Tag: michael rooker

Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael Matthews’ “Love and Monsters” could have relied solely on its quirky premise of a young man who decides to trek eighty-five miles, despite animals that have mutated to gargantuan proportions roaming the planet, to be reunited with the girl he loves. Instead, the material is injected with terrific imagination; when it is not busy making jokes left and right—whether it be through propulsive action, idiosyncratic narration, or low-key visuals—it entertains by providing genuine moments of peril. This is no lazy cash grab. By the end of it, I was salivating for a sequel.

Dylan O’Brien plays Joel, the main cook and radio communicator in his underground colony. It has been seven years since he’d been to the surface, seven years since humanity sent missiles to destroy an incoming asteroid that housed mutagens which led to the end of the world, seven years since he’d been with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Joel is tired of being the only unpaired person in his colony, knowing that his soulmate is not even a hundred miles away. Despite his tendency to freeze in utter terror when faced with a life or death situation, Joel decides to head to the surface anyway. This is a story of a person so lonely, the possibility of death is a warm alternative.

Partly because of his physicality (a bit scraggly, boyish, bright-eyed), it is always a nice surprise when O’Brien finds a way to convince us that his character is an unlikely hero. This role is no exception. He proves to have a knack for embodying the vibe of the screenplay—especially important here because the picture is a mashup of comedy, monster movie, road adventure, and a whiff of romance. This is no role for a wooden plank. At the same time, O’Brien evokes a cool self-awareness without turning his character into a caricature.

I felt the filmmakers’ love for the creatures on screen even though it is CGI-heavy. It is not enough that they look expensive or that we feel shocked or horrified whenever one makes a surprise appearance. Notice how the camera takes just enough time for viewers to appreciate the more minute details, like boils on a frog’s skin, texture of a snail’s head, slime dripping out of a worm’s mouth. More impressive is that these characteristics can be observed in the middle of tense action sequences. Like Joel, we are learning in every beat and after close calls. His experience becomes our own.

Further, it is paramount that these creatures blend into the environment. They must move a certain way when relaxed and another when the hunt is on. After all, it is survival of the fittest out there. These nuanced choices go along way. And so when a character, for instance, claims that it is dangerous out on the surface, there is no doubt in our minds as to why. Better yet—we are able to provide specific, vivid examples. In other words, the filmmakers are interested in providing an enveloping experience rather than just junk entertainment in which interest wanes the moment an action sequence ends.

But what I loved most about Joel’s journey are the personalities he encounters. It doesn’t matter whether it is an animal, fellow humans, or a machine. Each one offers a distinct perspective and provides insight, knowledge, or understanding that the others cannot. As a result, these personalities do not simply function as decorations for a cheap chuckle or two. They elevate our protagonist’s journey in some way, reminding him one way or another that he is stronger than he thinks he is.

Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island (2020)
★ / ★★★★

The premise of “Fantasy Island” promises limitless imagination: the tropical paradise possessing the ability to grant its guests’ deepest desires. It is even capable of bringing the dead back to life. But the movie is dull, repetitive, devoid of original ideas and so it relies on familiar tropes to create a semblance of suspense, and it feels closer to three hours than two. In the middle of it, I questioned whether the screenwriters (Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow [who directs]) actually intended to make a good film. Clearly, there is more to making a movie work than simply slapping together a hodgepodge of ideas. The end result is convoluted dross.

There are a handful of familiar faces, from Michael Peña as the enigmatic keeper of the island, Maggie Q as a guest who wishes to get back together with an old flame, to Michael Rooker as a ragged onlooker who appears to know precisely what’s going on in the island. These three have appeared in better movies and delivered much stronger performances. Neither hyperbolic nor downplayed acting could save a screenplay that is dead on arrival.

Perhaps the most curious performers are Lucy Hale as a young woman who wishes to enact revenge on a high school bully and Portia Doubleday as the reformed tormentor. Hale’s Melanie is now the pretty girl and Doubleday’s Sloane is married but unhappy. Throughout their time on the island, their dynamics shift. There is potential in their storyline. But the movie is filled with so many characters—less interesting ones—that the duo never gets the arc they deserve. And so when the would-be surprising final act comes around, we meet it with a shrug rather than a heartfelt desire to know the specifics.

One important trait the picture lacks is intrigue. Nearly halfway through, we are taken to a place that explains the island’s source of power. This is simply the setup but the script treats it as the punchline. It is an alarming “So what?” moment. We wait and wait for an answer but it never comes. This lackadaisical and half-hearted approach bleeds into the guests’ fantasy. We learn about their wishes but the writers fail to turn information into genuine humanity. Why tell this story when we couldn’t care less for the VIPs running around the island? It should have been an easy task because, whether we care to admit or not, every one of us has something we wish to change about our pasts.

If the point of the feature is to exercise special and visual effects, it fails on that level too. Black water coming out of people’s eyes, a burned figure popping out of unlikely places, people falling off a cliff and splattering on the rocks below, even simple gunshots to the head look cheap and unconvincing. Aerial shots of the island look great… but it is so sunny, bright, and postcard-looking that we are forced to wonder which images are CGI and which are real (if any). From a visual perspective, the work never becomes an enveloping experience. It does not help that each fantasy appears to be set on a different part of the globe.

“Fantasy Island” made me wish I were sitting through a better movie. One that offers deep imagination, varying levels of mystery and terror, and characters worth following and rooting for. Notice its level of ordinariness, its lack of flavor. Fantasies and nightmares never break from being told in a linear fashion. Really think about it: When you dream, it is rarely this way. Images are never this tame, storylines are never this boring. When our mind works things out, sometimes it is nonsensical. This picture cannot help but to explain, especially when antagonists reveal their motivations. This movie is not about anything. It exists simply to rake in the cash by capitalizing on the Blumhouse brand—which is depressing.


Hypothermia (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Clocking in at only about an hour and ten minutes, “Hypothermia,” written and directed by James Felix McKenney, may have a short running time but it does not mean that it is efficient or fast-paced. On the contrary, it is a drag to sit through because the victims and the monster are there but the screenplay does not know what to do with them in order to create either an interesting story or one that offers genuine suspense, thrills, and horror.

The dialogue comes across so robotic, it is a challenge to discern whether the actors practiced the scenes so many times or there was no rehearsal at all. This is most noticeable when a character becomes gravely injured or dies. The camera employs certain angles that denote panic and alarm, but when the silence is broken, the words that come out are dead dull, unintelligent, and unbelievable. Thus, we are taken out of the moment almost immediately and we realize that the bloodletting is all for naught.

It has limited ideas in terms of what to do with the setting. Ice fishing goes horribly awry when a family (Michael Rooker, Blanche Baker, Benjamin Forster), including the son’s girlfriend (Amy Chang), discovers a creature underneath the surface. It might explain why, although they have been fishing for hours, they have not caught a single fish.

Part of the problem is that the distance between the lake, a dangerous area, and the cabin, a safe spot, is not that far. Although the characters are being terrorized by the prehistoric creature, one thought lingers in the back of our minds: Why not just make a run for it? Instead, we are subjected to sit through phrases like, “It has arms and legs!” or “It’s too dark outside!” Why not actually show us that is not a good idea to run back to the cabin? It sure beats passively watching the potential victims staying in one spot and getting picked off individually.

The frozen lake and the surrounding areas are neither beautiful nor menacing. Instead, just about everything looks drab. When the camera scans the vicinity, there is no excitement, a sense or wonder, or tense anticipation. Later in the picture, there is a line or two about the family visiting the lakeside once or twice a year. The problem is, we never get to see or experience for ourselves why they keep coming back. Specifically, why is it such an important place for them?

Some say that it is easy to make a horror movie. When strictly talking about the budget, I might be inclined to agree. But just like in every genre, details do matter. When details are overlooked to such an extent that the material relies only on plot to keep it afloat, the picture—no matter what the genre—is in trouble. Needless to say, “Hypothermia” is not a good movie. It is as though the filmmakers didn’t even try. And just like its screenplay, the monster costume is equally egregious.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★

Becky (Tracy Arnold) recently left her husband so she decided to live with her brother Otis (Tom Towles) and his roommate Henry (Michael Rooker) for the time being. She immediately developed a crush on Henry, not aware of the fact that Henry and her brother stalked and killed unsuspecting women as their extracurricular activity. Directed by John McNaughton, it was easy for me to see why “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a cult classic. I admired its cold detachment from its subject just as Henry and Otis treated their victims as less than animals. They obsessively videotaped their conquests and Otis was even sexually aroused as he repeatedly watched the tapes in their apartment. However, I found the first half to be a bit amatuer filmmaking and the project only found its identity half-way through. While the first forty-five minutes’ purpose was to establish the cruelty and analytical nature of Henry’s actions, it eventually repeated itself too often. I wanted to learn something new about the main character who was plagued with the need to kill. The movie came alive when Henry talked about the importance of not having a signature in terms of murdering people. He claimed that a signature was the key to getting caught so it was important to use various weapons when taking a life. That scene was memorable to me because Rooker described it in such a way that it was like a surgeon talking about the instruments he was about to use prior to an operation. The film was able to look the character in question in the eye and note a total absence of humanity. Another scene that stood out to me was when Becky and Henry tried to share something very personal from their past. When Henry shared about his abusive home when he was a child, Becky seemed moved and was able to completely sympathize with him. But when it was Becky’s turn to share, I was convinced that Henry did not feel a thing, that he could only pretend to care about her past. I think much of the movie’s power was the fact that it chose not to paint Henry’s story so that we could understand him better or feel sorry for him. It treated us as smart audiences because Henry was essentially a textbook serial killer. While both Otis and Henry were murderers, there was an important difference between them. Based on a true story involving Henry Lee Lucas’ confessions, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was unsettling movie to watch because there were times when the pointless murders felt downbeat to the point where it felt almost too authentic. It argued that there was nothing romantic about killing in cold blood.