October 28, 2008

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004)

Okay, I’ve been pretty heavy on grown-up horror films for my last few reviews – see exhibits A, B, C, and D – so here’s a Halloween tale you can enjoy with the kids: Spookley the Square Pumpkin. (Actually, your kids might enjoy it more than you, if my children are any indication.)

Based on the book by Joe Troiano, the film tells the story of Spookley, the only square pumpkin in his patch. Tormented and ostracized by the other pumpkins – especially the jerk-tastic duo of Big Tom and Little Tom – Spookley begins to doubt he belongs in the patch at all.

But then, his chance to prove himself comes with the Jackalympics – a series of pumpkin-centric events (sadly, no Punkin Chunkin) where the winner will be crowned “pick of the patch” for Halloween, and Farmer Hill will place the winner on his front porch.

Pros/Cons (depending on if you’re an adult or child):
• For what seems like a direct-to-DVD or made-for-TV movie, Spookley’s animation is pretty well done, featuring good use of depth, textures, and color.
The dialogue’s a bit over-delivered, probably for the sake of its target audience – which I would peg as first-graders and younger.
Kids will enjoy the songs, but adults will find them merely tolerable, sub-Disney fare (with one notable exception – see comments).
The film does throw a few bones to the grown-ups watching, with in-jokes such as brother-and-sister bats named Boris and Bella, and a trio of spiders named Edgar, Allan, and Poe who specialize in “web design.”

Spookley’s message is ultimately a positive one of acceptance and believing in yourself. It’s been done before (a certain red-nosed reindeer, anyone?), but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce these positive feelings in kids one more time.

I’m adding an extra star to my rating, based on my kids’ experience (and constant requests for repeat viewing), but grown-ups will probably zone out after a couple of showings (and by that I mean literally two).

Funny P.S.: When Little Tom tells the other pumpkins that Spookley is “a freak of nature,” my wife thought he said that he’s “a freakin’ a-hole.”

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My kids (ages 5 and 2) were glued to it, not uttering one word the whole time. Hope that helps answer the question.

Will your FilmMother like it?
As much as kids may like it, I think mothers and fathers alike will fall victim to my two-and-out viewing rule described above.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin
* Director: Bernie Denk
* Screenwriter: Tom Hughes
* MPAA Rating: G

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October 23, 2008

Infection (2004)

During Bravo’s special The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) said that all good horror films these days were coming from Asian cinema. And while the creepy Japanese import Infection does have some head-scratching moments, its overall ability to get under your skin makes it worthwhile viewing — and gives Roth’s statement some serious merit.

Infection opens with the distressed call of an ambulance looking for a hospital where they can bring their patient — a man who has an inexplicable virus spreading quickly throughout his skin and internal organs.

We’re then introduced to a nearby, rundown hospital where doctors Uozumi (Masanobu Takashima) and Akiba (Koichi Sato) oversee a small night-shift staff. When an inexperienced nurse hands a doctor the wrong medicine to help a burn victim come out of shock, the patient dies — prompting the medical team involved to cover up the mistake for fear of legal action and loss of their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, the ambulance drops off the sickly patient, leaving the hospital to deal with him. While Uozumi and Akiba want to quarantine the patient, their ghoulish, robotic chief surgeon Akai (Shiro Sano) wants to dissect and analyze him, all in the name of becoming “pioneers.”

Before too long, the patient subdues the head nurse and escapes through the air vent into the remainder of the hospital, forcing the staff to track him down. The doctors and nurses who covered up the burn victim’s death are soon “infected” one by one by whatever made the ambulance patient its host.

Writer-director Masayuki Ochiai uses Infection’s rundown hospital as a metaphor for a haunted house — and for the most part, it works. There are scenes that are (to use a favorite phrase of mine) the stuff of nightmares: unknown figures in the shadows, bodies rising from under white sheets, etc. Ochiai also maintains Infection’s eerie atmosphere with long shots of empty, drearily lit hallways and rooms that are shrouded in a single color of dim light. Occasional shots from above and around corners give viewers an almost voyeuristic feel — and, in turn, make them feel closer to the terror. Lending additional spookiness is the piercing and ominous soundtrack, with staccato violin picks that reminded me of the score of the original Evil Dead.

Near the end of Infection, the film gets a bit muddled — the terror jumps from biological to psychological, and it trips on its own attempt at Something Deeper. However, this shift won’t override the earlier scary scenes you’ll have in your head for days to come.
Japanese, with subtitles.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
Highly unlikely that your kids have heard of Infection, unless they’re teens and/or follow Asian horror. In both instances, they’d probably enjoy most of the film (again, the ending’s an ambiguous, confusing letdown). Keep Infection away from pre-teens and younger; there’s a lot here that could traumatize young minds.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she likes to be scared and can deal with subtitles, this might be a good one to huddle up closely with her. Otherwise, you’re on your own, dear reader.

* Director: Masayuki Ochiai
* Writers: Ryoichi Kimizuka (story), Masayuki Ochiai (screenplay)
* Stars: Masanobu Takashima, Koichi Sato, Shiro Sano
* MPAA Rating: R (horror-related images and gore)

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October 17, 2008

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Watching HBO as a kid in the ‘70s, I was exposed to (and traumatized by) some scary movie trailers – Carrie and It’s Alive immediately come to mind.

But the first full-length film I saw on HBO to completely scare the hell out of me (aside from Jaws) was the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I mean, even the poster freaked me out. So when I saw the DVD for $5 at Music for a Song (right next to The Late Show), I brought it home to see if it still had the same effect on me as a grown-up, 30 years later.

Plot: Pod people, man. Pod people. From space.

Our visitors first arrive as innocuous, pickable little flowers covering other plant life. After Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) – assistant to health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) – brings one home, it wastes no time “getting” her husband (Art Hindle) in his sleep. From there, Matthew and Elizabeth steadily notice (through phone complaints to their office and observing people on the street) that people aren’t themselves.

After Matthew’s married friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover a half-developed pod person in her mud spa, they call over Matthew and Elizabeth, and begin a quest for help – which, after realizing the pod people are increasingly taking over, becomes a quest for survival.

Director Philip Kaufman makes good use of long shots down hallways and shadowy lighting from all angles (backlit, side lit, from below) to create an atmosphere of isolation, paranoia, and the unknown. By the second half of the film, your own paranoia of who’s who bubbles to the surface, and it’s hard to shake (John Carpenter mined the same shade of paranoia in his remake of The Thing four years later).

The special effects in Invasion are, without exaggeration, the stuff of nightmares. Seeing and hearing pod people hatch, especially in an extended sequence near the end, is completely unnerving. (The film has impressive FX for its time.) And the squealing screams of the pod people, when they identify someone who’s still human, are even more nightmare-inducing than the creatures’ whispers from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. (Invasion’s sound FX were created by Hollywood veteran Ben Burtt, whose latest accomplishment was this year’s WALL•E.)

Kaufman also uses the screenplay by W.D. Richter as a blueprint to make Invasion a final sounding bell for the ‘70s. As a film of the “me decade,” it probably hit audiences hard watching the characters being turned into “one of them.” In another touch of the times, Leonard Nimoy appears as a best-selling, overbearing New Age psychiatrist, who tries to rationalize Elizabeth’s growing fear that her husband is not himself (literally).

And without giving anything away, this film has one of the best shocker endings ever. God bless the nihilism of ‘70s filmmaking.

So yes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers still has the power to creep me out after all these years. This 1978 version is widely regarded as the best of the remakes (even better than the 1956 original, some say). If you’re a fan of the sci-fi/horror genre, die-hard or casual, I would make it required viewing.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
If you have small kids, I don’t think they’d even know about this film…which is fine, because despite my high marks, I would keep it away from pre-teens. (See my aforementioned traumatization.) Beyond that age, just a heads-up that there are many intense sequences and several icky moments involving the pod people, plus some brief nudity near the end.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
As I say in my other reviews of horror films: If you have a FilmMother who digs the genre, by all means she should see this. Otherwise, I can’t say for sure. But it’s a great film to get her to grab your arm and hold you tight. ☺

OMG, my parents had those bedsheets!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
* Director: Philip Kaufman
* Screenwriter: W.D. Richter
* Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle
* MPAA Rating: PG (intense scenes, adult language, alien sliminess and gore, brief nudity)

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October 14, 2008

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, my mom told me how she was a young mother at home one evening with two small children (I would have been just shy of 5, and my little brother was about 8 months). My father was the town’s high school wrestling coach, and he was on the road at an away match.

So after my mom put my brother and me to bed that night – October 10, 1973, if the IMDb is correct – she sat down and watched the TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. And to have her tell it, it terrified her to the bone.

Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) inherit an old mansion from Sally’s grandmother. Sally is determined to know why the fireplace is sealed up and its ash door bolted shut. In fact, handyman Mr. Harris (William Demarest) seems to know more about the fireplace than he’s letting on. Turns out it’s inhabited by small demon-like creatures determined to make Sally one of their own.


Director John Newland does an effective job of making the tall, Victorian house as much of a character as the Furnhams and the creatures. (It even resembles a haunted house when shot from below or at night.) He also makes great use of the unseen, such as close-ups of bolts and doorknobs being turned from the other side, or shadows scurrying into corners.

The creatures are more odd-looking than scary; they resemble miniature gorillas with prunes for heads. But what they lack in visual scariness they make up for ten-fold with their voices. Their hissing, cackling, overlapping whispers will give you the shivers – especially when it’s their disembodied whispers playing over shots of darkened rooms in the house. Add the creepy, atmospheric score by Billy Goldenberg, and the audio of this movie packs just as much of a punch as the visual.

A few quibbles:
• Darby’s delivery of dialogue and her facial expressions are largely one-dimensional (ironically, she’s now an acting teacher)
• In scenes not involving the creatures, the film sometimes dips into melodrama, with overacting by everyone involved
• Sally’s good friend Joan (Barbara Anderson) is a little too quick to believe Sally’s story about little creatures living in the house

In the right atmosphere (nighttime, lights out, you’re alone) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark definitely has the power to give you the creeps – and give you second thoughts about walking into a dark room before turning on the light.

Trivia (thx again, IMDb): The idea of the creatures coming out of the ash door came from the Spanish house that screenwriter Nigel McKeand was living in at the time. It had an old fireplace with a deep clean-out pit, bolted at the rear – and it was so deep, creepy, and dark, nobody ever wanted the job of cleaning it out.


Will your kids want to watch it?
I don’t know how much interest kids of any age would have in a 35-year-old TV movie. But if you can convince them to give Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a chance, I think most younger fans of scary movies would be glad they checked it out. I would probably draw the line at pre-teens or older for this film; despite it being a TV movie, it does have moments of terror, creepiness, and violence that could affect little minds.

Will your FilmMother like it?
As with any horror film, it again depends on your FilmMother’s taste for the genre. She could be freaked out by the film (like my actual mother), she might think it’s dated and silly, or she could have no interest whatsoever. It’s a tough call, one you’ll have to make yourself.

Photo courtesy of Kindertrauma

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

* Director: John Newland
* Screenwriter: Nigel McKeand
* Stars: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, Barbara Anderson, William Demarest
* MPAA Rating: N/A

October 10, 2008

The Ruins (2008)

Despite the onslaught (pun intended) of horror films in theaters these days, most of them fall into one of two camps:

1. Lightweight, diluted PG-13 films with forgettable “stars” and been-there-done-that plots.
2. The ongoing McRemakes of great and not-so-great horror films of the past (Black Christmas, Prom Night, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.).

And unfortunately, both camps frequently share a common ground: Their films are awful. For a longtime horror fan like me, that hurts.

So it was with high hopes that I watched The Ruins, based on the novel by Scott Smith, who also penned the screenplay. (He also wrote the script from his novel A Simple Plan for director Sam Raimi’s highly underrated 1998 thriller.)

Plot: Two young American couples (Shawn Ashmore/Laura Ramsey and Jonathan Tucker/Jena Malone) vacationing in Mexico meet Mathias (Joe Anderson), a German tourist whose brother went on a dig at a set of Mayan ruins not on any tourist map. He asks the Americans if they want to tag along on his trip to the dig. They say yes and join Mathias and his Greek friend (Dimitri Baveas). When they reach the ruins, they are ambushed by angry locals, Dimitri is killed, and the surviving group is forced to the top of the Mayan temple, where they discover the fate of Mathias’ brother and encounter — well, let’s just call them “botanical horrors” so I don’t give away too much.

Director Carter Smith (no relation to Scott) does a superior job of creating an overpowering feeling of hopelessness among the trapped tourists — no one else knows where they are, no one can help them, and the locals at the base of the temple won’t let them leave. (Credit also goes to the young stars for taking the film above what could’ve been a “killer plants” B-movie of Scott Smith’s acclaimed novel.)

I was filled with so much dread, discomfort, and squirminess watching The Ruins that I lost my appetite during a lunchtime viewing. Speaking of which, I recommend not eating anything beyond popcorn while watching this film: There are several scenes that will get under your skin (and literally do get under the skin of the actors), and be prepared for a grisly double-amputation that’s not for the faint of heart.

Ultimately, The Ruins gave me hope for the horror film, because it did several things right: It had a unique story, it made me care for the well-developed characters, and (like The Mist) it’s a film that has stuck with me for days. It’s unflinching, unnerving, unrelenting, uneverything.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
If you have kids who crave scary movies, they’ll probably want to see The Ruins. But while it is a well-done horror film, it’s got several scenes of intensity, gore, or both. (The DVD is unrated, so it includes scenes too extreme for it to be released with an R rating in theaters.)

Will your FilmMother like it?
Unless she’s a serious horror buff, I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll say again: The Ruins is well-made, but I’ve got a strong stomach and even I got uncomfortable with some of the scenes. This is probably one to watch when everybody's in bed, and it’s just brave old you in the room.

The Ruins
* Director: Carter Smith
* Screenwriter: Scott Smith
* Stars: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson
* MPAA Rating: Unrated (strong violence and gruesome images, language, some sexuality and nudity)

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October 7, 2008

Valiant (2005)

Friday, October 3, 2008

7:00pm: I discuss the idea of doing Movie Night (DVD+popcorn = bonding) with my 5-year-old, provided he can get into his jammies quickly. The evening’s wide open: No dishes to do (ordered pizza), no baths needed…why not go for it?

Plot (stolen from the Internet Movie Database): Valiant tells the story of a lowly wood pigeon named Valiant, who overcomes his small size to become a hero in Great Britain's Royal Air Force Homing Pigeon Service during World War II. The RHPS advanced the Allied cause by flying vital messages about enemy movements across the English Channel, whilst evading brutal attacks by the enemy's Falcon Brigade.

8:03pm: Make popcorn, pour drinks, and go up to my bedroom to watch movie (FilmMother wants to catch up on her TiVo in the living room). Put two husband pillows against the bed’s headboard, sit back with our separate popcorn bowls and drinks.

8:08pm: Start movie.

8:19pm: Pause movie to see if 5-year-old understands what’s going on. Swears he does.

8:32pm: He lies down across my lap, his left cheek on my stomach. “You tired?” I ask. “No,” he says, “I just want to snuggle.”

8:42pm: I wonder how he can see the screen with his head at that angle. I crane my neck out and see he’s asleep. I gently sit him up to get a better grip to take him to bed. He springs to attention. “Is it over?” “No buddy, you fell asleep.” “But I wanna watch more!” he protests as he reclines against his husband pillow.

8:43pm: He’s out again. And frankly, I’m beat too. I stop the movie and take him to his bed.

Note to self: Only do Movie Night on Saturdays; Fridays are too tough on both of us.

Rating: I (Incomplete).

* Director: Gary Chapman
* Screenwriters: Jordan Katz, George Webster, George Melrod
* Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Olivia Williams
* MPAA Rating: G

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October 3, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Ask any dad their favorite superheroes as a kid, and you’ll probably get stock answers: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc. What you probably won’t hear often is Iron Man. We boy-men all remember him and how cool he looked, but in the pantheon of favorite superheroes, he probably falls somewhere between Ghost Rider and She-Hulk.

Still, there was a big buzz when it was announced there would be an Iron Man movie, though some of that buzz was concern about the players. Robert Downey, Jr., a superhero? Jon Favreau, the director of Swingers and Elf, at the helm?

Iron Man opens with playboy zillionaire, whiz-kid inventor, and military weapons industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) riding with a US Army unit in Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest weapon of mass blowing-crap-up. When his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped (suffering a severe heart injury), he’s forced by his captors to build a weapon based on his own creation. Instead, he creates a power suit to save his life, escape, and help those who fall prey to oppression and terrorism.

Iron Man is, in a word, fun. It’s a straight-up popcorn movie that’s a welcome alternative to the broodiness and borderline sadism of The Dark Knight. Watching Stark’s trial-and-error construction of the Iron Man suit is very engrossing, and occasionally hilarious. And yes, I’ll admit, I did “nerd out” a bit when they showed Downey don the (albeit unpainted) Iron Man suit for the first time (goosebumps then layered on top of my nerdiness when the suit is shown in red and gold). And seeing Iron Man in action during several exciting sequences gave me the same exhilarating feeling as when I first saw Spiderman come to life in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film.

It may be too much to say that Robert Downey, Jr. was born for this role, but he was born to say the lines (the script is very witty and intricate without tripping over itself). Downey’s likable swagger makes him a perfect fit to play the self-confident yet flawed Stark. Terence Howard is game as Stark’s close friend Col. James Rhodes, Jeff Bridges is effectively shady (and nearly unrecognizable) as Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane, and Gwyneth Paltrow serves her purpose as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts (the adulation surrounding her as an amazing actress still dumbfounds me).

And for you true comic book nerds, keep watching after the credits for a little surprise…

FYI: Iron Man was released on DVD and Blu-Ray this past Tuesday.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
If your kids are of a certain age, this could be a fun one to enjoy together. I say “of a certain age” because Iron Man is rated PG-13, though I wouldn’t call it as “hard” of a PG-13 as the aforementioned Dark Knight. This film does include mild language, superhero/villain mayhem, and some scary scenes involving baddie terrorists.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Doubtful. While Iron Man is a blast for dads and their kids (of a certain age) to watch, FilmMother will probably do at least two of the following: yawn, roll her eyes, or leave the room.

Iron Man
* Director: Jon Favreau
* Screenwriters: Matt Holloway, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum
* Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
* MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content)

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