Keep an Eye Out In Your Nightmares

wes_craven_portraitSince my earliest childhood, I loved monsters.  Whether horror or sci-fi or fantasy…stories with monsters were exciting to me.  This resulted in my not finding horror movies so much as scary…but exciting.  My parents did not let me watch horror movies in general, mainly to avoid me having nightmares I suppose.

In high school, I started to get more access to horror movies I saw a Nightmare on Elm Street.  I did not find it super scary, but I loved the imagination behind it.  Teacher turned filmmaker Wes Craven made a real impression on me.

Not every film he made was a classic, but he gave some truly visionary offerings.  He started the Elm Street Franchise and then, with New Nightmare, turned it on it’s head, before “challenging the rules of the genre” was the thing to do.

Honestly, there is an extra cruel irony when a storyteller faces something like brain cancer.  It is like a monster directly attacking the heart of a storyteller.  My condolences to his friends and family in their loss.

Craven understood the power of story, and I am glad he shared his experience with us.

Thanks for the Nightmares, Wes Craven.  You’re gonna be missed.

Look Back (It Follows, 2015)

it_follows_posterTruthfully, anytime I see hype for a horror movie as the greatest in years, I get a bit hesitant.  Because there tends to be a bunch every year.  Last year the praise was heaped on the Babadook.  Which was a decent horror film.  But hardly the best in years.

It Follows has received a lot of high praise.  So, I went in with a bit of concern.

The story is focused  on a young woman named Jay.  After sleeping with a young man, her life takes a horrifying turn.  He warns her that he has passed something on to her, and she must pass it on, or it will kill her and go back down the line.  What he shows her is a person in the distance…eerily, a naked woman is walking up towards them.  As she gets closer, the young man warns that while it is slow, you should never let it touch you.

Slowly, Jay is able to convince her friends something is after her, even if they cannot see it.  And this is what the film does so well.  You find yourself scanning the screen for shapes, to see where it might come from.it_follows_backThe creature never looks the same, but it is always a person shambling towards Jay, and the person is usually naked or in a stage of undress.  This is something the film uses to strong effect.  It is rather unnerving to see the naked person walking in public.  It seems out of place and makes it all the more freaky.it_follows_creepy_old_ladyThe music in the film is haunting and increases the intensity.  Where is the creature? Where will it appear?  The film handles this so effective you are drawn into the film.  The real tragedy within the film is the realization that passing it on never fully ends the terror, Jay knows it is there, and you always have to wonder if someone is going to fail to pass it on.

it_follows_runThis is only David Robert Mitchell’s second full feature film, yet he shows himself to be very adept within the genre, making a highly effective thriller.  Maika Monroe is compelling and sympathetic as Jay.  The whole cast works, and unlike many smaller budget horror films, you do not find yourself having to put up with mediocre acting.

It Follows is a powerful and disturbing horror film which rarely gets gory, instead relying on atmosphere and performance to sell the shocks and scares.  Any fan of the genre should check it out.

sinister_2_posterA couple things.

Firstly, I really liked Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s 2012 Sinister.  It was eerie and ended strongly (with real tragedy).  It was a challenge to the pursuit of selfish glory and especially at the expense of the needs of your loved ones.

Secondly, I have been spelling Bughuul wrong for the past three years.  I am so embarrassed.

Sinister 2 appears to pick up a couple years after the original film.  Deputy So & So (James Ransone) is now Ex-Deputy So & So (EDS&S from here on out).  He is actively working to stop the spread of Bughuul’s evil, though he clearly is missing some of the information that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) discovered in the first film.  Conveniently for the story, Jonas is now missing.

sinister-2-edsoandsoEDS&S has tracked the last Bughuul styled murder (all cases feature a horribly murdered family, a missing child and mysterious painted symbols) to a remote farmhouse with an old church.  He goes to burn it down before anyone else can move in and continue the cycle.  But he arrives to late and discovers there is a mother (Shannyn Sossamon) hiding with her two young sons Dylan and Zach.  She is trying to keep her sons from the hands of her abusive husband,  Unfortunately, Bughuul has reached out to her quiet and youngest (Dylan, played with gentleness by Robert Daniel Sloan).

The film has amped up the presence of the ghost children.  In the first film, they quietly haunted Ellison, but we did not see them speaking much.  Here they are very talkative, mostly appearing only to the young boys until the end when they become active poltergeists.

sinister_2_kids_2It also has changed the film projector from the first film a bit, inexplicably adding  a turntable to play creepy music as the boys watch the films.  The creepy snuff films are back.  While the audience knows Bughuul’s goals and the way he works, EDS&S has to figure it out all over again, which includes a ham radio.  I appreciate the attempt to show how Bughuul has used various forms of media (both films show an idea that art and mediums used for art allow him to move through the world)…but the first film suggested that Bughuul now was released into the internet.  It is a bit of a shame that this was not really followed up on.

Honestly, the focus on EDS&S trying to figure out how Bughuul does it slows things down.  The film does have some well done moments.  EDS&S has a good connection with Dylan.  And the idea that Dylan has a history of abuse becomes interesting as you see Bughuul’s ghost children try and use that to fire up a desire for cruelty.  When one of the children mention his mother, Dylan snaps back that his mother did not do anything.  The Ghost child coldly replies, “Exactly.”

sinister_2_dylanThere is a nice twist.  And the film tries a very different ending, but it does not work on multiple levels.  Parts convenience (getting certain characters out of the way) and parts troubling (making the central villain to take out a young boy is fairly problematic).  It is hard to root for EDS&S to aggressively stop a child with physical violence (especially when you have involved themes of child and spousal abuse into the story).  The creators kind of wrote themselves in a corner and are left finding another way to end the villainous kid while avoid having EDS&S be a killer of children.

The film has a final “horror movie” moment that felt like the creators were at a loss of how to end it and wanted a scare.  So they repeat the same gag from the first film.

I feel Sinister 2 is better than some critics have said, but it still fails to deliver on what we got from it’s predecessor.

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ant_man_posterAnt-Man is the 12th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It has been the source of multiple controversies.  It was not always meant to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead it was the pet project of Edgar Wright.  With Iron Man, Marvel Studios birthed their cinematic universe, and slowly started to wrangle Ant-Man in.  When Marvel announced actor Paul Rudd, it got a shot in the arm.  Eventually Wright and Marvel hit an impasse.  Wright left the project and people got nervous about Ant-Man.  Although a founding Avenger in the comics, many questioned the point of a character seen as fairly obscure outside of comic circles.  But Marvel was determined to make the film, hiring director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, Bring It On).

The film we have gotten is not necessarily what we would have gotten from Edgar Wright.  But that does not make what we got a bad offering.  The fears that we were getting the first official MCU bomb have not come true.

The film is the story of criminal Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).  He was a skilled burglar who exposed a corporation screwing over it’s customers and is now recently released.  His hopes of being a part of his daughter Cassie’s life are quickly dashed, as his ex-wife (Judy Greer-underused again) set strict rules before he can re-enter Cassie’s life.

ant_man_leapRunning parallel is the story of  Hank (Michael Douglas) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly) Pym.  Hank has spent 20 years trying to protect Pym Particles from falling into anyone’s hands and it strained his relationship with his daughter Hope.  Hope felt abandoned at a time when she probably needed Hank the most-the death of his wife and her mother Janet.

The strong points of the film are that it stays mostly in it’s own grounds.  There is an obligatory Avengers crossover, and we know Hank used to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.  But it is mostly background.  This is smaller scale, no universe/planet saving.  In fact, it is more of a traditional heist film where they added the element of super-heroics.  The final battle takes place in a little girl’s room.  The only world at stake in that moment is Scott’s.  After so many “bigger” Marvel films, the smallness of the film is pretty refreshing.

The cast is terrific, with Michael Peña‘s Luis being a real highlight.  He is solid and enjoyable comic relief.  It is a nice touch that he is not inept, simply excitable.  I liked Evangeline Lily’s Hope, and even felt Douglas made Hank’s adamant refusal to allow her to don the Ant-Man costume made sense.

The miniature effects look great, and Reed makes the best of the moments.

At the same time, the film seemed to take short cuts.  We never really see when Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross shift from ambitious business man to psycho villain.  It just happens.  While understandable why Hank opposes it, the idea that Hope never dons an outfit as the Wasp in the film?  Disappointing.

ant_man_lillyAnother controversy (which proves true in the final film) was “fridging” the original Wasp*.  We never see much of her, she is hidden behind a mask.  Between this and the lack of Lilly getting to be the Wasp left me wanting a bit more from the film.

The final work is still strong, with likable characters, fun adventure and great humor.

ant_man_yellow*”Fridging” is the term for storytelling where a female character is killed on or off screen for the sole benefit of the lead (usually male) character.

Playing_it_CoolThere is a lot about Playing Cool that makes me want to like it.  The cast (both lead and supporting) is comprised almost entirely of actors I like a lot.  The film has some nice ideas it is playing with.  It has some clever visual moments.

But the pacing and the storytelling?  That is where it falls flat.  And it keeps it from being a movie I truly enjoyed.

That it is a cliched tale of a screenwriter (Chris Evans) who does not believe in love, but then meets that one amazing woman (Michelle Monaghan)…but she has a boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd).  He seeks the advice of his friends and family (well, his grandad, played by Phillip Baker Hall).  These characters are fairly well designed.  There is the gay best friend Scott (Topher Grace), obligatory art performer girl secretly in love with the lead (Aubrey Plaza), disillusioned married buddy (Luke Wilson) and Oddball Played by Martin Starr.

The film tries to attack these cliches, but rather ineffectively.  And there are numerous attempts at big emotional beats.  Yet, the film never really earns these.  I did not get the draw between the leads, everything was a rough sketch.

What makes this painful is the film has terrific imagery.  Whenever Evan’s screenwriter starts getting philosophical, the film gets interesting to watch.  There is a terrific scene where the Screenwriter (Evan’s and Monaghan’s characters are simply credited as “Me” and “her”) starts mocking the notion of there being “someone for everyone”.  He talks about how there are those people who are such social misfits, there is no way they could find someone…but he is surprised by how many of them do.  The picture becomes more colorful and vibrant, except for Evans, who is now black and white.  There is an animated sequence where Grandad tells the tale of how he pursued the woman he loved (an outlandish tale of swimming an ocean, riding wild horses and so on).  Evans talks about how his heart has let him, and stands in the background chain smoking.  And we see Evans off to the side, smoke billowing from every pore, like Humphrey Bogart.  The movie is wonderfully expressive at times.

As a said, I like the cast.  In a fun bit of casting, Anthony Mackie is Evan’s agent (kind of a business wing-man).  The cast is well chosen for their roles…

But the movie takes so any shortcuts, it never earns the big emotional beats and revelations.  “Me” realizing who he would spend the rest of his life on a boat with after reading his friend’s (Grace) favorite book?  It feels empty…it should be this hopeful and uplifting moment, but the film skips so much it feels rushed…except it somehow manages to slow down to a crawl, especially when focused on Evans and Monaghan.  The film is full of ideas, and some pretty lofty intentions.  But it jumps past what it needs to invest in.  There is no sense of a real life for these characters.

The writers have only two movies (both Chris Evans films) to their writing credit and this is Director Justin Reardon’s first full length feature.  I see some genuine potential in all three, but this film is not a ideal final product.

The creative style and cast make me want to like this movie.  The cliches and lack of depth make me disappointed that it does not live up to those things.

Fantastic Lemonade

So…I was not a fan of the the latest stab f the Fantastic Four.  And I was not alone.  But Jamie Broadnax, whose writing I respect and enjoy, has voiced an appreciation of the film.

This challenged me to think about the film a bit harder.  Specifically, are there things I did like?  Things that I could appreciate even if they did not work?

There things I liked.  For instance, Franklin Storm.  I liked him.  He radiated a general kindness and his interactions with Johnny and Sue were welcome additions.  It’s frustrating he kind of fades away until he is needed for the “Big Emotional Motivation” towards the end.

johnny_stormI did like Johnny Storm in general.  The specifics frustrate me…Johnny as a free spirited risk taker works better for me than “Angry Risk Taker”.  Michael B. Jordan manages to still infuse some charm into the role.

I like the cast in general.  All the actors are proven talent, so the issue was never performance.  The actors did their best with questionable material.  Dr. Doom especially suffers there.  Nothing about his early behavior suggests what he will become.  There is an offhanded comment about whether the world should be saved…but once everyone gets their powers, Doom is lost and nobody seems to care.  Once he reappears he hates the world and wants to destroy…because.

The use of powers, especially by Reed, were pretty effective.

I liked the inter-dimensional travel part of the plot.  The use of science in general.  The early suggestions of Sc-Fi Adventure would have been a great path to go.  This was clearly borrowed from the Ultimate Fantastic Four comics.  I think this works well.

Leaping from there, I think would have benefited the film to have a different villain.  Victor Von Doom should have been there, but more as a scientific foil for Reed.  It might have been a good idea to borrow from the comics, unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Doom alters their coordinates, resulting in the tragedy that gives them all powers.  And Sue would be there with them.  Not sitting back at a computer terminal.

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Instead, a different villain.  An obvious choice would have been Annihilus.  The discovery of an alternate dimension is not one way.  Save Doom for a later film in the franchise.

reed_richardsAnd then there is the whole deal of Reed running away.  Yeah, it gives Ben his motivation for anger towards Reed.  But it felt like getting rid of Reed was more because they did not know what to do with him.  The idea that Reed sees Ben in his rock form and simply runs away…just does not gel.  It would have made more sense to show Reed working with Franklin and Sue Storm with the goal of getting everybody back to normal.  The big conflict with the military regarding the attempts to turn Ben and Johnny into weapons.

There are all sorts of ways this film could have gone to be better.  A brighter color pallet for instance.  More humor.  More heroics.

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And for Pete’s sake…give Ben Grimm some pants.

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fantastic-four-2015-posterTruthfully, the Fantastic Four reboot is exactly what I would expect from someone behind Chronicle.  Chronicle was a good film, but it was tonally dark, focused on the breakdown of family bonds and friendship.  It was dark and sad.  None of these are really good tones for the Fantastic Four.

Josh Trank has already tried disowning the movie, but the problem is?  It sure looks like the kind of movie I would expect from him.  The film has a color treatment to suck out any and all vibrancy. It is a serious and un-cheery affair.  Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) is not a carefree adventure loving guy…now he is and aggressive, unhappy street racer.

Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is…a guy?  Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is awkward socially, so is Reed (Mile Teller) and so is Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).  There is nothing that makes the characters easy to tell apart…and little to see a spark of heroism.

The film takes forever to get to the pivotal accident that gives everyone their powers.  And then the film gets real boring.  Doctor Doom is terribly dull, and lacks any visual identity.  Sure, he has a green cloak.  But He looks like a generic villain, like they forgot to finish the character design in the pre-production stage.

dr_doomThe film lacks any joy of discovery with the characters, and focuses on the darkest take of their getting powers.  They do not have code names in the film.  Everybody refers to the as Subjects.  Johnny’s digs at Ben are simply mean, lacking the playful spirit (Captured so well by Chris Evans) of the character in the comics.

This is a dull film, that misses why people love these characters in the first place.  I wish it had been a disaster, because that might have been interesting to watch.

And there is just something about the Thing not wearing pants that just looks weird.

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TIG_KeyartTig Notaro tends to be what I think of as a comedian’s comedian.  One of those people that seems to fly under the radar with the public, but comedian’s love.  They often are hard working comics who get opportunities on late night talk shows because the host thinks you should hear them.  Notaro’s career was on the rise until 2012 when it skyrocketed.  Because, uh, she got breast cancer.

Tig had a series of heartbreaking events occur in her life, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  A couple days later, she took to the stage, unsure what she was going to do…and she launched into an awkward, funny, and unique routine.  The other comics there started tweeting about what they were seeing.

3tigThe documentary Tig chronicles the lead up to this event and the fallout from it.   Following her trying to reassess her career, relationships and hopes for her future, the documentary is funny, inspiring, soul crushing.

Notero notes when she was told she should use this for her act, she had wondered how she could mine humor from such tragedy.  And yet, listening to her album Live (pronounced “liv”) she was able to riff hysterically about death, life, disappointment, cancer and uncertainty.

Tig is a terrific, thoughtful and fun documentary.  Mixing in her standup and interviews with her friends and family, you get a pretty full picture of Notaro.  Along with her album Live, I recommend a viewing of Tig.

The Walking Amended

So, yesterday brought news that Frank Darabont “updated” his wrongful termination suit against AMC and the Walking Dead.

Specifically, he has added Fear the Walking Dead (debuting August 23rd on AMC) to the suit (among other changes).

For the first time, the plaintiffs have called out the upcoming Fear The Walking Dead by name as “derivative productions” for which Darabont is due payment.“Plaintiffs are entitled to payments and/or contingent compensation under the terms of the Agreement for Talking Dead and any subsequent derivative productions, including the forthcoming scripted spinoff to The Walking Dead titled Fear The Walking Dead,” says the 30-page amended complaint put before the NY State courts Tuesday (quoted from Deadline Hollywood)

The whole concept of “derivative of” is a pretty hazy notion.  And as it applies to Fear the Walking Dead?  Unless we are about to meet the unmentioned Dixon Sister Cheryl, I see little ground to stand on.

Darabont did not invent or re-invent the concept of zombie survival drama.  He adapted Robert Kirkman’s comic book.  And while he created characters specifically for the show (the Dixon Brothers, for example), he did not invent the idea of “survivors of the zombie apocalypse”.  Fear the Walking Dead is derivative of the “zombie apocalypse genre”.  But that was not Darabont’s idea at work.

The Walking Dead is derivative of George Romero’s work, should he be suing Darabont? AMC? Kirkman?

If AMC broke their deal, they owe compensation.  But I have to be brutally honest here.  The portion of Season 2 that Darabont was a part of before being fired was the biggest stumble of the series…much of season 2 was rambling and dull, only getting interesting towards the end and after Darabont was out.  I have never found myself wishing to know what “Darabont’s season five” would have been like.  And unless he has some evidence that they followed his game plan (including the Fear the Walking Dead Spin-Off in some form) I cannot say I agree with the amended lawsuit.

struzan_docIf you started watching movies in the early 80’s, you have seen the work of Drew Struzan.  Actually…if you listened to music in the 70’s, you probably owned his artwork on your shelf.  The documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is an opportunity to make folks aware of Struzan and his long body of work and for people to heap tons of praise on the man.

And looking at the enormous amount of work he has done, it is no surprise why these folks (From George Lucas to Michael J. Fox) want to go on and on about his work.  Fox speaks of going to a photo shoot and realizing the guy taking pictures was the guy who painted the cover for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare.

struzan_backThe film gives a solid overview of his career, giving insight into how he works.  Some of his most iconic posters were created knowing nothing of the film (He did the poster for John Carpenter’s the Thing overnight, the studio received it with the paint still wet).

struzan_empireIt seems, though, the real reason for the film is something far more unnoticed by the world.  The lack of great movie posters.  More than one person laments having great Struzan art made and then the studio went with a cut and past Photoshop designed poster.  Painted movie posters are a dying art.

struzan_indianastruzan_mastersThe documentary is worth it just for seeing Drew’s artwork, but it is enjoyable watching actors and filmmakers so focused on how important one aspect of promotional materials.  I tend to agree.  Thomas Jane notes how he sees the Drew Struzan poster for Masters of the Universe makes him want to see the film.  And he is right.  That is a cool poster.

I really enjoyed the film, learning about the history behind one of my favorite artists.  His praise is well deserved.

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