Film Review: Raze (dir by Josh C. Waller)

I have always had trouble working in a group with other women.

I wish that wasn’t true because it really is such a cliché, this idea that a group of women can’t get along for more than a few days or that we’re all always in some sort of passive aggressive competition with each other.  And I still don’t think that’s true for all women but it’s certainly been true for me.  For whatever reason, I seem to bring out the cattiness in certain people and, being the Irish lass that I am, it’s next to impossible for me to truly let anything go.  I remember every smirk, every eye roll, and every piece of innuendo that I’ve ever suspected was whispered behind my back.  It probably doesn’t help that I tend to be ultra-competitive about — well, about everything.  That’s why I’m sometimes jealous of the way that men can apparently compete each other without taking any of it personally or even that seriously.  Men can compete and remain friends with no hard feelings and I have to admit that I’ve never quite understood how they manage to do that.  Again, I wish that wasn’t true because it really does play into the stereotypes and clichés that men have used to keep us “in our place” for centuries.

I found myself thinking a lot about my competitive nature as I watched Raze, the debut film of director Josh C. Waller.

In Raze, a centuries-old secret society has kidnapped 50 women and imprisoned them in an underground prison.  As the leaders of the organization — the cadaverous Joseph (Doug Jones) and the deceptively maternal Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn) — explain, the women will spend the next two weeks fighting each other.  Each fight will be to the death until only one is left alive.  If the women refuse to fight, their loves ones will be murdered.  If one of the women loses her fight, her loves ones will be murdered.  The only way for the women to save their loves ones is to be the lone survivor.

Since the movie opens with the tournament in progress, we only get to meet a handful of the women who are literally fighting for their lives.  Jamie (Rachel Nichols) was kidnapped from a bar after she made the mistake of telling a handsome stranger that she wanted to be a kickboxer.  Teresa (Tracie Thomas) is fighting to save her husband’s life.  Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) spends all of her time in her cell crying but still turns out to be a surprisingly efficient killer.  Pheobe (Rachel Marshall) is a sociopath who, alone of all the women, is actually enjoying the tournament.  And then there’s Sabrina (Zoe Bell), a former soldier and POW who is fighting to protect the daughter that she’s never met.

Probably the first thing that I should tell you about Raze is that it’s a violent film.  It’s not just that there’s a lot of fights in the film.  It’s the fact that those fights are so well-choreographed and the film’s cast so throws themselves into both their characters and the action on-screen that the violence feels real in a way that most film violence does not.  I don’t think I’ve ever winced as much and as often as I did while watching the fights in Raze because I found myself feeling each blow and each kick.  There are a lot of fights in Raze but they never feel repetitive because the viewers has an emotional stake in each and every one of them.

Thematically, Raze makes an attempt to turn the tournament into a metaphor for the battles that women have to fight every single day.  Elizabeth and Joseph both assure the women that the tournament’s champion will come out of the ordeal as a stronger and more independent woman.  It’s an idea that the film doesn’t explore as thoroughly as I would have liked but it’s still an interesting concept that made Raze a bit more thought-provoking than the usual genre piece.

Personally, I like films where women get to kick ass.  That’s why I’ve been always been willing to watch the Underworld and Resident Evil films, despite the fact that most of them kinda sorta suck.  That said, I prefer films where women get to beat up men and zombies to films where women beat each other to death.  On the surface, Raze has a lot in common the “women in prison” films that Roger Corman produced back in the 70s.  The main difference is that, in the Corman films, characters like Sabrina and Cody would never have consented to killing another woman.  Instead, they would have teamed up with Pam Grier and taken down the Man.

Raze is a lot better than you might expect but it still definitely could have used Pam Grier.

Trailer: The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, so that trailer for A Million Days To Die In The West may have made some people laugh.  Not me necessarily but surely, someone out there found it to be hilarious.  Well, here’s a trailer for a film that — if it does its source material any justice — is destined to make a lot of people (like me!) cry.  The Fault In Our Stars is based on the novel by John Green and it stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.


Trailer: Helen Alone

I haven’t heard much about Helen Alone, beyond the fact that it’s an independent film, it’s the directorial debut of Henrik Bech Poulsen, and it was filmed in my home state of Texas.  According to its imdb page, it’s scheduled to be released on August 1st.

And, based on the trailer, I’m looking forward to seeing it.  The trailer has a nicely surreal feel to it.  As someone who spent her teen years living in the Texas suburbs, there was a lot in this to which I could definitely relate.

Trailer: The Rover

A lot of people are probably going to be inclined to dismiss The Rover out-of-hand simply because it stars Robert Pattinson.  I suggest that, if those people need proof that Pattinson is capable of more than Twilight, they should go watch Cosmopolis.

And besides, even if you aren’t a fan of Pattinson’s, you should still be willing to take a chance on The Rover because it was directed by David Michod, who previously directed the absolutely brilliant Animal Kingdom, and it co-stars the great Guy Pearce.

The Rover will be released in the summer of 2014.


44 Days of Paranoia #42: The Manchurian Candidate (dir by Jonathan Demme)

For our next entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.  (You can read my review of the original by clicking on this sentence.)

During the first Gulf War, when a platoon of soldiers is attacked by Iraqi forces, their lives are saved by Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber).  Raymond receives the congressional medal of honor and is eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  In many ways, Shaw is continuing the family business.  Not only was his father a Senator but so is his powerful and calculating mother (Meryl Streep).  As the film opens, Raymond Shaw has just been nominated for the vice presidency.  A strife-torn America looks to Shaw to save the country.  After all, he’s a war hero.

Or is he?

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), who was a member of Shaw’s platoon, has spent the last few years having nightmares in which he and the other members of the platoon — including Shaw — were captured, brainwashed, and had implants inserted into their bodies.  When Marco discovers that the other members of his platoon have been having the exact same nightmare, he starts to investigate on his own.

When I first started watching this version of The Manchurian Candidate, my initial response was to go, “Bleh!  Remake!”  There’s a reason why most film bloggers automatically despise any and all remakes.  Usually, they add little to the original version and they rarely improve over what was previously there.  Even worse, remakes often times seem to be directed by some of the worst hacks in Hollywood.  What’s more insulting — to have your movie remade or to have it remade by Brett Ratner?

However, Jonathan Demme is not your typical Hollywood hack and that became quickly obvious as I watched his remake of The Manchurian Candidate.  Both Demme’s direction and the screenplay by Daniel Pine and Dean Georgaris show a lot of respect for the original while also providing a few surprises of their own.  Demme creates a convincing portrait of a society that has been consumed by secrecy and is now running the risk of collapsing under the weight of conspiracy.

Unfortunately, the remake doesn’t quite capture the satiric bite of the original.  One of the things that made the original Manchurian Candidate so memorable was the fact that both sides of the ideological divide were ultimately portrayed as being empty, shallow, and ultimately destructive.  The ultimate message was that neither the left nor the right should be trusted.  The remake is a lot more specific about who the villains are and what they believe in and, as a result, its attempts at social and political commentary are a lot more predictable.  The original Manchurian Candidate could both entertain you and make you think.  The remake is very entertaining but never quite thought-provoking.

While it can’t hope to improve on the original, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made and compelling action film that features a trio of great performances from Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber, and especially Meryl Streep.  As her performance here shows, Meryl really should be playing more villains because her performance here is not only impressive but also fun to watch.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal
  38. Z
  39. The Fury
  40. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  41. Shattered Glass

6 Trailers With Which To End January

It’s time for another edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!

1) The Giant Claw (1956)

2) Reptilicus (1962)

3) Sex Kittens Go To College (1960)

4) Kronos (1957)

5) Project Moonbase (1953)

6) Conquest of Space (1954)

What do you think, Trailer Kitty?



A Death-Defying Quickie With Lisa Marie: Rollercoaster (dir by James Goldstone)

Recently, despite my longstanding fear of heights and my refusal to ever ride one in real life, I watched a film called Rollercoaster.  First released in 1977, Rollercoaster recently made its debut on TCM.  I was hesitant about watching it but then Robert Osborne assured me that it was an entertaining film and, seriously, who can say no to Robert Osborne?

An unnamed bomber (Timothy Bottoms) is going from amusement park to amusement park and blowing up roller coasters.  He wants money and, even more importantly, he wants the money to be delivered to him by safety inspector Harry Caulder (George Segal).  Will the FBI back off long enough for Harry to deal with the bomber?  Will the bomber ever smile?  Finally, will Harry be able to save the day while, at the same time, trying to quit smoking and bond with his daughter?

Roller Coaster is about 30 minutes too long and it’s never quite as exciting as it should be.  My mind kept wandering during the climax, which is not a good thing when the film is supposed to be a race against time.  However, at the same time, when taken on its own dated terms, Roller Coaster is a lot of fun.  Even if director James Goldstone (who also directed the far more surreal Brother John) struggles a bit with keeping the action moving at a steady pace, he still directs with a good eye for detail and gets good performances out of the majority of the film’s cast.

Since I best know George Segal for playing cantankerous father figures on about a thousand different sitcoms, it took me a few minutes to get used to the idea that he was the main character here.  While Segal does have several funny lines in Rollercoaster, he is also totally convincing and likable as the film’s hero.  Timothy Bottoms is equally convincing as the unnamed bomber.  The fact that we learn little about the bomber’s motivations or background just serve to make Bottoms’s cold performance all the more chilling.

As for the supporting cast, Henry Fonda is the biggest distraction, snarling his way through his role as Segal’s jerk of a boss.  Oddly enough, Fonda showed up in a lot of disaster films in the 70s, usually playing authority figures and usually only appearing in two or three scenes.  Whenever Henry Fonda shows up in a film like this, overacting and looking somewhat humiliated, it’s best just to close your eyes and think of 12 Angry Men and then realize that even great actors sometimes just needed a paycheck.  Richard Widmark is far more convincing, playing the stuffy FBI agent who doesn’t have much use for George Segal.  Finally, for those of you who enjoy spotting future Oscar nominees in unlikely roles, 13 year-old Helen Hunt makes her film debut here as Segal’s daughter, who just wants to ride the rollercoaster one time.

Ultimately, the best recommendation that I can give to Rollercoaster is to say that it’s a quintessentially 70s films and hence, it’s a piece of history.  Not only is the film full of 70s fashion, 70s hair, and 70s stereotypes (just check out the long-haired teenagers joking about getting high while unknowingly sitting on top of a bomb) but the film also features a performance from a band called Sparks that is so 70s that the cast of Dazed and Confused might as well have been watching them in the audience and going, “Alright, alright, alright…”

(I have to admit that I had never heard of Sparks before I saw this film.  I looked them up on Wikipedia and I discovered that not only is the band still performing but that the lead singer claims that appearing in Rollercoaster was the band’s biggest regret.  Personally, I think he’s being too hard on both the band and the film.  Sure, they seem painfully out-of-place but I dare anyone to get the borderline annoying sound of “Big Boy” out of their head.)

For those of us who were born a few decades too late to experience it firsthand, Rollercoaster is our chance to spend two hours living in the 70s.

A Psychedelic Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Big Cube (dir by Tito Davison)

I recently discovered that I have about 66 movies recorded on my DVR.  A few of these, like Bend it Like Beckham and Thirteen, are films that I always make it a point to watch whenever they show up on television.  But the majority of them are movies that I just happened to spot while going through the guide and I thought they looked intriguing.  These are movies that I have not been in any hurry to watch but, at the same time, I’m still glad to know that they’re waiting for me whenever I do feel like watching them.

Well, that time has come.  In the month of February, TCM is going to be showing a lot of old Oscar nominees which means that I need to make some space on the DVR.  For the past week, I’ve been going through all of my recorded films and watching them.  While many of them turned out to be rather forgettable, I’ve also come across quite a few that, regardless of quality, made me happy I had taken the time to set them to be recorded.

Case in point: The Big Cube.

What makes The Big Cube such a memorable film?

Four words: Lana.  Turner.  On.  Acid.

The Big Cube was first released in 1969, a fact that’s obvious during every minute of the film.  Lana Turner plays Adriana Roman, a famous stage actress who, following the final performance of a hilariously (and unintentionally) bad play, announces that she is retiring from the theatre so that she might marry the fabulously wealthy Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy).

Charles has a daughter, a spoiled brat named — wait for it — Lisa (Karin Mossberg).  Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Charles speaks with a pronounced Irish accent, Lisa speaks with a thick Swedish accent that makes the majority of her dialogue almost impossible to understand.  (Adding to the film’s general strangeness is that all of Mossberg’s dialogue is dubbed, which makes you wonder why the film’s producers didn’t, at the very least, hire a voice-over actress who could have at least sounded somewhat believable as Charles’s daughter.)  Lisa is resentful of Adriana, viewing her as competition for both her father’s affection and his money.

Since this movie was made in 1969, Lisa also spends all of her time hanging out with hippies who, in this film, are presented as being the equivalent of pure evil.  They hang out at a “hip” nightclub known as Le Dream where they spend their time secretly slipping sugar cubes laced with LSD into the drinks of strangers.  Or, as one random hippy puts it, “I’m going to cube that mother!”

The source of all of this LSD is Johnny (George Chakiris), a medical student who ends up dating Lisa and conspiring to drive her stepmother insane.  Each night, they secretly slip Adriana LSD, which leads to Lana Turner bugging out her eyes while multi-colored spiral graphs appear on the walls around her.  (And again, we’re reminded that this film was made in 1969, when all you needed to do to let the audience know someone was having a bad trip was to make excessive use of a zoom lens and color filters.)

Eventually, all of this leads to Adriana being struck with amnesia.  How can her mind be fixed?  Could the solution possibly be for Adriana’s playwright friend (Richard Egan) to write a play that reveals the conspiracy against Adriana and then to cast Adriana in the lead role?  And is it possible that along with restoring Adriana’s mind, this play will also allow her to return to the stage and discover that Egan is secretly in love with her?

The Big Cube deserves to be seen just because it’s such a weird and over-the-top film but, beyond that, it’s fascinating as a piece of history.  In 1969, mainstream Hollywood filmmakers were still struggling to figure out how to deal with the counterculture and, even more importantly, how to continue to appeal to young filmgoers who no longer had much in common with the establishment.  The end result were a collection of films that either tried desperately and earnestly to prove that, despite all appearances to contrary, the Hollywood studios really did understand and sympathize with the disaffected youth of America or films like The Big Cube in which old school movie stars like Lana Turner were menaced by long-haired men and amoral girl in miniskirts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the evil hippy films are a lot more fun than the good hippy films and, as far as evil hippy films are concerned, The Big Cube is one of the more entertaining, even if most of the film’s pleasures are unintentional.  Not only do you get to watch some of the most evil hippies in history but you also get the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Lana Turner on acid!

Seriously, what better way is there to spend 90 minutes?

(Even better, by watching The Big Cube, I could finally delete it from DVR and make some room for the next episode of Downton Abbey….)