Thursday, April 19, 2018

AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (2004)

AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (2004): written by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shushett, and Paul W.S. Anderson; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; starring Sanaa Lathan (Alexa), Raoul Bova (Sebastian), Lance Henriksen (Weyland), Ewen Bremer (Graeme Miller), and Colin Salmon (Stafford): I mean, it's a mild diversion with a few gross-out moments and a few decent action sequences. That makes it better than Alien: Covenant. And there isn't a cheap, ghoulish fate awaiting our heroine, a spunky Sanaa Lathan. 

And Aliens do indeed fight Predators, just like the title promises!

Does legendary hack director Paul W.S. Anderson understand the Alien movies better than Alien and Alien: Covenant director Ridley Scott? Yeah, I guess he does, at least in the years since Alien came out in 1979. 

The stuff about pyramids and Aztecs and Egyptians and Cambodians is hilariously dumb. Well, or at least historically challenged. 

And pretty much every effective shot is an homage to a shot from either Alien or Aliens, leading to a somewhat attenuated sense of deja vu throughout.

But the Aliens here were definitely NOT created by cuckoo android Michael Fassbender of Ridley Scott-directed Prometheus and Covenant. No wonder Scott declared that this movie is not part of official Alien continuity. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Flatliners (2017)

Nina Dobrev gets defibrillated incorrectly.

Flatliners (2017): adapted by Ben Ripley from the previous film written by Peter Filardi; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; starring Ellen Page (Courtney), Diego Luna (Ray), Nina Dobrev (Marlo), James Norton (Jamie), Kiersey Clemons (Sophia), and Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Wolfson): 

The original Flatliners wasn't very good, and is perhaps remembered best for its confluence of Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and Julia Roberts unconvincingly playing three Med School Interns who start killing themselves and reviving themselves so as to explore the world of Near-Death Experiences (NDE) up-close and personal.

Same thing here, slightly different characters and results. Ellen Page is semi-believable as an intern. I guess. Everybody spouts a lot of silly medicobabble. The ladies keep getting defibrillated through their clothing, which I have it on good authority wouldn't be reliable and might actually set someone's clothing on fire. OK, there's a scene I'd like to see.

Kiefer Sutherland plays the interns' supervisor while wearing a white fright wig and limping around on a cane to denote great age. He's not the same character as the original movie, which is too bad. I'd have liked to have heard Sutherland yell about flatlining. Alas, no.

Everyone's really casual about dying and coming back, even as the revivals take longer and longer. By the time someone utters the line, "if they find out we've been flatlining, we'll be expelled!", I assume brain damage has set in. This isn't a terrible movie. It's not scary and it's dumb, but so was the first movie, regardless of what your nostalgic memories tell you. Grantchester's hunky Anglican priest James Norton does a pretty good generic American accent -- certainly better than Benedict Cumberbatch has ever mustered. Good for him. Not recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2018

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016): directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neegard-Holm; starring David Lynch (Himself): Born in 1946 in Missoula, Montana, David Lynch would have a semi-peripatetic childhood, living in a couple of places in the Pacific Northwest before his family moved to Virginia when he was in his early teens. In this odd, informative, enjoyable bio-documentary, Lynch rhapsodizes about childhood in the Pacific Northwest while also revealing a couple of sources for one famous movie scene and one enigmatic character.

Lynch isn't here to talk about his work after Eraserhead. The documentary has lengthy interview segments in which Lynch discusses his childhood and young adulthood as a painter who almost stumbled into film-making, only to discover that he loved it. We're shown montages of Lynch's painting and other artwork, early movie work, and some out-takes from Lynch's breakthrough movie, Eraserhead.

If you like Lynch, this movie is about as essential as a movie can get. Lynch moves between frankness and obliqueness in his inimitable, gnomic way. The art is extraordinary. One wishes for more but is grateful for what one gets in these 90 minutes. Long live America's greatest living film-maker. Highly recommended.

City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) (1960)

City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) (1960): written by Milton Subotsky and George Baxt; directed by John Llewellyn Moxey; starring Patricia Jessel (Mrs. Newless), Dennis Lotis (Richard Barlow), Christopher Lee (Professor Driscoll), Tom Naylor (Bill Maitland), Venetia Stevenson (Nan Barlow), Betta St. John (Patricia Russell), and James Dyrenforth (Garage Attendant): 

The first entry in then-Vulcan Studios attempt to compete with Hammer's horror dominance of the 1950's, City of the Dead is an enjoyable, flawed mix of occasionally startling images and occasionally clunky writing and acting. It also criminally under-uses Christopher Lee.

Set in contemporary New England, City of the Dead begins with Professor Christopher Lee sending undergrad Venetia Stevenson to a small town to research her term paper on witchcraft in New England. Things deteriorate very quickly for Venetia's character Nan, signaled by a fog bank so impenetrable as she heads into the town that one wonders how she ever made it to the Horror Hotel in the first place.

A series of horrible happenings follow. The movie looks really good throughout, and a number of scenes have been carefully staged for horrific effect. Clunky acting and writing of Nan's brother and boyfriend occasionally bring things down to the accidentally comical, but not so much as to fatally flaw the film. A final confrontation between Good and Evil in a fog-shrouded graveyard starts as a marvel of mood and ends only a couple of steps short of Evil Dead-style monster-fighting. Recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman;  Introduction by Richard T. Kelly; Afterword by Leslie Gardner; containing the following stories: The Wine-Dark Sea  (1966); The Trains  (1951); Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen  (1953);  Growing Boys  (1977); The Fetch  (1980); The Inner Room  (1966) ; Never Visit Venice  (1968); and Into the Wood  (1968) :

The great, unique English writer Robert Aickman preferred the term 'Strange Stories' for what he wrote, 48 published stories and a couple of published novels before he died in his 60's in the early 1980's. One could just call them 'Aickman Stories.' They're one of a handful of the most recognizable, idiosyncratic bodies of work in horror or ghost stories or The Weird or whatever you want to call this vast and shifting genre.

This is an excellent, posthumous collection, reissued by Faber and Faber in 2014 with a new introduction and a new afterword from one of Aickman's friends (and agents). Aickman started publishing fairly late in life and died far too early, making him an unknown to many who would find great enjoyment and reward in his peculiar literary universe of dread and wonder.

The stories included here are all fine pieces of work. The most traditional, "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen," is nonetheless most peculiar. "Growing Boys" is a sort of bleak, black comedy that satirizes English reticence. "The Fetch" is also disquietingly funny, a rare foray into first-person narration for Aickman as a man chronicles his life-long flight from the eponymous Fetch of the title. 

Aickman's stories set outside Great Britain are nightmarish travelogues. Greece is a world of barely hidden wonders and terrors in "The Wine-Dark Sea." "Never Visit Venice" does much the same and more for Venice. A business trip to Sweden unveils a strange underculture in "Into the Wood." A trip across the "wilds" of Northern England imperils two young women in "The Trains." "The Inner Room" offers a haunted dollhouse, but haunted in a strange way that takes decades to pay off for its protagonist.

Aickman was a great, very individual (and individualistic) writer. The backbone of most of his stories is a tension between weird events and the understanding of them. I'm pretty sure Aickman knew exactly what was happening and why in a story like "The Trains": however, the story does not offer a full, Basil Exposition-style explanation for its events. 

And 'solving a mystery' isn't the point. The mystery may have many explanations. Or none. Even when a story is fairly explicit about its supernatural machinery, it's never comfortably final about these things. We pass from mystery into greater mystery. We're left with a great writer of the 20th century regardless of genre, one who deserves a far greater readership. Highly recommended.

See also: 

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman
Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

The Ritual (2011) by Adam Nevill

The Ritual (2011) by Adam Nevill: English 30-somethings Dom, Phil, Luke, and Hutch were best friends in college. Every year since they go on a trip. This year, they've gone hiking and camping in Sweden's famed hiking and camping area, the name of which escapes me but which I know is very old-growth forest bordering Norway. 

Tensions run a bit high this year, especially between under-employed-singleton-with-rage-issues Luke and the married, seemingly comfortable Hutch, Dom, and Phil. Then they take a shortcut because Dom sprained his ankle. Thus ensues the horror.

Adapted into a pretty solid movie, The Ritual nonetheless is much different than that movie, especially in terms of character motivations. Well, and the last third. The last third of the novel is crazy, a bit too verbose, and perhaps a bit too invested in the suffering of one of its characters.

Or perhaps not. I could argue that the last third of the novel torments that character very intentionally as a nod to Christ's sufferings on the road to Calvary. The four friends are pitted against Something in the woods that is very un-Christian.

Anyway, it's a terrific novel of horrors both cosmic and visceral (very literally visceral at points), better on my second reading of it. The dynamics of how the four men stupidly take a shortcut to disaster is convincing in its human-scale hubris. The Creature and all the horrors surrounding it are convincing. Did I say Creature? Or is there a Creature? Could it just be humans who are bedevilling our Fractious Four? Highly recommended.

See Also

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks: Max Brooks is obsessed by zombies, especially those from the George Romero universe of zombies that first appeared in 1968's Night of the Living Dead: nearly mindless, man-eating, slow-moving hordes of the hungry dead. World War Z is a love letter to Night of the Living Dead, though Brooks' zombies have some attributes peculiar to his story.

The attribute specifically tailored to the tale of World War Z is that the virus that creates zombies (named 'Solanum') renders those zombies toxic to nearly every creature on Earth, from bacteria to vultures. Brooks thus avoids one of the problems with the idea of a zombie apocalypse: after about two weeks, the zombies should be defunct from wave after wave of attacks from every carrion eater on Earth from the microscopic level on up.

Other specific attributes include things that would later be familiar to watchers of The Walking Dead. The zombies don't swell their ranks with those buried dead who were not already infected with the zombie virus. Graveyards are relatively safe in Brooks' universe. His zombies don't digest their food. They're really, really dead. And they will eat any animal large enough for them to notice: they only PREFER humans.

Brooks has said that he got the idea for the format of World War Z from histories by Studs Terkel. Terkel's books told the stories of such events as World War Two (The Good War) by assembling first-hand accounts from people involved and then weaving them into topics arrayed within an overall arc. Brooks' frame narrator collects stories from survivors of the Great Zombie War, several years after the war is over. As World War Z seems to begin some time around 2010-2012, the frame narrative occurs somewhere around 2020.

Of course, the format of World War Z didn't originate with Terkel via Brooks. The documentary style has been with horror since its beginnings, whether in novels made up of letters and diary entries (Hello, Frankenstein!), novels that add newspaper articles to that mix (Dracula), stories that frame first-person narratives of the past within a present-day investigation ("The Colour Out Of Space"), movies that claim to be based on true events (The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or the now-ubiquitous variations on the found-footage movie made popular (though not originated) by the original Blair Witch Project. Brooks' addition to this long tradition is an admirable one, though, and generally pitch perfect.

Of course I have complaints. I still don't have the faintest idea of how a dead creature with no metabolism can walk around. I wouldn't quibble about this when the zombies are either supernatural in origin or at least not understood. Brooks' zombies, though, with their quasi-scientific backing, don't seem all that scientific when it comes to their locomotion. Or the fact that they don't all end up at the bottom of the Grand Canyon or some other large hole given their tendency to flock together by the millions and tens of millions and walk mindlessly in straight lines. But that's another story. Don't bother with the movie. Highly recommended.