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Sunday
Nov082009

Dead Air, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Talk Until You Drop

Throughout the movie Gremlins we hear a corny disc jockey named Rockin’ Ricky Rialto. At first he’s just ambient noise playing on people’s radios, but as the film progresses and the town of Kingston Falls is besieged by little green monsters, the DJ’s broadcasts become more sporadic and panicked. Though we never see Ricky or his studio, these intermittent audio accounts painted a vivid picture in my eight-year-old mind; they helped broaden the scope of the movie in ways that I wouldn’t appreciate until years later. I was reminded of Gremlins while watching Corbin Bernsen’s surprisingly good new zombie movie, Dead Air.

I’ll be up front in acknowledging my three strikes against the film before even having watched it. First, it was another zombie movie; I love them, but it seems we’re drowning in an undead pop cultural glut right now, with so much easy, bad media that it’s easy to forget the good stuff. From comics to movies to punk bands who take the stage with half-eaten-face makeup, I often find myself wishing this sub-genre would take a powerful shotgun blast to the face (a double-tap, in fact, for good measure). My second trepidation was Bill Moseley; I’ve been doing a lot of homework in preparation for the Crypticon Celebrity Dinner, and while I generally like Bill Moseley’s performances, he tends to be the best thing about the movies in which he appears (Repo! The Genetic Opera has the distinction of being one of The Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen). Strike three: Dead Air went direct to DVD; not a confidence booster. Fortunately, none of these strikes mattered by film’s end.

A giddy mash-up of Talk Radio, 28 Days Later, and the television show 24, Dead Air is the story of late-night L.A. shock jock Logan Bernhardt (Moseley) who has the misfortune of being on the air during the zombie apocalypse. The film opens with a group of terrorists planting toxic canisters in the air ducts of a sports arena; as with any bona fide zombie picture, something goes wrong and the canisters are prematurely opened, gassing not only the intended target but also the terrorists. The victims experience a sickness that builds into feral rage, which keeps their bodies animated and hungry even after death. Many in the panicked populace call in to Logan’s radio show, the only one in town that hasn’t switched to the Emergency Broadcast System.

This movie has a number of things going for it. The first being that it partially updates Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio for the modern age; both films featured broken men talking about paranoia to a broken audience in uncertain times. Eric Bogosian’s performance is a tough to beat, but Moseley brings a nice interpretation to the archetype. He’s a laid back version of the ratings-mad conspiracy junky, his energy is more curious than accusatory. Another thing I like about Dead Air is that it doesn’t focus on gore effects; too many zombie stories are excuses to show people getting ripped apart in ways that out-splatter previous attempts, but Corbin Bernsen rightly ignores the rubbernecker impulse and keeps things moving. It was more shocking to me, a jaded film watcher, to not see gratuitous evisceration.

I don’t want to put this movie over too much; it’s not perfect. My main gripe is that I wish it had maintained the intimacy of its premise. We leave the studio too often, following Logan’s radio sidekick (David Moscow) as he races through town on a motorbike in search of Logan’s family. There’s also a lot of unnecessary business involving the terrorists, with Delta Force-level dialogue about honor and sacrifice. There’s a nice development where the main perpetrator breaks into Logan’s studio and demands that the DJ say something unconscionable on the air, but that’s a faint glimmer in an otherwise very broad characterization. Had Dead Air been a bit ballsier and hedged closer to the one-act play feel of Talk Radio, it might have been truly special instead of a pleasantly engaging novelty; it’s much more interesting to hear the callers go from gabbing about nothing to reaching out to the lone voice in the night who can offer comfort at the end of the world than it is to watch another monster home invasion scene.

I highly recommend Dead Air for fans of the genre that are looking for a fresh take. I’ve spent a good deal of time comparing this to other films, but it becomes unique by combining the best elements of those movies in ways you may not expect. Like Quentin Tarantino’s look into the world of hit men’s off-hours in Pulp Fiction, Dead Air answers questions about how people in the media might react to an undead uprising; it’s the flip side of the typical zombie movie trope where people are holed up in a house, trying to get news on the attacks, and believing that whoever is broadcasting it is in a safer place than they are.

Note: Over dinner last night, I asked Bill Moseley about Dead Air’s origins, and he shared a fascinating bit of trivia regarding casting. His friend, Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), referred him to the project, and Moseley initially read for the role of Gil, the DJ sidekick. Corbin Bernsen, the director, was slated to play Logan Bernhardt, but the producers thought that having a name genre actor as the star would be a much savvier move than giving the part to someone whose biggest horror credit was The Dentist. This apparently caused some tension on the set, but Moseley said he channeled that energy into his performance. It worked.

Sunday
Nov012009

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Titties!!!

Note: This morning, I received an e-mail from a reader calling himself t1tfan69_97. It is not Kicking the Seat’s policy to run guest commentary, but in the interest of shaking things up a bit, I invite you to check out the following review in its uncensored, original form.

Sup Kickseat? I checkded the new Rob Zomby movie Haunted World of el Superbesto and thot you might like a reveiw. I looooove you’re site and thot you should see this movie its off the chain fo sho. Just sos you know where i’m coming from I like all the Rob Zomby movies like Haloween and Haloween 2 and even that one with the carnival house and the bodies init; Devils Rejecs was oober lame cuz there wasnt hardly any blood or tits and there was 2 much charactersization in it.

But anywaze I saw Suberbeasto on dvd and, man does Rob Zomibe outdo himself with this one. If your into like the cartoons of the modern times like Ren an Stimpy and you like tha Cartoon Network Adult swim and all that cool shit ur gonna love EL superBeasto. It doesn’t waist time on like plots and making you get all feely and gay with getting to no the people in it cuz Rob Zombie nos that shit is strait up 4 art movies and peeple who think movies are supposed to be good all the time. Its the story of a guy whose like a loocha/Library named L. Superbeestoe and he gets tha mad pussy when he makes movies with nekkid bitches in em. Until one day his sister whose got the voice of Baby from Devils Rejecs and she only has one i and the others a patch, she shows up and is all “like, you gotta help me stop Doctor Satin from ruling the world” and look out theres nazi Zombys. So l Superbesto and the one i chick fitght monsters and they have all these monsters from others movies like Dr. Fibes and Letherface and the alien and Jack Nickels from Shining in it cuz I guess Rob Zombie likes omages to the other monster movies. But they fight dr. Satin and you know where its all going from after minit five but theres’ still like almost a hour and-a half left to go.

BUT the best part of the movie is the titties! You get to see every bitch in this movies’ tits and there all of em really big and round and they don’t move and they all look like the same perfect plastic boobs like on the really old baywatcher girl—the one with the sex tape who was on that tv show with the santa clauze back in the 90s—but you also get to see they’re asses and one of the girls—i dont remember who cuz they all kinda look the same after awile—but you get to see her fuckin beaver!!!

Theres also lots of noise and explostions and people killing and cutting and shooting and its real good, like i said it doesn’t wast your time on stories and boring parts cause it you have a whole team of animaters who went to school for a long time and got degrees and stuff youdont want them to bother with “emotions” and new things no ones ever seen cuz that’s all faggy stuff when you can see blood and explosins and Nazis (but not like the bad nazies there zombys -and hitlers head is in a jar like in futurama—but this movie makes that idea more original). Me and my friends downloaded this movie and finnished watching it before homeroom yesterday and they all thot it was fuckin awesome 2.

I read on Imdb that theres alot of famus voices in the movie like Paul Giamatti and Rosario Dawson—and its cool cuz her charcter shows her titties and I imagined it was HER titties and that was cool cuz shes usually one of those actreses whos above doing this kind of shit in real life. But if you look at all the voices in this movie you wonder if Rob Zomby had like blackmale stuff on them cuz how else could he get all these respectable peopl in this crazy fucked up cartoon?! I doubt they even red the script or whatrever.

All in all if your a fan of Zombys other movies this is something REALLY DIFFERENT cause its not as serebereal in fact if you like “good” movies you might turn it off after ten minutes. But if you like tits and talking monkeys and old jokes told by naked girls who show there bushes off while killing zombies and the devil and a robot witha penis thats a joystick, your gonna love eL SUPERBESATO!

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Friday
Oct302009

Black Christmas (1974)

Different Seasons

The Chateau Grrr Crypticon celebrity dinner is just over a week away. In honor of future plate-mate Margot Kidder, I present the following video review…

Bob Clark directed Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

I love that.

Before watching Black Christmas, I had no idea how groundbreaking the movie was for the stalk-and-slash genre, or how greatly it would influence two of the most subversive and successful comedies of all time. This is an odd film, and if you look at it through the right lens, it is a brilliant (if flawed) piece of entertainment.

Cinephiles will have the most fun watching the picture simply because of all the random people who show up in it; they certainly won’t be captivated by the plot, which centers on a sorority house beset by eerie prank phone calls and a couple of murders. Olivia Hussey stars as Jess, one of the sisters, who learns that she’s carrying her boyfriend Peter’s baby; a post-2001 Keir Dullea who, at the time of filming, was almost forty years old plays Peter (an early-twenties graduate student—talk about acting). Among the other housemates are comedienne Andrea Martin and future Lois Lane, Margot Kidder—whose part consists solely of drinking heavily, near-propositioning a cop, and passing out.

About the time of the sinister phone calls, one of the girls goes missing; she doesn’t disappear so much as get suffocated by a faceless killer and stuffed in the sorority house attic. The thirty-plus minutes leading up to the murder are rather excruciating, as they focus mainly on the mundane lives of the characters; the screenplay by Roy Moore could have used a lot more cattiness—or at least some additional sub-plots to keep the interest up. Fortunately, once the police are called in to investigate the disappearance and the calls, Black Christmas really picks up steam.

It helps that John Saxon plays the main cop, Lieutenant Fuller, as essentially a pre-drunkard version of his Donald Thompson character from A Nightmare on Elm Street. He works with Jess to run a trace on the phone calls (Side Note: this movie taught me where the term “running a trace” comes from: when Jess gets a call, we cut between her, Lieutenant Fuller, and a phone specialist in a giant room, running down long rows of towers trying to locate the signal; today he could probably just download an iPhone app and be done with it). The police in Black Christmas range from serious-minded investigators (Fuller) to well-intentioned idiots who spend their time doubling over in laughter at fellatio gags or going into hysterics while trying to convince a girl to calmly leave her house. Part of the movie’s magic is the way horror and comedy flow in and out of scenes with head-scratching regularity.

As I said before, Bob Clark pioneered the modern slasher movie, but Black Christmas is a very rough template. Conventions are sketched out here that would be filled in years later by the likes of John Carpenter (Halloween), Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), and to a lesser extent, Wes Craven (Elm Street). For example, a good stalk-and-slash movie either doesn’t waste the audience’s time getting to know a bunch of characters who have only been written in order to be creatively killed off; or the characters are so integral to the story that they are given interesting things to say or do. The sorority girls in Black Christmas are interchangeable, but are given way too much screen time between kills to bore us to death. Also, the killer in this movie is obviously Peter (Spoiler!); not only does he have the most distinctive silhouette of any of the characters, he is also the murderer by elimination (see Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters). Subsequent slasher films know to conceal the killer’s identity via mask or twist ending; in a way, Clark does this in his film, except the twist makes absolutely no goddamned sense (I won’t further spoil the ending, except to say that it must be seen to be believed). For students of horror, this film provides great insight into how different directors can take a handful of ideas that don’t quite work and turn them into genre-defining paradigms.

Beyond that, this truly weird movie contains shots and story ideas that Bob Clark would use in his later career. The film begins and ends with an exterior of the sorority house; the end is particularly eerie as we hear a phone ringing off the hook; this shot recalls A Christmas Story, which closes on the Parker home with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” blaring on the soundtrack. They are identical endings to very distinct holiday pictures. Also, the scene in the police station where the police can’t control their laughter at a blowjob joke appears to have been cut-and-pasted right into the principal’s office scene in Porky’s that followed the Peeping Tom shower prank.

If you’re not familiar with the films and conventions I’ve mentioned here, I don’t know what kind of enjoyment you’ll get out of Black Christmas; I can only appreciate it on the level of a hundred-minute in-joke (because I can’t un-watch the movies I’ve seen). To the casual modern viewer, this might come off as a slow, goofy relic from the Seventies. But I guess that’s like worrying over whether Twilight Fans will appreciate Chuck Klosterman: you’ll either get it or you won’t. Regardless, this film needs to be seen.

Note: If you’re thinking about skipping the original and settling for the remake, don’t. I saw 2006’s Black Christmas (the day after Christmas, in an empty theatre, with my friend, Brian) without having seen the original and I can’t remember anything about it except for a scene involving meat cookies. There are many more memorable scenes in the original, though it takes half the movie to get to them.

Monday
Oct262009

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, 2009

With a Little Help from My Fiends

It’s depressing, the amount of movies based on young-adult books that have been churned this decade. I have no problem with fantasy films aimed at kids, but there’s so little magic on the screen that one often wonders how the novels became so successful.

The sixth Harry Potter film is interchangeable with any of the others, suffering from a lack of forward momentum and villain-of-the-weak syndrome that killed Smallville four seasons ago (though both franchises continue to lurch forward like the living dead). The Golden Compass was supposed to kick-start a parallel Potter-for-girls franchise, but was so cold and by-the-numbers that I’m surprised there wasn’t a box office ticker on the screen. Fortunately, we now have Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, a movie that actually made me want to read the books it’s based on.

The story outline is origin boilerplate, but the details make it interesting: Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a popular high school student who visits a traveling freak show with his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). The boys witness bizarre feats by unusual performers like the wolf-man, snake-boy, and the bearded lady. There’s also a fat dancing spider, the pet of the Cirque’s enigmatic and flamboyant ringleader, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly); when Darren sneaks back stage to “borrow” the creature, he learns that Crepsley is actually a vampire—fortunately, he’s part of a faction that doesn’t kill humans. Through a series of events I won’t spoil here, Darren runs away with the Cirque, leaving Steve behind—not good, considering Steve is a social outcast from a broken home; he shows up later in the film, having found his own band of new friends who have no qualms about eating people.

Like the Potter and X-Men series, Cirque du Freak is heavy on mythology; the key difference is that here the filmmakers remember to load the first picture with characters and action. This isn’t just a set-up movie, where we meet a lot of mutants who show off their powers and fight a really lame, low-budget enemy; where you’re just interested enough to come back for Part Two (which will inevitably have a bigger budget, and—hopefully—a more worthwhile story). Cirque du Freak wisely introduces us to the freaks, in all their CG splendor, during an early performance of their stage show; after that, they’re relegated to background players while the story and effects budget focus on the conflicts of the hero’s journey. I was so relieved when, at the epic, climactic battle, the freaks didn’t show up and use their deformities as special powers to save the day.

I think the reason the movie works so well is that the people behind it know how to write and shoot for adults, which means they take the material seriously and almost don’t know how to dumb-down their work. Brian Helgeland adapted L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, and created the genre-bending A Knight’s Tale. Paul Weitz directed About A Boy and American Pie (he also produced The Golden Compass and appears to have learned a number of lessons since then). Cirque du Freak is suitable for older children, but comes off as a film aimed at adults. It doesn’t rely on talking animals or spells that solve every problem, and it touches on—but doesn’t dwell on—some heavy issues, like suicide and alienation. The movie is also visually engaging, always switching up camera angles and transitions in ways that more “legitimate” adult fare could stand to copy.

I really liked Cirque du Freak, but I didn’t love it—mostly because Chris Massoglia is not a very good actor, quite the problem since he’s the lead. I get that he’s supposed to be the audience stand-in, taking in all the wonder and adventure with blank-slate passivity, but this guy doesn’t even register. When John C. Reilly either had the spotlight or shared time with Massoglia, I was in heaven, but when the focus shifted back to the Darren character only, I tuned out. Harry Potter and The Golden Compass suffered from this problem, too, and I wish studios would simply invest in charismatic, edgy leads instead of playing it safe with actors who’d be upstaged by the staples in their Tiger Beat pin-ups. Fortunately, Reilly gets a lot of screen time, along with other terrific actors like Willem Dafoe, Patrick Fugit and Salma Hayek. Unlike a lot of serious performers who seem to take guest spots in kids’ movies to please their nephews and nieces, these actors look like they’re having fun—mostly because they’re not called upon to step on rakes or make stretchy faces to get through the movie. But there’s a black hole in the center of this movie, one that can only be plugged with some solid re-casting.

Meta-note: Cirque du Freak opened at number eight this weekend, which means we may not get a sequel. This is a shame. Perhaps audiences are tired of movies that look like The Spiderwick Chronicles or Bridge to Terabithia. I have a feeling Cirque du Freak will drown in the glut of bad children’s fantasy films, and can only hope it finds an audience on home video. But this is a movie that must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. I implore you to check it out before it’s gone; you don’t even have to bring the kids.

Saturday
Oct242009

Saw VI (2009)

Healing the Sixth

I really didn’t like Saw V. The original Jigsaw Killer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), had been dead since the third film, replaced by an un-charismatic thug cop named Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). A new batch of seemingly unrelated people were locked in a maze of elaborate traps, forced to work together to survive; neither the games nor the characters were as memorable as those from Saw II, where this plot-line was first injected into the series. Then there was the ending, in which the one remaining interesting character—a good cop named Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson)—was brutally killed off in a way that seemed unusually cruel, even for the franchise that unfairly birthed the term “torture porn.” The movie left me feeling depressed, angry, and sure that the Saw movies had finally run their course.

I went into Saw VI with marginal enthusiasm. The TV spots were customarily vague; the only thing I knew for sure was that Kramer would return, and a deadly merry-go-round was somehow part of the story. I felt sort of relieved, though, because I told myself that if (when) the movie sucked, I would be unburdened of my need to see any more sequels in the theatre—possibly ignoring them altogether. Fortunately for both my mood and for Lionsgate Films, I was pretty blown away by Saw VI.

“’Blown away?’” You might ask. “Really?”

To which I offer a qualified “yes.” While the movie does have its share of problems, director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan do two new things with this film: they tone down the gore and give the film a message. It’s not the same “you can’t appreciate life until you’ve faced death” message of the other movies—though it’s certainly in there. No, Saw VI is about the need for universal health care, and insurance companies that murder American citizens every day by denying them coverage.

I’m not kidding. Soak it in.

The set-up, which recalls Saw III, sees an insurance company head named William (Peter Outerbridge) navigating an abandoned zoo that has been rigged with Hoffman/Jigsaw’s deadly games. They include a race through red-hot steam tunnels, a rib-smashing breathe-holding exercise, and the aforementioned merry-go-round, in which people are shot-gunned to death when the wheel stops; all of the participants in these games are associates of William’s, from his secretary and copy boy to his chief legal counsel and the pack of power-hungry associates whose job it is to look for coverage loopholes in policies. To varying degrees, William must determine who lives and who dies.

Running parallel to the main story is detective Hoffman’s struggle to keep his alter ego a secret while carrying out the games designed by the late John Kramer. We’re re-introduced to a presumed-dead character, as well as to Kramer’s ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), and they both intensify Hoffman’s paranoia in different ways. I was not as engaged in these sub-plots, which were heavy on details that either referenced minutiae in the previous films or—I suspect—set up events for the later ones. They do serve a vital purpose in giving Hoffman an arc, however, taking him from somber lackey to impulsive brute, a marked contrast to his sophisticated, deep-thinking predecessor. Until this chapter, I’d assumed Costas Mandylor was either a bad actor or wholly disinterested in the role; in Saw VI his character is forced from his cold shell and shown to be relentless and cunning.

Speaking of cunning, I thought it was pretty ballsy of the filmmakers to make the sixth film in a popular horror franchise into a soapbox. Sure enough, there’s a flashback in which Kramer confronts William about a denied claim for his cancer treatment; he circles the executive’s office, spouting off about how the government and the doctors are not the problem, that it’s the insurance companies who are the real societal parasites. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Never mind that I agree with the film’s point of view; I just loved that fact that Lionsgate has found a way to make the news entertaining (and subversive: in one scene, a tearful policy reader yells to William, “I’m on your side!” Which is a variation on Nationwide Insurance’s slogan).

As I said before, the movie has problems. The director spends a little too much time constructing arguments and visual metaphors that he forgets how to make horror movies scary. Many of the gags and jumps are telegraphed way too early and way too sloppily (a security guard who’s mistaken for an assailant; a series of six envelopes containing the game’s participants, one of which turns up missing until a “big reveal” at the climax). But what Kevin Greutert lacks in tension instincts, he makes up for in misdirection, particularly as it applies to the identity of two key characters; it’s the kind of surprise one should be used to in these movies, but damn it if I wasn’t caught off-guard.

Saw VI is not for everyone, but I think everyone should see it; at least the insurance executive portions. If Lionsgate could have an edited version of the movie shown on the House and Senate floors, we would soon have a) universal health care and b) higher ratings for C-SPAN.

Seriously, though, I cannot wait for Saw VII. Even if they leave the political messages out of it, I at least have hope that someone is minding the store, creatively. The fact that I can be surprised and entertained by the sixth installment of a series I’d almost written off as dead is enough to earn these pictures some good will for another year or two. There are more ideas and emotions at play here than I've seen since Saw III. And if later on the ideas start to peter out again, I’d love to see Jigsaw tackle global warming or the declining U.S. dollar.