Posts Tagged ‘Movie Review’

Zombies (2018)

April 30, 2019

(I just realized that I am starting and ending this month on a Disney musical)

Anyone who actually reads this blog regularly knows that I am a huge fan of Halloween and supernatural-themed fiction. Recently, I was thinking about a post I wrote on this day in 2015 as part of this event. I had talked then about how I did not really care for zombie movies as they were slow and plodding like the monsters that inhabit them. I guess I also felt that fiction about infection and loss of self were not quite my cup of tea. However, I have developed a policy of not dismissing categorizations of entertainment out of hand. I hate when people put down what I like so I owe it to all of the zombie fans out there to keep sampling things to see if I can find something I like. So far, I have actually been successful. Last Halloween I watched Train to Busan and I a couple Halloweens ago I fell in love with the Red Snow franchise and the television show iZombie. Just this year there are two zombie moves coming out that I actually really want to see. One is Little Monsters which is a movie about a kindergartner teacher who has to deal with zombies. The other is The Dead Don’t Die which has an all-star cast and is opening Cannes.

I am also a huge fan of Disney. I grew up reading Disney storybooks, watching Disney movies, and singing along to Disney soundtracks. I was just the right age for the dawn of Disney Channel Original Movies and I ended up watching a lot of them. At some point, I dropped off but when I worked up in New Jersey, I was often furloughed for two months in January and February. I spent a lot of time back in Baltimore and I helped around my mom’s house. This meant that I was alone in the house a lot during the day. I ended up watching a lot of Disney Channel because it was upbeat and it kept my depression at bay. So it was that I ended up watching a lot of musicals on Disney. Yes, I watched the High School Musical series and many others. It is when I discovered a love of pop music. More recently, I have watched the Descendants franchise which was basically made for somebody like me. I do not have cable television anymore but from time to time I do check on the big events to keep up with things. I missed this one but I guess it is time to remedy that.

I really liked the comic book-style opening which gives the exposition (speaking of iZombie). If I have to sit through exposition, I prefer for it to be pretty instead of a wall of text. Since it is Disney, the art direction has a particular look but it feels like this one went even further. Since this is a movie about culture clash, the movie takes the same tactic as Crybaby and makes the two cultures look radically different. Zombies are poor and punk while normal people are straight and clean. The movie actually did feel a bit like a John Waters musical. The acting is very on the nose and straightforward while also being pretty corny. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is also Disney so while the zombies are stated as having eaten brains in the past, they have largely resolved that problem. Also, zombies are no longer rotting and are instead pale with bright green hair. This is good as otherwise there would be human/zombie interaction with zombies having body parts falling off.

The music is pretty good if you like Disney pop music. Modern pop groups and Disney musicals have set a precedent for signing and dancing because they inspire people to try it at home. This is a great thing as it allows fans to get involved. I watched a “Sing Along” version of the movie and it really helped to get into the songs. The movie stars Meg Donnelly as a pretty self-aware young human girl who aspires to be a cheerleader and fit in. It also stars Milo Manheim as a zombie who is kind of dumb but likable. Trevor Tordjman plays one of the villains, an egomaniac male cheerleader who is ruthless. Carla Jefferey plays Donnelly’s best friend and she plays the nerdy, excited best friend so well. Kylie Russell plays Manheim’s best friend and she is the perfect example of a student (zombie) activist. The rest of the cast is great at being funny character actors.

Overall, I thought it was a good movie. It was a lot of goofy fun with poppy, upbeat music, and upbeat acting. People complain about the Disney formula but why fix what is not broken. The movie gives a pretty good message of tolerance which is a good thing to show to young audiences. It also shows that no matter how far we go, there will always be prejudiced people. For a poppy teen movie, it also showed some subtlety in how the “other” are treated. It is a pleasant enough movie with some catchy tunes and some funny acting.

(Written on 4/29/19 – Cutting it Close, huh?)

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Xanadu (1980)

April 27, 2019

Disco gets kind of a bad rap, I think. In its day, Disco was an unstoppable force of music. It was shiny and happy and was everywhere. It was born in 1970 and unofficially “died” in 1979 but its death throes obviously carried into the 1980s. It had many things going against it. First, Disco became a musical genre that was dominated by white people even though a lot of black people helped create it. Second, the culture of disco and disco clubs seemed to promote sexual promiscuity and heavy drug use. Disco also flooded the market with subjectively terrible music that drowned out the truly fun disco tunes. These distractions left Disco open for younger and hungrier emerging genres like Punk, Heavy Metal, Rap, and New Wave. Disco died even though it did not really need to but from its ashes, we got modern Pop and Techno music. Its death was not in vain but it is sad to me when any art form or genre dies.

I remember roller skating a lot from when I was a young boy. I was born in 1982, a year and a half after this movie was released. During my childhood, which stretched from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, it seemed like there were two main choices for kids birthday parties. While I had parties where we had a literal field day or played minigolf at the coolest arcade in town, others just wanted to have pizza at the roller rink named Skateland. Skateland was a Baltimore institution. The one I went to was closed a long time ago but I know the franchise still exists. As I remember it, it was a huge slick floor where people of various skill levels skated around and around in a huge oval. The really good people often went into the center and did tricks. I was never one of those people, nor did I want to be. I was there for the pizza and the least amount of skating I could get away with. This is where I first heard a lot of songs that I have rarely heard outside of a roller rink. Songs by Ace of Base, Blue Suede, C&C Dance Factory, and the Village People were often played as loud as possible. I would often skate for a while and then run around the carpeted area outside of the rink with my friends. Then I would try to sneak over and plunk down any quarters I had at the arcade.

So first off, this was a box office bomb but it has an eclectic cast some of whom are seasoned musical performers. Olivia Newton-John is the star of this movie. Frankly, I liked her much more in this than I did in her most notable musical role. She is allowed to be really weird, ethereal, and mysterious in this which is fun. Michael Beck plays the male lead. He had just been in cult classic The Warriors. He had never really been in a Hollywood musical before but he plays the artist who is somehow more stable and grounded than Newton-John. He is a little flat in places but he is a solid performer. He does not sing. There is also an odd but likable performance from the legend Gene Kelly in his last film role. We get his trademark fast tongue and high energy mostly but he also gets a chance to shine at what he is most known for: dancing. In a lot of scenes, he looks tired but when he starts to dance, he looks as happy and as light as he always did.

The music is actually really good. First, they made a smart move and hired the Electric Light Orchestra to do a lot of the music. If you are not familiar, they are the band who did Mr. Blue Sky, Evil Woman, and Don’t Bring Me Down. Their synthy sound and Jeff Lynne’s floaty vocals are perfect for how weird this movie is. Also, they are a fun upbeat band to have around. The other songs definitely feel disco-inspired which, again, is strange considering the decline of disco as a genre. The music of Jazz and traditional show tunes are briefly touched upon through Gene Kelly’s character, linking this movie with a lot of the older musicals. Somehow, the movie manages to blend these three disparate styles together without it being too jarring. The movie is filled to the brim with special effects but they are 1980s special effects. They are over the top lights and sparkles that make things magical before CGI was a thing. There is also a random Don Bluth animated music video in the movie. The art direction is all over the place which feels right for the eighties which was all about clashing styles and weirdness.

Overall, I actually I liked this movie more than I thought I would. At first, I was not a big fan of the movie. It is a really strange movie but it has an endearing earnestness to it that I could not ignore. While a lot of the music is not really my thing, it is not bad at all. The chemistry between Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck is cute and honestly, some of the best scenes have no dialogue and just have them smiling at each other and dancing/rollerskating. The friendship between Beck and Gene Kelly represents the connection between the old and the new and also reinforces the main theme of chasing your dreams. I also got more interested when I found out that the plot is based on Greek mythology concerning muses. Still, the movie drags in a lot of places and the pacing is weird. I can see why the critics trashed this one but it is not as bad as they said if you like weirdness.

A Star Is Born (2018)

April 22, 2019

I used to really love to sing when I was much younger. Although, “used to” is not exactly an accurate term to use here. I still love to sing but mostly on my own in my car or in the shower just because the music I am listening to moves me. Sometimes I will sing from memory when I am nervous or high strung. But I used to sing in front of people. For years I was in the chorus at school and I only slightly let the fact that I was placed in with the sopranos bother me. I was the only guy in the soprano section but I just soldiered on. Nobody teased me but ingrained gender bias is a difficult psychological obstacle for a young boy. Later, I joined the church choir and I was tentatively put in with the baritones. In order to secure that position, I started purposefully singing an octave lower so I was not moved to sing with the girls. Finally, the director had it and told me if I was not going to sing correctly, I should not sing. She told me this at a performance at a senior center. During the performance, I just stood there with my mouth closed. That was my last day in the church choir.

Still, even if I had soured on singing in a group, I still sometimes toyed with the idea of public singing. Now, I have not really ever told anybody this before but at some point, I had fantasies of being a singer for a rock band. I really love the energy and rhythm of rock and roll and I often cannot help but sing along to it. Now, I entertained these fantasies knowing full well that I do not have an amazing voice or the inclination to practice that skill. I also had (have) crippling stage fright that would have made being the frontman of a band either impossible or incredibly unenjoyable. Even so, I would listen to my albums and close my eyes and sing along. The only thing encouraging me is the observation that went around my childhood home since I can remember. I believe it was my mother who pointed out that there were a lot of rock and roll singers who did not have the best voices or trained musical talent. What made them great was that they poured their entire heart into singing and succeeded from pure charm and energy. It was encouraging at the time but I am happy where I ended up.

A quick note here: I have not seen the other versions of this movie yet so I have nothing to compare this movie to. Of course, the point of this movie is the music. From the jump, I loved the bluesy rock and country that Bradley Cooper plays. I am a sucker for riffing guitars and chugging bass and he does a good job of that performance I was talking about above. He might not be the most polished but he is putting his whole heart into the performance. In other scenes, he gives more of a refined performance so that you really believe that he is a professional musician. Lady Gaga is, of course, a great singer. She is a proven commodity in the recording industry and her growth from her beginnings really shows here. She sings big musical show numbers and intimate ballads with the same talent. She also sings some songs in her usual pop style. Her rendition of La Vie En Rose (a personal favorite song of mine) was especially mindblowing. There is definitely a gap in their talent levels but it was not nearly as wide as I thought it would be. In addition, all of the music is sung live which definitely gives it more of a dynamic and energetic feel. The music is co-written by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson.

I was completely surprised at how good of an actress Lady Gaga was. I had seen a bit of her in American Horror Story: Hotel but she spent much of the time looking gorgeous and aloof. Granted, I did not see a whole lot but she did not get much of a chance to really act. She immediately impressed me in this. She definitely proved to me (and obviously audiences and professional critics) that she has what it takes to play in the big leagues of Hollywood. Bradley Cooper has grown as an actor and he continues to be able to transform himself in each role. In some of my favorite movies, he is a gay man, a space raccoon, and an FBI agent. In this movie, he plays a character that I am very familiar with. He is a troubled asshole who is super charismatic. Sam Elliott is, of course, a great actor as well. He is great at playing that gruff, grumpy guy you cannot help but like. There were also surprising performances from Greg Grunberg, Dave Chapelle, and Andrew Dice Clay of all people.

Overall, I thought this was a really good movie. These sorts of dramas are not really my cup of tea but everybody puts in endearing performances. While it is not a happy movie, it is a movie about seeking hope and redemption. When you are dealing with alcoholics and addicts, hope and redemption are rare. You do not always get a happy ending but they are definitely worth fighting for. This is not a happy movie but it is definitely a ride worth taking. There is also a fantastic soundtrack full of some great songs. The genres of country, rock, and pop are all well-represented. If nothing else, check out the soundtrack for a total of 19 songs.

Repo the Genetic Opera (2008)

April 20, 2019

I originally watched the first few minutes of this movie about eight years ago. I have since mostly forgotten it and I had put off watching the rest of it despite hearing that it was really good. I do vividly remember the moments when I was watching it. I was sitting in a parking lot behind the theater I worked at after driving from Baltimore to Sussex, New Jersey. I was tired and I was wondering when I would run into my boss. After being back home during the holidays and the offseason, I was anxious about getting back to work after six weeks. The dark edge to the musical mixed with that anxiety about my future. I now know that I had my very first anxiety attack. I could not continue with the movie and I could hardly sit still. I felt like crap. This was actually my second missed opportunity to see the movie after not going to the theater to see it with my little brother. This will be my third attempt and I will not lie that I have been a little anxious about it but it in a good way. My medication keeps most of my anxiety attacks at bay now.

I really wanted to watch a horror-themed musical to go with my theme of “Music” this month. Horror is one of my favorite genres and I grew up being exposed to musicals. My philosophy is that Halloween is less of a one day holiday and is more something that exists year round. Any time I am feeling down, the supernatural is always there to cheer me up or scare me out of my bad mood. As an added bonus, most horror musicals are lighter than the darker, more serious horror movies. While I watch plenty of dark horror, I really love the funnier, goofier side of Halloween better. When I first heard the premise of this one, I knew I could not really take it seriously. This is just another reason why I love the Horror genre. It often has the most out there, crazy ideas. If you are going to get your mind blown, it will not be drama or comedy that does it. Even fantasy does not usually hold a candle to the weirdest ideas horror generates.

The first awesome part of the movie is the aesthetic. The movie starts with a comic book prologue which just dumps all of the exposition quickly so the viewer can just dive into the world. That comic book exposition comes back a few times in the movie to quickly update us on what happened in the past. The reality and look of the world hits you right away as a post-apocalyptic world should. I would describe the costuming and character design as part goth, part raver, and part Blade Runner. The makeup and hair are absolutely wild and interesting. Everything is dirty and scummy like a Halloween theme park. The CGI looks cheap but it actually works for this movie as a B movie giving tribute to B movies (sort of a B+ movie, maybe). From the jump, there is a lot of gore but it is good, old-fashioned horror movie gore. The lighting also all looks like it is out of a haunted house or, more appropriately, like a theater. It is harsh in a lot of places but looks interesting.

I really liked the music in this one. It really is an opera and pretty much all of the dialogue is sung. This can be a risky proposition if the casting has not been done correctly. The first good choice they made was casting Anthony Stewart Head because any Buffy fan knows that he can sing and sing well. His solo song was when I really first got into the movie for real. Paul Sorvino plays one of the evilest corporate CEOs in history and sings operatically in a beautiful way. His children are played by Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, and Kevin Ogilvie. They often sing horribly but I am sure they are meant to since they are all comic relief. A quick note here: Paris Hilton is not a bad singer when she is trying. Alexa PenaVega plays the movie’s protagonist, and she has a great young voice. The writer, Terrance Zdunich, plays a graverobber and it is easy to see why he was a fan favorite as he has such a beautiful voice. Sarah Brightman is probably the best singer (which probably makes sense as she is cast as a singer). Everything is backed by either electronica music or industrial guitars. The music is not very intrusive, making sure to give plenty of room to hear and understand the singing.

Overall, I loved this movie. It is really cheesy and goofy but I can see the appeal. A lot of the movie feels like the characters are in one big music video but that is an interesting aesthetic. Some of the music is not my jam but I feel like this was done on purpose for comic effect or to jar the listener. They proved that they can score the movie correctly and the good singers are really fun to listen to. The story is gruesome and dark but it has enough dark and dry comedy to keep it moving along without feeling too bad. It is definitely something worth seeing for horror and musical fans. At the same time, I can see why critics hated this movie. Also, do not be put off by the mention of Paris Hilton as she actually helped finance the movie because she believed in it and she is surprisingly talented.

(Written on 4/17/19)

Empire Records (1995)

April 5, 2019

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. It is a historical area right by the Chesapeake Bay nestled in between Little Italy and industrial Canton. I was down there a lot because I was constantly running light and soundboards at a community theater down there. Before I could drive, I often had to wait for a ride at the end of the night and I also got dropped off early. One of the places I spent time at was a store right near the water called The Sound Garden (not to be confused with Soundgarden). I remember endlessly walking through and looking at the actual records, tapes, and CDs. At that point, I was mostly buying CDs because they were the best quality at a size I could carry in my backpack. I browsed a lot but I did purchase plenty. If I remember correctly, this was where I bought the first and second Queen Greatest Hits albums. It is also where I discovered The Who on my own terms. Most importantly, it was where I bought a Mary Prankster album which was a local band at the time and it is a band I still adore.

When I was younger, I adored record stores the same way that I adore bookstores and comic book stores. While I never liked the social aspects of in-person shopping, I love browsing. I love getting absorbed into the potential of decisions. I remember fondly a record store that was in the Rotunda which was in walking distance from the house I grew up in. I used to walk there on the same trips that I walked to the comic book store, which was a little farther. Eventually, they were in the same place. I remember specific purchases. I remember the very first album I bought with my own money on my own was an Aerosmith Greatest Hits album. I remember the clerk smiled at my purchase and recommended that I “play it loud, man”. It made me feel like an adult and a peer. Earlier than that, the first album I ever had which belonged to me was Metallica And Justice for All… and my parents graciously let me play it in the car even though it was not their scene. I remember buying a Guess Who album in Towson. When I was really little, I remember my friend buying an MC Hammer album while I bought a Vanilla Ice album. We spent time bootlegging the cassettes for each other.

When I first saw a blurb on this movie, I saw it described as High Fidelity meets You’ve Got Mail. This is all wrong. This is somebody who just skimmed the synopsis and called it a day. Sure, it has elements of those two movies but it feels like neither of those movies to me. Both of those movies are romantic comedies to varying degrees. Empire Records is definitely not a romantic comedy. There is a romantic subplot but it far from being the actual focus of the movie. If I were to pick two movies that this movie is similar to, they would be The Breakfast Club and Clerks. The movie was an ensemble piece about a bunch of kids who work at a record store and their adult boss. They have a lot of fun, they get deep, they basically go through group therapy, and they get better than they started. A lot of it felt like the famous dancing scene from The Breakfast Club. There is a lot of high energy that shifts easily between angry and happy. I really appreciated the sense of humor the movie had. Everybody is comfortable with getting silly or sarcastic and everybody looks like they are really having fun. When things get deep, it hurts but it feels so relatable.

The sort of core of the movie is the boss of the record store played by Anthony Lapaglia as the only sane adult who is happy to let the kids play because the customers have fun with it. Liv Tyler plays the perfect, book smart girl who is about to go to Harvard. I knew girls like her in high school. Renee Zellweger plays her flirty, sexy best friend and she is a lot of fun which covers up a deeper pain. There is also Johnny Whitworth who plays the dreamy artist guy. Ethan Embry plays the loveable stoner screw up that we all knew back in high school and college years (or maybe still know). Rory Cochrane plays the odd zen and existential guy who I also knew in high school. My favorite is Robin Tunney who plays the punk girl who is sick and tired of the world, kind of goth and kind of metal too. Maxwell Caulfield plays an aging new wave musician who comes to the store for a signing. There are plenty of other great small roles but those are the main important ones. I really loved this cast and each scene was basically an excuse for them all to interact and either riff with each other or have deep, meaningful conversations.

Overall, I really loved this movie. I did not expect to be writing that on this review. The movie was scene after scene of relatable white teenage drama without getting too cheesy or over the top (at least not in a bad way). The movie also felt like a lot of good stories about mental health awareness and how our friends can be dealing with stuff that we don’t see. It also has a great eclectic soundtrack which makes sense since it is set in an independent record store. For one, I never expected to hear GWAR on a soundtrack especially not one that also has the Gin Blossoms on it. The fake new wave music video is priceless. I was also pleasantly surprised by Renee Zellweger’s rock and roll singing voice.

(Written on 4/2/19)

Carousel (1956)

April 3, 2019

Rodgers and Hammerstein are obviously legends in the genre of musicals. Even people who know very little about musicals would probably recognize that combination of names. I actually had a long history in working in theater but not as much experience with musicals. I worked on musicals during high school, designing the lights for several of them. When I went to college, it was a Meisner-based conservatory which did not focus on musicals, it focused only on acting. In fact, the first musicals I actually worked on professionally were a handful of musicals done for a Girls Jewish Summer Camp as a summer job during college. Then there were two original shows done with a group called Wombworks (my first professional writing credit). Finally, I worked on five different children’s musicals up in New Jersey and one horrible show called Always Patsy Cline. And yet, I did love musicals. I was taken to musicals from a young age, either at the Mechanic Theater in my hometown of Baltimore or going on trips to Broadway. I even saw Oliver! in London’s West End when I was thirteen.

But back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, specifically. The first show that I became aware of was Oklahoma! because I was just about to enter high school and I ended up attending a performance, standing room only. I was standing against the wall, enjoying the lively music when suddenly a character drew a gun and fired it. Because of where I was standing, he was pointing it directly at me and I think the actor and I scared the crap out of each other. I once performed in a church variety show, and the show was bookended by The King and I songs “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You”, the last being a song that I first heard when I saw Addams Family Values. I also reviewed State Fair here on this blog in the summer of 2016 and I remember enjoying it even though there’s not much meat to it. Sadly, I have not seen a lot of their other musicals as my high school focused more on Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter instead (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Obviously, the centerpiece of a movie like this is the music. As mentioned, all of the music is by Rodgers and Hammerstein and is therefore solid all the way through. It starts with a great waltz composed by Rodgers and just keeps going from there. Part of that good music is Shirley Jones who is basically the lead of the movie (or at least she sings the most songs). She has such a down to Earth beauty inside and out and also an inner strength. She also has a great singing voice, of course. Gordon McRae is the other star of the show. He is the smooth-talking, rough around the edges love interest. He has that sort of “hep cat” performance that reminds me of the Jets in West Side Story. The music and acting are all really good and it is hard to believe that this was not a hit and remembered as a classic. Even Richard Rodgers admitted that the musical did not really produce the number of hits their other musicals did. I mean, as I have already said, there is no opening song which is a big staple of musicals. The biggest hit is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which is the only song that I have heard elsewhere mostly from Jerry Lewis.

The story might also be a reason that the movie was not as big of a hit. Most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are pretty straightforward character pieces with catchy hit songs. This musical has supernatural and fantasy elements that definitely set it apart from a lot of their catalog. People probably like The King and I and Oklahoma because they want to see themselves in those situations. Mostly comical situations where life is fine and nothing is too threatening. In this movie, there is a strain of sadness throughout the whole thing and there are wistful fantasy elements. In fact, now that I think of it, this movie kind of reminds me of It’s a Wonderful Life. There is some messing around with time and life and most of the movie is just a story about life. While it is not a happy story, it is a hopeful story and I liked that. The story is mostly told in flashbacks which are an interesting way to go about it.

Overall, I liked this movie well enough. The music is mostly slow songs which are beautiful but not exactly my cup of tea. Slow songs mostly bore me and make me feel sad regardless of whether the subject matter is happy or not. There are some upbeat tunes but they feel like they are few and far between. Still, the movie is colorful and there are plenty of smiles. I can obviously see the appeal of the movie and I am glad I watched it. I wonder if it had been more famous if they cast Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland as they originally wanted to. In fact, the rumor was that Sinatra quit the production because Ava Gardner told him that if he did not fly to her in Africa, she would sleep with Clark Gable.

(Written on 3/31/19)

Under the Shadow (2016)

October 31, 2018

I had two best friends throughout my tenure at Friends School of Baltimore (12 whole years). One was a goofy yet deep artist who taught me about comic books and the other one was a more serious guy who was the first to teach me about cars and pro-wrestling. That second one was also a child of divorce who had been raised Muslim and Christian. When I was in elementary school (my school called it ‘Lower School’), we would spend lunch and recess running around a vast playground. I distinctly remember that one day, my friend began to tell me about the djinn. He told me that they were not anything like genies, granting wishes, they were evil spirits created by Satan and not to be trusted. He seemed absolutely certain that these spirits were real and that we could see one in America. Later, we were reading comic books in his room during a sleepover and his mother called up to look out the window at the Police helicopter flying by. I moved to comply and he blocked my path. He told me that it could be a trick and that Satan could be mimicking his mother’s voice in order to trick us into looking. It frightened me deeply.

I live in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States of America. Things might feel bad right now (as of 2018) but they are nowhere near the experience of areas in the Middle East. For most of my life, I have lived in a big city with a notoriously high crime rate. Almost every day I see reports of people getting shot or shot at in the Baltimore area. People jokingly call the place I live ‘Bodymore, Murderland” which is probably one of the greatest examples of dark humor I know of. However, only once in recent US history have we actually been attacked by a foreign power. In countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and others, things are very different. We do not get bombs dropped on us in this country. The idea of sitting in my apartment in Baltimore on the east coast of the USA and worrying about a military accidentally dropping a bomb on me is unthinkable. Yet, that is a valid fear in other countries. The idea that you could be obliterated because of political differences between your nation and another is something politicians use as a political tool in the US but has not really been a strong possibility for decades. The concept itself is scary.

Once again, we have a horror movie with fabulous acting. It is a pattern that horror movies with a more psychological bent have good acting while gorefests usually have bad acting. Of course, there are exceptions but that is the general rule that I have observed. Narges Rashidi plays the lead character, a mother tired of being oppressed by the Iranian government especially considering she was attending medical school before the war. She is joined by her daughter played by Avin Manshadi who is a good little girl in the middle of a war. Most of the movie deals with the interactions between the mother, her daughter, and the supernatural. This is why this movie is often called ‘The Persian Babadook’. Like in that movie, the interactions between mother accentuate the experiences with the supernatural, making things tenser. The movie also does show a lot of slice of life scenarios in a war-torn Iran which is something we do not often see here in the US.

The camera work is great in this movie. There is a lot of it that reminds me of Veronica, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Shining. Great shots help make a great movie and this movie definitely captures that ‘every frame is a painting’ quality. Every shot really means something in this movie which feels rare these days. The movie does a lot with camera tricks, editing, and practical effects to make things scary. I have to admire a movie that does not have to rely on elaborate CGI, monster makeup, or puppets to make things scary. Like comedy, horror is all in the timing and a big part of that is editing which is on point in this movie. The movie draws on maternal fears for a child’s safety and self-doubt to create a horror story almost entirely in the mind. The pacing is great, starting slow but speeding up almost exponentially as the movie goes on.

Overall, I loved the movie. When it started, it was set on English which sounded really weird because the voice over sounded a bit dispassionate. I quickly switched it over to the original Persian so I could get the full breadth of emotions. Your mileage may vary, of course. The movie is very gripping and really made me feel for both the mother and daughter. The emotional tension got me good and keyed up for the supernatural bits. I love this direction in horror just as much as the cheesy Freddy stuff I crow about in this blog. However, I feel movies like this will have a more lasting emotional impact.

The Outing (aka The Lamp) (1987)

October 31, 2018

My first impulse is to think of museums as great, comforting places. I prize knowledge so much that I find it hard to separate that love from the actual locations where it is stored. I spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan when I lived in New York City. I loved seeing the artwork up close. When I went to England and France with my mother in my teens, we went to the Louvre, the Tate, and the Musee d’Orsay and I loved seeing the artwork so close. However, I also think of being in those museums and them triggering my social anxiety. Anytime I was looking at an exhibit and people would walk up, my inner anxiety would speak up. “Am I in their way? Do they want to be alone? Do I look like a weirdo?” I also remember going to a dinosaur museum down in South Carolina as a kid. I remember being terrified because they had the dinosaurs moving and making sounds. I have a vivid imagination and as a kid that made certain places scary or intimidating. A T. Rex skeleton became daunting, a stuffed rattlesnake worried me, and wax figures were especially terrifying. When you are younger, the line between fact and fiction are emotionally blurry even if it is intellectually solid. Even when you are an adult, that line can unexpectedly blur at the most inopportune moments.

I have been in locations after they have closed. It is pretty creepy. I used to work in a regional theater in New Jersey, doing lights, sound, and props. It was a small staff so I often was left to my own devices to work alone in the building. This building was an ancient theater that had been converted to a senior center and then back into a theater. Being alone in the dark in one of those places is very different from being alone in the dark at home. At home, there are windows so you are never truly in the dark. In that old theater, when the lights are out, it was completely and utterly dark to the point where I could not see my hand in front of my face. A lot of commercial spaces have very little natural light and are isolated from the noise and atmosphere of the outside world. I can imagine a museum being totally creepy in the dark after closing. Unlike a theater, there are humanoid figures waiting in that darkness to spook you. I remember the theater had an old cardboard cutout of James Dean which would scare the hell out of me in the low light. I always thought it was somebody waiting for me in the darkness. Like I said above, that line between reality and fiction can unexpectedly blur at the worst times.

The first thing I noticed is the excellent lighting in the movie. Maybe it comes from being a low budget eighties horror movie but there are a ton of shadows everywhere like a haunted house. It makes for a good atmosphere right from the start. The gore effects are pretty good. They use that good old-fashioned Karo syrup blood that looks gunky and goopy and creepy. The digital effects are almost laughable but sometimes I like a good horror movie with cheesy effects. The practical effects are way better and pretty exciting. There are plenty of explosions, smoke, and fire to make things exciting when they need to be exciting. This really is not a creature feature so we get to see a lot of props moving on their own and they did a great job with that. They also have a lot of creepy things to work within a museum that are all really fun.

The acting is not the best but I did not put on this movie expecting much. The main character is played by Andra St. Ivanyi in her only film role. Nothing is subtle about her character and she is over the top long before anything supernatural happens. Her father, a curator, is played by James Huston and is a somewhat bumbling but solid single father. She has a lot of instantly annoying friends who are just the types that cheap horror movies are filled with so you do not feel as bad when the deaths start. Also, they went hard on one of the villains to make him unlikable (including freely using the N-word while white). Deborah Winters plays one of the few likable members of the cast, a teacher who cares dearly for her students. She is also probably the best actor in the movie. Giving her a run for her money is the museum archaeologist played by Danny Daniels with a lot of gravity but also a lot of jovial charm.

Overall, I liked this movie well enough. My only problem with it is that the build is so long that the actual horror movie part feels a bit rushed nearer the end. Of course, it really is a heck of a set up so it is hard to complain too much. This movie is not very psychological like the other selections this year but it has a classic horror movie formula of setting up a bunch of victims and then knocking them down. Kicking back with a classically bad horror movie can be just as good as enjoying a finely crafted one so I do not regret this at all, especially since I have had a copy of it for over a year.  Also, I have no idea why this is called “The Outing”.

Veronica (2018)

October 29, 2018

I have never used a Ouija board or attended a seance mostly because I do not believe that one can talk to the dead. One of my guideposts earlier in my life was Houdini or perhaps it was just his legend that inspired me. When he first started out as a magician, his mentor was a man named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin but when he found out the man was a fraud, he was disillusioned. Perhaps this experience caused him to rail against those who exploited people using belief in the supernatural. When he was dying (on October 31) he made a deal with his wife. He would once and for all disprove all of the mediums in the world, past, present, and future. Every year on the anniversary of his death she would hold a seance and he would try like heck to talk to her from the other side. If she never heard from him, she would know it was not possible. It was because of this and other subsequent studies and writings that I came to accept that seances (and therefore Ouija boards) will never work.

However, this is Halloween and we do not deal in reality during this holiday. Halloween has never been about exploring what is real, it is about exploring things from beyond life, death, and our universe. Though it may just be speculation, letting go and playing pretend can be fun and can help us examine the human condition. When we all put on costumes, hand out candy, watch movies, and other forms of celebration, we enter the realm of the fictional. Twice now I have talked about that barrier between life and death. That barrier is absolute even in fiction. On one side you are alive, on the other side, you are dead. However, what else could be trapped beyond this barrier? In supernatural settings that list is long. That thought is explored in The Void. Demons, Great Old Ones, Ghosts, the Undead, and all sorts of more obscure things. In movie after movie characters are warned to stay away from that barrier but nobody seems to listen. In movies like The Void, Re-Animator, and Beyond the Gates the protagonists or antagonists seek to reach beyond and everybody suffers.

The first thing I noticed was the good acting in this one. In movies about subtle things such as ghosts or possession, the acting has to be on point. The acting from the title character (played by Sandra Escacena). She is a normal teenage girl except that she has to act like a mother to her three younger siblings. Her physical acting is so good when she is being affected by the supernatural, sort of like the acting in the Exorcist. I really cannot say enough good things about her and this was her very first movie. If this movie is any indication, she will continue to do great things. I really liked Consuelo Trujillo who plays a nun at Veronica’s school. She is so interesting and strangely charming. Of course, an important ingredient for a lot of horror movies is creepy kids and kids hardly need any help to be creepy. The three little ones in this movie are top shelf creepy, including the bonus of two of them being twins. The little boy is especially interesting to watch because, despite his goofy grin, he comes off as vaguely creepy for most of the movie.

I love how subtle the effects are in this movie. Some of the best horror movies make you question whether the main character is imagining everything or not. At least, it is great in the early parts, eventually, something has to actually happen. This movie does well in walking that line of subtlety, making sure not to do too much too early. Later, the gore effects are just enough to be creepy without being too much. The movie does a lot of creepy stuff with simple shadows which I really enjoyed. Shadows and silhouettes are great tools for horror and I have rarely seen them used so well. The movie leaves a lot to the imagination which I appreciate because that makes things way scarier. The camera effects also really caught my eye in places, making things creepier. The camera moves in unnatural directions sometimes or moves with the characters in ways that are not the same as conventional filmmaking. You are usually not supposed to notice the camera but the director made sure to bring attention to it but sometimes doing so can be used to unnerve the viewer.

Overall, I really liked the movie. It was not my favorite horror movie but it was definitely a really strong movie to watch near the end. I had been saving it because it had been hyped up earlier this year as being super scary. I feel like it did not live up to the hype but that is alright. It was definitely a good movie and it was strong enough to pass the language barrier. (The movie is in Spanish and is set in Spain). I am always a bit wary about these “based on a true story” horror movies because that is so much BS but this one told a story in such a way that elements of it could be true.

Prom Night (1980)

October 26, 2018

My prom was rather uneventful. I skipped my Junior Prom, completely uninterested in the event and my friends did not seem too gung-ho about it either. While the richer kids were looking at the options for limos, dresses, and tuxes, I was excited to do just about anything else. I honestly do not remember what I did instead of going to Junior Prom and I know for a fact that nobody asked where I was the following Monday. I was already the weird theater kid who would have probably gone full goth if he did not have social anxiety. The following year, the Senior version of Prom approached and I was similarly nonplussed. Some of my friends were bringing dates but I had nobody and I had zero desire to ask anybody. I also had zero interest in going without a date. I just did not understand the appeal. I was working backstage at a show downtown at the time anyway so I had an excuse to get out of it. However, my mother pushed me to go anyway and so I went to the venue about thirty minutes before the scheduled end time. I really only agreed to attend because there was a tour of the cemetery where Poe was buried but when I arrived, the tours had been canceled. So I left.

Obviously, from what is written above, one could infer that I was alienated from my fellow students in high school. That is really how I felt. I felt that people I went to school with could care less if I lived or died and forgot me as soon as I was no longer in their field of vision. Looking back, I know that I decided this because it was a defense mechanism because of my social anxiety. If I wrote people off so I did not have to risk myself or put myself out there while I was in an extremely vulnerable time in my life. I had really good friends, two best friends at that time actually, but I was not as plugged into the social scene. I spent a lot of time with headphones on, scribbling in composition notebooks with bad poetry, story ideas, video game plots, short plays, short stories, and even song lyrics. It was during this period that I really embraced writing, something I still really love. In my memory, I shut myself off and just tried to survive. However, I went to reunions later and realized that people did remember me and remembered me fondly. They cared about what I was doing and who I am now. So, a lot of it was in my head and I have found that is a common experience in high school.

The first thing I noticed (as a former sound designer and technician), is the excellent sound in the movie. Older movies had fewer options when it came to special effects but they definitely could apply cool effects to audio. Over and over it is a part of older horror movies I have reviewed here like The Innocents, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and The Hills Have Eyes. This movie is no different. The simple string music and the deep, rich sounds, and the proper use of echo sounds are so important to making this movie scary. Of course, this is also a disco movie but that is to be expected for a school dance movie in the early eighties. The pacing of this movie is also really good. There is a slow build to the movie that is instrumental to the tension of the movie. The movie has a slow burn that does well with ratcheting up the tension so that the viewer is good and ready for the chaos to begin. It also lets us get to know all of the players really well so that we will empathize with them as much as possible.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the cast in this one, especially considering a new release in theaters right now (Oct. 2018). The movie stars Jamie Lee Curtis, two years after Halloween so she is a little more mature and she has a few more movies under her belt. This was during the time she was gaining her title of Scream Queen (three horror movies in 1980 alone!). There is a reason that she is so celebrated. She is a great actress and she was really proving herself in this movie. Her father (and the principal) is played by Leslie Nielsen, who people forget can play a good straight man in non-comedic movies. George Touliatos plays the police lieutenant who is trying to track the killer, a very serious and haunted man. His scenes are very psychological as he is consumed by the responsibility of keeping the community safe. There are plenty of other teenage victims, the point of most slasher movies and it is interesting to see them interact in high school before the big dance. It creates a lot of intrigue, laying plenty of red herrings so it is harder to figure out who the killer is.

Overall, I really liked this movie. It came out the same year as Friday the 13th and is similar but I feel like it is way more artistic and fleshed out. Despite having Jamie Lee Curtis in it, it failed to be as big a hit even though I feel like it is the better of the two. Coming from me, that is high praise. The movie is more complex than many horror movies of its day (and later) in that it explores the victims and the killer and the situation in depth before really plunging into the real horror. I went in expecting this to be goofy but it had way more thought and heart than I thought it would.


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