Saturday, October 24, 2009


Day 297 - 10/24/09 - Movie #297

BEFORE: Another movie about masks, and a mad genius who uses them for revenge. This was directed by Sam Raimi before he directed the "Spider-Man" movies...

THE PLOT: A hideously scarred and mentally unstable scientist seeks revenge against the crooks who made him like that.

AFTER: Geez, I feel like I could really tear this movie apart, but I don't know where to start.

Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist who has created a synthetic skin, and a way to shape it to mimic any person's face, based on photos, I guess with the intention of helping burn victims regain their appearance. But the skin is unstable, and only lasts for 99 minutes in the light - longer in the dark, but then what's the point? You can't see it in the dark...

His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand) is a reporter who's uncovered evidence of government payoffs in the construction business (jeez, there's a shocker) and the thugs involved show up at her boyfriend's lab (even though the movie made a point of stating that they DON'T live together...) and trash the place, horribly injuring Westlake in the process. But however bad they burn and injure him, worse things are done to him in the hospital, where the doctors disconnect his pain receptors - and this leads to him getting super-strength, heightened senses, and a tendency to over-react to emotional situations. Umm, exactly how is all that better than feeling pain, exactly?

Westlake escapes from the hospital, with his face wrapped in bandages, and sets up a version of his old skin-making lab in an abandoned factory. He gains revenge on the mob by studying their cash pick-up schedules, impersonating low-level bagmen to make their pickups, and then framing them for "stealing" the mob's money. However, there's more to impersonating someone then just putting on a synthetic skin-mask. How does he match someone's height, weight, and voice patterns? Especially since his lips got burned off in the accident...

So, believability is not one of the movie's strong points - Darkman also seemed to have gained the ability to pick locks, make fast escapes and fight like a martial arts expert. He watches his girlfriend from afar, like the Phantom of the Opera, crossed with the Chameleon from the Spider-Man comics. But has the accident that deformed his face also twisted his mind?

As stated, Sam Raimi went on to direct "Spider-Man", so this seems like something of a trial run for him - this came out after the first "Batman" movies, and the way Darkman gets scarred is sort of reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's Joker. It's definitely in the superhero vein, just completely unbelievable, even for a comic book. There were two sequels made (direct-to-video), and even though Liam Neeson didn't return, the character was custom-made to be played by another actor, since he can look like anyone thanks to his synthetic skin...

RATING: 3 out of 10 briefcases

SHOCK-O-METER: 2 out of 10 (a deformed face and a few grisly deaths)

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Day 296 - 10/23/09 - Movie #296

BEFORE: Sticking with the theme of masked villains, and masquerade balls, this is the filmed version of the stage musical, which is Andrew Lloyd Webber's update of the old silent film from the 1920's, which was based on a short story by Gaston Leroux. We went to see this on Broadway a few years ago, so I'm somewhat familiar with it, but I just hadn't gotten around to seeing the movie.

THE PLOT: A disfigured musical genius, hidden away in the Paris Opera House, terrorizes the opera company for the unwitting benefit of a young protégée whom he trains and loves.

AFTER: Since I've seen this on Broadway (who hasn't?) it's tough for me to judge the movie adaptation - the story has been workshopped and refined over the decades, until it's darn near perfect. So, the question is - was it worth turning it into a movie? I'd say yes, because this retains all of the spectacle of the stage show, but it's like I had really great seats - like, up on the stage itself! And obviously they can achieve better visuals with editing, movie effects, and a budget greater than the GDP of most countries...

My complaint is about some of the singing - some opera and theatre actors have an affected way of singing that might work better on stage, but makes their words hard to understand, and that was the case in a few songs here. The vocals were so shrill on "Masquerade" that I couldn't pick up any lyrics, it just sounded like: "Masquerade! Something-something parade!"

Emmy Rossum was a good choice to play Christine Daae (how the heck do you pronounce that - Day-ee? Dah-ee? Digh?) as she sang quite clearly. Gerard Butler played the Phantom - he's a huge star now after being in films like "300" - and I wonder if he did his own vocals, or if they were dubbed in. Completing the love triangle was Raul, played by Patrick Wilson, who did such a great job as Nite Owl in "Watchmen" (he was nominated in 2002 for a Tony for Oklahoma, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt), and Minnie Driver played Carlotta, the upstaged diva, and she managed to both sing AND speak incoherently in a weird Spanish (I guess...) accent.

But on the whole this was quite watchable (though long, took me two night sessions), like "Amadeus" mixed with an action film.

RATING: 7 out of 10 (maybe even an 8, but minus 1 for not bringing anything new to the table, except moving the chandelier scene to the end of the film)

SPOOK-O-METER: 3 out of 10 (a couple backstage deaths, then some creepiness once the Phantom loses his mask)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Day 295 - 10/22/09 - Movie #295

BEFORE: (in affected British accent) Edgar Allan Poe was born outside of Boston - and so was I. Poe later moved to New York City - and so did I. Poe liked to drink, often to excess - and so do I. Poe liked science-fiction, hoaxes and cryptography - and so do I. Poe published dozens of short stories and poems - OK, so he's got me there. And he also married his 13-year old cousin...

All I can say is, tonight's movie better not feature Vincent Price burying someone alive. Again.

THE PLOT: A European prince terrorizes the local peasantry while using his castle as a refuge against the "Red Death" plague that stalks the land.

AFTER: Price plays Prospero, who rules his medieval (?) land with an iron hand and very little mercy - he sees the peasants, and even his fellow aristocrats, as his playthings, but he can't do anything to combat a looming plague except to burn the infected villages and seal off his castle. The movie makes Prospero into a satanist (easier for the audience to realize that he's evil), which I'm pretty sure wasn't part of Poe's short story - Poe had a dark sensibility, but no love for Satan worship.

The film also incorporates a sub-plot based on another Poe story, "Hop-Frog," in which a dwarf jester gets revenge on a noble by convincing him to come to the masked ball dressed as an ape in a very flammable costume. It works here because both Poe stories feature masquerade balls in a castle setting. Also, at one point in the film, a woman gets pecked to death by a raven, which of course was the bird that was the subject of his most famous poem.

Prospero feels that it's appropriate to party (like it's 1399) while a disease runs rampant through the land - but what happens when Death himself, in human form, shows up at the party? Some would say that the figure of Death is allegorical, representing the airborne disease that must have infiltrated the castle.

Vincent Price is more regal and evil here, less foppish and queeny than that milquetoast Roderick Usher, and the peasant girl is played by Jane Asher, who happened to be Paul McCartney's girlfriend at the time the movie was made. There's a bit more thriller and less filler - but it's still a cheap B-movie. It is, however, very appropriate to watch in this season of Halloween party-planning, mixed with concerns about a swine-flu epidemic. Ah, how history repeats itself.

That's enough out of Roger Corman and Vincent Price for a while...

RATING: 6 out of 10 tarot cards

SPOOK-O-METER: 5 out of 10 (for the personification of Death, and a man being burned to death)

House of Usher (1960)

Day 294 - 10/21/09 - Movie #294

BEFORE: This is another film based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, directed by Roger Corman in the 1960's on the cheap, produced by American International (a Samuel Z. Arkoff production!), and starring Vincent Price. The short story it's based on, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of those things they make you read in high-school, then when the English teacher asks you what the story was really "about", you have no clue. Let's see if the film clears things up.

THE PLOT: Philip arrives at the Usher mansion seeking his loved one, Madeline. Upon arriving, however, he discovers that Madeline and her brother Roderick Usher have been afflicted with a mysterious malady.

AFTER: This film is almost an exact re-tread of last night's film (I guess since this one was made first, technically that film was a re-hash of THIS one...) A man shows up at a creepy European manor to inquire about his fiancee (or sister, in "The Pit and the Pendulum"), only to encounter her creepy brother (Price again), who seems to have buried her alive - in last night's film it was by accident, in this one, it was by design. And once again, madness/evil seems to run in the family - in last night's film the crazy man's father was an Inquisitor, and here the whole Usher family tree seems to consist of murderers and scoundrels. And in both cases, the suggestion is that the HOUSE is somehow responsible - and here the house ends up paying the price.

The twist here is that Roderick Usher (Price) has a strange condition where his senses are painfully acute - loud noises and bright lights cause him pain (also called Dennis DeYoung's disease) and his sister Madeline is near catatonic - the Usher curse states that any time there is more than one living sibling in the family, all of them have gone insane and died horribly. So it makes perfect sense to bury one's sister alive in that case, right? No, that doesn't mean Roderick is insane at all! (Hasn't he ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?)

This does touch on a few themes that Poe tended to explore again and again - such as mental illness (Roderick seems to suffer from hyperesthesia, hypochondria, and acute anxiety, not to mention creepiness and excessive flamboyancy), and being buried alive, as also seen in his stories "The Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontillado".

Hmm...this is interesting, from Wikipedia: "Poe's inspiration for the story may be based upon events of the Usher House, located on Boston's Lewis Wharf. As that story goes, a sailor and the young wife of the older owner were caught and entombed in their trysting spot by her husband. When the Usher House was torn down in 1800, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar."

The most annoying part was that, once again, this was a short story extended out to fill 90 minutes of screen time. Madeline's fiancee Philip Winthrop asks Roderick "Where is she?" about 752 times - dude, if he didn't tell you the first 751 times, I don't think he's going to tell you...

RATING: 4 out of 10 family portraits

SPOOK-O-METER: 5 out of 10 (premature burial is damn creepy...)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Day 293 - 10/20/09 - Movie #293

BEFORE: Today is my birthday, and I thought carefully about what movie to watch - I even considered giving myself the day off, but that's against the spirit of this project, and then I'd have to work harder to catch up.

While I'm feeling nostalgic about old Halloween costumes and classic movie monsters, I'm also reminded that in junior high, I discovered the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who became one of my favorite authors. In addition to being a master of macabre stories, Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", which is considered the first detective story - the man inspired an entire genre of fiction! Fans of everything from Sherlock Holmes to last week's "CSI" owe the man a tip of the hat, at least. So I'm giving a birthday (mine, not his) shout-out to Mr. Poe, author of the story this film was based on, plus "Hop-Frog", "The Gold-Bug", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Cask of Amontillado" and so many other classic tales.

Poe died at the age of 40, and I have now reached the age of 41. (The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long...)

THE PLOT: Francis Barnard goes to Spain, when he hears his sister Elizabeth has died. Her husband Nicholas Medina, the son of the brutest torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, tells him she has died of a blood disease, but Francis finds this hard to believe.

AFTER: This movie was directed by Roger Corman in 1961 as a vehicle for Vincent Price, and I picked it up off of TCM as part of a Vincent Price marathon (which included 3 other Poe-based movies!) Price's creepiness seemed to be custom-made for Poe's gothic horror tales, but this is a very loose adaptation of Poe's short story. There's about 10 minutes of plot, stretched out over an hour and a half. It's an interminable wait before someone finally gets strapped to a slab in the torture chamber under the titular pendulum blade.

When Nicholas Medina (Price) learns that his wife Elizabeth seemed to have died AFTER being buried prematurely, he's racked with guilt and he starts to go off the rails, imagining he is his father, and dusting off the family heirloom torture devices. Medina's father had used the devices on his wife and brother when he learned of their affair, and soon Medina sees adulterers everywhere who need to be punished - I guess when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail...

In the original story, a man condemned by the Spanish Inquisition is placed in a dark cell with a deep pit, into which he is expected to fall. When he manages to avoid the pit, he is drugged and strapped to a table under a slowly-descending razor-sharp pendulum aimed at his heart. In a sense, it's a choice between a quick death and a slow, agonizing one, which is more of a hopeless situation than any real choice.

If I may get philosophical for a bit on my birthday, I now see the situation as a metaphor for the human condition (Price makes an allegory to this as well, calling it the razor of destiny, the edge of fate...) There are two ways to check out of this crazy world - the quick way (the pit) and, if you're lucky, the slow way - watching the inevitable get a tiny bit closer with each swing. The end result is perhaps the same, it's just a question of how many ticks of the clock you get. A morbid view of things, perhaps, but I stand by it.

So, happy birthday to me, and to my birthday twins John Krasinski (30), American Idol contestant Michael Johns (31), Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino (32), Snoop Dogg (38), Viggo Mortensen (51), director Danny Boyle (53), ex-Met Keith Hernandez (56), Tom Petty (59), and M*A*S*H's William Christopher (77)
(R.I.P. Mickey Mantle, Art Buchwald, Jerry Orbach and Bela Lugosi)

Another Edgar Allan Poe tale tomorrow...sleep well, kiddies....

RATING: 4 out of 10 family portraits (it's a kind of a schlocky film, in the end...)

SPOOK-O-METER: 3 out of 10 (for Vincent Price creepiness and misc. torture devices)

Hollow Man

Day 292 - 10/19/09 - Movie #292

BEFORE: Demons? Check. Vampires? Check. Werewolves, Frankenstein's Monster, mummies? Check, check, check. What's left for Shocktober? How about an updated version of "The Invisible Man"?

THE PLOT: Scientists discover how to make people invisible, but their test subject becomes an insane killer who stalks them.

AFTER: Yeah, special effects have come a long way since the first "Invisible Man" movie, with Claude Rains wrapped up in bandages, and wires moving teacups and cigarettes around the room to show where he was...I remember being stuck for a Halloween costume once in high-school, so I wrapped my head and hands in Ace Bandages, put on some sunglasses and a suit, and I went as the (very-visible) "Invisible Man"...

Now we've got green screens and CGI, making for some amazingly graphic transformation scenes as Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) turns invisible in stages. We see his skin disappear, then his muscles, organs, and finally his skeleton - hey, it's a free anatomy lesson with purchase of this movie! And in the updated version, he wears a form-fitting latex mask instead of those silly bandages.

There's a lot of techno-babble about things like "bio-matrix energy" as the experiment takes him out of "quantum phase shift" - so he's still there, but he's out of phase with our universe on a quantum level? (Honestly, this probably makes about as much scientific sense as hitting a corpse with a bolt of lightning to bring it back to life...) But of course, Something Goes Horribly Wrong, they can't make him visible again, and he starts to get frustrated and irritable, which might be a side-effect of the radiation or the serum or the quantum phase shift - look, it's not important, just roll with it, OK?

So he does what any red-blooded American invisible man would do - sneak out of the lab to spy on beautiful women as they shower...but that's not enough, once he gets a taste of power. We're never sure if it's the invisibility that makes him crazy, or the freedom that comes from being invisible, or if it's from lack of sleep (it's hard to sleep with transparent eyelids, after all...) He seals off the lab and plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the lab techs, which include his ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue), her new boyfriend (Josh Brolin), the millionaire and his wife...sorry, I mean Greg Grunberg (future star of "Heroes") and character actor Joey Slotnick.

This turned into a very tense thriller with a lot of those creepy "Is he sneaking up on me?" moments. It sort of begs to be remade as a late-night Cinemax flick, just by adding more of the spying-on-women parts and taking away the killing spree parts.

RATING: 6 out of 10 Twinkies

SPOOK-O-METER: 4 out of 10 (graphic violence and gross internal organ viewings)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Day 291 - 10/18/09 - Movie #291

BEFORE: Let's polish off this franchise, eh? Since I've already seen "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns" (I bought a box set earlier this year, but it didn't include the newest film.)

THE PLOT: In the Far East, Alex O'Connell, the son of famed mummy fighters Rick and Evy O'Connell, unearths the mummy of the first Emperor of Qin -- a shape-shifting entity cursed by a witch centuries ago.

AFTER: This is a return to form for the "Mummy" movies, after a little diversion into ancient Egypt, and to keep the franchise fresh, they moved the setting to China. Which is kind of cool because there's so much unknown history about the land, so it's a prime opportunity to write whatever back-story is needed for the plot.

The whole movie is sort of based on those terra-cotta warriors that were found in an Emperor's tomb a few years back, suggesting that they were real human soldiers who were cursed and turned into clay, when their Emperor fell victim to a curse, while trying to become immortal. Supposedly he had gained control of all 5 elements (earth, fire, water, wood + metal) and built the Great Wall, but this still wasn't enough power for him.

So the little kid from "The Mummy Returns" is now all grown-up, and of course he's an archaeologist/adventurer, doing some tomb-spelunking of his own, and of course he discovers the Chinese Emperor mummy. The right combination of ancient artifacts wakes up the Mummy, who's still in terra-cotta form, so Mom + Dad (and Uncle Jonathan), who happen to be in Shanghai after coming out of retirement, join the chase through the crowded streets.

In true adventure-film style, this turns into a quest for more artifacts and a lost city (Shangri-La), and a huge battle between a terra-cotta army and a zombie army - I gotta give points for creativity here, and some pretty dazzling special effects. If I ever get jaded by fancy CGI thrill-ride movies, then stick a fork in me, it's over...

But there's lots of up-close action too, as the band of human heroes use swords, guns and their wits to battle wave after wave of undead soldiers (good news, terra cotta breaks pretty easily) and then confront the nearly-omnipotent Emperor Han. There were some "Crouching Tiger"-like fight scenes, since Emperor Han was played by action star Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh was in the cast as well. Also starring Maria Bello, who took over the role of Evelyn O'Connell from Rachel Weisz.

RATING: 8 out of 10 yetis

SPOOK-O-METER: 4 out of 10 (for zombies and a host of shape-shifting creatures)

The Scorpion King

Day 290 - 10/17/09 - Movie #290

BEFORE: OK, enough Frankenstein, bring on the next monster, mummies. But what's the connection? Well, "Van Helsing" was directed by Stephen Sommers, who re-vitalized Universal's Mummy franchise a few years back, and I've already seen the first 2 films in that series. Sommers didn't direct this one, but he wrote and produced it. Vince McMahon is also listed as a producer, hmmm...

THE PLOT: A desert warrior rises up against the evil army that is destroying his homeland. He captures the enemy's key sorcerer, takes her deep into the desert and prepares for a final showdown.

AFTER: Clearly written to take advantage of The Rock's talents, which include hand-to-hand combat, camel riding and ironic eyebrow-arching. Michele saw a bit of the film and said that the camel was a better actor...

The movie explains how Mathayus, one of the last Akkadians, takes down evil King Memnon, who rose to power by following the advice of a sorceress (Kelly Hu). It takes place in ancient Egypt, predating even the pyramids - yet somehow they have gunpowder, which wasn't invented in China until 200 B.C. I recall "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" using the same cheat, but at least in that film it was chronologically possible.

Anachronisms aside, this was an acceptable action flick, lots of swordplay and narrow escapes (one of which was stolen from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", namely cutting down a giant gong and running behind it as it rolls.) I think Mathayus was able to succeed because the ancient Egyptians had no defense against head-butts during swordfights, or against the People's Elbow, for that matter.

But I thought this movie was meant to explain the background of the giant Scorpion creature with The Rock's head, seen in "The Mummy Returns". How did Mathyus, King of ancient Egypt, get turned into a giant man-scorpion thingy? I guess they explained it in the other film, but I sort of forgot...

Also starring Michael Clarke Duncan, and Roger Rees (who I didn't even recognize) as a deposed lesser king.

RATING: 6 out of 10 cobras

SPOOK-O-METER: 1 out of 10 (lots of action, but no demons or mummies)