Sunday, January 31, 2016

Quick Review: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1975)

Surreal, sub-par Mario Bava horror film. It has an effectively eerie undertone, but the confused story and lack of characterization make it a mostly underwhelming film.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Quick Review: TOURIST TRAP (1979)

One of Stephen King's favorite horror films, Tourist Trap (1979) is an original, surreal, and endlessly creepy experience. It gets a bit repetitive near the end, but, overall, this is a unique, memorable horror film. Although it is clearly influenced by the works of Tobe Hooper and Mario Bava, it has a bizarre, nightmarish feel all its own. Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Quick Review: THE VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (2010)

Original Theatrical Poster
Despite a strong, terrifying opening, this is a dull, pretentious "existential" horror film from director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist). The central concept is superb, but the uninspired direction, under-performing cast, and poor writing do it in. Avoid.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Quick Review: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

Original Theatrical Poster
Intriguing "Southern Gothic" from director Clint Eastwood, with engaging performances from an all-star cast, including John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, and Jude Law. But it's also a meandering, overlong film, and one which fails to bring the most out of its source material (it is based on the fascinating non-fiction book of the same name). Still, an interesting misfire from a master filmmaker.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: FOREVER KNIGHT: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1992 - 1996)

Here's one vampire series that defies all the odds. It's a low-budget, Canadian TV show with no stars, low-rent effects, and which has dated considerably. Yet, despite all that, Forever Knight (1992 - 1996) is still one of the most beloved and trend-setting cult shows ever to air on TV, with a late 80's, early 90's vibe that is irresistible.

Here's the story: An 800 year-old vampire, Nicholas Knight, decides to turn his back on evil and redeem himself by becoming a detective with the Toronto Metro Police. Haunted by his past deeds, thwarted by his mentor and sire LaCroix, and constantly fighting his dark nature, Knight struggles through his nocturnal existence while trying to solve murder cases and clean the streets of his city.

If the concept sounds familiar, that's because it has been copied ad nauseam. But Forever Knight is the original, warts and all. But let's make one thing very clear: Forever Knight, despite the aforementioned faults, is a good show; sometimes even a very good show. From the get-go, it's obvious that everyone involved with the show is giving it their all, especially the cast and the writers. The first season gets off to a great start with a fast-paced, atmospheric two-part pilot that sets the tone and bar for the rest of the series. The twenty episodes that follow are filled to the brim with ideas, mood, and good writing, establishing a cast of memorable heroes and villains.

The second season is even better than the first, with more polished production values, more ambitious stories, and some truly outstanding episodes. And it is with this season that the series reaches its peak, with a near-perfect mix of mystery, noir, and supernatural horror.

Sadly, things go downhill with the third and final season. Moving to the USA network, the makers of Forever Knight had to accede to the demands of the network, which include removing certain characters, adding others, and cutting the budget down by 15%. The results are mediocre at best, with the first half of the season being almost unwatchable. Gone are the rich mythology, the ambitious stories, the attention to detail. The second half of the season fares a little bit better, but not enough to redeem it. The final episode, titled "Last Knight", remains to this day a point of contention among even die-hard fans, because of its overly dark tone, needless killing of a number of main characters, and a final shot that is beyond ambiguous. It still packs a punch, but it's a somber, unsatisfying ending to what was once a compelling, ambitious series.

Yet, twenty years later, we're still talking about the show, and I for one know why: When Forever Knight was firing on all cylinders, it was one of the most enjoyable vampire shows ever put on TV.

N.B. Forever Knight began life in 1989 as a CBS pilot called Nick Knight (1989), starring Rick Springfield as Detective Knight. It's a great late 80's TV movie, with tons of atmosphere. Recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015 - 2016.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Art of Concert Films


Going to a concert can be a great experience. The lights, the crowd, the vibe, the great music vibrating out of humongous speakers.

But what if you can’t make it to the gig? Maybe you’re working that night. Maybe you can’t afford the tickets. Well, there’s always concert films. Not the same thing, you say. I beg to differ.

Concert films are one of the most underrated genres of filmmaking there is. A good concert film can be an uplifting, rocking experience. It can take you there, with the crowd. It can put you in the best seat possible, right there before the stage; closer than you could ever get with the real thing.

And, now, more than ever, with High-Definition (HD) and DTS technologies, you can replicate (almost) the experience of being there at the concert of your choice, again, and again. All you have to do is insert your DVD or Blu-Ray disc into your drive, and voila.

There are some great examples of the form, many of them made by renowned filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (Gooodfellas, The Departed) and Jonathan Demme (Silence of The Lambs, Philadelphia).

Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz (1978), chronicling the last concert of The Band, is considered to be one of the best of its kind. With great camerawork, guest appearances by the likes of Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters, the film stands the test of time, and, now, with the remastered version available on home video, it looks and sounds better than ever.

There is also Demme’s Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1983). Considered by many to be the “Citizen Kane” of concert films, this is one of the best examples of its kind. Thanks to David Byrne’s stage antics, brilliant staging, some of the best musicianship ever captured on film, and Jonathan Demme’s less is more approach, Stop Making Sense set the bar for the genre, and, to this day, is unparalleled in terms of capturing the energy of a live performance for the screen.

But there are also other, relatively lesser-known concert films out there that deserve more recognition. Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), directed by the man himself, is a great slice of 80’s extravagance. Prince, arguably one of the best musicians on this planet, and one of the most eccentric, captures his own brand of neo-psychedelia for this film, which features live performances of some of his best-known songs, as well as cult favorites off his then new release, Sign ‘O’ The Times.

There’s also Anton Corbijn’s film, Depeche Mode: Devotional (1993), a record of Depeche Mode at one of their finest moments, performing a concert to promote one of their most critically-acclaimed albums, Songs of Faith and Devotion. With stylistic lightning, stunning rear-projected images, and lead singer Dave Gahan’s mesmerizing stage presence, you get a stunning concert film.

So what makes some concert films so great? The answer is simple. It’s all about the music. If the artist or band is good, can deliver a rousing performance on stage, chances are this intensity will show on screen. There are some terribly shot concerts out there that are still able to show the talents of the performers, despite technical limitations and poor directing.

But if you combine a riveting performance with a good, or great, filmmaker, the results can be stunning. As is the case with all the examples cited here. The above-mentioned filmmakers manage to stylize those performances, using carefully chosen camera angles, and crisp, energetic editing, all in an attempt to transfer that live energy to the screen.

So, next time you can’t make it to a good gig, just turn on your disc player, switch on the TV, and enjoy the show.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2013 - 2016. (Originally Published on Bitlanders)

Quick Review: POLTERGEIST (2015)

Original Theatrical Poster
Well-produced but uneven and bland remake of a horror classic. It has some great visual ideas and an effective score, but the filmmakers seem unsure about what type of film they are making, with the script's attempts at humor and characterization more miss than hit. But the deal-breaker is that the film's never actually scary. The best thing about it is, as soon as it's over, you feel an overwhelming desire to pop in a copy of the original Tobe Hooper/Spielberg classic and watch it with renewed enthusiasm.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Quick Book Review: THE THREE. By Sarah Lotz

Original, unsettling, and highly compelling psychological thriller with supernatural overtones. It takes a while to get going, but, ultimately, this is a rewarding and haunting novel. Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

David Bowie - Celebrating The Life of An Artist

In celebration of David Bowie's life and music, I've created this playlist on YouTube, with some of my favorite songs. Enjoy.

Quick Review: THE VISIT (2015)

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Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's return to his horror roots is a modest, effective, entertaining horror/thriller, with a number of nifty scare sequences and endearing performances from the two young leads. But it suffers from having a simplistic plot (the twist isn't exactly mind-blowing) and Shyamalan's trademark sentimentality. Still, this is Shyamalan's best film since Signs (2002), and a fun, scary watch.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Quick Review: PALE RIDER (1985)

Clint Eastwood's second Weird-Western (after the superior High Plains Drifter [1973]), is a dark, mystical re-imagining of Shane (1953), and a pacey, stylish, compelling film, with good performances, and a strange, dream-like mood. Eastwood shines as "Preacher", who may or may not be a ghost or an angel, with a masterfully understated performance. And the visually majestic finale is unforgettable. The film's only faults are the annoying, underwritten female characters, and a one-note plot.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Book Review: THE SHADOW OF REICHENBACH FALLS by John R. King

Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a dime-a-dozen, with authors placing Holmes in the midst of investigations dealing with everything from Lovecraftian monsters, to vampires, to demons, to time travel. John R. King's The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, on the other hand, teams Holmes up with none other than Thomas Carnacki, Ghost Finder.

You don't know who Carnacki is? Well, if you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his ilk, you might have heard about him. The creation of author William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), Thomas Carnacki was featured in nine stories by Hodgson, all dealing with Carnacki's investigations into supernatural, or seemingly supernatural, occurrences. The Carnacki stories are not as well known as Holmes's tales of meticulous deduction, but hardcore fans of weird fiction know about them, mainly because of how strange and compelling these stories are.

In The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, John R. King (the author of more than twenty novels under the name J. Robert King) attempts to write a Holmes pastiche set between the stories The Final Problem and The Adventure of The Empty House, and an origin story for Thomas Carnacki.

The story centers on Carnacki, along with Professor Moriarity's Daughter, Anne, rescuing Holmes from certain death, only to discover that Holmes has no memory of who he is. Meanwhile, Moriarity, who is very much alive, is after Holmes, intending to kill him for ruining his empire of crime. Add to that demons, crazy doctors, Jack The Ripper, and botched exorcism, and you get The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls.

So does the whole thing work? Mostly, yes. King's writing is clean and energetic. His characters come to life on the page, and the middle section, written in the form of Professor Moriarity's diaries, is nothing short of riveting. But the whole plot doesn't gel with Arthur Conan Doyle's tales, or his style, for that matter; and fans of Carnacki will be slightly disappointed by King's refusal to delve deeper into the ghost hunter's past (although he does explain how Carnacki came upon his "Electric Pentacle").

Overall, this is an entertaining ride, full of interesting ideas. But as far as Holmes pastiches go, this might be too fantastical for some readers.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2013 - 2015. (Originally published on Bitlanders)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Quick Review: THE BEGUILED (1971)

Original Theatrical Poster
Released just before Clint Eastwood hit it big and became a household name with Dirty Harry (1971), The Beguiled (1971) is an American Gothic masterpiece set during the Civil War. It features one of Eastwood's finest and most complex performances, as the charismatic interloper who awakens the sexuality of a number of women in an all-girls boarding school, with dire consequences. Under Don Siegel's tight direction, this deceptively simple tale becomes a layered, tense psycho-sexual Gothic nightmare, with strange voice-overs, sudden bursts of violence, and disturbing incestuous overtones. Although Eastwood teamed up with Siegel on three other projects (Coogan's Bluff, Dirty Harry, and Escape From Alcatraz), this is their most idiosyncratic, atmospheric collaboration, and one to savor again and again. A highly recommended classic.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.