ReelReviews #8: Here Comes the Devil (2013)







Wow. I’m not sure I’ve ever had this type of experience while watching a movie before. I hated it and then I loved it.

The opening scene of this movie made me immediately think this film would be exploitative trash, and I dreaded having to endure 90 more mins. of this movie. Then, the film slowly became tolerable, then it started to intrigue me and presented a lot of interesting ideas. Finally, it really had me riveted towards the climax, and the final scene was a great twist and went out with a bang (in this case, it literally went out with a bang as well). Basically, it started off terrible and just got better and better. I don’t recall any other film that went from a F grade to an A grade over the course of the story.

Here Comes the Devil (2013), like the previous film I reviewed, is a recently made Mexican horror film. Unlike a lot of critics, I usually have no problems watching the English dubbed version of a foreign film, and that I can concentrate on the films onscreen instead of having to read the dialogue. Here Comes the Devil is an exception though – the English language voices really didn’t match their Mexican counterparts at all, and much of the dubbing is painfully obviously because its not in sync with the lips. I’d advise watching the Spanish language version, and I switched over to the original language about 20 minutes in.

Language problems aside, the opening scene gave me good reason to hate this movie. It was a “kinky” lesbian sex scene showing us gratuitous shots of breasts, set to some typical grinding porn sounding music. The actresses were hot, but the scene left me cold because it appeared to be what is typical of horror movies – random soft-core sex scenes that occur for no other reason than to market the movie to horny guys and have sexy people killed off right after they have sex. In this case, no one died, and film quickly cut away in a seemingly unrelated story about a family going on a weekend trip in a forest. The mom was one of the women that had been in the earlier lesbian sex scene, and she has another (this time even more awkward) sex scene in the car with her husband, after her children disappear out in the woods.

When the children return, the film starts to get some life in it. They’re obviously the same kids and respond to their parents the same way, but everything about them is otherwise different, as if they were suffering random memory loss, inhabited by spirits, or had a personality transplant. It soon becomes apparent that there’s sinister forces at work, and they’re plaguing this family. The sexual stuff now even starts to pay off and is related to the family’s problems – the young daughter gets her first period towards the start of the film, right when the mother was away with her husband discussing the first time she had sex. Later in the film, the mother suspects one neighbor must have done something to the children, and when her husband find’s their daughter’s panties in the man’s cupboard – still stained with period blood – the wife snaps and slits the neighbors throat.

In many ways, Here Comes the Devil is a throwback to those old 1970s American horror films about the occult – ones that were psychological thrillers more than anything else, and it was all about raising your hairs over what you didn’t see. If you liked those movies, you’ll like this one. The twist at the end and final scene left me intrigued, and now I want to re-watch the movie all over again for “clues” I may have missed earlier in the movie. The viewer is left with a non-win scenario since the final scene in the movie answers the question about why the kids were behaving strangely, but it raises so many more questions. The overly sexual situations at the start of the film turn out to be important plot points later on (including a very disturbing thing that the children are doing when their parents are away), and the parents behavior certainly affects what happens as well.

Here Comes the Devil might be a rare example of a movie that does “bait and switch” is a good way. It lead me to believe it would be another dumb slasher movie with topless women running around at a slumber party (I was preparing myself to write a review bemoaning how even Mexican movies have now been tainted by the success of “Showgirls” type American movies). It turned out to be something entirely different, but it was particularly clever because the earlier “dumb” scenes turned out to be important, and not just throwaway stuff so the movie can have more sex and violence.

This is a movie that I’ll have to watch a second time, and maybe even a third or fourth time, to fully “get” everything it presented me with. It may not be your kind of film, and that’s totally understandable given the bizarre sex stuff, dragging storyline, nagging family drama, and other types of stuff that the audience has to work with in this movie. But man, it certainly does find a way to work with what it’s got!
*** out of ****


ReelReviews #7: We Are What We Are (2010)



Well, well, well. I can now say for certain that my reasoning for preferring Let Me In (2010) to its foreign counterpart wasn’t because I saw the American version first. With “We Are What We Are”, I was presented with a similar set of circumstances, having to watch the American remake before seeing the foreign original. In this case, the older version appeared to be the must better film of the two.

We Are What We Are (2010) is a low budget Mexican film, providing quite a contrast to its American counterpart. But one big distinction here is that the two films are nothing like watching the two Let Me In‘s back to back, and seeing the same story unfold the same way. Instead, the films took the same basic premise and executed it in totally different ways, and went off in completely different directions. One deliberate change was the cast themselves – the American remake apparently purposely inverted the family from the original, so it consisted of a domineering father, two quiet teenage girls, and an innocent little boy. The original movie Mexican film was the mirror image of this: the family consists of a weak mother, two feuding teenage sons, and a clever pre-teen daughter. As in the American film, the family are cannibals and have been carrying on this “tradition” for years. But with a totally different family structure and setting, the focus and story is nothing like its American remake.

When it comes to the Mexican version, this is a character study about a family that has literally gotten away with murder for years but is now becoming unraveled after the father is killed at the beginning of the film. They live in a poor, destitute area of Mexico. The younger daughter feels that its the “duty” of the oldest son to carry on his father’s tradition, so he attempts to do so and tries to kidnap “whores” for the family to kill and eat. He’s very clumsy at his first attempt to do this, and the other prostitutes quickly notice that a young man brutally attacked one of their girls and dragged her away to his car. This sets off a series of problems for the family that ultimate culminates in a confrontation with the police at the end of a film, and a shoot out. What happens between the starting off point and the climax kept me interested, although the film is sloppily made at times and had a lot of useless filler. One of the more interesting points in this movie is that it hints at a lot of secrets in the family, but never directly shows anything one way or another — one of the brothers is seduced by a gay man and may be secretly gay himself, leading to him return and grab the gay man as a victim for the family to kill. His motivations are never explained. The sister might secretly be in an incestuous relationship with her other brother – but this too is only vaguely hinted it and may be a red herring. The back story of the father is never explained either, and left me wondering more, since he is clearly the glue that held the family together. The mother and her children also always discuss some type of “ritual” for their cannibalism, but this is never explained nor seen.

In short, the film is frustrating because it raises a lot of interesting ideas that it ever fully explorers or answers. The deciding factor for me where this film beat its American remake hands down was the conclusion of the film. Like the American version, it culminates in a scene where one of the teens begins to gnaw at his own family member’s flesh (in this case, his sister), but unlike in the U.S. Version, this film gives us a legitimate payoff at the end why he did that. Likewise, the final scene sends a message to the audience that “the cycle will continue”, but here its done in a much creepier and memorable way, with the final image in the movie being unforgettable.

We Are What We Are (2010) has its problems, and its certainly not the greatest horror film in the world, but its worth a look. It’s also an entirely difference experience that its American counterpart of the same name. Apparently the American film was envisioned as a “re-imagining”. This tends to be Hollywood talk for a film that ruined anything that you liked about the original, and We Are What We Are is no exception. Both versions of the movie are watchable, decent horror films. But only the Mexican version gives the audience something of their own to chew on.
** ½ out of ****

ReelReviews #6: We Are What We Are (2013)





Two years ago, I screened both versions of Let the Right One In – first the American remake, Let Me In (2010) and months later I watched the original Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008). I quickly concluded the American film was one my favorite horror films of all time, only to discover fans of the original Swedish version thought the American version was a pale intimation. Could I be biased because I watched the U.S. Version first? I decided to try a similar experiment last week with We Are What We Are. I had hoped to see the 2010 Mexican version first, but schedule constraints left me watching the American remake from 2013 first. Yet surprisingly, my reaction this time around wasn’t the same at all.

We Are What We Are (2012) is a modern American horror film about a family of cannibals. With the overuse of zombie and vampire films clogging the market, I thought this would be an interesting idea. Here, we essentially have real-life monsters that prey on human beings, but there’s no supernatural element involved and theoretically this could happen in a real town. What’s more, the film doesn’t tell the story of how the characters became cannibals, but gives us a whole mythology where the cannibalistic tradition of this family (the Parkers) has been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. Intriguing idea – but not so intriguing film.

I thought most the elements in this film were well done – the atmosphere, music, set design, and especially the casting was spot on. The characters are really brought to life with the actors they choose for the roles of the dominating middle aged father, his older teenage daughter that follows in his footsteps, the younger more naive daughter that wishes to escape her family life, and the innocent five year old son. Although the actress playing the younger daughter is about 22 years old, she plays a much younger character and I bought it. There’s one particularly well done suspenseful scene where glares intently at a neighbor who is asking prying questions about her including her age, and bluntly tells him she just turned 14. It’s unfortunate that the spot-on casting for this movie didn’t result in an excellent film. The problem is the execution of the rest of the movie just isn’t very good. The film uses the tired cliché of uneducated backwoods strict religious zealots in the south as a reason why the family is cannibals, and that they believe eating people is some type of thing they have to do to maintain their “purity” in some twisted “holy book” the father has. This type of premise has been used in so many R-rated horror shockers that I expected them to take it a step further and have the whole family be inbred like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or something. At the very least, I expected some kind of exciting twists to unfold and a thrill ride. There wasn’t any. Of course there was a subplot about them being investigated to drive the story, and the element that tipped people off sounded so convenient that I thought it was made up for the movie (specifically, the father and his family suffer from a rare disease that causes their fingers to twitch. A suspicious biologist in town looks up the symptoms and discovers its Kuru’s disease, which only effects people who engage in cannibalism). I googled it myself, and it turns out this a real disease – mainly found in cannibals of Papua New Guinea.

One area that really hurt is the film is that the ending really came across as forced to me. Without giving any too much detail, of course the family is discovered and escapes, the girls end up turning on their father and then bizarrely biting away at his body (which appears to be done merely for shock value, as the family had always cooked and prepared human meat in stew, not gnawed away at corpses, and certainly not their own relatives), and the final shot is the two girls driving away holding the family’s “religious” book, showing us that “the cycle will continue”. Yep, lame and predictable.

After seeing the movie, I felt “dirty” watching it. I can take a lot of gross, sick horror movies, if they have some compelling idea behind them. This one didn’t. It simply exists to gross the audience out and provide cheap scares. There’s nothing particularly bad about the movie, but there’s nothing particularly good about it, either. It uses the revolting subject matter of cannibalism to create a generic, paint-by-the-numbers horror film, and its helped along by an excellent cast, good atmosphere, and smart set designs and music. My parting thought was hoping it’s not a Let Me In situation where the American version is more polished than the foreign original. If that was the main way this film distinguished itself from the original, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the original.

** out of ****

ReelReviews #5: Jonah Hex (2010)


Having just reviewed a movie based on Marvel comics, its time to give DC their due and take a look at one of the more obscure DC adaptations: 2010’s Jonah Hex. This film was a box office flop when it was released (grossing only $10 million on a $47 million budget), so I think its safe to say that they’re won’t be a sequel. Instead, DC is pressing ahead with ideas like “Superman vs. Batman”. If there’s one problem with the recent trends in comic book movies, its the constant recycling of the same villains and plots in endless Batman and Superman movies. Worse, some “fans” applaud Hollywood for taking the lazy route, and since they make money they keep doing it. Jonah Hex was an example of doing something different, but since it failed, its unlikely DC will take that risk again. Jonah Hex, after all, got terrible reviews. But here’s the most unfortunate thing: Jonah Hex is actually a pretty good movie.

Maybe its lowered expectations, but since I knew critics hated this film, I was a bit wary of screening it, and hoped I wouldn’t be sick of the movie and tune out after 15 minutes. I’ve had similar experiences on many occasions. (Critics hated 2010’s The Nutcracker 3D, but I was willing to give it a chance and thought they were too harsh – as I watched the opening credits, I thought “Hey, this is actually a very nice presentation that sets up the mood nicely!” Unfortunately for me, by the time the “mouse king” showed up 20 mins. later, the movie had worn out its welcome and was a train wreak from that point on). With Jonah Hex, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a great intro showing how the main character came to have his horrible facial scar, then some very artsy animated opening credits letting you know you’re watching a comic book movie (with strong narration from Josh Brolin as the title character), and then a solid 25-30 minutes that sets up the movie and has a raw, gritty, outlaw feel to the whole thing. Perhaps Jonah Hex would have done better if it had simply been marketed as an old fashioned anti-hero western, instead of a hip “comic book movie” for teens.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the movie is not without flaws. I wasn’t pleased with Megan Fox as the female lead in a 70s Clint Eastwood type film, but she does an adequate job. The film also has an additional plot device that looks cool but didn’t really suit its world or have much relevance to the plot. Jonah is able to communicate with the souls of the dead by touching their corpses, and there’s an additional twist that he only has some much time to speak to them before their bodies begin to turn to ash (only to return to their “normal” dead state when he stops touching them). This supernatural element added a bit of eeriness to the movie, but it has nothing to do with the Jonah Hex comics so I can see why fans of the comic book hated it. Ia also felt the movie simply fell apart at the end, and the last 20 minutes of the film de-evolved into some silly over-the-top CGI fight that was reminiscent of Will Smith in “Wild West West”. The recent trend in Hollywood has been “steampunk” (having stuff in a late 19th century setting presented in a futuristic sci-fi angle). That’s fine, as long as there’s a reasonable technological explaination and it looks believably retro. Giving us slick CGI, frantic editing, and heavy metal and rock themes for the movie’s music soundtrack doesn’t work at all. (and I actually liked the non-modern music used in Jonah Hex, but I hated a “western” with heavy metal songs).

There was a lot of controversy with Thomas Jane being turned down in favor of Josh Brolin as the title character. I could see Thomas Jane in this role (he was solid as The Punisher), but Brolin was awesome as Hex and easily one of the best parts of the movie. The still photos aren’t very impressive, but his presence on screen easily made him a great western anti-hero, and he carries the film in every scene. Considering that his father (James Brolin) and his stepmother (Barbra Streisand) never impressed me as actors, I find that Josh Brolin has consistently proven to be a great character actor and is probably one of the most underrated people in Hollywood today. It’s a shame he won’t get a second chance to play this character again.

Jonah Hex has a brisk 80 min. running time, so its one of the shortest modern super hero movies, and its also one of the most interesting, since its not really a superhero movie at all, but an outlaw bounty hunter telling the audience his life story. (Technically, its not even a “western” either, since most of the action takes place back east in the former Confederate States of America – Virginia, Georgia, etc.) Bottom line, the film has its problems, and the ending was terrible, but it really drew me into its world and I liked it. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.

** ½ out of ****

ReelReviews #4: Iron Man 3 (2013)


 MARCH 12, 2014 SCREENING: IRON MAN 3 (2013)

For the last several weeks, I’m been doing “RetroReviews” of classic and obscure fantasy films that I screened last summer. Not only has it started to get old, but I’ve run out of fantasy films that I screened. It’s time for something different. Today is a return to contemporary reviews, and the best way to kick it off was by finally taking a look at last year’s big budget action film Iron Man 3. So what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other reviews. Let’s find out.

A lot of my friends saw this film in theaters last May, and the consensus opinion was they thought the plot twist and the ending ruined the movie. Nobody would even tell me what the twist was! I managed to accidentally stumble on it myself last month, before I had even watched the movie to judge it on my own. Simply put, the major “bad guy” in this film, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turns out not to be the Mandarin at all. He’s actually a drunken British character actor that was hired to play the Mandarin in order to fool Iron Man and general public into targeting the wrong enemy. This relevant isn’t a shocker at the end of the film, but is actually revealed a little more than halfway through the movie. Did I like this twist? No, I thought it was stupid.

Now, that being said, I didn’t think the silly twist “ruined” the movie, as others have claimed. It was a bit annoying, but the rest of the movie was funny and entertaining. As others have observed, I also thought the “fake” Mandarin was a worthy villain before the twist, and I wish Ben Kingley had just been the real Mandarin instead of the movie trying to give us a “clever” twist. I also had no problems with the real end of the film, which consisted of Iron Man deciding to be with the girl he loves and giving up his Iron Man persona in a flashy climax where he blows up all his armored suits in a fireworks-like spectacle. The only problem here was Marvel’s PR department: we already know Robert Downey Jr. will be returning as Iron Man in Avengers 2 next year, so the ending is pointless. (Had I not known that, it would have been a much more satisfactory ending)

There are good points and bad points throughout the story. Compared to Iron Man 2, the third installment seemed a lot more exciting to me. I hardly remember the second one and just had a collective feeling of “it was okay” when the film finished. The events in Iron Man 3 are much more memorable, but there’s also more cringe-worthy stuff and much of the movie consists of Tony Stark constantly trying on new Iron Man models and comedic situations that arise from this – it seems he doesn’t really go into full superhero mode and heroically spring into action until the last 1/3rd of the movie. A new twist in this film is that Stark creates an Iron Man suit that launches itself to his destination and automatically attaches itself to him piece by piece. The special effects here are very impressive but the whole idea seemed over-the-top to me, and its used way too much for comedic effect when he’s missing some pieces or they attach themselves to the wrong person, etc. etc. The rest of the humor worked well for the movie, and there’s some very witty exchanges throughout the film. There’s also a lot of name dropping about the events of other Marvel movies and the fact this film is set after The Avengers. Those were fine, and serviced this story. However, there’s no surprise cameos from other Marvel characters. I think that’s actually a letdown at this point.

Iron Man hasn’t worn out its welcome, and I always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. I’m also looking forward to Avengers 2 – I hope they find something new to do with the character, and I hope its better than Avengers 1 (I must be the minority, because the first one got rave responses from the public, but I just thought it was an average overblown popcorn movie with an awesome premise). All that being said, the conclusion I have to draw is that the first Iron Man movie was the only one that was truly great and pleasantly surprised me. I have no dog in the DC movies vs. Marvel movies fight, but a quick observation is that Marvel movies have been making a lot more money lately, but they’re also starting to get a bit too predictable. I hopeful that Guardians of the Galaxy breaks out of the old pattern. In meantime, here’s to you Tony Stark, we know you’ll be suiting up against next year. But if you ever return for Iron Man 4, let’s hope its worth it.

** ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #54: Brazil: The “Love Conquers All” Version (1985)




Last but not least is a brief look at “Brazil: The ‘Love Conquers All” Version. This special re-cut of the movie was never released commercially, but comes as an extra on the 3-disc Criterion DVD release of the movie, and is an interesting little curiosity for fans of Gilliam’s work to check out.

The story behind the “Love Conquers All” version is quite simple. The theatrical version of Gilliam’s movie runs 142 mins., and that made it a pain to book for theatrical distribution. Like all Gilliam movies, the film is very surreal and has a depressing, downbeat ending. As a result, American movie studios wanted to re-cut the movie into a much leaner mainstream movie running only 94 mins. This was done without any of Gilliam’s input or consent, and not surprisingly, he hated it. The whole project turned out to be a non-issue, however, since Gilliam fought against the 94 min. version, and the 142 min. version on DVD, as well as the one that had been released to theaters, is Gilliam’s original “vision” for the film, whereas the re-cut version was never released commercially, and only appeared on television and in its intended form as an extra on the Criterion DVD.

Naturally the film corrupts Gilliam’s “vision” for Brazil, but going into the 94 min. version, I felt the DVD itself was biased towards the film, as well as every tidbit of information I could find about this cut online. They all conveyed one idea: this re-cut was an abomination, and should only be seen as a textbook example of how NOT to edit a movie, as it complete destroys the integrity of Gilliam’s masterpiece In other words, we the audience should completely hate and despise the re-cut.

I watched the re-cut in its entirety, and I did it with the audio commentary on from a film historian who was there to “explain” all the major changes to the film (he also conveyed the idea that I should hate the re-cut). The subtitle of the movie wasn’t originally part of the 94 min. cut. Rather, the film is dubbed “Love Conquers All” because once the re-cut was made public, it was clear the studio’s intent was for the film’s message to be that “love conquers all”, and this leads to the much despised happy ending.

So did I hate the re-cut? No. In fact, despite running over 40 minutes shorter, I really didn’t think it “butchered” the original movie at all. Some subplots were removed and some characters and situations changed around, but 80% of the major events in the original movie were more so less unchanged, and Brazil itself doesn’t really have any type of direct narrative structure anyway, its more of a character study, and it retains that in both the original and the “love conquers all” version. The intent is definitely changed with the ending, but its not really a “new” ending at all – the scene was shown in the original film at the end as well, though in a slightly different cut and it was presented a dream sequence, whereas its real life in the “love conquers all” version. Essentially, the ending is only different because the re-cut removes the final scene that reveals the earlier scene where the couple happily drove away  was a dream.

To give the high brow critics their due, however, I must admit the re-cut is clearly a weaker movie than the full 142 min. version. It’s simpler and easier to follow, which is a positive, but a lot of quirky moments from the original are lost, and the pure strangeness and surreal quality of the original kicked it up a notch over this version. Disastrous and horrible, no, but it’s definitely watered down. Since there’s not much of a story to begin with, telling that story more directly doesn’t really help things. If you’re going to watch Brazil, watch the uncut version. But honestly, neither version of the movie struck me as particularly great, or particularly terrible.

** out of ****

RetroReviews #53: Brazil (1985)



JULY 11, 2013 SCREENING: BRAZIL (1985)

To finish out my week of Terry Gilliam films, I decided to take a look at two different versions of the film “Brazil”, (the theatrical version and the “Love Conquers All” version). This is the film that critics widely consider to be the “greatest” effort of Terry Gilliam’s directing career. At least, they feel that way about the theatrical version.

Count me in the minority, because this isn’t my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, nor would I consider it his strongest film overall (I’d probably say my favorite movie is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but I might be biased because its fresh in my mind and I haven’t seen 12 Monkeys in a while). To be fair, however, I still liked Brazil, and I think its worth checking out.

In this case, the film wasn’t what I was expected because the content of the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the title. If you hope to watch Brazil and see a movie about the nation of Brazil, look elsewhere. The title of the film comes from the song “Aquarela do Brasil”, a catchy tune that is repeatedly played throughout the movie as a reoccurring motif. The actual setting of the movie takes in a vaguely United Kingdom style setting, but occurring in a dystopian futuristic “1984” type society, where big bureaucracies control every aspect of people’s lives. The main difference between than and 1984 (which was probably fresh in the audience’s minds, since the classic John Hurt movie had been released only a year earlier) is that Brazil presents that type of a world in a light-hearted, whimsical tone, and there’s no central “Big Brother” type adversary. Instead of an “Airplane!” type straight out parody of 1984, this film seems more inspired by that type of world as a basis for its comedic setting, in much the same way Dr. Strangelove used the traditionally bleak scenario of nuclear Armageddon to make an over-the-top comedy.

I wouldn’t rate Brazil anywhere near the level of Dr. Strangelove, which really pushed the envelope when it was released in the 1960s. Brazil has much milder humor and some fun ideas, but I thought it was a bit overlong and boring at times. The basic storyline is a case of an identity mix-up because of a computer error, so this film gave us The Big Lebowski before there was The Big Lebowski. Jonathan Pryce is the lead here as a bewildered man who keeps digging himself in deeper no matter how earnestly he tries to resolve the identity crisis problem at the start of the film. He personally considered this film to be his best role, so I’d probably select “Something Wicked This Way Comes” for that honor. Visually the film is great and has some really notable scenes that wow the audience, but both the script and the direction seemed a bit pokey compared to Gilliam’s other films (though this is far better than his first effort, Jabberwocky)

Overall, I can’t help wonder if there’s something I’m missing. Why is it that high-brow critics think Brazil is so “deep” and “brilliant” and “masterful”? It’s beats me. I’ve carefully watched the film three times now with two different edits of the movie, and all I see is a mildly amusing comedy that takes forever to reach its conclusion, and has a twist ending that’s a bit anti-climatic. Fun, yes. Masterpiece, no.

** ½ out of ****