Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2014)

9. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan is a high-minded filmmaker. His early noirs were psychologically complex and used unconventional dramatic devices and non-linear storytelling to add extra layers to his films. His Batman trilogy elevated the entire superhero genre, turning guys in spandex into high art and taking comic book movies to unprecedented levels of critical acclaim and popular success. “Inception” was simultaneously the most conceptually complex heist flick ever made and an epic set entirely inside the human mind. For his next trick, the director looked to re-popularize “hard” science fiction, a genre that went out of popularity in the early seventies. While “Interstellar” has not been a phenomenon on the level of “The Dark Knight” or “Inception,” it’s still been a hit internationally. Nolan continues to be the rarest of creatures: An intellectual and a hit maker, a guy who makes complex, challenging films that are also really popular and make lots of money.

"Interstellar" is set in a near future where an unnamed ecological disaster has plunged Earth into chaos. A dust bowl grips the planet, eliminating all crops except for corn. Humanity is facing extinction. Cooper, a widower, former aero-space pilot, and current corn farmer, lives an unsatisfied life. He fears that mankind is focusing too much on survival and dismissing dreams of reaching the stars. A strange gravitational phenomena in his precocious daughter’s bedroom leads him to a secret base in the mountains. The remnants of NASA, hidden from the public, prepare a dangerous mission, launching astronauts into a black hole outside of Saturn, in hopes that inhabitable planets will be on the other sides. After a highly qualified pilot walk into their lab, the scientists in charge have to offer Cooper the job. He has to make the hard decision to leave his family behind, to an uncertain future, to go on a mission he may never return from… And one that might save the human race.

“Interstellar’s” goal is nothing less then to make a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the new century. Like Kubrick’s epic, both films share a fascination with big ideas and plausible science. “Interstellar” never specifies what future year it is set in. However, it’s a world not far removed from our own. The film endeavors to portray interstellar space travel in as realistic a manner as possible. Ships spin through the stars, propelled by their own motion. Traveling from planet to planet takes years. Special attention is paid to relativity, to time passing different for those on Earth compared to those traveling across space. The focus on plausible science extends to the film’s hugely heady concepts. Space, gravity, robotics, black holes, eternity, time travel, other dimensions, and humanity’s place in the universe are just some of the ideas explored in “Interstellar.” It’s a film with no shortage of far out ideas and huge concepts.

Because “Interstellar” deals with such large conception, it’s a film packed with impressive spectacle. Rarely has the massiveness of space been better portrayed. Space is immense, black, and empty. No sound travels through space, giving the environment a sterile, cold feel. Yet there’s something wondrous about it too. The film fills its wide, wide frames with huge, impossibly big images. As the character approaches Saturn, the ship seems tiny in front of the massive, orange planet. This is only the film’s first, unforgettable image. The second comes when the crew nears the worm hole. When shown in previous films, black holes are always portrayed as a sucking rabbit’s hole in space, a tunnel leading down deeper. “Interstellar,” instead, shows the black hole as a spherical shape, a reflective object in the vastness of space. The space ship entering the worm hole, infinite space being reflected above and below, all the cosmos spiraling around them, is an indelible image. These are fantastic images, unlike any other ever put on cinema before.

For all its high-minded ideas, “Interstellar” is also an adventure film. It contains good old fashion thrills too. After breaching the worm hole, the astronauts first land on a dank, watery planet. The entire world appears to be covered with water yet it usually floats tepidly at ankle level. Until, the characters notice too late, that the mountains in the distance aren’t mountains. They’re waves. This leads to the action high-light of “Interstellar.” Nolan’s camera places the viewer in the cockpits of the space ship. The sound design rumbles, giving the viewer a great idea of how dangerous the situation is. The film shakes and stutters, carrying every rough bump and shutter through the theater. On the water planet, a massive wave barrels down on the astronauts. Barely, they escape its wake, rushing up the side of the water, the ship’s fins splashing across the surface. It’s an intense moment.

For all the wonder the film assigns space travel, it never understates the danger of the mission. “Interstellar” is incredibly grim at times as well. The situation on Earth seems hopeless. Apocalyptic dust storms tear through the countryside, blotting out windows and busting into homes. How grave the situation is must be stated clearly, to give the film’s mission even more resonance. That grimness continues into the middle section. The conditions on Earth grow worst. Families flee their homes and towns, desperately looking for safety anywhere. Meanwhile, in space, Cooper and his team touch down on the film’s second alien world. This one is inhospitably cold. So cold, in fact, that the clouds are frozen. The space ship navigates huge frozen expanses of ice. The surface isn’t any more greeting. The ground is grey, rough, and extends past the horizon. The characters walk across stone bridges, above more grey, unwelcoming ground. The images are stunning in their hugeness. Yet this is not a planet we’d ever like to visit. It’s no mistake that “Interstellar’s” darkest moments take place on this hellish, frozen ice world.

Nolan has been accused in the past of being cold, of uninterested in the trials of its human characters. It’s not entirely inaccurate to say he’s a director more interested in ideas then people. “Interstellar” is obviously emulating the works of Kubrick, who could be accused of many of the same flaws. This movie, in particularly, is modeled after “2001,” which was perhaps Kubrick’s coldest, most scientific film. However, the Nolan brothers smartly provide an emotional heart into the crazy, huge world of “Interstellar.” Beyond its massive ideas, this is a movie about family. The early scenes focuses heavily on Cooper’s relationship with his kids. Son Tom is more practical and seems content with his future of being a farmer. Daughter Murphy, however, follows in her father’s footstep, of being scientifically minded, of wanting to solve the mysteries of the universe. Before leaving for space, Cooper has to assure his daughter that he’ll return someday. He holds her as she cries on her bed, uncertain of his return. It’s not treacle, the emotions instead being honestly earned. The film frames its epic story not in terms of Cooper saving humanity. Instead, his goal is to return to his kids, to ensure a future for his children. It roots a very big story in something personal, small, and understandable.

Of the many reoccurring themes in “Interstellar,” a case can be made that the enduring power of love is its most important. At the halfway point, Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand assures everyone that love is a constant. That we love people who are dead or gone, that it transcends time and space. That’s a potentially gooey, overly sentimental expression. However, “Interstellar” is practical in its application. The downsides of the theory of relativity are rarely explored in science fiction, if they’re acknowledged at all. “Interstellar” builds most of its conflict around the idea. While Cooper and the others are exploring space, the clock is always ticking back home. Hours on the other side of the worm hole are years back home. While Cooper is gone trying to save his family, his family is growing up without him. The film brilliantly illustrates this by having the crew receive scrambled, far-off messages from Earth. Within minutes, on a fuzzy monitor screen, Cooper watches his kids grow up. He watches his son fall in love, get married, have his first child, and loose that child to the harsh realities of a declining planet. How this makes Cooper feel isn’t expressed through words. Instead, the camera focuses on his face as he weeps. Along with its big ideas, the screenplay reaches for big emotions too. By approaching those emotions sensitively, they never feel cheap or manipulative.

In the final hour, these twin themes of exploration and the power of love intermingle. “Interstellar” saves its most far-out ideas for its finale. Family and love prove to be the answer to the film’s biggest concerns. Throughout the film, references are dropped to fifth dimensional beings, entities so advance that time is a physical concept to them. This promise is paid off at the climax. The film illustrates what time as a place might look like. It’s another impressive image in a film full of them, a sprawling, unending cavern of time. Without spoiling too much, here the film comes full circle. The tiny concerns of a family breaking apart are connected with the fate of the human race and our potential as a species. Amazingly, “Interstellar” does not stop there. Instead, it travels further ahead, showing how mankind might survive the problems of the future. The grimness of the first act builds towards unbridled optimism. Love connects everything. The film ends on a note of exploration and closure.

Further anchoring such a conceptually advanced film is a sturdy cast. We are knee-deep in the McConaissance. Matthew McConaughey’s graduation from shirtless pop culture punchline to Academy Award-winning actor is well established by now. Nolan cast the man for his all-American persona. McConaughey plays a scientist but not as a stuffy egghead. Instead, Cooper is an adventurer and a dreamer, another way to make the film’s huge ideas more accessible to the common folk. The supporting cast is full of Nolan regulars doing good work. Anne Hathaway plays Brand, a serious scientist who, unexpectedly, masks a deeply feeling heart. It’s a clichĂ© by now, especially since her undeserved Oscar-winning turn in “Les Miserables,” that Hathway makes the world cry when she cries. But, hey, it works. She’s an actress capable of summoning up great emotion and passing it on to the viewer. 

“Interstellar’s” supporting cast features smaller but equally strong performances. I left the film a fan of Mackenzie Foy, the actress who plays Murphy as a young girl. She’s a powerful performer with an innate likability. Hopefully, she has a rich career ahead of her. Jessica Chastain plays Murphy as an adult. It’s the harder part, as the adult Murphy has been hardened by disappointment and sadness. However, Chastain brings her own strengths to the role. Watching her regain hope is one of the biggest joys of the film. Underrated actors like Wes Bently and Topher Grace do their best work in years here, finally given parts worthy of their talent.

And one of the biggest surprises of the film is its robots. The robots aren’t much more then abstract shapes. Their resemblance to “2001’s” monoliths was no mistake, I’m sure. Yet those simple rectangular shapes prove surprisingly dynamic. The robots unfold in multiple ways. They waddle back and forth, stiff legs moving mechanically around. Spindly arms unfold from the blocks, reaching for switches and controls. As stiff as they appear, the robots can move surprisingly fast. Another scene from the movie I won’t soon forget is one of its automatons cartwheeling across the surface of the water planet. Fantastically, the robots have a personality. They’re programmed with attributes like humor and honesty. Bill Irwin and Josh Stewert voice TARS and CASE, the two robots most featured in the film. TARS proves rather lovable. He has a quiet sense of humor and, more importantly, drives the plot several times. The finale would not be as affecting without TARS’ warm, comforting voice.

“Interstellar” is not flawless. A surprise appearance from Matt Damon is the film’s biggest problem. Damon’s performance is fine. Instead, the character’s role is more problematic. In the middle of a huge epic about many complex ideas, “Interstellar” pauses for more routine elements. The movie attempts to link the subplot of a lying, murderous scientist desperate to return home with the film’s reoccurring theme of man’s drive to survive. Instead, it seems a bit like a lesser film interceding on a more cerebral story. A fist fight between two guys in clunky space suits will not change the opinion that Christopher Nolan is a director that doesn’t know how to film action scenes. The guy can pace and set-up a thrilling sequence fantastically. Yet the grittier business of two people slugging it out appears beyond his grasp.

I’ve also heard some complaints about the film’s sound mix. It is, indeed, sometimes deafening, blotting out even the dialogue. Nolan says its intentional and I’m inclined to agree with him. Dialogue being overshadowed by the booming sounds of the universe fits into the film’s cosmic ideas. It also doesn’t happen very often, preventing it from becoming tedious. It helps that the film features the best Hans Zimmer score in years. While on the water planet, the film emphasizes that an hour down there is a year back on Earth. The score, meanwhile, simulates a ticking clock, never letting the viewer forget what is at stake here. Zimmer’s deafening, throttling bass frequently gives way to sorrowful or lovely melodies. Compared to his thudding work on the Batman films, it’s like an entirely different composer made this elegant, longing, exciting score.

As in “Inception,” Christopher Nolan has managed to build a hugely compelling film out of complex, difficult to digest ideas. However, “Inception” was more about narrative juggling. It took big ideas into the smallest place, the human mind. “Interstellar,” meanwhile, plums deeper ideas on a far more cosmic scale, spreading huge concepts across the biggest place known to man, outer space. The film packs in far more “wow” moments then any other mainstream Hollywood film in recent memory. It’s a great Christopher Nolan film, a great science fiction, a great space epic, and a great movie, period. [Grade: A]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2014)

6. Horns

Alexandre Aja’s careers has had its ups and downs. He burst onto the scene with “High Tension,” one of the films that helped defined the new wave of French horror in the two-thousands and won over horror fans from all around the world. After coming to America, he became known as a remake specialist, directing three horror remakes in a row. Though only one of those was a dud, Aja perhaps bristled against that reputation. He turned down remakes of “Pet Sematary” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night” before trying to kick-start an as-yet unrealized live-action version of “Cobra the Space-Pirate.” After three years, the director finally returned with “Horns,” the first film based on a novel by Joe Hill. Despite being from a book by the son of Stephen King, “Horns” is something of a departure for Aja. It’s more dark fantasy then pure horror. It also stars a major actor, Daniel Radcliffe, someone else looking to break pop culture preconceptions.

Ig Perrish, a DJ and local celebrity of minor renown in his small town of Gideon, is going through a personal hell. His angelic girlfriend, beloved by everyone around him, has been murdered and Ig is widely assumed of being the killer. He isn’t. The grief of loosing his beloved is hard enough. The constant badgering and suspicion is driving him crazy. After a particularly rough night, Ig awakens with a pair of satyr-like horns growing from his forehead. When staring directly at the horns, people confess their deepest secrets to Ig or act on their darkest desires before forgetting the events all together. Though he’s disturbed by this development at first, Ig quickly begins to use his newfound abilities to uncover his girlfriend’s true killer. As he searches for the devil in others, his own devilish nature grows.

After being Harry Potter for the first decade of his career, Daniel Radcliffe probably could have retired from acting altogether or pursued easy roles in similar big budget summer flicks. Instead, Radcliffe has used his star power to get dark, off-beat projects made. After an infamous stage revival of “Equus,” “The Woman in Black,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” (but before a new version of “Frankenstein” where he’ll play Igor) ”Horns” fits right in with Radcliffe’s new career direction. Radcliffe’s performance winds up being one of the most solid elements of the sometimes-rickety film. Performing with a convincing American accent, Radcliffe wrings every ounce of emotion he can out of the occasionally stiff dialogue. There’s a raw, honest quality to his work here. A few times, he delivers his lines, on the verge of tears, earning the audience’s investment. Radcliffe’s soul-barring performance is the best thing about the film and, just when it threatens to fall apart, he holds it together.

The first half of “Horns” revolves around the revealing of secrets and the fulfillment of base desires. These themes and concepts could have been used to explore deeper ideas about society and people. Instead, the film uses Ig’s powers to create moments of broad comedy. This, actually, works out fine. The movie is frequently hilarious in these early scenes. Ig becomes the straight man to everyone around him acting like loonies. A doctor and his comely assistant say grossly inappropriately things before mating like bunnies in the operating room. The secretary and the mother of a screaming daughter in the waiting room swear at each other. Patrons of the local bar commit arson and expose themselves. A pair of overly macho cops nonchalantly confess their homoerotic desires for one another. Realizing he has the ability to influence people, Ig gets a group of bottom-feeding reporters, constantly following him, to beat the shit out of each other. It’s funny in a dark way and honest too. “Horns” obviously couldn’t have continued down this path forever but I sort of wish it did.

In time, the film has to address the girlfriend’s death and the identity of her killer. In its middle chapter, “Horns” becomes an atypical murder mystery. Ig uses his abilities to gather clues. He discovers that a waitress lied about his behavior on the night of the murder. He learns that his drug addict brother was the last person to see Merrin alive. Knowing these things, Ig decides to use his new abilities to punish those that have wronged him. When Ig gives into his devilish urges the movie, none too subtly, has him picking up a pitchfork and giving him a sway over snakes. During these trashier moments, “Horns” begins to feel more like the horror movies Alexandre Aja has made in the past. It’s less interesting then the dark comedy but isn’t without its positive attributes. The waitress being bitten by a horde of snakes in her car is certainly a memorable moment. You could see the roots of a solid revenge thriller in “Horns” if it had committed to one tone.

The script takes a number of liberties with Joe Hill’s novel, most of them for the best. However, like the book, the movie makes extensive use of flashbacks. The first extended flashback goes back to Ig’s childhood, exploring when he first met Merrin, the love of his life, and a few other friends for life. This first sequence works fairly well. The cast of kids are talented and all resemble their adult counterparts. The way Merrin and Ig meet, involving a cross necklace and Morse code in church, is cute without being too gimmicky. An anecdote involving a cheery bomb pays off fairly way. The centerpiece of this sequence has Ig, in his underwear, riding a shopping cart off a ramp, into the logging lake, and nearly dying.

However, “Horns” relies too much on flashbacks. Each one is long enough that you honestly forget what is happening in the story’s present. The character of Merrin, whose death motivates the entire plot, is seen only in flashback. She is presented as so angelic that everyone around her loves her immediately. Ig’s parents literally loved their potential daughter-in-law more then their own son. She is essentially more of a plot device then in a real character. Her goodness has to be so overwhelming as to completely remove any other character trait. A few of the other flashbacks few extraneous, presenting more detail then is necessary to the story. It begins to affect the pacing after a while.

For its flaws, “Horns” functions fairly well as both a dark comedy and a demonic-tinged thriller… Up until the last half-hour. Ig discovers who kills his girlfriend and confronts her, the story coming to a logical ending point. Instead of finishing up there, the movie continues for another thirty minutes. The murderer stops acting like a reasonable human being and begins acting like a psychotic, cartoon supervillain. Ig puts on Merrin’s cross necklace, his wounds healing instantly, another example of the film’s heavy-handed symbolism. It gets worst. Hero and villains meet again. All the good will “Horns” builds up so far is squandered at this point. Ig trades in his devil horns for angel wings that then burst into flames, causing him to transform into a full blown demon. The effects are heavy-handed. The story concluding with a big fight scene is disappointing. The resolution is hopelessly cheesy too, even throwing in the “horny” pun the movie was probably resisting the entire time. If you cut “Horns” off at the 90 minute mark, you’d be left with a more satisfying film.

In addition to Radcliffe’s strong central performance, “Horns” features a cast full of great character actors. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, who hasn’t had a role this good since “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” both have plum roles as Ig’s parents. Each one gets a solid monologue to themselves. Joe Anderson and Kelli Garner both play desperate characters and their desperate qualities are increased by Ig’s powers. Juno Temple only has to be angelic and flawless as Merrin and, luckily, Temple is more then capable of that. David Morse is another juicy supporting player as her angry, grieving father. My favorite performance in the film belongs to Heather Graham. As a frequently underutilized and unappreciated actress, Graham is given an oppretunity to dig into some prime dialogue here. As the lying, sleazy waitress, she indulges in some nasty, over-the-top behavior. It’s the most alive I’ve seen Graham in years. It’s unlikely to lead to better parts but I am glad to see her reinventing herself as a character actress in tighter parts.

Alexandre Aja’s style usually shows in his approach to violence. Visceral, intense attack scenes, played for maximum horror, is his primary director’s trademark.”Horns” has him in a expressive mode. An early scene has the perspective flipping upside, throwing the audience off-guard. Once Ig is on the path of revenge, he tracks down his no-good brother and forces him to OD on his extensive drug collection. An acid trip ensues which, possibly, pushes the film’s style too far. The twitchy, exaggerated close-ups on Daniel Radcliffe’s face was definitely not a thing we needed. Aja can’t resist throwing in some crazy gore. “Horns” features a stunningly gory exploding head, which comes out of nowhere but definitely makes an impression.

The crappy last act and simplistic characters decisions are symptoms of “Horns’” biggest problem. The whole film is hassled by an overly didactic tone. This is evident from the beginning, literally. As soon as the film begins, we are greeted with an unnecessary voiceover that lazily explains the themes of the story. Joe Hill’s dialogue works fine on the page but, coming out of actors’ mouth, often come off as overdone and too literal. The musical choices are often a little too-on-the-nose as well. Did “Personal Jesus” have to start up right as Ig manipulate a group of people into a fist fight? “Horns,” as a movie, probably needed a smoother screenplay and more naturalistic dialogue.

“Horns” is uneven but does contain plenty of things I like, Radcliffe’s performance and a intriguing and funny first half chief among them. It’s an interesting step forward for Aja, showing his interest evolving in different direction. His next film, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” is outside the horror genre too and sounds similarly themed to this one. Hopefully that film avoids the narrative bumps and choppy writing of this one. “Horns” comes very close to being satisfying but just misses the mark. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2014)

53. Big Hero 6

When Disney bought Marvel Comics whole sale a few years back, the fan community’s reaction was mixed. The prevailing theory, which has since proven true, was that this would be a mutually beneficial partnership for both companies. Disney would gain access to perennially popular and iconic (and profitable) characters. Marvel, meanwhile, would be backed by the Disney merchandising army and wide-reaching distribution. At the time though, some fans were less enthusiastic. Some wondered what part of our collective childhoods Disney would snatch up next. Others voiced an ultimately unfounded concern that the Mouse Factory would “Disney-fy” the Marvel properties. That thought process has finally blossomed with the fifty-third (Or fifty-fourth, if you think “Dinosaur” counts) Disney Animated Feature. “Big Hero 6” is the “Disney-fication” of a Marvel property in the best way imaginable.

“Big Hero 6” is very loosely adapted from a Marvel comic so obscure the company has never felt the need to collect the team’s original mini-series. By picking a title under-loved and unknown even to hardcore comic nerds, Disney probably preemptively defused any fan boy scrutiny. It also allowed them to do anything they want with the characters. Disney’s “Big Hero 6” is about Hiro, a boy genius and robotics expert, who has a very close relationship with his older brother, Tadashi. While Hiro is initially interested in illegal robot fights, Tadashi introduces him to his college friends, each science geniuses in their own rights, each perfecting high-tech devices. Won over, the boy quickly devises a collection of advanced nanobots. On the same night, Tadashi perishes in a tragic fire at the college. Several months later, Hiro rediscovers Baymax, the lovable medical robot Tadashi invented. Realizing that a mysterious villain is using his nanobots for unsavory ends, Hiro outfits the cuddly Baymax with battle armor and turns the rest of his brother’s collages into high-tech superheroes.

“Big Hero 6” essentially combines the best qualities of Marvel and Disney into one fantastically entertaining work. During a time when some studios are doubling down on dark and gritty superhero stories, “Big Hero 6” is a joyously fun, family friendly, comic book yarn of a film. The film is frequently hilarious, from Baymax’s deadpan delivery of dialogue to Fred’s enthusiastic embrace of his comic book destiny. The film explores the possibilities of a comic book universe. It throws a bunch of crazy ideas at the audience. Robots, nanotechnology, laser beams, floating magnetic wheels, advanced polymers, teleportation, and even some references to kaiju movies are all tossed at the audience. “Big Hero 6” blends these divergent elements together seamlessly and assumes the audience is smart enough to get all of it. While the movie is an origin story and does pause for some brief superhero angst, it is mostly concerned with the limitless possibilities of being a superhero presents.

It also helps that “Big Hero 6” takes place in a fully formed fictional world. Breaking the film off from the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe allowed the film’s producer to create a more cartoonish and stylized world. The film is set in the city of San Fransokyo, which is exactly what it sounds like. The blending of the two iconic cities is made obvious in the opening shot. The camera pans over the city’s bay, passing a version of the Golden Gate Bridge made out of Shinto temple gates. The buildings of the hillside city are painted with oni and Japanese kanji. Hiro’s bedroom is decorated with Japanese robot toys, at least one of which heavily resembles Mazinger Z. The trolly cars and polished buildings represent California while the cultural identity is more like that of Japan. But San Fransokyo is also a city of the future. It’s close enough to our own time that the buildings, fashion, and vehicles resemble those of today. Yet little touches characterize the sci-fi setting. Airborne wind turbines float above the city, Hiro and Baymax resting upon one during a key scene. Robotics are a common enough feature that people don’t find the sight of Baymax waddling down the street unusual at all. Without drawling too much attention to it, “Big Hero 6” creates a fun, exciting world for its characters to run around in.

Baymax is undoubtedly the MVP of “Big Hero 6,” a fact Disney surely recognized before slapping the cute, cuddly robot’s face on all the posters. Inspired by real health care robotics technology, Baymax doesn’t readily resemble any of pop culture’s previous robots. Inside of hard and mechanical, he’s soft and fluid. He inflates like a balloon, his whole body resembling a fluffy marshmallow. His cute, simple face allows for unlimited expression while also being simple enough that a little kid could draw it. He slightly resembles a classic iPod and, in a cute nod to this, the robot charges by simply standing in a docking bay. While in battle mode, Baymax more closely resembles a classic Japanese fighting robot, with his tiny head, stubby legs, robust body, rocket fist, and elegant wings. Smartly, the secondary design doesn’t disguise Baymax’s adorable center. Underneath the slick, red armor, Baymax is still his cuddly self. The robot has a funny physicality too. His legs rub together, squeaking, as he walks. One moment, he flips overhead, his tiny feet kicking in the air. An incredible pratfall has the robot reaching for a step and landing on his head instead. None of this would have been possible without Scott Adsit’s impressive vocal performance. Adsit’s deadpan delivery and low-key line reading often makes unextraordinary lines uproariously funny. While appropriately robotic, Adsit brings a real warmth to the character. The audience laughs at Baymax’s antics but they love him too. I have no doubt that Disney is going to sell a crap ton of plushes of the cutesy character.

Despite Baymax obviously stealing the show, “Big Hero 6” is Hiro’s story. His arc is fairly typical, one of grief giving way to revenge giving way to a deeper maturity. The character is likeable enough though, Hiro having a proper sense of wonder at what happens. His quick wit and problem solving abilities makes him a properly enjoyable protagonist. The scenes of Hiro and Baymax sleuthing out a mystery makes me wonder if “Big Hero 6” could have been a wacky take on the bog adventurer genre. His relationship with Tadashi is touching if not horribly unique. The two are orphans, like a lot of other Disney characters, and Hiro loosing Tadashi seems to rub it in a little too much. The chemistry between Ryan Potter and Daniel Henney mostly covers up any of these rough patches.

The rest of the Big Heroes are less distinct but equally lovable. My favorite is probably Fred. Unlike his teammates, Fred isn’t a scientific genius but instead an enthusiastic fanboy of superheroes, anime, and giant monster movies. His apartment is filled with artwork, action figures, and Super Sentai masks. This makes him the audience surrogate for all the nerds in the audience. Accordingly, he is outfitted with a fire-breathing kaiju suit. T.J. Miller’s performance is hilarious, milking maximum hilarity from each tossed-off line. GoGo Tomago, the team’s thrill seeker, is given a strong personality thanks to Jamie Chung’s vocal delivery. She’s a simple character, of few words, but dynamic and intriguing. The remaining members of the team, Honey Lemon and Wasabi, probably get the short stick. Wasabi, voiced by Damon Wayons Jr., is cautious and panicky, the one most concerned about the danger the heroes find themselves in. Genesis Rodriguez’ Honey is upbeat, energetic, and girly and nerdy in equal measures. They aren’t defined much beyond those characteristics. Better yet, though, the film sells the camaraderie among the team. My favorite moment has all five gathering around Baymax in an impromptu group hug.

As an animated action film, “Big Hero 6” is a blast as well. The film’s villain, unnamed in the film but referred to as Yokai in all the merchandise, has a dynamic gimmick. His army of black nanotechs create a black flood of stabbing or smashing objects. The good guys getting around these obstacles leads to a lot of fun. The best action sequence has the team confronting Yokai in his island base. Each hero gets to show-off their abilities against the bad guy. Fred leaps around and breaths fire, GoGo races around on her floating disks, Wasabi slashes through the villain’s weapons, while Honey attempts to block his attacks with her fancy foam bombs. The finale has the good guys rethinking their abilities, using creativity to stop the bad guy. Impressive visuals accompany the action. Hiro racing around the city on Baymax’s back is exciting, the world swooping around them. The final act has the two entering an another dimension, which is a spellbinding visual, creating a true sense of otherworldly beauty.

Once a viewer gives the emotional heart of “Big Hero 6” a good look, one realizes it’s a story about living through a loss and letting go of grief. After Tadashi’s death, Hiro is crestfallen. He didn’t have much to begin with and lost the person who meant the most to him. When Baymax reappears, Hiro is presented with a walking, talking example of his brother’s legacy. Baymax, meanwhile, is designed to heal. He repeats throughout the film that his purpose is to help Hiro work through his grief. In one of the film’s more syrupy moments, Hiro reprograms the harmless Baymax into a vessel of violence, consumed by his revenge. He immediately regrets this. The film justifies this moment with a touching moment where the robot presents Hiro with the last known recording of his brother, allowing Tadashi to communicate with his younger brother from beyond the grave. In time, it’s revealed that even the villain is motivated by the loss of a loved one, bringing things full circle. The last act of the film has Hiro literally letting go of his grief, accepting his loss and moving on pass it. Because this is Disney, and the savvy studio isn’t going to kill off the film’s most popular character, the Big Heroes are reunited by the end. “Big Heroes 6” earns this, I feel. It would have been too cruel to rob Hiro of all his friends.

The mystery of the villain’s true identity is fairly easy to figure out. A name actor is cast in a supporting role that would otherwise be a waste of his talent, so of course he’s the bad guy. Otherwise, “Big Hero 6” is speedy, funny, touching, exciting, and visually gorgeous. The characters are lovable while the film functions as a highly entertaining comic book adventure. It continues Disney’s current run of fantastic animated features. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 52: Night of the Demons

I didn't forget about you guys. If you're a regular follower of the blog, you probably notice that, after the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon concludes, I always take some time off. This short breaks are never planned. To be totally honest, I had wanted to get back in the swing of things on November 1st! Real life had other plans though. And, to be totally honest, after updating the blog daily for a month and a half, I was a bit tired of looking at a computer screen.

So tired, in fact, that I forgot to post the most recent episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show here. This actually went up on the 30th of October, making it an appropriate topic for Halloween. As promised, a number of the series I reviewed during the Six Weeks will be recycled for show topics. The first on the chopping block: Night of the Demons! Since it's the only other Halloween-themed horror franchise I can think of besides the obvious, both JD and I figured it would make a good seasonal show topic. We're also aware that it's a fairly niche topic, discussing a minor cult favorite, that won't appeal to most people. That's a risk we're willing to take.

Even though things sort of peaks around here during October, the year is not over yet! Last November, I filled in some blanks in my various Report Cards with a creatively entitled series called Catch-Up Week which, naturally, went on for seventeen days. I'm not doing that this year. However, I do intent to post some reviews of several new releases, some of them more new then others, that correspond to a number of directors or series I follow. I can't guarantee that this we come out daily but they will be coming over the next few days. Also, I hoping to squeeze in another Director's Report Card before December, and with it both Christmas and the end-of-the-year rush to see as much stuff as possible, rolls around. As always, I can't make any promises but these are the plans. See you soon.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Perfect pumpkin pyramid.

Halloween falling on a Friday this year messed up the holiday for a lot of people. For people who like to both go to parties and stay in and watch movies, it forced them to make a choice. In my small redneck town, and many others I suspect, trick or treating was postponed until November 1st. Why? Because a stupid high school football game was tonight. If a football game fell on Christmas, you’d move the fucking game, not the holiday. So I guess I’ll dress up and hand out candy tomorrow, on the day when the radio stations start playing the same seven Christmas songs on a 24-hour loop.

My humble Jack o'Lantern
This was frustrating but I wasn’t going to let it ruin my Halloween. I carved pumpkins, the ones plucked from my own garden. None of them got very big and, I’ll say, smaller pumpkins are trickier to carve. Those mothers are dense. Still, it was fun. I’ve been partaking of candy and seasonal beverages all day. And, of course, I’ve been watching horror movies. On special events like these, when the rest of the world doesn’t play along, you have to make your own traditions.

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985)

Ever since watching “A Garfield Christmas Special” last December, I’ve been interested in revisiting the fat cat’s corresponding Halloween special, originally aired as “Garfield in Disguise” but known as “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” ever since. While the Christmas special was one I had on tape as a kid, and watched incessantly, the Halloween special has never been a nostalgic favorite for me. Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure I ever saw “Garfield in Disguise” as a kid. If there was ever a day to revisit a Halloween special, today would be the day.

The half-hour one-off begins with Garfield snoozing soundly in his bed, as the tubby tabby is prone to. Awoken by an obnoxious announcement from Binky the Clown, the cat suddenly realizes its Halloween. Garfield has no interest in the holiday until, ever the glutton, he realizes it’s a night to load up on candy and sugary treats. Pillaging Jon’s attic for a cheap pirate costume, Garfield heads out with Odie, realizing the dog would get him a second bag of candy. While on the hunt for chocolate, the pets stumble into a local legend of ghostly pirates and hidden treasure.

Garfiled is a childhood favorite I have trouble justifying these days. Knowing now that Jim Davies invented the character to have as wide a demographic appeal as possible, you see what a blatant, pandering creation he is. His generic ‘tude, his affinity for napping and lasagna, his sarcastic call-backs to his owner’s cluelessness; all is extremely calculated. The fat cat’s reaction to Halloween is counter-wise to my own. He sees the day only as an excuse to get even fatter on candy. He has no respect for the lore, mystery, or feel of the day. Of course, Garfield learns his lesson but, because this is a kid’s show, he still goes home with a fat sack of candy. Kind of negates the moral, doesn’t it?

People do like “Garfield in Disguise” though. It even won an Emmy! A recent interview revealed that the special was made with a far more noble goal in mind then most usual “Garfield” merchandise: To scare the shit out of kids. On their search for candy, the two pets climb onto a boat and float over to a strange house. There, an old man tells them a story. In a probably unintentional reference to “The Fog,” he talks about how a hundred years ago, a group of pirates buried their loot here before passing on. And now, their spirits will return. The old man flees, stealing the animal’s boat. (One of the episode’s few truly funny gags.) The two hide, convinced there aren’t any ghosts… Until the spectral pirates pull themselves from their watery graves. They spin around the room, spooking the critters, before grabbing their gold and leaving. The animation here is the best in the special, the ghost moving in a very fluid manner. It’s never scary, not to an adult’s eyes, but it is a little spooky, enough so to elevate the entire special.

“Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” is short on laughs. Jon plays a very small role in the story, meaning there’s not much interaction between the pet and his owner, the main source of humor in “A Garfield Christmas Special.” Lorenzo Music’s spectacularly dry delivery helps a lot though. The special is badly hampered by a number of distracting, forgettable musical numbers. The Lou Rawls opening number isn’t too bad and I’ll admit to liking the animation during Garfield’s “What Should I Be” song. However, the rest of the songs are forgettable, if not out right bad. They really drag down the pacing, especially in the first half of the special.

Really, if it wasn’t for the ghost pirates, I don’t think anyone would remember “Garfield in Disguise” at all. The musical style wasn’t a good approach for a series built around a character making pithy comebacks. Still, I bet this made an impression on young viewers. I, personally, remember the vampire episode of “Garfield and Friends” more. Maybe I should track down a copy of that for next Halloween. [5/10]

The Tingler (1959)

Another way in which this year’s Six Weeks of Halloween has been deficient for me: Not enough Vincent Price! And not a single William Castle movie. Price has long been the face of Halloween for me and “The Tingler,” which so perfectly combines many of the things I love about the genre, is just the right movie for October 31st. The movie is probably best remembered today for the outrageous gimmick Castle designed for it. When the Tingler is freed in a movie theater during the film, buzzers in random seats throughout the theater (along with a few likely plants) would activate, roughly simulating the creature’s bite. Beyond its fantastic gimmick, “The Tingler” remains one of William Castle’s best films.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist studying the effect fear has on the human body. While autopsying bodies over the years, he’s noticed that people who have died in intense fear frequently have cracked spines. He and his science partner, the fiancĂ© of his wife’s much younger sister, have named the sensation the Tingler. The only thing known to dilute the sensation is the act of screaming. A friend of Chapin, the owner of a silent theater, murders his deaf-mute wife by frightening her to death. This provides Warren with a fresh specimen of the Tingler, which is actually a physical creature that grows on the spine when humans are frightened. It’s only a matter of time before the crawling creature gets loose, paralyzing people with its vice-like jaws.

“The Tingler” might be the perfect horror movie for 1959, the end of the classic era. It has aspects of the campy sci-fi monster movies that characterized the fifties. Simultaneously, its infidelity, murder, betrayal, moral ambiguity, and on-screen acid trip points to the directions horror would evolve in during the next decade. The central premise of “The Tingler” is patently absurd. That a nasty centipede-y critter grows on our spines when we’re scared, and that only screaming can control it, is the kind of goofy 1950s movie-science that doesn’t even pretend to have a basis in reality. Once the Tingler is revealed on-screen, it’s a floppy rubber prop. The creature is tugged around on a frequently-visible fishing wire and never appears convincingly alive. The Tingler is just small enough that the movie has to cook up incidents where it can be a threat. The critter attacks Price while he sleeps or surprises people in a dark movie theater. The movie’s premise is fun in the kind of improbable way that only flicks from this era can pull off.

Despite a set-up that can best be described as “lovably silly,” “The Tingler” does feature some legitimately creepy moments. The movie is notable for containing the first acid trip ever put to film. Hoping to experience true fear, Chapin takes an experimental drug his young college gives him. Though never identified as such, Price just dropped acid. And he’s on a very bad trip. Though Price’s sweaty, shouting performance is hammy, the sequence is effective. The best moment is when he stumbles into the lab skeleton and really starts to freak out. As stand-out as that scene is, “The Tingler” features an even better bad trip of sorts. While alone in her room, the doors and windows slam shut around the theater owner’s deaf-mute wife. A figure rises from the bed, obscured by the sheet. She pulls the sheet away, revealing a hideous deformed man. Hairy hands reach through windows, tossing axes. The deaf-mute woman, unable to scream, has to express her terror facially. The sequence, aside from music, is silent, providing an eerie feel to the potentially hokey effects. The scene climaxes when Martha enters the bathroom. The film is in black-and-white except for this moment, when bright red blood flows from the sink and fills the bathtub. A severed arm, dripping with blood, beckons from the tub. The scene is surprisingly freaky and the movie never surpasses it.

Another interesting aspect to “The Tingler” is Price’s character. Unlike his previous collaboration with Castle, Price plays the hero of “The Tingler.” Chapin discovers the Tingler, learns how to stop it, and helps those around him. He’s a generally good guy. Save for one attribute. Chapin is so devoted to science that he has alienated his philandering wife. Every night, she is out with a different man and makes no secret of this. She’s also the owner of the family fortune. She refuses to allow her sister to marry Warren’s poor lab assistant too. Midway through the film, Chapin pulls a revolver on his wife, seemingly having had enough. He interrogates the woman, locks her in his lab, and pulls the trigger. Quickly, the film reveals that the gun was filled with blanks and all of this was a gambit designed to merely frighten her. Still, it makes you question Chapin’s motive. Enough that you wonder if he intentionally drugs Martha with LSD, leading to her death, though the film never confirms this. It’s a good part for the ever-likable Price and shows off his range some.

My favorite moment in “The Tingler” is not the scariest one. However, it might be the most interesting. A deaf-mute woman running a silent movie theater is a nice touch to begin with. It also, rather blatantly, sets up the finale. The Tingler is left in the apartment above the theater when, accidentally, it’s let loose. The creature waddles its way into the auditorium, biting a woman on the leg. The film focuses on the movie playing on-screen in the theater. The screen goes black. Price’s voice comes over the loud speaker, assuring the audience there’s nothing to be afraid of. The Tingler then wiggles into the projection booth, crawling over the projector. Again, Castle’s camera focus on the theatrical screen. The film breaks, the silhouette of the Tingler squirming across the screen. Price speaks again, instructing us to scream for our lives. Imagine watching this in a theater in 1959. Castle’s “Percepto” gimmick of joy-buzzer infused seats was almost unnecessary. In this moment, the movie brilliantly breaks the fourth wall. The Tingler is suddenly in the theater, your theater, and could attack anyway. This makes it clear how smart Castle was, how aware he was of the power of the screen and the affect it has on the audience. Way before “The Blair Witch Project” convinced people it was real, William Castle had perfected the art of breaking fiction’s promise of safety.

“The Tingler” is a blast, from beginning to end. It’s a good time for fans of Price and Castle. Anyone who loves fifties monster movies should have already seen it. More importantly, the movie has some really interesting thoughts about the audience’s relationship with the screen. The movie scared the crap out of people in 1959. It probably wouldn’t do the same today but I wonder if a similar experiment could be successful under different conditions. Are audiences too sophisticated to be fooled again? Or can would the Tingler’s bite still make them scream, scream for their lives? [8/10]

Island of Terror (1966)

“Island of Terror” is a film I’ve heard about for quite some time. It was one of the few pairings of director Terence Fisher and leading man Peter Cushing to be made outside Hammer Studios. Heck, it wasn’t even an Amicus production! After reading about the film on the AV Club’s annual horror marathon list, my curiosity ran too high. It was time to track down a copy of “Island of Terror” and give it a watch. (Also, I wanted a transitional film from the quint horror of “The Tingler” to the nastier gore of the next movie I planned to watch tonight. This seemed to fit the bill.)

Set on Petrie’s Island, a tiny island off the coast of Ireland, “Island of Terror” begins when strange dead bodies begin to disrupt the small community. If you could call them “bodies.” They’re nothing but piles of flesh, their bones removed and sucked dry of their fluids. Three scientists, two old pros and a young hot shot (and his girlfriend, who insisted on coming along), fly in to investigate. They soon discover the Silicates, marrow-sucking organisms accidentally created in a bid to end cancer. Most frighteningly, the Silicates divide like cells hourly. Unless they’re stopped soon, the monsters will devour everyone on the island. Unfortunately, the Silicates are near impossible to kill.

Those nasty monsters are, no doubt, the most memorable thing about “Island of Terror.” They’re not quite like any other monster put to screen, vampiric critters half-way between the Blob and the Triffids. The Silicates are bright green, resembling moss, but move around like giant amoebas. The movie skirts against comedy, since the Silicates are so slow-moving, that they should be easy to avoid. The script has to give them impenetrable armor and a quickly multiplying life cycle to make them creditable threats. (Also, they appear to bleed chicken noodle soup whenever they divide.) However, the method in which the Silicates devour their victims is truly nightmarish. Long tentacles, topped off with barbed suckers, emerges from their bodies. The appendages need only grasp an arm or leg before they start to feed. With an awful sound that best resembles a straw sucking at the bottom of a milk shake, they suck their victims dry. The deflated, bloody bodies left behind are not a pretty sight. The process seems agonizingly painful. As far as horror movie deaths go, having my innards slowly sucked out by slimy monsters would definitely be the one I’d least like to experience.

The Silicates are convincing special effects, even if they slightly resemble vacuum cleaners. The movie makes the most of the slimy monsters. An early attack scene has a major character falling to the creature’s grasp, the man being sucked dry just off-screen. A suspenseful moment has Peter Cushing’s arm being snared. Writhing in agony, his friend has to cut his arm off to save him. Though the act is kept off-screen, I sure didn’t expect the movie to go there. The finale has all the island’s survivors gathered in a tavern. The Silicates fight their way in, their tentacles dragging across the glass, and falling through the overhead windows onto unsuspecting victims. It’s a surprisingly tense scene, recalling “Night of the Living Dead” and other siege pictures. It’s a bit of a bummer when the heroes crazy plan begins to work, the Silicates expiring just in time. That feels a little like a cheat.

“Island of Terror’ also boasts a likable cast of characters. Peter Cushing is as solid as ever. Like his Van Helsing, he remains scientific and focused even in the face of terror. After he looses his hand near the end, I like his anecdote about phantom pain. Edward Judd plays Dr. David West. His introduction reveals this as a movie from 1966. He is seen in the morning with Toni, a beautiful young woman who is wearing nothing but an oversized T-shirt. The two trade some double entendre laced dialogue before the other scientists walk in, interrupting the love-making that surely was about to happen. A funny dialogue exchange happens, before the quartet gets on a plane, where Toni makes it clear she intends to finish what she started. Carole Grey is lovely to look at in the part and is quite a bit more likable then your usual screaming damsel. The movie also loads its supporting cast with likable Irish actors, their accents adding a lot of color to film.

“Island of Terror” also ends on a chilling note. A Japanese scientist, miles away from where the rest of the film happened, enters a laboratory. From off-screen, we hear him scream, followed by the hellish sound of the Silicates feeding. Creepy. “Island of Terror” isn’t quite good enough to be a forgotten classic but the film does have unique monsters and a likable cast doing their thing. For people who have seen everything Hammer and Amicus have to offer, but want more of Fisher and Cushing working together, give it a look. [7/10]

The Burning (1981)

Hey man, it’s just not Halloween without a slasher flick. Last year, I watched “The Prowler,” my vote for best eighties slasher ever, at least outside the big franchises. That movie featured spectacular gore effects from Tom Savini. In 1981, the first wave of American slasher was still going strong, so Savini was busy. Like that film, he also contributed effects to “The Burning,” another flick dismissed by the mainstream as sleazy, cheesy trash but beloved and well-regarded by the hardcore retro-slasher crowd.

“The Burning” follows the slasher playbook fairly closely. It begins with a crime in the past. At a summer camp, the kids pull a prank on the surly groundskeeper Cropsy. The prank goes horribly wrong, resulting in Cropsy being burnt to a crisp. Five years later, the hideously deformed Cropsy gets out of the burn ward. Vengeance on his mind, he returns to the summer camp, seeking the same kids, who are now teenagers. His trusty hedge-clippers in hand, Cropsy goes to work slashing and cutting through anyone in his way, onward to his intended targets.

One of the things that add an extra layer to “The Burning” and makes it special is that the film is based on a real life urban legend. Like every summer camp eighties slasher flick, the movie is set in the Hudson River valley. In that area, at real summer camps, kids have been terrified for decades by the legend of the Cropsey Maniac. Though the details tend to vary from location to location, the consistency with Cropsy is that he’s in the forest, he’s mad, and he’ll kill anyone he catches. It’s a legend designed to keep kids in their cabin at night. With this in mind, “The Burning” is told like a camp fire story. (“Camp Fire” would have been a good alternate title for the movie.) The film acknowledges this connection by featuring a camp fire scene in which the story of Cropsy, as shown earlier in the movie, is told. It’s an effectively creepy moment, focused on the faces of the actors and the shadows around them. At the very end, the movie reprises it, suggesting that Cropsy may be dead but his legend will live on. “The Burning” isn’t even the only movie inspired by the Cropsy legend. The less-polished-but-nearly-as-good “Madman” from the next year built upon the same lore. (There was also that muddled documentary but we don’t talk about it.)

Something that elevates “The Burning” above the many other slashers that came before and after is its sense of location. Unlike most of the “Friday the 13th” flicks, this summer camp is in season. The kids and counselors mingle, their relationships being both friendly and antagonistic. The characters in “The Burning” aren’t much more defined then your usual slasher bait. Most of the guys, like bully Glazer or pushy Eddy, are jerks. The girls, like shy Sally or Karen, are mostly delineated by their (usually not very good) relationship with the guys. Only the horny nerds, like Jason Alexander’s Dave or Fisher Stevens’ Woodstock, are memorable. Instead, “The Burning” does a great job of capturing the summer camp experience. You can feel the sticky heat of the day and the refreshing coolness of the water. The forest is realistically dark and difficult to navigate. The rocks and near-by mill are caked with dust and grit. The relationship between the teens is realistic. Even jock Glazer gets a humanizing moment, after a humiliating session of sex with his girlfriend. Sure, the characters are more-or-less generic slasher bait. But they’re generic in a way that seems plausible.

For all its other positive attributes, what “The Burning” is truly remembered for is Savini’s incredible gore effects. The film shows that there are lots of ways to slash a teen with a pair of hedge-clippers. Cropsy opens the scissors, slashing throats length-ways. My favorite kill befalls Glazer. Cropsy stabs him through the throat with the blades, lifting him off the ground, carrying him towards a tree. The camera focuses on his face as he coughs blood, sputtering and dying. The attack scenes are awfully brutal too, the victims struggling against Cropsy before he claims their lives. The gory peak of the film is the famous raft sequence. A group of campers approach an abandoned canoe. The scene drags out, slowly building suspense as the kids near their inevitable fate. Cropsy leaps from the canoe, clippers high, silhouetted against the summer sun. In a manner of minutes, he takes out the whole gathering of teens. Fingers are cut, throats are stabbed, heads are bashed, and victims fall, bloody, into the water. The scene fades to red, knowing its done a good job. There are further impressive gore scenes. Cropsy’s make-up is blatantly unrealistic, resembling a melted candle. His demise involves an axe to the head and a torrent of blood being vomited. Yet that raft scene overshadows everything. It earned the movie a spot on the Video Nasties list and a place in gorehounds’ hearts.

Rick Wakeman’s electronic score is also a cut above the rest. Aside from Alexander and Stevens, the movie also features a bit part from a young Holly Hunter. Behind the camera, it was the first movie produced by Miramax, the Weinsteins even co-writing the screenplay. I guess non-slasher enthusiasts won’t think much of it but us die-hards know “The Burning” is one of the best. [8/10]

Trick r’ Treat (2007)

As originally planned, “Trick r’ Treat” was intended to be a late-in-the-year surprise for horror fans, a seasonal treat for Halloween. Instead, despite receiving positive reviews at festival screenings, the film sat on a shelf for two years. In that time, “Trick r’ Treat” built up a reputation as the next horror classic. When the film finally saw a general release in 2009, it arrived with a built-in audience. I suspect if I saw “Trick r’ Treat” when it was originally planned for release, I would have liked it a lot more. Seeing it after getting hit by the hype train, I was disappointed. Since then, however, “Trick r’ Treat” has become a true cult classic. It has become many people’s go-to Halloween movie. Many consider it the best Halloween movie since, well, “Halloween.” The late, lamented FearNet use to run it for 24 hours on the 31st. Sam, the film’s pumpkin-headed avatar of All Hallows Eve, has been merchandised almost as much as Freddy or Jason at this point. Now, there’s even a sequel in development. Separated a few years from the hype, what do I think of the film now?

Set in the town of Warren Valley, Ohio, the film follows four separate stories, each happening on Halloween night. Each are connected by Sam, the physical embodiment of the holiday. The first concerns an elementary school principal who gets nasty revenge on his ill-behaved students. The second is about a group of trick r’ treaters exploring a local legend – a crashed school bus full of mentally ill children – and playing a mean trick on one of their classmates. The third story is about a quartet of young women, looking for dates for the Halloween celebration, especially one for the virginal Laurie. The last story concerns a mean old man who hates Halloween and has a close encounter with Sam.

One of the big problems I had with “Trick r’ Treat” when I first saw it, and it continues to be a problem, is the method in which the stories are connected. Most anthology films tell their stories in self-contained segments. “Trick r’ Treat,” on the other hand, tells the stories in an interweaving fashion. I don’t mind the scenarios in an anthology film existing in the same universe. “Pulp Fiction,” after all, is one of my favorite movies. “Trick r’ Treat,” however, tells its stories simultaneously. The tales interconnect, the events crossing over. This has a bad side effect of constantly interrupting the flow and pacing of each story. “Trick r’ Treat” plays in starts and spurts. When the film focuses on one story for an extended period of time, this is when it works best.

Another thing I disliked about “Trick r’ Treat” upon first viewing was its mean-spirited content. Kids are not safe in the world of “Trick r’ Treat” and perish regularly. I love Halloween but dead kids is not part of the fun for me. However, on this viewing, I began to see the morbid humor behind the film’s actions. As Principal Wilkins buries a student he just murdered in his backyard, he’s constantly interrupted. His neighbor yells at him. His son shouts constant interruptions from the house’s windows. The kid is so annoying, that you expect the man to murder him next. Instead, the film has a morbid punchline for a twist ending. The humor works best in the last segment, when mean Mr. Kreeg is constantly pranked by Sam. I really love this concluding segment’s ending, when Kreeg finally gives Sam what he wants. Once you get in its specific frame of mind, the film is blackly funny.

Truthfully, most of the film works pretty well. The second story is maybe the best executed in the film. The story has a nice EC Comics feel. A quartet of kids pull a nasty prank on the weird girl in class. She probably has Aspergers and her particular obsession is the lore and tradition of Halloween. In other words, the audience likes her. When the other kids are needlessly mean to her, you have sympathy for the girl. So the nasty punishment the bad kids receive seems fully deserved and is nicely ironic. The flashback, key to this segment, is also fantastically executed. The whole scene has an amber, autumn glow to it. The sequence builds to something bad happening very well. That last image, of the school bus heading over the cliff, is almost graceful. The story devoted to Sam and Mr. Kreeg is also fantastic, darkly funny and mischievous in the right, Halloween-y spirit. While the flashback escalates in a creepy fashion, this one escalates in a funny way, the abuse the old man suffers slowly getting worst.

Though there’s a lot to like about “Trick r’ Treat,” one element keeps me from liking it fully: That fucking werewolf scene. The middle story, about the twenty-somethings looking for dates to a Halloween party, is easily the weakest part of the film. None of the characters are likable. There are obnoxious and annoying. Laurie’s quest for a date isn’t very compelling, especially compared to the higher stakes of the other stories. There’s a jokey moment here, where every man she sees on the street is already taken. That’s definitely the low point of the movie’s humor. The conclusion is thuddingly obvious. Turns out, all the girls are werewolves and their “dates” are their meals for the night. The man stalking Laurie turns out to be Principal Wilkins, a decision I don’t care for. The “predator becomes the prey” turn-about is easy to see coming. As the girls transform into wolves, Marylin Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” play, which is a groan-worthy soundtrack choice. Finally, the werewolves tearing off their skin as they transform has been done before, and better, by “The Company of Wolves.” For that matter, “The Company of Wolves” did the Little Red Riding Hood thing first too. This one stinky segment drags down the whole movie.

When I first reviewed “Trick r’ Treat,” during the mini-review days of the blog, I said it didn’t beat “Creepshow” at its own game. This is true and the movie probably should have ditched the comic book motif altogether. My preferred Halloween horror movie is still “Ghostwatch” and it’ll probably remain that way. However, on the 31st of October, with a bucket of candy in my lap and a glass of cider in my hand, “Trick r’ Treat” goes down pretty easy. [7/10]

The Babadook (2014)

Every year, I endeavor to see a newly released horror movie, preferably in the theaters. Because, while Halloween is about revisiting old favorites, it should be about new discoveries too. Of course, I did see a new horror movie in the theater this season, “Dracula Untold.” But that barely counts. I had other options, like fucking “Ouija,” ugh. The horror movie I really wanted to see, though, was “The Babadook,” a new Australian film that has been getting rave reviews and had a scary as hell trailer. When I saw “The Babadook” crop up as a new release On-Demand…. Well, it’s not the theaters but it’ll do.

The film follows Amelia and her son Samuel. Samuel’s father died in a car crash, while Amelia was in labor, on the way to the hospital. Samuel’s birthday is never celebrated on the actually day since it reminds Amelia of her husband’s death. Amelia is very stressed ut and Samuel, an eccentric child obsessed with magic, monsters and cobbling together his own inventions, is difficult to live with. On night before bed, Samuel pulls out a book Amelia has never seen before. A sinister pop-up book, it tells of a figure named the Babadook, a boogeyman who appears in your home, if you let him in. Then he’ll enter you, make you kill your pets, make you kill your kid, and then he’ll kill you. Once the Babadook finds you, there’s no way to get rid of him. The monster is real, comes knocking at their door, and Amelia and Samuel go mad.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. “The Babadook” is terrifying. Director Jennifer Kent has a perfect grasp on tone, sound design, and execution. “The Babadook” begins with a persistent tone of creeping dread. The film captures the tone of sleepless, exhausted stress that is familiar to new parents. This is the state Amelia lives in. When the Babadook book is found, things get even darker. From the moment the pages are flipped, the inescapable sense that things are going to get much worst begin. There are so many stand-out moments in “The Babadook,” many of them operating on a different type of horror. When Amelia looks up quickly, catching a glimpse of the Babadook before looking again and seeing it gone, that’s the horror of loosing your mind. Anyone with any experiences with insomnia knows that one. When Amelia stares at the TV, hoping for sleep that won’t come, and see the Babadook appearing on-screen, that’s surreal horror. Finally, when she’s driving the car and nearly crashes it because the boogeyman is there, that’s go-for-the-throat horror. The entire last horror of “The Babadook” operates in this mood, the dread having built to a fever pitch. The film pulls out every trick in the book to create a terrifying final act. Characters are tossed across rooms, slid on their feet, scream in distorted voices, the camera moving at odd angles, and the sound design ramps up. Normally, this would be pandering but “The Babadook” pulls it off. You’ll be sitting in your chair, jittering nervously during the entire last half-hour of the film.

Many factors make “The Babadook” so fantastically effective but two in particular stand out. The first is the performance of Essie Davis. Amelia is in a very unpleasant mood, constantly. Davis is not afraid to play a character that is perpetually stressed, exhausted, and terrified. She commits fully to the part, creating an incredibly nuanced and brave performance. Noah Wiseman as Samuel is also incredible. Wiseman has to play a kid that is both annoying and sympathetic in equal measure. When Amelia is controlled by the Babadook, and trying to kill her own son, you have to believe that she is frustrated enough to do so. Similarly, when her son ties her down, forcing the monster out, you have to believe that his love is true enough to do so. Wiseman succeeds. Together, the two make the central characters of “The Babadook” intensely worth caring about.

The second major factor in the film’s favor is the incredible production and sound design. “The Babadook” is dark. Every room is grey and drab. This is how someone who is exhausted, all the time, sees things. The house “The Babadook” is set in seems huge and ominous, the grey walls stretching on forever. It seems like a huge tomb. At the end of Amelia and Samuel’s bedrooms are looming wardrobes. These are like coffins. Ominous symbols are around every corner. The shadows and corners provide plenty of hiding places for the Babadook. The titular villain is an impressive creation too. There’s no shortage of pop culture villains in long coats and funny hats. Even the Babadook, with its towering top hat and draping coat, is nothing new. However, the film makes it work. The hands are topped with long fingers, topped with curling nails, perfect for reaching out and grabbing people. When we see its face, which isn’t often, the eyes are always starring, always watching. It’s mouth, meanwhile, is always open wide and full teeth… Perfect for eating little kids and scared mothers. In short, the Babadook is an ideal cinematic boogeyman.

Great horror movies are never just about what they’re about though. “The Babadook,” at first, appears to be a film about how being a parent can be fucking terrible. When you have a kid, you never get much sleep, you’re always high-strung and worried, being pulled in many directions all at once. Is it any wonder some mothers kill their children? They take over your life. “The Babadook” is about this, of course, but a more important purpose reveals itself. In time, the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband, promising her that they can be together again if she brings him the boy. The Babadook becomes a symbol of trauma. Once he finds you, you can never get rid of him. Even after Amelia stands up to the monster, he doesn’t go away. Trauma, whether it be from the death of a love one, the end of a meaningful relationship, or any other horrible thing, never truly goes away. Instead, you learn to live with it. You learn from it. The ending of “The Babadook” is incredibly cathartic and well-earned.

It’s always presumptuous to say these things, especially when there’s a lot left that I haven’t seen. Right now, however, I’m willing to say this: “The Babadook” is the best horror film of 2014. It is the scariest film I have seen in many years, blowing away previous candidates like “[REC]” or  “The Strangers.” Jennifer Kent is a talent to watch and I look forward to what she’ll come up with next. In time, the film will likely join the great horror films of cinematic history. What a way to wrap up October. [9/10]

Thank God for Halloween. October has been rough, for personal reasons totally unrelated to this blog. Lots of crazy shit happened. However, on Halloween, I feel different. The whole world feels different. At one point today, I was so fucking happy I almost felt like crying. This is why this day is special. It brings something out of me that isn’t there during any other month. The spirits walk the Earth and the spirits walk in me too. I hope it was that way for all of you as well.

I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to do these Six Weeks. I didn’t make it to a corn maze or a haunted attraction. I didn’t get to dress up in my awesome Herbert West costume because trick or treating got moved. However, I did accomplish other stuff. I went to a horror con and had a good time. I went to “Rocky Horror” and had a good time. Mostly, I watched a spooky shit ton of horror movies. Final tally?: 157 total things watched, 93 movies, 57 TV episodes, and 7 shorts. Holy crap. That’s a record. It wasn’t easy and maybe I overdid it. But that’s a geeky number I can be proud of.

2014’s Halloween season wasn’t as good as last year’s. Maybe there was no way it could be. But did I have fun? Sure did. Make some memories? You bet. Live the season to the fullest? Yep. It’s now November 1st and I can look back and say “I did it.”

2014’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon is concluded. Onward to the next one. Happy Halloween. God bless. Thank you so much. See you again soon.

Haunting the pumpkin patch.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 30

The Student of Prague (1913)

As October comes to a close, and Halloween looms, I found myself looking over my list of films watched thus far. In a moment of confusion, I forget that I had watched the 1920’s version of “The Lost World” and came to the incorrect conclusion that I had yet to watch a silent horror film this season. Before I could correct myself, I set off looking for a voiceless flick. Looking over a list of notable silent horrors, I came upon the 1913 version of “The Student of Prague.” Starring “The Golem’s” Paul Wegener, the film is loosely adapted from the Poe story “William Wilson.” It is usually considered the first horror movie ever made.

Set in 1800s Prague, the story follows Balduin, the best fencer in the country and a rebel-rousing student, who has recently fallen on hard financial times. After rescuing a countess from a stream, Balduin falls in the love with the girl. However, he’s far too poor to even consider courting her. Enter a strange old man named Scapinelli, who offers Balduin 100,000 coins in exchange for anything in his room. The student immediately signs the paper only for the elderly gentleman to reveal himself as a demon and leave the room with Balduin’s reflection. The student’s attempt to woo the countess are made more difficult when that reflection, now ambulatory and with a mind of its own, sets about ruining the young man’s life.

As previously established, I like silent movies. Considering film is primarily a visual art form, movies that rely solely upon visuals almost seem purer then sound cinema. I usually don’t find the style of silent movies off-putting or confusing. However, “The Student of Prague” is an early silent movie. Discounting some Melies and Edison shorts, it might actually be the oldest movie I’ve ever watched. The cinematic art form was still developing. Thus, “The Student of Prague” is not always the most elegant feature. The film uses title cards sparingly, most of the dialogue going uninscribed. Despite featuring few intertitles, the movie still falls back on exposition. Balduin's skills as a fencer are never actually featured on-screen, only be referenced in dialogue. A key event has Balduin’s reflection killing a romantic rival the student promised to spare. This happens entirely off-screen! The only time some of the characters are identified is during the opening role call. This, combined with the faltering quality of the film print, frequently makes “The Student of Prague” difficult to follow. Despite only running 87 minutes, the movie is also one of the slowest paced silent films I’ve ever seen.

Though not necessarily easy to follow, “The Student of Prague” does have some effective moments. Though early in the movement’s lifespan, the film still has some beautiful, expressionistic scenery. Balduin’s apartment is set at rough, slanted angles, looking odd and off-center. A midnight rendezvous with his lover takes place in an old cemetery. The old tombstones intentionally do not look real. The obviously artificial set gives the film a creaky, spooky atmosphere. After an encounter with his wicked doppelganger, Balduin flees down the shadowy streets of Prague, seeming very small among the old city’s towering buildings. Wegener’s later film, “The Golem,” is much more effectively surreal but this one does feature just enough strange moments to push it into the category of “horror.”

Don’t be mistaken, “The Student of Prague” is marginally horror. It is, more often then not, a period melodrama that can be hard to swallow. One of Balduin’s earlier romantic conquest is a dancing girl. Despite showing little interest in the man, after he begins to pursue the Countess, she passes an incriminating letter along to her. Why? Jealousy? The film never elaborates on this. There are also long scenes of fox hunts, ball room dances, and people sitting around in empty rooms, pining. The stuff with the evil reflection is quite striking, and the ending is nicely downbeat, but far too much of “The Student of Prague” is a melodramatic slog.

Is “The Student of Prague” the first true horror movie? Even with a Satanic old man, a murderous doppelganger, and a Faustian bargain, the movie doesn’t truly fit the genre. I think “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” probably has a better claim on that title. The story has been remade several times, even during the silent era. A 1926 version starring Conrad Veidt seems to be better regarded. Maybe I should have watched that one instead… [5/10]

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

A while back I reviewed Charles B. Pierce’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I actually saw the movie even more recently then that, when Shout Factory gave the long out-of-print sorta’ classic a Blu-Ray release. That film, an odd mixture of docudrama and fictional retelling, had a predecessor. Pierce first tested out that very specific format with “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a quasi-documentary about the Fouke Monster of Fouke, Arkansas. It might be hard to believe this now but “The Legend of Boggy Creek” was a big hit in its day. An America gripped by Bigfoot fever saw the movie so many times that it went on to become the eleventh highest grossing film of the year! While the film is a true independent success story, outside of Bigfoot enthusiasts and horror fans, it’s not well remembered today.

The film claims to tell the true story of the Fouke Monster. Periodically, since the 1950s, the backwoods town of Fouke, Arkansas has been haunted by a mysterious monster roaming the woods and swamps. Covered in black hair, over six feet tall, and leaving three-toed foot prints, the monster has terrified and intrigued the people of the tiny town. The film combines voice-over narration, interviews with supposed witnesses, dramatic reenactments of the encounters, and local footage and music to create a film that’s not quite a fictional movie and not quite a documentary.

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” is pretty corny and cheesy, lacking the dread of Pierce’s later “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” While it never reaches the intensity of that film, “Boggy Creek” does occasionally summon up a folksy, Southern-fried creepiness. The very first scene has a little boy, the film’s narrator as a child, running across a golden field, frightened by a strange noise. Later, a family discovers a dead cat, scared to death by the monster. Probably the most blatantly frightening scene in the film has a young woman, napping on the couch, rudely awoken by the Bigfoot’s hairy arm, reaching through the window. The monster is only briefly glimpsed throughout the film. We mostly only see the creature only as a black shape, moving quietly through the woods. This proves surprisingly creepy, the film functioning well on the “less is more” principal. A Fouke monster that is a smelly Skunk Ape is much less frightening then a Fouke monster that is an ill-defined, shadowy figure. The most effective moment, for me anyway, were simple shots of the monster, seen only in the distance, crossing the swamplands.

Despite a handful of decent moments, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” is gripped by camp. All of the actors in the film are amateurs. This is readily apparent. All of the performances in the film are either broad or flat. Many of the monster witnesses play themselves. Their hillbilly personae do little to dispel Fouke as a backwoods town full of drunk rednecks. The film’s climax, in which a man is attacked by the monster while in an outhouse, is sure to generate giggles today. The man fleeing through the woods, his pants halfway down his ass, is especially funny. The narration is frequently overdone, most obviously in a sequence detailing how even the police dogs were too scared to pursue the creature. The cherry on the goofball redneck sundae are the two incredibly silly folk songs played throughout the movie. The first is a ballad describing how the Fouke monster is actually quite lonely, being the last of his kind. The second is devoted to witness Travis Crabtree, an ode to his fishing trips and long days wandering the woods outside his home.

By filming on location and with the people who were actually there, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” does capture a certain degree of local color. One of the creature’s witnesses can’t move very fast, having injured his leg in a hunting trip. Imagine a “Boggy Creek” without the monster and you’d probably get a movie very similar to Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida,” a film about how people pass the time in a tiny, Southern town. It’s apparent the small town was a point of fascination for Pierce. Both “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” have a nostalgic longing for the simple small town, both portraying the central locations as rustic, relaxed, wholesome places. In “Sundown,” that creates an ironic quality when the gruesome murders begin to take place. In “Boggy Creek,” however, it makes the film more of a love letter to the local residents and their strange stories. (That most of the movie’s “true story” is demonstratively bullshit doesn’t seem to matter much.)

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” spawned a cottage industry of pseudo-documentaries about Bigfoot and Yetis, helping to feed the appetite this country had in the early seventies for all things Bigfoot. It’s hard to believe that movies like “The Mysterious Monsters” or “Bigfoot: Man Or Beast?” got theatrical releases back in the day. Moreover, there’s a tangled web of “Boggy Creek” sequels and remakes. “Return to Boggy Creek,” an unofficial sequel made without Pierce’s involvement, was released in 1977. A few years later in 1985, Charles B. Pierce rebuked that film with his own sequel, “Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues.” That one was, famously, featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” "The Legacy of Boggy Creek," a pseudo-official remake, came in 2011 while 2010’s “Boggy Creek” is an unrelated and otherwise generic Sasquatch-ploitation flick. Boy, that got complicated quickly, didn’t it? Who would have thought such a humble film would birth such a long-lasting legacy? [6/10]

Gehara: The Dark and Long-Haired Monster (2009)
Chohatsu Daikaiju Gehara

Okay, when I said I was done with kaiju movies for the year, I lied. After hearing about “Gehara,” a twenty minute made-for-television monster flick, I just had to see it. The film begins, like so many of them do, with a fishing boat attacked by a strange creation. The lone survivor, half mad, seems terrified of hair. Though the destruction is initially blamed on an Umi-Bozu, the true culprit soon emerges: Gehara, a giant monster covered in long, black hair. The monster is soon marching on Japan, its hair giving off a deadly gas. The government cooks up a crazy plot to stop the monster while a group of rural monks worship the critter. Can anything stop Gehara?

Despite only being twenty minutes long, “Gehara” is a perfect parody of Showa Eiga kaiju films. Gehara, on paper, sounds like a fairly ridiculous creation. A monster whose main power comes from its long hair does not sound particularly intimidating. However, the film approaches the premise with a totally straight face. A scientist constantly delivers grave warnings about the monster. A crazy general deploys a wacky weapon to stop the monster. A journalist investigates a religious order that seems to blame the monster’s reemergence on mankind’s mistreatment of the planet. The movie blatantly references the original “Gojira,” with an Akira Ifukube-inspired score and a ending that features a man talking about how another Gehara could surface if mankind doesn’t stop abusing the planet. At least, that seems like the ending. In its final minutes, “Gehara” tacks on a pitch-perfect reference to “Monster Zero” and ends with a trailer for its own, even crazier seeming (and, sadly, as yet unrealized) sequel. Even the outwardly funny parts of “Gehara,” like teenagers trying to get the attention of a news reporter, are a bit more subtle then expected.

Even though it’s a spoof of the genre, “Gehara” is still a pretty cool monster movie. At only twenty minutes long, “Gehara” packs in plenty of kaiju action. The monster appears to be brought to life through puppetry and looks fantastic. He’s reptilian but the long scarf of hair makes it appear more greasy and mysterious. His design might be intentionally goofy but the creature is brought to life fantastically. The building smashing and military battles are also quite convincingly done. There’s a little shaky cam present, probably to cover up the seams of a low budget production.

“Gehara” manages to be both a hilarious parody of the genre and a perfectly executed example of it. As you’d probably expect for an obscure television production, the film doesn’t have any sort of official stateside distribution. However, the Japanese Blu-Ray is region free, so feel free to import this sucker. I know I will. Hell, apparently there’s already a toy of Gehara too! Would I watch that sequel? You bet your ass I would watch that sequel. [9/10]