Friday, September 9, 2011

Worth Mentioning - This IS NOT in the Script

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

This week, Cody discusses Contagion, Creature, and Effects.


It starts with a cough. Beth Emhoff is sick. Returning home to Minneapolis from Hong Kong, she blames the way she's feeling on jetlag. She's actually patient zero in a global pandemic.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Scott Z. Burns, Contagion is a very realistic (or as close to real as a movie can get) look at the spread of a new, highly contagious, very lethal virus and how society might deal with a pandemic which rivals that of the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak.

The film has a fantastic ensemble cast, focusing on several characters - the professionals trying to identify the virus and find a cure; a man who's immune but loses his wife and stepson, becoming obsessed with keeping his daughter safe; a dickweed blogger stirring up trouble; the government officials trying to keep things quiet to quell panic.

The virus isn't quite on the level of The Stand's Captain Trips, but it makes the ones the world has recently been worried by (H1N1, SARS, West Nile) look weak in comparison. As several million people around the globe die from it, society doesn't totally collapse but it does crumble a bit.

Soderbergh's digital cinematography looks great, this was the first digitally shot movie that I've seen projected digitally and it was a beautiful example of crystal clarity. Soderbergh perfectly uses his camera to make the sight of people touching things (keep your mind out of the gutter) quite unnerving, as we watch germy hands passing things to one another and the virus is spread all over the place. The images are aided by an awesome score by Cliff Martinez.

This is a great film and one that plays directly to my fears. I have OCD, I wash my hands many times a day, I see most of my surroundings as contaminated. I keep my possessions clean, I have a clean room, most things outside of that room I do not like to touch. I don't like people touching me, though I don't take it as far as Howie Mandel's "fist bumps only" rule. I will shake hands, but I might need to pull out my trusty bottle of hand sanitizer soon after. In day-to-day life, I actually act more extreme about needing to be clean than some virus-avoiding characters in this.

I highly recommend that you check this movie out, and wash your hands regularly for your sake and mine.


Have you heard this one before? A group of people on a road trip stray off the main road and stop at a backwoods gas station, which is itself short on gas. We'll come to learn that the station's proprietor is mixed up with some unsavory characters who are about to ruin the travelers' day and end some of their lives. Or does this sound familiar? The gas station's owner is played by Sid Haig and the place is packed with oddities and talk of a horrific local legend, and Haig draws a map for the road trippers so they can find the house connected to said legend.

A truly original story Creature isn't, but we can always let that slide if it delivers on its own. The local legend in this case is that of a half man/half alligator monster called Lockjaw (which would've been a better title for this movie than the very generic one that it has), which is said to stalk the nearby swamp. The road tripping young adults go out into the swamp and set up camp at the house that was Lockjaw's when he was just a normal man. This is of course a bad idea.

I knew almost zero about Creature before I went to see it, yet I would see ads popping up for it all over the place. In the theatre, magazines, online. From what little I did read about it and the picture of the monster, it seemed like something that would usually go direct-to-video. So I wanted to support the fact that it actually made it into theatres and went to see it opening day while still keeping myself mostly in the dark, not even watching the trailer.

While it looks quite good, my instinct about it was correct, as it is a direct-to-video sort of movie. It started off very promising - full frontal nudity within the first minute and the girl stays fully nude throughout the opening sequence. I dug the set-up and the legend of Lockjaw was goofy fun, but like many of these types of films it pretty much falls apart as soon as the action kicks in. But I won't say it's bad, as I did get enjoyment out of it and liked seeing something like this on the big screen.


One thing I will say is that I thought the acting was really good. Sid Haig is great as always, playing it up in all his Haigy glory. His fellow backwoods types, played by David Jensen, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Wayne Pére, were fun to watch. And I liked the casting of the doomed travelers: The beautiful Serinda Swan as Emily, who will surely be our final girl because she has a loving relationship, has an interest (photography), and her breasts are obscured during her sex scene, though she turns out to be perhaps the most out-of-it heroine since Barbara in the original Night of the Living Dead. Dillon Casey is the annoying douche of the group, Aaron Hill plays the good guy who makes questionable moves when the going gets Lockjawed. Amanda Fuller's good religious girl Beth was awesome in my book as soon as we meet her, exclaiming "Sweet baby kittens!" in place of an expletive. Mehcad Brooks as Niles is a likeable guy who turns out to be a badass hero. And then there's Lauren Schneider as the wild and naughty Karen, who was definitely a highlight.

EFFECTS (1980)

One of the filmmakers who I'm most fascinated by is George Romero. His days of independent filmmaking in Pennsylvania are very inspiring to me and I love to hear the stories of the making of his movies. He made them how he wanted to make them, on low budgets, without studio interference, near home and surrounded with friends. If I ever had access to a time machine, the sets of movies like Martin (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Knightriders (1981), etc. would be among the first places I'd visit.

Romero is the core of my interest, but I also like to check out movies made by his cohorts from back in the day that he wasn't involved with, whether it be John Russo's Midnight, Bill Hinzman's FleshEater, or the movie in question, writer/director Dusty Nelson's Effects, based on a novel written by a friend of Nelson, William H. Mooney.

Several frequent Romero collaborators were involved with Effects, including star Joe Pilato (best known as Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead), John Harrison (composer on Creepshow and Day of the Dead), editor Pasquale Buba, crew member Nicholas Mastandrea, Romero production manager Zilla Clinton here taking the role of associate director, actor/FX man Tom Savini, and others.

The characters in the film are themselves independent filmmakers, shooting on location at a picturesque property nestled in the Pennsylvania mountains, making a movie about a disturbed woman who fears that her husband is plotting to kill her. The director is Lacey Bickel, the cast is small and the crew is even smaller, consisting only of cinematographer Dominic and gaffer Celeste. Lacey is purportedly rich, which leads Dominic to wonder why he's just making this little 16mm movie.

The fact is, there's something else going on here. Like a thriller version of Big Brother, there are cameras and microphones hidden all over the place, monitored by a group of men watching and listening from a basement control room.

Things take an even darker turn one night, after Lacey and some friends teach Dominic how to snort cocaine while discussing deaths in horror movies and whether or not it's necessary to have a good story surrounding the gore, when Lacey shows the group what may or may not really be a snuff film.

The pacing of Effects is rather slow, particularly in the first half, so it won't be for everybody. I'm very interested in this type of filmmaking in this area at this time, so I enjoy watching it. Things pick up from the viewing of the snuff film on and the last half hour or so, when Dominic discovers what's actually going on around him, is very good.

Filmed in the late '70s, a troubled distribution led to Effects being "lost" for 25 years, until the folks at Synapse released it on a great special edition DVD that features a commentary, an hour long documentary on the making of the movie and Pennsylvania filmmaking in the '70s, and short films by John Harrison and Dusty Nelson.

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