Sunday, October 30, 2011

Night of the Demons (2009)

The Movie: It is Halloween night in New Orleans. Creepy Goth/party-girl Angela (the lovely Shannon Elizabeth of American Pie fame) is deeply in need of money, and as a last ditch effort throws a huge Halloween bash at the Broussard Mansion; a house with a dark past and darker stories surrounding it. As the pre-credits flashback shows us; Evangeline Broussard (Tatyana Kanavka) threw a party which ended with her hanging herself and her six guests disappearing mysteriously.

Among the contemporary party guests are Suzanne (Bobbi Sue Luther), a longtime friend of Angela and her two friends; Lily (Doira Baird) and Maddie (Monica Keena of Freddy vs. Jason). Once at the party, the ladies bump into a few more familiar faces; Maddie’s ex, Colin (Edward Furlong, who you may remember as John Conner from Terminator 2: Judgment Day), who is dealing drugs in a last-ditch effort to make enough money to keep the local drug lord from killing him; Lily’s estranged, but still missed ex, Dex (Michael Copon); and his best friend, Jason (John F. Beach). However, the personal drama and wild debauchery are rudely interrupted when the police arrive and shut the party down. The seven friends are the last to leave, and find themselves locked in the house.

Searching for an exit, they stumble across a secret room, which contains six skeletons. Angela speculates (all too accurately, as it turns out) that these are the remains of Evangeline Broussard’s ill-fated guests. She also receives a nasty bite on the hand when she reaches for a gold tooth.

That bite is the beginning of the end for the party-goers. It turns out that Ms. Broussard inadvertently summoned up some particularly nasty demons at her party, and now one of them has been transmitted into Angela. Quickly, the majority of the group is brutally killed and possessed; and the real party begins as the few humans remaining try desperately to survive the night.

The Review: Happy Halloween dear readers! Or, for my fellow Pagans, happy Samhain. This has always been one of my favorite holidays, even beating out Christmas in recent years, which has recently sunk to the level of Valentine’s Day for me. So, in my blog’s own humble recognition of the holiday, I present my current review.
Technically, Night of the Demons is a remake of the movie of the same title which I reviewed last Halloween. As a result, a little comparing and contrasting will be in order. However, nowhere near as much as you might think. While there is a bit of borrowing, as well as some winks and nods to the original, Night of the Demons is, overall, very much its own movie. If you want to know what I said about the original, read my October, 2010 review and then come back for this one. If not, you should still have no problems making sense of this review.

Getting it out of the way first, the elements taken from the original aren’t very much. It does use the basic bare-bones plot, but that plot was a few millennia old when Evil Dead used it in 1981, much less seven years later for the original Night of the Demons. There is also a small nod to the original in the form of a very short cameo by Linnea Quigley at the very beginning.

Otherwise, with one exception, the elements borrowed from the original are mainly minor cosmetic ones, such as the names of characters. The one exception is where Night of the Demons uses one of the original’s most effective scare scenes. The scene with Linnea Quigley and the lipstick in the original always makes me shudder; but the remake doesn’t just borrow that scene, it actually one-ups it. My only response to that is “good show.” Also, “bleeeechh!”

As for being a movie in its own right, I can probably best sum up Night of the Demons as a decent, well-made, and effective little horror movie. First and most importantly, the makers of this movie, unlike so many self-proclaimed makers of horror films these days, knew first and foremost that they were making a horror movie. In fact, in this element they were a little more effective than in the original movie.

The second major element makers of this movie got right were the protagonists. While they aren’t exactly three-dimensional, our heroes are a far cry from being one-dimensional caricatures, either. While lightly done so, they are all fleshed out just enough that we can see them as living, breathing human beings. This makes them identifiable and sympathetic enough that we care about what happens to them. Hell, there was even one character who I kept looking at and thinking “oh gods, that’s me!” Considering said character’s traits that I was identifying with, it wasn’t exactly flattering for me or him. Still, it drew me in further.

What’s more, the protagonists are actually fairly smart. They’re not geniuses, and they do make mistakes, but said mistakes are the kind you can expect your average human being to make in similar circumstances. This is one important detail that so many moviemakers employing the slasher mold don’t get; contestants for the Darwin Awards getting killed in surreally bizarre ways by a wisecracking killer isn’t scary, it’s cartoonish. Now, relatively intelligent and competent individuals who, for the most part, rise as much as they can to the situation yet still fall? That’s scary.

The script is actually pretty clever in how it sets the protagonists up. We in the audience have a basic idea what they are in for simply because we know we’re watching a horror movie; but they don’t, nor do they have any reason to. The early signs of the trouble to come are all presented in ways that are easily rationalized and dismissed.

An arm attacks Maddie through the bathroom mirror? She’s at a party where various intoxicants are flowing freely, Halloween is the time for those kinds of pranks, and Suzanne tells her that it’s something Angela would do. Her ending thought on the incident is to wonder how Angela did it. Angela coming on to Dex a little too aggressively during a game of spin the bottle? Suzanne did warn Maddie and Lily to keep Angela away from any men they were after. Gate locked so they can’t leave? It was probably the police, who didn’t know anyone was left. By the time it’s obvious that something weird is going on, it’s way too late to do much about it.

Then there’s how obvious it is just how outmatched our heroes are by the demons. These things are deadly, and the movie makes that very clear. And, even though the heroes are provided some aid, none of it is the magic bullet it might be in other ways. The wall of exposition (a literal wall; a maid survived the original night by covering the walls of a room with protective wards, and she also wrote everything she knew as well) provides a few answers, but only enough so that we and the protagonists know a) what they are up against and b) what the stakes are. The demons do, it turns out, have a weakness; and one readily obtainable in the house. It is, however, limited. And even if the demons can’t get into the warded room, that doesn’t keep them from dripping blood down the walls to wash away the wards (in an oddly effective scene), or creating fake daylight to lure the heroes out.

So ultimately, we wind up spending ninety minutes with people we can identify with and/or care about on some level as they try to deal with a situation that is far outside their experience. And in the end, isn’t that what a good horror story is supposed to be? Night of the Demons was obviously intended as a real horror movie, so much effort went into it. While there is humor, there is none of the self-referential, “aren’t we clever?” winking we’ve come to expect these days. The majority of the humor is at the beginning, and quite a bit of it is actually clever. I particularly like the spin the bottle scene. However, once the demons start striking, whatever humor there is present is of the very blackest sort.

The demons themselves are pretty damn scary. As in the original movie, I still think they’re at their scariest when they look perfectly human except for minor things like briefly glowing eyes or unusual behavior. However, the effects and actors here present us with things that are straight out of a nightmare. They work.

Finally, I have to mention the soundtrack. The music here, as opposed to the films that throw in extraneous pop songs just to sell them, actually adds to the atmosphere of the movie. It’s goth-rock and heavy metal, admittedly an acquired taste, but I find it effective.

So in conclusion, Night of the Demons is a fun, effective and scary film which, despite its status as a remake, comes out as a decent and well made movie in its own right. And in the end, can you really ask for much more?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bowfinger (1999)

The Movie: “Bobby” Bowfinger (Steve Martin); head of the small, going nowhere, Bowfinger International Films, has one lifetime dream; make movies. Unfortunately, he has pretty much been locked out of the system his whole life and his dream constantly denied. Having recently come upon his last shot; a script written by his accountant, Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), for a low-budget science fiction thriller called Chubby Rain, Bowfinger decides to go for it.

Bowfinger gathers up Afrim and his other associates to make the movie; including Dave (Jamie Kennedy), his assistant; Carol (the ubiquitous Christine Baranski), an aging actress; and Slater (Kohl Sudduth), a teenage slacker in the body of a twenty-something. Unfortunately, there are problems from the beginning. While Bowfinger is able to convince the big studio executive Jerry Renfro (Robert Downey Jr.), to promise to distribute his film, that promise comes with a catch; the film has to include the hot action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Of course, Ramsey refuses to give Bowfinger the time of day.

Desperate, Bowfinger decides to shoot the film anyway, but in a way so that Ramsey doesn’t know that he’s starring in the movie. Inevitably, complications spring up surrounding those involved in the film. There’s the fact that due to severe budget restraints, nearly all of the film equipment is “borrowed” by Dave from the studio where he works. Daisy (Heather Graham), the woman Bowfinger hires to be Ramsey’s love interest in the film, may be the sweet young thing off the bus from Ohio with stars in her eyes; but she’s sure figured out pretty quickly how to use sex to get her way. Then there’s Jiff (Murphy again), the amiable and good natured, yet slow witted, young man hired as a Kit Ramsey look-alike; who has a bigger connection to the star than anyone realizes.

However, the biggest complication is Kit Ramsey himself. Ramsey is mentally and emotionally unstable; and the mysterious happenings that are suddenly springing up around him are starting to drive him over the edge. MindHead (the Church of Scientology, but with enough superficial details changed that they can’t sue), the organization backing Ramsey, is really starting to worry about what’s happening with their cash cow…

The Review:
It’s due back every night by five, or it’s a felony."

For me, one of life’s more interesting (in the positive sense of the word) experiences is the discovery that something I’ve long enjoyed can be enjoyed and appreciated on levels that I was previously unaware of. That is my experience with the movie Bowfinger. I first saw it when it came out at the very end of my high school years, and I found it to be an immensely clever and funny movie. My parents even gave me a VHS copy for my eighteenth birthday, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it. However, at the time I just knew it as a clever and funny movie. In the decade-plus since I have learned a lot about Hollywood and the movie industry; partly due to my fascination with movies, partly due to my knack for picking up random bits of trivia. I still like and enjoy Bowfinger as much as I ever did; but now understanding a lot of the references, I find that I appreciate it much more than I did when I first saw it.

Bowfinger is a satirical riff on Hollywood written by Steve Martin. Considering Martin was an industry insider for roughly thirty-something years by the time he made this movie, he would have been intimately familiar with all of Hollywood’s ins and outs. As a comedian, he also had the instinct to determine what the industry’s most ridiculous aspects were, and how he could go about skewering them.

Probably the thing I find most notable about Bowfinger these days is its all-around tone of moral ambiguity. An interesting thing I have learned about morals and ethics is that oftentimes the official moral and/or ethical codes of conduct for a system aren’t made with everyone’s well-being in mind, despite what the code’s supporters would have you believe. Instead, they are established with the specific goal of making sure that those on top remain in control, while outsiders and those on the bottom rungs of the ladder stay in their place. This is very notable in the entertainment industry, whether you’re talking Hollywood or music. It’s why I don’t shed any tears whenever the heads of these industries whine that internet downloading and so called “pirates” are destroying them; the way they’ve stacked the deck in their favor, there’s no way it will cause them any serious harm, however much some of us might want to hope. Their unreasonable junkyard dog attitudes toward the issue stem not from legitimate grievances, but because they cannot stand the idea of something from what they consider to be their domain to be anywhere outside their total control.

This is what Bobby Bowfinger is up against. Bowfinger has a simple life goal, he wants to make movies. He never mentions a desire for laurels or accolades, doesn’t want to win an Oscar; he just wants to be able to make his own movies. Unfortunately, Bowfinger is locked outside the system, and as a result that dream has been stymied. It’s clear from the view we get of him and his house during the opening credits that Bowfinger has spent his life jumping through every legitimate hoop he could, some of them probably multiple times. Chubby Rain is probably Bowfinger’s last chance to obtain his dream, and he is determined to do it. Unfortunately, by this point he is well aware that there is no way he will be able to do it by legitimate means.

What I love about this aspect of the film is the fact that even though Bowfinger violates every “professional” Hollywood ethic, even though he does some things that seem to violate my own personal codes of conduct, everybody involved comes out ahead as a result. For example, my favorite part of the movie is a sub-plot involving his film crew. To get a film crew, Bowfinger and some of his associates go down to the U.S.-Mexico border and round up some immigrants fleeing from the border patrol. The Mexicans are mostly part of the background, but we get to see their transformation none the less. At the start it seems like Bowfinger is just exploiting these men; it’s clear that they have no idea what is going on. However, as the movie goes on, we witness them learning to run the equipment, discussing movies, and in other ways growing much more competent in their unexpected craft. The last time we see them, it is clear that they are much better off having worked for Bobby Bowfinger than they would have been otherwise.

This applies to all of the major characters too. It is because of all of Bowfinger’s dirty deeds, not in spite of them, that he and his longtime associates are finally able to obtain their dream of making movies. Bowfinger exploits Daisy in many ways to get his movie made (although I find I can’t fault him too much for that, considering how much she exploits everyone around her on her own); but at the end it’s clear that even if she hasn’t quite reached the heights of stardom she’s been after, Bowfinger has put her into a position where it’s probably only a matter of time. And as for Jiff; it’s apparent that while he’s too good natured to let it affect him too much, it’s been difficult for him always being in his brother’s shadow. Bowfinger does wind up exploiting Jiff’s connection to Kit Ramsey to finish the movie, but in return Jiff gets what he’s always wanted; a group of people who love and value him for who he is, not who he’s related to (which, ironically and perversely, is exactly what he finds with Bowfinger and his crew), and the opportunity for him to shine on his own humble merits.

Even Kit Ramsey and the heads of MindHead, the individuals who arguably most deserve to get screwed over (and who would argue they were the most screwed over by Bowfinger), ultimately benefit from Bowfinger’s actions. Kit winds up the star of another successful film that further cements his status as a prominent action star. And of course, as MindHead’s major cash cow, what benefits Kit also benefits them. The only real damage Bowfinger does to these people is to their pride, they were beaten at their own game by individuals they hold in contempt.

Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy bookend each other as the headliners of Bowfinger. They both are amazing physical comedians with wonderful facial expressions. However, they also both add their own individual contributions to the movie. Martin gets the chance to break away from the idiot characters that he is known for; and while Bobby Bowfinger is definitely a Steve Martin character, he is also very different from what Martin’s usual type leads us to expect.

Murphy, meanwhile, is amazing in the dual roles of Kit and Jiff Ramsey. Whether as the mentally unstable prima donna, or the good natured but slow witted geek, Murphy plays both roles to perfection. In fact, while he is uncredited, I cannot help but feel that Murphy had some input on the script for these two characters, so well does he fit them. Heather Graham, meanwhile, gives the impression that she is thoroughly enjoying her role as Daisy.

Ultimately, Bowfinger works well on several levels. At its most basic, it is an extremely funny and clever David and Goliath story where the underdogs come out on top in the end. However, if you know anything about Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it is also an extremely sharp satire on the inner workings of those two unhallowed institutions. A great movie, definitely worth watching multiple times.