Monday, 23 April 2018

Rampage | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

MONSTERS! + The Rock + Jeffrey Dean Morgan + ecological awareness = entertainment with a purpose.

The arcade game Rampage stomped onto the scene in the mid-eighties. The player, assuming the identity of one of three gigantic creatures, attempted to pound the crap out of a city. It was dumbed-down, straightforward fun. One could say the same of director Brad Peyton’s latest blockbuster film loosely based on the game.

True… Rampage is yet another movie with massive creatures tearing apart prominent human developments – in this case, it’s the City of Chicago. However, this film offers the much-loved Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) in the leading role and the ever-smirking Jeffrey Dean Morgan as support, plus a well-timed warning about environmental exploitation.

Primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) has a strong relationship with San Diego wildlife preserve resident George, the last remaining albino silverback. They even joke around and use lewd gestures with their sign language. Then George gets sprayed with an experimental chemical that rapidly enhances his size and strength. Soon, he escapes and gives a new meaning to the term “apeshit”. Okoye and disgraced geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) set out to stop George without harming him.

Adding to the film’s entertainment quotient is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Harvey Russell, an OGA (Other Governmental Agency) agent with Texas swagger. Russell wears a big ol’ belt buckle and a pearl-handled revolver and quips, “Like my grandpappy always said: us assholes gotta stick together.” Morgan, his slim frame leaning this way and that, retains some of the feistiness of Negan, the bad boy antagonist he plays in The Walking Dead.

The film’s biggest shortcomings include a few clichés – the coincidental relevant newscast drives me nuts – and underdeveloped antagonists. Wyden siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy), the mastermind and the nervous Nellie, control genetic engineering firm Energyne, based in Chicago’s famed Willis Tower. But it’s so easy to forgive these flaws when one sees a massive gorilla pick up a tank as if it were a chair and hurl it at a helicopter.

Despite its boyish impetus (i.e. destroy stuff), Rampage earns a star for sticking up for conservation: it speaks to our children by placing a revered action hero in the role of anti-poacher/defender of animals. And it’s got MONSTERS! – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 16 April 2018

A Quiet Place | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Silence means survival in ultra-tense film that resounds thunderously within horror canon

Three minutes into A Quiet Place, I was about to grab some popcorn, when my wife seized my hand and shook her head. The theatre was so quiet, its occupants so immersed in the Abbott family’s attempts to keep quiet, that my hand reaching into that bag would have sounded like a jet taking off. That tension and absorption in the characters’ plight dominated the remainder of the film, written and directed by lead actor John Krasinski.

An antagonist is close. The protagonist struggles not to make a peep. It’s a tension-building method used in thousands of horror and suspense stories… but not to this extent. Krasinski skyrockets the tension by introducing an antagonist with super-sensitive hearing. The creatures don’t need to be in the same room to hear their prey – they need to be in the same town!

The film opens 89 days into the invasion, with the Abbotts scavenging a vacated convenience store. It’s what you’d see in The Walking Dead, but you get the impression that the adversaries are something much more threatening than zombies. And they are.

Krasinski doesn’t waste time with expository dialogue about the creatures – he can’t really, since most of the film’s clipped dialogue is subtitled sign language. Instead, the camera lingers on Lee Abbott’s markerboard, which bullet points the creatures’ characteristics and asks the question on which the Abbotts’ survival hinges: “What are their WEAKNESSES?”

The film also introduces relationship complexities that go beyond the hunter/prey surface story. Particularly engaging is Lee Abbott’s strained relationship with deaf teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She wants more independence and involvement; he wants to keep his family alive, even if that means somewhat stifling his daughter.

Initially, I was disappointed when the film’s preview offered glimpses of the creatures. I was mistaken – this is not a film about withholding the adversary; it’s a film about avoiding detection by the adversary.

A Quiet Place, confident in its new but not-so-new concept, detours from the contrived scares and plot hoops of the typical horror film. During the brief hour-and-a-half playtime, expect to wince, cringe, sympathize, and maybe even choke up. And be sure to skip the snacks – they’re too noisy. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley | review by Stephen Theaker

The Beauty (Unsung Stories) is a story told by Nathan. Telling stories has been his job ever since the women and girls first began to fall sick and he stood up at the commune’s campfire and retold the story of a famous boy wizard to keep away the silence of the night. It has now been six years since the last women in the valley died, all of them victims of an aggressive fungal infection. The future is bleak, but he tells the surviving men and teenage boys tales of the past, doing his best to keep the women alive, in their thoughts at least. For sex and love the younger men make do with each other. That brings comfort, but there’s no future in it for the species, and no hope, even for a community that was self-sufficient before the disaster.

That is, until Nathan’s encounter in the woods with what he calls the Beauty, a being very like a woman in some ways, disturbingly different in others: “It has breasts, globes of yellow, and rounded hips that speak to me of woman, of want, and that disgusts me beyond words.” His return to the commune with his Beauty, and a crowd of others like it, changes everything, and those changes are not welcomed by all. But he finds an unexpected ally in his Uncle Ted, who till now had lived out in the woods, up to who knows what, and the teenagers are very enthusiastic about the new situation: they “wear skirts, and cite the ease of joining with their Beauties – no more zips to undo, simply lift the material!”

This is a short book with a lot to say, all of it interesting. About what people are prepared to do in order to survive, and how far others will go to prevent change; or, if we step back from Nathan’s point of view, a book about collaborators, and how collaboration can corrupt and degrade. On another level it’s about how men are affected by the absence of women, and later how they might react to losing their ill-earned place as the dominant gender: some with relief, others with murderous rage. Or it could be taken as an interrogation of that male fantasy, the all-sex all-the-time relationship, the always-available partner; it suggests how quickly life with a sexbot (or here, a sex mushroom) might lose its shine. Though it’s not quite a horror novella, its awful transformations of the flesh would do David Cronenberg proud.

Most of all it’s about the power of storytelling to preserve our past and shape our future, and so one can see why it would appeal to an imprint called Unsung Stories; on this evidence a name to look out for. The Beauty is intellectual and visceral, frightening and thoughtful, an adventure and a meditation. Letting my copy of Whiteley’s Mean Mode Median go unread for so long has clearly been a huge mistake. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #254.