Friday, October 29, 2010

Interview: Marc Boggio (Fear the Reaper)

From looking at him, you wouldn't think Marc Boggio was the director of a film about a serial killing ninja who targets street gangs. Boggio is just a normal dude with some extraordinary imagination, energy, and enthusiasm. Boggio stopped into the Underground, where his film Fear the Reaper premieres on Halloween, October 31st, at 7:00pm.

Marc Boggio: Fear the Reaper is an action-horror movie about a vigilante serial killer. It took us about three years to make it on a $15,000 budget, which is $1,000 less than The Blair Witch Project and I like to think its got more entertaining stuff in it than that movie does (laughs), but I want to avoid making a direct comparison. It's just a guerrilla shot horror film, I guess.

Andrew Parker: When you say guerrilla shot, where exactly were you filming?

MB: Anywhere we could go in and get any level of permission that we could get. A lot of the scenes were shot in an hour, maybe two. If sometimes we had a fight scene sometimes we would have better access at different times. I don't think it was ever past twelve. Plus, you are working with actors that are pretty much volunteering their time and they have to go to work before you are finished shooting. That actually lead to us having to think of creative ways to wrap up scenes. You have to have a movie where everything fits together with no glaring logic gaps and I think we got pretty lucky in that respect.



AP: How did the idea for Fear the Reaper come to you? Was it something you had been working on for a while?

MB: I had been, since the end of high school , working on these stories for these characters I had been creating. Since I was about 18 or 17 I had wanted to write comic books and the only problem with that was I can't draw to save my life, but that still didn't stop me from writing scripts and thinking of stories for a comic book and I ended up thinking of a story of someone from my generation. Someone who's grown up on comic books and more modern video games and thought about the psychological implications of having the ability to kill "bad guys" would have on the psychological pillars of stability, like having good friends or a good family and maybe trying to be a "hero." We thought it was kinda cool because it led to a character that had an air of believability to him because he really is just a normal geeky kid, but there is this darkness to him and a complexity because you really do wonder if you should be rooting for him because at the end of the day he really might just be a psychopath. But he is a psychopath you can root for every now and then. It's kinda like a slasher film where you root for the killer and that kind of influenced some of the design choices. The opening (20 minutes) of the movie is very much a slasher film and not much of an action movie. But as the film continues it turns into much more of a video game inspired action film. There are kung-fu girls who come to help him out and there are even zombies. Well, less zombies than drugged up crazies.

AP: It sounds a little like a slasher version of Kick Ass.

MB: Yeah, when I saw Kick Ass I thought it was an incredible movie, but also incredibly similar to what I had been working on for a few years. I hadn't read the comic until after the movie came out, either, but at the same time I think that our movie is different enough to stand on its own, but at the same time people who were really into Kick Ass will probably be able to get into our movie quite easily. But Kick Ass really straddles the line between comedy and action whereas we are more in the action-horror realm. We do have comedy in our movie, though and that is important. That's one of the things I love about independent filmmaking. It's that you can inject humour into anything provided that you don't fall on the wrong side of the fence. To some degree you have to take things seriously at all times. Even the comedy. But sometimes even the most serious things end up being a little silly. You can try to take it to a level of seriousness like The Evil Dead, but sometimes the tense moments just aren't there anymore. Shaun of the Dead did a great job with that balance. You want emotions to be taken seriously, but the situations themselves can be silly. We didn't want to beat people over the head with "this is serious, this is serious" because then you run the risk of no one taking anything seriously.

AP: Getting back to comics, on your website you have a lot of character bios and the thing that blows me away is just how well fleshed out the characters are. Is this something that at one time you wanted to make into a comic or was it always intended as a feature?

MB: The idea we had was actually to do a series of limited animation comics where they don't have speech bubbles; kind of like a YouTube kind of thing with voice acting and a score to kind of bridge the gap. As far as the biggest thing holding us back there it was a simple lack of money and time. If things go well with the screening and the DVD release in the spring, me and my co-writer would love to go back and do them. We have about 5 of these shorts already written. We have a few characters with bios on the site that don't appear in the movie. We kind of went with the old video game concept of having seven bosses, but you only see a few of them die in the movie. We know why it happens, but we don't see it. When you make a comic book style movie you want to be as clear as possible, but you also want to include enough hints to allude to a bigger universe around what is going on on screen. The reaper exists in this world where he isn't just a ninja serial killer. There is rampant gang warfare, crooked politicians and a human trafficking ring and these are the problems he has to deal with. It is a whole world where lots of different things are going on and different people are dealing with different aspects of it.

But as far as lending backstory to lots of characters that might seem minor that's a specific video game influence of mine. My favourite director is Hideo Kojima who directed the Metal Gear Solid games. A lot of people will say, well, how can your favourite director be someone who directs video games and I personally believe that the Metal Gear games are better than 90% of the movies I have ever seen. Every single character, be it a boss that you fight or someone who just pops up, they have their own little stories. We wanted to make a story where everyone except the grunts had their own story. And there are still a lot of grunts with no story and that's another video game thing. That actually began to become a bit of a problem because towards the end of filming the fight scenes I was running out of friends to kill on screen (laughs).

AP: Your marketing campaign for the film seems to try to let the audience make a stance on whether or not The Reaper is a hero or a villain. Where do you fall on the subject and were there any specific influences when writing the film?

MB: There are very few superhero characters that aren't vigilantes. They often aren't even cops and the ones that are usually are retired and holding a grudge like a Punisher type character. One of the first people who did an interview on Reaper said he is like Batman without a conscience, but he is definitely still a vigilante. There is a bit of Batman in there, a bit of Ninja Gaiden, and a bit of any number of ninja movies, but I don't think you can say there is any specific influences. Not to say that the idea of a ninja vigilante character is 100% original, but it is a tricky question. As much as Reaper helps people in trouble and he fights murderous gangs, he still has an enormous amount of evil in him. There are things that he does that are heroic, but he also does some things that are outright villainous. It has elements of Dexter, but again that straddles the line between slasher film and a CSI style procedural.

AP: The premiere is coming up at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Halloween. Are you excited or nervous at all?



MB: There is nothing I have ever been more excited for in my life. Granted it is a project that I worked on with a lot of other people, but to see it on the big screen in a 700 seat auditorium with people I have never met before... I mean, I have seen the movie more than 200 times now in my basement, albeit on a nice projector at times, with about 10 to 15 people. I am more excited to see what people have to say about the movie that have no personal bias towards me. I mean, your friends will be honest with you, and if they weren't Fear the Reaper wouldn't be the movie it is now. The rough cut that I showed to that initial group of friends is entirely different from where we are now. This is almost the final cut. The only thing I really still want to do is tweak the sound a bit for the DVD release.

AP: So what are your plans after this?

MB: I once said I would never again make a movie with no budget, and I think you can only call in all of your favours once. I called in all my favours on this movie. (laughs) But if there is a producer out there who likes what I do and thinks me and my team do a great job I would love to make another film.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interview: Chris Green (Zombie Werewolves Attack)

Chris Green has come into the theatre in a bit of a rush. He has the frazzled look of someone who has been run ragged, but still manages a smile. He had just come straight from dealing with a minor financing issue with his latest film, but nothing that couldn't be handled with several frantic phone calls. All in a days work for Chris, who is not only working on as a writer/director/producer of an anthology film titled The Last (now in production), but he is also the writer/director of Zombie Werewolves Attack which, after having its Canadian big screen debut at the Toronto Underground Cinema this past August, will be available for digital download from Lloyd Kaufman's Troma Entertainment in the near future. On top of all that, Zombie Werewolves Attack will be screening at the National Film Board (150 John Street) on Saturday, October 30th at 7:00pm. Chris joins us to talk about Troma and his upcoming projects.

Andrew Parker: Let's start with an easy one. Let's talk about the film you are currently working on since you just came from there.

Chris Green: The project is called The Last and it's a six part anthology film about the last man on Earth. It's different short stories. We're getting six different directors. They have each written one of the six segments as week. And since every writer/director has their own specific style, each segment is told in a different style. One is a slasher movie. One is a zombie movie. One is a suspense thriller...

AP: Now Charlie [Lawton] from the Underground is part of one of the segments, right?

CG: Charlie is directing one of the segments. He is directing the one that is found footage style.

AP: And what is the segment you will be working on?

CG: I am doing the one that is zombie movie style. The whole thing is about the end of the world in one way or another. Mine takes place the day after and the world is different in a drastic way. There are mutant zombies everywhere in this apocalyptic world.

AP: It's a great concept because when you have an end of the world film there are so many different directions you can take it in. Do you have any favourite post-apocalyptic films at all?

CG: I will give full credit to Brendan [Welton] who came up with the idea for the six stories and he was a huge fan of anthology films like this in the past. He was a big fan of Creepshow and Tales From the Crypt. Now, there's an anthology for you. He really liked Phobia which came out a few years ago.

AP: Now, how long have you been working on The Last?

CG: We've been working on The Last for just over a year, mostly just waiting to raise money to finish filming the segments. We've finished shooting two of the six as a preview to show to potential investors to raise money. I was also working on my first feature film, Zombie Werewolves Attack, which is coming out very soon for digital download from Troma.

AP: Let's talk a little bit about Zombie Werewolves Attack.



CG: Well, that one is pretty self explanatory. The title describes the zombie werewolves and they pretty much attack stuff (laughs). The whole film takes place on one full moon night and a pack of werewolves start attacking towns and anyone they chew up to the point of death becomes and undead as well as a werewolf.

AP: And how long was the production on that?

CG: That one has been four years in the making. It was about a year of writing and saving money. Then we shot over 15 days and I spent about a year editing and a year shopping it around.

AP: How did you get involved with Lloyd Kaufman and Troma?

CG: Well, I have always been a fan of B movies and cult films and Troma was famous for that, especially the Toxic Avenger series. I've actually met Lloyd Kaufman a few times when he was at FanExpo. When my movie was up for sale and the editing was completed I gave screeners to Troma at FanExpo as well as a few other people and we decided to go with Troma as it seemed like the best fit. Lloyd and his book Make Your Own Damn Movie was so inspiring. It just makes you want to go out and do it.

AP: The film recently had its premiere at the Toronto Underground Cinema. How did that go?

CG: That went really well. That was the Canadian premiere.

AP: And you have a screening coming up at the NFB on the 30th. Do you think its a little funny that Zombie Werewolves Attack is showing at a place like the NFB.

CG: It's a little funny. The Wild Sound film festival does screenings there and they were looking to do a Halloween special, so they were looking for films to do with horror and Halloween and decided to go with us.

AP: When people first view the trailer for Zombie Werewolves Attack the first thing they tend to comment on is how good the transformation sequences look, which are crucial to any werewolf movie. How do you manage to make such effects on a small budget?

CG: It was and it wasn't hard. I did the transformation sequences myself using Adobe After Effects. It's a great tool if you have a good home computer. You can pull off some great stuff. While I was working on it I learned how 300 used a home computer to do some of their effects using After Effects. So its amazing what you can do with computers these days. I basically taught myself After Effects until I could... I did my first film using some pretty cheesy effects, but I just kept practising.

AP: We had a conversation recently where you said horror really isn't your favourite genre. Yet you seem to find yourself doing two horror films back to back. Do you see them as an easy way into the filmmaking business or as easy films to make? Do you find it interesting or is it just a happy coincidence?

CG: A little bit of both. It is the easiest way to get in because horror tends to be made easily on a low budget. But then again there are those that are made with a huge budget. One of my favourite horror films of all time is The Shining and that is a huge movie. Horror films are just a lot of fun to work on and to make. I do love horror films, but I also like sci-fi and drama. That's also what I want to do. I just came up with ideas I could do for films on a low budget and Zombie Werewolves just seemed like the coolest one. Now that we are working with bigger budgets I am now working on developing a science fiction thriller. But as I was writing that, Brendan came to me with the anthology idea and it was so compelling and so well put together that I couldn't pass it up.

Mini-Midnight Madness Redux Part 2: The Second Story

Sometimes we here at the Underground like to give shout-outs to some of our good friends who are currently doing events in other venues that are not our glorious underground cinematic bunker. And with it being Halloween and all, we know there is a lot of different people vying for your time and hard earned money. In that respect, let us help you make some hard earned decisions.

Our good friend Colin Geddes, programmer for TIFF's Midnight Madness and the man who helps us program our Son of Kung-Fu Fridays, has a truly awesome selection of midnight movies coming up at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (a zombie killing spear throw away from us at the corner of King St. and John St.) this Friday and Saturday. He also has an amazing double bill (co-presented by Splice director and all around awesome dude Vincenzo Natali) of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (shown in super rare 35mm) and Ridley Scott's Alien that we gave a mention to earlier in the week. The midnight screenings are this coming Friday and Saturday, just after the witching hour and showcase 4 films from TIFF's past that haven't been seen on the big screen since their initial release, if at all, on the big screen in Toronto.

First up is director Neil Marshal's Dog Soldiers. Genre fans might better know Marshall as the director of the genuinely unsettling The Descent and the film Doomsday, which is quite rightfully gaining the cult audience it deserves. Dog Soldiers was Marshall's debut and oh what a first film it is. An action horror hybrid that doesn't skimp on either and moves at a breathless pace, Soldiers focuses on a group of soldiers who find themselves stranded and under attack from a band of blood thirsty werewolves. As a huge fan of werewolf films, I can safely say that this is the best film of its kind made in the past 2 decades.



A lot of people these days, critics and fans alike, like to use the term "throwback" to describe a film that conjures up nostalgic feelings of films from their childhood. The term has never and probably will never be put to better use than when describing Ti West's House of the Devil. The film, a 1980s period piece that looks not a day over 30 despite being a 2009 release, centers around a university student who takes a babysitting gig (sans an actual baby) at a creepy mansion in the middle of the woods. A lunar eclipse hits. Shit gets crazy. Watching House of the Devil is exactly like renting a random schlock film at the local mom and pop video store and being pleasantly surprised and probably emotionally scarred before having to rewind the tape. This is one of my personal horror movie favorites of all time; not just the past few years.



But the film you will most likely catch me at, since I haven't seen it and have been meaning to for quite some time now, is the Australian film The Loved Ones. While I can not personally vouch for the film, I can safely say that I have rarely had a film in any genre more highly recommended to me. Director Sean Byrne's audience award winning Midnight Madness film at TIFF '09 plays like a cross between The Evil Dead and a John Hughes film about a grieving stoner high school student trying to get his life back together before the prom; all while dealing with his date's incredibly twisted stalker. I look forward to this one with utmost anticipation. As apparently, should you.



Dog Soldiers: Friday October 29th at 11:59pm, Saturday October 30th at 12:30 am
House of the Devil: Saturday October 30th at 12:30am
The Loved Ones: Friday Octover 29th at 12:30am, Saturday October 30th at 12:15am
Planet of the Vampires/Alien Double bill (for only $12!): Saturday October 30th starting at 8:00pm.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pieces

Pieces screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Friday, October 29th at 7:00pm.

In my last blog about Zombi 2, I said I really didn't have much to say about it. Pieces I have astoundingly even less to say about.

IT'S EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK IT IS.


Never before has a tag line said so much and yet so little. Never before has a trailer so artfully hidden just how stupid the movie it is promoting really is. Yeah, I said it. Pieces is relentlessly stupid, but damn if that isn't how you promote a film like this. That is the basis for its appeal. It is so stupid and incoherent it is worth twice the price of admission. I can all but guarantee that if you haven't seen it before and you can handle a more than healthy amount of creepy, off putting gore and are the type of person who can laugh at anything, Pieces will be one of the most fun filmgoing experiences you will ever have. Especially if you are already drunk (or in the process of drinking on the sly).

What little of the plot there is surrounds a lunatic with a chainsaw stalking the streets of Boston (actually Valencia, Spain, which from having grown up in Boston I can safely say looks nothing like what you see on screen) in hopes of recreating a lewd jigsaw puzzle that was taken away from the killer as a child. And that's really about it for the plot.

Once again, we are in the realm of European horror this film has dubbing so bad it makes Godzilla films look nuanced. It has an amount of gore that makes the likes of Piranha 3-D and Zombi 2 look subtle and nuanced. The editing is so piss poor, with many scenes (or pieces as they appropriately feel like) managing to go nowhere and be incoherent at the same time. It makes Pootie Tang seem like a finished film.

Oh, and what scenes there are in this film. Be sure to watch out for the swimming pool death scene, a bit where a character repeatedly screams “bastard” while looking like she was waiting for Slugs director J. Piquer Simon to yell cut, and an ending so ludicrous you would think the last reel of the film somehow got mixed up with a different film starring the same actors.

Pieces: It's Exactly what I said it is.

Zombie (Zombi 2)

Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2) screens on Thursday, October 28th at Toronto Underground Cinema as part of a night of zombie themed events and musical performances. Tickets are $15 at the door for normals, or $10 if you come dressed as a zombie or a post zombie attack survivor.

You haven't lived until you have seen a zombie fight a shark. You simply haven't. Even more than jumping a shark on waterskis or shoving an oxygen tank in a shark's mouth and blowing it up with a well placed rifle shot, there are few things greater in life than simply watching someone who is already dead fight a shark. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Welcome to the world of the Italian master of gore Lucio Fulci, creator of some of the greatest and most bizarre horror films ever to come out of Europe, Zombie 2 is a work of deranged brilliance. It isn't the greatest put together film ever made, but it is more fun than the litany of zombie flicks that has come out in the past decade. George Romero remakes, I am looking squarely in your direction (with the notable exception of Dawn of the Dead, which retained the fun and wit of the original).

Zombi 2 was actually conceived as an unofficial sequel but actually a prequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead (known as Zombi overseas) and made in Europe on the super cheap. Sold in North America as a grindhouse darling gorefest the tagline and poster have become iconic. The marketing campaign for Zombi 2 (known as Zombie in North America for now obvious, yet still confusing reasons) blatantly said, in no uncertain terms, WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU. Truth in advertising? Yes.


In typical Italian exploitation fashion, the film starts in a location that will have nothing else to do with the remainder of the film. When a boat full of corpses mysteriously ends up in New York City harbour, the police and reporter Peter West are on the case. West teams up with the daughter of the boat's owner to try and get to the bottom of the matter. West and Anne Bowles charter a flight to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; the last known port of call for the ship. From there, West and Bowles charter a boat to a remote island where they are besieged by zombies.

Sometimes you start writing a review and you just don't have too much to say about the film. I will leave it at this simple statement. Zombi 2 is pure grindhouse in the way that Singing in the Rain is pure entertainment. It is a carnival ride gore-gasm that was also promoted by handing out barf bags at the door in case the viewer needed it. Zombie is pure unadulterated schlock, but in that category, there are few films that do it better. It is, in its own niche genre, a classic.

Plus, A ZOMBIE FIGHTS A FUCKING SHARK.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate screens on Wednesday, October 27th at 9:00pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema.

Roman Polanski, other than being a controversial figure, largely made a name for himself with a movie about someone being tortured by the Devil. Rosemary's Baby was a landmark horror film dealing with one woman's struggle between the ethereal and the real. Polanski, much like Martin Scorcese, can be a great genre filmmaker and sometimes doesn't get as much credit in this regard. The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp, is one of those films that tends to get overlooked when people talk about Polanski films. This does not make it any less of a film. In fact, it is a film that predates such "treasure hunting spiritual based films" as National Treasure or The DaVinci Code that actually bothers to take itself seriously and treats the audience like it actually has a brain. Needless to say, it is probably also a bit heady for some viewers going in expecting to see a hellish nightmare.



Very loosely based on the novel The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate focuses on the quest embarked upon by the somewhat lecherous and underhanded rare book dealer Dean Corso (Depp) as he tries to determine the authenticity of a rare book for his client (played by Frank Langella). The book in question is The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which, if placed in proximity to the only other copies in existence, can be used to open the gates of hell. Aided by a mysterious woman (with green eyes akin to those of Rosemary's baby), Corso embarks on a series of trips to Paris and Spain in order to find the remaining copies that may or may not be fakes. It would appear that opening the gates of hell will be the best way to test the authenticity.



While The Ninth Gate is essentially a treasure hunter film, it also occupies the space in Polanski's filmography where Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby meet. Much like those films, Ninth Gate is very lovingly shot and intensely atmospheric. Despite that, this is not a film for everyone. It is fairly dry and maybe a touch overlong at two hours and thirteen minutes. There also isn't a single likable character in the whole film, but it is still awesome to be reminded that Depp cleans up well and can play just as great of a scoundrel without resulting to theatrical tricks and make up. The ending is also a great conversation starter and has the potential to be a love it or hate it proposition for most viewers. Either way, it is an ending you will probably be talking about long after the final reel has unspooled.

Aliens

Aliens screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Monday, October 25th, at 9:45pm as part of the official Alien Quadrilogy Blu-ray release party.

I don't think a film has ever gotten me in as much trouble with friends and readers than Aliens. Other than the time that a former friend punched me in the gut over telling him how much The Bone Collector sucks ass, I don't think a film ever gave me more grief. What is even funnier is that I actually love this film, so the controversy that I unwittingly stirred up, eventually leading to me not getting a job that I really wanted, seems even more ludicrous in hindsight.

Explanation: Last year I was tasked with writing a blog about the 50 best horror films of the 1980s for a job with a blog that will remain nameless. Things were going smoothly and it was some of the most fun I ever had writing about film. Unfortunately, Aliens did not make the list. I had, mostly out of haste, classified it as strictly being a science fiction film. Sure, it was a scary film (some critics and scholars actually hail it as one of the best horror films of all time), but since it took place in the reaches of space and involved aliens, I thought that was more science fiction than anything else. This oversight did not go over well with readers, especially since another James Cameron film with science fiction elements, The Terminator, made the top ten of that list. I argued, quite convincingly I might add, that The Terminator is one of the best slasher films ever made. Unfortunately, that film also lead to my downfall since so many people found my reasoning to be suspect at best and bullshit at worst. Readers insisted that I was a hack that didn't know what he was talking about, and they were so vocal that I never wrote for that blog again after that piece. My attempts to locate it have also been fruitless as they seem to have taken it down to avoid any more emails and potential grief.

Fucking Aliens.



After the events of the first film, Ripley is picked up in deep space 57 years after going into hypersleep. She is brought back to Earth where she is stripped of her license since no one seems to believe her stories about what happened aboard the Nostromo and on the planet known as LV-426. Much to her horror Ripley discovers that the same company that previously ruined her life had colonized the planet and that they had recently lost contact with its inhabitants. Ripley reluctantly agrees to tag along with a group of marines to assess the situation with company stooge Burke in tow (played by a devilishly oily Paul Reiser). Upon their arrival they find all 110 colonists have been slaughtered save for one young girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn). Once again, however, the company has other plans for the crew and fully expects to see some Aliens and hopes to bring one back to Earth for their bio-weapons division. Just like the first film, things don't quite pan out as they should leading to a decidedly epic showdown not only with a Queen alien, but also with the Weyland-Yutani group.

While Aliens is a lot louder and flashier than Ridley Scott's original film, it is actually quite a bit deeper and an easier film to analyze from a scholarly perspective. The evils of big business and the greed that extends from it are common themes in James Cameron films, but they are far more pronounced and well thought out here. Burke is almost a satanic figure leading the crew of marines (including Terminator's Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and Lance Henriksen as a cyborg that Ripley immediately distrusts for obvious reasons arising from the first film) through the gates of hell. There is also the theme of motherhood that permeates the film. Not only does Ripley have to come to terms with protecting a young girl as if it were her own, we are also introduced to the queen of the alien colony. And what a mother she is.

It is very interesting that Aliens works as well as it does mostly because Cameron's vision is so loud and bombastic that is not only sci-fi and horror, but it is also a war film with the militarization on display (another popular Cameron trope) and the amount of ammunition expended. It also moves like an action film. Thankfully, it is just as scary and atmospheric as Scott's film despite having larger and more elaborate sets. Aliens was a very different and ambitious film that ended up being one of the scariest films of the 1980s. Just don't think it is only a science fiction film.

Alien

Alien screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Monday October 25th at 7:00pm as part of the official Alien Quadrilogy Blu-ray release party. Our good friends Colin Geddes and Splice director Vincenzo Natali will also be screening Alien at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday October 30th as part of a double bill with Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires.

Modern audiences tend to be spoiled these days when it comes to films that combine science fiction with fantasy horror. Maybe spoiled isn't exactly the right term I am searching for, but it seems that most films that try to combine the fantastical and the scary seem to spell things out for the viewer and don't leave very much to the imagination. Unfortunately, doing so often leads to films either being too boring and dry or an over plotted visual mess. This is not the case with Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien.

I had a friend who hadn't seen Alien before come up to me a few weeks ago to tell me that the film wasn't what they expected it to be. It wasn't that they didn't like it. They actually loved it. They were simply confused because Alien was so minimalist in its approach that she felt it didn't fit the title. She expected a movie called Alien to have a lot more action than it did. She also didn't expect it to be one of the quietest films she has ever seen. Maybe she had gotten it confused with James Cameron's much louder and chaotic, but no less scary and entertaining, sequel.



When a seven member crew of "space truckers" aboard the Nostromo get lost in deep space en route back to Earth, they land on a planet to find a downed alien spacecraft with a dead alien in the pilot's seat. The chest of the alien has been ripped open and what they originally though was a distress call that beckoned them here was actually a warning to stay as far away as possible. Later it will turn out that the crew has been sent on a suicide mission by The Company to retrieve something quite valuable to them.

Needless to say, there is an alien. One that has managed to incubate inside the body of a crew member (John Hurt) after a creature in the hull of the downed ship attaches itself to his face. After bursting out of the man's chest, the Alien begins to pick apart the crew of the Nostromo one by one. The crew, lead by man of action Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and the level headed inquisitor Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), begins to plot their next move for survival despite the presence of a crew member who is not at all what he appears to be (Ian Holm).

Alien can very easily be seen as a take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space. This really is a "Who will survive and what will be left of them" situation and both films work on similar levels. Chainsaw and Alien both find a real sense of unease in the things you don't see rather than what is right in front of your eyes. Also, while Chainsaw was taken to task for its violence, it was Alien that really brought gore effects into the mainstream and out of the grindhouse.

The quiet of space and the ship itself mixed with Jerry Goldsmith's minimalist score (which was pared down even further by Scott in post-production) makes the scares seem a lot more visceral. They come quite literally out of nowhere and without any real set pattern. The movie also lulls the viewer into a false sense of comfort with an opening that in no way belies the rest of the film. Alien starts out as an almost dry procedural about what these people aboard the Nostromo do on a day to day basis. There is also no dialogue for the first six minutes of the film, but none of that should be seen as a slow start. It is actually a slow burn.

The cast is also top notch and filled with more than capable performers. Skerritt gives his best performances and Holm is very underrated as the possibly treacherous Ash. Weaver more than holds her own against some real heavyweights in a role that was originally written for a man, but ended up being one of the most iconic female characters in history. Also, despite not being an actual actor in the truest sense, the alien itself gives an amazing performance. H.R. Giger created one of the most expressive and terrifying creatures in film history.

For my money, Alien remains Ridley Scott's best directorial effort to date. Despite not working with the budgets he has at his disposal now, Scott takes more chances within the confines of a small ship than he does in Roman arenas and various battlefields. Scott shot all of the hand-held camera work himself, leading the viewer around the ship in a way few people had seen in the late 1970s. Scott's decision to keep things as small as possible make the universe around the characters seem even bigger and more infinite. In space, no one can hear you scream, but that is probably because in Ridley Scott's space there is just so much... um, space.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ghostbusters / Ghostbusters 2

Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 screen at the Toronto Underground Cinema today, Thursday October 21st and Sunday, October 24th. The original screens at 7pm and the sequel starts at 9:15pm.



I probably don't have to try a hard sell approach to get readers to come out to a screening of Ghostbusters. In fact, most of my readers have probably seen it already, or have already decided to come out to view it a second time. Up until 2 years ago, Ghostbusters was the highest grossing comedy of all time (eventually dethroned by The Hangover, which is already starting to age pretty badly). So instead of trying to sell you on the first film, I am going to use the first film to explain why the unjustly maligned 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2, deserves a much warranted second look.

Ghostbusters was a film that was never really meant to succeed. Sure, Columbia Pictures desperately needed a tent pole (large scale blockbuster) for its 1984 summer line up, but they approached Ghostbusters with a healthy degree of trepidation. The screenplay by Dan Aykroyd in its original form was a futuristic action comedy written for Aykroyd and the late John Belushi. Aykroyd's original concept dealt with two bounty hunters catching ghosts on different dimensional planes and on various planets. In the original, the characters were hard nosed chain smokers and there were no less than three expensive action sequences in the first ten minutes alone.

Needless to say, Columbia Pictures and director Ivan Reitman, who was already attached to the project as was Bill Murray to play Aykroyd's sidekick Peter Venkman, decided that a rewrite was in order. The director of Stripes and Meatballs decided that he couldn't handle a film on the scale that Aykroyd had originally envisioned. Harold Ramis was then brought in to work with Aykroyd on a more manageable version of the script that still kept getting rewritten on the fly. By the end of the writing process and just as the cameras were about to roll on the most expensive comedy in motion picture history (at that point. It was initially budgeted at $30 million, but the final set piece with Gozer the Gozerian ended up adding an additional $5 million to an already over budget film), almost everyone who had been involved with the project had contributed or deleted items from the script. Everyone, that is, except for Bill Murray.

Bill Murray's ad libs weren't so much scripted or called for as they were telegraphed well in advance by Harold Ramis. Murray, who had been off in India filming his dramatic turn in The Razor's Edge, was known for going off book at almost every turn (a characteristic that infuriated co-star and Ghostbusters love interest Sigourney Weaver, who up until that point considered herself a method actress). Ramis, knowing Murray would like to have input but physically couldn't be involved in the writing process and knowing Murray's style, added a bunch of set-ups in the film that the comedic actor could use to create the dimensions that his character could work within.

Making the visual effects for Ghostbusters proved to be even more problematic since the first choice of effects studios, Industrial Light and Magic (who were actually used for the sequel) could not be used for the most part thanks to the post production needs of Paramount's 1984 tent pole, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The effects, which are still groundbreaking to this day, were just barely finished in time for release by a rotating crew of different effects houses working on different effects. This procedure is common place now, but at the time it was seen as financial suicide. The editing was also barely finished with large chunks of film deleted after being filmed due to pacing issues (including an extended hotel sequence involving a young couple being haunted and a running gag involving a pair of homeless men played by Murray and Aykroyd).



Columbia held its breath long enough and Ghostbusters took off like a rocket. After factoring in advertising and marketing, Ghostbusters needed to make $120 (in 1984 money) just to break even. The film ended up playing for runs of over a year long in major markets and held off competition from Gremlins and Temple of Doom to become the biggest hit of the summer. A sequel seemed all but inevitable.

Unfortunately, with great success comes unmanageable schedules for the newest comedy superstars. Despite all the major stars and Reitman having the same agent (super-agent Mike Ovitz at CAA), the Ghostbusters crew was unable to get back together for close to 5 years, but Columbia was highly optimistic that they could recapture the magic of the first film, and in my eyes, they did. People seem to think, however, that simply because Ghostbusters 2 was a financial disappointment and because it lacked the energy of the first film, that it is a bad film. I beg those people to reconsider and watch Ghostbusters 2 immediately after viewing the first film and with fresh eyes. You will be pleasantly surprised.



The writing for Ghostbusters 2 was as problematic as the first film, not because Aykroyd and Ramis had a particularly "out there" concept, but because it was a lot more rushed. Once again, Columbia (now under new management) needed a hit for their summer line up, and the summer of 1989 was tapped to be one of the biggest (and most sequel filled ever). The cast reassembled under poorer working conditions, but they still had a strong script, Reitman back at the helm, and better performances (Seriously, Murray is better in the sequel no matter how much he has groused about it in the media) than the original.

The idea of New York City as a cesspool is not a new concept, but the idea that negativity can fester within an urban area and on such a large scale, makes Ghostbusters 2 not only a more focused film, but also a much darker one. To some degree I can see how this would make for a less entertaining film, but it almost makes for a more interesting one.

Unfortunately, in terms of blockbuster filmmaking, the summer of 1989 was a watershed year. While Ghostbusters opened to mostly positive reviews and one of the highest opening weekends of the year, it only lasted one week at number one and by a month into its run it had largely vanished from theatres altogether. So what happened? Quite simply, Batman (and Honey I Shrunk the Kids) happened the following week and Indiana Jones got his revenge that summer by making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which opened 2 weeks prior to Ghostbusters 2) a better film with longer staying power. Ghostbusters 2 made just barely over $100 million, but was still seen as a large disappointment and falling well short of its budget once marketing and advertising were factored into the cost.

Ghostbusters 2, from that point on, was really the first case of a film that crossed the $100 million mark and was still seen as a disappointment. Many people at the time changed their opinions of the sequel and called it superfluous. In fact, the summer of 1989 yielded more disappointing returns on sequels than any year prior. 1989 was the year that almost killed off Friday the 13th (with Jason Takes Manhattan) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (with The Dream Child). The Karate Kid III (which is far more superfluous) and Star Trek V all vastly underperformed in comparison to their previous series high points and highest grossing entries. This was also the summer that ended Timothy Dalton's all to brief run as James Bond with License to Kill. Other than Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 was the only other sequel to connect with audiences in 1989.



Many analysts at the time (read: people who want to sound smart) suggested that the 5 year difference between the original and the sequel, lead to the generally negative public reception towards Ghostbusters 2. These people tend to forget that the previous Indiana Jones film was also released the same year as Ghostbusters. It is just an argument that doesn't hold any water. Much in the same way the argument that Ghostbusters 2 is a vastly inferior film than the original. It isn't the same as the original, but it certainly never deserved the drubbing it has gotten since its release. Why don't you go and see it for yourself and on its own merits? You know, like any movie should be seen?

For further reading on how awesome the story behind the making of Ghostbusters was, track down a copy of Making Ghostbusters, edited by Don Shay and including the uncut final shooting script of the film with notes and annotations from Reitman, Aykroyd, and Ramis. The book is out of print, but is a must have for Ghostbusters fans. For more on the poor performance of Ghostbusters 2 at the box office, check out American Cinema of the 1980s, edited by Stephen Prince, which is an invaluable resource for cultural context on films from the 1980s.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tremors

Tremors screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Wednesday, October 13th at 9:00pm.

Tremors is a crowd pleasing film with multiple sand worm tongues firmly planted in cheek. Tremors does not aspire to be any form of higher art. It's aim is simply to entertain. That's not to say that Tremors is not a scary or thrilling film. It is the perfect mix of 80s and 90s self-reflexivity, 70s grindhouse, and 50s and 60s schlock. Much like the more recent cult favorite Slither, Tremors deftly balances the funny with the serious in a creative, and admittedly good looking, manner.


Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play a pair of brothers in the process of leaving the one horse mountain town of Perfection, Nevada. They are sick of doing everyone's odd jobs and are looking for brighter, less sandy pastures. On their way out of town, however, they stumble across a series of gristly murders and hightail it back to town. After doing some further research the town's residents and a seismologist working in the desert notice that there are giant sand worms burrowing under their feet. These sand worms can't see, but travel by sense of sound and touch. If you are making any kind of noise, they will find you and kill you. They are also very patient. If you stand in one place too long, they will wait for you to either screw up or die. The monsters are also, for the most part, vastly smarter than their prey.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward have such great chemistry together that not only can you believe them as brothers, but you also wish they had done more movies together (sadly, Tremors spawned three Bacon-less sequels and two sans Ward). Bacon is perfect as the more bumbling, yet oddly more professional sounding brother and Ward is perfectly suited to play the good-old-boy man of action. The supporting cast is also filled with familiar faces such as Rebe McEntire as the wife of a gun nut survivalist and John Carpenter favorite Victor Wong as the owner of the town general store/diner.

Ron Underwood hasn't made too many good films as of later (cough, cough The Adventures of Pluto Nash, cough), but Tremors ranks along side City Slickers as Underwood's best. Underwood has created a film that is really hard not to like. It isn't what people like to refer to as "pure entertainment." Instead, it is pure fun. During the first screening of Tremors at the Underground, the crowd was cheering and laughing along with the film all the way, leading to a raucous applause by the film's conclusion. If you haven't seen Tremors yet and are in need of a good time or a pick me up, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Blade II

Blade II screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Wednesday October 12th at 7:00pm.

When released in the late summer of 1998, the first Blade film was a sleeper success. Blade debuted before the glut of comic book based films flooded the market and it starred Wesley Snipes, who hadn't been a bankable star for a few years by that point. It deftly mixed horror, extreme action, martial arts, and humorous one-liners into an intoxicating junk food cocktail that was a feast for the eyes and ears. It didn't really care that it didn't have a brain in its head; it simply gave the audience what they wanted in the form of wall to wall gore and some really impressive fight choreography.



Blade's success made a sequel pretty much inevitable, but the second entry in the series feels like a very different film. Blade II tapped the talents of a then only-kinda-sorta-known Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labrynth, Hellboy, Cronos) to direct a story that was far more dense than the thinly plotted original. Fans at the time were left kind of divided by what to think of Blade II. While some fans very rightfully agreed that it was a much more prestigious film than the original, many others complained that it was overlong and that it wasn't so much a vampire action film as it was a strange hybrid zombie-vampire-creature feature.

Our hero, the vampire turned vampire slayer Blade (Snipes) and his caretaker Whistler (Kris Kristopherson) are approached by The High Council of Vampires and their group of mercenaries known as The Bloodpack with an uneasy truce. A new virus known as the Reaper virus is infecting not only vampires, but they people they bite as well. This virus turns a vampire into monsters with heads that open completely and an appetite that causes to feed on a more constant basis than normal. Blade reluctantly agrees to lead The Bloodpack into battle, all while rightfully watching his back, as he sees The Reapers as a very credible threat to both humans and vampires alike.

While considerably longer and yet better paced, Blade II still subscribes to the bigger is better philosophy of making a sequel. While the original was gory enough in its own right, Blade II adds buckets more gore to the mix, especially in the beginning and opening sequences. The look of The Reapers alone is scarier than anything in the original, and even the fight choreography (courtesy of co-star Donnie Yen) is a step above its predecessor. The production design (which was overseen to some degree by Hellboy comic creator Mike Mignola) is a lot darker and more gothic than the more high society looking and club-centric original (which unfortunately the next film in the franchise would return to). Blade II is superior to Blade in almost every way. This is a great example of how a good director can add new life to a franchise at almost any point.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Anaconda

Anaconda screens on Friday, October 8th, at 7:00pm at Toronto Underground Cinema.

I am not exactly sure when it happened, but it did. Well, it probably happened as soon at the trailer was released, but Anaconda has managed to become a bit of a cult hit spawning 3 really terrible sequels that are starting to give Troll 2 a run for its money, and even then only one of them stars David Hasselhoff. Recently, people have actually started talking about it again. It is also an example of the rare killer snake film that actually works. Sure, you could argue that Snakes on a Plane sets the standard for ludicrous killer snake epics, but that film lacked the cast that Anaconda has and a real sense of "fuck it we are in a movie with a giant killer snake so lets just ham it up" playfulness that a lot of films seem to be missing these days. The plot is pretty much threadbare and in terms of performances scenery isn't merely chewed; it is gnashed, ground up, regurgitated, and eaten again. Thanks a lot Jon Voight.

Also, the trailer itself has the most overblown stock narration ever.



Anaconda focuses on a National Geographic style film crew sent to document a long thought lost Amazonian tribe. There is the director (Jennifer Lopez, looking pretty bored and tired), the camera man (Ice Cube, who I am convinced can make even the worst films oddly watchable), the professor (Eric Stoltz), the sound guy (Owen Wilson, back when he only had bit parts in films where he died), and the narrator of the documentary they are shooting (Jonathan Hyde). It isn't long before they happen upon a mysterious fisherman in need of assistance. That is where Jon Voight comes in.

Voight in Anaconda isn't just mugging as the riverboat captain who usurps the documentary crew for his own nefarious purpose of capturing the worlds largest snake. He is an entire mug factory. A mug factory where all the mugs are already filled with quadruple shots of espresso. The movie gets off to a bit of a slow start, but it seems like as soon as Voight is on screen, the rest of the cast falls into line and they all realize the kind of movie they are actually making. The performances other than Voight's are suitably cheesy for the material, especially from Cube, Wilson, and Hyde who all throw themselves at the material in ways that only they can.

Anaconda got a bit of a bad reputation when people saw the trailer and automatically thought that was the worst giant snake ever committed to celluloid. People were up in arms that the CGI on display looked barely finished, but the best part is that with the exception of wide shots, the anaconda in the film is made from nothing but practical effects. It is actually better than some critics give it credit for.

Calling Anaconda a good film is a bit of a stretch, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun to watch, especially with a lot of friends while shouting at the screen. It is, however, everything a giant killer snake film should be. It is ridiculous, silly, at times actually kinda gross, slightly scary, and pretty easy to get into. Also, Jon Voight. Good God is there some Jon Voight in this.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Blob (1988)

The Blob screens at Toronto Underground Cinema this Thursday, October 7th, at 9:30pm. It screens again on Wednesday October 13th at 7:00pm.

Director Chuck Russell's remake of the 1958 horror classic The Blob belongs in the same rarefied air as David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. It is one of the few horror remakes that outdoes the original while not damaging the reputation of the source material. But while Cronenberg wants you to seemingly forget the original Fly, Russell wants you to remember the original fondly, but while significantly upping the ante. Sadly, the audiences of 1988 were largely indifferent to a large gelatinous mass that dissolved everything it came in contact with, but thanks to the new found notoriety of co-writer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, the upcoming The Walking Dead television series), The Blob has finally begun to find its audience as the cult hit it deserves to be.



The plot template for The Blob remains generally the same this time around. A meteor crash lands in the economically depressed ski community of Arborville. When youngsters Meg (Shawnee Smith of the Saw franchise) and Paul (80s B-movie icon Donovan Leitch) discover a homeless man with a blob attached to him they attempt to find help. When no one believes Meg when she starts telling people the blob is growing rapidly and killing people, she turns to the town hooligan, Brian (Entourage's Kevin Dillon), for help.

This time around the blob isn't simply from outer space. The meteor, as it turns out, was actually a military satellite and that the military plans to contain and use the blob as part of a germ warfare experiment. The military quickly mobilizes to quarantine Arborville, giving Meg and Brian yet another hoop to jump through.

Much like Thursday's earlier film The Host, Russell and Darabont's Blob is very much a product of the time and place in which it was made. The original Steve McQueen starring Blob was easily the best of the "red scare" horror films of the 1950's and in any incarnation the blob works as both a symbol for Communism or capitalism depending on how you choose to read the film. Both dirty little C-words were also at the forefront of culture during the "me decade." By the late 1980s, the cold war was beginning to show signs of slowing down, but the Star Wars weapons program and the Iran Contra arms-for-hostages debacle both left a bad taste in the mouths of the public at large. With the remake a new form of red scare is posited in a time of more accelerated and open nuclear armament and a new fear of biological threats.

While the original Blob is good, campy fun, the remake is almost non-stop action. The suspense never lets up for a second despite a larger focus on the love story the original film glossed over. The Blob also maintains the blend of terror, dark humor, and special effects (all of which are practical effects, no CGI blobs or gore here) that were so beautifully on display in Russell and Darabont's previous collaboration, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Also, much like any truly great horror film any character can die at any time. The blob is literally a cold killing machine with no brain or sense of thought at all. It simply kills regardless of gender, age, or status, and under Russell's direction it does so quite graphically.

Time has been kind to Blob '88 and it more than deserves a second look. Fans of Darabont (who, as fans of The Mist know, is not afraid to touch a nerve or two with shocking plot developments) or fans of our earlier film The Host should get a lot of mileage out of this one. It has the power to shock even the hardest of hearts and there are surprises aplenty. Much like the original, the filmmakers and the management of the Toronto Underground Cinema disclaim any and all responsibility from heart attacks, fainting, or other damage to the nerves as a result of watching The Blob.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Host

The Host screens at Toronto Underground Cinema on Thursday October 7th at 7:00pm.

The Host (a.k.a. Gwoemul, meaning monster) is a lot of different films disguised as what can easily be categorized as a creature feature. It is not only a riveting horror film, but it is also a family drama, a quirky "indie" comedy, a political thriller, and a biting satire. Combining all these elements could spell disaster for a lesser film, but The Host is easily the best creature based horror film of the past decade.



Several years after an American military adviser orders a South Korean morgue attendant to dump hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, a giant mutant squid emerges from the Han River and begins terrorizing the streets of Seoul. In the middle of a bravura opening attack sequence, a snack bar worker named Park (Kang-ho Song) watches his youngest daughter pulled into the sewers by the creature. Before Park and his family can even mourn or move on, the South Korean government and military mobilize to quarantine anyone who has come in contact with the monster under suspicions that it is carrying a deadly virus similar to SARS. Shortly after, Park receives a phone call from his daughter on a dying cell phone. Park's family then bands together to track down the missing girl in the sewers.

Much like any creature feature, The Host is largely allegorical, symbolic, and partially based in truth. Back in 2000, the American military really did order the disposal of formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals by ordering them dumped down everyday common drainage pipes until eventually the contaminants reached the Han and severely poisoned the water supply. Also, let us not forget that no matter how bad Toronto suffered through SARS, China and South Korea were ground zero for the outbreak, thus making them the world's scapegoat. Notice that no one put on a major outdoor concert for their benefit.

While many critics are quick to point out that director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho's film is largely anti-American (which it certainly is), it also criticizes the hypocrisy inherent in every government on Earth. When a crisis happens anywhere, people seem to feel the need to concoct yet another crisis almost immediately. This is either to perpetuate a myth, create a false sense of community that wouldn't exist otherwise, to stimulate the economy, or to simply save face. In the case of The Host and its virus scare, it is for all these reasons. It just goes to show how fear can be used to sell any idea, no matter how outlandish and potentially untrue it might be.

The family dynamic on display here is also refreshing to see. Not only is it a rarity in horror films to see a family band together against a common evil, but we also rarely get a family this off-beat outside of an American indie comedy. Park is a slow witted, almost tragic everyman living in the shadow of his father. He has another daughter who is a reluctant archer and a lazy alcoholic activist for a son. This isn't exactly a crew of people you would expect to be helping anyone; they can barely help themselves. But they are still family and willing to fight to keep it together. After all, when your own government lets you down, what else do you have to count on?

Watching The Host is a bit like standing on a balance beam and having things thrown at you that just get progressively bigger and heavier over time. The tone of the film is schizophrenic to say the least. A scene can go from slapstick to deadly serious in a matter of seconds. Joon-ho is perfectly capable of keeping the shifts under control and he definitely understands that to make a successful scary movie, you need to first lull your audience into a false sense of security.

The Host is the most successful South Korean film of all time and it is very easy to see why. Instead of going the easy route and aping the more simplistic (but no less allegorical) Godzilla films, Joon-ho instead uses American paranoia films like War of the Worlds and The Blob to his own advantage. The creature in this film is not something that can be reasoned with or seen as anything good. It certainly does not discriminate when it comes to choosing victims. Paranoia and terror go hand in hand, but rarely are they ever as entertaining and thrilling as they are here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Crank

Crank screens at Toronto Underground Cinema this Saturday, October 2nd, at 7:00pm.

Crank is a blatantly implausible and, at times, a highly offensive exercise in excess. Not only does the plot of Crank not make a lick of sense, but it continually goes out of it's way to find a line to cross. This is all a wonderful thing, however, since Crank is the very rare example of a film that manages to make such craziness work. After all, if you were going to make a film that was essentially an overtly violent live action video game (and I am not talking about the interesting but fatally flawed Gamer from the same directors), why do you need to follow any sort of rules or template. Much like the hero of crank, creators Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor simply go for it at every turn and throw all sense of logic and good taste to the wind.



Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is having a really bad day. He is a hitman caught up between rival gangs in Los Angeles: one Asian and one Mexican, both of which seemingly want him dead. After a hit goes wrong and he is double crossed, he is injected with a "Beijing cocktail," a chemical designed to kill someone within an hour if the affected person does not keep their heart rate up. Chev has become the human equivalent of the bus from Speed. The film simply watches Chelios bounce around like a pinball as he has to find new and creative ways of keeping his adrenaline pumping. With the help of his girlfriend (Amy Smart) and pretty deranged doctor (Dwight Yoakham), Chev is determined to take out everyone responsible for his forthcoming demise.

That is pretty much it in a nutshell. Crank does not aspire to be some sort of higher art, unless you consider the Grand Theft Auto video game series as a set of masterpieces. While I am very hesitant to start the whole "video games can never be works of art" argument here, I can safely say that films can be works of art, even when they don't particularly make a lot of sense. Crank is something that despite any faults that it might have could be considered a work of art. It is playful, humorous, inspires a gut reaction in people for better or worse, pushes limits, and for a brief second might make you reconsider just what is possible in a film. Also, unlike a video game adaptation, Crank is far more original. It is also the very rare example of a game that is far more fun to watch than it is to play. That is, if Crank was ever made into a game at all. For the sake of the film, I am kind of glad they didn't make it into one.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger screens tonight, Friday, October 1st at 9:00pm at Toronto Underground Cinema.



Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is a disgraced mountain rescue specialist. Not only can he not forgive himself for not being able to hang on to a stranded hiker while crossing a dangerous ravine, his closest co-worker, Hal (Michael Rooker, for once playing a somewhat nice guy in comparison to most of his roles), wants nothing to do with him. His ex-love interest Jessie (Janine Turner) is getting ready to leave him since she has barely seen Gabe in months, and eight months later when the film picks up again, she is throwing him out of the house.

During all of this, a Federal Treasury aircraft has crashed into the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This plane was hijacked by a ruthless psychopath (John Lithgow) and his team of lackeys and inside men in an effort to get away with $100,000,000 in cash. The mountain rangers are unaware of the plane's true status and Hal is sent into the mountains to assist. When things go South in a hurry, Gabe is coaxed back into helping the stranded passengers, but is instead enlisted by the villains to get back the briefcases full of cash that are now strewn about the mountains.

Cliffhanger just might be one of the most gorgeous action-adventure films ever made, and it is a testament to what director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight) can do when he has great material to work with. You can say what you will about flops like Cutthroat Island and his more recent output of sub-B movie schlock, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence. The cinematography is gorgeous and needs to be experienced on a big screen to truly appreciate it.

The action sequences come fast and furious, but never feel gratuitous since the cat and mouse game playing out between Stallone and Lithgow is very well thought out. Gabe has survival skills on his side and is pitted against someone who will do anything to ensure his own survival and personal level of comfort. As far as performances go, Stallone is great and his work here is pretty underrated when compared to his other sillier action films, but Lithgow pretty much puts this thing in a giant metal suitcase and walks away with it. His portrayal of Qualen is so far over the top that it almost carries him off the mountain.

Upon its release, Cliffhanger was a modest hit that found an even larger following on home video. I think it is definitely time to reexamine this lost classic. You will probably find out that it is much better than you remembered it being. Also, who wants to watch a movie with gorgeous mountain scenery AND explosions on a screen in the middle of a living room? Cliffhanger is a big screen thrill ride through and through.