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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One Film Review

I really enjoyed seeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One today. The film centers on Katniss' PTSD post-Games and her trying to hold on to her sanity as she is caught in the middle of the war between the Capitol and the rebels. It is also about the rebels trying to save and protect their people using propaganda the way the Capitol would use propaganda, and having selfish interests at heart even while being the "good guys." They put Katniss as the "Mockingjay" and hold up her as a symbol to further their cause, but likely would be just as satisfied if she died, a martyr for their cause.

The film was very bleak, but I thought it fit the mood of the story very well, with a lot of gray and blue tones, and focusing on other districts and their battles besides Katniss as the narrator.

Acting-wise, everyone did well. The usual cast members put in good to decent performances. Jennifer Lawrence did well in playing a damaged teenager with no real power trying to hold onto her interpersonal relationships because it was the only control she had (Prim, Peeta, Johanna) while being in a war she didn't want to be a part of. Elizabeth Banks did really well as Effie, balancing her character between being a citizen used to her Capitol luxuries and being a sympathetic person towards Katniss and the rebels' cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch was on the "good" side, but marketing Katniss' pain to the masses. Still, I miss Hoffman because of his voice and warmth that he brought to his roles. And Julianne Moore as Alma Coin was icy and cold and brittle, but was an interesting character in using Katniss to further the rebels' cause and possibly becoming another President Snow in the future.

I know Rambo gets made fun of as an 80's action movie, but this final scene where Rambo has a breakdown about his traumas from the Vietnam war and living with the memories for 15 years was very powerful and moving. I was reminded of it sometimes during the movie with Katniss dealing with her PTSD while being used as a symbol for the rebels' cause and being put in fake-looking propaganda videos. The speech begins at 2:30.

Ricochet Film Review

I watched Ricochet, this movie from 1991 starring Denzel Washington and John Lithgow. It's a dark and messed-up crime thriller. Washington plays Nick Styles, a rookie cop who shot a killer named Blake (Lithgow) and put him behind bars. Eight years later, Styles became a big-time cop and assistant D.A., and Blake has been obsessing over vengeance all this time. He breaks out of prison, kidnaps Styles, drugs him, and humiliates him on camera in various ways to ruin his career and public character. The plot continues as Styles tries to clear his name and get Blake, who is terrorizing people in order to get to Styles.

The movie was just very gritty. Washington's star was still rising at this time, as he hadn't become a leading man movie star yet, and his character is the hero, but also spends part of the movie doped up on cocaine and heroin, then is still out of it even after he is rescued, just drinking, disoriented, and slurring his words. It's a very different performance to see with Washington where he's not playing the confident hero, but a protagonist who can't speak or see straight and is losing his mind in trying to beat the killer.

Lithgow was really good in this. I thought he was hammy as the villain in Cliffhanger, but excellent as a serial killer in Dexter. Here, he finds a good balance between playing a psychotic killer and saying cheesy lines (often menacingly repeating the last words of whatever the hero said on TV) while not being ridiculous with it.

Ice T was also pretty good in this movie. He plays Odessa, a big-time drug dealer who was a childhood friend of Nick's, and acts as support to nab Blake, delivering some of the best lines of the movie in his uniquely raspy voice.

I enjoyed watching it, but can see why it's not well-remembered of Washington's movies. It is more of a B-level crime movie that doesn't showcase Washington as a typically handsome leading man. And often times, really violent crime thrillers like this are usually left to air on cable channels late at night, this gets pretty dark for mainstream Hollywood movies.

Prancer Film Review

Prancer was one of my favorite Christmas movies when I was a kid, I don't know how well-remembered it is. It came out in 1989 and was directed by John D. Hancock, written by Greg Taylor. It's about a little girl named Jessica who lives on a rural farm with her widower dad and brother, and she finds an injured reindeer in the woods and is convinced that it is Prancer, one of Santa's reindeer. She takes care of it in the barn, and is trying to save it while keeping it a secret from her dad (despite telling her brother, her best friend, the local vet, and a townswoman). 

I loved this movie as a kid, and I'm trying to think of why. I liked that the father (played by Sam Elliott) was gruff and unsentimental. He loves his kids, but he is a father who doesn't have patience for immaturity, and is more concerned about saving his farm and getting his kids to behave, go to school, and do their chores than be soft with them. I really liked his voice, it felt tough yet comforting at the same time.

Jessica wasn't annoying, she acted like how a real kid would act. Curious, inquisitive, smart, pestering adults, and believing in a mix of fantasy and reality. The actress who played her, Rebecca Harrell, gave her a lot of heart, she didn't seem like a cutesy movie kid. I looked her up, and she is an environmental activist who makes documentaries with her husband about preserving the environment, so that's pretty cool.

Despite the movie being a holiday film and with fantasy elements, it felt realistic to me, grounded in ordinary people living a rural life and just being average. The actors looked very natural in their roles, and it didn't look like "stars" who looked too "pretty" for the small town or out of a Hallmark movie. The other name actors in this movie were Abe Vigoda, Cloris Leachman, and Ariana Richards before she was famous from Jurassic Park.

Roger Ebert states it best as to why this is a good little movie, and phrases it better than I can as to why this movie was special to me as a child: "The best thing about "Prancer" is that it doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. Smaller kids will identify with Jessica's fierce resolve to get Prancer back into action, and older viewers will appreciate the fact that the movie takes place in an approximation of the real world."

Foxcatcher Film Review

I enjoyed seeing Foxcatcher. It is a true-crime drama starring Steve Carell as a sociopathic billionaire who coaches and sponsors an Olympic wrestling team, including brothers played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who had both won the gold medal in wrestling in the 1984 Olympic Games.

It was a slow movie, but well-acted and had this haunting feeling to it, like a sense of dread. Not because the billionaire ended up murdering one of the brothers in 1996, but because he was such a creep in his rich palace that it seemed obvious that the brothers shouldn't have done business with him. They really wanted to win gold in the 1988 Olympics, and his money and state-of-the-art wrestling space was too good to turn down.

All three stars did great in this movie. I normally think that Channing Tatum is really wooden in drama, but he went deep for this role, and was really good. Steve Carell was very unsettling and intimidating in this role, rarely raising his voice but being very manipulative and monstrous. And Mark Ruffalo did well as the mediator, the good guy, the nice family man who cared about ethics in wrestling. The director, Bennett Miller, did Capote and Moneyball, so he was able to combine true crime with a sports movie. I wouldn't be surprised if this story of the Schultz brothers and John du Pont was an episode of ESPN's 30 For 30 documentary series. I recommend this film if you like true crime stories and can sit through a lot of quiet scenes.

My Film Review of Serenity from 2010

I watched the Blockbuster Buster's review of Firefly and Serenity, and remembered that I wrote a review of Serenity in 2010. It is still one of my favorite science-fiction films ever, and I am re-posting it here. Since I wrote the review, I did watch Firefly in 2011, and really enjoyed it, and appreciated the movie much more.

January 26, 2010

Science fiction has had many interpretations of the future. There’s the future where the world is controlled by strict eugenics (Gattaca), where people are persecuted for crimes they haven’t committed yet (Minority Report), and the ever-popular dystopian future (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Road Warrior). Often the science fiction genre takes itself very seriously, warning its audience of the dangers of relying on technology, the consequences of racism, and the inner destruction of humanity. While science fiction can tackle these issues with intelligence and gravitas, the manner leaves little space for humor or brevity, which can sour a sci-fi fan where everything is life and death and nothing in between.

Joss Whedon, the celebrated creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, created characters that were intelligent, witty, and unique in a slightly quirky way, portrayed by actors who, while all physically attractive, got the oddball outsider sensibility of their characters, and played it up with grace and humor. Whedon’s characters gave viewers heroes who weren’t perfect, were personally conflicted, and while possessing a quick tongue and amazing hand-to-hand combat skills, were just regular people in extraordinary situations.

In 2002, Whedon created the now cult-classic Firefly, a TV show on Fox about a spaceship crew on the ship Serenity who had lost a civil war and were now living on the outskirts of society. It closely resembled a Western, with an Appalachian bluegrass song as the theme and an outlaw hero in Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former sergeant with a Southwestern accent, a long browncoat, and guns at his holsters. The Serenity crew fights criminals, the combined U.S./China government known as the Alliance, and the dangerous Reavers, a cannibalistic group of nomadic humans that have turned savage and monstrous. The show was unique for its mismatched cast of unusual but interesting characters, a sense of wry humor, and not being as heavy-handed as its precursors in sci-fi, as stated in the opening paragraph.

Unfortunately, due to low ratings, Firefly was cancelled after one season,despite fans’ attempts to keep the show on the air. But its cult status grew somuch that, as a gift to the fans and as a season finale, Whedon wrote and directed the feature film version of Firefly in 2005, entitled Serenity.

Serenity works as an introduction to those who did not see the show, detailing the civil war that happened five hundred years into the future, where Earth’s resources have been used up, and humanity has moved into living in space and on other planets. The Alliance controls all of the planets, yet there is a rogue justice league that operates far from the core planets, where the Serenity crew survive. Their world is put into jeopardy when a young girl named River Tam(Summer Glau), who is a pupil of the Alliance and holds dangerous secrets that she obtains through psychic abilities, escapes with her brother Simon (Sean Maher) to Serenity, hiding away from the Alliance, including a dignified but ruthless agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor). River’s abilities make her a deadly weapon for the Alliance, and her allegiance to the Serenity crew is questioned, if she is truly one of them or if she will turn based on her government programming.

The language of Serenity is very sharp and smart-alecky, keeping with the Western motif. Both Mal and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) are very much like cowboys, quick with a pistol and a one-liner, men who have seen death and destruction firsthand. If they’re not being movie heroes, they are tech-savvy intellectual nerds, in the forms of shy mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) and pilot Hoban (Alan Tudyk). Zoe (Gina Torres), the first mate and Hoban’s wife,holds this loyalty and deadly strength, thinking with her head and following Mal’s orders with “Yes, sir.”

Serenity undoubtly pays homage to its sci-fi predecessors, for their grungy and rough exteriors recall the crew of Alien, just regular people with intellectual and technical skills who eke out a living working on a ship. They band together when they fight, laugh over drinks, and just take it as hard, tough work, like average working class joes.

Serenity stands out as one of the most original and interesting sci-fi films to come along, simply because it has talented and unique actors, compelling characterizations, and a closer sense of modernity than other sci-fi films overly concerned with the future and not the present.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Blink - A Film Review

I re-watched Blink, this mystery thriller from 1994 that I really liked. It has a noir vibe with an interesting heroine. The film stars Madeleine Stowe as a blind woman who is a violinist in an Irish band in Chicago. She gets new eyes via a donor, and as her eyes are adjusting to her new sight and the world, in her blurriness she has visions of a serial killer who is striking, but nobody else sees him. Aidan Quinn is the cop who is skeptical at first, writing her off as a drunk lonely woman who can't see anything clearly, but helps her and falls in love with her. The story was very interesting, and I liked the dry humor and cynicism that Stowe brought to her character, it made her seem more real and less like a victim of her circumstance. I enjoyed the Chicago setting and seeing Aidan Quinn and Laurie Metcalf in the movie, because I don't see many movies set in Chicago, it's often New York City or L.A. I do find the movie suspenseful, but really enjoyed the setting, the acting, and the humorous moments as well. It's just an interesting B-level noir thriller that I recommend.

Killer Toon - A Film Review

I really enjoyed seeing Killer Toon around Halloween at the Museum of the Moving Image. It is a South Korean horror movie that is a ghost story. It has a little gore in it, but not excessive. It was about a web comic artist whose artwork was predicting gruesome murders, and she is the prime suspect. It was haunting and unsettling, and I loved how the movie would switch from still comic panels of the action to live action, illustrating the film like a graphic novel come to life. The film came out last year and was a huge success in South Korea. I was happy to watch it as a haunting Halloween treat.

Nightcrawler - A Film Review

I saw Nightcrawler recently. It was very good, but unsettling and creepy to watch. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, and is about a drifter named Lou who videotapes crime scenes and car accidents, tracking them through a police scanner, and sells the footage to a local TV network. He is a sociopath who is a confident talker, is a thief, and doesn't have any remorse or guilt from profiting off of filming gruesome accident scenes for sleazy news stories.

Gyllenhaal gave another brilliant performance, playing a sleazy, amoral fast talker, his gaunt face making his eyes look more open and menacing. I've underestimated Gyllenhaal's versatility a lot, because of his cute puppy-dog looks and Hollywood-raised background, but I am continually impressed by his versatility in films like Zodiac, Source Code, Prisoners, Brokeback Mountain, End of Watch, and earlier movies like October Sky, Donnie Darko, and Moonlight Mile

I looked up the director Dan Gilroy, and am pleased to see that he did the story adaptation for Real Steel, a movie that seemed silly on paper (boxing robots) but was much better than I had expected, due to Hugh Jackman's performance and the father-son story of bonding through creating a boxing robot.

The other name actors in this movie are Rene Russo as the news director who compromises journalistic integrity for higher ratings of gruesome crime scenes, and Bill Paxton as a fellow videographer of accidents. For Paxton, I thought, "Bill Paxton has gone from chasing tornadoes to chasing crime scenes."

The film is really good, but was very uncomfortable to watch, very dark and blunt in its sleaziness and brutality. I was cringing at various moments in it for how far Lou would go to get what he wanted for "good video." I still recommend it, and feel like while Gyllenhaal is often critically acclaimed, he still seems underrated to me, perhaps thought of as a "pretty face" despite the risks he takes in his films. Perhaps he will get a major award that he missed out on when he should've been nominated for an Academy Award for Prisoners.

John Wick - A Film Review

I enjoyed seeing John Wick. It doesn't have a complicated plot, it's a revenge movie about a hitman who comes out of retirement to kill Russian mobsters that stole his car and killed his puppy, a gift from his dying wife. Keanu Reeves was awesome in it. He is excellent at playing stoic and quiet, just stalking across a room taking long strides as a very tall and lanky man, and just delivering pain to countless goons and mobster jerkoffs. I know he gets a lot of knocks for his acting, but this is one of his best movies he's ever done. There were a couple of scenes with him delivering raw emotion: one full of pain, the other full of anger, and I was impressed by how deep he dug into those scenes, it was really great.

The filmmakers are two stuntmen named Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Stahelski doubled for Brandon Lee in The Crow and for Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies, and is a highly accomplished stunt coordinator (Serenity, Ninja Assassin, The Expendables). Leitch has doubled for Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and did stunt coordinating for V for Vendetta and Conan the Barbarian (the 2011 one). The fight scenes in John Wick are excellent. There are long pans where it's Keanu Reeves swiftly moving through goons using kung-fu and jujitsu, and the long shots without jumpy cutaways not only make the fight scenes look more brutal, but it feels like a breath of fresh air to watch a fight scene that is not all quick cuts, and full of excellent and beautiful staging of fight moves. And the fight choreographers took advantage of his long legs by having him do jujitsu grappling moves and being on the floor a lot.

The film has some good cameos and supporting roles by known character actors: Ian McShane as a hotel owner; John Leguizamo as a chop shop owner; David Patrick Kelly as a "cleaner," Willem Dafoe as John's best friend; Lance Reddick as a hotel manager, and Dean Winters as a mob lawyer and the comic relief.

I really like dark movies and action thrillers, especially when they remind me of gritty movies from the 80's a la Death Wish, The Punisher, Manhunter, and Maniac Cop. I recommend John Wick for the fight sequences and Keanu Reeves' performance.

Observation on Steve Buscemi in Airheads

I watched Airheads recently, and I've seen it several times, but came to this relevation: Steve Buscemi was pretty much the best actor in the whole movie. He just dominated every scene he was in, and was a total scene-stealer from everyone else. I don't know how famous he was in 1994 apart from Reservoir Dogs, but he gave the best performance in the whole movie. It was like if Mr. Pink joined a scuzzy rock band and was desperate for attention, and resorted to holding people hostage in order to get his music heard. Buscemi is a celebrated talent, and directed one of the best episodes of The Sopranos ("Pine Barrens," where Paulie and Christopher are lost in the snowy woods), but I didn't realize how much of a charismatic scene-stealer he was until watching this movie for the fifth or sixth time. You're awesome, Steve Buscemi.

Tank Girl - A Film Review

I really enjoyed this look at the making of Tank Girl (1995) and why the movie bombed. I saw the movie when I was 12 on video, and really enjoyed it. I loved the post-apocalyptic cyber-punk look of it; the weirdness of Tank Girl and Lori Petty acting like a comic book character; the mutant kangaroos and hearing Ice T's voice coming out of one of them; the desert setting a la Mad Max; Naomi Watts' performance as Jet Girl, the Australian shy and nerdy pilot/mechanic; Malcolm McDowell as the hammy villain; the kickass rock soundtrack that I bought a copy of soon afterwards (Hole, Belly, L7, Bjork, Joan Jett, Portishead), and the comic panels and animated sequences that I later found out were only in there because the movie ran out of money to film action sequences. I've seen it again as an adult, and while I can see flaws with it (I can't stand the musical sequence, the plot gets messy in the last third; Petty can be annoying sometimes), I still like the movie. The movie failed because of studio intervention to cut scenes and mess around with the director's work and the movie turned into a big mess. 

I looked up the director Rachel Talalay to see what she's doing now, and she directed two episodes of Doctor Who this year and has done a lot of TV directing over the past decade. Lori Petty was on Orange is the New Black season two and directed a decent indie movie called The Poker House starring Jennifer Lawrence pre-fame. And while I liked Naomi Watts, I didn't hear of her for several years afterwards, thinking she'd just be an obscure actor, and was happy when she became an A-list star.

This movie isn't for everyone. It can be really weird and loud, and it is very 90's, which can be good for being an experimental, risk-taking movie and also for being really dated and old. If this is your kind of movie, I suggest checking it out.

Birdman - A Film Review

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman was a really interesting film to watch. I loved how close and personal it felt with the characters' relationships, showcased through the long continuous takes and close-ups. The editor deserves an Oscar nomination for putting seamless edits in between continuous takes to make sequences linked together like one continuous take. That filmmaking style got me into the story very quickly, and the cast were all fantastic in this film.

I agree with the comparisons to JCVD, a movie where Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself and gets caught up in a robbery in Brussels (he's a hostage, but the police and media outside think he's the robber due to a misunderstanding). Particularly, it does feel similar with the hero actor making a meta statement about his past roles and his offscreen life, as well as including an amazing sequence where Van Damme "floats" above the scene to deliver a long monologue about his life in films, his challenges and his obstacles, and playing the hero and movie star while dealing with his insecurities and issues (drugs, women, maintaining his worth as a person). This scene had me holding my breath throughout all of it, and it was a surprise to see Van Damme do the best acting of his career. Not just playing himself, but being emotionally vulnerable and bare onscreen.

Similarly, Michael Keaton brought that onscreen, just being open and honest onscreen. I've been thinking in the last couple of years that he is an underrated actor, someone who fell below the radar after doing Batman Returns, due to him choosing supporting roles and largely character actor work, and it's awesome to see him back in a lead role in a meaningful film.

While I think Edward Norton is a egocentric dick in real life (from stories I've heard of him), he always kills it onscreen (I forgot that he's been very good in quite a lot of movies since the mid-90's) and managed to bring sympathy to such an obnoxious character.

Emma Stone was wonderful in this, I love how electric and charismatic she is onscreen, especially in films like this, Zombieland, and The Amazing Spider-Man. It seemed like she was being overshadowed by Jennifer Lawrence in the past couple of years, so I'm happy to see her back to her A-game in this film.

Naomi Watts was also great in this too. She didn't have as much to do as the other characters, but she's always been a very interesting and talented actress that takes risks onscreen, and I like seeing her in whatever she's in.

Another favorite performance of mine in this was Lindsay Duncan as the theater critic. She was so great at playing a cold, cynical writer who loved theater so much that she would rip apart anyone who she felt desecrated the art of it. I loved how she spoke in a quiet, mannered tone that would cut through anyone's heart. She was in only a couple of scenes in this movie, but was fantastic, and was one of the best parts of the film.

This was just a really interesting movie. I've included the monologue from JCVD because it had similar filming techniques and themes from Birdman.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Long Kiss Goodnight - A Film Review


The Long Kiss Goodnight is a 1996 action movie starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, was written by Shane Black, and directed by Renny Harlin. It is both reminiscent of the Christmas settings of previous Shane Black-written movies (Lethal Weapon), kidnapping as a plot device in Black’s previous movies (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), and the large action sequences of Renny Harlin’s previous movies (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master).T he movie is about an ordinary woman named Samantha Caine (Davis) who is an amnesiac, and finds out that she was a C.I.A. assassin named Charly Baltimore, and her former comrades are out looking for her. She teams up with private detective Mitch Hennessy (Jackson) to re-discover her past and get even with those who tried to kill her, as well as prevent a bomb plot from happening. It is an exciting action movie to watch, with Davis and Jackson playing against type in their respective roles: Davis as an action heroine, Jackson as a sidekick in need of rescue. Not only are the action sequences outstanding, but the film takes its time in introducing the characters, giving their backstory, and letting the audience get to know them instead of just getting straight into action with no context. It is a lot of fun to watch, and is a greatly underrated action film.

The film begins with a credit sequence giving background to Charly Baltimore’s life, with her C.I.A. file in flashes. But for eight years, due to an accident, she only knows herself as Samantha Caine, wife, mother, and schoolteacher in a small town in Pennsylvania. She knows that isn’t who she really is, but it fits her life for now, and she loves her family.

Mitch Hennessy is a cheap private detective who cheats, steals, and lies to get results for clients and make money. He is an ex-con, with fractured relationships with his ex-wife and son (his ex-wife makes her son return any gifts he receives from Hennessy out of fear that they are stolen goods), and lives a modest day-to-day life.

But when Samantha receives a head injury in a car accident, her skills as an assassin are re-ignited. She can break necks with the ease of turning a screw as she kills both a deer and a fellow assassin, and, in a particularly fun sequence, she discovers her knife skills while chopping vegetables with her family. She is elated, going, “I’m a chef!” and quickly chopping carrots, peppers, onions, and the like, until she throws a knife at a tomato tossed to her, which pins the tomato dead center to the wall. The uncomfortable silence is broken by these three words: “Chefs do that.”

It should be noted that there are similarities between Charly Baltimore and Jason Bourne. The character of Jason Bourne appeared in novels by Robert Ludlom, which were published in between 1980 and 1990. Both Bourne and Baltimore are amnesiacs who find out they were assassins, and they retained their reflexes with weapons and hand-to-hand combat as their memory returned of their past lives. There would have been more comparison had the character of Charly Baltimore been a man, as was considered by New Line Cinema. The character would have been named Sam Caine/Charlie Baltimore, and Steven Seagal and Sylvester Stallone were considered for the role. It was better that the character be a woman, as it is less usual to see an action heroine in films, and less generic. Also, Brian Cox appears in both this movie and The Bourne Identity, playing C.I.A. characters who reveal secrets to the amnesiac heroes.
The film not only works because of the fantastic action sequences (a particular stunner involves Baltimore tied to a water wheel and being held underwater for minutes at a time), but the sly humor and one-liners that Shane Black injects into his scripts. Upon learning about her assassin past and defending her current suburban life, she says, “It’s not a fantasy, I’m in the goddamn PTA!” Mitch Hennessy has a running joke of singing blues riffs to himself to the tune of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” singing about stuff he has to do in order to remember it. And this exchange when Hennessey comes to Baltimore’s defense during a mugging:

           Hennessy: (brandishing a gun) This ain’t no ham on rye, pal.”
Baltimore: “What are you doing here?”
Hennessy: “Saving your life. I would’ve gotten here sooner, but I was thinkin’ up that ‘ham on rye’ line.”

As Samantha Caine becomes Charly Baltimore, she becomes colder and tougher, speaking more brusquely, and is determined to bury Samantha, as if she was a lie, including forgetting about her husband and daughter. She realizes that she can be both the tough-as-nails assassin Charly while also being the loving and nurturing wife and mother Samantha, and that it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.

While Samuel L. Jackson is most well-known for playing profane, cocksure, badass heroes, he excels in playing the sidekick in this movie. He is an ordinary guy who is a crook, but is in way over his head with the C.I.A. conspiracy plots and assassins and craziness of it all. Jackson’s performance grounds the movie in reality, as the audience surrogate, but also as a regular person who is in confusion and amazement at the insanity going on around him. He is rescued by Baltimore several times throughout the movie, in an interesting role reversal of heroes and damsels. Hennessy notes this occurrence in an exchange with Baltimore:

Hennessy: “Sam, I’ll be waiting for you to come rescue me.”
Baltimore: “I’ll be just a minute.”

A flaw in this movie is the casting of Craig Bierko as Baltimore’s ex-flame and a C.I.A. agent named Timothy who is one of the main villains of the movie. Bierko is just obnoxious to watch in this movie. He has little to no charisma, and seems less threatening than the other villains played by David Morse (who only appears in two scenes, but is a much more convincing villain in that brief amount of time) and Patrick Malahide. He is a very forgettable villain in this movie, despite being a professional and emotional tie to Charly. His voice is irritating, his smug face makes him unbearable, and not in a way of meaning he is a great or intimidating villain. Rather, his continued presence makes the audience think, “Just die already.”

Aside from a poor casting choice for the villain, the rest of The Long Kiss Goodnight is solid. It has interesting and charismatic heroes, fantastic action sequences, excellent cinematography, a sly sense of humor, and is fun to watch all the way through.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Monster Squad - A Film Review

                After watching the Nostalgia Critic’s review of The Monster Squad, I decided to do my own review of it. His review was decent, but seemed to miss what made this movie a B-movie classic. The movie has this rawness to it that came out of a director’s passion for filmmaking, and taking children seriously as heroes of a film.

Fred Dekker, the director and co-writer, grew up loving Universal movie monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man. He wanted to make a movie that celebrated these creatures. Fred Dekker had previously written and directed the awesome horror films House and Night of the Creeps. I haven’t seen House, but Night of the Creeps is both a great throwback to 1950s horror films and a sardonic 80’s horror comedy with fourth-wall jokes , references to horror legends (all the characters have the same last names as famous horror movie directors), a cynical and badass one-liner-spewing detective (played by the always awesome Tom Atkins), and a good mix of both danger and dark humor. There was even a joke that gets recycled in The Monster Squad. “Dead people don’t just get up and walk away!” followed by a reanimated dead body lurching down the street.

For The Monster Squad, Dekker co-wrote it with Shane Black, who would soon hit it big that year of 1987 with writing Lethal Weapon (as well as The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and writing/directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3). The film was cast with kid actors who were locals from L.A. that had mainly done T.V. shows and commercials, and the adults were familiar character actors like Stan Shaw, Mary Ellen Trainor, Tom Noonan, and Duncan Regehr. Most of the behind-the-scenes knowledge that I will include in this review I learned from watching the movie with the DVD commentary of Fred Dekker and his then-child actors Andre Gower (Sean), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), and Ashley Bank (Phoebe), all grown up in the 2007 commentary for the 20th anniversary two-disc DVD release.

I first saw this movie when I was between the ages of 5-7 (I am currently 31). My mom must’ve rented the movie for me, and I really enjoyed it, even if I was too young to understand everything. Which was probably for the best, given that the movie has a lot of swearing, violence, sex jokes, and all this adult stuff that went over my head. I don’t know why my mom rented it, or if my sister or I requested it, but she got it, and I thought it was awesome. I feel happy that I got to see it at a really young age, and now it’s being appreciated over 25 years later as a cult classic.

The film opens up with Van Helsing in the 1800s trying to destroy Dracula and having a female virgin recite an incantation in German to activate an amulet to send him into another dimension. But it backfires and Van Helsing, the virgin, and his crew go into the other dimension.

Cut to present day, where Sean and his friends go to junior high in Southern California, and get into typical trouble: in the principal’s office for drawing monsters during class; swearing under their breath; dealing with bullies like Wayne from The Wonder Years until teenage rebel Rudy (who may or may not have killed his dad) defends them; and talking about their clubhouse crew, the “Monster Squad,” where they discuss ways to recognize monsters and defeat them.

Dracula makes his entrance into the movie by stowing away on a plane that is flying a crate with Frankenstein’s monster in it that Dracula is shipping (unbeknownst to the pilots), escaping with the crate, and meets with the rest of the monsters in a swampy area at night, with lightning and fog and the works. The way the monsters all join one by one with their own slow entrances is a great tribute to the Universal films of Dekker’s youth, and would get childhood fans of these movies psyched up.

Both Duncan Regehr (who would later play Zorro in a 1990s TV show) and Tom Noonan (who had played a serial killer in Manhunter) excelled as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Dracula is on a mission to get the amulet, he is regal but abstains from any kind of seduction or charm, and he is just cold and without feelings for anyone. He would murder little kids to get what he wants. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster is a big softie, sympathetic to children, and is gentle with them.

I enjoy the touches of Sean’s home life, with his dad as a tired, stressed cop who lights up a cigarette while having a heart-to-heart chat with his son and teases him for watching to see Groundhog Dog: Part 12, a typical slasher movie. And the mom is frustrated with her husband always being out all the time with his job and neglecting family, and are heard having an intense argument as the kids pretend to be unaware. There’s even a scene where you see that she had her suitcases packed in the background, as if there was a deleted scene of her planning to take the kids and leave him suddenly. It’s those little realistic touches of family strife and potential divorce in a kids’ movie about fighting monsters that makes it more special to me, more jaded and raw.

                As the monsters are causing havoc around town (a werewolf killed a coroner; the mummy escaped from the museum), and Sean finding Van Helsing’s diary through chance, the Monster Squad decide it’s time to fight back and take their town back. Because the diary is in German, the kids go to a neighbor they call amongst themselves “Scary German Guy” to translate it for them. Despite his creepy appearance and his house, which looks in disarray from the outside, he is kind and accepting of the children, giving them pie in his doily and lace-filled house, and is on board almost immediately with the plan to get the amulet to send the monsters away. And there is a good reveal as to why Scary German Guy is so knowledgeable about monsters.

                Dekker said on the commentary that “the key to making this kind of stuff work is, though it’s ridiculous, play it as though it’s real and it has this gravity to it.” He is exactly right, and that is very hard to get in movies that have ridiculous plotlines yet seem totally serious and believable, and convince the audience that the story is important and worth getting behind.

                Frankenstein’s monster meets the kids, and after some initial fright, the monster joins the team as their supportive against Dracula and his crew.  Through an 80’s movie montage complete with a synth-pop song, Rudy makes wooden stakes and silver bullets in shop class; a little boy writes to the military for help using crayons; the little girl plays with Frankenstein’s monster; etc. The upbeat pop song is a little out of place in the movie, as it is very poppy and 1980s, but it’s still a good montage.

                The boys enter Dracula’s house to get the amulet, and this is where the famous “wolfman has nards” scene happens. It’s still funny and ridiculous that when kids are faced with a werewolf, their first thought is to kick him in the groin. Even just the fat kid taking a running kick to the werewolf’s groin makes me laugh. And in 1980s kids’ movie-fashion, they escape the monsters by pressing a slice of garlic-topped pizza to Dracula’s face and burning him, but not before getting the amulet. And he retaliates by tossing dynamite in their tree house and presuming that they are dead, essentially just attempting to murder several children. He even blows up and kills the cop partner of Sean’s dad, and for a kids’ movie, that seemed pretty dark to violently kill the relatively nice comic relief of the movie.

                In the climax of the movie, where the kids and the cops are fighting the monsters, there are so many awesome, badass moments. The cop dad attempting to kill Dracula by dynamite with the line, “Suck on this, you son of a bitch”; Horace killing the Gill-Man with a shotgun blast to the chest and, when called “Fat Kid” by bullies, goes, “My name . . . is Horace!” and cocks the shotgun; Rudy stalking towards the three brides of Dracula, saying to the squad, “I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?” as he stakes and shoots arrows into them; “Don’t kick the church, it’s religious!”; “It’s locked, it’s what it is!”; Sean shoving dynamite into the Werewolf’s pants as the dad shoves him out the window and the Werewolf exploding in mid-air;  “You’re not a virgin, aren’t you?” “Well, there’s Steve, but he doesn’t count.” “Doesn’t count?!”; the actor playing Rudy who accidentally said “Bang” before he fires instead of just quietly shooting; Duncan Regehr really scaring the hell out of the little girl with his freaky eyes and fangs while choking her and hissing, “Give me the amulet, you bitch!” This movie did not pull any punches with giving heroic one-liners to children and having villains try to kill them.

                The monsters are defeated, either being killed or sent to another dimension, including Frankenstein’s monster, and the military shows up after everything is over. The Patton-esque general goes, “But who are you?” and the kids answer, “We’re the Monster Squad.” Cue bad rap song over ending credits.

                Unfortunately, this movie bombed at the box office. It was rated PG-13, and it couldn’t find the right audience. It was too violent for little kids, and too kiddie for teenagers. It grew in cult popularity over the next twenty years. Fred Dekker went on to write and direct Tales from the Crypt episodes and Ricochet, starring Denzel Washington, but suffered when he directed Robocop 3. Robocop 2 was great, but people said it was too violent. So while Dekker wanted to make Robocop 3 R-rated as well, as he was going into production with it, the studio wanted it PG-13 with less violence. The whole production had to be re-adjusted, and it screwed up the movie, turning it into a total mess and ruining Dekker’s career. The last screen credits he has had were writing episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a waste of his talent, and he should be back making clever and interesting horror movies. 

The latest that I have read is that he and Shane Black are working together again to write a Predator movie. Black, who was in the original Predator film, said to Collider that he likes “the idea of expanding and exploring the existing Predator mythology, rather than hitting the restart button.” This is promising news, and I’d love to see Fred Dekker get another chance at the big time. He has the talent for it, plus more cult movie cred for Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.

                So, The Monster Squad is a special movie to me, because I saw it at a very young age, and it influenced my interests in B-level movie, underrated films, and appreciating how great a movie can be when the director is allowed to be fully creative on all levels. I am happy that it is getting the recognition that it deserves, for it is really one of the best movies of the 1980s ever made, as well as one of the best kids’ movies ever.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Watching Films With My Dad

Recently I had some happy memories of when my dad and I would watch movies together. He really likes character actors and Italian-American actors with grit, so he would find movies starring John Turturro or Stanley Tucci. I remembered how my dad would find movies like Unstrung Heroes starring Turturro, a forgotten but good movie with a touching performance by Michael Richards, or Big Night, a wonderful comedy about two Italian brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) running a restaurant in the 1950s. We watched The Daytrippers, an indie movie about a Long Island family making a day trip into NYC, featuring a bunch of 90's indie movie stars (Tucci, Hope Davis, Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber). We watched The Pope of Greenwich Village, an old crime drama starring Mickey Rourke. I even saw Rounders when it came out based on his recommendation because of the leading actors (Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Turturro, Martin Landeau, John Malkovich). I really like character dramas and small movies, and feel like I got some of my taste in movies from my dad.