Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 27, 2006


Three friends—a failed medical student named Bill Johnson, a geeky mathematician named Max Giggs, and a discredited ex-wrestling champion named John West—suddenly learn that zombies are overrunning their small Argentinean suburb. These are not your typical living dead, however. They are smarter, cleverer, and apparently controlled by forces beyond an inherent urge to kill and eat flesh. Hoping to escape, they discover that the FBI has quarantined the city, locking them in with the uncontrollable undead. While battling for their lives and looking for a means out of harm’s way, they run into an injured agent with a secret map. If they can decode the floppy disk and learn the route, they are saved. But it will take more than computing skills to win the day. Our pals are smack dab in the heart of the Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, and in this terrifying domain, it’s kill or be killed.


Here it is, all you home-movie hopefuls—100 percent proof positive that epic entertainment can be crafted out of a camcorder, a cast and crew of friends, and a great deal of cinematic creativity. This bravado brainchild of Argentinean auteurs Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez is like watching Peter Jackson’s private personal video experiments, or Sam Raimi’s first forays into Evil Dead-based fright. Consisting of two installments in a proposed trilogy, Plaga Zombie (“Zombie Plague”) and its sensational sequel, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, these movies represent the height of auspicious outsider moviemaking. Within a total combined running time of nearly three hours, we are introduced to a sensational selection of instantly memorable characters, transported into a completely believable parallel universe where zombies rule the streets, and witness to filmmaking expertise so skillful and wise that you’d never imagine it was the effort of able-bodied amateurs.


In a pair of films loaded with amazing moments, there are several that shine above others. Our fallen hero, wrestler John West, shows off his insane collection of self-promotion memorabilia (including a catchy sing-along theme) that predates the similarly styled Toy Story II sequence. Zombies pretend to be ninjas, rappers, and players in a pretty mean game of Texas Hold-em. Max rips the arm off a corpse and uses it like a martial arts weapon, while Bill employs a long strand of intestines—complete with perfunctory farting noises—to keep his adversaries at bay. There are swipes from Back to the Future, The Matrix, and even the post-9/11 war on terror. And then there are the fight scenes—one remarkably well done, expertly choreographed, and stunningly filmed/edited sequence after another of friend vs. fiend fisticuffs that challenge, and even surpass, the efforts of bigger budgeted films. One of the major problems homemade movies have, especially when it comes to action, is the creation of credible controlled chaos. The usual result of an amateur stunt sequence is underdeveloped, static motion that looks like obese octogenarians swing dancing. But here, a combination of filmmaking joy and dogged determination results in a truly blazon battle royale. You can actually feel your pulse start to race the minute John, Bill, and Max step up to take on another unruly horde of the living dead.


Gore hounds will also get their red stuff rocks off over and over again during this dizzying display of no-budget effects. Heads split, guts spill, limbs crack open and ooze, and buckets of blood battle with barrels of bile for slime supremacy. There are more decapitations, eviscerations, and discombobulations in this film than in a dozen direct-to-video vomitoriums. The closest comparison to the claret carnage and pus pandemonium included here is the similar stage grue grandstanding in Peter Jackson’s non-hobbit epics Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Certainly, some of the effects are substandard and look like they were conceived and created on the spot with poster paint and bird feces, but when inserted into this amalgamation of action, sci-fi, and slapstick, the result is a completely entertaining flesh feast, a film that becomes its own mythos and its own legitimate horror legacy. Like watching how Sam Raimi reinvented the demonic possession film to conform to his own inner aesthetic of excitement and originality, the gang at FASCA Producciones have taken the undead genre and removed all the social commentary and realistic validation. Instead, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone (along with the original film) becomes a new manner of monster movie, a showcase of fright film forged out of fandom, devotion, and a true fascination with the motion picture macabre that came before.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 20, 2006


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see specters, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.


Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA’s work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans—and ILM in particular. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.


Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his film. For him, it wasn’t just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics. Thanks to the added footage included in the new director’s cut, we get to see Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film. Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently artistic and accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.


But it’s the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox—near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles—finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone’s favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he’s reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.


One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we’d want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director’s cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 13, 2006


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, among many others) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath.


Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility, Like all great genre efforts, The Other uses a familiar foundation—in this case, a child’s reaction to death and other domestic strife—to forge a significant supernatural pathway. Tyron wants us to see the unsettled state of youth and how it can easily, and eerily, turn over to the dark side. Through an expert maintenance of atmosphere and action, along with a directorial flair that never telegraphs the tricks or overemphasizes certain elements, we wind up with a significant motion picture masterpiece, a missing link in the growing maturation of the overall genre.


This is not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em shocker however, even without its delicious third act denouement. No, like the slowly decaying portrait of Dorian Gray, Mulligan and Tyron use the idyllic backdrop of the Perry estate—all Victorian flounce and spreading countryside—and slowly begin to peel back the paint. Soon, evil is uncloaked in the secrets being stored inside—all the dead bodies, all the shattered souls, all the unspoken horrors. One of the most successful elements of The Other is its perfectly paced storytelling. Mulligan never rushes his reveal, never hurries his delicate horrors. Instead, he moves us through this summer of suffering and has us in the palm of his knotty narrative right from the start.


We are intrigued by the presence of a mother pining away in her self-imposed exile, of the fruit cellar where father died, the grouchy neighbor hinting at the devilment contained inside the twins, and the odd symbiotic siblings who seem carved out of one complete identity. Setting each one of these inherently interesting pieces inside his jaded jigsaw, Mulligan makes us care about the characters and the circumstances first. Then, once he has us hooked, he is more than capable of turning the suspense screws. A literal reflection of the personal fears onscreen, The Other is so magnificently moody that future filmmakers should study it for lessons in how to create, and control, angst and dread.


That’s because, at its heart, The Other is a film that uses calm and ease to manage corruption and evil. Its story is a symbol of both sides of the human personality, in ways both obvious (the twins) and less iconic (the mother’s madness, Ada’s affection). While it does trade on substance that is both stereotypical (the bad-seed brother) and surreal (the “game” that the boys and Ada play), this masterful horror film never once loses its amazing, frightening focus. We feel the cold hand of destiny enveloping the Perrys in its vice-like (and filled) grip. We sense the damaging truths lying just beneath the frilly lace and country quaintness. Victims make themselves known from the moment we lay eyes on them—they pretend to see beneath the surface and must pay the ultimate price for doing so.


Yet the villainy here is varied—in the eyes of a child, the lost look of a fractured mother, the acquiescing affection of an elderly grandmother. Some or all play a part in the death surrounding The Other’s often ordinary elements. When we get to the telling twists—made a little less effective because of time and familiarity, not anything inherent in the movie—we feel somewhat vindicated for our suspicions. Then The Other takes another, more mean-spirited step and, suddenly, all bets are off. The final shot fulfills all the promise only hinted at during the rest of the film, and makes us reconsider everything that came before.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 6, 2006


After spending the better part of the ‘60s on The Andy Griffith Show – and winning five Emmys for his sensational supporting work as the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts was lured by Universal into an exclusive feature film contract. His first effort for the studio was this lightweight horror comedy centering on nervous typesetter named Luther Heggs and a local legend about the ghosts that haunt the sinister Simmon’s house. Tailored to his specific talents, it was a project perfectly suited for Knotts. After all, no one at the time did physical anxiety the way this mannerism master did. He could make an audience antsy just by saying ‘Hello’. Here, Heggs was even jumpier than Mayberry’s less than finest. With a script created specifically by Griffith scribes James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and solid direction from small screen journeyman Alan Rafkin (responsible for episodes of everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched) what started out as a standard star vehicle quickly became a family film classic.


At first glance, this all does look like your typical Knotts material – fidgety town joke with a vivid imagination and a reputation for abusing same, gorgeous gal who won’t give our hero the time of day, overbearing bully who finds Luther offensive as a co-worker and a human being, and an ordinary cinematic mystery involving a haunting, an unsolved crime from the past, and the requisite red herrings strewn throughout the sensational supporting cast. While most fans focus on the sensational – and somewhat scary – haunted house set pieces (the blood-riddled pipe organ, the secret stairwell, the portrait with a pair of gardening sheers jammed in its throat) it’s actually the heart that confirms The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s consideration as a masterwork. Knotts is such a well meaning mensch, the kind of instantly likeable sad sack that we hope will eventually succeed, that we can’t help but empathize with his plight. The fetching Alma seems to care for our coward, but with the dishonorable Ollie around to interfere with their budding attraction, we wind up with a sensational subplot of love unrequited to go along with all the macabre-based merriment.


As witty as it is wise, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken boasts another element that many post-modern movies can’t even begin to find, and that’s a combination of slapstick and character-based comedy. Most current films try to milk laughs out of ludicrous situations, standard gross out gags and superficial sexual innuendo. But every member of the town is terrifically realized, from the spooky Mr. Kelsey to the Mayor’s paranormally obsessed wife Halcyon. With dialogue strewn with wonderfully memorable lines (“And they used Bon Ami”…“Let me clarify this”…“Attaboy Luther!”) and a wrap up that makes us appreciate just how much we care for these characters, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a landmark of lovingly crafted cleverness. One should ignore the dismissive tone of the ‘too cool for school’ generation and embrace this movie for the gentle gem it is. Luther may be a variation on the village idiot, but in the end, it’s his courage and conviction that matter. It’s an important message that bolsters what is a mini-masterpiece of a movie.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 29, 2006


Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?


Yes and no. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.


Penn’s 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.


The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn’s other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don’t come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.


In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson’s work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn’s follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse’s character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.


My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn’t sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line “you can’t judge a book by its cover” as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.


While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.