December 30, 2016


Starring Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Ray James. Directed by Matt Johnson. (2016, 94 min).

Along with the JFK assassination, the notion that the Apollo moon landings were faked is one of the most infamous conspiracy theories of all time. Everyone from NASA to the CIA to Stanley Kubrick was involved, and we've been subjected to countless articles, books, TV shows and movies offering wild variations on the theory. If taken seriously (which you shouldn't), Operation Avalanche combines every paranoid suspicion into a single greatest hits package. But even paranoids might walk away from this one thinking, "So what?"

This is a found-footage mockumentary about two ambitious, low-level CIA agents tasked who infiltrate NASA posing as documentary filmmakers in order to root out a supposed Russian mole. When they discover that NASA is presently unable to get to the moon on schedule, Agent Johnson suggests using his film crew to fake the entire landing. This doesn't initially sit too well with the CIA or fellow Agent Williams, but they eventually go along with the elaborate ruse. Most of the film focuses on the crew's efforts to pull it off, even venturing to England, where director Stanley Kubrick is currently shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey, to get tips from the master. But it's soon obvious they are in over their heads and being watched, either by the Russians, their own government, or both.

"Peeps? I love Peeps!"
Operation Avalanche is one of those films where we admire the filmmakers' efforts far more than the finished product. The attention to period detail is impressive, as is the 16mm style in which it's shot. The cast, playing “themselves” (though I'm not sure how this renders it more authentic) is convincing and the mostly-improvised dialogue adds a considerable amount of realism to the proceedings. It's immediately obvious a huge amount of effort went into making the film look and sound like it came from the late 60s.

However, style – and a considerable helping of conceit - is really all it has going for it. Sure, we're impressed with how actual footage of Kubrick on-set is seemlessly worked into a scene, but it's basically just a special effects stunt saying, “Look what we can do.” Writer/director Matt Johnson also makes certain various classic film posters are prominent in numerous scenes, either as subtle narrative commentary or to show off his cinema smarts. These gimmicky, unnecessary distractions do little to help the actual story, which simply isn't interesting or suspenseful enough once the novelty of the director's bag of tricks wears off. The whole fake moon landing premise is so old-hat that this film feels like a waste of talent and resources.

As an interesting experiment, Operation Avalanche works...for about 30 minutes. While everyone involved deserves some kudos for trying something a bit different in the found footage genre, it doesn't amount to much you don't have some good old fashioned tension and drama to bail you out later.

Behind the Scenes: Operation Avalanche; Car Chase; Pool Party
The Making of Operation Avalanche”
The Creators Project: Reanimating Kubrick”
Writer/director Matt Johnson
Producer Matthew Miller, Editor Curt Lobb & FX Supervisor Tristan Zerafa
Directors of Photrography Andy Appelle & Jared Raab, Colorist Conor Fisher, 16mm Film Artist Pablo Perez

December 28, 2016

Rest in Peace, Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016)


It's only fitting that the newly remastered Phantasm and what's certainly its final sequel, Phantasm: Ravager, have been simultaneously released. The original, of course, is a beloved classic and remains a superlative example of budget-minded creativity. The other, intentionally or not, serves as a nice coda and love letter to legions of fans who've embraced this sporadically revisited franchise over the years.

Starring Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm. Directed by Don Coscarelli. (1979, 90 min).

"If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!”

That was the tagline used to promote Phantasm back in the summer of 1979. Coupled with an absolutely stunning trailer, which prominently featured the flying skull-drilling sphere that became a franchise trademark, the film was too enticing for a teenage horror fan like me to pass up.

Perhaps because I first saw it as a co-feature with Romero's Dawn of the Dead (which blew me away at the time), Phantasm didn't quite live up to its own hype (though few horror films ever actually do). The film's limited budget was obvious, the story sometimes incomprehensible and, Angus Scrimm notwithstanding, the performances strictly amateur night. Phantasm's patchwork attempts at surrealism ranged from suitably creepy to downright goofy. The only real constant was its inconsistency, and I must have been one of those who were already dead because I never found it particularly scary.

The Tall Man's rendition of Goodnight Moon provides little comfort.
Still, the dreamlike structure is effective, allowing writer/director Don Coscarelli and pals to unleash some moments of sheer brilliance that have made Phantasm a cult classic. The deadly sphere remains a wonderfully sinister creation. Despite the ad campaign and its prominence in subsequent sequels, the sphere only shows up a couple of times, but its arrival ushers in one of the greatest death scenes in modern horror history. And what more can be said about The Tall Man? As played with over-the-top gusto by Angus Scrimm, he may not be quite as iconic as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but he's a menacing villain in the classic boogeyman tradition. His sudden reappearance in the very final scene is as effective as horror gets; viewed as a stand-alone film, that scene still manages to induce chills.

Aesthetically, Phantasm is definitely a product of its time, but like digging out a high school yearbook to reminisce about the good times preserved on its pages, this 4K restoration (supervised by J.J. Abrams) makes it 1979 all over again. The film has never looked or sounded this good on home video, which helps compensate for the surprisingly underwhelming batch of bonus features. The audio commentary is pretty good and the vintage interview is interesting, but for such a relatively high profile re-release, one would think an all-new retrospective feature would be in order, especially since most of those interested in a disc like this have probably seen the film many times before (and already own DVD editions with more comprehensive extras).

AUDIO COMMENTARY (with writer/director Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm & Bill Thornbury).
1979 INTERVIEW (featuring Coscarelli & Scrimm...looks like a local cable access program).
TRAILERS (Original and Remastered)

Starring Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester. Directed by David Hartman. (2016, 86 min).

If Phantasm Remastered is like digging out your high school yearbook, then Phantasm: Ravager is like hooking up with old friends at your 40 year reunion. You're happy to see them once again, alive and well, but perhaps a tad melancholy because none of you are getting any younger and the prospect of never seeing them again afterwards looms larger with each reunion.

Such an analogy is fitting regarding the cast, all of whom return for this fourth sequel. Think about it...aside from occasional minor roles in other projects, the only time we ever see them onscreen is when they gather for another Phantasm film. It isn't simply one movie in their long career...Phantasm is their career. Like your reunion buddies, everyone's obviously older, heavier and balder, but other than that, they haven't changed a whit since you last saw them.

Nor has their situation. By now, it's well established that The Tall Man is unkillable, yet no one seems at-all aware of the utter futility in continuing to do battle with him. This time, the primary focus is on Reggie, a wise decision since Reggie Bannister was always the best actor of the bunch and is largely responsible for the surprising amount of humor in this entry. Though it's the only film not directed by Coscarelli (who co-writes and produces here), it's far more entertaining than Phantasm III & IV, both of which were downright terrible. Then again, what do I know? I'm in the extreme minority thinking Phantasm II remains the best one in the franchise.

Donald Trump comes to town.
Ravager is arguably closest in overall tone to the original, and if you aren't already a fan of the series, utterly incomprehensible. And that's okay because you weren't invited to the party, anyway. The story, such as it is, serves only to throw all the beloved Phantasm elements together one last time...the spheres, Jody's Hemi 'Cuda (now decked-out like a Mad Max vehicle), Reggie's four-barreled shotgun...even the Lady in Lavender. And, of course, The Tall Man looms large. He may not look or sound as menacing as he once did, but the late Angus Scrimm still gives it his all, his advancing age rendering this once-malevolent character oddly endearing.

In fact, despite all the violence, death and apocalyptic implications, Phantasm: Ravager ultimately becomes a charming feel-good film for those who grew up on the series. Over the course of 36 years and five films, no attempt has been made to push boundaries, go in new directions, clarify the ongoing story or even improve the sometimes-questionable technical aspects. Despite concluding just as ambiguously open-ended as the others, Ravager leaves little question that this reunion will be the last, and now it's time to bid a fond farewell.

AUDIO COMMENTARY (with director/co-writer David Hartman & producer/co-writer Don Coscarelli).
(from old friends)

December 26, 2016

BREAKHEART PASS and the Joy of Aging

Starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Jill Ireland, Richard Crenna, Charles Durning, David Huddleston, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, Robert Tessier, Joe Kapp, Sally Kirkland (but mostly Charles Bronson). Directed by Tom Gries. (1975, 95 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON 

Man, getting older is freaking awesome.

Remember when you were a little kid and falling down was part of your daily routine? Depending on the activities you engaged in, repeated face-plants were an expectation, after which you simply got back up, picked the gravel from your skin and went about your business. But as you get-on in years, falling becomes an event unto itself because you're seldom in situations where succumbing to gravity goes with the territory, and chances are this unexpected encounter with pavement could do a lot more damage than it did when you were six. It also tends to turn that next journey up the ladder into a potential Indiana Jones adventure.

Speaking of pain, I sure love those sudden unexplained internal bursts you sometimes feel for no discernible reason whatsoever. It's especially nice when they occur in the torso know, where most of the stuff you actually need for survival is located. What could be causing such pain? Cancer? Cardiac arrest? Did something vital simply decide to explode? The possibilities are endless and your mind entertains the worst of them, all of which end in death. However, when your doctor informs you it's just intestinal gas, his news feels nearly as good as that moment you stop hitting yourself with a hammer.

The best part of aging are the constant daily reminders of how old I really am. I'm no longer in the demographic sweet-spot coveted by advertisers and most media sex symbols are my oldest daughter's age. I'm never carded for buying beer at the supermarket, where baggers sometimes presumptuously ask if I need assistance hauling my groceries to the car. I can't relate to any music on the radio and feel the same way about rap that my parents did about heavy metal. I get junk mail from the AARP and regular reminders from my doctor I'm overdue for a colonoscopy. People in their 30s wax nostalgic for the 1990s while I still remember the 70s like they were yesterday.

But by far, my biggest reminder of the mercilessness of time is some of the movies I grew up with have started popping up with more regularity on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), beginning with Breakheart Pass.

TCM is a wonderful channel which allowed me to forgive Ted Turner for having the balls to colorize Casablanca in the 1980s. Some of you may be too young to remember AMC before they went into the Breaking Bad business, but the acronym used to stand for American Movie Classics and aired nothing but old films with minimal commercial interruption. Today, AMC is to movies what MTV is to actual music. TCM came along in 1994 to fill the void, showing films uncut with no commercials. And for the most part, the "CM" in TCM still stands for classic movies, the stuff Netflix and Redbox seldom bother with.

Not too long ago, it was Charles Bronson Day on TCM. They aired some of his all-time classics along with forgotten films like Villa Rides, Chato's Land and, to my horror, Breakheart Pass. I've always liked Charles Bronson and feel he never really got his due as an actor. He didn't have a ton of range, but was perfect for his roles and has appeared in some of my favorite classics, such as The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West. But while those films were already old when I first caught them on Channel 12 on Saturday afternoons, I saw Breakheart Pass in theaters when it was brand new.

"Could you leave the gloves on this time? I find them oddly arousing."
Certain memories fade over time, of course. I have only a vague recollection of my first kiss and the name of that lucky recipient. Hell, it's sometimes hard to remember what I had for dinner the night before. But, just like people who can still ramble-off their phone number from the house they grew up in, I vividly recall when and where I've seen nearly every film I ever paid to watch in a theater. My younger sister and I saw Breakheart Pass at the Jantzen Beach Tri-Cinema in 1975. The theater was part of Jantzen Beach Center, a mall located in Northeast Portland where an amusement park previously stood for nearly 50 years. I have no memory of the amusement park, which went out of business in 1970, but the carousel was restored to its original glory and continued operating inside the mall itself.

Mom and Dad would drop us off while they attended Portland Buckaroos hockey games. The Buckaroos were a minor league team that used to play in the Memorial Coliseum, but in their waning years as a franchise, were regulated to a tiny ice rink that seated a few hundred fans and shared the same parking lot as the mall. My parents (Dad especially) were die-hards who went to games nearly every weekend. On one particular Saturday, we had already seen the lone kids' movie playing (Disney's re-release of Blackbeard's Ghost) and since the other choice was rated R, Breakheart Pass it was. I don't recall me or my sister expressing any specific desire to see this film, but it was rated PG and, for me, simply going to the movies was always enjoyable, regardless of what was playing. It was also cheaper for my folks than buying two extra hockey tickets.

Speaking of movie ratings, PG was a lot different back in 1975. Today, PG is usually assigned to family films and animated fare for such vaguely amusing reasons as “thematic elements” or “rude humor.” Within the first 20 minutes of Breakheart Pass, a telegraph operator is unexpectedly shot point-blank in the head, the bullet leaving a fairly sizable exit wound in the back of his skull. That scene sort-of traumatized my sister (who was 9 at the time) and its sudden ferocity remains pretty potent even today (my wife gasped at this cinematic sucker-punch as we were watching TCM).

Even G-rated movies could be relatively hardcore back in the fun-loving 70s. 1971's The Andromeda Strain, with its brief-but-revealing glimpse of a dead woman's boobies, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where Chuck Heston is shot through the heart just before he triggers a doomsday bomb that obliterates the entire world, were given the same G rating as Walt Disney's The Aristocats. So either the MPAA thinks today's children are a bunch of pampered pussies, or the organization never knew what the fuck they were doing in the first place. Perhaps it's a little bit of both.

Despite eventually appearing on TCM to make me feel absolutely ancient, to consider Breakheart Pass an actual classic is probably being generous. But following 1974's Death Wish, Charles Bronson was a bankable action star who cranked out a couple of solid potboilers every year. None were high art, but usually a lot of fun and infinitely better than any of the career-stains he made in the 1980s for Cannon Films (who also gave Chuck Norris a bigger film career than he deserved).

Charles Bronson and his co-star in yet-another love scene.
Based on a novel by Allistair MacLean (who also wrote the screenplay), Breakheart Pass is a western/murder mystery set primary on-board a train bound for a military outpost where a diphtheria epidemic has broken out. They're supposed to deliver medicine and troop reinforcements, but when people go missing or start dying, it's obvious one or more of the passengers is a murderer. Bronson plays John Deakin, a notorious outlaw apprehended by Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson), who convinces Army Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) that Deakin must come along to face justice at their destination point. Meanwhile, everyone aboard is a suspect in the ongoing killings, which features a pretty impressive cast of actors where you go, “Hey, it's that guy. You know...what's his name.” As the story progresses, not everyone is what they seem, including Deakin himself, who turns out to be an undercover secret service agent. This journey is no rescue mission, either; the train is carrying stolen weapons and explosives for an illegal sale that involves notorious outlaw Levi Calhoun (you know...that homicidal tough guy from The Longest Yard...what's his name).

Aside from being a serviceable, mildly-entertaining diversion - and the aforementioned bullet-to-the-head scene - there's nothing especially unique, memorable or special about Breakheart Pass. Historically, it's just another Bronson vehicle made to cash in on his popularity. Now, it's just another old movie to fill TCM's schedule on Charles Bronson Day. The whole cast is now dead, the Buckaroos franchise has long-since folded and the original Jantzen Beach Center was bulldozed decades ago, including the theater and ice rink, as progress heralded the arrivals of superstores like Target, Best Buy and Home Depot. Even the landmark carousel is gone.

Sitting with my wife and watching Breakheart Pass for the first time since 1975 was a sobering experience. I vividly recall sharing popcorn with my sister in Auditorium #2 of the Jantzen Beach Tri-Cinema and staring up at Bronson's walnut face as though it were last weekend. Somehow, it doesn't seem right for the film to end up on TCM, not when I don't yet feel as old as most of the channel's other programming. 

As I write this, I'm 53 (incidentally, the same age as Charles Bronson when he was making Breakheart Pass). The everyday aches and pains of age notwithstanding (which I could probably remedy by stepping on a treadmill more often), 53 only feels old when I say it out loud, or when my seventh grade students act as though being in your 50s is an affliction to which they're immune. I suppose part of me always knew many of the movies I grew up with would likely show up on TCM...someday, when I really was old. Breakheart Pass is a subtle reminder that "someday" almost always arrives before you're mentally prepared.

Right now, those of you already in your 60s and 70s are probably saying, “You ain't seen nothing yet.”

December 24, 2016

Movie News: ALIEN: COVENANT First Trailer Released!

Witness the Creation of Fear.
20th Century Fox has released the first trailer for ALIEN: COVENANT! Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with ALIEN: COVENANT, a new chapter in his groundbreaking ALIEN franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. Check out the trailer below!
ALIEN: COVENANT Official Channels
hits theaters everywhere on May 19, 2017.

December 21, 2016


Well Go USA Entertainment brings two terrifying installments in the cult favorite Phantasm series from legendary writer/director Don Coscarelli, PHANTASM: RAVAGER and the original PHANTASM: REMASTERED, now on Blu-ray and DVD.


TO ENTER: Simply drop us a message in the KITTY CONTACT box near the top of our sidebar. Winner will be chosen at random and notified via e-mail. Deadline to enter is 1/1/2017.

David Hartman (Transformers Prime, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers) is the first new director of a film in the popular Phantasm series history with PHANTASM: RAVAGER, which features the entire original cast including Reggie Bannister – a veteran of all five films – A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Kat Lester. Angus Scrimm takes up his iconic role as the terrifying Tall Man for the fifth and final time.

PHANTASM: REMASTERED presents Mike, Jody, Reggie, and the Tall Man as they’ve never been seen before. For the first time in high-definition, follow the trio in the remastered original classic that started it all, in which two brothers discover their local mortuary hides a legion of hooded killer dwarfs, a flying drill-ball, and the demonic mortician who enslaves the souls of the damned.

December 20, 2016

Blu-Ray News: HACKSAW RIDGE on Digital HD February 7 and 4K Ultra HDk, Blu-ray, DVD & On Demand February 21

From Academy Award-Winning Director Mel Gibson, the Inspirational WWII Film Arrives on Digital HD February 7 and on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD on February 21 from Lionsgate

SANTA MONICA, CA (December 20, 2016) – Based in the incredible true story of one man’s faith, strength and courage during one of the bloodiest battles of WWII, the Golden Globe®-nominated Hacksaw Ridge arrives on Digital HD on February 7 and on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (plus Blu-ray and Digital HD), Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus DVD and Digital HD), DVD and On Demand February 21 from Summit Entertainment, a LIONSGATE Company. From Academy Award®-winning director Mel Gibson (Best Picture, Braveheart, 1995), with  screenplay by Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American) and Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner), Hacksaw Ridge features breathtaking visual effects and stunning production design and has been nominated for three Golden Globes®: Best Picture – Drama, Best Director – Motion Picture, and Best Actor – Motion Picture for Andrew Garfield. Garfield (The Amazing Spider-man) gives a moving performance as American hero Desmond Doss, alongside an all-star cast, including Sam Worthington (Avatar), Luke Bracey (Point Break), Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies), Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings franchise), Rachel Griffiths (Saving Mr. Banks), and Vince Vaughn (HBO’s “True Detective”).

Hacksaw Ridge is the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a gun. He was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon, as he believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers, was wounded by a grenade, and hit by snipers. Doss was the first conscientious objector to ever earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital HD releases feature an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the film in “The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge,” a comprehensive documentary detailing the making of the film, including the real-life people and story, casting, filming, special effects and stunts with interviews from Mel Gibson, Andrew Garfield and others. In addition, the release will contain deleted scenes and a special Veterans Day Greeting from Mel Gibson. The DVD will feature deleted scenes and the special Veterans Day Greeting. The 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray discs of Hacksaw Ridge will feature Dolby Atmos audio remixed specifically for the home theater environment to place and move audio anywhere in the room, including overhead. 

Blu-Ray News: THE GATE Arrives on Limited-Edition Blu-Ray on 2/28

The Vestron Video Collector’s Series unleashes unspeakable horrors when The Gate arrives for the first time on limited-edition Blu-ray on February 28 from Lionsgate. When two suburban kids accidentally open a portal filled with pint-sized demons hell-bent on taking over the planet, it’s up to them to seal the gateway and save mankind! The Gate features all-new, never-before-seen featurettes and audio commentary. A must-have for all classic horror fans, The Gate limited-edition Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray will be available for the suggested retail price of $39.97.

When best friends Glen and Terry stumble across a mysterious crystalline rock in Glen’s backyard, they quickly dig up the newly sodden lawn searching for more precious stones. Instead, they unearth The Gate — an underground chamber of terrifying demonic evil. The teenagers soon understand what evil they’ve released as they are overcome with an assortment of horrific experiences. With fiendish followers invading suburbia, it’s now up to the kids to discover the secret that can lock The Gate forever . . . if it’s not too late. 

Blu-Ray News: DEEPWATER HORIZON VR – 360° Virtual Reality Commentary


Deepwater Horizon available on Digital HD now and
on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-rayTM Combo Pack and DVD January 10th

SANTA MONICA, CA and VANCOUVER, BC (December 20, 2016) – To celebrate the Digital HD release of Deepwater Horizon Lionsgate is taking film commentary to the next level with the new Deepwater Horizon VR app, now available on iOS and Android mobile platforms. Using the new immersive Deepwater Horizon VR, fans will experience, for the first time ever, the thrill of being in the same room with director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day) as he dives into the critically acclaimed film Deepwater Horizon with exclusive commentary alongside editor Colby Parker Jr (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day).  Created by SubVRsive in partnership with Lionsgate, viewers will be surrounded by renderings and sketches of the various special effects used in the film, as Berg and Parker Jr. reference them.
“Lionsgate was one of the first media companies to embrace consumer applications for VR and we are dedicated to evolving our offerings to enhance the fan involvement in our content,” said Jim Packer, Lionsgate President of Worldwide TV & Digital Distribution. “With our VR app, fans fully immerse themselves in the world of Deepwater Horizon as seen through the eyes of our filmmakers, and it is a unique experience that adds a new dimension to home viewing.”

The mobile Deepwater Horizon VR experience includes three film scenes with commentary - only available via the app - and is free to download through the Apple App Store or Google Play. The first scene is fully accessible when the app is downloaded and the additional scenes are unlocked using audio recognition while viewing Deepwater Horizon.

The app can be used on an iPhone or Android smartphone with a compatible virtual reality viewing device such as Google Cardboard, which should be used while seated.  Alternately, users without a mobile VR viewer can enjoy the experience in 360 video mode. All instructions included with the compatible VR viewing device should be followed before use and such use should not continue if any discomfort or health reactions are experienced.

Google Play
Apple App Store


December 19, 2016

Movie News: BLADE RUNNER 2049 Teaser Trailer

In IMAX and Select Theaters October 6, 2017
Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what's left of society into chaos.  K's discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.



Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nine Arianda, John Kavanagh. Directed by Stephen Frears. (2016, 110 min).

The cool thing about Meryl Streep is she's instantly recognizable, yet we never find ourselves saying “Hey, there's Meryl Streep” whenever she's on the screen. All we see is the character she's disappeared into. I guess that's why she's been nominated for 19 Oscars - winning three - and one of the few living actors who can never be accused of phoning-it-in.

If I were a betting man, I'd say the odds are decent she'll get yet another nomination for her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (maybe even win it). Even if this film were terrible, Streep as the hapless title character makes it worth your time.

Fortunately, the movie is far from terrible.

Inspired by true events, Florence Foster Jenkins is about a New York socialite with a lifelong passion for music. Along with her husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she has always heavily supported the New York music scene, opera in particular. She also fancies herself a singer but, despite endless practice and training, is oblivious to the fact she doesn't possess a shred of talent. That doesn't stop her from trying to achieve her dream of performing at Carnegie Hall, hiring budding young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her on stage.

"Smoooooke on the in the sky..."
Florence also suffers from the debilitating effects of syphilis (there was no real cure back in 1944), which she contracted from her first husband and makes her current marriage to St. Clair somewhat unusual; they live apart and he keeps a mistress, though he's still devoted to Florence and her career. Aware she's a terrible singer, he continuously does his best to shield her from ridicule (such as bribing critics and hand-picking her audience). Meanwhile, after taking it onto herself to make a record, Jenkins becomes enormously popular with her peers and the public, mostly because she's laughably awful, but also because she's always been so kind-hearted and generous that she's earned a lot of goodwill from those in her social circle.

Florence Foster Jenkins gets to have its cake and eat it, too. The film mines a lot of laughs at Jenkins' expense, but at the same time, her utter sincerity is so endearing that we root for her, despite the fact she continuously makes a public fool of herself. While Streep deserves much of the credit, director Stephen Frears approaches his subject with the same attention to character complexity as he did with The Queen. Just as Queen Elizabeth was aloof but not cold-hearted, Jenkins may be blissfully unaware of her complete lack of talent and oblivious of what's said about her, but she's not presented as a fool. The same can be said for Grant as St. Clair, putting a sweet spin on his conniving cad routine; despite some of his unscrupulous actions, they're done with the best of intentions. Helberg is also terrific, stealing a few scenes for himself. Despite being initially horrified over what being associated with Jenkins might do to his career, Cosme grows to love and respect her, which Helberg conveys with more subtlety than one expects from a cast member of The Big Bang Theory.

Funny, sweet-natured and ultimately touching, Florence Foster Jenkins is a hard film not to like. With a story almost too strange to be true and another award-worthy performance by Streep, this one is not to be missed. You also might want to have some tissues handy.

FEATURETTES: “Ours is a Happy World” (featuring interviews with the cast); “The Music and Songs of Florence”; “From Script to Screen”; “Designing the Look”; “Live at Carnegie Hall” (a brief history of the venue); Meryl Streep Q&A; world premiere footage

December 16, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: MORGAN

Starring Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Michelle Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox. Directed by Luke Scott. (2016, 92 min).

The title character in Morgan is an artificially created young woman raised in a remote lab in the woods. Though she's only been alive for five years, her growth rate and intelligence has been significantly enhanced. The company behind the project has big plans for her, but after Morgan attacks a member of the team that created her, they send Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk-assessment specialist, to determine whether or not they should pull the plug on the whole thing. Of course, Morgan is just getting started...otherwise, no movie.

Yet another film which warns us the the consequences of genetic tampering, Morgan sort-of plays like a brooding variation of Species. Only instead of hot & horny Natasha Henstridge mating & killing her way through Los Angeles, our monster resembles the kind of hooded, emo teenager you might see slumped in the back of a high school classroom with photos of Black Veil Brides plastered all over her binder. It must be said, though, that Anya Taylor-Joy is quietly unnerving - and surprisingly sympathetic - in the role. We always feel like she could go postal at any second with little provocation, providing much of the film's tension.

Peanut butter and jelly can be a messy affair.
Morgan is a smarter movie than Species, though not nearly as much goofy fun, taking the premise far more seriously than it should. After a gonzo opening scene that promises a messy good time, the characters (none of whom are as interesting as Morgan herself) do a lot of talking and arguing before anything really exciting happens. Not only that, Mara's icy performance essentially gives away the big final plot twist the film has worked so hard to set up.

Still, while ultimately predictable, Morgan has enough moments to make it worth checking out. Paul Giamatti's glorified cameo as a hateful psychologist livens things up considerably and there are a few nifty death scenes. Director Luke Scott (Ridley's son) does an decent job in his feature film debut, showing some admirable restraint in resisting the urge to turn Morgan into an over-the-top spectacle.

Perhaps too much restraint in the end. During the final act, Morgan fizzles out just when it should be gaining momentum. Instead of a whiz-bang climax as a reward for the sporadically-interesting first hour, it devolves into a relatively routine chase and unsatisfactory coda that most viewers will see coming a mile away. Had they tried to have a bit more fun with the material, Morgan could have been a lively good time. As it is, the film is watchable, but probably nothing most would feel compelled to revisit that often.

FEATURETTE: “Modified Organism: The Science Behind Morgan”
LOOM” - A 20 minute sci-fi short by Luke Scott, starring Giovanni Ribisi (with optional commentary), which is arguably better than the feature film itself

December 13, 2016


Starring Tika Sumpter & Parker Sawyers. Directed by Richard Tanne. (2016, 84 min).

Politics aside, the Obamas are arguably the most personable and seemingly down-to-Earth couple to occupy the White House since John & Jackie. They've always been sort-of a package deal, and while I don't know them personally, I'm convinced they genuinely like each other. A lot of people must feel this way, otherwise a movie like Southside with You wouldn't exist.

This love letter to Obama fans definitely preaches to the converted, those unconditionally charmed by the couple...not as politicians, but as human beings. For them, Southside with You is about as sweet and congenial as a movie gets, and what makes it work so well is our inherent knowledge of who they'd eventually become.

The film is about their first date back in the late 80s. Well, at least Barack (Parker Sawyers) thinks it's a date, as he's already quite infatuated with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). She, however, is adamant that it isn't; the two work at the same corporate law firm and she feels dating a co-worker would damage her career. As we follow them around Chicago, he eventually wears her down, both through his charm and showing a side himself (which would someday serve him well as president) she didn't know he had; I'm specifically referring to an off-the-cuff speech Barack gives to inspire friends from his old neighborhood not to give up trying to get a community center built. It's one of the most emotionally uplifting moments in the film, along with the scene outside a Baskin-Robbins.

"Chicks dig me because I rarely wear underwear, and when I do it's usually something unusual."
While not a biography, we do learn quite a bit about the Obamas during their day together: their interests, their upbringing, the influence of their families and environment, some of the obstacles they've had to overcome (and still do), both as young lawyers and African-Americans. Yet the movie resists deifying these two; both are presented as everyday imperfect people, completely unaware of the what the future has in store; any semblance of greatness mostly comes from what the audience brings to the table. 

Both leads superficially resemble the future first couple, but their mannerisms and inflections (especially Sawyers) are remarkably convincing. As characters, we like these two enough that we're simply content to hang out with them for awhile, waiting in anticipation for Michelle to finally admit she's as smitten with Barack as he is with her.

Southside with You is essentially an 84 minute “meet-cute” which will have many viewers loving the Obamas even more than they already do. Others (including a lot of people I know) probably won't even give it a chance because of their own political views. That's too bad because the film is well acted, sweet and affably entertaining. But don't fret, detractors...perhaps someday, you'll get the story of Donald and Melania's first date (and it'll probably be a porno).

Original Artwork & Animations (in the style of Ernie Barnes, whose work is featured in the film)
Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Richard Tanne.
Digital Copy

December 12, 2016


From John Carpenter to Tony Todd,
Legends of the Horror Community Rally to
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Dread Central, the premier website for breaking news and in-depth original content in the world of horror, has announced that after a decade of independently serving fans, independent filmmakers, and studios, it will shift its operations to the publicly-funded service Patreon by March 2017.

"Due to sweeping shifts in studio advertising dollar allocation and the ever-shifting landscape of horror, if we are to survive, we need to make this change," said Dread Central Editor-in-Chief and horror pillar Steve Barton. "Over the past ten years, we’ve supported filmmakers and their projects by sharing their films with our extensive readership free of charge.  We don't want to sell out to a conglomerate or shut down the site so we are joining with crowdfunding platform Patreon to keep our independent voice.  We need everyone’s support."

Through a monthly subscription of just $1.00 a month, or $12.00 a year, via, Dread Central will be able to provide a new, ad-free experience with cutting-edge and exclusive content to horror enthusiasts and subscribers.  This move will ultimately allow the site to continue to support the unique voices of genre filmmakers worldwide.

"In order to survive, Dread Central must now become a publicly-funded service, and WE absolutely NEED to subscribe," said Halloween director John Carpenter. "$12.00 a year. $1.00 a month. That’s it, and Dread Central will remain able to continue to support the filmmaking community and horror audiences alike, with the love, care, and voice that they historically have."

"Patreon is all about making it easy for websites like Dread Central to connect with patrons and share exclusive content," said Jordan Cope, Patreon Creator Talent Lead.  "We're excited to partner with such a renowned horror website and can’t wait to be a part of the next decade of incredible work."

Founded in 2006 by Barton and long-time collaborator Jon Condit and staffed with such notable horror journalists as Staci Layne Wilson, Sean Decker, Andrew Kasch, Debi Moore, Buz Wallick, and countless other contributors (many of whom have gone on to filmmaking careers of their own), Dread Central has strived tirelessly to provide objective and all-inclusive coverage of horror cinema and culture in all its forms: from on-set visits to red carpet premieres and everything in between – all with an historic and keen eye on independent cinema.

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Just released with Moonlight Creek Publishing: the horror movie guide
When Animals Attack, edited by Vanessa Morgan

70 essays from Warren Fahy, Paul Kane, Matthew House, Aaron Christensen, Jonas Govaerts, and many others.

The definitive horror movie guide for fans of killers animals and “revenge of nature” films.

The following excerpt is a chapter by D.M. Anderson of FREE KITTENS MOVIE GUIDE, about William Castle's forgotten 1975 horror opus, BUG.

Bug was originally released just days before a certain great white shark came along to scare the bejeezus out of anyone with a pulse. While tens of millions showed up in droves to catch Jaws in the summer of 1975 (and subsequently stayed out of the ocean forever), Bug came and went virtually unnoticed.

Animals with nasty dispositions were suddenly all the rage, and slews of similar films followed in Jaws’ wake (no pun intended): Alligator, Dogs, Squirm, Piranha, Prophecy, Day of the Animals, Mako: The Jaws of Death, Tentacles, Orca, ad nauseum. One of the more successful Jaws rip-offs at the time was Grizzly, a low-budget scare fest released in 1976, with a plot so similar it could almost be considered plagiarism. As an impressionable 12-year-old recently stricken by Jaws fever, I couldn’t resist.

Back then, theaters often offered double features for your ticket, where new movies were accompanied by older ones of the same genre. Hence, Bug was back on the big screen as a co-feature (even if no one was pining for it).

Grizzly didn’t leave much of an impression. It was fun, but mostly because it followed the Jaws formula almost verbatim. Bug, however, was a different story, especially for a kid whose exposure to horror was still fairly limited. The violent deaths in Jaws and Grizzly were suitably graphic for 1970s PG movies, but Bug featured the most disturbing death I’d ever seen up to that point, when one of the title creatures barbecues a cat alive. I felt sickened and appalled as this unfortunate feline howled and thrashed about, trying in vain to detach this burning roach from its head.

Man, I was days getting over that.

Aside from depriving a kid of a few nights’ sleep as he wondered if they actually killed a cat for the sake of a shot (even today, that scene is pretty unnerving), Bug is mostly notable for being William Castle’s last hurrah as a filmmaker. In the 1950s and 1960s, Castle was one of many prolific producers of low-budget horror schlock. But unlike the Cormans and Arkoffs of the day, he’s best-remembered for the gimmicks he came up with in order to sell more tickets, such as offering fright insurance policies for patrons of Macabre and rigging theater seats with makeshift buzzers for The Tingler. Obviously, this wasn’t high art, but a lot of fun. Castle even managed to accidentally crank out a bonafide classic, The House on Haunted Hill, featuring his most gloriously-goofy gimmick, “Emergo,” in which a wire-tethered, red-eyed skeleton hovered over the audience.

As the 1960s wore on and moviegoers grew more jaded Castle’s tacky tricks seemed kind of quaint, no longer planting butts in seats like they used to. He made one noble stab at respectability (he’s responsible for getting Rosemary’s Baby off the ground, though Paramount refused to let him direct it) before relegating himself to churning out b-movie drive-in fodder – sans gimmicks - for the remainder of his career, with diminishing results. Bug ended up being Castle’s final film, though at this point he was apparently content to write and produce, leaving the directorial chores to Jeannot Szwarc, who’d go on to make a name for himself as the best guy available to helm Jaws 2.
Based on the 1973 novel, The Hephaestus Plague by Thomas Page, Bug begins with an earthquake, which rocks the inhabitants of a small California farming town. As if that isn’t bad enough, a previously undiscovered species of cockroach emerges from the fissures in the Earth. They’re attracted by combustion engines and capable of creating enough internal heat to ignite fires, resulting in the flaming deaths of a few locals and the aforementioned cat. Fortunately, they’re unable to survive very long above ground (something to do with atmospheric pressure). But unfortunately, college professor James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman) decides to play God and crossbreed them with domestic cockroaches, even though one of these firebugs just killed his wife by setting her ablaze. One would think any recently-widowed, right-thinking guy would prefer to ensure these critters’ total extinction. Instead, Parmiter becomes increasingly obsessed and unhinged. Retreating to a cabin, he isolates himself from the outside world in order to conduct his breeding experiments.
Meanwhile, each new generation he breeds becomes smarter and more indestructible, to the point they can gather en masse to literally spell out threatening messages on Parmiter’s wall... a laughable plot twist to any free thinking adult (how the hell did these bugs learn to spell?), but fairly ominous to 12-year-old kids in the 1970s who were generally unaccustomed to noticing plot holes. 

Like most horror films prior to Jaws, Bug tries for a dark, oppressive tone with the usual ominous resolution. Whether or not it succeeds is subjective, but for a dated film with a ridiculous premise, budget conscious production values, and “oh-come-on!” story turns, Bug works on a visceral level. It’s unlikely anyone watching this film will walk away thinking they’ve seen something great or groundbreaking, but there are many moments that are suitably unnerving, effectively exploiting our fears of creepy crawlies hiding in places we always dreaded they would. Aided immeasurably by clever camerawork and a weird-ass music score by Charles Fox (mostly known for Killing Me Softly and some TV theme songs), Bug gives us some truly hateful, malevolent creatures.

Additional kudos must go to Bradford Dillman, who was always a decent character actor, though never particularly memorable. In a rare leading role, he portrays Parmiter with over-the-top gusto, treading a fine line between scientific curiosity and total insanity. He’s forced to utter some inane expositional dialogue, but he does it with enough conviction that, at least in the moment, we buy into his delirium.

Bug hasn’t aged particularly well, nor does it display any unique directorial skill. Still, despite some unintentionally humorous moments, the film provides a surprisingly bleak - even nihilistic - suggestion that humankind’s dominance (and arrogance) as a species could be usurped at any given time. Of course, it’s unlikely William Castle had such a lofty message in mind at the time. He apparently still had a bit of the old huckster left in him as well, coming up with an idea to rig theaters with brushes that simulate bugs crawling up the audience’s legs. Unfortunately, this cheeky gimmick never happened. Too bad... it would have been a nifty capper to an endearing legacy.

Finally, here’s a bit of trivia for anyone who grew up in the 1970s... if Parmiter’s kitchen and living room stirs strong feelings of deja vu, that’s because it’s the same iconic set used in all five seasons of The Brady Bunch.

WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK is now available at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon FR