deliveranceHeads up.  A bit “spoilerific”.

The first thing that stood out as the film began was that it looks and feels like it was made in the seventies. And it’s not just the presence of young Burt Reynolds. The cinematography screams early seventies. So does the audio. There is a certain muted quality to the audio of those films predating the surround sound era.

None of this is bad, and I am not stating these things as actual criticisms of the film, or even setbacks. Granted, the HD treatment helps it to not look as faded. The colors are a bit fresher than they most likely would have looked on video.

Deliverance also reflects the fears of it’s time. Fear of environmental catastrophes, and how modern man could survive them. Destruction of natural environments by humanity’s hands. Certainly, such fears and concerns remain with us, in some different fashions, but with us none the less. This is mostly embodied in the somewhat rough friendship of Ed (Jon Voight) and Lewis (Burt Reynolds). They appear to be long time friends, who have gone on similar outings in the past. Lewis is a self styled “survivalist” who thrives in the wilderness and is critical of the modern world. Ed, on the other hand, is a happy family man, with a comfortable life and job. It’s unclear in the film how they met or how it came to be that they take these trips, we only know this is not the first one due to Lewis asking Ed why he goes on these trips.

Along with them are two guys clearly from Ed’s world, Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox).  Both salesmen out for an exciting weekend of canoeing down a river. Drew is apparently a musician of some degree, early on seen always wearing a guitar.

When the friends stop for gas, we get a scene that seems to both have a sense of joy and an atmosphere of danger. No matter how hard they try, no one seems to say anything right to the mountain folk. But Drew connects with a young boy through music. The boy appears to be autistic, or at least dealing with some kind of mental disability. He is not social until Drew starts playing guitar. Without blinking, the kid starts to play his banjo back. As the music kicks in full gear, the young boy comes alive, smiling and looking excited. His father dancing in the background, all is good. But the minute they stop, the boy rigidly turns his head and stays motionless, staring into space as Drew tries to shake his hand.

At first, while on the river, all seems normal. In fact, that sense of foreboding fades. It’s the next day when things begin to take their dark turn. Ed keeps catching glimpses of people in the distance between trees. Eventually, in a truly harrowing sequence, he discovers this was not his imagination. Tying Ed to a tree, two mountain men torment and humiliate Bobby. This culminates in one of the mountain men raping Bobby. You know, there has been much more graphic sequences put on film than this. But Ned Beatty’s performance creates incredible empathy for his character. Your heart breaks for him with every whimper and squeal. Ed is saved from such horrific indignities when Lewis and Drew come back looking for them. Drew dispatches one of the hicks with an arrow, and the other runs away.

The four men then argue over what to do. Of course, they choose to try and cover the death up. Drew is the most troubled by this, feeling the right thing to do is bring the body back and explain everything to the authorities. This is a tension filled moment, and Ronny Cox’s Drew is sympathetic…but then, Bobby’s desire to literally bury his shame is very understandable. He wants to hide what’s happened to him, a wholly human desire.

This sets off a chain of events as they try to get down river to their cars and away from this mountain forever. In their panic, they end up with one boat destroyed and the loss of Drew in the rapids. Lewis is wounded and it is left up to Ed to protect them. Earlier in the film we had foreshadowing in a sequence showing Ed trying to shoot a deer with Lewis’ bow and arrow set and failing. Now, believing they are being hunted by the other hillbilly, Ed must take the bow and arrows and track the mountain man. For Ed this is a clear struggle to overcome his fear and limitations. And what seems straight forward and simple becomes on of the films most tense moments.

When they finally do make it to their cars, they concoct a story to explain how they lost Drew and Lewis was wounded. Things begin to unravel, as the film portrays the police of the area far more competently than one might expect. They know that the story doesn’t add up, and they start to cause mistrust between Ed and Bobby. It’s clear, even as the police let them go, the local sheriff (portrayed rather ominously by Deliverance author James Dickey) knows that something bad went down.

Director John Boorman’s direction is terrific, making the scenery as important as the characters in it. Reynolds, who was not a proven commodity at the time, is terrific as the hunter who desires to leave society, while Voight makes a genuine everyman who is forced to survive in primitive fashion. And the performances by Beatty and Cox (both of who I tend to associate most with later roles-specifically Otis in the Superman films and Dick Jones from Robocop-where Cox was deliciously evil) are standout, heartfelt ones.

The HD DVD contained a four part documentary that was fascinating, especially as it delved into the relationship of author Dickey to the director, cast and crew of the film. The interviews bring back the director and all the primary actors (as well as Dickey’s son) and hearing them discuss the film so much later gives it a more interesting perspective. The one problem with documentaries for newer films on DVD is that the creators are to close to the work. They are far more willing to look at an earlier work with a fairer and more critical eye. That’s what tends to benefit some of the films that are twenty or thirty years old just getting the special edition treatment.

All in all, Deliverance is as strong as it ever was, in spite of the times being more graphic in our movies, this film still keeps you enthralled.

imageBruce Almighty was a hit, and the studio wanted a  sequel.  The most admirable thing Tom Shadyac and his crew did?  They avoided doing a total retread.  They told Bruce’s story, and they did not want to just make a total formula sequel.

In some ways, this film owes more to the Oh God Franchise than the first film.  This one has a focus set on Evan getting a mission from God.  And it borrows heavily from movies like the Santa Clause.  Evan does not just get a Noah-like mission, he grows instant beards.  Animals flock to him. He has to build a really big boat.

Carrell was a standout performer by then, and they opted to follow Evan Baxter and his family.  While Freeman is back in the Mercy Seat, the film’s option to look at how the personal can impact the bigger picture never quite comes together as effectively as the first film.

In addition, the original story of Noah is one of judgement and punishment on a grand scale.  But while I appreciate the environmental conservation message the film tries to convey, Evan is not trying to stop an immediate extinction level threat, and the stakes that should be there simply are not.  By being a bit more bigger picture, the film fails to hold up as effectively as the previous film which stayed local and personal.

imageAfter lukewarm receptions to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Carrey went back to where his bigger successes occured.  High concept comedies.  And you do not get more high concept than Bruce Almighty.

A couple decades after the Oh God series, we see George Burns replaced by Morgan Freeman in the role of God.  Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a sad sack who does not appreciate what he has, rather wanting more, believing he will be happy once he achieves his goals.  And his biggest goal?  To try and move from doing puff pieces for the local news station to the anchor desk.  He tries to be positive, but is dealt a crushing blow when the job goes to his rival Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell).

Angry and at the end of his rope, he ends up getting a meeting with God.  God is not really impressed with Bruce’s complaints and makes him a deal.  Bruce has the omnipotent power of God for a week.  Bruce agrees, and initially relishes the power.

This is a fairly entertaining bit, as we see Bruce experiment with what he can do.  And at first it seems awesome…until he starts discovering some of the drawbacks…like hearing everyone’s prayers.  Bruce starts to find things getting harder, and he is chasing away his girlfriend Grace, who is tired of Bruce being so focused on himself and his unwillingness to see what he has as enough.  Bruce tries to use his powers to fix his personal problem, and quickly tries to find shortcuts for the responsibility stuff (like prayers from people).  Of course, it ends up only being made worse.

Even with the powers of a supreme being, Bruce’s life is more messed up than ever.  Bruce hits bottom, even though he can move the moon.

And this is where the film works so well.  It is very focused, with a very simple point.  Don’t be a self centered jerk.  Bruce begins to look outside himself…he starts to help people in regular human ways.  Rather than worrying about what is just out of his grasp, Bruce focuses on what is right there in front of him.

Freeman makes a pretty nice avatar for God.  He is kind, gentle, loving and patient.  He is not there to accuse Bruce, he is there to open Bruce’s eyes.  Like Oh God before it, Bruce Almighty’s God does try and tackle some of the tough questions about existence.  They do it best when they keep it simple.

While you can predict the happy ending on it’s way, the film manages to earn it’s happy ending.  It does not cheat.  Bruce does not have to just say he is sorry and everything is awesome.  No, he has to work to get there.  He has to give up dreams and find a new path.

OhGodYouDevil-Poster_CRThe third and final film in the Oh, God! series actually takes a new approach.  Oh, God! You Devil focuses on one soul’s salvation, rather than God giving a guy a mission, this one is about a tug of war over one man’s soul between God and the devil.  And it has a gimmick.  George Burns plays both God and Devil.

The film opens in the past, as a father prays desperately over his ill son.  Then the film picks up to where we meet that child, Bobby Shelton all grown up (Played by Ted Wass-the dad from Blossom).  He is a married and struggling musician.  His agent cannot do much better than get him wedding gigs.

Meanwhile, we meet the devil.  Apparently, the Devil goes by the name Harry O. Tophet (apparently, Tophet is Hebrew for hell).   And we know he is the devil because he thinks hurricanes are nice weather and his eyes glow red.  The devil is seeking a soul to devour.

We are quickly introduced to a rock star named Billy Wayne (Robert Desidario) who is on tour…  He seems desperate and is chatting with a familiar voice-the devil.  Apparently, his contract is up and the devil is collecting.  In a puff of smoke, Billy Wayne is gone.

Bobby, frustrated by the music business declares he would sell his soul to the devil.  While performing at a wedding, Bobby is approached by Tophet.  Tophet says he wants to represent Bobby.  Bobby is somewhat reluctant, until Tophet shows up at a record meeting.  He convinces Bobby to dump his manager (Eugene Roche) and take Tophet into the meeting with the two executives.

The executives read Tophet’s contract, laughing all the way-until Bobby signs the contract.  Then everything changes.  In a whirlwind, he is signed and on tour.  He has fame and riches-as Billy Wayne.  But then Bobby gets a shock.  He calls his wife Wendy (Roxanne Hart)-only to discover that she believes her husband is home with her.  The previous Billy Wayne has taken Bobby’s place in his life.

Bobby soon figures out that he has made a deal with the devil.  Tophet tries to discourage Bobby from seeking outside help.  Bobby ends up in Vegas attempting to find God.  After some prayer God calls Bobby (by phone).

The film culminates in a high stakes poker game between God and Tophet.

Without a doubt, I found this film to be an improvement over the second one.  It does not rehash the previous films and finds a different way to resolution.  It works in the film’s favor to not make it yet another “God sends a prophet” story.  I found the interaction between God effective-I especially like how the poker game works itself out.

Interestingly, it is only in the end that Bobby and God meet face to face.  Burns works a bit of that magic from the first film in the conversation, God as kindly, but straight forward (“You made a deal with the devil…how dumb could you be?”) and above all, a sense of mystery touched with love and generosity.

This film was one of Burn’s last (although, he lived another 12 years), and you can see the years are catching up-he seems a bit more tired this time around.

While not as strong as the first film, Oh, God! You Devil actually has a lot to like.  I confess, it is a franchise I would not mind seeing tackled again (although, the Bruce/Evan Almighty films tread into this territory).

oh-god-book-2-movie-poster-1980In 1980, God returned to the big screen with Oh, God! Book II.  This time, he visits a young girl named Louanne (Tracy Richards) dealing with the separation of her parents (played Suzanne Pleshette and David Birney).  Her dad is an adman dating a woman who is given the defining characteristics of having large breasts and obliviousness to Tracy.

God appears to Tracy with a goal.  Promote God.  He sets a few rules, specifically she cannot tell any adults.  So she enlists her friends and they start putting up signs that say Think God.  She gets kicked out of school and is sent to see a psychiatrist.  The film culminates with God walking in on a group of psychiatrists and challenging them.

While I get what they were going for by having God appear to a child, it never works quite as effectively.  For one thing, it is a lot easier to write off a kid believing in an imaginary friend as a phase than a grown man claiming he can see God.  I question the likelihood that a kid would get hauled before a psychiatric tribunal to determine her mental health.  I suspect it would be written off as cute things precocious little kids do.

The other problem is the film rehashes the same questions.  Like Jerry, Tracy wants to know why there is suffering.  Why choose me?  Admittedly, these are questions that come up repeatedly, but still…it would have been nice for them to tackle some other tough questions.

Burns is good as God, but the film tends to drag when he is not around.  The overall feeling is this was rushed to the floor, even though there is a three year gap from the first film.  Ultimately, I did not find myself  enjoying the complete retread.

Oh. My. Gawd. (Oh God, 1977)

Oh-God-movie-posterThe last hurrah of films from the hard working comic George Burns, I had not seen the Oh God films since the first film was shown to me in Catholic school.

The first film introduces us to hardworking grocery store manager Jerry (John Denver) and his wife Bobbie (Teri Garr).  One day, Jerry gets a phone call to have a meeting.  Upon arriving at the address, he take the elevator that leads to a simple white office with a chair and a speaker.  The voice from the speaker claims to be God and He wants Jerry to be his messenger.

Jerry, certain he is being pranked, tries to find the voice.  After leaving, he discovers that the floor he was on does not exist.  Troubled, but still thinking it might be a joke who heads on out.  Then God starts speaking to him through the radio.  When Jerry tells Bobbie, she tries to convince herself he is not crazy-it’s not like he is seeing things.

And then God appears in Jerry’s bathroom and car.  So, Jerry asks for proof.  Prove he’s God.  Make it rain, Jerry says.  And so God makes it rain-inside the car.  “Why ruin other peoples’ day?” God reasons.  And so Jerry takes on the task of spreading God’s message.

It is a pretty simply Golden Rule style message about treating each other with love and respect.  People think Jerry is crazy, he becomes a public joke, God comes through in the end to provide his defense against a cadre of ministers and psychologists when Jerry is accused by a televangelist of slander.

I like these films.  There is a neat simplicity to the portrayal of God.  Burns plays him as kind, gentle, wise, mysterious, funny and playful and loving.  He is not a God of showy pomp and circumstance, he wears a baseball cap and a windbreaker…and he comes off as playing it by ear.  At one point, Jerry asks why God chose him, especially stumped because h was not a religious man.

God simply says, “why not you?”  Jerry is taken aback by this seemingly careless attitude God has… God asks if Jerry thought maybe he was chosen because he was better than others.  Sheepishly Jerry admits the thought has crossed his mind.  God points out the obvious… he is better than some, worse than others.

Jerry works specifically because he is kind of the hapless everyman who takes the message out to the powerful.   Certainly, there are things that would trouble believers…throughout the series God comments on mistakes he made, such as creating “shame” (don’t know why I ever thought it was needed, God says).  And some would be bothered that the message is generic, rather than specifically Christian.  God makes no mention of needing Jesus, which I suspect would be problematic to certain viewers.

But I find the film and Burn’s approach both endearing and kind of inspiring. God chooses Jerry, though admits he could have chosen anyone.  Jerry isn’t special… and that is kind of the point.  And the most powerful being in the universe takes on the appearance of a frail little man with bad fashion sense.

It also brings up something I have always found to be a bit odd.  If someone walks around and claims to be speaking to God-having honest to goodness actual conversations with God appearing visually and audibly… even Christians think that guy is flirting with insanity at best.  It’s one thing to “feel led” or to think God spoke to you through a song… but say you see God in a physical form and have conversations with him?  That is nutty!

Overall, I found the film to be a fun viewing, even after thirty years.  It’s a gentle, amusing film that can, at times, be challenging.

So There It Is

Halloween has come and gone.  Hope folks had fun.  We will return to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

Love-in-the-time-of-monstersLet’s be real honest.  The movie Love in the Time of Monsters could have been terrible.  it has some qualities that could totally ruin it.  Especially the effects.  the monsters never look that great.  The bigfoot monster looks like the original Planet of the Apes (with log luxurious hair).  There is a mutant monster moose that looks entirely unfinished.

And yet?

The movie is a lot of fun.  The story, while not some grand twist, has a lot of fun.  It is the story of two sisters, Carla and Marla who are going to visit her boyfriend who works at a family campground with a Bigfoot theme.  Her boyfriend Johnny works as one of the Bigfoots.  People go on walks and he shows up in a cheesey costume.

During the Bigfoot Staff Meeting (really), one of the guys goes off to get high.  He drops his joint in the lake and falls in trying to retrieve it.  His co-Workers hear him screaming, and the run off to find him floating in the water.  The guys start telling their superior Lou (Kane Hodder) to report it, but he does not want to get in trouble…a struggle ensues and the fall in the lake.

Here is the thing.  The lake is full of a mutating toxin.  So the guys mutate into actual monsters that terrorize the camp.  The sisters unite the remaining camp employees in an attempt to get rid of the monsters and survive the night.

The film is fun and goofy, which works to it’s advantage.  It is fun to see guys known for their work under masks getting to play roles with their own faces.  Hodder has fun with his role, but Doug Jones shines as DJ Lincoln.  Considering this is one of the earliest works of both the Director Matt Jackson and Writer Michael Skvarla, and it appears to have been made on a budget, the film works with what it has at it’s disposal.

I had a lot of fun watching the film in spite of some of the shortcomings, and it made for a good silly Halloween offering.

Tales_of_Halloween_posterThe horror anthology format is one that can yield tremendous success (Trick’r Treat, Creepshow) or terrible results (Creepshow 3, V/H/S 3).  It has a somewhat spotty history, but the tradition holds strong.  Probably the most ambitious, but not entirely successful were the two ABC’s of Death films, which each contained 26 short films.  Tales of Halloween keeps it to ten stories, which is probably the limit for getting a good yield of stories.

The film uses the framing device of a small town where every Halloween the dead walk, ghouls play and monsters eat.  Guiding us through the tales is (in a pretty obvious homage to her role in the fog) radio host Adrienne Barbeau (Creepshow, Swamp Thing).

The stories are hit or miss, with an uneven tone, but when they hit?  They are terrific fun.  Standouts include The Night Billy Raised Hell, the Ransom of Rusty Rex, Bad Seed, and Friday the 31st.  What makes all those stories work is their sense of humor.  All are having more fun than trying to be scary.

This Means War starts out strong, but ends kind of weakly.

Friday the 31st starts out like a slasher story, complete with an obvious Jason type…but then takes a complete left turn.  The Ransom of Rusty Rex tells a tale of ambitious kidnappers who grab a rich man’s (John Landis, director of American Werewolf in London) son while he is trick or treating.  Except, the boy is a bit more of a hellion than anticipated.

On the other hand, Sweet Tooth goes more for the traditional monster/urban legend territory…and it ends exactly like you expect it to.  The Weak and the Wicked lacks any real life in it’s narrative, and for being a short, fails to do much in it’s premise of revenge.

In the end, I found the film an enjoyable watch, with some good humor, fun cameos and even a few scares.  It is not quite Trick’r Treat, but it is some good Halloween fun.

trickrtreat_posterYou know, usually when a movie sits on a shelf for two years, there is a good reason for it.  But in the case of Michael Dougherty’s Trick’r Treat?  I cannot see why Warner Brothers took so long.  It was ready in 2007, yet Warner Brothers was hesitant to release it.

When I sat down to watch this film, I had built up some high hopes.  The trailer looked good and people I respect were singing it’s praises.

It’s easily the best horror anthology since Creepshow.  Horror Anthologies are a mixed bag, and filmmakers get them wrong far more than they get them right.  All to often they are silly in the wrong ways, lack punch, have a lame host, are to reliant on the host, etc.  The framing device can also make or break a film.  Creepshow’s comic book framing device is an example of getting it right.

Trick’rTreat’s framing device is the small town Halloween celebration.  We are treated to a series of four stories that are loosely connected, as characters wander in and out of other stories.  The stories are also unified by the presence of Sam, the creepy childlike trick or treating creature who appears ever so randomly in all but one story, where he plays a larger role.

The cast is stellar, with Anna Paquin playing the young virgin seeking her first partner, Dylan Baker as the creepy Principal and Brian Cox as the guy who hates Halloween.  Part of what really works is the film’s dark sense of humor.  The film is clearly meant to be fun, not merely a frightfest.  It’s gory, but not like Saw, where it is a slow indulgence…the gore serves the film, not the other way around.  Oh, and pretty girls.

There have been comparisons to Pulp Fiction, mainly because the film has that whole “jumping around in time” thing going on.  But that is really part of the fun, you see glimpses of event or people wandering by, and later you discover just where they were coming from.  The way the stories are intertwined is a wonderful bit of storytelling.  Director and writer Michael Dougherty tells some great stories, and shows that he understands visual storytelling and makes the most of his visuals.  There are so many moments that are just… awesome to see (including two instances of houses immersed in pumpkins).  I really feel like I cannot say much without giving away the many great moments.  This is a love letter to Halloween, which makes it perfect for me.  Halloween is honestly my favoritest holiday.  Just let me say, rent Trick’r Treat or better yet?  Buy it.  I agree with Jeffrey Wells, Warner Brothers has a potential franchise here.  I hope Dougherty gives us at least one more.

A side note…Cox wanted the make up people to make him look like John Carpenter-director/writer of Halloween.  Dougherty was only all to happy to oblige.