Thursday, September 30, 2010

Horrorfest 2010

I went through my day today with a smile on my face. I was smiling because I knew October was upon us. The fall smell, the turning of the leaves, pumpkins and Halloween. It’s my favorite time of year, but not because of those things. No, what makes this month so great is A Penny in the Well’s annual Horrorfest.

No longer do I have to sit in front of my movie library or my Netflix queue and wonder, “What do I want to watch tonight? Comedy? Drama? Western?” During the month of October, there is no question of what I’m in the mood for, because October is Horrorfest. I’ll be watching horror tonight!

This is the 10th anniversary of A Penny in the Well’s Horrorfest, and as such it promises to be a good one. I’ve got some great classics planned, some exciting revisits, a couple of the worst horror flicks I could dig up, some great overlooked flicks that my secret horror seekers assure me will blow my mind, and a whole bunch in between. So put your John Carpenter scores on your iPods and get ready for another great Shocktober.

As always Hollywood puts plenty in the multiplexes during the month of October to make you squeam and scream. There are several cinematic releases I hope to see this Horrorfest, including the American remake of a great Scandinavian vampire movie “Let Me In”, the post-apocalypse freak show “Monsters”, and Clint Eastwood’s first supernatural foray “Hereafter”. I often miss out on the theatricals I desire to see during Horrorfest, so I can’t count on these, but “Hereafter” is the one I’m sure to catch.

In case I don’t catch up with “Let Me In”, I will be revisiting the original version on Blu-ray, and I expect “Let the Right One In” to be just as scary and fresh and beautiful the second time around.  I’ll also revisit one of my favorite Horrorfest entries from a few years back, the Japanese Hitchcockian tale “Crazy Fruit”. And I’ll finally get around to a horror classic that I’ve been meaning to screen ever since I started Horrorfest, “The Shining” on glorious Blu-ray. Also for the first time on Blu-ray, I will re-screen the creepy second “X-Files” film “I Want to Believe”. And for the kids we’ll revisit Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride”.

It’s been about 20 years since I saw the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. I didn’t like it then. It’s about time I revisited that horror “classic” to see if I’ve changed my mind.  Unfortunately, the fairly critically unscathed remake won’t be available on DVD until November, but I will also screen the best received entry into the franchise, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”, to make up for it.

Other classics I will finally get around to will include, Dario Argento’s “Suspiria”, the 1932 German vampire tale “Vampyr”, the cold war giant bug classic “Them”, along with “Matinee”, a wonderful overlooked movie about the joy of seeing those types of movies at the time they were released, the chilling catfight picture “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, and Ray Bradbury’s cautionary parable “Fahrenheit 451”. I’ll continue to look at the works of the worst director in the history of cinema, Ed Wood, with his all time Z-classic “Plan 9 From Outer Space”.

As usual I will include several bad horror flicks for some amusement to go along with the frights. This year will see me screening what some call the worst movie ever made in “Troll 2”. I’ll also catch possibly the second worst “Leprechaun”, the original “The Stepfather” starring Terry O’Quinn from long before his “Lost” fame, Bruce Campbell’s send up of himself in “My Name is Bruce”, and last year’s college-based absurdity “Sorority Row”.

Perhaps the most anticipated films in this year’s Horrorfest are those that are fairly unknown but carry a great deal of buzz behind them. I read about the Belgian thriller “Left Bank” just after last year’s festival wrapped up. Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” has been a polarizing picture over the past year and promises to be an interesting take on horror whether it’s any good or not. The 80’s throwback screamer “The House of the Devil” has only produced praise from the people I trust most on horror. The British import “The Red Riding Trilogy” garnered great praise from critics earlier this year. And just last night, the man most directly responsible for my obsession with horror flicks made a blind suggestion of the 1981 flick “Dark Night of the Scarecrow”. Even if he hasn’t seen it, if Trev suggests it, it’ll be worth the time.

There will be some changes in format for this year’s Horrorfest. As it has become more and more difficult for me to keep up with my analysis of the Horrorfest films over the years, I’ve decided to simplify my coverage a little bit. I will still report on the films I see, but my reports with take the same format as my weekly Penny Thoughts. For the month of October they will be known as Horror Thoughts. I will still include one Penny Thoughts entry to cover the entire month of non-horror films I watch. There won’t be many. Each week, however, I will submit my Horror Thoughts.

Enough about what I’m going to watch, it’s time to start watching… and start screaming!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Town / ***½ (R)

Doug MacRay: Ben Affleck
Claire Keesey: Rebecca Hall
FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley: Jon Hamm
James Coughlin: Jeremy Renner
Krista Coughlin: Blake Lively
Albert ‘Gloansy’ Magloan: Slain
Desmond Elden: Owen Burke
Dino Ciampa: Titus Welliver
Fergus ‘Fergie’ Colm: Pete Postlethwaite
Stephen MacRay: Chris Cooper

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Ben Affleck, Written by Peter Craig and Affleck & Aaron Stockard. Based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan. Running time: 124 min. Rated R (for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use).

Boston has become the hot town for Hollywood these days. It seems every big star is pushing to get their crack at that Boston accent. If you trace it back, this trend might be linked to Ben Affleck’s Academy Award winning turn more than a decade ago for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting”. Now, Affleck is back, this time in the director’s seat as well as co-writing and starring in the new crime drama “The Town”. It is a pleasure to have watched Affleck mature as an artist, and with his directorial efforts here and for the previous “Gone Baby Gone”, calling him a ‘triple threat’ may be considered an understatement.

In “The Town” Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a lifelong criminal from a family of criminals in an entire town of criminals. MacRay is from the Boston suburb of Charlestown; a city that this film claims has produced more bank robbers than any other in the world. MacRay is one of the best.

MacRay’s best asset is his affability. It allows him to keep a low profile. He rules his crew with respect and a controlled and calm approach. The crew’s newest member, James Coughlin (played by Academy Award nominee for “The Hurt Locker” Jeremy Renner), is MacRay’s childhood friend and the loose cannon of the bunch. When Coughlin gets a little hot headed on a job, he takes a hostage, Clair Keesey (Rebecca Hall, “Vicky Christina Barcelona”). This is a “no, no” in MacRay’s book. When Coughlin learns that the FBI has spoke to Clair after MacRay let her go, she becomes a liability.

Here’s where MacRay’s affability begins to work against him and the script begins to distinguish itself beyond other crime thrillers. He shadows Clair to see if she knows anything, or has told the FBI anything that could jeopardize his crew. He gets a little closer to her than he probably should and the two develop a romance. Their relationship is what occupies most of the film’s running time. That and three incredibly thrilling heists that prove Affleck can direct taut and tense suspense along with great action.

Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”) is closer on the heels of MacRay and his team than it seems MacRay is aware. Frawley goes at them with a vengeance, although no real reason for his passion is given beyond the fact that it’s his job. It turns out, however, that not only is MacRay all too aware of the FBI’s tactics, but Frawley’s real problem isn’t figuring out who they are so much as catching them in the act. As this cat and mouse game began, I thought I was about to see a crook and crimefighter tale I hadn’t seen before, and it’s quite possible that such a yarn was in the shooting script, but the romance takes precedence over the cops and robbers angle.

This would’ve been discouraging without Affleck’s wonderful performance as a man torn by his deep feelings for a new love and the criminal world that has invested as much, if not more, into him as he has into it. Everything he’s ever known was this way of life. Coughlin has just returned from a prison stint. His dad (Chris Cooper, “American Beauty”) is serving multiple life sentences for the same types of crimes. And his handler (Pete Postlethwaite, “Inception”) is a cool tempered, but intimidating florist, who gives the impression that no one leaves his service despite his unassuming front operation.

Watching MacRay juggle all these loose strands while continuing to operate his crew under such close heat puts in my mind what it must be like to be a director/writer/leading actor on a major film production. Perhaps Affleck merely had to call upon his own life to conjure the emotion necessary for his role. Certainly being a family man on top of his triple threat duties added to his realization of a man who chooses his heart above duty.

“The Town” is not a perfect crime thriller. It eschews the more interesting elements of the chase between cop and criminal for more conventional elements of romance. But those elements it explores are done well. The realization of Ben Affleck as the complete filmmaker he is becoming has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve witnessed as a cineaste. This is an artist about whom I can definitely say; I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Sept. 17-23

Runaway Train (1985) ***
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writers: Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, Edward Bunker, Akira Kurosawa (original screenplay)
Starring: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan, T.K. Carter, Kenneth McMillan

I can see how it might be easy to dislike this movie. It’s overblown. The acting is over the top, and many of the performances are just bad. But it seems to be striving for something beyond reality. It’s like some male testosterone driven experimental art form. Every character seems ready to test their manhood at any and every second. Women beware, as the depiction of our female counterparts in this movie is down right offensive, something beyond male chauvinism and into the realms of absurdism. I don’t think I should like it; but for some reason, it filled me with a strange sense of joy. Watch with caution.

Fred the Movie (2010) **
Director: Clay Weiner
Writer: David A. Goodman
Starring: Lucas Cruikshank, Jennette McCurdy, Jake Weary, Pixie Lott, Siobhan Fallon, John Cena

As my boys settled in to watch “Fred the Movie”, I assumed I would find something else to do. I found little appealing about the YouTube phenom character of Fred, whose greatest asset seems to be the ability to scream like a girl. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a stupid, stupid movie. But, there was something bordering on comedy gold in its ability to think in total absurdity. Fred’s daydreams were the best parts of this film, and the energy brought in by “iCarly” star Jennette McCurdy was well-timed by the filmmakers to save the movie from getting tired of Lucas Cruickshank’s relentless barrage as Fred. I also enjoyed Fred’s idealized image of his absent father as WWE star John Cena.

Watchmen: The Complete Story (2009) ****
Directors: Zach Snyder, Daniel DelPurgatorio (“Tales of the Black Freighter”), Mike Smith (“Tales of the Black Freighter”)
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse, Dave Gibbons (graphic novel), Alan Moore (uncredited graphic novel), Zach Snyder (“Tales of the Black Freighter”)
Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Gerard Butler, Jared Harris

I know many people felt that a longer version of the already lengthy movie adaptation of the graphic novel “Watchmen” could only mire the story in more boredom. I was actually a fan of the theatrical release, but I can see why many weren’t. It was an oddly paced movie, a comic book adaptation with a brain that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a superhero movie or a philosophical rant about time and man’s penchant for self-destruction. Well, in a way it is both; except it’s a deconstruction of the superhero movie, not actually a superhero movie.

The extended version of the movie—now more than 3½ hours with a very dark and morbid cartoon called “Tales of the Black Freighter” edited into the main storyline as juxtaposition—feels more relaxed than the theatrical cut. This helps to clarify the underlying issues of the film, while relieving the action of the film from the task of having to pull the audience along. Certainly this is an experience only meant for the more cerebral film watcher, but it makes the movie worthy of the groundbreaking comic book upon which it is based.

Read my review of the theatrical release.

Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) ***
Director: Brandon Vietti
Writer: Judd Winick
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John DiMaggio, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Isaacs, Wade Williams

Anyone looking for “Batman: The Animated Series” is going to be very surprised with “Batman: Under the Red Hood”, a very dark tale that spins off one of the biggest events in Batman mythology—the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. The mystery of just who is under the Red Hood should probably be a bit more of a surprise than it is. The movie focuses more on the story’s action elements than the psychological ones, but this stuff is pretty heavy for superhero cartoon fare. It’s rated PG-13 for good reason. I wonder, though, if the animated format exposes itself as not being as inherently deep as the comic book source material it comes from. Now that the direct to DVD animated superhero films are becoming just as dark as their live action counterparts, I’m beginning to wonder just where the kids can get into super heroes anymore. I guess that’s Nickelodeon’s game now.

DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (2010) ***½
Director: Joaquim Dos Santos
Writers: Joe R. Lansdale, Justin Gray, Phil Noto, Jimmy Palmiotti
Starring: Thomas Jane, Linda Hamilton, Jason Marsden, Michael Rooker, Michelle Trachtenberg

Unlike the makers of the feature film, the people behind this animated short included on the “Batman: Under the Red Hood” DVD release understand how to keep it simple. Here we have a good dark tale. It doesn’t go into a whole bunch of super powered, paranormal western junk. It’s a simple tale of a bad operator getting her comeuppance.  The characters are painted in broad strokes as is necessary for a ten-minute film, but their actions are harsh and swift. The atmosphere is moody. The score is surprisingly good for such a short project, and the conclusion is fitting and satisfying. This is how you make a dark western.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Summer of Three

Photo by Andrew D. Wells

The “Law of Three” is folklore that claims bad things come in threes. Every time I hear about a celebrity dying it seems I hear about this Law of Three. It’s pretty easy to evoke the Law of Three when a celebrity dies because like all human beings, celebrities are mortal. Whenever one dies, you simply cite the last two who died before that one, and you’ve got your three.

Sometimes it’s a little easier to believe in the Law of Three. As a cineaste in Marshall, there were three bad things that occurred this summer. First, we lost our video rental store. It was a Movie Gallery, which has closed stores all over the country over the past few years. As a long time Netflix member, this did not really affect me all that much; however, my membership certainly didn’t help keep the local video store open. Second, August saw the final episode of the long running syndicated movie criticism show “At the Movies”. No longer could I learn the opinions of a couple of top critics in a format the provided these opinions in the form of a heated discussion. Third, and probably most devastating, was the closing of our local cinema.

Those aren’t the three I really want to talk about, however. No, the three I wanted to address were not bad things, but rather quite enjoyable ones. The three that concern me today are the three-star reviews I handed out just about every week over this summer movie season. It became a bit of a joke by the last few weeks of the summer blockbuster season. “Let me guess, you gave it three stars?”  a friend of mine said more than once.

Now, not every movie I reviewed received three stars. There were some exceptional movies this summer. The uber-popular “Inception”, the retro action flick “Salt” and underrated spoof “MacGruber” all received coveted four star ratings from this critic. There were also a few duds, including Ridley Scott’s disappointing version of “Robin Hood”, the uninspired comic book western “Jonah Hex”, and the depressingly awful “The Expendables”. But for a summer when I spent more time in front of the big screen than ever before, there was surprisingly little divergence from basic popcorn enjoyment.

As a critic, when you get on a streak of similarly ranked movies, it begins to worry one about questions of credibility. I can imagine readers rolling their eyes at yet another three star review. Especially when some of those reviews were pretty far off the general consensus of what most considered failures. Some might think that continuing to reward questionable films with three stars was just laziness on my part. But it wasn’t easy to say that I liked “The A-Team”, “The Last Airbender”, and “Knight and Day” when everyone else in the critical world was recommending people should avoid these movies like the plague. The truth is I enjoyed them, and I didn’t feel it was right for me to pretend otherwise just because no one else did.

In fact, this summer was one of the most enjoyable summers I can remember spending at the movies. Perhaps that’s a reflection on our times. Perhaps it just felt good to get away from the burdens of our current political and financial environments. Perhaps it was a way to return to simpler, easier times for me.

There have been a lot of retro trends in film recently. “Toy Story 3” was a return to a franchise that last bowed on the silver screen over a decade ago. “Predators” picked up from where the franchise was twenty years ago, before they started hunting Aliens. “Piranha 3D” added to a film series that hadn’t reared its head in almost 30 years. And the whole 3D phenomenon harkens back to the early eighties and even further back than that.

There has been little produced by Hollywood this year so far that I would really jump up and down about. It seems most of this year’s best movies are being imported from other countries. Australia’s noir “The Square”, the Swedish hit “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, France’s Academy Award entry “A Prophet”, and Korea’s “Mother” are the best movies I’ve seen this year.

I’ve had a good time at the movies this year. I can’t knock that. Oh, and as far as the Law of Three goes… well, it seems to go both ways. A local family is supposed to be opening a new movie rental store, another local family will re-open the Marshall Cinema on October 22, and Roger Ebert announced his resurrected “At the Movies” will begin airing in January.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Review of DCU Batman: Under The Red Hood (Blu-Ray)

Originally submitted at WB Shop

Batman faces his ultimate challenge as the mysterious Red Hood takes Gotham City by firestorm. One part vigilante, one part criminal kingpin, Red Hood begins cleaning up Gotham with the efficiency of Batman, but without following the same ethical code. Killing is an option. And when the Joker falls...

The Dark Knight Gets Cartoon Dark

By ydnasllew from Marshall, MO on 9/22/2010


3out of 5

Pros: Beautiful Animation, Great Voice Acting, Original Story

Cons: Limited Appeal

Best Uses: Adult Viewers, At Home

Describe Yourself: Movie Buff

Anyone looking for "Batman: The Animated Series" is going to be very surprised with "Batman: Under the Red Hood", a very dark tale that spins off one of the biggest events in Batman mythology—the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. The mystery of just who is under the Red Hood should probably be a bit more of a surprise than it is. The movie focuses more on the story's action elements than the psychological ones, but this stuff is pretty heavy for superhero cartoon fare. It's rated PG-13 for good reason. I wonder, though, if the animated format exposes itself as not being as inherently deep as the comic book source material it comes from. Now that the direct to DVD animated superhero films are becoming just as dark as their live action counterparts, I'm beginning to wonder just where the kids can get into super heroes anymore. I guess that's Nickelodeon's game now.


My Review of Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (Blu-ray + Digital Copy)

Originally submitted at WB Shop

Multi-disc set. Real-world super heroes must emerge from retirement to solve a murder of one of their own, in the shadow of nuclear armageddon. Directed by Zack Snyder (300). Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut is the version never seen in theaters, integrating the animated Tales from the Black Freighter in...

Expanded version better than theatrical

By ydnasllew from Marshall, MO on 9/22/2010


5out of 5

Pros: Entertaining, Great Cinematography, Topical commentary, High Production Value, Excellent Special Effects

Best Uses: At Home, Adult Viewers

Describe Yourself: Movie Buff

I know many people felt that a longer version of the already lengthy movie adaptation of the graphic novel "Watchmen" could only mire the story in more boredom. I was actually a fan of the theatrical release, but I can see why many weren't. It was an oddly paced movie, a comic book adaptation with a brain that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a superhero movie or a philosophical rant about time and man's penchant for self-destruction. Well, in a way it is both, except it's a deconstruction of the superhero movie, not actually a superhero movie. The extended version of the movie, now more than 3½ hours with a very dark and morbid cartoon called "Tales of the Black Freighter" edited into the main storyline as juxtaposition, actually feels more relaxed than the theatrical cut. This helps to clarify the underlying issues of the film, while relieving the action of the film from the task of having to pull the audience along. Certainly this is an experience only meant for the more cerebral film watcher, but it makes the movie worthy of the groundbreaking comic book upon which it is based.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Sept. 10-16

Back to the Future, Part III (1990) **½
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Elizabeth Shue

The third installment of the “Back to the Future” franchise was always my least favorite. This is mostly due to the last few minutes, which get just a little too sappy and sentimental for my tastes. A strange thing to hold against this purely 80s film, I know. Perhaps I was offended by the besmirching of my western hero Clint Eastwood, although his name and image are really only used in respectful homage. Perhaps by the time 1990 rolled around I had moved on from my childhood film tastes. But I can’t fault the casting of Mary Steenburgen as Doc Brown’s love interest, an actress I’ve only come to appreciate more and more as she gets older and somehow more beautiful with age.

Tetro (2009) ***½
Director/Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mike Amigorena, Leticia Brédice, Sofía Castiglione, Carmen Maura, Klaus Maria Brandauer

After a long hiatus, Francis Ford Coppola has returned to film making with two deeply personal films in the past few years. The first, “Youth Without Youth”, showed reflections of Coppola’s great artistry, but suffered from being a little too self-indulgent. His latest, “Tetro”, proves what a blessing it is to have this great filmmaker back in full form. Its pacing might feel a little slow to some. Its plot might seem too steeped in melodrama. But this is operatic filmmaking and requires such aspects that have become foreign to the modern film audience. The black and white cinematography reminds us how beautiful film can be, and the varying color techniques used in both flashbacks and fantasy sequences shows that even in film color can be applied like in a painting. This is fine artistic filmmaking.

Repo Men (2010) **
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writers: Eric Garcia (also novel), Garrett Lerner
Starring: Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice van Hooten, Chandler Canterbury

I can’t really point out anything in this movie that’s terribly wrong, although the scene were the hero and heroine scan each others internal organs like some sort of sex fettish is a little questionable. My problem with this movie has more to do with some sort of intangible disconnect it seems to have with its own subject matter. It deals with repo men in the future that repossess body parts people can’t pay for anymore. Jude Law plays one of the best who eventually falls behind in his own body part payments. His newfound conscience just doesn’t seem to mesh with the mentality of the world presented here. Yes, his career has obvious moral questions to it, but if they haven’t occurred to him or the rest of the world by this point, I find it hard to believe they ever will. It’s a good attempt at a sci-fi take on our country’s current financial crisis, but there just doesn’t seem to be much outrage connected to the material, which is presented too much as in internal personal battle of conscience than as the morally reprehensible atrocity it reflects about society as a whole.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub Zero (1998) ***
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Writers: Boyd Kirkland, Randy Rogel, Bob Kane (creator)
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Michael Ansara, Loren Lester, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., George Dzundza, Mary Kay Bergman, Bob Hastings

I love everything Batman. I was a pretty big fan of the animated television series that followed the success of the Tim Burton movies in the early 90s. “Sub Zero” was the second feature length film to be produced from that series. It featured a villain, Mr. Freeze, who was a very minor blip in the Batman mythos until the creators of the animated series turned him into a major player and one of the best developed villains of Batman’s rouges gallery. Don’t let Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Freeze in “Batman & Robin” ruin it for you.

Superman Returns (2006) ****
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Bryan Singer, Jerry Siegel (characters), Joe Shuster (characters)
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, James Marsden, Tristan Lake Leabu, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint

I still see everything in this movie that most other people seem to miss, an incredibly true continuation of the themes and ideals presented in the first two Superman films with added dimensions to them.  Each time I see it the savior/Christ imagery gets stronger as I discover more and more layers to them. Parker Posey makes every film she’s in better. And even though Supes takes on a new role as stalker of his ex, his chief competition for Lois’s heart here says he’d do the exact same thing if he had those powers.

Good Hair (2009) **½
Director: Jeff Stilson
Writers: Lance Crouther, Chris Rock, Chuck Sklar, Jeff Stilson
Starring: Chris Rock, Nia Long, Ice T, Maya Angelou, Al Sharpton, Eve, Raven-Symoné, Tracie Thoms, Tanya Crumel, Kevin Kirk, Jason Griggers

“Good Hair” is a surprisingly fascinating documentary about black hair culture in the United States. I say fascinating, but in a more interesting way than an entertaining one. Chris Rock does his best as the host and narrator of the doc to make it entertaining, but there’s a feeling the director Jeff Stilson has restricted himself too much within its investigative documentary format. You can tell he’s a fan of sports documentaries in the way his integrates the build up of a big hair styling competition into the rest of the film, closing with the competition itself. But the rest of the film is kind of played out at the 40-minute mark. The last half hour spends too much time reiterating what has come before. One thing I took away from this doc, however, is that Tracie Thoms is da bomb! I suspected as much after seeing her in “Death Proof”, but it has now been totally confirmed.

On the Waterfront (1954) ****
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: Budd Schulberg,
Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger

There once was a time when Hollywood made movies about real people. How ironic that one of Hollywood’s greatest ‘real’ actors, Marlon Brando, inspired a generation of actors after him just as Hollywood began shifting its focus to the overblown, outrageous situations in which real people never find themselves. “On the Waterfront” still carries all of it emotional power today, because it depicts real people dealing with real problems. Yes, the mob as depicted here is possibly a device used to heighten the reality of a time when work was hard to come by in America and there were few people to look out for the workers rights and well-being. Funny, that doesn’t sound like a far cry from today’s work environment. Anyway, it’s easy to feel the struggles of the workers in the movie, because it doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself in their shoes.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Penny Thoughts: August 3-9

The Runaways (2010) ***
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writers: Floria Sigismondi, Cherie Currie (book)
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures
Yes, “The Runaways” tells that same old rock and roll biopic story, in this case the rise and fall of Cherie Currie, a rise that starts at age 15 and falls just a few years later. I like it, however, due to the fact that the filmmakers did not feel the need to fill their movie with unnecessary expositional dialogue explaining everything. In many ways, this is a movie of moods and pretty pictures. Director Floria Sigismondi is not afraid to focus on the underage sexuality of Currie and the slightly older Joan Jett. Since this played a great role in their success, it’s a good choice. Most of all it made me want to go out and grab The Runaways’s music and Joan Jett’s early albums. When it comes to a music bio pic, you really can’t ask for more than selling the music.

Back to the Future, Part II (1989) ***
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers:  Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Elizabeth Shue

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
I know a good deal of people see the second in the “Back to the Future” series as a mess. It’s a movie that has a primary purpose of bridging the two storylines of the first film and the third. However, I’ve always found it quite ingenious how writer Bob Gale is able to cut, paste, and erase character and plot details, seemingly on the fly as the story rockets along. Yes, there are too many ideas about time travel and parallel realities mashed together in a movie that is hung on the plots of its predecessor and its sequel, but the script really misses little. If you pay attention, it does a rather good job of tidying little details about Marty’s re-cast girlfriend (Elizabeth Shue), the absence of Crispin Glover (who was offered a larger role than the script contains, but declined to return), Doc Brown’s ever changing age, etc. All the while it gets all the set up for the third trip out of the way, so that film isn’t bothered with all the time travel theory and character shuffling and everyone can relax and just have a good time for the final romp.

Wyatt Earp (1994) ***½
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, Dan Gordon
Starring: Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Dave Anderson, Linden Ashby, Jeff Fahey, Joanna Going, Mark Harmon, Michael Madsen, Catherine O’Hara, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Mare Winningham

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I feel the Kevin Costner version of the story of lawman Wyatt Earp is superior to “Tombstone”, released just six months before Costner’s “Wyatt Earp”. Yes, it’s longer and the gunfights are less spectacular, but it tells what feels like a real story of an American icon, while “Tombstone” feels more like the television popcorn version. But then, I suppose a lot of people don’t have the patience for a 3 and a half hour movie.

The film took a lot of flack for downplaying the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. I’ve seen it 4 or 5 times at this point, and it seems to be a fairly well done cinematic gunfight to me. It’s made the centerpiece of the movie because Lawrence Kasdan chooses to open the movie with the lead up to that particular gunfight, but the gunfights are not what this movie is about. It’s more about the Earps as a family, Wyatt in particular in how family duty shaped him into the rather cold-hearted man he was. Costner is a good choice for the role, and Dennis Quaid is even better as Doc Holiday. His Holiday was sick with tuberculosis, while Val Kilmer’s Holiday in “Tombstone” was merely an interesting character with a medical condition. But, to each his own.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009) **
Director/Writer: Marc Lawrence
Starring: Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliot, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Jesse Liebman, Michael Kelly, Kim Shaw, David Call, Wilfred Brimley

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures
You know, somehow I still find Hugh Grant to be surprisingly funny. He can deliver a dry punchline like no other. “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” is not a good movie, but it did make me laugh more than I expected it to. That was mostly due to Grant. The city folk out of water and into the country comedy beat has been done to death, and for the most part here, it drags. But there are some moments captured by Grant and Mary Steenburgen here that got me cackling a bit. I wanted to see more of the Elisabeth Moss character as well. But then, most people who have seen Elisabeth Moss want to see more of her, even if they don’t know it. Just ask anyone who watches “Mad Men”.

Last Tango in Paris (1972) *½
Director: Bernardo Bertoluci
Writers: Bernardo Bertoluci, Franco Arcalli, Agnes Varda (French dialogue)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Leaud

Image courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment
Art house bullshit. Just a bunch of drivel. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be a classic.

Death at a Funeral (2010) **½
Director: Neil LaBute
Writer: Dean Craig
Starring: Keith David, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Ron Glass, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Zoë Saldaña, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures
“Death at a Funeral” is really a great idea for a comedy. There are a lot of laughs inherent in the material, and director Neil LaBute has put together a stellar cast. They land on the laughs that they need to, and I like the fact that this isn’t really an in your face wacky comedy. But, I do wonder whether LaBute was really the right person to helm this type of comedy. LaBute has proven a master of dark comedy, but this movie is more along the lines of slapstick despite its setting around a funeral. The movie never seems to build up the steam it needs to be satisfying.

Erik the Viking (1989) **
Director/Writer: Terry Jones
Starring: Tim Robbins, Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt, Terry Jones, Imogen Stubbs, John Cleese, Tsutomu Sekine, Antony Sher, Gary Cady, Charles McKeown, Tim McInnerny, John Gordon Sinclair, Richard Ridings, Freddie Jones, Samantha Bond

Image courtesy of Prominent Features
Coming from a former member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, “Erik the Viking” finds itself swinging for the same types of laughs as “The Life of Brian”. It tries to be something a little larger than the Monty Python movies, however, and never finds its comfort zone. It reminds me of a sort of rough draft of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” from only a year later by another Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Machete / ***½ (R)

Image courtesy 20th Century Fox
Machete: Danny Trejo
Senator McLaughlin: Robert DeNiro
Sartana: Jessica Alba
Torrez: Steven Seagal
Luz: Michelle Rodriguez
Booth: Jeff Fahey
Padre: Cheech Marin
Lt. Stillman: Don Johnson
Sniper: Shea Whigham
April: Lindsay Lohan

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis. Written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez. Running time: 105 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity.)

grindhouse (from
  chiefly (U.S.)
a. A low-budget cinema specializing in violent or exploitative films.
b. (as a modifier): a grindhouse film.

It’s hard to describe the greatness involved in a movie that is directed with style. The movie in description can so easily fall into something that people either want to see or don’t want to see. In the case of Robert Rodriguez’s latest tribute to the 70’s grindhouse pictures, “Machete”, I fear that any sort of description is going to turn people off. However, “Machete” is a grindhouse masterpiece.

Some of you may not be aware of the strange history that brought “Machete” to the big screen. In 2007, Rodriguez and fellow grindhouse aficionado, Quentin Tarantino, released a double feature aptly titled “Grindhouse”. The three hour homage to everything grindhouse and 70s exploitation included two feature-length films from each director, Rodriguez contributing another grindhouse masterpiece “Planet Terror”. In between the films, the directors had some other fans of the genre contribute fake trailers for other grindhouse features that did not actually exist. Rodriguez also contributed a trailer for a movie about a renegade Mexican Federale named “Machete”.  Although, everything in the “Grindhouse” experience was deliciously delivered in perfect trashy, guilty pleasure excess, it was the trailer for “Machete” that stood out for most viewers. There was so much enthusiasm for the fake movie that Rodriguez decided to make it a real movie.

The movie stars Danny Trejo as the titular Machete. You probably don’t recognize his name, but if you’ve seen his face before, you won’t have forgotten it. Trejo is an ex-con who has made quite an acting career out of playing thugs and bad guys. With almost 200 acting credits to his resume since 1983, he’s one of the most prolific character actors in the business, appearing in a wide range of movies, from “Heat” to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. He has a face that says he’s seen things you can only imagine, and yet, many of his more fleshed out roles have been grounded with some heart.

In this movie, he’s an ex-Federale who’s been betrayed and left for dead by his superior Torrez (Steven Seagal, “Under Siege”). As an illegal in the United States, Machete’s hired by a man named Booth (Jeff Fahey, “Wyatt Earp”) to assassinate an incumbent U.S. Senator (Robert DeNiro, “Jackie Brown”) whose main platform is strengthening the borders against immigrants. The assassination attempt really a set up to bolster the Senator’s poll numbers with sympathy, leaving Machete as the fall guy.

Meanwhile, Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, “Sin City”) is investigating an underground illegal immigrant organization known as The Network. She suspects it’s run out of a taco stand run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, “Fast & Furious”), who may also be the Mexican revolutionary known as Shé. Needless to say Machete crosses the radar of both women in his flight from the law after his frame up.

This almost makes the plot of “Machete” seem like some sort of conventional thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Machete” is grindhouse from grinning ear to ear. Machete has a sexuality about him that could only be believed in this grindhouse context. The only women in his world are bucksome and beautiful, and they all end up in bed with Machete, eventually, despite the fact that he’s not exactly George Clooney.

Take note of the fun the filmmakers have with the action sequences. Most of the action is totally absurd, involving beheadings and disembowelments with weapons that were never intended for such purposes. There are Gatling guns mounted on motorcycles and sexy nurses wielding Uzis. Rodriguez doesn’t just throw all this absurdity into the mix at random. Sometimes he sets this ridiculousness up with a good lead into his punchlines. There’s one sequence that follows Machete into a hospital where the doctor is explaining to the nurses how long the large intestine is. Sure enough when the bad guys show up for Machete’s head, he’s forced to escape through a window using one of the baddies’ large intestine as an escape rope.

Much like the “Grindhouse” double feature, Rodriguez and his co-director, Ethan Maniquis (a long time editor for Rodriguez), use washed out lighting and digitally added scratch marks to the picture to give the film the look of a poorly archived grindhouse film. Great attention is paid to authenticating the grindhouse feel of the film through both the filming and acting techniques to give it an unpolished nuance. Yet somehow, all this homage develops into its own style and adds to the movie’s appeal.

Certainly, this grindhouse approach is an acquired taste, but it’s a cinematically rich style and a great guilty pleasure. Rodriguez promises that Machete will return in “Machete Kills” and “Machete Kills Again”. With his involvement in this film and in the “Grindhouse” experiment with Tarantino, Rodriguez has converted me to a fan of this style of filmmaking. Filmmakers with the skill and artistry of Rodriguez and Tarantino can turn homage into something greater than its inspiration. I can’t wait to see what the new grindhouse movement produces next.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Aug. 27 – Sept. 2

Spider (2007) ****
Director: Nash Edgerton
Writers: Nash Edgerton, David Michôd
Starring: Nash Edgerton, Mirrah Foulkes

Image courtesy of Blue-Tongue Films
“Spider” is an incredibly telling short film, included on the DVD of the movie “The Square”. It announces Nash Edgerton as a filmmaker who can wield a twist in the way M. Night Shyamalan’s early movies proved. Here he does it in less than ten minutes. While the first twist of the movie can be seen coming ahead of time, the second twist is completely unexpected and incredibly rewarding.  Please read my thoughts on his feature film debut “The Square” for more on this up and coming filmmaker.

Watch “Spider” here.

The Square (2010) ****
Director: Nash Edgerton
Writers: Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner
Starring: David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Joel Edgerton, Anthony Hayes, Kieran Darcy-Smith, Brendan Donoghue, Bill Hunter

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
With their feature film debut, Australia’s Edgerton Brothers put their stamp on modern film noir and make an indelible impression with one of the most devastating crime pictures I’ve seen. Director Nash and screenwriter/actor Joel craft a relentless series of twists, turns, set backs, coincidences, and murders that all work against the protagonist. I mean talk about a guy who can’t catch a break. I’ve seen a good deal of noirs, but never one so unmerciful as this one.

Although American critics have universally praised “The Square”, I’ve heard some say that it’s success lies completely within the plotting and that the acting and direction are fairly flat. I disagree this assessment. I thought the direction, while not on Christopher Nolan’s and Steven Spielberg’s level of style, was quite crafty. I particularly liked the incorporation some good waist-level tracking shots for an element of unease. While the acting isn’t in the vein of masterwork performances, the film’s basic everyday type characters are exactly what a noir of this ground level outlook requires. These are your neighbors trying to get away with something they should never have even contemplated. The cast is perfect.

Series 7: The Contenders (2000) ***
Director/Writer: Daniel Minahan
Starring: Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Richard Venture, Will Arnett

Image courtesy of USA Films
Does anybody hate “reality” television as much as I do? I put the word ‘reality’ in quotation marks because anyone who believes there is anything real about reality television could use a good solid wrench to the head. “Series 7” is a movie that wants to tackle that reality head on. It imagines a reality game show where six contestants are chosen randomly to hunt each other down to the death. While they do this, a television crew records the remainder of their lives for audiences to watch. It’s kind of like a more advanced version of “The Running Man”.

“Series 7” isn’t a great movie, but it’s committed to its premise of depicting an absurd reality TV program, and it has all the stopping points spot on. There’s a reigning champion (a woman in her 8th month of pregnancy), an underdog, a wild card, family bickering, a surprise relationship, backstabbing and dirty play, and overwrought emotional breakdowns. And it plays as if it’s a binge marathon viewing of an entire television season. It’s merely a good movie, but maybe it’s great television.

Wallace & Gromit in ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ (2008) ****
Director: Nick Park
Writers: Nick Park, Bob Baker
Starring: Peter Sallis, Sally Lindsay

Image courtesy of Aardman Animations
After their first feature-length adventure “Wallace & Gromit in ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, England’s favorite clay animated goofball and his dog return in the again Academy Award nominated short “A Matter of Loaf and Death”. Once again director/co-writer Nick Park turns in another utterly charming adventure of food obsession and crime. He fills this romp with all the signatures of the series: the overly complex contraptions of convenience, a little romance, a lot of danger, and a dog that reads the newspaper and saves the day.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) *
Director: Troy Duffy
Writers: Troy Duffy, Taylor Duffy
Starring: Sean Patrick Flannery, Norman Reedus, Clifton Collins, Jr., Julie Benz, Bob Marley, Brian Mahoney, David Ferry, Judd Nelson, Billy Connolly, Peter Fonda

Image courtesy of Stage 6 Films
Earlier this year, a friend convinced me to watch the original “Boondock Saints”. Although the 1999 film had reached a cult status within some film fan circles, it never struck me as something I would warm to. I was wrong, mostly due to Willem Dafoe’s quirky performance as FBI Special Agent Paul Smecker. So along comes “Boondock Saints II” without Dafoe in the cast of leads and with production values that seem as if it was produced on an even smaller budget than the original, and a script that is just horrid.

If anyone wondered why writer/director Troy Duffy’s career didn’t take off after the video success of the original, the sequel answers that question. It’s because he can’t write or direct. It is appalling how badly made this movie is. It’s almost as if this came from a different director entirely trying to recreate what Duffy had done in the original but having no idea how it was done. Well, beyond Dafoe, the original isn’t exactly a stellar piece of cinema, but at least it had Dafoe. Judd Nelson just doesn’t quite capture what Dafoe brought to the table.

The African Queen (1951) ***
Director: John Huston
Writers: James Agee, John Huston, C.S. Forester (novel)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn

Image courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment
“The African Queen” is an enjoyable enough film, but not the great movie the term ‘classic’ implies. It’s a good vehicle to feature the screen personalities of it stars Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, but little else. I find it interesting that World War II and the Germans are the backdrop used to place these two personalities together in a boat together, yet it’s not about WWII at all. The war is just an excuse. It’s good cheeky fun, but nothing approaching the greatness the talents involved achieved in other movies.

Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy (2010) ***
Director: Stephanie Wang-Brael
Starring: Faith Sadowsky, Donna Sadowsky, Jeff Sadowsky, Jared Sadowsky, Darah Sadowsky, Jason Sadowsky

Image courtesy of P.O.V.
OK. Here they come, the adoption documentaries. I’ve got at least one more I’ll be reviewing over the next couple of weeks. As our adoption grows ever so slowly closer, we hunger for more knowledge on how to make the transition of having a Chinese daughter. PBS’s POV series played this wonderfully informative documentary over the past week.

“Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” follows the adoption of Faith Sadowsky by a New York Jewish family that already has two biological boys and a Chinese girl. Darah, their previous adoptee, expressed her desire to remain the baby, so the Sadowsky’s decided to adopt an 8-year-old for their second adoption. The film chronicles the challenges of taking a child who cannot speak your language away from everything she knows. Communication is the primary issue, as Faith and her new family have no way to express their thoughts to each other at the beginning of their familial relationship.

I think you’ll understand if I tell you I’m scared. But not half so much as I am excited to go meet my daughter, Maire.

Watch “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” for free here.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Piranha 3D / *** (R)

Image courtesy of Dimension Films

Julie Forester: Elizabeth Shue
Jake Forester: Steven R. McQueen
Novak: Adam Scott
Kelly: Jessica Szohr
Derrick Jones: Jerry O’Connell
Danni: Kelly Brook
Deputy Fallon: Ving Rhames
Mr. Goodman: Christopher Lloyd
Matt Boyd: Richard Dreyfuss

Dimension Films presents a film directed by Alexandre Aja.  Written by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. Running time: 89 min. Rated R (for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use).

If anything, “Piranha 3D” proves that there is no expiration date on any film franchise.

35 years ago, Steven Spielberg scared millions of Americans out of the water with the release of “Jaws” and created the modern summer blockbuster in the process. Never to be outdone by filmmakers with more money and talent, Roger Corman took the “Jaws” formula and applied it to his exploitational B-style filmmaking and created the “Piranha” franchise, which saw fresh water lakes terrorized by schools of flesh eating piranha fish. These movies were meant as a spoof of the “Jaws” formula, and over thirty years later, “Jaws” is a cinematic classic while “Piranha 3D” finally ads a third installment meant to take advantage of the new 3D trend.

The connection to “Jaws” is still very apparent in the “Piranha” series as the new film opens with one of the stars of “Jaws”, Richard Dreyfuss, fishing in an Arizona desert lake when an underground earthquake opens an underwater cave where prehistoric piranha have been waiting for centuries to whet their appetite with a new palate of dining delicacy—partying spring breakers. Dreyfuss sings a song that fans of “Jaws” may recognize. What happens next is something you probably never thought you’d see happen to Richard Dreyfuss in three dimensions.

Elizabeth Shue (“Leaving Las Vegas”) plays the sheriff of Lake Victoria, a small town on the verge of its busiest week of the year as it population booms from 5,000 to 50,000 for spring break. She’s a single mom with three kids, and she depends heavily on he oldest, Jake (Steven R. McQueen, “The Vampire Diaries”), to watch the younger ones during this busy week. Jake wants to be partying with his own, however.

Through a series of events, Jake ends up on a boat with an entrepreneur (Jerry O’Connell, “Kangaroo Jack”), who makes his money “Girls Gone Wild” style. So, Jake’s out on the lake without his mother’s knowledge. His siblings go out on the lake, since he’s not watching them. All the while, his mom is off with a scientist (Adam Scott, “Step Brothers”) discovering the horror that is about to befall the lake and her family.

It’s not hard to see where all this is heading once the deadly fish are discovered. But then this isn’t a movie about mystery. It’s a movie about anticipation. Director Alexandre Aja (“Mirrors”) has more fun than a horror director should be allowed playing with the audience’s anticipation in this one. Take for example a scene where he shows us a topless parasailer dipping in and out of the water. Now, we all know that eventually she’ll lift out of the water missing her legs, but Aja plays with us, like playing with a cat using a ball of string. Is this the time she comes up half eaten? What will it look like when they get her?

Aja, in his typical fashion, has quite an imagination when it comes to just what damage can be inflicted on the human body by a school of prehistoric fish, or an outboard motor for that matter. The gore on display here is not for the faint of heart. There are so many mutilated body parts in this movie that I imagine more than one model shop had to be used just to assemble them. The evisceration involved in this movie could easily feed hundreds of creature shop employees for the next couple of years. I’m talking about the money paid for services, not cannibalism.

Aja also displays a great devotion to the look and feel of early eighties Hollywood cinema. He employs Christopher Lloyd as the local fish expert, who must explain how the monsters work to the laymen, not unlike Doc Brown in “Back to the Future”. There is a freedom with female nudity that hasn’t been employed so liberally since that fine decade of cinema. And his use of the 3D format also recalls the early eighties attempt to repopularize the format. He sometimes combines his 3D trickery with his obsession with naked women. This makes for some strange and unique moments in 3D cinema that are really just perfect for this type of B-movie mentality.

One reason that they refer to movies as belonging to a B grade is because those movies will never be accused of being great cinema, but as summer popcorn fare goes, they can be a lot of fun. “Piranha 3D” is a lot of fun, if you can stomach it. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone. But anyone who likes a lot of gore and has nostalgic feelings for that bygone era when it was OK to show naked people on screen, and as long if you’re fine with the notion of combining those two details… well, you’ll just love this movie. Others might get a kick out of it too.