Horror Film Review: The Fourth Kind (dir by Olatunde Osunsanmi)


“I’m actress Milla Jovovich, and I will be portraying Dr. Abigail Tyler in The Fourth Kind. This film is a dramatization of events that occurred October 1st through the 9th of 2000, in the Northern Alaskan town of Nome. To better explain the events of this story, the director has included actual archived footage throughout the film. This footage was acquired from Nome psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler, who has personally documented over 65 hours of video and audio materials during the time of the incidents. To better protect their privacy, we have changed the names and professions of many of the people involved. Every dramatized scene in this movie is supported by either archived audio, video or as it was related by Dr. Tyler during extensive interviews with the director. In the end, what you believe is yours to decide. Please be advised, that some of what you’re about to see is extremely disturbing.”

And so began the 2009 film, The Fourth Kind!  Milla Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler, who is still emotionally devastated by the murder of her husband and who finds herself interviewing a lot of potential UFO abductees in Nome, Alaska.  You may remember that, when this film came out, there was a lot of online debate over whether or not it was based on a true story.  That’s because the film was advertised as containing actual “documentary footage” of Dr. Tyler talking to hypnotized alien abductees.  Often times, during the film, a split screen was used so you could watch the “original” Dr. Tyler interviewing a patient while, at the same time, Milla Jovovich and an actor “recreated” the scene for the film.

Of course, the really interesting question here isn’t whether or not the documentary footage was real.  Instead, to me, the real mystery of the film is why, if you had all of this amazing footage of real people freaking out under hypnosis, would you then make a movie starring Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, and Elias Koteas?  It seems like a better idea would be to just make a documentary and save a lot of money on paying the cast.

Anyway, as you probably already guesses, the documentary footage was faked as well and there is no Dr. Abigail Tyler.  Still, you have to admire the amount of effort that director Olatunde Osunsanmi put into trying to convince us that we were watching something based on a true story.  I mean, he went far beyond just using the whole shaky cam stuff that most found footage horror movies fall back on.  Wisely, Onsunsanmi made sure that none of the actors in the found footage were more attractive than the actors in the movie that was supposedly based upon it.  Anyone who has seen enough “based on a true story” movies knows that the real people never look as good as the people hired to play them.  I mean, honestly, this is a gimmick that Orson Welles would probably have appreciated.  That said, Welles probably would have gotten better performances out of the actors in his fake documentary.  When Milla Jovovovich is more convincing as a psychologist than the woman who were told actually is a psychologist, it’s a problem.

As for the film itself, it has a few effective jump scares.  There’s a lot of people yelling in strange voices and, when Abbey’s daughter vanishes, Milla Jovovich does a good enough job communicating the anguish that any mother would feel if her child was abducted by aliens.  Dependable actors like Will Patton and Elias Koteas show up and do what they can with underwritten roles.  The Fourth Kind isn’t a bad movie but its storyline and characters are never as interesting as its gimmick.  It’s the type of horror film that might make you jump while you’re watching but, a week later, all you’ll remember is Milla Jovovich introducing herself.

 

Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #112: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir by David Fincher)


Curious_case_of_benjamin_button_ver32010 will always be considered, by many of us, to be the year that Oscar journalism first jumped the shark.  That was the year that a group of self-styled award divas (which Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone being the most obnoxious culprit) went batshit crazy over a film called The Social Network.  

From the minute that David Fincher-directed film premiered, the Sasha Stones in the world not only declared it to be the greatest film ever made but also insinuated that anyone who disagreed had to be stupid, crazy, and evil.  It actually got rather silly after a while.  That is until The Social Network lost best picture to The King’s Speech.  Suddenly, what was once merely enthusiastic advocacy transformed into fascistic fanaticism.  Suddenly, these people started to view the 2010 Oscar race (and each subsequent Oscar race) as a rather tedious battle between good and evil.  For these people, David Fincher represented the forces of good.  And Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, represented all that was evil.  They took this to such an absurd extreme that they not only subsequently heaped undeserved praise on Fincher’s bastardization of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but also unnecessary scorn on Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Of course, what was forgotten in all of that drama was that — before Hooper and The King’s Speech came along, the 2010 Oscar race was predicted be some to be a rematch between Fincher and Danny Boyle (whose 2010 film, 127 Hours, was indeed nominated for best picture, alongside The Social Network, King’s Speech, and Black Swan).  When Fincher and Boyle previously competed during the 2008 Oscar race, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire defeated Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

And indeed, the case of Benjamin Button was curious one!

Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of a man who aged in reverse.  When Benjamin is a baby, he has the wrinkled face of an elderly man.  When he’s a teenager, he’s walking with a cane.  When he’s middle-aged, he looks like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.  (In that regard, it helps that Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt.)  And when he’s an old man, he’s a baby.  Though the film, wisely, refrains from offering up a definite reason why Benjamin ages in reverse, it hints that it could have something to do with a clock that was built to run backwards as an anti-war statement.

Benjamin is born in New Orleans in 1918 and raised in a nursing home by Queenie (Oscar nominee and future Empire star Taraji P. Henson).  The love of Benjamin’s life is Daisy Fuller (Elle Fanning when young, Cate Blanchett as an adult), a dancer who also loves Benjamin but who, unlike him, is not aging in reverse.  For this reason, Benjamin and Daisy cannot be together.  That’s the way tragic love works.

The film itself features a framing device.  Daisy, now an elderly woman, is dying and gives her estranged daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), the diary of Benjamin Button.  As Caroline reads, Hurricane Katrina rages outside.  I’ve never really been comfortable with the way that the film uses Katrina as a plot point, for much the same reason that it bothered me when Hereafter used the real-life Thailand typhoon and London terrorist bombings to tell its story.  The real-life tragedy of Katrina feels out-of-place in a story about Brad Pitt aging backwards.

As for the rest of the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is … well, it’s a curious film.  Visually, it’s definitely a David Fincher film but, at the same time, there’s something curiously impersonal about it.  You almost get the feeling that this was Fincher’s attempt to show that he was capable of making a standard big budget Hollywood film without getting too Fincheresque about it.  Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have chemistry and they look good together but Fincher has never been a sentimental director and his heart never truly seems to be in their love story.  (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl feel more like a natural couple than Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett do in this film.)  There’s only a few scenes, mostly dealing with the more morbid aspects of Benjamin’s odd condition, towards which Fincher really seems to feel any commitment.

As a result, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button becomes a curious misfire.  It’s a film that struggles with the big picture but is occasionally redeemed by some of its smaller moments.  (The scenes with the elderly Benjamin as a dementia-stricken baby are haunting and unforgettable.)  Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably the weakest of the five 2008 films nominated for best picture but it’s still an interesting film to watch.

Film Review: Devil’s Knot (dir by Atom Egoyan)


After having spent close to a year hearing only negative things about it, I finally watched Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot last night.  On the basis of what a lot of critics had said about the film, I have to admit that I was mostly watching it to see if I needed to include it on my upcoming list of the 16 worst films of 2014.

But you know what?

Devil’s Knot really isn’t a bad film.  It’s just an extremely unnecessary one.

Devil’s Knot opens with a title card that reads, “Based on a true story.”  Honestly, the title card could have just as easily read, “Based on a true story and if you doubt it, there’s four other movies you can watch.”  The trial, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment of the West Memphis Three is perhaps the most famous miscarriage of justice in recent history precisely because so many documentaries have been made about it.  Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost Part Three are two of the most disturbing true crime documentaries ever made.

(As for Paradise Last Part Two, it displays a stunning lack of self-awareness as it attempts to prove the guilt of John Mark Byers by using many of the same techniques that were used to convict the West Memphis Three.  The less said about it, the better.)

The story is so well-known that I almost feel like retelling it would be like taking the time to inform you that George Washington was our first president.  But here goes — in 1993, 3 eight year-old boys were murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  Three teenagers were arrested for the crime and, on the flimsiest of evidence, were convicted.  As is seen in the documentaries, their conviction had more to do with community hysteria and paranoia than anything else.  The supposed leader of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, was accused of being a Satanist.  Why?  Mostly because he wore black clothing.

Eventually — and largely as a result of the documentaries made about the case — the West Memphis Three would be freed from prison.  (However, their convictions would still legally stand, meaning that their exoneration would be limited to the court of public opinion.)  Devil’s Knot, however, doesn’t deal with any of that, beyond a lengthy scroll of “this is what happened after the movie” information that rolls up the screen after the final scene.  Instead, Devil’s Knot deals with the first trial of the West Memphis Three and the small town atmosphere of fear and hysteria that led to them being convicted in the first place.

And — though the film is surprisingly conventional when you consider the reputation of director Atom Egoyan — it’s all fairly well-done.  As a former resident of and frequent visitor to Arkansas, I was happy to see that Egoyan didn’t indulge in as many stereotypes as I feared he would.  (One need only watch the self-important Northern activists in Paradise Lost Two to see the attitude that I feared Egoyan would bring to the project.)  Reese Witherspoon is perfectly cast as the mother of one of the murdered boys.  Kevin Durand is properly intimidating at John Mark Byers.  Even Colin Firth manages to make for a convincing Arkansan.

But, ultimately, Devil’s Knot just feels so unnecessary.  It doesn’t bring anything new to the story and there’s ultimately nothing here that you couldn’t have learned from the original Paradise Lost.

Probably the best thing that I can say about Devil’s Knot is that it’s better than Paradise Lost Part Two.

Back to School #44: Some Kind of Wonderful (dir by Howard Deutch)


some_kind_of_wonderful

For the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teen films ever made.  We started with two films from 1946 and now, we find ourselves coming to the close of the decade that is often considered to be the Golden Age of teen films, the 1980s.  For our 44th entry in Back to School, we take a quick look at 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful.

Why a quick look?

Because, quite frankly, there’s not that much to say about it.

Some Kind of Wonderful is a story about an artistic, lower-class misfit who has a crush on one of the popular kids.  The only problem is that the popular kid is being cruelly manipulated by one of the richest students in school.  The misft also has a best friend who is totally in love with the misfit but the misft has somehow failed to notice this.  Eventually, the misfit does get to date the popular kid.  Both the popular kid and the misft are given a hard time by the members of their collective clique but they still manage to go on one truly amazing date.  Finally, the film ends with a big show down at a party and two people kissing outside.

Sound familiar?

If it does, that probably means that you’ve seen Pretty In Pink.  Some Kind of Wonderful is basically a remake of Pretty In Pink, the only difference being that the genders have been reversed and that the film is a lot more heavy-handed (and predictable) when it comes to examining class differences.   (Not coincidentally, both films were written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch and it must be said that when it comes to Some Kind of Wonderful, it’s easy to feel that both of them were simply going through the motions.)  The misfit is an aspiring painted named Keith (Eric Soltz).  His best friend is a drummer named Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson).  The object of Keith’s affection is Amanda (Lea Thompson).  Unfortunately, even though she lives in the same poor neighborhood as Keith and Watts, Amanda is dating the rich (and therefore, evil) Hardy (Craig Sheffer).

Some-Kind-of-Wonderful-some-kind-of-wonderful-2841626-1024-768

When Keith finally works up the nerve to ask out Amanda, he doesn’t realize that she’s just broken up with Hardy and is on the rebound.  Watts is skeptical, telling Keith, “Don’t go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs,” and I’m just going to admit that, as the proud owner of a pair of long legs, that line really annoyed me.  I guess it’s because I’ve known people like Watts, who always act like there’s something wrong with wanting to look good.

Shut up, Watts.

Shut up, Watts.

With the help of Watts and Duncan (Elias Koteas), the school bully that Keith managed to befriend in detention, Keith takes Amanda out on an amazing date and shows her a wonderful portrait that he’s painted of her.  At the same time, Hardy — angry because someone from a lower class is now dating his ex-girlfriend — starts to plot his own revenge…

There are some positive things about Some Kind of Wonderful.  There are two really good and memorable scenes that, momentarily, manage to elevate the entire film.  There’s the moment when Keith shows Amanda the painting.  And then there’s the erotically charged scene in which Keith and Watts practice how to kiss.  Koteas, Thompson, and Masterson all gives good performances.  Eric Stoltz is, at times, a bit too intense to sell some of the film’s more comedic moments but overall, he’s well-cast here.  (In fact, the only performance that I really didn’t care for was Craig Sheffer’s.  Sheffer one-dimensional villain only served to remind me of how good James Spader was in Pretty In Pink.)

That's no James Spader

That’s no James Spader

And yet, there’s just something missing from Some Kind of Wonderful, something that keeps this film from being … well, wonderful.  I have to wonder if I had never seen Pretty In Pink, would I have thought more of Some Kind of Wonderful?  Perhaps.  Whereas Pretty In Pink was full of the type of small details and clever moments that make it a joy to watch and rewatch, Some Kind of Wonderful is one of those films that you can watch once and enjoy it without ever necessarily feeling the need to ever watch it again.

Eric Stoltz is going to kill someone

Film Review: The Prophecy (dir. by Gregory Widen)


I first found out about this little cult film starring the very awesome Christopher Walken around 1993 or so when I was at the local Waldenbooks (yes there used to be bookstores not named Barnes & Noble or Borders back in the day) looking at the latest issue of Fangoria. Inside the magazine they were doing a brief feature on an upcoming horror film tentatively called God’s Army. All I saw was that it was to star Christopher Walken and it had gore and angels in it. That alone peaked my interest and I was looking forward to seeing it in the theaters. Almost two years passed and nothing about it was ever heard again until I visited the video rental place near my house and saw a VHS tape (yeah, those big videocassette thingies) with the title of The Prophecy and starring Christopher Walken.

This was the film I was so hyped to seeing in the theaters. The title had changed from it’s earlier (and much cooler) one of God’s Army. It would seem that it’s film distributor had little to no faith in the box-office potential of the film and just delayed it’s release to the point that when it did come out no one knew about it barely anyone saw it. It was a real damn shame since filmmaker Gregory Widen made such a good film that was able to mash-up horror, angels and a detective story all in one without creating a mess of things.

The Prophecy was about the war in heaven we were never taught about in Sunday school. We all know about the war in heaven where Lucifer and the rebel angels who followed him tried to overthrow God. That didn’t go over so well for Lucifer and he and his band of fallen angels were cast out into Hell by God and his right-hand man the Archangel Michael. This film talks about the second war in heaven soon thereafter which no one outside those who wrote little-known apocryphal texts about it (and being apocryphal they never were included in the Bible). This war now had a new group of angels led by the Archangel Gabriel rebelling against God for choosing humans (talking monkeys as these new rebels called them) above all living creatures including the angels themselves for God’s love. This war was now in a state of stalemate after countless millenia, but a prophecy about a soul so dark and evil was to be the tipping point for either side. This particular soul was to be found on Earth and whoever acquires it would break the stalemate and finally bring this second war to an end.

With this in mind we have Walken as the Archangel Gabriel coming down to Earth to look for this soul so he can finally win the war for his side (which also means the end of mankind). It’s the angel Simon (played by Eric Stoltz) who comes down to stop him from getting this soul or, at the very least, hide it from Gabriel. With these two factions of angels vying to acquire this soul we have a Detective Thomas Daggett smack in the middle of the case investigating all the weird happenings and deaths surrounding the battle between these two factions. The dead bodies of angels begin to appear on morgue slabs looking like eyeless, hermaphroditic specimens and angelic script found in crime scenes brings Daggett back to his time studying to be a priest before images of angels warring amongst themselves breaks him down and he quits the seminary to become a cop instead.

It would come down to these three factions racing against time to acquire this dark soul.

The film is not as gory as it’s feature in Fangoria made it out to be, but it is quite violent and bloody that I understand why it got the horror label attached to it. It’s more a dark fantasy thriller more than horror. It’s rare in today’s film that we see angels portrayed as the bloodthirsty beings that the really are. The film even points out this oft-ignored detail of God’s messengers. Angels are always the ones God sends to punish or send a very serious message to his chosen beings that is Man. The Prophecy shows this aspect of angels in full light and how their attitudes about humanity might lead some of them to hate God for raising Man above even them.

Christopher Walker does a great job conveying Gabriel’s hate and contempt for humans. His Gabriel is like one of those pundits always on tv (both liberal and consevative) who are so into their sides’ message that they never see the other side as anything but the enemy. One could almost say that Walken’s Gabriel is like then apocalypse-hungry version of Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann in one body. This is not to say that Walken goes over-the-top with his performance. In fact, he’s quite subdued in how he uses those many tics and voice mannerisms a whole cottage industry has grown around in.

Walken’s portrayal of Gabriel infuses what could’ve become a one-note villain with lots of layers and complexities that the rest of the cast were able to play off from. His character would be terrifying one moment then smoothly switch over to being funny and charming then back to terror. It’s due to his great performance that the other cast members like Stoltz as the weary, loyal angel Simon and Koteas as the fallen religious cop Daggett were able to bring their own performance to another level. This is quite a feat since the dialogue in the film was a mixed bag of horror cliches and interesting Biblical-speak about secret wars, apocryphal books and prophecies. The film even has a nice appearance of the first fallen angel himself and none other than Viggo Mortensen plays Lucifer.

The Prophecy does have a feeling that it was always one misstep away from becoming an awful film. This had happened with 2010’s Legion and did that film about angels and the apocalypse turn out to be a huge steaming pile of shit-turd. But while Dimension Film saw the film fall over on the side of bad for myself and those who have come to admire and love this cult classic the film stayed balance between good and bad. Widen’s film never went over to the side of becoming a truly great film, but it also never fell on the side that Legion ended up on. What Prophecy ended up becoming was a film that was almost grindhouse in nature, but even then it still looked too good with too many good performances to be given that label. The fact that it contains one of Christopher Walken’s best performances speaks well of a film that many critics during it’s early days had dismissed as just another bad horror film.

In the end, this film became just one of the many little-gems that got lost in film studio money politics. I definitely would recommend this cult film to people who haven’t seen it, but I would tell them to stop at just this film and not even go near the four sequels which came after it.