Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead Review



Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead

Director: Tommy Wirkola

In November of 2009 I dropped $40 on a Canadian DVD of Tommy Wirkola's original "Dead Snow." It was in a steelbook case, to boot. I found the film unexpectedly sitting on the shelf at my local Bullmoose Music, a store which usually doesn't carry import titles. Why they had this one I still don't exactly know. Finding the title came as a welcome surprise, because "Dead Snow" was still playing on video on demand here in the United States, and I always love when I get titles on DVD or Blu-ray "early." $40 was a high price to pay for a DVD in 2009, but I'd heard good things about "Dead Snow" and I simply couldn't help myself.

Not waiting until I had time to watch it, I made time that night and popped that bad boy in as soon as I got home. Once the film started, though, the excitement dissipated. Not only were the subtitles on this particular Canadian DVD extremely fast and riddled with errors, but the film itself was a bit of a letdown. I can't say for certain if the subtitles took away from the experience at all, but I just found the film to be unexciting.

Fast forward almost exactly five years later and I couldn't help myself again. Despite my feelings on the original, I pushed the "BUY" button on my cable box and ordered the sequel to "Dead Snow," titled "Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead." "Dead Snow 2" begins right where the original "Dead Snow" left off. The only surviving member of the original group from the first film, Martin (Vegar Hoel), has managed to escape the Nazi zombies, minus an arm, by giving them back their gold. Except, for one piece, which somehow got stuck somewhere within Martin's clothes. Needless to say, the Nazi zombies won't stand for that, and come after Martin for that one final piece.

In the process of going for that one final gold piece, lead zombie Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) manages to get his own arm ripped off in a car accident, and Martin manages to end up in the hospital with Colonel Herzog's arm attached to him. Martin gains zombie powers from having this arm attached. But beyond Martin, Colonel Herzog and his zombie soldiers have a bigger goal: to destroy a town in Norway that the Nazis were assigned to demolish during World War II.

Right from the get-go, Wirkola's sequel is crazier, more violent, and far funnier than its predecessor. More importantly, though, Wirkola approaches the content in a fearless manner, more akin to Troma than anything else these days. The first "Dead Snow" relied too much on obvious and stale references to other cinematic works (Colonel Herzog...get it?), and while Wirkola did improve and create his own style with "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," it still felt a bit tame. "Dead Snow 2" manages to go the extra mile, setting up unexpected background characters only to have them violently, and humorously, massacred seconds later by Nazi zombies. I am by no means a fan of gore for the sake of gore, but the way Wirkola approaches the violence is reminiscent of Peter Jackson in his prime. Intestines are pulled and pulled and pulled (on more than one occasion), people are run over by a tank, heads are stomped, and in one special moment a Mercedes star is used like a ninja star. A ninja star. Women, children, the elderly, and everyone in between gets it and gets it bad.

In this triumph, though, the film ultimately finds its flaw. These violent, over the top sequences are where the film thrives. Outside of those moments, there are some hit or miss jokes that are worth a chuckle at best, some characters that are solely used to set up and deliver hit or miss jokes, and a plot that, let's be honest, doesn't matter so much because it's a film about Nazi zombies. Fortunately, most of the film revolves around those hilarious, over-the-top moments that truly work.

Tommy Wirkola is a director who is developing a style that needs to exist in horror right now. It's that slice of comedy and horror that has been missing for years and that was unfortunately replaced by boring, more "serious" fare. When I want to see a horror movie, I want to see something that entertains, and "Dead Snow 2" certainly does. Maybe Wirkola's not a master quite yet, but "Dead Snow 2" is a marked improvement over his previous efforts, and I would definitely buy a $40 Canadian steelbook of this film in a heartbeat.

Grade: B+

"Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead" is currently available in theaters and on demand courtesy of Well Go USA.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Revisiting Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon is a film that I did not immediately love when I first viewed it. I watched it with my brother, Joel, on an old VHS tape rented from the Hometown Video Hut in Pittsfield. The VHS tape was pan and scan (obviously), old and severely worn. Along with that, it was from one of those old "clamshell" cases like Disney/children's films used to have, but Enter the Dragon certainly isn't for children. For certain films, the VHS presentation doesn't detract, and anyone who follows my blog knows that I LOVE VHS. However, for Enter the Dragon, this presentation did not feel right at all.

Watching the film in pan and scan detracted from every single fight scene this movie had. There was always someone off screen being hit, or action happening that you couldn't quite see all of. This is a Bruce Lee film, where the fights are a major aspect of enjoyment. The pan and scan cropped way too much of that action out and it became more frustrating to watch than enjoyable.

Not to mention, at the age that I watched it, I could not get out of my head that this plot was exactly like Paul W.S. Anderson's Mortal Kombat. I knew that Enter the Dragon had been made over twenty years before, but it was distracting nonetheless. I was constantly comparing Lee to Liu Kang, Roper to Johnny Cage, and Han to Shang Tsung. Add on to that the entire plot, which is the same, and you have close to a carbon copy. That is, until Mortal Kombat takes their fighters to another dimension. That, Enter the Dragon doesn't have. Thankfully.

These issues, and probably others I'm forgetting, created a barrier between myself and the film. There were too many distractions and the presentation was a letdown. To top all of this off, this was my first exposure to Bruce Lee. This was not the way to be introduced to such an icon of cinema.

As the years went by, I would see Enter the Dragon playing on TV and I would flip it over and watch some. A bit here. A bit there. I would always make sure to catch the fight scenes, and grew to genuinely appreciate the choreography and the styles of the time. It might not be as showy as modern martial arts films or as fast paced, but there's an intensity about it, especially when performed by Bruce Lee.

Yesterday, I received the new Blu-ray of Enter the Dragon as a birthday gift from my brother. Today, I heard that Jim Kelly, the man who played Williams in Enter the Dragon passed away. I felt as though I had to watch the film again in honor of the great Jim Kelly. I took this time to also think about my initial exposure to the film, and how it had changed over time. I may not have appreciated Enter the Dragon when I first watched it, but time, age, and exposure to other films has changed my outlook. Enter the Dragon is without a doubt one of the finest action films ever made. Its influence on most martial arts films can still be felt, as can the marks that both Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly made on the genre.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Film Journal, How I Write, and Monsters University

Initially I planned on writing a review of Pixar's latest film, Monsters University, for the blog. Walking out of it, I found I didn't have a lot to say about the film. I discussed it with my wife on the car ride back, talked about how disappointed I was with Pixar's last film, Brave, and how I saw this as an improvement. After about five minutes, though, I found we were finished discussing Monsters University. It was all fairly straightforward, and I couldn't see much value in writing a blog post about it.

Then, I sat down to write about Monsters University in my film journal. I thought, why not write about my film journal as a blog post? And so, the primary focus of today's post will be my film journal and my approach to writing in it.

The film journal began on January 1, 2012. I bought a journal at the end of 2011 at Bullmoose Music. It was a boring, black notebook that didn't even have lined pages. It was the cheapest one I could find. I slapped an Oscilloscope Laboratories sticker on the front of it, bought two Sharpies, and prepared to start keeping track of the movies I watched throughout the years.

It started out as being a way for me to keep track of the movies I watched. I added in important details about the films, incredibly brief reviews of each one, and a letter grade that sometimes seems arbitrary. Then, I started adding in physical artifacts from my film journeys, tucking them away between the pages. Movie tickets, postcards, and a lot of basic tokens of that nature found there way in the journal, but there's also a random film strip from Wuthering Heights thrown in and a thank-you note for helping to fund a restoration project. Whatever was film related ended up in the journal.

The process of writing in my journal was developed early on and became the standard. The date, the number of films I have seen that year, the title, the year of release, the director, the review, the letter grade. It's very uniform and I don't deviate. I also don't write in my journal with the intention of having anyone read it (though if anyone asks, I always allow them to), so sometimes these tiny reviews only make sense to me. They contain errors as well. I try to write quickly and just get my thoughts down. I'm not thinking too hard about creating a grammatically correct three sentences. That, I will attempt to save for this blog.

Finally, I try to keep my writing brief. Each review is no more than five or six sentences, but no review is fewer than three sentences. Here is my example entry for Monsters University.

June 25, 2013

79. Monsters University (2013)
 Director: Dan Scanlon

A return to form for Pixar after last year's Brave, Monsters University brings some good laughs and a simple, but effective, message. The film knows when to hit the right tones, and does a fine job balancing the dramatic portions with the comedic. Not all of the comedy works, some of it being too obvious and some of it simply just not being funny. At the end of the day, though, the film works.

Grade: B-

Clearly not my best writing, nor is it supposed to be. I keep the journal for myself to reflect back on and to have an outlet for my thoughts on film. I'd love to write great, in-depth reviews for each movie I watch on this very blog, but the fact is I don't have that in me. Rather, I ponder most films on my own and write about them where nobody else can see...unless somebody asks to look. In that case, I can't say no.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hannibal

Over the course of the last three days I haven't watched a single movie. This is a rare and sad occurrence, especially in the summer, but I just haven't had the motivation or the desire to watch something. Instead, I have been going through and catching up on different TV shows. The main show that I've been working on is Hannibal.

I loved both Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, and I also loved creator Bryan Fuller's previous shows. I don't love the idea watching a television show about Hannibal Lecter, though, and this show focuses on him and his relationship with Will Graham. I was curious, as I'm always curious with any television show that falls in the "horror" genre, but I was actually looking forward more to A&E's Bates Motel, focusing on Norman Bates as a younger lad. Turns out, Bates Motel didn't have nearly as much going for it as Hannibal.

I recorded Hannibal and let it sit in my DVR for the night. Having not watched the first episode "live," I read some brief reviews and interviews where Fuller mentioned that he had the opportunity to reference Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in one shot of the pilot episode. Television paying homage to Stanley Kubrick? Clearly the show for me.

I was impressed after the first episode even more so than I was hoping to be. It's an incredibly dark program which features grand, fantastical depictions of murder, with a camera that lingers on them. Along with these graphic images, many shots are composed with a symmetrical (or close to symmetrical) frame.  Not to dwell on Kubrick and The Shining, but this aspect of the show is reminiscent of that film.

As the series progressed throughout this season, I continued to be impressed. Although the show goes at a slow pace, the payoff is extraordinary and you get to see great performances that develop over the course of the series from Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy. These are two fantastic actors, and I'm always hesitant to see actors of this caliber move to television. Mikkelsen, who takes up the iconic role of Hannibal Lecter, creates a character that is completely separate from the portrayals by Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox. The chemistry that he forms with Dancy's Will Graham is one of the best on television, and make it the top reason to watch Hannibal.

The ratings were low, and I mean very low, for Hannibal, as they were for most NBC shows this season. Yet, thankfully, the show was picked up for a second season, and ideally people will discover the series on DVD/Blu-ray and the audience will expand.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans and My Wife

My wife, Kate, has never totally been into movies. Like anyone, she does watch movies, and she enjoys some and hates others. She's never loved film like I love film, though. Kate prefers photography, books, television, running, and a number of other things. Film isn't at the top of her list. Yet there is one magical film that we both love an equal amount: Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans.

Before she was my wife and before we even began dating, this was the film that we bonded over. It was a Sunday morning that we began discussing the film. How do I remember it being a Sunday morning? Sunday mornings are magical at the Crabtree household and had a specific breakfast that I remember eating that day. That, and I wasn't working, which means that it had to be either a Saturday or Sunday, and since I wasn't seeing a movie at the theater later that day, it was definitely a Sunday.

I had purchased a VHS cassette tape of Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans from a local video rental place that was selling tapes that nobody wanted to rent. It was fifty cents. The best fifty cents I've ever spent. I put the tape in while I was chatting with my friend, Kate Wardwell, on the internet using the then very popular AIM messaging system. As notable scenes came up, I had to narrate what was going on. The film was unbelievable. A head just got smashed with sledgehammer. Type that to Kate. Oh, there's a room full of random naked women. Type that to Kate. A man is swinging from a chandelier for no real reason? That's worth noting to Kate. The priceless moments just went on and on, and as I began to discuss these particular scenes with Kate, she demanded that she see this film.

That summer we had a movie night. It began with (unfortunately) my second viewing of Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans. I don't want to speak for Kate, but I'm fairly certain it lived up to her expectations. After the 85 minute running time was up, Kate then tried to top my film selection with her own: Sleepover. For those who are unaware, this is a PG rated film about a group of girls having a sleepover. Not really my thing, but I figured I'd give it a watch. I don't want to offend Kate, but there was no way that Sleepover was ever going to match Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans, and in my opinion, it didn't. Still, a fun time was had.

Over the course of seven years we have seen many films together. We have watched all of the Deathstalker films. We have also sat through films in the theater like Feast and The Raid: Redemption. We've also seen some films that Kate really loves, most of which star George Clooney. This upcoming Thursday we will be celebrating our third wedding anniversary together. Thinking back, though, it really all began with Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans. I'm glad I have a companion in my life who will actually watch it with me. So, to my wife, happy anniversary.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

World War Z Film Review

Review: World War Z (2013)

Director: Marc Forster

Arriving at tonight's 8:00 PM screening of World War Z, I was presented with an immediate problem: To 3D or not to 3D? I had read terrible things about the 3D in this film from other reviews on the internet, and in general I'm not that big on the format. Then again, most people don't go to see 3D films anymore, and I was looking for the smallest crowd possible. It was opening night, there was the possibility of a crowd, and in general, I just hate crowds at the movie theater. It was a tough decision.

Me: One for World War Z.

Person Working the Box: The 3D showing or the regular showing?

Me (Gears turning): Which...one...has...(gears turning very slowly and a questioning look appearing on my face) ...the...least...amount...of...people?

Person Working the Box: The regular showing has like...35. The 3D has about 12.

Me (Gears still not quite turning): Then...the 3D?

(Tony tilts his head like a confused dog).

I paid for the 3D despite the fact that I really had no interest in it. And let me simply tell you that the 3D ticket price is not worth it because the 3D adds nothing to the film. However, there were so few people there that I was glad I went with the 3D. Taking the good with the bad on that one.

Enough of that. Skip the 3D. Onward with the film.

World War Z pretty much jumps right out of the starting gate attempting to be this quick, fast paced, relentlessly intense film, and for the most part it succeeds. The film, based on the book World War Z by Max Brooks (which I haven't read, but no more tangents in this review), focuses on Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt. Lane used to work for the UN, going into dangerous areas and solving UN related problems. The film mentions and hints at some work that Lane had done in the past, but he's attempted to put all of that behind him and move on with his life as a family man. That is until the zombie apocalypse hits.

Now, I say zombie apocalypse, but let's be honest: These aren't zombies. Similarly to the brilliant 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, this is a virus/disease/bacteria/fungi(?) that makes people go crazy. They just lose it within twelve seconds and go and bite someone, and then that bitten person becomes infected and loses it and goes and bites someone creating an endless, vicious cycle. So this happens, and Lane is the man they want to go in and help solve this issue.

Marc Forster, who has been an off and on, hot and cold director in my eyes for quite some time, actually delivers on the goods here. He keeps the film moving at a fast pace, slows it down to throw some plot devices in and some character development, and then quickly back into the zombie battle royale we go. At first I was thinking, "this is just 28 Days Later-lite," but then it hit me. This is 28 Days Later-lite, except with a larger budget and more action. Is that necessarily a good thing? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it entertains. It's a Hollywood blockbuster that sees Brad Pitt hopping all around the globe, facing this impossible force and barely escaping at each turn. There are plenty of these infected beings, and they fly at Brad Pitt, and they fly at other people, and then they fly at the screen. It's entertaining.

Yet I also find this frustrating, because films like 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later were slow and methodical "zombie" films. They're quiet in the beginning, and they remain quiet when they need to be. It builds tension in what's not happening and what we know will happen. This also makes the payoff ending, with the physical battles and the running, that much more meaningful and powerful. World War Z is the exact opposite. The film is a string of action sequences that are well done, but needs just a little bit more purpose with a more fleshed out scenario and characters in order to maximize the impact.

As it stands, World War Z is a fun ride for two hours, but it doesn't achieve much beyond that. It doesn't have the depth that other "zombie" films do, nor does it make the attempt. It is a big budgeted summer blockbuster that treats the zombie apocalypse film more like a disaster film, which works out just fine. Just do not go in expecting Dawn of the Dead (1978) style commentary on consumerism. You simply won't find it.

Grade: B

Summer of the Spaghetti Western: Django, Prepare a Coffin

The Summer of the Spaghetti Western has begun! It actually began a couple weeks back when I watched Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker! but that didn't really count because it was not technically what I called "summer." So here's the official start with Arrow Video's Blu-ray release of Django, Prepare a Coffin.

The name "Django" seems to be a bit of a buzz name these days with last year's release of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, but the name, character, and title "Django" has been a mainstay in the spaghetti western world for a long time. Beginning with 1966's Django directed by Sergio Corbucci, there have been numerous films featuring the Django character or simply having the name of the character in the title.

Django, Prepare a Coffin, directed by Ferdinando Baldi, doesn't quite live up to the standard of Corbucci's film. It delivers the dark, brooding Django character, originally played by Franco Nero, but this time played by Terence Hill. The character is given a new back story which involves his wife being murdered at the hands of a smarmy politician played by Horst Frank. From there, Django becomes a hangman and saves innocent people from being hanged, while also recruiting these people for an army he's creating to go against the smarmy politician.

While Django is, as stated before, dark and brooding, he also has a bizarre sense of justice that seems somewhat out of place. His constantly wanting to take villains alive just doesn't mesh with the purpose and focus of the character, which ultimately is revenge. There are also some unfortunately light moments and lines of dialogue that make an attempt at comedy, that do not fit in with the overall tone of the film. Terence Hill does a fantastic job following in Franco Nero's footsteps, but with the lighter moments and the character, who seems to have too strong of a moral center, the film doesn't entirely work for me. Not to mention it's nowhere near as violent or brutal as Corbucci's film, which takes away from the grave and dire situations that this Django faces.

It's not my favorite spaghetti western, but I did appreciate the performances by Hill and Frank, along with George Eastman, who plays one of the politician's head thugs. I should also note that Django, Prepare a Coffin has a great score by the Reverberi Brothers, parts of which were used for Gnarls Barkley's song Crazy. It's a catchy score and it's obvious why they would sample it.


Arrow Video has done a fine job with this Blu-ray release, and I'm guessing this is the best Django, Prepare a Coffin has ever looked and very well could be the best it ever will. I'd recommend it for those curious to explore the "Django" films, but don't expect a great film rivaling Corbucci's Django.