Friday, July 31, 2015

#1,810. The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

Directed By: Adam Robitel

Starring: Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang

Line from this film: "The story of Alzheimers is never about one person"

Trivia: Filmmaker Bryan Singer was one of the producers of this film

For those who don’t believe a sweet little old lady can scare the bejesus out of you, I point you in the direction of Adam Robitel’s 2014 found footage horror film The Taking of Deborah Logan. This movie is creepy with a capital “C”.

Medical student Mia (Michelle Ang) is putting together a video thesis that will study the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s, and for a subject, she’s chosen Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), an elderly woman recently diagnosed with the disease. Along with her cameraman Luis (Jeremy DeCarlos) and sound engineer Gavin (Brett Gentile), Mia spends the next several months as a frequent guest at the Logan household, befriending Deborah’s only child Sarah (Anne Ramsay), who’s happy to assist. But during the course of their research, it becomes apparent that Deborah’s illness is progressing rapidly. What’s more, she’s exhibiting symptoms that suggest she may be the victim of a demonic possession. With the doctors at a loss to explain what’s going on, Sarah and Mia look into other methods to deal with Deborah’s bizarre behavior, all the while wondering who, or what, has grabbed hold of her psyche.

The Taking of Deborah Logan gets off to a deceptively quiet start, with Mia and her film crew setting up tiny cameras around the house as the kindly, somewhat meek Deborah looks on. At first unsure of whether or not she wants to go through with the interviews, Sarah reminds Deborah that they need the money (Mia has promised them a portion of her grant), or else they’re going to lose the house. Those scenes in which Deborah shows the effects of Alzheimer’s will definitely rattle you (at one point, she accuses Gavin of stealing her gardening spade, screaming and yelling at him in the kitchen before Sarah finally is able to calm her down), but are simply a precursor of what’s to come.

There are hints scattered throughout the movie that suggest something more sinister is at play, including the various pictures Deborah paints, all of which contain a shadowy figure lurking just outside the windows of her home. In addition, the cameras occasionally capture Deborah sleepwalking, during which she mysteriously teleports onto the top of her kitchen stove and even makes her way into the backyard, frantically digging holes as if she were looking for something. Then, one night, Deborah strips off her clothes and sits down at the telephone switchboard in her attic (years earlier, she operated the switchboard out of her home, handling calls and taking messages for many of the town’s prestigious citizens). From there, The Taking of Deborah Logan takes a few turns that are absolutely terrifying.

The cast is exceptional (especially Jill Larson as the title character, whose changing personality sets the entire story in motion), and while the movie itself doesn’t bring anything new to the table (like most found footage, there’s plenty of surveillance video, a whole lot of shaky cam, and, sometimes, no good reason why the cameras are still rolling), The Taking of Deborah Logan does utilize the sub-genre’s conventions to relate what amounts to a very frightening tale.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

#1,809. Evidence (2013)

Directed By: Olatunde Osunsanmi

Starring: Stephen Moyer, Aml Ameen, Caitlin Stasey

Tag line: "Murder is an art"

Trivia: In Germany this film had the added title "On the Trail of the Killer"

A horror film wrapped in a police procedural, 2013’s Evidence takes advantage of the found footage format to present a perplexing mystery, and while the ending may frustrate a few viewers, it’s definitely a fun ride while it lasts.

Several people have been butchered in the desert town of Kidwell, Nevada, and the police investigating the murders have recovered a couple of video cameras, as well as some cellular phones, from the scene, hoping they might contain images that will help them find the person or persons responsible for the slaughter. With Detective Burquez (Radha Mitchell) leading the investigation, a handful of Nevada’s finest, including Detective Reese (Stephen Moyer), view the material, and what they see is shocking, to say the least.

What started as a Las Vegas getaway for upcoming actress LeAnn (Torrey DeVitto), her best friend (and wannabe director) Rachel (Caitlin Stasey), and LeAnn’s musician boyfriend Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), turned into a nightmare of epic proportions when their shuttle bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Along with fellow passengers Vicki (Svetlana Metkina), Steven (Albert Kuo), and Katrina (Dale Dickey), the three followed the driver, Ben (Harry Lennix), to an abandoned truck depot. But instead of finding a phone, they encountered a serial killer in a welder’s mask, who, over the course of a single night, hunted them down one-by-one.

While the footage does show some of the murders in graphic detail, it always stops short of revealing the killer’s identity. Can Burquez and Reese piece together the clues in time, or will a psychopath get away scot-free?

Most found footage movies simply present the so-called “recovered” images, with only a title screen or two to explain what happened, but Evidence takes a different approach, allowing us to sit in with the police as they watch the videos for the very first time. Aside from enhancing the film’s dramatic effect (we see their honest reaction to it all), this also heightens the tension by making us more alert; like Burquez and Reese, we’re looking for clues, which pulls us deeper into the central mystery. In addition, the movie takes the time up-front to establish its characters (via “early” footage of the three leads before they took the trip, as well as the interviews Rachel conducted with the other passengers when they climbed aboard the bus), and even though we realize the majority will not survive the ordeal, we’re still on the edge of our seat, rooting for them as they face off against one very determined killer.

Featuring a masked assailant with a specialized weapon (an acetylene torch), Evidence works quite well as a slasher film, but it’s the way the movie draws us in that impressed me most. While we know early on what’s going to happen (the opening sequence takes us on a tour of the murder scene, where we see a charred body, a severed arm, and some other clues scattered about), the excitement comes from piecing it all together, which results in a few surprises, including a final twist that, though a bit far-fetched, is genuinely shocking. An intense, harrowing look at a murderer in action, Evidence puts a new spin on the sub-genre, and because of this, I’d even recommend it to those who’ve grown weary of the found footage approach.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

#1,808. BMX Bandits (1983)

Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: David Argue, John Ley, Nicole Kidman

Tag line: "They're burning up the streets!"

Trivia: Nicole Kidman was doubled by an 18-year-old boy who wore a wig

Notable because it features a 15-year-old Nicole Kidman (in one of her first film roles), Brian Trenchard-Smith’s BMX Bandits was geared towards a younger audience (the BMX crowd, obviously), but adults with a fondness for ‘80s cinema will also enjoy this sometimes goofy, often fun adventure / comedy.

P.J. (Angelo D’Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton), a pair of BMX riding best pals, agree to help their friend Judy (Kidman) raise some money for a new bike. While out on the lake looking for shellfish they can peddle, the trio finds a container filled with state-of-the-art walkie-talkies, which they sell to a few of their friends. But these are no ordinary walkie-talkies. They belong to a group of hardened criminals, who had them specially tuned to pick up police broadcasts. Without these high-tech gadgets, the gang won’t be able to pull off the payroll heist they’ve been planning, which will net each of them about $250,000. A bit anxious to get their gizmos back, two of the criminals, Whitey (David Argue) and Moustache (John Ley), search frantically for the three friends. What’s more, the police, who’ve been picking up some strange transmissions as of late, are more than a little perturbed that their secure signal has been hacked, and set out to find those responsible. With both the cops and the crooks closing in on them, P.J., Goose, and Judy hop on their bikes and ride as fast as they can, all the while searching for a way out of this mess.

Even at this early stage of her career, Nicole Kidman showed some acting chops, and is easily the best of the film’s young performers. Of course, in a movie called BMX Bandits, it isn’t the performances that’ll grab you; it’s the action, and right off the bat, director Trenchard-Smith treats us to a title sequence with some fast riding and a few BMX stunts. After this initial scene, though, the bikes disappear for a while so that the filmmakers can establish the story. In fact, most of the movie’s first half is BMX-free, with Trenchard-Smith finding other ways to keep things chugging along (there’s a tense sequence, set in a cemetery at night, in which P.J., Goose, and Judy are cornered, albeit temporarily, by the two crooks). But by the time the film hits the halfway point, the bikes are back, and in a big, big way. 

The humor in BMX Bandits, which ranges from puns to slapstick, is on the juvenile side (the climax of the big chase looks as if it was lifted right out of a Three Stooges short), but the BMX action scenes more than make up for it, with our heroes occasionally going way off-road to avoid being captured (at one point, they even take their bikes down a waterpark slide). In the end, BMX Bandits might not set the world on fire, but it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

#1,807. Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford

Tag line: "The price of admission is the rest of your life"

Trivia: Director Brian Trenchard-Smith used to go to the drive-in featured in this film. According to him, he saw Peckinpah's Major Dundee there

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Dead End Drive-In is set in a world that has fallen apart (just after the opening credits, we’re given a laundry list of cataclysmic events, including a nuclear accident, a revolution in South Africa, and financial collapse in New York City, all of which have contributed to the decline of society as we know it). While roving gangs known as “carboys” terrorize the good citizens of Sydney, our hero, Crabs (Ned Manning) tries desperately to convince his brother Frank (Ollie Hall) to lend him his car, a classic 1956 Red Chevy convertible, so that he can take his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) out in style. Frank eventually agrees, and Crabs, hoping for a little “alone time” with Carmen, whisks her off to the Star Drive-In theater. But Crabs makes one very costly mistake: to save money on the tickets, he lies and tells the Drive-in’s supervisor, Thompson (Peter Whitford), that he’s unemployed (Regular admission is $10, while for the unemployed, it’s only $3.50). So, instead of a relaxing night at the movies, Crabs finds himself in deep trouble when the police swipe two tires off of the Chevy, thus stranding him and Carmen at the Drive-In.

As it turns out, the Star isn’t so much a drive-in theater as it is a detention camp (complete with guards and an electrified fence), where society’s cast-offs, some of whom have been there for quite a while, are forced to live out of their cars (by claiming he was unemployed, Thompson concluded that Crabs and Carmen were “undesirables”). The next morning, when Crabs storms into the front office to complain, Thompson, instead of helping, gives Crabs and Carmen a booklet of “meal coupons”, which can be redeemed at the snack stand, and offers them blankets. In short, he tells the two young lovers they won’t be leaving anytime soon, and, like those already there, they should accept the fact that the drive-in is going to be their new home. Carmen takes Thompson’s advice and befriends some of the other girls, one of whom gives her a new hair-do; but Crabs remains determined to find a way out, and is ready to do whatever is necessary to regain his freedom.

Dead End Drive-In reveals early on that the world the film takes place in is both savage and cruel. One night, while Frank (who operates a tow truck) and Crabs are out cruising, they receive a call from Frank’s dispatcher: a three-car accident has just occurred a few blocks over. When they arrive on the scene, the cops are already there, and Frank informs them that he’s claiming the wreckage of all three cars. But another tow truck driver showed up at the same time, and he and Frank nearly come to blows as they argue over which of them will be leaving with the smashed-up vehicles. Just then, some “carboys” drive up and begin vandalizing the wrecks. Knowing it will decrease their value, Frank and Crabs fight them off, all as the cops stand by and watch, offering no assistance whatsoever. During the melee, the press arrives and immediately breaks out their cameras, followed closely by an ambulance, because as all this is going on, the victims of the crash lay bleeding in their cars (and from the looks of it, most were already dead). Though not quite as dystopian as The Road Warrior, Dead End Drive-In does have one thing in common with George Miller’s classic 1981 flick: in this world, cars are the ultimate prize, and human life, at best, is a secondary concern.

So, when the action shifts to the Drive-In, we, unlike Crabs, can understand why many of the “inmates” aren’t in a rush to leave. Dave (Dave Gibson), a self-appointed leader of a group of thugs, tells Crabs that, on the outside, he had been out of work for 4 years, and, no longer able to collect unemployment, was lucky if he could afford one meal a day. Like most others, Dave’s life inside the Drive-In is much better than it was in the real world. Even Carmen, who had run away from home and was living on the streets, sees the drive-in as a sort of salvation. She tries to convince Crabs that he, too, should accept their fate, but director Trenchard-Smith is quick to show us that the drive-in isn’t the paradise some believe it to be when, without warning, a group of Asians are bussed in, and take up residence. All at once, Dave, Carmen, and many of the others are complaining about their new neighbors, and stage a “whites only” meeting to discuss how they plan to respond to this “invasion”. Having already taken pot-shots at the media, youth culture, and government control, Dead End Drive-In now shines a light on racism, and though it’s a bit heavy-handed, the message comes across loud and clear.

Yet, despite moments such as these, Dead End Drive-In is, above all, an exploitation film, with a rocking soundtrack, exceptional set pieces (especially the drive-in, where dozens of cars have been converted into makeshift houses), some nudity and sex, and lots of action. Along with a well-staged fight scene, in which Crabs dukes it out with Hazza (Wilbur Wilde), a member of Dave’s gang, the final sequence, where Crabs puts his escape plan into motion, is jam-packed with excitement (car chases, shoot-outs, and even the odd explosion). When all is said and done, Dead End Drive-In has plenty to say about the world as it existed in 1986, but it’s the thrills that make it a worthwhile experience.

Monday, July 27, 2015

#1,806. Maggie (2015)

Directed By: Henry Hobson

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson

Line from this film: "Quarantine rules apply to everybody, Wade"

Trivia: Director Hobson created more than 200 pages of storyboards to guide his actors through the film

Maggie is not your typical Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Considered by many one of the all-time great action stars, Arnold here portrays a father who must deal with the fact that his daughter is dying. And guess what? He plays the part pretty darn well!

A virus, which affects crops and people alike, is sweeping across the country. Those whose fields are infected can burn the sickness away just by lighting a match, but for the unfortunate souls who’ve contracted the human form of the disease, there is no cure; at the end of 8 weeks, they will transform into zombie-like creatures with a hunger for flesh. To prevent the virus from spreading, quarantine centers have been set up in all the major cities, and those who’ve been infected must be taken there before the disease has run its course. Farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) knows that his oldest daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who contracted the virus after being bitten, has only a short time to live, yet he refuses to let go of her. His wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), who’s also Maggie’s step-mother (Maggie’s real mom died several years earlier), fears for the safety of their family (the couple’s two youngest children, played by siblings Aiden and Carsen Flowers, are sent to stay with their aunt). Still, Wade insists that Maggie live out her last days at home, and not in a quarantine center surrounded by strangers. As for Maggie, she realizes her time is just about up, and that the virus inside of her is getting stronger by the minute. What she doesn’t know, however, is whether or not she can control herself once the final stage of the illness sets in.

An infection film as opposed to a straight-up zombie movie (think 28 Days Later), Maggie has its share of intense sequences (one in particular, where Wade and Maggie stop at a roadside gas station, features what is arguably the film’s most frightening moment). But unlike most movies of this ilk, thousands of diseased aren’t on the loose, roaming the countryside. That’s because government and law enforcement officials, with the help of the quarantine centers, have managed to keep the virus in check, thus setting the stage for the human drama that forms the heart of this film. As Maggie’s illness progresses, the local authorities, including the sheriff (Douglas M. Griffin), urge Wade to turn her over. But Wade is willing to risk everything to ensure that Maggie stays put, even going so far as to threaten anyone who suggests she be taken to a quarantine center. As for Maggie, she does what she can to lead as normal a life as possible: sitting down to dinner with Wade and Caroline, going for walks in the woods, and spending time with her best friend Allie (Raeden Greer). Yet the reality of her situation is never far from her mind, and as badly as Wade wants to keep her close by, Maggie worries about what will happen when the disease finally takes control of her. Abigail Breslin does a fantastic job as the title character, perfectly conveying all the fear and anger of a young girl who knows she’s reached the end of her life, and Schwarzenegger matches her every step of the way as a man who cannot let go, even if it’s the right thing to do.

Since his return to the big screen (he stayed away during his stint as the Governor of California), Arnold Schwarzenegger has appeared in a number of action-oriented films, including every installment of the Expendables series, as well as 2013’s The Last Stand (a movie I enjoyed). Yet as fun as it is to watch Arnie kick ass, he did such a good job in Maggie that I hope he continues to challenge himself and take more serious-minded roles. Clearly, he has a knack for them.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

#1,805. Hannibal (2001)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman

Tag line: "Never Forget Who He Is"

Trivia: When Jodie Foster announced she wouldn't return to the role, a number of actresses were considered to play Clarice, including Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank

The first time I saw Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the follow-up to 1991’s award-winning Silence of the Lambs, my reaction to the movie could best be described as “lukewarm”. But with each successive viewing, I find myself admiring Hannibal a little more, and now consider it a solid sequel, as well as a fine film in its own right.

A decade has passed since serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), affectionately known as “The Cannibal” in some circles, escaped from prison, and his whereabouts remain a mystery. Following a botched drug raid, FBI special agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), at the insistence of millionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, playing the only victim to survive an encounter with "The Cannibal"), is put back on the Lecter case, and ordered to do whatever’s necessary to track him down. As it turns out, the good doctor has been living in Florence, Italy, under the assumed name “Dr. Fell”. While investigating the disappearance of a Library curator, Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) of the Florence police force discovers Dr. Fell’s true identity, and, hoping to claim the $3 million dollar reward offered by Verger, attempts to apprehend the elusive killer on his own (a decision he will soon regret). His cover blown, Lecter makes his way back to the States to drop in on his old pal, Agent Starling, but will he instead wind up in prison, or, worse still, fall into the hands of Mason Verger, whose thirst for revenge may just give him an advantage over the incredibly sly Lecter.

The key to Hannibal, as it was with Silence of the Lambs, is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who, even when not on-screen, is always the movie’s most interesting character (it’s a good 30 minutes before he enters the story in Hannibal, yet his presence is so strong that he remains a tangible part of every second that preceded it). The sequences set in Florence, during which all the facets of Lecter’s unique personality, his sophistication and his sadism, are revealed, are, in my opinion, the film’s strongest (An aficionado of the arts, Lecter attends an opera and hosts several historical presentations at the Florence library, moments that are counterbalanced by scenes of incredible violence, such as his killing of a pickpocket, and the grisly manner in which he “ties up the loose ends” in Florence before finally skipping town). Adding to his lore, Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter only targets those he feels deserve retribution; as Barney (Frankie Faison), his former guard at the prison, says when questioned by Starling, Lecter “only eats the rude”, making him one of the few homicidal maniacs you both fear and root for at the same time.

My initial issues with Hannibal centered on Clarice Starling, partially because the role had been recast (Moore had the thankless task of following Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1991 original), but also the character herself, as portrayed in the film. The truth is, Moore is utterly fantastic, conveying a fair portion of the down-home innocence that made Starling a fan favorite while, at the same time, playing a more aggressive version of the character. Initially, the decision to “toughen her up” rubbed me the wrong way, but seeing as 10 years have passed between the events depicted in the two movies, it would be silly to assume Starling was the same “new kid” on the force as she was in Silence of the Lambs. Her first run-in with Lecter, followed by her years of experience, would have certainly hardened her personality to some degree. She still has her moments of vulnerability; after the unsuccessful (and ultimately blood-drenched) raid to apprehend drug lord Evelda Drumgo (Hazelle Goodman), she breaks down and cries (mostly because a baby was caught in the crossfire, and was in danger of being killed). Scenes like this one aside, Moore’s Starling is definitely much tougher than she was a decade earlier, and the actress does a phenomenal job portraying her as such.

The most bizarre figure in Hannibal is easily Mason Verger, Lecter’s 4th victim and the only one to survive an encounter with “The Cannibal”. An admitted pedophile, we see, in flashback, how the wealthy Verger (prompted by Lecter) entered a drug-induced state and sliced up his own face with a shard from a broken mirror (a scene that, as you can imagine, is difficult to sit through). Now scarred beyond recognition, Verger has dedicated his life, as well as his life savings, to tracking down Lecter and exacting his revenge. He’s even paid to have specially-trained “attack pigs” brought in from Italy (resulting in another of the film’s many violent scenes). As portrayed by Oldman (unrecognizable behind his “faceless” make-up), Verger is a guy who’s used to getting his own way. Yet as driven as he is, we always feel he’s no match for “The Cannibal”, making their ultimate showdown all the more interesting to watch.

Even now, I don’t think Hannibal is a perfect film: Though played well enough by Ray Liotta, the character of corrupt FBI agent Paul Krendler, Starling’s superior and a guy who wears his sexist attitude on his sleeve, is too cartoonish (that said, his eventual “encounter” with Lecter remains, for me, the movie’s most disturbing sequence). And while it’s not over-emphasized, the “romance” between Lecter and Starling hinted at during the course of the film (especially towards the end) felt unnecessary. In all likelihood, Hannibal will never attain the level of respectability that Silence of the Lambs has, yet I’ve come to believe it’s is as good a follow-up as can be expected.

In fact, it may even be a great one.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

#1,804. Space Station (2002)

Directed By: Toni Myers

Starring: Tom Cruise, James Arnold, Michael J. Bloomfield

Tag line: "A Select Few Have Been Aboard... Now It's Your Turn!"

Trivia: This movie was the first IMAX 3D production filmed in space

When it comes to capturing the awe-inspiring nature of outer space, nothing can beat a giant IMAX screen, and 2002’s Space Station certainly has its share of striking images. The true focus of this documentary, though, isn’t the vastness of space, but the dedication of a handful of people, representing countries such as the U.S., Russia, Canada, Italy, and Japan, who came together to build one of the most fantastic structures ever conceived: the International Space Station.

Narrated by Tom Cruise (who’s livelier than most), Space Station takes us some 250 miles above the earth, where scientists and engineers alike have built a modern marvel. With footage shot by astronauts, cosmonauts, and a few others, the film brings us aboard a U.S. Space Shuttle, on its way to the station to drop off supplies and personnel; and pays a visit to Kazakhstan, where three men (Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Pavlovich Gidzenko, American William M. Shepherd) prepare themselves for a four-month stay at the International Space Station. Their mission: to “turn on the lights” and make sure everything is in perfect working order. They are the first of several crews that will call the station “home” for an extended period of time, each group doing what it can to ensure the facility is both safe and fully operational.

Originally shown in 3-D, Space Station is, at times, a beautiful motion picture (one scene that stands out in my mind is that of the station, seen from the outside, passing over the continent of Africa), but by centering on the men and women who worked tirelessly to bring the station to life, the movie tells a story every bit as intriguing as anything the universe has to offer.