Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Of Unknown Origin (1983)

As recommended by Mitch at The Video Vacuum

Rounding off this month's series of reviews is Mitch's recommendation - Of Unknown Origin which he sold to me as "Robocop fights a killer rat". Well how the hell was I going to turn down a pitch like that? For one I'm a huge fan of Peter Weller, a hugely underrated actor whose distinctive voice and mannerisms make him a great, if unconventional, leading man. And secondly, the film was directed by George P Cosmatos, who went on to direct Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra - two of the most macho, over-the-top action films of the 80s. What would happen when these two got together? Well, to be honest I'd already gotten a little preview when I caught their 1989 team-up Leviathan - a okay-ish Alien rip-off - but I was hoping this earlier collaboration would be better.

Of Unknown Origin
sees Weller play Bart Hughes, a young businessman living an idyllic existence. He's just finished renovating his expensive New York Brownstone house, he's married to a beautiful wife (Shannon Tweed in one of her first performances*), and he's well on his way to making a fortune in his Wall Street job. When his wife plans a holiday he decides to stay at home and catch up on his work instead so that he can get a promotion. And it's when he's home alone that he starts to notice evidence that his house might have... a rat. So he starts setting traps and poison, but none of it works. You see this rat is smart and it's going to push Bart to the bring of sanity before he can find a way to kill it.

What I enjoyed about this film is that it combines two of my favourite movie subgenres:- "yuppies in peril" and "man vs animal". The film was obviously trying to make some pointed jabs at Weller's noveau riche businessman being forced to strip himself back to being a more primitive man in order to take down the rat. The lesson here is that all the money in the world won't stop a rat destroying your house if it wants to. The film also contains one of my favourite horror movie cliches where the lead character goes to a library and looks up exactly what they are going up against. You don't get that much nowadays, kids are more likely to look up stuff on wikipedia or google which is far less cinematic.

The film is
basically a one man show by Peter Weller. There's a couple of background characters and subplots here and there but the central focus is on Bart. I've got to say with a lesser actor this wouldn't have been as good. Weller has a lot of dialogue where he's talking to himself or taunting the rat. Usually this stuff comes off as really fake and amateurish (see: Diary of the Dead) but Weller has a knack for making it sound realistic. The film is definitely self aware of how ridiculous it all is though. Again, if they'd taken it too seriously it wouldn't have worked so well. In someways I would have liked a few more scenes away from the house but I can appreciate how keeping the film mostly set there built up far more suspense.

A lot has been said about director George P Cosmatos since he died. Both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone have made suggestions that he didn't direct much of Tombstone or Cobra. Regardless of these rumours his direction on Of Unknown Origin was first rate. Given that the film is mostly set in one location, with one actor it never feels slow or boring. He does a lot of rat POV shots, scurrying through the walls and makes great use of rat close-ups that make you squirm in your seat. And they will make you squirm, no matter how hard you think you are. If Jaws put people off swimming in the sea and Psycho put people off taking showers, this one will stop you from sitting down on the toilet for weeks.

also manages to make the rat seem genuinely very scary, which is quite hard when you think about. A lot of people might be reading this review and think "Oh it's only one rat, why all the fuss?" Yeah, it is one rat but it's the size of small dog! The bits where it manages to attack Weller are genuinely quite ferocious and terrifying. Sure, this is an 80s horror film but for once it's not about a body count. Cosmatos just wants to scare you stupid and that's got to be commended.

I'm trying to think of any faults I found with this but I just don't think there were any. Okay, maybe I found the size of the rat hard to gauge. In some shots it looked huge, in others it looked much smaller. Let's face it you either want to see a killer rat movie or you don't. If you do, watch this, if you don't, then don't. 


To read Mitch's original review click here

* For those with an interest, yes Tweed does show her usual... um assets as per all her films.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Adaptation (2002)

As recommended by Chris at Recently Viewed Movies

I thought it would be nice to take a break from action or sci-fi movies and review something a little different this week and Adaptation is definitely that. I was so pleased that Chris gave this a 10 out of 10 on his blog because it's probably one of my favourite movies. As someone who dabbles in film-making in my spare time it's an incredibly enjoyable film because it not only breaks down the difficulties and frustrations of putting a film together but it also does it in a playful and self-reflexive manner. I guess some could call it self indulgent but I don't think that was ever writer Charlie Kaufman's intention.

The film sees Nic Cage play a fictionalised version of Charlie (who wrote also the meta-fictional Being John Malkovich) who has been assigned the insanely difficult job adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief which concerns the exploits John Laroche, a poacher of orchids. While trying to write the script he attempts to interview Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) and Laroche (Chris Cooper) but still struggles to find a way of pulling out a narrative out of the book. All the while he's constantly harassed by his brother Donald (a fictional twin) who has just started writing scripts too but is a far more crass and hammy writer. In the end Charlie is forced to enlist the help of his brother but will it end up ruining his script?

I don't think you can start a film off in a bigger way than Adaptation does. It literally starts with the beginning of the universe before fast forwarding through billions of years of history and evolution until it arrives at Charlie Kaufman (played by Nic Cage) sitting at his typewriter trying to come up with a way to start his new screenplay. It perfectly encapsulates what it feels like being a screenwriter. You're constantly second guessing yourself, never thinking that you've written any thing of any worth, always trying to avoid horrible cliches.

It should be noted that the real Kaufman was genuinely given the assignment to adapt The Orchid Thief and he genuinely did struggle for years to try and turn it into a script. In the end, I think this film came out better because he took such creative license. The film took on its own life and became about the process of adaptation on several levels. Kaufman adapting the novel, the orchid adapting to its environment, Laroche adapting his poaching method by using Seminole Indians, and finally Kaufman adapting his writing methods in order to fit with Hollywood's conventions. Charlie Kaufman didn't stick himself in the film because he's vain, he put himself in because it was the only way he could conceivably complete the story.

Nic Cage is note perfect as both Kaufmans. He particularly excels at playing the happy-go-lucky Donald who wanders through the entire film with an irrepressible grin on his face. Streep and Cooper also both give very nuanced performances too (the latter being rewarded with a Best Supporting Oscar) but my favourite actor in the film is Brian Cox who has a small cameo as creative writing instructor Robert McKee (again, a real life figure). McKee's advice goes completely against everything Kaufman stands for. There's a very amusing bit where Kaufman attends McKee's lecture and his inner voiceover starts narrating what's happening before being abruptly cut off when McKee says voiceover should never be used as it's lazy screenwriting!

In fact, it's one of the most enjoyable elements of the film that as you're watching it, it slowly devolves into a more straight-forward (and ridiculously fictionalised) movie. Kaufman's idiot brother starts helping  with the script and it starts to follow more and more of McKee's advice. Have an active protagonist, have an end goal, have a three act structure, have an escalating sense of urgency.

I did read Orlean's book a while back and it is a very good read. I think the way the film concludes isn't a slight against Orlean's book it's more against Hollywood execs for their lack of awareness. One of the most overlooked performance of the film is Ron Livingston who plays Kaufman's agent Marty as a bored man-child who doesn't know what he's doing. It's implied that he's basically read the current bestseller list and picked the one at the top to be adapted without realising that it's non-fiction. There's also some pointed jabs at big budget Hollywood films in the fact that Donald's script The 3 (about a serial killer who has multiple personality disorder and one of these is the cop who is investigating the murders!) is terminally stupid but manages sells for seven figures.*

I guess I can see why Adaptation isn't universally loved as much as Kaufman's Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine. It is quite a cliquey concept - an in-joke for screenwriters gone way too far - but at the same time there's a nobility to it. Fact based films always end up changing history to fit a narrative structure (just look at Braveheart) and by refusing to properly adapt Orlean's book he's allowed her and Laroche to remain real people rather than fictional constructs.


To read Chris's original review click here

* If you're ever curious as to what The 3 would have been like check out James Mangold's Identity (2003)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Side Out (1990)

As recommended by Matt at Direct To Video Connoisseur

Wow, another C Thomas Howell flick. I almost turned this down seeing how I just got done reviewing him in The Sweeper. But then when I started watching this I realised The Sweeper was Howell in action mode, whereas this is Howell in comedy/drama mode so there was enough variation that I wouldn't be covering the same ground. Who knew the guy was such a versatile actor? Certainly not me, as I said in my last review I can only remember him in The Hitcher and ET. Oh and that horribly un-PC movie Soul Man where he blacks up to get into college.

Anyway, back to the plot. Howell plays Monroe Clark, a graduate from Milwaukee who's taken a summer job working for his Uncle Max's (Terry Kiser) law firm in LA. His first order of business is to evict Zack Barnes (Peter Horton), a one time volleyball prodigy who's fallen on hard times, from his beach front property. However, he finds Barnes is more slippery than he looks and quickly get side tracked playing volleyball with his wacky friend (TM) Wiley on the beach instead of working. Before long Monroe and Zack form an unlikely friendship and he ends up coaching the two guys for the upcoming volleyball championships. But when Wiley breaks his arm, Zack is forced to make the decision of a lifetime - should he step back into the game he left behind so many years ago?

Ah man, I'm a complete sucker for a good underdog sports movie. Sure, they all have the same plot beats - character loses, character trains, character wins - but I fall for them every time. It's one of life's rich ironies that I actively hate 99% of sports but like 99% of sports movies. I think its because in Rocky, Karate Kid, No Retreat No Surrender or Dodgeball I get a narrative to cling on to - the background on the athletes, the unseen story of them training - which you never really get in real life. Anyway, Side Out has all these cliches but it hits them so squarely and with such conviction that you can't help but like it. Also Side Out holds the honour of being one of the only movies about beach volleyball so you've got little choice if you want to watch a good beach volleyball movie.

Side Out is pitched somewhere between a comedy and a drama and feels very 80s considering it came out in 1990. Howell was really good as Monroe and made the character super likeable for the most part. There just one bit in the erratic middle act where he suddenly becomes an dick and gets his friend's arm broken that felt way out of character. The support was also great; Kiser makes for a great bad guy and Horton gives the role of Barnes some much needed pathos. It doesn't hurt that you get to see Courtney Thorne-Smith (who plays Monroe's on/off girlfriend Samantha) spend most of the movie wearing not a lot either. The only character that let it down was Christopher Rydell as Wiley, who was clearly trying to channel the great zany sidekicks of past 80s movies like Stiles from Teen Wolf or Duckie from Pretty in Pink, but didn't quite cut it as memorable or zany enough.

Got to congratulate the makers of Side Out on a great 90s soundtrack. Who knew Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" would make such a great training montage song (that's going on my running ipod mix). One thing I do have to question is the re-purposing of Kenny Loggins' song "Playing with the Boys". As I'm sure we're all aware that timeless power ballad was originally written for and used over the volleyball segment in Top Gun. I'm not sure what the idea was re-using it here (over an early match). Homage? (Possibly, as one of the opponents does have a flat top hairstyle like Iceman) Rip-off? Either way it invites unfavourable (and unnecessary) comparisons so I've got to knock a point off for that.

The other negative I've got is that Terry Kiser drops out of the film at the halfway point after making a speech about how Monroe will waste his life by not being a big shot lawyer like him. That's a nice anti-corporate lifestyle message but I would have liked his character to somehow turn up at the volleyball game at the end and witness his nephew win big. Ah, damn it I've gone and spoilt the ending haven't I? Damn. Sorry... oh, who am I kidding, of course he wins the game.

So there you have it. You want to see lots of scantily clad women? You want to see the redemptive character arc of Zack Barnes? You want to see a lot of C Thomas Howell's upper torso? You want to see the breathless atmosphere of volleyball captured on screen? Watch this. It's particularly effective if, like me, you watch it on a crappy rainy day. It's basically cinematic sunshine, kick back and let it brighten up your day.


To read Matt's original review click here

And as a bonus you can watch Side Out on youtube (with a few ads) at

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reader Recommendation: The Sweeper (1996)

As recommended by Ty and Brett at Comeuppance Reviews

Got to say I've never been a massive fan of C Thomas Howell. I remember him mostly from ET and The Hitcher and he was a pretty good child/teenage actor but grew up to be a kind of odd-looking adult. However The Sweeper blew all my preconceptions about him out of the water. In this he's totally badass cop, with a big goatee, killer sunglasses and a 'House of Pain' baseball cap. Although occasionally he mixes it up with a bandana but he still manages to make that look cool too.

So Howell plays Mark Goddard, your classic maverick cop who plays by his own rules. In a rather detached prologue we see him as a kid whose father (also a cop) gets killed by criminals in his own home. Flash forward twenty years and Mark is two steps from getting kicked out of the police for using excessive force. It's at this point that the mysterious Molls (Ed Lauter) steps in and recruits Mark in a clandestine black ops organisation that takes out the bad guys that the cops can't. Mark agrees to join but how much does he really know about these guys?

I've got to say my knowledge of PM Entertainment's movies isn't very wide (certainly far less than Ty and Brett's). I've caught the odd one here and there like Recoil and Riot when I've been watching Gary Daniels back catalogue but apart from those the only one I've definitely seen is their craptacular debut Shotgun - an amusingly poor riff on Lethal Weapon. It seems like these movies were on TV all the time in America but we never really got them in the UK. Not when I was growing up anyway.

Basically all you need to know is that throughout the 1990s PM made cheap movies with silly throwaway plots but stuffed them jam packed with awesome, highly creative stuntwork. And this flick is no exception. It's a veritable buffet of stunt work. There's a brilliant car chase involving gas exploding canisters, multiple shoot outs with lots of messy squib work and a rooftop chase that ends with Howell "going Punisher" on a bad guy and hanging him by the neck from a rope. Honestly, their stunts put a lot of big budget movies to shame. There's no digital effects here (they couldn't afford it) just straightforward, death defying stunts.

Howell is actually pretty good as Mark and there's nice support from Jeff Fahey, Ed Lauter and even a little cameo from Felton Perry (no doubt in reference to his role in Magnum Force, which also revolved around vigilante cops going above the law). Between this and Death Wish 3 Ed Lauter is fast becoming a walking sign post for crazy over-the-top action movies. I like that even though the film was very cliched they stuck in some humourous bits like when a group of drug dealers discuss getting their cocaine production ready for school children on Monday morning! I've got to say that's a horrible business plan, Friday or Saturday makes way more sense, kids will have spent their pocket money by Monday.

I don't really want to criticise the plot too heavily. It is what it is. At times I kind of felt like they'd figured out the action scenes first then strung them together with a few bits of plot. I mean the bad guy makes his getaway in a bi-plane of all vehicles! And at times PM's over-reliance on stunt work spoilt things a little - there were several times when you clearly see Jeff Fahey's stunt double is someone else which took me out the film a bit.

Overall though this was an above average flick that's got me interested in checking out more of PM's work. It's the kind of film you can easily picked up from a DVD store's bargain bin. But just because it's called a bargain "bin" doesn't mean it's trash!


To read Ty and Brett's original review click here

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reader Recommendation: I, Madman (1989)

As recommended by Franco at The Film Connoisseur

I've got to say I've never been much of a hardcore horror fan. The types of horror movies I do enjoy either have to have elaborate special effects or some clever story-telling hook. Thankfully I, Madman has a little of both these things but what really got me interested in it was that it was the sophomore effort by director Tibor Takacs. Takacs had made a minor splash in 1987 when he directed The Gate, a great little twisted variation on ET, Critters and Gremlins and all those other films about kids getting into supernatural trouble in the suburbs. If you haven't seen it, go see it now. Young Stephen Dorff finds a portal to hell in his backyard. 'Nuff said. Anyway, I had always gotten the impression that Takac's directing career had gone down the drain after he made that movie, reduced to directing the odd episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Syfy original films like Mansquito, but luckily he'd managed to make this little gem before that happened.

I Madman sees Jenny Wright play Virginia, a clerk at a large second hand bookshop who loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. Her current read is 'I, Madman' a lurid horror novel about a deranged doctor who kills people, cuts off various parts - noses, hair, ears - and stitches them onto his own face in order to impress an actress. However the more she reads the more she starts hallucinating that the doctor is real and is actually stalking her. Surely, her mind is playing tricks on her or is it? Meanwhile her cop boyfriend is getting called to grisly murder scenes night after night that seem to replicate exactly how people die in the book. Has the killer escaped the pages of the novel or is it the work of a psychopathic copycat fan?

What's great about I, Madman is that it's just a wonderful self referential concept for a horror film - what if you became so engrossed in a story that is started to seep into the real world? John Carpenter played with a similar concept a few years later with In the Mouth of Madness. On the one hand, this is a far tighter film than Carpenter's (which fired off in too many directions) but on the other hand it's also less ambitious. It's a smaller, neater story and probably all the better for it. Takacs gives the film a slightly dreamy, timeless feel; caught somewhere between 1980s and 1950s. I've also got to commend him for using grown-up characters when every other horror film of the period was using teenagers.

Another film that this reminded me of a little is A Nightmare on Elm Street, which also had a killer who was brought back to life by people's subconscious. Interestingly, the screenwriter of this, David Chaskin, also wrote the first Nightmare sequel - remember the one with gay undertones where Freddy Kruger actually breaks into the real world. Like I said it's a nice compact story with appropriately creepy bits and some nice twists. It's maybe too self-aware and campy to be genuinely scary. It's more the movie equivalent of a fairground 'ghost train'. There's some nice set pieces, one in particular lifts directly from Rear Window with Virginia trying to warn her piano playing neighbour across the street that the killer is in his house. Jenny Wright is pretty good as Virginia, she makes for an appealing and vulnerable lead without ever seeming stupid and there's good support from the rest of the cast too.
The central villain in I Madman is a pretty cool creation with a clever hook. He's played by Randall William Cook, who was actually the lead special effects man on the movie. He convinced the Takacs that he should play the role to save time. He doesn't get much dialogue but he cuts an imposing figure (I hope he got double pay for doing two jobs). In fact the special effects in the whole film are top notch. It's not an especially gory film, in fact it's probably quite restrained by contemporary standards. Takacs reuses one of the stop motion demons from The Gate in a couple of places. I've got to say although it looks very fake and takes you out of the film a little it really adds to the pulpy atmosphere so I'm glad he kept it in.

In terms of bad points, the film has one or two. There's a couple of scenes where the dialogue and suspense fall flat - in particular one scene where the killer corners Virginia in an elevator. It's just such a confined setting that instead of seeming intimidating it seems faintly ridiculous and the actors are clearly unsure how to play it. Also, the film really needed a few more twists, a couple of times as a viewer you're way ahead of the protagonist and it's a bit of a bore while they catch up with you. That said, I like how neatly Chaskin ties up the movie with a fun little fight scene.

I can't call I, Madman a full five star movie but it's very solid entertainment - the perfect movie to curl up with late at night. Takacs showed some real talent with this film and The Gate. It's a shame he disappeared into directing faceless TV movies because he had quite a tangible style and sense of humour that is quite rare in the horror genre.


To read Franco's original review click here