Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving All! As a card carrying member of the Online Film Critics Society(OFCS), we sometimes like to get together in the virtual Moose Lodge and vote on our favorite films. This POLL was based on the question: "What is your favorite Thanksgiving themed movie?" Runner ups were Hannah and Her Sisters, Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays and The Ice Storm. But as you may be able to guess, there was little doubt about the top slot. If you can't guess, you may need to go to the OFCS BLOGto find out. Or you can read my dazzling review of it HERE.In any event, have a wonderful holiday!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

It's easy to look at the work of novelist Dan Brown and think that virtually anyone could be just as successful by using Wikipedia and the cut-and-paste function on their computer. Look up some arcane trivia about the Catholic Church, make a few references to the Illuminati or the Knights Templar, and mix it all up in some kind of treasure-hunt mystery based on clues found in ancient documents. That gets you more than halfway there. Establish some symbologist or semiotician as the hero, add a smart European heroine who is basically the modern-day version of the "kidnapped scientist's daughter," and in just a few weeks you could create something like "The Michelangelo Connection."

These external trappings obscure Brown's real skill as a writer, which lies in plot construction. It might be easy to concoct the framework of an exciting thriller, but it's quite another thing to keep the reader in suspense for 500-odd pages. While Brown's novels have cerebral subjects, they remain old-fashioned pulp adventures at heart, featuring the hero surviving cliffhangers while trying to save the world from literal or figurative ticking bombs. Brown is very good at keeping the action moving in a very linear, scene-by-scene manner. Which is exactly why they are perfect source material for movies.

How director Ron Howard failed to make an entertaining movie out of Brown's fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, remains a mystery more puzzling than the story itself. As a filmmaker, Howard is an anonymous but dependable craftsman. Da Vinci, however, was inept. Paced like a Sunday visit to the Louvre, the film was talky in the extreme, dramatically neutral, and featured a hero who was more of a bystander than an active participant. Tom Hanks' weird experimental hairstyle didn't exactly help matters either. In terms of cinematic craft, Howard's flat and ludicrously self-important film was like a handbook on how not to craft a suspense thriller.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Angels & Demons. It appears that Howard knew that he had to change the way everything was done in the previous film, and sending Tom Hanks to the barber was a very good start.(Read the rest of the review at CINEMABLEND.COM )

Friday, November 13, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

This is a movie positively buried in hype and William Castle-styled promotion. All that's missing are flying skeletons and insurance policies for "death by fright". Somewhere under all the exclamation exists the movie itself simple and unadorned. It's a home video shot in the director's actual home with a pair of unknown but enthusiastic actors. So, expect less and you will appreciate it more. The film isn't particularly unique or even very well made. But first time writer-director Oren Peli has just enough skill to keep the movie grounded in a faux reality. Like many previous indie film successes, it makes strengths out of its limitations. Bad sound, low res images, and zero production values are the right aesthetics if the goal is "realism". After all, "real" is as much a convention of cinema as any other. The audience "reads" bad lighting, shaky camerawork and muffled sound as signifiers of cinema verite.

Of course in the subgenre of "Docu-Horror", the desired effect of this aesthetic is the illusion of "unscripted reality". The idea is to place the supernatural right next to the natural in order to get you to believe the impossible. An open acknowledgement of the recording device is part of the ploy. The fourth wall is broken; someone is shooting this right now so it must be real. Done reasonably well, this format can make the most cliched stories seem new. Cloverfield demonstrated that even Godzilla could learn new tricks. The trouble with Paranormal Activity is that it doesn't even have the old ones mastered.

The "story" is both too much and too little at the same time, with no awareness of how classic ghost stories play with shifting realities. The basic situation has day trader Micah (Micah Sloat)videotaping he and his fiancee' Katie (Katie Featherston)in an attempt to catch a ghost on tape. A ghost that has been haunting Katie since she was a child. When they consult a psychic (Mark Friedrichs) things begin to get a lot worse. He tells them that the spirit isn't a ghost per se but rather a demon. The film then chronicles a series of increasingly violent attacks on them while they sleep at night.

At first Paranormal Activity seemed like it was going to be more like Cloverfield and less like its obvious model, The Blair Witch Project. Cloverfield took the "found footage" concept and gave a few seconds of thought as to how that form could be used to its best advantage. Drew Goddard (Alias, Buffy) and company came up with several clever storytelling devices most notably the idea that the footage being watched was TAPED OVER a previous recording of the protagonists' first date at Coney Island. This allowed for a poignant epilogue showing the lovers alive in better times and with the added bonus of J.J. Abrams' trademarked touch of mystery through the final frames depicting something unknown falling into the water behind them.

Next to the wit and sophistication of form in the monster flick, Paranormal Activity seems positively juvenile. The low budget is simply not an excuse for bad design. The film is like a crayon drawing made by a talented child. The instincts are right but the execution is completely naive.

The film is presented as an edited assembly of "found footage" given to the producers by the San Diego police. Right off the bat the film wastes the opportunity to playfully exploit its form. Acknowledging that the movie is an edited version of reality potentially allows for some very interesting ambiguity between what transpires onscreen and the "story" that the editor has decided to construct from it. Peli acknowledges this through the use of judicious fade outs, dates added in post production, and several moments when the recording is played back in fastforward. But all of this is merely functional and the concept is never used for storytelling or for creating dread and fear. Just imagine the possibilities a more creative filmmaker would've explored. If Peli was OK with fastforwarding the recording, he could also have rewound it as well and allowed us a second look at certain mysterious images. Like those creepy ghost photos and videos we've all seen, these images could also be freeze framed and blown up to show frightening entities "hidden" within mundane moments. Clearly if you have ever seen the famous Three Men and a Baby ghost you know exactly what I am talking about. I can still remember the chill that ran up my spine the first time my friends and I freezed that frame on the VCR.

The following is one you've probably seen:

There are also missed opportunities involving the turning on and off of the camera. The film's best opportunity for this is during the "time out" Micah takes to have sex with Katie. The camera is turned off and when it comes back on Peli doesn't exploit the fact that something could've happened that we did not see, something that could create a stronger sense of ambiguity in our minds about Katie's mental state perhaps. Most interestingly it could be something very important that we finally understand during the climax.

Dramatically the film is badly damaged from the beginning. Starting the story in "Act Two" is clearly the work of a neophyte screenwriter. When the film begins there is already an understanding between the two of them that there is some kind of presence haunting Katie. This isn't set up at all. Within minutes a psychic arrives to listen to Katie turn into Captain Exposition and tell us the story of her past in the most boring manner possible. Even Dan Brown has more skill than this. The correct way to do this is to change the story so that it begins in a more mundane reality with Micah perhaps annoying the hell out of her through his obsession with taping everything. Slowly, we are presented with strange incidents which seem to defy rational explanation (but, importantly, could still be explained). Micah sees that Katie seems to be more frightened than she should be by these incidents, that they seem to have a special meaning to her. This forces him to confront her about her "secret" and a much better scene for the actors to play so that she has to confess her strange past to him. THEN we can bring in the psychic and the idea that it's a demon that is plaguing them. Micah would then be the audience surrogate throughout and his conversion from skeptic to terrified believer would be the structure.

The traditional ghost story is a form that has stood the test of time and there is no doubt that Peli studied this to some extent. He does a good enough job with the later stages of it so the film comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. What he misses is several beats in the first half that would get the audience worked up into a much more frightened state and make the ending really work. Creating an ambiguity about Katie's mental health would give the middle of the film more tension and it's the middle of this film that truly drags. Having Katie walk out of the room and not return for hours on end would create tension as to what she is doing at night. Things that are discovered the following morning but seem increasingly impossible for a young woman to do by herself. So the film can begin to create tension with ambiguity. Is there a demon? Is she insane, or is she possesed?

Basically, Peli only seems able to come up with HALF of a good idea throughout the film. He very smartly creates a widescreen frame of them sleeping at night and leaves it running for quite a while until the audience begins to scan every corner and pixel of that image. But he then leaves it at that. Any horror filmmaker worth his salt would know that the following image is a perfect Volleyball set for a spike.

Drawing the attention to the door at the left and letting the audience hang in silent apprehension would easily allow for a huge SCARE by having the lamp at the far RIGHT next to Micah either come on, fall over, or blow out. Any one of those choices would be a textbook way of having the scene still be realistic in terms of the surveillance framing and yet accomplish the main goal of a film called Paranormal Activity which I must assume is to frighten.

The performances by the two leads are decent. The problem lies in the use of improvisation to create the "reality" so needed for this to work. The failure in many of these "docu-horrors" is in allowing the actors to be interesting when all they need to be is believable. We don't need Second City alums here. Actors want to be seen as clever and witty at all times and this kind of improv leaves the door open for phoniness. The scenes between Katie and Micah often seem like acting exercises played directly for the camera instead of conversations overheard or caught on tape. The right approach would be to force them to talk about the most mundane subjects. "What's for dinner?" "Are we going to your parents this year for Thanksgiving" etc.

The fear factor is, of course, all that matters. But here Your Mileage May Vary. Depends on how scared you get looking at people sleeping and shadows creeping. I found it all mildly suspenseful. I also do not think that demons have footprints. But that is a whole different argument.

CAST:Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong

Thursday, November 12, 2009

DRACULA (1979) Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

In 1976, Frank Langella starred in the tremendously popular Broadway revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderston play "Dracula". A slightly campy production, the show was distinguished by its dazzling black and white sets designed by Edward Gorey and a powerfully sexualized Count. Just like the play's original star Bela Lugosi, Langella too was spirited off to Hollywood for a film version.

This revamped Dracula is a sort of Saturday Night Fever version of the story with a stylish, afro'ed Langella walking around with an open shirt looking for girls to take to his Castle Disco. There's actually some really dizzying dance scenes and a psychedelic love sequence done with lasers and animated bats that has to be seen to be believed. Dracula isn't really scary in this version so much as he is a Eurotrash prick who decides on a whim to steal your girl at the prom. The girls are all whores in this too, all dumping their stiff upper lip lads for the Tom Jones experience and never looking back. Dracula is clearly more man than you.

There is ONE scary scene involving Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) coming face to face with his undead daughter in the creepy catacombs beneath Whitby Cemetery. This scene is extraordinarily well done and makes you wish director John Badham would've made a more frightening film overall. He certainly had the resources as this may still be the most elaborately mounted adaptation of Stoker's classic. Seaside locations are dripping with misty atmosphere and the photography of Gil Taylor is amazing. It's a very worthwhile film to watch but in the end proves to be more disappointing than satisfying. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the huge orchestral score by John Williams. Along with his score for The Fury it's among his most underrated.

As a more everyman Van Helsing, Olivier is good but somewhat feeble. Screenwriter W.D. Richter's idea to make Van Helsing the father of one of Dracula's victims was a smart change from the novel and play. But it's a character that should've become much more aggressive as the story developed making Van Helsing into a kind of revenge figure willing to stop at nothing in order to destroy the vampire. Along those same lines, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) should've also become more ruthless since the film really pushes the idea of a foreign intruder stealing women from the English. But really the cast is top notch from Kate Nelligan to Donald Pleasance. Not a weak link among them and of course Langella himself who is charismatic as hell. Besides he can vibrate his eyes. How many of us can do that?


Friday, November 06, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

The poster says "From The Director of SPIDER-MAN" but this is really from the director of EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, a filmmaker who has been MIA for a long time. Since the mid '90s, Sam Raimi has spent his career auditioning for and then reaching the "A" list of Hollywood directors. This is how the very quirky, handmade style of films such as The Evil Dead, DARKMAN and even The Quick and the Dead suddenly gave way to the incredibly impersonal style of both A Simple Plan and the maudlin sports opera For Love of the Game. Those were films which could've been directed by virtually anyone-put James Mangold (Copland, Kate and Leopold) behind the camera on either of them and not much would be different. Perhaps they would even be better since Mangold wouldn't be faking it. While A Simple Plan still had its moments of dark humor and well crafted tension, For Love of the Game expressed little but directorial boredom. For a man who invented a rig called the "Shaki-cam" in order to best depict the POV of a demon, over the shoulder shots and close-ups of talking heads were definitely a step back. They were what Alfred Hitchcock called "photographs of people talking".

Both films are examples of the "well-made play" crafted as invisibly as possible. In providing unchallenging, easy entertainment, these films proved to the Hollywood industry that Raimi could make 'em as dull as anyone else. That he could be controlled. Raimi had become just the man that an expensive franchise like the Spider-Man films needed. The studio could count on his visual imagination to give the action some punch secure in the knowledge that he would play ball with the front office. That said, the Spider-Man films were mostly great fun. Especially the first sequel which seemed to express much more of Raimi's mischievous personality. The less said about the third film in the series the better except that its best scene has Bruce Campbell stopping the movie dead as a surreal waiter-a scene that looks like something out of Raimi's early Super-8mm work.

While that was merely a throwaway return to an earlier style, it may have been an indication of Raimi's mindset at the time of production-perhaps stirring his desire to return to something smaller and more personal. For most filmmakers, "smaller and personal" means a character drama or indie talkfest but for Raimi this meant FILMMAKING. A return to a genre which requires more cinematic skill than any other and inspires a full expression of style and playfulness. Digging up a script written with his brother Ivan around the time of Army of Darkness, Raimi has made what must be his best film in years, the surprisingly smart and exciting DRAG ME TO HELL.

The Universal Studios logo that opens the film is a real tip-off to the film's personal meaning. It isn't the current logo but one that dates from the time Raimi got his start as a filmmaker. I remember growing up in the '70s and '80s and dreaming of making a film that would open with the classic MCA-Universal globe that preceeded the films of so many of my favorite filmmakers from Hitchcock to Spielberg and Landis. It was a corporate signature to be sure-the world spinning on the tip of Lew Wassermann's finger-but it usually meant GENRE as this was Universal's specialty and seeing it instantly sparks my imagination with thoughts of the exciting film to follow-The Birds, Duel, Animal House, The Sting, Back to the Future, or An American Werewolf in London. MOVIES.

This is what DRAG ME TO HELL is all about and you can feel Raimi's excitement coming through the screen to grab your throat. But the best thing is that the film is not just a throwback but a realization. This isn't some attempt to merely recapture a retro feel and in fact I don't think Raimi could've made this film so well in the '80s. While it has the energy and the endless cinematic invention of his early work, the film's command of economical storytelling is something that once eluded him. There is a command over the ENTIRE film from story to character to effect that makes the whole thing integrated which is a culmination of all the work Raimi has done over the years. It is a work of maturity that can still express itself childishly. Which is what an old fashioned scary movie needs to do and this film is gloriously old fashioned as it feels like something William Castle would've made in the mid 60s or some alternate reality remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMON starring Vincent Price. In fact, NIGHT OF THE DEMON haunts the whole film from the three day "death sentence" and the "woodcut demon" design of the "Lamia" to the film's train station climax.

Former "Pork Queen Fair" farmgirl Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has come a long way from her roots. She practices her speech and diction while driving to her bank job each morning and struggles to establish herself among her male colleagues. Both her boss (David Paymer) and her rival for the much wanted assistant manager's position (Reggie Lee) seem to exclude her from their boy's club. To prove her grit, she decides to turn down nasty old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for an extension on her mortgage payment which, of course, means that she will lose her house. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ganush doesn't only look like Bela Lugosi, she is also some kind of old witch and Christine soon finds herself on the other end of a terrible curse that will literally "drag her to hell" in three days time. Neither the help of a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) who accepts American Express nor the truly unending support of her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) can save her.

The script by the Raimis does an effective job of establishing a strong lead character and Alison Lohman is excellent in the role, finally playing a character close to her actual age. The film's production design has the clean studio backlot feel of Henry Bumstead's work on films like To Kill A Mockingbird while Christopher Young's score channels Bernard Herrman as well as the very particular violin riffs of Jerry Goldsmith's work for '60s TV programs like Thriller and The Twilight Zone. In jokes abound from the cameo by Raimi's classic EVIL DEAD Oldsmobile, having Justin Long surrounded by MAC products to the name of David Paymer's character "James Jacks", a well known Universal Studios producer and friend of Sam Raimi. Altogether there is an air of comfort and control throughout. The feeling that the director has nothing to prove and is just having fun.

Raimi teaches an entire generation how to make full use of the PG-13 rating-the film is released to DVD with both the theatrical and Unrated cuts included but as another example of his growth as a filmmaker the difference between the two are mere seconds and not of gore but rather character. The Unrated version is actually SHORTER-cutting a few frames away that show Christine looking remorseful for killing her cat. In the Unrated version, Christine just wants to survive and has reached a point where her furry friend has to go. Raimi seems to go a bit "off the rails" during the train station climax with some Tales from the Crypt obligation for a grim twist. After investing 2 hours of time with Christine it seemed rather cynical to drag her off to hell. Especially in a film that is mostly jokey. But then again, the film IS called DRAG ME TO HELL.

CAST: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic, Kevin Foster, Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier, Shiloh Selassie, Flor de Maria Chahua
RUNNING TIME:(Unrated version) 99 minutes

Monday, November 02, 2009

SUNSHINE Movie Review

by Brian Holcomb

It’s 50 years from now and once again mankind faces extinction. Not from a meteoric Armageddon, or the inconvenient truth about the environment, but from the death of the sun itself. A second ice age threatens to end life as we know it and so mankind looks to its last hope for survival, a spacecraft christened the “Icarus II”, which carries a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to be fired into the center of the dying star to relight the burner.

Since the “Icarus I” clearly failed in its maiden attempt, only a single nuclear device remains. If the crew of the “Icarus II” fails as well, there will be no more chances. Understandably, the weight of this responsibility hangs heavily on the multi-racial multi-national crew. These seven men and women know that they are nothing BUT expendable. It causes them to question every decision in the light of a philosophical context. Anything or anyone who stands in the way of the success of their mission must be avoided or stopped. Mankind must prevail.

The serious space movie is one of the most limited genres around, with virtually the ENTIRE ground having been covered by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey”. You get pretty much what you expect each time out: The loneliness of space travel; a pleasant but suddenly disobedient talking computer; a technical malfunction that threatens the lives of the spacemen requiring a tense spacewalk in order to make the necessary repairs; the tragic death of one of the protagonists who sacrifices his or herself for the greater good of their colleagues and/or humanity itself; Cabin fever tension between the shipmates courtesy of Jean-Paul Sartre and last but certainly not least, a touch of the spiritual in probing that which “man-was-not-meant-to-know”.

Alex Garland is a writer who is clearly no stranger to this theme. His debut novel, “The Beach” set the tone for all of his following work. Alienated characters one step removed from tactile, real life experiences who seek some kind of connection to the physical or spiritual world. The one that exists outside their windows and beyond their Playstations and Gamecubes. They seek to find communion with the unknown or secret knowledge, the true meaning of the word “occult”. Instead of “The Beach’s” Gen-X backpacker, we are given 7 scientists on a seemingly impossible mission. All are withdrawn not only from each other but from their own psyches. They are all clearly far from where they belong, on the last leg of a journey that has them staring right into the center of the sun. This is where science crosses over into the spiritual. Human notions of the physical universe and it’s spiritual creator are closely entwined when considering the life and death of a star. For within our own vocabulary the “heavens” can be celestial as well as scientific.

Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”) crafts a jaw-droppingly beautiful film. He makes a fantastic decision to avoid establishing shots of the spacecraft and to begin the film with the mission already in progress. We are placed in the same position as the ensemble cast, trapped within the claustrophobic space and forced to consider the film’s issues along with them.

Garland and Boyle are nothing if not ambitious. They want us to consider the Big Questions about the importance or inconsequence of mankind as well as the argument of science versus fundamentalism. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. But how about in space? If you were to look into the center of the sun, would you see the face of God?

The first two thirds of “Sunshine” play on these issues in an intelligent and actually quite subtle fashion. There are no deep monologues about the vastness of the universe or the crutch of spiritual belief, thank God. Everything is conveyed through action and reaction and the very powerful images that Boyle and his team conjure up to create the power of the sun’s light. Something they are clearly trying to suggest is more than a literal “illumination”. Yet, this is actually the film’s singular flaw. Boyle and Garland do not seem to be on the same page philosophically and the film cannot contain their oddly opposing views. Garland is trying to tell a story about man’s inability to comprehend the universe without making himself the center of it, while Boyle is photographing a movie about man’s spiritual connection to the divine. Boyle does not see the divine as being within man himself but rather something outward, to be literally reached for and just barely out of grasp.

In fact, Boyle is quite literal altogether. He layers images onto the subtle script which are both obvious and yet perplexing in the extreme. Images of sex and reproduction are everywhere and yet there is no actual sex on-screen. The “Icarus II” looks like a sperm cell as it approaches the center of an egg-like sun which it needs to penetrate in order to preserve life itself. In one scene, several crew members must be shot out of the wrecked “Icarus I” back to their own ship like a journey through the birth canal. These are presented but have little to do with the film’s more central themes and are certainly abandoned by the last third where the whole film falls apart completely.

In “28 Days Later” Boyle and Garland switched from their rage plague story to a post-apocalyptic study of the more mundane evil that lies in the hearts of common men. The infected were less threatening by the end of that film than Christopher Eccleston and his droog-like gang of soldiers bent on power struggles and deviant desires in a world without laws.
They attempt something similar here but it’s a complete mistake. The 8th inning arrival of a slasher film boogeyman, with the burned flesh of Freddy Kruger and the physical strength of patient V. in “V for Vendetta” turns the film into nothing more than “Ten Little Indians” in space. A tense, minimalist film turns into a stalk and slash thriller without even a strong philosophical angle from the talkative villain. The death of mankind being “God’s Will” is a fundamentalist notion but it has no power when voiced by a knife wielding maniac. If there is a real lesson to be learned here it’s that sometimes a filmmaker’s reach can exceed his grasp.

But the film is still worth a look. The ensemble cast is terrific and Cillian Murphy in particular continues to impress with his quiet, introspective screen presence. None of the characters are particularly well defined and so it’s up to the actors to convey their feelings between the very terse lines of dialogue. This they do quite admirably. As mentioned before, the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful and flawed as it is, Boyle and his team conjure up something truly magical in the final minutes of the film as Murphy reaches out and is able to grasp what Boyle himself could not.

Danny Boyle (director) / Alex Garland (screenplay)
CAST: Cillian Murphy … Capa
Michelle Yeoh … Corazon
Hiroyuki Sanada … Kaneda
Rose Byrne … Cassie
Benedict Wong … Trey
Chris Evans … Mace