Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

 

 

For a time, it felt like Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” was one of the more divisive films of 2012. While the idea of humans exploring the cosmos to find our creators, in whatever form or shape they might come in, is certainly an ambitious move, I felt that Scott didn’t fully explore this concept to its fullest potential and focused more on the origin of the Xenomorphs, which I’m still unsure if people wanted to see that (I know I didn’t want to). Part of the reason “Prometheus” did little for me was due to the incompetence of its cast of “geniuses” and how quickly it resorts to horror movie clichés, thus making everyone look like idiots.
If I had to describe “Prometheus” in one word it would be “stupid.”
Of course “Prometheus” left a lot of questions unanswered and just made us far more confused as to how the events of that film tied into the creation of our favorite murderous aliens, which leads us to its sequel, “Alien: Covenant.” I’m not sure if Ridley Scott intended for this origin story to be told through two movies or if he made this film to explain away all the problems people had with “Prometheus.” But in any case, “Covenant” is more competently handled than its predecessor and actually gives audiences what they came here for – alien action and gore.
Set ten years after the events of “Prometheus,” the colonization vessel Covenant is on its way to Origae-6, with more than two thousand colonists and a thousand embryos onboard, with the intention of forming a new society on a different planet. But after a random solar event, the main crew of the Covenant is forcibly woken up. They eventually discover a rogue transmission from an alien planet and learn that this world is much closer than Origae-6 and the crew decides to take a look. When they get there, they soon discover wheat but no sign of any other life forms, except for the transmission signal emanating from a nearby spaceship.

 

 
Coming out of “Covenant,” my first thought was: It still has its problems, but at least it was better than “Prometheus.”
This movie shares some of the problems of the previous one, in particular the characters still acting like morons who probably couldn’t tie their shoes if you put them under the smallest amount of pressure. For example, their acting-captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) ignores the logical reasons presented to him against going to this new world from his second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), like how this could be trap. You would think the first danger flag would pop up when the alien starts to sing “Country Road,” but our brave captain pushes to stupidity and beyond.

 

Part of the reason this is big deal for me is because my favorite film in this franchise is the first film, “Alien.” It is one of the smartest horror movies of all time, where the actions of every single make logical sense and you can sympathize with every single one of them, including the alien itself. That movie prided itself on showing just how versatile and cunning humans can be in the face of imminent danger, never sacrificing one bit of intelligence for the sake of cheap horror.

 

 

 

Yet here we are, watching a couple make out in the shower while a monster is on the loose, or seeing our captain just stare at a deadly alien pod like nothing bad has ever happened to him. These moments don’t happen nearly as often as they did in “Prometheus,” but still enough that the lazy writing pokes through every once in a while.

That being said, the best part of “Covenant” was Michael Fassbender, playing two androids, the supportive yet rough Walter, and the megalomaniacal David, returning from the previous movie. It is fascinating how different these two are, yet still so much alike. They’re both devoted, but to vastly diverse things – Walter is programmed to be loyal and to follow his duties, while David is programmed to be man’s greatest achievement, something better than we could be; perfect. You can see the logical jump the android creators took, going from the life form that sees us as inferior creatures to the slave-like creatures meant to preform the tasks we cannot.

 

 

 

Fassbender steals the show as David, mostly because we just want to see how far his hatred of other beings goes. He seems to programmed to respect all life forms, showing everyone kindness and answering everyone’s questions, but his new personality and ego trump those values in the end to show what he wants to be – a creator. To give the universe something new and to make his mark.

 

And hey, we actually get to see some aliens doing what they do best. That’s more than I can say about “Prometheus.”

 

Overall, “Alien: Covenant” certainly isn’t a bad experience and an improvement from many of the previous Alien movies, with some great acting from Fassbender, Waterston, and Crudup. But it still gives in to many horror movie clichés and tropes and ends up dumbing down most of its cast for the sake of moving the story forward, which is disappointing to see from the creator of “Alien.”

 

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Coraline” (2009)

 

 

While I certainly feel that “Kubo and the Two Strings” is Lakia’s most visually enthralling and captivating film, “Coraline” is Lakia’s most well-told story with mesmerizing visuals that both astound and terrify. It shows that Lakia isn’t just about making one-of-a-kind stop-motion movies, but can tell a tale that encases a multitude of emotions that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
The movie follows its titular character, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a young girl who just moved from the midwest to the west coast into a rundown boarding house. Her parents are far too focused on completing their gardening catalog to pay attention to her, and her new neighbors would rather talk about themselves instead of listen to what she has to say. But one day, Coraline discovers a secret door in her new house that ultimately leads to some sort of alternate world where everyone is nice, pleasant, and wants to make life exciting for Coraline. She is eventually presented with the possibility of staying in this world, but at the cost of having her eyes replaced with buttons.

 

 
Part of the reason “Coraline” is so enthralling is because of the pacing, which is just slow enough to cast doubt on this colorful world but to see why it is worth living in. Information about this “other world,” and especially Coraline’s “other mother” is slowly fed to us in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced, so we put the pieces together just as Coraline does. It also helps that she is a clever protagonist who just wants to belong in the world. She completes the well-rounded mystery by making you want to pursue the truth.
The animation style is far more like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” than any other Lakia picture, with lots of vibrant colors that often take disturbing shapes, especially with the puppet motif in “Coraline.” It helps that this movie had the same director as “Nightmare,” Henry Selick, as he adds his visual hellish landscape-vibe to this movie.
Add in the well-paced story, a well-written main character, plenty of mystery and horror, yet still making it enjoyable for both children and adults, and you get a smart, fulfilling experience. “Coraline” is one the better Lakia movies and is certainly worth checking out.
Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Lady Snowblood” (1973)

Meet the biggest inspiration for the “Kill Bill” saga – “Lady Snowblood.” And it is exactly what it sounds like.

Set in feudal Japan, at a time when thieves and mobsters ruled peasants through fear of samurais and warlords, a group of four criminals attack and kill a peaceful teacher in brutal fashion, in front of his wife and son. They proceed to kill the son and rape the wife, Sayo. One of the criminals takes Sayo for himself, hiding her away to work for him, while Sayo eventually kills this man but is sentenced to life in prison.

Sayo then realizes there is only one thing she can do – birth another child, and have that child carry on her plans of revenge and murder the other three criminals responsible for all this. She does eventually bring another child into this hateful world, a girl Yuki (Meiko Kaji). She is taught in the ways of sword fighting by a priest, who believes Yuki is a demon of vengeance, meant to bring order to a chaotic time.

 

 

The violence in “Lady Snowblood” is the over-the-top insanity you would expect from a 1970s Japanese movie, with vibrant colorful blood, and characters dying into the most exaggerated ways, especially with Yuki’s main weapon being an umbrella with a dagger inside the handle. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will get a kick out of this movie.

This one is a nice change-of-pace for a Japanese samurai tale, since I don’t recall many female sword users in Japanese cinema. That is a trend that comes up in other cultures, especially nowadays, but to see this happen in 1970s Japan is special. It could be that “Lady Snowblood” is based off a manga, but the movie rarely shows it with how authentic it feels to the samurai experience.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with “Lady Snowblood.” It is grotesque, over-the-top, yet fateful to the samurai lifestyle to make its quieter moments hit harder. It is not hard to see how this film influenced Quentin Tarantino with its violent style that is wholly unique.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “An Affair to Remember” (1957)

 

There’s a strange concept to many “forbidden love” stories from the 1950s that often has me rolling my eyes – the tragic twist.

Years ago, I remember watching the Douglas Sirk movie, “All That Heaven Allows,” which is about a middle-aged woman in small town falling for a much younger man. It was competently handled, if a bit uncomfortable to watch at times, but the only thing I remember is the tragic twist that comes near the end and how out of nowhere and infuriating it made me. I watched the film with a large group and I recall a few people walking of the movie with their arms thrown up in frustration at how absurd and unnecessary the ending felt.

I now realize that “All That Heaven Allows” was not the only one to do this, as “An Affair to Remember” has a similar scene that makes everything that came before this moment feel wasted and everything that comes after hard to watch.

To be fair, I went into “An Affair to Remember” expecting a much different movie – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the later years of their careers. I went in thinking this would be more of a screwball comedy, with lots of wordplay and sarcasm from Cary Grant, similar to his suave jerk persona in “North by Northwest” with some light romance with lost souls looking for another chance to love again.

And for about the first hour that is close to what we get. Grant plays a painter and well-known playboy, who is about to be married, and Kerr plays an aging nightclub singer, who is in an unhappy marriage, and the two meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York. They develop a friendship that quickly turns into a romance when Kerr sees there is more to Grant than just the party boy. As the cruise ends, they profess their feeling for one another, but are concerned about their committed relationships. So they make a promise – They will meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. If they are both up there, they will get married that day, but if one does not make it, then they will know it wasn’t meant to be.

 

 

I will not give away the tragic twist ending, but let’s just say it causes a drastic shift in the movie that was completely avoidable. This change occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and suddenly the film changes from a forbidden love story to one of acceptance. This works at times, but other times it comes across as the filmmakers not having enough material to work with so they insert at least two scenes of children singing instead.

These two stories are so drastically different that I lost interest the moment this tragic twist occurred. It also doesn’t help that all the drama of this situation could have been avoided if either of them picked up the telephone and told the other exactly what happened. Instead, we get a third act where both characters think the other is a terrible person and needs to constantly be reminded of that.

At its best, “An Affair to Remember” is “North by Northwest”-lite – Funny, over-the-top banter from Cary Grant while he takes the opportunity to put the moves on a woman. It its worst, the film is groan-inducing and hard to get through without screaming at your TV screen. It’s like watching two long lost lovers waiting for the other all night long, talking about how the other is a terrible human being, when all along they just got the addresses mixed up – You’re invested in their struggle, but appalled at how stubborn and stupid they can be.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Sleeper” (1973)

 

 

I would have never expected to love a Woody Allen film as much as I enjoyed “Sleeper” but this film caught me completely off guard, while also teaching me that I love slapstick and visual comedy more than verbal comedy.

As I’ve mentioned, Woody Allen movies are so hit-and-miss with me, some leave a great impression on me like “Midnight in Paris” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” while others like “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters” make me want to claw my eyes out. Part of me feels that Allen’s work gets better when he distances himself from the movie, by making his characters less like his neurotic, annoying self. But “Sleeper” throws a wrench into all of that by embarrassing the standard Woody Allen protagonist and changing the world around him.

Suddenly, I found this to be comedic genius.

Miles Monroe (Allen) was the owner of a health-food store in Greenwich village in the 1970s, but goes in for a surgery and ends up cryogenically frozen, only to be woken up 200 years later. Miles finds the world vastly different from the one he left, where countries no longer seem to exist, sex is only done inside of small booths called the “Orgasmo-tron,” polite robots perform all tedious tasks and the world is ruled by a man known as the great leader. Miles has been brought out of his sleep to infiltrate a top secret facility for the rebellion, a group intent on taking down the dictatorship.

 

 

Part of the reason this works is because it is a reverse fish-out-of-water story, where we are put in the same position as our protagonist. Not only is Allen an alien to this world, but so are we. Every new advancement in technology that we learn about is so wildly bizarre yet strangely alluring, like the previously mentioned sex machine or the way food is cooked. This makes Allen’s reactions to the new world so much more enjoyable when we are having a similar reaction.

I found myself laughing at nearly every scene, from Miles learning about this strange drug ball, to a chase around the robot repair facility that may or may not involve dismemberment, to Miles getting stuck in a suit that lets him bounce like he’s on the moon. So many memorable scenes, but my favorite was probably Miles learning how food is cooked in the future and he ends up creating a blob-like monster by mixing two similar viles together and has to fight it off with a broom.

While “Sleeper” wants to be a parody of dark tales of the future, like “1984” or “Fahrenheit 451,” it is also Allen’s tribute to the greats of slapstick comedy, like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. This shows constantly throughout the movie, as there are many single shot sequences with little dialogue and lots of physical comedy. But fewer pies in the face, and more avoiding the dangers of the future by strange methods that would make Jackie Chan blush.

 

 

“Sleeper” does have its share of verbal comedy, especially when the people of the future want information on celebrities of the past and Allen tells the strangest lies about people like Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin. But the focus of this film is on slapstick, which made realize just how much I adore visual comedy, at least in the movies. At its best, slapstick embraces the visual art form of film and can tell us so much without saying a word. It is enjoyable in the simplest of ways, but can be far more satisfying than the greatest of verbal sparrings.

“Sleeper” takes me back to movies like “Duck Soup” and “City Lights” and gives non-stop laughs, while also offering a future that uniquely dark yet strangely comforting, a world that has its dark side but does not seem all that bad. The film takes every opportunity to explore this laughable world while giving us a Woody Allen character that never gets too annoying. This was a joy to watch from start to finish and is now my favorite Woody Allen movie.

Final Grade: A+

 

Movie Review – “Kong: Skull Island” (2017)

 

 

Do you ever get the feeling that a movie is tailor-made for you? And isn’t that one of the best feelings in the world?

“Kong: Skull Island” feels like Legendary Pictures scanned my brain and took everything I love about movies, and compiled it with the biggest budget they could get and the largest number of big-name actors they could find.

I would describe “Kong: Skull Island” as if “Apocalypse Now” met up with giant monsters. In other words, my favorite movie of all time meets my favorite genre of all time. And they make it even better with subtle references to the 2014 “Godzilla” film, and a catchy teaser at the end of the credits that you should stay for. Let’s just say that I had a perpetual smile on my face throughout this film.

At the end of the Vietnam War, scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have recovered satellite footage of an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, believing that it could hold some mysterious powers. They contact a U.S. senator who begrudgingly signs off on their mission and gives them a military escort to the island, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Bill and Houston also hire former British SAS Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a tracker, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) begs to be apart of the mission.

Once they’re on the island, the military begins dropping bombs and scientific equipment to study the landscape. But as soon as the fires start, helicopters are taken out of the air by flying trees and a very angry giant ape.

 

 

In case you missed it, I recently did a book-length retrospective on the history of King Kong, which you can find at Toho Kingdom. And during the research for that piece, one thought kept going through my head – All these King Kong movies have the same story. With only miniute differences, the plots of the 1933 Kong, the 1976 remake and the 2005 Peter Jackson version are virtually the same – Carl Denham wants to make the greatest movie of all time, he goes to Skull Island to film it, they all find King Kong who falls in love with Ann Dawson, and they take Kong back to New York where he runs amok. Even most of the Kong scenes in “King Kong vs. Godzilla” tell the same story.

This is why “Kong: Skull Island” is the most important Kong film since the 1933 version. It strays as much as possible from the format we’ve seen in many other Kong movies, while still being loyal to the character. There is no filmmaker character, no tale of beauty and beast, no attempt to capture Kong and New York City is never mentioned.

Instead, we get a stylized look at Kong through the eyes of the 1970s and the Vietnam War. Admittedly, the Vietnam War is captured in the same way “Apocalypse Now” did it, but that is far from a bad thing. Some of the more memorable shots of the film involve the orange sunsets, as a horde of helicopters charge the massive Kong, or our titular character looking up at the vast night sky after a long day of defending his island.

Through visuals and storytelling, “Kong: Skull Island” is the most unique monster movie in recent memory.

 

 

But even with the an ongoing war between man and nature, the film finds the time to settle down and have many relaxing scenes. One of my favorites is when Kong is alone, nursing his wounds and drinking some water, when he finds a giant octopus in the water and decides to make that his next meal. It’s not only a reference to “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” but was a quieter moment that let us get to see a day-in-the-life of Kong; that he isn’t just some creature only looking for destruction and mayhem.

If there’s one complaint I have with “Kong: Skull Island” it would be the acting, which has some great performances from John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly as a WWII fighter-pilot stranded on the island for 25 years, but everyone else seems wasted, especially Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. These two don’t get many opportunities to show their acting abilities here, mostly resorting to action-hero clichés, being skeptical of the military’s agenda, and saying one-liners like, “We’re going to save Kong!”

That being said, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with his always captivating intensity. People had said his character is akin to Captain Ahab, especially with his need to bring down Kong, but continuing the “Apocalypse Now” theme, I find that he’s more like Colonel Kurtz – A man who has seen the horrors of the world, both natural and man-made, and wants to show that he can conquer that horror. He believes that man is the dominant force on this planet and should remain that way, despite being faced with an intelligent giant ape. Jackson’s madness never feels like it goes over-the-top, yet he lets his rage explode all over the screen; a job no actor can do any better than Sam Jackson.

 

 

John Goodman and John C. Reilly turn in quieter performances, but also ones that show their emotional sides. Goodman plays a scientist who doesn’t want to tell everyone on the mission what is really going on, because he knows they wouldn’t believe him. His role is similar to his performance in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” as a man who wants to help but is untrustworthy and could back-stab you if it would help him.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film his usual comedic touch, while continually showing the strain that comes with being trapped on island for 25 years. When he talks about missing a hot dog and a cold beer while watching a Cubs game, he pauses for a moment, looking at his imaginary food with longing and sadness.

Of course, with all these actors, plots and quieter moments, it means there is a lot going on “Kong: Skull Island,” with at least ten major characters, while also trying to build Legendary Pictures’ Monster Universe. The film builds off of the events of “Godzilla,” by showing the creation of the government organization Monarch, which deals with supernatural threats like ones on Skull Island. This movie has as much going on as one of the Avengers movies, so be prepared to keep up with lots of plots and characters.

 

 

Overall, “Kong: Skull Island” was a blast. I found this to be more enjoyable than “Godzilla,” since Kong never took itself too seriously, always finding some way to poke fun at the ridiculous situations. It was visually exciting to behold and had some great fight sequences where humans stand a chance against a giant monster. Some of the acting is great, but others pretty generic. But if you’re looking for a fun action-packed monster movie that is surprisingly different from other monster-fests, this is a great change of pace.

Final Grade: A-