Archive

Posts Tagged ‘mystery film’

Altitude (2010)

06/20/2011 2 comments

Some cryptozoologists have described accounts of creatures called “atmospheric beasts”, non-winged creatures that dwell in the antmospheres of planets. Carl Sagan proposed that such creatures could potentially live in the atmosphere of gas giants like Jupiter, while more esoteric thinkers have speculated that UFO sightings might actually be eyewitness accounts of atmospheric beasts in Earth’s stratosphere. Well, if people can imagine it, other people can make a movie out of it, and this one decided to pass this phenomenon through the Lovecraft filter. How well did it do? Let’s find out.

Altitude is a Lovecraftian horror film directed by Canadian comic book writer and artist Kaare Andrews. It stars Jessica Lowndes, Julianna Guill, Landon Loboiron, Ryan Donowho, and a big tentacle monster.

When Sara was a little girl, her mother was killed when the plane she was flying crashed into another plane in midair, also killing two of the three passengers. Nobody knew where the other plane had come from, and it would remain a mystery for years. Fortunately, the threat of random ninja planes has not dissuaded Sara from getting her own pilot’s license, and years later she plans to fly herself and four friends to Montreal in another small plane. Sara’s boyfriend Bruce is nervous about the flight, but the others (resident douchebag Sal, his girlfriend Mel, and Sara’s cousin Cory) are excited about the trip, so Bruce grins and bears it for Sara’s sake. However, midflight a bolt in the tail comes loose, jamming the elevator and sending the plane into an uncontrolled climb. As Sara tries to regain control of the small plane, their trajectory sends them into a storm, where they lose all radio contact with the ground. This would be bad enough, were it not for the tentacle monster living in the storm…

I found this movie fairly randomly on Netflix, and when it arrived this weekend I mentally shrugged and said, “what the hell”. I’d seen some good indie movies from Canada (Cube comes to mind), and I was a fan of well-done Lovecraftian horror (see also Event Horizon). However, this movie had two strikes against it right off the bat. First, it was a direct-to-video feature. I’d seen some entertaining DTV movies in my day, and while many of them were entertaining, the overwhelming majority were hilariously bad. Secondly, director Kaare Andrews is better known for his comic books than his movies – Altitude being his first feature film. While this means that he has a good sense for visuals, Frank Miller has shown us that being a bitchin’ comics guy does not mean you will necessarily be a bitchin’ movies guy.

The story did hold some promise, in a Twilight Zone sort of way, offering a weird random phenomenon that could not be adequately explained by the laws of science, but in actual execution it fell flat. We are given only the briefest characterization for the core cast before the story unfolds, not nearly enough to make the viewer care about these people even in the last third when the really hinky stuff starts happening in earnest. While this movie is relatively short – only about an hour and a half long – most of the parts that did not involve solving the plane’s malfunction or the plane and its passengers being tentacle raped by the cloud monster felt like padding. In truth, a lot of this filler could have been trimmed out, and the result shown as an episode of Tales from the Darkside or The Twilight Zone. When things start getting really twisty at the end, I was left feeling less like, “Oh, that was clever” and more, “Where the hell did that come from?!” There are good twists and lazy twists, and this felt like a lazy twist. This, coupled with dodgy special effects, left me feeling like this could have been a much better movie is more effort had been put into it.

I will be the first to admit that it is difficult to make a good Lovecraft pastiche, but in the case of Altitude, it started out in the real world, set a course for Lovecraft Country, but overshot and crashlanded in the Twilight Zone. It’s a badly assembled collection of parts that might have been good, but ended up mediocre. Give this one a miss.

Final Destination 3 (2006)

06/13/2011 1 comment

One of the most intense fears humanity has, one that is almost unique to our species, is the fear of losing control. This fear can run under the surface of many disorders, like OCD and its milder cousin, the “control freak” instinct. Of course, no matter what people do to control their environment, to make things as safe as possible, all that gets tossed out the window when Death points a bony finger in your direction…

Final Destination 3 is a horror film directed by James Wong, the third movie in the Final Destination series. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Merriman, Kris Lemche, Alexz Johnson, Sam Easton, Jenne Moss, with Tony Todd providing the voice of the Devil (no, really).

Six years have passed since the Flight 180 tragedy (see also Final Destination). A group of high school students visit an amusement park as a last huzzah before graduation, and they decide to ride a roller coaster called the Devil’s Flight (with a giant fiberglass devil out front hawking the ride). Control freak and school photographer Wendy has a premonition that the ride will crash and kill everyone aboard, and freaks out enough to get herself and a bunch of her fellow riders removed, while her boyfriend rides on in another train. Hilarity ensues as she foresaw, and as she mourns the loss of her boyfriend, life goes on. She plans to pick up her diploma and get the hell out of McKinley and its tragic memories, never to look back. Of course, this being a Final Destination movie, the laws of physics and narrative horror have other plans in mind, as the people scheduled to die in the roller coaster crash start getting picked off in the order they would have sat on the roller coaster train, Wendy finds herself in a race against time to unlock the clues in her amusement park photos and save people from the laws of physics…

The overall concept of the third movie remains sound within the FD-verse, opening with the roller coaster as a metaphor for loss of control and the “safe” scares of horror movies in general. This time, though, the cast of victims are unconnected to Flight 180 aside from knowing about the events surrounding it (whereas the bunch in FD2 had been saved in roundabout ways by the initial survival of the cast of the first movie), and therefore their place in Death’s plan is incidental at best; they were supposed to die, and they didn’t. Regardless, Death seems to be getting a little peeved at people surviving the disasters he cooks up, so the deaths are becoming more brutal: death by burning in a tanning booth, an engine fan to the back of the head, death by nailgun, and so forth. After the engine fan death, Wendy even notes that the accident seems pretty vicious. It seems that this time around it is less about balancing Death’s books and more about punishing the escapees. Cleverly, though, if you pay attention during the opening, an alert viewer will notice that every single death is foreshadowed at the amusement park, and not just through Wendy’s prophetic photos.

Of course, escalating the level of violence in a horror movie can still work, if you have a good cast of talented actors portraying sympathetic characters. Here, you have three fairly sympathetic characters (Wendy, her sister Julie, and her boyfriend’s best friend Kevin) alongside a couple of snobby Paris Hilton clones named Ashley and Ashlynn (urgh…), an oversexed douchebag with a video camera named Frankie, an arrogant football star named Lewis that cares more about the game than the harbingers of doom, and the Wonder Goth Twins Ian and Erin, who call each other Zip and Pip. However, amid the expected failures in failsafe devices and basic common sense, Ian is briefly redeemed by following basic safety procedures on the forklift at the hardware store where he works with Erin, narrowly avoiding turning that sequence into a rehash of Forklift Driver Klaus and instead turning it into a freak-accident shout-out to The Nailgun Massacre. Then he snaps out after Erin’s death and we start waiting for him to die horribly. However, while FD3 tries hard to put the fear of freak accidents into its viewers, and at least one of the death sequences does offer a nod to urban legend (the tanning bed sequence), it appears that the Final Destination franchise is starting to lose steam in this installment, relying more on gore and shock value for its scares than building suspense.

While Final Destination 3 is starting to show signs that the franchise is going a bit stale, fans of the first two installments and slasher movies in general should largely enjoy this contribution to a world where mechanical safeguards can be rendered moot by a force of nature. Afterwards, why not go to a park this summer and ride the roller coasters? After all, they’re perfectly safe…

The Usual Suspects (1995)


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


Star Trekkin’
Across the universe
On the starship Enterprise
Under Captain Kirk
Star Trekkin’
Across the Universe
Boldly going forward
Coz we can’t find reverse!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a science fiction film based on the original Star Trek television series. It was directed by Robert Wise and stars the core cast of that series: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.

In deep space, a Starfleet monitoring station detects an alien force hidden in a cloud of energy, headed for Earth. As Space Anomaly #237 continues on this route, it eats three Klingon ships and the monitoring station in question, prompting Starfleet to recommission Admiral James T. Kirk, currently languishing as a desk jockey in San Francisco as Chief of Starfleet Operations. While the Enterprise is undergoing a refit under the supervision of a new commander, Captain Decker, Kirk’s superior experience with Hinky Shit in Space makes him a superior choice of captain in this case, and Decker is unhappily kicked downstairs while Kirk’s old crew is hunted down and reassembled for the mission, including Spock, who was undergoing a Vulcan ritual to purge all emotion from him when he felt a consciousness that he believes emanates from the cloud. A new addition to the crew is the navigator, Ilia, a member of an alien race that pumps out mad pheromones but, per regulations, she has taken a vow of celibacy so she doesn’t disrupt the crew. When the Enterprise intercepts the cloud, it probes the enterprise and abducts Ilia, replacing her with a robotic double with a single mission: to gather information. All the while, though, the cloud continues barreling for Earth, hell-bent on completing a mission started over 300 years ago, and it is a race against time for the Enterprise to find out what this mission was, and how to help the alien entity fulfill it before it destroys the planet Earth.

When Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, Gene Roddenberry recognized the potential that the franchise still held and lobbied Paramount to continue the series through feature-length films. Based on the continued success of Star Trek in syndication, the studio started bashing away at a Star Trek film in 1975, but the project hung in limbo until 1978, after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind convinced them once and for all that sci fi films other than Star Wars could be successful. Consequently, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (expanding a plot intended for the pilot episode of Star Trek: Phase II, a show that ultimately never materialized) became a Proof of Concept that Trek could work in the film medium. As far as that went, ST: TMP fared well. It opened the door to more impressive films like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and a multi-film story arc involving the heroic sacrifice and subsequent resurrection of Spock.

That said, it’s not a perfect film. The special effects were decent for 1979, especially considering that CGI wouldn’t even be a twinkle in Hollywood’s eye for two more years, but the Chromakey effects seem dated by today’s standards. The acting is pretty good, though, and the story keeps you engaged throughout without lagging or padding. I suspected right off that Ilia and Decker were going to be one-off Red Shirts for the movie, but the way they executed their final fates was imaginative and ingenius. The ultimate identity of the being V’Ger came as a nice surprise, too, and helped to link the Trek Verse with the “Real World”, albeit centuries in the future. There were a few points I didn’t immediately understand, having only seen a handful of episodes from the original series, but my roommate, a huge Trek fan, was able to help me fill in the gaps.

While it is not necessary to watch this film to understand the later entries in the Star Trek film series, I would recommend this to Trek fans as a glimpse into the beginnings of the Star Trek film franchise. While many points may go over the heads of non-Trekkies, it fares well as a stand-alone science fiction story, and I think most fans of the genre will enjoy it.

Blogger’s note: “Star Trekkin'” is owned by The Firm, copyright 1987. I am using it here without permission. All rights reserved, live long and prosper.

The Abyss (1989)


About two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water. While science has pretty well figured out what lives on all the landmasses, the depths of the ocean remain a mystery. So far we’ve only caught glimpses of the strange, nearly-alien lifeforms that can withstand the crushing pressure in the deepest portions of the ocean, and its unlikely that were can ever know everything about the sea. We can only hope that whatever’s down there is friendly.

The Abyss is a science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Beihn, and some really neat CGI effects created the hard way. Because it’s a James Cameron film, that’s why.

It is the height of the Cold War. When the U.S.S. Montana sinks near the Cayman Trench after an encounter with something unknown, the Soviets waste no time in sending ships and subs to recover the submarine and its warhead. With a hurricaine moving in, the Americans decide that the quickest way to get to the sub before the Soviets do is to insert a team of Navy SEALs into a privately-owned experimental underwater oil platform called the Deep Core and use that as a base of operations. Lindsay Brigman, the designer of the platform, insists on going along, even though she knows that her estranged husband, Bud Brigman, is serving as the platform’s foreman. Things get complicated when the salvage team tries to determine the cause of the Montana‘s failure, and spot strange, apparently intelligent creatures down there with them. The situation goes from bad to worse when the hurricaine hits above them and they are unable to untether themselves from the Benthic Explorer before its crane breaks off in the storm, nearly pulling the Core into the Trench. Now trapped far underwater, they must decide the best method of recovering and disarming the Montana‘s nuclear missile, while all the time something unknown and inhuman is watching them…

James Cameron does not make small movies. Even when he has a small budget, he makes big movies. For The Abyss, he had a big vision that, unfortunately, outstripped the capabilities of special effects at the time. As a result, almost a half hour of footage was cut out of the theatrical release until Cameron was able to find a way to make it look good. Fortunately, I had the privilege of watching the Special Edition (sometimes erroneously called the Director’s Cut, even though Cameron did the original surgery himself), and it definitely fills in a few of the holes leftover in the theatrical release, like why are the water beings there and what the hell happened to the hurricaine at the end. The underwater setting is spooky and haunting, reminding us how little we know about this particular biome, and the interior shots are claustrophobic in a way that reminds me of the original Alien, and for similar reasons: there is nowhere to run. There is no escape. In this case, though, the main internal threat comes in the form of a Navy SEAL suffering High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, one of many true-life phenomena that Cameron included to give the story a nice ring of verisimilitude.

The plot was slow to develop, but engaging all the same. While the first third seemed like it was just going to be a deep sea drama, giving the audience time to meet the characters and learn about the setting and its hazards offered a chance to identify with the cast before weird stuff starts happening. As such, I had a chance to sympathize and care about these people, and I was definitely rooting for Bud during his moment of truth in the Trench. Some people criticized the Brigman estrangement subplot, pointing out the possibility that it had been inspired by Cameron’s own pending divorce, but I felt it added a layer of human drama to it, setting up a believeable reconciliation at the end. The alien beings were alien enough that they were definitely outside the realm of People in Suits, and the fact that all their technology was water-based offered a glimpse of the true possibilities of intelligent alien life. Interesting note: At the time this movie was made, CGI technology didn’t exist to create effects that shared a scene and interacted with human actors, so for example with the water tentacle Cameron made live-action models of the tentacle, and filmed the set from every angle so it could be digitally recreated with the water tentacle in place. In the end, ILM spent six months to create 75 seconds of really awesome looking footage.

If you’re in the mood for a sci fi drama with just as much drama as sci fi, check out The Abyss. It doesn’t get overwhelmed by the special effects, and in the end the human plot is every bit as crucial to the story as the alien plot. James Cameron wins again.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

04/19/2011 1 comment

Some horror movies work because you don’t know why things are happening. Of course, humans are curious creatures, and when faced with terrifying, inexplicable phenomena, we try to figure out what is going on and why. This is both a minor failing and a major boon for the species, as it helps us understand the world when we risk getting eaten by it. A number of horror movie sequels try to explain what happened in the first one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How does this one fare? Let’s find out.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a supernatural horror film directed by Tod Williams, serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. It stars Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Seth Ginsberg, Sprague Grayden, and Micah Sloat.

In the year 2006, new parents Kristi and Dan Rey find themselves faced with a chilling event: their house has apparently been burglarized, with every single room ransacked save for the nursery. However, the only item that has been taken is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie. Justifiably spooked, Dan installs a number of security cameras around the house, through whose neutral eyes we witness the events that unfold throughout the film. Over the next few days, Kristi and Ali, Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage, start to hear strange noises and see items moved by an unseen forces, and their housekeeper and nanny Martine is convinced that they are being tormented by evil spirits. Dan is skeptical, and fires Martine after her repeated attempts at spiritual cleansing. All the while, though, the security cameras continue to record, until it becomes apparent that the spooky activity is centered around baby Hunter, and it might be connected with a secret in Kristi’s family’s past…

I enjoyed this one about as much as I did the first movie. In haunted house franchises like this, too often the attempts to explain or justify the haunting makes it something lame, but not so here. While the collective plight of Katie and Micah from the first movie is given an explanation, the reason behind it makes their situation seem so much worse. This, paired with the stinger at the end, combines to chilling effect as you see the ultimate result of Dan’s final decision. Watching the first one along with this one helps a lot, especially as the timeframe of the second one is established relative to the first. The ending definitely leaves you with an “Aw, crap!” feeling that sticks with you.

As with the first, the characters here feel like real people. Dan’s attempts to reckon with the mysterious activity mirrors Micah’s from the first movie, but he’s less of a dick about it and he genuinely comes off as wanting to protect his new family. The role of poking the demon with a stick falls to older daughter Ali, who believes in the paranormal but doesn’t recognize the danger of the hauntings until much later, and her boyfriend Brad, who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Ali parses out a likely reason for the demon to torment their family through her research, and in the context of the tale it appears chillingly plausible. Her attempts to contact the thing with an Ouija board get half a pass here, as she had no psychic to warn her against such a thing, but even so she seems like she should know how stupid that would be. At least she doesn’t make their situation (much) worse with her messing around.

If you liked the first Paranormal Activity, you will likely enjoy Paranormal Activity 2. It expands on the overall story and explains some of the unseen spectre’s motives, without ruining the perceived menace. I do recommend watching the first movie before watching this one, so things make sense, but this one is a pretty spooky movie in its own right.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)


If you could go back and change any event in your past, would you? Can you imagine the consequences of doing so? What if your every effort to make things better only makes things worse? What if fate is just a sadistic bastard?

The Butterfly Effect is a drama-sci fi film co-directed and co written by Eric Bess and J. Mackye Gruber. It stars Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, and Elden Hensen, andthe Director’s Cut sports one of the most depressing endings I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t about the Holocaust.

Evan Treborn has long suffered stress-related blackouts during traumatic events in his childhood and adolescence. In an effort to get a handle on what is going on during the missing periods, he has kept a series of journals over the years from the age of seven to the present day. By age 20, it has been seven years since his last blackout, but he discovers that he can use these journals to mentally travel back in time to these traumatic events, thereby causing the blackouts in the first place, and in doing so he tries to alter his own past for the better. However, each time he tries to change things, he causes an unintended ripple effect to the present with unintended and unpleasant consequences for everyone involved.

So. Ashton Kutcher. Ashton “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Kutcher, in a dark drama about a guy’s messed-up past and progressively more mess-up present. Yeah. Fortunately, Kutcher does drama well, which can cause a bit of whiplash considering he was in three comedies immediately before this and went on to host Punk’d, but hey. Not many comedic actors can pull that off. I consider this movie to be the evil counterpart to Frequency from four years earlier, considering how much fate seems to enjoy kicking Evan in the balls every single time he tries to improve things. The overall plot is well-crafted, though, with only a few question marks left in the end that resolve themselves cleverly with some though. However, the way it steers him to his final depressing decision smacks of borderline sadism, as his intentions are perfectly selfless and there is no indication that Evan “deserves” his fate.

On the positive side, it is refreshing to see a time travel movie that doesn’t invariably work out for the better. Nearly every time travel movie I’d seen up till The Butterfly Effects release offered a happy ending as a consequence of playing with the timeline, even if the initial effects were nearly disastrous (like Marty McFly nearly writing himself out of the timeline in Back to the Future). This movie is well-written and well-acted, with none of the goofiness that might have completely ruined the effect. However, the ending is so far down in the shadows of Depression Land that I almost needed to watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to cheer myself up.

If you want a time travel movie with plently of mind screw and darker consequences for timeline manipulation, I suggest renting The Butterfly Effect, but keep some antidepressants or a comedy handy for afterwards.