ReelReviews #134: Overlord (2018)

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NOV 20, 2018: Overlord

 

You ain’t never seen a World War II movie like this.

 

“Overlord is a unique cinematic animal, yet somehow cobbled together from bits and pieces of other cinematic troupes.  The movie starts off as a gritty, hyper-realistic war drama, and eventually becomes an over-the-top fantasy horror film by its third act. What was amazing for me is there wasn’t any jarring effect here, or sudden “twist” that caused the film to change direction. The whole movie works as a natural progression to that point and flows naturally, which was remarkable to me since the two genres shouldn’t mesh at all.

 

Trying to describe the movie itself without ruining the story for future audiences is a very difficult task. The best way to do so is thru allegory. Katie Walsh, a professional film critic with the Tribune News Service, noted “If anyone ever wished ‘Saving Private Ryan’ were more of a B-movie splatterfest, this movie is for you”.  I think she summed up my interest in this film quite well. I appreciate Saving Private Ryan for what it was – an ultra-violent, raw World War II tale— though it’s not my kind of film. ‘Overlord’ has the same tone and setting but ultimately delivers something more akin to “Evil Dead 2”, which IS my kinda movie.    Another critic compared Overlord to “Inglorious Bastards meets Saving Private Ryan meets Resident Evil”, which likewise I think gives audiences a good idea what kind of movie they’re in for.

 

Other films have tried to pull off this type of story, but I’ve never seen it done well.  When I fell in love with the film Let Me In, I noted that it was the kind of film that Twilight WISHED it could be – Let Me In wanted to do a tragic romance angle between a vampire and a human, and completed nailed it. In this case, think back to the ill-fated movie adaptation of DOOM from about a decade ago. It knew what it wanted to be, it just failed miserably at doing that.  Overlord, on the other hand, pulls it off beautifully. In fact, with perhaps a few minor tweaks to the script, Overlord could have been a movie adaptation of Wolfenstein 3D (the brutal fighting against NAZIs make it in the ideal setting), and we might have gotten a rare example a good video game adaptation. One final good comparison along the allegory route is the kind of movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wanted to be.  We all know what they were aiming for: make the historical 1860s civil war setting very realistic and believable, but at the same time, find a way to center the plot around traditional vampires, and make the two mesh well together.  Again, Abraham Lincoln failed miserably at this (even though I liked the movie overall).  Overlord, on the other, excels at it.

 

But enough with the allegorical comparisons, let’s get back to the movie itself. It was delightful for me precisely because I hadn’t read anything about the movie before I saw it on the big screen. For most of the movie, I was convinced this was indeed, a straightforward historically accurate World War II drama, albeit with fictional characters.  Having recently watched “Darkest Hour”, I got a similar vibe from Overlord. Overlord is first and foremost a war drama, with the fantasy horror stuff woven in as icing on the cake. Much of the film’s production is spot on, from the casting, acting, set designs, costumes, etc., to recreate World War II in excellent detail. In fact, you could capture several stills from the movie, put them black & white, and it probably match actual World War II images quite well.  And while Overlord is quite dark and extremely graphic, it’s not the kind of film that will suck all the joy out of you, as the characters are fun and the story is compelling and holds your interest.  Surprisingly, this film is from much the same team working on the Star Trek reboots: Bad Robot is the production company, J.J. Abrams is the producer, and the screenwriter is Mark L. Smith of ‘The Reverence’ fame – the same guy recently hired to pen Quentin Tarantino’s pitch for Star Trek.  If this is the kind of material they’ll give us, someone in Hollywood needs to scrap the proposed Chris Hemsworth Star Trek movie and move right into the Tarantino project.

 

I did have a few minor nitpicks with the movie. There was only one major historic inaccuracy, and that is the film has a major element of white soldiers and black soldiers serving side-by-side and working together, when in reality the U.S. military was still segregated at that time and wouldn’t be desegregated until Korea.  Overlord also has many things I dislike about war movies – chaos, endless shouting, and firefights, which make it especially hard to follow at certain points in the film, and often during the climax. Still, this was most likely done to reinforce that war is hell, and it fit the movie.

 

I’d recommend Overlord even if war movies and gross body horror isn’t your thing.  It stands out as a cool experiment in Hollywood history that does something cool with these tired genres. You ain’t never seen a World War II movie like this.

 

***  out of ****

 

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ReelReviews #132: Universal Horror Trilogy

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OCT 31, 2018: The Wolfman (2010)/Dracula Untold (2014), The Mummy (2017)

 

 

Nothing seemed like a better movie marathon for Halloween than Universal’s three separate attempts in the last decade to revive their iconic “Universal Monsters” heyday from the 30s and 40s. Sadly, this wasn’t much of a treat at all, but it was certainly a trick. I went into the experience knowing all three movies were considered “bad”, but perhaps they could have a “so bad its good” feel and leave me laughing at how silly and campy they were.  Alas, that is not the case. These films are just bad.  The weird thing is it’s not like one director or one creative team worked on remakes of The Wolf Man, Dracula, and The Mummy, and kept proving they suck at it.  Nope, this was three completely different attempts, and all of them sucked for different reasons. So what went wrong? Let’s take a look.

 

The Wolfman (2010)

In some ways, The Wolfman (2010) might actually be the “best” of the three attempts, which is oddly ironic since it was so poorly received at the time and landed with a thud. Looking back on it now (and especially comparing to the later attempts to revive Universal Monsters), there is much that “The Wolfman” gets right: the cast is solid and well selected for their roles (and for those who bash me when I’m criticize casting that changes a character’s ethnicity, let me say proudly that the Hispanic actor Benicio del Toro very convincingly plays the role of Welsh-American character Larry Talbot, which had been originated by Lon Chaney Jr.), the updated makeup by Rick Baker is faithful to the original Wolf Man design while bringing the effects into the 21st century, it is perhaps the ONLY one of the three films to correctly understand and embrace the “gothic atmosphere” that was a central part of the original Universal Horror movies, and it is faithful to the original story. So what went wrong? Basically everything else. The biggest problem is the film is insanely boring (as I started to tune out while watching it originally in 2010, and did so again while trying hard to give it a second look now) and the film is way too predictable and cliché, especially if you’ve seen the 1941 original movie and know what’s going to happen. Considering the film had never been remade before and that nearly 70 years had passed since the original, you’d think they could come up with something more thrilling and provide more twists and excitement into this story.  The film is basically just adequate and “acceptable” and that simply made it forgettable and meant it failed to generate a profit. As such, Universal basically decided to bury any memory of the movie and decided to start over from scratch when it came to reviving iconic horror characters. The end result was….

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

I had never seen “Dracula Untold”, and comments I had heard about it left me really pessimistic about the premise.  “It’s like the true story of Vlad the Impaler, except they change it to make it exciting for teenagers, like inventing the idea he had mystical powers and stuff”. Ugh. I was not looking forward to that.  Surprisingly, the premise of the movie is ACTUALLY the best part! It’s everything else that’s bad.  “Dracula Untold” is not a remake of Dracula, nor is it an attempt to do a biographical film about the real life figure of Vlad the Impaler. It IS an attempt to do a new “origin story” for Dracula, and it is a clever attempt to weave a real life historic setting and people with completely fictional vampire mythology. As a result, it’s basically in the genre of “historic fiction”. In that respect, it actually works and is the kind of movie I would probably write.  The entire film is basically the whole prologue in the 1992 film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, aside from the fact that Francis Ford Coppola told it much better in five minutes than “Dracula Untold” did in two hours.  Of the three movies, I had the most “fun” watching this one, but it is not a good movie, nor does it work well as a springboard for a sequel or a franchise, though it desperately wanted to be one (and even ended on a forced “cliffhanger” that was an obvious setup for a sequel we never got) The climax really hurt this film for me, as the film resorted to ridiculous stuff like dubbing in lion-like growls to portray the characters that had now been turned into vampires, and the film obviously suffered from studio tampering that turned what was meant to be a stand-alone film into a “To be continued” first installment.   I felt this film would have worked great if it hadn’t been so sloppily executed. But since it failed, Universal Studios decided to disavow it and decree another film would be the “start” of their new monster universe, and thus was born…

 

 

 

 

The Mummy (2017)

Why, Universal, Why? This is the first film since the 2005 remake of House of Wax that I put off watching for months (because I knew it would suck, and then decided “eh, they’re not gonna make a sequel anyway, might as well see why it sucks so much”) and instantly regretted subjecting myself to that.  “The Mummy” is the last and certainly the least of the attempts to revive Universal Horror.  The fact they are remaking a movie NOBODY wanted remade AGAIN is oddly enough, perhaps the least the film’s problems.  I was surprised that this film is actually nothing like the story of 1999’s The Mummy (with Brenden Fraiser), nor any previous “Mummy” for that matter – including the 1932 original.   Film studios seem to be very much confusing reboots with remakes these days. (This film is very much a total reboot of The Mummy franchise, whereas a film marketed as a “reboot” like Man of Steel is just a worthless remake/ripoff of Richard Donner’s Superman I & II) The biggest problem with The Mummy is the film is basically made by some Hollywood committee with a laundry list of things to do. Objective no. #1 for them was to copy the “format” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and create a “shared universe” of their own, which basically means we get an over-the-top CGI infested action movie with lighthearted comedic elements, instead of an actual horror film.  There are actually some legitimate “jump” moments and creepy scenes (two effective moments are a scene where The Mummy is attacking them on a speeding jeep, and another where corpses come alive and swim after them in the water), but overall this is NOT a “horror movie”.  People also blamed Tom Cruise for this movie flopping. While it seems he phoned in his performance and basically gave us the “generic Tom Cruise action movie” performance (complete with mugging the camera, giving smart ass dialogue, and doing the charming Tom Cruise grin), I don’t blame him because that’s what he was told to do.  Tom Cruise CAN do legitimate Gothic horror (screen “Interview With The Vampire” for an excellent example, but he wasn’t called upon to do that here.  The other two “lead” actors, (Sofia Boutella as The Mummy and Russell Crowe as “Dr. Jekyll” actually gave good performances as well (Crowe made Mr. Hyde completely different and even changed his accent to a cockney voice), but were neutered by the crappy script they had.  Alex Kurtzman was responsible for this abomination, and has quickly become one of my LEAST favorite Hollywood writes.  If you want to know why I have zero faith in a new “Jean Luc Picard” Star Trek series, look no further than the fact Kurtzman is in charge of it. I was done with “The Mummy” after about 45 minutes into the movie, but it kept on going and annoying me for another unbearable hour or so. This is one you should definitely skip.

 

So, after viewing this trilogy of crap on Halloween night, here’s my final scorecard!

 

 

The Wolfman (2010)

** out of ****

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

*3/4 out of ****

 

The Mummy (2017)

* ½ out of ****

 

ReelReviews #118: Lights Out (2016)

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OCTOBER 21, 2017: Lights Out

 

 

BOO! There are two ways to frighten the audience in “scary movies”: The “jump scares” that startle the audience, and the “creepy folklore” storytelling that leaves views unnevered and uncomfortable. The latter is much harder to pull off, but gives people a film with much more depth when they successful use it. Not surprisingly, Lights Out uses the former technique (startling the audience) but does it very, very well.

Lights Out is a slim 80 minute movie, so it knows that it lacks depth, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. All these types of movies have some type of malevolent presence, and the one here is named “Diana”. That kept me thinking about the Princess of Wales, so I wish they would have gone with something more exotic sounding. Still, “Lights Out” came up with a cool twist where the evil spirit isn’t really an “evil spirit” at all. The backstory is actually rather interesting, since it appears the evil being here is actually a girl with a rare illness that seemingly “died” in the 1970s but is actually still alive. According to the film’s lore, they conducted an experiment on her to “cure” her of skin deformity, but instead it just destroyed her corporal form. This is hinted at through the movie, as the mother of the protagonist keeps telling “Diana” that “You can’t exist without me”.

Of course, this strange Dr. Manhattan type origin story is really just an excuse for what’s the meat of the movie: the premise that “Diane” can only be seen in total blackness, and cannot exist wherever there’s light. The film requires some suspension of disbelief because one would assume the characters would be sure to have portable light readily available at all times after they know such a being exists and is actively trying to hurt them. That being said, the movie milks this scenario for all its worth, and creates a final showdown that is extremely tense and frightening for a viewer watching the movie alone in the dark — which happened to the case when I viewed the movie.

After Lights Out was over, I couldn’t help but have to switch on the lights in the basement before exiting, and carefully look over my shoulder to make sure everything was OK. So as cheesy as it seems, did Lights Out accomplish its goal as a horror movie? It certainly did.

*** out of ****
 

ReelReviews #117: A Cure for Wellness (2017)

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OCTOBER 20, 2017: A Cure for Wellness

 

 

Wow, how can I review this film?

A couple years back, I screened a Spanish language horror film called “Here Comes the Devil” and thought the film was a total piece of crap right from the start – until it finally got better and had me totally sold on the film by the end credits. “A Cure for Wellness” managed to do the same – but in reverse! Here is a film that I feel in love with from the very beginning, watching it slowly unfold and becoming engrossed in that world and the magic of the movie, as thoughts of “wow, this is BY FAR my favorite horror film since Let Me In, I’m gonna have to rewatch this gem later when I get whatever 3-disc special edition is out on Blu-Ray”) danced in my head. Sadly though, the movie completely unraveled by its third act – turning into some idiotic twist that required a huge sketch of the imagination (which would have been acceptable if the film was marketed as fantasy, but its not) and dragged me through a cringe worthily clichéd and through predictable ending, even up to the last line of dialogue in the film. I sat there in silence as the end credits rolled, crushed that “A Cure for Wellness” managed to screw that up so badly.

Still, A Cure for Wellness gets so much RIGHT in the first 2/3rds of the movie that its impossible for me to give this movie a “bad” review no matter how much the ending ruined it for me. One of my favorite non-horror movies of all time is the similarly titled “The Road to Wellville”, and this film very much plays out like a dark, twisted, evil version of that world. “The Road to Wellville” is a bizarre “based on a true story” historical romp/sex comedy about a turn-of-the-century “Health Clinic” that had cult-like followers and a very unorthodox “Doctor” who ran it with an iron first, the eccentric real life figure of Dr. John Kellogg — creator of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. In the case of this movie, “A Cure for Wellness” likewise is set in a very bizarre, unorthodox, Victorian-era looking “Health Clinic” that supposedly “rehabilitates” people, and is likewise run by a strange “Doctor” who has absolute control over the clinic’s methods and his patients. As the story unfolds here, a young man visits the clinic with the intent of having a patient there immediately discharged so he can attend to some important business involving stocks at his firm. The patient, of course, refuses to leave, and the man soon discovers that none of the “patients” ever seem to “get well” or want to leave, despite appearing to love the Doctor’s methods and being free to leave any time they wish. The man conveniently ends up in a horrible car accident when he tries to report back home, and then the clinic, of course, takes him in to “cure” him.

Everything about this movie falls into place perfectly from the start – and that means not only the story, but the art direction, music, cinematography, and especially, the general gothic/steampunk atmosphere. The casting was also impressive, and all the actors seemed a perfect fit for their role, including the brilliant choice of Jason Issacs as the twisted “Doctor” who runs the clinic. The film runs nearly three hours but didn’t seem bloated at all, because I found myself truly immersed in its strange world. Everything seemed to reveal a bigger piece of the puzzle, and I especially loved one aspect of the movie where a young (teenageish?) girl at the clinic wanders around randomly singing a haunting melody, and is eventually revealed to be a “special case” at the clinic, given that almost all the other patients are elderly. Our hero decides to take her out to town to see the real world one day, with devastating results and consequences.

And then, quite unfortunately, the “secret” behind the clinic was revealed, and the movie went downhill from there. It almost makes me want to recommend this movie since so much potential was being built up as the movie rolled forward, only to see it crushed into a complete disappointment and utter waste of time at the end. I truly have a love-hate relationship with this movie. I love the journey it took me on, but I loathe the destination it got me to.

 

**1/2 out of ****
 

ReelReviews #116: Cult of Chucky (2017)

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OCTOBER 19, 2017: Cult of Chucky

 

“Sorry Jack, Chuck’s Back!” was the famous catchphrase from the first Chuck sequel. We’re now up to the seventh movie in the series, and a horror franchise about a doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer has lasted nearly 30 years. For most film franchises, that would probably mean the series has really gotten tired and stale at this point. But for Child’s Play, it’s still in full gear. I have to agree with the professional critics on this one. “Cult of Chucky” may be a low-budget direct-to-video afraid, but you won’t be sorry Chucky’s Back.

The vast majority of the film takes place in a mental hospital and it also features the return of Alex Vincent as Andy Barclay. The now adult actor had been the child star of the first two films, and did a brief cameo in the sixth movie. Here, he doesn’t seem to be used to his full potential, but he does kick off an intriguing premise where are multiple Chucky dolls seemingly going on “killing” sprees at the mental hospital, while Andy still has the served (and still very much alive) head of the “original” Chucky doll locked in his closet – which means the “Chucky” we all know couldn’t have committed those crimes. So who’s the true culprit? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

If there’s any flaw to be found in Cult of Chucky, its that the ending is pretty much just an obvious setup for yet another sequel, and without giving away what happens, it might be the only Child’s Play film where Chucky actually “wins” at the end. The only other issue with Cult of Chucky is thru no fault of its own – the sixth installment in the franchise, Curse of Chucky, was a clever “in-universe reboot” that tricked the audience into thinking it was a straight up remake of the first movie – until gradually revealing it was actually another sequel! Cult of Chucky follows up from that movie and just doesn’t have the same surprise factor. Many alumni from all six of the previous movies return, the mental hospital setting works well for the story, and aside from some rather blatant attempts to “update” things for 2017 (we just gotta mention some character is gay and married to another man, for example) the film stays remarkably fresh and true to its origins. Let’s hope the inevitable sequel to THIS movie is just as compelling.

 

*** out of ****

 

ReelReviews #108: It’s Alive (2009)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE (2009)

It’s Remade! Most people complain about endless Hollywood remakes. The odd thing here is that there’s an entire valid case to made for remaking It’s Alive. The original film is not any sort of beloved classic and while it got a good response, the style of filmmaking doesn’t work in the 21st century and the story could be entirely updated 35 years later. The first thing many modern audiences said about the 1974 movie upon seeing it is “This movie could use a remake”, and they have a valid point. And thus, I can’t bash this movie for being a remake. I can, however, bash how they decided to do the remake.

The biggest change (and a strange choice, IMO) is that the killer baby in this version looks just like a normal human baby (except for some bizarre reveal in the third act where it inexplicably has sharp pointed teeth to make it look “scary”) The “normal” looking baby is still capable of somehow massacring multiple full grown adults with its bare hands, so the result is some very unrealistic looking CGI to create a fake “normal” looking human infant in 99% of the scenes. This turns out to the biggest flaw in the movie, and one that wouldn’t have been an issue if the premise of the movies were reversed (a “normal” looking baby played a real baby in the 1974 movie because the special effects technology was primitive, but a fully mutated deformed monstrosity in the 2009 remake)

Most of the bad reviews of this movie couldn’t get past the obviously-fake CGI “normal” baby, and I believe the film does indeed deserve to be blasted for that problem. However, other aspects of the movie also really hurt the film, with a weak script, and short running time that didn’t allow the story to be fully fleshed out, or effective.

On the other hand, this movie does not deserve the across-the-board “ZERO STARS! IT SUCKS!” scathing reviews that it got. The remake of Its Alive is very flawed, but it does have some good things going for it. Strangely, the best part of the movie was Bijou Philips, the model-turned-actress daughter of singer John Philips (of “The Mamas and the Papas”) fame. Philips is basically the lead in this movie and has to ensure all the emotional gravitas as the mother of the evil baby. The film requires her to slowly realize her baby is murdering people and that she is shocked and horrified by this fact, but tolerates it because of the love she feels for the newborn as its mother. Philips put in an amazing performance here (which surprised me since I didn’t consider her to be a real “actress”) and could have rightfully won a prize for the role if she weren’t in such a weak movie overall. Likewise, the last scene and final moment of the movie deserves to be up there with classic horror films like “Psycho” and “The Shining”. Yes, I’m serious! Without giving it away, I spent the entire movie wondering how they would resolve the story, and the film’s ending is truly heartbreaking and haunting, leaving the viewer feeling anguished at what’s happened. It’s a tragedy this brilliant ending couldn’t be part of an actual GOOD movie. Many horror films resort to one last cheap “scare” to end the movie (usually “he’s not REALLY dead!”) , others come up with more clever twists, but very few manage to “scare” you in a way that truly makes the audience feel unnerved and creeped out by what they’ve just seen. It’s Alive manages to do that, and to top the nicely chilling of the original 1974 movie! Despite being a really lousy movie overall, I’m actually awarding it an extra half a star for the great ending. The only downside is you have to see the rest of this crappy movie for the ending to be effective.

For the record, original It’s Alive producer/writer/director Larry Cohen absolutely loathed the remake of his movie. I don’t loathe it, but I do feel it was a big missed opportunity.

* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #107: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

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MARCH 15, 2017 SCREENING: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987)

The good news: Unlike many other “third movies” in a trilogy, this movie isn’t a complete joke that ruins everything you liked about the first two movies. The bad news? It’s still a disappointment compared to the first two. It’s watchable, yes, but unsatisfying.

Ironically, the third film provided a great setup for building on the universe from the first two movies and giving the audience something much bigger and bolder. The most obvious question from the first two films is what would the killer mutant babies actually be like IF they grew up? Additionally, there is the question of how the evil mutant babies would interact with their own kind, what they would do if left their own devices, and there was very little in the way of actually SEEING the babies in full detail from the first films because of the makeup limitations of those movies. It’s Alive III addresses all those points – and in many cases, it provides a perfectly valid answer to those questions. But alas, something is still missing.

Compared to Basket Case 3 (which shifted the tone so much from the first movie, it was like they were intentionally trying to make a bad joke), Island of the Alive sticks to the style of the first two movies very well. The film opens in a courtroom where they argue over the fate of one of the mutant babies (finally seen in full detail thanks to stop-motion animation). Without going into too much detail, the killer mutant babies are eventually quarantined on an island that is restricted to the public, hence the title. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they just stayed there forever and no one ever saw them again, so a few years later, they decide to send an expedition out to track down if the killer mutant babies are still alive on the island.
None of this (aside from perhaps the tense courtroom scene where the father has to “touch” the baby in the cage to “prove” it’s safe) plays out as horrifically and dark as it could from the way it sounds on paper. I think part of the problem is that that Island of the Alive was made a decade after the first two movies, and the late 80s setting simply gives the movie a different feel than its mid-1970s counterparts. (I have no idea why there was such a large gap in time between the filming of the second and third movies). Strangely, 70s cult horror star Karen Black shows up in this one as a disgruntled girlfriend of one of the characters, and I found her role unintentionally funny. Even Rob Zombie couldn’t seem to use Karen Black in a serious role. It’s Alive III just seems to lack the same quiet, creepy, dark vibe of the original movie, despite having the same writer/director.

The film does deserve kudos for an interesting script that eventually reveals that the mutant babies mature at age four and are able to reproduce, and communicate with each other through some type of sign language and/or telepathy. This results in some type of “Captain Phillips” type scenario where one of the characters is held hostage on a boat commanded by the mutant babies. The scene itself, however, was neither funny & campy nor terrifying and creepy, it was just sort of there, and make me shrug, “eh?”

The film provides a satisfying conclusion to its own events, but as part of a trilogy, it’s the weakest of the trio. Whether it’s worth watching is really up to you.

** out of ****