Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 53 and 54: The Phantasm Series and Little Monsters

I sometimes treat posting Bangers n' Mash episodes to this blog as an afterthought. I really shouldn't, as I know Film Thoughts is the primary way some fans listen to the show. My thought process was something like I didn't want to interrupt the flow of this month's Catch-Up reviews. Now, here we are, on the last day of November, and I haven't posted any Bangers n' Mash episodes.

So here's a two-fer. The first of the episode went up a week or so ago. As you'd expect, I'm still recycling my various Halloween 2014 reviews. JD and I delve into the mysteries and myriad eccentricities of the four "Phantasm" films.

The month's second episode, which went up just minutes ago, is about what I like to call Little Monsters movies. Those various horror films, usually from the eighties, about whole armies of diminutive creatures causing mischief and wrecking havoc. We start with the two "Gremlins" films, obviously the definitive examples of the subgenre, before moving on to the rip-offs and would-be successors: Critters, Ghoulies, Troll, so on and so forth. It's a bit of a messy episode but, considering how many movies we cover, I think it turned out all right.

Here's the part of the podcast post where I give you a general update on what's going with the blog. Remember that Director's Report Card I promised? It's well under way but obviously won't start going up until December. I hope to squeeze in some seasonal festive viewings, a few other Recent Watches reviews, and more podcast episodes. All of this before my year-end retrospective, which I still have to see a bunch of stuff for. As always, the end of the year is a hectic time for Film Thoughts. Rest assured, I'll be back soon with more stuff. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Director Report Card: Wes Anderson (2014)

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel

As a director, Wes Anderson has never backed away from ambitious stories. His second film, “Rushmore,” was a simple story of a love triangle between a student, an old man, and one of his teachers. Within that story, he inserted a reenactment of the Vietnam war. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was primarily a comedy about a ragtag team of ocean life documentarians heading out on a mission of revenge, led by their ramshackle boss. In the middle of the story, that film exploded into a crazy action parody before inserting a moment of genuine loss and sadness. My point is, even when ostensibly telling simple stories, Anderson is known to make incredibly ambitious films. So, when I say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is his most ambitious film yet, believe it to be true.

The primary plot of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes place in 1932 at the titular hotel, located in the fictional northern European Republic of Zubrowka. Though long gone now, and dilapidated in the mid-seventies, the hotel was the crown jewel of the alpines in the thirties. The hotel’s concierge, Gustave H., maintains the strictest level of quality, while caring greatly for the building, its staff, and its residents. In particular, Gustave has a bit of a fetish for rich, old ladies. When one of those ladies dies suddenly, Gustave is suddenly thrust into an international plot. See, that old lady left the concierge a priceless painting in her possession. The woman’s children, especially her devious son, are enraged that Gustave is entitled to any of their mom’s fortune. Spiting them, Gustave steals the painting and runs off. Now, Gustave is pursued by the family, the son’s seedy hitman henchman, and the military police who suspect him of murdering the old woman. All of this and more is seen through the eyes of Zero Moustafa, Gustave’s faithful lobby boy and constant companion.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is not as straight-forward a story as that plot synopsis suggests. Aside from its numerous narrative details, the film is told within several framing devices. The story begins in the present day, with a young girl sitting in a park. She picks up a book by a beloved author – so beloved that a statue has been built in his memory – and begins to read. The film leaps back to 1985, where the author dictates his latest book from a desk into a camera, a young child distracting him a few times. As he speaks, the film moves further back to 1968, when the author was a young man, staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel during its waning days. There, he meets Zero Moustafa as an old man. Curious about the odd man, the two sit down to talk. Over lunch, Zero tells the young writer his story. Finally then, the meat of the film’s story begins. This narrative nesting doll of a plot serves one important purpose. It shows how stories are passed on from generation to generation, and through them, people’s legacies. It cements “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a story about stories and how they propagate through history.

Wes Anderson’s films are usually slower paced affairs, full of small character moments and tiny bits of hilarious dialogue. This isn’t a complaint. I love his movies for that. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” however, moves. It’s a speedy film that rarely slows down, moving from one wacky plot development to the next. Anderson has always fancied himself a visual novelist. “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” structure blatantly recalls a novel and even has chapter stops. The film has a novel’s worth of story to cram in. In order to get to everything that happens, it has to move fast. The story is in constant motion, always moving ahead. There’s plenty of fast-paced action too, making things progress at an even quicker clip.

The pacing isn’t the only thing about the film that moves fast. The film is, as you’d expect, full of Anderson’s whip-smart dialogue. The characters trade barbs and statements, their thoughts sometimes coming out in quickly spoke bursts. Moreover, Anderson’s camera is constantly moving. It gracefully slides through locations, transferring from one scene to another. The long hallways of the hotel are shown in detail, as the camera moves through them. We see the cast move up a spiral case, the viewer following them. My favorite shot in the movie has the camera moving through a set of doors, which appear to be models. This lends the movie a sense of motion to accompany its speedy screenplay. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is easily the director’s most exciting looking film, packed full of action and a dynamic sense of movement.

Anderson’s previous films are best described as "dramedies," mixing a lot of madcap hilarity with some very real human emotion. “The Life Aquatic” dropped some unexpected action sequence into a similarly themed movie. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an even wilder experiment in genre. What starts life as a quirky comedy evolves into an equally quirky action film of sorts. There’s an exciting chase down a mountain slope, the heroes on a sled pursued by a man on a motorcycle. The camera rushes along, frequently in a first person perspective, really giving the audience a sense of speed. This moment is proceeded by a funny but exciting chase through a mountaintop chapel, which takes increasingly convoluted twists. An earlier moment, during the film’s brief detour into a prison, has a character slashing through five guards with shiv, a moment of violence you’d never expect to see in a Wes Anderson film. (Expectantly, the film defuses the violence with a typical dose of Anderson humor.) The film, in general, features way more murder then you’d expect. The villain of the story is creepy hitman, played with relish by Willem Dafoe. He picks off characters throughout the film, littering dead bodies in his wake. One extended sequence has the killer hunting a target through a museum. Without ever loosing the film’s sense of humor, this scene gives you a good idea of what a Wes Anderson horror movie might look like. Heck, it even ends with some dismemberment!

The director at first wanted Johnny Depp for the central part of Gustav. Instead, he wound up with Ralph Fiennes. I feel like he traded up. Usually cast as villains or stodgy men of order, the part allows Fiennes to show his skills as a comic actor. Gustav is a fop and a dandy. When the villain accuses him of being bisexual, he can’t deny it, allowing him to play his duel role of a stylish prancer and a ladies’ man. He is a man who holds no shame in seducing old ladies, because he genuinely enjoys it. He loves to please people, making him an ideal concierge. Amusingly, even while in princess, he delights in making others happy, serving salted gruel cell-door-to-cell-door to his follow in-mates with a smile. When Gustav blows his cool, which happens more often then you’d think, it’s inspired, his perfectly presented exterior tearing away. Fiennes is fantastic in the part.

There’s an important emotional bond at the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel:” The platonic love between a concierge and his lobby boy. Newcomer Tony Revolori plays Zero as a young boy and is the co-lead of the film. Revolori has no problem with Anderson’s circular dialogue. He keeps up with the film’s manic sense of humor. He has an immediate rapport with Fiennes which, arguably, carries the entire film. While they are mostly buddies forged in the middle of a crazy adventure, the film pauses for one poignant moment between the two. After helping him escape prison, Gustav chastises Zero for forgetting disguises, a getaway vehicle, a safe house, and most everything else they need. After criticizing his up-bringing, Zero delivers a steely, soft monologue about how his parents where tortured and killed during the First World War and he is a refugee, proving that this young man has already seen a life time’s worth of tragedy. How this moment plays out is similarly touching, the two coming to a mutual understanding that informs the rest of their relationship. The pause is brief, as the movie is back to its wacky adventure soon afterwards. Yet without it, the movie would lacks its all-important heart.

That same heart is most evident in one of the film’s many delightful detours. The main story checks out for a number of loosely related sequences, such as Dafoe’s creepy henchman tracking down a minor character’s sister, a funny montage showing the similar bond other concierges have with their lobby boys, a brief peek at the Nazi government taking control of the area, or a prison break in a movie otherwise unrelated to prison breaks. However, my favorite is the love story between Zero and Agatha, the talented young baker that works in the hotel and proves invaluable to the story repeatedly. Agatha has a distinctive birth mark across her face but, considering she’s played by the ever graceful and gorgeous Saoirse Ronan, the audience hardly takes notice of it. She creates such charming baked goods that a prison guard can’t bring himself to cut them up, even when they obviously hide tools perfect for a jail break. There’s very little time to develop the romance between Zero and Agatha. The scene that properly introduces her is when she says yes to his marriage proposal. The film pulls it off, however, specifically with a moment when the two ride on a carousel together. The camera focuses on Agatha’s face, and Ronan’s mesmerizing eyes, the background swirling around her head. We are seeing Agatha the way Zero sees her. The audience falls in love with the girl too. Their interaction is tinged with a meloncholey though, as the narrator obliquely refers to something happening to the girl. This deepens the relationship even more, making the brief time they have together count for something.

The supporting cast is full of prime players as well. F. Murray Abraham plays Zero as an old man. Abraham’s narration is full of soul and wit. When Agatha’s fate comes up, the story snaps back to the then-present, a tear running down his face. Adrien Brody is hilarious as the film’s de-facto villain, the profane Dmitri. Brody’s rarely used comedic precision is well used in the part, especially during the shoot-out filled finale. Dafoe shows a subtle humor as the creepy killer, adorning a look of surprise or a crack of a knuckle with various comedic gestures. Edward Norton plays a role similar to his part in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Unlike that film, his tightly-wound character is never allowed to break loose, giving his military man a sense of melancholy and funny frustration. Harvey Keitel provides plenty of quiet humor to his tough-guy prison inmate. Tilda Swinton’s role is brief. As the old woman whose death motivates the plot, she is buried under mounds of make-up and latex. Swinton’s own swirling eyes make her stand-out. Anderson sneaks in cameos and bit parts from his regular players, such as Jason Schwartzman as an incompetent hotel worker, Owen Wilson as Gustav’s put-upon replacement, Jeff Goldblum as the jittery lawyer, and Billy Murray and Bob Balaban as quiet, relaxed members of the secret society of hotel concierges.

Like every Wes Anderson production, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is immaculately designed. The movie is full of the filmmaker’s trademark symmetry. Everything, from the cramped room where the employees eat, to the crowded hallways of the Budapest, are evenly spaced out from each outer, lining up perfectly. The titular hotel is a masterwork of production design. From the way the walls are painted to the interiors of the room, each contribute to the film’s world, mood, and story. Every setting, from Madame D.’s estate, to the prison, to the mountaintop monastery, are similarly detailed to absurd levels. It almost goes without saying that Anderson has made another film that is impeccably built and glorious to look at. Every frame is like its own art project.

Another interesting thing Anderson has repeatedly done is call attention to his movies’ own fakeness. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the director takes this trademark to new heights. The hotel itself is always shown in exteriors as a flat model. The railcards that carry people up and down the mountain slide along like props in a pop-up book. During the snowy mountaintop chase scene, the characters repeatedly turn into obviously fake models flying around miniature sets. Yet this is more then just stylistic excess. A few times throughout the film, the camera will iris in on a character, surrounding their face with a dark circle. This technique is meant to invoke the style of the cinema of the film’s period setting. In this light, the use of obviously artificial models adds another layer of ingenuousness to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” And think about this as well. The modern day framing device is shot in a very crisp manner. The television sequences from the eighties are dark and washed-out, like a cheaply produced eighties television program. The seventies set framing device is danker and grittier, as in the cinema of the day. Finally, the bulk of the film is shot in a colorful, nearly Technicolor manner. These varying styles is another building block in the film’s central thesis, about how stories are told and how they change.

Those with little tolerance for the quirkiness of Wes Anderson’s previous films probably won’t enjoy “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Those of us who do love his films will find an adventurous, funny, and beautifully acted comedy that pushes the director’s style into areas previously unseen. It’s not the funniest, most touching, or high concept of his films. However, it is is easily his most exciting, a crowd-pleaser of the most unlikely type. Anderson holds fast to his trademarks and favorite elements but continues to evolve in fascinating new directions. [Grade: A]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2014)

9. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan is a high-minded filmmaker. His early noirs were psychologically complex and used unconventional dramatic devices and non-linear storytelling to add extra layers to his films. His Batman trilogy elevated the entire superhero genre, turning guys in spandex into high art and taking comic book movies to unprecedented levels of critical acclaim and popular success. “Inception” was simultaneously the most conceptually complex heist flick ever made and an epic set entirely inside the human mind. For his next trick, the director looked to re-popularize “hard” science fiction, a genre that went out of popularity in the early seventies. While “Interstellar” has not been a phenomenon on the level of “The Dark Knight” or “Inception,” it’s still been a hit internationally. Nolan continues to be the rarest of creatures: An intellectual and a hit maker, a guy who makes complex, challenging films that are also really popular and make lots of money.

"Interstellar" is set in a near future where an unnamed ecological disaster has plunged Earth into chaos. A dust bowl grips the planet, eliminating all crops except for corn. Humanity is facing extinction. Cooper, a widower, former aero-space pilot, and current corn farmer, lives an unsatisfied life. He fears that mankind is focusing too much on survival and dismissing dreams of reaching the stars. A strange gravitational phenomena in his precocious daughter’s bedroom leads him to a secret base in the mountains. The remnants of NASA, hidden from the public, prepare a dangerous mission, launching astronauts into a black hole outside of Saturn, in hopes that inhabitable planets will be on the other sides. After a highly qualified pilot walk into their lab, the scientists in charge have to offer Cooper the job. He has to make the hard decision to leave his family behind, to an uncertain future, to go on a mission he may never return from… And one that might save the human race.

“Interstellar’s” goal is nothing less then to make a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the new century. Like Kubrick’s epic, both films share a fascination with big ideas and plausible science. “Interstellar” never specifies what future year it is set in. However, it’s a world not far removed from our own. The film endeavors to portray interstellar space travel in as realistic a manner as possible. Ships spin through the stars, propelled by their own motion. Traveling from planet to planet takes years. Special attention is paid to relativity, to time passing different for those on Earth compared to those traveling across space. The focus on plausible science extends to the film’s hugely heady concepts. Space, gravity, robotics, black holes, eternity, time travel, other dimensions, and humanity’s place in the universe are just some of the ideas explored in “Interstellar.” It’s a film with no shortage of far out ideas and huge concepts.

Because “Interstellar” deals with such large conception, it’s a film packed with impressive spectacle. Rarely has the massiveness of space been better portrayed. Space is immense, black, and empty. No sound travels through space, giving the environment a sterile, cold feel. Yet there’s something wondrous about it too. The film fills its wide, wide frames with huge, impossibly big images. As the character approaches Saturn, the ship seems tiny in front of the massive, orange planet. This is only the film’s first, unforgettable image. The second comes when the crew nears the worm hole. When shown in previous films, black holes are always portrayed as a sucking rabbit’s hole in space, a tunnel leading down deeper. “Interstellar,” instead, shows the black hole as a spherical shape, a reflective object in the vastness of space. The space ship entering the worm hole, infinite space being reflected above and below, all the cosmos spiraling around them, is an indelible image. These are fantastic images, unlike any other ever put on cinema before.

For all its high-minded ideas, “Interstellar” is also an adventure film. It contains good old fashion thrills too. After breaching the worm hole, the astronauts first land on a dank, watery planet. The entire world appears to be covered with water yet it usually floats tepidly at ankle level. Until, the characters notice too late, that the mountains in the distance aren’t mountains. They’re waves. This leads to the action high-light of “Interstellar.” Nolan’s camera places the viewer in the cockpits of the space ship. The sound design rumbles, giving the viewer a great idea of how dangerous the situation is. The film shakes and stutters, carrying every rough bump and shutter through the theater. On the water planet, a massive wave barrels down on the astronauts. Barely, they escape its wake, rushing up the side of the water, the ship’s fins splashing across the surface. It’s an intense moment.

For all the wonder the film assigns space travel, it never understates the danger of the mission. “Interstellar” is incredibly grim at times as well. The situation on Earth seems hopeless. Apocalyptic dust storms tear through the countryside, blotting out windows and busting into homes. How grave the situation is must be stated clearly, to give the film’s mission even more resonance. That grimness continues into the middle section. The conditions on Earth grow worst. Families flee their homes and towns, desperately looking for safety anywhere. Meanwhile, in space, Cooper and his team touch down on the film’s second alien world. This one is inhospitably cold. So cold, in fact, that the clouds are frozen. The space ship navigates huge frozen expanses of ice. The surface isn’t any more greeting. The ground is grey, rough, and extends past the horizon. The characters walk across stone bridges, above more grey, unwelcoming ground. The images are stunning in their hugeness. Yet this is not a planet we’d ever like to visit. It’s no mistake that “Interstellar’s” darkest moments take place on this hellish, frozen ice world.

Nolan has been accused in the past of being cold, of uninterested in the trials of its human characters. It’s not entirely inaccurate to say he’s a director more interested in ideas then people. “Interstellar” is obviously emulating the works of Kubrick, who could be accused of many of the same flaws. This movie, in particularly, is modeled after “2001,” which was perhaps Kubrick’s coldest, most scientific film. However, the Nolan brothers smartly provide an emotional heart into the crazy, huge world of “Interstellar.” Beyond its massive ideas, this is a movie about family. The early scenes focuses heavily on Cooper’s relationship with his kids. Son Tom is more practical and seems content with his future of being a farmer. Daughter Murphy, however, follows in her father’s footstep, of being scientifically minded, of wanting to solve the mysteries of the universe. Before leaving for space, Cooper has to assure his daughter that he’ll return someday. He holds her as she cries on her bed, uncertain of his return. It’s not treacle, the emotions instead being honestly earned. The film frames its epic story not in terms of Cooper saving humanity. Instead, his goal is to return to his kids, to ensure a future for his children. It roots a very big story in something personal, small, and understandable.

Of the many reoccurring themes in “Interstellar,” a case can be made that the enduring power of love is its most important. At the halfway point, Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand assures everyone that love is a constant. That we love people who are dead or gone, that it transcends time and space. That’s a potentially gooey, overly sentimental expression. However, “Interstellar” is practical in its application. The downsides of the theory of relativity are rarely explored in science fiction, if they’re acknowledged at all. “Interstellar” builds most of its conflict around the idea. While Cooper and the others are exploring space, the clock is always ticking back home. Hours on the other side of the worm hole are years back home. While Cooper is gone trying to save his family, his family is growing up without him. The film brilliantly illustrates this by having the crew receive scrambled, far-off messages from Earth. Within minutes, on a fuzzy monitor screen, Cooper watches his kids grow up. He watches his son fall in love, get married, have his first child, and loose that child to the harsh realities of a declining planet. How this makes Cooper feel isn’t expressed through words. Instead, the camera focuses on his face as he weeps. Along with its big ideas, the screenplay reaches for big emotions too. By approaching those emotions sensitively, they never feel cheap or manipulative.

In the final hour, these twin themes of exploration and the power of love intermingle. “Interstellar” saves its most far-out ideas for its finale. Family and love prove to be the answer to the film’s biggest concerns. Throughout the film, references are dropped to fifth dimensional beings, entities so advance that time is a physical concept to them. This promise is paid off at the climax. The film illustrates what time as a place might look like. It’s another impressive image in a film full of them, a sprawling, unending cavern of time. Without spoiling too much, here the film comes full circle. The tiny concerns of a family breaking apart are connected with the fate of the human race and our potential as a species. Amazingly, “Interstellar” does not stop there. Instead, it travels further ahead, showing how mankind might survive the problems of the future. The grimness of the first act builds towards unbridled optimism. Love connects everything. The film ends on a note of exploration and closure.

Further anchoring such a conceptually advanced film is a sturdy cast. We are knee-deep in the McConaissance. Matthew McConaughey’s graduation from shirtless pop culture punchline to Academy Award-winning actor is well established by now. Nolan cast the man for his all-American persona. McConaughey plays a scientist but not as a stuffy egghead. Instead, Cooper is an adventurer and a dreamer, another way to make the film’s huge ideas more accessible to the common folk. The supporting cast is full of Nolan regulars doing good work. Anne Hathaway plays Brand, a serious scientist who, unexpectedly, masks a deeply feeling heart. It’s a cliché by now, especially since her undeserved Oscar-winning turn in “Les Miserables,” that Hathway makes the world cry when she cries. But, hey, it works. She’s an actress capable of summoning up great emotion and passing it on to the viewer. 

“Interstellar’s” supporting cast features smaller but equally strong performances. I left the film a fan of Mackenzie Foy, the actress who plays Murphy as a young girl. She’s a powerful performer with an innate likability. Hopefully, she has a rich career ahead of her. Jessica Chastain plays Murphy as an adult. It’s the harder part, as the adult Murphy has been hardened by disappointment and sadness. However, Chastain brings her own strengths to the role. Watching her regain hope is one of the biggest joys of the film. Underrated actors like Wes Bently and Topher Grace do their best work in years here, finally given parts worthy of their talent.

And one of the biggest surprises of the film is its robots. The robots aren’t much more then abstract shapes. Their resemblance to “2001’s” monoliths was no mistake, I’m sure. Yet those simple rectangular shapes prove surprisingly dynamic. The robots unfold in multiple ways. They waddle back and forth, stiff legs moving mechanically around. Spindly arms unfold from the blocks, reaching for switches and controls. As stiff as they appear, the robots can move surprisingly fast. Another scene from the movie I won’t soon forget is one of its automatons cartwheeling across the surface of the water planet. Fantastically, the robots have a personality. They’re programmed with attributes like humor and honesty. Bill Irwin and Josh Stewert voice TARS and CASE, the two robots most featured in the film. TARS proves rather lovable. He has a quiet sense of humor and, more importantly, drives the plot several times. The finale would not be as affecting without TARS’ warm, comforting voice.

“Interstellar” is not flawless. A surprise appearance from Matt Damon is the film’s biggest problem. Damon’s performance is fine. Instead, the character’s role is more problematic. In the middle of a huge epic about many complex ideas, “Interstellar” pauses for more routine elements. The movie attempts to link the subplot of a lying, murderous scientist desperate to return home with the film’s reoccurring theme of man’s drive to survive. Instead, it seems a bit like a lesser film interceding on a more cerebral story. A fist fight between two guys in clunky space suits will not change the opinion that Christopher Nolan is a director that doesn’t know how to film action scenes. The guy can pace and set-up a thrilling sequence fantastically. Yet the grittier business of two people slugging it out appears beyond his grasp.

I’ve also heard some complaints about the film’s sound mix. It is, indeed, sometimes deafening, blotting out even the dialogue. Nolan says its intentional and I’m inclined to agree with him. Dialogue being overshadowed by the booming sounds of the universe fits into the film’s cosmic ideas. It also doesn’t happen very often, preventing it from becoming tedious. It helps that the film features the best Hans Zimmer score in years. While on the water planet, the film emphasizes that an hour down there is a year back on Earth. The score, meanwhile, simulates a ticking clock, never letting the viewer forget what is at stake here. Zimmer’s deafening, throttling bass frequently gives way to sorrowful or lovely melodies. Compared to his thudding work on the Batman films, it’s like an entirely different composer made this elegant, longing, exciting score.

As in “Inception,” Christopher Nolan has managed to build a hugely compelling film out of complex, difficult to digest ideas. However, “Inception” was more about narrative juggling. It took big ideas into the smallest place, the human mind. “Interstellar,” meanwhile, plums deeper ideas on a far more cosmic scale, spreading huge concepts across the biggest place known to man, outer space. The film packs in far more “wow” moments then any other mainstream Hollywood film in recent memory. It’s a great Christopher Nolan film, a great science fiction, a great space epic, and a great movie, period. [Grade: A]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2014)

6. Horns

Alexandre Aja’s careers has had its ups and downs. He burst onto the scene with “High Tension,” one of the films that helped defined the new wave of French horror in the two-thousands and won over horror fans from all around the world. After coming to America, he became known as a remake specialist, directing three horror remakes in a row. Though only one of those was a dud, Aja perhaps bristled against that reputation. He turned down remakes of “Pet Sematary” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night” before trying to kick-start an as-yet unrealized live-action version of “Cobra the Space-Pirate.” After three years, the director finally returned with “Horns,” the first film based on a novel by Joe Hill. Despite being from a book by the son of Stephen King, “Horns” is something of a departure for Aja. It’s more dark fantasy then pure horror. It also stars a major actor, Daniel Radcliffe, someone else looking to break pop culture preconceptions.

Ig Perrish, a DJ and local celebrity of minor renown in his small town of Gideon, is going through a personal hell. His angelic girlfriend, beloved by everyone around him, has been murdered and Ig is widely assumed of being the killer. He isn’t. The grief of loosing his beloved is hard enough. The constant badgering and suspicion is driving him crazy. After a particularly rough night, Ig awakens with a pair of satyr-like horns growing from his forehead. When staring directly at the horns, people confess their deepest secrets to Ig or act on their darkest desires before forgetting the events all together. Though he’s disturbed by this development at first, Ig quickly begins to use his newfound abilities to uncover his girlfriend’s true killer. As he searches for the devil in others, his own devilish nature grows.

After being Harry Potter for the first decade of his career, Daniel Radcliffe probably could have retired from acting altogether or pursued easy roles in similar big budget summer flicks. Instead, Radcliffe has used his star power to get dark, off-beat projects made. After an infamous stage revival of “Equus,” “The Woman in Black,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” (but before a new version of “Frankenstein” where he’ll play Igor) ”Horns” fits right in with Radcliffe’s new career direction. Radcliffe’s performance winds up being one of the most solid elements of the sometimes-rickety film. Performing with a convincing American accent, Radcliffe wrings every ounce of emotion he can out of the occasionally stiff dialogue. There’s a raw, honest quality to his work here. A few times, he delivers his lines, on the verge of tears, earning the audience’s investment. Radcliffe’s soul-barring performance is the best thing about the film and, just when it threatens to fall apart, he holds it together.

The first half of “Horns” revolves around the revealing of secrets and the fulfillment of base desires. These themes and concepts could have been used to explore deeper ideas about society and people. Instead, the film uses Ig’s powers to create moments of broad comedy. This, actually, works out fine. The movie is frequently hilarious in these early scenes. Ig becomes the straight man to everyone around him acting like loonies. A doctor and his comely assistant say grossly inappropriately things before mating like bunnies in the operating room. The secretary and the mother of a screaming daughter in the waiting room swear at each other. Patrons of the local bar commit arson and expose themselves. A pair of overly macho cops nonchalantly confess their homoerotic desires for one another. Realizing he has the ability to influence people, Ig gets a group of bottom-feeding reporters, constantly following him, to beat the shit out of each other. It’s funny in a dark way and honest too. “Horns” obviously couldn’t have continued down this path forever but I sort of wish it did.

In time, the film has to address the girlfriend’s death and the identity of her killer. In its middle chapter, “Horns” becomes an atypical murder mystery. Ig uses his abilities to gather clues. He discovers that a waitress lied about his behavior on the night of the murder. He learns that his drug addict brother was the last person to see Merrin alive. Knowing these things, Ig decides to use his new abilities to punish those that have wronged him. When Ig gives into his devilish urges the movie, none too subtly, has him picking up a pitchfork and giving him a sway over snakes. During these trashier moments, “Horns” begins to feel more like the horror movies Alexandre Aja has made in the past. It’s less interesting then the dark comedy but isn’t without its positive attributes. The waitress being bitten by a horde of snakes in her car is certainly a memorable moment. You could see the roots of a solid revenge thriller in “Horns” if it had committed to one tone.

The script takes a number of liberties with Joe Hill’s novel, most of them for the best. However, like the book, the movie makes extensive use of flashbacks. The first extended flashback goes back to Ig’s childhood, exploring when he first met Merrin, the love of his life, and a few other friends for life. This first sequence works fairly well. The cast of kids are talented and all resemble their adult counterparts. The way Merrin and Ig meet, involving a cross necklace and Morse code in church, is cute without being too gimmicky. An anecdote involving a cheery bomb pays off fairly way. The centerpiece of this sequence has Ig, in his underwear, riding a shopping cart off a ramp, into the logging lake, and nearly dying.

However, “Horns” relies too much on flashbacks. Each one is long enough that you honestly forget what is happening in the story’s present. The character of Merrin, whose death motivates the entire plot, is seen only in flashback. She is presented as so angelic that everyone around her loves her immediately. Ig’s parents literally loved their potential daughter-in-law more then their own son. She is essentially more of a plot device then in a real character. Her goodness has to be so overwhelming as to completely remove any other character trait. A few of the other flashbacks few extraneous, presenting more detail then is necessary to the story. It begins to affect the pacing after a while.

For its flaws, “Horns” functions fairly well as both a dark comedy and a demonic-tinged thriller… Up until the last half-hour. Ig discovers who kills his girlfriend and confronts her, the story coming to a logical ending point. Instead of finishing up there, the movie continues for another thirty minutes. The murderer stops acting like a reasonable human being and begins acting like a psychotic, cartoon supervillain. Ig puts on Merrin’s cross necklace, his wounds healing instantly, another example of the film’s heavy-handed symbolism. It gets worst. Hero and villains meet again. All the good will “Horns” builds up so far is squandered at this point. Ig trades in his devil horns for angel wings that then burst into flames, causing him to transform into a full blown demon. The effects are heavy-handed. The story concluding with a big fight scene is disappointing. The resolution is hopelessly cheesy too, even throwing in the “horny” pun the movie was probably resisting the entire time. If you cut “Horns” off at the 90 minute mark, you’d be left with a more satisfying film.

In addition to Radcliffe’s strong central performance, “Horns” features a cast full of great character actors. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, who hasn’t had a role this good since “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” both have plum roles as Ig’s parents. Each one gets a solid monologue to themselves. Joe Anderson and Kelli Garner both play desperate characters and their desperate qualities are increased by Ig’s powers. Juno Temple only has to be angelic and flawless as Merrin and, luckily, Temple is more then capable of that. David Morse is another juicy supporting player as her angry, grieving father. My favorite performance in the film belongs to Heather Graham. As a frequently underutilized and unappreciated actress, Graham is given an oppretunity to dig into some prime dialogue here. As the lying, sleazy waitress, she indulges in some nasty, over-the-top behavior. It’s the most alive I’ve seen Graham in years. It’s unlikely to lead to better parts but I am glad to see her reinventing herself as a character actress in tighter parts.

Alexandre Aja’s style usually shows in his approach to violence. Visceral, intense attack scenes, played for maximum horror, is his primary director’s trademark.”Horns” has him in a expressive mode. An early scene has the perspective flipping upside, throwing the audience off-guard. Once Ig is on the path of revenge, he tracks down his no-good brother and forces him to OD on his extensive drug collection. An acid trip ensues which, possibly, pushes the film’s style too far. The twitchy, exaggerated close-ups on Daniel Radcliffe’s face was definitely not a thing we needed. Aja can’t resist throwing in some crazy gore. “Horns” features a stunningly gory exploding head, which comes out of nowhere but definitely makes an impression.

The crappy last act and simplistic characters decisions are symptoms of “Horns’” biggest problem. The whole film is hassled by an overly didactic tone. This is evident from the beginning, literally. As soon as the film begins, we are greeted with an unnecessary voiceover that lazily explains the themes of the story. Joe Hill’s dialogue works fine on the page but, coming out of actors’ mouth, often come off as overdone and too literal. The musical choices are often a little too-on-the-nose as well. Did “Personal Jesus” have to start up right as Ig manipulate a group of people into a fist fight? “Horns,” as a movie, probably needed a smoother screenplay and more naturalistic dialogue.

“Horns” is uneven but does contain plenty of things I like, Radcliffe’s performance and a intriguing and funny first half chief among them. It’s an interesting step forward for Aja, showing his interest evolving in different direction. His next film, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” is outside the horror genre too and sounds similarly themed to this one. Hopefully that film avoids the narrative bumps and choppy writing of this one. “Horns” comes very close to being satisfying but just misses the mark. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2014)

53. Big Hero 6

When Disney bought Marvel Comics whole sale a few years back, the fan community’s reaction was mixed. The prevailing theory, which has since proven true, was that this would be a mutually beneficial partnership for both companies. Disney would gain access to perennially popular and iconic (and profitable) characters. Marvel, meanwhile, would be backed by the Disney merchandising army and wide-reaching distribution. At the time though, some fans were less enthusiastic. Some wondered what part of our collective childhoods Disney would snatch up next. Others voiced an ultimately unfounded concern that the Mouse Factory would “Disney-fy” the Marvel properties. That thought process has finally blossomed with the fifty-third (Or fifty-fourth, if you think “Dinosaur” counts) Disney Animated Feature. “Big Hero 6” is the “Disney-fication” of a Marvel property in the best way imaginable.

“Big Hero 6” is very loosely adapted from a Marvel comic so obscure the company has never felt the need to collect the team’s original mini-series. By picking a title under-loved and unknown even to hardcore comic nerds, Disney probably preemptively defused any fan boy scrutiny. It also allowed them to do anything they want with the characters. Disney’s “Big Hero 6” is about Hiro, a boy genius and robotics expert, who has a very close relationship with his older brother, Tadashi. While Hiro is initially interested in illegal robot fights, Tadashi introduces him to his college friends, each science geniuses in their own rights, each perfecting high-tech devices. Won over, the boy quickly devises a collection of advanced nanobots. On the same night, Tadashi perishes in a tragic fire at the college. Several months later, Hiro rediscovers Baymax, the lovable medical robot Tadashi invented. Realizing that a mysterious villain is using his nanobots for unsavory ends, Hiro outfits the cuddly Baymax with battle armor and turns the rest of his brother’s collages into high-tech superheroes.

“Big Hero 6” essentially combines the best qualities of Marvel and Disney into one fantastically entertaining work. During a time when some studios are doubling down on dark and gritty superhero stories, “Big Hero 6” is a joyously fun, family friendly, comic book yarn of a film. The film is frequently hilarious, from Baymax’s deadpan delivery of dialogue to Fred’s enthusiastic embrace of his comic book destiny. The film explores the possibilities of a comic book universe. It throws a bunch of crazy ideas at the audience. Robots, nanotechnology, laser beams, floating magnetic wheels, advanced polymers, teleportation, and even some references to kaiju movies are all tossed at the audience. “Big Hero 6” blends these divergent elements together seamlessly and assumes the audience is smart enough to get all of it. While the movie is an origin story and does pause for some brief superhero angst, it is mostly concerned with the limitless possibilities of being a superhero presents.

It also helps that “Big Hero 6” takes place in a fully formed fictional world. Breaking the film off from the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe allowed the film’s producer to create a more cartoonish and stylized world. The film is set in the city of San Fransokyo, which is exactly what it sounds like. The blending of the two iconic cities is made obvious in the opening shot. The camera pans over the city’s bay, passing a version of the Golden Gate Bridge made out of Shinto temple gates. The buildings of the hillside city are painted with oni and Japanese kanji. Hiro’s bedroom is decorated with Japanese robot toys, at least one of which heavily resembles Mazinger Z. The trolly cars and polished buildings represent California while the cultural identity is more like that of Japan. But San Fransokyo is also a city of the future. It’s close enough to our own time that the buildings, fashion, and vehicles resemble those of today. Yet little touches characterize the sci-fi setting. Airborne wind turbines float above the city, Hiro and Baymax resting upon one during a key scene. Robotics are a common enough feature that people don’t find the sight of Baymax waddling down the street unusual at all. Without drawling too much attention to it, “Big Hero 6” creates a fun, exciting world for its characters to run around in.

Baymax is undoubtedly the MVP of “Big Hero 6,” a fact Disney surely recognized before slapping the cute, cuddly robot’s face on all the posters. Inspired by real health care robotics technology, Baymax doesn’t readily resemble any of pop culture’s previous robots. Inside of hard and mechanical, he’s soft and fluid. He inflates like a balloon, his whole body resembling a fluffy marshmallow. His cute, simple face allows for unlimited expression while also being simple enough that a little kid could draw it. He slightly resembles a classic iPod and, in a cute nod to this, the robot charges by simply standing in a docking bay. While in battle mode, Baymax more closely resembles a classic Japanese fighting robot, with his tiny head, stubby legs, robust body, rocket fist, and elegant wings. Smartly, the secondary design doesn’t disguise Baymax’s adorable center. Underneath the slick, red armor, Baymax is still his cuddly self. The robot has a funny physicality too. His legs rub together, squeaking, as he walks. One moment, he flips overhead, his tiny feet kicking in the air. An incredible pratfall has the robot reaching for a step and landing on his head instead. None of this would have been possible without Scott Adsit’s impressive vocal performance. Adsit’s deadpan delivery and low-key line reading often makes unextraordinary lines uproariously funny. While appropriately robotic, Adsit brings a real warmth to the character. The audience laughs at Baymax’s antics but they love him too. I have no doubt that Disney is going to sell a crap ton of plushes of the cutesy character.

Despite Baymax obviously stealing the show, “Big Hero 6” is Hiro’s story. His arc is fairly typical, one of grief giving way to revenge giving way to a deeper maturity. The character is likeable enough though, Hiro having a proper sense of wonder at what happens. His quick wit and problem solving abilities makes him a properly enjoyable protagonist. The scenes of Hiro and Baymax sleuthing out a mystery makes me wonder if “Big Hero 6” could have been a wacky take on the bog adventurer genre. His relationship with Tadashi is touching if not horribly unique. The two are orphans, like a lot of other Disney characters, and Hiro loosing Tadashi seems to rub it in a little too much. The chemistry between Ryan Potter and Daniel Henney mostly covers up any of these rough patches.

The rest of the Big Heroes are less distinct but equally lovable. My favorite is probably Fred. Unlike his teammates, Fred isn’t a scientific genius but instead an enthusiastic fanboy of superheroes, anime, and giant monster movies. His apartment is filled with artwork, action figures, and Super Sentai masks. This makes him the audience surrogate for all the nerds in the audience. Accordingly, he is outfitted with a fire-breathing kaiju suit. T.J. Miller’s performance is hilarious, milking maximum hilarity from each tossed-off line. GoGo Tomago, the team’s thrill seeker, is given a strong personality thanks to Jamie Chung’s vocal delivery. She’s a simple character, of few words, but dynamic and intriguing. The remaining members of the team, Honey Lemon and Wasabi, probably get the short stick. Wasabi, voiced by Damon Wayons Jr., is cautious and panicky, the one most concerned about the danger the heroes find themselves in. Genesis Rodriguez’ Honey is upbeat, energetic, and girly and nerdy in equal measures. They aren’t defined much beyond those characteristics. Better yet, though, the film sells the camaraderie among the team. My favorite moment has all five gathering around Baymax in an impromptu group hug.

As an animated action film, “Big Hero 6” is a blast as well. The film’s villain, unnamed in the film but referred to as Yokai in all the merchandise, has a dynamic gimmick. His army of black nanotechs create a black flood of stabbing or smashing objects. The good guys getting around these obstacles leads to a lot of fun. The best action sequence has the team confronting Yokai in his island base. Each hero gets to show-off their abilities against the bad guy. Fred leaps around and breaths fire, GoGo races around on her floating disks, Wasabi slashes through the villain’s weapons, while Honey attempts to block his attacks with her fancy foam bombs. The finale has the good guys rethinking their abilities, using creativity to stop the bad guy. Impressive visuals accompany the action. Hiro racing around the city on Baymax’s back is exciting, the world swooping around them. The final act has the two entering an another dimension, which is a spellbinding visual, creating a true sense of otherworldly beauty.

Once a viewer gives the emotional heart of “Big Hero 6” a good look, one realizes it’s a story about living through a loss and letting go of grief. After Tadashi’s death, Hiro is crestfallen. He didn’t have much to begin with and lost the person who meant the most to him. When Baymax reappears, Hiro is presented with a walking, talking example of his brother’s legacy. Baymax, meanwhile, is designed to heal. He repeats throughout the film that his purpose is to help Hiro work through his grief. In one of the film’s more syrupy moments, Hiro reprograms the harmless Baymax into a vessel of violence, consumed by his revenge. He immediately regrets this. The film justifies this moment with a touching moment where the robot presents Hiro with the last known recording of his brother, allowing Tadashi to communicate with his younger brother from beyond the grave. In time, it’s revealed that even the villain is motivated by the loss of a loved one, bringing things full circle. The last act of the film has Hiro literally letting go of his grief, accepting his loss and moving on pass it. Because this is Disney, and the savvy studio isn’t going to kill off the film’s most popular character, the Big Heroes are reunited by the end. “Big Heroes 6” earns this, I feel. It would have been too cruel to rob Hiro of all his friends.

The mystery of the villain’s true identity is fairly easy to figure out. A name actor is cast in a supporting role that would otherwise be a waste of his talent, so of course he’s the bad guy. Otherwise, “Big Hero 6” is speedy, funny, touching, exciting, and visually gorgeous. The characters are lovable while the film functions as a highly entertaining comic book adventure. It continues Disney’s current run of fantastic animated features. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 52: Night of the Demons

I didn't forget about you guys. If you're a regular follower of the blog, you probably notice that, after the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon concludes, I always take some time off. This short breaks are never planned. To be totally honest, I had wanted to get back in the swing of things on November 1st! Real life had other plans though. And, to be totally honest, after updating the blog daily for a month and a half, I was a bit tired of looking at a computer screen.

So tired, in fact, that I forgot to post the most recent episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show here. This actually went up on the 30th of October, making it an appropriate topic for Halloween. As promised, a number of the series I reviewed during the Six Weeks will be recycled for show topics. The first on the chopping block: Night of the Demons! Since it's the only other Halloween-themed horror franchise I can think of besides the obvious, both JD and I figured it would make a good seasonal show topic. We're also aware that it's a fairly niche topic, discussing a minor cult favorite, that won't appeal to most people. That's a risk we're willing to take.

Even though things sort of peaks around here during October, the year is not over yet! Last November, I filled in some blanks in my various Report Cards with a creatively entitled series called Catch-Up Week which, naturally, went on for seventeen days. I'm not doing that this year. However, I do intent to post some reviews of several new releases, some of them more new then others, that correspond to a number of directors or series I follow. I can't guarantee that this we come out daily but they will be coming over the next few days. Also, I hoping to squeeze in another Director's Report Card before December, and with it both Christmas and the end-of-the-year rush to see as much stuff as possible, rolls around. As always, I can't make any promises but these are the plans. See you soon.