Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lake Placid directed by Steve Miner (starring Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson, Betty White)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Lake Placid (1999). Screenplay by David E. Kelley.

This is a horror film. No, wait, let me reword that. This film is a horror.

Lake Placid is an attempt to bring humor into the "something in the water" genre, thereby mixing Jaws (or Piranha or Alligator) with Scream.

Unfortunately, scribe David E. Kelley and director Steve Miner don't play by the rules and end up with a film that is worse than the worst in the genre. Perhaps Kelley was too far from his home turf — the courtroom — to be able to pull off a passable entertainment. As it is, Lake Placid is merely a frustrating timewaster.

Bill Pullman is a local game warden and Bridget Fonda is a paleontologist (as if!) out to study the appearance of a giant Asian crocodile in Maine. (I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt that this is intended to be part of the joke.)

The audience knows from the beginning that Pullman and Fonda are destined to end up together because for the bulk of the movie they so adorably refuse to get along. In addition, their names are above the title, so they are guaranteed to survive the film. This saps away any suspense surrounding anything they do. And all attempts at humor fall flat.

But if the movie's not funny, at least we can revel in the action of the kills, right? Well, no. "Lake Flaccid" is wimpy even in its body count. How are we supposed to believe that this crocodile is particularly dangerous if it doesn't even have the intelligence to see that the annoying professor played by Oliver Platt is chewing up more scenery than the crocodile is, and, as competition, should be instantly done away with? I actually figured him to be snuffed out right after the pilot, who, I believe, is only the second person eaten. Alas, our friend the flyboy (director Miner himself) is also the last person to be granted entry into the gullet.

Frankly, I expected better from Steve Miner, who helmed two installments of the Friday the 13th series and also Halloween: H20. Apparently his interceding work on such "crowd-pleasing" fluff as Forever Young and My Father the Hero has softened his sensibilities.

The film's best moments come from veteran comic actress Betty White as a local woman who won't leave the area despite the "terror" taking place around her. But she can't save the film from being an argument for the recycling of celluloid. There's a surprise at the end which makes us look at her character in a whole new way, but even that doesn't make Lake Placid what I would call "interesting" ... or "entertaining" ... or "watchable"...

...or anything else mildly pleasant.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009) directed by Patrick Lussier (starring Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Jensen Ackles, Betsy Rue)

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009). Shown in both 2-D and 3-D theaters. Screenplay by Todd Farmer and Zane Smith, based on the 1981 screenplay by John Beiard from a story by Stephen Miller.

Any remake of a classic slasher film (as much as one can be called "classic") can go one way or another: the current filmmakers will either simply rehash the old one, or they may take the high road and add original touches. Either way, fans of the first one will talk about the differences, while those unaware that there was another one will get to take the movie on its own terms. I'm happy to report that My Bloody Valentine 3-D (a 2009 remake of 1981's My Bloody Valentine) is one of the good ones.

Of course, "good" in this case is a relative term. The dialogue is trite and laughable in most of the early scenes but screenwriters Todd Farmer (Jason X) and Zane Smith have taken the story from the original in new directions, making the characters older and adding more mature plot elements while director Patrick Lussier updates the whole thing to the current "tense, suspenseful, and very bloody" style of recent films like Hostel and Saw.

Harry Warden was the only survivor of a mine explosion in the small town of Harmony. After recovering from his coma, he went on a murder spree that included the killing of a bunch of teenagers who thought partying in the old mine was a good idea. Ten years later, the killings start again, just as a prodigal son returns, putting him at the forefront. Is he responsible? Or has Harry Warden simply come back from the dead?

Protagonists Kerr Smith and Jaime King are surprisingly believable as Axel and Sarah Palmer, world-weary working-class parents, she the owner of the local grocery store, he the town sheriff having an affair with her stock clerk Megan (Megan Boone). Jensen Ackles is less effective in his large, important role as Tom Hanniger, the reluctant owner of the mine and the current prime suspect for the murders. He seems to have only two expressions: hangdog and menacing.

Though the ending is telegraphed from the opening scene, My Bloody Valentine 3-D does a fairly good job of keeping the viewer in doubt about the identity of the killer. And the special effects are stellar, with a variety of gruesome set pieces that exceed anything I've seen recently. The movie really earns its R rating, with heavy doses of sex and violence.

Interestingly, though the lengthy scene of full nudity featuring actress Betsy Rue may seem exploitative to some, it actually gives the actress quite a showcase as she dominates the screen for that entire amount of time, resulting in one of the film's few truly memorable (and most talked about) scenes. It will likely give her the exposure (pun intended) needed to further her career — so who's exploiting who? (Incidentally, the trucker who instigates this scene is played by co-screenwriter Todd Farmer.) Similarly, the role of the motel owner did not have to go to 3'10" actress Selene Luna, so I have to applaud the filmmakers for their creative casting in what could have been a role display of the same old faces.

Even in a 2-D theater, the 3-D aspects of My Bloody Valentine 3-D were a lot of fun, like the rest of the movie. (This is important since only a third of theaters are actually showing it in 3-D.) The visual effects team really earned their money on this one. A couple of scenes (one in particular involving a jawbone) elicited actual guttural sounds from my companion and me, neither of whom have seen a horror movie in a theater since Halloween: H20 in 1998. Coincidentally, that film was edited by this film's director, Patrick Lussier, an experienced editor of other horror films like the Scream trilogy — he also co-edited this one — so it's obvious he knows how to literally assemble a slasher enterprise by putting all the pieces in the right order.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ten More Great Reads from 2008

This is my second Best Books I Read in 2008 list. (The first one is here.) This one consists of those books that were not first published in 2008. These should not in any way be taken as lesser selections — in fact the best book I read all year is on this list — I just wanted to keep them separate.

So, here they are, in the order I finished them, along with their year of publication. Any links go to the more detailed reviews I wrote when I first read them. Others have short summaries and capsule reviews. You can research more about those yourself (and then tell your friends that you discovered them).

  1. Douglas Preston, The Codex (2004) —Three brothers compete to find the inheritance their puzzle-happy father left them ... buried along with him somewhere in the Honduran rainforest. Preston flies solo in this globe-trotting adventure that is a little long but still immensely entertaining.
  2. John Burnham Schwartz, Reservation Road (1998)
  3. Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)
  4. Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) — The story of Sammy Glick, a copy boy who schemes his way through the ranks of Hollywood. Schulberg makes a despicable character sympathetic by filtering through the eyes of his only friend. Sammy was originally meant to be outrageous, but soon became a "how-to" manual for those on the move.
  5. David Robbins writing as Ralph Compton, Rio Largo (2006)
  6. Ed McBain, Ten Plus One (1964)
  7. John D. MacDonald, Cry Hard, Cry Fast (1955) — The author most famous for his Travis McGee novels paints intricate portraits of every person involved in a multiple-car crash; terrific characterization.
  8. Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House (2001)
  9. John Irving, A Widow for One Year (1998)
  10. Charles Portis, True Grit (1968) — (A repeat from last year's list: I liked it so much, I read it again and loved it almost as much!)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Book of Lists: Horror edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley (introduction by Gahan Wilson)

The Book of Lists began a franchise in 1977 that has lasted over 30 years. It has resulted in a New York Times bestseller, three other general collections, and one each on the 1990s and punk rock. Now they move even further out of the mainstream with The Book of Lists: Horror.

"Trying to prod a thing as elusive, sneaky, and totally out-of-bounds as horror into an informative and highly usable book of lists would seem to be pretty much impossible," states author/illustrator Gahan Wilson (one of the first artists I learned to recognize by style) in his introduction. But it seems that editors Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley have managed to somehow compile over 400 pages' worth of opinions, recommendations, and commentary into this endlessly fascinating volume. If you're a fan of the genre, The Book of Lists: Horror is a must read; if you're not, it will make you one.

Here's just a sampling of the contents, limited to lists by 15 of my favorite authors (and not necessarily my favorite lists):...and that's just scratching the surface. The Book of Lists: Horror took up every free moment I had from the day I got it until ... well, I still refer back to it now and then and expect to keep it on my reference shelf right next to another horror-list classic: Horror: 100 Best Books. In fact, my only real complaint is that there is no comprehensive index or table of contents that would allow the reader to relocate a favorite list. But there are so many terrific takes on the genre included in The Book of Lists: Horror, however, that the search will undoubtedly result in finding something else great in the process.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cemetery Caterer Quote of the Day (from A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle)

"Ravens bring things to people. We're like that; it's our nature. We don't like it; we'd much rather be eagles, or swans, or even one of those moronic robins, but we're ravens and there you are. Ravens don't feel right without somebody to bring things to.... We're closer to people than any other bird, and we're bound to them all our lives, but we don't have to like them. You think we brought Elijah food because we liked him? He was an old man with a dirty beard."

— from A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Top Ten Best Books I Read in 2008

My first Best Books I Read in 2008 list consists of those books that were first published in 2008. I plan to do another list of books I read this year that were published elsewhen (if it's not a word, it should be), but who knows when that might happen?...

When compiling this list, I noticed (but was not particularly surprised by) two aspects:

1. This is the fourth year I've done a list, and at least one Hard Case Crime book has been on it every year. This year is no exception; two of their books made the list.

2. Many authors from this year are repeats from previous years' "best of" lists. Whether this means that I need to expand my reading horizons, or that I've simply made good choices in the authors I read regularly, I don't know. As always, comments are welcome.

So, here they are, alphabetically by author. The links go to the more detailed reviews I wrote when I first read them.

  1. Charles Ardai, Fifty-to-One
  2. Tom Bradley, Lemur
  3. Edward Bunker, Stark
  4. Max Allan Collins, The First Quarry
  5. Patrick Culhane, Red Sky in Morning
  6. Ray Garton, Ravenous
  7. Harold Jaffe, Jesus Coyote
  8. Joe R. Lansdale, Leather Maiden
  9. David J. Schow, Gun Work
  10. Matthew Warner, Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word
(In the interest of total disclosure, I received free review copies of all but one of these, and I got that one from the library. Hooray for free books! Also, I usually try to limit the list to one book per author. But since Patrick Culhane is actually Max Allan Collins, and it's technically another name, I've made an exception due to that technicality.)
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