Friday, October 30, 2009

HALLOWEEK - Paranormal Activity


FRIGHT NIGHT

Paranormal Activity - Micah Sloat, Katie Featherston (89 min.)

Paranormal Activity, the new horror cult phenomenon made for a rumored $11,000.00 will surely bring comparisons to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. And rightfully so. The filming techniques, as well as the delivery of the information harken back to Blair Witch, the most effectively marketed film in history. However, where Paranormal Activity differs from Blair Witch is its ability to deliver on its promise of chills. This is one of the most chilling, truly frightening films around, and an innovative look at how big studio doesn’t always have the market cornered on quality.

Shot entirely on a hand-held digital camera, the film follows the documentation of a couple that lives in San Diego, Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). The opening of the film is a false “Thank You” to the San Diego Police Department for their cooperation, insinuating that the footage upcoming was discovered. Micah and Katie have recently moved in together, and Micah has purchased an expensive digital camera because Katie is supposedly having an issue with a spirit or an apparition of some sort that has followed her since she was a child. Each night, Micah sets the camera up in their bedroom facing their bed and the entrance to the room to try and catch some of the activity as it happens. Things gradually escalate with this ghost, and the situation each night grows direr as the ghost becomes more aggressive.

During the day, Micah films the two of them playing detective, trying to figure out where or why this ghost is bothering them. They even bring a psychic in to help, and he fears it may not be a ghost, but a demon. I don’t want to say any more about the plot.

During the day, the story loses some steam from time to time, but once the night arrives, the tension is immediate. As each passing night becomes more and more intense, Micah and Katie grow more and more desperate to try and get rid of whatever this thing is. The majority of the frightening moments are camera tricks that are quite seamless for such a cheaply made film. Phantom footprints, shadows, lights coming on randomly, and doors slamming violently all play into the fear that is at the heart of Paranormal Activity.

I don’t want to oversell the fear in Paranormal Activity, but I can safely say that I have never been so totally creeped out as I was watching the events unfold here. The film pulls you into to the lives of these people and the hand-held camera does an excellent job of giving the audience an immediate connection. And that is enough to make those night sequences intimate and completely compelling. I still shudder when “Night #20” comes to mind. But I will say no more…


B+

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

HALLOWEEK - Tuesday Top Ten - Best Horror Films from the 30s and 40s

The 30s and 40s are often considered to be the Golden Age of horror. This is when the major studios in Hollywood were learning camera tricks, makeup skills, and the ability to understand what frightens the general public. This was also when Universal Studios dominated the horror landscape with the most iconic movie monsters. Practically every horror movie to come along after this time period owes part of itself to one or more of the Universal movie monsters. Aside from the classics, there were a few other films that tapped into the psyche of the American public and knew how to scare the audience. Of course, these films aren’t necessarily frightening by today’s standards, but in the 30s and 40s I can only imagine the nightmares they created:

10) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – 1931 – Frederic March stars in the title role(s) as the obsessive Dr. Jekyll and the maniacal Mr. Hyde. This was one of the very first films to show the “transformation” from man to monster up close, and even by today’s standards the gradual shift is quite realistic and Mr. Hyde quite gruesome. Director Ruben Mamoulian also took several risks with the filming, and since the censorship board was not in place yet some of the shots of Rose Hobart were quite scandalous for the time.

9) Cat People – 1942 – An excellent metaphor for sexual promiscuity, Simone Simon stars as Irene, a woman who fears she will transform into a large cat creature if she consummates her marriage. Alongside Simon is Oliver Reed, who would end up as one of the premier horror-film staples of the late 40s and 50s. Cat People is definitely more of a psychological thriller rife with imagery and metaphorical circumstances, but still quite revolutionary for its time.

8) Freaks – 1932 – Tod Browning’s film is still quite unsettling to this day, mainly because he opted to use actual circus freaks in the cast. The film, about a group of circus freaks that revolt against the beautiful trapeze artist has some truly gruesome sequences and images that will always be disturbing because of the undeniable realism.

7) Dracula – 1931 – It may seem, on an initial response, that Bela Lugosi’s classic vampire picture should be higher on the list. However, for all of its iconic imagery and long-lasting references that have permeated the vampire landscape for so many years, Dracula is flat in a few spots. There are several other films that are consistently stronger than Lugosi’s film, but that is not to say Dracula was not one of the most important horror films of the 30s and 40s. Lugosi’s creation has inspired countless vampire looks throughout the years.

6) The Invisible Man – 1932 – There are two big parts of the H.G. Wells adaptation that make The Invisible Man so good. The first is the unbelievably realistic special effects. The first moment Claude Reins strips the bandages away from his face to reveal… nothing… is such a technological marvel for the time it was done, it still holds up today. Second is Claude Reins performance, at first as a mad scientist, then as a disembodied voice. Reins’ acting job here was something that had yet to be attempted, and he does the best job still to this day.

5) Frankenstein meets the Wolfman – 1945 – This is the only semi-sequel on the list. Once the initial success of the Universal monsters was established, Universal decided to bring different combinations of monsters together. Typically, these hybrid horrors were weaker than the originals, but Frankenstein meets The Wolfman was the strongest of the group. With Lon Chaney Jr. back and Victor Strange filling in admirably as Frankenstein’s Monster, the battle between these two is not as important as the build up to their meeting.

4) Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein – 1942 – This is the best of the Abbott and Costello films. Not only do the two comedians have to deal with Frankenstein’s monster, they also must contend with Dracula and the Wolfman, the three most iconic Universal movie monsters. And to get all three actors back in the roles that made them famous from the beginning was also a big move. I realize this is not really a horror film, but it was an excellent showcase for the most famous monsters of the time, and it deserves to be recognized as such.

3) Frankenstein – 1932 – One of the best of the bunch, Boris Karloff’s monster is an exercise in subtle creepiness. The eventual reveal of his monster, those staring cold eyes, had to be quite a shock for audiences in 1932. On top of the horror elements, the sympathetic angle taken by the story created layers that were missing in Dracula. The sense of pity and concern for this lumbering, helplessly violent monster elevates it above Lugosi’s picture.

2) Bride of Frankenstein – 1935 – The only true sequel to outdo the original, Bride is often considered to be the best of the bunch. But this is my personal list of favorites, so it finds its place behind my own favorite. Nevertheless, Bride is in many ways superior to the original Frankenstein, mostly because of the performance from Elsa Lanchester as the terrified bride. There is also a measured amount of camp and quirk to this sequel that give it a distinct personality.

1) The Wolfman – 1942 – Though this was not released until roughly ten years after its most iconic counterparts, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot is the best, most tortured, most well crafted of all of the monsters. His transformation from man to wolf was revelatory for the time period, though it may be a bit dated (especially after the glimpses of Del Toro’s transformation in the remake), but Chaney’s performance when he is in the monster makeup always creeped me out as a kid.

Monday, October 26, 2009

HALLOWEEK - Remake Monday: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

There have been two film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the last version was in 1941 and starred Spencer Tracy in the title role and Ingrid Bergman in the female lead as Ivy. The most famous version was the 1931 version starring Frederick March. There have been a few low-rent attempts to remake this story over the years, but none that have made it past the direct to DVD stamp. It is time to re-examine this tale of human duality with a cast and crew worthy of the Stevenson novel.

DIRECTOR
This story seems ripe for a director like David Cronenberg. With so many films dealing with duality and split personalities (History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Dead Ringers, The Fly), Cronenberg seems to thrive in examining the notion of the doppelganger. Something else Cronenberg could bring to the table directing a film like Jekyll and Hyde is the deeper, more dreamlike aspect of obsessive personalities. He could also bring a lot of shock value where it was necessary.

CAST
In the past, the same actor played Jekyll and Hyde and makeup was used. I think if Cronenberg were on board as a director, he may want to consider splitting the two characters into different actors. Still using makeup to enhance the features of Hyde, perhaps splitting the character in two would bring a new element to the story. Sam Rockwell seems a perfect fit for Dr. Jekyll. With his thin frame and ability to be gentle, obsessive, and tortured with such a wide range of facial expressions and subtlety, Rockwell could handle the Jekyll side. For Hyde, someone with a build complementary to Rockwell who could also explore the darker side of things is Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is another actor who can convey any and all sorts of emotions, and his unusual look would be an effective tool for Cronenberg to use.

Other than the Jekyll and Hyde leads, there is the female lead of Ivy that must be examined. Michele Williams seems like an excellent fit alongside Rockwell. She has shown her ability to be vulnerable (Wendy and Lucy) and her ability to convey a quiet desperation (Brokeback Mountain), and she can also deliver lines with conviction, showing that she has a strength that would translate into resolve for Ivy. She also has a classical look that would be adaptable to any time period.

With a core of actors like this, Cronenberg could take the Jekyll and Hyde story in a new direction. There is also the question of time period with a story as such, but I am positive that the story would be better served if it were left in the turn of the century London where the original novel takes place.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

IF THE ACADEMY AWARDS WERE THIS WEEKEND...

So what if the Academy Awards cutoff was this Friday? Since the Academy, in all of their infinite wisdom, decided inexplicably to broaden the Best Picture pool from five (where one film is almost always left out) to a ridiculous ten nominees (where, at the least, four will be undeserving), it got me wondering what has even been released this year so far that would be worthy of a nod. I can tell you for sure I cannot find ten films out there. And to be honest, in what looks like a very lean fall and holiday movie season, I don’t see enough strong pictures to fill out a solid ten-nominee category. So far, these are my picks for some of the larger awards of the year:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) – I expect Inglourious Basterds, despite the upcoming releases, to be a big player in most of the major categories. As Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish theater proprietor with revenge on her mind, Laurent is an example of yet another strong female character from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. I really see no other competition at this point, not enough to fill out a category of five supporting actresses.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) – As Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter” in Tarantino’s War fantasy, Waltz dominates every scene he is involved in with a slick, calculated amount of underlying menace that creates some of the most fantastically tense scenes all year. Other than Waltz, I feel like Stephen Graham’s turn as Baby Face Nelson in Michael Mann’s supremely disappointing Public Enemies was the brightest spot of the picture. In what little screen time he has, he makes the most of it. I also think that Anthony Mackie as Sanborn, the frustrated partner of Jeremy Renner’s bomb technician in The Hurt Locker should definitely be considered.

BEST ACTRESS – Carey Mulligan (An Education) - This seems to be, at this point, an Award for Mulligan to lose. As a youthful spirit seduced by a much older man, Mulligan has the most buzz going into the end of the year. And again, with yet another lean year for actresses in Hollywood, I fully expect Meryl Streep to be nominated for her turn as Julia Childs in the coolly received, underwhelming Julie and Julia. She really has no chance to beat Mulligan at this point, though someone else may emerge by the end of the year, probably from Rob Marshall’s musical Nine, which stars Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, and Penelope Cruz.

BEST ACTOR – Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) – I don’t expect Renner to win by the end of the year, as two George Clooney flicks and a Daniel Day-Lewis musical (the aforementioned Nine) are fast approaching, but thus far Renner, as the maniacal bomb technician in Kathryn Bigelow’s outstanding war film, is most certainly the frontrunner at this point. I think a close second right now is young Max Records, who plays Max in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. He carries an unbelievable amount of soul and gravitas for an eight-year old. And I expect Peter Sarsgaard to get his first nod as the older seducer in An Education.

BEST DIRECTOR – Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) – This category is already loaded with some excellent work. This will be perhaps the most hotly contested of the major awards, as Spike Jonze’s work on Where the Wild Things Are and Kathryn Bigelow’s work on The Hurt Locker are both worthy of a nomination and perhaps even a win. But Tarantino, obsessive, intricate, and creative Tarantino, birthed this fantastical war epic from his own brilliantly warped mind, and for that he should take home this statue along with an Oscar for original screenplay. Aside from these three frontrunners, I am sure that either Jason Reitman or possibly John Hillcoat will be in the running by the end of their films, Up in the Air and The Road, respectively.

BEST PICTURE – Inglourious Basterds – Again, in my opinion, this is a three-horse race between Where the Wild Things Are, Basterds, and The Hurt Locker. I am tempted to go with Where the Wild Things Are, but I feel like the Jewish revenge story might gain a little momentum in a town like Hollywood. Not to mention that I think Harvey Weinstein is behind Basterds. The Hurt Locker is for sure an outside contender, but I still feel like it is one of the strongest films of the year. And I am assuming that pretty much anything that is halfway decent the rest of the year will have to get a nomination to fill out the absurd ten spots. I can’t imagine that any of them are as strong as Basterds though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE... An Early Review of 2012

Today’s sign of the apocalypse is, in a way, the actual apocalypse. I am speaking of course of Roland Emmerich’s newest disaster porn, 2012. In what looks like his most overloaded, overwrought, ridiculously effects heavy disaster pic, 2012 references the Mayan calendar’s prediction that the end of the world will come in roughly three years. But of course, in true Emmerich fashion, the story focuses on John Cusack as a… guy… who must rush to save his family (undoubtedly an estranged family where his wife has a new rich hubby) from seemingly the entire world collapsing. My question is, why the hell do we need to see this?

This is an early review, in a way, of 2012. Not that I have seen the movie, I never will, but I have had my television on at various times over the last few weeks so I have seen the extended trailer of destruction more than enough times to get the gist of a movie that is more impressed with its own ability to do CGI destruction than anyone else should be. You know the trailer I’m talking about: John Cusack, speeding in a limo across Los Angeles to try and get to his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and his children. I am guessing it’s his ex wife because she is standing in a pretty new house with another guy who is reading the paper, and he looks extra smart and rich and stuff. Undoubtedly the new hubby. Anyways, Cusack is on the phone with her, begging her to get out of the house because something or someone has tipped him off that Los Angeles and the world is apparently going to explode and fall apart.

As he predicts to the skeptic Amanda Peet, the earth suddenly jolts and begins to split and shift and things begin to fall down, but Cusack has made it in time to get everyone out of the house. Their next move? Luckily the new hubby has a private jet they can get on and outrun… the end of the world. But that is not before they must drive across Los Angeles as overpasses buckle and collapse, cars explode and thousands of little CGI people fall to their death without a second thought, and Cusack drives his limo through a collapsed office building. And then, when they manage to get to the fully fueled, ready to go private jet sitting right on the runway, they take off just as the runway sinks behind them. But they aren’t out of harms way yet.

You see, apparently the airport runway they took off from was aimed directly at downtown Los Angeles, and at the moment in downtown buildings are collapsing in disturbingly realistic ways and thousands more CGI humans are falling to their deaths. But don’t worry about them, we must get John Cusack and his family away safely so they can have a chance to repair their domestic estrangement while battling… again… the end of the world. That means the plane must duck and dodge collapsing structures and even fly in between two large, square building collapsing onto each other that bring back some uncomfortable memories.

Emmerich has made a career out of destroying landmarks. It started with Independence Day, which actually had an alien invasion to back up destruction of the white house and other structures across America and the world. Then it went into The Day After Tomorrow, where global warming was blamed for Manhattan freezing and tornados in Hollywood and all kinds of other natural disasters in strange places. But with 2012, Emmerich has perhaps gone too far. The only thing that 2012 is doing is showing mass destruction, chaos, death and millions of CGI bodies falling from buildings and being burned by explosions for roughly two hours. It isn’t even a decade after 9/11, and Emmerich somehow sees nothing wrong with big CGI buildings that look identical to each other collapsing and falling to the ground, complete with digital humans falling to their death along the way.

2012 is a tasteless film, and I gathered more than enough information to make that claim by watching a three-minute clip. Other than the tastelessness, there is really no point to 2012, other than to show landmarks being destroyed. Los Angeles crumbling? Check. The Eiffel Tower falling? Check. The pyramids? I am sure. Any other recognizable landmarks to destroy? Check. There is no other reason to see 2012 than to say “cool, look, the Eiffel Tower just collapsed and burned.” Cool? I don’t think so. I am actually hoping that the only true end 2012 will bring is the end of Roland Emmerich’s career, a director whose soulless destruction makes Michael Bay look like a chick-flick director.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

EAT IT UP, LOVE IT SO
Where the Wild Things Are - Max Records, Katherine Keener, voices: James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano (94 min.)

Most of the time, going to the movies is a chance to kill a couple of hours in between shopping, to go and get some laughs and escape from the everyday. A handful of times every year, however, seeing a movie is something altogether more important, more profound. An experience. Such is the case with Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s deeply affecting and emotionally stirring adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name. With only ten sentences of original text to work with, Jonze and like-minded writer Dave Eggers have fleshed out the pages of Sendak’s book into something sporadic, manic, completely beautiful and amazing.

Newcomer Max Records plays the 8-year old Max of the story, a rambunctious, emotionally charged little terror that never stops moving. If he isn’t harassing the family dog, he is building an igloo in the snow outside and planning a snowball attack on his older sister and their friends. It is when he acts out in a fit of angry confusion against his mother (Katherine Keener), who is entertaining a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) one night, when he runs from the house, across the street, under a fence, and carries himself away across an ocean to an island inhabited by the Wild Things.

The Wild Things are those you have seen from the book, large beasts with rotund heads and pointy teeth and accentuated features. Only here the beasts are given a family dynamic of sorts. Each has their own personality and own mixed bag of emotions. Max convinces the Wild Things, who plan on eating him, that he is a king from a distant land and he, as requested by the Wild Things, will “keep the loneliness away.” It is these kind of lines throughout the screenplay that really grabbed me, as these imposing beasts want only to be happy, as nothing else really matters in their world.

Max and the Wild Things bond with each other by doing things that have no real purpose in this world. In the world of the Wild Things, breaking trees, smashing huts, getting into dirt-clod fights, and building massive forts that appear as architectural wonders, are the only things that really do make a difference. They are the output of emotional confusion that Max deals with in his life, and these creatures all carry their own importance as cathartic characters in his life. They are also the heart and soul of the story.

Carol is the default “head” of the Wild Things, and James Gandolfini voices him with an unexpected softness and vulnerability. Carol wants everything to just be all right, but his emotions and his confusion often cause trouble in the group, and he becomes the closest with Max throughout. Catherine O’Hara voices Judith, the neurotic skeptic of the group, and she is in love with Ira, a soft-spoken creature that adores putting holes in trees. Forest Whitaker voices Ira with a silken ease. The rest of the group includes Chris Cooper as Douglas, a rational bird creature, Paul Dano as Alexander, a sensitive, insecure goat creature, and K.W., a creature similar to Carol, and one whom Carol has a confusing emotional connection to that he doesn’t quite understand. Lauren Ambrose voices K.W. gracefully.

What is so endearing about these creatures is that, despite their overbearing stature, their emotional and intellectual simplicity makes them pure beings of soul. Carol wants everything and everyone to get along, but these beasts cannot control their own emotions long enough to keep things together. Max tries his best to get everyone together, but much like his own emotions, the Wild Things cannot be tamed by simple actions. They need to be understood, and that is the journey these creatures take with Max, a journey to understanding.

Jonze’s ultimate choice to shoot Wild Things with a stedi-cam was the best idea, as we are made to chase Max around in his worlds with the camera seemingly struggling to keep up. And the soundtrack by Karen O. and the Kids is delightful and haunting all at once. While Keener does the best job possible in such a small but important role, and all of the fantastic actors voicing the Wild Things are soft, comforting, and vulnerable, it is young Max Records that should be recognized here. There is a weight to his acting that I don’t remember seeing in an actor this young. He carries the emotion of Max as skillfully as a seasoned veteran. Records should most definitely be considered for a Best Actor nomination. It has been a while since a young child was this powerful in a role.

Spike Jonze has been quoted as saying that Where the Wild Things Are is not necessarily a kid’s movie, but a movie about being a kid, and with that I totally agree. There are definitely elements to Wild Things that would be too confusing for younger viewers, and other things that may be too frightening for some. But for the rest of us, for the kid we all still find in ourselves every once in a while, for any of us who have ever been confused or upset about the adult world, and for all of us who can see childhood things with some perspective, Where the Wild Things Are is a truly moving experience. And the final shot of the film I think is one of the best I have seen this year. Walking out of the theater I thought nothing of it, as it is quite a subtle and abrupt ending, but on the way home it hit me, and I got it, much in the same way Max gets it. That is the brilliance of this film, it’s ability to affect the viewer deeply without their knowledge.

A

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE' WEEK - Tuesday Top 10: Creepiest Kid's Movies

I had a tough time naming this list. I went back and forth from ‘kids movies not really for kids,’ (which seemed too wordy), to ‘non kids, kids movies (too confusing), before I wound up with the title. I decided to call these the creepiest kids movies because, for the most part, these films are specifically marketed for children of some age. Where the Wild Things Are is being marketed, at least by director Spike Jonze, as not so much a kids movie, rather a movie about being a kid. There are surely some dark moments in Wild Things that remind me of the movies I listed here, movies that left a mark on my psyche as a young boy because of their frightening nature. I have opted to stay in my childhood and not mention more recent films that may very well be disturbing to today’s youth.

10) The Monster Squad – One of my childhood favorites is not really frightening in its delivery. More so, it is frightening given the subject matter, about all of the classic movie Universal movie monsters coming to suburbia to terrorize a group of monster loving teens. The most memorable of the monsters here is Dracula, played with icy menace by Duncan Regehr. There are surely some scary moments here, but this Goonies-goes-monster kids movie is mainly just a good time.

9) The Secret of Nimh – The only cartoon on this list is definitely marketed towards children, and definitely much too frightening for the age group who enjoy cartoons the most. The opening of the film, where the mother of a family of rats is dead and the son is dying, seems like a lot for a younger kid to handle, and we haven’t even gotten into the perilous aspects of the story.

8) The Wizard of Oz – Everyone has seen this, and everyone must acknowledge that at least one portion or another of this timeless tale is creepy. Perhaps it’s the angry talking trees that resemble John Kerry. Or perhaps it’s the creepy little flying monkeys. Most assuredly the green hued Wicked Witch of the West screaming and snarling her way through the story is something will haunt a few adolescent dreams. Aside from the fantastical aspects of the story, the tornado sequence at the end should be enough to frighten midwestern children.

7) E.T. – Remember this cute little puppet from outer space? The one that befriended a lonely little boy and his family? The one who got drunk accidentally and the one who hid amongst a wall of stuffed animals? Cute huh. Well, do you remember the little pale, emaciated, cracked out screaming monster who was dying, only to be taken by a government of hazmat outfitted adults? Yeah, that E.T. is the one I remember because it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid.

6) The Dark Crystal – There is something inherently more frightening about puppets on screen instead of CGI monsters. There is a texture to these creatures that cannot be matched by computers. And perhaps this is no more obvious than in Jim Henson’s fantasy film. Seemingly each different walk of ‘life’ in this story is creepy in its own right, and some are flat out gross. Too gross and creepy for the children it was aimed at anyway.

5) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – First of all, Gene Wilder as the stoic, quiet, saucer-eyed king of the candy factory is creepy when he is just standing there. And the Oompa-Loompas? Fughettaboutit. This LSD laden fantasy adventure, complete with nightmarish boat ride, is creepy from beginning to end. Perhaps this film was marketed for children, but it has become more of a study for college students with time to kill and a few hits of acid than any kids looking to have some fun watching a light-hearted flick.

4) The Neverending Story – The idea that a nothing is wiping out the world of fantasy may be too heavy of a metaphor for young children to understand. I know I didn’t get the idea that imagination in children was dying. Aside from the deeper aspects of the story, the talking beast in the cave, the one with evil green glaring eyes and a snarling voice, is the most frightening creature in Wolfgang Peterson’s fantasy. And the very realistic-feeling death of Atreyu’s horse, Artex, giving up and sinking into the earth, still upsets me to this day.

3) Labyrinth – In hiring David Bowie to be in their children’s fantasy film, it is clear the producers had no intention of making Labyrinth a sugary sweet Disney rip-off. Bowie plays the leader of a creepy underworld of humans and creatures that kidnap a young baby from Jennifer Connelly. Sure, there are some musical numbers in there, but there is plenty of realistic “child in danger” aspects of the story that make it a little more serious than perhaps it should have been.

2) Gremlins – So maybe this one isn’t necessarily a children’s film, but anything with cute little puppets and Christmas may easily be marketed incorrectly from time to time. Sure, Gizmo, the little mogwai is cute and sweet, but the demon spawn who begin popping out of his back and terrorizing suburbia are quite the opposite. The snarling, slobbering, scaly creatures are enough to terrorize any young kid, and the sequence where the mother is forced to puree one of the monsters in a blender is horrifying even today.

1) Return to Oz – It doesn’t get much creepier than this one. Made in 1985 and starring a young Faruza Balk, this semi sequel to the classic film has Dorothy’s family taking her to electro-shock therapy because they felt her ramblings of a scarecrow and a magical land indicated a psychotic episode. It’s not long before Dorothy is hypnotized and returns to Oz, only to find it run by an evil queen and in shambles. This evil queen happens to have a gallery of interchangeable heads, which sounds not half as creepy as it really is. The entire film is dark and morose and full of threatening danger for Dororthy. And then there are the wheelers; human things attached to creaky wheels who chase… Oh god I can’t think about the wheelers anymore.

Monday, October 12, 2009

'WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE' WEEK - Director Spotlight: Spike Jonze

Like so many directors these days, Spike Jonze began defining his craft in the world of music videos, back when music videos were still quite relevant. However, unlike many music video directors (McG for one), Jonze flashed considerable talent with offbeat, creative, memorable music videos like The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage and several Bjork videos. That talent would soon translate into some of the more inventive and curious films of the last ten years.

After working on several short films in the late nineties, Jonze collaborated with eccentric screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich, a film serving as an existential metaphor for wanting to be someone else. In the film, John Cusack plays a puppeteer (sign number one that this film is going to be offbeat) who finds a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. And that is perhaps the most normal aspect of a story that includes a floor that is a “half floor” in an office building, a frumpy permed Cameron Diaz, and a pet chimp. The story from Kaufman was one of the most original screenplays to ever hit Hollywood, and Jonze handles the material as a true collaborator with Kaufman. He serviced the quirkiness of the story well.

Three years later, Jonze collaborated with Kaufman once again, this time on Adaptation, a meta-fictional tale about twin brothers who are screenwriters in Hollywood. The film, a story within a story about another story, etc., starred Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances of his career, and also won Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor statue for his role as an offbeat redneck orchid hunter. Once again, the quirk of Kaufman’s screenplay matched perfectly with Jonze’s ability to convey true humanity in a story that could easily become too reliant on peculiar traits.

Outside of these two films, Jonze had not made another feature until finishing Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the beloved children’s novel by Maurice Sendak. With only ten sentences of dialogue in the book, it is obvious that Jonze’s task was to expand the story without losing the essence of what the children’s book was about. Jonze is, as it is apparent in interviews, a free-flowing, free-thinking auteur who has managed to create his own niche in such a short filmography. If the trailers for Where the Wild Things Are are any indication as to the power of Jonze’s vision, then audiences should be in for something completely fresh, something as original and visionary as the stories Jonze has told in his previous two feature films.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best and Worst of Vince Vaughn

America loves Vince Vaughn. Woman love his charm, men want to have a beer with him. You know, that whole thing. Well, when you look back over his career, there are seemingly two sides to Vince Vaughn: the side everyone knows and loves from the comedy romps that have made him so popular. The rapid-fire comedy and easygoing attitude make him an easily likeable, easy to laugh at leading man. But the other side, what I think can be referred to now as his “dark period,” is a section of his career where he explored the most somber sides of drama. It also happens to be where he made his worst movies. In light of Couples Retreat, his latest date-friendly comedy starring alongside old pal Jon Favreau and Jason Bateman, it’s time to look back at Vaughn’s five best and five worst. Of course, Vince appeared in smaller roles in films like Into the Wild and Mr. And Mrs. Smith, but what is important here is when he shares at least a part of the lead.

BEST

5) The Break Up – This film received quite a few negative reviews, but I think it was due mainly to the fact that the marketing campaign was a little misleading. The Break Up, about a rough relationship between Vaughn and costar Jennifer Aniston, was touted as a freewheeling comedy. However, there were serious elements mixed in with the comedy, elements that exposed the tougher side of relationships. Nevertheless, Vaughn was in the zone with his comedy rapid fire, but he kept just enough humanity in his role when it was needed.

4) Old School – This film is always remembered as Will Ferrell’s big-screen breakout, but it was also a hint at Vaughn’s return to what made him so popular in the early nineties. Staying mostly in the background behind Luke Wilson and the over-the-top antics of Ferrell, Vaughn had his own moments of gold all throughout Old School. Most notably, the oddly humorous relationship he had with his soccer-uniformed son, as well as his performance on the rings during the Olympic competition. “Still Holding!”

3) Wedding Crashers – Vaughn’s comeback owes everything to this smash summer hit. Starring alongside Owen Wilson as, well, wedding crashers, Vaughn relished in the role of the cad who is just charming enough to not seem like a real jerk. So many scenes, from the football game, to the dinner table, to his little monologue with a frightened priest and a highball glass loaded to the brim with scotch, highlight Vaughn’s biggest strength as an actor: his ability to spit out lines at a hundred miles an hour with a dry wit that makes everything seem easy.

2) Made – This small little movie, written and directed by Vaughn’s longtime friend Jon Favreau (who also costars), is merely a vehicle to showcase Vaughn at the top of his brash, jerky, overbearing comedic game. As Ricky, a loser who has delusions of grandeur after he and Favreau are given a small task from a local California gangster, Vaughn just shreds each scene into discomfort, anger, frustration, or exhaustion for whoever is involved. Nothing really happens in this film, but Vaughn is just too hilarious to not recognize Made as one of his best roles.

1) Swingers – The one that put Vaughn and Favreau on the map also fired up the career of director Doug Liman. Looking back on it these days, the attitudes, the dress, the dialogue of these LA hipsters roaming the landscape of the Hollywood night scene like a group of social coyotes, all seems a bit antiquated and somewhat silly. But that owes to the charm of the picture now, how phrases like “money” came and went with the film’s period. Although the film’s story focused on Jon Favreau’s jilted lover, it was Vince Vaughn first showcasing the attitude and the comedic timing that would make him famous that carries the film still to this day.

WORST

5) The Cell – This psychological horror thriller, about a psychiatrist (Jennifer Lopez) going on an adventure in the mind of a serial killer, has a few frightening moments and some creative flair that is still unlike anything I have ever seen. But it’s also just a little bit ridiculous and almost always absurd and overblown. On top of that, Vaughn, as a detective trying to race against the clock to find the killer’s next victim, is so grossly miscast as a tough cop it is hard to fathom the meeting that took place.

4) Clay Pigeons – Starring alongside Jaoquin Phoenix as a murderous cowboy… person… Vaughn is yet again horrible cast against type as some dark and mysterious small town guy. And it doesn’t help that this film goes really nowhere, or nowhere interesting I suppose. It is just painfully obvious that Vaughn, wearing pearl snaps and straw hats, is playing dress up and not actually being the character.

3) Be Cool – This is the only “comedy” on Vaughn’s worst list, and I use that term comedy very loosely. As a sequel to the vastly superior Get Shorty, Vaughn plays in an ensemble cast as a white rapper who is in over his head. The jokes are off, his look is way too extreme to be believable, if that was even the intention of director F. Gary Gray. The entire story just felt tired, and Vaughn somehow became annoying about halfway through the story.

2) Domestic Disturbance – The most memorable thing about this movie-of-the-week domestic potboiler was the story from the filming where Vaughn and costar Steve Buscemi were arrested in a bar fight, one where Buscemi was stabbed in the face. Other than that, this spin off of the Stepfather story was just another crap thriller, clocking in at just under 90 minutes (proof a lot of times that a film like this has nothing to offer) and having no real inspiration for being made. And it is yet another dark role for Vaughn, who soon after Domestic Disturbance realized he needed to change career paths.

1) Psycho – This one isn’t really Vince Vaughn’s fault. Vaughn was young and impressionable, wanting to try something daring and edgy. What better director to get in your corner to do something like that than eccentric auteur Gus Van Sant? The idea to do a shot for shot remake of the Hitchcock classic though? I don’t see any way that this idea seemed like more than just an experimental gimmick that could do nothing but fail in whatever way failure was possible. And Vaughn as the eerie and morose Norman Bates was perhaps the worst decision of the whole failed project. His nervousness was just awkward, not a combination of awkward and spooky like Tony Perkins back in 1960.