The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Diary of the Dead (dir by George Romero)


I have to admit that I was a little bit hesitant about watching the 2007 film, Diary of the Dead.

It wasn’t that I don’t like zombie movies.  In fact, it was the complete opposite.  I love zombie films and Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorites.  George Romero, of course, went on to make several sequels to Night of the Living DeadDawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead are certifiable horror classics.  However, I had heard mixed things about the two zombie films that Romero directed after Land of the Dead.  Seeing as how Diary of the Dead was Romero’s second-to-last film before he passed away in 2017, I was worried that I would watch the film and discover that I hated it.  I didn’t want experience anything that would tarnish Romero’s cinematic legacy.  It didn’t help my expectations that Diary of the Dead is a found footage film and the conventions of the found footage genre tend to get on my last nerve.

(Seriously, nothing makes me throw a shoe at a screen quicker than the sound of someone in a horror movie saying, “Are you filming this?”)

But you know what?

I did watch Diary of the Dead and it’s actually not bad.  It may not reach the heights of Romero’s other zombie films but it’s definitely a worthwhile companion piece.  It opens with news reports about the start of the zombie apocalypse, meaning that Diary of the Dead is meant to take place at roughly the same time as Night of the Living Dead.  (Never mind that Diary of the Dead is full of references to YouTube and blogs and other things that most people probably couldn’t even imagine when Night of the Living Dead first came out.)  A group of film students are in the woods, filming a terrible mummy movie when they first hear reports of the dead coming back to life.  Some say that there’s no way it could be true.  Others say that something must be happening but surely the dead aren’t actually coming back to life.  They soon discover that the dead have indeed returned.

We follow the students as they travel across Pennsylvania, trying to find a place that’s safe from the Dead and discovering that there’s literally no such place left in America.  Along the way, they also discover that the government has no intention of telling the people the truth about what’s happening.  In fact, a group of national guardsmen turn out to be just as dangerous as the zombies.  In their efforts to survive, the students are forced to rely on an underground network of bloggers and video makers.

Diary of the Dead has all of the usual zombie mayhem that you would expect from a film like this but, at the same time, it’s got a lot more on its mind than just the dead returning to life.  Much as he did with Land Of The Dead, Romero uses Diary of the Dead to comment on the state of America under the Patriot Act.  With the government using the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and increase their own power, the film’s characters are forced to depend on new and independent information sources.  It’s not hard to see the parallel that Romero is making between the War on the Living Dead and the War on Terror.  As well, making all of the characters film students allows for some discussion about whether or not horror films should simply concentrate on being scary or whether they should also attempt to deal with real-world issues.  The film leaves little doubt where Romero came down on that issue.

On the negative side, Diary of the Dead struggles a bit to overcome the limitations of its low budget and none of the characters are as compelling as Ben in Night of the Living Dead or Fran in Dawn of the Dead.  At times, you find yourself wishing that Diary of the Dead featured just one actor who was as into their role as Duane C. Jones or Ken Foree were in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, respectively.  But Diary of the Dead still features enough zombies and enough of Romero’s trademark political subtext to be an acceptable addition to Romero’s vision of the apocalypse.

Here’s the 2nd Trailer for Star Trek Beyond!


I honestly don’t know much about Star Trek but I have seen both Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 and, if I didn’t already know that Justin Lin was the director of the latest Star Trek film, I could have guessed from watching the 2nd trailer for Stark Trek Beyond.

(I’m also guessing that Star Trek Beyond is in no way related to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which is a shame really.)

Seriously, judging from this trailer, Star Trek Beyond looks exciting and that should make for a nice change from the last Star Trek film.  It also appears that the Enterprise gets destroyed during Star Trek Beyond so I guess this must be the last movie….

(I’m totally kidding, calm down.)

One final note: somebody needs to make a movie starring Simon Pegg and Karl Urban as two cops who may break all the rules but who … GET RESULTS!

Anyway, until that happens, we can watch Simon and Karl in the trailer for Star Trek Beyond!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. by J.J. Abrams) Is the Sequel the Fandom Has Been Waiting For


Star Wars - The Force Awakens

[some minor, very minor spoilers]

When I first began this site on Christmas Eve of 2009 I had to thank the excitement I had for event films after seeing and experiencing James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an experience I hadn’t felt since the days of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, even earlier than that, the original Star Wars trilogy. These were films that fired up one’s imagination, appreciation and love for film as entertainment and art. Some of these films would linger on longer in one’s mind than others, but that first viewing in their initial release would always imprint their effect on each viewer.

When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to that galaxy, far, far away with a trilogy of prequels almost 15 years since the world last saw Return of the Jedi premiere first the first time, the Star Wars fandom were giddy, excited and hyped beyond belief. The Star Wars films and the many spin-offs (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) which came about because of it only whetted the appetites of long-time Star Wars fans for more films detailing the adventures in the scifi universe created by George Lucas.

Yet, the prequels’ effect on these long-time fans would be the direct opposite of the effect the original trilogy had on the fandom. These three prequels (all directed and written by George Lucas himself) would do more than disappoint the fandom. It would create a schism between those who saw the original trilogy as the gateway to their fandom and those younger generation who never saw the original trilogy and had the prequels become their gateway to the fandom. Even to this day there would be some of the younger generation who truly believe that the prequels trump the original three films which began the franchise.

When news came down that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and everything which George Lucas had built and cultivated there was no chance in hell that there wouldn’t be another series of Star Wars despite the disaster which were the prequels. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for Disney to greenlight the sequel to Return of the Jedi and have it set decades after the events of that film.

So, it is with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that the Star Wars fandom get to see whether their continued faith in the franchise was worth it or if they have been Charlie Brown’d once again and had the ball taken away at the very last second. It’s easy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great or it was awful. The true answer to whether this film succeeded in what it intended do was a bit more complicated.

Yet, if one was to look for an easy and simple answer then I’m happy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great. It had it’s moments of logic gap and plot holes, but as an overall finished product the film succeeded in course-correcting the franchise from the nadir it was at with the culmination of the prequels. It wouldn’t have taken much to surpass the very low bar set by those prequels, but The Force Awakens leapfrogged that bar and went even higher.

The film does begin thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we find out with the now familiar episode intro crawl that Luke Skywalker has disappeared since those events and the galaxy has remained in turmoil with his absence. The Galactic Empire has been defeated, but in its place a new danger in the form of the genocidal First Order has arisen from the Empire’s remains. Opposing the First Order is a sort of galactic force supported in secret by the New Republic and led by General (not Princess) Leia Organa calling themselves the Resistance. It’s the conflict between these two factions and the search for Luke that forms the narrative base for The Force Awakens.

The film doesn’t linger too long in explaining the events which occurred in that 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It doesn’t need it as we’re quickly introduced to the series’ new characters in the form of Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the galaxy, who has been sent on a secret mission by Leia to find the clues as to her brother’s whereabouts. Next in line was Kylo Ren who becomes this film’s analogue to the Darth Vader figure of the original trilogy. Yet, the bulk of the film was told through the eyes of Finn and Rey.  The former is First Order stormtrooper who has seen first-hand what the First Order truly stands for and not for the betterment of the galaxy. The latter is a young woman living life on the desert planet Jakku scavenging the graveyard of starship wreckage from a battle thirty year’s prior.

It’s through Rey and Finn that the audience learns through their adventures upon meeting up with each other on Jakku what has transpired since the Rebellion destroyed the second Death Star and killed Emperor Palpatine. To these two characters, the events from the original trilogy seem to have passed beyond the realm of history and become more like legends and myths to the younger generation. Through a combination of fear and awe, Ren and Finn get introduced to some of the original trilogies main characters (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and even Admiral Ackbar). These are the stories they’ve been told of growing up come to life right in front of their eyes and their reaction mirrors those of the audience who haven’t seen these characters in anything new and relevant since the end of Return of the Jedi. The reaction alone to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca alone seemed like the fandom’s collective cheer for the good that has been missing with the franchise for over 30 years now.

The Force Awakens is not a perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from some gaps in story logic and plot holes. As with most J.J. Abrams directed films he had a hand in writing the script and one could see where he sacrificed coherent storytelling beats for something that just pushed the story along the path he wanted the film to take. For those who have been steeped in Star Wars lore and backstory, this would be easily explained as the Force nudging, guiding and, if all else fails, pushing the characters onto the right path, but for the casual viewers it would come off as story beats of convenience.

As a story to bring back the faithful and lure in those still uninitiated to the franchise The Force Awakens straddles the line between nostalgia and trying to bring in something new to the proceedings.

Let’s begin with the former and just say it now that The Force Awakens does follow some major story beats directly from A New Hope (to a smaller effect from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). One could almost say that this film was a sort of soft reboot of the original trilogy with how it lifted ideas from them and through some writing and directing recombination come up with something new, but still very familiar for hardcore and non-fans alike.

Does this decision to lean heavily on the original trilogy for ideas hurt the film? For some it might be a bit too distracting to recognize too many callbacks to those earlier films, but for most it’s a reminder of what the prequels lacked and that’s the sense of adventure and fun. There was never anything fun about the prequels. The Force Awakens brings it all back and for most viewers this is the course-correction the series has needed since the last images from Revenge of the Sith faded away from the silver-screen.

Even the new characters introduced in this latest film were an amalgamation of the main characters from the original trilogy. Where Abrams and Kasdan changed this up a bit was to go beyond just creating new analogues for the classic characters of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie and R2D2. They opted to take all the qualities fans loved about those characters and mixed them all up to be used in the roles of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.

As the standout character in the film, Rey (played by find of the year Daisy Ridley) would bring back memories of not just the young and hopeful Luke from the original trilogy, but also some personal traits of Leia and Han. The same goes for Finn who at times reminded us of Han’s roguish charm to Luke’s naivete of his role in the larger world he has finally witnessed for the very first time. For the half-empty crowd this might look as lazy character development, but those who see the film with the half-full mindset would easily latch onto these new characters. Characters who now take on the responsibility of moving the franchise beyond the nostalgia of the original trilogy and erasure of the disappointment of the prequels to new adventures with the next two films.

So, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens worth returning back to the franchise after the prequels or is it too much of a rehash of the original three films? The answer to that is a definite yes despite some of it’s flaws. For some the very flaws some have pointed out (too many callbacks, sort of a reboot, etc.) was what made the film a fun time to be had. It’s a return to the comfort zone the fandom missed with the prequels.

Will the next two films in this new trilogy follow suit and just rely too much on nostalgia to continue trying to satisfy it’s massive audience? Or will Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (director of Episode VIII and Episode IX, respectively) move into new territory with minimal callbacks to those earlier films? We as an audience will have to wait til 2017 and 2019 to find out. Until then enjoy what Abrams and Lucasfilm has accomplished with The Force Awakens. A film which has reinvigorated a film franchise that has seem some major lows, but one which also happens to be one hell of a fun ride from start to finish on it’s own merits.

P.S.: Some controversy has arisen since the film’s release concerning the character played by Daisy Ridley. Some have been very vocal about calling her Rey character as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that the Star Wars films have lacked for a strong female lead. An argument that’s as misguided and misinformed as that of the films being whitewashed. The films in the franchise have always had strong female characters. The accusation that Rey as a character in The Force Awakens is such a “Mary Sue” (a female character written and created to be the best at everything, no flaws) ignore the details in the character’s development.

What’s sadder is that some of the very people (film critics and writers) who in the past have complained that major films (especially blockbusters) have been lacking in very strong female characters have been the very same who see Rey as a negative and a character too good. This despite the character following in the very same footsteps in how her predecessors have been written (Luke, Han, Anakin). It’s an argument that is sure to bring heated debate among fans and detractors, but one that takes away from the performance of Daisy Ridley who should be one of the many breakout stars to come out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Star Trek Beyond Looks Much Faster and More Furious


Star Trek Beyond

J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek film franchise when he did a sort of sort-reboot in 2009. It brought the franchise into the consciousness of a younger demographic who didn’t grow up as fans of the franchise both in film and the many tv series. The film was a success and Paramount made sure to strike while it was still hot and greenlit a sequel that looked to build on the strong foundation set-up by J.J. Abrams.

2013 saw that sequel come out and to say that it underwhelmed and burned much of the goodwill created with the 2009 film would be an understatement. Star Trek Into Darkness (a title derided the moment it was announced) literally took the “darkness” part of the title and ramped it up to 11. There wasn’t any of the fun and adventurous nature of the first film. It didn’t help that screenwriter’s Robert Orci’s 9/11 Truther ideology seeped into the film’s plot.

When it was announced that Robert Orci would end up directing the third film after J.J. Abrams went to go direct the latest Star Wars film, the outcry was loud and clear. Orci was a bad choice and just keeping him on would just sink a film franchise already teetering on the brink of becoming irrelevant in a blockbuster environment where superhero universes and the original blockbuster universe reigned supreme.

So, it was with some relief and cautious optimism when Paramount dumped Orci and went with Justin Lin (hot off the massive success of Fast & Furious 6) and rewrites by Simon Pegg. The franchise was going to get the fun back into the series and everyone was invited. Even the chosen title, Star Trek Beyond, spoke to a creative team who saw a chance to bring back the franchise from just being part of a fandom but for those who wouldn’t know a dilithium crystal from a Sith Lord.

The first teaser shows the fun part of what Justin Lin and Simon Pegg have been talking about. Now, will the next trailer show a much more dramatic side to the events fans are hoping will balance all the fun.

Star Trek Beyond looks to land on July 22, 2016.

Film Review: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (dir by Christopher McQuarrie)


Rebecca FergusonEarlier tonight, Jeff and I saw Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and now I’m pretty sure that I’m developing huge girl crush on actress Rebecca Ferguson.

She plays Ilsa Faust, a former operative for M.I.6. who is now somehow involved with a shadowy terrorist organization known as The Syndicate.  And while Ilsa may only be a supporting character (because, after all, this is a Mission Impossible film and therefore, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is unquestionably the star), she dominates every scene that she’s in.  Whether she’s escape the scene of an attempted assassination while wearing a dress that is simply to die for or rescuing Ethan Hunt from certain death, Ilsa Faust is a woman who kicks ass, takes no prisoners, and looks great while she’s doing it.  As much as I love Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Ilsa Faust is my new espionage role model.

The movie attempts to suggest that there’s some sexual chemistry between Ilsa and Ethan.  Oddly enough, there’s not.  Tom Cruise looks good and he gives a confident and likable performance but, as a character, Ethan comes across as being almost asexual.  He seems to be attracted to only intrigue and danger.  And yet, that lack of authentic romantic chemistry actually works to the film’s advantage.  Ilsa is never reduced to merely being a love interest.  Instead, she’s an equal to Ethan throughout the entire film.

Of course, Ilsa has secrets of her own.  Everyone in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation has a secret.  The film opens with the IMF being disbanded and its operatives being absorbed into the CIA.  When the CIA director (Alec Baldwin, in full jerk mode) orders Ethan to stop investigating the Syndicate, Ethan goes underground and continues his activities in secret.  His allies (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and the great Simon Pegg) can only help him in secret.  The origins of the Syndicate turn out to be the biggest secret of all.  There are so many secrets in Rogue Nation that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all but, again, that works to the film’s advantage.  It keeps the audience off-balance.  You never know when someone’s going to suddenly pull out a gun and start shooting or rip off a mask and reveal themselves to be someone else.

Rogue Nation is an entertaining action film.  The stunts are spectacular and the set pieces are exciting and enjoyably over the top.  (There’s a scene where Ethan Hunt has to change out a security card while holding his breath underwater and I literally watched it through my fingers.)  I wouldn’t suggest trying to read too much into the film and yet, at the same time, Rogue Nation does capture the paranoid times in which we live. The film manages to both condemn the excesses of government while celebrating the toys that make those excesses possible.  The average film goer may not be able to do all of the things that Ilsa and Ethan can do but we all know what it’s like not to trust authority.

That’s what makes Solomon Lane, the main villain played by Sean Harris, such an interesting character.  I know that some reviewers have complained that Lane’s role was underwritten but I have to disagree.  Lane may not be as verbose as the typical spy movie villain but I appreciated the fact that he remained somewhat enigmatic up to the conclusion of the film.  He never made the mistake of over explaining his evil plan and accidentally giving the IMF team extra time in which to defeat him.  (Solomon Lane obviously learned his lesson from watching countless would-be world conquerors accidentally allow James Bond to get the better of them.)  Lane may be ruthless and evil but he’s also a revolutionary who is outraged by some of the same things that the rest of us are outraged by.  This brings a welcome hint of ambiguity to the film.

Though it never quite reaches the lunatic highs of either Kingsman or Furious Seven, Rogue Nation is still an enjoyable and effective action movie.  Undoubtedly, Ethan and the IMF team will return in another installment.  Here’s hoping that Ilsa Faust gets a spin-off of her very own.

 

 

Trailer: Kill Me Three Times (Red Band)


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Once in awhile we come across a little film that we would never have bothered to even check out if not for the reach of the interwebs.

One such film is the Australian black comedy thriller Kill Me Three Times which had a screening at 2014’s Toronto International Film Festival. It stars Simon Pegg (channeling his inner Sean Connery mustache by way of Zardoz), Teresa Palmer and Callan Mulvey.

From the red band trailer it looks to be quite the violent little black comedy that Simon Pegg seems to be quite adept at. Interesting to note that this film will probably introduce the rest of the world to a third Hemsworth brother (they must clone them Down Under or something).

Quick Review: The World’s End (dir. by Edgar Wright)


the_worlds_end_12-620x918A strange thing happened on the way to seeing The World’s End. With the audience seated for the film, we all watched as the credits began. When I saw that Constantin Film was involved, I thought to myself, “Wait, wasn’t Edgar Wright’s films mostly Working Title Productions? This is different.” Turns out the movie that started playing was The Mortal Instruments, the result of which had a few moviegoers groaning and actively talking about the film. Someone actually cried out “It’s the King of the North!” after seeing Lena Headey and her co-star who barely resembled Robb Stark. After about 5 minutes of this, the film was shut down, the reel replaced and The World’s End was ready to begin.

The World’s End marks the final film in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Flavors Trilogy. The Cornetto (which look like King Cones here in the states) was something of a joke in Shawn of the Dead with the color red, and then had a return appearance in Hot Fuzz with the color blue. The World’s End has a connection with green when it comes to Cornettos.

The film reunites Wright with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and in a twist from the previous films together, it’s Pegg whose character is the over the top one with Frost as the straight man. I’ll admit that I walked in this actually expecting the opposite, and found myself chuckling when it didn’t turn out that way.  Surrounded by a cast made up of Wright regulars like Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Martin Freeman (Love Actually, The Hobbit), along with some new faces in Pierce Brosnan and Rosamund Pike, there isn’t a cast member that feels out of place here. Even when the story feels like it’s about to lull, there’s some weird quip or moment that invoked a laugh or chuckle in the audience.

The World’s End is the story of Gary King (Pegg), who as a teen growing up in small town, dared to do the impossible with his friends. The plan was to make a run to 12 different pubs in the town, have a pint of beer in each one, leading up to the final pub called The World’s End. In the initial attempt, they managed to get about 3/4ths of the way through before getting so smashed that they had to bail out. Time passes, as it always does and the old gang has grown up, moved on to different lifestyles and in some cases, built families. King, on the other hand, is very much stuck in his own time period spending the bulk of his time reliving his glory days. He’s that guy that talks about his High School Football days as if  they were yesterday, some 20 odd years later. This is a running theme through the film – the notion that being caught up in nostalgia is not as great as it ever appears, and that being too nostalgic – living too much in the past –  could possibly suggest that one isn’t appreciating what they have right now, nor are they looking forward to anything. Sometimes, you just can’t go home…or can you?

King decides to get his friends together for one last run on The Golden Mile. As they go from pub to pub, they go over various events in their lives and start to notice (in true Wright fashion) that something really weird seems to be going on in the town. As things begin to unravel, they come to find that actually are in real danger and need to get past all of their issues if they’ll get through it. Just like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the second half of film becomes something of a horror thriller with comedy throughout. Elements of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers become noticeable as the team tries to survive. That’s pretty much it. Take the recent This is the End, add a few beers and a tighter script and you have The World’s End. The first half of the movie may seem slow, but it does pick up, and pick up well.

Pegg and Frost are the grounding forces to The World’s End. Their performances (particularly Pegg’s) are what keeps it all afloat when it seems like the story might unravel. If the film suffers from any problems, is that it’s something of a downshift for Wright compared to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. There are a number of action moments in The World’s End, but at the same time, they don’t quite have the umph factor of Wright’s other films. By the time you reach the end, you may actually find yourself scratching your head over what you’ve seen, but then again, the ending of Shaun of the Dead didn’t quite make sense to me either. Not saying that it could have all been better (as I may see it again before the weekend is out), it’s just different.

Overall, The World’s End is a fun ride into the past of a series of characters that will remind you to focus on the present, and laugh while doing so. It’s a fitting close to these films, even if it isn’t the sharpest film in the set (for me that remains Hot Fuzz). If only they served beers at the movie theatres, that would be perfect.