Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Review: BLOOD RIVER DOWN by Charles L. Grant (as Lionel Fenn)

As a huge fan of writer Charles L. Grant, but not a huge fan of fantasy, I opened my copy of Blood River Down with trepidation, fearing that this would be the one bum book that would tarnish my unblemished memory of Grant as a writer who just doesn't miss (which, in itself, is a pretty stupid notion, since there has not been a writer in history who never wrote a bad book. But I digress).

The first few chapters of Blood River Down took some heavy lifting on my part, as it was hard for me to get into the spirit and tone of the book. The goofy sense of humor and slow pace took me by surprise, since my idea of a Charles L. Grant book was shaped by such horror classics as The Orchard and the Black Oak series, solid horror/thrillers written in mesmerizing prose and filled to the brim with deliciously creepy atmospherics. Blood River Down is something entirely different.

It tells the story of Gideon Sunday, a retired football player down on his luck, who spends his days drinking, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the phone to ring, and trying to overcome his memories of his much beloved but recently departed sister. Then, suddenly, a magical door materializes in his pantry, which leads him into another world full of warriors and deadly creatures, and towards a quest to find a very special duck that can save or destroy the world.

What happens next is a series of mostly hit, and sometimes miss, series of incidents, adventures, and battles, some of which are hilarious, most of which are fun, and a few of which are downright boring. But it is obvious that Grant is having tons of fun with his tale and characters, delivering an array of puns, lame jokes, and some laugh-out-loud one-liners. And by the end of the book, I found myself smiling and feeling modestly rewarded for sticking with Gideon and company till the end (or the beginning, since this is the first part of a trilogy) of their quest.

For newcomers to Grant's work this is not the best place to start, as it lacks his mastery of atmosphere and his silky smooth prose, which is understandable, since Grant here is writing outside of the horror genre, the field he excelled at and in which he produced some of the most haunting stories ever put to paper. But if you are a die-hard fan like myself, or looking for an easy, fun fantasy read, then I'm sure you'll find much to enjoy.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON

With the departure of Frank Darabont at the end of the first season, and Glen Mazzara at the end of the third, writer/executive producer Scott Gimple took over The Walking Dead, and turned it into something, well, different.

Fans of Robert Kirkman's original comic books on which the series is based, will be very pleased by how things turn out, as, reportedly, one of the main reasons Mazzara was ousted from the show was his lack of reverence for the source material and his insistence on tinkering with it to create a dramatic landscape better suited for televised storytelling. Not anymore, as Gimple and Kirkman steer the show back, rather abruptly, I might add, to its comic book roots, with varying results.

On the plus side, the show now has more of an episodic feel, with arcs being introduced and resolved within a few episodes, and a stronger emphasis on stand-alones, which works for those just tuning in to the show, and those who are merely casual fans who dip in a few times per season to keep up with a show that is more than trendy. On the minus side, long-time fans of the show, like myself, are subjected to a rude awakening, where, suddenly, characters start acting in ways not wholly consistent with what we know and love about these characters, while the mythic, serialized approach that made the show such a ground-breaking, timeless, and haunting storytelling endeavor, is mostly gone.

The show is still very good, don't get me wrong. But it's not an incomparable, perfectionist masterpiece anymore, as Gimple is a great writer (as evidenced by his episode "The Grove", one of the finest hours ever to air on television), but only an adequate showrunner, as under his guidance the show's technical merits take a blow, losing the tightly cinematic style of the previous three seasons. And Gimple also seems to have a penchant for sentimentality, as this is the first season to have a mawkish, almost unbearably saccharine bent, which is most notable in the episode "Still", one of the worst and most sentimental episodes of the series up to that point.

By the end of the season, things even out a little bit, and we begin to get used to this new but not improved Walking Dead, taking the good with the bad, the brilliant with the average. I, for one, will continue to watch the show, hoping for the best, waiting for Gimple and co. to surprise, shock, and inspire me. And if they don't, well, there's always the first three season to watch again and again.

Only time will tell...

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: THE FOUNDER (2016)

The Founder (2016) is one of the most important movies ever made. It is a crash course in why the world is the way it is; an indictment of an age of crass commercialism and hucksters pretending to be visionaries. By telling the true story of Ray A. Kroc, the "Godfather" of modern franchising as we know it, director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert Siegel lay open the story of modern America, globalization, and why we live in a world that rewards sales people and ostracizes the majority of dreamers and visionaries.

The Founder beautifully and clearly tells the story of Ray A. Kroc, the McDonald brothers, and the birth of one of the most successful businesses in the history of mankind. It also tries to set the record straight on who deserves the credit for what, in the long and convoluted story of McDonald's, and puts Kroc and his disciples under the harsh light of truth, revealing them for what they truly are: flawed, ambitious men, who build empires on the shoulders of visionaries and then try to bury them and steal their thunder.

But aside from the film's success as a smoothly structured history lesson, The Founder is also grand entertainment, with a terrific and terrifically complex performance by Michael Keaton as Kroc. While the supporting cast, which includes Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson among others, create memorable and fascinating portrayals of characters that the world and the history books have unfairly forgotten.

All in all, The Founder is one of the best films of its kind, and one which begs for repeated viewings. Unmissable.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: COOTIES (2014)

One of the best horror-comedies you've never seen, Cooties (2014) is a fun lover letter to 80s horror/zombie movies. Like Final Girls (2015), Cooties' strengths lie in its near-perfect mix of reverence and send-up, with the filmmakers paying tribute to a genre they both love and find silly at the same time.

The plot: A group of teachers get stuck in a school where the students suddenly start turning into cannibalistic monsters (i.e zombies), and they have to do everything they can to survive, including facing their own fears and weaknesses. Saying anymore would ruin the fun for you, as this is a film filled to the brim with funny scenes, surprisingly hardcore gore, and a number of hilarious lines, not to mention a cast (that includes Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, and Leigh Whannell) that seems to be having a blast. The score by Kreng is also retro-synth music at its best.

This is also a rather conspicuous debut for Leigh Whannell as an actor/writer without his partner James Wan, and he proves himself admirably, delivering, along with co-writer Ian Brennan, a script that is original, funny, scary, and memorable.

Even if it is a bit lacking in technical merits - the direction is occasionally too conventional for its own good - this is an energetic, fun, tense, and endlessly entertaining horror-comedy, and a must see for fans of the zombie movies of the 70s and 80s. Unmissable.

N.B. Look out for a great appearance by none other than Peter Kwong (Big Trouble in Little China) as Mr. Hitachi!

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Movie Review: BLAIR WITCH (2016)

Released without much fanfare, Blair Witch (2016), the official sequel to The Blair Witch Project (1999) - let's all pretend Blair Witch 2 (2000) never happened -  is destined to become a polarizing film. If, like myself, you aren't a huge fan of the original, you'll probably find it to be a slick, compelling, and arguably superior sequel/retread of the original; on the other hand, if you are a die-hard fan of the original, and there are millions of you out there, it could be seen as an unnecessary repeat performance of the best aspects of the original.

To me, Blair Witch blows the original out of the water. Director and genre stalwart Adam Wingard, along with writer Simon Barrett, deliver a movie that is tense, fun, energetic, and deliciously scary, with the always reliable Wingard directing with an ebullience that was missing from the original

Whereas the original was an occasionally tedious exercise in cinema-verite, with hysterical characters and an annoying lead, this sequel features characters that are more fleshed out and much more likable. Yes, it isn't as gritty, and there isn't much here that is as startlingly original, but it is a better movie overall, with tight direction, an inventive script, and a terrifying, if slightly over-the-top, ending. It also has the advantage of working well as a stand-alone film, thanks to Barrett's clever script.

If you're looking for a fun, scary, and fast-paced "found footage" horror film, Blair Witch is for you.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Flashback Review: SLEEPWALKERS (1992)

Considered by many one of Stephen King's most embarrassing projects, Sleepwalkers (1992) is indeed a very flawed movie, but a fun one nonetheless.

Director Mick Garris, one of the horror genre's most reliable filmmakers, injects a lot of energy and style into the story, and the performances by the main cast (Brian Krause, Alice Krige, and Madchen Amick) are top notch.

What takes the film down a number of notches are the considerably uneven screenplay (reportedly penned by Stephen King as a lark), and the herky-jerky pacing, causing the film to have an incoherent, episodic feel that never lets the characters fully come to life. Also, the film's tone is all over the place, alternating between black comedy, low-brow humor, gory horror, and, ultimately, serious horror; not exactly an easy mix to take.

But, decades after its release in theaters, the film still holds up, mainly because of the terrific make-up/creature effects by Tony Gardner, Garris's stylish direction, and capable performances by the cast, both human and feline (the film features more than a hundred cat performers). So taken for what it is, a cheesy but slick horror film from the early 90s, Sleepwalkers is a tremendously entertaining watch.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quick Review: LEGO BATMAN: THE MOVIE: DC SUPER HEROES UNITE (2013)

The most fun I've had watching a DC movie in years, Lego Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite (2013) - not to be confused with the theatrical feature released in 2017 - is a funny, fun, energetic, and superbly entertaining animated movie. It manages to be slyly funny and reverent to the source material at the same time (astute viewers will catch a lot of references to the original live-action movies), and the voice performances are top notch. A must for fans of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and DC comics.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017