Friday, April 30, 2010

SKULLBASHER HERE: The cultural legacy of Freddy Krueger and Wes Craven’s philosophical motives for A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Today is the day and I am filled with horror geekery excitement. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger are almost single-handedly responsible for my love of the horror genre. As a boy the allure of this franchise dominated my young mind. Spending nights at my grandmother's house, she let me do 3 of the things a little boy loves to do: Stay up late, eat junk food and watch scary movies. I vividly remember going to the local generic video store and ogling all the grotesque 80's VHS covers. I knew all about NOES though and any time the newest one was released I looked forward to watching it in my grandma's living room under the pillow fort while dining on pizza rolls and sherbet ice cream. Yes, those are some of my fondest memories.

Now if we look back on the heyday of the slasher genre in the 80's, I think that most of us can agree that the best film, all in all, was Halloween. John Carpenter created the boogeyman of modern cinema while making a brilliantly minimalistic film. Michael Myers also stayed within the realm of reality and didn't venture into the supernatural until the sequels. The same can be said for the original Friday the 13th.

Freddy, however, is a supernatural boogeyman from the start but was a twisted child murderer before his death. He is also a far more interesting character than the tongue-tied Mike and Jason could ever be, due in large part to the subversive brilliance of Robert Englund. And even though NOES did inspire rip off films in the vein of supernatural talking killers, the real concept of the film and the character are so original that no one has ever really tried to reproduce a villain like Freddy. He is not a creature such as a vampire, werewolf or zombie that can be recreated in film decade after decade. He is not simply a plodding silent killer that stalks his prey through city streets, after prom, at summer camp or any holiday known to man. He is a serial killer though and a demonic spirit that enters the dreams of teenagers whose parents were responsible for his demise. Freddy is sadistic yet playful and charismatic. With his four-bladed glove, fedora and red and green striped sweater, he has a style and look that can't be matched. And hailing from the dream world, the fields of play by which he can choose to torture and kill his victims are endless.

Freddy Krueger is truly a pop-culture icon like no other character in modern horror. In the 80's and 90's he was everywhere and has never faded far from our collective consciousness. The word nightmare cannot be uttered without the thought of him. He has been mentioned or appeared in numerous songs, commercials, video games and TV shows. More figurines, merchandise and Halloween costumes have been created and sold in Freddy's image than any other single villain. And I know I'm not the only one that thinks about him at Christmas whenever I see green and red together.

Enough about the monster though. What about his maker? Wes Craven is the man responsible for bringing the nightmare to life. Craven has said that his idea for NOES stems from several areas. Krueger is partly based on a homeless man that scared the crap out of Wes as a child as well as an elementary school bully. The meaty part relating to the idea of our dreams being able to harm us comes from a series of articles he read regarding the Hmong people. The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Years ago over 20 people mysteriously died in their sleep and they were reported to be having terrible nightmares before their deaths. The deaths remain a medical mystery to this day.

In the original NOES when Nancy is undergoing the sleep study the doctor and her mother briefly discuss the fact that scientists still really don’t know what dreams are all about. There are many philosophies on the subject and one that Craven partly adopts for the mythos of Krueger is the idea that dreams can be a gateway to other dimensions. Craven also hypothesizes that when men, specifically, have nightmares this may be some type of release for the evolutionary male tendency for destructive and violent behavior. All pretty hefty stuff that you’ll have to read elsewhere if you care to know more.

Something else interesting and somewhat highbrow that Craven throws into the equation is a little Shakespeare. This occurs in the classroom scene when Nancy falls asleep and sees her dead friend in the body bag being dragged down the hallway. This all happens as a classmate reads a particularly haunting passage from Hamlet: I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

This leads me to Craven’s conception of what the parents represent in NOES. Now although all the parents care for their children’s well-being, they are either drunk, narcissistic, delusional, deceptive or all of the above. They are also obviously responsible for Krueger’s death and subsequently their own children’s demise. What we are led to is an example of the sins of the father being sowed upon the sons, referencing Shakesperean and biblical themes.

It’s believed that Craven is also criticizing the era in which the film was made. The fact that the parents rid the town of a murderer to restore a sense of protection but created dark secrets in the process plays on the suburban paranoia of the times. The film is also edited in a manner in which scenes drift between the dream world and the real world and end of the film also suggests that the entire film could be a dream, playing into the Anti-Reagan view that America was collectively asleep.

Regardless of whether or not you buy that or even necessarily care about the subtext, NOES just proves the case that slasher films don’t all have to be a purely mindless spectacle of gore. These are some of the hopes that I have for the new incarnation of the franchise. I fear though, that real horror fans such as myself, will walk away defeated and at the time of my writing this, the first reviews are coming in and things do not sound good. I had been warned already that Michael Bay’s involvement signals epic artistic failure and looking over the repertoire of Platinum Dunes productions there is no disputing that assessment. Have no doubt though that teens will enjoy it and it will make a shit ton of cash and ultimately that is all that matters. I realize that when dealing with a remake, creativity is limited but that doesn’t mean any and all sense of drama and originality has to be replaced with pretty people and almost real-looking expensive fake explosions. However, if I’ve learned anything from the majority of today’s dumbed down horror films it’s that the obvious has to smack you in the face at every turn because God forbid that the audience use their capacity for deductive thought.

Now having ranted about the looming probability of this cash cow catastrophe, I will still be front and center tonight. If nothing else, I hope Jackie Earle Haley can muster some sort of novelty and leave the fanboy with a shred of satisfaction. Regardless of its inferiority, part of me is still pleased that a new generation of moviegoers will experience A Nightmare on Elm Street that they can possibly better relate to. Maybe a few of them will actually bother to watch the original and enjoy it…or maybe they’ll just laugh at it and realize how old Johnny Depp is…OMG.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Final Two: New Nightmare and Freddy vs. Jason...

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) - New Nightmare marks Wes Craven’s return behind the camera in the franchise (his first involvement period since writing The Dream Warriors), and he wanted you to know that by sticking his name atop the title. And it is apparent that Craven had more money for this project than he had a decade earlier, as the production values here are top notch. New Nightmare isn’t necessarily just another entry in the assembly line of sequels; rather it is a kind of meta-fictional salute to the franchise, and a pretty ingenious set up to boot.

Heather Langenkamp returns to the series for the first time since NOES 3, this time not as Nancy, but as Heather Langenkamp. In this world Craven creates, Freddy Krueger is the character created by Robert Englund. This is a world where Freddy does not exist, but the Nightmare on Elm Street films do. In other words, this is the “real world,” so when Heather’s son (the cute little kid from Kindergarten Cop, doing his best Danny from The Shining) starts acting strange and having nightmares about a clawed monster, everyone points a finger at the movies, never suspecting that Freddy may be real.

Of course, Freddy has become a real monster invading into a world that killed him off. As Craven, playing himself in one scene, explains, Freddy has been so loved in the last decade that killing him off has made the fans even more feverish for his return. So much so that they have somehow brought him to life in this real world. The plot gets a little muddled, but the idea stays strong as Freddy exists as celebrity, the creation of Robert Englund, but then emerges as a real monster created from the hearts and minds of everyone involved with the stories and the fans themselves.

New Nightmare is a great concept, highbrow entry into the NOES mythology. The deconstructionist self-awareness in the story is a clever approach that Charlie Kaufman used several years later in Adaptation. And you can surely notice some techniques – the mysterious phone calls, the media saturation, the false positives as far as who is doing all this killing (did Robert Englund flip out?) – that were the seedlings for Craven’s Scream series.

Something else pretty cool about New Nightmare is Freddy’s look. The makeup team here went an extra mile with his burnt face. He looks slicker, his burns and his skin smoother and more symmetrical, his bone structure more pronounced to make him look demonic. And rather than having a glove because, well, because he is a real thing this time around, Freddy’s razor claws are part of a bone structure in his hand, which looks really cool. This isn’t Englund’s creation; this Freddy is the real deal.

As a wink to the series New Nightmare is stellar. There is even a wink to the original a time or two, and a not-so-subtle recreation of the ceiling murder scene from the first picture. Wes Craven is enjoying doing a tribute film to his most famous creation. Craven never wanted NOES to turn into a sequel machine, so this entry then becomes a catharsis in a way for him. New Nightmare has some warts, and a little build up that is ponderous early on, but the payoff comes when this new and improved Freddy makes his presence felt.

A-

Freddy vs. Jason (2003) – You know how certain iconic characters, be it superheroes or superslashers or supercops, always run parallel in film history, creating a clear comparison and a whole “what if they faced each other” talking point? What if Batman and Superman squared off in the same movie? Or what about Aliens vs. Predators (a concept we have seen fail)? Or what about Freddy taking on Jason? The idea is cool, if you’re eleven, or if you’re just a big nerd like me. But there is one snag in putting Freddy Krueger up against Jason Vorhees: Jason sucks.

Freddy has panache, a sense of humor, and a cool look. Jason, perhaps the worst of the slashers, is a big mute in a hockey mask and a machete. I have never cared about Jason. Michael Myers was the creepier, original version of Jason. Nevertheless here the two icons are, sharing screen time and a screenplay written by some of those aforementioned eleven year olds. Perhaps those eleven year olds should have acted in the thing too, because the people in it are worse than any collection of actors from any of the two killers’ previous seventeen (yes, seventeen) features.
So Freddy is trying to get to the teens again, but this time he employs Jason Vorhees to do his dirty work. The more teens Jason mows down, the stronger Freddy becomes until he is powerful enough to break into the real world. But of cours,e once he does this, there is only enough room for one superhuman slasher… DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNNN!!!!

Freddy vs. Jason is high concept, low execution. It seems like with such a high-profile picture the production could have afforded some bit actors who could, at the very least, act. I’m not asking for Charlton Heston to be the gas-station attendant here (obscure Wayne’s World 2 reference), but at least let’s get some people in here who have attended an acting class or, hell, a film-studies course in college might work.

F

RANKING THE FREDDY FLICKS:

Freddy vs. Jason – F
Freddy’s Dead – F
The Dream Master – D
The Dream Child – B-
Freddy’s Revenge – B
Nightmare on Elm St. – B+
The Dream Warriors – A-
New Nightmare – A-

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

NEXT UP: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (yeah right)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) – Something interesting happens in the second half of NOES 5: The Dream Child; humanity happens. The writer’s, in an attempt to make something interest in this fifth installment, actually develop a plot that has a bit of a payoff. Sure, the entire first portion of part 5 is a lot of the same thing from NOES 4, with gruesome and gross-out murders and stupid one-liners, but it feels like the second half of the picture really, well… tries.

Alice from NOES 4 is the lone survivor, and early on we discover that she is pregnant from her boyfriend, Dan. But Dan dies in a motorcycle accident, and it isn’t long before Freddy finds Alice in her dreams again. This time, Freddy wants to use the unborn child to be re-born into the real world. But there is another kink in the narrative, and that is that Freddy’s dead mother, a nun, is trapped in some sort of purgatory. She is the only one that can stop Freddy, and through some cryptic messages to Alice in her dreams, Alice realizes this, as you could imagine, just in time.

I thought it was interesting that the writers, a team of them, opted to stray from the mind-numbing, plotless style of NOES 4 and decided to actually develop a plot. Slasher films, if they are to elevate themselves, need to be supremely plot driven in order to work, and NOES 5 has that going for it. There are also a little more moods and more solid atmosphere, and an added element of creepiness in the form of Krueger’s nun mother. Some things it lacks: original characters, any sort of realistic acting, evenness.

There are some cool kills here, including one on the pages of a comic book. A recurring theme in the series is the motif of artistic teens being murdered by their own art (remember Phillip being thrown to his death by Krueger becoming one of his puppets) or their own time-wasting addiction (video games: coming soon). The most famous killing of the entry is when Freddy feeds an aspiring model her own insides at a macabre dinner sequence. Definitely the grossest kill of the series.

These reviews are getting shorter, mainly because we understand at this point what the lay of the land is for this franchise, it just boils down to what any half-wit writer and actors can do with the pre-laid plans. With NOES 5, the series definitely took a brief step up, because, well, Freddy’s Dead was just around the corner.

B-

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) – Boy, oh boy. I had read over the years that this was collectively the least popular entry into the series, but for some reason I remembered liking it. Probably because I was twelve at the time. Freddy’s Dead is definitely dead… on arrival.

This time around Springwood is down to its final surviving teen, which as we open has been run out of town by Freddy and left homeless. Springwood is a dead shantytown now, a shell of suburbia. The kid finds a sympathetic psychiatrist named Maggie who takes him in, but feels like the best idea would be to take him back to Springwood (along with a van full of troubled youth stowed away trying to escape the confines of their mental hospital) to try and jog her memory. Of course, Freddy is waiting for them there and begins to pick them off one by one.

Now, there are some good intentions here, and maybe there were some good ideas somewhere on the drawing board. Having Springwood as a ghost town is an interesting switch, and the effects are definitely elevated, but this is due more to time than money. But then the twist is revealed. Turns out, Freddy had planned this all along, and was merely trying to get Maggie back to Springwood because… wait for it… she is Freddy’s son. Double groan. Throwing this kink into the story in the sixth film is beyond absurd, even for a Freddy flick. And the memories of Maggie as she comes to them in the second act are ham-handed and a cheap ploy to bring some sort of weight to an otherwise lifeless tale.

Freddy has some cool kills, as always, but they are so dated. The most memorable one this time around is when he sucks a young Breckin Meyer into his own video game and tortures and kills him. But he has to drop the dated, old-school line “Now I’m playin’ with POWER!” Please. And there is the murder of a young kid with hearing aides. They are taken away from him in the dream and as he wanders the boiler room Freddy dances behind him like the buffoon he has now become. This is that final moment in the series where Freddy has sunk to the level of Jason Vorhees, and is now self parody.

This one was tough to focus on, so I am sure there are plenty of other things I missed that are awful. But nothing tops the lame twist that is Freddy’s daughter. Oh yeah, and there was the 3D ending with the snakes and the tunnel and… yawn.

F

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors & A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master...

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) – This is where the franchise peaked, with Wes Craven’s return as writer. There was also another talented writer on the crew this time around, a guy by the name of Frank Darabont. NOES 3 is the best of the entire series, well crafted, imaginative, and loaded with talented actors that help to elevate the usually atrocious acting in these movies.

The Dream Warriors – also the coolest subtitle in a franchise hell-bent on adding the stupid things – revolves around a collection of teens that have been haunted by Freddy Krueger to a point of insanity, and have been put in a mental institution by their dismissive parents. The collection of inmates includes a young Patricia Arquette as Kristen Parker, who will remain the protagonist for another few films. Each kid as you can imagine has a different set of traits and idiosyncrasies that, at this point in the franchise, felt fresh. There is the angry black kid, the timid girl who has to burn herself with cigarettes to stay awake, the nerdy kid trapped in a wheelchair (but not in his dreams), the artistic kid, the mute, and the edgy female presence. The collection is a bit more eclectic and original this time around than in the next films.

Heather Langenkamp also returns as Nancy, the original heroine of the franchise. This time around, Nancy is an intern at the psych ward, making an understandable career out of interpreting dreams and helping youth. Nancy, along with the assistance of the head doctor and love interest, Neil, figure out through their sessions that if the group could somehow collectively fall asleep together, they could meet in each other’s dreams and together defeat Krueger, but not before he wreaks a little havoc.

There are a few memorable set pieces in NOES 3, first and foremost the murder of Phillip (Bradley Gregg), a puppet artist who is strung up as a puppet by Krueger and forced off the top of a building. Krueger again makes limited appearances in the picture, and this is a growing theory of mine I have noticed. Even though these films revolve around Krueger killing these teens, when he is a background figure or a shadowy monster with fewer lines he is much more effective as opposed to the later films in the series where one-liners and stupid quips litter the screen like the forgotten lines of vaudeville comedians doing horror.

NOES 3 has noticeably better production values than the previous sequel, and a much more expansive cast of talent, including Laurence Fishburne as a helpful and caring orderly. Sure, there are those moments of cheesiness that are inevitable, but not on the same scale as any of the other entries. At the same time, the success and quality of this higher-energy Krueger picture is responsible for the steep decline just around the corner, as these elaborate murders and set ups eschew any desire for the next filmmakers to concern themselves with a cool plot like the one at the center of this second sequel.

A –

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) –
If NOES 3 represents the franchise reaching its proverbial mountain top, then NOES 4 – with perhaps the dumbest, flattest subtitle – is a freefall from that summit. This is where the production team began getting more funding for the project, and the effects began to take over any sense of dread or tension. This is also where Freddy Krueger took center stage, as he is much more prevalent throughout, and begins delivering some of his groan-worthy one liners.

The plot, I think, picks up where NOES 3 left off, with the focus of our story is still on Kristen, this time around played by Tuesday Knight. It seems Patricia Arquette moved on to better things. It seems Freddy still has a grudge against those remaining dream warriors from the last film, and is out to take care of them. He succeeds in killing them, but not before Kristen can “will” her powers to Alice (don’t worry about how). But Freddy soon discovers that Alice has the powers and, I guess, decides to use that power to… oh it doesn’t matter at all.

NOES 4 is heavy on effects and paper thin everywhere else, including the second-rate cast of pop-up victims for Krueger. Sure, the roach-motel murder is creative, but the one-liners Krueger has (“You check in, but you can’t check out”) are just silly. And NOES 4 is directed by Renny Harlin, an action hack who went on to direct Die Hard 2 – the worst in that franchise – and Cliffhanger, which when compared to his other work is sort of his Citizen Kane. That’s what I like to call a backhanded compliment.

NOES 4 drubs along with creative killings and not much else. There is even one sequence where Alice, who is trying to get to her friend before Krueger, doesn’t realize she is asleep and keeps going through the same scene of running to a car over and over and over. This repetitive sequence is pretty much a summation of the entire picture.

D

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street & A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge...

I had originally intended another approach for Nightmare Week, kind of shooting all across the Elm Street board on our way to Friday’s remake release. But I got to and reading about the linear path of the Nightmare on Elm Street films – eight total including Freddy vs. Jason – and I decided to re-watch all of the films for this week, reviewing two a day. So here goes the NOES odyssey, beginning back in 1984:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Freddy Krueger may have been the last of the big three early slashers – the other two being Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers – but he was perhaps the most original. His approach, as you might call it, was fresh, and Wes Craven showed some true originality and creative ingenuity with the first Nightmare on Elm Street.

We all know the back story by now: Freddy Krueger, the Springwood Slasher, a sadistic child murderer, is burned alive by a group of angry parents in town. Krueger killed his victims, small children, by using a glove equipped with razorblade fingernails. The parents feel they have gotten justice for the horrible crimes of Krueger, as he is burned to death in the boiler room where he worked in town, a fittingly eerie setting.

Fast-forward a few years, where the hero of our story, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), is having nightmares about Krueger. She doesn’t understand the nature of these nightmares at first, but when certain things begin to happen in the dream and show up in the real world, Nancy becomes rather concerned. But it turns out, other kids are seeing the same figure in their dreams, and all of these kid’s parents were involved in Krueger’s murder.

Krueger sits in a dream world, waiting for these kids to fall asleep so he can get to them and kill them, and the murders in the original picture are some of the most memorable in the horror genre, and major set pieces for the story. The first, most horrific murder, is Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) gruesome, gravity-defying sequence in which she is pulled and drug around the walls and the ceilings of a bedroom, being horribly sliced apart the entire time. Another staple scene in the first picture is the murder of Johnny Depp, making his film debut as Glen, neighbor and boyfriend to Nancy. As Glen falls asleep, he is pulled into a void in the center of his bed and the bed then erupts with a vicious geyser of blood.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is not some flawless masterpiece, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is not particularly scary twenty-six years later either, as the hokey 80s keyboard music and camp dialogue definitely dates the film. What NOES is, however, is a pop-culture awakening, and a truly inventive, creative addition to the genre. The idea that this monster lives only in your dreams is a great idea. Now these kids have to try and stay awake, creating sleep deprivation, causing even more madness. And Krueger is still a frightening presence here, not the vaudeville comedian he would later become. And there are a number of social commentaries in the picture, notions that will be covered later in the week when the Skullbasher stops by.

Cheesy acting and soundtrack aside, NOES is one of the best slasher films because of its sheer creative force. Made for a budget of $1.8 million, NOES is still one of the most successful horror pictures at the box office. And that success could only mean one thing: fire up the sequel machine.

B+

Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) – Wes Craven was slated to make this sequel to his groundbreaking feature in the series, but backed out to pursue a remake of The Hills Have Eyes instead. Enter Jack Shoder, a relatively unknown director before and after this sequel, a man with an impossible task in following Craven. NOES 2 is always getting the bad reputation as the least memorable of the franchise, or the flat out worst (I am pretty sure the worst is yet to come). While it is definitely the black sheep of the family – Freddy is not as prevalent in this film as he was in the original or in later films – NOES 2 has some unique things working for it, and a very dark streak to it that make certain elements more compelling than any of the other films.

As we open, it has been five years since the events of the first picture. There is a new teen, Jesse, moved in to Nancy Thompson’s old home, and he immediately begins having nightmares involving Freddy, most notably in the opening sequence where an out of control bus being driven by Krueger winds up at the doorstep of hell. Jesse, played by Mark Patton, soon becomes the most unfortunate “host body” for Krueger, who is trying to break into the real world. This is the first element of the story that is a drastic departure from the rest: rather than invade dreams, Freddy is trying a different approach, invading a human body to wreak havoc.

There are several things that stand out in this sequel. First, there is a genuine love interest in the story; a girl names Lisa (Kim Myers) who really cares for Jesse. But what stuck out to me was the not-so-subtle homosexual themes and the idea of disease. AIDS and outward homosexuality was becoming prevalent in 1985, and to think that this small sequel to some teen slasher movie was socially progressive seems odd, but the proof is there. First, there is Jesse’s unusual bonding with the school hotshot, there is his random sleepless wandering into an S&M bar where he runs into his sadistic gym teacher dressed in leather bondage attire, a truly unusual moment where Jesse, unsure of what he is doing or where he is going, finds himself in some seedy, underground gay bar.

But there is more; consider the scene where Jesse is making out with Lisa. Out of nowhere, he is kissing her chest, and a giant, grey, monstrous, Freddy Krueger tongue juts from his mouth, horrifying him and making him flee to his friend’s bedroom where Krueger then births from his stomach. If that isn’t homosexual symbolism I don’t know what is.

Social commentary aside, there are some great individual scenes in NOES 2, namely the opening sequence and a pool party gone horribly awry. Outside of those, there is also a dark tone and eeriness to NOES 2 that disappears in the next entry for good. Sure, the acting is atrocious, but so what? This isn’t Scorsese behind the camera. And there are some major logic and reaction issues with the characters. Nevertheless, NOES 2, although fully responsible for the return to formula in the third and most memorable Freddy feature, is a solid entry in its own right, a sequel that stand out in its uniqueness of storytelling, perhaps the third best of the bunch.

B

Friday, April 23, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Tom Berenger, Michael Douglas Renaissance, and J-Lo needs to go away...

* I always wonder what happens to the trajectory of some careers in Hollywood. Thinking about Platoon the other day, Tom Berenger was brilliant. He was truly a chilling presence as the corrupt, evil doppelganger to Willem Dafoe’s Elias. Berenger was a solid player in the 80s, but now he might as well be dead in the eyes of Hollywood. I guess this is just the way things go with some actors.

* I remember seeing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when I was younger (I was a weird kid), but I don’t remember one bit of it. I need to watch it again.

* Pretty slow news week in Hollywood. There are a few tidbits, like how every big movie coming out will be in 3D. This really is getting absurd. But, like everything else, audiences will grow tired of it eventually.

* Like Men in Black… being re-released in 3D… yawn.

* Is Peter Jackson a good director? I don’t know. Lord of the Rings was surely quality – although I am not a fan – and King Kong had its moments, but really, is he very good?

* Even the TV spots for Jennifer Lopez’s The Back-Up Plan piss me off in their utter banality. Why are these movies made? I am getting pissed just thinking about it right now.

* I think I am excited about Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood. I think I am. It will surely be entertaining, but I just worry that it might also be a little more of the same.

* It feels like this month has been the worst for new releases. I still don’t understand why Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel was pushed to September. It would have really been nice to see before then.

* Speaking of Michael Douglas, his new picture Solitary Man looks like it might be pretty good too. It pleases me that Douglas might be making a late-career renaissance. He has always been solid, and these last few years he has made movies below his quality.

* Take note of that, DeNiro.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Brian DePalma's Carlito's Way

Brian DePalma is, far and away, the most inconsistent director of all time. There are flashes of brilliance in his career, moments that dazzle us as a viewer, such as in Carrie, Body Double, Scarface, The Untouchables. And there are some of the most head-scratching moments in cinematic history, like Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars. A picture of DePalma’s that I feel goes sorely overlooked is 1993’s Carlito’s Way. Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Penelope Ann Miller, and set against the backdrop of The Bronx in the 1970s, Carlito’s Way is a taut exercise in the gangster genre, one of the better ones in my opinion.

The narrative opens on Carlito Brigante, known cocaine distributor and Puerto Rican mob assassin who, thanks to some shady dealings from the prosecutor and some deft legal maneuvering from his own attorney, David Kleinfeld (an unrecognizable Sean Penn), is being set free after five years behind bars instead of serving his entire thirty year sentence. Carlito is ecstatic beyond words, and once he is out he and Kleinfeld celebrate by a night out at a disco. Carlito has some plans to go over with Dave.

But Carlito’s plans don’t involve getting back into the drug world. Instead, he plans on investing in a local disco club so he can save up enough money and move to the Bahamas and rent cars to tourists. “Car rental guys don’t get shot.” And Carlito sheepishly seeks out his former flame, Gail, watching her first from a rooftop in a touching scene. Gail is apprehensive to “Charlie’s” plan; she thinks it’s all a pipe dream, and she may very well be right. Right not because Carlito is apt to fall back into his own ways, but right because of the so many wicked people and extenuating circumstances that were and always will be a part of Carlito’s world.

Carlito’s plan hits its first rough patch when he agrees to go along on a drug exchange with his young cousin. See, Carlito is a legend, he was big time before he went behind bars, and him showing up with his cousin will impress everyone. But once they get there, it isn’t long before Carlito senses trouble. He devises a plan, but it is too late when he springs into action; his cousin is dead, along with everyone else in the bar after a fast and furious gunfight in close range that leaves Carlito stranded in a bathroom with an empty gun and only the threats of more to come to those who might be still alive. This scene is DePalma at his very best, a sequence of unreal tension that tightens with each passing step, each dart of Carlito’s eyes. And the gunfight is staged in a brilliant way, in close quarters with the camera spinning and rotating between two men. Top-notch direction.

Carlito endures his own Book of Job, tested at every corner by the wickedness of his past life. There is a young up-and-comer in the neighborhood, Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), a kid not unlike a young Carlito but a kid who Carlito has no time for. There is Lalin (Viggo Mortensen), a former partner of Carlitos that is trying to beat his time behind bars by luring Carlito back into drug trafficking while wearing a wire. And there is Kleinfeld, his attorney, who became a heavy hitter in the mob, or so he thinks, while Carlito was incarcerated.

Sean Penn plays Kleinfeld, and he disappears beneath a curly red wig and beady-eyed sliminess. Carlito owes his life to Davey, and no matter the situation he backs Davey. But Kleinfeld has become a cokehead and is in the pockets of too many gangsters. He pleads with Carlito to help him break a mafia boss from prison via boat one night, even though the mafia boss has plans to kill Kleinfeld for stealing money once he gets out. Carlito reluctantly agrees to help, and the night of the prison break things, as you could imagine, go south, possibly spelling doom for both men.

Carlito’s Way is a series of fantastic and powerfully tense moments tied together by a compelling character played by Al Pacino. Carlito continuously struggles to steer clear of those intent on ruining him, but it is his loyalty to Kleinfeld that ultimately becomes his biggest problem, culminating in a thrilling chase sequence that is the final act of the picture. The chase begins on the streets, then hits the subway, then Grand Central Station, and again DePalma shows his uncanny knack for using the camera, actor staging, and deft editing to create some brilliant moments of nerve-racking tension.

The relationship between Carlito and Gail, a talented dancer who has to strip to make the rent, is the second of the central relationships in the picture, the other being Carlito and Kleinfeld. The two clearly are in love, were in love, and Gail wants to believe Charlie. She wants to run away with him to the Bahamas, to grow old with him, but she fears the worst. Penelope Ann Miller is excellent here.

As great as Carlito’s Way is, it has one major, major flaw. That is the opening and closing sequences of the film, bookends to the narrative that truly spoil the story before it has even started. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why DePalma decided to show these bookend moments rather than keep the audience guessing, wishing. DePalma has the ability to be a top-tier director, despite his countless missteps, and Carltio’s Way is one of his finest achievements. And let us all collective erase the straight-to-DVD prequel Carlito's Way: Rise to Power from our mind. In three, two, one...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

THE CURSE OF BRAD PITT'S FACIAL HAIR...

Note to Brad Pitt: Stop growing intense facial hair for your movies, because they will surely die. Pitt has been growing his mangy goatee in order to play real life explorer Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z. Fawcett was a real explorer and the inspiration for Indiana Jones somewhere along the way, and The Lost City of Z was a book accounting his exploration in the Brazilian jungles in hopes that he would find the Lost City of El Dorado. The picture was set to begin filming soon with James Gray (Two Lovers) behind the camera, but it seems to have run into a funding wall, and may never happen.

If only Pitt wouldn’t have jumped the gun with that facial hair.

Way back in the early 2000s, Pitt was set to star in Darren Aronofsky’s Requeim for a Dream follow up, about the search for the fountain of youth. Pitt was to play the last man on earth, or some variation thereof. The part required him to grow a gnarly, scruffy beard that became somewhat of its own legend. Who’s that bum holding on to Jennifer Aniston? Needless to say the funding fell through on Aronofsky’s project and the film was scrapped, later to be re-tooled as The Fountain starring Hugh Jackman… who wore a fake beard.

Manageable scruff, tidy mustaches… okay with Pitt (Inglourious Basterds, The Assassination of Jesse James…). Craziness in the form of beards and goatees, not so much. It’s a shame because I was looking forward to an adaptation of this real-life explorer. But so goes Hollywood sometimes.

Next time, Brad, go with some spirit glue and horse hair…

CLICHE TALK: The Slow-Motion Walkers...

The slow-motion walk used to mean something. That band of rogues, ambling towards the screen, away from whence they came. The tough guy strolling to meet the hero, the hero leaving the wreckage of villains behind him. Typically there was a fire or an explosion of some sort. Sometimes they were just leaving a nice tidy breakfast on the morning of a big jewelry heist. Either way, there was a purpose to these slow-motion walks. Sure, they were intended to show the main characters, show them as badass bad dudes, but the actual sequence in the film held weight. Now, well now the slow-motion walk is one of many items that have been overused to the point of ridicule.

Take the aptly titled film The Losers, releasing this week. From all that I have seen in the trailers of this DOA turd of lazy clichés strung together to try and make a quick buck, there is an overabundance of slow-motion walking. A good sign that there isn’t much going on story wise.

Reservoir Dogs perfected the slow-motion walk with its opening title sequence. Set to a steely-cool seventies tune, Green Bag, the slow-mo introduced the characters, signified that they were a collection of badasses, and was a precursor to the chaos that was just around the corner form the opening titles. John Woo perfected slow motion walking early in his career, then ran it into the ground. Wolverine is a recent film that had a tired example of slow-motion walking. Slow-motion walking now is just a cheap trick. It emphasizes characters in a lazy way because there is nothing really interesting about them aside from their general badass-ness. What it really does is emphasize that the director doesn’t have any original ideas. The Twilight franchise employs this technique a lot, mostly to show how dreamy that pasty, smelly, no-talent Brit is. Notice how The Dark Knight, a movie that could have easily had three or four slow-motion walking scenes, decided against it. Probably because they realized there was an actual movie there, they could allow the characters to emphasize themselves without the use of camera trickery.

Sometimes slow-motion walking and explosions can be effective. Take The Hurt Locker for example: huge explosion, slow-motion, bomb technician not really walking away so much as being catapaulted by the blast. That is effective. It emphasizes the power of the bomb, and the damage it causes. The originality here also lies in the fact that the hero does not escape the blast. He cannot simply walk away, leaving fire and wreckage behind him. That fire and wreckage catches up to him.

I understand that The Losers is a comic-book adaptation, but sweet lord can we stop with all the slow-motion walking? It stopped being cool so long ago.

NEXT TIME: The Epic Period-Battle Scene… You Know the One.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best War Films...

This was a tough list to narrow down. When you start looking at the history of war films, the catalog grows and grows and the page could fill with great cinematic moments. The following pictures are prominently war movies, dealing with combat, soldiers, the horrors of conflict. This in order to shorten the list and separate films like Schindler’s List and MASH, films that take place during war but do not directly examine the psychology of combat. Rather, they approach it through different avenues:

10) All Quiet on the Western Front –
There is a stigma about war pictures from the thirties and forties, that they all are very positive in their approach to war. They are the “pro-war” films that disappeared after Vietnam. But All Quiet on the Western Front, released in 1930, was an exception to that rule. The story revolves around a group of German schoolboys who are coaxed into fighting in World War I and discover the horrors and the disillusionment with killing. Aside form having the coolest title on the list, All Quiet is perhaps the only great war picture to deal with the first World War.

9) The Hurt Locker – This might find its way further up the list in later years, but for now there are eight pictures with a more solid foundation. Nevertheless, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut action film, set in the midst of the most recent war in the Middle East, never leans one way or another on the political side of things. Instead, she allows the performances from Jeremy Renner, the reckless bomb technician, and Anthony Mackie, the levelheaded company man, divide the thoughts and opinions of the war. This is the first great picture about the war in Iraq, one that is sure to get imitators now that it won Best Picture.

8) Glory – Somehow, when war films are being discussed, this Civil War epic from Edward Zwick gets overlooked. Perhaps because it deals with the Civil War. Telling the true story of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, really stretching his abilities here), the leader of the Civil War’s first all black volunteer company, Glory not only has some inspired fight scenes, it also has what is arguably still the greatest performance of Denzel Washington’s career. Glory handles prejudices and mindsets deftly, and never shies away from the way things must have been.

7) The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino’s Academy-Award winning film is a lot of things, all revolving around what adds up to a brief act in the actual Vietnam conflict. This one is memorable for specific scenes, namely the roulette scene in Vietnam that aroused much controversy for its factual liberties. And there is the wedding scene, an hour-long opening act that could be its own short film. But that wedding scene, and the camaraderie between the men at the center of this story is vital in understanding how the war ultimately affects them. With a solid performance from Robert DeNiro, and an astounding turn from a young Christopher Walken, this is a heartbreaking picture with flashes of brutality and psychological horror that will forever stand in the pantheon of war pictures.

6) Full Metal Jacket – Stanley Kubrick’s journey through the hell of Vietnam does not start on the battlefield. Rather, it begins in boot camp, and takes an unabashed look at the psychological damage a hard-driving drill sergeant could have had on this poor young men who had no other choice but to saddle up, shave their head, and carry a rifle. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a truly haunting performance as Private Pyle, a performance that truly dominates the memory of most. What many forget is that Private Pyle’s decent into madness is but the first act of the film. The remainder revolves around Joker (Matthew Modine) and his platoon fighting their way out of a city in Vietnam. What begins as seemingly a pro-war film evolves into something much darker, more disturbing by the end.

5) Platoon – Oliver Stone borrowed from his own experiences in Vietnam, telling a semi-autobiographical tale about a young man who leaves college to fight in the war. Platoon is heavily an anti-war picture, but some great acting represents the two sides here. There is the pro-war side, led by Tom Berenger as a badly scarred – mentally and physically – Sgt. Barnes, a vicious monster who relishes in pain and bloodshed. And there is the antir-war side, led by a pot-smoking company man just making his way, Elias (Willem Dafoe). Both sides have their followers and the detractors, and the division is seemingly down the lines of hippies and bureaucrats in America.

4) The Longest Day – This is perhaps remembered as John Wayne’s best war picture, but the cast of stars here is unsurpassed by any other film. Telling the story of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, The Longest Day stars Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Peter Lawford, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton… the list goes on. The Longest Day also looks at the conflict that day from both the German and American sides, an unprecedented idea at the time, and the action and battle scenes still hold up today thanks to the expansive cast of great talents.

3) Apocalypse Now – As much of an undoing of Francis Ford Coppola and the cast as it was an undoing of the idea of Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set against the backdrop of Southeast Asia. The performances here go beyond the screen; Martin Sheen as Captain Willard and Marlon Brando as the insane Colonel Kurtz hold a spot in our imagination as truly haunting, disturbed human beings whose destinies are seemingly foregone conclusions. Dealing not only with the horrors of war, but the horrors of humanity and of the dark places in the mind, Apocalypse Now transcends genre and indicts human existence more than it does any specific war.

2) The Thin Red Line – Depending on what day you catch me, Terrance Malick’s meditative war epic might be number one on my list. But today, it is a close number two. The Thin Red Line, much like The Longest Day, is littered with stars: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caveizel, Adrian Brody, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, to name a few. But what makes Malick’s vision so unique is the eye of Malick himself, the way he observes not only the gun battles or the horrors of war, but the nature in which these events unfold. Firebombs and bullets rip through not only people, but place as well. Malick has always been anxious to tie humanity in with nature, and doing it in the setting of the battle in the pacific lends to some beautiful photography.

1) Saving Private Ryan – No surprise here. What is a surprise, what is so amazing in its banality, is the Academy’s decision to reward Shakespeare in Love with Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s everlasting war masterpiece. No other picture, not even The Longest Day, has done justice to the chaos, the madness, the bloodshed that took place that day in June of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy. And the cast, from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon and all the way through, disappears into their roles here. These actors look and feel and are textured as soldiers in World War II. Dialogue is evenly distributed between battle sequences throughout that are epic in each their own way. While the narrative drive is specific, the larger scope of the picture is all encompassing, and an unforgettable experience.

SHOUTOUTS: To Patton and The Bridge on the River Kwai, to great war films that I just couldn't find a spot to fit in.