Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Random Movie: El Monstro del Mar! (2010)

Throwback movies prove that some films exist just for shits, giggles and entertainment without an agenda, completely unlike most of what the Academy nominated this year. After all, what can be better than a low-budget film featuring attractive women involved in a vicious fight between a ludicrous stop-motion tentacled monster? The answer: not The Artist.*

Available today on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, El Monstro del Mar! is a quaint tale from Down Under about Beretta (Nelli Scarlet), Blondie (Karli Madden) and Snowball (Kate Watts), three women who are as much empowered as they are tattooed, who seek a shack with a waterfront view after ruthlessly killing two locals in their path. After arriving at the shack, Blondie and Snowball take the opportunity to play in the water before being verbally scolded by Joseph (Norman Yemm) for being there. As things escalate between the vixens and the old man, his granddaughter Hannah (Kyrie Capri) breaks it up and catches the girls’ collective eye.

After being invited over that night, Hannah tells the girls of her parents’ death in the water and how her grandfather forbids her from going near it. Then Hannah gets wasted and a mysterious, tentacled being snatches Snowball from the dock along with a few other fishing folk nearby. The rest of the short runtime is Beretta and Blondie learning about the being’s history and declaring war on it. Along the way are enough grisly deaths and over-the-top effects that truly make this worthy of a watch just to see how crazy it can get.

Most of the indie movies we feature here tend to be low-budget to the point of sticking out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (case in point, Dawning) but the lack of funds can limit what appears on screen and what is implied. Either writer/director/et al Stuart Simpson had a much larger budget or can manage gross visual effects and some laughable, but still commendable, monster shots on a dime. I’m thinking its a ‘little bit of column A, little bit of column B’ answer. Regardless of how its actual cost, El Monstro is a sharp looking film with little hints of low-budgetness here and there which give it more character.

Beginning with an impressive opening in black and white, the color switches gears into full color as blood is shed. While I appreciate being able to see gratuitous blood in its natural state, this film seems like it was born to be a full B&W affair but that was partially abandoned, likely to increase its commercial appeal. Most every scene after the opening was shot and lit in a way that made the actors stand out prominently against dark or shadowed background. It’s rare to see a modern film embrace the film format of old (The Artist notwithstanding) so I would rather have seen a full commitment if that was so intended. I can’t knock the film too much for this though since the choice of lighting and composition was so expertly done.

Not much falls flat in this one, nor does it really have time to with a brief running time. Most of the actors turn in largely good performances with the exceptions being the bit characters who die suddenly so that doesn’t matter much. Sure, the monster effects are cheesy but in the film’s defense, that was what it was going for with an old-school approach that makes a seasoned horror fan appreciate the finale with blood-drenched heroines who are sliding around on the floor covered with goo. If nothing else, the finale is worth the price of admission all by itself with the rest of the film simply an added bonus.

*I haven’t seen The Artist but I doubt I’d appreciate it more than El Monstero.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Random Movie: Chronicle (2012)

Honestly, I don't think I even know of this film before it came out in theaters a few weeks ago and I certainly had no desire to see it. Strangely though, Chronicle received so many positive reviews (85% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.6 on IMDb) that I thought I would be remiss without seeing it, especially as I had a free movie ticket burning a hole in my pocket. If all you know about it is "superhero found footage film" then stop now and go see it. I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed.

I suppose this was somewhat covered in X-Men: First Class (though honestly I don't remember how much), but the film's main angle is 'what would you do if you had super powers?' For Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the first answer is to fool around with it, all for fun and games of course. After their chance encounter with an odd foreign object, the trio develops the power of telekinesis and quickly use it to beam each other in the head with chance curveballs, construct Lego towers with no hands, and naturally learn to fly. Yet, as they become more in control of their abilities, tensions begin to rise leading to some rather unexpected turns in the story.

I had no real expectations for this before walking into the theater and even being mostly in the dark about the premise turned out to be a good thing. The first two-thirds of the film work well as a found footage story since the actors are not easily placed (other than that DeHaan looks freakishly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio) and have a comfortable demeanor with each other, mostly while the three are still high on their discovery and just having some dumb fun. It is hard not to feel some excitement when they learn to fly and get anxious when a few of the early stunts go awry.

Most everything in the story is well-established and played out with main exception being one of the boys' sudden transformation from shy, awkward kid to dangerous superpower wielding psychopath. That part worked but it had very little foreshadowing or build up making the change feel forced. The majority of it though was spot on thanks to writer Max Landis (yep, of relation to John) who effectively taps into the well of angst and adolescence which made me both nostalgic and loathsome of my high school days.

First-time director Josh Trank brings the great story and superb acting together nicely in a package that moves fast without feeling rushed and embraces the genuine feel of a typical found footage tale but with some trickery to eliminate boring shots as Andrew's consumer camera levitates to give us somewhat cheesy, but pretty impactful shots. The found footage aspect though is hastily dropped toward the end though as multitudes of cell phones, tablets, and news videos are cut together to get a large picture of the destruction. Sadly, this detracts from the otherwise powerful finale as you are missing the personal element of Andrew and his friends shooting that permeates the rest of the film.

While the story would have been great even shot conventionally, having Andrew (mostly) manning the camera as he interacts with his friends, his alcoholic father, or his dying mother carries more heart and feeling than the traditional method would. Regardless of my somewhat minor quibbles about it, Chronicle is an unexpectedly awesome film.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Random Movie: Shark Night (2011)

Much like #pbf said in his review of Piranha, there are certain elements in a movie like this that almost defy you as a viewer to question them, thus making them exempt from critical thinking. I will fully admit to buying into those aspects whole-heartedly for Pirahna but I think my expectations were too high for Shark Night (or Shark Night 3D in theaters). From the illustrious David Ellis, director of the worst ever Final Destination movie (and that’s saying something), Shark Night straddled the line between good and so-campy-and-bad-that-it-is-in-fact-good that I was unimpressed with the final outcome.

If you substitute Haddonfield for this random Louisiana lake and insert sharks for Jason Voorhees, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this film. Sara (Sara Paxton) and her college friends come to stay at Lake Crosby for a random weekend of fun and shenanigans. Unfortunately, the good times and fun are interrupted when one of the group is attacked while water-skiing and loses an arm courtesy of a random shark in the lake. Insert “Your arm’s off!” Holy Grail quote here. Fortunately Nick (Dustin Milligan) is pre-med and knows that the one-armed man must be saved quickly. Cut to various attempts to leave the lake-front home that are derailed by shark attacks and that is a good chunk of the film. Well, other than the diabolical villain explaining why sharks are in the lake without really going into how one acquires a shark and deposits it into a lake on a budget.

I appreciate where Ellis and writers Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg try to go with not so random shark attacks but it did not quite gel for me. While it homages the classic slasher film template often, it is nice to see a horror film with a minimal amount of doucebag characters who aren’t solely interested in sex, drugs, or various poor lifestyle choices. For the most part, all of the characters were smart enough and not annoying other than their proclivity for getting back into the water that has been confirmed as HOUSING SHARKS! Granted, many had good reasons to leave via jetski or boat but when you consider that the main adversaries are water-bound sharks, staying as far away from the water would typically be a good start to stay safe.

As far as the ancillary villain (or villains) go, their motives were all over the place from revenge for a boating accident years ago to just attempting to cash in on the hoopla of Shark Week. And for the first motive, why go through the trouble of capturing or acquiring sharks as opposed to a rusty switchblade or a microwave oven to exact vengeance on someone? Perhaps that was one of those moments so over-the-top that it should be funny, but I was merely scratching my head. Not to mention that if you want to kill someone via shark, why would you first put them into a shark cage? Again, I’m sure there is a completely illogical reason to do this so I’ll move on knowing that I don’t understand it.

Much like Ellis’ previous film THE Final Destination, this was shown in theaters in 3D. While I did not have a chance to catch the extra-dimensional aspect of this film, I did get the silly CGI aftermath as the sharks or debris or whatever was initially 3D looks silly as it juts toward the screen like that random shot of the shark in Jaws 3D. The cast is largely good considering the material they had to work with. I was especially impressed with Joel David Moore who seems to have embraced the fact that he can pull off a college student at 35. I feel like I am being a bit too hard on this film. It’s no cinematic achievement but it did not really strive to be that either. It is a pretty entertaining, if forgettable, 90 minutes of film though.

Random Movie: Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

I’m quite sure there were not a bunch of rabid fans demanding a sequel to 2008′s Quarantine, which if you recall was an almost shameless American rip-off of the Spanish film [REC]. Where [REC] was pretty well received and produced a decent sequel, Quarantine was merely an okay film bogged down by the fact that it fails at portraying supposedly real events with the polished and recognizable Hollywood actors. For that film’s sequel, writer/director John Pogue drops the found footage angle and sets up a storyline almost parallel to the events of the first. And it works for the most part.

I chuckle at direct-to-video titles since they seem to fall into the trap of either a) crap that no one should see ever or b) crap that no one should pay to see in a theater but is otherwise manageable. Quarantine 2 is more of the latter even though the direct-to-video distribution model has a stigma attached to it which may lead you to dismiss it more easily. None of the characters from the original return since they are, you know, ‘quarantined’ so this film is about a East coast bound plane from LAX that happens to house the virus, or whatever, from the first. Once an infected passenger starts biting the flight attendants and causing a ruckus, the plane is diverted and the passengers depart into a sealed off terminal. Mayhem ensues as the number of infected grow as the number of decent characters dwindle.

It is clearly obvious that this was always designed as a low-budget affair so I feel bad in picking on the film for that fact. It almost feels like picking on a club-footed kid for the way he walks since it isn’t really his fault. Even though Pogue has a scant amount of titles on his resume (most notable a film I hate with a deadly passion, The Skulls), he is able to use the low-budget pretty effectively even if that means a minimal amount of characters and a dearth of locales to venture in. Fortunately, the bulk of the movie does not take place on the plane but inside the airport terminal (Did you even catch the double entendre of Terminal?) which offers more hiding places for the zombies, err… infected people to jump out of. Even if some of the sets are puzzling (like a barren catering truck that for some reason is on a hydraulic jack), it provides the characters a few different places to hang out in to break up the monotony of run-rest-run that punctuates the story.

While the timeline that sets up the film betrays it, the story actually ties in nicely with that of the first film with one of the characters knowing a bit more about the sequestered apartment building than the rest. It is yet another deviation from the story of the original and its ‘sort of’ sequel [REC] 2 even if the human villain is a bit too expository than I would have cared for. Even though the story is rather clunky, the actors in charge of delivering it are good, or at least as good as you can get for a $4 million budget. Mercedes Masöhn turns in a good performance as the reluctant stewardess who steps into power after the other crew members are, well, rendered ineffective while Josh Cooke as the love interest/weird teacher guy is pretty one-note for the most part. I enjoyed Ignacio Serricchio as the random airport employee the most even though he does not have much to do other than lead the group to different places to try escaping.

It’s not Oscar-worthy or even worth a purchase but I will admit to having a case of the jumps or the creeps in appropriate scenes. Pogue uses the set-dressed terminal quite well in portraying a claustrophobic, yet open environment. Since it is available for $1 and change in Redbox or for free on Netflix, it’s worth giving Quarantine 2 a try. It’s not the best, but it’s far better than most zombie-esque movies available in the same venues.