Monday, April 30, 2007

Friday the 13th part III (1982)

Director: Steve Miner

Set immediately after the events of part two, "Friday the 13th part 3" barely keeps this series alive. It may regain itself at the end, but by then you probably won’t care. It’s hard to take a step down from part 2, but well, here we are. Already resorting to 3D technology, this franchise is already struggling. They seem to have traded the “hot teens” from the second film for a more realistic “butt ugly” crew. Jason finally is coming together, though. Jason finally gets his infamous hockey mask. His killing technique is improving, and the deaths have become more elaborate. He still likes to go for the neck a lot of the time, but he’s a lot stealthier. I think that mask gives him confidence.

We begin with yet another elaborate flashback to show us the entire last scene of part 2. Only this time we find out that Jason…GOT UP after he was sliced with his machete. I’m not a stickler for details or anything, but we knew he got up. He jumped through the window at the end. I guess that was a dream… or was it? Seriously, I have no idea. His rampage begins this time by killing a married couple with a knife and sewing needle. He now dons his workman’s jumpsuit, and ditches the overalls. He’s a man on a mission. Next, we get to know the newest victims. No longer camp counselers, the protagonists are merely run-of-the-mill teens looking for a relaxing, sex-filled weekend at their cabin. They arrive in a Scooby Doo inspired van (complete with a wannabe Shaggy), and we find out one of them is pregnant. This never figures into the plot, but I figured I’d mention it, since the main character seemed to make such a point of it, repeatedly. Part three also features the most annoying character in Friday the 13th history to date. Ladies and gentlemen... meet Shelly (played by Larry Zerner). Shelly’s a chubby, afro-ed nerd who is keen on practical jokes and strikes out with the ladies.

After Jason disposes of a biker gang (consisting of three members who look like they came from three different gangs, or from three different movies entirely), he proceeds to the teens. Chris (played by Dana Kimmell) will be our heroine for the rest of the film. She apparently seems to have had an encounter with Jason two years previous, although we’re not quite informed on the details of this meeting. He attacked her in the woods, and she woke up in her bed the next day, according to her. It doesn’t really matter anyway. It’s just an excuse to make some sort of connection between movies. Maybe Jason just forgot to kill her, and decided to tuck her in and read her a bedtime story. Chris and her “Ken doll” boyfriend miss the action while they’re off on a drive, while back at the cabin, things have gotten a little worse. Jason has killed some dumbass (who was walking on his hands for some reason), and then kills his girlfriend in a hammock much the way his mom disposed of Kevin Bacon. Their hippy friend, who looks old enough to be their dad, gets fried on a fusebox. Another girl gets a harpoon to the eye, and Shelly finally gets what’s coming to him. It’s Shelly whom Jason gets his infamous hockey mask from, and history was made. It turns out Shelly was an integral piece to the franchise -- who would have guessed?

Now it’s down to just Chris and Jason. They go a few rounds in the barn, and Chris ends up hanging Jason, and then giving him the ole axe-to-the-head. She then heads out on the lake in a rowboat and falls asleep. She wakes up to Jason scrambling towards her, but he quickly vanishes, and it’s Mrs. Voorhees (sporting her newly re-attached head) who gets to pop up out of the lake and tackle the girl this time. Chris wakes up... again, and is carted off in an ambulance. I guess the whole Mrs. Voorhees thing was a dream. Killing Jason wasn’t a dream though, and it turns out Jason really did die… or did he? Yes, he did. We see him lying in the barn with the axe firmly planted in his skull as the credits roll. The incessant use of camera angles to show us the 3D effects grows real old, real quick. I think it may have worked in their favor a little, though. It actually caused them to think about what kinds of camera angles they should use, and it ends up LOOKING like the best of the series. It forced them to put a little more thought than usual into their shots. Unfortunately, it’s the worst so far. It's pretty forgettable. Appearances can be deceiving. The acting and dialogue is atrocious, and the plot… oh, who are we kidding? The plot never existed… or did it? No, it didn’t.

Best Death: Jason squeezes a guy's head like a grapefruit, causing his eye to pop out... in 3D!!!!

Friday the 13th part II (1981)

Director: Steve Miner

You knew he’d be back. This time it’s actually Jason doing the killing, and not his mother. He’s all grown up in one of the most amazing growth spurts in history. Set five years after the first film, Jason has gone from 12 to 30. Okay, I guess maybe that was a dream at the end of the first one, so maybe it all works out. You can do the math if you really care. Not nearly at the level of its predecessor, "Friday the 13th Part 2" begins to flesh out the series in its own way.

And so it begins, with Alice (Adrienne King reprises the role) having nightmarish flashbacks of that frightful night at Camp Crystal Lake. Her nightmares include some of Mrs. Voorhees’ memories, but I guess Alice filled in the blanks for herself. In an incredibly elaborate flashback montage, we see the main crux of what we needed to get from the first film. After that, Alice is finally snuffed out by an adult Jason (that was a long time comin'). Crazy Ralph also returns only to meet his demise as well. Jason had some loose ends to tie up in town apparently, and then it’s back to Camp Crystal Lake. Alright, it’s time for some Jason fodder!! The new teens arrive, and it’s clear that the marketing decision this time was: “Let’s make the campers hot.” Mission accomplished. They gladly traded acting ability for toned bodies. The breasts are bigger, and the shorts are shorter. These teens are preparing a camp adjacent to Camp Crystal Lake for its grand opening. It seems Jason is expanding his business to neighboring camps. This group of aspiring camp counselors consists of just about every token character available, including: the nerd, the black guy, the wheelchair guy, the hot chick, the rational chick... blah blah blah. Anyway, it’s time for Jason to make his much overdue debut. This buffet of victims wastes no time in the usually sex/drug indulgences. The victim market is all of a sudden flooded, and Jason doesn’t know where to begin. Jason proceeds with the neck slicing tradition his mother began. From there it’s “game on.” Jason can now impale two at a time with a single spear. He learns to use hammers and pitchforks as killing tools, and has perfected the "I'm walking slower than you, but I can still catch up to you" technique (I think Pepe Le Pew pioneered that one). At any rate, he clearly has been practicing. The deaths are more rewarding, but Jason is pretty damned clumsy. He falls down, stumbles, throws a pillow case on his head for some reason, and is nearly scared to death by a chainsaw. Come on, Jason. Let’s hang on to a little dignity. He resembles a giant toddler in his apparel and general demeanor. There’s a lot of rolling around on the ground like a turtle, and awkward attacks.

It’s another fight to the death with what seems to be the last surviving camper, Ginny (played by Amy Steel). Jason faces his most formidable foe yet. After dodging a few slices and wetting her pants, she stumbles across Jason’s makeshift cabin in the woods; complete with the decapitated head of Mrs. Voorhees as just the right decorating touch. Finally the head camp counselor/love interest, Paul (played by John Furey) shows up to wrestle around on the ground with Jason for a while. Ginny takes out Jason with his own machete, and the two lovebirds barricade themselves in their cabin. Jason breaks in after a monumental fake-out when “Muffin” the dog appears on the doorstep instead of our killer. It’s pretty easy to see what will happen when someone braces themselves with their back facing a giant plate glass window. It’s another case of “Did that happen? Was it all a dream?” as Ginny is carted off in the ambulance. It ends on a shot of Mrs. Voorhees’ head -- I don’t know either, so don’t ask. It’s probably a step down from the original, but it sets a good precedent of its own. This film makes an attempt at a memorable killer, even though he's just a guy with a pillow case on his head. This film is integral to the series, since Jason finally takes over the killing business his mom started. I'm sad to say I kind of liked this film, since it basically has every element necessary for a slasher flick. It's fun to watch Jason get scared by a chainsaw, and the hotter cast wander into the path of danger. The players are on the field, and the whistle is about to blow. Get ready for a franchise and one of the best killing sprees in movie history.

Best Death: "Wheelchair dude" gets air after taking a machete to the noggin.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Scary? No. Thrilling? No. Logical? No. Entertaining? No…oh wait, I mean yes. Yes, it’s entertaining. If you want to evaluate "Friday the 13th", you need to keep in mind that it was revolutionary to the slasher genre at the time. What are clich├ęd elements now, were truly groundbreaking in 1980. This movie is a nostalgic journey through all that which your parents said was bad for you. It conjures up images of being huddled up against the TV set in a crappy basement watching it for the first time. It’s really more about the feeling than what the movie’s merits or lack thereof are. Judging by modern horror standards, it still packs a punch. It's probably the best example of a slasher out there.

Camp Crystal Lake, or “Camp Blood” as the townsfolk refer to it, is reopening. It’s been closed since the tragic deaths of some of its campers. Well apparently it’s time for a few more deaths. A batch of new kids (including a young Kevin Bacon) arrive in town to help run the camp, and meet Crazy Ralph; a bicycle riding prophet of doom. According to “Crazy”, Camp Crystal Lake has a “Death Curse.” I guess that’s as opposed to one of those life-enriching, good curses. Sure, they should’ve turned back then. If not then, then they probably should’ve turned back when they met their new boss, who apparently just came back from a Ned Flanders look-alike contest, wearing a pair of disturbingly short shorts. Well those damned teens engage in drugs and sex, and that’s enough to piss some killer off. Right off the bat, we deduce that the killer has a normal appearance. We know this by the unassuming greetings the psycho gets through some classic killer P.O.V. shots. The teens begin to drop like flies through a series of less than creative death scenes; a few of which are off camera. Some of the deaths include: an axe to the head, a machete to the gut, an arrow to the neck, a knife to the neck.The killer, I guess, has some sort of "neck fetish." The franchise hadn't found its stride yet. Well, I guess when this one came out, it wasn't a franchise yet, so I'll let them slide on the deaths.

Finally, there’s one teen left -- Alice (played by Adrienne King). Alice isn’t going down as easily as her fellow campers. Then Mrs. Voorhees (played by Betsy Palmer) shows up. She's a former camp cook whose son drowned in the lake when the irresponsible counselors were “making love" (Mrs. Voorhees has a way with words). Turns out she's the psycho who's been chopping people up, tossing them through windows, and decorating the camp with their dead bodies like they were party streamers. She proceeds in killing campers to avenge her son’s death. That son’s name is… Jason!! Jason's birthday is Friday the 13th, hence the title, and it also takes place almost entirely on that day (see, everything makes sense). Alice and Mrs. Voorhees engage in an interminable battle to the death around the camp. They run in circles, and Mrs. Voorhees gets knocked out on three separate occasions. Yet Alice doesn’t use that as a prime opportunity to bash her head in. Well that bitch won’t stay down, and they finally have it out on the shores of Camp Crystal Lake -- how poetic. Alice gets a face full of dirt, after being bitch-slapped repeatedly. Jason doesn’t bitch-slap like he used to, but I digress. After all is said and done, Mrs. Voorhees ends up getting her head chopped off, and Alice decides to go row-boating. When dawn breaks, Alice is first greeted by a police officer, and then by a young, deformed Jason, who springs up out of the lake like a trout heading up river to spawn. He ain’t interested in spawning, though(at least I hope not). He’s pissed!! Alice wakes up in a hospital bed, where she learns everyone is dead (yeah, we knew that) and that they never found Jason’s body. “He’s still out there.” Alice remarks in classic horror film inflection. I get the sense that they never even looked for him. Oh well, how could this ever come back to haunt them?

Best Death: Kevin Bacon gets a neck full of arrow.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Borat (2006)

Director: Larry Charles

Borat may not be “the funniest movie of the year”, which is what some critics claim, but it does offer something different for fans of satire. Borat, played by Brit comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, comes to the U.S. and A. to report on what makes it the “greatest country in the world.” Borat hails from Kazakhstan, and makes good, comedic use of the cultural differences between countries. Cohen creates a character that, much like Napolean Dynamite, is much funnier than the environment or material he seems to drown in. Borat works in small doses, and with a clear objective. Simply driving across America to find out why it’s great perhaps should have been narrowed down to a more precise goal. People merely amused by the quirks of the character will not be let down, but those looking for a more clever observation may feel shortchanged.

He’s not distinctly Kazakhstani, and that makes it all the more relevant. He uses just about every aspect of a stereotypical foreigner to create an amalgam of stereotypes. The glimpse at America, particularly the South, is frightening to say the least. It’s compelling when Borat lets dimwitted people rant, and hangs back a little. They let their guard down when they feel they’re talking to someone who won’t label them as politically incorrect. It becomes less funny as it hangs on shock references and images too long. A lot of the bits sound funny when they’re explained, but as you watch them for a few minutes you might wonder why you’re laughing. Maybe it doesn’t matter why you’re laughing, though. If you take out the phallic material, Borat may not have a leg to stand on -- no pun intended. It's endlessly quotable, and simple enough for the teenage boy audience to indulge in it to a point of obsession. There’s enough to keep the college crowd amused, but fans of a more intelligent, British style of comedy may find it about as entertaining as a Benny Hill sketch that goes on for 80 minutes. Ironically, it’s the tour of Borat’s home in Kazakhstan that I found the most amusing. The tour, complete with “VCR” and a cow in the living room, makes more of a commentary on stereotypes than its surface elements of merely looking funny. One memorable scene has a telegram delivery man reading Borat’s message to him about the grim details of his wife’s demise while he has been away in America. “You mean my wife is dead?” Borat asks. “Let me see here…” the delivery man says as he frantically skims the letter for something positive to report.

It’s my opinion that, in comedy, there are no sacred cows; you should be able to make a joke about anything and everything. It’s all about when, where and how you make it. Borat certainly tries its hardest to tackle subjects such as retardation, anti-Semitism, sexual immorality, and a good dose of bathroom humor. It’s not that these jokes don’t work; it’s just that it needs to have more of a point behind it. I never want to feel like someone is talking about these things merely to shock others. But I guess that’s the whole point of Borat. He shocks us with what we consider taboo, when he finds it perfectly normal. There are a few missed opportunities as well. As Borat ventures into an Evangelical church, he goes on stage and accepts Jesus. I kept waiting for him to make some sort of reference or observation on religious activity in the U.S., but we’re merely supposed to be amused at them speaking in tongues. Some of the bits work, others make it hard to recommend. It certainly isn’t a “by the numbers” comedy, and Sacha Baron Cohen is a talented comedian. It definitely doesn’t live up to the hype, but it still offers a new style of comedy that you can’t blame them for trying.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Blood Diamond (2006)

Director: Edward Zwick

Without getting tangled up in the events surrounding the conflicts in Africa, "Blood Diamond" puts the dots close together, and leaves you with an intentional sense of righteous indignation. Some may find it a blessing that we don't need to take notes, while others may find its attempt at an emotional core less fruitful with a lack of backstory. It's well crafted, interesting and thought provoking, but its material might need a little more depth in order to engage its crowd.

Going into "Blood Diamond", I pretty much knew what the title referred to, and didn’t get a lot more information from the movie as to why everything was where it was. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Given the weight of the issue, the images speak loud and clear without the need of a heavy guilt trip or a lengthy history lesson. It may be less simple than the story would have us believe: stop buying diamonds, or at least do your homework as to where they came from. Maybe it is that simple, though. Leonardo DiCaprio essentially plays James Bond with a South American accent. Complete with the ability to dodge a ridiculous amount of bullets, and knock out villains with a single punch. The performance is strong, but it feels like his character could have been developed by means other than campfire or moonlit stories about his youth. It seems like it’s been done all too many times before. Djimon Hounsou offers the best performance as a quiet and intense rebel escapee, who happens across an invaluable diamond. He holds back more than any actor in the film, and conveys a lot by being the moral center, and quiet observer. When he erupts against his oppressors, it gives it much more weight. One too many coincidences prevent the script from blowing you away. There's quite a few chance meetings and lucky escapes that make it feel more like a Bond flick than a real social issue study.

The connections between American decadence and worldwide poverty are easily conveyed. Somehow the simplest image in the movie carried the most weight for me. In a panning shot we see briefly the children soldiers, guns in hand, watching American television with its glorification of excess. It makes you wish the romance between DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, who plays an American journalist, had been less of an issue. Essentially we know who these people are from the second we see them. I don’t fault the movie too much on this, because it doesn’t interfere with the plot. Connelly and DiCaprio have a verbal spar on the dancefloor, and ultimately bond on the battlefield. The love story is almost like an afterthought, thrown in because focus groups demanded it. DiCaprio uses Hounsou to get the diamond, and Connelly uses DiCaprio to get the “story.” If you didn’t follow that, essentially the characters explain that verbatim to make sure we’re all clear on the plot. Blood Diamond at least contains some well written insight on what's labled as "evil" in cultures, and for that I think it redeems itself from a few other cliched elements. In the end, we are probably not much more informed than we had been if we knew essentially the outline of the story. If not, it's a great device for opening a dialogue about an important issue. If you did know, it at least gives you something to think about when you see the children firing rounds of ammo into passerby. The images speak louder than any tacked on speech about our obsession with commercialism ever could.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Frighteners (1996)

Director: Peter Jackson

Controlled Chaos is an art form few directors can achieve. Other than Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson is probably the master. It usually comes from a history of making extremely low budget films, and learning to deal with what you've got in front of you. I get the feeling that if any Peter Jackson scene were filmed on a different day, the scene would be completely different. The Frighteners is what happens when you hand over a studio budget to a truly creative mind. The Frighteners is a mixture of comedy, horror, action and a few other indefinable genres. Michael J. Fox is ramped up even for his usual performances, but it works. He plays an scam artist who is friendly with the spirits whom he gets to haunt local residents, and then charges a fee to "exorcise" them. The characters are at times really cartoonish, and sometimes eerily scary. At times the Frighteners is a little predictable. When the villain's identity is revealed, you'll wonder why they even bothered telling you. What this movie lacks in plot, it makes up for in creativity.

Indeed the devil is in the details. If you begin to ask too many questions, you may as well try a different flick. This is a fantasy adventure that's a mixture of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "Ghostbusters." When it tries to become serious, it actually succeeds. It's hard to say why it works, but I think it does. It goes on a little too long, and some might find themselves looking at their watches. Peter Jackson's direction keeps it interesting, though. The swooping camera shots add to the fantasy element, and keep from becoming a device used to keep interest, but rather establishing a mood. That mood is an odd one, and isn't afraid to delve deep into horror territory. The blood flies, and the villains make out on an autopsy table. This helps to yank the audience around and tell them that, even in a fantasy/comedy, the danger can still be real. That doesn't always work, though. Occasionally that will cause a film to be very uneven. The thing that prevents the Frighteners from tipping the scales in any direction is the atmosphere. It's gloomy, drippy and anemic... trust me, that's a good thing. The color is nearly drained. When it's there, it's blood red or an eerie blue-green. This makes it nearly impossible to become too goofy. This helps when the characters are flying through walls and bumping into things.

One memorable scene has Michael J. Fox's character, Frank, attempting to protect his love interest played by Trini Alvarado in a jail cell. He's trying to keep her away from an evil spectre as it weaves through the prison walls. Ultimately, there's nothing he can do. The evil spirit is staved off by Frank's ghostly friends. It creates a really unique action sequence where the characters feel like they're in imminent danger. There's another unique sequence that involves Frank bringing himself to the point of near death, so his ghost can battle the evil spectre. It becomes increasingly tense when Trini's character, who's supposed to revive Frank before permanent death sets in, is kidnapped and locked in a police car. It doesn't really make sense if you try to dissect it, but it makes for good cinema. The film contains a number of really creative sequences like these that keep it moving, and prevent it from becoming a forgettable feature. The Frighteners contains a lot of material, most of which is truly original. Once I'd like to see a director's cut that is shorter than the theatrical release, though. This is not a knock at Jackson's directing, but part of the procedure is knowing when to say "when." The chaos is well contained, and includes groundbreaking special effects. The story may feel rushed, and maybe that they were writing as they were going, but it delivers a mood rarely seen: the fantasy characters feel like they're in real danger. Jackson keeps the audience in their seats without resorting to cheap shock elements, or in-your-face special effects; they blend in naturally. It's the best horror/comedy/action/adventure/sci-fi/thriller out there.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Supergirl (1984)

Director: Jeannot Szwarc

You'll never hear me say that Supergirl is a perfect film -- far from it. I don't have time, or frankly the patience to tell you everything wrong with it. With that out of the way, I CAN tell you that Supergirl is a good film. Despite obvious flaws, it still delivers a unique and fun story that should placate audiences. Helen Slater in the lead role saves this film, much the way her alter ego saves the world... or whatever the hell was going on there.

Audiences probably won't be able to get past the "plot" or lack thereof. But I offer this analogy: Imagine the entire film as a fleet of about a hundred ships sailing the ocean. There's nothing keeping the ships together, they simply are all heading in the same direction. Each ship represents a scene. On their own, the scenes work perfectly fine, but if you're looking for a connection between them, you'll find nothing but empty water. Also, if one ship completely sinks, the rest of the fleet can still carry on unaffected. You see, Supergirl is the opposite of being good only as the sum of all its parts. If you try to do the math, you'll assuredly come up with quite a few remainders. For example, take the scenes where Supergirl, disguised as Linda Lee, enrolls in school and uses her super powers to play field hockey and ward off bullies. These scenes work perfectly fine on their own, but if you think about it, they make no sense with the rest of the film. I found myself thinking "Uh, Supergirl, isn't your planet about to blow up? Maybe you should put down the hockey stick." The scene where Supergirl rescues a town from a rogue bulldozer is as fun to watch as any motion picture superhero battle. Considering this film was made in 1984, the special effects are stunning. The sequences where Supergirl is flying and performing somersaults are almost worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately, you'll have to watch the villains bumbling around and overacting even for a film based on a comic book. It's a mixed bag, but I think the redeeming scenes have enough strength to carry the film.

The plot consists of Supergirl coming to Earth to find a magic orb that holds her planet together. It's found its way to Earth, and conveniently into the hands of an awaiting supervillain played by Faye Dunaway. You see, in yet another amazing coincidence, the orb falls into the hands of a witch in training who has recently been considering taking over the world as a viable career option. The scenes with the villains are, without question, the main ships that break off from the fleet and sink. Included in Supergirl is a battle with an invisible monster (a brilliant money-saving move), a love interest whom only falls in love due to a spell, and a battle with something that resembles a muppet on crack. Again, I have to say that alone these scenes work perfectly fine, and some are really original and creative. Ultimately, there's nothing really holding Supergirl together enough to become a mainstream success. However, it is much more entertaining than critics would have you believe. Yes, it's dopey. Yes, it logically makes no sense, but isn't that part of the classic comics? There is such a thing as simply enjoying a movie as a mixed bag of material. Especially when you'll pull out things such as a great performance from Helen Slater, and amazing special effects. There's no winking at the camera from Slater. She's fully aware of what she's doing, and is committed to making Supergirl come across as a real character.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

Director: Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino

With Grindhouse, you either get it, or you don't. I don't simply mean getting what the grindhouses were, but more of being able to experience this film as just that, an experience. Grindhouse is an admittedly uneven double feature with films from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

"Planet Terror" is Rodriguez's entry. A zombie gore-fest that leaves you wishing it had tried something new with the genre, especially after seeing Tarantino's efforts. It's almost too derivative of the George A. Romero zombie flick "the Crazies", but with modern special effects thrown in to merely make the audience groan. "Death Proof" is Tarantino's entry, and quite obviously the better of the two. Tarantino takes the genre of a slasher flick, and leaves you thinking, "I'm not sure what I just saw, but I liked it." It's pretty unexpectedly good. Not merely emulating a grindhouse movie, but using its elements to make a movie that no one will see coming. The dialogue in "Death Proof" is excellent, which will come as no surprise to Tarantino fans. But I think there were one too many scenes used to show off the dialogue, and not beneficial for the film. Look out for the terrible editing...and by terrible, I mean excellent. If you love slasher flicks that sentence will make sense to you. Complete with phony trailers, and missing reels, Grindhouse is a fun ride. The phony trailers may be the best part, and really make you glad to be a film fan. Not to mention Quentin's great taste in music; unearthing such acts as Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich or T. Rex for an outstanding, one of a kind soundtrack.

All in all, Grindhouse presents a new experience for modern film fans, and for that alone I would recommend it. But it's more than that. It paves it's own way, and doesn't look back. It's not two movies, It's one entity that packs a punch. And although it's uneven, it's memorable, which is more than I can say for most films these days.