Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Wars

Mamoru Hosoda is quickly cementing himself as one of the best anime directors in Japan. Besides some movies best on cartoon series like Digimon and One Piece, he has directed two of his own films. First came an animated adaptation of a novel called The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which took Japanese moviegoers by surprise upon release, and actually beat a Studio Ghibli film for the top spot in the box office. Now comes Summer Wars, his second feature.

Summer Wars begins by establishing the concept of OZ, which is basically a super-internet, where people have their own avatars and can do anything they want on it. Basically, it's the regular internet, made much more visually interesting. It follows Kenji, a teenaged math genius, who agrees to go on a long weekend trip with Natsuki, to see her extremely large, old, and respected family on her grandmother's 90th birthday. While there, using OZ on his phone, he is tricked into giving his avatar to an experimental virus, who then uses it to take over the internet, and wreak havoc on the world outside. Kenji and Natsuki's family must work together with their not inconsiderable resources (one happens to sell powerful computers, one is a government agent, etc.) to contain or defeat this virus that Kenji mistakenly let loose on the world.

Don't let the poster mislead you. More of the movie takes place in the real world than with the avatars in OZ. In fact, the Japanese poster is, unsurprisingly, a much more accurate representation of the movie.

Something I really like about Hosoda's first two films is that he takes these out there science fiction concepts and imbues them with emotional realism. The fate of the world depends on what goes down on OZ, basically an abstract dimension, and while Kenji and a few members of Natsuki's family spend much of the movie trying to solve this, the rest of the family continues going on with their day to day life. The OZ situation just feels like a game to them. One member can't tear herself away from a televised high school championship baseball game that her son is pitching in; to her, the fate of the world depends on this. In the end, the movie is a pretty good, uncynical portrayal of the way a family comes together and supports each other in a time of both emotional and external crisis.

The OZ stuff is visually spectacular. The world is populated with all kinds of avatars, from two-dimensional 8-bit people to animal people to floating logos. It's moderated by two giant floating whales named John and Yoko. There are all kinds of things to do, like games, shops, and classes. Very cool world-within-a-world. I also like that it's not one of those sci-fi movie where the characters jack their brain into the net and experience it first hand. What we're seeing as viewers is just a more vivid cinematic representation of what these characters are doing on their computers.

I liked Summer Wars about just as much as I liked The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Mamoru Hosoda is a filmmaker worth looking into. Both of his films so far are pleasant, positive science fiction metaphors for how we deal with the obstacles we encounter every day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2

Well, it finally happened. Pixar made a stinker. I hoped we would never see this day, but I guess if it was going to happen, it was going to be Cars 2. The previous Cars movie, while my previous least favorite Pixar movie, was still pretty good. Just not my kind of thing. This one is, well, not so good.

What went wrong? A few things, really. I feel like Cars 2 skews too young. Pixar is in the business of making movies for everybody. Cars 2 feels like it's just for 5-to-8-year-olds. There is little to no humor in it that would appeal to parents or adults. This is not my beautiful Pixar!

The biggest mistake was making Mater the redneck tow truck the main character. I can't imagine any moviegoer over the age of 8 can stand Mater in this capacity. Poor Owen Wilson, who was likeable, funny, and easygoing as Lightning McQueen in the first movie, gets shoved aside to b-story duty, and doesn't even get to say any jokes. Not only is Lightning McQueen neglected, the rest of the supporting cast of the first movie are pretty much only cameos. Remember how the Toy Story sequels gave you more of all the characters you love?

This time around, the story follows Mater as he stumbles his way through a globe trotting spy mission. He's joined by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer as British car spies who believe him to be their American contact. They're trying to stop a conspiracy of crappily-made cars to get revenge on their better-built superiors. I thought that was actually pretty clever. But why oh why does Mater have to be the main character? If this was Lightning McQueen on a spy mission, I bet it would have been fun.

So here's the thing: there's no real emotional arc in the movie. The main character arc is about Mater, who starts out happy and secure in who he is, becoming happy and secure in who he is. He ends up in the same place he started! He's stupid and annoying but if other people don't like it, that's their problem, not his! In order to do this, they have to run in circles to undo the fact that he was happy to begin with, so he can end up happy again. Pixar, this is not like you! You are SO much better than this!

There are moments in there where what we've come to expect from these good folks shines through. Let me talk about some things I liked.

The music was a big improvement over the first one. Michael Giacchino is my favorite composer working today, and he delivers another fun, sixties-inspired score, something of a specialty of his (see: Speed Racer, The Incredibles). The first one had several awful modern country covers of songs with driving themes (Life is a Highway, etc.). This one does have an overproduced cover of The Cars' You Might Think. If they're going to include pop songs in it, why not just put the original? It's one of my favorite songs from my childhood, and much better than the one they used. Besides that, though, the score was my favorite part of the movie.

Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer were fine, as was John Turturro as Lightning's new rival, a Formula One car. None of them get much of a chance to shine, though, because, well, this is Mater's show.

The animation is beautiful, of course. There are, as always, several breakthroughs in computer animation in Cars 2. I love how every year, you can expect Pixar to raise the bar once again.

There were a few chuckles. None of the big laughs I've come to expect from Pixar, but a lot of the visual gags were funny. In the first movie, we saw how Cars' lives mirrored ours, and in this one, we see the way that is reflected in foreign countries. They have the Cars equivalent of high-tech Japanese bathrooms, for instance. I liked seeing Tokyo, London, and Rome re-imagined as car cities.

I'm sure this will just be seen as a hiccup in Pixar's domination. This crew knows what they're doing. These movies are all labors of love for them. I mean, they've made what? A dozen movies? It took them this long to make a misstep. It had to happen sooner or later. Now I hope they learn from their mistakes and apply these lessons to their future films.

I still love you, Pixar!

Oh, one more thing: They talk about dinosaurs in this! Do they really want to open up that can of worms? If there were dinosaurs, then there was once life on this strange car planet, and the cars know about it! Doesn't that freak you out a little? Were there ever people? Who created the cars??? Aaaaand so on.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I'm going to coin a term for Microcosmos: Beausgusting. Microcosmos is the most beausgusting movie ever made. Bugs! Yuck!

Microcosmos is a nature documentary that uses miniature cameras to film bugs going about their daily lives. There is a little bit of narration at the beginning at the end, but for the most part, it prefers to just stand back and let the action speak for itself, which is set to the musical score. It's stunningly photographed, and insect behavior sure is fascinating to watch.

Wait a minute. I hate bugs! They're really gross, even more so close up. I don't know why I was drawn to this. The beauty of nature is lovely to behold from afar, I guess, but I wouldn't want to be there. I caught myself more than once unconsciously lifting my feet off the floor while watching this movie, like these bugs were crawling under me. That's how vivid Microcosmos is.

What do you have to look forward to? A spider wrapping up a cricket in its thread in slow motion. A bunch of waterbugs trying to escape massive raindrops slamming into a pond. A weird caterpillar conga line. And need I forget: two ladybugs doing it. That's right. They're having sex! Awwwww yeah. Hot girl-on-girl action.

All joking aside, Microcosmos is a thoroughly engrossing nature documentary, and it's totally worth checking out if you like things like Planet Earth or Life. But if you're at all squeamish about watching gross bugs doing gross bug things, like I am, you should enter this one with caution.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Puppet Master

Puppet Master was, for me, what one might call a "pleasant disappointment". I don't know what else to call it. We turned it on, hoping to laugh at a movie that was so-bad-it's-good. What we got was a movie that wasn't laughably bad, but wasn't particularly all that good, either.

The movie is about a bunch of psychics who stay at a hotel, where they are terrorized by a bunch of living, killer puppets. That's a pretty kooky plot, right? Even kookier, the movie takes itself pretty seriously.

The puppets were actually very cool. You don't see too much of them for the first two acts, unfortunately. I liked the combination of real puppets and stop motion animation. I'm a nut for both of those things. I particularly liked the guy with a tiny head and huge arms and (sometimes) real human hands. Also, the girl one that vomits leeches on you, after making throwing up sounds for five minutes.

There are like 10 of these movies, and I see the potential in killer puppets for both goodness and so-bad-it's-goodness. I hear one thing the fans appreciate is the level of attention the makers pay to the series' continuity, something that very very few horror franchises bother with, especially in later entries. I've got to respect that.

I wish I had enjoyed this movie more, one way or the other. A less serious tone would have helped me genuinely like it. I guess shittier, more inept filmmaking would have make me like it more for the wrong reasons, but I can't blame these guys for not sucking enough. Good for them for making a movie that people really responded to, enough to eventually get nine sequels.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern

It's time for another superhero movie, everybody! Wait, scratch that, let me try it again. Siiiiiiiiiigh, it's time for another superhero movie, everybody. This time it's Green Lantern, Warner Brothers' first go at one of their DC comics characters that is not a bat or a super.

For those unfamiliar, Green Lantern is about Hal Jordan, a hotshot pilot who finds a dying alien cop who gives him a ring that allows him to create anything he wants with his mind. There's way more to it than that, and while that stuff works pretty well in the comic books, in movie form, it is just booooooooooring.

That's my main problem with the movie. It is about 95% clunky exposition, where we learn all the rules and history of the aliens and the ring. It's mostly a bunch of mumbo jumbo about overcoming fear. In fact, if I could retitle the movie, I would call it "Blah Blah Fear".

The dialogue is, as I said, pretty clunky. When we're in space with all the computer effects and aliens, the movie looks and sounds just like a cut scene from a video game. Like they're setting up the next board. When we're at home on earth, the dialogue just sounds like "this is the scene where I say this", and "this is how I'm feeling because this is how I'm supposed to feel at this point in the movie".

The acting isn't the best, but I can't really fault the actors. They weren't given a great deal to hold onto. There's not much that makes you care about them or believe them as humans. I haven't really seen Ryan Reynolds in much, but I don't see why he couldn't have played Hal Jordan just fine in a better movie. Same with Blake Lively's Carol Ferris. She actually did a pretty good job with what little she was given to do. Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett both have some pretty atrocious mouthfuls of dialogue to deliver. Mark Strong is wasted as Sinestro. He's supposed to be the big villain in the sequels, but in this one he's still a good guy. The powers that be really missed an opportunity to make us care for this guy. We are given no reason to feel one way or the other for him, besides the fact that his name is "Sinestro", so we know where that's going.

The one actor who really seemed to be having fun in his role was Peter Saarsgaard as the villain, Hector Hammond. He didn't just make do with the dialogue he was given, he added a bunch of strange flourishes and tics to his character. He made him feel more human, engaging and interesting. At times, he seemed to be doing some John Malkovich thing. I wish the movie this character in was better, I think you really get a glimpse of something that could have been special here.

There's one other scene that I think comes close to a fun movie. It's a wink and a nod to the original Superman, where Hal visits Carol on her balcony. He's talking to her in a poorly disguised deep voice and calling her "ma'am". She immediately sees through his silly mask. It's the one scene that got genuine laughter from the audience. It made me wish the movie wasn't so plodding and bogged down by all of this mythology about fear.

While Green Lantern is a failure, I'm actually, sadly, hoping for a small amount of box office success. There is still a good Green Lantern movie to be made, and hey, maybe they can get it right with a second try. Also, I worry that WB will give up on adapting some of their other DC properties and just continue on making great Batman movies and rebooting Superman every five years. I would love to see a good take on characters like The Flash, Green Arrow, and especially Wonder Woman. I hope Warner Bros doesn't give up on these characters just yet, but I also hope they can find filmmakers with a little bit more passion for the material.


The SNL Sketch got a movie
Was out in theaters for about a week
Was pretty funny but not as funny as I was led to hope

In MacGruber, SNL vet Will Forte stars in the title role, a bomb-diffusing, mulleted MacGyver knockoff with deep mental issues. The movie goes much further than just the MacGyver formula, it parodies super violent 80's action movies like Rambo and Commando.

MacGruber is definitely a "guy movie". It has a lot of pretty dumb jokes in it that made me laugh but made my wife roll her eyes. It's the kind of movie that mines a lot of comedy out of naming the villain (Val Kilmer) "Dieter von Kunth".

Will Forte is pretty awesome as MacGruber, but only if Will Forte is your cup of tea. I find his brand of weirdness hilarious, but I can see how others might not. Unlike most comedies of this type, where the hero is kind of eccentric, and all the rest of the characters are there to react to his craziness but eventually come around and be endeared by him (see: Austin Powers, most Adam Sandler movies), MacGruber seems to be genuinely and dangerously insane. Forte takes jokes as far as he can possibly take them, often to uncomfortable levels, and giving his characters any kind of moral boundary would work against him.

Rounding out the cast, Kristen Wiig stars as his love interest Vicki St. Elmo, and Ryan Phillippe plays the straight-laced military guy that "loose cannon" MacGruber has friction with. It was nice to see the straight man role filled by a guy this time. In most comedies (see above examples) the woman gets nothing to do but roll her eyes and act appalled by the hero's behavior before she inexplicably falls in love with him. Wiig gets all sorts of weird stuff to do, mostly revolving around MacGruber callously putting her into dangerous situations.

There are a lot of funny moments in the first hour, but the comedy sags a bit throughout. I was hoping to laugh a lot more. Luckily, the last half hour makes up for that. The third act is pretty non stop funny with lots of insane, over-the-top, action movie violence.

I would recommend MacGruber, but it's not for everyone. If you have a weird sense of humor and a tolerance for the low-brow, I think you will like it a great deal. I didn't think it was as funny as Will Forte's previous film, The Brothers Solomon, which was one of my favorite comedies of the last decade, but it makes a pretty good companion to it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

You know what? Just skip this review and see the movie. You have my permission. I'm not even going to reveal that much, but the less you know, the more fun you will have.

Super 8 is director J.J. Abrams' ode to the films that inspired him as a kid, and to the art of filmmaking itself. For me, it's perhaps best viewed on a VHS tape, recorded off the TV, with the HBO theme song playing before it. If I had seen this movie when I was ten years old, I would have begged my parents for a camcorder and got cracking. Unfortunately, at that age, I hadn't quite figured out that filmmaking was something you could just do.

Before Super 8 even started, I got a nostalgic thrill from seeing Elliott ride past the moon on his bicycle again in the old school Amblin Entertainment logo. That thrill pretty much lasted the entire movie. It feels exactly like all the Spielberg films I cherished as a kid. Much the way Tarantino does with his beloved exploitation movies, Abrams cherry picks moments and scenes from Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Goonies, Stand By Me, even Raiders of the Lost Ark, and repurposes them into something along those lines but new and different. He captures Spielberg's early visual flare and sense of suspense perfectly, as well as his knack for getting realistic, downright believable performances out of children. Of course, he has Spielberg himself along for the ride in a producing capacity, and that certainly doesn't hurt.

I won't go too deep into spoiler territory, since the marketing campaign has gone through so much trouble to spoil as little as possible, and not knowing where the movie is taking you just adds to that sense of wonder and enjoyment. Can you remember the days when trailers and endless marketing didn't give away the whole movie? I barely can. I grew up at the tail end of that time.

Super 8 is about a group of kids in 1979 setting out to make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera. While shooting a scene, they find themselves right in the middle of a massive, disastrous, train crash. Things only deepen, as their whole town is affected by the crash, and the train's mysterious cargo.

That's really as far as the original teaser goes, even though I think they show a bit more in the later ones. But I'll stop there with the plot. If you heeded my advice, you're not even reading this anyway, you're watching the movie.

Like Spielberg's early movies, Super 8 deals a lot with broken homes. Joe, the main kid, recently lost his mother in an accident, and his dad, the Sheriff's Deputy, is having a hard time communicating with him, and Alice, the girl Joe likes, has a drunk dad and was abandoned by her mom. I thought it was interesting that the mothers were absent in Abrams' world, where it was always absent fathers in Spielberg's. I wonder if he just did that to switch things up, or if he really did have an absent mom? I don't know anything about him.

There are lots of little jumps and scares in Super 8, but it's not a straight-up horror movie. It's much more about the way these kids relate with their families and each other during this whole crisis. Charles, the director of their zombie movie, sees the military presence as an opportunity to add verisimilitude to his movie. I liked Charles a lot. In the 80's movies, the fat kid is there usually to be comic relief or more likely the loveable target. Charles, on the other hand, was smart, driven, bossy, and funny in a way that was in no way derived from his chunkiness. Good on you, J.J.

Super 8 took me back to being 10 or 11 years old again. All the movies you see as a kid are the ones that stay with you forever. Spielberg was a nut for the sci-fi and WWII movies he grew up on, and has built his entire career on pretty much just that. J.J. Abrams happened to come from the very best time in cinema history to be a kid, and shows us with Super 8 that he's still doing exactly what his young characters are doing in the movie: playing with his dad's camera.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Submarine is the feature debut of writer/director/comedian Richard Ayoade, a coming of age film set in Wales in the 1980's. It follows Oliver Tate, an intelligent, quirky, unpopular teen on a mission to keep his parents from splitting up while at the same time navigating the waters of young romance.

Oliver is very much in the tradition of young protagonists that present themselves as smarter and more mature, but in reality have a lot of growing up to do yet. There's more than a little of Bud Cort's Harold of Harold and Maude, and Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer of Rushmore fame in Oliver, as well as a direct reference to The Catcher in the Rye.

At the opening of the movie, we learn that Oliver has a crush on Jordana, a mischievous classmate. In his narration, he rationalizes it by saying she too is reasonably unpopular, and the very act of the two of them getting together would raise his status. He finds his in with her by tormenting an overweight girl with her. This leads to their tumultuous affair, in which Jordana calls all the shots, and they do such things for fun as burn off Oliver's leg hairs with matches.

Meanwhile, back at home, Oliver's parents are in a quiet crisis. His father (Noah Taylor), has quit taking his antidepressants and his mother (Sally Hawkins) has recently reconnected with a former lover, now neighbor, (Paddy Considine), a bemulleted New Age mystic. Oliver sees the writing on the wall and begins scheming to keep them together.

That's all I'll say about the story. Craig Roberts, who plays Oliver Tate is fantastic, as is Yasmin Paige, who plays Jordana. The rest of the cast is damn good too. I'm always happy to see Noah Taylor in things.

There are plenty of awkward moments to laugh at too. His parents are not the best parents, but they love Oliver nonetheless. A great moment in awkward parenting comes when Oliver's dad, learning he has a girlfriend, gives him a mix tape of love songs. He also well-meaningly includes some good breakup songs on the tape, for the inevitable.

Stylistically, it's not unlike Wes Anderson's films, but much more organic. I think Ayoade is drawing from the same French filmmakers' styles as Anderson, not just knocking off Anderson. Tate imagines himself as the protagonist of a French New Wave picture.

There are a couple moments in which director Richard Ayoade's previous television work shows through. He directed Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, one of my favorite British shows ever made. In Darkplace, Ayoade played a character who was a terrible actor. A running gag in the show was watching him never being able to figure out what to do with his hands. There's a great bit in Submarine with that gag, too.

Submarine is a very funny, moving, dark-ish comedy for you to go see, especially if you need a breather from all the explosions and superheroes coming out this time of year. You should all check your local showtimes.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter

Sometimes, it's 2:00 in the morning on a Saturday, and I find myself scouring Netflix for something to watch. At these times, stumbling across a title like "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter" is a message from the cinema gods: WATCH ME.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, translated from the Japanese Noraneko Rokku, is the third part in a five movie series about a street gang of tough-as-nails girls, led by Mako, played by the legendary cult movie actress, Meiko Kaji. This is the series that made her a star in Japan and cemented her status for the rest of the 1970's.

We open on the gang of girls robbing someone at knife point and celebrating at a bar. They're drinking and smoking and talking about sex, so we know they're tough. One of the girls in the gang challenges Mako, their leader, and they go outside and have a knife fight. Mako wins, of course, and stays behind as the girls go back to their business. While laying outside, she runs into a man. They have instant chemistry, and she finds out he's looking for his sister. She and the gang decide to help him on his quest.

Meanwhile, there's a rival gang of men targeting "halfbreeds", which is never specified, but I think might be people of mixed Japanese-Korean descent.

The plot doesn't matter with this movie, though. What matters is how badass Meiko Kaji is. She's totally awesome. At one point, she's lured away from a party by a man, who tells her he just wanted to get her out of there so his men could rape her gang. Not only that, but they'll blame her for abandoning them. Well, she comes to their rescue, busting back into the party armed with a bunch of Molotov cocktails, firebombing the place.

Meiko Kaji is the heroine of one my favorite Japanese movies ever made, the revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood. It was much of Quentin Tarantino's basis for the story of his Kill Bill series. In Stray Cat Rock, she looks totally sexy and stylish and iconic. I mean, look at her:

She's the one in the awesome hat. Seriously, that hat is amazing! I could write a review about that hat. And the suit too!

As exploitative as that poster and that title look, the movie is actually pretty tame, content-wise. Not much violence, no nudity, or very little, I've possibly forgotten some. There's sex, but not very graphic. Maybe it was enough of a shock in Japanese culture watching women act like this. There's pretty much an entire girl-gang genre in 70's Japanese films. These weren't even the originals.

There's some pretty cool stuff targeting the Japanese youth culture, circa 1970, too. A girl group performs several great musical numbers at the club. The music in general is pretty great.

As much as I'm talking up Meiko Kaji, I didn't think the movie was as great as I'd hoped it would be. I can't tell if it's because it was after 2:00 in the morning and I was tired, but I wasn't as into the story as I would have liked. Also, the fact that it's the third in a series, and I hadn't seen the first two leads me to believe that there were maybe some established ties between the characters that I was unaware of. Maybe I would have cared more if I had seen those first. I might hunt those down in the future.

Still, it was worth watching, if only because I saw Meiko Kaji in that hat! That hat!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Vault of Horror

My previous review was for the culty Brit horror anthology, Tales from the Crypt. Here's part two of the AlleyCat Comics double feature, the 1973 sequel, Vault of Horror.

Vault of Horror is comprised of five more short stories lifted from the classic 1950's EC comics. This time, the five victims meet in a waiting room at the bottom of an elevator and each tell each other their stories. I miss the Cryptkeeper.

First off, a guy kills his sister for a big inheritance, he goes to a restaurant to celebrate and finds out that the diners are not what they seem...

Next, a guy with OCD is so organized, he has a place marked for everything in his house. After accidentally putting on her panties (?!?!) he starts freaking out at his wife for moving things around. After his tirade, she accidentally forgets to use a coaster, and nervously makes a huge mess trying to clean up a tiny one before he gets home. When he discovers what she's done, she snaps...

Then, a magician visiting India can't figure out how a street artist's rope climbing trick work, so he plots to figure it out and steal it. The question is, is it really a trick? ...Or is it real?

Then, a guy fakes his own death for the insurance (these people sure do a lot for insurance), right when two young medical students happen to need a corpse. They strike a deal with the gravedigger...

And finally, Tom Baker, pre-Doctor Who, is a starving artist who, upon a betrayal, goes to a Voodoo man for revenge. He is given the ability to affect reality with his painting hand. He then goes back to London and enacts his revenge with his paints.

As a whole, Vault of Horror is not as good as the first one, but it's even funnier in the unintentional way, so it's an even trade. Just like Tales from the Crypt, it could have done with one less story. The first of the stories is pretty forgettable, aside from some details in the ridiculous twist, so let's drop that one. The OCD guy in the second was pretty unstable, but did he really deserve to be condemned as much as the wife he drove to the brink? Why am I questioning logic in this?

My favorite of the five was the Tom Baker one. I haven't seen much old Doctor Who, but I intend to get to him eventually. I liked him a lot in this. Unfortunately for us at the screening, this was the end of the movie, because this was the point where the audience participation really kicked in. Maybe it was the late hour, but we all started freely wisecracking at this point. There were jokes from us earlier, but we went full-on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the last 20 minutes. I'm hoping this jokey atmosphere will continue in further movie nights at Alley Cat.

Tales from the Crypt

Oooh, this one was a treat for me. Last night, I went to a the first of a weekly movie night at my friend's comic book store, AlleyCat Comics (in Chicago, if you're local). It was a real good time, enjoying the movies with a cool, funny audience.

The features for the night were a pair of B-grade 1970's British adaptations of the EC Horror comic books of the 1950's. I never even knew these movies existed, but they were both campy fun, comedic horror that isn't too intense for kids over the age of 9 or so.

The first entry, Tales from the Crypt, is framed by a group of five individuals who all coincidentally cross paths and find themselves trapped in The Crypt. The man known as The Cryptkeeper shuts them in and tells them they can leave when he's good and ready to let them go. It's not the dumb pun spewing corpse puppet from the classic HBO series, it's a guy in a monk's robes and hood. He then tells the five strangers prophecies of how they're going to die. Cue the stories.

First, probably my favorite, Joan Collins murders her husband on Christmas Eve for the insurance, then goes about trying to clean up and make it look like an accident, all the while being terrorized by a maniac dressed like Santa Claus.

Then, a guy abandons his family for a girl, and gets in a car crash on the way. He wakes up in the wreckage and tries to put his life back together... or does he? You can add "or does he?" to a lot of these.

Then these snobs don't like their neighbor, a friendly old man (Peter Cushing) who loves kids and animals, so they come up with a prank in hopes of driving him away. It backfires and he commits suicide. Then, one year later...

Next, this rich guy is on the verge of bankruptcy, so his wife uses an ancient Chinese statue to wish she was rich. Her husband dies and she gets all of his money. And so on. It's a Monkey's Paw thing. They even mention the story of the Monkey's Paw a million times in the short, so it's OK that they're stealing it...?

Finally, a Doctor becomes head of a Home for the Blind. He begins tightening the budget on things like food and heat, while continuing to live well himself, much to their resentment. They plot their revenge.

Some stories are better than others. There's always an ironic twist at the end. There are laughs in all of them. The acting isn't bad, and both the acting and directing seem pretty self aware. The director, Freddie Francis, seemed like a pretty clever filmmaker. His other film I've seen is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly; a quirky horror comedy satire. He also got an Oscar nomination or two in his day as a Cinematographer.

The movie isn't long, but it feels a little too long, because of the division into five segments. I think four is probably a better number. Even if the running time was the same, it wouldn't have dragged with one less story. Some of the stories' twists don't really make much sense, but I don't think the children who comprised the movie's target audience really cared. And for we adults, it's part of the fun. The ending of the last story is projected to us for so long, that we just have to wait and wait for it to happen. Luckily, there's an even more interesting element to the ending than the twist itself (involving razor blades).

After the five stories are told, we return to the Cryptkeeper who gives us one final twist: (Highlight for SPOILER) They were dead all along! Well, four of them were. One of them not only doesn't die in his story, but becomes immortal. Yet he winds up in hell with everyone else anyway. (END SPOILER) That's right, everyone, the funniest bit is saved for the very end.

Follow this link for my review of the sequel: Vault of Horror!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

Oh hell. How am I supposed to review Terrence Malick's Tree of Life? I don't feel qualified.

Tree of life is writer/director Terrence Malick's fifth film in 40 years. You see, it's a big deal, because Terrence Malick is the Punxatawny Phil of cinema. Every once in a while, he'll come out of his hole, with a mesmerizing new picture, see his shadow, and go back into hiding again, sometimes for as long as two decades. Every new Malick film is a true event. Tree of Life is no different. A couple weeks ago, it grabbed the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, their top honor. They're showing it on most of the screens at our local art house theater.

What is Tree of Life about? Why, it's about Life, the Universe and Everything. The above poster about sums it up. I think it might even leave some stuff out. It is not a narrative story, or even a story in the traditional sense. It's more like Terrence Malick looking back on his life and his youth, and contemplating God and the universe, and then committing it all vividly to film. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything that feels so much like someone's memory. It free-associates from one scene to the next, glimpsing sometimes only a moment, sometimes an image, sometimes something hazy or surreal.

I don't think it's 100% necessary that you are able to comprehend everything that Malick lays out for you to digest. It's a meal of many courses. What I took from the movie, more than anything else, was a whole ton of self-reflection. Malick captures with complete accuracy so many moments and emotions that only a child could experience and feel. I found myself thinking of childhood experiences that I haven't thought about in ages. Remember when the concept of boundaries was explained to you? Don't play there, that's the neighbor's yard. Don't go past this line. Remember how big your yard seemed to be, or how you would pick up snatches of your parents' world? I think I felt, or remembered feeling, just about every emotion we as humans have been assigned over the course of this film.

As expected with Terrence Malick, the cinematography is jaw-dropping. The man shoots like no other. In addition to the sprawling landscapes and nature you see in his other films, we get a glimpse at what the beginnings of the earth were like, focused through Malick's prism, and we also get our first view of an urban landscape from him. It's all beautiful. We also get some dinosaurs! There are DINOSAURS in a Terrence Malick film!

The Tree of Life may not be a film for everyone, but it is a film that I feel everyone can relate to on some level if they give it a shot. The emotions at its core are universal. It's almost 2 1/2 hours long, though, and there's not much plot for the viewer to hang their hat on, so I could see the more popcorn-driven audiences drifting. My wife heard a guy near her snoring. For me, though, it was a true experience, one best appreciated on the largest screen available.

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

The big thing the critics seem to be saying with X-Men: First Class is "the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight". It's this movie's equivalent of "It's The Hangover with women!". Even if that's true, the fact is, there haven't been very many superhero movies since The Dark Knight. What has there been, Watchmen, Iron Man 2, and Thor? I'd say I enjoyed this about as much as the latter two movies, which is to say, it's a lot of fun, but not without it's flaws. Now, I know my Thor review was largely a rave, but it's because I just took it as a goofy fun movie. X-Men is so much more serious, with a philosophical debate at it's center, and the Cuban Missile Crisis as it's backdrop, it's harder for me to just ignore the flaws.

X-Men: First Class is set in 1962 and follows young Magneto on his quest for revenge against the Nazi who tortured and experimented on him in his youth, his friendship with Charles Xavier, the formation of the first mutant superteam, and ultimately, the eventual philosophical rift that grows between Magneto and Xavier. Along the way, we meet a lot of faces familiar to both fans of the comic and the previous movies.

When watching comic adaptations, I try not to nitpick what's different from the source material, so I'll do my best to avoid that (and probably fail a little). First Class is largely good, and absolutely inspired at times. About half the characters are great and fully realized, the other half barely do anything. There are a lot of great sequences in there, many of my favorite ones involving the rising debate of the mutant issue.

Wow, my thoughts are a little jumbled. How about I go through the characters?

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are both excellent as Magneto and Xavier. They bring a lot of dimensionality to their characters and both have the magnetism and charisma to make you believe that they are leaders in the truest sense. Xavier is not who you expect just yet. He's a bit of a ladies man. In fact, I felt like they each represented half of the quintessential 60's superspy, James Bond: Magneto the cold blooded killer, and Xavier the sex machine.

Jennifer Lawrence was one of my favorite characters as Mystique, the shapeshifter. She believes she shouldn't have to hide her true, blue, scaly form. Xavier, who grew up with her, wants her to be able to fit in and be accepted, and so encourages her to hide. She represents a flaw in young Xavier's philosophy, and shows his fallibility. I like that Xavier and Magneto's arguments are reflected through her, and through her, we see that neither belief is 100% right or wrong.

Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast is pretty great. I wasn't a fan of the Beast makeup, but he spends much of the movie in his human form. He felt like a kid of his era, raised in the 50's, pressured by his parents to tow the line and fit in at all costs. He acts as a counterbalance to Mystique's more modern views.

Rose Byrne is awesome again for the second time in a few weeks as Moira MacTaggart, a CIA agent who also acts as Xavier's human love interest. This and Bridesmaids makes her one of the summer's big winners, in my book. I didn't even know she was in this. I think I have a crush on her.

January Jones was Emma Frost, the diamond-skinned psychic White Queen, one of my favorite characters from the comic books (second behind only Cyclops). I think she's really great on Mad Men, and when I heard she was in this, I thought that sounded pretty spot on. Unfortunately, she falls flat in the role. I could see she was playing it as cold and icy and glamorous, which is an aspect of her character, but I think she was sorely lacking in her vampy, Ava Gabor-like qualities from the comic. In the books, she has great, droll lines like "I'm made of diamond, darling, by definition, I'm my own best friend." January Jones doesn't get that kind of material, though, and I'm not sure if she would have played it right anyway. Honestly, I think the aforementioned Rose Byrne would have been better in the role.

Kevin Bacon was the villain, Sebastian Shaw, the leader of the Hellfire Club, the orchestrator of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the object of Magneto's wrath. Bacon is always valuable in ensemble casts (as the 6 degrees game attests), and it was very interesting seeing the parallels drawn between him and the path we all know Magneto ultimately takes.

The rest of the cast don't really deserve a paragraph each. My opinion on them varies from "pretty good" to "I didn't notice them", to "kind of sucked." Banshee was the X-Men's American Ron Weasley, and pretty likeable. Darwin showed a lot of potential that was ultimately wasted. My least favorite character was by far Havoc, Cyclops (apparently by decades?) older brother. He didn't show much dimension at all besides being a jerk, and didn't talk in any way that reflected 1962. He actually said "what-ever" and called Beast a "bad-ass" at one point. Drove me a little crazy.

The action sequences are pretty fun, but none of them quite reached the level of Nightcrawler's White House invasion or Wolverine's berserker rage in X-2. Magneto is pretty ruthless, and his fights are tons of fun. There are two montages that I actually liked better than the action. The training montage is an inspired, retro-60's homage to the slick, mod editing of The Thomas Crown Affair.

There's a big logical hole in the finale of the movie. I'm not going to spoil the movie by pointing it out, but it was just sloppy writing and fixing it would have actually served to make the exciting final battle more exciting.

So, check out X-Men: First Class. It's not perfect, but it's got a lot of good movie in it, and is probably the second best installment in the series to date. I'd definitely watch further installments of the 1960's X-Men team, certainly sooner than the modern team, which was damaged pretty much beyond repair in the third movie.