Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Howling: Reborn

When I started The Howling Series Retrospective Review project back in 2013 I didn't imagine
a). that it would take this long to complete
b). that there was an 8th and more recent Howling film.  I thought the series died with the dreadful part 7, New Moon Rising, but turns out that was not the case (and wishful thinking).

This has not been a good series of movies (only part of the reason why this project has taken so long to complete) but in the very least I can say that all of the films either contain some memorable moments or something strange/weird/interesting.  However this modern Howling movie is. . . .something else entirely.

Read on, but first, links to previous installments:
The Howling
Howling II...your sister is a werewolf!
Marsupials: Howling III
Howling IV: The Original Nightmare
Howling V: The Rebirth
Howling VI: The Freaks
The Howling: New Moon Rising

I'm not actually sure what to say about The Howling: Reborn (2011).  The movie is kind of a blank.  It happened, I heard and saw something, but it had no effect.  I wasn't appalled by it, or interested.  It's the kind of bad and bland that is common with modern DTV low budget horror movies:  Visually uninteresting, the camera moves around too much, zero atmosphere, sterile lighting, terrible voiceover narration, weak characterization, crummy CGI, etc.  I watched it less than a week ago and I can barely recall what the movie is even about.

Let's see....

There's a pregnant artist lady who is killed by something, some sort of unseen attacker, but the baby survives and 18 years later grows into this sullen dork who meets the rebellious love of his life and also his mom (who never actually died) comes back to make him a badass werewolf, just like she is, and if not she'll kill him.  Or something.  Like I said, I barely recall.

It's real basic, generic stuff.  The real question is, how are the werewolves?

Well, they kind of look okay, they're these tall bipedal creatures but it seems as if they come in two styles.  One has the regular werewolf snout face and is furrier:
This is how mom-wolf and eventually (spoiler?) her son and his girlfriend look, and it looks fine!  It looks like a werewolf.  Mom-wolf also has these minion wolves and these dudes, for some reason, look quite a bit different.  I'd say they resemble an orc wearing furry chaps:

That darker first image is actually the first full werewolf you see in the movie, which is both hilarious and alarming, as he's all slick up top and kinda hairy on his legs and arms.  It was a small relief later when mom turns into a regular looking werewolf.  Makes me wonder why they didn't just stick with a snout-face similar to mom-wolf?  Weird design choice guys.

You get a real good look at the better werewolf design late in the movie, after a big shaky cam werewolf battle between mom and son, (spoiler) girlfriend-wolf shows up and she looks like this:
Not too shabby of a monster suit (could be hairier); there's definitely worse in the Howling franchise itself.

Unfortunately, there's very little blood and not really any gore or cool special effects, although there is one funny kill scene where a kid is thrown/falls down a stairwell shaft. (obvious dummy)
Jeez, other than that let's see...what else to say about this movie?

-At one point one of the bro-wolf minions serves our protagonist a finger hot dog.  I guess it's in an effort to get him to open up to his werewolf lineage, or whatever.  It qualifies as a weird moment but only as a moment that feels like it belongs in a different movie.
-The music and soundtrack is pretty lame, full of bro-rock songs, but they do manage to squeeze "Killing Moon" by Echo & The Bunnymen in there, so good job there I guess (even if it is a cost-saving non-album version of the track).

-In the opening, after mom is "killed," the unborn baby's hand bursts through her stomach.  That sounds a lot cooler than it actually is in the movie.

-Mom-wolf Ivana Milicevic puts in the best performance here, vamping it up and, seemingly, having some fun.  She can also be seen in Casino Royale (2006), Running Scared (2006) and Vanilla Sky (2001) and is also familiar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans as Riley Finn's wife, Sam, who showed up in that one episode.

-In the opening credits the film is said to be based on The Howling II written by Gary Brandner, but the finished movie has no resemblance to his novel.

-The girlfriend character is enigmatic and intense for no other reason than to cast suspicion on her for potentially being a werewolf early in the movie (which she's not, at least until the finale).  As written, I find her to be equally unbelievable as a wild girl as she is a dream girl.

-There's a best friend character who knows a lot about werewolves because of movies.  That really sums up what kind of movie this is.  It goes for the obvious every time.

Let's be real:  this is the kind of lazy movie designed to fill space on a video store shelf or to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation or maybe retain the rights to the material or something.  It was obviously made to try to cash in with the Twilight crowd, which, whatever, good for them, but I'm not sure why they had to drag the good(?) name of The Howling series into all of this... hmmpf, let's end this and just go to the wrap-up.

First check out the trailer if you want:

-------------The Howling Series Retrospective Review Wrap-Up-------------

Well okay, here we are at the end and it seems like I should have learned a lesson or come to a conclusion or something.  Well, if I did, it is that the Howling movies are not very good.  They have to be, overall, on the lower end of quality when it comes to horror franchises, somewhere above stuff like Puppet Master and Witchcraft but below, say, the Hellraiser films (which manages at least two great movies).  This is not to say that some of the individual movies don't have their merits and/or interesting moments.  Some of them offer gore and neat werewolf effects, while others have weird half-baked ideas and odd quirks.

This is how I would personally rank the films, from most to least watchable:

-The Howling
-Howling II
-Howling III
-Howling VI
-Howling IV
-Howling New Moon Rising
-Howling V
-Howling Reborn

So yeah, I find NMR to be more watchable than two other Howling films, even though I think it is quite possibly one of the worst movies ever made.  I guess that's why I find it watchable, the uniqueness of such a train wreck.

While I wouldn't recommend this series of movies to most horror fans, I guess I might say the first two sequels are maybe worth checking out, if just for the weirdness factor of both.  Full Disclosure: I actually kinda like part II, I think it's a fun bad movie.  In general though, you can just watch the original Howling and leave it at that.  I'm still not a big fan of the OG Howling, but I can appreciate it more now, if only because Joe Dante was able to pull off a halfway decent werewolf movie, which seems to be a rarity for the subgenre.

You can get The Howling and Howling II on Blu-ray from the fine folks at Scream Factory and you can find the rest of the movies on DVD in dollar bins and resale shops nationwide.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Top 15 Films of 2015

In what now seems like a new tradition (see: my 2013 and 2014 lists), I am posting my Top Favorite Films of 2015 List today, on Oscar Sunday.  These extra weeks allow me to catch up on 2015 releases, and since I'm not getting paid to write any of this, I say why not wait until I've seen a good amount of them before finishing a list.

As always though, even with all the extra time, I still haven't seen a boatload of things (especially Oscar nominees), including Carol, The Big Short, Spotlight, Son of Saul, Steve JobsStraight Outta Compton, Crimson Peak, Kumiko the Treasure HunterThe Assassin, Magic Mike XXL, Mustang, Macbeth, Krampus, Goodnight Mommy, The Forbidden Room, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Beasts of No Nation, or The Revenant.  So keep all that in mind..

Out of the 50 or so movies I did see from 2015, these were my favorites:

TOP 15 FILMS OF 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Like most, I couldn't help but absolutely love this movie.  My expectations were high and they were met at every level.  The relentless momentum of this film is exhilarating, with a breathlessness that is warranted.  It has a great, simple plot structure and some deeper emotional moments and themes running throughout.

Tom Hardy as Max is amazing, tough and silent, and I love how the movie isn't afraid to have one of his best action moments offscreen.  His throwdown his Furiosa is fantastic too, as is Furiosa herself (Charlize Theron has an all-timer character here; she's so badass)...  So many great things in this movie:  the car designs, the car crashes, the tight editing and framing, the crisp visual action choreography, the set and art design, the eye popping color tones, "I live! I die! I live again!," The Doof Warrior, the guys on poles, Mother's Milk, that freaky tiny guy in the chair, the non-corny nods to the previous films, the spray paint, the religious symbolism of the steering wheel, and of course, Immortan Joe: Darth Vader of the wasteland.

Fury Road is an action masterpiece and a brilliant piece of pure cinema.  If you don't like it you're a crazy smig who eats schlanger!

The Hateful Eight
Tarantino takes his "tension filled dialogue that explodes into violence" approach to filmmaking to it's squirm-inducing nihilistic end.  Cruel and uncomfortable, this is America at its ugliest and worst, paying for and reliving its sins of slavery and greed, and riding out on a positive ending built around bullshit and subterfuge.   The nihilism is so evident in this drawing room mystery that I can't help but think of another nihilistic film made by a filmmaker who was angry at the increasingly frustrating social and political nature of the times.  I'm speaking of course of the late Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, a transgressive scream of a horror film made at a time in American history when things were boiling over with Vietnam, Kent State, racial tension, etc.

The comparison between Craven's and Tarantino's films is made implicit with the use of a song by David Hess (who starred in and provided the soundtrack for Last House), a track called "Now You're All Alone."  In Last House it is used in the lead up to poor Mari's execution and in Hateful Eight it creeps up in the scene where Joe Gage shoots helpless Charly.  Both scenes involve the murder of an innocent and invoke the mournful inevitableness of death, the cold approach of forever.

Tarnatino has never been accused of being a political filmmaker but with his last two films it would seem he has some things on his mind when it comes to the state of pain and divide within our nation.

Something has happened to me over the last few years:  I've become a massive fan of the Rocky series!  I've always liked the movies, loved the first one as a classic, thought the rest were okay, but my love and interest in these movies has grown rapidly recently.  Maybe it's because I'm getting older?  Who knows.. What I can say is this:  Creed is a worthy continuation of the Rocky mythos and one of the very best in the series.  Great cast (Jordan, Thompson, Stallone are all fantastic), great story (it mirrors the OG Rocky but is also its own thing), some of the best boxing action every committed to celluloid (seriously, the single take fight is breathtaking!), some excellent emotional moments (the relationships between Adonis/Bianca and Adonis/Rocky are both played perfectly), some fist pumping YES! moments (when Bill Conti's theme music comes up for the first time: CHILLS!), this is a damn great film and a true winner.

Engaging and very well made, all the more impressive as this was shot entirely on an iPhone5.  I love how the film just drops you into this world of these transwomen prostitutes, turning tricks, doing drugs and living life and it's all presented non-judgementally.  There's no broad statements or proclamations here either, instead it's just a funny, unique, very human and kinda sweet story that's a bit fucked up.  It's also a Christmas movie, so maybe buy Grandma a copy this year for the holidays.

Bone Tomahawk
A really good western that descends into intense horror territory.  The dialogue and the characters are excellent, with Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins really breathing life into their roles (Patrick Wilson is okay, but honestly, inmyopinon, he was a bit outshined by the others).  The cinematography is excellent and the gore effects are incredible, this is a strong and assured debut film and as far as horror-cannibal-westerns go, it will be hard to beat.

Incredibly authentic portrait of middle-aged male depression and narcissism colliding in an Ohio hotel room, made all the more remarkable as it is entirely stop-motion animated, quite realistically so (there's full frontal nudity).  The film is sweet, sad, uniquely weird, and also very funny (there's a hilariously relatable sequence in the shower).

Charlie Kaufman proves that no matter the medium he is the master of telling idiosyncratic stories about depression, life, love, existence, etc.  He also proves that nothing good ever happens in hotel rooms.  Or Cincinnati.

Absolutely fantastic, has a pulp premise (a disfigured concentration camp survivor, unrecognizable due to facial reconstruction surgery, returns to post-war Berlin looking for her husband) but everything plays out in subtle nuances and small, little character moments.  Strong performances throughout, especially from Nina Hoss, and the final scene in the film is among the very best ever, a marvelous moment that puts a perfect cap on a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy
I didn't ultimately care for director Peter Strickland's previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, but in this film, a wonderful and fascinating story about lesbian love and sexual domination, I found the cinematography, the performances, and what was being said about love, romance, and relationships to all be remarkable, fascinating, stunning, and beautiful.
Pinastri, forever.

Inside Out
Smart, unique, clever, fun, touching, rousing, engaging, one of Pixar's best films with some of their very best animation (the abstract thought sequence is fantastic).  If I have to sit through a few years of the company making sequels to their hit movies before I get to see something original and amazing like this, well, I guess I'll sit through Finding Dory and just wait then.  Wait and dream...

It Follows
Spooky and well made, a modern horror classic.  The atmosphere and tension come from a very simple concept and story (also from the stellar soundtrack by Disasterpiece).  One of the things I love about this movie is how the kids all seem to behave in age appropriate ways, from how they interact with one another to the decisions they make when things start getting weird.  I've read complaints about how they just run from place to place trying to hide from/deal with this entity, but to me it all makes logical teenager-sense.  Even their ill-advised trip to the municipal pool at the end is the kind of half-baked idea that teens would come up with.  It all worked for me and I think it works for the world within this movie.

This is one of those "the less you know about it" kind of movies, so I'll keep it brief:  Brie Larson (who knocks this one out of the park) is a kidnapped young woman who is trapped in a room with her young son (also fantastic) who has never known anything but the inside of the room.  Claustrophobic and heartbreaking while also managing to be a tense thriller, the film ultimately finds epiphanies on parenthood, childhood, isolation, adaptation, and love.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The exploration of a young girl's sexuality and her coming of age.  Set in 70s San Francisco, with all the drugs, hippies, weirdos, big parks, flared pants, and needle drops that that implies, this is the story of a 15 year old girl, an artistic type named Minnie, who is dating her mother's boyfriend.

Frank and upfront, there's a realism coming through here (even with the moments augmented by animation) that I would imagine would make this a realistic and authentic portrayal of what it is like to grow up as a girl, emotionally speaking of course.  I mean, I hope most young girls aren't sleeping with older men, even if they do look like Alexander Skarsgård.

Bridge of Spies
Solid, clean, classical American filmmaking.  This Spielberg guy knows what he's doing.  The contributions from the Coen Bros. in the script can be felt throughout, bubbling up in the plot mechanics, small character moments, and slight bits of humor.  Not one of Tom Hanks' funnier movies, but still a great thriller with an amazing (based on a true) story.

The Look of Silence
Follow-up and companion film to The Act of Killing, which was my favorite film of 2013.  The Look of Silence isn't as artistically daring with recreations or its locations as its predecessor, but the story is every bit as amazing and powerful.  Following a military coup in Indonesian in the mid-60s there was a mass genocide of suspected communists and dissenters, most of them innocents.  Up to a million people were killed.  The men who perpetrated those crimes are still in power to this day.

While The Act of Killing focused on those men and getting them to discuss what they did, this film instead gives voice to the families of the victims, specifically that of a young optometrist who goes around interviewing some of these guys while giving them eye exams.  Their reactions to the realties of what they did is chilling and you start to have grave concerns for this optometrist's safety, as talking about these things in such a way is something that just isn't done.  It's quite a brave thing that's done here, the lifting of silence.  A remarkable two film series.

What We Do in the Shadows
In general I'm not a huge fan of vampire movies, but this New Zealand comedy really takes the piss out of the bloodsuckers and makes good use of the lore, legends, and history of vamps.  Not much of a plot but what goings-ons there are here manage to be pretty funny with good gags, jokes, and likable performances (who doesn't like the werewolves?!).  One complaint: I would've liked there to be more Petyr.

the next ten:
-Ex Machina - A great small scale/big idea science fiction thriller, with impressive special effects and an interesting and intriguing story; it's like Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things by way of Spielberg's A.I.  Also, that Oscar Isaac dance scene is INCREDIBLE!

-Chi-Raq - A hot mess but fascinating and very enjoyable.  Will be interesting to see how Spike Lee's encapsulation of our current troubled racial climate ages over time.

-Sicario - Doesn't add much new to the drug cartel movie genre, but it does have great cinematography, performances, and a couple superb suspense sequences.

-The Tribe - Ukrainian arthouse film, told only in sign language.  Mesmerizing and meditative but also unflinchingly brutal and uncomfortable.  A difficult film to be sure, but worthwhile.

-Queen of Earth - Elizabeth Moss cries her eyes out in Alex Ross Perry's lake house version of Repulsion.

-Love & Mercy - Surprisingly solid biopic that avoids becoming run-of-the-mill with its artiness and use of montage.  Also, any chance I get to see Brian Wilson (even a fictionalized version) working in the studio recording Beach Boys magic, I'm going to take it.

-Ant-Man - Refreshing smaller scale Marvel superhero movie.  The Cure "Disintegration" moment might be my favorite joke of the year.

-We Are Still Here - Effective and spooky grieving parents/haunted house movie with a great soundtrack.

-Mistress America
"I think I'm sick, and I don't know if my ailment has a name.  It's just me sitting and staring at the internet or television for long periods of time, interspersed by trying to not do that and then lying about what I've been doing.  And then I'll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can't sleep or do anything and I just am in love with everything but can't figure out how to make myself work in the world."

"I think I have that too."

-The Martian - The funniest space movie since Space Jam!

Worst Movies I Mistakenly Thought Might Be Worth Watching:

-Cooties - Very disappointed in this weak zombie children horror comedy.  Don't get Cooties.

-Pound of Flesh - Van Damme has been making some great movies in recent years.  This is not one of them.

-Burying the Ex - I hate to rag on a Joe Dante movie, but this is a big *whiff*

-Jurassic World - The best part of this was, after the movie finished in the theater, some guy up in the balcony shouted out a displeased "booooo!"

-Slow West - The cartoonish "salt in the wound" scene made me fold my arms and shout "oh, c'mon!" at my TV.

-The Gift - A lot of people like this.  I'm not one of them.  It starts off with some promise, but descends into sub-mediocrity, like maybe just a step above "made for cable TV thriller."  Jason Bateman leans hard into his natural unlikability, but the other two leads offer me nothing.  Who am I supposed to be rooting for in this movie?  And the ending, the big reveal, well, no spoilers, but seems to me some tests could alleviate some questions about the gift, am I right?

Well, there you go.  What do you think?
Agree?  Disagree?  What were your favorites of 2015?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

RIP, Angus Scrimm

Another horror icon gone.

Angus Scrimm, best known as The Tall Man from the Phantasm films, has passed away.  He was 89.
Fangoria has a nice obit.
I guess it's not a total shock given his age, and it is comforting to know that, according to Phantasm director Don Coscarelli, he "passed surrounded by friends and loved ones," but still, it's sad he's gone.

Scrimm starred in four Phantasm films (1979/88/94/98), with a fifth film, Phantasm: Ravager set for release later this year.  Also, there's a 4K restoration in the works of the first film, which is exciting.  Scrimm is a big part of why the original Phantasm works so well.  His strong screen presence and booming voice, he's a screen villain like no one else and when combined with the other nightmare imagery of the movie it makes quite the impression.

Here's a clip from an obscure horror film Scream Bloody Murder (1973), Scrimm's second credited screen role.  He's a bit stuffier and his character doesn't last long.  Neat movie though, worth the look.

Scrimm as Dr. Lyme in the very strange and weirdly entertaining Nic Cage film Deadfall (1993)
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005) from the Masters of Horror series.  Scrimm gets kooky.

An old school class act and forever an icon of the horror genre.
Angus Scrimm

Sunday, January 3, 2016

RIP, Vilmos Zsigmond

Damn.  It's been a rough week for great cinematographers.  Back on the 27th of December, the great Haskell Wexler died (his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  and Bound for Glory being real standouts) and now news comes down today that the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond passed away on January 1st.
Zsigmond was 85.
Born in 1930 in Hungary, escaping after the 1956 Russian Invasion, Zsigmond came to America where he worked his way through low budget exploitation pictures (such as the excellent The Sadist [1963], which I wrote about HERE) before getting a break on his first high profile picture, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) for director Robert Altman, which was quickly followed by Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (also 1971).  Both films would announce the arrival of a true master cinematographer, with McCabe's beautiful gauzy and hazy imagery and the marvelous lighting work and stunning crossfades found in Hired Hand.

At this point, I'm just going to list some of the great films he's worked on.  You might not know the name Vilmos Zsigmond, but you've more than likely seen his work:

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
The Hired Hand
The Long Goodbye
The Sugarland Express
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Deer Hunter
The Rose
Heaven's Gate
Blow Out
Real Genius
The Witches of Eastwick
The Two Jakes
The Crossing Guard
The Ghost and the Darkness
The Black Dahlia

Zsigmond worked with directors like Atlman, Fonda, Boorman, Spielberg, De Palma, Cimino, Rydell, Miller, Nicholson, Donner, Penn, and Allen.  He won an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters and was nominated for Deer Hunter, The River, and Black Dahlia.  He received a lifetime achievement award from The American Society of Cinematographers in 1999 and, more recently, one from The Cannes Film Festival in 2014.  I'm not overstating things here when I say that Vilmos Zsigmond was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema.

He lived a long life and produced some great work.  We can all hope to be so lucky.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The Hired Hand (1971)
Images (1972)
Deliverance (1972)
The Long Goodbye (1973),
one of my all-time favorite movies, a lot of which has to do with the amazing cinematography work of Zsigmond.  I love it so much I posted two photos!

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Behind the scenes on The Deer Hunter
Heaven's Gate (1980)
Blow Out (1981)
The Two Jakes (1990)
The Crossing Guard (1995) 
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

Pictured here is Vilmos with long time friend, fellow Hungarian, and fellow cinematographer László Kovács.  The two of them studied film together in Budapest and escaped when the Russians came in.

They barely made it out with footage they shot of the invasion, footage which later was incorporated in Zsigmond's documentary Hungary Aflame.  The footage also appears in a doc detailing the friendship of Kovács and Zsigmond, No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos (2008).

Vilmos Zsigmond