January 25, 2015

The Death Rattle's Top 30 of 2014

Movies I didn't get a chance to see that might have ended up on this list:

#30 ENEMY - The synopsis sounded interesting enough: a man looks for his doppelganger after seeing him in a movie. But what I wasn't expecting was for this to be as creepy and Lynchean as it is. ENEMY is one of the recent stops on actor Jake Gyllenhaal's path to becoming one of the more interesting leading men in the biz, and it features two of my favorite famous babes in supporting roles: Sarah Gadon (COSMOPOLIS) and Melanie Laurent (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). It's also the best movie of the year to feature a primarily gold-and-black color scheme!


#28 BLUE RUIN - A gritty, independently-produced revenge movie with an unlikely leading man. Stylish, emotional, and incredibly violent. Reminiscent of Simon Rumley's RED, WHITE AND BLUE.


#26 ALL IS LOST - Who'da thunk that Robert Redford stuck at sea would be so good? Making a one-setting (and, in some cases, one-man) movie interesting can be tricky, but this one manages to pull it off thanks to the unpredictable and ever-changing weather conditions, as well as some gorgeous cinematography to keep things interesting on a visual level.

#25 JOE - Like Steven Soderbergh, David Gordon Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) is a director who likes to go back and forth between mainstream "popcorn" fare and lesser-profile films that boast more artistic merit, which makes him one of the more interesting filmmakers working today. JOE is one of D-Double-G's more recent anti-Hollywood projects, and it revolves around a tragic character who takes a troubled boy from a damaged family under his wing. It features great performances from professional actors like Nicolas Cage and even better performances from non-actors, including a show-stealing portrayal of the boy's alcoholic father by an actual homeless man who Green found on the streets.

#24 RETURN TO NUKE 'EM HIGH VOL. 1 - I might be in the minority of people who truly loved this movie and I'm fine with that. It should be noted that I'm not a Lloyd Kaufman mark, nor am I an apologist for Troma. Truth be told, I don't even like the original CLASS OF NUKE 'EM HIGH movies all that much. But this one is so hilarious and absurd that I couldn't help but enjoy it, and it has a garish, 80s punk rock aesthetic that I love. "Unle Lloyd" literally throws everything at the wall with this movie, and whether any of it sticks or not is subjective; this just happened to work for me on numerous levels. Bring on volume 2!

#23 BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM - I've always been more of a Marvel guy than DC. I absolutely love Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy, but that's sort of where my interest in DC's cinematic and animated output begins and ends. This one appealed to me, though, because it's all about the villains, and I've always been a fan of the vastness of the rogues gallery when it comes to the Batman universe. ASSAULT ON ARKHAM is basically the Suicide Squad being awesome and wreaking havoc as they assume an anti-hero role against Batman's more established nemeses.

#22 THE SIGNAL - This was a big surprise. What I thought was gonna be just another Sci-Fi movie ended up being quite an extraordinary and visually-stunning superhero origin story of sorts. The film features somewhat of a Cyberpunk aesthetic, and, when it was all said and done, it reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE for reasons that I don't need to get into. I'm also officially a huge fan of actor Brenton Thwaites because of this movie.

#21 NOAH - This had trainwreck written all over it from the start, but I'll watch (and try my best to like) anything that Darren Aronofsky directs for as long as he's pumping out movies, regardless of what type of subject he's tackling. The story of Noah is so ridiculous in the first place, so it's only appropriate that Aronofsky disregards any sort of historical or Biblical accuracies right off the bat by incorporating giant rock-monsters into his movie, resulting in something that's more of a Sci-Fi disaster movie than an accurate portrayal of what many perceive to be a factual part of our planet's history. Aronofsky could have gone in any direction with this movie and I would've liked it just as muchif certain things remained intact, like the amazing cast and the gorgeous visuals. And, regardless of what my personal beliefs are and how much emotional investment I had in the mythology of Noah himself, I walked away from this lamenting the overall shitty condition of our precious planet, which, in my opinion, is a testament to the power of Aronofsky's latest.

#20 CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER - This was just a solid Action movie, plain and simple. Some of the fight sequences looked like they were choreographed and shot by Gareth Evans (minus the stabbings and broken body parts), which I certainly wasn't expecting, and I found the darkness to Cap's light in this movie to be very intriguing. The stinger at the end is also an exciting glimpse of Marvel's cinematic future.

#19 LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MY NAME IS PAUL HEYMAN - Lately I've only seen one or two of these WWE documentaries per year, but the ones I watch usually end up being really good. Either that or I'm just biased because I'm a wrestling fan and go into them with a built-in interest in the subject matter. In this particular case, the subject is former ECW mastermind Paul Heyman, who's always been one of my favorite talkers in wrestling. This is a pretty thorough, well-produced documentary that covers the highs and lows of his career with some cool behind-the-scenes footage to boot.

#18 BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY - A coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of a potato harvest in rural Maine. This is the type of movie that could go either way with people; some will appreciate it and some will be bored out of their minds. I obviously appreciate it. For starters it features two cast members of THE WIRE, which is the greatest show ever made. Seriously though, this is a solid indie film with a simple story about two friends who try to stick together despite being pulled apart by fate (and some bad choices). What sealed the deal for me is the small-town setting and how beautifully it's shot.

#17 FILTH - Based on what some believed to be an unadaptable book of the same name by Irvine Welsh (TRAINSPOTTING), FILTH features my favorite James McAvoy performance to date for whatever that's worth. This is a bonkers film with a great cast, a lot of style, and one of my favorite endings of the last year. Oh, and it's very Scottish, which is a plus if you're like me and are thoroughly amused by Scottish slang and thick accents.

#16 THE LEGO MOVIE - I don't watch a lot of kids movies because, well... I don't have kids. Don't want any either. But that's another story. Anyway, I made an exception for this one because I know a lot of people who saw it and they all raved about it. Turns out their ravings were accurate. The animation is spectacular and it's a fun ride full of amazing surprises that nerds everywhere will appreciate. If I could somehow acquire a version with the obnoxious "Everything is Awesome" song omitted, I'd like it even more.

#15 MALEFICENT - A visually stunning film that gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling for reasons that I can't put into words.

#14 COLD IN JULY - This is a movie that I wasn't crazy about at first, but, upon thinking about it more and more after the fact, I grew to appreciate it - especially once I learned that author Joe Lansdale was inspired to write the source material based on his dreams, which put this Revenge film in a new perspective for me. As a fan of all three, Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard are a joy to watch. Also, the use of "Wait" by Glam Metal band White Lion is easily my favorite use of a song in any movie from the last year.


#12 HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 - Again, I don't watch many kids movies, but I went out of my way to watch HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 and its predecessor after seeing the trailer for this one on the big screen. This is total eye-candy. I'm a fan of old-school, hand-drawn animation despite how rudimentary some of it looks because I appreciate the work that's put into it. It's not to say that computer animation doesn't require a lot of hard work, but someone (or a group of people) sitting down and spending hours tracing and coloring is a lot sexier to me than people plopped down in front of computers. Movies like this, however, are so stunning on a visual level that my preferences become irrelevant and I find myself in awe from start to end. Plus, I love the characters, and the designs of the dragons are wildly imaginative.

#11 X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST - I'm pretty biased when it comes to this one. I don't read comics anymore, but I used to be all about the X-Men back in the day when I did collect them. Or pretty much anything with "X" in the title in general. That said, I love all of the X-MEN movies (even the third one), so this one had to really shit the bed for me to not be all over its jock. Turns out this ended up being one of my favorite entries in the series so far. It's literally like the first three mashed up with FIRST CLASS, which introduced new characters and cast members, so, as a fan, I got the best of both worlds with DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. On top of that, it's entertaining and features a lot of eye-candy and great special effects. The plot is a mess but whatevs.




#7 GIRL RISING - I knew nothing about this one beforehand and picked it up just wanting to see something new. This is a documentary about young women from all over the world and different walks of life broken down into specific chapters with styles that vary from animation to live action to combinations of both. Each chapter also features narration from actresses like Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, and Liam Neeson. Oh wait, he's not an actress! Liam, you sneaky bugger. Seriously, though, this documentary is a creative way of giving us Westerners an insight into not only what young women in various parts of the world have to deal with on a daily basis but of other cultures and countries in general. You go girl!

#6 BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR - Because Adele Exarchopoulos pretty much.

#5 FRUITVALE STATION - Based on a true story, this is a heartbreaking and wonderfully-acted film that documents the final day of a young Bay Area resident who was killed by an improperly-trained police officer. This is just a solid film all across the board. Nuff said, yo.

#4 DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - Is it weird that some of my favorite performances in recent years have been from actors who we never see, and whose means of conveying dialogue are through sign language, grunts, and soundbites? Such was the case a few years back with Andy Serkis in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the case once again with Serkis reprising his role as Caesar in its sequel. Even more impressive this time around, however, are Toby Kebbell (DEAD MAN'S SHOES) and Nick Thurston (WHITE IRISH DRINKERS) as Koba and Blue Eyes respectively. While I think I prefer RISE over this one, I could really go either way depending on my mood. This is a solid sequel and director Matt Reeves has done some amazing work with this resurrection of the APES series. The thought of future chapters makes me want to beat my chest (or beat something else - ha!) with excitement. Hail Caesar!

#3 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - I'm sure you know at least one person who's raved about how fun this movie is. Well, I echo their sentiments. So there. Moving on.

#2 JODOROWSKY'S DUNE - This documentary came pretty close to taking the top spot. I hadn't even seen DUNE before watching this documentary but was well aware of its history (I've since watched it by the way), in that director Alejandro Jodorowsky (EL TOPO) was originally attached to the project before David Lynch and intended on making it the most ambitious film ever made. And even when David Lynch took over there was still some drama behind the scenes, resulting in Lynch disowning the studio's cut of the film. But this documentary isn't about Lynch; it's about Jodorowsky wanting to make his version of the film and how close (yet far) he came to doing so. It's about a determined, visionary (and very high) filmmaker assembling an army of artists to help bring what ended up being a doomed project to life. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE is an absolutely fascinating, eye-opening, and entertaining look at what some consider to be the holy grail of unmade movies and the most inspirational film that no one will ever see.

#1 MUSCLE SHOALS - This a beautifully-shot documentary about a legendary music studio in Alabama that produced a number of hits in the 60s and 70s thanks to some talented producers, miraculous session-musicians, and a magical vibe of the rural surroundings. This has everything that makes a music documentary work: style, gorgeous cinematography, memorable and insightful talking-head interviews, a complete lack of Dave Grohl, and, most importantly, a great story. Of course music is always a factor in the overall package, but it sort of comes with the territory in this case. If you have any appreciation whatsoever for the art of creating music, I guarantee this is one of the best documentaries you'll ever see.

*I watched GONE GIRL in between the time I compiled this list and posted it, and yeah, it definitely would've ended up in my Top 30.

January 15, 2015

Day of the Reaper (1984)

Directed by Tim Ritter. Starring Cathy O'Hanlon ("Jennifer"), Patrick Foster ("Doctor Block"), and Todd Nolf ("The Reaper"). Not Rated.

Source: Region 1 DVD (SRS Cinema)
Running time: 01:11:02
Country: USA

DAY OF THE REAPER is an obscure 80s slasher that was recently given a limited edition release by SRS Cinema on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray, and it's also the debut of director Tim Ritter.

The film immediately sets up a backstory that revolves around a young woman named Jennifer who survived the wrath of a deranged, cannibalistic killer. All of her friends were murdered and she remains the traumatized sole survivor. DAY OF THE REAPER is almost structured like two slasher movies that intertwine with each other: the original and its sequel. The original plays out through flashbacks and nightmare sequences while the sequel is the current storyline. As Jennifer goes about her recovery and grieving process, the masked killer breaks out of an asylum (or something like that) and returns to stalk her.

DAY OF THE REAPER is about as low-budget and amateurish as it gets. It makes DEADBEAT AT DAWN look like a Michael Bay movie. And I say that not as a criticism but as the truth. This was basically a movie that director Tim Ritter was determined to make, and he did so independently and with a small crew and very little resources. The intention was to simply bring an idea to life, not produce a film for mass consumption. And the final product is definitely reflective of someone who just made a movie with some friends and gave zero fucks in the process.

According to the DVD's commentary track with Ritter, the cast is basically made up of kids from the Drama class at his local high school - most of whom also doubled as crew members. Even Ritter himself plays a character - specifically the most unconvincing detective I've ever seen. The actor who plays the killer looks like some young surfer kid. Speaking of the killer, sometimes he appears unmasked but most of the time he wears an executioner-type hood. He also wears big black rubber gloves, like he just got done washing dishes at a local diner. But then again, Ritter did work as a dishwasher to finance the movie, so perhaps the gloves aren't a coincidence.

I love the Super 8 look of the film, which gives it the appearances of a fucked-up home movie, as if you searched the attic and discovered your siblings and/or parents made a gory slasher movie and never told anyone about it. The dubbing and "ADR" (if you can even call it that), however, is pretty bad. It sounds like a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the movie just recited the script with the enthusiasm of having to read an entry from a history book out loud to a classroom. The voiceovers do add to the entertainment value but are undeniably and glaringly bad. Most of the film doesn't even have dialogue anyway. Many scenes are accompanied by synth music that ranges from ominous to grating, and by grating I mean it sounds like the composer would just get bored and slam his head on the keyboard from time to time. On the plus side, the music-only scenes (combined with the unorthodox and fairly sloppy editing) result in a very nightmarish feel at times. In particular, there's a surreal and dreamlike sequence where Jennifer is being chased by the killer through the woods as what sounds like a hysterical rendition of Goblin's SUSPIRIA theme serves as the aural backdrop to the chase. This sequence ends with even more weirdness when the killer proceeds to climb a tree for some reason while his prey remains on the ground.

It should be said, all of my criticisms and observations are backed by respect and admiration. Ritter wanted to make a movie and he did, fueled only by his enthusiasm, friends, and a camera. Quality be damned! But, technical shortcomings aside, this is a pretty fun movie, especially once the final act kicks into gear and the killer faces off with another masked maniac. And the gore effects are good, too, all things considered. If you're interested in picking up some copies from SRS Cinema (if available), you can do so HERE. The DVD comes with a commentary track and a 20-something-minute slideshow of production photos.

Score: 6.5

January 2, 2015

The Death Rattle's Top 13 Horror Movies of 2014

2014 was a great year for movies and especially a great year for the horror genre. I didn't do any end-of-year lists for 2013 because I was on a hiatus, but you can check out my Horror list for 2012 HERE.

Feedback welcome and appreciated.

#13 WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (remake) - Expectations were low going into this for a number of reasons, but this ended up being a pretty solid remake all things considered. I'm a huge fan of the original and I still prefer it over this one, but the filmmaking duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici (STAKELAND) did a smart thing by making some simple changes to freshen up their Americanized take on it, like swapping genders and making some tweaks to the mythology of the cannibalistic family that serves as the film's focus.


#11 HELLBENDERS - This got some mixed reviews and I could understand some of the more negative ones after seeing it, but I quite enjoyed this horror-comedy from director J.T. Petty (THE BURROWERS) despite the horror and comedy not being well-balanced. For me this was concept over execution. The idea of a bunch of priests who are on a suicide mission and constantly go out of their way to sin as a means of luring demons is a great one. Even though it doesn't quite work on a few levels, HELLBENDERS was still a breath of fresh air for me.



#8 BENEATH - Respected horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden (HABIT, THE LAST WINTER) paid homage to the old-school with this throwback monster-in-a-lake movie. No fancy production, no crazy special effects; just a group of people in a boat and a big-ass fish with big-ass teeth that occasionally surfaces to terrorize said people. Some have complained about the minimalism of this movie and the low-budget appearance of the creature (it currently holds a 3.8 rating on IMDB), but those are the very reasons why I enjoyed this as much as I did. I also loved the interplay between the characters once the circumstances tested their loyalties to each other. Plus, things underwater just freak me out.

#7 STARRY EYES - This one got a lot of well-deserved buzz since its release. It tells a simple story of a struggling actress who resorts to black magic as a means of achieving stardom, and I was utterly impressed with how her slow transformation into something more than she bargained for played out. This is a stylish and nasty film with an outstanding synth score that brought to mind Goblin, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and even Giorgio Moroder. Definitely one of the better indie releases I had the pleasure of seeing over the last year.

#6 THE BABADOOK - Another hyped horror film that I decided to see once EXORCIST director William Friedkin gave it high praise. I personally didn't think it was that scary, but when it comes to ghost stories that blur the line between the paranormal and psychological, this one was a motherfucker (no pun intended). Stunning camera work, a top-notch performance from lead actress Essie Davis, and tension and spooks galore - not to mention some very envelope-pushing scenes involving a child that were carefully shot by director Jennifer Kent. Oh yeah, and it's directed by a woman. I have to mention that because everyone is making a big deal about it. Who cares? Women are just as capable of making films as good (and bad) as their male counterparts, so gender shouldn't even be an issue. Just my two cents.

#5 FOUND - This was perhaps the biggest surprise for me when it came to horror movies of the last year. Every other movie on this list was met with expectations (some more than others) except for this one. I went into it blind and was sold just on the synopsis of a young boy who discovers that his older brother is a serial killer. Quite simply: FOUND is dark as fuck. If you've ever seen Douglas Buck's CUTTING MOMENTS or his entire FAMILY PORTRAITS trilogy, this would be right at home (no pun intended) with those films, in that it peels away the layers of domesticity to reveal something utterly disturbing. In a way, it's also a love letter to video stores and the horror genre. Any of you who grew up during the height of video stores knows the thrill of going through the horror section when you were probably too young to do so and discovering new films and this is something that actually plays a part in FOUND.

#4 ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - I made it a point over the last year to better familiarize myself with the films of Jim Jarmusch (STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW). I only watched like five or six of his films that I'd never seen before, but it didn't take that long for me to understand and fall in love with his style. That said, it wasn't a hard sell for me to check out this new vampire movie of his. It's a somewhat sluggish but absolutely gorgeous film about the bond between a male and female vampire who have been around for hundreds of years. And, like Jarmusch's other films, music plays a big part in this one - and to great effect. The highlight for me, however, is how amazing Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are together. Watching them, you really do get the feeling they've known each other for centuries.

#3 OCULUS - Probably my second biggest horror surprise of 2014 behind FOUND. When the initial reviews for this one trickled their way on to the internet, they were mixed. So, with that in mind, on top of the fact that it's a WWE Films production, I was expecting something mediocre at best. Well, this ended up being one of the better mainstream horror movies of the last few years that I'd seen. OCULUS is surprisingly violent and effectively creepy. A good balance of cringe-inducing trauma and edge-of-your-seat moments of tension and dread. Pretty solid from from top to bottom. Also, Nebula from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

#2 WITCHING AND BITCHING - I'm not as enamored with director Álex de la Iglesia as most of those who are familiar with his work. He has some movies I quite enjoy, but he also has some movies that I find to be annoying or a little too over-the-top. Ironically, WITCHING AND BITCHING might be the most over-the-top movie I've seen of his, but yet I enjoyed it immensely. If you're a fan of horror-comedies (specifically Spanish horror... and Spanish comedy for that matter) and you haven't seen this one yet, do yourself a huge favor: check it out and don't let its awful title mislead you. Indeed there's a lot of witching and bitching in this, but mostly witching. The film sees a couple of bumbling bank robbers stumble upon a coven of witches and hilarity ensues. It features one of the best worst bank robberies ever committed to film and one of the most amazing, glorious, absurd climaxes I've ever seen.

#1 ABC'S OF DEATH 2 - There's really not much I can say about this one, nor do I have the time to sum up 26 short films. You either love these movies or hate them. Obviously I fall into the category of people who love them. While I enjoyed the first one more as a whole, I feel like this one had less duds. Anyone who's read my blog long enough knows that I love horror anthologies, so it goes without saying that an anthology of this magnitude gets me all excited and fuzzy-feeling. Not only do you get chapters that run the gamut of styles and evoke different reactions, these films are also a sampler for a shit-load of horror directors who you may not have heard of, and they give established filmmakers the opportunity to put something out there while in between projects. I hope the ABC'S OF DEATH series continues on for years to come.

January 1, 2015

Detective Story (2007)

Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Claude Maki ("Raita Takashima") and Kazuya Nakayama ("Raita Kazama"). Not Rated.

Source: Streaming on The Movie and Music Network
Running time: 01:39:14
Country: Japan

Takashi Miike is a director whose films I've always wanted to deeply explore ever since I saw his notorious J-Horror film AUDITION for the first time years ago. I got somewhat of a start as far as that's concerned but quickly realized he's very hit-or-miss. But, when you're as prolific a filmmaker as he is, variables of quality will be undeniable. What I love about Miike, though, regardless of how I feel about some of his lesser films, is that he clearly has an enthusiasm for cinema and storytelling on many levels. His movies range from bizarre and inaccessible to disturbing and violent to downright beautiful and compelling, and I'm sure there isn't a genre he hasn't tackled yet. Speaking of which, DETECTIVE STORY is a mash-up of genres and styles while remaining under the horror-comedy umbrella.

A bumbling private investigator named Raita Kazama teams up with his neighbor (who also shares the first name of Raita) to track down a serial killer. The killer may or may not be tied to a reclusive artist who draws inspiration from a German painter whose name escapes me at the moment. I'm not an art expert, so for the sake of comparison, let's just say that his works resemble H.R. Giger or someone of the sort. In other words, they're dark and morbid. But, whatever the case, the killer is targeting young women and removing their organs - each victim with a different organ removed and replaced with dirt, water, or something organic.

Shit kicks into gear when the first victim is found with her liver missing - clearly on the receiving end of a brutal attack. Prior to this, the film opens with a slow build and an introduction to our cast of quirky characters - the quirkiest of which being our protagonist Detective Kazama. DETECTIVE STORY takes its time setting everything up but we get enough of a glimpse into the inner-workings of the killer right off the bat that gives us a taste of what's to come. As the film goes on and the pace picks up a little, more women are killed and Kazama himself becomes a suspect as far as the real police are concerned. At one point, Kazama consults with an incarcerated killer a la Hannibal Lecter as a means of better understanding how a murderer thinks.

Contrary to the subject matter and content, DETECTIVE STORY doesn't have a particularly dark tone for the most part. It's more of a black comedy mixed with elements of neo-noir and even some physical, slapstick comedy, but it's still undeniably a horror film thanks to the inherent gore and a female ghost that haunts Kazama early in the film. The fact that Kazama is a P.I. lends itself well to the neo-noir feel. However, it should be said that this is more neo-noir in spirit rather than style. That said, the mash-ups of genres and styles works well. The comedy never distracts from the story at hand and successfully lightens things up enough for you to be charmed by the bumbling lead character rather than annoyed.

As far as the story, it's comparable to walking down a spiral staircase and not being able to see beyond a certain point. Once you reach the point of darkness, anything can happen. A door could open up just enough to shed some light, or you could wind up going further and further down to the point where you're in the bowels of the structure. The only guarantee is that whatever awaits you won't be pleasant. Perhaps that's a shitty analogy, but I was quite intrigued by how progressively unpredictable this became as the story unfolded. That said, it's only fitting that the biggest laugh was saved for the final scene. By the time it ended, I could have watched another hour. Maybe that's a testament to the pacing of the film, my emotional investment in the characters, or the type of filmmaker that Miike is. Bonus points for the solid avant-garde Jazz score.

Score: 7

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