Saturday, February 28, 2015

RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Beloved Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy died yesterday.  He was 83.

Nimoy succumbed to his bout with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which was attributed to his years of smoking, a habit he quit thirty years ago.

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Nimoy would develop a love of stage and screen acting and also pursued other artistic endeavors like poetry, photography, directing, and making music, but it was his signature role as Mr. Spock on the sci-fi favorite Star Trek that would endear him to legions of fans.

Nimoy had a significant amount of input into the development of Spock (the Vulcan salute, the nerve pinch, the phrase "live long and prosper," all Nimoy), bringing a lot of himself to the character.  Mr. Spock, and by extension Nimoy, was the first cool dork in pop culture.  If there is a center of the current massive explosion in Nerd Culture, that center would be Mr. Spock, and by extension, Mr. Nimoy.

Leonard Nimoy, by all accounts, was a thoughtful, compassionate human being (he fought to get co-star Nichelle Nichols equal pay to her male counterparts on Star Trek), who was always kind and gracious towards his fans and supportive of other artists.  It's sad he's gone, but he lived long and he prospered, and I'm glad he shared it with us.
Rest in Peace, Leonard.

Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
Them! (1954)

Star Trek (1966-69)
Mission: Impossible (1969-71)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Some Nimoy quotes:  "I believe in goodness, mercy, and charity.  I believe in casting bread upon the waters."

"I think it's my adventure, my trip, my journey, and I guess my attitude is, let the chips fall where they may."

Nimoy's final tweet:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Top 15 Films of 2014

As I did with last year's Top Films List, I'm posting my personal favorite films from 2014 list today on Oscar Sunday.  I don't feel the need to rush and finish a Best of the Year List at the end of said year, especially when there are more films I need to see and consider.  The extra time to catch up is quite nice, but even with six extra weeks there are things I still haven't seen, including NightcrawlerSelma, Interstellar, Force Majeure, Ida, The Overnighters, Citizenfour, Enemy, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Wetlands, The One I Love, Listen Up Philip, We are the Best, and others.

2014 was a good year for movies.  These were my favorites.

TOP 15 FILMS OF 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Picking a favorite film of the year is sometimes difficult.  This year there were a lot of contenders,  and I struggled a little bit with this, but in the end I feel that The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most entertaining and well crafted films of the year and has potential to be an all-timer.  This may very well be Wes Anderson's best film, as everything in it is running at peak-Anderson levels; the characters, the cast, the humor, the darkness, the violence, the cinematography, the turns of events, the layered story structure, everything just hums with excellence.  This one is a real treat.

Under the Skin
Ostensibly a difficult film (it took me two viewings to fully fall under its spell), viewers who give themselves over to the very specific rhythms of its images will be rewarded, as there are some rather stunning visuals and special effects work, as well as a particularly unnerving film score, contained within this art-house/science fiction hybrid.  Starring a perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson, director Jonathan Glazer has delivered a thoughtful, challenging, and beautiful sci-fi film, one worthy of further dissection and admiration for years to come.

The Guest
From the filmmakers of last year's home invasion thriller You're Next comes this immensely enjoyable film, one that I watched with a big, stupid grin on my face.  This movie delivers on so many levels; the action, the mystery, the dread, the music (that Mike Simonetti song that plays in the bar scene is KILLER!), the humor, the visuals, the acting, everything just pops and is spot-on.  Dan Stevens is magnetic in the lead role of David, somehow pulling off the impossible task of playing a character that is the hero of an action movie and also the villain in a horror film.  The rest of the cast is also great, I particularly loved the younger brother, Luke, and all of his perfect reactions to the stuff David tells him.  The Guest definitely has its influences, namely the early films of John Carpenter, The Terminator, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but it manages to wholly be its own thing, and that thing is a completely engaging and entertaining action-thriller-horror film!

Blue Ruin
A wonderfully staged and executed revenge thriller, one of the best I've seen in quite some time.  It's tense, bleak, and brutal, but also finds time for moments of quiet heartbreak, thanks to an excellent lead performance by Macon Blair.  Don't sleep on this one.

This is one of those big idea science fiction films that uses its silly premise (in the future, the last remnants of humanity reside on a super fast train that travels around the ice-covered, uninhabitable world) to comment on and work as an allegory for things that are happening in society and in the modern world around us.  In addition to that, it's a kickass action film with some great visuals.  Director Bong Joon-Ho delivers all of the style and personal flair found in his South Korean films (this was his first English language picture), and Chris Evans delivers a great lead performance, subverting and using his Captain America charm to great effect.

Everything you've heard is true; Richard Linklater's Boyhood is excellent.  The gimmick of filming over the course of 12 years works, imbuing the characters with extra depth, and the way the film breathes and moves makes for a breezy almost-three hour watch.  Patricia Arquette gives a great performance, brave and raw in its honesty, and she absolute deserves the Academy Award.

Starry Eyes
2014 was a good year for genre films, and when it came to straight-up horror films, Starry Eyes was without a doubt my favorite.  Alex Essoe gives a strong lead performance as a young actress trying to make it in Hollywood, willing to do whatever necessary.  This movie works very much as a metaphor for the perils of ambition and for the terrible, horrible things that await Young Hollywood.  Invoking thoughts of early Polanski and Cronenberg, this film is disturbing, uncomfortable, and brutal in its violence, while handling its imagery beautifully with plenty of doses of whatthefuckery, and, not to mention, it has a GREAT synth score.  Basically, it has everything I look for in a great horror film.

Intense and gripping, this is a must-see for all the drummers and jazz musicians out there.  This is a fantastic study of the competitive spirit that is within an individual as they pursue personal perfection and how that competitiveness must smash through roadblocks like self doubt and the challenges of being mentored by an egomaniac and borderline sadistic teacher.  J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are both excellent, this one grabs you and doesn't let up!  Oh yeah, and all movies should end with an epic drum solo like this one.

The Babadook
Here's a creepy good one out of Australia.  This is a smart film, working on many metaphoric levels, basically dealing with the damaging psychological effects of repressed resentment and guilt and with suppressing that dark parental urge to sometimes want to murder your annoying child.  Essie Davis gives a standout performance as the tormented mother, bringing a weary sympathy to her character that helps later during darker moments in the film when the evil entity enters her house.

Inherent Vice
While I may not be 100% sure what was going on at all times in this movie, I still enjoyed the ride.  This is a difficult film to get a narrative grasp on, which might be due to its faithfulness to the source material (I've not read Pynchon's novel), as characters mumble and speak endlessly at one another about things that happened offscreen in scenes that are long, single takes (actually, those scenes are mostly great).  I loved the look of the film, the fuzzy/grainy texture to it.  It's very authentically '70s, in look, style, design, and in those long takes.  Joaquin Phoenix nails his role as Doc Sportello, he's great.  Josh Brolin is great too.  The way he eats a banana is hilarious!

Guardians of the Galaxy
The best of the summer blockbusters!  Funny, action packed, big weird science fiction stuff, cool comic book nerd stuff, some nice emotional moments, and a thumping soundtrack.  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista are all great, and that talking tree and raccoon are pretty cool, too.  Great popcorn movie fun and further proof that Marvel Studios knows what they're doing.

John Wick
John Wick is a B movie with A+ action choreography.  Keanu is in full badass mode and shoots a ton of people in the head while on his path of vengeance.  The nightclub scene is a highlight, as is the cast, mostly in small but crucial roles (Dafoe, McShane, Leguizamo).  My only major complaint with the film is some of the musical choices, as parts of the score and soundtrack are decidedly not cool '90s guitar rock.  The Marilyn Manson song that is used, not once, but twice(?!), is incredibly distracting in what is otherwise a tight revenge-action movie.

Gone Girl
A horror film for married dudes.  This is a good, pulpy thriller, even if some of the third act shenanigans don't hold up to narrative scrutiny.  David Fincher doesn't fool around when it comes to filmcraft, so you can count on the movie looking great and moving like clockwork.  The score is really good, as are some of the performances (particularly the sister).  Rosamund Pike plays one of the best villains of the year.

The entirety of this movie is Tom Hardy driving in his car and talking on a speaker phone, dealing with work and life problems for 90 minutes, AND IT IS ABSOLUTELY RIVETING!!

The Raid 2
Narratively this is more dense than the first one (honestly, I got lost a little in what was going on) but the action scenarios are top notch.  The prison yard rumble!  Prakoso!  Baseball Bat Man!  Hammer Girl!  Yes, Yes, and YES!!

the next ten:

-Captain America: The Winter Soldier - This spy adventure action thriller is one of Marvel's best!

-Joe - Nicolas Cage gives a wonderfully understated performance in this great David Gordon Green film.

-Obvious Child - A very funny romantic comedy about abortion.

-Only Lovers Left Alive - Light on the vampire stuff but heavy on the Jarmusch.  I liked it.

-Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I am very pleased with the way these new ape movies are turning out.

-Coherence - A low budget sci-fi head trip, full of general unease and tension that slowly ramps up.

-Edge of Tomorrow - Watch Tom Cruise die a bunch of times!  I just wish the aliens weren't so generic.

-Finding Vivian Maier - A solid documentary about an undiscovered, eccentric street photographer.

-Noah - I admire the boldness of such a film; the "creation sequence" is one of the best scenes of the year.

-Jodorowsky's Dune - The amazing story of the greatest movie never made.

and. . . . .
The Most Overrated Film of the Year:  
Okay, here's the thing...sure, we all love Michael Keaton, we can all agree on that, but Birdman, on a whole, isn't that gripping or compelling or interesting of a story (and honestly, Keaton is merely only okay in the role).  I actually found parts of it to be a slog.  This is the kind of movie that actors and Hollywood types and entertainment people love to fawn over because it speaks to and strokes their egos.  However, the script has no subtext as everything is pure surface level, delivered in literal and obvious manners (lots of characters proclaiming and exclaiming who they are and what they mean) that rob the film of any true depth or emotion.  The themes of this movie are very easy to extract, which might be another reason for its popularity: it's a dumbly written movie that convinces people it is smart because of how it was made, because how it was made is what is truly impressing (and fooling) people about this movie.

Birdman is filmed in such a way that it appears to be a single, fluid, continuous shot.  While this is impressive and the cinematography should be congratulated, it is just a gimmick.  This movie is all gimmick, and I realize I used that term while talking about Boyhood up above, but in Boyhood's case, the story is served by the gimmick, it enriches the narrative.  In Birdman, the gimmick is the story, it's what people talk about, it's what impresses them, but strip away that artifice and you're left with something a lot less interesting.

Birdman isn't a bad movie, I don't want to totally trash on it, but it is nothing more than average and it definitely might not be deserving of all the high praise it is getting or a potential Best Picture Oscar tonight, even if it is the kind of movie, in the tradition of Argo and The Artist, that Hollywood likes to congratulate itself on making.

**UPDATE**  So of course Birdman won Best Picture.  Ha.

The Worst Movies I Made the Mistake of Watching in 2014:

-The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - An amazing spider-mess.  This movie spider-blew.  And so on. . .

-Need for Speed - Ugh.  I appreciate the real car stunts and driving, but jeez, this movie is terrible.

-Robocop - The only interesting thing in this unnecessary remake is the fact that there is an action sequence set to Hocus Pocus by Focus.

-Bad Words - This is so bad it makes me wish I watched Teen Wolf Too instead.  Serious question:  is Jason Bateman actually funny?

-The Monuments Men - Monumentally weak!

-The Interview - Notable for the controversy surrounding it, but not worthy of it.


*One other note: I've noticed Ben Wheatley's A Field in England pop up on a few people's Best Of 2014 Lists, but I can't agree with that.  Not that it isn't a great movie (it is spectacular) but because, even though it saw American release in 2014, it actually was released domestically in England in 2013, and I like to abide by domestic release dates when dealing with foreign films.  Otherwise it would be in my Top 5 (it really is spectacular).

Well, there you go.  What do you think?
Agree?  Disagree?  What were your favorites of 2014?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Check your calendars!  It's Friday the 13th and that means it's time for another Friday the 13th movie review!  Try to stay alive, we're looking at Friday Part 5!

When Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was released in 1984 it was meant to be, well, the final chapter in the Jason Voorhees slasher saga.  Of course it ended up being the most successful film in the series (at the time) and since it made a ton of money there was no way that the producers wouldn't want to make another Friday movie.  The only problem was, Jason was dead.  So what do you do?

You make A New Beginning.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) opens with a dream sequence featuring a cameo by Corey Feldman (as young Tommy Jarvis) watching two wild teens dig up Jason's grave, only to get killed.  When Older Tommy (John Shepherd) wakes up in the van of an institutional hospital, we learn that it is eight years after the events of The Final Chapter and that Tommy is on his way to Pinehurst Halfway House, an outpatient group home for troubled youth, to hopefully aid in his recovery.
All the patients and staff at this halfway house are your basic Friday camp counselor types; you got the horny couple, the dork, the hunk, the punk, the final girl, you know the types.  However, right after Tommy arrives, there is a murder, as crazy Vic (Mark Venturini) kills his housemate Joey (Dominick Brascia) for being an annoying fuck.
Soon after, more dead bodies start piling up around the group home, and since Tommy is haunted by visions of Jason, it seems like he might be the killer.  But is he?  Or is it one of the many red herrings introduced?  Or is Jason somehow back from the grave?

To answer that last one, no, Jason is not back from the grave.  In fact, the Jason that does the killing in this one is often referred to as "fake Jason."  You can tell he's a fake because his mask has blue marks on it, not red.
Fake Jason

So who is doing the killing?  SPOILER WARNING:  at the end of the movie, when Jason is killed, his mask falls off and it's revealed to be. . . some guy.  Actually at first you're really not sure who it is, so the filmmakers wisely add a scene of the sheriff explaining who the killer was and why he did it, which by the way was Roy (Dick Weiand) the weird paramedic and he did it because Joey, the murdered patient at Pinhurst from the start of the movie, was his secret son.  Seeing him dead, and blaming those around (?), he snapped and later donned the identity of Jason to start killing people.  It's kind of dumb, in fact, it's really dumb, but I give credit for trying something different, even if it doesn't totally succeed.  Either way, I'm glad real Jason comes back in the next movie.

Random Notes:

The opening credits have the Friday the 13th logo EXPLODING with Jason's hockey mask, revealing the subtitle A New Beginning.  I've said it before, but exploding credits are the best.
A New Beginning takes place eight years after The Final Chapter, which was set in 1984 (as were  parts 2 and 3, for that matter).  That means A New Beginning, released in 1985, takes place in 1992.  It's a future movie!

When Tommy arrives at Pinehurst, he's met by Pam (Melanie Kinnaman), the director of the program.  By the end, she would become the film's final girl, which, even though she's maybe a little bit older than previous Friday final girls, totally works because she brings this maturity and responsibility to the role that really freshens up the character type.  Plus, later she gives Jason a good run for his money, attacking him with a chainsaw in the barn.
Totally badass.

When Tommy's unpacking in his room he meets this kid who tries to scare him with a fake spider.  This practical joker goes by Reggie the Reckless (Shavar Ross), although I think everybody just calls him Reggie the whole movie.  Nobody humors him with that Reckless shit.

Reggie doesn't live at the Halfway House, he's just there visiting and staying with his granddad George who works in the kitchen.  Sometimes kids in movies can be really annoying, but Reggie has a lot of charm that goes well with his attitude.  Plus his all-red sweatsuit is a pretty cool look.

Being so young, Reggie does have an embarrassing moment though, when he screams like a little boy when encountering Jason out in the rain:

(this video has stupid Mario Bros. sound fx at the end, but the scream is intact, that's the important part).

Despite being so young, Reggie does become the secondary protagonist, facing off against Jason alongside Pam, and even getting a big action moment when he drives a tractor through the barn door and hits Jason square in the stomach.  Tractor Punch!

While Tommy is the main character in the movie, he's actually a suspect in the killings most of the time, and the audience isn't sure if he is or not.  He conveniently disappears sometimes, casting further suspicion, but when he shows up at the end to help Pam and Reggie fight Jason in the barn, you know what's up.
However, even after his heroic moments, in the last scene of the movie, Tommy wakes up in the hospital from another Jason dream and then slowly walks to his dresser and pulls out a hockey mask (how did he get that?), puts it on, grabs a knife (and that too!?), and sneaks up on Pam a seemingly stabs her.  I say seemingly because the camera goes into a slow zoom-in on his eye as the film fades to black and credits roll.  So it's implied that Tommy killed her and will probably pick up Jason's mantle, but thank god that doesn't actually happen, as heroic Tommy shows up for Friday part 6 (although played by a different actor).
Note:  Tommy still makes his masks like he did as a kid, but that skill doesn't come into play during the movie (except for a couple cheap scares).

There are a lot of kills in this Friday movie, 22 I think, which is one of the highest for a Friday film.  Since there are so many, some are only okay-ish (your basic throat slashes or stabs to the stomach or head) and there are quite a few offscreen kills.  My favorite kills in this one are the flare to the face, the skull crushed against the tree using the leather strap, and the decapitation while riding a motorcycle.

Overall, while I find the special effects perfectly serviceable, I am left wanting a bit more.  I feel quantity outweighed the quality here.  Also, it seems as if some of the scenes were cut or edited down (which happens with these Friday movies), and I've read that some parts (like Violet's death) were reshot to be less graphic.

Speaking of Violet (Tiffany Helm), she's the punk girl in the house.  She's got a goth attitude and colored hair, pale skin, you know the type.  There's a scene later, right before she gets killed, where she's dancing in her room. . .it's hilarious.  She's doing this strange interpretive robot dance. . . it's great, definitely one of the highlights of the movie:

Let's talk cast and crew:

Director Danny Steinmann had previously directed Savage Streets (1984) starring Linda Blair before getting the Friday gig.  Going back even further, Steinmann's first movie job was writing and directing a hardcore porno called High Rise (1973), on which he used the name Danny Stone.  This porno background is interesting because Steinmann wanted to push the sex in A New Beginning, particularly in the sex scene with Tina (Deborah Voorhees [!]) and Eddie (John Robert Dixon).  Apparently they shot a pretty hot and heavy sex scene, but it was later cut down and the peeping tom weirdo Raymond was added in (and killed) to cut the scene down.

Co-screenwriter Martin Kitrosser, who also worked on Friday part III (1982), would write and direct Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker (1991), but has since become a successful script supervisor in Hollywood, most notably working on all of Quentin Tarantino's films.

Harry Manfredini once again provides the score, although this is his first original score since Part 2 (parts III and The Final Chapter just recycled music cues from the first two).  There's some slight variation to some of the themes and, all in all, it's a good score.

Other than being Reckless, Shavar Ross also played Gary Coleman's best friend on TV's Diff'rent Strokes, not to mention similar "friend" roles on Growing Pains and Family Matters. As an adult he has become a born again Christian and has started his own production company, Tri-7 Entertainment, that specializes in films and whatnot aimed toward that market.

In the movie, Reggie goes with Pam and Tommy to visit his brother Demon (Miguel A. Núñez) at a trailer park.  Demon is a real cool dude, smoking weed and hanging out with his lady in his super cool van (he doesn't live at this trailer park, I think he might just be passing through or something, I'm not sure.  Maybe he lives in the van...), but of course he does get killed, in an embarrassing way no less:  while trapped in an outhouse bathroom he gets stabbed with a metal pole.
"Them damn enchiladas!"

This is one of Núñez's first roles and, along with Return of the Living Dead (also 1985), he would establish himself a nice little genre following.  He would go on to be a prolific character actor, appearing in tons of movies and TV shows, including Tour of Duty (series that ran from '87-90), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Street Fighter (1994), Scooby-Doo (2002), and Black Dynamite (2009).  He also had the lead role in Juwanna Mann (2002).

After Vic slaughters Joey, he is carted off to jail and not seen again in the movie.  I guess the idea is that once more killings start, he would be a suspect or something, but really, at the end, I'm left wondering why Roy didn't go after Vic and why he murdered everybody else instead?

Putting his talents of meat-headed dickishness to more use, Mark Venturini would also star in Return of the Living Dead, in which he played lead punk, Suicide.

Carol Locatell played the crazy neighbor lady Ethel who rides around on a small motorcycle with her not-bright adult son Junior (Ron Sloan).  She owns the property next to the Halfway Home and is mad that Eddie and Tina keep sneaking over to her land to have sex.

A lot of comedy mileage is gotten out of Ethel swearing and verbally berating her son.  At one point she calls him a "big dildo."

Locatell is a very prolific television actress, but I noticed she also starred with Pam Grier in Coffy (1973), which is pretty cool.

Final Thoughts:

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is just that, a new beginning for the Friday films.  They tried to do something a little different in trying to work around Jason being dead from the previous movie, and while only half successful, I do appreciate the mystery element that hasn't been seen since the first film (who is the killer?), even if the payoff is weak.

This movie gets a lot of flack for the fake Jason, and I guess for also being the start of the decline in the series, but I found it more fun this time around than I have in the past.  This is definitely a second-tier Friday movie, but for the second-tier it's not too bad, and for not having Jason in it, it could be a whole lot worse.

Luckily we never find out, as Jason returns in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI.  Look for a review next month.  It'll be on a Friday.

Hey, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is 30 years old this year!  Happy Birthday, Roy!
"Real" Jason
Fake Jason

Check out the previous Fridays:
Friday the 13th
Friday Part 2
Friday Part III
The Final Chapter