Tuesday, December 30, 2014

End of the Line (2007)

I'm just going to go out on a limb here: for the most part, horror movies about cults are generally not made by people who can read. This is some caveman, base-level shit. It's an easy route to throwing in a bunch of gore, sex and screaming, which are all cheap gimmick tricks movies like this use to try and hook you in to watching them. I really don't know how better to express this to you all than by talking about End of the Line, a worthless piece of trash that is, really, nothing more than that.

Director: Maurice Devereaux
Starring: Ilona Elkin, Nicholas Wright

That's right – it's the end of the line, for my kindness toward these movies! Oh yeah, I said it. Let's get started.

We start this off with a girl named Karen, who works as a nurse and is stressed out by her job, to the point where she has to go into her office and take off her clothes – yes, that was the only point of this scene. Just to show boobs for a millisecond. I'm already astounded at the high standards here, aren't you?

Because really, that's the only purpose this movie sees for women – to get naked and show off their boobs after acting submissive and lost. It's misogynistic garbage, plain and simple, but then again, why show women as complex human beings while you can just have them take off their clothes? I think her facial expressions in this shower scene show her progression in realizing this movie won't advance her career:

Then again, the guys in this movie aren't any better really. So fuck it. No standards, zero stars – that's where we're starting off with End of the Line! The movie that thinks a guy coming through a door with a piece of hospital equipment is a good jump scare.

Just to put things into perspective. This is the kind of 'scares' we're dealing with here.

Later on, she goes down to the subway and gets hit on by some creepy guy. If you want some of the brilliant dialogue we get, well, how about this: the guy goes “You got a cigarette?” When she says no, he then says “C'mon, just one cigarette!” Yes, please, materialize cigarettes out of nowhere, you cold-hearted miser! Make them out of thin air!

Then the guy starts to get weirder and creepier, until she gets saved by this other guy in a green shirt. His character is that he's as bland and boring as a guy can be. He also starts talking to her like they're old buddies, since I guess saving a chick from a creepy guy entitles you to start talking her ear off immediately when she's just trying to go about her business. Hypocrisy? What's that?

They get on the train and the lights go out, causing some confusion. While they're trying to figure out what happened, some old lady with crazy eyes comes on the train and acts like she's confused, too. It's all a ruse, though, as she then stabs Mr. Green Shirt in the back for no apparent reason.

How does an old fat lady sneak up on you with a knife like that? C'mon, man, put in a little effort.

This is apparently her 'evil switch' flip, as she then starts babbling about the end of the world in a manner similar to how all these characters are going to act. It's revealed pretty quickly that she's a member of this religious cult called Voice of Hope or something, which apparently has a huge following. And tonight, the movie tells us, is their “day of reckoning” where they're “saving” everyone by killing the shit out of them!

I'm sorry, but for one, how did this group get enough followers to overrun a city and start murdering people? I can see a situation like the Jim Jones Kool-aid stuff where you'd attract a bunch of desperate, weak-minded souls, but that's a whole other ballpark from getting a bunch of people to straight up MASS MURDER everyone they come into contact with for no reason! But, sigh, as we see later, they really do overtake this entire big city somehow. The city was just no match for a bunch of two-bit serial killers with knives. I guess it is too much to ask for even a little bit of logic.

Yeah, the people on the subway aren't prepared to be stabbed to death, because frankly it's a stupid and implausible situation.

Two, why do these people all act like fucking cartoon characters? I didn't realize religious zealotry and horrible goofy acting were part of the same package, but yeah, all of these characters constantly scream every line of dialogue they say, have wide eyes and talk in shaky voices like they belong in mental asylums.

No, you fucking hack, having the characters say "God is love!" while killing, does NOT count as good religious commentary or even remotely decent writing. It's shit. You should feel bad.

Meanwhile, that creepy Quentin Tarantino-looking guy from the platform holds some hot Asian chick at knifepoint and then proceeds to try and rape her. And I would be more offended at this, except he doesn't rape her – he just sort of holds her back against the wall and rubs his hands on her shoulders and arms. I just find it funny how long this goes. He's just sitting there rubbing her arms for like, several scenes in a row cut in-between the other scenes.

It would make sense if this guy WASN'T part of the cult of bad guys, and was just some random dickweed that the cult killed a few scenes later, but no. This is just more of the movie's weird fixation on women - "hey, show them helpless and victimized sexually; THAT makes for good cinema!"

We also get this couple, who decide to start fucking in the train car while the power is out and they're stuck on the tracks. Extra stupidity points for when the conductor announces they'll be delayed and stuck there, and the guy goes “Oh, take your time!” because he's busy making out with the girl. What, so you got no better place to do that? You were just waiting for a fucking subway train car to stop so you could have more titillating sex? I somehow don't think that's really the best idea, unless lying on top of a dirty floor where thousands of peoples' feet have stepped turns you on! Have fun lying in vomit, dirt and all manner of other disgusting things!

I wouldn't complain about the sexism so much, but it's really just all over this movie like a roach infestation. Every other scene is some chick getting half naked on camera or getting groped or harassed, and it starts to feel gross and weird almost immediately because of the tone and context of the whole thing. I don't even really think there's much to be said about it being a message about prudishness like, say, the original Friday the 13th films. It's just weird, perverted garbage. Just go watch a porno next time.

So they get run out of the car and into some kind of break room with two employees of the subway I guess. They have a long conversation about what to do, mostly just repeating the same shit over and over again. God it's boring, too – there's just nothing interesting about this at all. Movie, just stick to showing your juvenile trash boobs and gore scenes – you can't handle anything else.

Most of the group leaves that break room upon deciding that the religious cult members will come back for them otherwise. My favorite part of this is that even though they were with two guys who know these tunnels, they don't ask them how to get out. No, they're fine with just wandering the labyrinthine tunnels all by themselves with flashlights and hammers. Have fun getting lost, you morons.

They run into a few kids from the cult and kill both of them with very little drama or hesitation. Child murder, the fun way!

Later on we cut back to the two workers though, and maybe then it's clear why these guys wouldn't have been a big help – they start arguing almost immediately about how they should stay in the break room and hide, even though they only have one sandwich apparently. Riveting! Then this bald guy reveals he's part of the cult, which prompts the other guy to kick him out of the room and lock the door.

Meanwhile, the group runs into that crazy psycho rapist guy from earlier, who has axed a couple of technician-looking guys in this control room. They tie him up, but don't kill him. I guess since he isn't a little kid, it's okay to leave him alive even though he's clearly murdered at least two people and sexually harassed several others. But he COULD be okay in the end I guess! Here's hoping! Fingers crossed!

Well, fingers crossed for this character to get genital warts, anyway.

Elsewhere, the cult members find the two workers. Apparently they didn't know Mr. Bald Guy was a member, as he has to plead with them and convince them he is – maybe try keeping track of your members better, you fucking idiots. They kill the other guy right there, even though Mr. Bald Guy could have probably helped him and said he was a member too. Then they bring in Mr. Bald Guy's pregnant wife, and she stabs him in the gut and kills him instantly.

Oh, but she says she loves him first; that makes it okay. That is one of this movie's favorite tricks – having a character tearfully kill a loved one and then muse over their dying body about how much they love them. It's a cheap-ass substitute for any real character development. We know nothing about these people, barely even their names unless you reference IMDb while you're watching, and really, it's just tough to get invested in the oh-so-sad tragic deaths of these people by this cult when they kill off characters so fast that it makes The Walking Dead look absolutely conservative in terms of that.

And alright, I might as well not mince words – they stab the pregnant lady in the belly and take out her unborn baby, laying it on top of its parents' dead bodies.

No, I'm not going to show the scene a few seconds later where they put the baby down. I have enough tact to avoid that.

I just can't even imagine the mental state you'd have to be in to write something like this. It's one thing to have a scary scene or something shocking in the way that you didn't expect it, but – this is just nasty and mean for no reason; there's really no artistic reason to do this. Yeah, you're fucking edgy, you're dark as shit...but so what? You want a medal for being fucking disgusting? Cause that's what it is; fucking disgusting.

For that matter, it's doubly awful because of the dialogue during this scene – the pregnant lady is just moaning and bitching to no end about how she's sinned and needs to be saved, etc – she's fucking nine months pregnant. You sure there was nothing she could have done BEFORE NOW? For that matter, why have sex and get pregnant at all if you're part of an Armageddon cult that explicitly hates sexuality and anything related to it AND plans to kill themselves at the doomsday? Did you just not read the fine print on that contract?

Oh, wait, why am I thinking so hard about this? The answer is simple – the movie is some of the worst crap ever thought up by humanity. It's complete horse shit shock-mongering made by people with the emotional maturity of 12-year-olds. There. Simple and concise – that sums it up quite nicely.

If you actually continued watching after that scene for some goddamn reason, we get a scene where this other girl is also revealed to be part of the cult. Worried because she had sex with that guy earlier, she goes in the bathroom and starts washing out her vagina with a bar of bathroom soap.

I'm just at a loss for words.

What she doesn't know is that the soap was unclean too, so that won't save her:

That soap has seen the hands of thousands of prostitutes and strippers taking the subway home, therefore it is unclean too and YOU MUST DIE!!!

There's a lot more whining about how the people love each other before they kill one another and blah, blah, blah – fuck off and die, movie. Doesn't this level of drama just blow you away? “Oh yeah, let's have all these characters kill their loved ones! That will show the harsh and gritty reality of their world and warped minds! It's so deep and edgy! Then throw in some lines about how much they love each other even though they're killing each other! That's a real moral gray area, right?”

No...no it isn't.

Oh, a scene where the one guy has to play dead while the cultists are stabbing a bunch of bodies, and he gets called away before he gets to the main character? What abominably clichéd writing! That's...exactly what I'm used to from you, End of the Line.

"Maybe if I keep my head down, they won't drag me in for the sequel!"

There are some more lame scenes, like where the one guy who's sort of been leading the group makes his way to the lobby of the subway station and sees that the city is burning down and everything is up in smoke.

Really, movie? These two-bit hack religious fanatic murderers managed to take down AN ENTIRE CITY?!?! THAT IS JUST...acceptable to me at this point.

Yes, really. I'm completely fine with it.

Then he gets killed off unceremoniously by the old lady, because old ladies in this universe are invincible of course. Then she cradles his head in her lap and sings to him, because I guess the movie is trying to pass that off as scary or creepy now. Fuck if I know why; it's as effective as a light tap on the shoulder, in the grand scheme of scares.

Meanwhile, Karen confronts weirdo rapist-psycho dude in this other part of the tunnels, where he says he isn't going to kill her if she has sex with him. Really now. THAT'S the final conflict here? We're still on the “have sex with me” tangent from this loser?

That's seriously like some shit I would have made up as a joke to put in a picture-caption in one of these reviews, but this movie did it for real. She kills him, I guess, and then sits down and has visions of these demon things surrounding her.

"Wipe that blood off your chin, don't you know that's rude?!"

I don't know, the movie's over; that's all I care about.

It may come as a surprise to you after all of this, but no, this movie isn't good. It's one of the most wretched and unpleasant things I've sat through this side of The Purge: Anarchy and Curse of the Zodiac – and if you follow my blog, those two reference points should tell you something about this manure pile of a movie.

There's really just nothing to hook you in. What are we supposed to like here? The way the women are all written as cardboard cut outs with great tits and no real character? The awful writing, riddled with cliché and boring, half-assed dialogue? The boring plot and even more boring kill scenes, which lacked any kind of creativity or scares to them? The one-dimensional characterization of the religious cult characters, who have no real motives or anything to get us into their heads and, you know, actually scare us?

Contrary to whatever bullshit you might believe about religion, people (and people in cults, specifically) are generally more complicated than simply 'THE WORLD IS ENDING, LET'S KILL PEOPLE FOR NO REASON AND LAUGH ABOUT IT!' And, amazingly, exploring peoples' beliefs and convictions, even the darkest sides of them, makes for better horror movies. But that takes actual work, so of course we didn't get that with this movie.

I mean, there were possibilities! Maybe we could have had a movie about one person who joined that apocalyptic cult and then started to have doubts after seeing what they intended to do. Maybe we could have a real study of the human psyche and its frailty. But nahhh. Serial killers on the subway are the real way to go!

But really even if the rest of the movie had redeeming factors, it would still be the lowest form of shit, simply for the scene where they kill the pregnant lady and take out the fetus. I've looked at some pretty damn sick, gruesome stuff on here, some of it being outwardly unpleasant and grotesque to extremes that ruined the movies. And none of them – count it; exactly zero of them – ever went this far, to the level of killing an unborn fetus on screen, particularly in the manner and style this movie chose. It's just a tasteless crap, is what it is. No mincing words, no grey area, no double standard – it's just awful.

I can think of so many better alternatives, too. If you want a movie about a cult, go watch The Sacrament. If you want a movie about people wandering around underground, The Descent is a good pick. There's just so little reason to watch this shit. So don't. Forget about it like the wretchedness that it is. Apparently it won at least two awards, a fact which I was shocked to learn. Were standards really that low in 2007?

Oh well. This is the end of the line for End of the Line, and the end of the line for 2014. Happy New Year!

Images copyright of their original owners. I own none of them.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jingle All the Way (1996)

Well, Christmas has come and gone yet again, and I never did get around to reviewing a real Christmas movie in time. Damn it, just damn it – my own awful timing gets in the way yet again. What can I possibly do to make it up to you?

Director: Brian Levant
Starring: Arnold Schwarzennegger, Sinbad

No, I don't think this counts. I don't think anyone in their right mind would consider Jingle All the Way a feasible manner of making amends with someone – unless you're apologizing for not annoying the ever loving piss out of your worst enemies this holiday season.

Oh, okay. It isn't that bad. Is it? IS IT?!

We start this one off with a Power Rangers-esque TV show for kids that I'm sure was made under the influence of all the leftover crack cocaine the studio execs had left over from the 1980s. Seriously, the way this is shot and the speed at which the action moves are so blitzkrieg fast, there isn't any fucking room for a story to be told. You'd have to be high on sugar to find this enjoyable.

When did they give the Ewoks Power Rangers costumes for Halloween, and when can we take them away again?
I didn't know the Flash's loser brother finally conned his way into a TV series.

...which, I suppose, would describe the majority of little children in the 90s and early 2000s. I mean have you seen their breakfast cereals? You could probably swim in an ocean of pure sugar and still be less energized and strung out than if you ate a bowl of Cinammon Toast Crunch.

Anyway, our main characters are well-to-do upper middle class white people with no serious problems. The father, Howard, is played by the obvious choice for any Christmas movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apparently the big crisis in this movie is him not coming to his kid's karate class on time and not buying his kid a pre-processed action figure because he spent all his time working in the office to pay the bills – what a fucking tragedy, I tell you. Why was I ever worried about all those starving orphans/Charles Dickens characters in the streets on Christmas morning huddled around fires trying to stay warm? Clearly these people have it worse.

I do love the scene where he's trying to get to the class on time. He's stopped by a cop for driving in the emergency lane, which could have killed or seriously injured any number of people in any number of ways. I just feel so bad that he got stopped by that mean old cop for that little detail.

"You could have killed someone waiting in this lane for medical or mechanical assistance!"
"But officer, I have to get to my son's karate show on time!"
"Oh, well in that case...you're still a complete douche and should be arrested."

And then by the time he gets there, the place is cleared out and the janitor is mopping the floor:

"I don't know what happened, Mr. Schwarzenegger. The kids were so bad at karate, the parents just snatched them up and sprinted for home as soon as they could!"

Uh, how late DID Howard leave for that karate match? If he promised he'd be there on time and then got there THAT late, I highly doubt it was just the cop who held him up. Either he was way too far away to ever get there on time, or everyone just rocket-sped out of there, burning their heels on the hard linoleum floor, because the karate match was so bad.

Also, was it too much to ask for a scene of Jake Lloyd (who plays the son, Jamie) trying to break one of those wooden blocks in the karate match, failing horribly and breaking his hand? C'mon. Throw me at least that bone, movie.


At home, Howard gets a tongue-lashing from his wife because hey, him actually doing shit to pay the bills on time and support his family is a rotten thing to do. Plus, it's a Christmas movie – having a father who realistically balances work and family life at all would be stupid and inconsequential to the movie's poorly written plot.

Then he goes upstairs and talks to Jamie about how sorry he is, asking if he can make it up to Jamie in any way. After a bit of prodding, Jamie finally shouts that he wants a Turbo-Man action figure, which Howard promises him and fixes their little spat. I love this - “You can miss all my karate matches if you buy me that commercial piece of plastic! In fact, you can quit your job and be a deadbeat dad and never see us again if you buy it for me! That's how warped my sense of things being equal is!”

"I just may take you up on that last bit, son."

Later on we get some talk from the wife asking if he bought the toy for Jamie yet, to which Howard lies and says yes. Wait a minute – if they knew Jamie wanted this toy - and they had to, considering he watched that Turbo-Man show like an old lady watches televangelists - why didn't they buy it for him already? The dialogue establishes that it's near Christmas eve by now. You'd think they would have known their own son well enough to BUY him the fucking action figure BEFORE he had to tell his dad to get it as a way to make up for missing karate class!

Sigh. The next day we get Howard's manic trek to find that damn action figure before the end of the day so Jamie can someday pass on a similar soul-sucking corporate mindset to his own children and further the Ouroboros-like cycle of cynicism that American culture is becoming...oh, I'm sorry, wrong meeting. The meeting at the docks is tomorrow night. Tonight it's Christmas family movie time!

We get introduced to Sinbad somewhere in the movie's jittery mess of a story, playing Myron, a postal worker who I am sure needs therapy of some kind to undo whatever is wrong with him. Why would I say something so cruel? Well, look at this.

That's what he does immediately upon Howard striking up a conversation with him. Was he just waiting to unleash that tantrum on anyone who spoke to him, or does he just do it to everyone he speaks to? Either way, I'm scared as shit now.

The look on Schwarzenegger's face pretty much sums it up, yeah: "What did I do with my life to get here?"

This movie is like 84 minutes long, and takes up a shitload of its runtime with brainless slapstick in the stores as everyone in this city apparently waited until Christmas Eve to buy Turbo Man toys. Who actually bought these things in the first place if ALL THESE PEOPLE are stampeding at the gates to get them the day before Christmas? Did they just order a shockingly low number of them to begin with? What gives?

Oh well. Just throw in more scenes of people tripping over things set to overly jubilant music, that'll fix it!

In his natural environment.

If you can believe it, there's also a scene where Howard gets taken to an underground black market for toys where for some reason, despite everyone just working from there, they're all wearing Santa costumes. Yes, every one of them. Really not much for unique costuming, are you? Or is this just supposed to be some kind of Santa cult of sorts? Either answer is enough to send your brain cells leaping off a cliff in a mass-suicide attempt, so pick your own answer.

If you can believe that, well, the movie is about to really test your sanity with a fight scene between Howard and a bunch of these Santas. Yes, really.

Also throughout the movie, we get scenes of this other guy, Ted, a next door neighbor trying to put the moves on Howard's wife. He's so un-subtle about it, I'm surprised he doesn't just kidnap the wife and prompt Schwarzennegger to revert to his past life as an action star to save her.

If only...

But that doesn't happen. Instead we get some more slapstick, and a scene with Myron going on another improv rant in a bar in the middle of the day, this time raving about a toy he wanted as a kid. I give credit to Sinbad for trying to flesh out this ridiculously underwritten, sloppy script – as a lot of his lines were just made up on the spot by him while filming apparently – but seriously, this is as funny as a stubbed toe. The first time was pretty funny, but this really isn't.

Then through another overly long and stupidly complicated chain of events, Howard and Myron find their way to some radio station promising to give away a Turbo Man doll. When they find out the station doesn't have it, they end up destroying the place and getting the cops called on them. Myron, being a stand-up guy, pretends to have a bomb package to throw off the cops. I guess he's just banking on the fact that his face is so forgettable in a crowd that they can lose him and he won't ever be arrested for this.
Except, it turns out, when one of the packages he happened to have at random IS a bomb:

And next up on 'scenes you'd never see in a movie these days'...

I guess it was just one of those bombs that makes you look comedically frazzled, and doesn't seriously hurt you. Oh, well, those are okay then.

After a bunch more boring things happen, including Howard trying to steal a present from Ted's house and Howard's wife all-but-divorcing him, Howard ends up dressed in a Turbo Man outfit for the parade going on. He doesn't have a chance to explain that he isn't supposed to be there, because like all professional productions, they don't give him a chance to talk and instead just shove him into an outfit. You know, because that wouldn't create all sorts of potential problems in real life, right?

You know, I really can't see how, even in a fictional universe, ANYONE thought having that pink monstrosity would be a good idea in a story. I mean it looks like cotton candy vomit from a grizzly bear.

Oh, and Myron shows up as the Turbo Man villain, too, which is so stupid I don't even have words for it. Oh wait yes I do – it's absolutely insane that he would somehow come to the conclusion to dress up as that character on purpose just to get the doll they're giving away as a prize. Seriously, the brain cells are heading toward the cliffside like lemmings here. Someone stop the madness!

On the float, apparently no one stops to think that maybe the two guys fighting and screaming at each other in an intensely personal way ISN'T part of the stunt. Including when Jamie comes up and kicks Myron in the balls – I guess that part was part of the routine! I wonder if the parade people pay for the surgery that comes with ruptured testicles.

What a low blow. This kid is in for a good career as a cast member of the Bad Santa remake in a few years.

Also, apparently the parade people were able to get their hands on a rocket jetpack that can actually let Howard fly way up in the air with no protection or instruction. Another reason I'm really glad those idiots running the parade were SO DISCERNING with who they let wear that costume!

None of these images needed to be seen by mortal eyes.

After a climax that involves Myron chasing Jamie up to a roof top and almost killing him for the doll, we get our happy ending where Howard reunites with his family and all is good again. Myron, I assume, gets arrested and sent to jail for the numerous heinous crimes he's committed, the first and foremost of which is subjecting us to his performance in the movie. Ha ha ha! Man, I crack myself up.

So, yeah, this was completely insane. Nothing about it worked, from the scant runtime mostly taken up by over-long slapstick sequences, to the directing which was as boring and slack-jawed as it could get without any notion of pacing or comedic timing, to the plot which seemed to have been written by a group of monkeys on Ritalin and the acting, which was about as good as you'd expect from everything else in this – it's clear that not a lot of work was put into making any of this, despite the actors' best efforts.

While I like the idea this movie was trying to convey - a sort of satire of the rampant consumerism and rushing to get materialistic shallow Christmas gifts for children - the movie really just doesn't pull it off well, and instead comes off as stupid, rushed and thoughtless most of the time, with little wit or clever jokes.

But strangely, I don't really regret seeing it. Through all of its complete bonkers insanity on every level, the film reaches a sort of zen level of “so bad its good” schadenfreude. It really is fun to watch when you've got friends around who are eager to rip into it with you. For that, I'd say it's worth a watch. Plus, I did like it when I was a kid!

Don't tell anybody that last part, though. I have an image to uphold.

Oh, and merry Christmas and all that, yadda yadda. Until next year!

Images copyright of their original owners. I own none of them.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Quick Review of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"

Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright
Director: David Silverman
Created by: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon

"But he's a loser. He's pathetic. He's...a Simpson." - Homer on Santa's Little Helper

I wanted to do a quick something for the holidays, so I figured the best way to do it would be to briefly review a Christmas special, which also happens to be the series premiere of my favorite TV show of all time.

Saying that "The Simpsons" is my favorite TV show is kind of like saying my favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate (it is, by the way): not everyone would say the same, but it is almost a boring choice. But there is good reason for that: the show has influenced nearly every aspect of our culture and is permanently etched in the minds of all who grew up with it. Some people go to church on Sundays religiously; I would watch "The Simpsons" on Sunday religiously. Heck, I still watch new episodes of it when I have the time. No, it is not nearly as good as it used to be and is done more out of habit and loyalty than anything at this point. But I am not here to talk about that. In the spirit of the season, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its original airing (which was before I was born, by the way), I am here to give you my (short) take of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire."

(Warning: I am assuming most of you reading this are fans who have seen this episode a million and one times, but just in case you are not, there will be spoilers).

The episode features the Simpsons running into trouble during the holidays when their sources of income fall through: Homer does not get his Christmas bonus because Mr. Burns is a greed bastard and Marge has to use their Christmas savings to remove a tattoo that Bart got without telling anyone. Homer keeps the former a secret and tries to find ways to make sure his family's Christmas is not a disappointment. This includes getting part-time work as a mall-Santa and attempting to get rich at a dog racing track by betting on a canine with a very familiar name.

By this description alone, it sounds like a fairly typical Simpsons episode, and indeed there are many aspects within it that have carried on throughout the years. However, you will probably notice that this is very much a series under construction. The animation is rather primitive, the voice actors seem very cautious in the way they deliver their lines, and the jokes are generally safe in terms of their content. And while most of the characters are more or less constructed the way most people view them today (especially Bart), others have undergone some noticeable changes since 1989. Ralph Wiggum makes only a brief appearance, but it is hard to overlook the fact that he sounds...uh...not "special." Lisa sounds like, dare I say, a normal 8-year old girl who wants a pony for Christmas. The character who seems most out of place is Homer: aside from the Walter Mattau-style voice (seriously, that is who Dan Castellaneta originally based it on), he seems a lot more straight-laced than he does in later seasons. His intelligence nothing to brag about but not abysmal, his anger seems more abrupt and threatening, and he appears to have a relatively strong moral conscience. When he and Bart go to the race track at the insistence of Barney Gumble (who has blonde hair, strangely enough), he seems genuinely ashamed about it. That's not the Homer Simpson I know! The Homer Simpson I know would have brought the whole family with him and blow their entire life savings on that damn dog!

By the way, does anyone else who has watched this see a lot of similarities between it and "Christmas Vacation"? Both feature the family patriarch failing to turn on the Christmas lights on his house while his family watches on, getting a tree from out in the middle of the woods instead of a lot,  and, yes, not getting his Christmas bonus. They both came out around the same time so unless there was some connection between the two productions, I cannot cry plagiarism for either. My guess is that the Simpsons and Griswold families are only a small faction of people who struggle during the holidays for similar reasons.

But I digress...

In a way, all this makes sense: the show was in the process of evolving from animated shorts that would appear between sketches on the Fox program "The Tracy Ullman Show" to a full-length series. This is not exactly an easy task even today; the creators of "The Simpsons" on the other hand were doing this at a time when Fox itself was just getting started and probably had barely any budget to give them, on top of the fact that there had not been a successful prime-time animated series since "The Flintstones" ended its run twenty years prior. So you can understand if the show seems like it is trying to figure itself out. Still, it is odd to think that this would become the longest-running primetime scripted show in television history; it looks like something that would barely last a half a season today.

As the episode goes on, however, you start to see an inkling of what made the series great. Lisa leaves the pony stuff aside to give a passionate defense of her father as her male role model. Homer meanwhile gets some laughs trying to make the Santa and dog track things work (and failing), with Bart contributing to the mix.

*Spoilers start here*

And then there is the end. Once it seems like rock bottom has been hit, they encounter the dog that Homer lost money on. His name, of course, is Santa's Little Helper, who is adopted by the family as everyone learns WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT!!! Okay, it is very cheesy and cliche, but it works.

*Spoilers end here*

The Simpsons was always good at mixing humor with heart. I have the quote on top because it is a good synopsis of the episode and to a certain extend the series as a whole: while people (and animals) are flawed, they do their best to rise above it all. Even if they do not succeed, they still manage to find what is really important in life. And hopefully, have a laugh while doing it.

So that is "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." How does it hold up a quarter of a century later? Fairly well. It is not the greatest Christmas special ever, and certainly not the best "Simpsons" episode ever (at least it is not the Worst. Episode. Ev...sorry I could not help it...). Still, it has the Christmas spirit and is, in its own little way, a very appropriate start to a beloved series.

I definitely recommend it if you have not seen it already. And if you have...see it again!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

The pictures and links on this page do not belong to me and are being used for entertainment purposes only. Please do not sue me,

STOCKING STUFFERS: The Babadook and Starry Eyes (2014)

Tomorrow is Christmas finally! Hooray! And for those of you who were concerned that I would just miss the point of this holiday forever, well, fear not: I have stocking stuffers for you.

New great horror films don't come around every day anymore, if they ever did – these days, we're lucky to get one or two good horror movies in a year, with most of the rest saturated with remakes and shitty Sam Raimi-produced ghost stories. But there is life in this stagnant genre yet.

Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

The Babadook is an Australian flick about a mother and her young son preyed upon by, apparently, a storybook creature in a book. That isn't really what's going on here, though, as the film gets pretty weird on us later. One of the reasons this is so good is that it sort of quietly creeps up on you as to what the movie is really about. Sure, you get a few shock moments where the monster pops up, and that points the movie in one direction. But it's really not just a goofy monster movie. This is a movie about parenthood. It's a weird grotesque tale about a stressed-out mother, and really just uses the storybook monster plot as a way to visualize that stress, anxiety, fear and ultimately madness that the main character goes through.

It's tough to really describe this without spoiling what happens in it. The film just does such a good job of scaring the shit out of you. The directing is a big part of that as it sort of pulls the rug out from under your feet halfway through – it's like waking up from a very deep dream with a jolt, the way the film plays it. It sort of subtly eases you into the clues of what's going on, and then drops you in like a parent throwing his kid into water and shouting at him to swim.

There's a lot of playing around with perception here – like early on, the little kid in the movie is constantly screaming and crying and being as annoying as possible. However, after a barely-perceptible tone shift halfway through, he suddenly starts to seem more like a regular kid – really it was just the mother's ugly perception of him that was making him seem so annoying early on. That's fucking brilliant, and I wish more movies would try stuff like that. Most mainstream movies don't like to try this kind of stuff as it makes it too hard for a lot of viewers to understand, but The Babadook takes some fucking risks, doesn't treat its audience like morons, and is so much better for it.

Another thing I really liked about the film was just the weird carnivalesque silliness it had to it at times. While The Babadook is one of the scariest films I've seen from the 2010s, it isn't all stone-faced serious – I'll put it this way: the climax features toy guns and Home Alone-esque traps. And it works. So many horror movies are almost afraid of being kitschy or cheesy, thinking it's “just dated old 80s stuff” or some such, but really trying TOO hard to be serious usually just results in something much worse, because those movies lack strong direction or writing, which you're really solely relying on when you make something so stripped of theatricality.

The Babadook isn't afraid to throw a few goofy scenes at you, and they're played in a way that enhances the scares and makes the whole thing more theatrical. The fast camera movements, the rushes of wind, the over the top sounds and expressions – it all really makes the movie scarier and more entertaining, because it catches your attention. If a movie can't grab hold of your attention like a vicegrip, what chance does it have of actually scaring you? I'm guessing not much.

I can't say too much more, it would give too much away, and I hate that I have to be so vague – but this is a movie you really have to fucking see to believe. It's seriously some of the most macabre, evil, dark shit around, and I have not been this scared of a movie in ages. I don't say that lightly. Go see it!

Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alex Essoe, Louis Dezseran, Amanda Fuller

Starry Eyes is a very weird, dark flick that knows its influences. Watching this, the first thing that came to mind was Mulholland Drive – those sunny, upper-class California visuals, the plot about an actress trying to break into the business. It's all very Lynchian. Add in some weird cult-like plots and characters in black robes, and I'm suddenly reminded of Eyes Wide Shut. Both of those are two of my favorite movies! Great! While unfortunately Starry Eyes isn't as proficient as those, it's still good and I'd be crazy not to give it huge props anyway. After all it isn't like failing to live up to Kubrick and Lynch is some kind of damnable offense.

What Starry Eyes is, is a cool, energized take on the genre with an actually original plot and execution. The movie is about our main character's attempts to break into acting and anxiety about following her dreams. She gets offered a part in a horror movie called Silver Scream, which is very shady and mysterious, with the casting directors acting weird and making her do weird things. She's also surrounded by a bunch of pretentious hipster “friends” who sort of undermine her attempts and mostly seem interested in doing drugs and having sex instead.

The film plays with these themes with a lot of paranoia and weird intrigue, much like the aforementioned Mulholland Drive, showing the lead character's insecurities about herself reflected in everything that happens. The film's themes include talking about doing something as opposed to actually doing it and just the general stress and trapped-in-a-box feel of working some shit dead-end job when you really want to be doing something else. Acting is a tough profession, and Starry Eyes portrays that in a very creepy, off-kilter way – manifesting the lead character's stress physically as she decays throughout the film, both in body and mind.

The last half of the movie sort of just explodes on you and becomes a total gore-fest, which is a lot of fun and definitely wasn't what I expected. At this point, the film started to remind me of Contracted, which I talked about before, and which is another one of my favorite newer horror films – very similar idea here by taking a common every-day fear and splattering gore and blood and stuff all over it, although in this one we get Satanic cults added in for extra fun.

This one wasn't perfect and I do think it got a bit over-eager – maybe it could have paced itself more and had more atmosphere like Mulholland Drive or Eyes Wide Shut, and been better for it. But there's just such a palpable energy behind this...it's infectiously fun, and you can tell everyone had a good time making it. For that I really do think it's worth a viewing, even if it isn't perfect or anything.

Images copyright of their original owners, I own none of them.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Frailty (2001)

Alright, last week's review was not very Christmassy. It was, in fact, not at all related to Christmas. But this week I have truly found the meaning of the holiday in a religious horror film that shows the roots of this festive time of year – a belief and devotion to Christ, whose birthday we should all revere and celebrate instead of that fat jolly red bastard who really just represents the evils of American capitalism. 

With that said, this is a movie about a guy who gets visions from “God” that tell him to go murder people who are apparently demons. Now that's festive!

Director: Bill Paxton
Starring: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaghuey

This movie and I have a long history together. See, I used to rent a lot of horror movies at now-defunct video rental giant Blockbuster. I became fascinated early on with horror movies, and often would try and rent random ones that nobody ever heard of in an attempt to find a really, really good one. Most of the time, these movies turned out to be complete shit. Other times they were mildly okay with flaws. Sometimes, though, I'd get a really good one. They were rare, but it was worth the effort. This was one of those few choices.

We start this one off with an FBI agent, Wesley Doyle, receiving a visit from Matthew McConaghuey's character, Fenton Meiks. It's painfully obvious this was before McConaghuey was a household name, because rather than be starstruck, Doyle is just confused as to why this weird guy is coming to his office in the middle of the night with stories about serial killers.

You shoulda seen the time George Clooney came to his office and started talking about sports statistics!

Fenton says he thinks the killer may be his brother, Adam. When asked why, Fenton says he used his incredible reasoning and deductive powers – while he was sitting on the couch getting wasted off his ass, Adam called him, made some damning comments about how the world was full of demons, and then shot himself in the head. I know, that really took a lot of deduction, right? He must be a super sleuth.

This is when I have all my best revelations too.
Do all serial killers HAVE to keep a board with newspaper clippings of their crimes? Seems a bit counterproductive...

As this was apparently a huge murder case in this city, Doyle asks Fenton to take him out to this garden where Fenton claims to have buried Adam. I guess they have to do it now rather than just asking Fenton for the address and going out with a proper forensics crew in the sunlight like sane people. That would just be too much of a hassle. No, of course they have to do it now! For dramatic effect!

In the car, Fenton reveals one of his many magic powers – when he speaks, the movie goes into Super Flashback Mode, to when he and Adam were happy little children in an idyllic small town. Their father is played by Bill Paxton, who comes home one night and tells his children that God has spoken to him and wants them to start “destroying demons” as part of a holy mission about the end of the world or something else silly like that. Rather than just start planting fliers on cars or screaming about it in front of college libraries during finals week, I guess Paxton is just a special kind of crazy who starts plotting to do it immediately.

The best time to manipulate your own children is when they're clearly half asleep!

Yeah. I guess there was no qualms about killing people from this apparently normal guy, huh? Not even a sliver of doubt? You could say he's just that into doing whatever God says, and as we don't know this character, you could be right about that. His brain, like many fervently insane zealots, is really just a black void with an Etch-a-Sketch in it waiting for God to use His hands to form ideas upon it.

What follows this is several scenes of two children watching Bill Paxton kill people. While I'm sure that's exciting for Paxton, for those looking for that good old Christian spirit, it is a bit of a buzzkill. I must say, this is not doing its Christian duty at all.

I guess Adam, the younger brother, actually buys into all the bullshit Paxton is spewing about it being a calling from God. Usually you have to buy a kid a few video games to make him believe your holy murdering crusade, but Paxton doesn't look to have much money at all. Huh. Must just be a persuasive guy then.

For all the strangeness of these murdering scenes, I do have to give the movie one thing – it is quite creepy and unsettling to watch these scenes. With Paxton's dead-eyed stare and creepy 'enlightened religious zealot' cadence to his voice, followed with the grisly implications of the bodies being chopped up in that basement, it's pretty gruesome and chilling.

However, I do have to call the movie out for one of the strangest scenes in it – when young Fenton runs across town to the sheriff and tells him his dad is killing people, the sheriff just flat out doesn't believe him and mocks him as a liar. Why? Doesn't it at least merit checking out? He's accusing somebody of MURDER. I get that you're a small-town sheriff and you'd rather be doing the crosswords or humping your secretary than solving crimes. I get that your most devious cases usually just involve some kid drinking too much at the local bar. BUT COME ON. IT'S A MURDER CASE. You gotta at least look into it!

"I'm halfway into a bottle of Wild Turkey and was in the middle of watching the hockey match. How dare you disturb me for your petty causes like 'murder' and 'upholding the law of the land'?"

Even though the sheriff believes Paxton when Paxton says he isn't killing people, the sheriff goes and checks in the shed outside anyway. There's nothing there now and the sheriff still thinks Fenton is a liar, but Paxton comes in anyway and kills the sheriff with an ax. Why? He was on your side! With law enforcement like this, hell, I'd just start dropping decapitated bodies on his fucking lawn. Not like he'd care! Why kill him? He's your greatest ally in this killing spree and you just got rid of him.

Then Paxton locks Fenton up in this hole in the ground for a week until Fenton 'fesses up to believing in God and their murder-mission. Hell, stick me in a place like that for a week and I'd cop to seeing JFK murdered by aliens in flying saucers. I don't think this is quite a confirmation that Fenton is exactly on your side, Paxton – but I guess a guy who thinks God is instructing him how to kill people isn't really the sharpest pencil in the drawer.

I'm sure nothing bad will happen after this. Nope. Nothing!

The murders continue on their merry paths, until Fenton finally has enough and gives ole Paxton the ax:

"On second thought, maybe I shouldn't have believed you were on board with my religiously inspired killing spree! I guess I'm a real idiot!" 

Unfortunately, Adam takes over and kills the guy they were originally trying to kill. Boy, this sure isn't putting the Christ back in Christmas at all!

Not your grandfather's Christmas Story! Actually this movie doesn't take place around Christmas. Why am I trying to hammer this joke in?! WHY AM I SO UNFUNNY?!?

Then we go back to the present times, where Fenton reveals to Agent Doyle that he was really Adam Meiks all along, and Fenton was another serial killer altogether. It's here that the movie shows us there really were supernatural religious elements in play all along – they weren't just Paxton hallucinating. To demonstrate this, we see Adam now magically knowing that Doyle murdered his mother years and years ago:

The funniest thing about this scene is the fact that an old lady died. No, I'm kidding – it's that the movie never fucking explains why Doyle, who is apparently a regular FBI agent now, would kill his mother! Was it a bout of temporary insanity? Was she evil too? Is he just a sick fuck who needs to be locked up? I dunno. The movie never tells us. It's pretty much just a shockingly poorly written excuse for Adam to lure Doyle out there and tell him this whole story.

In addition, we also learn that while the guy we thought was Fenton was really Adam, the real Fenton was a serial killer, too! Yup. I guess that crazy gene runs in the family. Why did he become a killer? Because he was traumatized because his daddy was one? I dunno, it isn't very well fleshed out or established. I guess everyone in this universe is a serial killer! Call the world the Killerverse for all I care. Say that the old lady down the street kills orphans in the middle of the night for shits and giggles. Say the receptionist at the FBI building murdered her whole family last week and nobody found out. Go crazy!

After that we see Adam is actually the sheriff of this town now.

His opponent in the last election was the town's local pedophile. Because the only choices in this world are bad and worse!

I love this movie's stance on law enforcement. The only cops we see are a) a non-caring dipshit who doesn't even see accusations of murder as a big deal, b) a guy who killed his mother and c) a God-powered religious serial killer who makes Dexter Season 6 look like child's play. That's lovely. I'm sure the cops watching are just overjoyed at that!

This movie is still pretty frigging good. It's a solid thriller with good performances from the kids, especially given that they have to carry so much of the film. Paxton and McConaghuey do serviceably and the story is very solid overall. The fear comes from watching Paxton believing he's exactly right in murdering these people, and especially goading his young sons into it. That kind of thing could probably happen in real life, and things involving terror to children are scary as shit.

There were a few points I can see now aren't all that good, sure. Like the numerous holes in the plot whenever law enforcement is involved – come on, that sheriff should have known SOMETHING was up. And I guess the film is really weakened by the reveal at the end where you see McConaghuey and Paxton really did have some kind of supernatural powers to see people were evil. That kinda makes it too much like a Christ propaganda film of sorts...I mean, it still works overall, but the effect is a bit less, is all.

I would have preferred it remain more ambiguous as to whether or not there was anything supernatural. For that matter, keep it all in the past. Don't even show us the present at all, or if you have to, make it very minor parts at the beginning and ending. The scariest part of the film is the middle bit where you see Fenton and Adam as kids – just make a whole movie about that, from their eyes, and don't make it too obvious whether God really is telling them to kill demons or not. That would just be a better flick, and I'd find it even scarier than I found this.

Overall though? Still a good horror movie. Go check it out!

Though, now that I think about it, this wasn't very related to Christmas either. Huh. I guess the idea of God telling people to murder in his name isn't the part that those Christians really wanted Christmas to be about. My bad!

Images copyright of their original owners; I own none of them.