In 1972, college professor turned aspiring film maker Wes Craven produced the low budget horror film Last House on the Left to some small success, in 1977, he got more horror cred with the survival flick the Hills Have Eyes.  After that it was a string of mostly forgettable TV movies and the like.  But in 1983 or so, Craven hit paydirt.

a-nightmare-on-elm-street-posterHe met with Bob Shaye of the indie studio New Line Cinema.  There he pitched the idea that would put New Line on the map.  Craven told Shaye about the idea of a killer who hunts kids in their dreams…and if you die in your dream, you die in real life.  Based on a series of news stories Craven had read, in which people had told loved ones of terrifying nightmare they were having, and then died in their sleep (all involved young people, in at least one case, the kid secretly went days without sleep, hiding coffee in his room).

Shaye saw the potential there and green lit the project.  What came about is one of the most memorable icons of 80’s horror.  Named after a childhood bully, Craven created Fred Krueger, a child murderer who got freed on a technicality and then was killed by the parents of Elm Street.

Years later, high school student Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends find their dreams haunted by a creepy man in a green and red sweater, oblivious to the fact that their parents murdered Kruger years before.  And, of course,  the parents would prefer to keep it that way.  Nancy’s mother (Ronee Blakely) is a fall down drunk, estranged from Nancy’s police lieutenant father (John Saxon) who is determined to keep the truth from coming out.  But the sins of the parents are threatening the lives of the youth in this story.  And the parents do not want to face the truth (hey, it is a horror film, parents never believe the kids).

As Nancy’s friends start dying, the police right them off as murders and suicides, but Nancy knows better.  She starts trying to fight the need for sleep, and manages to avoid Freddy’s claws.  But her mother is certain her daughter is just going crazy, while her father sticks to what he can see and is unwilling to accept his daughter’s claims.

In fact, truthfully, the greatest threat to Nancy is her parent’s unwillingness to listen to her.  In that regard, the film becomes, at times, unbearably preachy.  But ultimately, Nancy stands up to Freddy, apparently defeating him at his own game.

Overall, the original Nightmare On Elm Street holds up quite well.  Freddy was not yet as campy, and Robert Englund plays him with a real grim vibe.  Freddy’s voice is a guttural, throaty growl that is immensely threatening.  The first reveal of Freddy walking down an alley with distended arms, scraping his claws along garages is hauntingly creepy.  The practical effects and make up still are effective.  The music is one of the few things that really does not hold up over the years.  Those synthesizer based soundtracks rarely do.  One exception is that the main theme is pretty creepy.  The thing that truly risks ruining the movie though? The final scene is clearly tacked on for sequel possibilities and it really makes no sense.  Wes Craven has disowned that ending that was forcd on his work.  Producers should trust their directors.

But overall, this remains a solid effort, even if it is somewhat tainted by a slew of much lesser sequels (though there are a couple worth catching).

October Is Gonna Be a Bloody Mess

I will be publishing reviews of horror movies all month.  Hope we all survive!

tmnt-posterAnytime I see Michael Bay’s name attached to something, I instantly start lowering any expectations I might have.  I have reached a point where disappointment is near impossible.

In a case like the updated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bay put it in the hands of another director, Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, Wrath of the Titans).  This did not bode entirely well, as I have made multiple attempts to watch Wrath of the Titans and have yet to manage to avoid falling asleep.

The latest version of the turtle does not evoke the silly fun of the cartoons or the gritty weirdness of the original comic books.  It tries to update itself as a serious action film, with flat jokes and attempts at cashing in on nostalgia.
Frankly, in a film called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we do not need a scene where the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles in question actually describe themselves as such.  We get it.

And seriously, having Will Arnett’s character be both April’s (Megan Fox) sole supporter at her job as reporter and be the guy suggesting they hook up? Creepy.

As Bay-related films go, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not the worst.  It is not the best.  The characters are dull, and the film entirely seeks to get by on nostalgia combined with Bay effects extravaganza.  And this is not enough to make the film actually fun and entertaining.  I do not ask that my blockbusters be life altering or challenge how I view the world.  But I do ask that they be engaging…and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not that.

Prometheus Lost

So, Ridley Scott announced the title to the sequel to Prometheus.  And I was a bit surprised they caved this early.

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I was one of the few who at least generally liked Prometheus.  It had some problems, such as the whole “what I choose to believe” thing was never grounded tightly enough to make sense as a solid philosophy and the final act is pretty crazy messy to the point of confusion.  Adding to the confusion was the similarities that seem to set up Alien, but clearly at the same time could not be the same ship found in Alien…and the filmmakers emphasized that this is a different planet, different ship…this was set in the same universe as Alien, but is a separate story.

And I like that idea.  The notion that there might be a film to line up more precisely with Alien, but that it would come after a divergent story in the same universe.  Rapace and Fassbender are welcome performers for me and I am curious to see the next step in that story.  But of course, the problem is…they are not just trying to appeal to me, who would have no problem getting interested in another Prometheus film.

I suspect the lukewarm reception has resulted in bringing the Prometheus story directly under the Alien name brand with the upcoming sequel being called Alien: Paradise Lost.  I see some potential confusing, what with Neil Blomkamp’s possible Alien five.  I presume that will get a re-title.  And ever since Alien Resurrection, religious and mythical titles seem to be the go to.

But I suspect they realized continuing Prometheus 2 would not have the attention getting power of actually calling it “Alien”.  This does beg one question…will we see the regular Xenomorphs this time around?

Direct Sequel vs Kinda a Sequel

Zack Snyder has commented that in his mind, Batman V Superman is actually the Man of Steel Sequel.  There is a Man of Steel 2 on the Warner Brothers slate-with talk of George Miller directing (which would be exciting)-but Zak really feels this is the true follow-up.

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And this feels like it is becoming an issue with both Marvel and DC films.

In the early days, the Marvel stand alone films were allowed to focus on the hero.  There might be a cameo, or a supporting role (Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  But the films were primarily focused on the hero’s journey, while the larger Avengers story-line might be lightly hinted at.

captain-america-civil-war-poster-wallpaper-captain-america-civil-war-black-panther-ver-432424

But Captain America: Civil War seems to be suffering the same problem as Batman v Superman… so stuffed with heroes, it feels more like “Avengers: Infinity War-Prologue”.  They are feeling less like proper films in a franchise and more like the setup films.  Adding Spider-Man to Civil War only enhances that.

I kind of get what they are doing with Batman v Superman, because Warner Bros has been playing catch-up after trying to determine how to get that Avengers cash without totally looking like they are trying to copy the the actual Avengers formula.

So we are getting long movies full of heroes, all while they give less and less room for the title character.  Part of what I enjoyed about both Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy was they had connections to the greater shared universe they inhabit without losing their own spirit.

I worry both DC and Marvel will be making it near impossible to allow even their solo movies to be focused on the hero whose name occupies the Title Card.

An Easy Mess (Easy A, 2010)

easy-a-movie-posterI had high hopes of this being a clever teen comedy in the 10 Things I Hate About You Vein.  It starred Emma Stone, who seems to be able to brighten up the lamest of films.  It was a fresh take on a dusty classic.

And there are things I found in the film to be praiseworthy.  It’s likable cast, for instance.  Everyone does well, even though some character roles are terribly thankless(more on that later).  There are some solid laughs, and the interaction between Olive (Stone) and her carefree liberal parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) have their moments.  I liked the framing structure (Olive is broadcasting her story to the web).  I liked how they dealt with the potential fallout of the situation in Olive’s life.  Olive is a very likable character.  Smart, sarcastic, yet compassionate and supportive of her friends (it is this aspect of the character that creates the situation of the movie).

What is that situation?  Basically, Olive makes up a white lie to satisfy her friend Rhi (Aly Milchaka).  She find’s Rhi’s family uncomfortable and does not want to go camping with them, and says she has a date with a college boy.  Rhi presses for details, convinced Olive has lost her virginity.  So, rather than come clean, she tells Rhi what she wants to hear in the girls bathroom.  Which is overheard by Exaggerated Southern Christian Stereot-uh- Marianne (Amanda Bynes).  This spreads across the school like wildfire.  A friend (Dan Byrd) is facing bullying at school.  He’s gay and people suspect it…weary of the abuse he begs Olive to pretend they had sex together.  So at a party, they stage an elaborate sequence to convince everyone that the pair hooked up.

From there it snowballs, other guys start trying to get her okay to say they have done various sexual acts with her.  It snowballs until she is taking credit for things to protect a teacher and losing her friends.

And it is this area where the film just gets messy… for instance, Olive and Rhi have a falling out- resulting in Rhi disappearing for much of the film.  And Marianne…dear God, Marianne.  First, I have a hard time buying that someone that conservative and pious would wear outfits that are all that tight.  I would expect the character to be more modest.  Plus, she has this thick southern accent that nobody else seems to share.  It’s as if they think becoming a Christian results in developing a Texas Accent.  The character is cut from the cloth of a long line of Conservative Evangelical villains, and is so deathly cliched it is insulting-no matter what you believe.

On the positive side, there is no absurd comeuppance sequence revealing Marianne to be some secret slut in an attempt by the movie to shame her.  So, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky.

The end is a terrific mess.  I get why they ended it the way they did.  Earlier in the film, Olive laments that her life is not more like an 80’s teen romance, set to a montage of John Cusack, Patrick Dempsy and John Hughes flicks.  And the film’s final moments touch on that, including the montage of characters having a moment of realization.  But much is unresolved in this ending.  And not in a what happens next makes you want more, way.  But rather that you are watching the filmmakers cheat.  What exactly is Marianne’s revelation?  We don’t know.  But she seems sad.  Same with Rhi…and is their friendship salvaged?  Who knows…apparently Olive patching things up with her best friend did not strike the film makers as important.  It feels as if they had no idea how to resolve all their dangling threads…so they just show us the characters looking pensive and assume that allows them to end the movie.  But it just feels like a massive cheat.  So, the film is just a mess of good and bad… it’s a slapdash of humorous scenes and thoughtful moments adrift in a storm of bad storytelling.

tucker_and_dale_vs_evil_verYou know when the opening moments of a film pay homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn, it will either be good fun or go terribly awry.  As we are introduced to the college kids driving into the Appalachian hills for a weekend of debauchery, it is a little uncertain.  These are very cartoonish and seemingly vapid characters.

As they are driving, they almost collide with a beat up old pickup truck.  As the truck passes them, the occupants stare at the college kids ominously.  foreshadowing of the cruel plans they have for these kids?  It turns out… not really.  Tucker (played by Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are on their way to Tucker’s newly purchased vacation home for some relaxing and fishing.  The kids run into the duo at a gas station, where we discover that Dale is painfully shy.  Tucker tries to give him a pep talk (“You are a good looking man, in a way”) to go over and talk to the pretty college girl Ali (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden).  Unfortunately, in his attempts to appear confident (including walking over with a scythe) he comes off scary.

At the vacation home, Tucker and Dale discover all sorts of signs of an ominous past-but look right past them.  Tucker assumes the bones dangling from the ceiling show the previous owner to have been an archeologist.  Newpaper clippings on the wall about a massacre of college students is met with the assumption that the previous occupant was a news buff.

But it is when Tucker and Dale decide to go doing some night fishing it all goes wrong.  When they save Ali from drowning, her friends assume they attacked her and flee.  Tucker and Dale decide the best thing to do is tend her wounds and return her to her friends the next morning.

But one of the college kids, Chad, becomes obsessed with the idea that they must fight the evil hillbillies and rescue Ali.  While the other kids suggest getting the cops, he is certain that is a terrible idea.  Chad sees himself as special and unique-better than everyone else.  This mentality has him certain that he and the attractive Ali should be hooking up (in spite of her resistance).  He also has a history with Hillbillies that drives his relentless desire to destroy Tucker and Dale.

This all leads to a series of events where the kids attack the two-and die in the process.  This leads them to conclude the kids are part of a suicide cult.  And from the there the misunderstandings continue.  Ali attempts to resolve the conflict, but through a comedy of errors, the now formed trio cannot convince her friends that Tucker and Dale are quite kind guys.

The film sends up the idea of the final dual with a solid twist.  The film has a lot of fun with it’s reversal of the Mutant Cannibal Hillbilly premise.  There are plenty of clever jokes and visual references to other films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fargo, Deliverance, etc).  As the leads, Tudyk and Labine are well cast, and tremendously likable characters.   Bowden does a nice job as the only sympathetic member of the college entourage.  Director Eli Craig shows promise, as this is a pretty strong debut (so far, Craig has directed a short and an episode of the TV show Brothers & Sisters).

I found the film to be enjoyable, with many laughs.  It understands the weaknesses and absurdities of  the genre and has fun with them.  And again, there is no understating how important the casting of Tudyk and Labine were to the film, as they are the ones who bring the heart of the film.  In a world with films like Epic Movie and Vampires Suck, it is nice to discover a film that understands the need for characters-even in parody.

super_posterYou remember that movie Kick Ass?  You know, the one where the loser kid wonders why nobody ever fights crime in a costume-so he decides to do it?  And teams up with a precocious ten year old girl who kills people and swears a lot?  And how it was all seen as good something sane people would do?

James Gunn (writer director of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy) thought that film was full of $#!^ (to use comic book talk).  In the world of Super, in which Dwight from the Office has a mental breakdown and decides to fight the evil Kevin Bacon to save his elvish wife with the help of Juno, you have to be a little off to want to put on a costume and fight crime.

The story centers on Frank (Rainn Wilson, Dwight on the Office).  Frank has lived a life of humiliation after humiliation.  His only two good moments were marrying his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and the time he helped catch a criminal.  His wife falls in with a bad crowd, hooked on drugs and eventually, she leaves him.

Frank sees a cheesy Christian Super-Hero called The Holy Avenger (played by Nathan Fillion) on TV (think Bibleman).  Later, after pouring his heart out in a prayer, Frank has a vision.  This vision convinces him he has a special calling.  And so he vows to fight crime in a costume with a night stick.

Beating up criminals makes him a public phenomenon at first, until Frank overreacts to a guy who makes a slight social faux pas.  He meets Libby (Ellen Page), who discovers his identity and becomes obsessed with being his “kid” sidekick.  What soon becomes apparent is that she is not interested in doing what is right so much as the action and rush involved.

That the film can be very dark was not truly a surprise to me.  It really does present the idea of super-hero work as requiring that you be a bit disturbed.  While not a new idea in comics (Garth Ennis makes quite a living off of the notion) after several years of stable heroes in film…this rather cynical take works pretty well.  Of course, it came out the same year as the film Defendor-and even covers similar ground.  But still, Wilson makes a pretty compelling mental case, who can be endearing and yet a bit scary.  Kevin Bacon is good as a low level drug kingpin wanna be, while Page goes from a fun exuberance to a really uncomfortable and tragic place.  Gunn really makes the story work, and finding a way to inject satire in with sincerity that is usually very hard to get right.

There is a brutal honesty when Frank is on his knees, in tears begging God for an answer as to why his life seems so stacked against him.  He pours out every bit of self resentment and begs God for an answer…why do I have to look like this?  Why couldn’t I have been smarter?  Cooler?  More lovable.

Frank is messed up, but you can understand and sympathize as to why.  He really wants life to be more simple than it is.  Underpinning the film is a rather grim and unpleasant portrayal of violence that challenges the cool action hero of something like Kick Ass.  It is disturbing and lacks the “cool one liners and puns” prevalent to other violent action heroes.

And yet, in spite of the grimness, the film finds a way to end on an upbeat and even inspirational note, without feeling false or tacked on.  It never justifies what went on before, instead suggesting some healing for Frank.

Super really caught me off guard, in spite of having heard positive raves about it, I think I anticipated a more gritty take on Kick Ass, but I got something much better out of it.  Yes, it was violent, but it was also thoughtful, touching and inspirational.

Boyhood_posterI happened to see the Golden Globes Best Picture Drama winner Boyhood this weekend.  While it was a nominee of course.

The film has a neat gimmick, it was filmed across a twelve year span.  The young boy at the film’s start is the same college age actor we see at the end.  The same goes for his sister and friends.  So, as the characters age, they are not suddenly a new actor every few scenes.  It is a nifty gimmick on it’s face.  The acting is strong in the film.  I went in very much looking forward to the film, as it seems to garner praise and love from everyone who sees it.

Well, except, apparently me.

Richard Linklater’s ode to boys becoming young men is…well, kind of dull and aimless.  Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lacks any sense of personality or spark.  He feels aimless at the start of the film and feels entirely aimless at the end of the film.  His parents grow and change, but in an ambiguous fashion.  We see the father (Ethan Hawke) living in a run down apartment with a musician friend, and the next time we see him he is married with a new baby.  His mother (Patricia Arquette) survives an abusive relationship, valiantly fighting to protect her children…then needs her boyfriend to remind her it is her son’s birthday.

But Mason…well, we never, ever get a sense of his hopes and dreams.  In fact, the film offers no indication that he has them.  We only see him take an interest in photography later in the film.  And yeah, it hints that he has a real gift for it.  But the film gives no connection to this being a true passion for him.  Because Mason comes across and completely uninterested in anything.  As a viewer, we are given this unformed character.  And maybe his lack of drive was intentional…but frankly, it just reads as dull for me.

It does not help that the film makes the passage of time unclear.  One of Mason’s step parents just vanishes from the story after a fight.  No indication as to when or why he is gone, he just is.  Linklater clearly meant for things like music to help define the passage of time as the songs use tend to be from the general years the story is happening.

Truthfully, if you took the gimmick away.  If this had been filmed during a three month period a year or so back with different actors playing Mason at the various stages of his life?  I cannot see the film garnering half the praise it does.  It feels like every scene was created on the fly, like Linklater was relying on the actors to overcome the lack of anything resembling a story.  In many cases, it is not even the most interesting points of Mason’s life.

I am a bit amazed how people are connecting with this one when Mason is such an empty character on screen.  He has no drive, no passions, no hopes…he just is there.  What is there to connect to?

It has brief moments…there were times I laughed.  And times I felt something akin to caring.  But it was never brought about by Mason, who is the focus of the film.  It was always because of characters outside of him.  This is not because I thought Ellar Coltrane was a bad actor…I just found Linklater imbued the character with nothing for Coltrane to connect with.  So he shrugs his way through the story.

What kills me is I love the behind the scenes aspect.  The idea that the film took twelve years to make and Mason is played by the same actor all the way through?  Very interesting.  But that does not make the actual result, the actual movie itself, interesting.

Locked In (Locke, 2014)

Locke_PosterSo, if you told me a movie about a guy in a car trying to get a cement foundation poured within the next twenty four hours would be a super compelling watch?  I would have walked away thinking you were nuts.

And yet, somehow, Director Steven Knight manages to make a car ride with only Tom Hardy very tense and powerful.

Usually, with a gimmick where you have one guy in a car for the entire film, there is a plot like he is being forced to commit some terrible act by some shadowy figure.  But here, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is simply a guy trying to solve two problems.  He is trying to be responsible for his actions, and make sure his business is successful.  Locke is a dedicated family man and construction manager who gets a call that forces him to confront a choice he made months before.

What we get as the viewer is Tom Hardy in a car.  A lesser actor might have screwed this up.  But his unraveling life is fully punctuated by Hardy’s quiet performance.  Locke constantly tries to speak calmly to everyone, attempting to fix his errors, even as they tend to escalate.  The performance is terrific.

I was fully drawn in to this story, and the gimmick really works.  We are isolated with Locke in his car, and the only access to the world outside him is through his phone.  We never see any of the people he is speaking with, and it is an effective move on Knight’s part.  This is a terrifically executed film that deserves far more recognition than it has gotten.