Friday, October 28, 2011

Quick thoughts on some recent releases

I've been so busy knocking horror classics off my to-watch list, I've been remiss (well, not completely, but more remiss than I'd like) with newer releases, particularly in writing about them. But here are some brief thoughts on some movies that are in theaters now.

The Ides of March - I love George Clooney as a director, but for me this movie falls short of Good Night and Good Luck and even Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The second half works more than the first, where everyone seems to be working too hard to be their characters, especially Evan Rachel Wood, who's trying way too hard to be the sexy intern. Ryan Gosling is quite good, and so is Clooney himself, but only once they're both allowed to get to the dark side of their characters. The most impressive work, though, comes from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as the head of the campaign. His final scene with Gosling is amazing, but it's not quite enough to overcome the first half. Again, for me. Your mileage may vary.

Take Shelter - I've been a fan of Michael Shannon's since his breakthrough performance in Revolutionary Road, so it's wonderful to see him take the lead here. His character is having visions and experiences that lead him to believe that an apocalyptic storm is coming. He's a modern day Noah, doing things that convince everyone else that he's crazy, but firmly believing that his actions are absolutely necessary. Jessica Chastain (in roughly her sixteenth movie role this year - I exaggerate, but she's been in a LOT this year) turns in another great performance as Shannon's long-suffering wife. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene below, I think I like the performances and the idea better than the film itself, but it's still pretty remarkable.

Footloose (2011) - Believe it or not, I had NEVER seen the original before a few weeks ago. I absolutely loved it, of course, and was really glad to see that John Lithgow's preacher character wasn't a caricature of religious fanatics. I really loved the relationship between him and Ariel, and that you could see that he was not in favor of all the morality measures. I was really struck by how much I loved the music (especially as I already knew all the songs). And I don't care if it's an unpopular opinion, I had a way bigger crush on Chris Penn in this movie than I did on Kevin Bacon. The remake is, in my opinion, REALLY good. One of the key changes that actually improves on the original is that they begin the film with the car wreck that we only hear about as backstory in the original. We see the pain it causes the community, and even though you know it's an overreaction, you can understand (especially in our 9/11 culture) why they put all the ridiculous laws in place. The tragedy hangs over the rest of the movie and gives it a bit more poignancy. I loved that they used so many of the original songs, albeit mostly new versions of them. The slowed down "Holding Out For A Hero" was a favorite of mine, and much more suited to the moment in which it was used than Bonnie Tyler's version was in the original. The one thing I thought was not quite as good as in the original movie was the relationship between Ariel and her father. It's still pretty good, but not as layered and not as warm. There were SO MANY nods to the original, though. The whole film begins with the original Kenny Loggins "Footloose," Ren drives the yellow bug, and he and Ariel even wear almost the exact same outfits to the dance that Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer wore in the original - the red jacket and the white ruffled dress!

The Woman - Even without the Sundance controversy (there's YouTube video of a guy sort of snapping at the screening there), I was interested in this because of its director, Lucky McKee. McKee's wonderful May played at my first BNAT and Sick Girl (his Masters of Horror entry) played BNAT 7. He's an interesting filmmaker and his films all seem to heavily revolve around women. This is kind of a revolting film, but not in a bad way. The plot centers around a man who finds a feral woman in the woods and brings her home, chains her up in the barn, and attempts to "domesticate" her. He recruits his family to help him, and the domestication inevitably involves him (as well as his son) taking sexual advantage of her. The climax is completely over the top and operatic, but fairly consistent with McKee's style. It's kind of a fable and not meant to be taken literally.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - I'd heard raves about this movie, but I'd say it's a good film (not a great one) with great performances, notably that of Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley), who plays the titular Martha (and Marcy May and, for one scene, Marlene). The film goes back and forth between Martha's refuge in her sister's home and her life in the commune from which she escaped. You're never quite sure why she joined the commune in the first place, nor at which precise point she decides that it's no longer somewhere she needs to be. That's probably by design, but it keeps the viewer at more of a distance than I like. Oscar nominee John Hawkes (I love typing that) is amazing as the commune/cult leader, and he's such a talented actor that he never comes off as creepy as characters like that often are, and you can totally see why Martha would have fallen under his spell. Sarah Paulson is the other great performance here, as Martha's sister, whose guilt and paranoia over her sister's circumstances slowly unravel her over the course of the movie.

It's the most spook-tastic time of the year!

As is my habit in October, I've been gorging myself on horror movies - more than usual, I mean. I'm making a concerted effort to fill in gaps in my genre knowledge, which means I've exposed myself to some real gems.

The Stuff - Oh, how I wish I could describe to you how amazing this little 80s nugget from Larry Cohen is, because a plot summary won't do it. "The Stuff" is an edible substance that becomes a huge craze all over the world, replacing ice cream as the dessert of choice. But the movie's tagline says it all - are you eating it or is it eating you? LOVED this movie. Michael Moriarty is genius. Larry Cohen even more so.

The Howling - I'm not sure why I'd never seen this before. This may be the best werewolf movie ever, and I'm pretty sure I like it more than American Werewolf in London (which I also love, but not as much as The Howling). Most notorious scene is obviously the moonlight wolfsex scene, but the transformations are really spectacular. There's an actor named Dennis Dugan in this, and I couldn't keep myself from remembering him from a trailer for another film - one of those "ain't those gays hilarious" comedies from the 1970s called Norman, Is That You? (starring Red Foxx). Dugan is also the man who's directed most of those horrible Adam Sandler comedies, including the forthcoming Jack and Jill. He's fine in The Howling, but I'm afraid his career prejudiced me against his character. :P Oh, and Dick Miller is in this, which makes this movie 100% cooler than anything not including Dick Miller.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - If you're looking for something not terribly scary and not too gross, this is an EXCELLENT Halloween flick for the family. Reminds me a lot of Stephen King stories, which is inevitable, I guess, as the novel was supposedly a huge influence on King's work. Jason Robards is great in this as the guilt-ridden father. Jonathan Pryce is wonderful, too, as the sinister and aptly named Mr. Dark.

Creepshow - Speaking of Stephen King, this was one I'd never seen in its entirety. It's an anthology film (or portmanteau, if you will), and features five stories, all written by King, with a bookend story featuring TOM ATKINS OMG. The fourth story, "The Crate," is probably my favorite, mostly because it has the awesome Adrienne Barbeau in it ("I know all the best stores."). The one with Leslie Nielson and Ted Danson is great, too. The one starring King himself is a bit weak, and "Father's Day" seems far too short (though it does have the most fantastic, incongruous dancing-around-the-house scene EVER). The standout, though, is the last segment, "They're Creeping Up On You," with E.G. Marshall as the germophobe whose pristine apartment is completely overrun by cockroaches.

[REC] - This is another one of those "found footage" films, a la Cloverfield, and it was remade almost shot for shot a couple years after its release as a movie called Quarantine (directed by the Dowdle brothers, who also made the BNAT9 dud The Poughkeepsie Tapes). This was quite good, and I loved that the sickness was thought to be what people in older times believed was demon possession. (Not that I don't believe demon possession is a real thing, but it was an interesting detail.)

The Fly (1986) - Oh, WHY couldn't Cronenberg have done Breaking Dawn?! I know it's only a dream, but the horrible baby!Brundlefly birth is AMAZING. Jeff Goldblum is so great in this, but the star of the show is the special effects. This movie is a perfect example of why I will wave my flag for actual makeup effects and practical stuff over CGI any day. Also, this movie is SO GROSS EWWWW.

Candyman - Yes, I totally believed in the legend when I was growing up, and NO, I will not ever stare into a mirror and say it five times. Nope. This is a darn good horror movie, with a great "is this real or is the character crazy" dilemma. The ending is your typical horror movie gotcha, but after what happens with the character in question ... it's kind of satisfying, to be honest.

The '81 Slasher Triple Feature - All three of these were released in 1981, kind of the Golden Year for the subgenre. It's interesting to look at these and see how much they have in common, down to specific scenes and shots, in some cases.

The Burning - Classic campsite slasher with some notable "before they were stars" performances - Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens (and Fisher Stevens' ass in the World's Most Unappealing Moon Shot). Half of this movie is Meatballs, but when the horror kicks in, it REALLY does. The most famous (and infamous) scene in the film is the Raft Scene of Death, where the killer abandons the traditional one-by-one stalk-and-slay and lays waste to half a dozen kids AT THE SAME TIME. Also unconventional in that, instead of a final girl, it's a final boy - a boy who is not even a terribly sympathetic character.

The Prowler - This is touted by horror fans as a fairly legendary early installment in the slasher genre. I didn't really see what was so special about it, other than OMG A GAZEBO DEATH in the first ten minutes. This has a lot in common with the original My Bloody Valentine, which also came out in 1981, notably its use of the party/event where something bad happened, leading to the town never having the party/event again (at least for several years), leading to the inevitable reestablishment of the party/event, which also inevitably leads to the something bad returning. The killer even wears a mask that looks a lot like Harry Warden's gas mask from MBV.

Friday the 13th Part 2 - The last F13 movie with any kind of respectability. Ginny (played by the incredible Amy Steel) is one of the great final girls in ... finalgirldom. Right up there with Chainsaw's Sally and Halloween's Laurie, as far as I'm concerned. The way she thinks through and outsmarts Jason - down to putting on the dead Mrs. Voorhees's smelly sweater and pretending to be her - is above and beyond the typical final girl badassery. Oh, and the opening murder of whatsername (the final girl from the first movie) is pretty dang awesome - Jason frikkin' TRACKED HER DOWN!

The "Peter Jackson Is Twisted!" Double Feature

Dead Alive - Possibly the most disgusting movie I've ever seen, but also really funny. You'd never guess, just going from the LOTR movies, that this kind of thing was lurking inside that sweet Kiwi man. There's a sequence where the hero is fighting an evil baby in the park that is one of the most hysterical things I've seen in a movie. The climax, though - where the hero experiences an all-too-literal Freudian rebirth - is seriously disturbing.

Bad Taste - This is one of Jackson's first films, and while Dead Alive (or Braindead, as it was originally called) put Jackson on the map, this film gave him a career. It is low budget genius, and Jackson actually plays a couple of roles in it. It's kind of awesome that this and Braindead were the kind of films he was known for when he got the Lord of the Rings gig.

The "Mannequins are EVIL" Double Feature

Tourist Trap - Classic stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere plot, but with CREEPY MANNEQUINS and TELEKINESIS! Normally, my big screen is the best way to see any film, but I should NOT have seen *this* film that way. First ten minutes kind of broke me. If you find mannequins creepy AT ALL, this movie will freak you out. Chuck Connors is awesome in this, though, and oh, that last shot is hilariously disturbing.

Maniac! - I had been so scared of seeing this, but coming right on the heels of Tourist Trap it was a breeze. This is a pretty great flick, though - one that gets slapped with the misogyny label pretty often (and wrongly, in my opinion). The gore is wonderful, Joe Spinell is fantastic, and it's a glimpse at that creepy, grimy, early 80s New York that a lot of grindhouse movies exploited so well. It also, like Creepshow, has a wonderfully incongruous musical moment, when the main character (Frank) goes to a photo shoot and we hear the wonderful "Showdown," which has the following classic lyrics:

Put on something nice
Just in case you die.
You'll leave a pretty corpse behind--
Yippee ... ki yo ... ki yaaaaay!

Asylum (NOTHING is more awesome than this image!)
I *LOVED* this movie! This 1972 anthology movie stars Peter "Van Helsing" Cushing, Herbert "Inspector Dreyfus" Lom, Frank "Clockwork Orange" Magee, Robert "Jesus of Nazareth" Powell, Charlotte Rampling, and Swedish siren Britt Ekland. There are a handful of stories, all told by patients in an insane asylum, and Robert Powell has to guess which one of them is the former head of the hospital - as a test to see if he gets the job as the former head's replacement. "Frozen Fear" is brilliant, especially when the chopped pieces of a dead body reanimate and get with the murdering. But the greatest of the stories is "Mannikins of Horror," in which Herbert Lom's character has built a little robot version of himself (with real human guts (!!!), which you see when the robot gets crushed). There is nothing more magical than the sight of that little robot sneaking around (very slowly) and hiding in shadows to escape detection.

The Sentinel - This is another great "crazy-ass 70s" movie, in which a model rents an unbelievably affordable apartment in New York, only to find out that the building is a portal to hell and that she's been chosen to be the new gatekeeper. There's lots of hilarious things in it, such as Burgess Meredith throwing a birthday party for his cat (which he forces to wear a little party hat). It was fairly controversial when it came out, too, as the director chose to cast deformed people as the demons for the climax (I recognized one of them as an actress from Mutations, which played BNAT 6). This is also another all-star cast - the aforementioned Meredith, Chris Sarandon, Ava Gardner, Beverly D'Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, a mustachioed Jerry Orbach, Sylvia Miles, and Eli Wallach, among others.

Trick or Treat - Not to be confused with 2007's Trick 'R Treat. This is ... not a great movie, horror or otherwise. It's a slice of 1980s cheese, starring (STARRING!) the kid who played "Skippy" on Family Ties. There are some cool cameos from Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne and some rockin' (if still pretty bad) 80s hair metal music, but it's not great and its relationship to Halloween (as you'd think would be substantial, given the title) is tenuous. The thing that I will remember it for, though, is where I saw it. There's a little theater in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) called The Nitehawk, and until the Alamo Drafthouse decides to open a theater here, this is the closest thing we've got to it. They've got the "dinner and a movie" gimmick, and you can tell that they've got a similar love for movies that the Drafthouse does, but they're just now kind of building their programming cred, which is what makes the Drafthouse stand out. This month was, I think, their first attempt to actually do non-first-run movies, and they're off to a good start, but there's a long way to go. My favorite part of the screening was the series of grindhouse trailers that made up the pre-show - there must have been about twenty, and almost all of them were spectacular and very reminiscent of my fondest memories at the Alamo. The trailers didn't belong to the theater, though, and it makes me sad that that won't be a regular feature of screenings. I understand they do have clips and things playing before all the movies, but ... I'm so spoiled on the Drafthouse that I fear it will pale in comparison.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Man, I'm behind on movie reviews! I saw Tucker and Dale vs Evil nearly a week ago, and I've GOT to get something down about it before this weekend's crop of releases! Oh, fall movie season, you wear me out!

This movie is going to be available on DVD and for download soon, I think before the month is out, and if you can stand gore and like something a little different in your horror now and again (plus ALAN TUDYK OMG), I cannot say enough good things about it. I will, however, say a few good things here for posterity.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is not a conventional horror film by any means. It's a spoof, but it's not even a conventional spoof. What it's specifically spoofing is the "hillbilly horror" subgenre, occasionally (depending on the film) known as "Hicksploitation." But if you think this movie is another case of dumb kids go out into the sticks and have bad things happen to them at the hands of scary inbred rednecks ... well, you'd only be partially right. Because what this is, and what makes it so dang clever, is a truly brilliant twist on that whole setup.

A bunch of college kids (I can't even remember how many now, six or seven?) go to the woods for some camping. At the same time, country bumpkin BFFs Tucker and Dale are on their way to their new vacation home, which looks like the setting for chainsaw murder and mayhem (complete with ominous news clippings about missing persons and found bodies), but which Tucker and Dale see as paradise. On their way there, they stop for gasoline and supplies and see our young "heroes." Dale is immediately taken with Allison, but his inept attempts to flirt with her (and his bucolic appearance, of course) convince the group that he and Tucker are crazy murdering hicks. This prejudice is helped along by the "leader" of the group, Chad (who reminded me forcibly of a young Tom Cruise, only with 100% more douchebaggery), who is especially prejudiced against rural folks since his biological parents were the victims of killer hillbillies (I think his story is the event that's in all the clippings at Tucker and Dale's cabin).

It couldn't be more clear, meanwhile, that Tucker and Dale are as sweet as can be. They get to their cabin and they're all excited about how they're going to fix it up. That evening, they go fishing, and they happen to be near where the kids are going skinny dipping. Allison sees them and, startled, falls into the water, hitting her head on the way down. Dale jumps in and saves her, pulling her into his and Tucker's boat, but what the kids see is their friend, in her underwear, being dragged off by the scary hillbillies.

Dale takes care of Allison at the cabin while Tucker does some man-chores outside the house, and though Allison is scared at first when she wakes up, she immediately realizes that she's safe and starts to bond with Dale (having been raised on a farm herself and hence an appreciator of rural life). She also reveals that she's majoring in psychology, specializing in communication, because she believes that most problems are caused by people not listening to each other and jumping to conclusions - an idea that sadly bears fruit in the fate of her friends.

Oh yes, her friends. Because while she's chilling with Dale in the cabin, the rest of the group have become convinced that they are characters in a hillbilly horror movie. Misunderstanding after misunderstanding ensues, and the kids end up accidentally killing themselves all around Tucker and Dale's cabin. The men are seriously befuddled by the chain of events and can only conclude that these kids are part of some suicide cult. They try to explain and make things right, but the more they try, the more accidental carnage piles up due to the kids persistently misinterpreting Tucker and Dale's motives.

What kills me about the whole story is that I've seen countless horror movies with dumb kids in them - kids who take unnecessary risks, kids who have positively life-threatening curiosity about strange noises and the like, and kids who recklessly poke a situation they don't understand until you're almost gleeful to see it bite them in the ass. I read a comment from a critic who said something I very much agree with - that a movie about people so annoying and horrible that you can't wait to see them chopped up is not horror. I'd say it's more like gladiator-style bloodlust. This movie seems to agree, and it doesn't feel the least bit bad for throwing dumb, prejudiced teens into woodchippers and practically shrugging its shoulders and saying "Hey, hate destroys, man."

The teen actors in this (or actors pretending to be college-age, to be more accurate) are about what you'd expect, though Katrina Bowden who plays Allie turns out to be better than most "pretty-face" heroines. But Alan Tudyk (Tucker) and especially Tyler Labine (Dale) own this movie, as well they should. I heard someone on my way out of the theater explaining to a friend that Labine was "like Larry the Cable Guy, only a good actor." That sums it up rather nicely. (No offense to Larry - he's a comedian, though, not an actor. I'm sure he'd agree.)

I won't spoil any more of it, but this is an absolute gem of horror comedy and closes on a comic rather than a horrific note. It is ridiculously gory, so if that's absolutely not your thing, you might want to stay away. For my part, I love it to pieces and can't wait to own it. Thankfully, I won't have to wait too much longer.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I hate tear-jerker movies. Oh, occasionally I'll be in the mood for one, but I always hate myself afterward. Nearly every tear-jerker that has ever been made is a revolting piece of manipulation. You're not crying because you're feeling something; you're crying because the music cues and the sentimental dialogue are telling you you're *supposed* to be feeling something. You're one of Pavlov's dogs, essentially.

50/50, however, is a tear-jerker that I absolutely love. I make no apologies for the blubbering I did during this movie, because every bit of it was earned through clever writing, solid storytelling and characterization, and incredible acting.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a guy who takes excellent care of himself and never takes chances with his body. He doesn't smoke, he doesn't do drugs, he runs regularly, and he doesn't even cross the street without permission from the crosswalk light. He works hard at his job and is supportive of his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). He's been having some pain in his back and night sweats, so he goes to the doctor. Guess what? He's got a rare form of cancer, and it's in such a position near his spine that they'd rather not operate unless they have no choice.

What follows is how he and the people around him deal with this situation. His girlfriend vows to take care of him, but she's not terribly good at it. His mother is like any mother would be, but she's perhaps a little more smothering than average because she's also having to deal with her husband's Alzheimer's. As one character puts it later, she has a husband who can't talk to her and a son who won't talk to her. Adam's best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is supporting but occasionally takes advantage of his friend's misfortune for his own gain (though not really in a deplorable way). Into the mix comes Katherine (Anna Kendrick), Adam's assigned therapist who is actually younger than he is and still a little awkward in her connection to her patients (of which Adam is only the third).

The movie is best categorized as a comedy, and there are a lot of laughs (many of them rather crude), but everything in this movie feels absolutely real. There's a great scene where Adam is going in for his first chemotherapy session and looks around him at all the other cancer patients, clearly thinking "Is this going to be me?". His scenes with two fellow patients he does his chemo with are a highlight as well, and when one of them dies, it's an absolute heartbreak. There's no cloying setup to prepare you for it either; it's just out-of-the-blue, the way death almost always is. The most crushing scene by far, though, is when Adam is about to go in for a procedure and starts to realize he may not live through it. I don't know that I've ever wanted to step into a movie screen and hug a character harder than I did here.

This is a seriously fantastic movie. Near perfect, actually. Some viewers might be put off by the language, I suppose, but there are few movies nowadays that are more genuine about topics that turn lesser movies into fake, weepy schmaltz.


This was one of my top 10 most anticipated films of the fall, largely because I've long been fascinated by the projects its star, Brad Pitt, has chosen to affiliate himself with, way back to the halcyon days of the one-two punch of Interview With the Vampire and Legends of the Fall, both of which made him What He Is Today and which he followed by the shrewd choice of working on David Fincher's pitch black thriller-but-really-a-horror-film Seven (which, incidentally, is the film that made Fincher what *he* is today).

Speaking of Fincher, this movie reminds me quite a bit of The Social Network, despite its outward appearance as a "baseball" movie. Moneyball is not a baseball movie, by the way, but it does have an element of he magic that we Americans associate with that sport. It's also about underdogs, which is something we associate with a lot of sports films.

The movie is about Billy Beane, the man who is still the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (or the A's, as they're more frequently called). The movie begins by showing us the sickeningly wide gap between what a team like the New York Yankees can afford to spend on players' salaries (something like $132 million) and what the A's can spend (more like $34 million - less than 1/4 the Yankees' budget). We see a very painful loss at the end of the 2001 season, followed by three of Beane's star players to other teams. Beane can only play the hand he's dealt and we sit through a couple of excruciating meetings with scouts trying to find replacements for the lost players. We hear all about what traditional wisdom says makes a good ball player - even down to silly things like whether the player has an ugly girlfriend, a detail which these old guys parlay into a lack of confidence - and it's all just noise to Beane, because they have this conversation every year and it never gets them anywhere.

He meets a young guy named Paul Brand at a failed trade meeting with another team. Brand is a Yale grad who majored in economics and has some very unconventional (some might say crazy) ideas about how to evaluate players. They should be buying home runs, Brand argues, not players. Beane brings him on as assistant GM and aggressively initiates this new approach (called sabermetrics) to their scouting, selecting players based almost entirely on their ability to get on base. This new method flies in the face of everything everyone has always thought about baseball, and as such draws the ire of the scouts and the manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Howe refuses to play several key players in the positions they were hired for - most notably Scott Hatteberg, who had spent most of his career as a catcher but was hired as a first baseman for the A's, and who Howe was consistently relegating to the bench because he wasn't a traditional first baseman and was still essentially learning how to play the position. The A's don't do well at all at this time, which most critics and much of the team staff blame on the new system, but which Beane is sure is only because everyone is bucking his methods. He eventually trades away the only "stars" on the team so that Howe will use the players in the way they were intended to be used when they were brought on.

And then they start winning. They win 19 games in a row, tying the all-time league record, and game 20 is probably the greatest sequence in the movie, culminating in Hatteberg's home run, which is a thing of absolute and flawless beauty. Seriously, I don't think the crack of a baseball bat has ever sounded so gorgeous.

I won't spoil the rest of it, though you could find out all the facts on the internet anyway. The script was written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (not together, but they share credit), and you can see both of their handprints on the film. The director, Bennett Miller, also made 2005's Capote and this film has a similar kind of measured pace and discipline (though it's obviously more romantic - as Pitt says in the film, though, it's hard not to be romantic about baseball). I loved the use of (what I presumed to be) archival footage and its integration with the staged reenactments of the various games. Acting is great across the board. Most surprising, perhaps, is Jonah Hill, who's most recognizable as part of the "Apatow stable" but who really shines here in a much more straight role. Also of note is Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg, who generates a lot of sympathy as an everyday player who is scared to death of his new position.

A great movie, and if you haven't seen it yet and have any affection for sports whatsoever, I'd definitely recommend it.