Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October Horror 2014: 7 - Silver Bullet

The Stephen King adaptation is a mainstay of any good October marathon.  This year's is the Werewolf-themed Silver Bullet.  This was the directorial debut of veteran TV director Daniel Attias and stars Gary Busey and Corey Haim.

What's going on here is that a small town in Maine is suddenly terrorized by a series of bizarre animal attacks.  A paraplegic boy becomes convinced that the attacks are made by the town's preacher, who is a werewolf.  He enlists the help of his sister and his alcoholic uncle Red to get proof and eventually kill the wolf.

The werewolf transformation is pretty cool, but a standout is a middle sequence where the Reverend begins hallucinating during a service because of his wolfyness.

Some of the acting is actually pretty nice, but then there's also Gary Busey.  Now he's not really bad so much as has a completely bizarre character.  Busey apparently acted each scene as scripted then did additional takes where he ad-libbed all his lines.  The producers liked many of the improvised scenes better, so the performance in the movie is mostly ad-libbed Busey.

The things that fall down the most are the bits Stephen King weirdness.  I don't really think that having the protagonist in a wheel chair was used to advantage at all.  Midway through the movie Red gives the kid a custom-built, motorized, wheelchair that they call the Silver Bullet so they can give the title a double-meaning.  But now he's basically rolling around on a motorcycle so when he has to run away, he's faster than a person on foot would be.  His only problem is running out of gas.

Regardless of any Stephen King-ness it was a pretty fun movie.  The werewolf design was a bit meh, but the transformation was good, the story was decent, and there were some good moments around the preacher's mental state.

Next up, Home Invasion week begins with Funny Games.

Monday, October 6, 2014

October Horror 2014: 6 - Werewolf Hunter: The Legend of Romasanta

Also known as Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt this 2004 thriller/historical fiction is based on the 1850's account of mass murderer Manuel Blanco Romasanta who claimed at his trial that he committed the murders because he was a werewolf.

It's a really interesting movie to watch, it does delve into the supernatural aspect a little bit.  I would've liked a bit more on that, mostly since a huge part of werewolf films is the transformation scene and this one was a little dull.

Another tenant of werewolf movies is the struggle against the animal nature of the wolf, but this character doesn't seem to have that.  He's a little sad about it, but doesn't really seem to struggle until the end when he's claiming the woman he was with helped him overcome it.  Which is doubly odd considering he seemed to be embracing his animal passions in their scenes, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, I'm writing this weeks after watching it so my recollection is getting foggy but here's the takeaway:  It's a decent movie.  Pretty well made with some good effects, though I wish it had more.  It mixes in a nice subtle amount of supernatural to play with the drama and make it a bit more "What-if".  Worth watching.

Next up: Silver Bullet

Sunday, October 5, 2014

October Horror 2014: 5 - Transylvania 6-5000

I first heard of this movie on a list from Obscurus Lupa of some of her favorite ridiculous genre movies, so when it also showed up on some site's list of werewolf movies I figured it'd be a good way to get something I'd been meaning to watch off the list and fill in one of the marathon's weeks.

I'm not really disappointed by this movie, but it's only barely got a werewolf in it.  It's an offbeat comedy about a town in Transylvania that is obsessed with shedding the reputation of "Spooky Transylvania" to become a modern tourist town.  To that end the Mayor has opened a lavish full-service hotel and is actively covering up any sightings of monsters.

However a Frankenstein's monster sighting gets out and a tape is sent to a state-side tabloid.  The magazine send the owner's son/toady and Jeff Goldblum to Transylvania to uncover the monster.  However, the Mayor views it as a sale's pitch for his new hotel.

A lot of the comedy is pretty awkward and strained.  Some of the jokes do land, but there's a lot of trying too hard.  It's also got a super cheesy everyone-is-happy heartwarming ending, but for the type of comedy it is, it sort of deserves it.  I don't particularly recall what was said about it, but it was an inoffensively bad horror/comedy.  Anyway,

next up? Werewolf Hunter: The Legend of Romasanta

Saturday, October 4, 2014

October Horror 2014: 4 - Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers is a movie I was originally interested in since during a round of IMDb surfing I found out it was co-written by James Roday, who plays Shawn Spencer on the show Psych.  As the show is really funny, in part due to the grasp of the character Roday had from his audition reel onward.  So I was curious to see if his writing chops matched up.

However at this point I hope he didn't have too much to do with the movie since it was kindof a mess.
As near as I can gather, the movie's about rival werewolf clans who fight over the realization of a prophecy.  There's a half-breed child born to a human mother with a werewolf father who will end the curse of all werewolves when he turns 13.  He's protected by one clan who keeps their nature secret from both him and his mother, and hunted by another clan who wants to kill them because they like being werewolves.  If that sounds like an interesting setup, it kindof is.  However the movie tries to make itself more interesting by never really being clear about what's going on, instead dropping the audience into the middle of things with no explanation of even the characters.  I still don't know some people's names.

About midway through after a lot of really confusing running around and some context-less character death, one of the characters drops a plot dump on the mother and the whole thing lurches into the final act.  Elias Koteas and Kim Coates are woefully underutilized because the movie would prefer to spend time with the "Prettier" characters, unfortunately Elias is the one with most of the plot information.  And I almost don't want to mention the perfunctory sacrificial Indian they included so they could make some sort of tangential connection between the modern werewolf curse and the original "Skinwalking" ability of the native tribes.  See what I did there?  Title drop.  Awww yeah.

It's just really a lazy and very thin story with a thin veneer of Werewolf draped over it that just doesn't work.

Next up: Transylvania 6-5000

Friday, October 3, 2014

October Horror 2014 - 3 - Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps was released in 2000 and has gained significant reputation among horror fans as a very creative Werewolf movie.  Also, as an obvious allegory for puberty and menstruation.

Ginger Snaps stars Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as heavily emo sisters.  Obsessed with death and suicide, the sisters are constantly antagonized by more "normal" teens at school.  Ginger often defends her sister who is clearly far more awkward.

One night they sneak out of the house to steal another girl's dog as revenge for attacking them during gym class.  While out, they're attacked by a massive wolf-like creature and Ginger is badly injured.  Surprisingly she heals quickly and after a few comatose days is not in full health but is far more lively and social than she used to be.  This begins to drive a wedge between her and her sister who feels the new "popular" Ginger is a betrayal.  She begins to realize the changes aren't late-blooming puberty but is actually Ginger becoming a werewolf and enlists the help of the local *cough*herbalist to try to find a cure and save her sister.

All told, it's a good movie and definitely deserves its reputation as a very creative take on werewolves.  The sisterhood and puberty themes are simultaneously beyond over-the-top and understated, with the superficial aspects taking front and center but the more subtle character beats just being.  Also the creature effects are pretty damned good.

The movie has two sequels that came out in the same year as each other.  The leads both return, which is nice.  But given that Ginger Snaps 2 and Ginger Snaps Back came out within a few months of each other, I don't have much confidence in either of them being much good.

Next up: Skinwalkers

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October Horror 2014: 2 - Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood, re-imagined as tween girl supernatural romance.  Directed by the director of Twilight and starring Amanda Seyfried, Max Irons, and Gary Oldman.

Actually the cast here has a lot of recognizable faces.  Shiloh Fernandez makes an appearance, as do Billy Burke, Lukas Haas, Michael Hogan, and Michael Shanks.  And unfortunately, at least in the case of Hogan and Shanks, act way below their ability.  Max Irons seems drunk the whole time, too.  That's not to say the movie is bad, oddly.  The sets and are really good and for all its obligatory "supernatural teen romance" tropes the story is competently put together.  Even the mystery is decent.  Gary Oldman is entertaining and wonderfully hammy.

It really seems like it was a movie that had all the potential to be a good but unremarkable lazy day movie but got kneecapped by shoehorning in a bunch of romance tropes.  Ironically what held it back quality-wise probably made it infinitely more marketable.  Though spending so much on name actors and marketing probably reduced the effects budget to the point where the CGI wolf looks pretty asstastic, but the practical work was good.

All in all, it was alright.  Better than I was expecting.

Next up: Ginger Snaps

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Horror 2014: 1 - Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers is the 2002 feature debut of director Neil Marshall, starring Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd.  The film is about a military unit on exercises in the forest that gets attacked by werewolves.

Marshall has made a pretty big name for himself as an action director with titles like The Descent and Centurion, as well as two epic battle-centric episodes of Game of Thrones.  And you can see the beginnings of his style here since the action scenes are really fun.  There are rough bits that feel like 90's XTREME, but there's still a lot of great action.  And there's a lot of humor in the action which serves nicely to keep things going.

The movie seems built on references.  There are characters named Bruce Campbell and Harry G. Wells.  Also a "Witherspoon" character nicknamed "Spoon" that seemed to exist so that the line "There is no Spoon" could be used.  There is a character named Cooper who could be a reference to the Cooper character in Event Horizon, which also starred Sean Pertwee, though that's a bit of a stretch.

As a final note, the creature effects are pretty damned impressive, relying mostly on suited actors to play werewolves rather than CGI.  Towards the end when the faces are focused on more often it gets a little lame looking since the expressions are baked in, but on a whole they're great.

The story got a little weird to follow towards the end when they introduced some twists, but the action sequences were still great fun.

All in all, a damn fine action/horror and a nice chance to see a great action director starting out.

Next up: Red Riding Hood

Horror Pre-Season: The Octoberfest 2014 Plan.

Late again as usual, but the publishing date will show I was right on time, because I am a technologist...I reject your reality and substitute my own.

October Horror Season is once again upon us.  So here's the plan.

The week themes are: Werewolves, Home Invasions, Really Really Bad Movies, and Sequels.

For movies we have:

Werewolves week:
Dog Soldiers - Neil Marshall's feature debut! I'm excited!
Red Riding Hood (2011) - Ok, I'm not a tween girl, but we'll see.
Ginger Snaps - Cult classic.  And periods.  Let's do this.
Skinwalkers - I love Psych, and Jason X is hilarious.  So we've got a werewolf movie co-written by Shawn Spencer and directed by the director of Jason X.  Let's do this.  Too.  Again.
Werewolf Hunter: The Legend of Romasanta - No idea here.
Transylvania 6-5000 - Classic genre cheese with Jeff Goldblum.  I'm told it has werewolves.  We'll see.

Home Invasions week:
Funny Games
Silent House
When a Stranger Calls
The Strangers
Dream Home
The Collector Torment

Really really bad movies:
Gingerdead Man
Sleepaway Camp
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Troll 2
Halloween: Ressurection
Trick or Treat (1986) - Trick 'r Treat is actually a really good movie.

House of the Dead 2
Phantasm 2
Silence of the Lambs
The Devil's Rejects
Wolf Creek 2
Cube 2: Hypercube
The Collection

And that's the month.  Let's see how it shakes out.  Sporadic updates will follow.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Wolf Creek

I originally wasn't going to write up Wolf Creek because it's a few years older than what I normally hit during the off season.  But the more I think about my own reaction to the movie the more I feel I owe it to fairness to write it up here.

Released in 2009, Wolf Creek is an Australian horror film written and directed by Greg McLean and stars John Jarratt as Mick Taylor.  McLean is a member of a loose and unofficial group of filmmakers called the "Splat Pack" along with Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, and Darren Lynn Bousman who are all known for making realistic and brutally violent thrillers.  Sort of like an international version of the New French Extremism.  Though I really think Bousman's true calling is deranged punk musicals.

Part of the reason I wasn't going to put this up initially was my known distaste for these types of movies.  I've hated every one of them I've seen:  Asylum Blackout, Martyrs, The Loved Ones, etc... I'm not a huge fan of anything like Hostel and that ilk, but I found that at least inoffensive.  And Wolf Creek is one of those exact types of horrible, bloody, depraved, torture filled jaunts I'm wont to rage against.  However, Wolf Creek is actually a fairly decent movie and that is just damned interesting.  Beware, there be spoilers here.

The film itself is about three young adults that are backpacking around Australia.  While the characters fall into asshole horror film character stereotype a little bit during the opening but they never go full jackass.  When they're offensive it's usually because they just don't think or know better.  Otherwise they try to be nice and welcoming kids instead of confrontational jerks.  After trekking around with them for a bit and getting some exposition on who likes who, they decide to go visit a meteor impact crater, the eponymous Wolf Creek Crater.  This is a real thing, google it...it's pretty huge.  However, their car breaks down and they're forced to spend the night when they run into helpful (if strange) outback denizen Mick Taylor who tows them back to his camp where he drugs them with plans to torture and kill them, one-by-one.  However, one of the girls manages to escape, then springing the other they lead Mick on a merry chase.  The guy of the group is pretty much a non-entity for almost the entire 3rd act and only reappears briefly in the final reel to wrap up the story.

What I think this movie has that so many other "torture porn" entries seem to lack is a sense of interest and pacing.  Mick Taylor is mustache-twirlingly evil and he loves it that way.  He seems to be aware on some level of how insane and depraved he is and just hams it up.  All too often these movies tend to feel like they need to make their serial torturer super serious and dark because if you're that evil you can't have fun, or give them some sort of sad past backstory so that they're delusional and think that what they're doing is OK or that they don't have a choice.  This sort of joyous sadism really elevates Mick as a horror killer to a level similar to Freddy, in early installments of the series anyway.

Another point was pacing.  Less enjoyable movies will continually bombard you with horrific images, feeding you endless carnage so that you can't stop to breath and let anything have psychological weight.  Wolf Creek is pretty brisk, but it varies things up tonally.  Rather than an assembly line of wounds inflicted on characters you don't care about, Wolf Creek gives us disturbing torture, Mick being gleeful, the characters getting the upper hand, hiding tensely, almost getting away, thinking they're safe, realizing they're not, etc.  What this does is prevent audience burn out from too much of a single pitch and also let moments of torture marinate into fear and despair, which is how torture should work in a movie.

So take that for what it is.  I'm still not a fan of these absurdly gory movies and I'll take my supernatural stuff over it any day, but when they're done well torture flicks can be nice movies.  And this movie was actually decent to watch.  Also, if you can score the DVD version there is an absolutely hilarious deleted scene you should check out.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Deliver Us From Evil

It's been a really long time since I've reviewed "Based on a true story" horror.  The last one was probably The Possession though I'd put dollars to donuts that I've hit something else in the interim.  Anyway, Deliver Us From Evil is a major horror film directed by Scott Derrickson, written by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, and starring Eric Bana and Joel McHale.  Released in July 2014, the movie is based on the accounts of NYC police officer Ralph Sarchie as written in his book, Beware the Night.

The book details several mostly disconnected paranormal investigations conducted by Sarchie who was, at the time, splitting his life between traditional police work and working on spiritual cases.  To adapt it to a movie, several events from the book have been worked into an overarching narrative.  Also interesting is that while the actual Ralph Sarchie is both a cop and devout believer in the supernatural, in the movie he's been split into 100% cop Sarchie and the believer side is taken care of by unconventional priest, Father Mendoza.

The long and short of it is that I don't like this movie.  Now, I try to keep most of my write-ups on the shorter side and this is quite a bit lengthier than the others, but this movie is almost 2 hours long and just felt like it missed the mark so many times that I can't let it go.  I've even left a few points out because they don't fit and are pretty minor.  That said, there are good things; individual scenes here and there...makeup effects are good, and the acting was good to me.  I loved Joel McHale's character, and though Bana's accent seemed a bit over the top having listened to the actual Ralph Sarchie he emulated the real guy pretty well.

The basic premise is that while in Iraq, three marines find a doorway to demonic possession in a cave.  They bring this possession back with them and several years later NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie gets involved in several seemingly unrelated cases which all lead back to one of the possessed marines.  In order to defeat evil he must conquer his own personal demons and ally himself with an exorcist, finding his own spirituality.

Conceptually, this movie is all over the place.  There's a possession story, a semblance of a cult story, a man haunted by his past story, and an ancient demonic story; all framed in a procedural cop drama.  It's like they made several movies with the same cast and decided to edit them all together into one movie.  Ideas and plots are hinted at then dropped, things happen with very little explanation...it just feels overstuffed.

From what I can gather, Derrickson and Boardman had begun working on an adaptation of the book set to be produced by Screen Gems, however Jerry Bruckheimer had also been working on an adaptation of the book being written by David Ayer, Bryan Bertino, and Bruce McKenna.  Some months after Derrickson and Boardman started their script, Jerry Bruckheimer's film production company partnered with Screen Gems.  Of the Bruckheimer writers only one of the three had ever worked on a horror movie before (Bryan Bertino wrote and directed 2008's The Strangers).  David Ayer had written Training Day, End of Watch, and S.W.A.T. and Bruce McKenna had written episodes of Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

I feel like each production company had begun writing very different movies and when they combined forces they mashed the scripts together, resulting in casualties.  Even at 2 hours long, the movie sprints so quickly between points that it never settles down to let any tension develop.  On top of that some of the dialog is so comically bad it completely breaks the sense of realism the movie seemed to be going for with the "based on a true story" presentation. Ralph Sarchie apparently hates cats, because every time there is any sort of feline on screen he can't stop himself from delivering a totally out of place line about how bad he thinks cats are.  Could be a house cat, could be a goddamned lion.  Doesn't matter.

Even with the story in shambles, I think it could've been at least a passable though meandering horror movie if it was visually more fun to watch.  Major problem being how dark the movie is.  It's almost like Derrickson got upset at people complaining about how dark Sinister was and decided to light half his movie with a cell phone flashlight just to show us what dark actually looked like.  Except since the pacing was so hurried these scenes weren't tense so much as frustrating because I couldn't see a damned thing.  There was some really uncomfortable gore at a few points, but that was about as effective as it ever got, visually.

Another thing that upset me was the really cheap scares.  Now, I don't necessarily mean jump scares.  I consider these quick startling shocks to be a valid tool, and like any other tool can be misused.  What I hated here was the screamer, which is done exactly like the flash video screamers.  Sarchie and his partner are watching security camera footage from the zoo when the bloody and beaten face of some guy appears on screen with a bit soundtrack sting.  This is the face of a child killer that Sarchie beat to death several years ago, and he is haunted by his guilt over the incident.  Later on, Sarchie is in his daughter's bedroom to the overused sounds of detuned Pop Goes the Weasel when he bends down to pick something up.  When he stands he sees that guy's gruesome nastiness leering over his daughter's bed.  Exact same scare, except it works better this time because there's some atmosphere and build up to the scene.  It was still kindof corny because of the soundtrack, but it was better than a screamer.

Then there's also the heavy handed use of The Doors, the band, to represent evil.  The possessed people repeat lyrics, songs kick onto the jukebox, etc.  Sarchie keeps hearing snippets of song and asking people if they heard it.  Like, half a dozen times.  I feel like in any other movie Sarchie's friends would've staged an intervention or convinced him to take some vacation time with how often he asks them if they've seen or heard something.  Some of the hallucinations are part of the haunted-by-his-past subplot but some are just The Doors, because the movie needs to make sure you understand that the spells written on the walls open a doorway to possession when read.

Finally, the paint-by-numbers exorcism upset me.  It didn't seem like there were any stakes to it when it happened in the movie.  The priest just outlines the simple, named steps of the exorcism and then they go through them one-by-one.  At some steps the demon makes token callbacks to Sarchie's and Mendoza's backstories to try to break their stride, but they get over it within like 30 seconds and go back to the exorcism.  I wasn't thrilled with it when I was watching the movie, but at least it was fairly well done visually.  But then I learned that Derrickson directed this, I was more disappointed because of how good Emily Rose was.  It's like he knew how to do it well, obviously, but he just wasn't on his A game.

Sorry for going on so long, but I just felt like this movie could have been good if it wasn't so unfocused and heavy-handed. Missed potential irks me more than straight up bad movies.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Afflicted

Afflicted is a 2013/2014 found footage movie written and directed by Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, who also star as Derek and Clif.  Woah!

I don't want to risk spoiling this too much, but I don't think any of this synopsis will be surprising.  The movie was originally conceived as a real-world horror web series similar to EverymanHYBRID or MarbleHornets, except without Slenderman obviously.  With the feature film landing as legitimately found footage to fill in events that would be intentionally left out.  This idea was dropped, probably due to inexperience with the found-footage format and the effort it would take to manage the smoke screen.

The film is presented as the travelogue "Ends of the Earth" being filmed by lifelong friends Derek and Clif, who've decided to leave their mundane careers behind and travel around the world together.  Clif, being a filmmaker, has decided to produce a documentary/video blog site about their adventures.  Added poignancy is delivered by the reveal that prior to leaving, Derek was diagnosed with an AVM, a malformation of blood vessels that could cause a cerebral hemorrhage and kill him at any time.  Despite a strong possibility of death if ever further than 20 minutes away from a major hospital, Derek feels he has to go on this trip with his friend.  It's super bro-tastic.

Just a few days into the trip, while in Paris, Derek attempts to hook up with a French girl named Audrey and brings her back to the hotel he and Clif are staying in.  Some time later, Clif and two friend they were traveling with decide to attempt a "Turkish Cockblock" on Derek, only to discover he's passed out and bleeding from the eyebrow and arm.  Despite this, Derek insists on continuing the trip and he and Clif travel to Italy.  From there Derek begins exhibiting symptoms of a bizarre illness and then things go totally wayward and wrong, while Clif insists on filming all of it and posting to the blog.

Without going any further into detail I feel like the reveal of Derek's illness is handled really cleverly.  At under 85 minutes the whole movie is very tight with very little cruft, the whole thing is super streamlined.  I think as part of that it comes off as slightly utilitarian to the story; spending only as much time as it needs to establish each point, which I don't actually fault in a found footage movie.  A real person filming real events would not flounder around establishing "mood" or creating artistic and visually stunning atmospheric shots.  I think this was part of the reason Mr. Jones was held back in my eyes: that started from a found footage perspective then dropped it for dream logic while still maintaining that it was footage rather than dropping the pretense altogether.  Afflicted never falls into this and maintains not only its found footage style but also keeps the video blog site in the mix the whole time due to Clif's compulsive filming and hands-free camera rigs.  It's really one of the finest explanations for why all the footage exists that I've seen yet.

Also, the characters of Clif and Derek are wonderful and their friendship, though bro-tastic, is very deep and manages to drive the movie; resulting in a lot really effective and touching moments.  While no single scene is stand out, there is one that felt like it missed the mark a bit in tone.  The concept of it doesn't really bother me, just the way that it was handled felt like it was too "epic" for the rest of the movie which was really character driven. The scene in question is a confrontation between Derek and Audrey towards the end of the movie. See, Derek is a vampire and Audrey is his sire. Derek has been tracking her, convinced she somehow holds the truth to how to cure or kill himself. Turns out Audrey isn't too happy with being reintroduced and has an epic vampire fight with Derek involving a lot of environment destruction and epic wind-up punches. In fact, this fight is such a big deal it's the only time the camera is actually damaged. Even a drawn out battle with an entire SWAT team didn't put a single nick in the lens. But it just felt like too much of a stock action beat with major destruction rather than a realistic fight or even just a heated argument which could've sufficed.

As one final odd bit of continuity:  Derek, as a vampire, beats up and then bites Clif and drinks his blood. Despite not meaning to and also being totally in the thralls of feral vampire bloodlust where you'd think he'd drink as much blood as possible, this does not kill Clif. Though much of the film after this involves Derek's guilt over killing Clif, his friend actually comes back after his burial. However, lacking a friend in Derek and the subsequent pep talk by Audrey, Clif doesn't understand how to handle his vampirism and goes completely feral à la Daybreakers. This is only shown in a mid-credits scene. Given that Derek did not intend to create a vampire and also would've drank his fill rather than leaving some amount of blood behind, which is another common way of creating a vampire, how easy is it to accidentally create a vampire in this world? Derek has a confrontation with a French SWAT team where he kills several of them, many by bites. Did he just create a vampire SWAT team? What about Feral Clif? If Derek accidentally sired Clif while feral, how many of Clif's victims become vampires themselves. At the end, Derek becomes an avenger only drinking the blood of "evil" people who murder others or hurt the helpless...how many of those become vampires?

Afflicted is a good movie, no doubts.  It's pretty cheap on Amazon Instant streaming right now.  Worth the watch.


Horror Off-Season: Mr. Jones

Mr. Jones is a 2013 found footage movie written and directed by Karl Mueller, starring Jon Foster and Sarah Jones.  It's the director's feature debut, having previously written and directed a short film called Widow.

Mr. Jones follows a young couple, Penny and Scott, who move from the city to a gorgeous cabin in the mountains of California.  Penny has left her burgeoning career as a photographer to support Scott's dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker by filming nature documentary.  Unfortunately for their relationship, Scott didn't really think through what the point of said documentary was.  After several aimless weeks Scott stumbles onto the "studio" cabin of an art community myth/folk tale...the eponymous Mr. Jones.

Overall, I liked the movie, but I feel like it hit points where it became a little too abstract to really communicate the interesting ideas about the nature of dreams it hinted at having.  But then despite dropping the ball somewhat on getting through with conceptual ideas the final reel is really, really heavy-handed with making sure the audience grasps what literally happened.  Well, as much as the word "literally" can be applied to what happens in the 3rd act, with as symbol/dream logic/metaphysics heavy as it was.

I think a lot of the dialogue between Penny and Scott is improvised, which tends to result in a lot of their dialogue being talking over each other and shouting their names.  Further, this drags down the opening act of the movie because not much is happening yet, and it's mostly the characters talking to each other and setting up why they dive so hard into the Mr. Jones story.  Fortunately the middle parts work really well, where Penny and Scott are split up because Scott is interviewing experts on Mr. Jones in NYC and Penny is taking photos and stalking the guy through the woods.  It's really effective at building the mythos of the character and making him seem creepy, not really because of any malevolence on his part but just because of his unknown motivations and the odd and unnerving effects that follow around people who receive his artwork.

The final act is visually interesting, but incredibly confusing.  The fluffy visual aspects that don't really serve the plot drag on a good amount but the important points blast past so quickly I almost didn't notice them.  There's also something they hint at during the NYC interviews that gets worked into the dream world portions of the finale, but is so heavily emphasized it loses its original nightmare connotation and becomes silly. For anyone wondering, in an interview a guy who burned his Mr. Jones piece becomes plagued by a nightmare in which he's chasing himself to the point where he can no longer tell the dream from reality. This manifests in the finale by a hooded figure dressed exactly like Scott chasing Scott and Penny around while holding a camera to his face. It was cool, but then became heavy handed. Then the final resolution is also an interesting twist, but is reiterated by an extended closing narration.  It lent a symmetry in that a narration from Scott bookends the movie but it felt a bit heavy handed.

So my final verdict is Mr. Jones isn't a bad movie by any stretch, it's just undeniably weird.  So weird it does seem to distract from what I thought the feeling and themes of the movie were.  It could have been better but I feel like it could have been significantly worse.  I was able to take the moments I enjoyed and ride out the weirdness of the end and by the time the narration was explaining the ending I was already checked out, but nothing really bothered me.  If you spend too much effort trying to understand it or getting deeply into the movie, it might annoy you.  But as it stands it's good light viewing.

Interesting note, all the artwork in the movie was made by a Halloween artist named pumpkinrot.  His galleries are amazing, I'd love to find this guy's yard and wander through the fog with this stuff.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Beerening: Beer 101 - Grain

Let's talk about Barley.  I'm serious.  I wanted this series to be basic and there is arguably no ingredient more basic and essential to beer than barley.  Barley is a cereal grain, and while any and all cereal grains can (and are) used to make beer, barley has become the most common for several reasons.

For most fermented drinks like wine or cider, fruits are pressed and their sugary juices are fermented.  Beer is more complicated, since beer is made from grain and grain is a simple seed with no sugary juice or meat like an apple.  So to turn barley's starches into sugars, we have to engage in a fair bit of trickery.  That trickery, and variability in that process is part of what lends beer its incredible variety.

In order to make beer from it, a simple grain like barley has to be malted, kilned, and mashed.  At each step along the way we can change things to have huge effects on the finished beer.  In addition to simple differences in the taste based on where the barley is grown, the way that it's kilned will change it drastically.

Kilning grains is a process very similar to roasting coffee, and just like coffee the more you roast the grains the less effective they are at actually making beer but the stronger roasty flavors they'll have.  Really heavily roasted coffee beans actually have far less caffeine than lighter roasts, so really heavily roasted barley has far less starch, protein, and enzymes.  You need starch to turn into sugar to make alcohol, so if you have no starch you can't have alcohol.  You need protein and starch to give beer body, so if you don't have both of those you can't have a thick, heavy beer.  Basically, this debunks the common myth that dark beers are always strong or always heavy.

Styles like stout and porter are built around lots of roasted barley, and from the roasted barley they gain their characteristic burnt flavors.  Porters, in my experience, tend to be more astringent and biting from the roast while stouts have tended to be smoother.  If you roast barley with the husk on it becomes bitter like coffee, but some brewers will use a malt called Carafa which gives the same flavor as heavily roasted barley with the astringency or bitterness because its husk has been removed prior to kilning.  For this reason Carafa is also called Debittered or Dehusked malt.  So if you see that on a beer you know you're in for smooth roastiness rather than robust bitter darkness.  Roasted barley also comes in "Chocolate" and "Coffee" variants, which indicate that the grains taste a lot like dark chocolate or actual coffee.

There are other styles that use smaller amounts of dark roasted malts to lend complexity.  Darker Scotch Ales and Wee Heavies spring to mind, but Irish Red ales will often use a little bit of the same type of roasted barley you'd find in an Irish Stout.  In these beers rather than lending bitterness or strong roast flavor, the dark malt increases the depth of the malt character and makes for a richer beer.  You can always tell that a beer has included a roasted malt of some sort if the head of the beer is an off-white or tan color.

Normally kilning is done while vented, meaning the water from the malting step has the ability to steam off and leaves the malt dry.  You could also close the vents, letting the grains stew for a time in a super-hot sauna.  This has the effect of converting the starches in the grains to sugars, which is normally done in the mashing step by the brewer rather than the person making the malt.  Then they're vented and dried.  This type of malt is called Crystal or Caramel malt and comes in degrees of darkness based on how long it was kilned, just like regular malt.  However because of the heat treatment of the sugars, they tend not to ferment as completely leaving more sweetness in the beer.  Caramel malts start with slight nutty flavor, then move into caramel and raisin-y sweetness as they get darker.  These malts are common in styles like English Bitter, again Scotch Ale and Wee Heavy, and also American and English Brown Ales.  Some more traditional IPAs or English IPAs will include a bit of Crystal malts, but the current trend in American IPA is to discourage their use in order to create a very dry beer.  Some people really dislike Crystal malts, but they tend to be a bit hard to avoid in medium colored beers.  However, German or Belgian beer styles are unlikely to include Crystal.

So that Myth busted, an some basic discussion of how barley's treatment and types affect a beer's flavor.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Oculus

At this point, there's no denying that I love Mike Flanagan (See exhibits A, and 2).  However, I was a bit anxious of what he'd do when partnered with a studio and given a budget.  Would the studio stomp on his Flanagan-ness?  Would he go crazy with the money and throw in a bunch of pointless effects?  Would telling an old story again make him just give up and get boring?

Well, he didn't.  Let's get that out of the way.  Oculus the feature is the same as Oculus the short, except it's totally different.  What we get here is a really logical expansion of the original story.  The backstory, which previously had only small hints and references, gets completely fleshed out in a way that makes total sense with the original story and fits in the context of the feature without seeming like a stretch.  All the new characters work and the twists are nice.  I liked just about everything about this movie.  It was just as scary, familiar but fresh and not predictable...just...really well done.

Being based on the original short, Oculus is about an attempt to objectively prove that a demonic mirror named the Lasser Glass is responsible for a string a murder/suicides going back over 100 years finally culminating in the deaths of the parents of the lead character(s).  However, being feature length enables the movie to spend a lot more time with everything and elaborate on the background of its extended cast.  The two biggest changes are the location and the lead character.  In the short it was only Tim Russel, but in the feature the lead character is actually Tim's sister, Kaylie.  Also, instead of the experiment taking place on what is  assumed to be neutral ground (the white room), the mirror is taken back to the Russel's house and placed back on the office wall where it previously hung.

The film itself takes place in the days following Tim's release from the mental hospital he's been undergoing treatment in since the incident with his parents.  Kaylie managed to avoid institutionalization and has been working for an auction house where she's tracked the mirror.  Tim's release happens to coincide with the auction sale of the mirror, and Kaylie seizes the opportunity to experiment on the mirror during the few days it will be allowed away from the auction house before being delivered to the next owner.  She convinces Tim, who is reluctant because of his therapy, to stay with her during the experiment.  They then repeat the setup of the short almost verbatim.

Intercut with the present day experimental footage is flashback footage of the family originally moving into the house and slowly deconstructing due to the mirror's influence.  What's interesting is that the present day sequences have much more of a subtle, vaguely uncomfortable, supernatural feel like Flanagan's previous work, while the flashbacks have a more visceral feel with gore and disgusting things.  The balance is great, especially because the creepier and more character driven present day scenes provide a great contrast for the bloody dementedness that eventually happens and makes that have a real impact.  I actually need to buy this on Blu-Ray when it comes out if for no other reason than there are bits I straight up did not see because it was so uncomfortable I had to look away.  Loved Ones, Asylum Blackout, and Martyrs all couldn't pull that off. 

Katee Sackhoff does an excellent turn as mother Marie Russel, though I would've liked to see her turn to a paranoid jealous wife a bit slower.  Rory Cochrane as Alan unfortunately never seems to sell the caring father portion either, his delivery through most of the movie is fairly deadpan.  Brenton Thwaites was a pleasant surprise as Tim.  Guy is so damned pretty I wasn't sure how well he'd be able to pull off a horror movie and emotional sibling drama but he actually did really well.  Karen Gillan performed admirably well as Kaylie.  Unfortunately, I feel like neither sibling really shined and the present day scenes really felt less interesting somehow than what was going on in the past, until the end.  They were good and they carried it well, but their scenes didn't pull me in as much as the scenes with their child actor counterparts.  I don't know if it was just Flanagan really getting into the opportunity to flesh out the world of Oculus or if the kids were just really good, but those scenes were really enjoyable.

The effects they use on the mirror ghosts as well are particularly nice and something I don't think I've seen much before.  Very creepy touch.  And I thought the direction at the end was just really compelling and totally sucked me in.  In fact, the only thing I think I was disappointed in was the big line in the original short ("I've met my demons and they are many, I've seen the Devil and he is me.") wasn't nearly as scary in the way it was delivered here.  That, and the lack of the gorgeously deranged "Finger LICKIN' GOOD!!!" line from the answering machine in the original.

To a minor spoiler:  I still dislike how quickly the experiment fell apart.  In the original it made sense despite being ultimately disappointing.  Being alone in a room with an evil demonic looking glass can be a somewhat taxing experience.  It kindof makes sense that Tim would fall asleep.  But in the feature no one falls asleep.  They just watch video of weird things, hallucinate, and then watch plants die without doing much of anything about it.  And finally, in the feature the glass suffers minor damage due to Tim shooting his insane father in front of the mirror and the glass cracking a piece off when Alan's body hits it.  The glass normally deflects attempts made to harm it fairly dramatically but it couldn't do anything about the body hitting it.  In the finale of the movie Tim activates the dead man's switch, not realizing Kaylie was standing in the way due to the mirror making him see things.  This causes a boat anchor to swing from the ceiling and hit Kaylie, killing her and smashing her into the mirror.  Given the force of a swinging boat anchor, especially one with additional weight on it, how did this not break the mirror further?  Kaylie demonstrates the pointy anchor going almost all the way into the wall behind the mirror.  It's not a light touch.  I would've loved to have seen the mirror effectively suicide itself.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Horror Off-Season: The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones is a new horror release from the resurrected Hammer Film studio.  It's director John Pogue's 2nd feature as director.  John also served as a writer on the 2nd draft of the script, originally by Tom de Ville (who served as writer on episodes of Urban Gothic and Lexx), alongside Craig Rosenburg (The Uninvited) and Oren Moverman (Rampart).  It is sometimes worrying when a script has this many hands involved.  A single writer or a pair with solid history seem more likely to produce a horror film with common vision, while multiple writers tend to work by committee which results in a film that ultimately relies more heavily on well-worn tropes in order to keep everyone in agreement.  At least in my experience.

Set sometime in the early 1970s the story is told through an interesting combination of Found Footage-style and traditional omniscient camera.  It centers around an Oxford professor played by Jared Harris, 2 student researchers, and a student cameraman recruited through his class on the paranormal.  Dr. Coupland believes there is no supernatural and the paranormal is just science we've yet to understand.  He believes there is no such thing has haunting or possession and that these are just deep psychological conditions that can be cured through extreme therapy. Initially describing a failed attempt to cure a young child referred to as "David Q.", he then tells the class about his current experiments on a young amnesiac foster child named Jane Harper (Olvia Cooke), who claims to be possessed by an entity she calls "Evey"

In some strange combination of The Philip Experiment and Psychoplasmics from The Brood he hopes to deprive Jane of sleep and subject her to hypnotism sessions and isolation in order to expose Evey as some sort of secondary personality or hallucination and allow Jane to confront and get rid of her.  After being evicted from their original location near the university and having the experiment's funding cut by Oxford, Coupland takes his students and Jane to a house in the country where they'll be able to continue their work.  This is where the bulk of the action takes place.

I do want to go over the end and some, but that will be a spoiler tag so I'll just give my impressions.

This movie is pretty good.  I'm not as impressed by it as I was other Hammer Revival flicks like Woman in Black, but I consider this solid and I'm glad that Hammer is back.  That said, I have some criticism:  Despite having a cast of only 5 characters, there are some who are so poorly developed I feel like the movie could have done completely without them.  The non-camera students, Harry and Krissi, seem incredibly superfluous.  They deliver lines, yeah, and things happen to them, but I don't think a single thing they do is integral to the main plot.  They reveal no information and only seem to serve a b-plot that contributes nothing to the main one.  Also Coupland's character is just confusing.  We get some reveals during the ending sprint that do help to explain some of his motivations, but there's a lot he does that makes no sense.  And his continued insistence on following the preordained path of the experiment despite mounting evidence of occult involvement makes him a crappy scientist.  And I know it's petty, but the bit of dialog where they name-drop the title of the movie makes about as much sense as nipples on a duck.

I feel like the movie could've also added some psychological weight to its action to up the creep factor, and favor slow-burn lead ins more.  In the hypnotism/seance scenes, it would've been incredibly unnerving to have long, slow shots of unbroken dialog with creepy shadows and unexplained noises instead of short lead-ins to jump scares.  A final weird point is the use of a train-chugging sound effect.  It had a few points where it was effective at tension-building, but it wasn't related to anything...it just happened to be a tense and driving sound effect.

I know it sounds like a lot but everything I just talked about I felt would have made the movie better, not were needed to make it good.  It doesn't do anything egregiously wrong in my book and does a fair amount right, it just missed some opportunities to do some things really right.

That out of the way, on to the ending:

I feel like I "got" the majority of the ending, but there are a few sticking bits.  The way I took the story of the movie, as revealed by the final act, was that it's not really the Philip Experiment at all despite the face-value similarity and that lots of other reviewers mention it.  The key to the Philip Experiment is that the spirit they conjured through seances didn't exist at all, he was a complete fabrication.  However, in The Quiet Ones, the experimenters don't invent Evey, they basically prod Jane until she invents Evey.  Also, there is evidence that Brian finds of Evey actually existing when he researches the occult symbol that burns into Jane meaning that unless the power of belief retcons the spirit into existing, Evey can't be a fabrication.  After the final act reveal I think it's very clear that what actually happens is that Evey Dwyer was a real little girl who is in some way a conduit for a cult's deity/demon.  This is a bit of theory, but I think the original attempt to manifest the demon fails due to some part of Evey that was not willing to be sacrificed.  This persona becomes Jane, the amnesiac.  However, the experimenters torture and break down Jane until she loses the strength to control Evey and Evey re-asserts by re-branding Jane.

When the experimenters move out to the country and Jane reveals the name Evey, she's gathered 4 other people in a single house who believe in Evey and want her to become manifest.  She's effectively recreated the original cult, this is further evidenced by the cult mark being burned into all the experimenters during the final act.  Then Dr. Coupland kills Jane, and Brian resurrects her causing Evey to be fully reborn.  Evey, rid of Jane's persona, self-immolates which gives birth to the demon.

What I don't fully understand is why the demon/fire deity now requires possess of Brian at the very end of the movie to begin the Apocalypse.  If the demon simply needs a body, why not use Jane/Evey's?  Maybe it needs to destroy the original body to be manifested but then needs another body to work?  That just seems counterproductive.  Frankly, I feel like the whole thing is derailed by the stinger at the end that shows Brian being interrogated for the murder of Jane and the rest.  If that wasn't there the movie would've ended with the demon breaking out of J'Evey at the camera, presumably to kill Brian and wreak its havoc.  So maybe one of the several writers felt like they needed the stinger, and wanted to have the cool similarity of using the clap gesture Brian used as the camera man to begin the movie to call the end of the movie, but then never answered the questions it raised?


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Post PAX Impressions

So I got to check out some interesting things at PAX East 2014, in addition to just enjoying basking in the geekery.  Without further ado here are some highlights:

The Evil Within
Bethesda brought a gameplay demo of the new Shinji Mikami game, The Evil Within, to the expo hall.  I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't a playable demo, but just consisted of sitting in a darkened theater area while an employee played 2 short levels of the game.  The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes.

The first demo was of a bright outdoor area of a crumbling city populated with zombies of some sort that the protagonist had to fight and light on fire using a quick command.  The terrain actively shifts up and down, buildings move in on the player to create alleys and threaten to crush the character.  I'm going to operate under the assumption that this is some sort of nightmare dreamscape rather than a city being wracked by violent and highly specific earthquakes.  It was pretty odd given how brightly lit it was, but maybe in context the variety is welcome or this is some sort of lead-in before the atmosphere shifts to something darker and more claustrophobic.  Unfortunately, there was no indication given of when in the game either level was.

The second level was a more traditional survival horror environment, which actually felt very similar to the environments in Silent Hill 2 and 3.  It was some sort of dank sewer or industrial area with lots of pipes and valves.   Oddly, lots of fences and caged areas.  But most strikingly was an epic, constantly regenerating, enemy.  According to some reading, this guy is called "The Keeper", but we just called him "Safe-head guy". See, his head is inside of a locked safe wrapped in barbed wire.  This guy is relatively easy to put down, but he has a tendency to regenerate himself.  In one cutscene he rips his own head off in order to regenerate on the other side of a fence.  He looks a lot like Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head with the apron, strange headpiece, and oversized weapon.  Safe-head Guy could represent the same things as Pyramid Head did for James, but I don't know enough about Sebastien to make a good guess.  There's also symbolism in that the head is trapped inside of a safe, so if we're to take the levels as nightmares then it could be something Sebastien is trying to protect from himself.  But again...it's conjecture.

The demos leave me wanting to see more of the game, so that I can put the shown levels into context.  While nothing in the demos suggests the resource starvation that made early Resident Evil famous, it could still end up that way.  The game itself appears to be based on The Last of Us's engine, just more streamlined towards combat, which could go either way.  I hurt for resources a lot in Last of Us which made it very tense, but the streamlining of it may indicate a more combat focused game than the stealthy takedowns that made Last of Us so much fun.  The obvious use of nightmare sequences and unreality definitely makes me excited that we could get something really good, but without more of the game there's no context and in horror context can be everything.  There's plenty of opportunity for them to Dead Space the game and place too much focus on combat and action, removing any tense lulls. Or constantly putting that unkillable enemy up your butt, reducing the game to a frustrated sprint trying to get to whatever checkpoint makes the monster go away.  But I hope they don't.

The Evil Within releases in US on August 26th for PC, Xbox One/360, and PS 3/4.

Murdered: Soul Suspect
This is a new game developed by Dark Void and Quantum Conundrum developer Airtight and published by Square Enix, hereafter referred to as Squenix.  This was a playable demo of the first major mission of the game and also all the opening exposition cutscenes.  The main fault was how heavily it relied on cutscenes to convey really simple things that probably could've been done via gameplay.  I thought the main opening which described the life of the protagonist through his tattoos was great, but when it descended into cutscenes after that I felt like the message could've been put out in a more interactive way.  Though there were times when the opening was interactive that felt way too pointless and should've been breezed through in a second or two of cutscene.

The basics here are that you play as a Detective with a crime family past in Salem who's just been killed by a local mysterious serial killer.  Depressed by the death of your wife (?), you decide to check out a lead without backup like a dumb and the killer kicks you out a window then shoots you in the middle of the street with your own gun.  The gameplay here was really interesting, as there was a brief moment between cutscenes where you got to play as your disembodied spirit that didn't realize it was no longer in your body.  After officially dieing you go to limbo where your wife's soul tells you that you can't cross over unless you return to earth and resolve your life's unfinished business.  It's a decently executed setup, though a bit stock.

The setting is a bit jumbled.  First, the Salem Witch Trials actually took place in nearby Danvers (originally called Salem Village), but I won't dock them points for going for the Salem reputation.  Then your character is an Irish cop named Ronan O'Connor, but could just as easily be Jame Generic-Accent.  They go through the trouble of implying Ronan comes up through the Irish mob before going straight and becoming a police officer, but don't give him a lick of characterization in the voice.  But then the other cops have Boston accents, so the whole setting becomes this sort of amalgam of Eastern Massachusetts stereotypes and references.  Nothing terrible bad or distracting, but I did find it a bit amusing.

Gameplay here is really slick and quite fun, though sometimes jiggering the camera to just the right angle where you can interact with certain people is annoyingly tricky.  The tutorial has one or two clunky moments where the game just has to say "Do this now, because.", but for the most part is nicely interactive.  In game you can possess other characters to make use of their eyes and ears, influence them by bringing up memories, or read their minds.  It's a bit LA Noire-like collecting testimony and other clues from the area, but there are no interrogations and failure if you use the wrong memory to influence a character isn't as spectacular as Cole going off the handle.  In addition to investigating clues to solve mysteries, usually revolving around your death or the death of some other trapped spirit, there are demons which roam the ethereal plane looking to eat you.  Dealing with the demons is stealth or bust.  You can sneak up behind them and perform a takedown, but if they see you all you can do is hide by running away or vanishing into some sort of floating soul remnants which you can travel between à la Batman on Arkham Asylum's gargoyles.

All indications here are that this will be a pretty decent game, but probably won't make any headlines as some phenomenon that people talk about.

Murdered: Soul Suspect releases in the US on May 3rd for PC, Xbox One/360, and PS 3/4.

Race The Sun is a gorgeous looking game in which you race a solar powered vehicle against the sunset on a daily randomly generated and minimalistically rendered course until the sun either sets or you crash into something.  It responds fluidly and is really fun to play.  The game sports Oculus Rift support.

There Came an Echo is an isometric real time quad strategy with a well known voice cast.  The game is notable for using voice commands to control the squad.  And it's actually pretty good at it, even in the noisy expo hall I was able to issue commands with accuracy.  The mouse controls also exist but are definitely lacking and my first attempts to play before I realized how to use the voice controls met with a lot of frustration.  The game is clearly almost done but definitely needs some usability spit and polish before release, which should be in mid-2014.  Should be fairly fun for a while at least.  I was amused that the voice commands basically preclude making a Let's Play of the game...

I would add finally that I was a bit disappointed that there was no really good showing in indie horror, like Outlast at last year's PAX East.  The enthusiasm for horror tailed perfectly into the release of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.  This year the only real horror game around at all was The Evil Within, and that demo left me nowhere near as excited as I was for Outlast.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Beerening: Beer 101

I had originally begun writing a much different article to follow up my last beer op-ed about the problematic aspects of exposing non-beer people directly into the previously insulated internal conversation of the beer geek community.  As a quick summary, I felt that as nerds in love with the flavors of beer we tended to gravitate the conversation towards extreme styles with the current trend being extreme degrees of hop aromas and flavors.  This, coupled with the popular myth that hoppy == bitter, can lead people dipping a toe into the ocean of craft beer we're producing now getting a really skewed impression of what good beer is.

I once saw someone refer to Heady Topper as ho-hum because it's just another West-Coast-Style Double IPA, like any produced by a dozen other local breweries on that side of the country and the only reason it was being paid attention was because it was produced in Vermont instead of San Diego.  My own feelings about the beer aside, we have to admit that Double IPA is an extreme style and there are people complaining that this beer is not extreme enough to stand out in its category and warrant as much praise as it gets.  I can't even begin to imagine how I would have reacted to something with that much raw hop power 6 years ago, but now I'll gladly sip a can of it and pick it apart and feel like I know what I'm talking about.

So anyway, I began writing a follow up, setting out to educate the non-initiated about the whats and hows of beer.  Thinking it would be a great idea to try to talk in a clear and easy way about how what goes into a beer affects what it tastes like, that knowing about these things would help people nail down some flavors they liked and find other beers with similar builds.  After all, everyone knows that wine is made of grapes and no one thinks twice about ordering a wine while out for dinner: "I like red wine and robust seems like a good word, please give me this red wine".  But after reworking that about 3 times I felt like I was at an impasse.  And I think that's because I forgot to answer something very important: Why beer?

Because beer is cool, and I like it.

Alright so that's a cop out, but the fact that beer exists at all is pretty amazing, given the process.  Especially when you consider that people have been making beer intentionally or not for some 7000-9000 years and the act predates the written word.  There is a lot of cool history that follows the making of beer.  But really drinking it is what makes it fun.  Beer is a phenomenal confluence of so many little details that produce an incredibly tasty beverage, and there's so much variety in beer that I really think there's something for everyone.  Nothing tastes like beer and one beer can not resemble any other beer at all.

Beer is a simple thing that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Beer is so simple that in the late 1400s the Germans were able to decree that only 3 ingredients were to be used in the brewing of beer:  Water, Hops, and Malted Barley.  Yeast hadn't been discovered yet, we just knew that beer fermented.  But that's it, and for the most part these ingredients still make up the majority of any beer brewed in the world.

And that's the beauty of it to me...that I can decide on any given day that I would like to drink a beer that tastes like sweet orange zest and go to the store and buy a Belgian Witbier. The next day, maybe I want a beer that tastes like caramel and toffee and get a Scotch Ale, or maybe I've decided that I'm an adult so if I want to, I can have an entire wedge of brie for dinner so I go out and buy a bottle of a Rauchbier (a German style known for using heavily smoked malts, giving the beer a profoundly smokey and meaty flavor) which pairs great with creamy cheeses.

That variety is why I think beer and the associated community is such a great thing to be part of, but also what makes me a little sad when people get turned off to beer because they're not aware what they're drinking is actually an extreme representation of one facet of beer.  There's so much else going on that I feel like so much focus on the one style does beer a disservice.  And that's why I wanted to do a Beer 101 post/series, to talk simply about the "how" of all the different kinds of beer and hopefully give people an idea of beer beyond simple styles.

So that's why.  See you in another 12 re-writes.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Haunt

Haunt is another 2013 movie that hit VOD in early 2014.  It's also another debut, this time of director Mac Carter who's previous directorial work had been on a documentary.

Haunt as a film is a good old fashioned ghost story.  Something you'd expect to hear around a campfire or from some old lady at midnight at the local social lodge (Those are things, right?).  I enjoyed it, it wasn't bad, but I feel like it missed in a few ways.

First, the story (which I liked plenty), is about a house.  A haunted house.  In the mid-80's a couple, both successful doctors, moved their family into a large house.  In 1984 almost the entire family died tragically:  The son died in a car accident at 16, then the youngest daughter drowned, followed by the eldest daughter committing suicide, and finally the father in a mysterious incident at the house.  Fast forward a few decades and a new family, the Ashers, is just moving into the house.  The teen son of that family, while out for a walk, befriends a local girl named Sam and the two become involved quite quickly.  While their relationship blossoms, increasingly odd things happen around the house, culminating in the two of them delving into supernatural investigation.  Since it is a fairly straight and folksy ghost story I do want to try to stay away from spoilers so that's about all the detail I'll go into.

On to the odd: During the film the behavior of the Asher parents struck me as strange.  They seemed to be the most accepting and trusting parents ever portrayed.  As an example, one of the first few nights the Asher's son, Evan, meets Sam she follows him home.  Not wanting to go back to her house she sleeps the night in his bed.  In the morning he just brings her down to the family who had no idea she was there and they were completely unperturbed by it.  Everyone's cool with strange girls following their son/brother home and sleeping in his room.  Not this is really a bad thing that detracts from the story, but it just seemed so odd.

There are two more aspects I feel like they also missed with, and they're both part of the visual aesthetic of the film.  First off, a lot of lower budget supernatural horror movies seem to feel like they have to compensate for being a slower creepshow by nature and find ways to up their pace.  So when things that should be low-key and creepy happen, these movies try to amp them up and make them more intense.  Specifically what I'm talking about are shots where, because there's a ghost around, the movie will drop frames, random frames will be zoomed in and grainy or with weird color effects.  Basically this technique where they decide to make their movie resemble a mid-90's alternative rock music video.  I dislike this.  I feel like it cheapens the effect of supernatural elements.  The House at the End of the Street did this a lot, and it didn't even have any supernatural elements to its story, it was just being weird.

Second, I think ghost effects in movies tend to follow whatever precedent was set by the last really successful ghost movie regardless of their own aesthetic or what would actually look good.  The Ring ensured that every ghost story would have frame-skipped jerky moving ghosts for years.  I think Haunt is taking its cues from Mama, which featured a fast moving but very smooth ghost with lots of floating whispy strands of hair and clothing.  And while I adore Mama, I don't like this in Haunt.  The design of the ghost is very sensible.  It relates to the backstory, it looks creepy...it's a totally competent ghost...but then in post they made it all floaty and it has those whispy bits around it which makes absolutely no sense.  Considering the ghost isn't actually on screen in full view very much, this is a really minor gripe...but it really just rubbed me the wrong way.

That aside, it's got some fairly chilling implications and I really did enjoy the story teller narration that bookends the film.  It's not really great by any stretch but I would definitely call it good enough and nothing about it is particularly objectionable so Haunt gets a "well done".


Monday, March 3, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Devil's Due

Devil's Due was released in early 2014, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett who did one of the more fun shorts in V/H/S, it's writer Lindsay Devlin's debut film.

It's a found-footage movie focusing on newlyweds Zach and Samantha McCall, who become pregnant after their honeymoon.  The initial camera is a small handheld bought by Zach so he can document their new life together, but is then upgraded to a multi-camera setup hidden throughout the couple's house.

Before I dive in, I should say that this should probably be read with a spoiler warning in effect.  I don't know how much of this movie was intended to remain a mystery since the trailer was pretty front-and-center, but I don't want anyone mad I spoiled this so...be warned.

What goes on in this movie is basically: While on honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, the aforementioned newlywed couple wind up in an underground party where they're taken and some ceremony is performed on the wife.  Waking up with severe hangovers they assume they partied too hard and hurry to make their plane home.  A few weeks later Samantha discovers she's pregnant.  Strange things begin to go on and she has a lot of issues somewhere between "rough pregnancy" and "insane demonic possession things are not alright why am I carving symbols on the floor and beating up my cousins?".  As things progress, a cult inhabits the abandoned house at the end of the street and places multiple hidden cameras in the McCall's house to monitor Samantha as they wait for her to bring the anti-christ to term.

In a lot of ways I feel like Devil's Due is like a modernized, really crappy take on the Rosemary's Baby-type story.  The found-footage aesthetic being one of the things most responsible for bringing down the movie.  All the individual pieces feel like they could have come together into a decent story.  The Rosemary's Baby story is a really good place to start from for a horror movie because it is an alien and scary thing.  You'd need to trust people who've done this before, but what if you feel like they're not on the level?  Devil's Due does get points for a minor plot element where the original OB/GYN is replaced after the first appointment.  While it's cheese stuffing added to the cult plot, it definitely ramps up the wife's paranoia and it's nice to have a reason for the woman's increasing paranoia in a horror movie.  Some of the character and relationship beats are a bit over the top, but it doesn't stick with me nearly as much as the execution.

All the elements present are pretty stock and glossy, but it feels like the movie was never planned to be a found-footage movie, or at very least whoever decided to do it that way didn't really feel committed to it.  The problem is that found-footage movies, when they work, work by bringing the audience into the small world of the characters.  You stay set in a smaller location...a room, a single house, maybe the town.. When it feels natural that this could be someone's home movies happening to catch something going horribly wrong, found-footage works.  This is why Cannibal Holocaust worked, this is why Paranormal Activity worked, why Europa Report worked, etc.

When found-footage doesn't work, more often than not, it's because something's broken immersion.  This tends to be the "Why is he filming that?" or "How is he still holding the camera up?" moment where you tend to wonder why any rational person would film certain really uninteresting or awkward things, or you're amazed at this person's dedication to holding a camera up at eye level and facing forward while running for dear life.  Also, found-footage movies almost always have some pretext under which the footage was actually found.  However, in Devil's Due the footage comes from wherever it needs to come from without rationalization.  The footage sources in this movie are:
  • Husband's camera
  • "Adventure Camera" mounted to husband's chest
  • Hidden cameras placed in the house by the cult
  • Security camera in a grocery store
  • Interrogation camera in a police department
  • Some random kids' camera
  • Another vacationing couple's camera
And there might even be another I'm forgetting.  So how did we, the audience, get to see these?  Who found them?  Did the cult collect it all?  If they did, how did they get the police department footage?  Do they have agents there, well that doesn't make sense since the cult is implied to move around following whoever their target couple is.  And at that, even though I gave them points for it if the cult just follows couples around...how did they manage to plant a doctor in a hospital so quickly?  What about the grocery store security footage?  The cult is really crappy about spying inconspicuously so how would they even have known something weird happened at the grocery store?  At one point in the movie they stole all the husband's camera's footage up to that point, but what about everything he recorded afterwards, or on the adventure cam?

All the questions just make it feel like they were lazy and wanted to do it as found-footage because it's cool and not because of any of the advantages the style gets you.

Makes me sad.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Oculus: Chapter 3

Ok, so the Oculus short hit my radar a few years ago when I first saw Absentia.  Director Mike Flanagan had mostly focused on character dramas until that point, though he had dabbled in horror before.  First as DP on 2004's amazing cult cheesefest Chainsaw Sally, and then again as writer/director in 2006 with his own short film Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man With the Plan.

Originally planned as a 9 part short film anthology focused on the film's Lasser Glass mirror, only Part 3 was made due to budgetary constraints.  Following the success of Absentia, Flanagan was able to direct a feature length adaptation of the story.  That version premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in Sept of 2013 and Relativity Media secured distribution rights for an April 2014 US release.  Unfortunately, that deal seems to have included pulling sales of the original short, which I feel is a tremendous missed marketing opportunity but rumor mill has it that the short will be included as bonus material on the DVD/BD release of Oculus.

Filmed for about $2,000 over the course of 4 days as primarily a monologue and clocking in at roughly 32 minutes Oculus: Chapter 3 is an amazing example of a less-is-more horror ideology.  And beyond that, it's goddamned scary.

The film is set entirely in a single, white room with a small table and a battery of cameras on tripods at one end and an easel at the other with the very imposing mirror on it.  The single character, Tim Russel (played by Scott Graham), wears jeans and a grey baseball collar t-shirt.  To say sparse would be an understatement.  Tim is here because his father was one of the previous owners of the Lasser Glass and also its most recent victim.  Tim believes the mirror is haunted/possessed/evil and somehow compelled his father to kill his mother and himself.  He's set up an experiment to prove the mirror has supernatural powers in order to clear his father's name.

During the run of the movie Tim explains the nature of the experiment he's running as well as external controls and checks.  A system he feels will protect him from falling victim to the mirror as well.  He also recounts the mirror's bloody history and the tragedy that fell on each previous owner.  These are simple stories, but quite eerie.  As the experiment goes on Tim becomes increasingly erratic, losing time, yelling at his friend on the phone, rambling, etc.  The cameras in the room are all hooked to monitors on a table, and the perspective jumps between them and an omniscient camera leading to great creepy shots where Tim is in frame and a monitor doing something different.  It throws into question assumptions of truth...which image is real?

Flanagan relies fairly heavily on his tight depth of field and editing to obscure elements making what really should be dumb instead very scary due to context and execution.  Both tricks he would also use in Absentia to make the not-very intimidating Daniel Riley freaking frightful as the gape-mouthed ghoul.  The final sprint is an absolute bedlam of amazing that begs me to never look at alarm clocks the same way, and the repeating line from the trailer ("I've met my demons and they are many, I've seen the Devil and he is me...") is really disturbing when it finally appears.

It's not a great looking movie, which isn't surprising given its budget and time.  But it looks good for what it is, and the execution is stellar for a scary movie.  The compressed insanity at the end left me actually speechless for a bit after the short ended, it was kindof a drive-by.  Though it is very tight, I feel like bits could have been shaved off earlier in the movie to make Tim's decent a little less breakneck, but it still works very well as is.

That said, there's very little wrong with the movie and I'd highly recommend it.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Banshee Chapter

Banshee Chapter is a late 2013 independent horror movie with a somewhat Lovecraftian bent that just recently got a limited theatrical release.

We grabbed this from Amazon Instant because the theatrical release was only in the Hollywood area.  We start with archive footage from the disclosure of some of MKUltra, but quickly switches gears to a young investigative journalist being filmed by a friend so as to have an accurate record of his activities while tripping on a special kind of DMT, which is in some way related to secret government experiments.  He's more or less unaffected until he starts hearing a radio and begins to get increasingly paranoid and uneasy.  He continues to claim that "they" are coming and want to wear him and the cameraman, at some point he vanishes from view until bumping back into the cameraman as a ghastly black-eyed monstrous version.

And now the movie switches off of the found-footage angle and goes to an omniscient camera as we start tracking another journalist who's pursuing the story of the special DMT and the death of the first journalist, who was a classmate of hers while in college.  After an initial encounter in the desert, she gets involved with then enlists the help of a Hunter S Thomson-like figure played by Ted Levine.

The story is very close to Lovecraft's "From Beyond", however it's the DMT itself rather than any wave-generation machine that allows the other side to sense and interact with our side of reality.  It's a little confusing regarding the origin of the compound, but the twists are interesting enough.  There's a little of it that reminds me a bit of John Dies at The End, which makes sense given that JDaTE is basically Hunter S Thompson + HP Lovecraft + Poop Jokes.  Banshee Chapter is obviously much more serious, but Ted Levine's character keeps it somewhat light.

While having a lot of very nice moments of creepiness and tension, I feel like it may have been a bit rushed or at least poorly allocated.  The nice scary parts seem like they go past very quickly while less important character interactions linger, leading to an ending sprint that is crammed and maybe a bit too much of a sprint.  Sitting with some of the revelations from the climax before the actual climax would've probably made the whole thing feel a bit weightier.

That said, I really enjoyed watching it and have given some thought to renting it again, or claiming a more permanent copy.  So if a decent adaptation of "From Beyond" with colors of "Fear and Loathing" sounds interesting, check it out.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

And we're back.

And also back with a new Paranormal Activity.  The to-beat yearly October released franchise for the past several years running had missed its traditional window this Halloween season.  Maybe that's why I found this recent year a bit disappointing when it came to new releases hitting theaters in October, but I digress.  What's being considered a spin-off to the original series, The Marked Ones, finally hit theaters in January.  Confusingly enough, Paranormal Activity 5 will still release in October 2014 and be the 6th film in the franchise.

I'll come right out and say that I did enjoy this movie a lot.  It wasn't as great as the first time watching the original Paranormal Activity, but it was still quite good.  They've gone back to world building, which is one of the reasons I think 3 did as well as it did.  They're able to find new things to explore and add to the mythology instead of just have the same old things go bump in the night.

The Marked Ones' story is concerned with a small group of friends in an Hispanic community in Southern California.  The protagonist, Jesse, graduates from (I believe) High School and begins to film his antics with his friend, Hector, using a camera his father bought to film the graduation.  There is a lot of random delinquent bullshit that goes on before the story really picks up when Jesse and Hector go to set off a firework behind their apartment complex and are interrupted by Oscar, their class Valedictorian, running away from what they discover is the crime scene of the shooting murder of their creepy neighbor, Ana.

My main problem with this movie is what seems to plague a lot of found footage horror.  There's never a really good answer for: Why the hell are you taping this?  Admittedly, I can see some of it being answered by the generational desire to record and catalog our lives, but certain things like...riding bikes to the nearby park to play basketball?  After the game of basketball, walking over to a vending machine to buy some snacks?  Why would you film that...it's just buying snack food?  It had to happen in order for a specific scene to be caught, but in-story it seems a bit weird.  And especially a lot of what happens during the lengthy climax...why are you taping that?  And even more amazing you're holding the camera upright, about eye-level, facing forward.  While running like hell.

One of the things I really liked in 1 & 3 were the static cameras, that don't really exist here.  However, the action I feel is the best and the scares and creeps that were delivered best were done when the camera either wasn't being held or was held very very still.  And I think this is where The Marked Ones shined:  It managed to put the camera down and deliver some very nice, tense moments punctuated well by slowly sneaking moving scenes with jumps.  Another thing is that this is much more of a possession story than previous PA's, apart from 4.  What this does more successfully than 4 is that this movie abandons the vast majority of the haunted house, bump-in-the-night, trappings that 4 tried to balance and focus almost entirely on the possession.

That said, the original demonic slant and demonic torment and possession of the young girls seems to be becoming more and more distant from the core of the franchise, which is now focusing more on the coven's actions to facilitate the possession of young men...something that seems to originate with PA 4.

For my money, PA 3 is still a better entry into the franchise than The Marked Ones, and the new mythology elements this adds are actually a bit silly.  But this is a nice off-shoot from the franchise that feels very thematically consistent and has a lot of interesting references to the timeline, characters and events of the original 3 movies (4 seemed absent for some reason).  Very well done, especially refreshing after the mess that was PA 4.