or not.
Warm Bodies actually manages to, pardon the term, lend some rejuvenation to a rapidly-decaying genre. It mixes and matches elements from various existing zombie movies (these guys eat both flesh and brains, not exclusively one or the other), while coming up with some new tropes of its own. It may also be the first zombie movie yet where, not only does a human have to pose as a zombie (as in Shaun Of The Dead, probably the closest other film in tone to Warm Bodies), but where a zombie is forced to try and pass for a human. There’s a suggestion early on in the film that the zombie apocalypse came about when people stopped having any kind of meaningful interaction with each other (R briefly remembers a world of the living where everyone always had their eyes cast downward towards their mobile devices, laptops, and tablets), which is a fun, original idea. Warm Bodies further posits that the epidemic might be reversed if both the humans and the zombies can learn to feel again. Based on the book by Isaac Marion and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), Warm Bodies is probably most ideally suited to fourteen-or-fifteen-year-olds (Hoult is, after all, the dreamiest walking corpse ever to hit the screen, and Palmer bears a striking and probably-not-accidental resemblance to a blonde Kristen Stewart), but feels far less like a cynical Hey Kids, Zombies! cash grab than that might suggest. It could maybe stand to be a bit funnier, but Warm Bodies has a lot more heart and brains than you might expect.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Been There, 'Saw That: TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D

There's a special pleasure to be had in seeing a 3D horror film in the theatres, waiting for implements of destruction and severed body parts to be thrust in your face like something out of an old SCTV sketch. Too many lopped-off limbs flying towards the audience are not enough, I say, and Texas Chainsaw 3D honestly needs all the help it can get.
The newest Leatherface outing starts off with a promisingly bold maneuver, skipping the three original sequels and the charmless, glossy, Michael Bay-produced remake (and its prequel). A highlights-reel of footage from the 1974 original plays over the opening credits, bringing us up to speed and picking up directly where that movie left off. The shotgun-wielding kinfolk of the first movie's family of hillbilly cannibals shows up to defend the homestead, including, inexplicably, a young mother and her baby daughter. Not to be outdone, an angry mob of locals shows up with even more firepower and molotov cocktails, and the demented clan gets blasted & roasted, in that order, with (seemingly) only one survivor--the baby girl, who is secretly adopted by a married couple among the mob. Fast-forward several years to a young goth girl named Heather (Alexandra Daddario) who receives a will saying that the grandmother she never knew she had has passed away, and that she now owns the old lady's palatial estate. The only sane response, of course, is for Heather to call up her pals and have a party there--what better way to get over finding out that your parents aren't who they said they were your whole life?--bringing along a predictable bunch of slasher fodder like the Slutty Best Friend, the Token Black Guy, and the Hunky Hitchhiker. Of course, the will says nothing about the secret door in the basement that hides the home of the other survivor of the family massacre (one wonders how easy it was to hide, for decades even, a hulking, brain-damaged cannibal who wears a face made out of human skin). Soon, the titular chainsaw roars back to life, taking down Heather's friends and several of the locals alike (many of whom participated in the opening mob scene, and are now in various positions of authority around town). As Heather slowly (very slowly--the 92-minute film does a lot of stalling for time) learns the truth about her real family heritage, the townspeople are shown to be the real monsters for committing such a heinous act of vigilantism and then covering it up. At least, that's the idea.
Texas Chainsaw 3D isn't clever or daring enough to inspire much excitement among fans of Tobe Hooper's original film (Hooper returned to produce the 2013 model--there's also a brief cameo by original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen in the opening minutes), but in its defense, there's also not enough of much else to inspire outrage, either. For the most part, it's a pretty by-the-numbers affair that owes more to Halloween IV: The Return Of Michael Myers than anything else, what with its young heroine learning of her familial connection to a legendary maniac. There are a few flashes of humour that, frankly, the movie could have used more of, like Leatherface pausing to put on his tie before the final showdown (I always loved how he dresses up nicely for the climactic dinner scene in the original), the reveal that Leatherface's last name is Sawyer (get it?), and a goofy after-the-credits stinger that provides a cheap punchline for Heather's identity crisis. But there's not enough of this stuff to justify the film's existence--even Hooper's own 1986 follow-up had the good sense to play the idea for laughs.
Which brings me to the biggest stumbling block in any attempt to build on the world of the original 1974 film. That groundbreaking terror flick seems to almost exist outside of any recognizable reality, creating instead an impressionistic vision of a world slowly going mad. It's filled with strange omens (is the solar flare activity discussed in the early scenes responsible for the chaos that follows? Does the creepy hitchhiker somehow mark the leads for death when he smears his own blood all over their van?) and ambient sound design (that weird, high-pitched noise that plays over the opening sequence, the buzzing of the chainsaw, Marilyn Burns' nonstop screaming for the last twenty minutes). Logically following from the nightmarish events of the first film is a nearly insurmountable struggle, on par with the challenge Peter Hyams faced when sequelizing 2001: A Space Odyssey--it's like having to create a sequel to a feeling or an emotion rather than a story (for the record, I like Hyams' 2010, but I don't envy him his task). But it's a bit much to expect from a money-driven slasher reboot by a hired gun director (prior to this, John Luessenhop directed the 2010 caper flick Takers) to take artistic chances or even have much of a sense of humour about itself, so Texas Chainsaw 3D plays it predictably safe. The only added dimensions a movie like this can realistically allow itself, after all, are the ones that enable blood and blades to fly towards filmgoers.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Death Waltz Recording Company

In the last few years, I’ve become a reluctant vinyl enthusiast—reluctant because the last thing I need is another thing to obsessively collect. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who knows me, seeing as how I have pretty retro leanings on a lot of stuff, but once I got a record player I had to agree with the general consensus of audiophiles everywhere—music just sounds better on vinyl. In a fairly short amount of time, I’ve amassed a decent pile of records from various sources new and used, with a heavy emphasis on soundtrack albums. Any horror vinyl I can find is particularly prized, but usually pretty hard to come by (a recent Christmas gift of the soundtrack to The Exorcist, a gift from my screenwriter pal Mark Palermo, holds a special place in my collection). So when a company like Death Waltz Recording Company comes along, offering reissues of classic horror scores on vinyl, how could they not become my new favourite label?
Based out of the UK, Death Waltz offers a catalogue of cool soundtracks—with, so far, a heavy emphasis on the John Carpenter collaborations of Alan Howarth—packaged with eye-catching new artwork by notable graphic designers (these are included as mini-posters inside the record sleeves as well!). Their releases so far include Zombi, Halloween II and III, Escape From New York, Donnie Darko, Prince Of Darkness, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, and Let The Right One In, with more presumably on the way. They offer limited edition coloured vinyl releases on a few titles, and a flexidisc version of Howarth’s Halloween III score. Each release also includes liner notes by both the composer and the cover artist. There’s also a nerdy touch that I really appreciate—the spines don’t tell you the name of the movie or the composer, instead offering a choice quote from the film in question.
So far I’ve only gotten my hands on Halloween II and Prince Of Darkness, both given to me as Christmas gifts from in-the-know pals this past year, but I’m looking forward to expanding my collection. It’s a real treat to hear the eerie synthesizer stylings of Alan Howarth bouncing around my living room in that rich, warm sound that only vinyl is capable of delivering. Locally (in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that is), you can pick up Death Waltz titles at Obsolete Records, and if you’re elsewhere visit the official Death Waltz site for mail-order info. Your straining record shelves may protest, but your ears will thank you.