Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 29, 2008

Zack Clopton's 2008 Movie Retrospective

“I can see Russia from my house! I can also see…”


Greetings, boys and ghouls! 2008 was a surprising and important year, one that will go down in the history books as the moment America stood up and asked for change. It’s time to look back at the most important thing that happen in the past twelve months: The movies I saw!

I saw a fucking heaping load of them, 74 in total. I don’t know how many real movie critics see but, if I’m not in the ball park yet, I’m certainly sneaking into the cheap seats. I considered only featuring the notable titles but, eh, I had already written each mini-review. Those of you who don’t want to drudge through all of them can leave when ever you want.

But first… Taps.

Usually I reserve this section for some cute note about a pop culture artifact that is now no more. But, seriously, 2008 was a terrible year for celebrity deaths. A gratuitous number of interesting people passed away. And I’m blaming it all on Heath Ledger. He set the precedent back in January and everybody spent the rest of the year trying to top him. Two personal heroes of mine, Stan Winston and George Carlin, passed this year and I’m still a little pissed about it. The deaths of Forrest J. Ackerman, Rudy Ray Moore, Isaac Hayes, Charlton Heston, Eartha Kitt, Bettie Page, Levi Stubbs, Julius “Sho’Nuff” Carrey III, Don “Big Booming Voice Guy” LaFontaine, Estelle Getty, Bo Diddley, John Philip Law, Roy Scheider, and Brad Renfro all guarantee the universe is a lot less cooler now then it once was. And yet, Mickey Rooney continues to exist. The world is not a fair place.

Now that you’re all depressed, let’s have a short review!

2008 was a pretty badass year, truth be told. It was a little slow to start but we had a kickass summer movie season and there was plenty of interesting indie flicks sprinkled throughout. Oscar season has been good to us, thus far, as well. Though the mainstream horror scene was a little dull (Another “Saw” sequel?), fans willing to look would find many great, smaller titles. Maybe I’m just so happy with this year’s output because I pretty much saw everything I wanted to see. (Except for “Synecdoche, New York.” Damn you, “Synecdoche, New York!”)

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s get to the meat n’ potatoes, the main course, the main event, the headliner, the star, the body, THE LIST! Tremble before its girth. All spelling errors are intentional.


1. The Fall
The tremendous visuals alone would be enough for me to recommend it to everyone. But the greatness doesn’t stop there. The story has a hundred different layers, you’ll be weeping by the end, and the cast is wonderful. With this one, Tarsem has come into his own as one of the great directors of our time.

Who knew a romance between two robots could be so touching? In addition to being a sweet love story, “WALL-E” is also visually gorgeous, often hysterical, and contains a topical story with a valuable message for all Earthlings. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love with robots all over again.

3. Iron Man
My biggest disappointment is that most of the “Hell yeah!” moments were shown off in the trailer. Still, this is a well-written, well-acted superhero movie that is lots of fun, incredibly cool, and still has some relevant issues on its mind. This is what popcorn movies are supposes to be.

4. Let the Right One In
A touching and bittersweet coming-of-age story about two young people learning about friendship, love, and violence. Also, she’s a vampire. The horror elements, though handled extremely well, are used more to underline the themes of loneliness, the cold, and how our greatest strengths are tied directly to our inner darkness.

The brilliant premise by itself, which is either hilarious or disturbing depending on viewpoint (or gender), makes this worth seeing. Add a great lead performance from Jess Weixler and some cleaver writing/directing and you’ve got an awesome, sure-fire cult classic.

6. Doomsday
Neil Marshell’s direction is still choppy but you can’t fault his script any. “Doomsday” squeezes in as much badass as possible. Kick-ass babes, awesome car crashes, dystopian cities, cannibals, plagues, castles, death matches, gimps, scary punk rockers, lots of splattery gore, and more.

The Strangers
Everything about this movie; the minimalist music, the moody direction, the slow pacing, is designed to make you as anxious as possible. Convincing lead performances keep things grounded while the great shocker ending cements this as a truly scary horror film.

8. Rambo
The most intense action movie I've seen in years. The last twenty minutes are nothing but wall to wall carnage. Despite Sly being old as hell and looking like horse meat, he can still deliver a flick that hauls serious ass.


9. The Midnight Meat Train
Kitamura masters the look every horror film’s gone after since “Seven.” The reflective silver, the putrid greens, the oozing black blood… His direction is amazingly stylish, Clive Barker’s original story is one of his best, and Vinnie Jones’ Mr. Mahogany will soon be a horror icon.

10. Speed Racer
Crazy awesome. The Wachowskis haven’t adapted a cartoon, they’ve made a cartoon that just happens to have real people in it. The races are exciting and the fight scenes are hilariously over-the-top. The cast is really good though Emile Hersch is flat. Sprittle and Chim-Chim are annoying. Still, there’s no denying it, my friends. Pancakes are love.

11. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Might not have been the biggest movie of the summer but one thing it has over Batman are highly lovable characters. The cast could have just been sitting around and talking the whole time and it still would’ve been awesome. (And three cheers for Guillermo del Toro, patron saint of practical creature effects! Fuck you, CGI!)

12. Tropic Thunder
The world needs more out of control comedies like this one. Easily the best thing most of its cast has done in a long time and it is jammed pack with hysterical bits from beginning to end. Sure, things drag a little at the end but, generally speaking, I laughed a lot.

13. Pathology
An exceedingly twisted thriller all about murder, cadavers, kinky sex, drugs, bodily fluids, homoerotic undertones, and implied necrophilia. It is joyously demented, completely reckless, and possibly immoral. I think I’m in love.

14. Revolutionary Road
Possibly great and filled with vividly realized characters and themes. But it’s not a masterpiece. Many involved could have done better. Michael Shannon gives my favorite performance of the year as only person crazy enough to speak honestly about how fucked-up the situation is. It will rightfully make many top ten lists but I wonder how relevant it will be in a few years.

15. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead
The musical numbers (yeah, you read that right) in the first half slow things down but once the zombie-chickens show up, things get awesomely Troma-tic with all the head crushing, penis monsters, decade old car crash footage, and general insanity you expect from the coolest film company in the world.

16. Stuck
Awesome because it will make you despise the human race even more for how self-absorbed, careless, and lacking in empathy we’ve become and then makes you laugh for the exact same reasons. There’s a commendable cast, deep script, and an extremely satisfying ending.

17. The Signal
Is technically a creepy horror film and an uproariously funny dark comedy but is actually a scholarly examination of society’s collective fears and anxieties that threaten to boil over at every minute, all the while never loosing sight of its fantastic characters.

18. The Quantum of Solace
The shaky-cam direction and complicated plot were not as bad as I feared. Truthfully, Daniel Craig and the writers continue to put more thought into James Bond and his various themes then any other team before, all the while packing in some impressively thrilling action sequences.

19. Inside
This extremely violent French horror film pushes believability, and maybe good taste, a little too far in the last act. But the rest is filled with some seriously forceful gore sequences, solid lead performances, and an atmosphere that’s almost as thick as the copious blood flow.

20. The Incredible Hulk
The Hulk still looks fake but the classy cast, intense and often action, solid pacing, and numerous fan boy moments make this not only a serious improvement over the first try but a damn fine superhero picture in general.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Against all odds, this actually turned out pretty good. If it wasn’t for two moments of pure stupidity, it would be on par with parts one and two. The cast is too big but the main players all have fun. And, least we forget, we’re here to have fun.

22. Repo! The Genetic Opera
Turns out Darren Lynn Bousman can direct. More important is the awesomely eclectic cast that all sing their hearts out. The real test of any musical is if you’re still singing the songs after you leave the theater. I was still singing the songs a month later.

23. The Machine Girl
In-between the machine gun arms, chainsaw legs, drill bras, Japanese schoolgirls, ninjas, and more mayhem, gore, and dismemberment then you can shake a bloody limb at, this has got something for everyone. Even if only about 50 of the 80 or so awesome ideas work, that’s still an awful lot of awesome.

24. The Lost
Religiously faithful to Jack Ketchum’s unsettling novel, perhaps too faithful, as it drags in the middle. But the incredibly intense final act makes up for it. Chris Sivertson’s direction is some what disappointing. The cast is perfect, especially Marc Senter who makes Ray Pye the scariest on-screen psycho in years.

25. Dolphin and Whales 3D
This would be a beautifully photographed though still fairly pedestrian underwater documentary if it wasn’t for the fantastic Imax 3-D technology, which turns it into an whole-other experience.


26. Otis
A long overdue satire of hardcore horror flicks, which cast a morbidly obese loser as its serial killer and neurotic suburbanites as the avenging parents. Darkly funny throughout with a first-rate cast and a cool retro soundtrack.

27. Bolt
For a movie about talking animals, this is surprisingly grounded in reality. Add a real sense of heart and memorable characters and you’ve got the first really good Disney movie in quite some time.

28. Diary of the Dead
George Romero is back. And he’s pissed off! At the bloggers and YouTubers who prefer watching to acting. Definitely his scariest in years and the first-person camera makes the collapse of society felt even more. Not without cool gory moments or some twisted humor either.

29. Cloverfield
The shaky-cam gimmick, which isn’t as annoying as you’d expect, actually provides this with a sense of real “you-are-there” urgency. Strong acting, characterization, and a few legitimate thrills makes this one almost worthy of the hype.

30. Rogue
The believable, life-like characters and viciously fast attack sequences makes this killer croc picture captivating despite an occasionally formulaic story and some weak CGI during the finale.

31. Wanted
Proof that crazy, over-the-top action theatrics can overcome anything, even a spotty script, shaky direction, and an overly pretty leading man. A swearing Morgan Freeman doesn’t hurt either.

32. Burn After Reading
We all expected this to be funnier, but you can’t help and smile as the Coen Brothers’ throw together another irrelevant, complicated plot that is ultimately unimportant and introduces an amusing cast of characters. The final scene with JK Simmons makes it all worth while.

33. The Bank Job
This fun little heist flick, a throw-back to ‘70s Brit gangster movies, has a lot of swagger and a typically convoluted story but it all builds up to a real satisfying conclusion.

34. Fear[s] of the Dark
The animation for this French horror anthology is very nice and the music is quite sinister. The six stories are a mixed bag. Three are quite good, two are underdeveloped, and one is flat-out boring. Intersecting the tales instead of playing them one at a time was a big mistake.

35. Be Kind Rewind
Anybody who misses the days of VHS and Ma and Pop video stores should give this a look. The lo-fi remakes of Hollywood flicks are the best part. The cast is fine, even if Jack Black’s shtick is old by now. The story’s a little cliché but overall this is a charming, bittersweet affair.

36. Red
I’m still pissed that Lucky McKee was fired halfway through this job. Still, taken on its own, this is a low-key but thoughtful adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s simplistic and powerful morality tale. The best part is Brian Cox’s pitch perfect lead performance.

37. The Ruins
Malevolent vegetation isn’t the most frightening concept but it works here, for the most part. The main attraction is the grisly, ick-inducing body horror and the superb gore effects. But the acting/directing/writing are all perfectly solid with characters you don’t completely hate either.

38. The Forbidden Kingdom
A formulaic but still satisfying popcorn muncher. The fight scenes are the main attraction, especially the Jet Li/Jackie Chan face-off. I could have done without the American teenager shoehorned into the story.


39. Trapped Ashes
Keep your expectations low and this cheapie horror anthology will probably entertain. Sure, only one of the four stories really hits and at least two others are full fledge duds, but the whole thing is done in such a fun, sexy spirit that it’s kinda’ hard to dislike.

40. Splinter
Good monster movies are so rare these days. “Splinter” isn’t an instant classic but the taunt script and good characters mean an “A” for effort. The creature designs seem interesting but the incoherent direction makes sure we never get a good look at them.

41. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
When Jet Li karate kicked a rocket into a trolley train, I knew I was on solid ground. The sincerely goofy cast is what always made these CGI-filled campfest fun anyway. Not as amusing as the first, less stupid then the second, despite the clumsy direction, I was entertained.

42. Postal
Uwe Boll is real proud of the “offends everyone” humor here, a lot of which is legitimately funny, but its Zach Ward and Dave Foley’s deadpan awesomeness that makes this watchable. Boll still has to learn about pacing since the energy stops dead with forty minutes left to go.

The Tracey Fragments
An unhappy indie that never quite comes together. (I realize that might be the point.) Ellen Page’s excellent performance provides some sort of anchoring force amidst all the chaos. The writing’s smart but inconclusive and the story’s interesting but leaves you asking what the point was.

44. Choke
This adaptation of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk book has an awesome cast and is going well until the third act, where it totally pussies out, castrates the novel’s essential mean streak, and adds an unsightly level of sentimentality that is completely wrong on many levels.

45. Penelope
The big problem here is that Christina Ricci, even with a pig nose, is still pretty cute which makes everyone’s repulsion confusing. She does give a good performance even if the movie itself is only sporadically amusing and has a worn-out “accept yourself for who you are” message.

46. Hancock
As long as our hero is a drunken misanthrope, things are pretty amusing. However, when shit gets serious towards the end, it becomes less interesting and the finale just tries too hard and wraps things up too neatly. The solid cast helps but this still isn’t one to build a franchise on.

47. Baghead
More of a self-reflective indie then a self-reflective horror film. The cast is likable enough and the script has its clever moments but there isn’t a payoff to any of it, especially to the horror elements. Also, mumblecore is a retarded name for a subgenre.

48. Run, Fat Boy, Run
Simon Pegg’s willingness to act goofy and his relatable, likable slacker act makes it hard not to root for him, even in a routine “inspirational” rom-com like this. A lesser actor and it wouldn’t be worth seeing at all.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The first “Narnia” was surprisingly good but that was before everyone was so sick of book-born fantasy franchises. There’s more action in this one, some of it diverting, and it’s not without moments. Still, it says a lot that a CGI mouse steals the show.

50. Deadly End
Despite some creative tricks in the first half, this nasty horror indie (originally entitled “Neighborhood Watch”) runs out of interesting gross-out gags before it’s over and finishes up with a slimy but dull finale. Nice try though.


51. An American Crime
When a true story is as horrifying as the Sylvia Likens case, you wouldn’t think there’d be need for embellishment. But director Tommy O’Haver saw fit to add awkward voiceovers, overdone music, and a frustrating dream sequence. The cast is strong but the material is ultimately too thin a treatment of the real events.

52. Return to Sleepaway Camp
Honestly, not as bad as I was expecting. The characters are obnoxious but at least developed and some of the kills are pretty clever. Lacks the retro-slasher feel completely and does nothing to build upon the “Sleepaway Camp” mythology.

53. Nobody Loves Alice
Lofty ambitions and an impressive array of indie acting talent aside, a sleep-inducing pace, cheesy editing, and a script that focuses on the least interesting aspect of the story makes sure that people will continue not to love Alice.

54. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer
Should’ve been called “Jack Brooks: Disgruntled Plumber.” Everything feels underdone and overly constrained while simultaneously feeling like an amalgam of parts from better movies and the prologue to a not-necessarily more interesting bigger story.

55. Gutterballs
A bowling alley is a great setting for a slasher, especially an uber-gory, X-rated one. But annoying characters, repetitive music, uneven acting, and slight writing undoes all the profane gusto and grindhouse flare the director/writer managed to create.

56. The Spiderwick Chronicles

A competently made but unremarkable family fantasy flick. There are some cute moments and the special effects are above average but your kids are unlikely to remember this one a month later.

57. Mirrors
We saw all the gore in the trailer and the scares are projected far in advance. The only entertaining moments were when Kiefer started Jack Bauer-ing every mirror he saw. If the whole movie was just him punching stuff, it would have been way more entertaining.

58. The Dark Knight
The plot is convoluted, the pacing is awful, there’s very little action, and the writers fatally misunderstood the Joker. It’s long, depressing, and unsatisfying, but the biggest crime is that this is a summer blockbuster that is no fun. It’s escapist entertainment that forgot the escapism.

59. Death Race
Everything that was great about the original “Death Race 2000” is dropped, the plot is clichéd, and there’s a lot of the director’s trademark stupidity. Still, I didn’t completely hate it. The race sequences are actually pretty exciting and Jason Statham is a likable lead.

60. Smart People
As soon as you realize that all these depressed people are going to get a happy ending, it stops being interesting. This was much better back when it was called “The Royal Tenenbaums.” I did like the semi-incestuous relationship between the daughter and her adopted uncle.

61. Wizard of Gore
The original isn’t my favorite Hershel Gordon Lewis joint so I had no issue with a remake. Crispin’s awesome, as you’d expect, but the rest is less so. It tells a straight forward story in a needlessly complicated way and has a muddy visual style.

62. The Other Boleyn Girl
If Scarlet Johanson or Natalie Portman showed some skin during any of the numerous humping scenes, I would have liked this better. The lack of any decent characters is the main flaw and my interest waned long before the muddled conclusion.

63. Triloquist
Never as disturbing as it wants to be but is just so aggressively freakish that, at the very least, you’re never bored. Like “Mad Cowgirl” or “Lucky” before it, this is the jumbled, barely coherent thoughts of a disturbed person, which makes it deeply personal but never well-made.

64. Charlie Bartlett
Like a lot of high schoolers, this movie mistakes smarm for intelligence. The story starts out unlikely and becomes increasingly ridiculous as it goes on. The better-then-it-deserves cast wrangles some laughs out of the smartass script. And, really, what high school has a fucking student lounge anyway?

65. Frontier(s)
A French “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with annoying shaky-cam direction and no subtlety. The extreme gore, Nazism, violence to women, and other forced unpleasantness makes the filmmaker seem like an adolescent boy obsessed with being “hardcore.”

66. The Mother of Tears
Out of all the disappointing things about this, and, believe me, there are a lot, what depressed me the most is that Dario Argento has almost completely abandoned his normal amazing style for Hollywood action tactics and cheap shock value. The gore is nice, I guess. Sigh.

67. Spiral
For an obsessive drama like this to work, we need to relate to the main character in a personal way. Joel Moore is too weird and awkward to be likable, much less relatable. Zachary Levi is an asshole and Amber Tamblyn isn’t believable. The ending is dumb. Nice soundtrack.

68. April Fool’s Day
The talented directors have tried their best to equip this lame remake with some teeth. Things pick up towards the end and there’s some celebrity gossip satire. Despite the attempt, this is still a horribly scored, often unintentionally funny bore with the production values of a Lifetime TV movie.


Feast II: Sloppy Seconds
Some of the first’s wackiness is maintained (Naked lesbian bikers! Midget wrestlers! Monster jizz!) but none of it’s energy, leading to a tiresome pace. Gulager’s still weak direction, forced attempts at shock value, and the general nihilistic tone don’t improve matters.

70. The Cottage
The flippant score lets you know this is supposes to be very “wacky” and amusing, despite the characters being the most irritating I’ve seen in a good while. By the time the murderous maniac starts to off the unlikable lot, it’s really too little, too late.

71. Funny Games
I hate Michael Haneke’s philosophies but he knows how to make you squirm. Some day he’ll make a great mainstream thriller. Until then, you have to take the thrills and his prick attitudes together. That’s not a compromise worth making. Naomi Watts does look nice in her underwear.


Prom Night
The original “Prom Night” isn’t all that good, but at least the people who made it cared. The only thing those responsible for this remake cared about was the dollars they could finagle from easily startled teenage girls. A blatant product with no soul.

73. Strange Wilderness
All the funny jokes are used in the first ten minutes and then the non-plot just meanders on and on while the characters annoy you. Not even Ernest Borgnine taking bong hits could save this one.

74. Day of the Dead
Ridiculous things happen in this movie. So much so that somebody along the way should have said, “Dude, this is retarded.” The zombies look stupid and act even worse, plot is routine, effects are cheap, dialogue is embarrassing... Horror remakes have officially hit their nadir. I only wish they hadn’t dragged George Romero down with them.

(I also saw two forgien films this year, the excellent "[REC]" and the pretty good "Grimm Love," that have yet to have official stateside releases, despite the former being remade as “Quarantine.” Thus their exclusion from the list.)

There you go. So, 2009, what of it? My top picks for the fore coming year are:

1. Inglourious Basterds
2. The Princess and the Frog
3. Watchmen
4. The Lovely Bones
5. Drag Me to Hell
6. Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen
7. Whip It!
8. Untitled Todd Solondz Project
9. Star Trek
10 (tie). Crank 2: High Voltage
10 (tie). The Wolf Man

Other upcoming titles of note:
9, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, Away We Go, Bad Biology, Books of Blood, The Box, Cabin Fever 2, Coraline, The Dead Sleep Easy, Delightful Water Universe, The Descent Part 2, Dragonball, Embodiment of Evil, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Fluid Drips Twice, Friday the 13th, Game, Giallo, A Gothic Tale, Go Go Tales, H2, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Jennifer’s Body, Micmacs à tire-larigot, My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Nailed, Ninja Assassin, …Of the Dead, Ponya on the Cliff, Poughkeepsie Tapes, Public Enemies, The Road, A Serious Man, Sherlock Holmes, Shutter Island, Splice. Terminator Salvation, Tetro, Trick r’ Treat, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Youth in Revolt

Goddamn, I need a life. Anyway, kids, that’s that. See you again soon. And always, thanks for reading.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Horrors of Mall Horror

(So here's a random article. I wrote this for, which kicks the crap out of and then teabags all the other horror news website, a while back. You can find it there if you feel like slogging through their back issues. That was suppose to become a reoccurring gig but I couldn't think of a good follow-up so it never happened. Anyway, here I analyze and bitch about a really shitty current horror sub-genre, which, sadly, doesn't seem like it'll go away anytime soon.)

Mall horror is a thorn in the side of many an experienced horror fan. The label applies to films that span any number of fright sub-genres. However, there’s one thing these movies all have in common: They suck.

To clarify, mall horror is characterized by films that are light-weight in scares, relying mostly on a worn cavalcade of clichés; short scenes of silence being shattered by a burst of loud music, usually accompanied by something jumping out at the on-screen character being the most common and damnable, and derivative in story, to the point that the majority are remakes. Asinine twist endings aren’t required but are common anyway. “Unrated” DVD releases that claim to be “the version too intense for theaters” but actually add nothing more offensive then what’s all ready there have quickly become a requirement as well. The one main aspect that categorizes a picture as mall horror is its need to appeal to easily startled teenage girls. In other worlds, if a fourteen year old girl dressed like the latest Bratz doll comes up to you and tells you that “The Foreboding Closet” is the scariest movie she’s ever seen, you can probably rest assure that said motion picture is mall horror.

Mall horror really first came into existence around 2002 with the release of the American remake of “The Ring.” Its roots can be traced back further to the likes “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others,” or even “Poltergeist” but two-naught-naught-two was the year the floodgates opened. Though relatively well-liked even among the world of grouchy horror fans, “The Ring” featured many of the trademarks of this reviled genre. It’s family-friendly rating, focuses on “atmosphere” over blood and tits (not to say that us horror fans need blood and tits to enjoy a movie. But, you know, they never hurt), and, most clearly, its Asian roots. The only thing missing was a CW-friendly cast and more obvious writing and direction.

Of course, the knock-offs, hanger-ons, sequels, and copy-cats that followed were all more then happy to fill in those ingredients. Before you knew it, January, February, and occasionally even spring and fall months, were flooded with the likes of “The Grudge,” “Dark Water,” “Boogeyman,” “The Return,” “The Messengers,” “Pulse,” “The Eye,” “One Missed Call” and on and on. Those among us with “Rue Morgue” subscriptions and “Return of the Living Dead” t-shirts were annoyed by the trend, of course, but mostly ignored it until the heartless Hollywood producers started coming after our beloved seventies and eighties classics and repackaging them into shinier, tidier, and completely harmless new boxes for the junior high crowd. Wretched accomplishments like “The Fog” and the recent “Prom Night” reduxes got many a horror website writer’s blood a-boiling. And the filming of tone-downed version of everything from “It’s Alive” to “He Knows Your Alone” will surely continue to piss us off in the future. (The remake trend isn’t limited to the PG-13 rating, of course. But the harsher rated studio produced recreations of horror standards commit many of the same sins as their TV-appropriate brethren and should be equally scoffed at.)

You may be asking, “Yeah, all that’s true, but what’s really so bad about mall horror?” Well, there are a couple of things. First off, it degrades the artistic spirit of our youth. That’s a melodramatic thing to say but it’s true. Fewer and fewer young people truly appreciate movies these days. Even fewer know what a good scary movie looks like. Many a suburban mallrat views the picture show as a way only to pass the time. (They also view people who go to the view movies impulsively and use words like “picture show” as weird, self-hating geeks. Of which they’d be partially correct.) Some don’t even care if they’re entertained, only that they were distracted for ninety minutes. The soul-sucking allure of TV and video games and the lack of good rental stores or, gasp!, art-houses and revival theaters around small towns is partially responsible for this attitude. Ultimately, I lack the sociologically degree necessary to figure out why such an attitude would become prevalent among the youth. If you’ll allow me to start speaking in doomsday theories, I can envision a unnerving future: a generation of horror fans suckled on the likes of “The Forgotten” or “The Invasion” might go on to produce similarly superficial fare. The continued popularity of mall horror can only mean one thing: More mall horror. A day when that comes to dominate our cinemas would be far scarier then anything overpaid Hollywood screenwriting teams can come up with.

Further more, the remakes commonly overshadow the originals in the eyes of those born after 1990. Countless times I’ve heard tales of friends working at rental stores and being pestered by young types looking for “When a Stranger Calls” only for the costumer to be confused and flabbergasted when presented with the original. If the multiple reports of the same I’ve read on message boards all over the internet mean anything, this is far from an isolated incident.

Ultimately though what really sucks about mall horror is that it’s soulless. These are hollow films made not by struggling artist with something to say, or even talented fanboys trying to spread the love of the genre, but by bottom dollar counting producers. Even in the cases were the director or writer are talented individuals, any artistry they might bring to the table is squashed by an insistence on formula or, as in the case of the recent “The Eye” remake, have their movie jerked away from them and reedited, presumably to have any of the genuinely interesting bits cut out. It’s shallow, disposable entertainment made for a shallow, disposable generation that have little to no understanding of anything, much less filmmaking, much less a niche genre like horror.

And, lastly, get off my lawn, you goddamn kids!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

So... Update.

I know I haven't updated "Film Thoughts" in more then a month. The reasons for this is, I've apperantly ran out of completed Director's Report Cards to post. There are a handful of nearly complete ones, like Mel Brooks or Wes Anderson, or ones that were complete until recently, like Charlie Kaufman and David Fincher. I soon as I see "Bolt" my massive Disney Animated Features report card will be done, so expect that soon. Things have been busy around here and I apologize for my inactivity.

So, in order to past the time the time, I'm see if I can't dig up some film essays/rants I've written over the years and post them.

Thanks for the support, readers.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Director Report Card: Mary Harron (1996-2005)

1. I Shot Andy Warhol
All of Mary Harron’s features seem to revolve around a single, very interesting individual. None of them have a particularly strong narrative but are instead driven by the personality of their lead character. Wither it be the delusional serial killer Patrick Bateman or the good-natured pin-up Bettie Page. Or, in this case, the volatile misanderousist Valerie Solanas.

Miss Solanas was probably a crazy person. But I’ve always had a stern belief that crazy people can say a lot about society that a “sane” person wouldn’t and are often the spring well for our most creative ideals. Solanas, at least as she is portrayed in this film, which is apparently accurate in a lot of respects, proves to be a captivating protagonist. (Or, as it is, perhaps antagonist?) She’s always ranting, screaming, writing, fucking, injuring someone. She is brought to life with conviction by busy character actress Lil Taylor, whose mannerism and speech pattern make a perfect match for her subject.

The small cast is a solid bunch. Jared Harris plays Andy Warhol as a vapid, opportunistic, stand-around who seems to rarely show any genuine opinions about anything and usually appears to be stoned out of his gourd on something. The film takes a very negative view at the Factory scene as image obsessed, drug-addled hacks. All things considered, Warhol actually comes off the best compared to his followers. Stephen Doriff is completely unrecognizable as drag-queen Candy Darling.

I’m not exactly sure of the genre goals of this film, but a great deal of it is very funny. Perhaps its just me, but as the film goes on and Solanas’ beliefs and rants become more delusional and more violent, I found myself laughing more often. It may not go on to become a recognized classic of American independent cinema, but “I Shot Andy Warhol” is captivating throughout and highly entertaining throughout.
[Grade: B]

2. American Psycho
I’ve spoke before of films that would not have worked without a certain actor in the lead role, their acting is so pivotal to the success of the picture at large. Christian Bale’s performance here is one of those. Bale is one of the best actors working today and he is astonishing. Perhaps he really gets the character, how much of a dork Patrick Bateman really is. This element as well as several of the psychological twists it takes towards the end gives the film so many layers as a character study.

The film is successful on other levels as well. It’s an obvious, vicious satire on eighties materialism and capitalism. It’s also a hilarious black comedy. I mean, there are several screamingly funny moments in this. People seem to overlook just how funny this movie is at times.

Harron’s direction is solid and her use of color and attention to detail are very important. An excellent supporting cast including Chloë Sevigny, Willem DaFoe, Reese Witherspoon, and Jared Leto gives Bale great support. Probably gory and twisted enough to appease horror fans but the film is ultimately a character study and should be observed as such.
[Grade: A]

3. The Notorious Bettie Page
A charming little film. Most of this is due to Gretchen Mol’s portrayal of the title character. Bettie is played as a genuinely good person, not so much naive as just understanding and accepting. Here is someone who doesn’t look at the bondage set-up as something abnormal, just as a scene to do, a little harmless fun. The rest of the cast is solid though I can say any performances really stand out.

Harron makes some interesting directing choices. Her decision to shoot the majority of the film in black and white, while other parts are in bright fifties Technicolor, leads the movie a sort of authenticity, as if the film is less about the time period then it was made in that time period. There is definitely some commentary on the fifties censorship and obscenity laws, though this falls to the background far too much. The FBI investigation angle is purposely played down, it seems. The film is ultimately just about Bettie and what an interesting person she is/was and it definitely succeeds at being as interesting as it’s subject. [Grade: B]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2001-2005)

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings
It’s boring. I’ve never read J. R. R. Tolken and have never been a fan. Sure, when the novels first came out, it was a unique world that had never been heard of before. But by now so much of what was new and exciting back then has been stolen and reused so much that it just isn’t anymore.

The biggest thing I dislike about this film is its lack of a sense of humor. It’s that humor that characterized so much of Jackson’s earlier films and without it, this film lacks the certain energy needed. It’s way, way too serious. And did I mention how incredibly uninteresting the characters are? This film is full of great actors and none of them can transcend the pretentiousness of the original text. Very little of this is Jackson’s fault, granted, as these are all problems I had with the original novels and if he had dared to changed something the geek gods might have rain vengeance down on him.
What is his fault is the ridiculously long run-time. I know there’s a lot of ground to cover, but did this really need to be three hours long? The final battle scene in particular drags and the film takes forever to end. And of course the worst punch line is, that’s not the end! There are still six more hours to sit through before you get any sort of closure!

Still, I’ll give credit where it’s due. The world created here is visually beautiful and probably the best realized universe seen on film in ages. The special effects are particularly flawless. Truthfully, elves and hobbits just aren’t my thing so I can’t really appreciate this film on any other level then the “Wow, that’s pretty!” one.
[Grade: C]

8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
This one is a little better. There are big battles scenes all around and I think that’s why I enjoyed it more then part one. When the characters stop spewing that hopelessly droll fantasy speak at each other and just start stabbing things, the film actually comes close to being fun.

The film is also the debut of Gollem, the only character that is actually interesting in the entire film series. Gollem is totally fascinating and you can’t take your eyes off him when his on screen. The Academy robbed Andy Serkis of an award because of some stupid technicality but it is a wonderful performance that deserved some sort of recognition. The film is still too goddamn long and when Gollem isn’t around and somebody isn’t getting stabbed, I couldn’t care less. But still, it’s definitely a step forward.
[Grade: B]

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit… …probably because I skipped it in theaters and only saw it on DVD, where I could fast-forward through all the boring shit. And I didn’t really miss any of the plot either which proves how bloated these films really are.

The battle scenes are as epic as you’d expect. The ring slowly consuming Frodo is actually entertaining to watch and Gollem still can do no wrong in my eyes. This film also features an honest to God conclusion which makes it all far more satisfying then the other two. (Of course, the film takes frikin’ forever to end, but still, at least it did end.) I actually found myself almost liking Sam and Frodo too, though I would never ever admit it in the presence of some Tolken humping fan boy.
[Grade: B]

10. King Kong
Jackson seems to be suffering from Sergio Leone syndrome and can’t seem to make a film less than three hours anymore, so this is a bit longer then it should be and the first act could probably have used some trimming. Still, I much prefer it to anything from the Hairy Feet trilogy.

When watched back-to-back with the original film, it actually proves to be a rather brilliant post-modern treatment of the 1933 classic. Scenes from the original are recreated here as the film-within-the-film and Jackson seems to be saying that much of the original is outdated macho pandering. Which it is, of course, but we love it anyway. And the director obviously loves it too as none of this comes off as really critical. Jackson takes a much more humanistic approach to everything, particularly the characters. Adrian Brody’s Jack Driscoll is an everyman playwright as opposed to the original’s two-fisted hero. Jack Black is great as Carl Denham and isn’t afraid to play up the character’s more bastard-like qualities.
The concept to receive the biggest overhaul is the relationship between Ann Darrows and the big monkey. There actually appears to be, if not a genuine affection between the two, at least a mutual respect. Naomi Watts redeems herself after a bunch of crappy movies and proves that she is indeed a great actress. Andy Serkis makes Kong just as memorable and lovable a character as Gollem was. The Skull Island sequences are exciting and thrilling, the dinosaur stampede being my favorite. The spider pit is pretty squirm inducing as well. And I don’t even think I need to tell you how good the special effects are.

The film has a real soul to it, however, that makes it a far more dramatically rounded feature then “Lord of the Rings” was. As Kong scales the Empire State Building and Howard Shore’s score plays, the film pulls back and makes you aware of the inevitable conclusion to all this. You realize that the story is really a heart-breaking tragedy.
[Grade: A]

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (1994-1996)

4. Heavenly Creatures
Feels like something of a transition from Jackson’s earlier more outrageous films to his slicker Hollywood productions. It maintains a lot of the spirit of his previous productions. There’s certain energy, plucky spirit, and anarchic humor to many of the fantasy sequences. Jackson’s imagination shines during these moments and he forges many unforgettable images.

The film’s short prologue seems to be a sort of warning to the audience to let them know that, despite most of the film feeling like a whimsical story of young friendship and budding sexuality, none of this ends well. There’s a certain darkness underlining much of the lighter proceedings. This prevents any sudden shift in mood because you realize it’s been building up to this all along.
The two lead performances are really wonderful. I wonder how many directors envy Peter Jackson for being the one who discover Kate Winslet. She’s captures the essence of a bubbly, energetic teenage girl right on the edge of a breakdown perfectly. Despite Winslet demanding much of your attention, Melanie Lynskey’s Pauline is at the center of the film. When she stares at you with those eyes, you can feel a real intensity cooking inside the girl. She completely immerses herself in the role. Of course, it’s how the two actresses, playing very different but strangely very similar characters, compliment each other that really makes the film work. The relationship they have feels honest and, dare I say, heart-warming. Proof of how involving the film is, is that at the end I wasn’t thinking, “It’s horrible what they did,” but, “It’s so sad they’ll never see each other again.” [Grade: A]

5. Forgotten Silver (with Costa Botes)
I suppose a lot of the fun of “Forgotten Silver” is ruined by knowing anything about the movie before watching it. The movie is quite a brilliant mockumentary.

It details the career of early film pioneer Colin McKenzie. Rising out of obscurity in New Zealand, McKenzie would go on to make such cinematic advances as motorized film, feature length stories, synchronized sound, close-ups, and color. He would film the first working airplane (not the Wright brothers), an early example of police brutality, before his career climaxed in a epic four-hour rendition of the biblical tale of Salome, that wouldn’t be seen until years after his death in the Spanish Civil War. Peter Jackson himself would accidentally discover much of McKenzie’s work before presenting it to the world, where McKenzie was accepted as a hugely important pioneer of early film, to be held in the same regard as Edison, Melies, and Griffin.
Never heard of Colin McKenzie before? That’s because the whole movie is a fabulous hoax. He never existed and everything here is totally fictional. Even if you didn’t know that going in, there are several clues, such as a preposterous use of digital recovery and the amusing series of misfortunes that prevented McKenzie’s amazing developments from being recognized. Everyone involved, including such recognizable faces as Leonard Maltin, Sam Neil, and Harvey Weinstein, keep straight faces. All of the silent recreations as very well done and fairly convincing. The final Salome feature in particular feels pretty definitely like a real silent film. I also really like the music. Under an hour in length despite the 70 minute running time listed on the DVD (I suppose that includes the excellent “Behind the Bull” featurette included in the special features), “Forgotten Silver” is still a really neat little picture and a good example of Peter Jackson’s range as a filmmaker. [Grade: B]

6. The Frighteners
I suppose we couldn’t expect Jackson’s first studio horror film to meet up with the expectations of his earlier gory projects. Considering those expectations, “The Frighteners” holds up pretty well. The movie’s tone isn’t one hundred percent perfect. Ultimately, it’s a horror-tinged supernatural mystery-adventure with some comedy thrown in.

In the earlier parts of the movie, when Frank Bannister is chatting with his ghost friends, many scenes come off as shrill or too frantic. Generally speaking, the goofy slapstick antics of our spectral pals doesn’t really gel over all. Once they exit the picture, things start to go better. Not to say this section is bad. It’s still pretty decent and the likes of John Astin, Chi McBride, and R. Lee Ermy make the goofy ghost pretty entertaining anyway.

Still, once the set-up is established and we get on with the story, the movie improves dramatically. The second half is excellent. The entire finale in the old hospital is thrilling, exciting perfect popcorn stuff. If the whole movie was like that, “The Frighteners” would be a masterpiece. But, you know, the set-up is necessary.
Michael J. Fox isn’t the kind of leading man you would have thought of for a project like this but he actually does a pretty good job, keeping some of his typical smarmy charm while occasionally going to darker places. Jeffery Combs steals the show in his supporting part as the highly demented FBI agent. He’s hilarious and I’d say its Combs best performance after old Herbert West. Dee Wallace, who is almost unrecognizable in a black wig, has fun playing a villainess for once. Jake Busey is good even if he doesn’t cover any new ground.

Peter Jackson’s direction is quite good. Color is used excellently and the whole movie has a beautiful green, blue drab to it. The score, with its gothic violins, is a good listen and provides a unique tone. Though this is definitely Peter Jackson’s project, you can’t help but wonder how much influence producer Robert Zemeckis held. “The Frighteners” feels a lot like a Zemeckis project at times. Still, it’s a good time.
[Grade: B+]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (1987-1992)

1. Bad Taste
I didn’t like this one as much as I hoped I would, considering it’s a film right up my alley. It very obviously a low budget, very independent film and I can’t help but feel that hurts the film, even though it really isn’t its fault. For a film of this type, I thought the cast was maybe a little too large as you only get to know two or three characters.
More then anything else, “Bad Taste” is driven by its demented sense of humor. It’s filled with the gross-out humor that characterizes many of Jackson’s early films. Some of it crosses the line from “funny-gross” to just plain gross, but still, this has a generous amount of twisted laughs. When you consider how professional this looks considering it’s budget, it becomes a little impressive. Though I was disappointed, it’s hard to really dislike any film with an exploding sheep in it. [Grade: B-]

2. Meet the Feebles
“Meet the Feebles” is a sick and twisted comedy so sick and twisted that those words don’t really aptly describe it. Jackson tops “Bad Taste” in just about every way as this movie is better made, funnier, and more outrageous.

The general plot is, basically, Muppets acting as deprived as humanly (Muppet-ly?) possible. Sex, rape, drug abuse, gang violence, war violence, S&M, vomiting, binge eating, coprophagia, murder, and full frontal puppet nudity are just some of the acts feature within. And all of it is played for laughs, of course. This very easily could have been a one-joke movie but
somehow it works. The funniest moment in the film is the knife-throwing frog’s drug-induced Vietnam flashback, in which the Americans are portrayed as frogs and the VC are woodchucks. There’s also a “Deer Hunter” style Russian Roulette game. Also deserving of mention is the film’s climax, in which the jilted, suicidal/homicidal hippo diva goes on a machine gun rampage throughout the theater set to the tune of the “Sodomy Song.” If that doesn’t tickle your funny bone then you are obviously not the target audience for this film. [Grade: B+]

3. Dead-Alive
Jackson’s so-called “splatter trilogy” reaches it crescendo with “Dead/Alive” (aka “Braindead”), the film that pretty much defines the “splatstick” subgenre of horror film. The bigger budget shine helps this one a lot and the quality of the special effects are greatly improved from the last two films. The lead performances are actually pretty good and the central romance is nice, too. There’s also some not-so-subtle Freudian subtext that adds some replay value.
Of course, the real reason anyone talks about this film is for the demented comedy and gore. There’s plenty of great gags in this one. The diner party? The zombie baby? The Nazi chemist? The kung-fu ass-kicking-for-the-Lord priest? Yeah. Possibly not as outrageous as “Meet the Feebles” but definitely funnier. And the gore? This film has the label of goriest of all time for a reason. There’s some blood throughout but it’s the climax where the movie really pays off. Seriously, not a second pass without somebody getting dismember or splattered. Words fail to convey the greatness of the last twenty minutes. It’s a gore hound’s wet dream and is just as likely to horrify you as it to cause you falling off the couch laughing. The rest of the public can have their “Lord of the Rings” movie, in my mind, this will always be Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement. [Grade: A]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2000-2006)

4. X-Men
As his past films proved, (especially “The Usual Suspects”) Bryan Singer can do good stuff with ensemble films. And if “X-Men” is nothing else, it is an ensemble film. That the picture’s greatest strength. How the character’s personalities, as well as their superpowers, are understood shortly after meeting them. As soon as we understand those things, the fun stuff, mainly how they interact, can start.The film spends most of it’s time focusing on the cast and even then some characters are left underdeveloped. The story also takes a back seat and is not as strong as it probably should be which means the experience as a whole is not completely satisfying.

Still, on a superhero movie level, “X-Men” is highly successful. The action sequences are well done, the movie is fun, and many of the characters are a case of actor and material being perfectly matched. (Halle Berry aside, everybody gives a great performance.)
[Grade: B+]

5. X2
First off, this sequel improves upon its predecessor by shaping a much stronger story. The tale builds to a nice tension by the end and all the pieces are expertly set up. It maintains the problem of having too many characters and some cast members are underdeveloped or underused. (I’m glad I’m not a Cyclops fan as his part has been reduced significantly.) The movie is smart enough to leave enough room for new characters however, allowing Alan Cummings as Nightcrawler and Brain Cox as General Stryker to shine in their respective parts.

The action scenes are a step-up too. Magnento’s escape, Nightcrawler’s White House assault, the invasion on the school, and Wolverine’s fight with Lady Deathstrike are all memorable set-pieces. While this film is superior to the first, generally speaking, it lacks that sense of comic book fun and excitement that is really necessary for a project such as this. While it’s not a big issue, I think the film takes itself maybe a little too seriously. Still, “X2” is a great sequel.
[Grade: A-]

6. Superman Returns
Visually, this is Bryon Singer's best looking film. His camera dances in and around scenes in a way that I didn't really expect from him. Many of the effects are beautifully done. Not once did I point at an effect and say, "That looks fake." Most notable is the big airplane crash scene, which is just a very well staged, thrilling, and brilliantly paced scene. Kevin Spacey, though a little broad at times, seems to be having a pretty good time playing Lex Luthor. And for a movie that is nearly three hours long, not once did I stop to check the time.My biggest complaint with this film is the acting from the two leads. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane never really convinced me. Brandon Routh lacks a certain charm and all the good stuff he does is basically just ripped from Chris Reeve's performance. Because of this their relationship is never quite as emotionally involving as it should be. What really saves the movie, in the end, is that it's just so heartfelt. Singer's love for the character and the material is palpable. The whole thing is just a big fuzzy love-letter to the Christopher Reeve films, and maybe to a lesser degree, the whole idea of comic book heroes. I'm still not sure if that's a good thing, in the long run, as a fresher approach probably would have been better. Yet this is still a highly enjoyable film and great summer blockbuster fare. Now if only they had found a better actor to play Superman. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (1993-1998)

1. Public Access
Certainly an interesting little movie, even if it doesn’t actually do too much with its premise. Not completely unlike Singer’s next film, “Public Access” is a movie that actually spends more time telling you what it’s not about. We are ask to draw our own conclusion; not a bad things at all, but we’re not really given enough to figure much out.
Still, I found plenty to enjoy here. The discussion about small town values is compelling stuff. A lot is done with what was obviously a small budget. Ron Marquette’s lead performance is deceptively deep. Singer’s direction is stylish and colorful with some interesting visual clues and subtexts. “Public Access” is not required viewing, but fans of the director or of smart indies might want to give it a look, if they have nothing else to watch. [Grade: B-]

2. The Usual Suspects
An intricate puzzle box of a movie. The plot is complicated and really demands your attention, but this appears to be a ploy just to drawl you into the movie’s world. Or it could just be to confuse, cause you to over think things (Much like Chazz Palminteri’s character does), so when the twist ending does comes, it hits harder then you’d expected. I’d probably hate the movie for that if the twist wasn’t as awesome as it is.
The movie might be easily dismissed as a one-time pony if it weren’t for the care taken to bring the story to life. Bryan Singer’s direction is cool and smooth, in perfect neo-noir style. There is a great ensemble cast here. All the individual characters are well acted, memorable, likable, and well-rounded. Possibly more important is how well they play off each other. Each character is design to play off the rest of the team in order to produce maximum drama. So while the big twist gets you the first time, it’s the multiple layers that make you come back for seconds. [Grade: A]

3. Apt Pupil
What’s best about this feature is its acting. Ian McKellen, despite an obviously fake German accent, is certainly a fine actor and gives a good performance and Brad Renfro does a good job as well. Their personalities don’t quite clash and click as they should and that causes the film too loose a lot of tension. The character interaction is still entertaining to watch, but the mentor/enemies concept just didn’t seem very rounded to me.
Singer’s direction does manage to produce at least two scenes of actual tension, Renfro’s frenzied bike-ride through the tunnel and the sequence with the homeless man being them. The nature of evil in people is the main theme, something carried over from the original Stephen King novella, and that gives the final product considerable more strength. The way these two people affect each other, how their beliefs contaminate one another, is fascinating and makes up for the noticeable lack of tension. The final act drags a little but I really liked the ending. So, if you go in expecting more of a character study and less of a thriller, you’ll probably be pretty satisfied. [Grade: B+]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Director Report Card: Guillermo del Toro (2004-2008)

5. Hellboy
I haven’t read too many “Hellboy” comics but I’ve seen enough to know what a spot-on adaptation this is. It nails all the characters and the comic’s quirky tone while also allowing the director to show of his unique eccentricities.

Ron Perlman really shines in a rare starring role, creating easily the most appealing on-screen superhero of the decade. The rest of the acting is not as good with John Hurt and Jeffery Tambor more or less sleepwalking, though Selma Blair is decent. More great special effects and the action scenes are defiantly a step-up from “Blade II.” (Yea! No more obvious CGI!) The fact that this movie is as funny as it is really differentiates it
from its superhero contemporaries.

The climax is not as exciting as it should which is disappointing after all that build-up. The love triangle is also a completely unnecessary subplot and there are more pointless characters which I hope is something that doesn’t becomes one of the director’s trademarks. Speaking of which, this film features underground tunnels/mazes, clockwork machinery, and even manages to throw in a curious little kid, too, however briefly. [Grade: B+]

6. Pan's Labyrinth
A dark fairy tale is a phrase that is being a used a lot to describe this film. The film truly is a fairy tale but isn’t all that dark when compared to Hans Christian Anderson or Greek mythology, both of which were obvious influences.

The movie is pure del Toro. Its protagonist is a young girl who refuses to have her innocence corrupted by a world that is becoming increasingly darker but at the same time is not naive to those evils around her. An underground maze is pivotal to the plot as the title makes pretty clear. A pocket watch plays a minor role in the proceedings.

Ivana Baquence hits all the right notes as Ofelia, the lead, and Sergio Lopez, playing her fascist general step-father and the true villain of the piece, is very frightening. Like the best of classical fairy tales, the movie is whimsical, but isn’t afraid to be scary either. The Pale Man sequence is very intense. The director does it right here by including subplots and extra characters, but they actually add to the story proper instead of distracting from it. Also like a fairy tale, the film can be examined from many different levels and is certainly multi-layered. It’s a highly successful film, the best film of 2006 in fact, and might be the director’s masterpiece. [Grade: A]

7. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Summer movie season is becoming increasingly crowded. It seems that from May to August, every week brings a new huge budgeted superhero movie that has to make a gazillion dollars that weekend to be consider a profit before next week’s huge budgeted superhero movie appears and pushes the last out of the top ten. It’s a shame when a genuinely interesting movie like “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” appears during such a summer.

Sadly, Hellboy’s latest outing seems somewhat pale in comparison to the summer’s many other offerings. Yes, there are big effect scenes. Sadly, only two of them, the forest elemental showdown and the battle with the title army, are really exciting. Yes, there are fight scenes. Sadly, compared to the kung-fu theatrics of every other blockbuster around, they don’t exactly warrant oohs or ahhs.

For once, though, none of that matters. “Hellboy II” is a hugely entertaining picture more because of its characters then anything else. Ron Perlman was born to play Hellboy. Never before has there been a better combination of character and actor. The supporting cast is much stronger this time around. Selma Blair’s Liz has developed a lot since part one and, along with a new Lain-inspired hair-do, makes the character far more fresher and engrossing then before. All the dead weight has been dropped from the cast, Johan Strauss makes for an amusing addition, and Doug Jones is actually allowed to voice his character this time around. His character of Abe goes through a lot of developing too. The emotional resonance of the cast is important since love is the main motivating force in the story. It should be noted that a drunken warbling of a cheesy Barry Manilow song is probably the best moment of the movie.

The CGI effects are better then the first but probably won’t age well. No, it’s the practical creature effects that rule the day. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this many unique looking monsters and creatures, all created by animatronics and good-old fashion makeup, in a movie together. Del Toro brings his full imagination here and a lot of this can be summed up as “Hellboy Goes to Pan’s Labyrinth.”

So, the movie may not be as exciting as the latest Will Smith or Batman flick, but “Hellboy II” is funny, refreshing, fun, and possibly more over-all entertaining then anything else this summer.

[Grade: B+]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Director Report Card: Guillermo del Toro (1993-2002)

1. Cronos
One of the few vampire movies released in the past twenty years that you could truly describe as original. The acting is great from all the leads, though it’s Tamara Shanath who is the most surprising talent. She has one line of dialogue in the whole movie but manages to create a real character with just her body language and facial mannerisms. Consider how young the actress is makes this even more amazing. And that’s good too, because if the relationship between the grandfather and the granddaughter didn’t work, I doubt the movie would have either. It is this that is at the heart of the film and is its main driving force.

The golden scarab that set-ups the film’s plot is the first of del Toro’s clockwork creations, which is a reoccurring theme, you’ll discover. The photography is very moody and the final image stays with you for some time. The mixture of Spanish and English is distracting and the film is deliberately slow-paced, but it more then makes up for that with its creativity and heart.
[Grade: A-]

2. Mimic
This is a pretty basic monster movie that benefits from Guillermo’s strength for atmosphere and some pretty good special effects. It is the first of his films to feature underground caverns and the second to have an imaginative child be part of the plot. The opening would work great as a short film and is probably the scariest part throughout, with its brilliant use of shadows, light, and sound effects.
As the movie delves into the cliché characters, it gets less interesting. The majority of the first act should have been more interesting but it’s mostly set-up being laid down. As soon as we get to the underground, we are greeted to a good number of well handled scare scenes. Toro’s use of shadows is of particular note. While much of the CGI hasn’t aged well, the mutant bugs are still interestingly designed monsters. The ending could have been a little better, however, and lacks a certain satisfaction. An entertaining picture, but not as imaginative as some of del Toro’s other work. [Grade: B]

3. The Devil's Backbone
“The Devil’s Backbone” is a movie about a lot of things, ultimately. It’s a coming of age story, a loss of innocence. But it’s also got a buried treasure. It’s a ghost story, though the ghosts are probably the least of the character’s problems. It’s a movie about a war, but more about how it affects people and less about the conflict itself. When you get down to the barebones, it’s about children trying to survive a harsh world during a harsh time, a theme del Toro has since revisited.
His writing is really impressive here, as he manages to develop a large cast and each one of their stories successfully. The actors are all excellent, especially the young boys who are just as good as any of the older cast members.

He creates many eerie, spooky images, especially when the ghost of Santi is concerned. (Honestly, he’s one of the cooler ghost designs I’ve seen in recent memory.) But it’s a melancholy film in the end, a meditation on childhood and eternity.
[Grade: A]

4. Blade II
An action movie that kicks ass with a capital K. This is the first time del Toro gets a chance to show off his skills as an action director and he proves to be just as talented there as he is in other territories, though his use of CGI is questionable. It’s also a good sequel in that it keeps everything from the first film that works and ditches what didn’t, builds upon number’s one themes, and adds just enough new stuff to make it interesting.
Wesley Snipes skills as an actor might be in questions but he has enough charisma to make up for that and Kris Kristofferson and Ron Perlman are always interesting to watch. The plot is surprisingly good for a film like this with several twists here and there. The special effects and gore are also excellent with the neat looking new Reaper vampires.

The film’s energy peters out before it ends and you get the feeling that there is maybe one action scene too many. The cast is also too big with most of the characters getting killed before really getting developed. It feels more like a Guillermo del Toro movie then a Blade movie at times, though I really don’t think that’s a bad thing. Underground caverns/tunnels/mazes? Yes! Clockwork or scared little kids? Unfortunately, no.
[Grade: B+]