Horror movies can’t get no respect. What. A. Crock. This week on The B-Movies Podcast (episode #38, if you can believe it), we devoted an entire episode to lesser-known horror movies that deserve greater recognition. That both my co-host and I had trouble narrowing our picks down to five means nothing. That we had trouble narrowing it down from three- or four-dozen horror movies apiece means more. That the month of October is almost exclusively dedicated to one movie genre means a hell of a lot.
Dramas get the Oscars, comedies get the Golden Globes, action movies get the money, but horror movies get October. Fair? I don’t think so. No other movie genre gets 1/12th of the year all to itself. You might see an uptick in “Best Romantic Comedies” lists around Valentine’s Day, but we don’t dedicate the month of February to the cinematic contributions of Meg Ryan. Maybe if we rescheduled Valentine’s Day for the last day of the month we would, but even then… It’s February. Talk about the short shrift. Even on a leap year it’s the redheaded stepchild of wall calendars everywhere.
But I digress. I was going to devote this week’s B-Movies Extended to divvying up the calendar amongst the other film genres, but beyond “November is Turkey Month” and “April is Porn Month,” I couldn’t come up with anything terribly clever. I’ll be damned if I’m rewriting the introduction to this article though.
So this week, since my co-host Witney Seibold is out of town and I am left to my own devices, I am going to be self-indulgent and take this opportunity to catch up on some of my reviews. At last count I’ve seen 118 new releases so far in 2011, and I’ve reviewed all but sixteen of them in print. So join me, fellow film enthusiasts, as I go for the brass ring. Don’t worry. I’ll try to make this quick.
The animated DC superhero movies from recent years have turned out to be some of the best comic book flicks around. Don’t let the fact that they’re Straight-to-Video fool you. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies might have been a low point, but All-Star Superman is one of the better entries, adapting as it does Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s classic mini-series in a faithful fashion. Many of the more interesting sections of the comic book didn’t make the cut here, including a heartbreaking final farewell between Clark and his adopted father, but overall this adaptation hits all the right notes, with a thrilling, thoughtful and ultimately very sad story of Superman’s last acts on Earth before his untimely, Christlike death. Another winner from DC Animated.
THE ALMIGHTY THOR
There is a small and thoroughly unappreciated movie genre called “The Mockbuster.” These movies are rushed into production at the last minute for a straight-to-video release that coincides with the theatrical release of a much, much bigger movie. The Asylum is responsible for many of these movies, like Transmorphers and The Da Vinci Treasure. Most of them are bad. This year’s release of The Almighty Thor is legendarily bad. One of the worst movies of the last few decades, even. But it’s also one of the most entertainingly awful movies this side of Troll 2 and Birdemic. Whether it’s Richard Grieco spending half the film walking down the same half block in Southern California’s legendary “The Valley” or surfer bro Cody Deal’s hazy performance as the title character, or just the scene where Thor basically says “screw it” and whips out a machine gun, The Almighty Thor is one of the most delightful movies of the year; also, one of the very, very worst.
Here’s another straight-to-video release, but unlike The Almighty Thor it’s almost excellent in its execution. The film stars Twilight’s Kellan Lutz as a former military-type who gets kidnapped and forced to participate in an illegal web series that pits contestants against each other in mortal combat. It’s not a clever concept, but it’s unusually well executed under the direction of visual effects supervisor-turned-director Jonah Loop. Lutz makes for a surprisingly strong protagonist, selling the extensive fight scenes and dramatic beats equally well, and Samuel L. Jackson gives one of his most likably outlandish performances in a long time as a supervillain with a pair of sexy concubines/production assistants at his knee in every scene. But mostly it boils down to a series of action sequences that are smartly choreographed and that successfully sell the intensity and violence of the hero’s predicament. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but you haven’t seen it done this well in quite a while.
THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE
Here’s a documentary I caught at Outfest this year at the behest of my awesome girlfriend. She’s a big fan of the documentary’s subject, Genesis P-Orridge, the pioneering musician behind such bands as Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In contrast, I knew absolutely nothing about the person. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye didn’t do a particularly good job of catching me up on P-Orridge’s career and cultural significance, but otherwise it’s an excellent and thoroughly involving look at a musician and the woman he married, two people loved each other so much that they went through a series of surgeries to become more like a single person, a state of being they called “pandrogyny.” Both Genesis and Lady Jaye had plastic surgery to make their facial features similar, Genesis himself received breast implants, and together they began to adjust their pronoun usage accordingly (“we” as opposed to “I,” etc.). To hear P-Orridge talk about the experience it seems like a beautiful expression of a truly life-altering love affair, and filmmaker Marie Losier does a great job of preventing the unusual subject matter from ever seeming strange, let alone creepy. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye has yet to receive a proper release in America, but if any of the above sounds intriguing to you, it’s heartily recommended when it becomes available.
Beastly sure is. This tragic attempt to capitalize on the Twilight craze by updating the old Beauty and the Beast fable to involve rich, white, modern, teenaged douchebags is nothing short of fascinating in its badness. It’s so phony and arch that it feels like a movie-within-a-movie from an already bad movie. Alex Pettyfer stars as a comically self-absorbed popular kid who runs afoul of a teen witch played by Mary-Kate Olsen, who takes her vengeance by making him look awful… -ly awesome. Badass tattoos, piercings, precision scarification and abs so tight you could use them to mold a cupcake tray apparently make him so hideous that nobody will ever love him. But that’s the only way he can break the spell so he tears Vanessa Hudgens away from her father through violent coercion and makes her a prisoner in his awesome house. Honestly, the only reason this film doesn’t work – at least on the level of camp – is because it’s told from the “Beast’s” perspective, which would turn even the best adaptations of the fairy tale into a deeply disturbing look at sexual dynamics. But that’s what we get here, and Beastly feels like a monstrous satire of fantasy chick flicks as a result. I suspect it will find a dedicated ironic audience somewhere down the line.
More Straight-to-Video nonsense, but this one’s actually pretty fun: Blade II’s Luke Goss stars as a cop who goes undercover as a gang member when his little brother is murdered. He’s completely on his own, however, and acting outside the law. The acting is better than usual for this kind of thing, with Eureka’s Ed Quinn turning in a particularly likable performance as a bad guy with a conscience, and there's a really hot sex scene between Goss and 902010's AnnaLynne McCord, but in the end it all boils down to a fistfight between Goss and a giant wearing a Roman gladiator outfit – with Val Kilmer acting as the judge – so you can’t take it too seriously. But as low-low budget actioners go, Blood Out is unusually effective.
BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH
Here’s a movie we reviewed on The B-Movies Podcast – we even interviewed director Uwe Boll about it – but which never quite made it into a print review. I almost feel bad about that, since it’s one of the typically maligned director’s better films. It’s kind of the movie we wanted to see from the Bloodrayne franchise in the first place, pitting the video game hero “Rayne,” a half-human/half-vampire hybrid, against evil Nazis. You know… Like the actual game. The first Bloodrayne had a big cast but no ideas (plenty of plot holes though), the second pitted her against a vampiric Billy the Kid (and was actually mildly entertaining), but this third one actually works as a low-budget horror/action hybrid right up until the end, when the film kind of forgets to climax. “Insert joke” if you must, but Bloodrayne: The Third Reich sets up a big confrontation with Hitler and an army of vampires but decides to end earlier than that, making it one of the biggest teases of the year.
THE GREEN HORNET
I was initially enamored of this comedic take on the old, not particularly classic costumed crime-fighter, given its unusual emphasis on the partner/sidekick dynamic as viewed through the lens of the modern “bromance” subgenre, but while I still appreciate that aspect of the film (and the supervillain by way of mid-life crisis concept), subsequent viewings emphasize the limp overall plotline and a thoroughly tacked on romantic subplot with Cameron Diaz. Pity. But I hope Jay Chou gets more work out of this merely okay superhero comedy; he gives a standout performance here, and not just because he’s Mary Sued out the ass. The Green Hornet was a good idea with a somewhat subpar execution.
NEXT: Two of the biggest hits of the summer, a video game movie with an amazingly bad hair day, and a biopic of 'Harry Potter' writer J.K. Rowling that has to be seen to be believed…
Another one we reviewed on the podcast but didn’t quite cover on the site proper, The Help was the big underdog success of the summer. It tells the story of African-American women in the 1960s who raise white children who somehow grow up to hate and abuse them, and whenever writer/director Tate Taylor’s film focuses on that unique story element it’s a rather powerful little film. But when it focuses on feces pies and open cold sores, as indeed it sometimes does, you just can’t help but giggle. It also repeatedly threatens to dip into unintentional racism, particularly with a truly bizarre scene that exists only to exalt fried chicken. Despite frequent and distracting weirdness, however, The Help is a mostly harmless melodrama about a truly interesting plight, and I can’t help but give it a mild recommendation.
MAGIC BEYOND WORDS: THE J.K. ROWLING STORY
This movie exists. It is real, and we have the Lifetime Channel to thank for it. Another movie I never would have seen without my awesome girlfriend – did I mention she’s awesome? – Magic Beyond Words tells the life story, so far, of J.K. Rowling, a woman who lived in poverty before a little book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone turned her into one of the richest people on the planet. In reality it’s a blisteringly uninteresting rags-to-riches story, but thanks to Lifetime it’s now full of over-the-top abusive relationships and blunter-than-blunt foreshadowing. Did you know that in high school, Rowling was best friends with a kid who looked exactly like future Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint, and that she called him “a weasely guy?” Or that every time she wrote her book, magical plants and wood sprites cavorted around her apartment? This movie is impossibly ridiculous but utterly delightful in its naïveté. Magic Beyond Words just came out on DVD a few weeks ago, and it has to be seen to be believed.
A stellar cast makes the most out of this tiny little potboiler, with Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton starring as a troubled couple vacationing on an isolated island when a wounded soldier played by Jamie Bell informs them that a deadly virus has broken out on the mainland. The radio is down, so they have no way of verifying his outlandish claims, but Jamie Bell is scary as hell so they believe him. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Bell isn’t telling them the whole story. Retreat feels like a great one-act play stretched a little too far to reach feature length, but at its best it’s a gripping, tightly wound thriller. At its worst it’s too dry and confined for its own good.
A truly ridiculous but mostly-fun sci-fi action movie based – very loosely – on the popular video game series of the same name, Tekken tells the story of a dystopian future run by corporations, in which a generic hero played by Jon Foo (whom I do not pity) joins a fighting tournament to avenge the death of his mother. It doesn’t make much sense (the hero has no way of knowing that his mother's killer is even involved in the tournament when he joins), but the fights are occasionally entertaining – thanks in large part to the presence of b-movie mainstay Gary Daniels – and the filmmakers at least had the presence of mind to clothe the heroine in pants that ride so far down her butt crack that applause seems like the only rational response. Mortal Kombat star Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa also makes an appearance, and boasts one of the stupidest haircuts in cinematic history. We covered this one on the podcast too.
A festival favorite, Terri is a character piece about an overweight teenager with an Alzheimer’s-afflicted caretaker and a propensity for wearing pajamas to class. His principal, John C. Reilly, takes a shine to the boy and makes a concerted effort to make sure that he isn’t destroyed by the cruel machinations of high school. I liked Reilly in particular as a role model who doesn’t have all the answers, and Jacob Wysocki makes an impressive big screen debut as the title character, but director Azazel Jacobs’ film is so slight that I never quite figured out what the point was beyond capturing a brief glimpse at some of the awkward pubescent experiences we sometimes forget as adults (or at least try to). It does culminate in a memorable sex, drugs and alcohol-fueled finale that’s infinitely more honest than that description makes it sound, but regardless, Terri is for indie film enthusiasts only.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick continues his string of thoughtful philosophical exercises with The Tree of Life, which juxtaposes the lives of a small-town Texas family with the creation of the universe. If that sounds unbearable to you then you probably won’t like this film, but if you know anything about Terrence Malick you can probably guess at how mind-blowing this experience truly is. In particular, Malick captures the nuances of human memory more effectively than I’ve ever seen, with early childhood experiences visualized in a series of significant images, which only extend to actually recognizable “scenes” as the protagonist grows old enough to remember entire events from his life. A beautiful film, just not an easy one to absorb. Again, we covered it on the podcast.
VANISHING ON 7TH STREET
Brad Anderson is the extremely talented director of Session 9 and The Machinist, but he took a rare misstep this year with Vanishing on 7th Street, one of those movies that feels like a too-long Twilight Zone episode. One night, everyone on Earth vanishes in the darkness. Only those few folks who managed to remain well-lit 24 hours a day have managed to survive, but now the days are growing inexplicably shorter, and batteries are dying all over the world. It’s a creepy conceit but the confusing climax makes a convincing argument that the filmmakers had no idea what’s actually going on here. The supporting cast includes Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo and Thandie Newton, most of whom are overacting their heads off. An unusually weak film from a usually strong director.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
Normally when a film doesn’t have a critics’ screening you can interpret that as a bad sign. Not so for X-Men: First Class, easily the best film in the X-Men franchise. Even Bryan Singer’s pretty-good first two films were so grounded in “the real world” that most of the fun seemed missing, but Matthew Vaughn’s prequel had the freedom to play around, taking place as it does in the 1960s. The lavish European production design, James Bond aesthetic and broad early Civil Rights Movement allegory made the X-Men seem bigger than ever before, and a universally excellent cast of young actors are more likable than practically everyone in the previous films, except of course for Hugh Jackman, who gets a hilarious cameo here. Wonderful, exciting summer entertainment, but it’s discouraging that Fox thought so little of the film that they assumed us critics wouldn’t like it. News flash: We loved it. (And yes, it's yet another one we covered on the podcast.)