Thursday, October 30, 2014

#1,536. Zombieland (2009)

Directed By: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson

Tag line: "This place is so dead"

Trivia: Woody Harrelson was arrested for marijuana possession during filming, which delayed shooting for a day

If I were to compile a list of the greatest zombie comedies ever made, I can tell you without hesitation that Edgar Wright’s 2004 masterpiece Shaun of the Dead would be at the top of it. And while there would definitely be some competition for the remaining slots (titles like Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and Cemetery Man leap to mind), odds are 2009’s Zombieland would easily capture the second spot. A witty, occasionally frightening look at four people dealing with a zombie outbreak, Zombieland is a briskly paced film that also features one of the best star cameos in recent memory.

The socially awkward Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), named after the town in Ohio he hails from, has managed to survive the zombie apocalypse by adhering to a handful of personal rules (such as “Never trust a bathroom” and “Always check the car’s back seat”). While traveling east through Texas (he’s on his way home to see if any family members survived), Columbus meets up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a foul tempered zombie hunter searching for the world’s last remaining Twinkies snack cake. Seeing as they’re going in the same direction, the two decide to keep each other company. Their luck runs out, however, when they encounter sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of con artists who steal the boys’ weapons before driving off in Tallahassee’s car. But fate intervenes, and before long all four have teamed up and are heading west, hoping to find paradise in California by way of the Pacific Playland Amusement Park, situated just outside Hollywood. But is that area truly “zombie free”, as Wichita claims, or will they be greeted by an army of undead the moment they reach their destination?

Despite the fact its primarily a comedy, Zombieland doesn’t shy away from the blood and gore that usually goes hand-in-hand with the zombie subgenre; the opening title sequence shows us a number of violent encounters between the living and the undead (all played out in slow-motion), and the flashbacks that reveal the origins of some of Columbus’s “rules for survival” are surprisingly brutal (when discussing his second rule, “Double Tap”, he tells the story of a woman who shot a zombie rushing towards her, only to have her foot chewed off because she didn’t finish the job by putting another bullet in its head ). The movie’s real strength, though, is its characters. Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus (who also acts as the film’s narrator) is a nebbish loser specializing in sarcasm, most of which is aimed at his abrasive cohort Tallahassee, easily the funniest of the bunch, who enjoys letting off steam once in a while (one great scene has him convincing Columbus, Wichita, and Little Rock to join him in trashing a roadside store selling Native American trinkets). Rounding out the group are sisters Wichita and Little Rock, expertly portrayed by two of the hottest young actresses working today: Emma Stone (Easy A, The Amazing Spider Man) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Haunter). The give-and-take between the four main characters is often hilarious, and in the film’s quieter moments we even learn a thing or two about them (including why Tallahassee lives life as if he has nothing left to lose).

All this, plus a touching romantic subplot involving Columbus and Wichita and a brilliant cameo by Bill Murray (playing himself), helped make Zombieland the most entertaining “zomedy” of the post-Shaun of the Dead era.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

#1,535. Eden Lake (2008)

Directed By: James Watkins

Starring: Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Tara Ellis

Tag line: "A weekend by the lake, with views to die for"

Trivia: Won a 2009 Empire Award for Best Horror Film

On the surface, writer / director James Watkins’ Eden Lake may look like an ultra-violent tale of survival in the vein of Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with a middle-class couple fighting for their lives against a gang of ruthless young punks. But don’t let that fool you; this is a straight-up monster movie. Only in this case, the “monster” is a teenage kid.

Schoolteacher Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and her boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbender) head to Eden Lake, a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere, for what they hope will be a relaxing weekend. Shortly after they arrive, however, the two have a run-in with teenage hoodlum Brett (Jack O’Connell) and his friends, who do everything they can to make the couples stay an unpleasant one. Things escalate quickly when Brett and the others steal Steve’s car and take it for a joyride, leading to a confrontation that ends in bloodshed. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse, with Jenny and Steve on the run from Brett and his pals, who are ready to take this fight to the next level. But exactly how far are the teens willing to go?

Reilly and Fassbender are impressive as the two lead characters, who, despite a few horribly bad decisions (one in particular, where Steve walks into a house to confront the hoodlums, had me scratching my head, wondering what he was thinking), remain likable throughout the film. The standout performance, however, is delivered by Jack O’Connell, whose Brett is a rabid dog, a psychopath who fears nothing and treats violence as if it were a game. In what is arguably the movie’s most shocking scene, Steve is captured and tied him to a tree. Goaded on by Brett, the other kids take turns stabbing their prisoner while Paige (Finn Atkins), the only female of the group, records it with her phone. This senseless brutality clearly disturbs many of the teens (one vomits after stabbing Steve), but not Brett. In fact, he gets a charge out of it, and even taunts Steve by telling him they’ll do the same to Jenny once they catch her. An inherently violent kid with no redeeming qualities, Brett remains, at all times, the film’s most dangerous character, and O’Connell ensures by way of his bravado performance that there’s not a moment where we like the son of a bitch.

A tense, unsettling movie with an ending that’s guaranteed to stay with you for some time, Eden Lake is a truly horrifying motion picture, made doubly so by the fact that there are dozens of real-life Bretts in this world. Here’s hoping we never meet a single one of them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

#1,534. Rogue (2007)

Directed By: Greg Mclean

Starring: Michael Vartan, Radha Mitchell, Sam Worthington

Tag line: "How Fast Can You Swim?"

Trivia: Filmed partly at Kakadu National Park and Nitmiluk National Park in Australia's Northern Territory

Rogue, a 2007 film directed by Greg McLean, has a lot in common with Black Water, another horror flick released the very same year. Aside from sharing the same basic premise (a group of people find themselves at the mercy of a killer crocodile), both are set in Australia, and shot (at least in part) in the continent’s Northern Territory. Admittedly, there are some differences between the two (Black Water features three characters, two of whom are related, while Rogue centers on a group of strangers on a sightseeing tour), but in the end, both are tense as hell, and keep us on pins and needles throughout most of their running times.

American writer Pete McKell (Michael Vartan), whose job takes him all around the world, is doing research for an upcoming article on Australia. Having just arrived in the Northern Territory, he buys a ticket for a boat tour of the area, one that promises to take him deep into crocodile territory. Piloted by Kate Ryan (Radha Mitchell), the boat, loaded with passengers, makes its way down the river, but just as the trip is about to end, one of the group (played by Robert Taylor) spots a distress flare. Obligated to check it out, Kate guides the vessel into unchartered waters, where it’s rammed and nearly destroyed by an enormous crocodile! Forced to abandon the boat, Kate, Pete and the others make their way to a small patch of land, only to discover the tide is coming in, which means soon after the sun goes down, they’ll be completely underwater. And with a pissed-off croc lurking somewhere nearby, getting to dry land isn’t going to be easy.

One of the things that immediately struck me about Rogue was how gorgeous the movie was. From start to finish, director McLean manages to capture the natural beauty of Australia’s Northern Territory, presenting images so picturesque that they look as if they were lifted straight out of a BBC Earth documentary (the numerous aerial shots are particularly stunning). What’s more, Rogue features an all-star cast. Aside from Vartan and Mitchell, both of whom are excellent, there’s Sam Worthington as the somewhat arrogant local, Neil, who, when the chips are down, comes up with a plan to save them all; and John Jarrett (Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek) has a small yet memorable role as one of the passengers trying to cope with a terrible situation. As for the crocodile, it remains off-screen for most of the film (the first two attacks happen so quickly that we never see them), but when we finally catch a glimpse of it, we realize how humongous, and very intimidating, this creature is (it rivals the crocodile in 1999’s Lake Placid).

Despite their similarities in story and setting, both Rogue and Black Water offer viewers a unique experience. In fact, I think they’d make an awesome double feature.

Monday, October 27, 2014

#1,533. Land of the Dead (2005)

Directed By: George A. Romero

Starring: John Leguizamo, Asia Argento, Simon Baker

Tag line: "The dead shall inherit the Earth"

Trivia: George Romero's daughter appears in the film (she's the soldier who shoots a zombie that walks into an electric fence)

Released almost 20 years after Day of the Dead, George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the fourth entry in his Living Dead series (which also included Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead) picks up where Day left off, with the world overrun by flesh-eating zombies. Yet despite the chaos all around them, the rich and powerful still have place to call home; Fiddler’s Green, a high-rise building situated in downtown Pittsburgh, allows those with means to live in luxury. Under the watchful eye of capitalist Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the facility serves as a safe haven from the outside world, protected by two rivers and a long fence that keeps the dead at bay. To ensure Fiddler’s Green continues to thrive, a team of mercenaries, led by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and Cholo De Mora (John Leguizamo), climbs into their armored vehicle lovingly nicknamed Dead Reckoning and ventures into the surrounding area on a regular basis to gather up supplies.

But unbeknownst to Kaufman and the many residents who call Fiddler’s Green their home, a change is coming that threatens to destroy their world of privilege. It all begins when Riley and his pal Charlie (Robert Joy) save a prostitute named Slack (Asia Argento), who, on Kaufman’s orders, was about to be executed. On top of that, Cholo’s application for a luxury apartment in Fiddler’s Green has been denied, causing him to steal Dead Reckoning and, with a few of his crew, head out into the great unknown. Worst of all, the zombies, led by former gas station attendant Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), are starting to gather, and have set their sights on overtaking Fiddler’s Green!

As it was with his previous Living Dead films, Romero fills Land of the Dead with socially relevant subtext (i.e. the class struggle between rich and poor), and manages to sneak in a few jabs at the then-current George W. Bush administration (Hopper claims his main inspiration for the soulless Kaufman was Bush’s longtime Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld). Politics aside, Land of the Dead boasts a couple of excellent action sequences (courtesy of the crew of Dead Reckoning) as well as some of the most gruesome zombies ever to grace a Romero flick (thanks in large part to special makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero). While not quite at the level of Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead also has plenty of gore (one scene in particular, which features an undead clown, gets pretty messy before it’s over), and even gives us a “hero” zombie in Big Daddy, who, along with figuring out how to fire an assault rifle, leads the attack on Fiddler’s Green. All of these elements mesh together wonderfully, making Land of the Dead a worthy successor to the series’ previous entries, all of which are considered genre classics.

While Romero’s later efforts to continue the franchise he launched in 1968 would fall well short of the mark (2007’s Diary of the Dead was an absolute mess), Land of the Dead stood as proof positive that the man who created the modern zombie movie still had a few blood-soaked tricks up his sleeve.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

#1,532. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Directed By: Troy Nixey

Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison

Trivia: Co-writer Guillermo Del Toro makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a passenger on board an airplane

Say the word “remake” to a film fan, and odds are they’ll break out in a cold sweat, especially if the film being remade is a time-honored classic. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the 1973 television movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a “classic” of the horror genre, it definitely has its fans, the most famous of which is Guillermo Del Toro. A fan of the film ever since he was a kid, Del Toro once told USA Today that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was “Something close to my heart for a very long time”. With that in mind, I went into 2010’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark not with trepidation, but extreme curiosity. Produced by Del Toro from a script he co-wrote with Matthew Robbins, I was anxious to see how the filmmaker would update the story. As it turns out, the material couldn’t have been in better hands; Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a terrifically entertaining movie.

Ten-Year-Old Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce), an architect who, along with his new girlfriend, interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes), is renovating an old mansion that once belonged to a reclusive artist. One day, while in the basement with her father, young Sally notices an ash pit that’s been bolted shut, and after hearing mysterious voices emanating from the other side, she grabs a wrench and opens it up. In doing so, she inadvertently releases a number of tiny creatures, which had been locked up by the previous owner many years earlier. Once free, the creatures (which have an aversion to light) spend a great deal of time in the shadows, following Sally around. Before long, the frightened little girl realizes her new “visitors” aren’t as friendly as they first appeared, and that her life, and everyone else’s, is suddenly in the greatest of danger.

One of the best updates Del Toro made to the story was changing its overall focus from a housewife (like in the original) to a little girl who, because of the situation she’s in (shuttled around from one parent to the other), feels abandoned and unloved, making her the perfect target for the deceitful monsters’ manipulating lies (playing on Sally’s insecurity, they tell her she’s unwanted, and promise to play with her if she frees them from their basement prison). Bailee Madison gives a phenomenal performance as Sally, perfectly capturing her character’s heartbreak and, eventually, the intense fear she experiences when the monsters’ true motives are revealed. The scene where Sally first catches a glimpse of one of the creatures is a very effective jump scare, and a later sequence in which she’s in the bathtub is positively nerve-racking. Yet it’s what the young actress does with the story’s more dramatic elements that’s truly impressive (at one point, she sobs uncontrollably when accused of ruining one of Kim’s dresses, mostly because she realizes it was the work of the creatures she herself released). Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are also strong, but in the end it’s Bailee Madison who steals the show.

Then we have the monsters themselves, which scamper along the ground as if they were dozens of nervous mice, and torment Sally every chance they get. At first, their hijinks are innocent enough; after breaking into her room, two of the creatures hide behind Sally’s talking teddy bear, playfully manipulating it as if it were a puppet. It isn’t long, however, before the monster’s supposedly innocent tricks become much more sinister (when Alex peers through a keyhole, several monsters on the other side of the door push a large needle through it, in an attempt to puncture his eyeball). Though small in stature, these monsters are plenty dangerous when they work together. In one very intense scene, they seriously injure Harris (Jack Thompson), who, because his grandfather had worked on the estate years earlier, knew of their existence (grabbing any sharp object they can get their hands on, the creatures descend upon Harris, slicing up his entire body). Brought to life with near-flawless CGI, the monsters look damn creepy, but it’s their actions that make Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark such an intensely disturbing motion picture.

Forget all the negative connotations you normally associate with the word “remake”: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one “update” that actually improves upon the original.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

#1,531. Final Destination 3 (2006)

Directed By: James Wong

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Merriman, Kris Lemche

Tag line: "This Ride Will Be The Death Of You"

Trivia: Cast members had to ride the rollercoaster 26 times in one night to shoot the main premonition scene

Final Destination 3 follows the same basic formula as both Final Destination and its 2003 sequel. Fortunately for director James Wong and his team, that formula still works.

McKinley High’s class of 2005 is enjoying a night at the local carnival, and fellow senior Wendy Christensen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is snapping digital photos of everyone, some of which will appear in the upcoming yearbook. Spurred on by her boyfriend Jason (Jesse Moss), Wendy agrees to ride the carnival’s main attraction, the “Devil’s Flight” rollercoaster. Joined by their friends Carrie (Gina Holden) and Kevin (Ryan Merriman), Wendy and Jason hop aboard the ride, but before it begins Wendy has a premonition that the coaster is going to break apart. After begging to be let off, she, along with Kevin and a handful of others, climb out of the coaster and head for safety. Sure enough, the disaster that Wendy predicted comes true, killing those who stayed on board (including Jason and Carrie).

Several days later, two of the girls who left the rollercoaster early, Ashley (Chelan Simmons) and Ashlyn (Crystal Lowe), die in a freak accident. It’s at this point Wendy starts to suspect that everyone who got off the rollercoaster early cheated death, and death has come back to settle the score. Armed with the photos taken that fateful evening (many of which seem to predict how the survivors are going to die), Wendy and Kevin set out to warn the others. But as the fatalities mount, they realize their time is running out, and do what they can to try and outwit death one more time.

As with the series’ previous outings, the kill scenes in Final Destination 3 are amazingly creative, starting with the rollercoaster tragedy that kicks everything off (at one point, the heavily damaged coaster stalls while going through a loop, leaving everybody hanging upside-down. A few people try to escape by undoing their seatbelts, only to fall hundreds of feet to their doom). But that’s just the beginning; over the course of the movie, we watch as a number of everyday items, including tanning booths and weight benches, are transformed into killing machines. And while questionable CGI sometimes takes the edge off of them, the deaths in Final Destination 3 are pretty spectacular.

A third movie that’s as entertaining as the first two, Final Destination 3 proves you can never get too much of a good thing.

Friday, October 24, 2014

#1,530. The Barrens (2012)

Directed By: Darren Lynn Bousman

Starring: Stephen Moyer, Mia Kirshner, Allie MacDonald

Tag line: "The terrifying legend of the Jersey Devil is alive"

Trivia: A majority of the scenes were done in a single take

Every summer, I take the family to the Jersey Shore for a week, and to get there I first have to drive through a sizable portion of the Pine Barrens, a heavily wooded area that covers well over a million acres of Southern New Jersey. Along with its endless supply of fresh water, the Pine Barrens is also the alleged home of a creature known as the Jersey Devil, a monstrous being that’s been sighted in the area time and again since 1735 (the year it was supposedly "born"). The Barrens, a 2012 horror film, introduces us to Richard (Stephen Moyer), who believes that, as a child, he had a run-in with the Jersey Devil during one of the many fishing trips he and his father made to the area. Returning to the Barrens for a weekend camping trip with his wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), daughter Sadie (Allie MacDonald) and young son Danny (Peter DaCunha), Richard becomes increasingly convinced that the creature is back, and is stalking his family. But has the beast truly returned, or is something else happening to Richard that’s clouding his judgment?

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, The Barrens is as much a psychological drama as it is a horror film, focusing on its main character as he struggles to figure out what’s going on around him. Stephen Moyer delivers an excellent performance as Richard, a man who, despite his failing health, is doing everything he can to keep his family safe, never realizing that he himself may be the very monster threatening their well-being. Over the course of the movie, Richard deteriorates before our eyes, both physically (we learn he suffered an injury several weeks earlier that, if left untreated, could prove fatal) and emotionally (his jealousy often gets the best of him. At one point, he catches Cynthia on her cell phone. After accusing her of talking with a male friend he’d forbidden her to contact, Richard grabs the phone and, in a fit of rage, tosses it into the surrounding woods). Moyer successfully conveys these changes in his character’s personality, taking what had been a loving husband and nurturing parent and turning him into something considerably more terrifying.

Yet, through it all, we’re reminded there may, in fact, be more going on than meets the eye. Starting with an early scene around a fire, where fellow camper Ryan (Erik Knudson) and his pals relate the legend of the Jersey Devil, we’re never quite sure if the events that follow are, indeed, the work of a mentally unstable Richard, or if someone (or something) much more sinister is to blame. There are times when we catch a glimpse of the creature (which, for a low-budget film, looks pretty good), but seeing as Richard is the only one who encounters it, we don’t know if its real or a figment of his imagination. The tension rises as Richard, hoping to escape the crowded campsite, leads his family deeper into the woods, where they come across an abandoned tent (which has been torn to shreds) and a dead dog tied to a tree. Clearly, something very bad happened here, and it’s to director Bousman’s credit that he keeps us guessing even after we think we have it all figured out.

An edgy, often frightening motion picture, The Barrens has assured that the next time I’m driving through South Jersey, I’ll do so a bit more rapidly than I ever have before!