Archive for the 'Movies' Category

The Truman Show: Prescient and Hopeful

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Truman Show PosterWhen The Truman Show came out in 1998, “reality TV” as we know it today was just barely a thing. MTV had aired the first season of The Real World in 1992, the original Dutch version of Big Brother hit the airwaves in 1997. The “king” of all reality shows, Survivor, wouldn’t air until two years later, in 2000.

In short, it was a very different time for entertainment than what we’ve known for the past decade and change… which made this movie unlike anything most people had ever seen before.

Aside from the basic premise of watching a real person live out his life on TV, the other thing people had never seen before was star Jim Carrey in a serious role. Up until this point, everything he’d done had been comedy, usually skewing to the slapstick and farcical variety.

Few people seem to have thought that any of these “never before seen” things would go over exceptionally well. Both the voyeuristic television (and especially web-streaming) genre and Carrey as a dramatic actor turned out to be things that did, indeed, work pretty darn well. (We’re still suffering from one of those today…)

The Plot

Truman Burbank lives a quiet, unassuming, and pretty idyllic life in the small coastal town of Seahaven. What Truman doesn’t know is that everything around him–his entire life, starting with his birth–is part of a massively popular, 24-hour-a-day, television show all orchestrated by a man named Christof. Just before his 30th birthday, the illusion starts to unravel and Truman is forced to question not just the path of his life, but the very nature of the world in which he lives.

A lot is played for laughs, but there are some pretty intense moments in the film. Apparently, nowhere near as intense as things were in early drafts, where the setting was nowhere near as Norman Rockwell perfect as Seahaven. Not all of that edge is gone in the final product–there are still a lot of very morally questionable things that go on (especially near the end of the film). Christof paints himself as a benevolent creator, but there is a lot of space to question that assertion on numerous levels.

This film should leave you at least a little uneasy, when all is said and done. But, generally, hopeful.

Fiction vs Reality

In the decades since this film came out, live streaming of anything and everything has become not just a reality, but commonplace. Twenty-four-hour broadcast schedules were once the provenance of major networks, but now anyone can do it with a cheap webcam, their phone, and the willingness to be watched all the time. “Reality” shows like Survivor and Big Brother and The Bachelor and numerous other iterations are all over the schedule.

There’s nothing quite on the scale of The Truman Show, but there are enough things that the basic concept doesn’t seem quite so outlandish now. And the shows that are out there most certainly have bred the same kind of obsessive following that we see in the fans of Truman.

Sometimes, the ethics of it all even comes up in real-world discussion. How the “reality” of these shows is manipulated by producers and editors to increase the drama. How the people who are the subject of the shows are “coached”–sometimes directly, sometimes very indirectly–to provide “good TV”.

This movie challenged the audience to consider things like that.

There’s a point in the film where the hypocritically reclusive and private Christof points out that Truman is completely free to leave at any time. Glossing over the small fact that, at that point, Truman really has no idea he’s actually trapped somewhere, let alone that everything from his job to how he met his wife has been orchestrated by someone else.

And then there’s Truman himself. He’s a nice guy. There’s really nothing terribly special about him. He is, however, a bit of a slave to his fears. Fears that were implanted into him via the staged drowning death of his father. Fears that keep him from seriously considering travelling outside of Seahaven.

Fears that he eventually overcomes when he really starts to question his life.

This is where the hope comes in.

We’re all a bit like Truman. When things are going well, we just carry on as normal, not necessarily thinking too much about any of the “big” questions (like “How will it all end?”). We go about our daily routine and maintain that level of comfort.

But then, when something unexpected happens, when our patterns are thrown in to a bit of disarray, when our comfort falters… what do we do? In most cases, if things aren’t too bad, we ignore them or make small adjustments until everything returns to normal (it usually does). In other cases, our fear gets the best of us and we run and hide… also until things return to normal. But, sometimes, the unexpected builds upon our memory of other unexpected, out of place, incongruous events from our lives and we’re forced to question our reality.

Truman, in the end, overcomes his fears, pushes past his comfort zone by miles, and, ultimately, faces off against his creator.

Through it all there is only one moment where Truman’s character truly falters, where, briefly, he’s no longer a nice guy. Rightfully, that moment terrifies everyone involved, including him. Again, he has to make a choice: who is he going to be?

That choice comes up again in the final sequence of the film. When Christof gives him the option of either leaving… or returning to his idyllic, but fake, life.

In one of the earlier drafts, Truman’s decision lead to him nearly beating Christof to death.

Thankfully, that didn’t make the final cut… because that would have made this a movie without much hope. Not for Truman and not for humanity.

No, in the final cut, Truman chooses to be his own man. And he chooses to do so with the same smile and cheer he had when we first met him.

We should all be so kind to ourselves and those who have exerted power over us.

The Verdict

This has always been one of my favorite movies. Along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic, it is one of my three favorite Jim Carrey movies of all time.

Everyone should give this film a watch. There are good reasons it’s regularly used in film classes. There are even better reasons a lot of the things we see in it are echoed in our modern reality shows. Everything here works. The story, the cinematography, the subtle commentary, the much more blatant commentary… I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that does so much in so simple a way.

This is not a complex story. It is a deep one.

And that makes it something special.

Hair: You Know Some of the Songs and None of the Plot

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

Hair movie posterAnyone who knows me knows that I’m a bit of a fan of the classic American Musical. That cuts off around the mid-60s, a little after West Side Story. Anything after that I likely haven’t had a lot of exposure to (which is one of the oversights I’m trying to fix lately).

The stage version of Hair came out in 1968. That whole Vietnam War thing was a big deal then. The counter-culture movement was in full-swing and Woodstock was still about a year out on the horizon. People knew things were changing, that there was a groundswell of new(ish) ideas rolling through the youth culture. The play grabbed all of that energy and ran with it. The play was a big hit.

More than ten years later, in 1979, Hair the movie came out. The “peace, love, and music” of the 60s had become the “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” of the 70s. Idealism was a bit on the wane as the economy went through a rough patch or three. That Vietnam War thing was something people really, really didn’t like to talk about, as it hadn’t gone all that well for us, politically or domestically. The film jettisoned a bunch of what the play had and ran with the new zeitgeist a bit… pretty much using most of the same music and character names, but coming up with a mostly new plot. The difference was so great that the writers of the play still don’t feel that it’s ever actually been adapted into a movie. The movie was a big hit.

The Plot

Claude is a good boy from Oklahoma who’s on his way to NY to enlist in the Army. He gets there a couple of days early in order to see some sights in the big city before he ships off to basic training. While wandering through Central Park, he encounters Berger, Jeannie, Hud, and Woof, four hippies just doing their thing, sewing some seeds of chaos/enlightenment here and there. Shelia, a well-to-do high-class, horse-riding girl also catches the attention–of both Claude and Berger–much to the displeasure of Sheila’s mother and aunt who are riding with her through the park.

So begins a kind of wild couple of days of adventure filled with drugs, law breaking, and more new ideas than Claude can really take in. Eventually, he does make it to the recruitment office and off to basic training in Nevada, but then there’s just one more adventure that has some very unexpected consequences.

The Music

Chances are, right now, you know more about the plot of this movie than you ever have before. I know I went into it pretty much completely blind. I knew it existed. I knew it was an adaptation of a play. But, in all the years of hearing about it, never once had anyone talked about the plot.

What they talked about–and what you couldn’t avoid if you were listening to the radio in my house growing up–was the music.

The music is very distinctly “the 60s” (specifically the late, psychedelically-tinged, 60s). You’ve probably heard some of the music, even if you didn’t know it came from Hair. It gets used a lot.

There’s “Age of Aquarius” (which is the opening tune for the movie)…

There’s “Good Morning Starshine” (sung in the movie by Beverly D’Angelo, who played Sheila)…

Of course there’s “Hair” (which has a bit more meaning once you see the context in the movie)…

That last one didn’t get a lot of radio play, but it got referenced a lot in other places.

The thing is, these are far from the best songs in the show. The best songs are a bit more edgy… downright damning of the mainstream culture and the things it turns a blind eye toward. And they don’t play quite as well outside of the context of the story.

There’s “Black Boys/White Boys” which deals with the fetishization of race and the sterotypes that go along with it.

There’s “Three Five Zero Zero” which is distinctly an anti-war song…

For some reason, “Sodomy” never got any radio play…

I could go on, because pretty much every song in this film is solid and meaningful. Even the stuff that tends more toward fluff (like “Sodomy”) pushes the comfort zone of the audience just a little bit.

That idea of getting outside of your comfort zone is really a key thing in Hair. It’s what propels Claude into the adventures he has with Berger and crew, it’s what differentiates Sheila from the rest of her family, it what, in the real world, has ultimately lead to a whole lot of positive changes.

If nothing else, check out this film for the music.

The Verdict

Without having ever seen the stage version, I absolutely love this film. The antics in the plot aren’t the most coherent things in the world, but that’s kind of the style of the times in a lot that came out of the 60s. It’s uncomfortable, but you run with it, because you choose to. Because choosing to embrace the insanity is the only way you can exert any real control. Because doing otherwise robs you of your sense of self.

And if there’s one thing this film makes really clear is that, when you get right down to it, authenticity of self is what will both save and destroy you. But if it destroys you, at least you’ll be saving someone else in the process.

The bonds of friendship among Claude, Berger, Sheila and everyone else in the counter-culture group are vivid and lively. The bonds of obligation and tradition shown in pretty much everyone else they deal with are bland and, in the context of the film, a fate worse than death.

Never once, though, do the hippies tell anyone that they can’t live their lives in a walking death. They say it’s not for them, they point out the folly of it, they poke fun at it… but when all is said and done Berger and friends never actually tell anyone they have to change. The mainstream culture, on the other hand… well, every time someone opens their mouth it’s not out of love or concern, it’s a quest to remove that which makes them uncomfortable.

I like movies with messages like that.

Maybe you do, too.

If you do, definitely check this out. If you’re a fan of musicals in general, and the 60s in particular, you absolutely need to see this.

Transformers: The Movie – Accidental Impact

Saturday, September 24th, 2016

Transformers: The Movie box artTwo of the main cartoons, comic book series, and toy lines of my childhood were G.I. Joe and Transformers. I started the G.I. Joe comic with issue #6 and Transformers with “Issue 1 of a 4-issue limited series” (which then ran for 80 issues).

When Transformers: The Movie hit screens in 1986, I was excited. I saw it and I loved it. The ideas of Unicron and the Matrix of Leadership and everything were awesome. The boost from the movie reinvigorated the TV series a little bit. (The comic really didn’t need any reinvigoration, as it didn’t keep continuity with the show and generally had better, deeper, and more developed stories than the cartoon did… I liked the comic more than the cartoon.)

If I hadn’t been such an avid reader of the comics, the “big deal” scene of Optimus Prime’s death certainly would have had a much deeper impact… but we’ll talk about that in a minute. The key thing here is that I loved the movie when I was a kid. I haven’t seen it more than twice since then.

The 30th anniversary edition of the film just came out. (I actually have a friend who work on the restoration… and that work is amazing, I’ve never seen the art and animation so vibrant, crisp, and detailed.) I’ve just watched this move for the first time in more than a decade. So… here we go…

The Plot

The war between the Autobots and Decepticons has raged for many years on both Earth and their home planet of Cybertron. The Decepticons have taken control of Cybertron, the Autobots having fallen back to the planet’s moons to maintain a resistance movement, hoping to topple Megatron and his forces from power. The fight is not going well. Supplies are low and, unbeknownst to everyone, there is an even more grave danger–in the form of a planet-sized, world-eating robot called Unicron–heading toward Cybertron.

As it plays out, the plot is a bit episodic, with obvious breaks built in between chapters to make it easy to repurpose for normal broadcast TV. Overall, the story is a step above most of the animated TV series up to this point. The art and animation are definitely of higher grade (especially in the new restored version, where you can actually see the details work that was put in). Mostly, though, the transitions from point A to point B to point C are… not the smoothest.

This is, after all, still basically a kids’ show.

Which is why people were so terribly shocked at the death of Optimus Prime about a half-hour into the movie. That death is also one of the key things that elevated this film from “just another toy-selling movie” to a cultural touchstone for an entire generation (or, at least, the subset of a generation that had their eyes glued to the TV for half an hour a day and their hands wrapped around cars and things that could change into robots).

The Moment of Impact

Megatron and a bunch of Decepticons have taken over an Autobot shuttle on its way to Earth for a supply run. They outright kill the crew of recognizable characters. This is the beginning of the house cleaning that Hasbro had planned so they could introduce a new wave of toys to the shelves. The attack on Autobot City culminates in an truly epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, which leaves both on the verge of death. The Decepticons retreat (as always) and we’re “treated” to one of the most heart-rending death scenes ever put into a kids’ show (at the time).

Here, watch:

That’s right up there with Old Yeller having to be put down.

Kids were upset. Parents were angry. Everyone was surprised, including the Hasbro execs and the filmmakers. It seems no one had quite realized just how popular their show and product actually was. As adults who knew they were just making a cartoon to sell toys, it had never occurred to them that kids weren’t just buying into the neat hunks of metal and plastic that could change shape. Kids were bonding with these characters. I know I did (though, again, mostly from reading the comic).

That ignorance allowed them to take what turned out to be a bold artistic step forward with this film.

And it immediately left them reconsidering ever taking a bold step like that again. The G.I. Joe Movie, which was already mostly done by the time this film came out, had a couple of hasty edits happen in order to avoid the same “mistake” of killing off a big deal character. Notice that no one ever talks about that G.I. Joe movie, but lots of people have very strong, fond, memories of this film.

This is why the marketing department should rarely, if ever, be directly involved in the creative side of storytelling.

The Verdict

Everything else in the film–the oh-so-80s synth and arena rock laden soundtrack, the transformation of Megatron to Galvatron, Unicron eating planets, Spike saying “shit” as his ship is being swallowed by Unicron–all of that is good enough, but pales in comparison to Prime’s death. Without that completely accidental moment of real emotion, no one would really remember much about this movie.

Because, really, it’s not that great of a movie when you look at it as a grown up. Plot holes and logical (and logistical) issues are all over the damn place. Stuff just doesn’t make sense. As a kid, you don’t care about that stuff much (I usually took great pleasure in working out how those inconsistencies could be explained… I was an odd kid.)

The famous voices that were brought in–including Orson Welles in his last performance (which they almost couldn’t use because of how much trouble he was having breathing)–are cool, but only notable if you know the actors. The music rocks, but only if you remember the 80s. The story is neat, but really nothing special compared to anything else… except for the death of Prime.

If you remember loving this movie as a kid, be sure to watch it as a kid at heart. If you’ve never seen it, you should probably skip it unless you have a distinct interest in the 80s (which this film encapsulates pretty spectacularly). If you were indifferent to it when you were a kid, you’ll hate this now.

Me? I couldn’t be happier that I own this. The 30th anniversary edition has a wealth of behind the scenes stuff and the clean-up they’ve done on the film itself is impressive. Definitely a “must have” for a fan.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ridiculous in all the Right Ways

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

Wet Hot American Summer posterI missed catching Wet, Hot, American Summer when it first came out back in 2001. It wasn’t until 2015, when Netflix released the “prequel” series, that I finally got around to watching it.

That time delay may have made it even funnier than it would have been 14 years earlier.

The Plot

The film follows the (mis)adventures of the counselors of Camp Firewood on the last day of the season. Adventure, intrigue, romance… a ridiculous chase scene… the movie has it all and none of it is serious.

Taking care of the campers is really a secondary concern most of the time. Really, it’s amazing so many of these kids have survived the summer. It’s kind of amazing that most of the counselors have survived the summer. In short: if you’re looking for a plot that really makes sense or matches with “reality” in any meaningful way, you’re not going to find it here. I mean, there’s a talking can. And a military conspiracy. And Paul Rudd being the “cool” guy.

What you get here is a bunch of “bits” loosely strung together that they somehow manage to tie up by the end of the film. They even manage to tie a bunch of them together, which, given the kind of surreal nature of a lot of things going on, is impressive.

Mostly what you get is a lot of humor at various levels. The low-level slapstick of a number of the interactions. The over-playing of tropes (like Rudd’s afore-mentioned “cool guy”), usually with some little twist to drive home just how ridiculous anyone actually emulating such a trope would be. Some great plays on words and sit-com-worthy misunderstandings. And, amid all of that, some really heart-felt insight into human nature… but in a funny way.

The movie has tons of heart (and you know that’s important to me, especially when it comes to comedy). There aren’t a lot of jokes at the expense of other people… and those times when there is a character picking on another one, that ends up turning around a bit.

The Cast

To any current viewer, there are a lot of familiar faces in this movie. Not all of them were quite as familiar when the movie first hit theaters. Most of them weren’t complete newbs, but they were far from household names.

Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Rudd, Christopher Meloni. Molly Shannon, Michael Ian Black… tons of my favorite people, all together. They play wonderfully together, which shouldn’t be surprising when you realize that just about everyone in the cast has an improv comedy background.

Since I didn’t see this until 14 years after it came out, I had the extra added bonus of knowing bunches of (usually more serious) roles the cast had become known for. That made this farcical comedy even more surreal. (And doubly so with the Netflix series.)

The Verdict

Writers Michael Showalter and David Wain (who also directed) has a solid history of sketch comedy under their belts when Wet Hot American Summer came out. All of that experience was used to great effect (and has continued to be used over the years). So, if you’re an old-time fan of The State or Stella, you already know what kind of crazy you’re in for.

The comedy here isn’t for everyone, I know plenty of people who would just roll their eyes and sigh at some of the cheese levels that this movie has. I know others who would be utterly scandalized by the humor, twists, and revelations. Still others who just wouldn’t get it for any number of other reasons. But, if you like stuff that that Showalter and Wain have done or, if you haven’t seen any of their stuff, things like what Christopher Guest puts out, then definitely check this out.

It’s an 80s-style comedy made in very beginning of the 21st Century with a modern edge toward characters and humor. Paradoxical as that may sound, the film delivers.

Dark Shadows Returns, Will Burton Make it Work?

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Dark Shadows new castIn case you haven’t heard, Tim Burton is coming out with another film where Johnny Depp is playing a pale, maladapated man who’s completely out of place even among the not-quite-normal people around him.

This time around, it’s in a reboot of classic horror soap opera Dark Shadows.

I grew up having vague memories of watching a few episodes of the original when it was still airing regularly. More solidly, I remember when the Sci Fi Channel was re-running the classic series. It was always interesting, if not entertaining. Not always what we’d call “good” by today’s standards, but in context of its time, it was something kind of daring and unique.

In a nutshell, I love the original, flaws and all.

I was excited about the new film coming out.

Then I watched the newest trailer.

It kind of looks like a screwball comedy.

The only reason I’m really still willing to give it a chance is because of the creative team involved.

I was expecting some humor–because, really, once you set a vampire-based story in the 70s, how can you not have some  humor? But this trailer makes it look a wee bit too off-the-wall silly. (At least literally in once scene…)

The original was, honestly, pretty crappy. But it had a solid story core that caught people’s attention. Even through the awful production values, bad acting (accentuated by at least a few of the actors being drunk or hung over frequently during the live shows), and the simple fact that it was a daily soap opera, the uniqueness of it grew a great fan base.

Barnabas CollinsJonathan Frid as Barnabas was distinctly not leading-man material, which made the character all the more interesting.

The 90s remake with Ben Cross as Barnabas brought more style to the story, for sure, but overall that take on it lacked something that the original had (as it didn’t exactly bring in the eyeballs, if I recall correctly).

Ultimately, memories of Dark Shadows lead to the more recent supernatural soap Passions, which had a good run up until a few years ago when it exited the network lineup (along with some much longer-running daytime soaps). They developed a good fan base, created quirky, memorable characters, and played off of the standard soap and horror tropes well enough.

Hopefully, Burton, Depp, and crew will manage to find the spark that keeps the original so fondly remembered while still opening it up to a new generation of fans.

But based on that trailer… I’m not going to hold my breath…

Check out the trailer and let me know what you think:

Karate Kid – We’ve Changned Almost Everything

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

First, go and watch this trailer for the new Karate Kid movie staring Jacki Chan and Wil Smith’s talented son Jaden.

If this weren’t being billed as The Karate Kid, I don’t think it would be that bad.

My problem is that, once again, we’ve taken everything except the most very basic story idea (kid learns martial arts from an older dude who really knows what he’s talking about so kid can not get beat all to hell in school) and some names and thrown it out the window. That leaves us with a very generic plot which can be gussied up in any way possible. There are a dozen (or more) movies with similar enough plots that this film (if you change out Miyagi’s name) could be a remake of.

They’ve obviously gone with The Karate Kid to capitalize on the name recognition and probably the strong emotional connection many of us from Generation X have with the story.

But the story–the details that made it really important and easy to relate to for those of us who saw it in the 80s–are pretty much all gone.

First, our protagonist is 11 years old. That leaves me wondering who the target market for this film is. In the original, Daniel was in high school–eager to get his first car and get a date. Here, from the trailer, it looks like we’re dealing with a situation firmly rooted in just plain old bullying. Why do you want to learn that stuff? So I don’t get beat up. Why don’t you want to get beat up? Because it sucks. It doesn’t get any more basic than that, but being that basic removes more than a little of the drama from it all.

I’m betting it’s going to be more a mother-son dynamic than the original. Heck, it has to be. The kid’s freakin’ 11, not much romantic involvement that you get into there.

We know Jackie Chan knows his stuff, but I’m curious if the bulk of this film is going to be some sort of “love letter” to the wonders of China. Chan’s been talking up the Chinese party line a bit more of late, so it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m going to be very interested to see what kind of backstory gets used for his updated sensei.

And we’ll attempt to completely ignore that this is set in China and karate is Japanese in origin. Of course, we’ll happily continue to ignore that what your young hero is being taught is kung fu (which is Chinese), just like in the original.

Will I see it? Maybe. But it’s not high on my list. The original may just hold too high a place in my personal list of movies that made a difference for me. Mostly, though, I don’t think the writing will be able to make the film as strong as it could be.

Maybe future trailers will prove me wrong and change my mind. (I really hope they do, actually.)

How do you feel about this film, based on that trailer?

Friday the 13th (2009): Just Die Already

Monday, December 21st, 2009

To say I didn’t hold out a whole lot of hope for the reboot of the Friday the 13th franchise would only be a slight understatement.

I was relatively happy with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, so seeing the same team involved kept my expectations from being totally negative. There was some small spark of hope that it would cut to what I think is the core of the character and story, that it would get at least some of the terror right, that it would fix what I saw as some of the problems with the original.

Well, I’ve just finally gotten around to seeing the new Friday the 13th and it managed to disappoint me more than I thought possible.

What it has is a pretty cast and a pretty good production value.

What it doesn’t have is pretty much everything else.

If you’ve been living under a rock since the early 80s, you may not be familiar with the basic plot of a Friday the 13th movie. Let me run it down for you: Kids go into the woods to party, most of them end up dead, killed by a dude named Jason in a hockey mask who is, eventually, subdued and apparently killed by the end of the film. That pretty much covers the bulk of the other 11 films that have carried the Friday the 13th name.

And, really, it sums this one up, too.

The big difference is that the most recent incarnation of the film lacks pretty much everything that makes the franchise unique.

Jason is one of the iconic killers of the golden age of slasher films. Along with Freddy, Michael Meyers, and Leatherface (who, in my opinion, really doesn’t fit, but is typically put in the grouping… I’d be more prone to add Norman Bates) he’s part of a deeply ingrained pop culture of dark morality tales and nightmares. Like the rest of the familiar names in that list, he exists to kill. What has always set Jason apart was that he was a more blunt killer–not witty like Freddy, not single-minded like Meyers, not full of rage (or hunger?) like Leatherface. He killed in direct ways, approaching slowly, always up close.

This move got rid of all of that.

The film is populated with an overly-large cast of paper-thin stereotypes of social detritus: douchebags, pot heads, sex-hungry vixens, and horny dudes. So eager are the filmmakers to top the kill count of all the previous iterations, they give us nearly three groups of mostly white trash that get taken out. (The first is mostly implied in the poorly done prelude that more or less runs through the plot of the very first Friday the 13th in less than ten minutes.)

There are only three characters that even come close to being decent human beings. Bad news is, they’re not fleshed out much more than the cannon fodder… and one of them doesn’t make it (kind of spoiling any message one could attempt to read into the film).

The worst thing, though, is the complete and utter lack of anything to differentiate Jason from any other random serial killer. Sure, there’s the hockey mask and the oft used machete, but those don’t mean anything if anyone could be behind them.

In this movie, Jason runs. There’s none of the ominous slow stalking that upped the tension of many of the previous films. He also kills from a distance using a bow and arrow. Perhaps worst of all, he makes use of numerous tunnels and traps that betray a much higher-functioning personality behind the mask than was ever present in Jason.

He was, after all, a slightly mentally challenged 8-year-old at heart.

And then there’s the kills. While there was plenty of blood and gore in the deaths in this movie, there was no real creativity–and especially not any creativity that would be in line with Jason (if he were a unique character in the film). More than a few of the killings are convoluted and none are anywhere near as forthrightly brutal as what’s been shown in older Friday films.

(As a side note: While I was bouncing around looking for some art to put with this post, I came across a nice review of the film from James Melzer. He touches nicely on the lack of uniqueness of the Jason character as portrayed in this film as well as a few other important things. Check it out.)

The bottom line is, this film would have been just as good–or bad, in my opinion–without having the Friday the 13th brand on it. Of course, without that, no one would have gone to see it and I most certainly wouldn’t be talking about it at all now. So, good business decision, I guess.

Especially since they’re all ready to roll on a sequel. (Which I most certainly won’t be seeing in the theaters.)

I recommend you stay away from this iteration of the classic slasher flick. You’d be much better served going back and watching the originals.

The Strangers: A More Classic Terror

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
Liv Tyler attemptes to escape from one of the interlopers in The Strangers.

Liv Tyler attempts to escape from one of the interlopers in The Strangers.

It being the Halloween, I’ve been in the mood for horror films.

Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of supposedly scary movies. Problem is, most of the ones I’ve seen haven’t been all that scary.

Disgusting? Yes. Full of loud noises and quick movement? You bet. Violent? Uh-huh. But scary? Really scary? Nope. Not really.

“Really scary” takes some subtlety and time that’s lacking in most modern horror. Instead, writers and directors go for the quick “gotcha!” or the over-the-top blood & gore effects to try to scare the audience. When I first saw the ads for The Strangers, I was a little worried that it was just another torture porn film along the lines of Hostel.

Well, I finally got around to watching it and I’m happy to say that it’s a lot better than I was expecting. The buildup to the scares is a slow burn that gets every edgy nerve going one by one until the anticipation of the inevitable jump is barely alleviated when something actually happens. The characters–both protagonists and antagonists–are mostly a mystery to us, we’re left to fill in backstory all on our own. (Something else too many films don’t do any more–leave a little work for the minds of the audience to do when it comes to characters.)

Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive at a secluded home, James’ parent’s house, that they’ve requisitioned for what was supposed to be a romantic weekend. It’s clear right off the top that things didn’t quite go as planned earlier in the evening–both are upset and distant from one another. The mood is heavy and sad as they go about settling in as best they can, brushing away the spread rose petals and sullenly drinking the champagne straight from the bottle.

That’s when the first knock comes at the door. A young–perhaps teenage, perhaps 20something–girl asks for someone who is definitely neither of them. We never see her face, for some reason the lights on the front porch aren’t working, even though they clearly were before.

And from there, the sadness turns to tension which turns to fear which culminates in a scene of true horror.

And it does it all with a minimal effects budget, next to no gore, mostly implied violence, and a whole lot of atmosphere.

Writer/Director Bryan Bertino did a fantastic job. Granted, the story is about as simple as you can get, but it’s been done much worse before. The run time of the film is short, which is good–any longer and it would have been too much of a strain or filled with gimmicks and cheap thrills. Bertino keeps things tight and tense, something much more seasoned directors seem to have more trouble doing as time goes on.

If you’re prone to an overactive imagination, I recommend you don’t watch this one while home alone, you’ll be jumping at every little noise. And for those who are looking for some sort of gore-fest… well, you probably won’t like this movie at all. Same goes for those who like everything handed to them on a gilded platter. You’re going to have to work your brain just a little to put all the pieces together. But when you do, you’ll get a good solid shiver and a lasting sense of unease that usually only comes from more classic horror films.

Three claws down for X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

I could spend hours poking and picking at the things they changed from the comic book continuity I grew up on and loved. I could lament the lack of some of my favorite story bits and the light touch they gave others.

I could do all that, but, when it comes to X-Men Origins: Wolverine I don’t have to dig that deep to dislike the film.

Stepping away from my fanboy roots, forgetting how much I love the Wolverine from the 80s and early 90s (before Marvel really went wild with their continuity switching), this film is still quite flawed.

First and foremost, the pacing is all wrong. There are good parts in this film–the fight scenes are generally OK and the relationship between Logan and Silverfox plays very well and John Wraith is a good supporting character–but as a whole it’s all stops and starts, jarring transitions that interrupt the flow of what story there is and just don’t hold together.

Part of this, I’m sure, is due to a lack of coherent story to begin with. Writers David Benioff and Skip Woods don’t seem to have meshed well as a team on this project. Looking at their credits, I’m betting I could pick the bits that each wrote (Benioff, coming off The Kite Runner, I’m sure is responsible for some of the deeper stuff I liked in the film; Woods, with Swordfish under his belt, I’m sure I can clearly blame for the lack of depth in a number of characters).

The plot comes across as disjointed vignettes, the only common thread being the main character. Oh, they try to fill it up with “very important information” but fail at nearly every turn by shoving that information at us in the most bland, heavy-handed and over-used ways possible. How do we know this character is the bad guy? Mostly because of his sneer, and the standard “bad guy” camera angles chosen, and the tacky (and over-used) dialog he spouts. And that can be said about most of the “bad guy” characters in this film.

There is no shortage of material to pick from in the Wolverine stable of comic book history. Instead of mining that rich field, the writers instead opted to pull in the most generic of plot bits and haphazardly place them together with little attention to detail and little thought as to the coherence of the whole. “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” seems to be the main driving force behind most of the scenes as they made it into the final film.

Getting past the poor pacing and sub-par writing, the next most notable thing is the bad effects. Not all of the effects are bad–Wolverine’s healing ability is wonderfully illustrated in a semi-subtle way, the explosions look good and, more than a couple of times, there’s some neat illustrations of powers (Gambit’s charged cards, Wraith’s teleportation)–but perhaps the most important effects in the film look unfinished and out of place. Those most important effects? Wolverine’s claws. They don’t match the lighting in the scenes, they don’t sit properly on his hands half the time and they just look plain fake. The presentation in the X-Men movies were infinitely better done. And there’s just no excuse for that.

Some of the plot and effects issues I’ll blame on the film’s PG-13 rating. Wolverine isn’t really a PG-13 character when you get right down to it. The simple fact that no matter how deep his claws have been sunk into someone there’s never any blood on them is just another poke int he eye of suspension of disbelief. Also of note: for as often as Wolverine has that cigar between his teeth, it’s never, ever, lit. Why? Because for some reason you can’t have your hero smoking and still get a PG-13 rating.

This film was full of missed opportunities and wasted characters. It threw away a fantastic lead in from the third X-Men film and instead gave us a mis-matched bunch of uneven scenes that, on their own, could sometimes be good. That just added to the frustration and disappointment of the finished product.

Now, there are people who will enjoy this film. More power to them. With more action, it could be great popcorn flick. As it stands now, it is, at best, mediocre in that category due to the action being interrupted too often by poor attempts at story.

I say skip it until it hits video and cable. But if you do go, stay until after the end credits roll–while the “extra” bit I saw was quite anti-climactic and disappointing, I hear there’s at least one better showing in some theaters and maybe as many as four variations total.

Push

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Got back a little while ago from seeing Push. Not a bad film, but definitely not as advertised.

If you’ve seen the ads, it’s being billed as “the first real action film of the year” or some such. Let me be the first to tell you, Push is not an action film. It’s got a few very well done action sequences, but they are few and far between. Everything else–most of the film–is relatively complex plot.

What Push is, is a heist/caper film. It’s got more in common with Ocean’s Eleven than it does with Die Hard (or X-Men, for that matter).

Also, this film is obviously supposed to be the first in a series. It tells its own story pretty well–a group of characters coming together to get their hands on some very important stuff that the big bad government organization wants–but the entire point of their actions in this film is so they can be ready for the next challenge: taking down the big bad government organization.

There is a lot of very neat stuff in this movie–the illustration and application of the different classes of abilities are very creative. The telekinetics (Movers) use their powers on par with the Jedi in the newer Star Wars films and video games; the precogs (Watchers) have games and limitations all their own; Sniffers, who can track tune in to the past and present of someone based on their scent, are hard to hide from; Shadows help hide people from Sniffers and, to a lesser extent, Watchers; Shifters, who can transmute objects (for a limited period of time); Bleeders, sonic attacks that just plain melt people’s brains (and break lots of glass); Wipers who can remove memories; Stitches, those with the ability to heal–or harm–with a mere touch of their hands; and, the title character type–Pushers, who can just make you do things.

It’s that titular ability that gets used more effectively in this film than most other places I’ve seen it (Heroes did a good job with Parkman’s father and the X-Files episode Pusher may be the first use of the term in general pop-culture). The subtely and cunning that the two main Pushers in the film wield their wills is both beautiful and terrifying. There is no question how dangerous people with abilities like this could be.

For all the plusses of the film, the negatives are a little difficult to overcome. The main negative being that this is being marketed as an action film. If you go in expecting action, Action, ACTION! you’re going to very, very, very disappointed. That alone could kill the chance for any income after opening weekend.

The second hurdle is that this is obviously the lead in for a series… a risky gamble. If it goes over well, you can get at least two more films out that will maybe break even. If it tanks, you end up with two types of unhappy people–those who feel they wasted their money and those who loved it and are now pissed they won’t be able to get the rest of the story.

The third “minus” is the intricate plotting. Personally, I love it when something has an intricate plot. The rest of the population? Not so much. Even more importantly, an intricate plot that actually works in a frist movie sets the bar kind of high for any sequals. If the the setup done in this film falls apart in the second one (again, if there is a second one), people get very vocally annoyed.

I’d love to have seen this as the pilot to a TV series. Not a viable option with Heroes on the air–the comparissons would be inevitable and detrimental to a TV version of Push, no matter how actually different the worlds are. A weekly series would, by far, be the best way to keep the story going.

With the marketing “bait and switch” in full play, I have my doubts about the chances for follow-up films (let alone good follow-up films), but I’d love to see them made… if for no other reason than to see more of Dakota Fanning’s tween Watcher. The brother/sister dynamic between her and our main Mover, Chris Evans (who’s playing his second super powered character, the first being The Fantastic Four’s Human Torch), is really some of the best non-special effects stuff in the film.

So I say see it, but you don’t have to rush out to see it on the big screen. The action just isn’t there enough to make a full on theater experience necessary.