Monday, December 17, 2012

"Concerning Hobbits"

Having seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey two times now, I am ready to try my best and fairly review it.

If it is considered a failure by many other critics, I can only say it is in relation to the cinematic achievement of Peter Jackson's other three Tolkien-derived stories, and any variance from the book.

If it is a success, it is because of Jackson's vision and scope of and attention to the fine detail that the original author poured his entire life into creating. So yes, when Jackson takes his own liberties beyond a visual interpretation of the established material, it reads as fluffy in spots, silly in others, cumbersome even, but in at least one specific instance it may well be the glue that holds this less spectacular adventure together.

In all, such as in the LOTR trilogy, it strays from the HOW the story is told, yet concretely establishes the same message that the book intended. That's what stands out to me more than anything, the balance, the fine line that Jackson must toe between making it familiar to moviegoers and Tolkienites, but making it new and enticing to everyone. I believe it is accomplished, though in some spots just barely. The impeccable, interwoven score by Howard Shore certainly helps. Shore makes blah moments palatable, good scenes great, and great scenes fantastic.

The movie has been called "indefensibly long" from a professional about 20 minutes (as was Return of The King), I would concur and say evidenced during their travels on the start of their journey. The first hour or so takes a while to get through. Yet some bright moments occur, including the visuals of the prefacing tale of the dwarves first home under the mountain. Also Martin Freeman makes a great young Bilbo. Truly great. And hearing the dwarves sing their song of reclaiming what is rightfully theirs is an absolute treat. On a personal note, my 8 year old son sat through all 170 minutes, without a gesture of disinterest at any point. Take that for what it is worth.

I should also note that much of the film is spent with the classic and breathtaking camera sweeps. In this regard, the up-to-the-minute technology that has developed somehow dizzyingly outshines the other three films. These clips are beautiful, familiar, but ultimately overdone for the sake of trying to make it a reverent spectacle like LOTR, when the story itself really isn't. It is a simple story of simple people contributing whatever they can in extraordinary times. Gandalf (again played winningly by Ian McKellan) mentions this in one scene with the lovely and perfect Cate Blanchett as Galadriel (this scene of the Secret Order of the White Council is NOT in the Hobbit book, rather is referenced in the Silmarillion and LOTR).

Galadriel: "Why the halfling?"
Gandalf: "Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid. And he gives me courage."

In another moment that is not part of the Hobbit book, Bilbo sums it all up (paraphrase): 'You're right, I don't belong here. I miss my books, my bed. See, that's my home. And that's why I came back. Because you don't have one. A home--and I will do whatever I can, to help you reclaim it.' I found both of these moments quite touching.

So you see, there are several drifts from the material but the meaning of the story still holds true. Rivendell is still magical and the elves rightfully so are the closest reminder we have to what we'd call angels. Blanchett's Lady of Lorien being the prime example. The light emanates from her, the music of her innocent aura impresses deeply upon those weary with cares. The dwarvish race is still stubborn and proud, but loyal until death.

A few of the dwarves are sillier than I would've hoped, aesthetically and character-wise. I pray it doesn't become a nuisance in the last two installments. The same goes for Radagast the Brown who takes on a much larger role than the one or two sentences the Hobbit book refers to him with. The Stone Giants, too. I thought the Great Goblin king and the Trolls to be heavy-handed with CGI, rendering them goofy also and not so believable as threats. This may also be in part due to their vocal characterizations, whereas the goblins and cave trolls of Lord of The Rings that we know were devolved into non-speaking races. Azog The Defiler, who is undoubtedly a key goblin in the other Middle-earth tales is also given a more prominent role in this, in replacement of Bolg. Jackson is establishing a different tension/conflict between him and Thorin Oakenshield.

The invented backstory of Thorin the dwarf prince never quote resonates. Thankfully, Richard Armitage plays the role well, and we can overlook the misstep, because again. Although the aim is for a majestic connection to Lord of The Rings, in this case, specifically Aragorn the would-be king, it misses--still supporting the overarching theme. In a world where we fight and kill and steal, and often do so in the name of justice or vengeance for our long lost loved ones, it is the doings of the meek that will help determine the fates of many.

On that subject, the most electrifying scene, (not the most action-packed, mind you) is exactly what a Tolkien fan would expect. It is of the riddles in the dark between Bilbo and Gollum. Andy Serkis will never be able to receive high enough praise for his performance as Gollum, because the computer effect they use eliminates his  physical "self." But it is undoubtedly his performance and bone-chillingly good to see. The lonely, pitiful creature that covets his precious prize argues within his duality about his connection with a life he has all but forgotten. He was once Smeagol, who lived outside of the darkness where he enjoyed company and loved to play games, and for a moment, you see why Bilbo spares him.

It is with this scene, Thorin's character flaw, and the foreshadowing of the Necromancer that Jackson holds true to the book, making the most clever moves on the chess board. It all fits (so far). I think it will continue to do so. It may not be the same shining example of book to film conversion that Fellowship of the Ring was, so do yourself a favor and don't expect it to be.

Look "simply" for a simple chap called Bilbo, a Hobbit, to take an Unexpected Journey where "Home is behind, the world ahead. And there are many paths to tread."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pt 3/3 of the Trilogy Blog

The conclusion of something that lasts 3 parts should recap the purpose of the story, introduce new components, and, well....conclude.
Trilogies exist because for every story there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Every movie in a trilogy is just a microcosm of this, featuring typically, an Act 1, (introduction) Act 2, (conflict/confrontation) and Act 3 (climax/resolution). Typical moviegoers cannot sit for more than about two hours and visually or intellectually consume something that they are not actually interacting with. So. You get this breakdown of about 20-30 minutes of introducing the material, then it turns a major corner for about an hour, and just as we are ready for something final to happen, it concludes. Most film stories must exist within this orbit of time and classification, unless telling a very specific historical event, such as in a documentary.
Thinking about the previous 5 movie trilogies listed: Spiderman, Austin Powers, X-Men, Bourne, Godfather...they all live in this orbit, but waiver/falter within either the three act structure as individual films, or as a full story being told from beginning to end. Here, the last five prevail.

5. Back To The Future: This, along with my #4 choice are almost interchangeable or a tie. The reason it ranks slightly lower is that BTTF Part 2 is generally regarded as a slight downgrade, as it appealed to a less diverse (in age, specifically) audience, became a bit too entangled and honestly, had such a high bar set by the predecessor that portions seemed silly rather than fun, except for hoverboards, something I'm praying are somehow invented by 2015.
The first film (which I would still rank the highest of the three) was so much fun, such a jab at what was cool, what is cool (as of 1985) and the notion of how the slightest event can influence everything, that you forget you're watching a movie about time travel by a possibly crazy old man with wild white hair that has befriended a teenage boy. Watching Michael J. Fox, who is perfect as the hero, squirm away from his teenage mother when he visits his hometown 30 years earlier is a blast. Every character is accessible, familiar, or identifiable and that is the key. If you can't see yourself in their shoes, there's very little interest in watching them take each step on their journey. A great soundtrack, wonderful bits of nostalgia and a concluding film that is a notch above Part 2, with several nods to Spaghetti Westerns that pleased a more adult crowd, Marty McFly, Doc and Biff's backwards punchlines will go down in the history....errrr...future books. Letter grades, A-, B, B+.

4. Toy Story: I am a sucker for these movies. I know that it seems ridiculous to have this ahead of the Godfather on the list, though again I remind you that the 3rd installment in Coppola's series was good, not even great, as opposed to the first two which were truly epic. While I was not as impressed with the third Toy Story film as many others were, including critics and award nominators, I appreciate the film's relevance and timeless message a decade after Toy Story 2 was released and that is what the Godfather conclusion lacked.
The original Toy Story (1995) made a permanent mark on how animated films would forever be made. Aside from its contributions to cinematic technology, it was a tender story about friendship, the feeling of being replaced, and a journey back home. There's your three act structure perfectly crafted. In the second film, we meet more characters struggling with the same issues, and somehow it works equally well, even feels fresh and brand new. And yep, by the third one, it's happening again. Maybe it's because they're willing to call a spade a spade. That things don't last forever. Toys break and get discarded, donated. Loved for an instant and set away to be forgotten. The brilliance in Disney's marketing strategy here cannot be dismissed. They get us to remember our own real life toys long displaced that gave us lasting memories.
Audience members shed tears during at least one, if not all of these touching films. The same cannot be said for the Godfather, or honestly, any of the other films on this list.

3. Star Wars (episodes IV-VI): I will not spend more than two sentences to acknowledge and ultimately dismiss the farces that made up the prequel trilogy. George Lucas didn't have the right technology to make that story in 1977, and by the time he did have it, it wasn't the story we were hoping for, or with characters...nor even actors we wanted to tell us the story. So, instead we focus on when he absolutely reshaped the sci-fi genre...and the entire cinematic world by making A New Hope. Beginning "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" with the world introduced to us as one where Wookiees and Banthas are commonplace, we are instantly engrossed with what is about to transpire. Plus, there's the music which is the catchiest and most immediately recognized score ever written.
There is a powerful force of evil spread everywhere and only a small contingent of those who would dare oppose it. Some of it is destiny, some of it is choice, all of it is pure magic. It features two of the greatest villains of all time and a series of so many good one-liners, they're almost tripping over themselves. Borrowing heavily from general theology, mythology and many classic novels (note my foreshadowing), Lucas captured our imaginations as well as our hearts.
It is one of only two series on this list where the second film is considered to be the best of the trilogy. The darker content of the Empire Strikes Back was gritty and left the audience wondering if maybe the bad guys had finally won. There seemed to be no chance for the Jedi and the rebels to bounce back, and who can forget the first time they watched when Vader dropped that huge bomb on us as audience members? The last movie, Return of the Jedi falters by being a bit too formulaic, and gosh darn those fuzzy little Ewoks. Still, up until about 10 years ago, this series was no doubt the best trilogy going. I would also assert it is the most memorable to the widest audience. From 6 years old to 76, everyone knows, the Force will be with you, always.

2. The Dark Knight: Forget what you know about the old TV series and forget everything that happened after Michael Keaton donned the cape the first time around. Batman Begins was the universe that comic book fans had been searching for. Christopher Nolan powerfully delivers the goods, and throughout the entire 3 films I only have two complaints. The gravelly voice of the main character never fully translated and made him somehow secondary in a series about himself.  The other critique is that there are moments, specifically in the second film, where the dialogue is ill-fitting. Members of elite SWAT teams are panicking at ensuing danger "I did not sign on for this!" like they were grade schoolers. But the good news is that these two things are barely a pimple on what is otherwise a perfect complexion. Let's run down the list.
Christian Bale is the best Bruce Wayne, cocky billionaire-but-haunted playboy, ever. Cillian Murphy is a delight. Morgan Freeman is a no-brainer as a wise-cracking but seasoned assistant. Michael Caine portraying Alfred serving as a Bruce's moral compass, has some of the most touching and insightful moments in the series. Gary Oldman is Jim Gordon, plain and simple. No one else could have done it. The cinematography soars. The effects and gadgets are immaculate. Sound is spectacular. Here will I speak again about the second film being the best in the series for one very specific reason.
Heath Ledger gives one of the most captivating performances that has ever or will ever be caught on screen. I cannot imagine how anyone will ever do anything that will compare to his magnificence as the Joker. Jack Nicholson gave us a funny, but rules-oriented iconic Joker in 1989. But as Ledger clearly points out, his take on the Joker, who is a sociopath, pure and simple..."You have all of these rules and you think they'll save you. The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules." His purpose is to unwind the world. To watch it burn, by lighting his own match, but seeing good people supply the fuel, when bad things start to happen to them. It becomes a morality tale not a comic book story, and the Joker is the "agent of chaos."
He's the Joker we as fanboys wanted and deserved. May he rest in peace.
So now, onto the concluding film. And it does just that. Concludes. In fact, I will go on record as saying I believe that The Dark Knight Rises is the greatest movie trilogy conclusion ever. It meanders and clumsily so if only for a few moments, but it dares not try to replicate what had transpired before. That is what is so special about it. Tom Hardy as the sinister Bane was not trying to outdo Ledger's Joker. He wanted to play a character that would UNDO all that Batman had done, all the piety that Gotham considered itself to be, force him to watch it all, and break his spirit before destroying him. I know Hardy's muffled voice was a deterrent during initial screenings. The blu ray copy was clear as a bell, and it was pointed out to me that his voice is almost soothing, and yet he speaks of desolation. It's a nice character choice and his eyes are truly engaging.
The film pulls in every element of the whole story, from every Act, taking us all the way back Bruce's roots, it moves us through with secondary interests, like Anne Hathaway as a Cat burglar and Joseph Gordon Levitt being an incredible protege, and my oh my, it seals off what needs to be put forever away, and leaves open what must remain. Hope. So to clarify, even though I consider the second movie to be the best of the series, I contend that the third film is the best conclusion ever made. Bravo to Christopher Nolan.

1. Lord of the Rings: Honestly, was there ever doubt in your mind? I won't spend a lot of time here, because I think you knew it to be true. You take what is considered to be the best 20th century work of fantasy fiction ever written, something that every sci-fi fan in the world knows of or has seen unofficial spawns of (You didn't really think Obi-Wan was the first mysterious old man to mentor a young innocent apprentice did you?), you spend nearly $300 million to film all the installments together as one cohesive story, you develop an even newer technology that will stun your viewers, you get 30 Oscar nominations for acting, editing, writing, directing, effects, makeup, costumes, music, film and win 17 of them, including Picture and Director for Return of the King, and you gross over $3 billion. You win, man. You win. You've made the most complete grouping of three movies to tell one story in the 100+ year history of cinema.
I still enjoy the innocence of the first film the most, though many contend that the second and third films are a more accurate interpretation of a doomed Middle Earth. I find the silliness of the dialogue spats between Legolas and Gimli a bit overdone, but again, nothing is perfect. The last installment is too long by about twenty minutes, but had more than one story to conclude, and admittedly I wouldn't have known which one to "end with" either. Bottom line it goes down in history standing on its own in the respective field, as does the written series as the best in its class.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

PT 2/3 of the Trilogy Blog

So. I'm starting this second installment by retracting a statement in my post prior to this. Upon further nitpicking of my criteria, I am putting the Bourne Trilogy back in the mix. They have made a fourth movie, true. But the main character is no longer the same, and the story arc although similar to the first ones, will ultimately need to take a different path for Aaron Cross than Jason Bourne's did. If this had been a fourth Bourne film, with Jason Bourne again as the featured protagonist, it wouldn't be a trilogy anymore.
This distinction will come in handy later on down this list. Trust me. If additional films are added to a trilogy but have an ancillary story arc, even if some of the supporting players are the same, UNLESS the story is about the same main character AND meant to advance or preface the intial trilogy storyline, I do not count it against the trilogy. Indiana Jones, sadly still misses this cut as does Jack Sparrow in the Pirates movies. Now. On to the list.

10. Spiderman: Sam Raimi applies his formula and heavy-handedness in certain spots with varying success in this franchise. Sometimes this really works, when campy meshes with comics or when the symbolism of Peter's reluctant hero has to sacrifice so much of himself and what he wants for a greater good; Alfred Molina being a nice choice for Doc Oc, though it is murky on why he developed the Octo-suit. (Really? You couldn't just get some lab assistants to help with your work? You had to create something that punctured your spine so you could operate all the equipment with 10 limbs simultaneously?) And when it doesn't work, it realllly doesn't. Willem Dafoe is, not at his best (was that a nice way to say it?) as Green Goblin, nor Thomas Hayden Church.
Sadly, we had to endure Kirsten Dunst in all three films which is the biggest stain working against the trilogy. Tobey Maguire however plays a subtle, but powerful performance and I was not expecting him to be as good as he was. It really stands out too, against the difficulties of the others in the cast. The soundtracks are also quite well done. If we're giving out letter grades for these three films, B, B, C+. It will withstand the test of time, I think, too. So there's something to be said for staying power beyond a movie aficionado as the main viewer. That's where The Man With No Name Trilogy sadly just misses this list. In today's market, Sergio Leone's films wouldn't last 10 minutes before the average up and left.
Side note: Spidey got an overhaul with a "reimagining" this summer. This doesn't fit into the other 3 films. It's a separate story arc, and it doesn't happen in chronology or in conjunction with any of the other films. Although Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker a bit too doofy in spots compared to Tobey Maguire's surprisingly stellar work, everything about The Amazing Spiderman film (2012) is FAR superior. The romance, the relationship with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, a darker villain. Bravo.

9. Austin Powers: Gross? Yes. Silly? Yes. A loving and well made parody the 007 Franchise? You betcha. Some of the most memorable moments actually belong to the "villains." Dr. Evil's idioms,  Mini-Me, Fat Bastard threatening to eat Mini-Me. Mike Myers did a great job making Austin the anti-James Bond, who somehow still manages to save the day and get the girl. If the gags (and some of them do really make you gag) are too much or are overdone, don't worry. Myers knows it, and they end about three seconds later than your comfort level holds your patience. Elizabeth Hurley and Beyonce Knowles are bright and beautiful leading ladies, whereas Heather Graham is merely the latter. Ultimately, it is great to see how he brings it all around with Michael Caine being incorporated as his father, and Austin feeling like he lives for his approval.

8. X-Men: I know what you're thinking, "Didn't they make a prequel?" Well, yes. It's called X-Men: First Class, but as I wrote earlier, the distinction is that First Class' main characters are not the same, and the story arc is about our introduction to Professor Xavier and how Eric becomes Magneto. When we meet these two in the trilogy, this is already established and it's no longer just their story. And I tell you this now, it is one heck of a story. If the third film didn't just kind of exist to try and tie it all together, this would be even higher on the list. That happens a lot. It's because as writers, we may find perfect beginnings or perfect endings. Seldom both, and if we do, we lose the reader/audience somewhere in the middle installment. It's hard to conclude a series that has as much going on and going for it as the X-Men, too. I don't think it really was a concluding piece. As I said, it tied things up, and that's about it. And sometimes this can pay off. In this case, I wanted more.
It also fell victim to a directorial change. I enjoy Brett Ratner's work, but in contrast to what Bryan Singer had begun with the first two movies, it doesn't measure up as well. The first film was very, very well done. The second film is one of the best comic book to movie conversions ever and Brian Cox as Stryker is sickeningly good. Hugh Jackman would not have been my first choice as the main hero, but he pulls it off big time. Ian McKellan is fantastic as Magneto and the tension between he and Patrick Stewart's Professor X is palpable and the same goes for Jackman as Wolverine and James Mardsen playing Cyclops. Plus, there's Rebecca Romijn as Mystique and Anna Paquin is a treat. Halle Berry and Famke Jenssen fall short of believable. Telling too much of the story undermines what makes them as characters, comics and as movies so entertaining. I'll just say this. It isn't some silly make-believe movie about mutants who have special powers. It's a pretty accurate look at humanity.

7. Jason Bourne: This trilogy is as even-keeled as any on the list as far as being treated with the same quality and vision. All of them are equally good in those regards and I cannot choose a favorite. Matt Damon is the right choice as the brooding amnesiac who finds out he may be a deadly assassin. Again Brian Cox is great as well as Chris Cooper. Julia Stiles and Joan Allen are there to appeal to a larger audience than the teenage boy demographic and they fulfill their purpose most of the time quite adeptly. Watching others from the "Program" chase Bourne and reveal their own self-loathing is powerful stuff. There is a crispness to how they merge together; all of the action is full throttle, absolutely electric and of all the trilogies listed here it is the easiest to sit down and watch all three installments back to back to back, simply for time's sake. Also look for Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) to turn in a sinister performance.
It suffers from two flaws in my mind. 1.) Since it isn't meant to tell a love story, no matter how good Damon and Franka Potente are, there just needs to be less of their time on screen implying what they mean to each other, or much more. Still I know what they were going for and truly, it works. Just barely. It's distracting at times. 2.) As I mentioned, it is easy to watch all three in a row, but it is also the hardest to come into it at any point other than from the beginning. Watching Supremacy (2nd film) first would leave a viewer scratching their head, and would undermine the story's compelling nature of watching them in order.
Obviously watching any of these on the list out of order would ruin certain aspects of the main story arc. But this one wouldn't shatter any big secrets, it would just be downright puzzling and easy to walk away from. What I'm saying is, these three don't stand on their own as well to tell a story. They need to be together, without a lot of time to think in between. The third one is so frenetic, especially the fragmented fight scenes, it can harm or enhance a viwership. It feels like you're in the midst of all the flying fists, and it's also confusing and a bit dizzying. Still, great films and I enjoy them several times a year.

6. Godfather: This is probably a few notches higher on other people's lists, but again suffers from a lack of solid 3rd component. It's a bit like having the best appetizer you've ever tasted, followed by the most savory cut of Filet Mignon you could ever imagine, and finishing it all off with a single scoop cone of vanilla ice cream. There's nothing wrong with vanilla ice cream, and in fact, if it is offered up, I don't know anyone who would turn it down. But. When you walk into an ice cream shop, and you have dozens of choices at your disposal, milkshakes, ice cream floats, sundaes, when was the last time you chose a single scoop cone of vanilla? And certainly not after the best meal of your life. I cannot get around it.
The Godfather is nearly perfect. Brando is flawless. The Godfather 2, impossibly, is just as good. DeNiro is phenomenal and the meat of the story makes Pacino better in the second film. The first film won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, and Writing and had nominations for three of the male performers in supporting roles along with five other nods. The second won Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Writing, Art Direction, and Original Score with five other nominations. The third? Nominated for seven. Won? None. And rightfully so. Andy Garcia is good. But not great. I think it suffered from trying to be relatable to a newer audience 17 years after the second was made, while still maintaining the "old country" family feel of the others. Ultimately though, it is the greatest portrait of the American Dream on camera, albeit a cautionary tale.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this series on trilogies.

Friday, December 7, 2012

On Movie Trilogies and the Caped Crusader...

The rule of three....or more...There has been a long-standing rule in Hollywood among studio bigwigs and producers, directors, etc. that if you can tell a story, why not tell the story over a longer period of time, with extra twists, new characters, and at least three chances for viewers to come sit in the audience and behold what you've put together.
And so was born the Trilogy. Oh sure, some films, especially when you "boldly go where no one has gone before", or drink martinis "shaken, not stirred" or are running away from a masked madman who wields an axe or chainsaw or whatever pointy thing nearby he can grasp, you go beyond trilogy. Let's focus on the rule of three at this point, not as an analysis of profit margins, but more as a critique of why some have historically worked, and others haven't, or have left a lot to be desired with at least one of the three installments. I will not disqualify based on any genre a trilogy may inhabit, so comedies, sci-fi all have the chance to be in the mix.
Sadly though, I can no longer include Indiana Jones, since they made a fourth film, nor Pirates of the Caribbean or The Bourne Trilogy since a fourth was also added to these. They would've ranked HIGH on my list of all time best.

Start with some honorable mentions:

The Man with No Name Trilogy: (Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) It's Clint Eastwood, so there. The first is an unofficial remake of a Kurosawa film, and Good, Bad, Ugly has been called the best directed film of all time. Sergio Leone also did a boon for soundtracks. The music is iconic, and every Spaghetti Western will always lead you back to that soundtrack.

The Matrix Trilogy: I don't have a lot to say here. The first film stands alone. And should've stayed that way. Aside from the highway chase/fight, and a few one-liners from Agent Smith in the last two, there's no reason it couldn't have stayed a single film.

The Evil Dead Trilogy: Sam Raimi makes things fun. He really does. The first film is considered to be a shining gem in the world of campy horror, playing scary in all the right places and silly when needed. The third film, Army of Darkness is a fun way to conclude, and has some great makeup.

My second installment coming soon. It will start the countdown of all time best trilogies.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

TOP TEN (or 12) Horror/Scary movies for this author

A brief break from Aliens franchise to get this list in. There's not much left on the two remaining Alien films anyway.
This list compiles these SPECIFIC selection criteria:
NO attention paid to CRITIC reception or general audience approval
Innovation (specifically, elements of surprise, storytelling, storyboarding, visual or tech effects)
Does it scare??? (qualification: was I thinking about any specific component, hours, days later? or did I jump because I was startled at any time?)
Does it stand the test of time? (twenty years later, can/will it still be appreciated for it's place within the previous selection criteria?)
I'm sure others have their own lists and may consider this list a pile of dog crap. I care not. According to MY above criteria, these round out my list. Honorable mentions are Texas Chainsaw, Friday the 13th 1 & 2, The Last House on the Left, The Believers, The Dawn of the Dead, A Clockwork Orange (not a traditional horror film, but certainly a scary proposition of the future)
10. 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle----I highly recommend it, and it's equally nerve-wracking sequel, 28 Weeks Later. Imagine zombies existed simply because we have been overexposed to the wretchedness and terrible things of humanity?! Then make it contagious (which in a sense, it is) then make it pursue you and eat you up (which it does), then make it challenge your sense of right and wrong (which it definitely does). Add the first zombies to really be very aware---and RUNNING---as well as the always watchable Cillian Murphy and you've got a winner.
9. The Shining, Stanley Kubrick----All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy....some of the cutaway shots to what Danny or Jack Nicholson's character see are pretty intense. Add telltale Kubrick camera pans, pacing, and Nicholson's masterful descent into madness and it's my number 9, easily.
8. THREE WAY TIE---Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock; The Exorcist, William Friedkin; Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper----cannot distinguish one over the other . They tie at number eight, respectively because Psycho wasn't scary, more creepy---thanks to Anthony Perkins, but soooo ahead of it's time in so many ways; Exorcist (nominated all over the place for Oscars that year including best picture) is just plain difficult to watch, especially as a believer in God and Jesus---but again ahead of the time; the camera work and tricks are as real as 21st century technology could offer and Ellen Burstyn is fantastic, and Poltergeist takes a similar formula as The Exorcist and puts a sweet little girl in danger from the "other side". A jab at TV/entertainment/media must be recognized, and Hooper (who also did Chainsaw Massacre and Salem's Lot) uses every punctuation of Spielberg's writing credits. Hooper/Spielberg's elements with the thunderstorm and all the leads make this one that shouldn't be missed.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven---The swallowing bed scene still gives me chills. Plus, there's Johnny Depp (though not for long), and Craven uses the idea of scary at a psychological level as well as physiological level. No one wants to go to sleep anymore--laying down in bed, asleep is when we are most vulnerable; Freddy comes out of nowhere, and you never know if you're awake, or about to be dead.
6. Scream, Wes Craven----a tongue in cheek jab at his own genre, Craven knocks this one out of the park. He details "the rules" of a horror film and lovingly creates a fabulous story around and bound to them. Drew Barrymore in the opening scene is fantastic. It's funny, freaky, and it's a true surprise to discover the killer.
5. Halloween, John Carpenter----The original, tackling the theme of A.) the scariest night of the year and B.) evil encapsulated in a single being, was given an enormous boost by performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance (his character is named Loomis in homage to Psycho) Add the element of "where is he going to appear now?" and THE BEST and most recognized theme music (non-empirical data-driven statement) from the genre, make Michael Myers a force to be reckoned with.
4. Alien, Ridley Scott--see previous blog posts concerning this film. Scott is a master at the touchy-feely moments of Sigourney Weaver's character, and creating a dread and impending doom of her unearthly opponent.
3. The Thing, John Carpenter----hands down, my favorite on this list. being trapped in Antarctica with a symbiote? And Kurt Russell?!!! The only reason it isn't higher than number three is because some of the effects are outdated, and may have even been outdated back when I first saw it in '85.
2. Aliens, James Cameron---again, see previous blog post. Cameron scores big time, capitalizing on the excellent work laid before him by Ridley Scott's masterpiece, and ups the ante with more gore, more visual elements to make it a flawed, but high-ranking horror masterpiece.


1. The Sixth Sense, M. Knight Shyamalan----I will take crap for this selection, but please know I am prepared to defend this choice to the death. There is only ONE ghost story that may be considered superior, and that's Dickens' Christmas Carol. M. Knight Shamalan's debut was an overnight sensation for all of the reasons noted in my criteria. Innovation in story and design, impeccable acting, (Bruce Willis may actually be the "weakest" link, but only in the closing moments of the film) Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette (both nominated for Oscars here) are a son and mommy you absolutely fall in love with.
It's the last movie I "jumped" when seeing---when Cole Seer is going to the bathroom and "something" passes by him, my whole body convulsed, and my oh my, the ending. No matter at what point you discern what is happening, this labor of love must be given credit for it's originality and precision regarding it's own, new, set of rules to establish such fine storytelling. I kid you not, that I get chills both from the creepiness and the emotional interactions every time I watch it (Donnie Wahlberg's 150 seconds on screen are BONE CHILLING, Haley and Toni, Haley and Bruce when Bruce says he can't help him, Haley telling Bruce what he sees, Haley talking to ghosts, Haley trapped in the servant's quarter door) and I've seen the film at least 20 times. Bravo, to you, M. Night.
Nominated also for Best Picture, Direction, Editing, and Screenplay this film is so good it allows forgiveness of all Shyamalan's other cinematic indiscretions that have followed, though I still enjoy Unbreakable, The Village, and Lady in the Water. He has made my favorite scary movie of all time, and in ten or twenty years when my kids see it, I'm confident it will still have the same effect. On them, and me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


It's a lofty statement, it really is. To first even suggest that a horror film can be good by any standard other than makeup and effects is difficult to utter other than in jest. Only a few in my viewing life (perhaps 10 I can think of off the top of my head) have accomplished this-Alien being one of them.

But then to suggest a sequel is-BETTER than the film of origin?! I'm surprised the film sacrilege police haven't busted down my door.

But if anyone can do it, I suppose it's that darn James Cameron. After all, many believe his second effort in the Terminator franchise eclipsed the first. I guess you (you being me) have to weigh out all the pro's and con's.

James Cameron cannot (again all in my opinion, informed as it is, by several thousand movies) and I mean CANNOT write to save his life. One of the glaring shortcomings of every film I've ever seen by him is a stereotypical ancillary character that just distracts and detracts from the overall presentation. Cases in point: Titanic--Billy Zane's Cal was so melodramatic both in performance and script and the magnanimity of Victor Gerber's character, heck even of the two main protagonists is so sickeningly sweet, I nearly got a toothache. Then there's The Abyss-another solid, solid and stunning-effects driven film ahead of it's time, downgraded from an A+ to B+, A- because of the hillbilly character "Catfish", and others, though at least the two leads were able to act the pants off an otherwise silly exchange of dialogues. Don't even get me started on Avatar. It is so self-righteous, (and the extended version of the Abyss straddles that line also) that it's suffocating on it's own self-importance. Thankfully, again, the visual element leaves one breathless anyway. And if you really want to have some fun at Avatar and Cameron's expense, watch Aliens and Avatar back to back and keep a log of how much he ripped off his own story.

So, back we circle to Aliens. Bill Paxton's character of Hudson is so distracting that I nearly have to mute the film whenever he gets panicked. (SIDE NOTE: Bill Paxton's directorial debut is a thriller/supernatural horror gem of a film called Frailty. I would include it in the short list of "good" horror films) Thus, one might say of James Cameron, "Joel, if he's that bad of a writer, how can he get all this attention, critical acclaim, and have Aliens be considered one of the best horror flicks of all time?"

I'll tell you simply in my opinion. He can direct the crap out of a film, and is one of the best innovators/new idea makers and video technology advancers that I can recall. His fault is in his writing, not his vision or direction. It's like that magic bullet blender. Sure it looks like the thing can be launched into space, but there's no getting around the fact that you just paid five times the price for a smaller, slightly faster, blender. There's always a trade-off. The trade-off between Ridley Scott's first installment of Alien to Cameron's Aliens sequel? Cameron's dialogue is clunky, and expects everyone to believe that all Marines are dumb jarheads that just wanna blow stuff up, while all corporate managers are slimy and as evil as the aliens the Marines encounter.

But he took the elements of suspense that are now naturally present with multiple aliens and keeps the audience perched on the edge of their seats with precise advancement and initiation of screen time and off screen elements regarding the otherworldly antagonists. His treatment of effects-driven work gives it a stunning upgrade to the franchise. The attention to visual details and continuity as well as set design as impeccable. Everything looks more industrial, more slimy, more gritty, just....more.

Ridley Scott's pace in the 1979 film is deliberate also, but lulls too much because we're learning about each character and ultimately kind of liking each of them for what and who they are. He establishes Ripley's importance, and the integrity of her never waivers. She will always do what is best, what is right. Cameron's characters you don't have a lot invested in, except Ripley, who as I just noted, was already established. His supporting cast is more flippant and ultimately kind of silly. This is not, however, a total loss-because it gives Weaver a chance to shine once again. She was even nominated for an Oscar in the role-forever giving a new credence to the genre as a whole. Pay attention that early scenes with her are an anecdote for a woman's struggles in a man's world. See also Bishop (Lance Henriksen) the android: he is historically noted as one AI that follows Issac Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. So here's that lack of character development/poor writing vs. great directing tradeoff again. Since you care so little about some of the Aliens characters, and in fact dislike them strongly, you actually look forward to their demise, creatively and lovingly crafted by a visionary who has capitalized on our fear of the unknown and ALSO our fascination with that fear. The problem being that the end is somewhat telegraphed in regarding the two most attention-holding characters, Ripley and Bishop. I won't mention much about Newt at this point; on any given particular viewing, I vacillate on her character's effectiveness. She's there to point out a kink in Ripley's armor; the rest is a near total suspension of disbelief.

Still, since you get what you pay for--(i.e. every horror movie I've ever seen there's always a character you love to hate, either because they're pesky, whiny, incompetent or evil) one will tolerate this lack of character depth, and appreciate that Cameron has played by the rules. The hero must be willing to give all. The hero possesses an innocence that is either challenged or tainted. The hero has a character flaw that nearly causes them to fail; they ultimately overcome it. The hero is one of the only survivors, and gets to go home. Straight out of The Odyssey and the Bible.

But don't expect Ripley to be resurrected in white robes. Her journey is far from over, sadly. This is the point where going out on a high note would have been wise, call it a day. When the scene faded to black, the first time I saw it, I was nearly panting. Scott's Alien equals the ride that drops you straight down ten stories in two seconds and bounces you up and down once or twice. Cameron's Aliens is like a roller coaster ride that you love every second of except for the weird soundtrack.

The last two films to conclude this thread soon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Monster Movie Month-Alien Invasion Part 1

If you are not familiar with 21st century television, and pop culture in general, (and believe me, I'm not an expert by any means)--then you may have missed the memo that the month of October now sees a large portion of all 31 days dedicated to an obsessive phenomemon with ghouls, ghosts, monsters, tricks and treats. People plan their costumes months in advance for the 31st and adorn their yards as opulently as many do for Christmastime. And on TV? SyFy runs month-long monster mayhem (at least one horror movie a day for the entire month); AMC does two+ weeks of Frightfest, a similar format, but incrementally increasing the feature fright films as All Hallow's Eve approaches.
Since I'm not sure where to begin concerning a discussion or review of horror movies--it seems best to consider these two provisions and present what it is I've watched so far this season.
I will try to tackle the Alien franchise. TRY. The reason I emphasize this--is because it could go in a variety of directions; such as franchises in general, the rare occasion when a sequel surpasses the initial film in the series, the argument of "quitting while you are ahead" and if necessary "quitting while you are behind" (AKA Let sleeping dogs lie), debate of sci-fi thriller vs. horror film, traditional horror film formula (does it follow the rules? See Scream for a perfect, albeit tongue-in-cheek explanation), or blazing a new path, and certainly the career launching for directors and performers alike. Possibilities abound.
As noted in an earlier blog post, I will stick to what I saw/see and what I thought/think about it.
Therefore, plan on moments of brevity, levity, long-windedness, existentialism, and just about all the "space" in between.
Speaking of space--it has long been the "final frontier" of imagination. And long has mankind been obsessed with it. Galileo, Copernicus, all the way to modern day reference of the space race, Spock, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke, Close Encounters, and of course, all of the things that happened A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
In 1979, young director Ridley Scott was seeing the disappointing reception of his first feature film, The Duellists, and the critical and widespread acceptance of Star Wars--a big budget, Oscar-garnering space epic-and sniffed out the possibilities. The end result is his groundbreaking cinematic feature, Alien--a vehicle that jump-started Sigourney Weaver's career and must have made 90% of the world second-guess every stomach cramp anyone would ever have from that point on.
While in hypersleep, a crew of seven aboard the commerical space freighter Nostromo, is awakened by a signal from a nearby planet, which appears to be an SOS. The reality by Weaver's character Ellen Ripley that it was not an SOS, but a warning to stay away, comes just a little too late. By now, the crew is discovering strange pod-like installations, bizarre, biomechanic instruments, and of course, "the face-sucker", "the chest-buster" and "acid blood". Awesome.
If you haven't seen Alien yet, but are planning to, please consider that although some of the effects, make-up, and cinematic wizardry pale in comparison to what studios are now capable of, this film, catapulted what George Lucas had initialized in Star Wars and took it to a whole new, creepy, gory, otherworldly level. No one was making movies quite like this. Horror films, splatter flicks, yeah had their gag-inducing bloodshed scenes, but you got what you paid for. The combination of well-thought out dramatic plot and characterization, with sci-fi setting,
creepy thrills, and gross-out villains just wasn't being done. Anywhere. Not in 1979. And I have to, have to, give more than a nod to Scott for this achievement. He was developing his wheelhouse with this movie and he knocked it out of the park, in my opinion. Oscar was kind, too. It won for Best Visual Effects (H.R. Giger spearheading the design of the creepy creatures) and was nominated for all Art Direction, also taking a slew of other awards, such as the Saturn and Hugos.
If you watch it with fresh eyes--either on a return viewing or truly for the first time, consider these notes, if you would, because the movie laid a groundwork for storytelling across multiple films and developing a heroine like had not been attempted before. Bravo, says I.
It's a film I watch every year, the same as so many of us watch It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol, etc every December. I suppose that's sufficient for now.
Aliens (the sequel) post to follow soon.