Monday, February 28, 2011

Mixed Bag: Baghead (2008) Review

For various, uninteresting, reasons a significant amount time often passes in between the moment I pick a movie to watch and when I actually watch it. Combine that fact with my poor memory and I often find myself sitting down to watch a movie with no real clue as to why I chose it. Sometimes it soon becomes obvious, like when Patsy Kensit started getting her gear off in the truly awful Bitter Harvest. But other times I'm still none the wiser even by the time the final credits roll. And so it was with Baghead, an ultra-low budget indie pic that defies easy categorisation.

Chad (Steve Zissis), Matt (Ross Partridge), Michelle (Greta Gerwig), and Catherine (Elise Muller) are a group of friends struggling to make a living as actors in LA. After attending the premiere of an ultra-low budget movie made by another friend of Matt's, the group is inspired to make their own movie. They all subsequently agree to Chad's suggestion of going to a remote retreat in the woods for the weekend to brainstorm and script a movie with four plum roles for them all to play.

Unfortunately, relationship tensions (and alcoholism) make working together, to develop a movie, problematic. Chad's keen on Michelle, but she only wants to be friends. Matt and Catherine have been in an on-again-off-again relationship, that's currently off, but Catherine is in denial about how much she still loves Matt. Michelle has the hots for Matt, but he doesn't want to screw her out of respect for his best bud Chad.

So, not surprisingly, on the first night of brainstorming at the secluded cabin the group spend more time drinking than thinking. The excessive alcohol consumption causes Michelle to wake in the middle of the night and stumble outside to puke. Whilst evacuating the contents of her stomach she catches a glimpse of a stalker with a bag on his head lurking around the cabin. She's so wasted, however, that when she wakes in the morning, safely in her bed, she assumes her late night excursion was just a dream. Entertained by Michelle's recounting of her dream, Matt suggests using the concept as the basis for their movie.

Before you can say, "isn't it weird and/or convenient how life sometimes imitates art?" the group starts to actually be tormented by a bag-headed antagonist. Is it just one of the group being wacky-crazy-zany, or are they really being stalked by an early model Jason Voorhees?

If I remember correctly, I found Baghead in the "Comedy" section of my local video library. Whilst it does have some funny moments it's not predominantly a comedy. For a good portion of its running time it plays like a horror movie, but again to call it horror movie would be misleading. It also satirises the culture of struggling film-makers and actors in Hollywood, but yet again, it's not a full blown satire either. It's a little bit of all these things and, strangely, it kind of works in spite of itself.

I say "in spite of itself" because genre-bending like this often doesn't work. Additionally, the performances aren't great and the movie looks awful.

Part of the problem with the look of the movie is that it appears to have been shot on cheap video equipment, but worse than that is the unnecessarily shaky camerawork. I guess it's supposed to give the movie a home-made feel, but it's so crappy it draws attention to itself in the worst possible way. No one shoots their home movies this badly anymore, and even if they did, this is not a point-of-view (POV) movie anyway, so why shoot it like one?

Despite its ugly look and genre-bending story, Baghead is amusing when its attempting to be, and suspenseful when its attempting to be. So, if you approach it with no preconceptions (like I did) it's not an entirely bad way to spend 80 minutes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Top 5 Best Horror Movie Endings

As an antidote to the Top 5 Worst Horror Movie Endings I present to you the Top 5 Best Horror Movie endings. See, I'm not all negativity. I'm sure I've probably overlooked some gem that others hold in higher regard than any of my selections, but these are the grand finales that blew me away when I saw them and have stayed with me ever since.

Spoiler Alert – Do I need to say it again? Given that I'm talking about how these movies end; the following discussion is chockfull of spoilers.

5. The Orphanage (2007)

Some really well-crafted misdirection, leaves the protagonists (and the audience) blind to the fact the poor little adopted son was right under their (and our) nose the whole movie. Dead. When his fate is finally revealed it's a sublime ending to one of the best horror movies released in recent years.

4. April Fool’s Day (1986)

I know a good number of people brag that they picked the ending early and that it's so obvious that anyone who didn't is a moron. OK, let's back up for a moment. In 1986 the slasher formula was well and truly entrenched: someone, or something, wronged in some way some time ago returns to kill, one by one, a group of people somehow linked to the original wrong doing. The closest thing to a twist ending you ever got was the antagonist showing signs of life after being categorically killed dead fatally.

Now, I saw April Fool's Day upon its original theatrical release. I was young and had been consuming a steady diet of formulaic slashers, so I just wasn't expecting, or even looking for, a "twist" ending. When it's finally revealed that the whole movie was just a series April fool's pranks and everyone is still alive and well it completely took me by surprise. It might not seem so now, but the conclusion was actually pretty subversive for its time. At least, that's what I tell myself when people call me a moron.

3. Skeleton Key, The (2005)

I just don't understand the lack of love for this film. It has some really tense moments that come from great performances and rock solid direction. The ambience of the Deep South is so well captured and the ending is an absolute cracker.

OK, by now you can probably guess that I like twist endings. But not stupid arbitrary twist endings that are not supported by the events that precede it (think High Tension). I love a twist ending you don't see coming even though it ultimately makes perfect sense. The Voodoo body swapping that happens at the end of The Skeleton Key does make perfect sense, and I for one didn't see it coming, which left me reeling and very much in love with The Skeleton Key (or Kate Hudson, I can't be sure).

2. The Sixth Sense (1999)

It's easy to forget how much we all loved The Sixth Sense after its theatrical release, now that M Night Shyamalan has gone on to make so many turkeys, and become somewhat of a laughing stock. But the revelation that Bruce Willis was dead and had been since the first few minutes of the film gave me goose bumps, and is easily one of the best horror movie finales of all time, despite the memory of it being tarnished somewhat by Shyamalan’s subsequent output.

1. Psycho (1960)

To be clear here, I'm talking about the reveal of Norman’s mother in the Bates’ mansion basement. Who knew she was dead? Who knew Norman had a split personality? And how bloody creepy was the mummified Mrs Bates? That ending is an absolute cracker and has yet to be topped.

Admittedly, I tend to forget that there is an expository monologue from Norman’s shrink that comes after that killer moment which does let a bit of steam out of the finale, but I still content that Psycho has the most impressive conclusion to any horror movie, ever.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Final Girl Film Club: Frozen (2010) Review

Once upon a time the phrase "direct to video" was movie distribution speak for "shit", or "shitty", or "shit like". (Before any Billable Hours fan writes and complains that I ripped that line off Clarke Claxton, don’t bother. You and I are the only people that ever watched that show and no one else is going to know what the hell you are talking about.) But "direct to video" is no longer a badge of dishonour given only to movies that stink beyond the tolerance of your average set of human nostrils. No, for a multitude of, mostly economic, reasons there are now some real gems making their debut on DVD rather than the local multiplex, and I offer you Frozen as proof of this contention.

Dan (Kevin Zeger) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) are best buds on their annual weekend ski trip, but this year are accompanied by Dan's new Girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell). Frosty tension is the air because Joe is feeling displaced by Parker's intrusion into their annual male odyssey, whist Parker is feeling uncomfortable with Joe's icy treatment, given Dan's insistence that she accompany them.

Frosty tension? Icy treatment? You see what I'm doing with those adjectives? Never mind.

Our cool threesome banter, bicker and ski right up until closing time Sunday night at the weekend ski resort. Then, in an attempt to appease Joe's dissatisfaction with the way the weekend has panned out, the trio convince the docile lift operator to let them onto the ski lift for one last run after its official closing. Before you can say, "wouldn’t it be fucked up if they got half way up the mountain and there was a mix up at the base of the lift that meant the docile operator left someone else in charge who didn't understand that they were still on the lift", that's exactly what happens. The ski resort shuts down and our three protagonists are left hanging in the cold, a very long way above the ground, and a very long way away from anyone who could possibly hear their chilly screams.

Frozen does for threesomes what Open Water did for couples.

Frozen's basic premise is brilliantly simple: three people stuck on an isolated ski lift. It's a great premise, but you need more than a great premise to make an engrossing movie. The Locals had an interesting premise, but that movie sucked large desiccated turds thanks to the amateur hour execution. To turn your decent premise into a decent movie you need a compelling script, and competent direction, which writer/director, Adam Green, delivers in snow shovels. He's also very well serviced by his trio of actors, especially Ashmore and Bell.

Frozen really draws you in because Joe, Dan and Parker seem like real characters rather than the clich├ęd character types that often populate these kinds of movies, and the dynamic of their relationship is not just credible, it's relatable. When they realise that they've been stranded on the lift and are unlikely to be discovered until the resort reopens in a week's time their reactions are believable and captivating, whilst Green's assured direction keeps the tension mounting slowly but surely.

The "horror" in Frozen comes from the gradual deterioration of the protagonists' situation and the fact that there's no easy out for them. There's no knife wielding maniac, or creepy supernatural forces on offer here, nor will you be leaping through your seats from cheap jump scares. As such, this movie might disappoint viewers looking for more visceral thrills. Frozen doesn't shock, or frighten, you so much as it fills you with an inescapable feeling of dread, which is arguably more affecting.

Perhaps the best barometer for determining if you're likely to enjoy Frozen, is your reaction to Open Water. I think it's probably safe to say, if you liked Open Water, you'll dig Frozen. But, if you thought that that movie was, like, you know, totally boring man, then Frozen probably isn't going to be your cup of Red Bull either.

I'm guessing the main complaints directed at Frozen are going to be about the implausibility of getting stuck on a ski lift for such a long time, and about how the protagonists could have more easily escaped their predicament. To that I'd say, yes their predicament is unlikely, but it is possible, and the important thing when making a movie about something unlikely (but possible) is to do it convincingly, and Frozen does. As for our trio being able to escape more easily, to that I simply say, "bollocks". Green shoots the film on a real ski lift, and it's pretty clear to anyone with a reasonable understanding of gravitational force, that there is no easy out for the trio. With the possible exception of what Parker does with her glove at one stage, most of the trio's actions are believable and understandable.

My only complaint with the movie is the speed with which the third character's fate is resolved after the fate of the first two characters is known. It feels a little rushed and seems like a lost opportunity to extract more "horror" from the story. But that's a minor quibble in an otherwise very accomplished genre pic.

Put simply, Frozen is a movie that rewards the patient viewer with a genuine, believable, tale of horror, which is not something I find myself saying very often these days. The fact that it didn’t screen in Australian cinemas should not put you off checking out this impressive little chiller.

Related Links:
Final Girl Film Club
Final Girl

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top 5 Worst Horror Movie Endings

Unfortunately, the horror genre has a disproportionate number of movies with cocked up endings. I'm talking about those endings that don't make a lick of sense, and often feel tacked on in a desperate attempt to conclude proceedings with a bang.

The really infuriating finales are the ones that conclude what are otherwise good movies. I mean, if a movie sucks dog-slobbered-tennis-balls, then a crap ending is to be expected, but when a movie is travelling well, before the film-makers trot out a stupid ending, then it can be really infuriating.

Here are my picks for the worst 5 horror movie endings.

Spoiler Alert - Hopefully it's obvious that, given that I'm talking about how these movies end, the following discussion is chockfull of spoilers. If it's not obvious then, you know, be warned: the following discussion is chockfull of spoilers.

5. Friday The 13th (1980)

Part of me didn't want to include Friday The 13th in this list. I mean, if it wasn't for this film's stupid ending it seems unlikely that Jason Voorhees would have gone on to become the indestructible antagonist of all the sequels that followed and it is hard to imagine the horror genre without good 'ole Jason.

But let's be honest, that final scene in Friday with the retarded kid leaping from the lake is just plain dumb and, if you can separate your love of Jason from your critical analysis of the original movie, it's hard not to think of it as anything other than a ridiculous way to conclude this hallmark slasher.

4. The Descent Part 2 (2009)

In the opening scene of The Descent Part 2, a red-neck discovers the bloodied, bruised and virtually catatonic Sarah (the only apparent survivor from the original movie) alone in the woods. So, what does he do? He dutifully takes her to the closest hospital. Fair enough too.

Fast forward to the end of the movie, after another hellish descent into the "uncharted" caverns (someone should really get around to charting those damn caverns), and another lone female survivor emerges all bloodied and battered. Again, she's met by the same red-neck that saved Sarah at the beginning of the movie. So what does our resident red-neck saviour do this time? Take her to the hospital, like last time? No, he clubs her over the head with a shovel and feeds her to the cave dwellers. WTF? I mean, what the fuck?! If this red-neck is into bopping people off and feeding them to the cave dwellers why didn’t he do it when he had the chance to do so at the beginning of the movie? It doesn't make a lick of sense and it's a stupid way to end an otherwise an above average sequel.

3. Deadly Friend (1986)

I haven't seen Deadly Friend since its original theatrical release, and I literally cannot remember anything about it except the idiotic ending where the robot bursts out of Kristy Swanson's skin. I actually remember my reaction better than I remember the film: "that's just fucking stupid," or something along those highly articulate lines.

I guess Wes Craven was buoyed by the success A Nightmare On Elm Street and, given that it had an esoteric ending, he decided to go one better (and by "one better" I mean "completely loose the plot") with Deadly Friend.

2. Last House On The Left, The (2009)

I'm not too precious about remakes. I figure if an old movie hasn't aged well, or wasn't that well executed in the first place then, sure, go ahead and remake it. That's how I felt about The Last House On The left. The 1972 original is notorious, to be sure, but if you look in the dictionary you’ll see that "notorious" and "good" are not synonymous.

For the most part, this 2009 remake is better than the original. It is more even in tone, better acted, and overall a more accomplished movie… until the end.

I think the film was supposed to end after the family finally conquer the bad guys and escape on a boat, headed for the local hospital. That would make sense. What doesn't make sense is the seemingly tacked on ending where Dad returns to the house to torture the main bad guy by microwaving his head. It is so idiotic, for so many reasons, you're left wondering whether the film's producers are developmentally delayed or whether they simply don't give a crap that their movie is now a moronic joke.

1. The Mist (2007)

Does Frank Darabont have kids? God, I hope not. I would find that genuinely unnerving given that he wrote and directed the conclusion to The Mist. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

This film's conclusion is wrong for a number of reasons:
- The utter ridiculousness of the survivors all so readily agreeing to be euthanized, when their car runs out of gas, without a protest or even a suggestion of other possible courses of action.
- The lame contrivance of there being enough bullets for all but one person.
- The preposterous contrivance of the mist clearing and the military rolling in minutes after the main protagonist shoots his fellow survivors.

But what makes this shithouse ending the worst horror movie ending ever (in the history of ever) is the ease with which the main protagonist decides to shoot his own son in the head. This comes after he clearly demonstrates, for the entire length of the movie, his relentless determination to keep himself and his son alive and the obvious love he has for his son.
"You know, son, trying to drive out of this mist wasn't a bad idea, but it looks like we're out of gas."
"So, what do we do now, Dad?"
"There's only one thing we can do, son."
"Try siphoning some gas from another car?"
"Try jacking another car?"
"Look for another safe place to hide?"
"Not even close, son."
"I dunno Dad, what should we do next?"
"I'm gonna blow you brains out."
"Oh... of course... I feel so stupid, why didn't I think of that."

Really Frank? Is that what you'd do? Geezus, I'm glad you're not my father. Seriously. Worst. Horror movie. Ending. Ever. Hands. Down.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Turdsday Movie Review: 9 Songs (2004)

I'm all for more realistic depictions of sex in mainstream cinema, but it seems everyone who attempts it ends up making a cruddy film. The most disappointing thing about Michael Winterbum's 9 Songs is that it's a lost opportunity to finally disprove the cinematic equation that explicit sex = crap film (or video, as the case may be).

Whilst the performances in 9 Songs are far superior to anything you'll see in your average porn flick, Winterbum really lets them down by not crafting any character or narrative. I really wanted to know more about the two leads, Lisa & Matt, but instead of seeing more of their relationship in between the frequent sex scenes all we get is dodgy concert footage of songs that seem to have no thematic or emotional tie to the couples' relationship.

Sex scene, dodgy concert footage, sex scene, dodgy concert footage, and so it goes on for the, in-joke, 69 minutes running time.

It's like watching Pay TV with someone arbitrarily flicking between the adult channel and the music channel.

9 Songs fails as conventional cinema due to it's lack of character and story, and it fails as pornography due it's lack of genuinely arousing explicit sex (sorry porn fans, despite the controversy, there’s actually not that much genuinely explicit sex in 9 Songs).