Welcome once again to 5 Movies in 5 Minutes! Here are five more reviews of films in theaters or coming out on DVD.
Muppets Most Wanted (theatrical release 3/21/14, home release 8/12/14)
Muppets Most Wanted is the followup to the Muppets' celebrated return to the big screen in 2011, with the gang going on a comeback tour through Europe. Kermit is nabbed and replaced by his doppelganger, an escaped convict named Constantine, who plans to use the Muppets' nightly shows as a front for a string of thefts. It's nice to see the Muppets back again, but the script is not up to their usual standards, and most of the individual Muppets are robbed of any significant screentime in favor of Constantine, a one-joke villain stretched pretty thin. The songs (from Conchords songwriter Bret McKenzie) are amusingly quirky, but don't really fit the Muppets' style, which is more about big production numbers with lots of slapstick and silly-clever lyrics. The human actors give their all- Tina Fey and Ty Burrell are standouts- but the Muppets need sharper satire and a better film than this to maintain their momentum.
Watch if you liked: The Muppets (2011), The Great Muppet Caper, Enchanted
Also check out: Muppets From Space, Flight of the Conchords (TV)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (theatrical release 4/4/14, home release 9/9/14)
Captain America takes center stage in the next installment of Marvel's ambitious Phase Two, The Winter Soldier, an action-thriller that deals with themes of security, liberty, friendship, treachery, and heroism. The film questions the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a world of escalating threats and risky espionage, as Steve Rogers hunts down terrorists and criminals but butts heads with Nick Fury on the most honorable way to do so. Complicating matters are an old enemy organization, a dangerous new foe as their strike force, and a sinister threat from within. The action scenes are well-done and exciting, the script is smart, focused, and funny, and Scarlet Johansson gets a solid supporting role to work with, as Black Widow. The Winter Soldier takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe in interesting new directions, with strong character development and devastating, permanent consequences, and is a sharp sequel to both the first Captain America film and The Avengers. One of Marvel's best efforts yet.
Watch if you liked: The Avengers, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace
Also check out: Salt
Bad Words (theatrical release 3/14/14, home release 7/8/14)
Bad Words stars Jason Bateman (who also directed) as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged junior-high dropout who competes in a spelling bee for young students, and is ready to trade blows with anyone who tries to stop him. The sheer outlandishness of the premise is entertaining, and the film is funny, well-acted, and well-directed (Bateman is skilled on both sides of the camera), but the script is so over-the-top outrageous that the shock value becomes exhausting, and what's left is a fairly limp character drama. There is an attempt at warmth as Trilby forms an unlikely bond with a young contestant, but in the end Trilby is so aggressively mean-spirited and selfish, that it becomes hard to view him with any kind of sympathy, and his mysterious motivation for entering the bee is both a little predictable and underwhelming. Fans of Bateman's famous deadpan might enjoy it, but this one is probably too nasty for most audiences.
Watch if you liked: Bad Santa, Bad Teacher (notice a pattern?), Role Models
Also check out: Young Adult
Maleficent (theatrical release 5/30/14, home release 9/14)
Similar to the treatment that Broadway musical Wicked gave to The Wizard of Oz, Disney's Maleficent examines one of their oldest and most frightening villainesses from a different perspective, but is too confused about what it wants to be, stuck somewhere between a dark character study and a frivolous, CGI-laden children's movie. The premise offers so much to be explored, and Angelina Jolie is mesmerizing as the Mistress of All Evil, with her natural magnetism and dedication to the character's emotional arc; Elle Fanning is also a delight as the teenaged Aurora and plays off Jolie's brooding deadpan quite well. Unfortunately, almost everything else falls short: the script is weak and doesn't offer proper character motivations, the pace is confused and sloppy, the CG effects are good but way overdone, the cinematography is clumsy, bordering on inept, and a major plot twist is borrowed right out of Frozen. Trying to appeal to young audiences really works against the themes; the film would have benefited immeasurably from a darker, more mature and introspective approach and a PG-13 rating, something closer to Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney fans may be interested, but lower your expectations considerably.
Watch if you liked: Sleeping Beauty, Oz the Great and Powerful, Wicked (musical)
Also check out: Princess Mononoke
Noah (theatrical release 3/28/14, home release 7/29/14)
Noah is far from your typical biblical adaptation, and director Darren Aronofsky's approach to the source material gives the film a very distinct identity. Many liberties are taken with the scripture of Noah's story that will likely upset many Christians and bewilder non-believers, but Aronofsky is most interested in examining Noah as a man charged with securing the near-extinction of his home planet's population, and focuses much of the script on that conflict of character. Noah questions why he was chosen, what his duties mean, and if he and his family are exempt from the onslaught. Russell Crowe infuses the character with personal-torment and dedication, and brings this Noah to life, even if he may not resemble the biblical Noah. The cinematography brings out the spectacle of the story, with impressive special effects- the flood scene is truly awe-inspiring. The film is violent and brutal, painting a frightening post-Eden Earth, and though it drags in its excruciating third act, it still offers interesting questions of faith and morality. Though Noah at times more closely resembles The Lord of the Rings than the Book of Genesis, the narrative changes allow for a hard-hitting examination of humanity to be told, as Aronofsky has been known to do.
Watch if you liked: 2012, Gladiator, The Ten Commandments
Also check out: The Fountain
"When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family on "The Brady Bunch". Now we're as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of "The Brady Bunch".
- Abed Nadir, Community
With all the super hero movies coming out these days, it's inevitable that certain actors will start to double-dip. Ryan Reynolds was saddled with both Green Lantern and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he played Deadpool (and to the best of his ability, I might add. It wasn't his fault the writers created an entirely new character instead of the wisecracking Merc with a Mouth). There's also Halle Berry- we can't forget the ladies- though I'm sure SHE would like to forget one of her famous roles in either Catwoman or the X-Men franchise (which one gets your guess?). Finally, there's Chris Evans, who portrayed Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in Fantastic Four (and was one of the best parts of those movies), and then went on to his breakout role, Captain America himself, The First Avenger.
Speaking of Captain America, if you saw the recent sequel The Winter Soldier and hung around until the end of the credits (it's a modern superhero movie! You haven't learned to do this by now?!), you may have been curious who those two new super-powered characters in the prison cells were. That was Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver, who has superhuman speed, and his magical sister Wanda, also known as The Scarlet Witch. These two will play a key role in the Avengers sequel Age of Ultron, and are portrayed by Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively.
Hang on a second. Maximoff? Superhuman speed? Why does that sound so familiar? Well, because PETER Maximoff made a memorable appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past, played by Evan Peters. Though he was never called "Quicksilver" onscreen, it's obvious it is indeed the same character, and Evan Peters will reprise the role in X-Men: Apocalypse. In one scene, you can even see Peter sitting in front of the TV with his young sister on his lap, who presumedly will grow up to be Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (they're supposed to be twins, but otherwise, it has to be her), and will also have a future role in the franchise.
So, really? Two versions of the same character, in different franchises? Can they even do that? Who has the rights? Was this a race to get the character to the screen, clashing egos, licensing disputes, or what? Well, that's really a discussion for a different time, but suffice it to say that these two will play an equally important role- Scarlet Witch, in particular- in both the X-Men and The Avengers universes.
What really makes this amusing, though, is that both actors- Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Evan Peters- played best friends in yet ANOTHER superhero movie, Kick-Ass. That's right, by the way, Taylor-Johnson is now another super hero double-dipper (and so is Matthew Vaughn, who directed both Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class). If Taylor-Johnson and Peters were friends on the set, I have to wonder the kind of phone calls they shared after learning of this whole Quicksilver fiasco.
But there's something else that's a little bothersome. Going back to that Captain America stinger, Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are playing superhero siblings. What's wrong with that? Well, if you saw the recent Godzilla film, you'll notice the two played Ford and Elle Brody, husband and wife! It certainly doesn't help that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch's sibling relationship in the comics has been given a creepy incestuous subtext on more than one occasion...
But hey, we'll get over it. This kind of thing happens all the time in Hollywood, right? Well, yes, yes it does. Blimey, it's not even the first time it's happened THIS YEAR. Movie-goers who went to see Divergent might have noticed a trailer for an upcoming drama, The Fault in Our Stars. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Egort play cancer patients who tragically fall in love despite their terminal diagnoses. It's a tear-jerker and a moving romance based on a best-selling novel, but again, there's one little problem: Woodley and Egort play Tris and Caleb Prior- brother and sister- in Divergent! That's right, the movie this trailer preceded! So in a single sitting, many movie-goers witnessed these two play lovers AND siblings. I guess Stars' tagline, "One sick love story", is accurate.
And if that STILL isn't weird enough, Divergent also features Miles Teller as Peter (man, that's a lot of Peter's in this article), a sociopath who despises Tris and tries to harm or kill her several times. Yet, these two shared the screen last year in The Spectacular Now, where they again, played lovers.
So what can we conclude from all this, besides, "Hollywood is weird, man"? Not much, I suppose, but it sheds some new light on how difficult it must be sometimes for actors to get into the proper headspace to play some of these characters, what with all this weirdness and baggage floating around from previous roles and connections. And on that note, I wish the best to our newest double-dipper, Ben Affleck, as he inhabits the Caped Crusader in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Can he transcend his previous foray into comic book territory, in Daredevil? I hope so. He certainly won't be the first.
Welcome to 5 Movies in 5 Minutes! These will be a series of quick reviews of recent movies, designed to give an overview and give you an idea of whether the film is for you or not. Some of these may be expanded into full reviews down the road.
And with that, let's get to
The Grand Budapest Hotel (theatrical release 3/7/14, home release 6/17/14)
Quintessential Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest combines his visual flair with a fantastic cast and an engaging storyline. Stunning cinematography, with evocative, bright colors and sweeping wide shots gives the film a unique identity, and the quirky characters are all acted perfectly by the huge cast of Anderson veterans and other acting greats. Raph Fiennes is particularly splendid as an eccentric concierge, as is young newcomer Tony Revolori as his loyal lobby boy. The story is deep and emotionally resonant but also surprisingly dark and violent at times. For my money, this is Anderson's magnum opus.
Watch if you liked: The Life Aquatic (or anything else by Wes Anderson), Amelie, Four Rooms
Also check out: Pushing Daisies (TV)
Non-Stop (theatrical release 2/28/14, home release 6/10/14)
Non-Stop begins as a tight, intriguing thriller, with Liam Neeson as Bill Marks, an Air Marshal trying to single out the passenger on his flight who is sending threatening text messages. If that sentence doesn't do it for you, this might be one to skip. The first two-thirds of the movie maintains a great pace and a nice amount of tension, as Bill conducts his own unsanctioned investigation, but the plot begins to unravel under its own ridiculousness. The climax is jarringly silly compared to the great build-up that precedes it, and features a disappointing villain with weak motivation. The sheer awesomeness of Liam Neeson makes the film watchable, but even he can't save it from being forgettable.
Watch if you liked: Taken, Flightplan, Phone Booth
Also check out: Red Eye
Neighbors (theatrical release 5/9/14, home release 9/14)
A typical Seth Rogen stoner comedy, Neighbors has plenty of gross-out humor, foul language, and escalating craziness, but also has a surprising amount of character study and drama. Rather than the "war of pranks" the trailers seemed to bill it as, Neighbors is more about the arrested development of Zac Efron's frat boy, who's afraid to enter post-college life, as well as Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a couple of former-party animals who are still coming to grips with the reality of parenthood. Efron has plenty of charm and handles the dramatic side of his character, but is a bit out of his element comedically, next to Rogen and Dave Franco. Rose Byrne admirably goes toe-to-toe with Rogen's improv and shines, but this one ultimately falls a bit flat as a rip-roaring comedy.
Watch if you liked: Knocked Up, The Hangover, Van Wilder
Also check out: Get Him to the Greek
X-Men: Days of Future Past (theatrical release 5/23/14, home release 9/16/14)
The X-Men franchise has come quite a long way, indeed. Finally the filmmakers have moved past the gimmicky showcases of mutant powers that bogged down previous installments. Days of Future Past employs time travel in a manner that is neither cumbersome nor nonsensical to deliver a dark, dense, multi-character saga that deepens the film mythos, cleverly touches on earlier X-Men outings (both the good and the bad), and above all, entertains immensely. The action scenes are top-notch, with careful attention to detail, and with mutants working as a team in a truly satisfying way. The performances have never been better; Hugh Jackman is reliably great as Wolverine, James McAvoy brings a rare glimpse of pain and loathing to Charles, and Jennifer Lawrence portrays Mystique as never before: alone, wounded, and fiercely determined. Evan Peters is a particular one-scene wonder as the fast-moving Quicksilver; he's hilarious and steals every second he's onscreen. This is certainly not an entry point for viewers unfamiliar with the series, but for fans, this is the best X-Men film yet, and is only setting the stage for further greatness.
Watch if you liked: X2: X-Men United, X-Men First Class, Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Also check out: Watchmen
Oculus (theatrical release 4/11/14, home release 8/5/14)
Oculus is a scary, supernatural creepfest. Adult siblings Kaylie and Tim confront a haunted mirror from their past, that corrupted their parents and ruined their childhood. Kaylie has a plan to expose and destroy the mirror, but the glass won't be taken so easily. The "evil artifact" plotline is done very well, avoiding the easy and typical paths, offering some unique twists and an overall intelligence to the story. Kaylie is a refreshingly savvy protagonist for a horror flick, and the film cleverly integrates some found footage as part of the story. Though it's largely psychological horror, things do get rather disturbing and gory toward the end of the movie. This is a solid chiller, and one I can't believe came from WWE Studios.
Watch if you liked: Paranormal Activity, The Ring, Poltergeist
Also check out: 1408
A longstanding tradition of cinema is the sports movie, usually with that ageless tale of a scrappy underdog overcoming their limitations and defeating the big bad opponent. Within that genre is the ever-popular sports comedy, with such hits as Major League, The Waterboy, and Dodgeball, which tend to focus on the more violent aspects of their respective sports (of course, with Dodgeball that was inevitable). When it comes to hockey, there's Slap Shot, a 1977 screwball comedy with Paul Newman focusing on a ragtag, failing minor league hockey team that decides to go out with a bang and simply fight their way through their last season. The on-ice hijinks of the hilarious Hanson Brothers have made this a favorite with hockey fans and players, and some consider it the best hockey movie ever made. However, in 2012 the movie Goon hit the scene, based on the true story of hockey enforcer Doug Smith, and is a major contender for the best hockey comedy.
Goon was written by Canadians Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, and directed by Canadian Michael Dowse (basically, this movie is one big Canuck-fest). It follows three characters, though we'll actually get to the main character last. French Canadian Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin) is a hockey prodigy on his way to the top when he gets creamed during a game by Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schrieber), a veteran enforcer who hits hard and plays dirty. Laflamme is traumatized by the attack, and can't seem to find his feet on the ice anymore, eventually getting booted down to minors to get his head straight, though instead he becomes a drug-addled washout. Rhea's ruthless tactics catch up with him and after a 20-game suspension for a particularly nasty foul, he gets knocked down to the minors himself, where he will play out the final season of his hockey career with his original team, St. John's Shamrocks. Amid all this, Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) is a dim-witted nice guy working as a bouncer in Massachusetts, who attends a local hockey game with his hockey enthusiast friend (Jay Baruchel) and gets into a fight with one of the visiting players. Doug flattens the guy, catching the eye of the opposing coach, who recruits Doug to his team as an enforcer, trains him to skate halfway decently, and transfers Doug to the Halifax Highlanders where he is tasked with protecting Xavier Laflamme. Though he gets off to a rocky start with Laflamme, "Doug the Thug" comes to enjoy his role as bodyguard for the team, and starts leading Halifax to small victories. All the while, Ross the Boss looms on the horizon, as the Highlanders will eventually play the Shamrocks, and sooner or later Doug will have to go head-to-head with Ross Rhea. It will be a showdown for the ages!
With Baruchel and Goldberg at the helm, Goon really puts the "comedy" in sports comedy. The laughs come fast and loose, as does the profanity and sexual innuendos. The duo are Judd Appatow alums, and that wacky, raunchy style of humor carries over into Goon, which is often described as Slap Shot meets Superbad. The humor, vulgar though it can be, is delivered with such exuberance it's difficult not to get swept up in the fun and laugh along. Most of the humor comes from the Halifax Highlanders and their camraderie both on the ice and in the locker room. They really capture that "motley team of misfits" vibe, are all very well-characterized and funny, as well as a whirlwind of Canadian stereotypes and quirks that make them an overall joy to watch. In fact, one of my few criticisms of the film is that I wish more time was spent with these guys, because their antics could fill a whole movie, easily. Alison Pill plays Doug's love interest, Eva, and does a solid job. It's a good illustration of Doug bringing out the best in people, and they do have some sweet and funny moments, but in the end it feels a bit unnecessary and takes away more potential screentime from the Highlanders. It's also great to see actors show their comedic chops who don't often get to do so, like Liev Schrieber and Kim Coates, as the Highlanders' profane and perpetually angry coach. For the hockey fans, there's a cameo from real NHL enforcer Georges Laraque (twice, even), a hilarious turn by former announcer Curt Keilbach, and many other references to real hockey teams and famous incidents. This film also depicts hockey violence in all its glory, for better or for worse; in fact, I'd say it's one of the bloodiest films you'll see outside of the action or horror genres. It's meant to both celebrate the longstanding tradition of hockey fights, and question our consumption of it, and to that end the hyperviolence works.
Because of the focus on violence and fighting, the up-and-coming underdog story, and the heavy setup of Doug and Ross Rhea's showdown, Goon has been considered "Rocky on ice". There's even certain lines, scenes, and shots that seem directly inspired by the 1976 classic. Perhaps the biggest similarity, and the most beneficial, is the strength of its main character, and it must be mentioned on this front that Sean William Scott (yes, Stifler) gives an amazing performance, perhaps the best of his career. Like Rocky Balboa, Doug Glatt isn't the brightest guy, and is fully aware of the fact. Though he struggles to find his lot in life, Doug more than anything else feels the drive to protect people, and finds that outlet in hockey. This kind of characterization not only gives plenty of depth and charm to Doug, it also examines the role of enforcers in a more nuanced light. In this film, at least, it's not about barbarism or simple thuggery; Doug fights to protect and support his teammates and give them much-needed confidence. Even Doug's first fight, where he was discovered, was about defending his brother's honor. Ross Rhea is also a very compelling character in his own right and anchored by Schrieber's reliably strong portrayal; he's not just a foil for Doug, but a harsh look at the darker side of hockey. Ross is on his way out, and has come to the depressing realization that after everything he's done for the sport, "They just want you to bleed."
Goon is a treat; a film that knows its purpose and gets right to it, delivering a fun and fast-paced ride, while telling a surprisingly touching story about a dumb but sweet bruiser who finds his calling in hockey. For my money, this is a superior film to Slap Shot, which I find to be overlong, muddled, and let's be honest, painfully dated, in everything from its sexual politics to fashions. Goon tells a much more substantial and focused story, with a stronger examination of violence within the sport, and is much more consistently funny, especially when things move off the ice. That's not just to bash Slap Shot, but to point out how much Goon is worth your time. If you're in any way interested in hockey, sports comedies, or just really good comedies in general, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. Goon is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video: free for Prime users, otherwise a $1 rental (!) or $10 purchase. The DVD purchase is only $7.50, though, and definitely a keeper. It will even make for some good Thanksgiving entertainment, once the food has been eaten and the inevitable couch-sitting sets in. Just make sure everyone in the audience is prepared for the violence and language, and have a good time with the Highlanders!
I hope everyone had a great October! The skittish among you can remove your hands from over your eyes, we're done with the horror movies...for now. We'll be doing a new section of reviews, In Case You Missed It, focusing on hidden gems and films from recent years that probably passed under the radar for most people. There's so many movies released every year, it's darn near impossible to see them all, and many good ones fall by the wayside for one reason or another. So let's rectify that!
The Way, Way Back came out earlier this year, July 2013, after premiering at Sundance in January. It was written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who had success in 2011- including an Oscar- with their screenplay for The Descendants, starring George Clooney. The Way, Way Back follows Duncan, an awkward, introverted teenager who is reluctantly on summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent's daughter Steph, as they go to Trent's beach house in Cape Cod. Trent is pushy and emotionally abusive toward Duncan, who is still coming to terms with his mother dating again. After being continually ignored by the adults and shunned by Steph, Duncan starts exploring the cape and discovers the local water park, Water Wizz. There he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an offbeat slacker whose entertaining antics and friendly demeanor Duncan finds oddly welcoming. As the situation back at home becomes increasingly uncomfortable, Water Wizz becomes Duncan's escape for the summer, as he makes new friends with the staff and finds a place he can finally fit in, and actually begins to enjoy his vacation.
The Way, Way Back doesn't break much new ground, with similarities to movies like Meatballs, Dirty Dancing, and Adventureland. The plot is neither very original nor all that complex, but it tackles these familiar stories with wit and presents a charming coming-of-age tale. Many elements of the script are taken directly from Jim Rash's own childhood, including Trent's opening monologue to Duncan (originating from Rash's stepfather), which has to be heard to be believed. The film was thusly intended to take place in the mid-80s, before being updated to modern day, and as a result has a very nostalgic feel, with 80s references all over the place. Amid the iPods and jaded post-modern youth, there's Pac-Man, REO Speedwagon and Mr. Mister (complete with misheard lyric "carry a laser"), and a water park that is mentioned to be intentionally stuck in 1983. The title itself refers to the back seat of an old family station wagon, the ones that faced backward, which is not only a nostalgic detail but dramatically relevant; Duncan is stuck back there as a means of being marginalized by Trent, essentially on a separate vacation from everyone else.
The star-studded cast does a great job in each of their roles; Liam James as Duncan captures the discomfort of adolescence and the misery of being stuck with unwanted company quite well. Toni Collette is solid as his conflicted mother, clinging to Trent to avoid being alone after divorce. Steve Carrell takes on a rare antagonistic role and really does his job, which is making you want to punch Trent right in the face. Allison Janney steals most of her scenes as the hilariously inappropriate and boozily obnoxious neighbor Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb plays her daughter Susanna, a sensible teen who is jaded by all the immaturity the adults around her display, and who is also a love interest for Duncan. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon themselves play supporting roles as two Water Wizz employees. The Oscar-winning writers are no strangers to acting; Nat Faxon is currently starring in Ben and Kate on FOX, and Jim Rash became a breakout star as the eccentric Dean Pelton in NBC's Community. They're both quite amusing in their roles, especially Rash with his extremely dry delivery of lines. Maya Rudolph even makes an appearance as Owen's long-suffering girlfriend. Sam Rockwell steals the show, however, as Owen. He is hilarious every second he's on screen, while bringing much warmth and moral support to Duncan's life. Rockwell's rapid-fire dialogue, improvisation, and "lovable sleazeball" persona evoke the classic roles of the great Bill Murray; indeed, Rockwell said he was inspired by Murray's head counselor character from Meatballs.
If this all sounds trite or frivolous to you- "Oh, this poor kid and his first world problems, dealing with boredom on his vacation to a beautiful beach town, boo hoo"- I can't argue with that too much; 12 Years a Slave this is not. But The Way, Way Back is more than that: it's about finding something in life you can really care about and excel at. It's about not letting jerks like Trent dominate the social sphere simply because they have a more forceful personality (something introverts have to deal with all the time). Above all, it's about finding love and acceptance and forming true familial bonds. Such themes are universal, and elevate The Way, Way Back above its modest beginnings, while Sam Rockwell's comedic performance is among his best. The film is available on Amazon Instant Viewing for a $5 rental, $13 purchase, with the DVD/Blu-ray price as $15/$20. It's rated PG-13 for language (the word "shit" is used a fair amount), so if you're looking for some family-friendly comedy viewing this Thanksgiving, give The Way, Way Back a look. The humor and nostalgia make it quite the feel-good film. And if you missed last year's The Descendants, check that one out, too. Rash and Faxon are emerging as quite the filmmaking team, and their sophmore effort here is an immensely enjoyable and heartwarming entry.
The final night of 31 Days of Horror! As tonight is Halloween, it only seems fitting that this entry be an actual Halloween movie. Trick 'r Treat was written and directed by Michael Dougherty in 2007, but for various reasons was not released theatrically at the time, with even the DVD and Blu-ray release being shelved for a couple years. As a result, the film is still fairly unknown, though it has gathered a strong cult following. This under-exposure is highly unfortunate, as Trick 'r Treat is not only a fantastic and fun horror flick, it's the quintessential Halloween movie, truly capturing the lore and flavor of the holiday.
The film takes place in Warren Valley, a Halloween-o-phile's dream. The entire town goes all-out for it, with each house impeccably decorated, everyone wearing an elaborate costume, and even a Halloween parade! Trick 'r Treat is an anthology film, following the adventures of different characters all across town. A young couple (Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett) handles their yard clean-up, while the wife laments the holiday. Principal Wilkins (Dylan Baker) deals with a troublesome student outside of class in a rather severe manner. Laurie (Anna Paquin), a 20-something virgin, tries to find a date for a Halloween party, ignoring the taunts of her older sister and friends. A young group of trick or treaters string along their savant classmate Rhonda (Samm Todd) on a Halloween prank, while recounting yet another story, a local legend involving a school bus and a rock quarry. Finally, old man Kreeg (Brian Cox) is a Halloween-hating curmudgeon who gets a harsh lesson in appreciating the holiday. Each story has its own style and focus, but they are closely intertwined- quite cleverly, in fact- and all feature the same little orange-pajama and scarecrow-mask-wearing tyke, Sam (we'll get to him). These all take place on the same night- except for the School Bus Story, which is told in flashback- each end with some kind of horrific twist, and they each bring out a different theme related to Halloween.
The anthology format works quite well, allowing a broader focus on all things Halloween-related, and giving the viewer a bit of everything. The Principal's Story is funny, employing gross-out humor and black comedy mixed with a brand supsense from the likes of Psycho, as Wilkins has to deal with a messy problem despite much unwanted attention. Laurie's story is slower and more eerie, as she tries to find a suitable guy for the party, in a town apparently full of crazy and dangerous people. Her story also becomes more enjoyable on repeat viewings, as the twist brings to light a myriad of jokes and references that were missed the first time around.
The story with the young trick or treaters is the creepiest, and feels like a nostalgic throwback to childhood movies like Monster Squad or Hocus Pocus, with Halloween pranks and hijinks abound. The retelling of the School Bus legend evokes the age-old tradition of recounting scary stories around the campfire, and the School Bus story itself is a haunting tale with an ending that will chill you to the bone. Kreeg's story is most reminiscent of a classic haunted house or stalking monster flick, as he battles a mysterious enemy that won't stop until it's gotten what it wants, and is alternately scary and funny. Kreeg's story actually has two endings, but we won't spoil that here.
Trick 'r Treat has some grisly and gruesome moments, and it's notable that the punishable offense in this film isn't being "bad" or "mean", but rather being irreverent to Halloween and its customs. The character of Sam is there to enforce that theme. He is a fun little enigma, cute in his pajama costume but still somehow sinister. As noted above, he appears in each vignette, usually just making a cameo, but occasionally taking a more active role. He's a well designed mascot for the film, combining youthful innocence and malevolent mischief, two qualities that compose Halloween, and he's even named after the holiday's ancestor, Samhain. The film is also chock-full of references and homages to the horror genre. The anthology format and comic book framing device evoke Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt. Laurie and her sister Danielle seem to be alluding to Laurie Strode and her niece Jaime Lloyd (played by Danielle Harris) from the Halloween franchise. There's also a glimpse of a masked man who just stands and stares, just like Michael Myers in the original Halloween. There are even shout-outs to the likes of Pet Semetary, The Thing and Evil Dead. If the film didn't feel Halloween-y enough already, there are pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns in just about every scene, delightfully carved and possessing plenty of character themselves.
Trick 'r Treat is a wonderful ode to Halloween, and a criminally under-seen film. It delves into the traditions and history of Samhain with great respect, and the film is overflowing with spooky ambience, darkly funny moments, and some genuine frights. The cinematography is amazing, with beautiful, wide shots, and so many elaborately decorated locales and creepy settings. The School Bus Story is especially well-shot and absolutely gorgeous, despite the horrific events that unfold. This is the perfect movie for a Halloween party, with the absorbing atmosphere being properly thematic, and the anthology format allowing everyone to find something to enjoy in the film. Trick 'r Treat is available on Amazon Instant Video for a $2 rental, a DVD purchase available for $5 or a Blu-ray for $7. These are absolute steals, so don't hestitate! This one is destined to become a classic, so hop on board and enjoy the Halloween fun.... or Sam will get you!
It's the eve of All Hallow's Eve! Tonight, we take a look at Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a television movie that aired on CBS in October 1981, written by J. D. Fiegelson and directed by Frank De Felitta. It follows the story of Bubba, a mentally retarded adult living in a small backwoods town that doesn't understand or accept him. In particular, the local postman, Otis Hazelrigg (how's that for a name?) has a deep mistrust of Bubba and his odd-but-innocent friendship with a young girl, Marylee. When Marylee is involved in a tragic accident, Bubba is blamed and Otis and his posse of good ol' boys take justice into their own hands. They track down Bubba and ruthlessly execute him while he stands hidden in a scarecrow outfit. After a somewhat goofy trial scene (with the defending lawyer repeatedly yelling "Objection!" with no legal context), the men resume their daily routines, living with the horror of what they've done. But not everyone is so forgiving, and as the men start seeing scarecrows appearing in the fields, they realize vengeance can go both ways...
Don't let the made-for-TV status fool you; this is a dark and spooky film, never lame or cheesy like so many of its brethren. For a movie made in 1981 that aired on television, Dark Night of the Scarecrow has some surprisingly edgy content, with the harassment of the mentally challenged, vicious vigiliantism, cold-blooded murder, and even allegations of pedophilia being central to the plot. The filmmakers used their low budget and minimalist structure to full effect, creating a sense of dread and tension that slowly builds throughout the film. The titular scarecrow is well conceived; rarely seen, but causing fear and panic whenever he does appear. Scarecrows are naturally creepy, always watching... and waiting... despite being made of straw, of course. The rural setting is also used brilliantly, with wide open, blustery fields and country roads making for some beautiful but eerie scenery, and farm machinery has never seemed creepier than it does here. The kills are all karmic (most of them, anyway), well-shot, and chilling. The film is quite violent, but wisely doesn't show much blood or gore. It couldn't, of course, being shown on broadcast television, but nevertheless it proves it doesn't take bloody carnage for a film to be frightening.
The performances are great and ground the film. Larry Drake is sweet and innocent (in contrast to some of his later, creepy roles) as the hapless Bubba, and Jocelyn Brando (sister to Marlon Brando) gives a fierce but touching performance as his protective mother. Lane Smith is solid as one of the good ol' boys, not as nasty as their leader but still corrupt, and Tonya Crowe really delivers as young Marylee, alternately portraying joy, fear, and hatred, all with a youthful innocence, but never falling prey to the typical pitfalls of child acting. It's a shame the actress never did much beyond Knots Landing. Finally, there's the film's villain, Otis. Charles Durning is an old veteran, and makes Otis Hazelrigg a truly awful character that you can't help but hate. He is small-minded, manipulative, and self-serving, a muderer and closet alcoholic (and possibly a closet something-else) who drives every bad thing that happens in the film. This is probably the most despicable role Durning ever had in his long, illustrious career, but it's still an amazing performance.
Dark Night is essentially a slasher, though less bloody and more subdued that the typical fare. While the kills are scary and violent, the movie is really about the horror of humanity, how ghastly people can be and how quickly and terribly things can spiral out of control. Otis is a horrid person, for sure, but he's also a scared man trapped by his bad decisions and desperately trying to find a way out. He only makes things worse, spinning a bigger web of lies and violence, and several people have to suffer by his hands before he's finished. When fate finally closes in on Otis, you'll find yourself spooked and satisfied in about equal measures.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an amazing little gem, a made-for-TV movie that transcends its modest stature and delivers the chills and thrills, with believable characters, a well-paced and absorbing plot, and a spooky autumn atmosphere that is perfect for Halloween. The score by Glenn Paxton is ominous and alluring, and plays a vital role, the cues used to accentuate the frightening scenes masterfully. On the whole, the film evokes the feeling of the seminal Halloween (1978), a creepy slasher that relied more on mood and subtlety than blood or jump scares. I don't usually review the actual formats of films themselves, but it must be said that the recent DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film are nothing short of fantastic, looking and sounding amazing for a TV movie from the early 80s. You can find the entire movie on YouTube, but if you want to experience it in full, buy or rent one of these releases; you won't regret it. If you want a slower, more atmospheric horror film, with a gorgeous rural setting and the perfect victims, track down Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
We're going to take a break from scaring ourselves today and have a little fun with another video game. Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game designed by George Fan and published by PopCap in 2009. For the uninitiated, tower defense is a type of strategy game in which you keep an invading army from reaching your castle (or whatever you're defending) by placing defensive units on the battlefield. These units differ in strength, purpose, and cost, and their placement on the battlefield is key to heading off the opposing army. To succeed, you have to balance your resources, ensuring good coverage of the field while not depleting your backup units or the currency you're using to purchase them. Plants vs. Zombies took this formula and adapted it, giving it a new theme, tweaked game mechanics, and a distinct personality, while making it accessible to gamers of all levels. Instead of a castle, you are now defending your house, and your neighbor, Crazy Dave, will guide you through the onslaught. The battlefield is now your front lawn (or your back lawn, pool, or even the roof!), and you must use plants- peashooters, cabbage-pults, and the like- to fend off endless hordes of zombies that are trying to reach your front door and eat your tasty brains!
The thematic overhaul is a welcome one, taking tower defense beyond the typical medieval/fantasy setting, and the plants and zombies fit into their respective roles quite well. Plants make sense as defense towers, being literally rooted to the spot you plant them, and the currency you use to purchase them is sunlight- collected from sunflowers or the sun itself. Zombies make a good invasion army, as they are literally mindless hordes that would make a suicide charge across your lawn with no regard for themselves. They don't pose much of a threat individually- at least not your garden variety types- but in great numbers can quickly overwhelm you, which is consistent with their portrayal in classic zombie movies.
Plants vs. Zombies has a wonderful visual aesthetic, as is to be expected from PopCap. The interface is clean and you won't have any trouble understanding what your different plants do. The zombies are well-designed; clearly zombies but with a cartoony look that is more appealing than scary. The violence is similarly inoffensive; as they take damage, zombies will lose an arm and then their heads (actually a helpful damage indicator), or they will be incinerated in explosions, Wile E. Coyote-style, turning completely black before disintegrating into a pile of ash. As such, if you feel comfortable explaining to your kids the basic nature of zombies, I would say this game is appropriate for all ages. On that note, the game's difficulty curve is extremely gradual, easing new players into the process at a good pace, introducing one new plant or zombie type at a time (and typically, the new additions go hand-in-hand; the new plants are needed to fight the new zombies).
The game isn't very difficult, but that doesn't mean you won't spend a lot of time with it. Plants vs. Zombies does a lot with its simple concept, and offers many innovative ways to play. The main game has a plethora of amusing zombies and even more plant types, giving you many different strategies and ways of using your army. There are many types of undead invaders, ranging from Football and Disco Zombies (disco is dead, get it?) to Pole-Vaulting and Pogo Zombies, which can bypass your defenses. My personal favorite is the Zomboni, who plows over your plants and leaves a trail of ice, soon to be followed by Bobsled Zombies. You are given different plants to cope with all of this, simple shooters and catapults, but also plants that attack from below or behind, and a hefty arsenal of explosives. For night levels- where sun is at a premium- you will probably want to use Mushrooms, which cost less but come with their own weaknesses. The game is never really scary, but can certainly make you nervous and panicked as your forces are overwhelmed, especially in the later levels.
Beyond that, Plants vs. Zombies has tons of modes, minigames, and supplemental content to keep you entertained, backed by a list of worthy achievements (that are actually fun and interesting to try) and a downloadable content system that is actually fair and smart- you don't have to spend a dime to unlock everything in the game. The minigames and different modes are brilliantly designed; they offer a completely different play experience while still remaining true to the theme and style of the game. Some of them could be entire games themselves, especially "I, Zombie" which reverses things and lets you be the invasion force, trying to bypass the plants and reach those coveted brains!
Plants vs. Zombies is a superb game, offering an engaging tower defense experience with enough tweaks and innovations to stay fresh and fun. It functions perfectly as a portable game, allowing 5-minute game sessions whenever you have the downtime. Above all, the game is FUNNY! Crazy Dave is bizarre and has some great lines, the zombies and their animations are amusing, and all the little in-jokes and references complete the experience. Each plant and zombie have their own entry in the Almanac, and they are all hilariously written and quirky. The music is also fantastic, composed by Laura Shigihara. The tracks have a classic feel to them, infused with a little funk here and there, and are catchy enough not to be obnoxious when looped. Particular standouts are "Graze the Roof" and "Braniac Maniac" which accompany the final levels, as well as the game-ending track, "Zombie on Your Lawn", which is hilarious and actually has vocals. Plants vs. Zombies is available on just about every platform, including PC, Mac, Steam, mobile devices, portable systems and home consoles, and the app is currently $1 on iTunes. If you have yet to play this game, go out and get it! It is a wonderful experience and a fun, safe way to get some zombie action this Halloween.
In 1993, Chris Carter debuted The X-Files on Fox, about a basement division of the FBI that investigated cases "too weird" for the rest of the bureau, and television was never the same again. The show became known for its complex, season-long myth arcs and focus on the supernatural, and it paved the way for a new age of science fiction and horror television, influencing shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and later hits Lost and Fringe. It carved out its own niche of a timeslot, establishing Sunday nights as the evening for more cerebral, well-written programs (something still seen to this day on AMC, HBO, and Showtime). The main characters, agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, would become television icons, and even the theme song had a legacy, the tune being associated with the eerie and the supernatural in general. While the show waned in quality and popularity in its later years, its early seasons and several key episodes are still regarded very highly, and that's where we look tonight.
"Squeeze" is the third episode of the first season of The X-Files, written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed (mostly) by Harry Longstreet. It was the first episode to veer away from the aliens and government conspiracy and instead focused on an original, individual villain- a standard format of these types of shows, known as a Monster of the Week episode. When a string of grisly murders leaves no easy leads and no conceivable entry point, one of her old FBI colleagues taps Scully for her newfound experience with weird cases. It seems the victims were all missing one vital organ...their livers! Where's the fava beans and an Amarone when you need them? Scully brings Mulder in, and he finds evidence that leads him to believe the case is connected to other murders from decades ago. As they close in on a suspect, Eugene Tooms, they realize he is more wily than they could have guessed. Mulder is sure Tooms is responsible, but without evidence or an explanation, is his theory too much of a stretch?
"Squeeze" is a fantastic episode. It works as a stand-alone perfectly, and is one of the scariest hours of The X-Files, which is no easy feat. The murders are gruesome (though not graphic) and very creepy, as we initially don't know how exactly Tooms is committing them. Even when his method is revealed- in a brilliantly shot sequence- it is so unnerving it's difficult not to simply stare at the screen agape. Doug Hutchison portrayed Eugene Tooms, and did an excellent job, supposedly channeling Anthony Hopkins' performance from The Silence of the Lambs. He is just so off-putting and menacing even when he's claiming to be innocent, and when his rage really manifests, it's terrifying. David Duchovny does a great job as usual as Mulder, earnestly invested in his quest for truth, but still injecting plenty of humor into the proceedings- he loves screwing with the disbelieving agents around him, and they usually deserve it. This is Scully's episode, though, and Gillian Anderson fabulously portrays her dealing with divided loyalties- does she stand by Mulder and see the case through, past the point of credibility? Or will she choose her old colleagues and old career, and finally find a way out of the basement? It's a compelling dilemma that gives Scully plenty to consider while still dealing with the horrific case in front of her, and it touches on the themes that would persist throughout the seasons, of truth versus agency politics.
The pairing of Mulder and Scully is one of the defining elements of The X-Files. "Spooky Mulder" firmly believes in the supernatural, having seen many incidents firsthand, and has a conspiracy theory for every refuted instance. Scully is a scientist and the skeptic of the two, refusing to believe in the creepy stuff until she can observe and prove it empirically. This dichotomy was usually used within the show to explore the themes of knowledge vs. truth, the supernatural, and the malevolence of governement coverups. In this Monster of the Week episode, it is used to subtly heighten the terror and mystery, as we wonder whose theory disturbs us less. Is Tooms some kind of demon, abandoning or abusing his shell of a body to slaughter his victims and mutilate their corpses? Or is he a mortal man, part of some serial killer lineage, who has found some way to fool forensics, and can severely contort himself? Does he take the livers because he needs them, or simply because he wants to? Which answer is scarier? Sometimes it took these Monster-of-the-Week to dig up the real horror of The X-Files. The government coverups were almost comforting- it at least meant the government knew what was going on and were keeping tabs on it. Tooms, on the other hand, is an isolated, unchecked, terrifying threat. He can appear seemingly out of nowhere, kill you with his bare hands, and vanish from the scene without a trace, without anyone ever knowing what really happened.
Tooms was so frightening, in fact, and so popular that he actually made a second appearance toward the end of Season 1, in the appropriately-named episode, "Tooms". We will likely visit that followup in a future horror countdown, but for now, enjoy what "Squeeze" has to offer: an absorbing mystery, a creepy and well-paced investigation of answers, and a Monster of the Week that proved Monsters of the Week were a viable format. It offers significant character development for Scully and some great one-liners from Mulder. The episode ends on a wonderful note; the case is resolved but things are still open for more possibilites, something that X-Files was all about. Season 1 is available on both Netflix streaming and Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime users, $2 per episode otherwise), and "Squeeze" is episode 1x03. Stretch your mind and give it a watch this Halloween!
Before we go any further into this countdown, I should make something clear: I am TERRIFIED of ventriloquist dummies. They are among the creepiest things ever invented, and if it wasn't for the great respect I have for the difficult and underappreciated art of ventriloquism, I would throw every dummy I came across into a woodchipper and then set it ablaze. It may be due to the Goosebumps book Night of the Living Dummy, which, despite Goosebumps' later reputation for repetitive formula and lameness, was actually a pretty frightening book for young me- Slappy and the other dummies were surprisingly evil. It may simply be due to the Uncanny Valley, and how unnatural dummies look and feel. Or it may just be the fact that every time I see one of these glassy-eyed, slack-jawed, wooden-headed freaks, I can't shake the feeling that it actually might BE ALIVE (ahh kill it with fire!) Imagine my fear, then, my unbridled terror when I saw the trailer for Dead Silence. Oh boy, here it is. A slasher film revolving around ventriloquist dummies and dolls and the crazy old lady who owned them, by the guys behind Saw! What could possibly be scarier?
Dead Silence was written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan in 2007, the creative team behind Saw and Insidious. The film opens with a young couple receiving a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist doll. If I was the protagonist, the movie would end immediately because that thing would go headfirst down the garbage disposal, but I'm not and so here we are. When the husband- Jamie- steps out to get some Chinese food for dinner, the wife experiences an eerie moment where every sound in the aparment goes completely silent...right before she meets her grisly end. The police like Jamie for the murder, but he has a different theory, and takes off with the dummy (who's named Billy, by the way) back to Ravens Fair, his hometown and the source of a spooky legend, summarized in the nursery rhyme above. As Jamie investigates Mary Shaw's grave, her performing theater, and stories about her from the mortician (Michael Fairman, giving the best performance in the film), he learns that Shaw was killed by locals after being implicated in the death of a boy who heckled her on stage during her ventriloquism act. Ever since then, the men involved in Shaw's death and all their descendants have been dying mysterious and gory deaths, and Jamie and his father may be the last in line.
Dead Silence gets a few things very right; the eerie atmosphere is quite well done, with a creepy, decaying feeling all about Ravens Fair. Though the film is given an overbearing blue tint throughout, overdoing things a bit, the production design is generally fantastic. The abandoned theater is a great set, decrepit and dusty, holding secrets and evils unknown within its walls. The ventriloquist dolls are scary enough to be effective simply on principle, and the scenes of everything becoming silent right before an attack are quite terrifying, superbly conceived and realized. The film even opens with an old Universal logo from the silent era, which was a nice touch. "Throwing one's voice" has such wonderful potential in a horror film, and while it is used to good effect in Dead Silence, so much more could have been done with it, particularly in lieu of less effective sequences. The performances are generally lacking, though as mentioned Michael Fairman does a great job as the mortician, and Donnie Wahlberg gives an amusing if undercooked performance as a sleazy detective. There is a twist ending, something apparently mandatory in horror these days, and while you may see it coming, it's actually a pretty great twist, thematic and interesting in its own right.
For all it does right, though, Dead Silence still comes up short. There's just no getting around how boring this film is; too many characters are stiffly acted, too many scenes of dialogue poorly written, and the plot is so riddled with holes and problems it's tough to even separate them. Suffice it to say that the Mary Shaw legend- the one the film hinges on- could have used a lot more work. The mechanics of her "curse", her motivation in killing a particular character, and her start of darkness are all pretty ambiguous; Mary Shaw's rage doesn't really frighten us because it doesn't fully make sense. Hell, even the nursery rhyme itself is weak- "Shaw" and "dolls" do not rhyme, and the cadence just feels off. I wouldn't normally harp on such things, but it reflects the half-assed manner in which this film's villain was realized. Finally, the gore is fairly subdued (for the Saw guys, anyway) but still unnecessary. *Mild Spoilers* The filmmakers also went with a disasterous production choice and decided to give Mary Shaw an enormous CGI tongue late in the film. The idea is that Mary steals the tongues of her victims and keeps their voices, but the thing is just so ridiculous it completely took me out of the film. The film forwent its subtle scares- the creepiness of a dummy's eyes moving to stare at you, or the eerieness of hearing a voice from somewhere you shouldn't- and opted for a ten-foot-long, obviously fake monstrosity pieced together from stolen tongues. It completely kills the spooky tension built up in that scene, and just looks silly. *End Spoilers*
Dead Silence is a disappointment, but it's an enjoyable disappointment. It's a good illustration of what works and what doesn't in the horror genre, and it has style and spookiness to spare. The ventriloquism theme and the device of total silence are brilliantly devised, but they could have used a much stronger script surrounding them. It seems even the creators knew the turkey that they made- screenwriter Leigh Whannell cites the film as a cautionary tale of pitch-selling and working with studios, so it is likely not even his fault that the script ended up feeling so patchwork. It's not a lost cause for a Halloween party viewing- the dummies provide the scares and the characters and plot will provide the laughs. However, the film is unavailable on Netflix streaming and is a whopping $10 on Amazon Instant Video (not worth it), so unless you'd like to own the DVD or catch it in the TV lineup, you probably won't be seeing this one anytime soon. Or hearing it!