Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Week 4

Beetlejuice (1988) ***
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, Warren Skaaren
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney

Tim Burton’s second feature film, “Beetlejuice”, was a small surprise hit at the time of its release and has over the years become a surprise classic that many find the time to watch every Halloween. I hadn’t seen it in about 20 years myself, and despite my amazement over just how much Alec Baldwin has aged and changed physically over that time period, I was surprised at how much charm the movie still retains.

I was never that impressed by the performance of Michael Keaton as the titular Beetlegeuse. It’s not really a far cry from much of his comedic work in the early 80s. I think the movie works more because of the innocence that both Baldwin and Geena Davis are able to capture with their ill-fated couple, and the remarkable talent that is Catherine O’Hara. Of course, Burton’s indomitable penchant for the freakish but not-too-frightening has a great deal to do with the movie’s success as well.

Sorority Row (2009) **
Director: Stewart Hendler
Writers: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger, Mark Rosman (screenplay “Seven Sisters”)
Starring: Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Margo Harshman, Julian Morris, Carrie Fisher

I didn’t expect to like “Sorority Row”. I’m not even sure why I chose it for this year’s Horrorfest, beyond the fact that it was released since the last one. But this typical dead teenager horror flick did provide me with something I haven’t been able to do yet this Horrorfest. It allowed me to flex some of those frequently used formula muscles to try and predict every moment before it happened. This movie actually does a pretty good job, using the law of the economy of characters that says the killer must be one of the characters that we have been introduced to, of keeping a few characters in rotation as the prime suspect. That is as long as you don’t fall for the notion that it’s the dead girl come back for revenge, which is pretty ridiculous. Or is it?

Them! (1954) ***½
Director: Gordon Douglas
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (adaptation), George Worthington Yates (story)
Starring: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon

This Cold War classic might just seem like B-movie shlock to the untrained eye, but it’s really an impressive statement that holds up rather well 60 years later despite the bad special effects. What struck me most, seeing this movie for the first time since I was 10 watching the Saturday afternoon creature double features, is how straight forward and serious it’s played by the cast. James Whitmore is excellent as the patrolman who gets wrapped up in the U.S. government’s top-secret mission to exterminate a colony of nuclear testing mutated giant-sized ants. The best thing about the movie is how all the government double speak also reads as Cold War propaganda.

My wife asked me, “So are the ants the Russians?”  They most certainly are the ultimate representation of a socialist society with every member of the colony contributing equally to the colony as a whole. I also liked how the U.S. government is never questioned by anyone involved about covering the whole incident up for the public. Of course, this was back when everyone believed that even in not telling the whole truth the government was working for the good of the people; and eventually, when the time is right for it, the government does allow its citizens to know what has happened and how they plan to fix it. It sounds like an ideal world… except for the giant-sized ants.

Matinee (1993) ***½
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jericho, Charlie Haas
Starring: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, Robert Picardo

I’ve long heard about how good this oft-overlooked film is. “Matinee” is a throwback to the days of B-movie matinees. It tells the story of a boy whose dad has been shipped off on one of the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade ships. He and his younger brother often frequent the matinee horror movies that were popular weekend filler at the time. A B-movie producer, played by John Goodman, has chosen the same Florida Naval port town to premiere his newest schlock flick “Mant!”, which features a good deal of in movie house special effects, like vibrating seats, flash bombs, and an amplified sound system.

The movie makes a great companion picture to “Them!”, because of the similar themes between that real Cold War schlock flick and the fictional “Mant!” featured as the film within the film. “Matinee” also helps illustrate the many common themes of the early 60s B-movie monster flicks with its subplot of the ongoing missile crisis. The serious themes of the picture might be what have made it difficult to find an audience for this picture. All its seriousness is blended fairly well by the filmmakers with a good touch of comedy, slapstick and romanticism, but the real threat of nuclear war always lingers in the background. A fun piece of cinema, and a good piece of history to boot.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) *½
Director/ Writer: Wes Craven  
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakely, John Saxon, Robert Englund

I added this horror “classic” to my list this year because I’ve always hated it. Whaaaa?! I never understood why it was so popular. I believe the success of this and the “Friday the 13th” franchise have held the horror genre back from being a legitimate study in human nature for more than almost 30 years at this point. But it’s been more than 20 since I’ve seen it, and I felt that maybe I should give it a second chance.

I should’ve let well enough alone. This movie is terrible. It isn’t scary. It’s just plain goofy. Sure, there are some genuinely original images created by Craven in this first outing for Freddy, like the hand coming up out of the bathtub and the face and hands pressing up against the flexible wall, but those are the only positive contributions this movie offers to the horror genre. The acting is terrible (even Johnny Depp had yet to find his footing). The premise is poorly executed. And Freddy is one of the least scary horror monsters ever created. He’s not scary because there is nothing real about his threat. Yes, if he’s in your dreams they become real, but there’s no reality offered here at all. The teens don’t have any real concerns. Nancy’s divorced parents offer no real conflict to the story. And Freddy’s dream world seems nothing like any dream I’ve ever had. This film is crap, crap, crap.

Scared Shrekless (2010) ***
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Raman Hui
Writers: Sean Bishop, Gary Trousdale, William Steig (book)
Starring: Mike Myers, Conrad Vernon, Cody Cameron, Dean Edwards, Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz

I really like the new trend in network Holiday programming taking popular CGI film franchises and producing new TV specials with the original voice talent. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen Christmas specials from “Shrek” and “Madagascar”, a Halloween special from “Monsters vs. Aliens” that was better the movie, and now a new Halloween offering from the “Shrek” franchise. This one follows a fairly typical horror anthology model of offering three different stories framed by a fireside story telling sequence, and it stays true to the Shrek model of skewering pop culture by referencing many films, songs and celebrities. It’s nothing brilliant, but it’s fun for the kids and the adults, too.

Vampyr (1932) **
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Christen Jul, Carl Th. Dreyer, J. Sheridan La Fanu (novel “In a Glass Darkly”)
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gerard

The silent film era is a tough one to judge today. At the time, filmmakers were really just discovering what they could do with film and photography, and many films are based solely on the discovery of new film techniques. “Vampyr”, considered by some to be a silent horror classic, although it’s not truly silent, is really one of those films. There are a great many techniques discovered by German filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer here. The moving camera work is some of the best I’ve seen from the era. The story, however, and the way it is told, is very dry and bland. This is the follow up to Dreyer’s masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, and it’s surprising at just how little passion can be found in this film. If you’re looking for a silent vampire movie, the one to go with is Murnau’s “Nosferatu”

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) **½
Director/Writer: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, Robert Englund, David Newsome, Tracy Middendorf, Fran Bennett, John Saxon, Wes Craven

As the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise progressed, the series became more and more about Freddy, and Freddy became more of a cartoon character than a horror monster. Then they killed him, and horror aficionados everywhere unleashed a sigh of relief. Freddy was dead. Maybe the respectability of the slasher genre could be salvaged. But then, Wes Craven announced a “New Nightmare”. To everyone’s surprise, the seventh entry was somewhat of a return to core horror movie values, a movie that played upon real fear, rather than franchise packaging.

Craven’s only solo creative investment since the first film, “New Nightmare” imagined a scenario where the lead actress from the first film is haunted by the fictional monster of Freddy through a new script being written by Craven himself that acts as a prognostication of the events that will terrorize the actress and her family. The premise was really quite brilliant, and when it’s not trying to shock the audience with already patented Freddy-isms from the franchise, it’s quite effective. Unfortunately, by its end, the movie devolves into the same tired Freddy clichés and practices; but for ¾ of its running time, the movie works.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Let Me In / ***½ (R)

Owen: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Abby: Chloe Moretz
The Father: Richard Jenkins
The Policeman: Elias Koteas
Kenny: Dylan Minnette

Overture Films presents a film written and directed by Matt Reeves. Based on the screenplay and novel “Låt den rätte koma in” by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Running time: 115 min. Rated R (for strong bloody horror violence, language and a brief sexual situation).

I have called the Swedish film “Let the Right One In” the greatest vampire movie ever made. I erroneously omitted it from my list of the top 25 films of the past decade earlier this year. It is one of those pictures that I continually fail to do justice to when trying to describe its greatness in words. Now, comes the American remake, more simply titled “Let Me In”. Fortunately, the title is the only major element of the movie that is simplified for American audiences.

Can I fairly evaluate a film that is a remake of another film I hold in such high regard? I think so. It helps that this new version is made so well. It isn’t as perfect as the original; but it’s smarter, craftier, and more effective than nearly every other American horror movie out there. I read that director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) decided to direct it himself when his production company gained the remake rights because he didn’t trust anyone else to respect the material. I’m glad he felt that way, because he does understand the material. He respects it, and although he highlights some details of the story that might be more appealing to American audiences, he doesn’t change it much.

One big structure change to the story comes right at the beginning of the movie. We’re brought into the story in the middle, following an ambulance carrying a man who has burned his own face off with acid after being discovered trying to abduct and possibly murder a teenager. This beginning is jarring compared to the quiet start of the original, but it’s effective in drawing in an audience that expects to be disoriented and horrified.

Then we jump back two weeks and meet the isolated and fragile twelve-year-old boy, Owen, who imagines himself standing up to the bullies who terrorize him at school. As with the original, his introduction is more disturbing than you’d expect for the hero of a movie. He notices the girl, Abby, about his age and a man, assumed to be her father, moving in to the next-door apartment. She walks through the snow-covered courtyard in her bare feet. The next night she appears suddenly in the courtyard where he is pretending to confront his school assailants with a knife and tells him they cannot be friends. Thus begins one of the most gentle and loving relationships you’ll ever see in a vampire movie. Later, she reveals that she’s been twelve for a very long time. Move over Bella and Edward, this mortal to immortal coupling involves children with greater problems than being seen with the wrong crowd.

Another difference between the two versions involves the victims of the twelve-year-old vampire girl. The Swedish version identified with and sympathized quite a bit with her victims. Instead of focusing on Abby’s victims, Reeves invents the character of the policeman, who eventually connects the bungled acts of a serial killer with the savage attacks made by Abby. The killer is Abby’s supposed father, played magnificently by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”). This movie spends much time on the murders he performs for her, so she can have blood without exposing herself. The policeman is equally well cast, with Elias Koteas (“Shutter Island”) as the thoughtful detective.

Reeve’s triumph as director and writer of this adaptation is the way he includes these new elements, but never loses sight of the story’s primary focus, the relationship between a boy, damaged by real-life fears, and a girl, stuck in her early adolescence by a horrific mythology. I suppose damaged people are drawn together, and these two souls are destined for each other in a way not as romantic as it sounds. Kodi Smit-Mcphee (“The Road”) is perfect as the timid and yearning Owen. Although some have complained that Chloe Moritz is too typically pretty for the oddity that is Abby, she brings fragility to her monster that is never even hinted at in her best-known role as Hit Girl in “Kick Ass”.

I think the choice to us CGI to enhance the speed of Abby’s attacks on her victims is a mistake, however. Reeves creates a very gritty reality in his wintery New Mexico setting that carries the notion that if vampires were real, this is how they might actually exist. But when we see Abby turn into an abnormal blur while attacking her victims, it removes us from the reality he’s established. When CGI is used to show the fates of Owen’s bullies, it’s more effective because it’s used sparingly.

Despite any complaints about changes made between the original movie and this remake, “Let Me In” is a cold, lonely and compelling tale, told well and with great effect. It retains all of the original’s questions about adolescence and how awkwardly children try to fit into a grown up world. It isn’t as beautiful as “Let the Right One In”, but that brings to light more of the story’s horror. I wonder if the original hadn’t existed, would I like this one even more? Probably so, but if this is what it takes to get more people to see this wonderful horror tale, it’s worth what little is lost in translation. This is a vampire movie you want to see.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Week 3

Suspiria (1977) ***½
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli

The violence of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento is famously grotesque and brutal. “Suspiria” is considered one of his masterpieces. It could be easy to see why some might disagree. The acting in his films is rarely top notch, the dialogue often awkward; but what Argento is trying to achieve has little to do with these elements. “Suspiria” is wonderful at painting both beautiful and shocking pictures with its vivid use of color and the macabre. The scares are genuinely frightening, and the violence is very unsettling. Argento’s brand of horror is both unique and effective. Those willing to acquire his taste will find this classic every bit of what its reputation suggests.

Antichrist (2009) ***
Director/Writer: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

For a good portion of this film, it seems as if it’s an intense therapy session for a mother who’s lost her young child in an accident, but when a fox says to her husband/therapist “chaos reins”, it becomes evident it’s something more sinister and perverse. Yes, “a fox says” to him. I can see why this unsettling film will probably turn most viewers off. Of course, that’s pretty much par for the course for director Lars Von Trier. I, however, was fascinated from the very first frame of the film.

It’s obvious that Von Trier has totally abandoned the cinematic Dogme 95 movement he’s often credited for creating, in which filmmakers were encouraged to abandon filmmaking “techniques” such as special effects, studio lighting, and music scores to focus more on basic storytelling techniques of story and character. In this film he certainly isn’t using just natural lighting. He uses slow motion photography. He uses dramatically overblown music. Yet, his focus is still squarely on character and story. And what a deeply dark place this story takes us. Hell, it starts pretty dark. Who knew it could get so much darker than its opening sequence.

My Name Is Bruce (2007) *½
Director: Bruce Campbell
Writer: Mark Verheiden
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe, Ted Raimi

It’s not that I’m not a fan of Bruce Campbell. I love an actor who knows why he’s famous and has a penchant for self-deprecating humor. Campbell knows he’s famous for bad movies. Unfortunately, he’s made one in celebration of that. The ideas are funny here, just not the execution. I did very much enjoy the musical interstitials, however. They were a great entertaining way of letting the audience know that none of this was to be taken seriously.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) **½
Director: Frank De Felitta
Writers: J.D. Feigelson, Butler Handcock
Starring: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Jocelyn Brando, Larry Drake

So, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” was the final film to be added to the planned screenings for Horrorfest 2010. I added it because of a recommendation from a dear friend who shares my passion for horror movies. When he recommended it, I got the impression that he had neither seen it or knew anything about it beyond the fact that it looked like a cool movie from the cover art. After I had already announced I would screen it for this year’s festival, I decided to read a synopsis. The story about a small town’s people being hunted down by a scarecrow after they wrongly executed a mentally handicapped man for injuring a little girl sounded vaguely familiar, like something I’d seen on television as a kid.

What a surprise I got when the disc finally arrived. I was right. I had seen the movie when I was young. And thanks to the disc’s special features, I was able to recall the exact circumstances under which I had seen it. It was a CBS Saturday Night Movie. The disc includes the original promo spot for the movie, which had its world premiere on broadcast television just before Halloween in 1981. Seeing that old CBS promo brought back a flood of memories from when all the movies we watched at home were on broadcast television. I remembered “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” being advertised and watching it. I think my mother was worried it would give me nightmares. Truth is, it is a little intense for what I had remembered as family television time.

Unfortunately, the fact the movie was made for television does hold it back from being a good horror flick. The story works, but they just weren’t able to go far enough with the horror. I’m sure in 1981 it was plenty enough for me, however.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2003) **½
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli, Joe R. Lansdale (short story)
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout

After the disappointment of “My Name is Bruce”, I decided to watch this cult favorite of Bruce Campbell’s. I won’t say I was equally disappointed, as “Bubba Ho-Tep” is a much better film than that one, but it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for. It wasn’t quite silly enough. The filmmakers chose to go for pathos more than silliness, and considering the premise of an aging Elvis and a black JFK fighting off an Egyptian mummy in a convalescent home, I don’t think it quite works. I will say, however, that Campbell’s work as the King here is some of the best I’ve seen from him. The pacing of the film gets too bogged down in Elvis’s past and there just isn’t enough of Bubba Ho-Tep. It gets a ten for originality, but it falls flat in the execution.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Social Network / **** (PG-13)

Mark Zuckerberg: Jesse Eisenberg
Eduardo Saverin: Andrew Garfield
Sean Parker: Justin Timberlake
Cameron Winklevos/Tyler Winklevos: Armie Hammer
Divya Narendra: Max Minghella
Erica Albright: Rooney Mara
Christy: Brenda Song
Marylin Delpy: Rashida Jones

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by David Fincher. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. Running time: 120 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language).

“How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT?”
   Mark Zuckerberg, “The Social Network”

The simple answer to that question is to invent the most innovative and inclusive social media networking website the Internet has seen. The new movie about the creation of Facebook and the legal battle over its property rights, “The Social Network”, also suggests a very specific set of personality quirks are necessary to pull off such a feat. Zuckerberg did much more than distinguish himself from the Harvard crowd with his creation. He became the youngest multi-billionaire ever. He provided the population of the world with its biggest distraction since the invention of television. He drew two high profile lawsuits against his intellectual ownership of the property of Facebook. And, according the this film, he attempted to redefine the term ‘asshole.’

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin attempt to soften that final claim in the closing moments of the movie when a character observes of Zuckerberg, “You’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one.” Well, in my experience, someone who tries to be an alpha hotel—as my Marine Corps father would refer to one—is one. I don’t know if the real Zuckerberg is anything like the character created by Jesse Eisenberg (“Zombieland”) in this movie. Nor am I sure he’s trying to be an alpha hotel as much as he brings being one to new heights. It’s not so much his genius that drives him to be this way as it is his obsessive nature. What Fincher and Sorkin provide in this film is a fascinating portrait of those obsessions.

The film opens with a mind boggling and witty conversation between Zuckerberg and his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) that leads to their breakup. This leads to Zuckerberg’s drunken blogging binge that ultimately has him and his friends creating the computer code that is the foundation of Facebook. Zuckerberg’s co-hort and the man responsible for that code is Eduardo Saverin, played here in a brilliant performance by British actor, Andrew Garfield (“Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974”). The film focuses primarily on the relationship between these two men.

Handling such recent, well-known history, Fincher intercuts scenes of the birth of Facebook in concept, then as a functioning, exploding business, with scenes from two separate legal depositions.  The first suit came from Olympian rowing twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevos (both played by Armie Hammer, “Gossip Girl”), claiming Zuckerberg had stolen their idea for Facebook. The second is from Saverin, who had been forced out of his shares of the company after he was replaced as the company’s CFO. The Winklevoses publically settled for $65 million and a share in the company. They are currently suing Zuckerberg again, because they feel he misrepresented the true value of the company. Saverin, who is currently on the list of the 10 richest people under the age of 30, settled privately for an undisclosed amount.

But these are just the facts. What Fincher’s crafty direction suggests is that the facts don’t add up to the whole. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg like someone begging to be sued. The Winklevos lawsuit is just the price you have to pay for a venture as big as Facebook. The battle with his friend is personal and gives the audience the impression that Zuckerberg is something akin to a human handgrenade. When he pulls the pin, something big will happen, but the shrapnel will take out anyone standing too close.

When I first heard that Fincher—most well known for very darkly themed movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac”—would be making a film about the founders of Facebook, I thought, “What a strange and lighthearted subject for Fincher.” Boy, was I wrong. Fincher perfectly adapts the vengeful and petty emotions of these geniuses to his dark stylized vision. He even fits in one of his typical virtuoso sequences when he shows us one of the Winklevos’s races. He achieves an utterly unique effect in the set up to this racing sequence by showing the audience a real river with real boats, but they somehow look like toy models cruising up and down the canal.

Fincher and Sorkin’s greatest achievement here, however, it the cat and mouse relationship they establish between Zuckerberg and Saverin. Along with the original code, Saverin provides the money for the start up of the website. There are many background players adding to the code who are also co-founders of the uber-site, but the filmmakers don’t allow themselves to get distracted from the main players. It’s as if Zuckerberg and Saverin are more like family than friends. They know and understand each other. They respect each other. But they aren’t always sensitive to each other. That goes much more for Zuckerberg than Saverin. Eisenberg and Garfield establish this relationship through Sorkin’s amazing script, but also with two of the subtlest performances I’ve seen from such young performers.

I have little doubt that “The Social Network” will be all over the awards season with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s based on the book “The Accidental Millionaires” by Ben Mezrich, although many claims of fabrication by both Mezrich and Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”) have been asserted.  I do also hope to see acting nominations for Eisenberg and Garfield for their fine work here.

I heard recently that the courtroom drama has been dying over the last decade. “The Social Network” is a different breed of courtroom drama, one for the age of the intellectual property lawsuit. The typical crime and punishment courtroom drama has been done and done again in Hollywood. This is legal drama for the insulted rather than the assaulted. David Fincher proves that the personal ego injury can be just as dramatic and thrilling as more physically violent crimes. This makes all those silly high school dramas remembered through Facebook look like slap fights compared to a heavyweight bout. And, it’s oh so much more entertaining than high school. Now I gotta go tell all my Facebook friends to go see this movie.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Week 2

Let the Right One In (2008) ****
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lena Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Patrik Rydmark, Johan Sömnes, Mikael Erhardsson

There is so much to admire about this film. It has serenity, beauty, and substance. It is cold. It is not filled with pretty faces and sweaty bodies. While it lacks the common vampire theme of sex and lust, that’s because it centers on an age before such things have become an issue for it characters. Although, there is an underlying suggestion about the sexuality of the characters that they will never have the chance to explore. The vampire says, “I’m 12. But I’ve been 12 for a long time.” Just that line is as chilling as the film’s Scandinavian winter setting.

For the first time I’ve ever seen, a filmmaker takes a shot at just what might happen if a vampire were to enter a residence without being invited. This was always one of those vampire myths that seemed like something just added to the story, but never truly thought out. In fact, many vampire tales drop this particular convention. But here, for the first time, there seems to be a purpose to the myth. How can a person truly relate to a vampire? The same way we have to relate to anyone. We have to let them in. Of course, when you’re talking about a vampire, you better be very careful about which ones you let in. Apparently, the vampire takes the same risks.

Ghostbusters II (1989) ***
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd
Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Peter MacNicol

“Who you gonna call?” Well, I guess I’m just a child of the ‘80s, but I find it hard to knock the Ghostbusters. The second movie isn’t as good as the first, but Bill Murray sells the whole silly thing. I could do without the cheesy theme songs that spackle the soundtrack, and really, Rick Moranis is ridiculous, but Annie Potts is awesome. While you could sit down and pick Ivan Reitman’s clunky direction apart, he is smart enough to just let Murray go when the camera is on him, and this is most of the time. Murray’s snide, take nothing seriously Dr. Peter Venkman is a testament to the performer. How incredible that he could be such a jerk to everyone around him and somehow still be likeable. It’s worth it for Murray alone.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) ***½
Director: Chris Carter
Writers: Frank Spotnitz, Chris Carter (also creator of television series)
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, Mitch Pileggi, Callum Keith Rennie, Adam Godley

I like this movie more every time I see it. When it was released, it was virtually disregarded by the public at large. Most likely this was because it was seen as part of the X-Files mythology, which doesn’t really allow entry for those who aren’t already initiated. Surprisingly, however, “I Want to Believe” doesn’t require much knowledge of X-Files mythology and works very well as a stand-alone project.

What has surprised me to see recently is that it now seems even X-Files aficionados are disregarding this entry. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps, it suffers with loyalists because the romantic dance between it two protagonists is over. They’ve accepted their feelings for each other. So that tension’s gone, although Moulder’s involvement in another FBI case does create some friction with Scully. However, the way the movie presents their relationship is unique and quite interesting when considering that movies so rarely portray a couple that isn’t fresh and new. It’s nice to see a veteran couple at work, how they help each other, how they can bring out old pains.

 Of course, that makes it sound like a romance, not a horror movie. But that’s the other thing I like so much about this X-Files. It isn’t some government conspiracy/alien hunt. It’s a horror flick.

Read my original review here.

The Shining (1980) ****
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson, Stephen King (novel)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Cruthers

It occurred to me, while watching “The Shining” on Blu-Ray that although Stanley Kubrick often tackled dirty or ugly subject matter, his films always have a certain degree of antiseptic appearance. The Overlook Hotel in this movie has a very clean look, almost as if it hasn’t ever been lived in, a little like a stage set, or an old Hollywood movie set. Much if the interiors were indeed studio sets built in Hertfordshire, England. Then rebuilt and redesigned by Kubrick after they burned down. Even the external shots of the hotel, while certainly not a set, have an incredible crisp and clean look to them. That’s mostly due to its beautiful Rocky Mountain locations. Kubrick seems to have knack for presenting sanitized worlds where our deepest darkest fears become manifest.

Dead Snow (2009) ***
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Lasse Valdal, Evy Kasseth Røsten, Jeppe Laursen, Jenny Skavlan

This is what Horrorfest is all about, finding some obscure, goofy, but skillfully made shlock that I might otherwise never see. In the past, I’ve seen zombie sheep, zombie servants, even zombie beatniks, but this is the first time I’ve seen zombie Nazis. These war time zombies come from Norway in a movie that knows it kids and has a great deal of fun with its silly premise about a group of medical students taking their Easter vacation at a remote winter cabin where, during WWII, a group of Nazis tried to escape with a stash of stolen treasure; and now they’re back from the dead to collect what they lost. The filmmakers take the notion of finding new ways to kill your young adult victims to new heights with some of their sight gags. It’s all good gory fun.

Left Bank (2008) ***
Director: Pieter Van Hees
Writers: Christophe Dirickx, Dimitri Karakatsanis, Pieter Van Hees
Starring: Eline Kuppens, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sien Eggers, Marilou Mermans, Frank Vercruyssen, Robbie Cleiren

OK class, its time for another lesson in Horror 101. If you are someone whose life is filled with activity, like an athlete, never ever get bored. If you should find yourself injured, don’t fall into the trap of being so bored that you are compelled to look into some sort of unsolved mystery. Watch movies. Watch Jeopardy. But please don’t go looking into someone else’s death just because you don’t have anything better to do. This will never lead you to anything good. The only thing that could possibly come out of this scenario is the discovery of some sort of cult, or family, or club that has spent the last several decades looking for people with nothing better to do than to stumble upon them and become their next victim. And don’t think that just because you’re the star of this particular story that you’ll come out smelling like roses in the end, because this is a horror movie, and all those conventions about the good guys always prevailing don’t apply here. If all your restlessness doesn’t end you up in the grave, it may put you someplace even worse.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps / *** (PG-13)

Jake Moore: Shia LaBeouf
Gordon Gekko: Michael Douglas
Bretton James: Josh Brolin
Winnie Gekko: Carey Mulligan
Jules Steinhardt: Eli Wallach
Jake’s Mother: Susan Sarandon
Louis Zabel: Frank Langella

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. Running time: 133 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language and thematic elements).

When I first heard the notion that Oliver Stone was thinking of making a sequel to his 1987 indictment of stock trading in “Wall Street”, I thought it was a gag, like having Buck Henry pitch a sequel to “The Graduate” at the beginning of the movie “The Player”.  Surely, this was a joke of some kind. It turns out that not only did Stone have more to say on the subject, but what he has to say this time around is very different and from a completely new perspective.

The story centers on a young up and coming trader named Jake Moore. He’s a top trader for a company that is about to go down with the bursting Wall Street bubble in late 2008. Jake is hell bent on backing the next bubble, which he sees to be green energy. He works with a scientist to get backing for the development of fusion-based energy, but with the market crumbling around him, it becomes difficult to even get his own mentor on board.

At higher levels of the financial houses, execs and accounting houses are being sacrificed to postpone the inevitable crash and government bailout. Bretton James (Josh Brolin, “W.”), an executive with one of the largest trading companies, feels that a smaller company, like Jake’s, isn’t worth the government handout. When James makes a deal that will kill the company, the CEO and Jake’s mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”), decides to take his own life. Jake sees James’s actions as a personal attack and seeks revenge.

Meanwhile, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning role from the original), after serving an unheard of eight-year sentence for insider trading, has been quietly surviving his post prison years off the sales of a best-selling book and lecturing about his experience on Wall Street. Gekko happens to be the father of Jake’s fiancée, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”), who wants nothing to do with him. Jake goes to one of Gekko’s lectures, out of curiosity about his infamy, and introduces himself afterward. The two enter into a trade of their own; Gekko will help Jake take revenge on James if Jake will help him mend his relationship with his daughter. There is a sense that Jake may be getting a little more than he bargained for.

The major difference between the two “Wall Street” films lies in the protagonists. While the original’s hero Budd Fox was an idealist, Shia LaBeouf (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), as Jake Moore, is more of a realist. Although he is a Wall Street insider, he retains his connections with the rest of the world through ties that allow him to feel the economic crisis caused by Wall Street’s bad investments on more of an everyman level. His mother (Susan Sarandon, “The Lovely Bones”) is a Realtor reeling from the collapsing house market, begging her son for money that even he no longer has. Charlie Sheen makes a cameo appearance as Fox to punctuate their character differences.  We learn that Fox has become just as greedy and jaded as his former nemesis, Gekko, who bears no hard feelings having seen that his corruption of Fox eventually took hold.

Stone’s direction is more artful the second time around as he uses various stylistic visuals to emphasize many of the plot’s developments. Stone uses editing techniques, including image overlays, diminishing irises, and wipes that add some artistic flair on top of the drama. Unlike much of his mid career work, his visual style and editing is never imposing here. It’s subtle and works to support the dramatic material, rather than distract from it.

What prevents this “Wall Street” from being a great film, however, is its resolution. While Gekko’s actions throughout the film are finely calculated and perfectly supported by his philosophy and previously established character, his actions in the final moments are completely out of character and weaken the themes of the film. It seems as if Stone was taken over by the spirit of Steven Spielberg while wrapping up this story and couldn’t resist the notion of putting a nice, happy ribbon on everything for our protagonist. Perhaps he felt he had no other choice than to put a smiley face on the final moments of the movie, because had he gone where the ultimately dire implications the story naturally were headed, he would have one totally depressing mess. Of course, that is exactly where we, as a country, are finding ourselves.

I didn’t come out of this movie thinking everything would come up roses the way it did for our hero Jake. That may be why I didn’t want to see it happen that way on screen. However, this false ending isn’t enough to ruin the entire movie, which is fascinating in its depiction of the business of Wall Street. Stone chooses his cast well and makes it difficult not to root, a little bit, for Gekko. Brolin adds to his renaissance as a major player here, and LaBeouf proves, once again, that he makes for an easy hero. Despite it’s compromised ending, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” makes for a powerful commentary on the perversion of capitalism in our society.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Week 1

The House of the Devil (2009) ***½
Director/Writer: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace

From its opening shot to the first notes of the score to the opening credit sequence to the final perfect closing moments of the film, “The House of the Devil” is like a classic late seventies/early eighties horror flick.  Yet even in those times it was unlikely to find a horror film that takes so much care and time in establishing its unease and developing its scares. Some might have trouble with the movie’s slow pace, but it’s all carefully calculated to get the audience to the proper point of paranoia before it proves the rule that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Tom Noonan is the perfect actor to make the film’s heroine (and audience for that matter) uneasy while being perfectly polite and cordial. I would recommend this movie to any horror enthusiast. This was one of the best kick off’s to Horrorfest yet.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009) ****
Director: Julian Jarrold
Writers: Tony Grisoni, David Peace (novel)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Anthony Flanagan, Sean Bean, Cathryn Bradshaw, Eddie Marsan, John Henshaw, Robert Sheehan, David Morrissey

Horror in journalism. “Red Riding” is one of those Horrorfest entries that isn’t really a horror franchise, yet it fits right into the proceedings. The first installment feels a lot like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in they way it depicts a journalist getting sucked into the world of the crimes he’s investigating. What starts out as an investigation of a possible serial killer, turns into a discovery of crime and corruption in the political and law enforcement regimes for the incredibly depressed looking area of West Yorkshire in Northern England. Even though the investigation turns toward local politics, it never looses that atmosphere of gloom and terror that comes with the search for the serial killer. This is great filmmaking.

Troll 2 (1989) ½*
Director: Drake Floyd
Writers: Rossella Drudi, Drake Floyd
Starring: Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey, Connie McFarland, Robert Ormsby, Deborah Reed

I don’t know about “worst movie ever”, but it’s pretty damn bad. I’ll admit, I’ve seen worse, but I can really only think of one. I suppose one redeeming quality is that some might find it worth seeing just to see how bad it is. But I can’t imagine many would find it worthwhile. The acting is terrible. The effects are awful. And the story is just plain stupid. Yet, there is a smidgeon of entertainment to be gleaned from all that, if you must.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) *½
Director/Writer: Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Staring: Gregory Walcott, Tom Keene, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore, Dudley Manlove, Bela Lugosi, John Brekinridge, Joanna Lee, Tor Johnson, Vampira

Truth be told, this movie is just as poorly made as “Troll 2”, but it’s somehow better. It’s still a terrible movie, but there’s a little charm to go along with its awfulness. At least it actually has a creepy soundtrack. While “Troll 2” is just incompetent, the works of Ed Wood are adorably incompetent. As his opus grande, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is adorably incompetent on an epic scale. Its scope is grand in that it proposes an alien threat to the entire world and yet most of the action takes place between just a few characters in a graveyard. The aliens are just as devoid of deep thought as the humans they scoff at, and it all gives you the impression that the rest of the world couldn’t give a damn what happens in that graveyard.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009) ***
Director: James Marsh
Writers: Tony Grisoni, David Peace (novel)
Starring: Paddy Considine, Maxine Peake, Tony Pitts, Sean Harris, Tony Mooney, David Morrissey, Warren Clarke, Peter Mullan, Robert Sheehan

In this second installment of the “Red Riding” franchise, the series turns its focus once again to a serial killer investigation in West Yorkshire but finds its hero once again mired in police corruption. This time, Paddy Considine is a Manchester detective brought in to bring a “fresh perspective” to a long running killing spree only to discover that one of the murders is a copycat killing. Following truth based lines of investigation isn’t a healthy thing to do in West Yorkshire, as the reporter in the first film discovered. There is a slight sense that this film acts as a bridge between the first and third installments, but I like that it involves a different set of crimes and contains its own individual story. The story is the least original of the three, as the police corruption plot is not something that hasn’t been explored just as well in other films, but this one retains the same moody atmosphere of the first film and also employs an incredible cast of British faces you’ll recognize whether you know their names or not.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983 (2009) ***½
Director: Anand Tucker
Writers: Tony Grisoni, David Peace (novel)
Starring: David Morrisey, Mark Addy, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Mays, Shaun Dooley, Jim Carter, Warren Clarke, Peter Mullan, Michelle Dockery, Lisa Howard, Sean Bean

1983 ties everything together, pulling in elements from both the 1974 and 1980 stories, in yet another film that could stand on its own without a problem. Its plot is more heavily connected with the first film, but unfolds in a way that would allow someone who hadn’t seen that film to understand this one. I was happy to see David Morrisey’s character finally step into the spotlight, since in the previous films he seemed to be a major shadow player who knew much more than he let on. I also liked the parallel story line with Mark Addy’s solicitor character. It’s a good reminder of what a great underrated performer he is. While the revelation of who has been behind the killings might seem a little typical to some, it’s the only person who makes any sense, since most of the other major players are dead. Plus, you realize in the end that he’s been dangling his identity in front of the authorities the entire time. He wanted to be caught, but the police were too concerned with their own insidious dealings to even dare pursue him. Why doesn’t American television invest in programming this good?

Frozen (2010) ½*
Director/Writer: Adam Green
Starring: Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers

Wow! I thought I’d already watched the worst movies I would see this Horrorfest. Little did I know that this indie that was actually a hit on the festival circuit would be so ridiculous. That’s not to say I shouldn’t have known, since its premise is so absurd, at least for a feature length film. Three snowboarder/skiers get left on a chairlift over several days after being forgotten by the lift attendant. I get the impression that this whole thing was thought up by some casual weekend skier who was stuck on a chairlift for a few minutes wondering, “Oh my God, What if they forgot us up here?”  This filmmaker obviously didn’t do any research about how ski resorts or lift operation work. There are really some very simple procedures that make such an incident impossible. By the time one of the characters jumps from the lift and breaks both his legs in the fall, the movie has gotten so preposterous that it would work better as an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” than it does as a horror thriller. I wonder if that resort advertizes it’s ravenous pack of wolves that frequents its slopes to dine on injured alpine recreationists?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Sept. 24 – 30

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009) **
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: Herbert Golder, Werner Herzog
Starring: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Michael Peña, Brad Dourif, Irma Hall, Loretta Devine

This is the first film I’ve seen by that great German cinematic poet Werner Herzog that I did not like. It’s also his first collaboration with American master of weird David Lynch, who has the main producing credit. It has that Lynchian presentation of the most oddball of humanity, and it has Herzog’s obsession with the obsessed and a plethora of his wonderful pictorial compositions. What it lacks is any sort of direction or drive. Unlike most of Herzog’s obsessed driven characters, Michael Shannon’s mad man here is unfocused, through no fault of Shannon’s.

We’re really not sure what his obsession is. At first it seems to be about God, then about Greek dramatic catharsis, and a good deal about his mother, but none of these obsessions are ever revealed to have any sort of strong meaning to him, as say Fitzcarraldo’s determination in that early film of Herzog’s, or Dieter’s will to survive in Little “Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Rescue Dawn”. The story lacks the definitiveness that usually grabs you and pulls you along in Herzog’s strange subject matter. It’s no wonder why his “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”, released around the same time as this movie, received much more recognition.

I’m Here (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Spike Jonze
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sienna Guillory

There is no love like robot love. Spike Jonze has to be just about the most original filmmaker out there, and in the age of names like Guillermo De Toro, The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman and Darren Aronofsky that’s really saying something. Who else could make a love story about robots that look like a 1990 era PC and a crash test dummy and make us feel as strongly for them as if they were members of our own family? “I’m Here” is a strange and gentle and humane love story that shows us how we should love each other rather than how we actually do.

Watch it here.

Robin Hood (2010) **
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Oscar Isaac, Mark Strong, William Hurt, Max Von Sydow, Eileen Atkins, Mark Addy, Angus Macfayden, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Danny Huston

The 15 extra minutes of “Robin Hood: The Director’s Cut” does little to fix this drag on the legend of Robin Hood. It clarifies a few relationships maybe, but doesn’t stop the ridiculousness of the film’s over the top with clichés finale. And it seems nothing can lift this tale out of its own depression that begs the question, “Weren’t Robin’s men merry?” Actually, I suppose they are, but their roles are too small, and nothing else in the movie has any joy.

Read my original review here.

Me & Orson Welles (2009) ****
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr., Robert Kaplow (novel)
Starring: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, James Tupper, Leo Bill, Kelly Reilly

Rarely do you see a movie these days with such simple and pleasant sensibilities as “Me & Orson Welles”. Richard Linklater’s examination of the stage production that made Orson Welles’s career may seem a little off subject from the director of “Slacker”, “Waking Life” and “School of Rock”, but in many ways it fits right in with the misfit dreamery that makes up much of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. It has his slacker in its hero who skips school to get a part in the Mercury Theater’s debut production of “Julius Ceasar”. It has Welles’s endless philosophizing on theatre, Shakespeare, and just about every aspect of life. And it indulges Linklater’s fascination with performance and the psyche of the artist. It’s a wonderful period piece to boot, executed with perfect pitch to reflect it’s 1937 setting. It’s just a great little film.

Night Moves (1975) ***
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan Sharp
Starring: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward, James Woods, Melanie Griffith

This week we lost another of the great film director graduates of TV playhouse productions. Along with such directors as John Frankenheimer and Robert Altman, Arthur Penn got his feet wet directing live television productions before moving onto feature films. In a career spanning from 1953-2001, Penn was best known for such movies as “Little Big Man”, “The Miracle Worker”, and “Alice’s Restaurant”, but it was his groundbreaking “Bonnie and Clyde” that placed him among the greatest of American directors. Often cited as the film that ushered in Hollywood’s greatest decade of film, “Bonnie and Clyde” changed the rules followed by Hollywood filmmakers and open the doors to more visceral and human stories for American audiences.

“Night Moves” was among Penn’s lesser efforts in terms of its influence on filmmaking, but it embraced the elements Penn introduced to Hollywood in “Bonnie and Clyde”. It showed a grittier world with real people. It didn’t bow to convention. It is his unique interpretation of the noir genre. Playing a lot like the laid back L.A. noir world shown by Altman in “The Long Goodbye”, “Night Moves” is less interested in the conventions and structure of the noir than it is in the characters and their motivations. It’s an interesting example of how the films of the seventies explored a much broader vision of the director as author of the world his character’s inhabited.