Monday, August 31, 2015

The Hills Have Teary Eyes: Remembering Wes Craven, the Master of Horror

The sad news that “master of horror” Wes Craven has passed away has shocked, upset, and left a ripple of grief throughout not only the horror fan community but in movie fandom in general. Odds are you’ve seen at least one of Craven’s many iconic films. Craven was a true pioneer in the genre having spent nearly 5 decades tackling the ever evolving genre of horror. How many directors who started in the 70s still have viable careers to this day who aren’t Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese? He was constantly changing and evolving as a creative force going from his early days in the “torture porn” genre to the slasher films of the 80s, and even stopping for a rest in the Meryl Streep Oscar Bait Genre. Many would assume a man known for creating such horrifying visions must be some kind of creep but the actors and filmmakers who worked with him all remember him as a kind and gentle guy. And a smart one too: he left his career as a college professor to direct movies, which he was never really allowed to watch in his childhood. He didn’t even mean to become the Master of Horror, he sort of stumbled upon it and thank goodness he did: he’s created some of the most iconic characters, moments, and films in the genre. Here’s a list of ten essential Wes Craven films (my personal Craven Top Ten to be exact), so fire up the Blu-ray player and remember the guy who made us all a little scared of the dark.  

1) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Wes Craven’s certified horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” not only spawned an entire franchise but helped build New Line Cinema into a full-fledged Oscar-winning movie studio. A bunch of suburban teenagers keep having similar dreams about a dirty burned man with a razor clawed glove. It seems he wants to kill them and when the teens start dying off one by one, it’s soon revealed that the teens’ parents just might be responsible somehow.  Craven introduced the world to Freddy Krueger (the name of schoolyard bully from Craven’s childhood) who quickly became one of the most beloved horror icons ever created. Oh, and he was a child molester and murderer. It’s funny that this film was released as the slasher craze was just sort of hitting a rut and then  it became a phenomenon. Sometimes it’s all about timing. Tina getting dragged across the ceiling is one of the franchise’s most disturbing and frightening images. Wes Craven proved he was a horror master with this film.

2) SCREAM (1996) If “Halloween” is the grandfather of the slasher genre, “Scream” is the grandson. “Scream” is a wonderful ode to the horror genre that every fan should love and appreciate. Its witty script from Kevin Williamson is about teenagers who are stalked by a masked killer who torments his victims by asking them movie trivia. It’s wildly bizarre but amazingly creepy. The opening sequence starring a frightened Drew Barrymore is one of the best horror film openings ever. Craven made it work as if it were a short film but then the movie’s plot begins and explores an interesting story about a girl named Sidney who the killer may just have a personal vendetta against. This was a surprise hit that not only reinvigorated the slasher genre but Wes Craven’s career.

3) WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) Confession time: technically, I like this movie more than "A Nightmare on Elm Street" but it's not exactly the horror classic the original is. These top three are basically in a league of their own and are practically interchangeable, but I digress. Taking place ten years after the release of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” this seventh entry in the Nightmare series was conceived by its original creator Wes Craven as a thriller that takes place in the “real world” in which actors and crew members from this horror series play themselves and are tormented by a darker version of Freddy Krueger. It was a wild idea that originally didn’t please fans of the series as they probably wanted something more traditional. But this wildly imaginative and original take on this series is a fascinating drama about how horror films can affect children – “Nightmare” heroine Heather Langenkamp plays herself, starts having nightmares about her pizza-faced co-star, and her young son Dylan begins having psychotic episodes. Is she crazy or is Freddy trying to get her and her son? This was a great prelude to the themes Wes Craven would later explore in the “Scream” series with greater financial success.

4) RED EYE (2005) How does a horror director stay relevant and reinvent himself? By not directing a horror film obviously. Wes Craven had already done that back in the 90s with the violin drama “Music of the Heart.” The only thing horrifying about that film was Meryl Streep not winning another Oscar. Craven attempted a change of genre again in 2005 that featured his expertise in suspense but with an action flair. The result was the outstanding little thriller “Red Eye.” The film is essentially a hostage thriller that takes place aboard an airplane. Cillian Murphy is equally charming and creepy as Jack Rippner a mysterious man who “kidnaps” Rachel McAdams’ resourceful hotel manager aboard a red eye flight who unravels a political assassination plot. More in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock, the PG-13 rated film features very little blood, a rare departure for Craven, and ups the action as these two fascinating characters play a delightful game of cat and mouse, from their seats. The film’s final act features more typical slasher/stalker stuff with plenty of moments to make you jump. It’s a real treat for Craven fans looking for something a little different.

5) SCREAM 4 (2011) Fifteen years after the original film rejuvenated the horror genre came this sequel that was set to relaunch the popular slasher franchise that restarted it all. Unfortunately, the film’s box office performance was rather disappointing as audiences seem to be weary of horror movies with numbers like 4 in the title. Fortunately, this remains arguably the best “Scream” sequel as it has everything a “Scream” film should: wonderful death scenes and solid dark humor. Ghostface returns after a decade to finish the job on Sidney Prescott where she returns to her hometown and a new generation of witty teenagers meet their maker. The meta factor is dialed up to an eleven here and all your favorite [living] “Scream” characters return. Who will survive and what will be left of them? Unfortunately, it’s the last film Wes Craven would ever direct.

6) SCREAM 2 (1998) This fast-tracked sequel is the follow up to the surprise hit “Scream.” This sequel, while not as good or scary as the first film, (the new characters are less interesting and nothing is quite as scary or clever as the first film’s opening) takes a rather original look at horror sequels and continues to skewer the conventions found within them. Heroine Sidney Prescott is now in college, with a new boyfriend and guy friend Randy in tow, where a series of copycat murders spring up. The film features another witty script from Kevin Williamson with a wonderful art imitating life plot detail about the events of the first film being turned into a successful horror film called ‘Stab.’ Definitely one of the better slasher sequels out there, but shame on them for killing Randy.

7) THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) Fans of the genre, know that horror was in a strange place in the early 90s. There wasn’t much great stuff and the horror films that did existed were truly odd. Case in point this little seen gem from Wes Craven about a pair of rich loons who own a gigantic labyrinthine, booby-trapped house with hordes of pale, zombie-like teenage boys locked in the basement. The film’s hero is a young black boy from the ghetto and the film is actually a decent social commentary about the current state of socioeconomic race relations. I’m not sure it’s really all that scary, but it’s certainly an example of something somewhat different in the genre and truly a product of its time that only someone like Wes Craven could cook up.

8) SCREAM 3 (2000) The “Scream” movies are obviously one of my all-time favorite film series. While part 3 is arguably the weakest of the three, it ended the series (until the fourth one of course) in probably the best way possible and features the great addition of the hilarious Parker Posey. Here the setting is now Hollywood where art imitates life while imitating art. Though it remains the least frightening of the series, and at this point Craven almost appears to be dialing it in (the latter part of his career was mostly dominated by this series), there is enough here to satisfy fans of this immensely popular set of films which now includes an in-name-only MTV television series spinoff.

9) SHOCKER (1989) I have to admire Wes Craven’s failed attempt to create another original slasher villain (Let’s just forget that he attempted that yet again in the truly forgettable “My Soul to Take”). Here he presents us with Horace Pinker, who murders families at night while they sleep, not unlike the Thomas Harris villain from “Red Dragon.” After being convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair, he somehow survives his capital punishment, and begins infecting various electrical outlets and jumping from various bodies (an idea later explored in the Denzel Washington film “Fallen). It’s up to psychic high school jock Peter Berg to save the day. The film’s TV adventure finale is totally bizarre, hilarious, and fun. A lesser known, and ultimately underappreciated, but truly inventive Wes Craven effort.

10) THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) – Also known as, The Last Movie on This List. No one really enjoys watching Wes Craven’s first foray into horror filmmaking because it’s so disturbingly violent and shocking. But it’s still miles ahead of other similar exploitation films like “I Spit on Your Grave” in terms of production value. A very, very early example of the type of horror genre dubbed “torture porn” this low budget shocker concerns a group of disturbed individuals who rape, torture, and murder a pair of young teen girls, only to be tortured and murdered themselves by the girls’ parents. Wes Craven’s cinematic fascination with booby-traps begins here. This is ultimately sick stuff, similar to but different from the originally X-rated “The Hills Have Eyes,” and a must-watch for anyone who is fan of Craven’s filmography.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987) Wes Craven rarely wrote films that he didn’t also direct. There were some exceptions. He co-wrote part three of the "Nightmare" series (after having nothing to do with part two), which remains one of the most popular fan favorites. This was a transition point in the series, where Freddy started becoming somewhat of a jokester. Hence lines like: “Welcome to primetime, bitch!” A young Patricia Arquette leads a young cast of suicidal teenagers committed to a mental hospital, though the suicides are the handiwork of Freddy Krueger. Original "Nightmare" heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) returns as an intern who helps the teens fight off Freddy for good (or until the franchise became financially unviable). There are some inventive effects and dream sequences here, most notably the puppetry dream in which a teenage boy’s veins are ripped out and used as marionette strings.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sophie’s Voice: Meryl Streep Rocks Out in “Ricki and the Flash”

We got to see a bit of rocker Meryl Streep in “Mamma Mia.” Now she gets to go full rocker in “Ricki and the Flash.” However, as fun as it is to see Meryl let loose, “Ricki” remains way more of a drama than a flat out comedy. It’s sort of similar to director Johnathan Demme’s other family drama “RachelGetting Married” which showcased a wildly unhinged Oscar nominated turn from Anne Hathaway. It was one of those family dramas where dark intimate secrets come bubbling up to the surface. “Ricki and the Flash” is very similar except this time “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody takes a shot at the genre. Generally speaking, it feels like a success. The film’s target audience, judging from those I was surrounded by, middle aged women, seemed to be having a blast seeing their girl Meryl in dreds, tight stretch pants, and platform shoes. However, the film sort of wraps things up almost a little too neatly, leaving the awkward family drama behind in lieu of a storyline that basically turns to rock music as the be all end all cure for familial strife.

Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, she’s a rock star. Well sort of. She’s released one album, and she and her band the Flash perform in a tiny bar to a mixed audience of baby boomers and millennials. Ricki, who’s real name is Linda, also works as a grocery store clerk and has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. She seems more like a washed up rock star wannabe. And that’s probably the point. Because she left her family years ago and now her kids are all grown up and they all hate her for running out on them. Her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline, where have you been?) calls out of the blue one day because of a crisis situation involving their daughter Julie (Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer). And hence Cody gives us a sort of standard three act story: Ricki heads back to Indianapolis to her family who hates her including her sons Josh (Sebastian Stan) who is engaged, and Adam (Nick Westrate) who is gay. Then she flies back home to hang out with her bandmate/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield, yes that Rick Springfield) where she thinks about how much her family hates her, and then the final act where she seeks redemption by attending Josh’s wedding much to her extended family’s dismay.

“Ricki and the Flash” has several things going for it. It sort of has a “Mamma Mia” meets “Rachel Getting Married” vibe which is probably because of the trifecta of Cody, Streep, and Demme. In that way it feels untraditional yet will most likely appeal to the masses, or at least those over forty and hardcore Streep fans. Demme gives it that indie feel; he knows how to direct actors and dialogue driven scenes. Though given his track record for nailing realistic tones, I’m not sure much that happens in the film could be considered realistic at all. Cody’s script has trademarked witty repartee though it seems more geared an older crowded and has much darker elements. The thoughtful commentary on women’s roles in the family and parenting are interesting if not entirely fully developed. And of course the performances are all very solid. Streep has fun with the role even if she’s not necessarily breaking the mold. I’d say it’s at least Golden Globe worthy though she’d have to count on weak competition if she wants a chance at Oscar number four.

Overall, I enjoyed “Ricki and the Flash” though it’s ending feels almost too neat and tidy. The third act feels rushed and disjointed compared to the rest of the film. Without giving too much away, Ricki , ultimately as a generally poor person, has nothing really to give except the gift of music, which works fine in Disney form, but seeing as though she’s caused so much distress, sadness, and bitterness among her entire estranged family you’d think it would take more than a Dobie Gray song for redemption.  GRADE: B-

Note: The fact that the opening number is Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” a song briefly but memorably featured in Johnathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs,” can’t possibly be just a coincidence right? Either Cody and/or Demme have a delightfully wicked sense of humor. 

Trailer for Ricki and the Flash on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Clear and Present Danger: No Need to Return “The Gift;” It’s a Top Notch Thriller

If you told me a month ago that “The Gift” the writing and directorial debut of Joel Edgerton would be one of the best thrillers of the year, I would have said you’re joking. And here we are and “The Gift” is a cinematic present indeed. It features terrifically nuanced performances from its cast and a twisty, tension-filled script that’s beautifully directed. I absolutely love films directed by actors. Sometimes they just get it. Actor-turned-directors get acting therefore know how to direct actors. Mr. Edgerton, known for appearances in Warrior, Exodus Gods and Kings, and The Great Gatsby pulls triple duty by also writing and acting. “The Gift” is a stylish thriller filled with sometimes unbearable tension and is note-worthy for featuring practically no onscreen violence. It’s pretty amazing and simply Hitchcockian in execution.

The film stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn. They’re that typical thriller movie couple who move into a new house at the beginning of the film. It has lots of big open windows. Not an ideal place you want to live if a creepy man from your past insists on constantly stopping by and creepily leaving you welcome gifts. That creepy weirdo is Gordo and he’s played by Edgerton. Gordo runs into Simon at a store and welcomes him and his wife back to his hometown. They appear to be old friends though Simon doesn’t remember him right away. A one-sided friendship then develops as Gordo appears to practically stalk the couple until Simon has to intervene. These early scenes are the epitome of awkwardness. However, awkwardness soon turns to paranoia after Simon has to harshly end the “friendship” – as it appears something from these men’s past refuses to stay in the past. And that’s where things really start getting fun and creepy.

The film is first and foremost a perfect showcase for superior acting skills. Hall and Bateman are great and as the script unveils more about their past their characters really develop and it comes through in their performances. Edgerton is master in the weirdo department, though not much is learned about him until the movie enters its final act. The screenplay is also incredibly tight and clever. It plays against most of the audience’s expectations. This is a genre we’ve seen before. I’ve heard comparisons from things like “One Hour Photo” to “Fatal Attraction” and other 90s stalker thrillers. And those feel like legitimate comparisons.

“The Gift” is everything its title suggests, it’s a cinematic treat for audiences willing to give it a try. On the surface is appears like a traditional stalker thriller but it’s anything but. It’s a twisted ride with interesting characters, great performances, and an assured and confident directorial debut from someone you’d least expect. It’s truly a rewarding, original, and exciting experience.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for The Gift on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Cut to the Chase: New “Vacation” is Decent If Not Particularly Inspired

Hollywood is like a greying head of hair. For every remarkable and original film they release there are 5 or 6 remakes, reboots, and sequels that pop up in its place. And eventually you have to just accept it. As an undeniable movie lover, I tend to just give in to whatever Hollywood wants to throw at me. I can take it. And here we are with “Vacation” a sort of sequel, actually it’s pretty much just a sequel, of the popular National Lampoon series about the Griswold family who can’t seem to have a decent family vacation. The Griswolds are one of those families where the kids have seemed to enter some kind of black hole because they never appear to age past fifteen even though their parents grow older from film to film. Not anymore, Rusty Griswold is now all grown up and has decided to take his own stuck-in-a-rut family on a road trip to the one and only Walley World. Hopefully it’s at least open this time.

As a fan of this series of arguably not very good films, this fifth “Vacation” is thankfully not nearly as bad as one may assume. Sure the trailer is filled with lots of raunchy humor but is anyone really surprised? The first film worked because it mixed aww shucks family dynamic with bizarre, hyper adult humor. Does anyone remember the implied incest in the Cousin Eddy sequence? And what about the comedic fate of poor Aunt Edna? Writer John Hughes knew how to draw a nice line between extreme, dark humor and lighter, fluffier wholesomeness. Many will argue the new “Vacation” is all crass and dirty jokes and it is to a point: but there’s way more heart hear than meets the eye. And for god sakes the writers (John Francis Daley and Johnathan M. Goldstein, who also directed) have actually given these people character arcs and the kids finally have personalities.

The kids, in fact, easily steal the film away from stars Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. Steele Gibbons is Kevin, a nightmarish younger brother, borderline sociopathic, who enjoys tormenting his older brother James (Skyler Gisondo). James is the sensitive, musician type who brings along his guitar and various journals on his vacation. Seeing these two go at it the entire movie was simply hilarious to watch even if the behavior was never exactly realistic… but how is any situation in a comedy like this ever realistic? These people take a dip in raw sewage without even knowing for crying out loud. Helms and Applegate work good together as Rusty and his wife Debbie. The two are sort of on the rocks and Rusty feels like a family trip could bring them all closer together.

Yes this is one of those predicable comedies whether everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It’s nothing new. The writers overcome that generally well by at least not just repeating the same situations from the previous films, though there are plenty of fun nods for fans of the series. “Vacation” is sort of a difficult film to hate. It’s a comedy and it made me laugh even if some scenes didn’t exactly showcase brilliant comedic writing or skills. When the film wants to make an easy joke it does: take for instance the segment in which they visit Rusty’s sister Audrey and her cocky southern husband played by Chris Hemsworth. The guy doesn’t really get to do much but talk with a southern twang and show off the giant fake penis hiding in his underwear. As Audrey, Leslie Mann seems sort of wasted: not to take anything from the lovable Applegate, but I probably would have rather seen Mann in the lead role.

Thankfully the film heads in a direction that was predictable but delightfully familiar: a stop off at Grandma and Grandpa Griswold’s bed and breakfast where Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo make their glorified cameos along with the iconic “family truckster.” This new “Vacation” doesn’t really need to exist and it doesn’t really do anything practically groundbreaking: you get the sense it feels like a nostalgic cash grab, but at least it was funny and like most family vacations, it wasn’t nearly as bad as you were expecting.  GRADE: B

Trailer for Vacation on TrailerAddict.