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6.12.08

The Hamiltons (2006)



Director: The Butcher Brothers
Starring: Samuel Child, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Mackenzie Firgens
Rated R Running time: 86 minutes
Released by Lions Gate

The After Dark Films: Eight Film to Die For series has been a decidedly mixed-bag. There are the near-masterpieces (The Abandoned), and then there are those that are so godawful you wonder how they could have possibly gotten a release (Tooth & Nail). One film that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle is The Hamiltons, a very different take on the "killer family" genre, and one of the best films the annual horror festival has offered to date.

David Hamilton (Samuel Child) takes charge of his very dysfunctional family following the sudden death of their parents. He spends his days, and sometimes his nights, gutting animals for a meat processing plant. At home he does his best to play the father figure to his younger siblings, but is finding his new role difficult. Youngest brother Francis (Cory Knauf) mopes about in typical adolescent fashion, an always recording video camera his constant companion. Francis is quiet and non-communicative at times, but doesn't cause much trouble for his older brother. The twins are another story altogether. Wendell (Joseph McKelheer) and Darlene (Mackenzie Firgens) are the reason the family is forced to move so often. Their pastimes include very disturbing games of "Truth or Dare", constantly tormenting younger brother Francis, and kidnapping women to imprison in the family's basement. The basement is also home to Lenny, an unseen creature who is kept under lock and key. Lenny must be fed, and big brother David uses his butchering skills to oblige the growling, grunting monster. Despite David's best efforts to keep the family under the radar, the crazed twins can't resist the temptation to have some fun with one of Darlene's friends, putting the family in danger once more. Meanwhile, Francis has been taping everything. Though he insists to his siblings that it is all for a school project, he is really trying to document the family's sickness in order to expose their murderous ways.



What makes The Hamiltons different from the bulk of recent horror films was the Butcher Brother's decision to concentrate on character development rather than cheap thrills. If you stripped out all of the bloodletting, you would be left with a serious drama that focuses on a family's attempts to carry on following the loss of their parents and their home. The acting is a tad uneven at times, but the cast is convincing enough to carry the film through the occasional overly melodramatic patch. They effectively portray a group of people who sometimes do monstrous things, rather than the other way around. Child's performance as David is a standout. He is a good actor portraying a bad actor, one who is trying to put a normal face on a very abnormal situation, and has the nervous tics and uneasy manner that suggest that it is an act that can't last long. Joseph McKelheer's Wendell is appropriately sinister. The opposite of David, Wendell makes no attempts to conceal his nature and always seems to be on the verge of doing something very, very bad. McKelheer plays a heavy with ease, and could easily make a career as a film villain if he chose to go in that direction.

Lenny's identity won't be a big secret to anyone who pays even a moderate amount of attention to the early scenes, and the film gets a little too talky for its own good at times. Also, the DV photography doesn't make the The Hamiltons an attractive film to look at. This is a technical issue and not the fault of the makers. The surprising conclusion makes the film work, and is good enough to make me overlook the various flaws in the production.

In the end, The Hamiltons is an intelligent, well-crafted film that slips into the gray area between horror and drama. People seeking a horror film may be put off by the film's slow pace and accent on character, people seeking a family drama may be mortified by the films sicker aspects. That's a pity, because fans of both genres would do well to give The Hamiltons a try.

5.12.08

.45 (2006)




Director: Gary Lennon
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Angus MacFadyen, Stephen Dorf, Sarah Strange, Aisha Tyler
Running time: 101 min.
Released by Velocity/Thinkfilm


Milla Jovovich plays Kat, a sort of scuzzy woman who is in love with the even scuzzier "Big Al". Big Al makes his living selling pistols, toasters, and the occasional stolen car. They live in a ratty apartment, and have lots and lots of sex. But all is not well with the two lovebirds. It seems that Kat is desired by nearly every other character in the movie. Kat's lesbian friend, Vic, makes no secret of her love for Kat. The same goes for Big Al's friend, Reilly, a hood who wants to go straight. When Big Al flies into a jealous rage and beats the daylights out of Kat, the characters begin scheming on ways to get Big Al out of the picture. Oh yeah, and the domestic violence counselor assigned to the case, played by Aisha Tyler, wants Kat, too.

Rather than feel like the gritty, quirky crime drama ".45" wants to be, it plays more like a parody of one. The fault lies entirely on writer/director Gary Lennon. His characters are cartoonish and unlikeable, their dialogue is stagey and unnatural. When the big moment comes where Al assaults Kat, it is jarring for all the wrong reasons. The scene is very heavy, but in this context, it feels like it came from another film. The remainder of the movie features Kat using her feminine wiles to get rid of Al by any means necessary. I won't give away any of the details, but Lennon goes on to demonstrate that he also has no concept of building tension, and the climax is anything but climactic.

The actors do the best they can, given the quality of the writing and direction. Jovovich might be a good actress, but it's impossible to tell with material this bad. It also doesn't help that the Scottish-born MacFadyen has one of the worst "New York" accents in the history of film. At one point, a character has to explain that Big Al lived in Scotland for awhile when he was young, and not planet Neptune like his accent implies. Stephen Dorf is disposable here, as the small time crook who wants to steal Kat away from Al. The character of Reilly doesn't do anything in regards to developing the story, a shame because Dorf gives it a noble effort. His BLU e-cig commercials are a testament to his acting prowess.

There really isn't much to recommend here. Milla is always nice to look at, but the rest of the movie is kind of lame.

2 out of 5.

4.12.08

National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982)


(aka National Lampoon Goes to the Movies)


Director: Henry Jaglom, Bob Giraldi
Starring: Peter Riegert, Robby Benson, Joe Spinnell, and a whole lot of regret filled celebrities
Released by MGM





"National Lampoon's Movie Madness" is the smoking gun in the case against the notion that the name "National Lampoon" is any sort of guarantee of quality. Despite a few possible exceptions, notably the first couple of "Vacation" movies, anything bearing the name should be treated with the same caution one would exercise if they were handling hazardous waste. Having suffered through a good number of these films, I feel confident in proclaiming that "Movie Madness" is very likely the worst film branded with the now-defunct magazine's name, and is a strong candidate for one of the most boring movies ever made.

The film, which is alleged to be a comedy, consists of three segments: the first is a spoof of relationship dramas starring the perennially unappealing Peter Riegert; the second a soap opera-inspired tale of a woman seeking revenge against the men who raped her with margarine (don't ask); the final story stars Robby Benson as an idealistic rookie cop, who becomes jaded after he is shot hundreds and hundreds of times. Not only is each story comprised of a single lame joke that is beaten to death almost immediately-- the direction, the acting, and the writing is about as flat and uninspired as you can possibly get. It is truly mind-boggling to think that anybody, anywhere, at anytime could possibly have found anything in this film to be even remotely entertaining, let alone funny. It is more of an endurance test than a film; at 90 minutes long, it feels more like four hours. Four very painful, very unfunny hours. I should add that the "wraparound' segments, the glue that holds the three stories together, is nothing more than a nausea-inducing Dr. John song, in which the lyrics "going to the movies" are repeated over and over and over again. Yes, it's terrible. I refuse to provide any more plot details. Suffering through this garbage once was enough. Recounting every agonizing detail is simply more than should be asked of any human being.

"Movie Madness" never received a proper theatrical release, and while I don't know the exact reasons for this, I'd like to think that somebody high on the ladder decided that the film was nearly unwatchable and wisely decided to shelve it. Years later,the studio sensed that there might be a penny to be made off of this clunker and the film was sold to cable and home video, where it continues to suck valuable time from unsuspecting viewers lives. I have to believe that studio execs are evil, for if they truly had an ounce of good in their souls this film would have been burned and the ashes launched into space back in 1982. Leaving it in a vault for it to be revived years later was a horrible decision, and one that may haunt cable television viewers for years to come.

I did my part. I suffered through this excruciatingly unfunny, mind-numbing waste of film so that you don't have to. I hope that you will believe me when I say that this film is absolutely dreadful. Avoid at all costs.

3.12.08

The Nun (2005)


Original title: LA MONJA

Director: Luis de la Madrid
Starring: Anita Briem, Cristina Piaget, Paulina Galvez, Lola Marceli
Released by Lions Gate

A group of teens at a Catholic boarding school are tormented by a deranged nun. When the girls accidentally kill the nun, they dump her body in a lake and vow to never speak of the incident again. No big shock when years later the ghost of the psycho nun returns to seek vengeance upon the now grown-up girls and their offspring. The cookie-cutter plot is forgivable when a movie looks as good as this one does; there was no expense spared in making THE NUN a gorgeous looking film that drips with atmosphere. Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory (who produced this film) have a knack for making a shoestring production look like it cost ten times what it really did. The cast is attractive and believable; a welcome alternative to the cliched batch of teenage stereotypes that litter similar Hollywood-created films. Extra points for providing a number of gory thrills, which are rare in an era that has been dominated by PG-13 rated "horror lite". It's nice to see a fright flick that doesn't shy away from the grue.

The biggest problem here is with the killer nun herself. At times the digital creation is very effective, and at other times is so phony looking that the creature is almost comical. In some scenes the nun appears to be so tiny that she could easily be swatted away without too much trouble,which is probably not the what the filmmakers intended. And when I say she is digital, she is VERY digital. It IS a real actress, but she is superimposed into the action in a very distracting way. I can't articulate it very well, but you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it. The other glaring flaw here is in the pacing. I couldn't tell if THE NUN was a rush job, if it suffered from a choppy script, or if chunks of the film were left on the editing room floor. Again, it's a problem that I am incapable of adequately describing-- the film does not flow, it limps.

THE NUN has enough good qualities working in its favor to deserve at least one viewing. Don't expect a masterpiece, though. While it is a fun monster flick, it's not hard to see where it could have been much, much better.

Hardcore (2004)





Director: Dennis Iliadis
Starring: Katarina Tsavalou, Danai Skiadi, Ioannis Papazisis
Released by Strand Releasing







"A Tale of Two Hookers", Greek-style.

The film begins in a low-rent brothel run by a sadistic pimp named Manos (Andreas Marianos)--who recruits teenage runaways from newspaper ads promising easy money. Manos is a vile character, but he seems to fairly lucky when it comes to job applicants; his stable is populated almost exclusively with people who look like they could have wandered in from a Calvin Klein underwear shoot. His latest recruit is sixteen-year-old Nadia, a clever and energetic young woman who quickly becomes the brothel's most requested hooker. Martha is quiet, introverted, and a year older than Nadia. Martha resents the new girl; Nadia is pretty and popular with the johns, and Manos treats her better than the other girls. The two women eventually form a friendship, which then becomes love. The two hope to escape their less-than-glamorous existence, and take the first step by renting an apartment together. When they are not partying with their male prostitute boyfriends (who both also work for Manos), they are busy working, in one grotesque sex sequence after another. The girls get a very ritzy, high paying gig servicing a roomful of wealthy clients--which Martha ruins when she picks the wrong moment to declare her love for Nadia.

After a very nasty confrontation with Manos, Nadia hatches a scheme involving a gun and a very improbable photoshop job which ultimately transforms the women from lowly prostitutes to media darlings. While it seems that they have realized their dream of finding a better life, the tensions that attracted the women to each other in the first place begin to resurface. Without a common foe, the women begin to turn on each other. Nadia relishes her new found fame. Martha spends her days dreaming of family life. The women cannot move forward until one submits; a realization which drives one woman to act in an extreme, if somewhat predictable, manner.


HARDCORE: Eye-candy

This is a great-looking movie that owes a major visual debt to modern music videos and American indie films. Grimy scenes of hooker life juxtapose nicely against more sensitive, almost naturalistic moments. Director Dennis Iliadis even throws in a sitcom-style dance number. But all the eye-candy in the world can't mend the film's biggest problem - it lacks substance. The film's leads are engaging and believable, but you never really connect with them, nor do you sympathize with their plight. There are beautiful scenes and there are extraordinarily ugly scenes in this film, but they do not mesh together well enough to give the film the depth that it is striving for. What we end up with is a very well-made, well-acted movie about pretty people doing ugly things that leaves you cold.

Needless to say, the film is loaded with explicit sex and violence. But what else would you expect from a movie called Hardcore?

Death Sentence (2007)





Director: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Released by 20th Century Fox

Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a mild mannered husband and father whose son is murdered by a violent street gang. When the cops and the courts fail to deliver justice, Nick decides to take matters in his own hands.

There are so many things that are horribly wrong with this movie that it is hard to find a starting point. Not only is Kevin Bacon miscast as the vengeance minded dad, he spends his screen time delivering what might be the hammiest, most unconvincing performance of his career. While Bacon gets emotion all over the place, Wan drops in some of the most unnecessary, inappropriate music cues in recent memory. Wan also shows that he likes to employ cheesy montages to flesh things out.

And the gang. Ah, the gang. Sporting designer leather jackets and mid-90's era tribal tattoos on their heads, they would be more at home at a Slipknot concert than a gritty action film. The gang seem to live in a huge warehouse with lots of multicolored lights and a drug lab that looks like they borrowed it from Dr. Frankenstein. Where Wan might find these guys to be scary, I found them somewhat less frightening than the gang from the "Beat It" video. After Bacon kills one of their members, they hold an impromptu wake where one of them bellows, "He was a good boy!" in his best Shakespeare in the Park voice. John Goodman, probably now filled with regret, plays the father of the gang's leader. He speaks with a weird accent and chews up scenery. I like John Goodman and I hope he wasn't blackmailed into acting in this abortion. He deserves much better than this.

The cops are around, but they do next to nothing, even when the gang cuts the throats of two officers guarding Nick's house. Aisha Tyler, as the detective assigned the case, wanders around delivering one stupid line after another. She could have easily been replaced by a coat rack and no one would have noticed. There is a hospital scene near the end of the second act which features Bacon and Tyler in a tour de force of shitty acting, combined with even shittier dialogue, that culminates with Bacon escaping through a window. I wanted to run away, too.

The final act turns into a bloodbath that blatantly rips off several infinitely superior films, most notably ROBOCOP and TAXI DRIVER. There is even a montage where Bacon shaves his head and loads guns. To make matters worse, Wan slips in a "deep" final confrontation between Bacon and the gang's leader that, presumably, exists in order to instill a philosophical tone to the film. It did cause me to ask questions, mainly about James Wan's filmmaking career and why he actually has one.

This is a truly stupid and ridiculous movie that fails at capturing the gritty revenge flick vibe Wan was attempting. Skip this and watch any of the DEATH WISH movies, instead.




Tooth & Nail (2007)



Director: Mark Young
Starring: Rachel Miner, Vinnie Jones, Rider Strong, Michael Madsen
Released by Lions gate

Because the world runs out of gas, a bunch of guys dressed up like the pro wrestlers become cannibals. Elsewhere, a group of people (who may be some of the dumbest characters ever created) decide to start a new civilization in, of all places, an abandoned hospital. This should have been a warning to stop watching TOOTH & NAIL right there and then, but being the trooper that I am, I forged on.

Live and learn, I guess.

The dimwitted survivors are led by Robert Carradine, who spends his brief moments in the film giving really bad advice and making out with a girl less than half his age. Michael Kelly, from the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, is the resident jerk (and the only character in this film with any common sense) who tries to talk the others into helping him barricade the hospital. Nobody agrees with him, despite the fact that it is well-known that there are bloodthirsty cannibals roaming the streets. He also doesn't trust the girl they find in an alley (Rachel Miner), the apparent survivor of a wrestler/cannibal attack. He wisely decides to ditch these morons to better his chances at survival. Later that night, Carradine is killed, his body dragged away. Despite the fact that it's pretty well-established that THERE ARE KILLERS ON THE LOOSE, the group spends a little time accusing each other of the crime. Their next move made me wonder if the film had suddenly turned into a comedy; they elect the girl from the alley, whom nobody knows, to become the new boss of their little group. Since this film makes no attempts at being suspenseful or scary, I'm not giving anything away by saying that their newly elected leader is also the leader of the cannibals.

In a merciful world, the cannibals would have eaten everyone on sight seconds after this impromptu election. But no, this stinker just keeps on going. People start getting picked off one by one in scenes completely devoid of tension or excitement. The film's sole survivor decides that, after all of her friends have been killed, now is the time to deal with these crazies. She picks up a weapon and puts on some KISS make-up, and proceeds to wipeout the cannibal wrestlers. Vinnie Jones shows up in the final scene, so that he could laugh maniacally while starting directly into the camera.

The End.



This film is a career low for several notable actors, including Vinnie Jones, Rachel Miner, Michael Kelly, and Robert Carradine. But the worst offender here is Michael Madsen, who shares an executive producer credit. Madsen, as one of the cannibal/wrestlers, channels the same character he plays in virtually every other movie. He walks around whistling "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and squints a lot. Between this and HELL RIDE, he's working pretty hard at killing his career.

If what I described doesn't sound silly enough, I should add that most of the characters are named after cars (Ford, Torino, Yukon, Viper etc.) and the cannibals frequently say things like, "I am going to eat you" and "I'm going to suck on your bones." I guess writer/director Mark Young didn't want us to forget that they were cannibals.

2.12.08

Rx (2005)





Director: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Eric Balfour, Colin Hanks, Lauren German
Released by Universal Studios







If you've paid any attention to movies over, say, the last 30 years or so, you probably know that you would have to be nuts to smuggle drugs across any countries border. That is exactly what Andrew (Eric Balfour) attempts to do in Rx, a melodramatic road movie from Israel-born director Ariel Vromen.

Andrew and his best friend, good natured party animal Jonny (Colin Hanks), plan to take a trip to Mexico to score some prescription drugs. Jonny wants the drugs for fun, while Andrew wants them for profit. After Jonny spills the beans about their trip to Andrew's wealthy girlfriend Melissa (Lauren German), Andrew reluctantly invites her along for the ride. Before you can say MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, the situation turns sour. Andrew must figure out a way to get out of danger, and to find a way home.

If it were not for the solid performances from the films leads, Rx would fall completely apart. The character of Andrew is hard to sympathize with. Not only is he somewhat deceitful with his best friend and his girlfriend, he doesn't seem to have a great deal of common sense. From the beginning of the film, Andrew makes one incredibly dumb decision after another, motivated by some vague student loan and family issues. Anyhow, if Balfour didn't have such a likeable screen presence, you would probably despise the character of Andrew, a not-so-bright person who deliberately puts his friends in danger. Hanks and German are fine in their roles, as the people who would do anything for Andrew, whether he deserves it or not.

Andrew is not the only poorly drawn character in the film; the pair of flamboyantly gay German drug dealers are pretty hard to take. Keeping in line with Hollywood's need to depict all Germans as either sexual deviants, Nazis, or buffoons, the screenwriters decided to cover all three bases. At first, the duo are presented as comical foreigners who prance around in short shorts and make passes at Andrew; later on they are transformed into snarling thugs hellbent on making mincemeat of the film's not-so-bright hero. That's one hell of an arc, and one they don't make successfully. One more minor quibble is that Andrew's grasp of the Spanish language seems to come and go. At times he speaks fluently, at other times he is incapable of comprehending even 9th grade level Spanish. Not a big problem, but a problem all the same.

In spite of the ill-conceived characters and predictable plot, I enjoyed Rx. The credit belongs entirely to the three lead actors, whose performances manage to keep the film from becoming your average, run-of-the-mill drug/road movie. Worth watching for a little mindless entertainment, not for creative smuggling solutions.

Barn of the Naked Dead (1974)


aka "Nightmare Circus"


Director: Alan Rudolph
Starring: Andrew Prine, Manuela Theiss, Sherry Alberoni, Gyl Roland
Released by Legend House

Well, let's just go ahead and address the first problem: false advertising. There is a barn (though it is more of a ranch), but there really isn't much nudity (certainly not enough to include the word "naked" in the title) , and there aren't that many dead people. All of the corpses are also fully clothed, so that's a double violation of the fair advertising rules. Now that I've run off a good portion of this film's potential audience, I will do my best to review BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD for the two or three of you that have decided to stick around.

Three showgirls en route to Las Vegas experience car trouble in the middle of the desert. Being predictably ignorant of basic auto mechanics, not to mention the fact that the film takes place in the time before cell phones, they are forced to spend the night in their car. In the morning they are awakened by the seemingly friendly Andre (Andrew Prine), who offers to take a look at their car. While these showgirls think that Andre is a Good Samaritan who happened to come their way, we know better because Prine's first onscreen appearance depicts him watching the showgirls through his binoculars, sneering in a not-too-subtle manner. Andre says there's nothing he can do, and convinces the girls to accompany him back to his place where they can use the phone, and give the audience a chance to marvel at the big, big mistake the women are about to make.

If I told you that Prine is a circus-obsessed lunatic with mommy issues, would you believe me? Probably not, but that's what he is, and these three ladies become the latest addition to his collection of exotic animals and chained up lady slaves. When he's not talking to himself or playing with a wind-up big top toy, Prine acts as ringmaster in a circus where the slave women are forced to perform. The women are whipped, tormented with a snake and a mountain lion, and a few are killed. Unfortunately, none of this is filmed with much creativity or enthusiasm, and the film drags until the somewhat fun conclusion where Prine's mutant Daddy makes an appearance.

This was the first film directed by Alan Rudolph, who would go on to make several better, and more interesting films a few years later. Rudolph would like to forget BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD ever happened, and now disowns the movie. Just as well, because other than his name appearing on the credits, there is nothing here to indicate that Rudolph had a hand in this. Cult fave Prine is solid as usual, taking his role as Andre very, very seriously. He is actually too good for this movie, which is not the "lost gem" it is purported to be. While it may be decent Saturday afternoon viewing, it is too lifeless and inept to qualify as more than an amusing timekiller.

The best thing about this Legend House release is the "GOREBEAT" bonus feature. The always fun Johnny Legend pals around with John Landis, Fred Olen Ray, Brian Yuzna, and Ray Dennis Steckler. It's assembled in a somewhat haphazard manner, but it is a ton of fun for lovers of exploitation films, and is reason enough to give BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD a spin.