Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Firing on No Cylinders: Pixar Should Have Put the Brakes on “Cars 2”
I remember critics calling the first Cars movie mechanical and soulless. It never achieved the emotional level as the other Pixar films. They thought it was loud and obnoxious. I disagreed. I thought the animation was simply outstanding. Drool inducing actually. And it was a pretty darn hilarious movie if you ask me. The car puns were pretty clever. The filmmakers did such a great job of making things we would never see as human-like (motor vehicles) and making them completely engaging and humanistic. I was completely surprised at the level of fascination I found with the original film and even though some saw it as a rip-off of “Doc Hollywood” I didn’t care because I’ve never even seen that movie. But now we have “Cars 2” which like the first Transformers sequel follows the formula of “bigger and louder is better.”
The film opens with an spy thriller action sequence set on a ship out in the middle of the ocean. Immediately I don’t care what’s going on. I just want to see the adorable characters from Radiator Springs that I fell in love with five years ago. We finally get back there and see our old friends Mater, Lightening McQueen, Sally and the rest of the gang. It appears that Sally and Lightening have been dating and Mater and Lightening are still best friends. But of course like all situations like this, Mater always feels left out. But even mechanical objects like cars realize that it’s just as important to spend time with your best friend as it is with your significant other. That’s why Pixar is so great, they disturbingly make their films so true to life. The plot here has something to do with Lightening shipping off to Japan to complete in the “World Grand Prix” and Mater and some of the others join him. Before Mater can say “two left lug nuts” he’s being mistaken for a spy and becomes involved in international espionage. Brits Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer provide voices for new British car characters. But they never achieve the great character development as our friends back in Radiator Springs and the more the film spends in Europe the more I longed to head back to that quiet little town that was the setting for the first film.
Poor director John Lasseter. I think this guy is literally destined to never win a completive Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Every time a brilliant new Pixar film is released he’s not the director and when he is (like with Cars) stupid movies about dancing penguins tend to win (He did win an Oscar for his short film “Tin Toy” back in the 80s). Mr. Lasseter, who gave such heart to his previous films, has made “Cars 2” a loud and crass and borderline obnoxious movie (but let’s also credit co-director Brad Lewis for this mess). The emphasis here is on explosions and killing automobiles in various action sequences. It sort of reminded me of “The Incredibles” another loud Pixar film I wasn’t too particularly fond of. And if you hated the car puns in the first film, you’ll hate them here as well. One scene takes place inside “Big Bentley” in London. I did enjoy most of the Japan sequence, but I think making fun of Japanese culture is way too easy a target.
I’m actually not that disappointed by “Cars 2” and that’s because I had such low expectations that it wasn’t even really all that bad. Maybe it’s really not all that bad, perhaps I was just tired or not in the right mood to see this thing. But I still can’t help trying to figure out what really went wrong here. Even though the first “Cars” is one of my all-time favorites, I never needed to see a sequel. “Cars 2” exists to sell toys and ironically the Toy Story movies, which are all about toys, seem to be the franchise with the heart and emotion too good to just be about merchandising. Pardon the pun, but this noisy and overlong movie just left me exhausted. GRADE: C-
Monday, June 27, 2011
Head of the Crass: Cameron Diaz is the Worst Educator in the World in “Bad Teacher”
This is the sort of role that Cameron Diaz was born to play. Most say she’s an actress with pretty limited range and I’m inclined to agree. She’s coasted along in her career mostly on her good looks and her ability to act better than a piece of tree bark. But in the right role in the right movie she can be a wild success. Don’t believe me? Watch “There’s Something About Mary” or “In Her Shoes” and tell me I’m wrong. I think “Bad Teacher” is a good fit. The role requires her to be sexy and foul-mouthed and she’s good at that. And you don’t really have to care about her. She’s so filthy and horrible I’m surprised most people didn’t walk out of the theater. But that’s what I admire about the film – that it’s willing to place such an unlikable character at the center of its story. Although she’s not so much unlikable as she just says and does things that we all wish we could. When she finally actually starts teaching her students (because she finds out the teacher who’s class scores the highest on a statewide teast gets a bonus) she grades them with things like “are you f*cking kidding me?” and “you’re so stupid”).
The movie works because we all know teachers are supposed to be kind, understanding, smart, and kid-friendly. Elizabeth is none of those things. She spends a year as a teacher and she planned on quitting to focus on her marriage to some rich guy. But her fiancée breaks up with her (with his mother there) and she’s forced to crawl back to the school where she’s reinstated three months later. She quickly butts heads with a deliciously perky teacher Miss Squirrel (played marvelously by Lucy Punch). She’s one of those teachers who is so passionate about teaching that she freaks out even her own students. Punch is almost a comedic genius here and she makes the perfect foil to the foul-mouthed Elizabeth. The two butt heads even more when they both set their sights on a cute new permanent substitute played by Justin Timberlake. He doesn’t quite get much to do here except play against type as a prudish, slightly nerdy guy who has just gotten out of a relationship. Elizabeth seems to think a boob job will help her get this guy and sets her sights on a new pair of fake boobies.
This is a movie that is filled to the brim with wonderful and hilarious supporting performances. Phyllis from TV’s The Office shows up as a reserved teacher who has some pretty funny lines. Jason Segal plays the gym teacher who has a thing for Elizabeth, but of course she’d never date a gym teacher. Even Molly Shannon shows up as the mother of one of Elizabeth’s students who invites her over for a Christmas dinner from hell. And Christopher Guest favorite John Michael Higgens is the principle who refuses to believe that Miss Squirrel’s accusations about Elizabeth are true. Even Cam from “Modern Family” shows up in a completely against type role.
“Bad Teacher” is funny and almost perfectly blends dark humor with its innocent setting. Diaz is good here and so are her wonderful supporting players. Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) moves things along swiftly and always presents us with unpredictable scenes (dry humping much?) and some seriously funny humor. Punch and Diaz work so well together I wouldn’t mind seeing them in something else together. This one certainly makes the grade. GRADE: B
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Oh, the Horror! The Scariest Moments in Movies According to Me
“Halloween” - The closet sceneMaybe I’m biases because this is my favorite horror movie, but there was a time when it was simply just the scariest freaking movie I had seen in my whole life. And my whole life had consisted of about 8 or 9 years at that point. Michael Myers’ mask was the scariest image I had ever seen up to that point and the music was something I just couldn’t listen to without almost screaming for the hills. “Halloween” still stand up til this day, but I think the most frighten sequences comes at the end when babysitter Laurie Strode, confident that she has killed “the boogeyman” is unaware that he has climbed the stairs right behind her young charges. He stands there, they look at him and not only do the kids scream, but the audience does too. Just Michael Myers standing there is creepy in itself, but once Laurie locks herself in the closet and he comes after her, it’s a moment of sheer unadulterated terror. The entire movie he has been watching from a distance, but now he's right in her face.
“Jaws” – Ben Gardner’s headSteven Spielberg created a phenomenon with Jaws. He not only created the summer blockbuster, but he created a master work of horror and suspense. In arguably the movie’s biggest jump scare, Richard Dreyfuss is examining the bite marks on the hull of an abandoned boat in the middle of the ocean. He picks up a huge shark tooth and when he goes to take a closer look, a one-eyed face comes into full view while John Williams’ disturbing stinger blasts on the soundtrack. It scares the living daylights outta me even on my 1245th viewing.
“Psycho” – the shower sceneAs clichéd as it might sound, the shower scene in Psycho is probably the greatest moment in horror movie history – and definitely one of the most well known scenes in all of cinema. Its power still holds up more than fifty years later. It’s an expertly crafted sequence with perfect editing choreography, striking camerawork and an astonishingly effective score. Not only is it one of the most well-made sequences in movies, but it’s one of the scariest. There is no other more vulnerable location than a shower – you’re emotionally and literally naked and the idea that someone could jump at you and stab you to death is such a dreadful concept that this scene alone is the reason why there will most likely never be a shortage of water. The fact that this happens to the MAIN CHARACTER makes it all the more disturbing.
“The Mist” – the pharmacy sceneI’m almost too scared to even talk about this scene. “The Mist” is a wonderfully underrated movie about a dense fog that covers an entire town – this mysterious mist is full of terrifying creatures and monsters that have only one intention: to kill. The mist traps a whole bunch of people in a small supermarket. I’m pretty much completely terrified of spiders, so when a small group of people make their way to the pharmacy to collect meds for those that have been injured, I was taken completely by surprise by a man being used as a spider’s nest. The guy literally bursts open and a flood of tiny spiders crawl out of him, meanwhile giant mutated spiders who spit out acidic webbing cause havoc for these folks. It’s an utterly freaky and horrifying sequence which I’m not I’ve actually seen all the way through.
“Alien” – the chest bursterThe facehugger is one of the creepiest creations in a horror movie. This giant spider like monster jumps out of an egg and attaches itself to a person’s face. Hours later it seems to fall off its host and just die. But what it does is far worse than having an alien stuck to your face. It creates a completely different-looking creature that bursts from your torso instead – usually while eating dinner. When John Hurt is hanging out with his fellow space crew, relieved that his alien pest has seemingly died, he’s even more horrified to realize the pain he’s experiencing as something seems to be moving underneath his stomach. His crew is even more shocked to see a small creature burst out with blood and guts everywhere and run off and hid. That is some effed up stuff right there.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” – Tina’s deathThere is something so completely disturbing about the death of teenager Tina Gray at the hands of Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” She’s been affected by these terrible nightmares about this man with a burned face. He knows he’s after her. As creepy as this guy is, her death doesn’t even show her attacker because we see it completely from the point of view of Tina’s awake boyfriend Rod. We see her struggling with her attacker but then we cut from inside her dream, to the “real world” where Rod sees her struggling with an invisible force. Her chest is sliced by four invisible blades, she’s thrown from the bed, dragged up the wall and across the ceiling, where she collapses into a gigantic pool of blood. And then it’s silence. You can’t even describe what you’ve just witnessed. It’s one of horror master Wes Craven’s most well-directed sequences and features mindboggling special effects that hold up disturbingly well today.
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” - Kirk gets clubbedIn a movie filled with disturbing, although not altogether very explicitly violent, images. I still think poor young Kirk getting clubbed in the head is the movie’s scariest moment. It’s the moment we first get a look at “Leatherface” the movie’s iconic cannibalistic villain. A group of young people are just trying to find their way around, but you don’t go knocking on doors in the middle of no where, especially in Texas. Kirk, who up until the point of his death, seemed to be the leading man of the movie. You’d never ever think that he’d be the first one to go. He enters this creepy farm house, asking if anyone is there. All he hears is the sound of pigs squealing. He runs up to an open doorway and BOOM he’s slammed in the head with a mallet. He drops to the floor in a matter of seconds and his bleeding body begins to convulse. Then Leather face drags him into the room and slams that metal door shut. A door slam has never sounded scarier as that ominous low-pitched music fills the soundtrack. It’s a moment of pure dread in a movie filled with plenty of pure dread. It’s just plain creepy.
“The Blair Witch Project” – the endingThe shaky fake documentary “The Blair Witch Project” works for some people and not for others. I think it works for me. While I don’t mind seeing blood and guts, sometimes it is totally scarier when you can’t actually see anything. Which is why the ending of “Blair Witch” is one of horror’s greatest and most disturbing endings. There are now only two people left lost in the middle of the woods: Mike and Heather. They both enter a old abandon house, they’re looking for their missing friend Josh. They scream his name over and over. They think they hear him. We see from the points of views of both Mike’s camera and Heather’s camera cutting back and forth. Soon Mike’s camera drops to the floor. Soon Mike is no longer shouting. As Heather, completely and utterly terrified enters the basement of the house now screaming Mike’s name, she pans over to the corner of the basement and sees Mike standing silently in the corner as some unseen force knocks the camera out of her hand. And then the film cuts to black. The fact that we heard a story told about a killer placing children into the corner of the room makes this one of horror cinema’s most frightening images as the entire film’s build of dread has been completely unleashed on one freaky image of a man standing with his back to us. Still gives me the creeps.
“The Thing” – the spider headI said I hated spiders and that was no lie. I especially hate when a human head sprouts giant legs and starts walking around like a spider. “The Thing” has some of the most disturbing special effects in a horror movie. They’re all the more disturbing because they’re all practical effects achieved through the use of make-up prosthetics, animatronics and puppetry. “The Thing” revolves around an alien that has invaded a small group of scientists working in Antarctica. Sort of like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” you never know who has been “infected” by the alien until they change form into some grotesque creature. One character beings using a defribulator on someone else when the man’s chest opens up, bites off the guy’s hands and then his head breaks off and grows spider legs. It’s a great combination of jump scare and absolutely gross effects (the sound effects are rather gross as well) that is definitely one of the movie’s flat out scariest moments.
“Scream” – the opening sceneWes Craven’s “Scream” totally reinvented the entire horror movie genre. But not only is it a cultural icon, but it features probably the strongest opening sequence of any slasher movie, rivaled only by its main inspiration: John Carpenter’s Halloween (and a nod to “When a Stranger Calls” of course). The opening sequence in which “star” Drew Barrymore begins receiving menacing phone calls which result with her hanging disemboweled from a tree works completely as its own short film. These 12 minutes are so effective that nothing that happens in the rest of the film really lives up to it (although I love it all of course). The way things go from good, to bad to worse in a matter of minutes is just wonderfully disturbing and scary. Barrymore’s performance is exquisite and the terror in her eyes and tears feels authentic. You watched this sequence completely glued to the screen and it messes with your mind so much that you can’t imagine what the rest of this movie has in store for you.
“Misery”– Annie hobbles PaulThe word hobbling didn’t really enter the lexicon of America much until the 1990 suspense flick “Misery.” Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the film is about an author who is rescued from his crashed car during a blizzard by a woman who claims to be his “number one fan.” Annie Wilkes, as brilliantly played by Oscar-winning Kathy Bates, is a total nut job. She lives in almost total isolation and begins nursing author Paul Sheldon back to health. But once he begins to get a lot better she realizes his time with her is going to be ending and she refuses to let him go… so she “hobbles” him which involves bashing his ankles in with a sledgehammer. Ouch indeed.
“Final Destination” – Todd’s deathIn the entire “Final Destination” horror franchise (which will soon consist of five movies) I still find the death of Todd in the bathroom the most disturbing. Mostly because it feels the most realistic. Ok sure the water leaking from the toilet onto the floor seems just weird and the fact that he can’t really stop himself from being hung from a clothesline in the bathtub might seem farfetched, but his struggles to free his neck feel so realistic I almost wanna shout “cut!” and have the poor actor stand up and call it a day. The look of pain on his face and seeing the whites of his eyes slowly become red as his brain gets cut off from oxygen is such a tragedy you almost forget you’re watching a fun slasher movie. And as he desperately reaches for the scissors he was using just moments before to clip his nose hairs, it makes you realize just how incredibly disturbing this whole scene really is.
“Wait Until Dark” – Roat jumps upThe 1967 thriller “Wait Until Dark” starring Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar-nominated role as a blind woman who’s being stalked by several scary thugs is worth seing for a brief moment towards the finale. Alan Arkin plays Roat a killer who is trying to get a heroin filled doll back from her after she unexpectedly comes in possession of it. He enters her apartment and there is a final cat and mouse sequence in which Hepburn must fend for her life. She’s able to stab Roat and we think he’s dead… but as she comes down the stairs and into her living room he leaps up and grabs her ankle. A shocking stinger is heard on the soundtrack. It’s such a solid jump scare that it makes the film as whole worth seeing. The movie is alright, but nothing particularly special. I never understood why she just doesn’t give up that stupid doll.
“Poltergeist” - The guy picks his face offThe Steven Spielberg produced haunted house flick “Poltergeist” was never altogether that frightening to me. I just thought it was a really fun and entertaining thriller. However there are a number of solid sequences like the tree eating Robbie, that clown and course what I think is the scariest part: when one of the parapsychologists assisting Tangina rid the suburban house of ghosts goes for a midnight snack. He takes a steak out of the refrigerator and places it on the kitchen counter. He looks over at it and it begins crawling, then it begins erupting. Hey then notices the piece of fried chicken in his mouth is covered in maggots. This makes him run to the bathroom where he notices a cut on his face and he begins picking at his face, with large gory chunks of his face plopping down into the sink. It’s an utterly disgusting moment and has no place in a movie rated PG (Remember this was one of several films that helped prompt the PG-13 rating). It was always the moment in Poltergeist that made me look away from the TV and therefore I always check to make sure my chicken isn’t covered with maggots before taking a bite.
“Paranormal Activity” - Katie’s dragged out of bedAnother movie similar to Insidious (same producers) about a haunted house sort of told in a “Blair Witch” style about a young couple, Katie and Micah, who have disturbing encounters with a (mostly) unseen force in their suburban home. They set up a camera at night to capture any odd phenomenon and they certainly get plenty of that. Each evening brings more and more alarming evidence of something sinister living in their home. Most of this stuff has to do with creaking sounds or slamming doors. But on one evening something grabs a hold of Katie’s foot literally drags her out of bed and down the hallway as she screams dearly for Micah. This effect is done so well for such a low budget movie I’m not even quite sure how it’s pulled off. The shrieks of terror coming from Katie as she’s pulled out of our view with Micah running after her is probably the image that most kept me from sleeping that night.
“Arachnophobia” – the whole freaking movieSpiders make their appearance for the third time on this list but this time they aren’t grotesque creatures or animatronics. “Arachnophobia” is a fun, yet terrifying movie about a deadly South American spider who happens to make his way to a small rural American town. The spider breeds with an ordinary house spider and unleashes a new strain of deadly spiders on the unsuspecting townsfolk. The movie is watchable mostly because it has solid comic relief otherwise it would be pure torture for me. I can’t even pick a specific moment as being the “scariest” but some highlights include the spiders coming up through the bathroom sink drain, the shower scene and the entire climatic battle between arachnophobe Jeff Daniels and the “queen” spider who will do anything to defend her egg sack. This is probably to this day the scariest movie I have and probably will ever see.
Bored of the Ring: Ryan Reynolds Barely Saves the Dim “Green Lantern”
The whole opening of the film sets up the movie’s utterly stupid and ridiculous storyline. It has something to do with aliens who love the color green because it makes hem powerful or something. They harness this green light as energy and use it to stop evil. I hate when comic movies have to spend ten minutes using voiceover explaining how everything in this fantastical world works. Sure movies like “Star Wars” had the necessary intro “crawls” but those were like 2 minutes long. Any movie that completely confuses its audience in the first ten minutes by blabbing on about things we don’t care about is just silly (I’m looking at you “Lady in the Water”).
We’re finally introduced to Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds who makes the most of this crap) who is a cocky pilot. Oh and Blake Lively from TV’s Gossip Girl plays a pilot too. We’re introduced to Hal’s busy work life and family life, whom we never see again after the first 20 minutes. Some alien (that looks like a cousin of Freddy Kruger from “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) from the Green Lantern planet crash lands on Earth and his magical ring must select someone to take his place. He picks Hal for some reason where he’s whisked away to the planet and he dons a lame CGI green suit and he learns how to harness his new magical abilities: like using his green ring to make brick walls and giant guns as if he were Jim Carrey in “The Mask.”
Every superhero movie needs a villain and he we’re given the great Peter Sarsgaard as a doctor/scientist guy who gets infected by the dead purple alien. He gets mind powers and his head grows to the size of a mutated watermelon and he acts are crazy and evil. He even reads the mind of one of his college students and throws him across the room. Oh and Tim Robbins plays his dad. Yeah that Tim Robbins. I can’t really remember much else except I do recall opening my eyes and seeing some giant brown poop-like monster ravaging the city and the new Green Lantern must stop it.
“Green Lantern” was directed by Martin Campbell the same guy who relaunched the James Bond franchise with the successful “Casino Royale.” That movie relied heavily on jaw-dropping practical effects (parkour!) but here the emphasis is on everything cartoony. Mr. Reynolds is a charming guy and he really makes the most of what he’s given to do here, but it’s hardly enough to salvage the whole thing. Nothing here is particularly offensive, just unmemorable. This is a comic book movie that’s more in the vein of Fantastic Four: it’s strictly for the little ones. This ain’t “The Dark Knight.” All was not lost, at least I got a good nap. GRADE: C-
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Danger on a Train: “Super 8” is an Honorable Homage
If you really wanna know that the movie is like it’s basically a weird hybrid of every early Spielberg movie meets “Cloverfield” and “The Goonies.” There are echoes of “Stand by Me” here as well. Essentially this is a monster movie told as a coming of age tale. With that in mind, it’s basically a darker version of E.T. Abrams, who also wrote the screenplay, introduces us to a bunch of young boys circa 1979. (The look and feel is pretty on but for those looking for historical inaccuracies here are a few: the Rubik’s Cube wasn’t popular until 1980 and Sony Walkmans weren’t introduced in the US until July 1980) One boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) has Disney Syndrome: he’s just lost his mother in a steel plant accident and his doesn’t have a very strong relationship with his father. He and his friends (my favorite being the pyro kid played by Ryan Lee) are all making a zombie movie using an 8mm film camera. The way these boys interact, teasing each other, and using profanity is something right out of “The Goonies.” One night while filming a scene at a train station, they witness a horrible train crash which is, so spectacularly staged that any destruction that comes afterwards just doesn’t equal up. And the boys appear to have captured something they shouldn’t have seen on that camera.
And that’s really all anyone who hasn’t seen the film already knows. The marketing of the movie, like “Cloverfield,” has relied heavily on not showing too much. We know there’s some kind of monster or creature or alien, but we don’t really know what it is. So does it live up to the hype? Yes and no. I wasn’t too shocked to find out what was in that train and neither will you. But that’s not the point. This is a movie that exists strictly to tell a wonderful story about friendship in time of a monster rampage. It doesn’t really matter what’s in that train so much how the whole thing is going to end. Some may find the ending slightly unsatisfying, but the majority of the film is so entertaining and gripping it doesn’t really matter. And as is always the case in movies like this the government guys have to swoop down and take control of the situation but they’re always just jerks who are trying to cover things up.
This is the rare summer movie that doesn’t feature big named stars and relies on lesser known performers to act out truly emotional and gripping scenes. Kyle Chandler, who is no stranger to big action movies having been in King Kong, does well here as Joe’s father Jackson. Dakota Fanning’s younger sister Elle Fanning, who probably hates being referred to as Dakota Fanning’s younger sister is really good here too as Alice who plays Joe’s love interest which causes a small rift between Joe and his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths). And the subplot about Alice’s father having something to do with Joe’s mother’s death is handled pretty well and adds to the human drama. But let’s all face facts, the reason we wanna see this movie is because of the creature stuff. There are some pretty disturbing scenes which I’m sure I’d be more afraid of if I was younger. And the film features great effects that don’t always rely too much on cartoony CGI. Whether you think the creature is actually scary and well-conceived will depend on your own personal taste.
J.J. Abrams has concocted a well told story. There’s nothing quite new and original here and if you were never a Spielberg fan then this certainly won’t convince you otherwise. In a way it’s sort of like a Quentin Tarantino movie who like Abrams is a nostalgia fan who likes making movies about the movies he’s loved. You can tell there’s a passion there to tell a unique story based on almost every other movie already made, but it’s hard not to get all wrapped up in it. GRADE: B
French Kiss: “Midnight in Paris” is Decent Enough, but Not Allen’s Best
Woody Allen has always loved referencing things that go completely over my head. I don’t get half of the references in “Love and Death” for instance, but like Airplane, there are so many gags and jokes that even if you don’t understand one you’ll probably get the next one. Even Annie Hall makes references to people who I know nothing about. Take the famous scene in which Allen and Annie are waiting in line at the movies and Allen has to take Marshall McLuhan aside to prove that the annoying guy in front of him in line is actually a pretentious jerk. You don’t even have to have heard of this guy to really get what was going on. It just worked. So many references to the writers and artists in “Midnight in Paris” fell a little flat for me but the old people in the audience were at least getting a kick out of it.
I think the thing I miss most about this movie, and most of Allen’s recent films, is Allen himself. I love Woody Allen’s work as an actor. Even if he sort of plays the same type of character in all his movies (the neurotic) there’s a reason why: he’s good at it! Owen Wilson (as Gil) does make a decent Allen replacement and it’s probably one of his strongest performances. I was a little disappointed that McAdams who is always charming and enjoyable was sort of related to the “pesky girlfriend” role. She spends most of the time without much to do except go sightseeing and shopping with her rich parents and her rich friends. Allen has always loved giving us highly aristocratic characters who enjoy art and culture and wine and “Midnight in Paris” is no exception. Other notables are Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody and Allison Pill who all play real life people. They’re all very good, but none have the typical flashy Woody Allen supporting role. I can’t imagine anyone getting Oscar consideration, although Allen’s script is definitely original and witty enough to be considered.
“Midnight in Paris” is certainly an easy movie to like and I enjoyed it for what it was. It’s sort of funny how Allen has been relegated to making films in Europe because it seems American audiences just don’t get him anymore. I think his film ”Hollywood Ending” where he plays a director who makes a big bomb that’s hated in the US but a hit in France was sort of foreseeing things to come. Up next on Allen’s European tour is Italy where he is thankfully returning in front of the camera for the first time since the hilarious “Scoop.” “Midnight in Paris” is unmistakably Woody Allen through and through but hopefully his next movie will be great and not just good. GRADE: B-
Friday, June 10, 2011
Steven Spielberg’s Super Eight…
America meet the Summer Blockbuster, Summer Blockbuster meet America. Back in 1975 people were scared to go to the beach, into their pools and take baths because of a gigantic piece of metal and rubber in the shape of a Great White Shark. Jaws is a fun movie with thrills, scares and laughs. It offers up plenty of great characters and some wonderful tension between them, most notably Brody the scared-of-the-water Chief of Police and Quint the will-say-or-do-anything seafaring shark hunter. Oh and that stupid Mayor Vaughn who refuses to the close the beaches even though there’s a huge shark in the water eating people. Classic score (dun dun, dun dun), classic lines (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”), classic scares (Ben Gardner’s head). What’s not to love? Summer hasn’t been the same since.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
America fell in love with another blob of rubber this time in the form of a cute alien left behind in the forest by his outer space clan. He meets a young boy named Elliott and the two form an instant bond. Like literally. ET (short for extra-terrestrial) drinks some beer and Elliott gets drunk. This is a movie you liked as a child but only really understand and actually grow to love as an adult. Nothing more can be said about this wonderful American film which is a classic kids rule/adults drool cinematic adventure.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Definitely the “Jaws” of the 1990s this had the little ones, including me, hiding their faces in their hands every single time a scary dinosaur popped out onscreen. And this time not only were the creatures made of rubber and metal, but they were also computer generated. The interaction between these CGI animals and the human actors is pretty darn flawless. We get typical Steven Spielberg awes and wonders which quickly turn to some pretty nifty scares. Anyone who said they didn’t almost piss their pants when that raptor jumped out from behind Laura Dern is a liar.
Minority Report (2002)
Definitely Steven Spielberg’s modern day masterpiece. This is such an enjoyable adventure and a solidly told crime thriller. Spielberg’s Kubrickian influences can be felt here, but he really makes it his own – without any of that pesky saccharine Spielberg sweetness to mess anything up (for the most part). Set in the future, Tom Cruise stars as a police officer who relies on a technology where murders are foreseen (by three gifted people known as precognatives) and are stopped before they happen. But things go sour when he himself is targeted as a murderer (for supposedly killing a man he’s never even heard of) and must run from his fellow “Precrime” colleagues. So many great themes about determinism and free-will are wrapped up in an exciting science fiction setting and a deliciously gritty washed out look that is as thought provoking as it is entertaining.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The most entertaining Indiana Jones films works for many reasons. This is a solid action movie that doesn’t stop once it gets going. There’s barely time to take a breath. And Indiana Jones is accompanied by two of the most loved and hated sidekicks in action adventure history: Short Round and Willie Scott. Willie’s lines are hilarious ("A boat?... we're not sinking, we're crashing!")and even though she spends most of the time screaming, I’m pretty sure I would be too if I was introduced to eyeball soup or forced to watch a guy get his heart ripped out. I definitely give her props for sticking her hand in that bug infested hole. This is one fun movie. Let’s thank George Lucas for making this the darkest and most disturbing Indiana Jones adventure. Hello, PG-13 rating!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
There is so much awe and wonderment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that there wasn’t enough room and Spielberg had to make E.T. five years later to catch the leftovers. This alien invasion flick is headlined by probably Richard Dreyfuss’ best performance as a dad who becomes obsessed when he has a close encounter with another life form. It would seem cool if your dad woke you up in the middle of the night as a kid and forced you to go UFO watching but this family couldn’t really care less. In fact, his kids don’t even want to go see Pinocchio because it’s only rated G. This was one of Spielberg’s more personal films which was influenced not only by an experience watching a meteor shower with his father but by the divorce of his parents (which would be even further explored in E.T.). The sound design here is great, crank this one up on Blu-ray if you have the right system.
War of the Worlds (2005)
Speaking of aliens and great surround sound. Spielberg would complete his alien trilogy (starting with Close Encounters then ET) with this scarily good thriller about aliens… but this time they aren’t friendly. More like Jaws and Jurrasic Park than his other alien flicks, this film presents the darker side of Spielberg that could have only come out of having made movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. It’s about an alien invasion but told through the point of view of a father (Tom Cruise again) and his estranged children. Believe it or not, War of the Worlds is somewhat of a 9/11 allegory about foreign attackers on American soil. Of course that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t wildly entertaining and thrilling – and it features top notch special effects and glorious sound design. Of course you'll have to get by that almost too sweet and happy ending which sort of sucks away all of the terror you had previously been gripped by for the past two hours. The only minor quibble in an outstandingly fun movie.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The second best Indiana Jones adventure is definitely the most Spielbergian. Since Steven has some daddy issues, why not make this one about a father and son? Sean Connery is perfectly cast as Henry Jones, Indy’s father who tags along in this adventure about the search for the Holy Grail. And what a search it is! The movie takes place in locations all over Europe and features the scariest man-to-skeleton transformation scene I’ve seen. This would be the last time that Spielberg would use Nazis as the goofy villains because four years later he would make the Holocaust movie to end all Holocaust movies.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
The Shape of Things to Come: Looking Back on the “Halloween” Series While Hoping “Halloween 3D” Doesn’t Suck
While “Halloween” has always and will always be my favorite horror film, I sort of have a sordid relationship with the series as a whole. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all the films for what they’re worth, but like no other horror franchise (besides arguably Friday the 13th) has a series of films just become worse and worse with each passing entry. I think that mostly has to do with the fact that the original film is so strong – so strong in fact that it’s actually a well regarded film in its own right, horror film or not, and even ‘dead teenager movie’ hater Roger Ebert gave it four stars and compared it to “Psycho.” It was once the highest grossing independent film of all time. Those sequels had a lot to live up to. No one will make the same argument for the original “Friday the 13th” which was just a downright awful movie and an intentional cash grab and “Halloween” rip-off. Director Sean S. Cunningham said that himself. Having said all that there are some genuinely good “Halloween” sequels and some downright painfully bad ones. The bad ones make us horror nerds look bad.
Let’s start with one of the best “Halloween” sequels and that would be “Halloween II.” The film was made three years after the original and yet it takes place literally right where the first film left off: Michael Myers has escaped, yet again, after being shot six times by Dr. Sam Loomis. Laurie Strode (a wig-topped Jamie Lee Curtis, who returns but mostly gets to play her scenes half asleep in a hospital bed) is taken to what is probably the worst run hospital in the United States: Haddonfield Memorial Hospital. The hospital literally staffs about six people all of whom don’t really do much except for watching TV and canoodling in the therapy pool. And where are all the patients? We get one kid who cuts his tongue open - probably on one of those infamous candy-hidden razor blades – and a bunch of babies in the maternity ward. But where are the mothers? Where are the freaking patients in this hospital?? Oh wait, I forgot that it costs money to pay extras. So meanwhile Michael Myers steals an old lady’s knife, kills a random woman who we’ve met for 4 seconds and makes his way to the hospital, no not because he’s been shot six times, but to find Laurie. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is as crazy and wild-eyed as ever and him and the police don’t even think for a second about the possibility that Myers might actually follow Laurie even though that’s who he was just after. Once at the hospital he proceeds to decimate the staff in increasingly gruesome ways – needles into eyeballs, hammers into heads, scalding off a nurse’s face- basically all of the ways he DIDN’T just kill everyone merely hours before. Stylistically part 1 and 2 are very similar. Part 2 does feel like it could make one larger movie, as if it were Lord of the Rings, and thankfully they get the look of the white mask pretty much correct. The music score is now extremely 80s sounding as it was composed on a synthesizer organ instead of a piano. Let it be said that John Carpenter didn’t direct this time but opted to just produce and write (with his partner Debra Hill) and the only real original thing he came up with was making Laurie Strode Michael Myers’ younger sister (a plot point he admited thinking of while he was high). It sort of works, but unfortunately it’s a plot device that totally threw the whole series into the crapper. Loomis and Myers blow up in a fiery explosion. Remember that.
The less said about “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” the better. Carpenter said he’d only work on a part 3 if he could produce a story that had nothing to do with Michael Myers. Geez, poor Michael, what did he ever do to you Mr. Carpenter besides GIVE YOU A FREAKIN’ SUCCESSFUL FILM CAREER! So they decided to get the production designer/editor from the original film Tommy Lee Wallace to write and direct a Halloween-set story about a maniacal mad scientist guy who wants to kill children on Halloween night by selling them masks that make their heads explode with creepy crawly bugs. The movie does feature some interesting death scenes… a guy’s head gets ripped off and the aforementioned bugs are downright gross. Almost too gross. But there’s nothing really here to keep anyone that entertained for 98 minutes. The film features a bizarre cameo of the original Halloween movie playing on a TV screen that makes us wonder how a film called Halloween III could possibly be taking place in a world where the Halloween movies exist in the first place. Well I guess we know where Wes Craven got his “New Nightmare” idea from. This is thing is just awful and I usually refuse to acknowledge this flick as “Halloween” movie. If they had just released it as “Season of the Witch” it would probably get a smidge more respect.
For some reason, “Halloween III” was a miserable flop. Maybe the fact that is sucked had something to do with it? Moustapha Akkad (the “Godfather” of the Halloween movies) sensing something a bit off, decided to go back to the basics (Michael Myers stalking teenagers) and make another Halloween movie that people actually wanted to see. And thus “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” was born, which is hands down the best film with the “Jamie Lloyd” plotline. But that’s not saying much. This movie is pretty gosh darn awful too. And that mostly has to do with George P. Wilbur and his stupidly annoyingly horrendous performance as Michael Myers and those stupid shoulder pads didn’t help much either. I dare anyone, be it a 5 year old or an 85 year old, to watch “Halloween 4” and even attempt to be scared of Michael Myers in it. The mask is way off. Way, way off. At least the theatrical poster got it right. I think by having a story about Laurie Strode’s young daughter (played by Danielle Harris) being chased by a serial killer would automatically make the movie scary, but it doesn’t. (And for the record Jamie Lee Curtis was a big star by 1988 and had little interest in doing another Halloween film and thus her character was killed off about a year before Halloween 4 takes place) A bright spot in the film is definitely the Elizabeth Shue-like Ellie Cornell as Rachel Carruthers who actually gave the audience someone to identify with. She’s not the most outstanding Final Girl the horror genre has ever seen, but since most people were pissed that she was killed off in part 5, I guess that’s saying something. If you thought the last movie was unbelievable, how about this: it turns out Michael Myers survived that fiery blast at the end of part 2 and has in fact been in a coma for ten years. And since God doesn’t just save serial murderers from fiery explosions, he saved Dr. Loomis as well as evidenced by the scar on his face, ala the shark in “Jaws 2.” Now this time, it’s personal! (even though Loomis created the explosion anyways) There is some teenage love triangle stuff going on here, but the best was saved for last when after Myers is seemingly shot to death and buried in a mine shaft (sure), innocent little Jamie stabs her foster mother to death, which sends Loomis into an appropriately timed and comically hilarious panic. And thus was Michael’s “evil” passed down to his young niece? I guess we’ll have to wait for part 5 to see…
So here we are a year later and every Halloween fan is exited to see “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” because it will be about his young niece Jamie turning evil! Oh wait, it isn’t. It’s about her going all Helen Keller and being an annoying mute for half the movie. (Yeah I said half the movie, because at some point someone must of unpressed the mute button I guess and she starts talking again for no apparent reason). Oh and she’s psychically linked to her uncle now and goes into violent spasms whenever he kills someone. Oh and she befriends this other little boy while in the psycho ward. Oh and no one seems to care that this little girl stabbed her foster mother to death, even her own daughter Rachael, who we grew to like in part 4, but just seems airy and dumb here and gets killed off pretty quickly and without much real build up or suspense. Way to go director Dominque Othenin-Girard. Where’d they ever find this dude? He sucks! There’s no suspense here, no one we even care about (and they introduced every Halloween fan's nightmare: Tina), and as if those were two things horror movie fans even cared about in slasher movies, he just attempts to make the movie BORING. I think I’m at the point where I actually think part 6 is better simply because this one is such a freaking slog to sit through. This is the film that notoriously introduced the “thorn” storyline and had the mysterious “Man in Black” help Michael escape at the end of the film. Way to end the film on a cliffhanger and then wait six years before making the next one. It’s probably because this one bombed almost as bad as part III.
And that brings me to “Halloween The Curse of Michael Myers.” Aka Halloween 666 The Origin of Michael Myers. This film, written by a long time Halloween fan, is what happens when you let a FAN write a movie. Hey just because I love “Airplane!” doesn’t mean it earns me the right to write “Airplane! Part III: The Trilogy.” This writer, who I won’t even mention by name, almost single handedly ruined the Halloween series with this dreadful entry. This movie continued with the silly plot elements that were hinted at in the previous movie. We learn that Michael Myers had a curse placed on him which would make him kill off his entire bloodline. And the curse could only be lifted once that was accomplished and then it could be passed on to someone else. As Paul Rudd says in the film (yeah THAT Paul Rudd) when the “thorn” constellation appears, that’s when HE shows up. What a bunch of hogwash. That is why movies that attempt to explain why a killer is a killer just don’t work. This movie works simply on a “so bad it’s good” level. It’s constantly watchable and never really boring because every time you think it can’t get worse or make any less sense, it does! For instance, this film takes place six years after the previous film, so therefore young Jamie Lloyd would be about 14 years old and no one ever explains why she’s played by an actress who was 20 years old at the time. Is it just me or does she remind you of Kit from “A League of their Own?” So there is a new family living in Michael Myers’ house and young Tommy Doyle from the first film (Rudd) is watching over them because he knows that Myers is going to come back. And he does. The people living in the house are jerks and you cheer every single time one of them bites it. And if any movie was a showcase in horrendous and sloppy editing this is the film to watch. But I won’t blame just the editor on that, I’ll blame the studio (Dimension, part of Miramax, which was owned by Disney, how family friendly!) who decided to literally butcher the entire film before it was released. They ordered reshoots and script changes. The behind the scenes stuff is literally legendary on this one and the bootleg “Producer’s Cut VHS and DVD have been circulating and selling like hotcakes. Although now it’s on YouTube for every Halloween fan’s convenience. This was sadly Donald Pleasance’s last film as he died shortly after shooting ending and it’s probably for the best.
And just when you thought it was safe to go trick-or-treating, here comes another Halloween movie! With the success of “Scream” came the reboot to end all reboots. “Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later” is one of the best Halloween movies ever made and while it doesn’t match the original scare factor of the original it certainly makes a great companion piece to parts 1 and 2. Jamie Lee Curtis, who wanted nothing to do with parts 4, 5 and 6 actually suggested this project herself. The film takes place twenty years after the original film and finds Laurie Strode in hiding out in California as Keri Tate, the headmistress of a private school. A private school with teenagers ripe for being slaughtered. Her teenage son ( 90s heartthrob Josh Hartnett) who jus turned seventeen is a student at her school and she’s very protective of him. She’s divorced and an alcoholic. Basically what you’d expect if a guy in a mask killed all your friends and then tried to kill you too. She thinks that it’s possible that Michael Myers could still be out there looking for her since “they never found a body.” Mmmhmmm. I still don’t get how Michael Myers or Sam Loomis could have survived that blast but maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember. Let me check…. Nope it’s pretty fiery. Myer’s appearance is never explained and that’s probably for the best, because any of the reasons why a serial killer comes back to life is always just hokey at best. He proceeds to murder nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), who was in the first two films, to get files on Laurie’s whereabouts. I didn’t realize that when you go into hiding your file and exact whereabouts is just sitting in some nurse’s home office waiting to be stolen. Myers makes his way across the country, steals a car from some Courtney Cox look-a-like and makes it to the private school where he gets by security guard LL Cool J. (is he the first Black guy in a Halloween movie or what?) and proceeds to stalk Laurie Strode and kill off the few students who didn’t go on a class trip to Yosemite National Park. Finally after twenty years Laurie Strode comes face to face, literally, with her nemesis Michael Myers. It’s too bad they couldn’t get the mask quite right like all the other sequels. In fact there are so many different masks used in this movie it’s hard to keep track, one of them is even CGI! I love that Curtis’s real life mom Janet Leigh makes an appearance and even makes a shower reference and is still driving the same car she drove in “Psycho.” Halloween H20 ends with a splendid finale in which Laurie chops off Michael’s head, ending the franchise for good. Really the worst thing you can really say about this movie, as a Halloween fan, is that they decided to release it in August and not October. And fun fact, this was the first R-rated movie that I saw in the theater.
Until they decided to make another movie 4 years later, which was stupidly called “Halloween: Resurrection.” It featured Michael Myers returning, after having survived his beheading by switching outfits with a paramedic whose throat he had ripped out. That’s almost as plausible as surviving a fiery explosion. Myers finds Laurie now in a mental institution where he manages to kill her off for good. And then has to kill off a bunch of young idiots filming a web reality show in his childhood home. And for the record this movie features three times as many Black people as the last movie. This movie is so dumb it makes the earlier sequels look good. I remember seeing this in the movie theater and actually jumping at parts but that’s probably because the movie was loud. At home it’s as dull as an unsharpened butcher’s knife. The idea that they would make a Halloween sequel to cash in on this “internet web cam” craze that wasn’t even really a craze is just dumb. Who the heck through it was a good idea to mix “Halloween” and “Big Brother?” Ugh, moving on.
And that’s where the Halloween franchise concluded, with one of the stupidest and pointless entries. That is until Rob Zombie came along and decided to remake the entire thing. He was a Halloween fan and decided it was time to go back and make Michael Myers scary again. His film would be part prequel (Michael Myer’s “origin” uh oh, this can’t be good) and part remake (introducing the Laurie Strode character and her slutty friends Annie and Linda, which I totally liked). Rob Zombie wasn’t the first person I would have chosen to restart this franchise. His movies are grungy and dirty and rednecky. And that doesn’t quite seem like “Halloween” to me. He turned the Myers family into a bunch of white trash morons who all deserved to die. Even little Jenny from “Forrest Gump” who played Michael Myer’s sister and victim Judith Myers. This time he kills his stepfather, his sister and her boyfriend. We now know that Laurie Strode is Michael’s sister and we sympathize with Michael Myers in a way we never did in the original film. Now we’re not scared of him, we’re identifying with him, which is a slasher movie no no. I liked some of the nods to the original film and you can’ tell they were trying to be faithful to a point. And then Zombie decided to go out on a limb and direct his own sequel “Halloween II” which I can’t even talk about. That movie was so dumb I can’t even stand it.
Which brings me to the point of all of this: After “Halloween II” was released it was announced that “Halloween 3” was being put into development, with a possibility of being released in 3D, with My Bloody Valentine 3D director Patrick Lussier at the helm. I have a few things to say about this. I’m glad that supposedly Rob Zombie won’t be involved, so I’m interested in what another filmmaker could bring to this series. And if it’s true that they are releasing it in 3D please for God’s sake make it fun, gimmicky 3D. I don’t want some crappy post-conversion. I want body parts and Michael Myers’ knife coming at my face. I have faith in Lussier, who shot his last couple films in actual 3D, so I’m not too worried. And if there’s one thing that I ask for, can you people PLEASE get his mask right? Why can’t they just go to William Shatner and make a mold of his face and make a freaking mask from it. Is it that hard? Sure I have a love-hate relationship with this wildly uneven horror series and they can make as many sequels as they want, but at least give us something better than “Season of the Witch.”
GRADES: Halloween: A+, Halloween II: A-, Halloween III: Season of the Witch: D-, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers: B-, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers: C-, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers: C, Halloween H20: A-, Halloween: Resurrection: D, Halloween: B-, Halloween II: F
Friday, June 03, 2011
X Appeal: “X-Men: First Class” is X-ceptional First Class Summer Entertainment
"You have no idea what I'd give to feel... normal."
I’m pretty confident saying that the new X-Men movie is simply the best of series. It takes everything you loved about the good installments and removes everything you dislike about the bad ones. It features great performances, an engaging story, a wonderful balance of interesting characters, fantastic music and splendid special effects. The social issues are present and not shoved down your throat and the film fits pretty nicely as “part 4” in the series and fortunately pretends that “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” didn’t exist. Heck, maybe I liked this movie so much because Wolverine was just dull and laughable.
Director Matthew Vaughn, who most recently made “Kick-Ass” a movie I didn’t particularly like but he showed talent and definite potential, makes a terrific addition to this long running comic movie series about mutant human beings living amongst us normal folks. The film balances humor, drama and action expertly. The film shows us young Magneto, Erik Lehnsherr, as did the first film, in a concentration camp, whose anger reveals his ability to move metal with his mind. Here he’s forced by evil Nazi Sebastian Shaw (the always reliably evil Kevin Bacon) to harness and develop this power. This young kid eventually grows up and is played by Michael Fassbender, who was once an Inglourious Basterd. Erik meets fellow mutant Charles Xavier, who is not bald and can walk, played here by James McAvoy. The two form a friendship, but the two have very apposing views on mutants vs. humans. Erik believes in revenge and assumes humans and mutants won’t be able to live in harmony. Charles takes the MLK method striving to help mutants develop their powers and live with non-mutants in harmony.
The movie jumps around a lot in time but you never feel lost and in fact, it gives the film an almost epic feeling that the last few films never achieved. The film smartly takes place in the 1960s, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and has wonderfully enjoyable espionage spy movie feel to it. Charles and Erik meet up and set out to find other young mutants who have their own special abilities. Even though there are plenty of characters here, they all get their time to shine and never feel shoehorned in (um hello Angel from The Last Stand) and while not every character makes it to the very end, there aren’t shocking deaths like in The Last Stand that seemed there to just piss off the audience.
And what would be a great super hero comic book movie without a great villain? Shaw, who turns out is a mutant with the ability to harness energy (aka you can’t shoot him or blow him up) is Erik’s main rival and he’s intent on getting revenge. This revenge is what drives Eirk, and like Anakin Skywalker, could have been good, but would rather turn to the dark side and eventually form the Brotherhood of evil mutants. Shaw’s main henchmen include Azazel who, like Nightcrawler, can teleport. He doesn’t get much to do besides kill people. And Riptide likes making tornados. Emma Frost (a sort of bland January Jones) can read minds, like Charles, and can turn her skin into diamonds. She sort of looks like a Fembot. They are certainly a strong force against the newly formed “first class” which includes Beast, Mystique, Banshee, Havok, and Darwin, each with their own special abilities.
The filmmakers have filled this film with such fun and excited sequences, there are just too many to name specifically here. Erik is simply badass here. Since he’s so angry most of his scenes are filled with violent rage. If you don’t to see someone’s metal tooth fillings being ripped out, don’t go see this movie. “X-Men First Class” is one of the best comic book movies to come out in the past few years and can equally stand along side the likes of “Spider-man 2,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Iron Man” as wonderfully entertaining and well-made superhero flicks that will have fan boys salivating for days. GRADE: A-