Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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+]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Series Report Card: Friday the 13th (1993-2003)

9. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday
When a film series runs as long as this one has, it’s certainly a good idea to spice up the central concept, especially when the films are as admittedly routine as these can be. However, I still feel “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” strays from the central ideas of the franchise a bit too much. Rewriting series’ history by saying that all this time Jason has been a body hopping demon as opposed to just a hockey-happy maniac comes a bit out of left-field and toys with fan’s expectation too much, especially since it means Jason as himself only appears for brief moments at the beginning and end of the film.

The gore is quite impressive and features some of the nastiest scenes in the franchise and is definitely the main reason to catch this one. Genre fans should also watch out for several in-jokes like the presence of props from “Evil Dead,” “Creepshow,” and “The Birds.” Also of note is that this film also features the most graphic sex scene of the series.

However, other areas lack. I appreciate the writer/director’s attempts to give the characters a little more personality then the clichés usually seen in types like this. That doesn’t change the fact that most of the cast is shrill, annoying, or just plain stupid. Not even the presence of special guest victims Erin Gray or Leslie Jordon can change this.

And what about the Jason make-up? It looks very rubbery and fake. When Jason does show back up at the end, the film actually becomes pretty enjoyable, which makes me wonder if the movie would have been better had he stuck around for the majority of the picture. As it is, “Jason Goes to Hell” is a different but unsatisfying entry in the series.
[Grade: C-]

10. Jason X
By this point the franchise has been around for over two decades. Over that twenty year course, any sense of reality has pretty much been loss as Jason has returned from the dead numerous times, eventually as a super strong, indestructible ultra-zombie; fought a telekinetic chick, took a field trip to New York, became a body switching demon, and been to hell and back. (Same as New York, right?) Naturally, the only thing left to do is send him into space. (“Friday the Apollo 13th?”) Some fans deride this direction, saying it’s too far removed from the series’ roots. I completely embrace it though, as it’s this sort of campiness that keeps the movies fun.

And if it’s nothing else, “Jason X” is fun. Goofy, certainly, and stupid in parts, too, but I was entertain and that’s all I really ask from these films. Injecting some humor into the proceedings helps a lot, especially the “Crystal Lake Holo-deck” scene which is great. The gore and murder scenes are well-done and at least creative, taking advantage of the futuristic setting, though a few of them felt compromised by the budget. The cast is slightly better then expected though none of the talent on screen here is above the series’ standards. The cyborg/Jason fight is fun and Robo-Jason is a slick payoff.

Some of the humor is groan inducing and the pacing could probably be a little better, but if this is any indication of the kind of direction the series is taking, I am pleased. By embracing its B-movie roots and not being afraid to get a little crazy, the franchise may prove to have some legs outside of the eighties.
[Grade: B-]

11. Freddy vs. Jason
It was first suppose to happen back in 1988 (“The New Blood” was made instead) and was set up ten years prior by the end of “The Final Friday,” but it wasn’t until 2003 that “Freddy vs. Jason” actually got made. Pitting the two reigning kings of eighties slasher horror against each other had the potential to be an embarrassment to both franchises, especially when you look at some of the early scripts and concepts that were thrown around during the decade this movie stayed in development hell. However, by hiring some smart fans to write the script and Hong-Kong action veteran Ronny Yu to direct, the payoff is basically a fan boy’s wet dream.

While a bit too much attention is paid to the cast of teenagers, who are typically pretty uninteresting, most of the film centers on the two stars themselves, which is a very smart idea since they’re the ones we all care about anyway. Freddy hasn’t been this nasty since the first “Elm Street” and we get to probe Jason’s subconscious a bit. The movie balances between the two characters very nicely, giving both of them equal screen time, and effectively blends the two universes, which is actually a lot harder then it sounds. There are also several nods here and there to past films in both franchises, which is a nice treat for long term fans.

The final battle between the two is like horror geek nirvana. Though there’s plenty of good gore throughout, the best set-pieces are saved for the final act, as the two terror titans really do beat the shit out of each other. The fight scene is choreographed surprisingly well and Yu watches the whole thing with a steady hand. Visually speaking, Yu’s direction is actually pretty good all the way through, as the film makes great use of color and set design and is very interesting to look at. Basically, this film was everything it should have been and I enjoyed myself a great deal. (I still think “A Nightmare on Friday the 13th” would have been a better title.) [Grade: A]

The next entry in the series, a remake/franchise reboot simply entitled “Friday the 13th,” is in production right now and will premier next February, on the thirteenth, natch. This report card will be updated accordingly around that time. So keep your eyes (and other body parts) peeled.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Series Report Card: Friday the 13th (1985-1989)

5. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning
Infamously disliked by fans of the series for the fact that Jason doesn’t actually appear in the movie. That’s a major flaw with the film but if the problems ended there, I might’ve been able to forgive it. Sadly, that’s just the beginning.The acting is really bad. I mean, it approaches Troma Films level here. The characters that do have personality are shrill and annoying. You can’t wait for them to die. Normally, that wouldn’t be too big of an issue. However, the gore is disappointing as well. There are a couple interesting death scenes, like the leather strap against the tree or the outhouse sequence, but a great deal of the effects feel cheap and uninspired. The whole movie is plagued with that feeling of cheapness. You can tell that none of the people involved in making this were particularly interested in the material. Even the nudity is disappointing as there is really only one scene and the breasts are small and sad. It’s a lazy, boring entry in the series and definitely the worse. [Grade: F]

6. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives!
The sense of self-parody has never been stronger then it is in this one. While there has been some humor in the franchise for some time now, this is the first time I would consider the film an all-out “horror-comedy.” I’d say it was pretty successful on that level, too, as there are at least two laugh-out-load moments.

The best thing I can say about this one is it definitely has the most energy of any of the films. There are no shots of campers just mindlessly wandering around. Something is happening in every frame of the film. No time is wasted in getting us to where we want to be. Jason is resurrected as a super
strong killer zombie so the deaths scenes are a little more crazy though I think I prefer the style of the earlier films more. The script is sharp and the acting is better then expected too, as Thom Mathews, David Kagen, and Jennifer Cooke all give good performances. Alice Cooper contributes several original songs which is pretty much a perfect combination, if you ask me.

On the negative side, C. J. Graham is too tall and skinny to be a truly effective Jason and some of the humor is too “wink-wink” and is a bit distracting. Still, “Jason Lives!” is highly entertaining and one of the best film in the series.
[Grade: B+]

7. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood
A personal favorite of mine. Though you felt a little bit of it with the last film, this is the first time that the core concept was really experimented with. For the first time, Jason actually faces up against a worthy advisory. There are even times when you feel that the telekinetic Tina actually has the upper hand. This gives the film a freshness and creativity that distinguishes it from the others.Though the gore was heavily compromised by the MPAA, if you can get a hold of an uncut version, it is truly something to behold. The best non-Savini effects the series has seen. Fan-favorite Kane Hodder makes his premier behind the mask. Hodder has always been a solid Jason, though I think the character make-up is far more impressive then anything else. The director wanted to show all the damage Ol’ Hockey Head has suffered over the years. He looks great. A very fun addition to the franchise with a lot of action and the right amount of humor. [Grade: A-]

8. Friday the 13 Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
Continuing from Part 7 with it’s willingness to break the mold, “Jason Takes Manhattan” toys with the concept a bit by placing Jason in a different location.

Sadly, it just doesn’t work. First off, most people will point out that only the last act of the film actually takes place in Manhattan. Not too big of a grip for me since the writer/director has made it known that this was more due to budgetary restraints then anything else, but when a film doesn’t come through on its promise, it always hurts its grade some.

There are really two big problems here. First, it has some of the worst gore effects of the series. The gangsters getting needled and the impalement by radio antenna are decent but many of the deaths seem to be purposely courting the MPAA. In one scene, a guy gets his throat slashed and doesn’t even bleed. That doesn’t make any sense! Much of the effects are too fake looking. The blood looks too bright and corn-syrup-y and in an early scene, the intestine is obviously rubber tubing.
The second biggest issue is how Jason is handled. One of the worst slasher film clichés is the teleporting killer, one who always manages to be in the right place to dispatch his victims, even if logic completely works against it. This cheap trick is used here and is laughably bad. In the last film, Kane Hodder was only shot from low angles which gave the illusion of Jason being a huge brute. None of that is employed here and Jason looks awfully small in several shots. And on top of all that, the unmasked make-up is pretty lousy. To add insult to injury, the film also features lousy acting, annoying characters, and goofy hallucinations on behalf of the Final Girl. Despite everything, the movie at least tries. You get the feeling that budgetary set-backs and a lack of foresight is what really hurt this film. With a little bit more money and a little bit more talent, it could’ve been half-way decent. But good intentions only amount to so much in the end. [Grade: D]

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Series Report Card: Friday the 13th (1980-1984)

I'll be changing gears a little with this report card. Instead of reviewing all the major works from a certain director, I'll watch and review all of the entries in a movie series. This will also be my first multi-part report card. Enjoy!

1. Friday the 13th
One of the films responsible for starting up the slasher craze in the early eighties. But how good is it, really? Well, I enjoyed it but “Friday the 13th” is ultimately more notable for what it started then for what it actually is. The film is incredibly clichéd by this time as it seems seventy percent of the slasher films that came out afterward ripped it off. The revelation of the killer’s identity at the end will come as no surprise to in-the-know horror fans, but even if you didn’t know that going in, the ending isn’t exactly a big twist. There’s really no lead-up to it or any mystery.

Of course, to criticize this film for not having a great story seems a bit silly. Tom Savini’s gore is pretty good, though not quite as excellent as some of the other work he has done before and since. In particular, the first throat slitting is actually pretty startling in how it’s directed. Kevin Bacon’s death scene is definitely the best in the film. The final decapitation looks pretty fake, though.

If you watch the movie as a glossary of horror movie clichés, it does provide some entertainment beyond the gore. The performances are mostly flat though Betsey Palmer does have some fun with her part. Sean Cunningham’s direction is nothing to write home about really and the score is fairly derivative aside from the famous sound effects. The final jump scare is still effective, even after all these years. So, “Friday the 13th” is not a sterling masterpiece of the genre but it certainly does hold some enjoyment for fans of the series but its sequels would surpass it in quality and fun factor. [Grade: B-]

2. Friday the 13th Part 2
For the premier of a modern horror icon, “Friday the 13th Part 2” is pretty bland. I said how the first film felt derivative more because of what came after it then what came before, but Part 2 is actually even more derivative. It has been noted before by several other folks, that the two best death scenes in the film are actually swiped from Mario Bava’s “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” the original body count movie. Most of the rest of the proceedings feel pretty bland too as the rest of the gore is not all that impressive. Jason had not yet been developed as a character at this point so he doesn’t come off as a particularly interesting killer.

On the positive side, the opening scene is handled well enough and the final chase is at least more interesting then the film that proceeded it. If you are looking for a slasher fix and nothing else is available, this will do the job, but there are better things out there.
[Grade: C]

3. Friday the 13th Part 3
Right from the grooving disco scored opening, I knew we were on better ground then we were last time. I would have loved to have seen this in 3-D as the novelty of that is completely lost on all legally available copies now. The death scenes are the best the series has had so far and Jason, preformed here by the imposing Richard Brooker, begins to develop into the big guy we all know and love. Getting his trademark hockey mask probably has something to do with this, too. Maybe it’s just because they seem to be evening out the camp feel the series has when it’s at its best, but I found the performances here more likable then in the past two films. The story is still pretty copy and paste by the series’ standards but you do at least feel the writers and directors were trying to spice things up a bit, especially with the motorcycle gang and some of the dark humor sprinkled throughout.

Or maybe it’s just because this is the first time you feel that the carnage is taking center stage instead of the characters that makes this more enjoyable. Whatever the reason, “Friday the 13th Part 3” is the first really solid entry in the franchise.
[Grade: B]

4. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
Certainly the best of the series. First off, this is the best written out of all the films. While the cast is still a bit too large to be fully developed, several of the characters do have enough quirks to stick out. Corey Feldman actually gives a pretty good performance as the overly excited and typically resourceful Tommy Jarvis, who would go on to become something of Jason’s nemesis. At the end of the film, you actually feel some pathos with his character. Crispin Glover is highly entertaining and he really puts his twitchy stamp on his character. Just watch the famous spaz dancing scene for further proof. Erich Anderson, though not much of an actor, does actually have a mildly interesting character and Kimberly Beck is a decent scream queen.

The sense of dark humor is even stronger here then in the last film. Director Joseph Zito, who previously made another excellent slasher, “The Prowler,” actually does bring some mood to the proceedings.

There are really two stars here though. First off, Tom Savini’s gore effects are outstanding. He’s allowed to be more creative here then in the first film and really goes nuts. Bone saws, corkscrews, harpoons, and farming equipment as well as the standards knives, axes, and machetes (of course) are all implemented in the destruction of the human body, and not always in the way you expected. Then there’s Jason, himself. I don’t care what anybody says, but Ted White is the best Jason ever. He’s hardcore, relentless, and unforgiving but still injects the character with the creativity and child-like awe we associate with him. Even though it wouldn’t be the end of the franchise, this entry would certainly serve its purpose as an excellent swan song. [Grade: A]