Monday, March 28, 2011

Dream Girls: “Sucker Punch” is an Action Fantasy Featuring Ladies with Big Guns

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I’m a little wishy-washy about the cinematic “style” of one Zack Snyder. And that’s probably why my favorite of his films remains his sleek “Dawn of the Dead” remake from 2004. Or it could just be the fact that I remain partial to the horror genre. I remain that his “Watchmen” flick is certainly an ambitious and wonderfully artistic undertaking and “Legends of the Guardians” was a fun animated adventure. The less said about “300” the better. And that brings us to his most recent cinematic romp “Sucker Punch” which sort of has elements of all of these movies.

Say what you want about Snyder’s films as a whole, but her certainly knows how to open a movie. I can recommend “Watchmen,” “Dawn of the Dead” and now “Sucker Punch” based on the film’s opening sequences alone. “Sucker Punch” opens an nary a line of dialogue is uttered and yet the whole film’s story is set up. It’s all set to an updated version of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” A young woman’s mother dies and her disgruntled stepfather is not thrilled to learn that his wife’s daughters will be getting the inheritance. He tries to abuse this girl, who’s only known as Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and when he tries to attack her younger sister Baby Doll accidently shoots and kills her sister. The stepfather sends her away to a mental institution in Brattleboro, VT where she awaits a lobotomy that will keep her quite for good.

Once our heroine realizes she’s about to get a long piece of metal plunged into her brain she enters a dream like reality where she conceives the mental institution as a burlesque theater-like brothel where the other “patients” are there to dance and perform and meet the need of male clients. She has five days before an unseen client known only as the High Roller will meet with her (which in reality is the doctor who is coming to lobotomize her). While she’s in this “world” she makes friends with the other girls who include Rocket (Jenna Malone) whom she saves from the creepy cook’s clutches, Rocket’s sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Without getting to far into specific plot details, it turns out that even in this “alternate world,” Baby Doll can actually go further into a fantasy world in which she battles monsters, robots and steam-punk WWI soldiers. It is in here where she learns she needs to collect five items which will eventually help the girls escape their mental prison, literally and figuratively.

Having said all that, I’m actually sort of surprised how easy it was to buy into all of this. The film’s “you must find five items” story seems just like the plot of a video game and the film’s grayscale and slow motion visuals certainly don’t make it the most stylistically original film out there, but the whole this was relatively easy to swallow. I liked how the fantasy sequences existed only in Baby Doll’s mind when she begins her dancing. I like having a line between reality and fantasy because it helps me ease into seeing something fantastical like flying dragons etc. It’s possible most people will laugh off the silly plot and the fact that the girls are “trained” by a psychiatrist named Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino doing the best stereotypically cheesy Polish accent possible) makes some of these scenes feel like they’ve been ripped from some ill-conceived Bob Fosse musical reject. The movie is ridiculous enough you’d think they might as well of had musical numbers too. I appreciate Snyder’s goal to finally produce an original story and he does get decent enough performers from his actors…considering one is from High School Musical and one is a former Real World cast member. And he is pretty good at constructing good music cues on his soundtrack.

A lot of people will see this movie because of the fantastical elements, cool fighting sequences and because the girls mostly run around in midriff revealing outfits and they shoot big guns. Its PG-13 rating is a warning enough that there’s very little actual overt sexuality here so those seeking titillation are better off watching Cinemax when they get home. And anyone who thinks this movie is exploitative of women obviously hasn’t seen a slasher flick. This is just a simple genre flick with no real higher aspirations and like the other Zack Snyder flicks that have come and gone it will fade blissfully from memory until the next geeky sci-fi fantasy video game comic book type movie hits the big screen. GRADE: B

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Craven More Scream: Appreciating the Scream Trilogy in Anticipation of “Scream 4”

Finally after nearly eleven years another Scream film is making its way to your local multiplex and if you’re a horror junkie like me you’re probably as giddy as a schoolboy. It’s a little more rare these days that we would get a straight up sequel, with some of the actual main characters from the original films, rather than a plain old remake. But the Weinsteins, with dollar signs in their eyes, saw an opportunity too good to refuse. Let’s take the original cast and filmmakers and relaunch one of their most popular franchises. Scream 4 is supposedly the first in a new planned trilogy and if that doesn’t excite you enough, Wes Craven is interesting in directing them all. Heck even George Lucus didn’t direct six Star Wars films. So with that April 15 opening looming every so closely in the future, I’ve decide to take a look back at the films that will provide the backstory for Scream 4 (or Scre4m if you’re paying attention to those ads) and why this trilogy is such an entertaining and ultimately groundbreaking addition to the often maligned but overtly popular horror genre.

Oh to be a horror film before 1996. Let’s see what there was…well there were plenty of sequels…we had Halloween The Curse of Michael Myers, arguably one of the worst of the series… we had Leprechaun which opened the door for future Friends star Jennifer Aniston… Dr. Giggles which opened and closed without much fanfare… Interview with the Vampire was classy and even reaped Oscar noms, as did Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but come on those movies aren’t really scary they’re lavish… There were two Child’s Play sequels… Candyman was a decent success for its time… yup, the early 1990s were pretty much a bust in terms of the horror genre. With the clear exception of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, there was nary an original or hip entry in the horror canon. New Nightmare was not a financial success… even Freddy fans were turned off by its “too hip” self-reflective approach. The early 1990s horror audience just didn’t “get it.” It was obvious that the horror genre, and more specifically the “slasher movie” was DOA.

Enter fledgling screenwriter Kevin Williamson whose favorite film Halloween inspired what was to become one of the most original horror movie scripts in the history of the genre. His “Scary Movie” script was passed around Hollywood and started a bidding war which was eventually snatched up by those money grubbing Weinsteins. They hired Wes Craven, whose last film was the Eddie Murphy urban vampire flick “Vampire in Brooklyn.” Not only would this next film reinvent an entire genre, but it would revamp Craven’s entire career. Now Craven wouldn’t just be known as the guy who directed “A Nightmare on Elm Street” but also the newly retitled “Scream” a wonderfully subversive take on the slasher movie clichés that audiences had gobbled down for years and years throughout the 70s and 80s. The film featured an extraordinarily well-executed opening sequence which dispatched teen star Drew Barrymore and relaunched her career ala John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” The opening scene in which Drew, as horror savvy high schooler Casey Becker, is stalked on the phone by a menacing voice who forces her to answer horror trivia questions is arguably one of the best staged sequences in slasher movie history. It’s really a short film that could exist without even the rest of the film existing. Seriously. Watch it and then turn off the movie and your slasher movie craving will be more than satisfied. But the rest of the movie is simply horror movie gold. The script is about teens who grew up watching horror movies, just like the many fans watching the film. They talk about these movies and their performers and they discuss the clichés we’ve all gleaned from watching these types of films over and over again. The irony is that while the Scream characters scorn movie characters for doing stupid things (like running up the stairs when they should be running out the front door), they do them anyways. One character, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), even has compiled a list of horror movie “rules” in order to survive a scary movie. These include not drinking, having sex or saying you’ll “be right back.” Each one of these rules are broken in “Scream.” Oh how I can remember almost jumping out of my skin first watching “Scream” when it first came out on video. It scared me and yet I couldn’t get enough. I even made the mistake of watching it all alone again the next day. How I couldn’t get enough.

The first “Scream” was a great film in its own right. It was obvious due to the success of the first film that a sequel was bound to happen. And it did, just one year later. And of course the movie savvy characters discuss sequels in this sequel ‘cause they know they’re in a sequel. While the first film had the ingenious twist of having two killers, which was a twist literally no one on the planet saw coming, with the sequel it was now known that literally anything could happen. Maybe this time there would be three killers? “Scream 2” followed the first film’s hip, self-reflective style and opens with a sequence in which two college kids (who look awfully old to be in college - perhaps they were just going back to get their Bachelors?) attend a premiere of a movie called “Stab” which is based on the events that took place in the first “Scream.” Here we hardcore Scream fans get a reenactment of events from the opening of the first film starring Heather Graham in the Drew Barrymore role. (And later on an ingenius cameo from Tori Spelling as heroine Sidney Prescott)This is played out against our two new characters quickly being stabbed to death, inside a crazy-packed movie theater (but not before having the African American characters fittingly point out that slasher movies rarely feature Black characters). While I don’t personally find this sequel to be as scary or intense as the first film, Craven has to be given credit for constructing some pretty innovative sequences. For instance, it’s in his genius that he can manage to make an open college campus quad in the middle of the day ominous. There are people all around and yet Ghostface manages to snatch a victim within plain sight. And a scene that takes place in a crashed cop car is a pretty great showcase for suspense. The film’s climax, while not as well-done as in the original, is set on a theater stage in an eerie take on "life imitating art" and while the film ends wraps things up nice and neatly, we weren’t all too shocked to learn there would be a part three.

If “Scream 2” was about life imitating art, then this third chapter is about life imitating art imitating life. This film doesn’t take place in high school or in college, but appropriately takes place in the “real world” or rather the real world as only Hollywood could imagine it. It’s now several years later, and so much time has passed that there’s already a “Stab 3” movie in production. So instead of college co-eds here our supporting cast are actors and filmmakers. Funny lady Parker Posey plays Jennifer Jolie who plays Gale Weathers in the Stab films. She gets super excited when she gets to meet the actual Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and this doppelganger comically clings to her as if she were her real life twin. The Scream films have always been known for their humor and with the death of Randy Meeks in Scream 2, we needed a new comic relief character. And you can’t go wrong with Posey. It turns out that our heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is in hiding but a new string of murders brings her out to get rid of her haunted past for good. She teams up with the lovably doofy Dewey Riley (David Arquette). In most cases the third act of a trilogy is about going back to the beginning (the subtitle of Stab 3 is appropriately “Return to Woodsboro”) and we learn things we never knew we never knew. It’s important to note that by the time “Scream 3” was released in February 2000, there had been so many “Scream” imitations it was hard to keep track. Movies like “I Know What You Did Last Summer, “Urban Legend” and even a new “Halloween” flick which has a very Scream-like vibe about it. So not surprisingly “Scream 3” sort of had a lukewarm reception. It’s ironic that the hip flick that restarted the slasher genre sort of became a parody of itself and in so doing, “Scream 3” sort of remains the least scary of the trilogy (and for some reason the least gory) and yet it’s definitely the most tongue-in-cheek. It followed the same formula of the first two films: a shocking opening murder, the reintroduction of heroine Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers being a bitch, comic relief, hip dialogue, Dewey almost dying, and the revelation of the killer, who must be shot in the head in order to be killed (and this one adds some great cameos from Jay and Silent Bob and even Carrie Fisher). It doesn’t hide the fact that it’s so obviously attempting to be a movie about movies. And even without Kevin Williamson in the writer’s chair it ultimately retains the style of the first two films and concludes the series in a mostly satisfying way.

Overall you can’t deny the impact of the Scream series. The countless imitations it caused made it one of the most influential films in the horror genre since the first “Halloween” film in 1978. Ghostface simply represented the 1990s horror slasher. While Leatherface and Michael Myers ruled the 70s and Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger ruled the 80s. Of course, eventually people sort of got sick of the hip style of these self-referential slasher flicks and the horror film sort of took a nosedive into what became “torture porn” subgenre in the 00s (And let’s not forget the funny parody series “Scary Movie” which itself inspired a whole slew of horrible, unfunny spoofs). It’s interesting to note that while the post-Scream slasher films were hip they weren’t all that fantastically gory. Sure there was lots of blood, but no real guts. Let us remember that the original Scream featured not only one but two disembowelings. It’s great that Scream was able to mix such shocking images with such clever and funny dialogue and feature characters worth caring about and a twisty plot that was too good to resist. Here’s hoping that the fourth entry in the series can go back to what made “Scream” so good in the first place. Scream: A+; Scream 2: A-; Scream 3: B+

Check out the trailer for Scream 4 below and watch it 500 times like I have already. The three Scream films also arrive on Blu-ray March 29th.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind: “Paul” is a Funny, Pop Culture Referencing Romp

“Are you gonna draw me like one of your French girls, Jack?”

Curious if you think you’d like “Paul” about two goofs who run into a stranded wisecracking alien during their road trip tour of geeky, obscure alien sites? Did you love “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz?” Do you have a particular love of the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas? Are you obsessed with Comic-Con, aliens or quoting movies? Odds are if you answered yes to any of the above questions then you’re bound to love the movie “Paul” like I did (And I’m not even obsessed with aliens or George Lucas like some people tend to be… you know who you are). “Paul” is written by the guys who stared in “Shaun of the Dead” those British funny guys Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. And it’s from the guy who directed “Superbad” (Greg Mottola). So right away you know you’re in for a raunchy, pop cultured-filled adventure that will certainly bring out the immature 15 year old boy in all of us.

Paul is an alien from outer space. He accidentally crashes his spaceship somewhere where Area 51 is currently located, back in the 1940s. He has been held captive by scientists who have been probing and prodding him and were about to cut out his brain when he escaped and happen to run into two sci-fi geeks who happen to be touring UFO sites. Paul is voiced by Seth Rogen, so you’re not surprised when Paul starts sprouting out movie lines, foul language, and lighting up joints. These goofs Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) reluctantly let Paul hang out in their RV and give him a ride to where Paul is supposed to make contact with his fellow spacemen.

Of course, with an alien on the lose there are many folks in black suits after him. One of those guys is Jason Bateman playing the straight man which we all know he does so well. He’s being ordered around by “The Big Guy” whose voice we recognize as the alien ass-kicking Sigourney Weaver. And Bateman in turn is bossing around Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (the weird guy from “Superbad” whose name no one knows…it’s Joe Lo Truglio) who slowly become aware of the fact that their mission is to track down a space alien who is on the run. Graeme and Clive meet a bunch of colorful characters along the way, which tends to happen in road movies. The best is definitely Ruth Buggs (an always wonderful Kristin Wiig) who begins as a one-eyed Bible thumper and then finds new freedom as a profanity-spewing gal whose new number one interest is fornicating.

“Paul” is a movie about sci-fi geeks made to be watched by sci-fi geeks. There are plenty of references to everything from “Back to the Future” to “Aliens.” And even more random references like Titanic and even the Susan Sarandon drama “Lorenzo’s Oil” (Bateman’s character’s name is revealed to be Lorenzo Zoil). There are too many great scenes and lines (and cameos) to spoil here so odds are if you’re a movie junkie you will find something to like about “Paul.” And Rogen does such a great job of bringing his character to life. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you become attached to that little space dude.

Is “Paul” the best movie ever made? No. Is the funniest? No. But it’s certainly one of the best movies currently playing at a theater near you. It certainly fits nicely with movies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Superbad,” although it kind of felt like a cross between “Zombieland” and “Pineapple Express” meets “E.T.” Unless you’ve never even heard of any of the movies I’ve mentioned, you’re bound to enjoy it. GRADE: B+

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reptile Dysfunction: “Rango” is a Super Weird, but Super Cool Animated Adventure

“Believe in that there sign. For as long as it hangs there we've got hope.”

How could I possibly describe “Rango?” I guess the best explanation would be “it’s an animated Western.” Of course it’s much more than that because if were only an animated Western I probably wouldn’t like it that much since it’s not one of my favorite genres. And it’s not quite a kids movie since it seems too intense for the little ones and probably too confusing for the older ones. In fact, I’m not quite sure what the appropriate audience is for the Nickelodeon-produced flick about a thespian chameleon who gets lost in the desert and happens upon a run down town that has lost their water supply. There’s a social message in here somewhere and there are even a few laughs along the way. The highlight is definitely Rango, our colorful lizard hero who longs to be just that: a hero.

We’re introduced to this lizard guy, voiced by Johnny Depp, as a pet chameleon who gets separated from his human owners and left out in the middle of the open road. He’s quickly given some advice from an armadillo that’s been run over. He’s quickly attacked by a hawk who just wants something to eat. And soon he runs into another lizard name Beans (Isla Fisher) who warns him that her townsfolk don’t take kindly to strangers. This old Western town, appropriately named Dirt, is full of strange inhabitants and they’re all worried about the lack of water in their town. Their bank, doesn’t hold money, but rather precious water which is the source of their very survival. They’re forced to drink cactus juice which appears to cause severe hallucinations. We’re quickly introduced to a bunch of colorful characters which include various desert-dwelling animals. The towns Mayor, (Ned Beatty) a giant wheel-chair bound tortoise, doesn’t seem quite right off the bad and we’re not exactly sure what his deal is. Although it’s certainly suspicious that he hoard some precious water for himself.

This chameleon, who had previously been unnamed names himself Rango and tells the townsfolk that he’s actually a tough drifter and they quickly see him as some sort of possible savior. Of course remember I said he’s a thespian who’s more interested in being something he’s not. Soon that peskly hawk is after Rango again and this time Rango defeats him, which immediately cements the idea that Rango is the one. The Mayor even makes Rango the town sheriff. Soon after however, some thieves make off with the rest of the town’s limited water supply and it’s up to Rango to find the culpriets and bring them to justice. And before we know it there’s an appearance by a Clint Eastwood look-a-like and a scary rattle snake named Jake who seems way too scary a character for little kids to handle.

Rango was written by John Logan, directed by Gore Verbinksi and produced by The Departed’s Graham King which probably all explains the sheer strangeness of the entire thing. The film feels rather cinematic which tends to happen when a live action director does animation. It sort of feels like his previous efforts The Mexican and the entire Pirates trilogy. It features a great Hans Zimmer score and plenty of movie in-jokes for adult audiences. The entire film’s animation style is pretty breathtaking; it’s never truly “cartoony” which is probably explained by the fact that the special effects company ILM animated the entire film (the company’s first such endeavor). The voice work is terrific as well (and the actor’s supposedly acted out their parts with props and such) and there’s plenty of weirdness to talk about once the film is over. If there’s any complaint, it seems the movie appears to run a little long in my opinion, with the film sort of running out of steam towards the end.

“Rango” is certainly a strange and original animated movie. Don’t let the idea that it’s a cartoon turn you off, because it features plenty of good fun for big movie buffs. Rango is a cute character who is certainly memorable and it features some pretty scrumptious animation. Good times indeed. And bonus points for the owl mariachi band, they're definitely a hoot. GRADE: B

Friday, March 11, 2011

Call of Doodie: “Battle: Los Angeles” is a Boring and Dull Alien Combat Flick

“Right now we are being colonized.”

I would watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” on loop for the rest of my life before I would rewatch “Battle: Los Angeles.” Director Jonathan Liebesman, who’s previous directorial effort was the aforementioned Leatherface prequel should stick to grotesque horror, because with this boring sci-fi action movie, he’s made something certainly terrifying in a whole new way. I was really looking forward to “Battle: Los Angeles” and I figured after the disaster that was “Skyline” how could the alien invasion genre get any worse? Ok so “Battle” isn’t really as bad as “Skyline” but it’s not much better. It’s sort of a neat idea to mesh the style of Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawn Down” with something like “Independence Day” but here the formula doesn’t really work and instead we’re left with a two hour nausea-inducing commercial for the Marines. Oooo-yawn!

I’m not usually a fan of the flag-waving patriot view of the military you usually get in action movies like this. I’m looking at you Michael Bay. It’s not that I don’t respect the military, because I do, but in movies like this they sort of glorify combat and make it seem like it’s all fun and games. Look it’s fun to shoot at aliens! Be all you can be! Like I said, the film feels like a commercial for the Marines than an actual movie. And I wouldn’t mind so much if writer Christopher Bertolini could have given us at least one character to care about or at least made the characters diverse enough to tell them apart. I’d at least be willing to give up character development for at least some action that is enjoyable to watch. But here there are so many edits and shaky camera moves I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Shaky cameras work for something like “Cloverfield” but here where the story is not being shot by an actual character it’s just pointless. It’s just a way to distract you from the cheesy aliens being parading in front of you.

Ok it’s cool that an actual alien combat movie shows individual aliens actually fighting. The aliens seem to be almost part machine and have machine guns for arms it appears. The aliens are some cross between a transformer and a terminator with enough soft flesh to have a few slimy sequences, once of which involves poor Michelle Rodriquez taking a large glob of slime to the face. And besides marines shooting their guns and the aliens firing their guns there’s really not much else going on here. A team of marines lead by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) leads his team of marines into full on battle in Los Angeles against these alien invaders. A massive bomb is going to take out the area so they have three hours to… kill aliens. Meanwhile we as the audience have to sit there for two hours and wait for the whole thing to be over with. I’ll give the rest of the cast a break and not mention they by name here.

I’m sure there are plenty of action fans who will find something to enjoy here. There’s lots of shooting and yelling and loud noises. Normally I wouldn’t mind but it was just sort of boring; like watching someone play a videogame and you’re not invited to join in. The whole film just feels like it exists to make noise. And is it ever boring! “Transformers 2,” as crappy as it was, wasn’t nearly as boring as this is. Say what you want about Mr. Bay, but when he goes big he goes really big and as much of a tool as he is, I never really regret seeing any of his movies. I think Mr. Liebesman should just stick to Leatherface movies ‘cause if I’m going to be subjected to loud noises, I’d rather see someone being ripped apart by a chainsaw. GRADE: D+