Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: The Princess and the Frog

(I know I haven't updated in over a month. Been busy with finals, the holidays, and laziness. Expect more stuff after the turn of the year.)

I was pretty hyped for “The Princess and the Frog.” After many years of CGI mediocrity being inflicted on us, old-school animation nerds like me were really looking forward to this. And, all things considered, “The Princess and the Frog” delivers. First off, it really feels like a lost classic from Disney’s nineties golden period. The movie is gorgeous. Its color palette is so rich. The greens and blues have so much depth. The film has the painterly quality you associate with the best classic animation. You could get lost looking into any scenes. I don’t care what anybody says, but CGI has yet to deliver on the texture and weight that these scenes have. It’s wonderful to see traditional animation of this quality on the big screen for the first time in so long. I suppose it was a given that this would be visually beautiful, but it only matters so much if the movie drops the ball on every thing else.

First off, the most noticeable thing about the movie besides the visuals is the music. It’s been so long since there’s been a big-screen cartoon musical, it was actually a little off-putting at first. So much mileage is gotten out of the New Orleans setting. Jazz, gospel, and even zydeco are all local genres that are dipped into and gives the film an identity distinct from other Disney scores. Many of the musical numbers function in the same way as in the classics. “Down in New Orleans,” performed by natural choice Dr. John, establishes our location. “Almost There,” highlighted by beautiful art-deco style animation, sets up our lead character’s dreams and ambitions. (And what’s more important to a Disney Princess then her dreams and ambitions?) Both “When We’re Human” and “Gonna Take You There” are standard travel numbers. What would otherwise just be a scene of our characters getting from point A to B, is transformed into a big, character-developing song and dance. “Ma Belle Evangeline” is the “Kiss the Girl” of the twenty-first century, a colorful love ballad that is actually sung by someone other then our main couple, while that couple become even closer during the song. Both “Friends On the Other Side” and “Dig a Little Deeper” serve to introduce their respective characters.

The story follows the fairy tale archetype pretty closely. Our selfish prince learns to stop being such an asshole while also learning to love someone other then himself. There’s his put-upon manservant, who makes a deal with a devilish magician to get what he feels is coming to him. There’s wacky animal sidekicks, a jazz loving gator and a lovelorn Cajun firefly, both of whom get their wishes granted, but not in the expected ways. But there’s one important exception to this rule. Princess Tiana, instead of being a subservient victim like Snow White or Princess Aurora, or a rebelling teenage like Jasmine or Ariel, is a forward-thinking, hard-working young woman who has sacrificed and saved to make her dreams possible. She’s self-absorbed in a different way from Prince Naveen. Tiana is so focused on her objectives that she can’t share her love with anybody else. The movie even seems to go out of its way to contrast this Disney Princess for the modern century with the more typical princess concept, with the character of the Sugar Baron’s bratty daughter.

The voice cast is able and brings these characters to life. Keith David, maximum badass that he is, makes Dr. Facilier one of the most interesting Disney villains in a while. In that he is as much of a schemer as any other, but is actually in over his head and afraid of the shadowy specters that do his work. The way said shadow monsters are brought to life is quite striking and reminiscent of the visual style of “Nightmare Before Christmas.” (Just one of several possible references to other Disney works.) And while Ray the Firefly might lean a bit too much on the Cajun shtick, the character’s unrequited love is actually a touching aspect. Ray’s characters takes an unexpected turn at the end and, in a very gutsy move, the movie doesn’t wimp out. Not only is his arc resolved in a natural way, but an unexpectedly touching one as well.

Honestly, only one scene in the entire movie rings false. While the frog-hunting Bayou hicks are obviously a throw-back to the slapstick antics of fifties animation, the whole sequence is abrasive, too long, and frankly too stupid for a movie this good. The Mama Odie character also struck me as a little too broad.

Either way, “The Princess and the Frog” puts Disney Animation right back on top of the world as far as I’m concerned. It both subverts the classics and pays homage to them. It’s a truly a return to the classic style.
[Grade: A-]

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Viewing: Fourth and Final Week

The viewing sort of tapered for me this week. Work and classes made it hard to get up and put in a DVD though luckily Turner Classic Movies line-up was uniformly excellent.

Halloween was a bit of a disappointment, admittedly. I didn’t have any plans, didn’t dress up, and sort of had to throw something together at the last minute. JD was over again. In between movies, we pulled out the classic Playstation. I got killed a lot in the original “Resident Evil” but then proceeded to own his ass a half-dozen times in “Darkstalkers 3.” We pigged out on Reese's Sticks and odd creation from our local pizza parlor called "Pizza Nachoes."

We had three trick-or-treaters which might not sound like a lot but is an improvement over the zero we got the past two years. Glad I picked up candy just in case.

October 25th:

The Blob (1958)
It’s pure camp from beginning to end but I’d say the title creature’s inherited ick-factor rightfully insures it’s status as a minor classic (And it’s place in the Criterion Collection!) (7/10)

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
The gothic sets produce some fine atmosphere but, whoo, this one gets goofy before it’s over. (6/10)

S. Darko (2009)
Yes, it doesn’t balance the sub-plots, characters, or the inner logic of its universe as well as the first. And yes, the way it basically restarts the story several times is a cheat. However, I was really surprised by how well-made this is and was drawn in by the lead character and it’s story. (7/10)

October 26th:

Trick r’ Treat (2008)
Doesn’t beat “Creepshow” at it’s own game but at least some of the hype is deserved. I’d say the last story was the best. (7/10)

Season’s Greetings (1996)
A really cute short to build a feature on and I love the Charlie Brown gone evil look. (7/10)

October 27th:

Halloween 4: Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Formulaic sequel with one or two fun ideas. (Like Michael attacking a redneck lynch mob in the back of their pick-up truck.) Man, the mask and costume looks bad in this one. (6/10)

“Lost Tapes:” White River Monster
The whole episode takes place within a very small area, which makes for kind of stale viewing. (5/10)

The Children (2008)
I haven’t seen a lot of killer kid movies, but it’ll be hard to top this one. (8/10)

October 28th:

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1978)
There are few horror movies more fascinating then this one. (9/10)

October 29th:

Captive Wild Woman (1943)
I can see why Paula the Ape Woman never became as iconic as the other Universal monsters. (5/10)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
I’m beginning to think I must be a closet goth or something for liking this one so much. (8/10)

Halloween (1978)
You know, why did the sequels have to throw in the brother-sister connection? Myers stalks Laurie Strode because she showed up at the house that day. To build a mythology or back story around the character is ridiculous because it’s his distinct lack of those things that make him interesting in the first place. He’s just The Shape, the shadow, the other, the random cruelness of the world given form. (9/10)

October 30th:

Mad Love (1933)
I love all the macabre little details, the fantastic atmosphere, and Peter Loree’s career-defining, fantastically creepy performance. (9/10)

Dead Snow (2009)
Oh sure, we’ve seen most of this stuff all ready but, damn, I had a good time. I’d say it surpasses “Shock Waves” as best Nazi Zombie flick. (8/10)

October 31st:

Dinosaurs: “When Food Goes Bad”
“You killed Cabby!” is pretty much burnt into my brain from repeated childhood viewings of this episode. (7/10)

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966)
This Kindertrauma article makes me appreciate the Great Pumpkin even more. (8/10)

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985)
Not even the Garfield Minus Garfield method could improve this subpar effort. We really didn’t need those musical numbers. (5/10)

Night of the Creeps (1986)
Sure is nice to see this movie in high-definition after so many years of TV recordings and bootlegs. (9/10)

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: The Shaving
Willy Nelson is probably my favorite ATHF one-off character. (7/10)

The Shining (1980)
This is a good transitional movie. It’s scary as hell, making it perfect Halloween viewing, but its wintery setting gets you ready for the season ahead. (9/10)

So... That was Halloween. I'll do better next year.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween Viewing: Week Three

Internet problems prevented me from getting this up sooner. Sorry, guys.

October 18th:

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Sure, the “slacker gets life back together” plot is a little trite but I’m constantly amazed at just how good the rest of this movie is. Also, having seen “Spaced” now, it sort of ups my appreciation for this one. (9/10)

TerrorVision (1986)
It feels like they filmed a first draft. There are a number of clever ideas and scenes here but the whole thing feels very half-baked and unfocused. I dig the theme song. (5/10)

Matinee (1993)
The coming-of-age story is cute and well acted but I honestly think Dante should have just made “Mant!” as a feature instead. (7/10)

Poltergeist (1982)
When this movie kicks into scare gear, it’s really effective. I could do without all the Spielberg-y “love conquers all” schtick, but when where talking killer clown dolls, evil trees, giant ghost beasts, and tearing your own face off, I’m all there. (7/10)

October 19th:

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)
So buried in it’s own comic book extravagance that it comes very close to being completely ridiculous. By the same accord, it’s hard to argue with a period costume drama that has Mark Dacascos kicking people in the face. (7/10)

October 20th:

The Final Destination (2009)
I prefer to believe that Death is a sadistic bastard that allows people to escape his design just so he can murder them in contrived, ridiculous ways, rather then buy that every single structure around me is a rickety deathtrap waiting to happen. Ignited sawdust? (5/10)

“Lost Tapes”: Death Crawler
A couple isolated on an island full of giant, killer centipedes is actually a pretty good idea for a movie. (7/10)

The Fly (1986)
With an auteur like Cronenberg behind the wheel, it would’ve been good regardless, but Goldblum and Davis make this great. (9/10)

The Fly II (1989)
Pretty much on auto-pilot until the full-blown Martinfly makes his big appearance near the end, at which point it becomes a solid monster/splatter movie. Still the “good fly-monster vs. evil corporation” story is so simplistic compared to the complexity of the first. But hey, Princess Vespa’s got a decent sex scene. (5.5/10)

October 21st:

Ed Wood (1994)
I’m watching a lot of not-really-horror-movies this Halloween, aren’t I? Eh, a movie about the people who made horror movies is close enough. (9/10)

Hatred of a Minute (2002)
I appreciate what was attempted here but the movie can’t seem to decide if it’s a gorefest or a psychologically thriller. Either way, the indie-movie acting is what really undoes this one. (5/10)

Christine (1983)
Hey, I kind of love this movie! I’m as surprised as every one else is. (8/10)

October 22nd:

The Happening (2008)
Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the future, you see this one playing with “The Wicker Man” remake on an unintentional comedy double bill. (3/10)

Paranormal Activity (2007)
A creepy ghost flick that does some mildly clever things? Sure. Scariest movie ever made? No fucking way. With the amount of hype and marketing behind this one, just about any movie could’ve been pushed to this level of success. (7/10)

October 23rd:

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Julie Adams and the Creature will always be my favorite horror couple. (9/10)

Basket Case (1982)
They don’t make high quality trash cinema like this anymore. (7/10)

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
There’s much more slow-mo in this then I remember but I maintain that this is the best “Freddy vs. Jason” movie that could've been made. (8/10)

The Prey (1984): Uncut
I suppose this is the superior cut. The often discussed, rarely seen softcore footage is forced in but fascinating. Most of the nature footage is gone, quickening the pace considerably. However, my heart still belongs to the classic version, with the scenes of Jackson “Shazam!” Bostwick talking to a deer and rocking a hardcore banjo solo inserted into the movie at seemingly random intervals. (7/10)

(Big thanks goes out to Joseph at The-Bodycount-Continues for getting me a copy of this rarity.)

October 24th:

Bad Ronald (1974)
There’s admittedly a lot of TV movie creakiness here but the concept of someone stalking you from within your own home is quite creepy. (7/10)

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
I’d like to say this is the unfairly maligned Blackhorse entry in the franchise, but it’s not. It’s truthfully just not a very good movie. Tom Atkins’ sleazy performance is all that kept my attention. (5/10)

As we head into October's final week, with Halloween right around the corner, I'll try and get as much stuff watched this week as possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Halloween Viewing: Week Two

Classes and the flu kept me from seeing as much as I wanted to this week.

Did I mention I finished reading Richard Laymon's "The Cellar" earlier this month? After reading and liking a few Jack Ketchum novels, Laymon was recommended to me as the next logical step in my journey into splatter-punk. I figure his first published novel and one of his most popular books would be a good place to start. I liked it, for the most part. The murder, rape, and general abuse of children is all typical eighties shock stuff, but what I really liked about the book was the almost old-fashion "monster in an old house" premise it has. The whole thing plays out a bit like a darker, much more twisted EC Comic. I thought the down beat ending was unnecessary though. So, I'm thinking "Island" is going to be the next of this author I read. What do you think, readers? Any suggestions?

Anyway, on with the list.

October 10th:

Werewolf of London (1935)Considering how much the modern werewolf genre is informed by “The Wolfman,” it’s fun to think about how things would be different if this movie was more successful in it’s time. On it’s own, it’s a pretty solid Jekyll and Hyde riff though Henry Hull is sort of a dick the whole time, even before his transformation. (7/10)

The Hunger (1983)
There’s some pretty visuals here but it’s not surprising that the lesbian love scene is all people seem to remember about this movie. (6/10) (Also, isn’t it weird that Cliff De Young, seen playing Brad last night in “Shock Treatment,” plays the lover of Susan Sarandon, the original Janet, in this movie? That’s weird, right?)

Theatre of Blood (1973)
A more twisted and, appropriately, more theatrical take on the Dr. Phibes formula. One of Price’s best roles and pretty much without questions his goriest film. (8/10)

October 11th:

The Invisible Man (1933)
This has got to be one of the earliest examples of a true horror-comedy. (8/10)

Lord of the Flies (1963)
Just as slow as the book but less overwrought. (5/10)

October 12th:

Don’t Look Now (1973)
The movie gets kudos for it’s fantastic score, great lead performances, and startling visual style. I don’t know why this is always referred to as a horror film, it’s more of a thriller. The murder subplot is tedious but even knowing the ending before hand can’t rob it of its power. (8/10)

The Mummy (1932)
More spiritual, romantic, and creepier then “Dracula,” the film its most often compared to. (8/10)

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
A fun, pulpy adventure flick. (7/10)

October 13th:

Reincarnation (2005)
Some of the trippy shit and studying of film differentiates it from the J-horror glut, but even the Japanese had to be groaning about how they had seen so much of this before. (5/10)

“Lost Tapes:” Werewolf
I’ll admit that the twist ending caught me off-guard. (6/10)

“Lost Tapes:” Skinwalker
Some okay build-up but the conclusion was really goofy. (5/10)

October 15th:

Phantom of the Opera (1925)
That this movie is over eighties years old and is still the most faithful adaptation of the book, among countless others, is kind of sad. Still, stiff direction aside, Chaney’s performance makes this a complete classic. (8/10)

Dead End (2003)
The great cast and mid-way turn into horror/comedy makes this a good time. It’s also about an hour longer then it needs to be. Coupled with the obvious twist ending, I bet this would’ve made a pretty awesome “Twilight Zone” episode. (7/10)

Tower of London (1939)
Rathbone and Karloff are mesmerizing (I love the scene where Richard suggests something so awful it even makes the immoral Mord pause.) but the movie falters when focusing on any of the other characters or the convoluted royal family stuff. I prefer Roger Cormon’s remake. (6/10)

October 16th:

“Psych:” Let's Get Hairy
Not as classic as the slasher episode from last season but it’s good to see David Naughton getting work, and the “Hungry like the Wolf” montage made the whole episode worth while. (7/10)

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)
This movie is real underrated. It’s sort of the perfect crossroad between the classical horror of the 30s and 40s and the exploitation horror of the late sixties and seventies. Not to mention that the Merrye clan is such a fascinating, interesting group of character. A sequel or two that explored their dynamic more would’ve been great. (9/10)

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
I love the scene where Audrey II leans forward and checks for loose change in the pay phone. That’s a gag that costs hundreds of dollars and hours of work that you might miss if you blink. Talk about a commitment to comedy! (9/10)

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
The demon-hand-o-vision is my favorite shot in the movie. (9/10)

Grace (2009)
The subplots needed to be cut but, at the same time, it needed to be longer. However, Jordan Ladd’s performance and that shocker ending makes it worth while. (7/10)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Halloween Viewing: Week One

So, it's October, in case you hadn't notice. Halloween's coming up and, as a horror fan, I use this as an excuse to watch a whole bunch of my genre favorites.

However, seeing as how I didn't have anything formal prepared for this blog, I was just going to let this month go by without anything happening. But, after looking at how every other film blog under the sun is getting in on the fun, I couldn't resist. If I'm having a horror movie marathon anyway, why not do brief write-ups for each one I watch?

Anyway, I started this year's marathon the way I start every year: With viewings of many of the classic Universal monster movies, because these films are what I asscioate the Halloweens of my childhood with. I want to do a Report Card of some sort for this series some day but these mini-reviews will do for now. A recent Horror Etc. podcast also got me in the mood to revisit some Vincent Price classics I hadn't seen in a while. Also peppered throughout are stuff from my Netflix queue and whatever recent horror TV shows and movies I catch.

October 4th:

Frankenstein (1931)
Perhaps the single most iconic horror film ever made and one that will live forever. (9/10)

Dracula (1931)
Staginess aside, I’ll admit to liking this one more and more every time I see it. It's classical Gothic imagery strikes a cord. (8/10)

Feast III: The Happy Ending (2009)
I liked the giant robot and the alt chick’s tits and nothing else. (4/10)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Maybe the best horror sequel of all time and just the sort of classy affair I needed to clean my pallet after that shitty DTV sequel. (9/10)

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)Still not a fan of the comic relief or romantic subplots, but it’s heavy character-driven story and feminist subtext makes it one of the most subtle of the original Universal horror cycle. Also, I think this might be the first time vampirism was shown as an addiction. (8/10)

October 5th:

Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932)
The Expressionistic atmosphere sure goes a long way, making this one of the creepier of the original classics. (7/10)

House of Wax (1953)
Pretty hokey by today’s standards but this movie made me a Vincent Price fan. (7/10)

October 6th:

Zombieland (2009)
I liked the zombie killing, not so much the Twinky obsession. (7/10)

The Black Cat (1934)
My original complaint about this was I couldn’t buy Lugosi as the hero and Karloff as the villain. I see now that what’s brilliant about this movie is the way it plays these two icons against each other and both are casted against type. Lugosi gives one of his best performances as the revenge obsessed man while Karloff is at his most sinister. (8/10)

“Lost Tapes”: Southern Sasquatch
The redneck stuff is pretty campy but the monster aspects are convincing. (6/10)

“Lost Tapes”: Chupacabra
Maybe a little light on Chupa-content but not a bad example of what this show does well. (6/10)

The Raven (1935)
A much more traditional film then “The Black Cat” but Lugosi and Karloff are still great together. (7/10)

The Fly (1958)
That a cheesy, dialogue-and-character-driven, 50s reactionary, domestic sci-fi drama like this could be nine year old me’s favorite movie says more about me then it does this movie. Still, the acting is awfully good and Andre-Fly scrawling “I love you” on the chalkboard is still kinda’ heartbreaking. (9/10)

October 7th:

The Wolfman (1941)After seeing this multiple times now, I think I can say the “Vertigo”-style freak-out is my favorite scene. (8/10)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)There’s sincerity and almost sweetness about this campy predecessor to slashers films and modern torture horror. (8/10)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)
I would’ve preferred a solo Wolfman sequel because the Frankenstein aspect seems a little forced in and Lugosi was a lousy monster. Still, you can’t fault the fun factor of the very first monster mash. (7/10)

October 09:

Old pal JD picked out this night’s viewing, two flicks he's been wanting to see for a while but hadn't gotten around to yet. Thus the slightly unsensonal choices.

Shock Treatment (1981)
I remember this movie being less bad last time I watched it, but I still like the music. (6/10)

My Bloody Valentine (1981): Extended Cut
The nasty gore is what people remember but this essential retro-slasher has also got a lovable cast of characters. (7/10)

Come back next week for more fun!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2006-2008)

3. The Woods
When “The Woods” first came out, I was disappointed. I found the story to be overly vague. I found it lacking in the intense visual style of “May” and generally paling in comparison to that film. Perhaps I was predestined to have a low opinion after such a great debut. That the movie sat on a shelf for over a year certainly didn’t help any preconceived notions.

Re-watching it now a few years removed from my initial anticipation, my view is more positive. “The Woods” still isn’t a great picture but it does manage to bring the creepy several times throughout its runtime. It has often been compared to “Suspiria.” That’s apt. We all ready know Lucky is an Argento fan and the witches/isolated girls school combo is a deliberate reference. More then anything else, it’s the sound design that recalls Dario’s often touted classic. There aren’t any swirling Goblin synth but creepy, whispered voices (provided by none other then Angela Bettis) fill out the background sounds. “Witch!” is even shouted once. The music, with its female crooning, also helps the feel. (Who knew Lesley Gore could be spooky?)

To say that Lucky has lost his style by transferring to a bigger studio was wrong. It’s his style that provides the movie with the atmosphere it has. The shadows of the woods and the school’s hallways give off an unsettling vibe. The music hall, in particular, is awfully moody. The big finale, which also recalls “Suspiria,” proves to be the spookiest bit in the movie as the past, present and some gross gore come at us in quick succession. One of my preliminary issues was the story seemed to have a lot of mysterious things planned but left most of these threads unexplained. Reevaluating now, I find a lot more is explained then I’d realized. All the puzzle pieces are presented and it’s up to the audience to put it together.
When the movie is focusing on creepy shadows and paranoid conspiracies, it’s relatively successful. When the CGI tree monsters start to attack, that’s not so successful. The attack that leads to the climax almost works but the other two tree sequences, in particular the one involving the cop, fall laughably flat.

The cast is solid enough. Agnes Bruckner is a likable lead, Patricia Clarkson underplays a little bit but has a few moments, Lauren Birkell and Rachel Nichols do well in their respective parts of best friend and queen bitch. And Bruce Campbell, god bless him, actually acts this time, expanding pass his Ash persona to play a worried, pushover Daddy, before picking up an axe again at story’s end. It’s one of his best performances.

Ultimately, my biggest problem with “The Woods” remains. Against “May,” a layered, powerful, personal horror picture, “The Woods” seems thin in comparison. It’s an atmospheric dark fairy tale without much more to say beyond a few fun lesbian undertones. (It’s a McKee film, after all.) Good to watch but never a big favorite.
[Grade: B]

4. Red (with Trygve Allister Diesen)
“Red” was a very troubled production. Lucky McKee, obviously a big fan of author Jack Ketchum after producing the adaptation of “The Lost,” has been wanting to make the movie for years. Things eventually came together with a great cast and everything seemed to be going well. And then, after more then half of the movie was shot, Lucky was fired. Nobody involved with the decision seems interested in saying why he was let go. Either way, about a year later an unknown Swedish director named Trygve Diesen was brought on to finish up the movie. In the end, both directors were given credit. Nobody has seen anything Diesen has done before this, but he seems confident. You certainly can’t tell that this is the product of two different directors.

I’m a fan of Ketchum and “Red,” despite being a fairly simplistic morality play, is probably my favorite writing of his, out of what I’ve read. The old adage of the movie never being as good as the book proves true but it seems silly to criticize the differences in media. The movie is very faithful, only cutting out a few characters and removing an unnecessary romantic subplot.

The biggest coup here is Brian Cox in the lead. Mr. Cox is a great character actor and too rarely given a lead role. He’s perfectly cast as Avery Ludlow, an old man who has lost a lot in his life and is only asking for those who have cause his pain to own up to it. Cox is quiet and his blue eyes convey a lot of sorrow. Halfway through the movie, Cox delivers a deeply affecting monologue. Instead of cutting to a flashback, the movie wisely decides to focuses in on his face as he tells his sad tale. None of the other characters are as developed as Ludlow but there is still some talent in the cast. Kyle Gallner is the best of the supporting turns, while Tom Sizemore plays his typical asshole part and Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer stop by for cameos. Kim Dickens is good enough but I would have preferred to have seen what Angela Bettis, who was originally cast in the part, could have done with the role.
The direction is low key, lacking some of the stylistic flourish of McKee’s past films, but it goes with the quiet tone. Dogs are a reoccurring symbol here, representing kindness and unconditional love in comparison to the senseless cruelty and ignorance of mankind. I also like the fades to red that are used a few times.

The finale probably should have been more suspenseful. I do love the resolution, which nicely shows how hope springs eternal. “Red” is a quiet and thoughtful production, more of a drama then a thriller, with a great lead performance and some resonating concepts at its center.
[Grade: B]

So, what's Lucky been up to recently? Well, he made a short for X-Box Live along with a bunch of other neat directors. I haven't seen it because I don't have a fucking X-Box 360. Beyond that, it's kinda' quiet. He's been linked to both a remake of "Fiend Without a Face" and an adaptation of Brian Harper's novel "Shiver," but nothing's come of those yet. He is supposedly writing something for Chris Sivertson called "Hippy" that was starring Lindsay Lohan at one point. I'm not sure if that's actually getting made. Whatever he does next, I'm probably going to support and watch it. You should too!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2001-2002)

Lucky McKee is the best filmmaker to come out of the horror boom earlier this decade. I'm a massive, massive nerd for everything he's done. Needless to say, this report card will be filled with even more endless rambling then usual.

1. All Cheerleaders Die (with Chris Sivertson)
I shouldn’t even be watching “All Cheerleaders Die.” It’s never been given an official home video release and is only owned by cast/crew members. If you’re watching it, chances are you bought a gray market release and are a dirty, dirty, thief and should feel awful about yourself. Ahem.

Anyway, this is something Lucky and his pal Chris Sivertson (The madman responsible for the underrated “The Lost” and the much better then you’ve heard “I Know Who Killed Me.” Not to mention the “Jack and Jill” short in “May.”) threw together for fun. In the sea of shot-on-video garbage out there, the movie certainly stands out. Yes, the production values are as low as you’d expect. None of the gore is all that convincing and there are numerous unintentional lens flares. (At least the filmmakers knew better then to attempt any day-for-night shots.) The whole thing is pretty low rent and gritty. It’s jarring at first but once you get use to the aesthetic, you might find a pretty entertaining little flick.

Not all of the acting is of high quality, Shelli Merril and her unconvincing accent is especially embarrassing and Jesse Hlubik is the only half-way convincing football player, but most of the performances are acceptable, with some of them even being good with some nice, subtle physical details. There’s plenty of pot smoking throughout, even a “Doobie Count” at the end of the credits, but no nudity as Joe Bob Briggs is quick to point out. The one sex scene is shot extremely awkwardly. It’s pretty clear no one was comfortable with that.
The premise of boys and girls going against each other proves that even in these humble beginnings, McKee had more on his mind then just mindless carnage. When the cheerleaders come out on top, the guys loose it. Violence follows, as does a legitimately shocking bear trap gag. The scene cuts to five years later, something I thought was a mistake at first, but before you know it, the zombies are out of their graves and full-blown chaos erupts. It’s pretty clear that any thoughts on gender theory have been tossed aside when the gut munching commences. But, hey, when you got a motorcycles going into a lake, disembowelments, high school reunion massacres, and the big tree-branch French kissing scene, who can complain?

Yes, the zombie make-up isn’t very good and the “Evil Dead” inspired stick attack is really bad, but stuff flies by at such a frantic, manic, fun, pace, you can’t stop to focus on the shortcomings. Honestly, when isn’t zombie carnage set to death metal awesome? The movie is very short, minus the ten minute joke-ridden credits, so it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome and the ending is even sort of touching. With actors credited as Peckawood and Dirty Ernie, “All Cheerleaders Die” feels like an extended in-joke and has continued to be. It’s a treat for the director’s fans and horror buffs who can really handle low budgets will probably enjoy it too.
[Grade: B]

2. May 
Oh boy. What to say about “May?” “Watching this movie is like slipping on a comfortable pair of old slippers?” “It’s like Argento with a heart?” Some other magazine friendly by-line? No, no. I love this movie. I love it like a spouse. If it was a person, I would want to marry it, go everywhere with it, make sweet sweet love to it, so on.

When I first saw “May” it touched me on a deeply personal level. Maybe more then I should be proud of, I saw a great deal of myself up on the screen. It seems to me, what Lucky McKee did here, was, without fear, cast all the awkwardness, humiliation, and hurt of being an outcast up on the screen. He gives voice to any number of deep personal pains. He brings them to life literally before bringing them into existence in a pure, bloody, visceral way. There really isn’t any more I can say about that without just dissolving into totally incomprehensible fan-drooling.

So, what else? The movie is really pretty to look out. The use of color is brilliant and each one of the frames has an amazing depth to them. The two combine to create a singular visual fingerprint that, even if the movie had nothing else, cements “May” as a horror classic.

But it has everything else. It feels almost redundant by this point to laud Angela Bettis. But I’ll do it anyway. She’s really uncontrollably essential, all encompassing great. I love you, Angela. You’re beautiful, you’re amazing, you make May into a human being. Not just a great character, but a real person. I really can’t heap enough praise onto her for this performance. The rest of the cast is pretty good. Anna Farris, she of the increasingly weak low brawl comedies, is really sexy, a stereotypical lipstick lesbian, but alluring none the less. Jeremy Sisto is good too, giving Adam a number of angles. James Duvall, he of the indie film cred, has a hilarious small part. (“You wanna’ get some Jujubees with me?” is the best line in the movie.)

The music, by indie singer Jaye Barnes Luckett, is fantastic, incredibly moody, a mixture of very creepy choir music and emotional rock songs. This is a good example of a film that wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the music.

Okay, enough of the functional criticism and review. I’ve seen the movie many times, obviously, and every time I notice something new. The movie is rife with symbols. Not necessarily symbols in the sense that they mean something to the world at large, but in a deep Jung-ian way. May is a fetishist. She obsesses over tiny, individual things. The big things, the body parts she latches on to, or the small things. They are many repeated images here that you might only catch on repeat viewings and, despite the temptation to do so, I won’t reveal them. (Broken glass, cigarettes, limbs, toy knives, showers, fabric, dolls… Oh poo, I ruined it.) The movie’s funny too, with most of the humor coming from the great, memorable dialogue.

Oh, I haven’t talked about the dolls yet! Soozy, May’s best friend, a doll encased in glass, is a character onto herself. It never comes alive, it doesn’t have to. It’s creepier just staring. And maybe the cracking glass isn’t the most subtle metaphor but the movie makes it work, especially the sound more then anything else. Soozy leads to one of the most iconic horror moments in the movie. If all the, you know, talking and thinking and such turns off the crazy gorehound horror fans, they’ll at least remember the scene people who have seen the movie know what I’m talking about.
A common criticism waged against the movie is May’s evolution from painfully shy lonely nerd to serial killer. A sudden character shift might be appropriate, considering the mind breaking events that proceeded, but I don’t think that was the intention. Especially after May returns to her apartment afterwards, where she resorts to her normal personality. When her Halloween costume goes on, she becomes Soozy, of course. May assumes a persona, to allow her to do what she must. And the ending, a point of debate for some. I’d say its one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t have it any other way. (There’s a key to understanding the final scene. Earlier, Polly gives a throw-away line, “It’s our imperfections that make us special.” You’ll get it now if you didn’t all ready.)

Okay, so I guess I should point out some imperfections here. I can stand back and see that, maybe, the movie tries to be a little too quirky for its own good, especially earlier on. My one real problem is the opening scene. Though it’s probably a great idea to open a horror movie with a screaming woman, I feel it shows too much, too early. I’ve rambled long enough. “May” is the best horror of the last ten years and one of my all-time favorites.
[Grade: A]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Delightful Water Universe (2009)

So, it’s 2009, and what has Trent Harris been up to all this time? Well, some documentary shorts have been made, some books written. The last thing I saw with his name on it were a few video/music collages done for the “Hearing Voices” website. (A few of which are on the YouTube.) And then, seemingly out of nowhere, “Delightful Water Universe” crops up.

What to say of it? Well, first off, Harris fans (How many of us are out there?) will probably go ga-ga over it. What will everyone else think? Who cares! Right out of gate, the movie inundates us with his unique brand of weirdness. The movie claims to be based on true events that will take place in the future. From here, we are reintroduced to the director’s trademarks. Plenty of funny, quotable dialogue, most of it in the form of obtuse insults, are on display here. (The writer/director can’t take credit for the highly amusing real Dan Quyale quotes that are trotted out a few times.) Perhaps more important is the odd story which involves a number of things, such as a dark future where corporations own everything and Bigfoot controls our thoughts with a hat made of windshield wipers. A vast conspiracy threatens to unleash the Delightful Water Universe on the world, enslaving us all to prime-time television.
Or is it? Perhaps the whole thing is just the incoherent ramblings of a nut locked up in an asylum, besieged on all sides by paranoid beliefs and delusions, and an apparent Burning Man festival going on just outside his walls.

Off-beat obviously but the movie is not as immediately accessible as some of Harris’ previous work. The whole thing is set up as a novel, leading to a heavy use of voiceover narration. Initially, it’s slightly off-putting and takes some getting use to. Also, one of the running jokes here, is that a lot of the big action takes place off-screen. Some times things are just described to us, more often we are presented with blindly artful montages. The best sequence in the film is such a scene standing in place of a wild sex scene. Instead of the hot action, we see the characters doing odd dances all set to infectious electronic music. (Also apparently composed by Harris. What doesn’t that guy do?) Though certainly a response to the paltry budget, this ends up working very well. These are moments of pure art tossed into the middle of the movie that somehow not manages to sidetrack or derail the momentum of the story. The other montages composed of old stock footage are less successful though no less hypnotic. And the long bits of underwear clad hotties seem slightly out of the place, even if it makes sense. (The movie has an overall sense of sad horniness, which it actually ends up justifying before the conclusion.)

Bill Allred isn’t buyable as a lady’s man, a joke the movie is in on, but is an amusing, easy to hang out with lead. Stefene Russell resurfaces for the first time since “Plan 10 from Outer Space” and shows the same sort of easy charm she did in that film, even if her Elmer Fudd lisp growls old by the end. However, it’s Dan Morley that gives the best performance, captivating in his derangement as the captured author that is writing the story we’re watching.
As much as I’d like to proclaim it as, “Delightful Water Universe” isn’t a full-fledged obscure weird classics like “Rubin and Ed.” The movie doesn’t really have an ending and instead just sort of circles out of logic before finishing up. Neither of the stories present have a proper conclusion and I can’t help but wonder if funding ran out or something. But still, there’s an emotional completeness here. Even if some things are left up in the air, the characters arrive at a better place then they began. The DVD case proclaims “Delightful Water Universe” as about heroic misfits, for heroic misfits. Truthful, as always. Not perfect but too infectiously quirky not to embrace, it sits proud among the rest of Trent Harris’ filmography. I mean, hell, it’s got a random musical number. You can’t resist the charms, it’ll make you as happy as a clam. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Director's Report Card: Wes Anderson (2001-2007)

3. The Royal Tenenbaums
“The Royal Tenenbaums” is distinctive for having one of the best opening sequences of all time. Within a few minutes, it successfully introduces all of the lead characters, the film’s visual style and tone, while never coming off as boring or heavy-handed. Much like “Rushmore” was framed as a stage play, this film is framed like a novel. Which is very appropriate, given that it feels a great deal like a novel. Not in the sense that it’s story wanders on for a few unnecessary hundred pages but in a lyrical sense. That a good portion of the film is narrated by an omnipresent voice, provided by Alec Baldwin, only helps along this feeling. Another important aspect that helps along the feel is the painted, novel dust jacket style art design, many of which provided by Wes Anderson’s brother, Eric.

While the movie’s look contributes so much to its success, it’s obviously the characters that make it as good as it is. It’s rare that you see a film where you love every single character and want to spend as much time with them as possible. Every character, from Royal Tenenbaum himself to the afflicted youth Dudley, is great. Equally, each actor does a great job, many giving career best. One of the things that create such strong characters are the layers applied to them. Each one of the Tenenbaum children are given a personal musical theme, while, I feel, each one also has an animal symbolic of them throughout the film. (Chas Tenenbaum is dogs, Margot is the spotted mice, while Richie is Mordicai the Falcon, probably the most personable falcon to ever be on film.) Reading to much into it? Probably not, consider the movie and director were talking about. Though Royal Tenenbaum fits into the Gene Hackman “type,” it’s still a great performance from him, exciting, energetic, selfish, but undeniably lovable. He seems like the type of character you’d love to have as a friend but not as a father. Bill Murray is so low-key he’s practically asleep. Danny Glover is also agreeably laconic. Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller both give subdued, subtle performances, while Owen the other Wilson goes far in the other direction, creating an entertaining kook.

Though it would be easy to only laud the cast, I really think the film as a whole belongs to Wes Anderson. His dry and slightly slanted wit thrives in every frame of the film and little time passes between each hilarious line of dialogue or off-handed quirky comment. Though the film is certainly very funny, it is just as effective as a drama as it is a comedy. There is a palatable melancholy floating under the whole time which culminates in the suicide scene, a moment that might be out of place in most comedies but works here. The scene is one of the highlights and pretty much trumps every other movie’s use of an Elliot Smith song.

Ultimately, you want each of the characters to succeed in their personal endeavors. Because they are human, you are allowed to laugh at their follies, but because the viewer is human, you are allowed to relate to their failures. The movie leaves me with a good feeling every time I see it because with every rewatch it’s like revisiting a group of old friends and because of its refreshing, quirky, funny mood.
[Grade: A]

4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Despite dividing audiences even more then usual, I feel “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is perhaps the Anderson film with the most replay value. It’s certainly the one with the most cult feel and the one that plays best over time. It’s a movie he’s been preparing to make for some time, considering his interest in Cousteau that has popped up in his previous efforts.

It’s the film that reinstated my faith in Bill Murray. After delving more and more into increasingly inaccessible pretentious indie films in which he brought nothing but a bored, detached moroseness (Including the vastly overrated “Lost in Translation.”), he actually acts in this one and is also for the first time in many years, seriously funny. While the interior disappointment and depression is here as always, Steve Zissou provides Murray with a detailed, multifaceted character. He’s cynical, lazy, over the hill, bitter, fully expecting everyone he’s ever cared about to abandon him, and full of self-loathing… Did I mention completely lovable? With a facial expressions or especially a funny turn of line, Murray reveals so much about Zissou while making him easily he’s most relatable and accomplished performance in some time.

But, least we forget, this is an ensemble film as well. While Owen Wilson’s accent is distracting, Willem DeFoe’s exaggerated German accent is funny but not as nearly as amusing as his performance. While relegated to playing psychos most of the time, he proves to be an accomplished comedic actor here, mugging like a petulant child at times, the constantly under-appreciated member of the crew. Jeff Goldblum also proves to be hilarious as Zissou’s rival, an expert in passive-aggression that mostly just seems to be good at everything Steve isn’t. As for the other cast members, Cate Blanchet is fine if unextraordinary and Angelica Huston is accomplished enough while Bud Cort has a great small role.

Music has always been featured heavily in Anderson’s film but it takes on a bigger importance there. Mark Mothersbough contributes another quirky, effectively tinny score which serves as a punch line on several occasions. Devo, The Stooges, and The Zombies are used well but it’s really the acoustic, Portuguese covers of Bowie songs that provide a large deal of personality here. To a major Bowie nerd as myself, this is just like a series of amusement tickling in-jokes. And, heck, it’s pretty much impossible not to get a kick when the opening bars to “Queen Bitch” start up at the end.

Henry Salick’s stop-motion creatures add a surreal, lyrical level, pushing the movie into its own little universe. Some people have called the big action sequences out of place but, I don’t know, the Rambo style breakdowns really breaks up the static. And, finally, this might be Wes’ funniest film or, at the very least, contains his funniest dialogue. From the interns, to the bound company stooges, Cody, revenge, dynamite, those goddamn dolphins… So on. Maybe it is too quirky for quirkiness’ sake for some people or maybe Wes Anderson just isn’t cool in the prep-school eyes of film critic cliques, but “The Life Aquatic” is awesome in my eyes, his most unhinged, inspired, comical journey to date.
[Grade: A]

5. The Darjeeling Limited
I love how this movie looks. Every thing is so colorful, every shot is filled with something bright blue or a soft sandy yellow. If this isn’t an influence of Indian film, maybe it’s just from the country itself. The beauty of India is shown off at seemingly every opportunity and adds a lot of character.

Beyond the gorgeous setting, the movie is pretty basic Wes Anderson. The tale of a dysfunctional family coming together and attempting to heal their wounds certainly isn’t anything new. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrian Brody (in a part that feels like it was written for Luke Wilson) are all game and give good performances but none of their brothers are as likable or memorable as Anderson’s past protagonists. Though the movie is filled with at least two moments of inspired hilarity and at least one more of sullen sadness, the film is never as funny nor as emotionally effective as previous efforts.

The use of music, set design, and direction is at least as brilliant as the rest of Anderson’s catalog and I do love the numerous reoccurring symbols and motifs as well as Bill Murray’s just-for-fun cameo.

Don’t get the impression that “The Darjeeling Limited” isn’t good- it’s well-acted, expertly written, and ends with the same heart-filling humor and warmth as the director’s other movies. It’s just not as good, and maybe is a little disappointing because of that. Make sure to watch the short film, “Hotel Chevalier,” first as there are some minor moments that don’t make any sense without it.
[Grade: B+]

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson's first venture into animation and based on the children's book by Roald Dahl, is suppose to come out this fall. That's sounds pretty interesting, right?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Director's Report Card: Wes Anderson (1996-1998)

So it's back to business as usual for the ol' movie blog now. Here's a report card for the director responsible for the majority of my Criterion collection.

1. Bottle Rocket
In today’s world when the quirky indie comedy is largely a genre onto itself, it’s sort of interesting to go back to the beginning, before that concept was so overplayed. “Bottle Rocket,” in addition to being the beginning of that sub-genre, more or less, also comes out of the door as a bold statement for Wes Anderson. His style is apparent pretty much from the opening scene. And while it hadn’t totally developed to the strength and instantly recognition that would later happen, you can definitely see the roots. We’ve got a story revolving around a group of misfits character, with the lead being a total rogue, trying to bring his wacky plans to fruition, much to the chagrin of everyone around him. You’ve got heavy use of early English pop/rock and an eccentric, catchy score courtesy of Devo’s Mark Mothersbough.

And, of course, the Wilson brothers. (All three of them actually. Andrew has a small role as super prick Future Man.) Now a days, when both brothers are associated with highly advertised but shallow studio comedies, usually of the romantic or family variety, it might be hard to remember they were actually talented once. It’s really Owen that shines here. While Luke’s often conflicted and concerned lead certainly isn’t a light job, Owen’s Dignan is obviously the most interesting character in the film and drives much of the action.

Actually, it’s in the second act, when the story’s focus shifts to the romantic subplot, that the movie falters. While fun to watch in its own right, compared to the very funny botched heist elements of the beginning, it seems mostly laugh-free. The movie makes up for this problem by returning to another messed up heist for the awesome conclusion, a brilliant series of humorous sequence that pretty much makes the whole movie.

The supporting cast is all right, with James Caan and Lumi Cavazos making impressions, though I found Robert Musgrave slightly annoying. While he would easily top it over time, “Bottle Rocket” is a good beginning for Anderson and certainly shows off his stylistic trademarks.
[Grade: B]

2. Rushmore
It’s really fascinating to see a director’s style evolve from film to film, especially if that director’s style was distinct to begin with. “Rushmore” is a full scale improvement over “Bottle Rocket” and displays Wes Anderson really coming into his own as a filmmaker.

First off, it’s much funnier. The razor sharp, endlessly quotable, laugh-out-loud dialogue makes it first appearance. Honestly, a lot of the lines here had me bowling over with laughter. Also appearing are a number of subtle sight gags, like the nonsensical appearances of Halloween costumes or, most notably, Max’s (in)famous stage productions. Midway through the film, the one-up-man-ship between Murray and Schwartzman provides some of the biggest laughs of the picture.

Of course, “Rushmore” isn’t just a highly successful comedy. It's primary a focused character study. (Maybe that’s the biggest different between “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore.” A sense of focus on one character.) Max certainly proves to be one of Anderson’s most memorable characters. A hero to a whole generation of overachievers, attempting to do everything at once without really succeeding at any of them, the character is a little hard to pin down and could very well be unique. Maybe most interesting is how the movie avoids the typical coming-of-age story clichés. Max grows throughout the story but how much does he really mature? Maybe the most important lesson he grabs is which battles to fight. Either way, Jason Schwartzman is awesome, fully becoming the character, delivering a break-out part if I’ve ever seen one.

Another important event to happen here was Anderson’s first collaboration with Bill Murray. A lot has been written about the direction Murray’s career would take following this film. His journey from cut-up Hollywood class clown into melancholy, slightly pretentious, indie film mainstay started here. It had been coming a long time. Murray isn’t just depressed the whole movie, providing plenty of laughs of his own, proving the comedy sophistication that was always lurking below the surface. Olivia Williams, playing the object of obsession for both man and boy, seems to one of the few semi-grown up people in the movie. She’s enchanting and you can see how easily both could fall for her. Points need to be thrown out to Mason Gamble and Stephen McCole, both hysterical, and Sara Tanaka, who I probably would’ve had a crush on if I she went to school with me.

All the other Anderson pieces are in place: The montages set to English pop music and the Mothersburgh score that’s as eccentric as the movie. It’s the first one hundred percent Wes Anderson movie and his first real triumphant.
[Grade: A-]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (2009)

11. Star Trek
Go back a few of years. The duel failure of “Nemesis” and “Enterprise” has sunk “Star Trek,” with even the head of Paramount saying the franchise is dead. Over time, news trickles out concerning plans for a prequel. Right, because those always work out so well.

2007: Hotshot J.J. Abrams will be steering the new ship, retrofitting Trek’s old parts for today’s hip youth. Casting news, images, teaser trailers, release date changes, and more came steadily afterward, an uneasy cloud of uncertainty hanging over it all. Even after the kick-ass full trailer, I wasn’t sure it would be any good. Sitting in my theater seat, munching on my popcorn, I still wasn’t sure. Honestly, it wasn’t until about twenty minutes in I was convinced that this was going to rock. It gets off to a shaky start, what with the slightly unconvincing opening battle and Little Kirk rocking the Beastie Boys (Sabotaage, anyone?), and there are a smattering of problems: Abram’s over reliance on modern music video shaky-cam tactics and lens flares, uneven comic relief and Anton Yelchin’s jokey Chekov prime among them.

Ultimately, these squabbles are minor. The movie successfully revives the old girl. The universe is crafted with love for the past but risks are taken. In addition to the cool modern new look for everything, the story takes some big leaps and gleefully breaks established rules. While the phaser fights aren’t all great, the ship battles look more epic then ever before. The script is tight with the rescue of Pike and fate of the Federation providing a driving dramatic force. But, the characters have always been the heart of the matter and I’m happy to report the heart is healthy. The real revelation is Zachary Qunito as Spock. The amount of time and thought he put into the character is obvious. I love that you can see his conflict over his emotions in his face throughout. It is a phenomenal performance and, dare I say, better then the original.

A great thing about the script is how everyone gets equal screen time. Each crew member has a full arc and are important to the story. The rest of the cast easily cements themselves as the new versions of these classic characters. Chris Pine really had something to prove as Kirk. His bad boy persona straddles the line between likable rogue and cocky jackass but, ultimately, as the movie evolves, so does he. By the end, he has become a strong new interpretation of Captain Kirk. Pine thankfully doesn’t try to mimic Shatner’s mannerisms, but obviously has a grip on the role. Karl Urban perfectly channels DeForest Kelley, embodying the character of McCoy. Uhura was always a little underdeveloped, relegated to the girl’s part in a boy’s club. That’s fixed right away by the proactive script and Zoe Saldana’s solid portrayal. John Cho is as athletic and charming as Sulu ever was, even if his ninja flips are goofy. The one casting decision I was sold on from the beginning was Simon Pegg as Scotty. Sadly, he doesn’t show up until well into the second act but when he does, it’s awesome. While Eric Bana’s Nero isn’t a Khan level villain, he proves to be a strong adversary. I’m really glad Nimoy tagged along for this adventure. As much as I trust the new cast, it was great to have one of the veterans show up and pass the torch, insuring that while franchise has been taken in a new direction, it still respects the past.

The reason I really loved the movie is for the numerous cool nerd moments. Spock nerve pinches someone for the first time, Kirk’s continued skills with green-skinned babes, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not a…” The return of the brain slug, a Red Shirt getting fried, a subtle call out to those who disliked “Enterprise” (Poor Porthos!), the classic sound effects on the bridge… Honestly, I could go on and on. Abrams can deny it all he wants but this was obviously made by fans, for fans. Once again, “Star Trek” is flying high and boldly going. The world feels a little bit safer now. [Grade: A]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (1998-2002)

9. Star Trek: Insurrection
When “Star Trek: Insurrection” came out, it was met with typical disdain from the “odd/even rule” crowd but… I don’t know, I kinda’ like it. It’s far from perfect and, at the end of the day, might seem a little routine, but the movie certainly satisfies.

One of the main purposes behind the idea, I suspect, was to get “Trek” back to its roots with a smaller, more character oriented story. This turns out to be its biggest asset and problem. After the big action of “First Contact,” I honestly don’t mind a slower film. Indeed, one of the main themes revolves around being able to just sit back and experience being. The story of aging being reversed provides the majority of the cast with some interesting things to do. It actually gives Picard an excuse to play action hero, for once, and Stewart has some nice dramatic moments. Riker and Troi’s romance being rekindled is cute and provides Frakes with a more charismatic turn then usual. Data has a very important role and Spiner proves as entertaining to watch as ever. Worf shows up again with his DS9 duties being brush aside with a single line of dialogue while Geordi’s seeing for the first time provides at least one nice moment. (Dr. Crusher gets pushed to the side, as usual.)

One of the main reasons I like this one is because of the humor. Oh sure, some of it is maybe a little too broad (“Floatation device?” Oh brother.) but even some of the goofier stuff appealed to me. I found the entire Gilbert and Hammerstein sequence to be hysterical and there’s sharp, amusing dialogue spread all around. Once the focus shifts from the humor and characters and we get into the action stuff, things get a little less interesting. Though splitting the story worked in “First Contact,” having Riker and the Enterprise go off on a fight scene while Picard and crew stays on the planet was a mistake and schisms the pacing. All of planet sided action is quite successful while the ship battles are significantly more routine. Still, stuff wraps up in a nice fashion and I found the resolution genuinely heart touching. And, again, Jerry Goldsmith throws out another pretty score.

The biggest complaint measured against the film is that it feels like little more then a beefed up episode of the show. Granted, I feel that. Again, this has to due with the smaller story but also with how the story is almost completely removed from the rest of the “Trek” universe. Unlike previous entire, what goes on here hardly affects the universe at large. Of course, this was done to keep the movie accessible but even a casual fan such as myself admits that a Dominion War movie probably would’ve been cooler. (And that’s coming from somebody who barely watched “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”)

It isn’t until later in the film when you find out the personal connection between the Son’a and the Ba’ku that they become legitimately interesting villains. The idea of a race of basically decomposing corpse determined to stay alive is visually captivating but underdeveloped. F. Murray Abraham brings a required amount of skill to his part but overplays it more often then not. The use of the holo-deck in the finale is obvious and I thought it was a little weak how Picard basically talks a bad guy into switching sides. Still, problems aside, “Insurrection” is a solid effort. It doesn’t reinvent the “Trek” wheel but entertains.
[Grade: B]
By the time this movie came around “The Next Generation” had been off the air for nearly a decade. “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” were gone. The only viable “Trek” franchise was “Enterprise,” which most everyone seemed to agree was a bad idea right from the get-go. (Or right from the theme song, maybe.) My point is it was easy to be apathetic about the series when “Nemesis” came out. And, if the final movie was any evidence, it was even easy for the studios to be apathetic.

There are a multitude of problems, the main one being just a lack of fresh ideas. Far too much feels recycled. The screenwriter admitted in interviews that he patterned a great deal of the story on “Wrath of Khan,” which is only too evident, especially at the ending. The concept of Data having a double was all ready explored in the TV series, as was Troi being mind-raped. Sadly, the new stuff brought to table isn’t exciting either. The whole idea of the Romulan sister race, the Remians, manages to be fairly wasted. Though their deep sea fish inspired designs are interesting to look at, their sense of subjugation by the Romulians never comes through. For a fact, their relationship to the larger empire is mostly brushed aside, confined to two or three scenes. Shinzon, the evil clone of Picard, could’ve been a good idea, especially if the original idea of having Patrick Stewart play both parts was carried with. Instead, the character was given to some douche named Tom Hardy, who manages to punch up absolutely zero charisma. He’s never menacing, threatening, or even mildly interesting. Not even when he begins to get sick and slowly die does Hardy inspire any real feelings and especially not during the final showdown. If writer John Logan was hoping for another Khan, he really dropped the fucking ball.

The script itself features a lot of pretentious talks of destiny and trust that is totally superficial. B-4, the other new addition to the mythology, comes of as a mildly retarded version of Data, does next to nothing in the course of the story, and is such an obvious set-up for the final death cheat. When Data does go all Spock-sacrificing on us, it is totally devoid of emotion. Director Stuart Baird doesn’t provide any “You have and always will be my friend” moments and seems more focused on the big explosion.

Speaking of that Baird dick, on the DVD special features, he admits to not being a “Trek” fan and, as the esteemed director of “Executive Decision” and fucking “U.S. Marshals,” seems to think he’s above all this sci-fi goofiness. I could ignore him being a prick if his direction wasn’t so incredibly stale. Most of the action is phaser-based and composed of people getting shot and falling down. There’s also some dramatic slow-motion thrown in which, you know, was really fresh in 2002. The ship battles at the end are slightly better but still fairly boring, managing to filled with dramatic moments that carry no weight. Patrick Stewart and Bret Spinner both do their best with what their given, while Jonathan Frakes, with his digitally removed back hair, comes extremely close to embarrassing himself. He was too old to play action hero at this point. None of the other crew members are given much of anything to do.

There’s a handful of okay moments. The opening wedding sequence is sweet and when Data jumps from ship to ship through space is the sole dynamic action beat. Otherwise, “Star Trek: Nemesis” is a big plodding bore, adding next to nothing to the proud series legacy. Is it any surprise that it effectively brought an end to the series’ theater presence for years?
[Grade: C-]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (1994-1996)

7. Star Trek: Generations
Growing up in the nineties, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the Trek of my youth. It was this series, with its bigger budget and more fan-conscious writing, that first acquainted me with the franchise. Soon, I saw the original series movies and a few select episodes of the classic series and became a full-fledge fan/nerd.

Honestly though it has been years since I’ve seen the TNG episodes and it’s the original series I relate to more now. So, sitting down to watch “Generations” for this review, I found myself experiencing “Next Generation” for the first time in years. Taken on its own merits, “Generations” is an all right time. The most successful elements of TNG, and Trek in general, are maintained. And that’s, of course, the characters. Patrick Stewart has a juicy character arc. Dealing with the death of his brother and nephew, he gets to go to some interesting emotional places and this is wisely tied into the main plot. Though most of the Enterprise-D crew are given supporting roles that range from minor but important (Geordi, Riker, Troi) to nonexistence (Dr. Crusher, Worf), Data’s part is quite interesting. Bret Spiner gives a wonderful performance as his character grapples with his new found emotions. The moment where he finds Spot again towards the end is actually quite sweet.

The film’s main goal is passing the torch and the story is focused towards bringing Picard and Kirk together. Towards this effort, the plot device of Nexus and the villain Soran take up most of the screen time. Soran is played by Malcolm McDowell who has more or less built a career on playing villains and exudes wickedness with ease. Granted, perhaps the emotional drive for Soran’s evil, the death of his wife and children, could have been developed more for a stronger effect but it’s still a fun performance to watch.

The movie is uneven up until the turn of the second act. The entire subplot involving the Klingon twins are, frankly, boring, and feel out of place, as if they’re pandering to the hardcore Trekkies by throwing in an established series element. The script even more or less admits this by brushing the characters away before the proper climax even comes close to occurring. Stuff really picks up when Picard gets into the Nexus. The movie finds its emotion core here and becomes better because of it. Shatner shows up again around this point too. What to make of Bill’s performance here? This was during the “Rescue 911” era of his career before he stumbled into self-parody and later found himself again with Denny Crane. It’s not too bad a turn but is a little tired. Truthfully, a good reason isn’t given for why Kirk would want to leave the Nexus.

Things then wrap up in time for a slightly disappointing climax. A lot of talk has been given to Kirk’s death. I feel it was a little gimmicky and the movie maybe didn’t need it. I mean, as far as the official time line is concerned, Kirk is dead anyway, so why was it necessary to do that? The way his demise is dealt with and then the movie goes on, it’s obvious it was more concerned with establishing the new crew as a film team then properly sending off the original team. (Since they all ready had a great send-off in part six.) The best decision would’ve been to just forget the crossover movie and immediately start with the newer characters. Still, all this considered, “Generations” is far from a bad movie. It’s very entertaining, occasionally exciting, has a considered emotional core, and, if nothing else, is over quickly.
[Grade: B-]
“First Contact” gets right to the action. Near minutes into the film, following a very brief intro, the crew of the Enterprise is all ready on there way to fighting the Borg. This is a sign of the film’s best feature: It’s straight-ahead, action-packed pacing.

Things could’ve been tricky. The Borg, despite arguably being one of “Next Generation”’s most important contribution to the mythology, always struck me as a slightly cliché threat, an unstoppable race of techno-zombies. And time travel… Jesus, haven’t we been down that road enough? “First Contact” doesn’t let these problems bother it. The time travel aspect and importance of the first contact is simply a McGuffin, the thing to drive the action. It is really the Borg that provides the suspense. A movie budget allows the race to become truly menacing, not to mention truly visually interesting.

The threat also allows for far more action then just about any previous “Star Trek” movie. We get to see Data actually use his android abilities to fight. Picard’s personal connection to the story’s threat gives him an excuse to want to join in the active fight, even if that spits in the face of what the character was in the series. Hell, the movie even gets Worf back with the Next Gen crew where he belongs. (The present of the Defiant and the Hologram Doctor are two call-outs to the at-the-time current series that might have been unnecessary but are cute.) By setting the majority of the action on the Enterprise it self, it certainly thrust the majority of the cast into the middle of the battle. Despite Jonathan Frake’s direction feeling somewhat TV-like at times, he handles the transition well (The supped-up effects and production values certainly help) and creates a number of exciting action set-piece. The confrontation in the hallway where Data is capture is tight and suspenseful with the shoot-out on the satellite disc being, easily, the highlight of the picture. The holodeck sequence is cool too.

Data and Picard are easily the main characters of the film and both have solid character arcs. Data’s is easily the more interesting. His struggle to become human is thrust right to front of the story and becomes a major theme. His relationship with the Borg Queen, played with an amazing creepy sexiness by Alice Krige, creates some of the most interesting moments of the movie. I mean, Data is rarely shown in a sexual light to begin with so his slightly heavy-handed seduction into evil is provocative, to say the least. It’s certainly a good bit of acting from Brent Spiner. The captain’s arc is a little less interesting. His relationship with Alfre Woodard is good enough but his sudden thrust into Ahab-syndrome is melodramatic.

The other part of the movie is set on Earth and, despite being a time travel story, is also pretty good. Riker and Troi aren’t given too much to do though Geordi has some stuff. It’s really James Cromwell as the cranky, drunk Zeframe Cochrane that owns this subplot. His reluctance to become a great man proves captivating and Cromwell pulls it off well. Again, all the suspense and real excitement is rightly saved for the Borg story. The final climatic showdown, with Picard heading to save Data and battle the Borg Queen, silly as it might sounds, is awesome and so, so satisfying.

I have few complaints here. The way time travel is brushed aside as no big deal, especially at the end, sticks in my teeth a little, even as somebody who couldn’t care less. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is good but not as good as his previous “Trek” work. “Star Trek: First Contact” is “Star Trek” as action-packed, popcorn sci-fi movie and that works quite well. It fully established “The Next Generation” cast as a team worthy of their own movies.
[Grade: B+]