Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Lords of Salem (2013)

When musician Rob Zombie branched out into making horror movies, he brought with him his heavy metal sensibilities and affection for cult and exploitation movies from the 1970s. This has allowed him to develop his own style and approach to the horror genre that worked to his favor in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects and to his detriment in his two entries into the Halloween franchise.

When Zombie approached his fifth movie, he once more looked to the '70s for inspiration. But instead of grindhouse movies like usual, he culled influence from European filmmakers like Ken Russell and Mario Bava, and neo-pagan horror movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man. A truly odd amalgam of trippy visuals, strange moments that come seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, Zombie's The Lords of Salem is without a doubt his most unique and ambitious movie. It's also his most bizarre movie to date.

The story centers around Heidi LeRoq (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict who co-hosts a late-night radio show in Salem, Massachusetts. She lives a happy enough life, but that all changes when a strange package addressed to her arrives at her radio station. Said package, a wooden box containing a vinyl record by a band called "The Lords," draws the curiosity of Heidi and the co-hosts of her show, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree). While interviewing local author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) about his book covering the Salem witch trials, the trio plays the record on the air.

But what they do not know is that playing the ominous music on that record has triggered something evil. Heidi is soon plagued by terrifying hallucinations and nightmares that push her sanity to the breaking point. Intrigued by the music and the name of the so-called band, Matthias does some digging and discovers that one of Heidi's ancestors, famed witch hunter Reverend Johnathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine), led a mob that executed a coven of witches known as "the Lords of Salem." With their dying breaths, the Lords of Salem placed a curse on the Hawthorne family tree and Salem's female population, a curse that has been awakened by the playing of that music. The spirits of Lords of Salem have arisen, intent on sacrificing Heidi to Satan himself.

It's been a few days since I saw The Lords of Salem, and I'm still not one hundred percent sure just what in the blue hell I actually watched. It's a strange mind-screw of a movie that is equal parts captivating and frustrating. The movie is so weird that you can't look away yet you might find yourself upset that so little of it actually makes sense. I find it hard to describe The Lords of Salem in words that will do it justice, because it is a movie that you won't truly "get" until you see it for yourself. And if you're anything like me, you still won't completely get it even after you see it.

I don't know if I could call this movie Rob Zombie's best, but as far as his direction goes, his work is amazing. It's probably his best technical effort at making a movie, at the very least. The movie boasts some gorgeous cinematography that looks like it was pulled from The Shining, and is orchestrated in such a way that nearly everything will give you the creeps or just plain freak you out. Say what you will about this movie, but it's evident that Zombie knew exactly what kind of movie he wanted to make. There are some scenes that Zombie draws out and makes unbearably tense, and other scenes that are so bizarre that they defy words. It's like watching a weird mashup of The Shining and Requiem for a Dream, with some Rosemary's Baby thrown in for flavor. It's unsettling, uncomfortable, and just plain weird, and I doubt that Zombie would have wanted it any other way.

It's unfortunate, though, that Zombie's script isn't as strong as his direction. One gets the impression he got so focused on making the movie seem like a nightmare that he forgot to include things like worthwhile characters. The movie's biggest flaw is that you simply do not care about what's happening to anybody, and it's wholly the fault of the script.

Zombie stepped out of his comfort zone in writing The Lords of Salem, since none of the characters are ultra-repellent white trash or over-exaggerated hillbillies like in his other movies. But it seems like that's what he's best at because he really hit a dead end here. It's especially evident with the character of Heidi, who, despite being the lead character and the movie's emotional center, is given practically nothing of value to do for the entire movie. Even as she descends into madness, the character coasts along on autopilot, contributing the absolute bare minimum to the story. Everyone else is more intriguing, which is a damn shame because none of them are given as much focus as the blank slate that is Heidi.

At least the movie boasts a strong cast to make up for a lot of the script's inadequacies. Among the supporting cast, I enjoyed Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips quite a bit. Foree brings a lot of humor to his role, while Phillips did a respectable job playing the "guy with an unrequited crush on the lead character" you've seen in various movies before. (And it's a shame that Zombie didn't do more with that trope, either.) Judy Gleeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace also provide both some funny and genuinely creepy moments as a trio of witches with nefarious intent. Meg Foster also appears as the leader of the Lords of Salem, her character frequently appearing in Heidi's hallucinations. Foster is actually really scary here, playing the role with a ton of otherworldly menace. And although his screen time is sadly limited to a handful of scenes, Bruce Davison contributes a likable performance.

And then there's the movie's star, Sheri Moon Zombie. Most people accuse her presence here as being a little nepotistic, considering she's married to the movie's director. And really, the movie probably could have benefited from having Moon in a supporting role and another actress in the lead. That's not to say Moon is a bad actress; I've actually found her to be quite strong in every other movie I've seen her in. But the characters she's played in the past have never been as ill-defined and poorly written as this one. Moon does the best she can, but there's only so much she can do when the character has to spend the whole movie walking around in a haze. There are a couple of moments where it feels like Moon could have something awesome to do, but they never really get off the ground. All that's required of Moon is to stare off into space and let everything else happen around her. The character shows absolutely zero proactivity or initiative, and is just a terrible excuse for a main character. And no matter how strong Moon's performance might be, she unfortunately doesn't have a whole lot to work with and that lack of material drags her down into the muck.

The Lords of Salem is, without an ounce of hyperbole, one of the most surreal movies I've ever seen. The movie feels like an odd experiment, as if Rob Zombie wanted to see if he could successfully make an art house movie that looked like one of his band's music videos. And he wanted to make something that would absolutely freak out everyone who sees it, too. That weird montage that serves as the movie's climax is all the proof you need that this is a truly strange piece of work. And as such, it's not going to satisfy everybody. Even I left the theater unsure of whether or not I actually liked it. And while I'll still argue that The Devil's Rejects remains Zombie's best movie, at least The Lords of Salem is better than his Halloween II. So it has that going for it, I guess.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, April 12, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

I've written more than a few reviews where I've mentioned my love for the pop culture from my childhood. But for some reason, I never got into G.I. Joe or Transformers. I guess Hasbro toys always escaped me over the years. The closest I ever got to them was seeing the movies when I was an adult. And it's just kinda sad that the live-action movies never turned out all that well. The one that turned out the worst was G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Michael Bay's three movies based on the Transformers were painfully dumb, but at least they were memorable, which is more than I can say for The Rise of Cobra. It's a forgettable, disappointing mess. But it proved financially successful enough that it ended up with a sequel that I'm sure you've seen the advertising for by now. But if you haven't seen it, don't get in any rush. You aren't missing much.

After Pakistan's president is assassinated, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) orders the G.I. Joes into duty to retrieve a nuclear warhead before Pakistani rebels can get their hands on it. Their mission is successful, but nearly the entire team is massacred when their extraction team opens fire on their base. Only three Joes ― Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) ― survive this massacre, and are shocked to discover that the President himself made the order to wipe out the Joes.

Things just keep getting worse for the surviving Joes, as the President holds a press conference to claim that the Joes had gone rogue and attempted to steal the warhead for their own purposes. They quickly manage to deduce that the President has actually been replaced by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), a master of disguise and agent for the terrorist organization Cobra. While Cobra agents Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, with the voice of Robert Baker), from a subterranean prison in Germany, Zartan uses his position to call together a summit of the world's nuclear powers.

Cobra has been secretly assembling their own nuclear weapon they've named "the Zeus Initiative," and Zartan and Cobra Commander intend to use the summit to hold the world hostage with their weapon. But with the help of ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), his apprentice Jinx (Elodie Yung), and General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the original G.I. Joe, Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint vow to stop Cobra's plan and avenge their fallen brethren.

Have you ever seen one of those movies that you somehow manage to completely forget about once you leave the theater? That pretty much sums up G.I. Joe: Retaliation. If I hadn't scribbled down some notes in the theater's parking lot, I probably wouldn't have been able to write this review at all. Don't get me wrong, the movie is a lot of fun while you're sitting there watching it, but once it's over, all you have to show for it is that two hours have gone by and your wallet is ten dollars lighter. But I honestly cannot say that I disliked it, because it's still an enjoyable ride.

At the helm of this little adventure is Jon M. Chu, whose only directorial credits of note prior to this were Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Because when you're making a blockbuster action movie, you want to hire the guy who most recently made a Justin Bieber documentary and two movies about dance troupes. But Chu's direction on this particular movie is actually pretty good. It's nothing groundbreaking, and Chu's occasional use of that damnable "shaky-cam" action movie cliché is irritating. But he manages to make the movie fun and occasionally really exciting, especially during the one sequence where two groups of ninjas engage in a swordfight while hanging from the side of a mountain. The movie isn't ever going to be accused of being particularly intelligent, but Chu manages to make it watchable.

And you can tell that releasing the movie in 3D was a last-minute decision, because Chu doesn't do much to put it to good use. A lot of the movie looks flat, even though there were some moments ― like that mountainside swordfight I mentioned, for example ― that actually do really cool in 3D. But for the most part, the 3D conversion was otherwise unnecessary.

But while the 3D effects are lackluster, the screenplay is just plain bad. The script is credited to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and you'd think the guys that wrote Zombieland could have come up with something better than the sack of crap they used as the script for G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I'm not going to say that I expected the movie to have intelligent, thought-provoking writing, but I wasn't expecting it to be so stupid, either. There's practically no real story to speak of, just a collection of scenes put together to look like a movie. The dialogue is banal, the characters are forgettable, and if it weren't for the action sequences, the movie would have been just plain boring. I have to reiterate that I'm honestly surprised that the guys who wrote Zombieland ended up writing this dumb thing.

And it feels like the cast knew the script sucked too, because a lot of the actors are forgettable, and Bruce Willis comes across like he just showed up to collect a paycheck. But there are a few cast members worth mentioning, at least. Channing Tatum makes an appearance in the movie, very briefly reprising his role from The Rise of Cobra, and I thought he did a fine job. He's not given much to do, but Tatum is still really good and quite funny. I also thought Dwayne Johnson was great in his role, but the whole movie was stolen by Jonathan Pryce. He plays the character with a hammy glee, making his scenes very entertaining to watch. I wouldn't say the movie was worth watching just for him, but I'd say Pryce's scenes are worth checking out on YouTube.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation was originally scheduled for a release date of June 29, 2012. It was delayed at the very last minute for a full nine months, however, so the movie could be converted into 3D and scenes with Channing Tatum could be added to capitalize on his surge in popularity after the success of 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike. But you'd think they could have taken that time to actually make the movie good. The movie suffers due to its awful script and mostly dull acting, when it honestly didn't have to be that way. The only thing the movie actually has going for it is the sense of dumb, silly fun that permeates every frame. As bad as G.I. Joe: Retaliation is, it's still a lot of fun to watch. I honestly couldn't bring myself to hate it because it does have some enjoyable moments. I just wish that somebody could make a G.I. Joe movie that's as good as that animated movie from the '80s. Would that be so hard for Hollywood do?

Final Rating: **

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Evil Dead (2013)

Most people will probably recognize Sam Raimi as the man behind the Spider-Man movie franchise (before it was rebooted last year, anyway) and as the director of Oz the Great and Powerful. But the horror aficionados among us will forever associate him with the Evil Dead trilogy. The movies not only launched the careers of Raimi and Bruce Campbell, but they've inspired comic books, video games, an off-Broadway musical, and a ton of merchandise. But beyond all that, fans have been clamoring for Raimi and Campbell to make a fourth movie in the saga. And now, twenty years after Army of Darkness ended the trilogy, a new Evil Dead movie has arrived in theaters. It's not a Raimi-directed Evil Dead 4 as many had hoped, but instead, a remake produced by the original franchise's creators. The remake's been getting great reviews since its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival last month, and for good reason. I'm proud to say that the remake is absolutely fantastic.

There's no Ash to be found this time around. Instead, the movie introduces us to Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict struggling with sobriety. Vowing to kick the drugs cold turkey, she's headed out to her family's isolated cabin out in the middle of nowhere so she can detox. Along for the ride are her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). It's a struggle at first, as Mia's withdrawal symptoms cause her to lash out against her friends and weaken her already strained relationships.

But as they often do in movies like this, things go downhill very quickly. The investigation of a rancid smell leads to the discovery of a multitude of dead, seemingly sacrificed cats in the basement, along with a book bound in human flesh and wrapped in barbed wire. The book and the bizarre incantations inside it quickly capture Eric's interest. Despite the handwritten warnings scribbled on its pages to avoid the book at all costs, Eric reads aloud some of the book's passages. And in doing this, he awakens a horrifying entity from its slumber deep within the woods. It possesses Mia before sparking a night of violence, carnage, and brutality from which it seems none of the five within that cabin will survive.

I don't have the same problem with remakes that some people do. I couldn't care less if a movie is a remake, just whether it's a good movie or a bad movie. But I'll confess that I was a little worried about Evil Dead. Much like the Friday the 13th remake that came out back in 2009, Evil Dead represents a franchise I enjoy a lot being overhauled for a new audience that might not be familiar with what came before. I was leery about it despite Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell being attached as producers, because I've seen one too many bad remakes over the years. But Evil Dead did not let me down in the slightest. It doesn't have the same no-budget, rough around the edges feeling of Raimi's original movie, but it's still some of the most fun I've had watching a horror movie in a long time.

The movie was directed by Fede Alvarez, a filmmaker whose only prior output was a handful of short films (none of which I've heard of, let alone seen) in his native Uruguay. Evil Dead is his feature-length directorial debut, and he does an astounding job. I've seen a few reviews over the last couple of days that have dismissed Evil Dead as being a shallow gorefest akin to Eli Roth's Hostel movies. These people have a point, as the movie jumps into "splatter film" territory wholeheartedly. And although the blood, guts, and severed limbs are the true stars of the movie, I thought Alvarez tried building a bit of tension in there too. The movie inspires simultaneous feelings of dread and disgust; you're scared of what might happen next and shocked and grossed out when it does.

And Alvarez refuses to let up. Even the low-key moments meant to give the audience a breather don't really provide much relaxation. There's always something hiding in the darkness, waiting to pop out and rip one of the characters into itty-bitty pieces. Even as blood literally rains down from every possible angle and the violence threatens to become cacophonous, Alvarez wants us to be afraid of what happens next. And I can't speak for anybody else, but for me, it worked.

The movie stumbles, however, when you take a good long look at the script. Written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with a little uncredited tinkering by Juno writer Diablo Cody), the script is the movie's weakest link. The characters are poorly constructed, and few scenes are milked for any sort of drama. We're told that Mia and David are supposed to have a very strained relationship due largely to David leaving Mia to tend to their dying, mentally-ill mother alone, the stress of which worsened her drug habit. This has also made David unpopular with the others in the cabin, but this all stops being relevant once we hit "the gore, the merrier" territory. They could have, at the very least, played off Mia's possession as her withdrawals having made her psychotic for a bit longer. Yeah, we'd have to get to the demonic stuff sooner or later, but it would have been interesting to see where that angle could have gone.

Maybe I just went in expecting something deeper than what Alvarez and Sayagues were willing to give. But they seemed so willing to go beyond the movie's simple concept and just dropped it. Maybe it all got left out during the editing process and will end up on the DVD in a few months, I don't know. I just would have liked seeing how things could have ended up.

At least we have Alvarez's direction to support the movie, along with some great performances from the cast. Unfortunately, they aren't all good. Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore don't contribute much to the movie in terms of acting ability, with Blackmore being so unremarkable that I actually forgot she was in the movie at all until her big possession scene. (Then again, it doesn't help anything that the character pretty much disappears altogether for twenty minutes in the middle of the movie.) But it does get better, trust me. Shiloh Fernandez provides a solid performance and gets a few moments to really shine, but there are two actors that I wanted to highlight.

One is Lou Taylor Pucci, who I enjoyed a lot. Though his character is the one that caused the whole mess, he remains level-headed enough to realize that something has to be done to ensure the group's survival even if it isn't pretty. Pucci approaches this with an ever-growing sense of panic and worry that I found believable. He essentially plays a voice of reason that's been put through a ringer, and I bought everything he was selling.

He's outshined, though, by Jane Levy, who I thought was nothing short of fantastic. She's sympathetic enough at the start of the movie, but she really kicks it into high gear once her character gets possessed. Levy is actually pretty frightening as she alternates between mere creepiness and a snarling demeanor similar to an angry, feral animal. One could make the argument that the movie itself isn't all that scary per se, but Levy herself was strong enough to scare the pants off me.

Evil Dead is one of those franchise revivals that makes you feel like you've visiting old friends you haven't seen in many years. There's no Ash, and Sam Raimi's not the director, but I still found the movie to be a very worthy successor to the name. The many shout-outs and subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) references to Raimi's trilogy are a lot of fun and help establish something of a rapport with the die-hard fans, but it goes in its own direction enough that it feels like its own beast as well. And what a beast it is, too. Evil Dead is not a movie that is simply seen. It is a movie that is endured. It's not for those who are easily grossed out; I'm sure the NC-17 cut of the movie will cause a spike in sales for barf bags. But it doesn't feel as mean or spiteful as other gore-heavy horror movies. It's livelier, and energetic and fast-paced enough that it never grows tiresome to watch even in light of a non-stop gore typhoon. Evil Dead is definitely one of those remakes that can be proudly held up next to the original, and is most certainly worth watching. That is, if you can handle a massive deluge of violence and fake blood.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, April 5, 2013

Within the Woods (1978)

As a fan of both B-movies and the horror genre, it's pretty much a given that I'm also a fan of the Evil Dead trilogy. I'm not one the super-devoted mega-fans that starts frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of the franchise's name, but I really do love those three movies. That affection is why I'm nervous about the release of the Evil Dead remake. Sure, the franchise's creators are working behind the scenes of the remake as producers, but I'm still afraid that something could possibly go wrong.

But with the remake hitting movie theaters near you today, I thought I'd go back to the beginning of the Evil Dead franchise, back before the original trilogy. I'm specifically referring to the short film called Within the Woods. Made in 1978 on a budget of $1,600, this 30-minute short film actually served as a "proof-of-concept" prototype to show potential investors and generate funding for the first Evil Dead movie.

Never legally released in any home video format and existing today as a bootleg that looks like it was copied from a tenth-generation VHS tape, Within the Woods is an important piece of horror history for no other reason than because it laid the groundwork for one of the genre's most influential trilogies. And while it's essentially a glorified demo reel, Within the Woods isn't that bad either.

The premise is similar, but not quite. As the movie begins, a pair of vacationing couples ― Bruce (Bruce Campbell) and Ellen (Ellen Sandweiss), and Scotty (Scott Spiegel) and Shelly (Mary Valenti) ― are settling into a remote cabin in the woods. While Scotty and Shelly argue over a game of Monopoly, Bruce and Ellen venture out into the woods for a picnic. Bruce actually knows quite a bit about the area, revealing that the cabin is close to an old Native American burial ground. The burial ground is supposedly cursed, and those who disturb it are doomed to suffer the wrath of the angry spirits that watch over the area.

He assures a spooked Shelly that there's nothing to worry about, that it's just some old story. Besides, all they'll be doing is eating hot dogs, not bothering anyone's eternal slumber. But as Bruce digs a fire pit, he accidentally uncovers one of those old graves. And as he is quick to discover, the curse is true and the spirits that he has awakened are hungry for blood.

You have to keep in mind that Within the Woods wasn't made for mass consumption. It was produced for dirt cheap as a means of convincing Michigan businessmen to invest some cash in a feature-length movie whose creators weren't certain would even be completed, let alone successful. Within the Woods isn't Sam Raimi and company saying "here's what we can do," but something more along the lines of "here's what we could do." The movie's really rough around the edges, but as a piece of horror movie history, it's worth seeing just to experience where the Evil Dead movies got off the ground.

And really, you can most certainly see Raimi laying the groundwork for the Evil Dead movies. The cinematography, the editing, and many of the gags and scares would end up being recycled to better effect in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. It's basically an Evil Dead movie made for the change Raimi found underneath his couch cushions. You can see that he had a ton of untapped potential at the time, and as a result, he gives us what would essentially be a "greatest hits" reel of the first two Evil Dead movies before they'd even been made.

As far as the acting goes, there honestly isn't much to say about it. Mary Valenti and Scott Spiegel don't really have much to do, but then again they don't really need to do anything either. Our two leads, though, are really good. Bruce Campbell is charming and charismatic as always, even if he wasn't quite ready for prime time yet. But I will say his performance as the possessed monster was awesome, so he had that going for him. And of all four actors, Ellen Sandweiss makes a great go of it. While she'd up her "beleaguered victim" game in The Evil Dead (before her character becomes a monster, anyway) her performance here is still really good. She's believable in the part and sells the distress well.

The worst part of the whole thing is that the version of the movie I saw came from an old VHS tape that looked so worn and degraded that it made everything murky and practically unwatchable. It wasn't hard to follow the basic gist of the movie, but a lot of details are lost. The really sad thing is that this is probably the best Within the Woods will ever look unless Raimi decides to give some DVD distributor the film negatives or a pristine copy of the movie so they can put together an official, legal release. I can't see that happening due to potential legal hang-ups (the music is all copyrighted and nobody ever paid to use it), so it probably goes without saying that Within the Woods isn't getting any prettier and it probably never will.

Judging Within the Woods on its own merits, then it's okay, I guess. It's not great, but it was never supposed to be. It's just a rough draft its authors would soon be working the kinks out of. But the movie's still really effective. If Raimi, Campbell, and Rob Tapert had shown me Within the Woods back then, I would have totally invested some money in their project. It's a damn fine short movie. I'm sure all the truly devoted Evil Dead fans have seen it by now, but if you have yet to check out Within the Woods, go to YouTube and hunt it down. Then go watch the Evil Dead movies, okay?

Final Rating: **½