Monday, October 7, 2019

Movie Review: "Friday the 13'th Part 2"




WARNING: Although this should go without saying, the following deep-dive retrospective / review of a nearly forty (!) year old movie contains spoilers! You have been warned!

Even though Friday the 13’th Part 2 is better crafted and more engaging than its predecessor, it also makes a few baffling miss-steps that prevents it from reaching the top tier of this minor pantheon.

For one, the movie is seriously hamstrung by a pre-credit sequence that’s supposed to take place two months after the events of the first film. In it, we see final girl Alice (Adrienne King) experiencing a “nightmare”, which is just a cheap way for director Steve Miner and writer Ron Kurz to recap the events of Part 1 for the audience.

Y’see, kids, back in THE DARK AGES (I.E. 1981), streaming video was still science fiction and home video was practically non-existent. As such, whenever you made a sequel, you couldn’t just assume that the audience had seen or could remember the events of the prior film. So, yes, even though it made sense back then to include a flashback / dream sequence in the sequel’s prologue, the ease with which modern audiences can find and watch the first flick kinda makes this whole preamble feel like wasted screen time.

It also doesn’t help that Adrienne King’s interpretation of a “bad dream” is comically thrashing around on her bed as if she’s auditioning for Exorcist III. At least the subsequent phone conversation she has with her mom is more understated than any of her overwrought line deliveries in the first film. Maybe she was depressed after laying eyes on the “Cabbage Patch Kid” ensemble that the wardrobe department had picked out for her or how shabbily the script was about to treat her character.  

At least the film-makers cared enough to scatter a few of Alice’s paintings around her apartment, which is a nice call back to the sketches she did in Part 1. Beyond these minor nods to continuity, I despise this pre-credit sequence with the fire of a million suns. And it’s not just the repetition and wasted time I’m salty about, it’s just how stupid and nonsensical the whole thing is.

So, as it turn out, this “nightmare” is just a preamble to Alice inexplicably discovering the decapitated noggin’ of Pamela Voorhees sitting next to the Sunny D in her fridge. At least I think it’s supposed to be Pamela, ‘cuz the prop looks less like actress Betsy Palmer and more like Jeff Daniels. Regardless, this little stunt distracts Alice long enough for her killer to ambush her from behind and bury an ice pick in her skull. And with that, the film finally segues into its ‘splody title sequence.

First off, I can’t overstate how disrespectful this is to the character of Alice. It brings to mind the arbitrary killing of Newt and Hicks in Alien 3 or dispatching the scattered survivors from A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 within the first few minutes of Part 4. Look, Alice survived her ordeal in the first film and, frankly, she deserves a reprieve. To knock her off like the first action n item on a shitty “things-to-do” list is really galling.   

Beyond this heinous transgression against the unwritten survivor girl code, there’s a lot more stupidity to unpack here. First off, the concept that Jason has somehow emerged from out of nowhere to kill Alice in an act of revenge is enough to drive any die-hard Friday fan completely batty. Any way you cut it (pun intended), this scarcely makes any sense, and that’s saying something when it comes to this series!

In order for this to work at all, we have to assume that the gross, rotten, zombie kid that popped out of the water at the end of Part 1 was just a figment of Alice’s fevered imagination. This leads us to conclude that Jason never drowned at all. I dunno, maybe he bumped his head on a log, washed up on shore with amnesia and then spent his formative years growing up in the woods until the sight of Alice lopping his mom’s head off brought his memories back.

Even if we accept that insane theory, the prologue would have us believe that Jason somehow managed to figure out where Alice lived, schlepped all the way there from Crystal Lake, crept into her apartment, placed his mom’s head in her fridge, then crept up and stabbed her. It’s phreakin’ ridiculous!

Alright, more warped Jason chronology and wacky theories later. We’ve got a lot of (camp)ground to cover here, folks.

Fast forward five years later and head counselor Paul Holt (John Furey) is looking to open a new summer camp on a different part of Crystal Lake. We’re then introduced to a whole new cast of fresh meat, er, camp counselor, including adorkable goofball Ted (Stuart Charno), sweet-but-blatantly-horny Vickie (Lauren-Marie Taylor), her object de lust, the hunky, wheel-chair-bound Mark (Tom McBride,) fuck buddies Sandra (Marta Kober) and Jeff (Bill Randolph), free spirit / Muffin mom Terry (Kirsten Baker) and her waaay-creepier-than-Jason stalker, Scott, played by Russell Todd.   

This is also where we meet the film’s MVP / secret weapon, Amy Steel. I’m just gonna come right out and say this now: Amy is, IMHO, the Jamie Lee Curtis / Heather Langencamp of the Friday the 13’th series. In fact, I’m going to be so bold as to say that her Ginny is my all-time favorite survivor girls in slasher history. Although the “sign of the times” script does her dirty occasionally (more on that later), Amy’s portrayal is so genuine, resourceful, intelligent and plucky that I’m willing to overlook all of these wrong-headed script decisions.  

After all the trainees show up, Paul proceeds to scare the fertilizer out of them by recounting the story of Jason, campfire-style, yo:

“I'm gonna give it to you straight about Jason; his body was never recovered from the lake after he drowned. And if you listen to the old-timers in town, they'll tell you he's still out there, some sort of demented creature, surviving in the wilderness, full grown by now. Stalking, stealing what he needs, living off wild animals and vegetation. Some folks claim they've even seen him, right in this area. The girl that survived that night at Camp Blood, that Friday The 13th, she claimed she saw him. She disappeared two months later... vanished. Blood was everywhere. No one knows what happened to her. Legend has it that Jason saw his mother beheaded that night. Then, he took his revenge, a revenge he continued to seek if anyone ever enters his wilderness again. And, by now, I guess you all know we're the first to return here. Five years, five long years he's been dormant...and he's hungry. Jason's out there, watching, always on the prowl for intruders. Ready to kill, ready to devour...thirsty for young blood!”

It’s a wonderfully creepy moment that really helps to establish Jason as a modern day (read: 80’s-era) urban legend. Pity the tension is completely deflated when wacky prankster Ted leaps into their midst, brandishing a spear and wearing a caveman outfit and a long-haired zombie mask. Having said that, I completely understand why director Steve Miner and writer Ron Kurz did this.

By making light of what he sees as a non-issue, Paul gives both his staff and the audience a false sense of security. I also appreciate that the script acknowledges the epic tragedy that happened in the first film. Setting Part 2 five years in the future and firmly establishing Crystal Lake as a “no go” zone really helps establish a modicum of realism.

Oh, and in case it isn’t blatantly obvious from his first millisecond on screen, Ted is this movie’s Ned from Part 1, in that he’s a walking Dad joke. For some reason, though, the character isn’t nearly as irritating. Credit for this goes to actor Stuart Charno, who’s disarming awkwardness and understated deliveries add to his appeal. Plus it really helps that the character isn’t just written as a professional asshole. That’s actually, Scott, but more on that fuckboi later.

Then the movie makes another baffling misstep: unceremoniously killing off Walt Gorney’s Crazy Ralph. Already established as a national treasure by his appearance in the first film, Ralph scarcely gets a chance to weird anyone out before he’s unceremoniously garroted by someone in a blue plaid shirt. Prime suspect #1: George Lucas!

Seriously, though, his demise is shockingly lame. Part 1 screenwriter Victor Miller was inspired to throw Ralph into the mix as an old-school harbinger of doom, a “soothsayer right out of Shakespeare.” So maybe director Steve Miner and screenwriter Ron Kurz thought Ralph’s presence was a bit too melodramatic or Scooby-Doo-ish to warrant more screen time. Personally, I love Gorney’s ultra-hammy deliveries and I really wish the series kept him around a little bit longer.

At the very least, Ralph’s death jacks up the threat level, which is then heightened when Sandra goads Jeff into sneaking off to Camp Blood, presumably because Packanack Lodge doesn’t have the cable hooked up yet. During their trek they come across a mutilated animal, which the audience instant assumes is Terry’s missing dog, Muffin. Moments later, they’re busted by Deputy Winslow (Jack Marks), who proceeds to lose his proverbial shit on them.

Jack’s aneurysm-level performance really drives home the point that Camp Crystal Lake is about as accessible as Chernobyl. Although it’s been five years since the events of the first film, it’s clear that the murders are still fresh in the minds of the locals. Inexorably, this sense of realism would start to ebb out of the series, eventually prompting viewers to wonder why anyone in their right mind would venture into this county let alone Crystal Lake itself!

Deputy Winslow is one hardcore motherfucker. After he spots what appears to be a Deliverance cosplayer running across the road, he immediately pulls over and gives chase. He ends up in a dodgy, ramshackle cabin which turns out to be the perfect spot for an ambush. Moments after Winslow’s horrified reaction foreshadows the film’s Gotterdammerung climax, the Deputy gets hammered on duty and the tension continues to rise. 

This is probably a good spot to mention the film’s authentic, evocative and immersive setting.  Even though Part 2 was shot in Connecticut instead of New Jersey, it still makes effective use of those distinctive East Coast North American forests. Whenever the actors are tramping through the woods, I can’t help but wonder if they know what poison ivy looks like. Future films in the series would eschew this approach for sunny Californian back-lots or tax breaks down south, but this sacrificed the kind of atmosphere that The Blair Witch Project exploited so successfully years later.

This brings me to Jason’s cabin, which is a humble, but no less effective, triumph of production design. It really does look like the hovel of some crazed hermit who’s been living in the woods for about a decade.  Add in the isolated and authentic environs of North Spectacle Pond in Kent, Connecticut, which stands in for the iconic Packanack Lodge, and you’ve got a horror movie setting that’s pretty much ideal.

With so many counselors running around, screenwriter Ron Kurz cleverly thins out the herd by shipping half of them off to the Casino Bar in “town.” It’s here that Amy Steele delivers her speculative soliloquy about Jason, which really solidifies the lore of the series. I also think it’s funny that Ted’s drunken obsession with finding an after-hours club is ultimately what spares him from Jason’s all-encompassing wrath.

We then return to camp and witness the wacky hijinx of Russell Todd’s Scott. Let’s face it: everyone knows a Scott, I.E. that dude who thinks he can act like an entitled douche-nozzle just because he’s impossibly good looking. This might sound like a thinly-veiled insult, but Todd is note-perfect: smarmy, arrogant, and brash, basically a poster boy for #metoo movement.

When Terry inexplicably refuses to leap into the sack with him after her smokes her in the ass with a slingshot rock, he acts contrite for a second, generating a blip of sympathy from the audience. But then the creep STEALS HER PHREAKIN’ CLOTHES when she decides to go swimming au naturel.

I guess I should address Kirsten Baker’s infamous skinny dipping scene. Now, I’m sure Kirsten was originally hired for the role of Terry because she was drop-dead gorgeous but she’s actually really good in the role, especially when she has to fend off Scott’s pervy advances. Watching this, I can’t help but wonder if Kirsten had to contend with an endless parade of real-life “Scott’s” during her film career.

Speaking as someone who thinks swimsuits are patently ridiculous, it makes perfect sense to me that Terry swims nekkid. Now, I’m also not gonna sit here and claim that the film-makers included this scene because they were crusading for body freedom and non-sexual nudity. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite being regarded as an “era of excess”, the 80’s were a notoriously-prudish decade and nudity, specifically female nudity, was often included just for titillation.  

Even people who haven’t seen a single Friday the 13’th film knows that if you (A) got naked, (B) smoked weed or, perish forbid, (C) fucked someone in one of these movies, you pretty much just signed your death warrant. And even though Sean Cunningham and other creative luminaries in the series swear up and down that this wasn’t a deliberate choice, it sure feels that way. In retrospect, this makes the entire series feels laughably Puritanical.

Take Lauren-Marie Taylor as Vickie, for example. I love her because she’s a take-charge kinda gal who’s clearly got a case of the throbbing thigh sweats for hunky Tom McBride’s Mark. She just wants to get busy, how can you not sympathize with her? Unfortunately , this is a Friday the 13’th flick, so that means sex-positive folks like Vickie aren’t long for this world.

While I’m on the subject, I should also mention Tom McBride, who plays the charismatic and charmingly-clueless Mark. In a modern horror flick Mark would just be THAT GUY IN THE WHEELCHAIR but here we get a few lines about what happened to him and what his aspirations are. The exchange where he re-assures Vickie that everything below the equator works perfectly fine is oddly innocent and charming. When Jason takes him out, it’s truly one of the most shocking and disturbing kills in the entire series. 

Side note: all of the scenes featuring an unseen Jason stalking his victims feature some surprisingly-good camera work and set-ups from first time director Steve Miner. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the upstart Miner consistently outdoes his mentor Sean Cunningham. Part 2 doesn’t just look better than Part 1, it’s also directed with a lot more urgency, verve and panache.

Another thing worth mentioning is the excellent cinematography by Peter Stein. Even when darkness falls and the torrential downpour starts, we have no problem seeing all of the glossy, rain-slicked mayhem with perfect clarity. Between the lived-in setting and the slick camerawork, everything looks cold and wet and, as a result, the viewer can’t help but feel a visual chill. In a lesser film you’d be struggling to see anything at all in the darkness.

When bodies start dropping, the pace of the film becomes relentless. I can only assume that Ron Kurz or Steve Miner (or both!) must have seen Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood at some point because they blatantly cribbed at least two kills from that seminal giallo splatterfest. This includes Mark’s aforementioned “machete to the mush” as well as the in-coitus shish-kebob of Jeff and Sandra. Having said that, both kills are well executed, pun not intended.

This brings me to the gore effects. Now, I know this is probably sacrilege, but I really like Carl Fullerton’s makeup work, and I’d even go so far as to say that it rivals Tom Savini’s efforts in the first film. Of course, we have to keep in mind that Fullerton probably had a lot more time and money to work with, so the comparisons are likely unfair.

About around this time we also get our first good look at Jason. First off, he’s wearing the latest in “hillbilly chic”, which is a set of denim overalls, the aforementioned blue plaid shirt and a burlap sack over his head. Although it can be argued that the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown or John Merrick in The Elephant Man wore it better, it’s still kind of creepy. It’s just not the iconic look that fans will soon come to love.

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Jason has a distinguishing feature on the thumb nail of his left hand which, by the way, we never ever, ever see again. In Part 2, Jason was actually portrayed by two actors: Steve Daskawisz and Warrington Gillette. Over the years, determining what actor is Jason in any given scene is a source of tremendous debate and controversy.

As the story goes, Warrington Gillette was hired based on the actor’s claim that he was comfortable doing stunts. Unfortunately, when they got on set, Gillette just couldn’t do the work, which forced stunt coordinator Cliff Cudney to hastily recruit dedicated stuntman Steve “Dash” Daskawisz a full week into shooting. By all accounts, Daskawisz was the killer in every scene where Jason is masked, which is to say, 99.9% of them.

I like how Jason’s modus operandi, such as his playful predilection for building traps, is already starting to come together. He also leaves the bloody sheets on the bed, knowing that Ginny and Paul will find them and get spooked but hides the bodies so as not to completely tip them off. He also knocks out the power, which becomes standard Jason procedure in many subsequent episodes.

I must admit; it’s a tad disappointing when Jason finally pops out and attacks Paul, because the head counselor actually looks like has a few inches on our boi. At this stage, Jason isn’t the hulking ogre that we see in future entries and their subsequent scrap is pretty sad. Even worse, since Part 2 was years before Aliens and T2, female characters were sadly relegated to the role of “panicked standby.” So, instead of Ginny helping a brother out, she just stands there and repeats Paul’s name over and over again. Yeeeesh.

Speaking of idiotic, there’s an even more egregious scene that sells poor Ginny “down the river”, so to speak. At one point our intrepid Final Girl is hiding under the bed when a big-ass rat happens by. This apparently scares her so badly that she PROJECTILE URINATES THROUGH HER CLOTHES. This begs the question: who in the almighty fuck though that was a good idea? Oh, right, a bunch of stupid guys who clearly don’t know that men are ten times more likely to ‘fraidy pee than women.  

Well, needless to say, Jason notices this conspicuous tsunami of urine jetting out from the foot of the bed and then doubles back to climbs up on a chair so Ginny can’t see his legs. As soon as she starts to crawl out from her hiding spot, Jason attempts to skewer her but, as luck would have it, the chair founders under the goon’s weight and he comically crashes to the floor.

Yo, Jay: you’d better hope that Michael Myers didn’t see that, dawg, or he’s gonna roast your ass!

Needless to say, scenes like this really diminish Jason as a scary figure. Earlier on, Ginny does an admirable job of ducking and hiding, culminating in a pretty funny defensive nut shot. Later, Jason continues with the pratfalls, hilariously recoiling away from Ginny’s chainsaw gambit, which causes him stumble backwards, trip and smoke his burlapped noggin on the back of a chair.

In the film-makers defense, this clumsy Jason makes a fair bit of sense. He hasn’t evolved to hulking ogre or undead juggernaut yet. If you think about it, he’s a thirty-seven-year-old Deliverance-style forest hermit who barely seen other people let alone fight them, so I’m willing to cut him some slack.

Now, I can hear you asking, “How the fux do you know how old Jason is at this point?!?” Well, he drowned at age ten in 1957, then the events of Friday the 13’th occurred in 1979, which is 22 years later and then Part 2 goes five years into the future, so  10 + 22 + 5 = 37.

Jesus, I need a hobby.  Anyway, back to the movie. 

In addition to the kooky timeline, the script makes some serious logical leaps in order to get Ginny out into the woods. Instead of searching the camp for car keys, she just runs out into the middle of nowhere and eventually stumbles across Jason‘s cabin. Assuming that there’s someone inside who can help her, she just kinda barges in.

Of course, this had to happen because we need the big reveal of Jason’s mom-shrine. It’s a legitimately disturbing scene, with a creepy Ed Gein-esque quality to it. With Pam’s desiccated head and rotting sweater acting as the centerpiece, hawk-eyed viewers will notice that the bodies of Deputy Winslow, Terry and, for the love of gawd, Alice are all present.

So, lemme get this straight, not only did Jason track down and kill Alice, he also lugged her dead body all the way back to his cabin without being seen. Um, oooookay.

Notwithstanding this idiocy, the scene does give Ginny a chance to apply her aforementioned child psychology skills to save her own skin. Donning Pamela’s sweater and impersonating her is a stroke of minor brilliance, and Amy Steel sells it to the hilt. Steve Miner also earns bonus points here for including a very welcome cameo by Betsy Palmer. It’s great to have her back at any capacity, and I’ve always thought that the Friday series didn’t use her nearly enough to explore her origin story via flashbacks.

Ginny’s plan might be clever, but I legitimately feel bad for Jason. Convinced that Ginny is his real mom, he unquestionably kneels down in front of her when it’s asked of him, setting up a moment of true betrayal. Maybe this is what finally put Jason completely over the edge and why he’s so pissed off at twenty-something’s-playing-teenagers for the rest of the series. 

Side note: seeing Jason’s lone, baleful eye staring out from behind that hood at what he thinks is his long-lost, beloved mother is fifty percent mournful and fifty percent creepy as all get-out.

At the last second, Jason catches a glimpse of his mom’s mushy melon on the altar and deflects Ginny’s killing blow. Then, Paul pops back up from out of nowhere, grabs Jason and their ensuing wrestling match causes the cabin to start collapsing down on top of them. This time Ginny has the presence of mind to pick up the machete and, in another slo-mo attack which hearkens back to the first film, she buries the fucking thing in Jason’s flanneled shoulder. This begs the question: Jason is still human at this stage...how the fuck did he possibly recover from this grievous wound by the start of the next movie?

Then, in a moment which likely had theater-goers yelling obscenities at the screen back in 1981, Ginny pauses to remove Jason‘s hood. Sure, it’s not what I would have done at that particular moment, but their horrified reaction to this off-screen sight nicely presages the insane finale. They finally decide to head back to the camp which, frankly, is what humble author’s first impulse would have been.

During all of this, Amy Steel’s terror and trauma is absolutely convincing, especially when it sounds as if Jason is somehow back and sniffing around outside the front door. In a twist, the visitor turns out to be Terry’s wayward  Shih Tzu, Muffin. Beyond providing a memorable false scare, Muffin’s re-appearance gets Steve Miner and company off the audience’s shit list for showing what looked like a mangled pupper earlier on. Secondly, it gives composer extraordinaire Harry Manfredini an opportunity to audibly sucker-punch the audience again, just like he did in the first film.

Throughout the entire film, Manfredini’s Bernard Herrmann-esque Psycho-tinged score has been elevating the terror level to nigh-impossible heights. But then Manfredini uses Muffin’s re-appearance as the perfect excuse to cue up the sappy “Hey, kids, look! The dog’s still alive! Everything’s gonna be alright!” suite to lull viewers into a fall sense of security.

So, when Cro-Magnon Jason inevitably jumps through the window and grabs Amy Steel, the audience shits a communal brick without any ado. Honestly, it’s a well-executed and well-earned scare that’s on-par with the finale of the first film. Carl Fullerton’s design for adult Jason is actually pretty horrifying, even if it doesn’t line up at all with his appearance in Part 3.

Then we get this bizarre denouement which has Friday fans scratching their heads to this day. The screen fades to white and the next thing we see is Ginny being packed into the back of an ambulance, with Paul nowhere to be seen.

Dafuq?

Some fans posit that everything that happened after the showdown in the shack was a nightmare, not unlike Jason popping out of the lake to attack Alice in the first flick. After Jason killed Paul in the shack and Ginny put the machete through the killer’s collarbone, she likely wandered back to the camp, passed out and was then discovered by the paramedics. This explains why Paul is mysteriously MIA and why the remains in the woods look like Muffin. It’s because it was Muffin...those sick fucks!

There’s only one missed opportunity and that’s the very final scene. When the camera slowly zooms in on the decapitated, desiccated head of Pamela Voorhees, it would have been fun if her eyes suddenly shot open and then it faded to credits. Not only would this have been a nice little jump scare, it would have reminded viewers of Pamela’s alpha and omega role in the franchise.

So, there you have it! Some might argue that Part 2 is nothing more than a remake of the first film, and, I suppose, a case could be made for this. In my opinion, aside for some meat-headed script decisions, the second flick is a lot leaner and meaner than its predecessor. It also continues to advance the lore of this series, setting up Part 3, which took Jason from generic killer to full-blown cultural icon.

But that’s a campfire tale for another time!

Friday the 13'th Part 2 scores three stars out of five with a tilt down for that stupid prologue crap! 


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Movie Review: "Friday the 13'th" (1980)


Just like every other budding horror fan in the early 80's, I was acutely aware of the impossible-to-ignore impact of the Friday the 13'th film series. Unfortunately, as a kid growing up in a small town, I couldn't sneak into the theater or rent these movies from my local video store. All I could do was sneak an occasional peek at the lurid VHS box covers, which immediately caused my prepubescent brain to squirm with discomfort at the very thought of the taboo-violating horrors that haunted the magnetic tape inside.

At the center of my fascination was Jason Voorhees, the through-line killer of the series. His evolution from deformed, mentally-challenged drowning victim to sack-faced, back-woods trapper to Ken-Dryden-meets-Rasputin brute to undead juggernaut really fascinated me. It didn't hurt that I was obsessed with goaltenders at the time and my favorite hockey cards were the once that featured netminders wearing olde skool fibreglass masks, often jazzed up with terrifying, kabuki-style paint jobs.

Unable to see these movies first hand, I turned to my beloved horror movie books for some insight, but they failed me as well. Most of these stuffy tomes were written by octogenarian film snobs who were loathe to talk about any film lensed after the mid-Sixties.They seemed to reserve a particularly vitriolic brand of disdain for the Friday the 13'th movies, either choosing to ignore them or dismissing them outright as degenerate "video nasties" that scarcely deserved a mention.

Eventually I did see a few of the Friday films, completely out of order, mind you, but what I saw was enough to warrant further exploration. Then, when Gun Media released their video game tie-in, I bought it, played the crap out of it and immediately became obsessed. I rushed out and acquired the first eight Paramount movies on Blu-Ray and I've been plowing through them in chronological order from start to finish.

Here then are the results of these viewings. Be warned, spoilers abound!

Let me make this crystal (lake) clear: the very first Friday the 13'th movie isn't very good. I give it props for kick-starting my favorite slasher franchise but, beyond the origin story, there really isn't much to recommend here. In fact, after you learn about the film's cynical origins, it's easy to understand why this movie feels so slapdash.

After Halloween (1978) emerged from the fringes of Hollyweird to become the most lucrative indie picture in the history of cinema, it was followed by a slew of copycats. Enter producer / director Sean S. Cunningham, who'd previously given us The Art of Marriage, a thinly veiled porn flick disguised as an educational film, as well as Wes Craven's wince-inducing exploitation flick Last House on the Left.

Anxious to replicate the success of Halloween, Cunningham started fashioning a script called A Long Night at Camp Blood which, let's face it, is a much more appropriate title. Not long after, Cunningham decided to go full rip-off and re-name his script after another nominal holiday. Paranoid that someone else was going to beat him to the punch, he then took out the the following speculative ad in Variety:


To his surprise, Cunningham suddenly found himself inundated with a slew of financing and distribution offers. There was just one wee little problem: this "currently in production" fright fest which was "available in November of 1979" didn't even have a completed script yet! With his bluff duly called, Cunningham lit a fire under screenwriter Victor Miller, who completed the screamplay in the summer of 1979, just a few short months before cameras started to roll in September!

Whether it was foresight or happenstance, Miller certainly came up with a mise en scène that was rife with possibilities for expansion. Even though the film's plot is threadbare at best, you have to concede that the isolated setting, combined with the methodical and creative kills, results in a reasonably suspenseful and atmospheric whodunit. That is, until they reveal who actually done it but, I'll get to that.

First off we get a flashback to 1958, featuring two horny camp counselors understandably abandoning their lame "Kumbaya"-style group sing-along in lieu of some secret snoggery. Naturally, this results in both of them being murdered POV-style without a shred of context. Flash forward to present day (read: 1980) and Camp Crystal Lake is slated to re-open, despite falling prey to multiple pitfalls that reek of sabotage and the locals colorfully referring to the place as "Camp Blood."

What follows should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever seen a slasher flick or had one poorly described to them. A parade of nearly interchangeable "teen" staff is (very) slowly picked off, one by one, in creative ways by some unseen stalker. This all leads to a big reveal of the killer and a final showdown that rivals the on-screen tilt between "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live.

Actually, I'm totally lying. It's bad. Like, real bad. Again, more on that later. 

At least the environment gives the movie a gritty, realistic feel. This wasn't shot on some fake-ass, sun-kissed California back lot, this sucker was lensed on location at "Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco" (seriously, you can't make this shit up) in Blairstown, New Jersey. As such, the buildings all look shabby, ramshackle and decidedly lived-in. One can only hope that the place has been refurbished at least once in the past thirty-plus years.

Factor in the adjoining Crystal Lake (named Sand Pond in real life) and the distinctive woods of northern New Jersey, and you've got yourself a pretty decent l'il horror movie setting. And there are times when director Cunningham and his cinematographer Barry Abrams really take advantage of this, such as when  a storm starts to whip up midway through the film. Notwithstanding the laughably low-fi "lightning flashes", the approaching storm is well-documented with a series of moody and atmospheric shots.

But even the best setting in the world won't help you if your script is a dud and, sadly, Friday the 13'th dangerously flirts with that descriptor. There's so much filler in the film's 95 minute run time that it's downright ridiculous. And, for the record, I'm not including Walt Gorney's appearances as "Crazy" Ralph in this assessment. That man is a gorram institution and, except for some "For-the- love-of-God-call-'CUT!' already!" scenes of him peddling around on his vintage bike, his frequent prophecies of doom really add to the film's Scooby Doo-ish, camp *slash* creep factor.

I'm also not talking about scenes where the characters are running around the camp in a vain effort to account for their progressively-evaporating pool of friends. That's actually reasonably well done, especially when accompanied by the musical stylings of composer Harry Manfredini. Sure, many of his stings are cribbed directly from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score but, honestly, without it, Friday the 13'th would be even more turgid than it already is.

No, what I'm talking about are the lingering shots of Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan) slooooowly strolling through Blairstown, New Jersey. Or that borderline-inappropriate but ultimately dead-end conversation between the camp's new owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and his much younger employee Alice (Adrienne King). Or when Ron Millkie shows up as a comically-unconvincing motorcycle cop named Officer Dorf (!). Or what about that riveting scene where Alice single-handedly brings the film's momentum to a screeching halt by making a cup of coffee in what feels like slow motion?

But, by far, the most egregious and unforgivable example of this is when Alice, Brenda (Laurie Bartram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) all sit down to play a game of Monopoly on screen. And, let me tell ya, folks, if there's anything more boring than playing Monopoly it's watching someone else play Monopoly. Look, I love board games as much as the next guy, but if I ever wanna watch a play though video, I'll just cue up an episode of Shut Up and Sit Down, thank you very much. Granted, it's supposed to be a game of strip Monopoly but after sitting though multiple turns of this shit without so much as a revealed bum or side boob, I'm forced to declare that this is the worst example of board game-related blue-balling in cinema history.

The actors, bless their hearts, do what they can with the wafer-thin material. Adrienne King is charming enough as Alice, but many of her line deliveries are incredibly self-conscious, as if she's trying too hard to EMOTE. Harry Crosby is perfectly milquetoast as Bill Brown and Laurie Bartram is watchable and charismatic as Brenda Jones, even though she's scarcely given anything to do. The same could be said for the incredibly winsome Jeannine Taylor as Marcie. Frankly, a compelling case could be made that she should have been the final girl instead of Alice.

And although he's clearly written that way, Mark Nelson's Ned Rubenstein is the prototypical Friday the 13'th irritant. Between flagrantly disobeying the archery range safety rules, cracking incessant Dad jokes, performing shitty impersonations that were hideously dated in 1980 and dancing around in an embarrassingly-racist caricature of Native Americans, Ned is nothing but a Class-A choad. He's the first in a long, unwanted line of annoying, self-pitying asshole that became a regrettable trope in the series. Frankly, the less said about this lazy excuse for characterization the better.

Much hay has also been made of Kevin Bacon's feature film debut here and, honestly, he's perfectly fine. Truth be told, he doesn't exhibit any more star power than say Laurie Bartram or Jeannine Taylor, but it's also easy to see why he went on to bigger and better things. His death scene is still one of the highlights of the entire series and he does a great job selling the effect, which, sadly, hasn't aged all that well.

Contrary to the harshness of that last statement, I still maintain that the make-up work provided by the legendary Thomas Vincent Savini is still one of the bright lights of an otherwise "M'eh" movie. You have to keep in mind that, prior to the universal application of CGI, practical makeup effects were designed to be fleeting illusions. They were never meant to be paused and closely scrutinized years later on high-def video by nitpicky assholes who gleefully like to point out that the proportions and skin tone for Kevin Bacon's fake torso doesn't even vaguely match his face.

But who cares? Jack's arrow-through-the-throat demise is imaginative and gross. Sorry, but I'll take the artistry of practical makeup effects any day over troweling entire scenes with a spackling of uncanny valley CGI. Having said that, the most harrowing scene in the movie is one that Savini's effect sadly had nothing to with. The film features a truly disturbing moment of animal cruelty in which Bill hacks a real, live snake to pieces with a machete. Speaking as someone who's completely desensitized to the most depraved gore effects imaginable, its the only moment in the movie that I  watch thru a web of interlaced fingers.   

Beyond Kevin Bacon's iconic demise and the murder of an innocent reptile, Marcie get's "axed" a question, Annie's throat gets slit, Steve gets strung up like venison and Bill gets pinned to a cabin door like a moth to a killing board. Sadly many deaths, including poor Brenda's, happen off-screen. I'm not sure if this was done because of budgetary concerns or because Cunningham was legitimately worried that the film was going to get slapped with an "X" rating. Whatever the reason, you have to admit that the film is pretty tame by today's standards, almost quaint.       

Mercifully, the last fifteen minutes of the movie goes to great lengths to redeem all of the pedestrian crap that came before it. As soon as Betsy Palmer arrives on the scene, the whole movie just shoots into the stratosphere. To Cunningham's credit, selecting the former American sweetheart for this role was a masterstroke of stunt-casting. When Palmer suddenly goes from matronly and helpful to menacing and deranged, I can't help but start shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Yes, I know that revealing Pamela Voorhees as the killer wasn't earned at all. Yes, I know this results in an awkward exposition dump that grinds everything to a halt. Yes, I know the logistics of a middle aged woman effortlessly murdering people who are half her age, hurling them through windows and / or stringing them up like pinatas all over camp strains credibility, but I don't care. As soon as Betsy Palmer starts saying "Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!" in her dead son's voice, I'm instantly creeped out to the max.

So, yeah, as it turns out, this murder spree is motivated entirely by the sort of grief that can drive a mother mad. Presumably, back in the summer of 1957, Pamela was hard at work cooking a meal for the camp's residents when her special needs son, Jason, drowned while swimming in the lake. By her account, the councilors were off bumping uglies instead of watching over her special boy.

In my opinion, this gives Pamela all of the fevered motivation she needs to go a little coo-coo for cocoa puffs. Fearing that the same thing might happen to someone else's child, she's determined to make sure that Camp Crystal Lake will never re-open. Not only does this account for her murderous prologue at the start of the film, she's also the one who's been sabotaging the site for the past twenty two years. Is it logical? No. But, since the death of her beloved boy is clearly the reason why she veered off the I-95 into Crazytown, that's all Victor Miller needed to make her one of the most sympathetic loons in slasher history.

Jason might have been mentally disabled and hideously deformed, but his mom loved him somethin' fierce. And, as it turns out, making Pamela Voorhees the killer actually sheds some real-world insight into screenwriter Victor Miller's complicated relationship with his own mother.

"I took motherhood and turned it on its head and I think that was great fun," he's been quoted as saying. "Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I'd always wanted, a mother who would have killed for her kids."

Kind of a sweet sentiment. In a clinically dysfunctional sorta way.

Regardless, this all leads up to a barely-choreographed and embarrassingly-bad slappy fight between Mrs. Voorhees and final girl Alice, which further calls into doubt Pamela's ability to physically murder so many hearty and hale victims. It ends with one of the most memorable and notorious on-screen decapitations since The Omen

But's that's not quite the end. Because of the impact that Carrie's final cemetery scene had on viewers back in 1976, horror movies to this day still feel obliged to end off with what amount to a cheap YouTube screamer. Fortunately, as Friday the 13'th proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, this can still be done with a lot of impact and panache.

So, after Alice takes about a foot off the top for Mrs. Voorhees, she climbs into a canoe and pushes herself out into the middle of the lake. Dawn breaks and we get a lovely montage of artsy shots showcasing a battered but victorious Alice languishing in the boat, her hand creating gentle ripples in the cold lake water. All the while, this florid, pastoral and soothing composition by Harry Manfredini is playing in the background. The cops show up on site and wave to her from the shore. Alice, seeing this, perks up and goes to wave back.

And then, from out of phreakin' nowhere, a rotten, desiccated, naked Jason pops out of the fucking water, grabs Alice by the neck, and then drags her off the boat and into the water. It happens so quickly, so unexpectedly and so expertly that the viewer is left feeling as if they've just been smoked upside the head with a Louisville Slugger.

But then Cunningham goes ahead and ruins everything with a stupid coda of Alice waking up in the hospital. *bleargh*

But, hey, in the long run, that coda turned out to be a good idea. That way when smarmy dick-heads ask "Hey, how did Jason go from a gnarly rotten lake kid to a full-grown, overall-wearing, bag-headed, pitchfork-wielding troglodyte in the sequel?" the writers can push their glasses back up on their collective noses and say "Well, actually, the thing that popped out of the lake wasn't actually Jason, it was just a figment of Alice's traumatized imagination!"

And that's all well and good. So long as no one bothers to ask why Jason didn't drown in the first place.

But, hey, that's a question best left for a sequel review!

Friday the 13'th scores two and a half stars out of five, with a very charitable tilt up.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Movie Review: "Captain Marvel"


Captain Marvel is a vaguely-serviceable, superhero-related entertainment product.

Oh, you want more? *sigh* Okay, maybe I'll just splice my Ant Man, Thor 2 and Iron Man 2 reviews together, throw in a few pithy observations about Black Panther, switch out a few names and references and then, voila, instant mediocre Marvel movie review.

Captain Marvel stars Brie Larson as Vers, an alien special operative blessed with special abilities and plagued by buried memories. After she's captured by their arch-enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls,  she manages to flee to 90's-era Earth. Once there, she partners up with neophyte S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to uncover a Skrull plot to steal light-speed technology from a brilliant scientist named Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning).

During their investigations, our hero begins to learn about her past life as a human fighter pilot named Carol Danvers. As the loyalties of her squad and the Skrull's motivations are revealed, Carol's powers begin to fully manifest. This leads to your standard superhero movie conclusion where an over-powered, scarcely-relatable, god-like entity effortlessly wrecks everything in a boring orgy of murky CGI.

Most of the film's issues lie in the screenplay by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. First off, the early flashback scenes completely "bury the lead", to the point where the audience is waaaaay ahead of the game and we're just waiting for the characters to catch up to us. It nukes any potential mystery and makes the plot feel like a paint-by-numbers set. To make matters worse, the Skrull's intriguing ability to shape-shift should have been the perfect catalyst for endless  intrigue, tension and mystery, but here it's frittered away in lieu of your typical super hero movie story beats.

It also doesn't help that, as a prequel, Captain Marvel feels like it was written with scarcely any consideration for established continuity. For example, how did the all-powerful Tesseract, last seen in the possession of Howard Stark at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, inexplicably make its way to Dr. Wendy Lawson? Even more disappointing: Nick Fury's salty retort of "The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye!" in Winter Soldier now sounds patently ridiculous, given this film's goofy revelations.

About the only praise I can give to the film's writers is that they throw us a bit of a curve ball half-way through, which roused me from my slumber. Unfortunately, due to the presence of certain already-established characters right from the get-go, it doesn't take a detective to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Given that Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok really upped the ante in terms of the visual style of the Marvel Universe, this one looks strictly Phase One flick in comparison. Notwithstanding the Guardians of the Galaxy-lite art design, Captain Marvel looks dull, muddled and flat. Beyond Carol's manacled escape sequence and the train pursuit, most of the action sequences are unmemorable and pretty pedestrian.

Then there's the film's finale, which features all of the frustrating visual murk of the "The Long Night" episode of Game of Thrones, but without all the stakes, drama, character investment or fight choreography. And then, to put the cap on it altogether, the film ends with a yawn-inducing CGI shit-fit that has all the gravitas of a video game cut scene.

Unfortunately, the movie's biggest detriment is the titular character, and I'm still trying to reconcile  the root cause of this problem. After all, Brie Larson's acting chops are solid; one only needs to watch Room for ample evidence of this. Writer / director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are also wonderful, being responsible for the excellent drama Half Nelson back in 2006. So, in light of this, I can only conclude that the fault lies in the creative team's unsuitability to the C-grade subject matter.

Captain Marvel / Carol Danvers / Vers is so broadly written that she doesn't come across as a real character. And, regrettably, this bleeds through to Brie Larson's performance. Sometimes she's as robotic as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. Sometimes she's edgy, curt and smart-assed like Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. And occasionally, when she's bouncing off Samuel L. Jackson and forgotten pal Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), she actually exhibits a modicum of charm and humanity. Pity, then, that these scenes are so few and far between.

Mindless proponents of the film will claim that Carol acts borderline-schizophrenic because she's a fish out of water with memory issues. Fine, but Gat Gadot in Wonder Woman and Chris Hemsworth in Thor were in similar situations, but those two were veritable founts of charisma. If she ends up being the deus ex machina character who comes out of the woodwork just to wreck Thanos in Endgame, I'm gonna be super-pissed.

So, other than some fun scenes between Brie Larson and the always-great Samuel L. Jackson, a few nostalgic 90's references, a CGI cat animated with the same quality level as Garfield, and a nuanced performance by Ben Mendelsohn as the Skrull leader Talos, there isn't much to recommend in Captain Marvel. Honestly, the movie feels a lot more like one of the blander Phase One flicks and, at this stage in the game, there's absolutely no excuse for this level of laziness.


Tilt: down.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Movie Review: "Us"


Is the title of "Master of Horror" still a thing? Back in the Bronze Age of 80's horror, this label was used as a convenient catch-all to describe visionary fright-peddlers like George A. Romero, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. But when was the last time someone applied this same title to a director under the age of fifty?

With its tight script, chilling direction and deep-cut homages, 2017's Get Out made Jordan Peele a possible contender for that hallowed badge of honor. Not only was the film wildly entertaining and rife with pointed social commentary, it was also delivered from a perspective that wasn't even vaguely represented by the legendary pantheon of 80's-era "Masters of Horror." And frankly, that's a pretty exciting prospect for fans like me.

Us is Peele's sophomore effort and, although it's more nebulous and far-fetched than its predecessor, it's still a notably-original film that exhibits genuine artistic care.

In a prologue set in 1986, we see young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wander away from her parents on the Santa Cruz boardwalk and venture into a creepy funhouse. After getting turned around in the hall of mirrors, she has a terrifying encounter with a shadow version of herself and promptly blacks out.

Fast forward to the present day and adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is a jittery mother looking to safeguard her older daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex). After her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), drags them off to the same beach where her childhood trauma first occurred, a warped mirror image of the entire family shows up later on in their driveway and proceeds to terrorize them.

I don't wanna spoil anything, so I'll just say that Us isn't content to be a Funny Games / The Strangers-style home invasion flick. It's constantly twisting and contorting, evolving to the point where you have no clue where it's headed next. And, speaking as someone who's seen an inordinate number of horror movies, this is an important and refreshing attribute.

Except for a few mechanical or obvious exchanges, the dialogue in Us is generally organic and self-aware. I really appreciate the periodic detours into humor, since it acknowledges and effectively neuters the possibility of chronic audience eye-rollery. Even during some of the film's craziest moments, the packed theater I saw it with watched in reverent silence, save for a few nervous chuckles.

Peele hit the jackpot with Lupita Nyong'o, who inhabits the dual role of Adelaide and her insane duplicate "Red" with equal aplomb. In the hands of a lesser actor, Red's exaggerated facial expressions, ballet-like motions and odd vocal inflections would likely inspire titters from the audience. But Nyong'o projects so much conviction and range that she'll likely receive Toni Collette-levels of indifference when Oscar season rolls around again.

The rest of the cast ranges from adequate to exemplary. Winston Duke's Gabe might be a wry and likable teddy bear, but his duplicate is an intimidating wall of menace. Shahadi Wright Joseph is tremendous as older daughter Zora, and her doppelganger Umbrae is one of the more chilling incarnations in the film. As for Evan Alex's Jason, he seems oddly nonplussed throughout most of the film and I can't help but wonder if he's a tad autobiographical. His idiosyncrasies strike me as the sort of thing that l'il Jordan Peele might have exhibited as a kid.

There's plenty more to admire in the film. Peele and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis do a wonderful job with their set ups. Creepy settings like the house of mirrors and the underground bunker are expertly lensed and I love how the camera slinks around corners, dragging the audience along with it. Combined with the effective editing of Nicholas Monsour, moments like the beach scene are genuinely arresting. Layer on a wonderfully-eclectic score by Michael Abels and you've got a film that's clearly trying hard to impress.

Unfortunately, the film's central conceit is slavishly explained at one point, which threatens to collapse the entire edifice. I don't want to spoil anything, but if you hated M. Night Shyamalan's The Village because the ending stretched credibility then Us is gonna give you fits. I really wish Peele had either kept the threat small-scale or, at the very least, vague-d things up by about 30%. Because, as it stands right now, after one of the characters gives their gratuitous expository crash course on the movie's raison d'être, OCD assholes like myself are immediately ejected out of the illusion and  immersion is irreparably damaged.

The frustrating thing is that I completely understand Peele's motivations. I think he's legitimately fascinated by "Hands Across America" and really wanted to parody that platitude-fueled charity event. I was 16 back in 1986 and, even then, I thought that "Hand's Across America" was one of the dumbest things I'd ever heard of. To this day I wonder what was more ludicrous: that people thought that folks were literally going to link hands across the entire continental US or that a gimmicky charity event was going to counteract the crippling effects of trickle down economics? So, as soon as Peele establishes the Wilson family as the "haves" and their subterranean duplicates as the "have nots", "Hands Across America" becomes the perfect thematic symbol for ridicule. 

But there's only one problem with that: it necessitates an utterly ludicrous reveal which immediately caused involuntary questions to start percolating in my head. And frankly, if your audience is preoccupied trying to square off a bunch of nonsensical logistics instead of enjoying the visceral thrill ride of your climax, then you've got yourself a problem.

Then there's the film's penultimate twist, which I won't presume to discuss here. Regardless of my issues with the film, at least Peele understands the concept of Chekhov's gun. Like Hereditary, Us bears repeat viewing just to see how many clues or visual precursors you can spot. Too much arbitrary or deus ex machina crap happens in movies nowadays, so for me it's refreshing to see a film that makes a concerted effort to set up its payoffs, even if the revelations are patently ridiculous.

I'd describe Us as flawed but interesting. It's got a pretty cool premise and, like Get Out, it has lots of  thematic fodder for your mind to munch on. I just get the impression that Peele didn't have as much time with the screenplay and it feels kinda half-baked as a result. 

Us earns three-and-a-half stars out of five with a tilt down into those mysterious tunnels!


   

Friday, March 22, 2019

Movie Review: "Moonraker"


At the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, the end credits proudly proclaimed "James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only." Well, when a certain movie set in "a galaxy far, far away" exploded onto movie screens that very same year, producer Albert R. Broccoli decided to switch gears and fast-track the vaguely space-themed Moonraker instead.

I think that's why Bond snobs give the eleventh entry in the series more shit than it deserves. Somehow they've gotten it into their heads that the producers compromised the series in order to shoe-horn in a bunch of random Star Wars references. Well, nothing could be further than the truth and, in this reviewer's humble opinion, Moonraker is one of the most gleefully-entertaining entries in the series. Come at me, bro.  

Now, before I strap on the gloves, I have to make a few concessions. The following things admittedly run the gamut between lazy and idiotic:
  • The theme song is pretty m'eh.
  • The hover-gondola ride through the streets of Venice is patently ridiculous.
  • The resulting pigeon double-take should immediately be excised from every copy of the film.
  • The Jaws and Dolly romance doesn't really bother me...but did it hafta kick off with Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet Overture? Yeesh!
  • The climactic mass jetpack laser fight in space definitely belongs in a different movie.
But, honestly, everything else is solid gold! I will endeavor to elaborate, but first, here's the obligatory plot summary:

In Moonraker, the titular space shuttle gets hijacked, so Bond (Roger Moore) wings off to California to meet the vehicle's designer, industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Naturally, Drax takes an instant dislike to our favorite super spy and tries to arrange for a few "accidents", but our hero is resolute. Eventually 007 discovers that Drax has drawn up plans to mass produce an unusual glass canister, made only in Venice.

Upon his arrival in Italy, James stumbles across a secret lab producing deadly chemicals, battles a persistent henchman named Chang (Toshiro Suga) and learns that Drax's entry into the evil genius science fair is being shipped off to Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, 007 re-unites with astronaut and undercover CIA operative Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) and together they infiltrate the villain's operation. After an increasingly-thrilling series of action set pieces, Bond and Holly discover that Drax's villainy isn't just limited to terrestrial threats, he's looking to strike at the earth's population  from the cold reaches of space!

Not unlike Batman, Bond can go dark and gritty, like in Casino Royale, or he can go kinda campy, which is Moonraker. And, contrary to the assertions of stuffier fans, there's a place for both in the series. Roger Moore is, and will always be, my ideal Bond. He's at his wry best here, with one eyebrow permanently cocked and his tongue planted firmly in-cheek. Even as he's tangling with Jaws (Richard Kiel), trading barbs with Drax or putting the moves on a a bevy of hotties, he's inhumanly cool and unflappable throughout it all.

Speaking of, Lois Chiles is wonderful as Holly. She's smart, sassy and gets top marks in the field of ass-kickery. Like Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me, she very self-reliant but I think Chiles gets the duke when it comes to pure acting chops. On the villainy side of things, Michael Lonsdale is great as Drax. He's cold, calculating and understated, barely speaking above a whisper most of the time. You know things are getting serious when Drax starts to lose his shit towards the end.

Now I know some fans hate what the writers did with fan favorite Jaws here, but I'm glad they tried to do something different. For the record, Jaws scared the ever-lovin' crap outta me as a kid. I mean...what's more terrifying than a tall, lanky, relentlessly-indestructible Frankensteinian motherfucker who kills people by CHOMPING ON THEM WITH HIS METAL TEETH. But as The Spy Who Loved Me wears on, you kinda start to feel bad for the big galoot since he's just tryin' to do his job and keeps getting undone by bad luck. In light of where things were going, the arc he experiences in Moonraker just makes sense, and Kiel sells it to the hilt.

Notwithstanding the periodic dollops of cheddar, Moonraker has all the hallmarks of a classic Bond flick. James uses cool-ass gadgets, like a miniaturized camera, a wrist-mounted dart shooter and a weapon-stocked motorboat. Beyond the gondola scrap in Rio, there are some amazing practical action scenes, including a museum brawl which shatters more stunt glass than any other scene in cinema history. The locales are also jaw dropping and its particularly cool to see 70's-era Venice or Rio during Carnival perfectly preserved for all time in digital amber.

Another hallmark of these early Bond films are the amazing sets built by master designer Ken Adam. First up in Moonraker is Drax's sexy temple grotto, complete with waterfall, conspicuously silver rocks, lush ferns, a cat-walk bridge boasting a complete absence of safety features, and an anaconda-infested pool. Picture Hugh Hefner if he had a fetish for Mayan doomsday prophecies.
This is closely followed by the shuttle control room, which is an odd, angular chamber that likely  presaged the "ominous wall of television screens" trope.

Then there's the real pièce de résistance: Drax's space station. As Bond and Holly's shuttle cruises through space, the sun starts to peek out around the earth, revealing the top spire of the station.  Eventually this strange, asymmetrical, M.C. Escher-esque amalgam of pods and tunnels heaves into view. As a kid I was so fascinated by this interstellar human hamster maze that I tried to draw it over and over again.

And that's something else that bears mentioning: the miniatures and model work by Derek Meddings is absolutely top-notch. Even though Star Wars was held up as the high-water mark of model making and visual effects at the time, Meddings deserves considerable recognition as well. The space shuttle program was just starting to take off (no pun intended), and, for movie goers in 1979, the convincing sight of these Moonrakers lifting off and coasting through space was pretty thrilling.

Sure, the timing of the film might have been kinda mercenary and director Lewis Gilbert makes some ill-advised choices here and there, but overall, the movie is a blast. If you don't believe me, watch it back-to-back with the relatively-sober and kinda bland For Your Eyes Only and tell me which one is more fun to watch. 


Moonraker gets a tilt up towards that mysterious orbiting platform that just appeared on radar outta nowhere!

 





Sunday, February 17, 2019

Movie Review: "Hereditary"


For the record, excitable quotes like "Heredity takes its place as a new generation's The Exorcist" does zero favors for either film. IMHO, this new film bears as much resemblance to Bill Friedkin's grueling art / s(c)h(l)ock masterpiece as Time Out contributor Joshua Rothkopf does to a knowledgeable horror movie critic. Make no mistake, Hereditary wears its influences on its sleeve, but the power of its execution and the depth of its subtext ensures that the movie is its own animal.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, a woman mourning the protracted and painful death of her cold and secretive mother. It's just the latest blow to a family that seems cursed with chronic mental illness and suicide. It's so prevalent that Annie's psychiatrist husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is powerless to exorcise the cloud of misery that lingers in their home like a dark physical presence. This pall is clearly taking a toll on their insular and fragile daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their withdrawn and uncommunicative teen-aged son Peter (Alex Wolff).

Almost inevitably, tragedy strikes again, fracturing the family in such an unimaginable way that Annie believes supernatural manipulation is at work. An escalating series of odd things start to occur leading to a Gotterdammerung-style climax that will leave most viewers feeling as if they were struck in the head with a 2 x 4, And even though the finale is increasingly-steeped in cheesy scary movie  tropes, veteran horror hounds like myself will still be put off-kilter thanks to how well it's realized and how freakin' weird the whole thing is.

With auteur film-making becoming increasingly rare, its refreshing to watch a movie that's clearly the product of one person's vision. To that point, if you're looking for a committee-made, thrill-a-minute fright fest you'd be well-advised to look elsewhere. First time feature writer / director Ari Aster deliberately thumbs his nose at modern sensibilities, taking his sweet ass-time to establish his characters and the harmful, oppressive environment they're marinating in. Thankfully, both creator and viewer are rewarded for their patience because when things inevitably start to go shit-house, we're deeply invested by then and want to see how things shake out.

Aster shows considerably visual acuity, using plenty of Kubrickian symmetry to create an eerie, unnatural visual tableau. He also clearly likes to use depth of focus to plant startling sights in the background to freak out the viewer. Sorry, but if I have a choice between loud, boisterous and showy special effects extravaganzas like The Conjuring or Insidious, I'll take sly and understated every time. Nothing gives me the creeps quicker than barely catching some bizarre, half-glimpsed oddity lurking in the hinterland of a movie frame. 

And while the visual shocks are effective, what makes the film greater then the sum of its parts is the treasure trove of subtext lurking just below the surface. The opening shot is particularly telling. It starts on the tree house; a completely innocuous structure that eventually reveals its importance later on in the film. The camera pulls back from this into Annie's studio, pivots over to the  model of their home and then slowly zooms in on a miniature version of Peter's room. When this tiny diorama suddenly springs to life, the mind reels.
     
It's not just subtext, it's the sheer depth of the subtext that I marvel at. For example, it doesn't take a clinical psychologist to realize that Annie's profession is designed to compartmentalize and deal with her family's pain. At one point she even designs a diorama inspired by the film's most heart-wrenching moment, an act that confounds and horrifies her psychologist husband. To me, that opening shot is more than just Aster suggesting that higher powers are at work and the characters are just pawns in a labyrinthine construct. It suggest that Annie herself is the creator of the film's sensationalist threats.

To further this point, Aster realized the Graham's home as a series of interior stage sets, giving the environments the appearance and feel of a giant doll-house. The resulting viewing experience is decidedly voyeuristic, as if you're watching something that you shouldn't be privy to. And when these environments get back-filled with oddball visuals and creepy ambient sound effects, the effect is downright unnerving.

As Hereditary surrenders its secrets, the script is forced to embrace certain genre conventions. But by linking these revelations directly to Annie's lineage, a hoary old horror movie trope becomes a powerful analogy for her family's genetic-like predisposition towards mental illness. Mercifully,  Aster's cool direction, eye for twisted imagery and willingness to go for broke all help to elevate the film's pedigree.

The film's note-perfect performances also prevent the film from tipping into self-parody. Given all of the rigorous emotional gymnastics that Toni Collette is asked to navigate, it's to her credit that she doesn't betray a single miss-step. Gabriel Byrne is appropriately world-weary and laconic as Annie's put-upon husband Steve. Milly Shapiro's unforgettable debut as Charlie is nothing short of heart-breaking. She deserves some major props since most young actors wouldn't be able to make such a sullen, weird and petulant kid so sympathetic.

Perhaps the most interesting performance is that of Alex Wolff who plays Peter. Detached and distant for most of the film, Wolff makes a bold move during the seance scene, manifesting infantile levels of grief. This was pretty off-putting to me at first but then I thought about Wolff's motivation in this scene. By this point in time, Peter is a powder keg of bottled-up emotions, so when he finally breaks, it makes sense that it's messy. It also draws some interesting comparisons to his little sister, a choice that begs further scrutiny.

Having said that, there are a few baffling miss-steps during the finale. An anticipated moment of Oedipus-style self-mutilation, constantly hinted at, never materializes on-screen. In a another missed opportunity, a symbol referenced throughout the film could have been used to great effect, but it's also conspicuously absent. In its place, Aster serves up a clunky exposition dump delivered by an off-camera narrator which feels as if it was decreed by some wrong-headed test audience screening.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Hereditary is that it virtually demands to be viewed a second time. Personally, I'm can't wait to re-watch it again for the express purpose of looking for early tells, especially anything that might fuel my own personal interpretation of the film. For that reason alone, I recognize Hereditary as a genuine artistic achievement that's sure to inspire debate and analysis for years to come.


Tilt: up. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Movie Review: "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"


Back in the mid-80's, when Marvel Comics was in dire financial trouble, they sold their flagship character's exclusive film rights to Sony for a mere song and dance. Then, after years of development hell, everyone's favorite web-head finally appeared on the big screen in 2002. Thanks to a solid script by David Koepp, the distinctive and sure-handed direction of Sam Raimi and some excellent casting, the movie was a solid, if flawed, effort. By some minor miracle, the 2004 sequel was even better.

But that cinematic saga didn't have a happy ending. After Sam Raimi got sick of corporate interference, resulting in the tonally-schizophrenic and messily-plotted Spider-Man 3, the veteran film-maker walked away from a proposed fourth entry in the series. The concept was resurrected six years later, not-coincidentally around the same time when Marvel's remaining assets were blossoming from a string of vaguely connected hits into a bonafide cinematic universe.

Thinking they could piggy-back on Marvel's success, Sony rebooted Spider-Man in 2012. Unfortunately, despite the solid casting and hiring a promising young director, the resulting film featured a barely-recognizable Peter Parker, a superfluous parental mystery plot and a boring, one-dimensional villain. Worse still, Harry Osbourne's OsCorp was used to set up Spidey's legendary rogues gallery of villains in the scripting equivalent of throwing down an expandable pup tent. 

Sadly, this lumpen mess was followed by a downright embarrassing sequel two years later. In fact, Amazing Spider-Man 2 was such a rampant dumpster fire that Sony was forced to accept joint custody of Spidey with Mama Marvel in order to produce Spider-Man: Homecoming. And while that movie felt more John Hughes than J.M DeMatteis, it was still a perfectly acceptable romp.

Note to Kevin Feige: please, please, please ditch that friggin' OP Stark Spidey-suit, already. Our boi was never about tech, he's all about inner fortitude.

*A-hem*...sorry. I digress.

Anyway, when an animated Sony Spider-Man movie was announced it was barely a blip on my radar. Especially considering that the main character appeared to be Miles Morales, someone I had snobbily written off as an alternate reality version of our beloved web-head at best or fan fiction at worst.

Well, shiver my webs when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse turned out to be not only one of the best Spider-Man properties ever released, but also one of the finest animated movies in recent memory. 

The premise, like so many other super hero flicks, is no great shakes. After The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) loses his family in a car accident, he attempts to use a dangerous particle accelerator to pluck facsimiles of them out of another dimension. When the unwitting Miles (Shameik Moore) and a dogged Spider-Man (Chris Pine) intervene, the machine is temporarily disabled, Spidey is killed and Miles is forced to become the hero he needs to be.

Much of the film's charm comes from the pretense that the malfunctioning accelerator is creating a rift between dimensions, pulling Spider-people in from multiple realities. This results in Miles sharing copious screen time with a crusty, jaded, middle-aged Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who acts like a barely-competent and nominally-engaged Mr. Miyagi. The scenes with Peter begrudgingly showing Miles the (web) ropes are among some of the best in the film.

This sci-fi MacGuffin also gives screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman a chance to spin some deep cuts from Spidey's colorful history, ranging from the popular to the downright obscure. Hailee Steinfeld charmingly inhabits the dual role of Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman, stealing her fair share of scenes in the process. For a welcome dash of Anime flair, Kimiko Glenn plays Peni Parker, a Japanese American teenager who co-pilots a Gundam-style robot (!) with a sentient radioactive spider (!!). By the time Nic Cage shows up as the hard-boiled Spider-Man Noir and John Mulaney bombs in as Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham, fans will be firmly be on-board the crazy train.

Comic book nerds will also enjoy a plethora of established Spider-lore. Not only do we get the coolest incarnation of Aunt May ever thanks to a spirited vocal turn by Lily Tomlin, we also get a wildly-successful, gender-swapped version of Spidey's arch nemesis Doc Ock. Kathryn Hahn brings a fun, sprightly and cheerily-psychotic quality to this role, making it all her own. Add in welcome appearances by Tombstone (played by L.A rapper Krondon), Scorpion (Joaquín Cosío) and Zoë Kravitz as Mary Jane Watson and Spider-philes will be in seventh heaven. 

Thankfully the movie has plenty of heart to validate all of this fan service. Central to this is the relationship between Miles and his family. His Dad, Jefferson, distinctively voiced by Brian Tyree Henry, is a world-weary cop who's relentlessly driving his son towards a better life. This is tempered somewhat by his sympathetic mom Rio, played Luna Lauren Velez. Despite her best efforts, the relentless pressure forces Miles to seek solace in the company the black sheep of the family, his edgy uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). This dynamic plays out in unexpected and gratifying ways, putting many live-action non-genre films to shame.

Even this crusty ol' geek felt his withered heart thaw incrementally at times. Beyond the producers using an archived audio clip from the 2002 Raimi film of the late Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, the movie employs a powerful one-two punch of New Yorkers reacting to Spidey's demise and Stan Lee's posthumous cameo. Back to back, this threatened to reduce me into an emotional wreck.

With the bedrock of good plotting and characterization established, the film's wholly original visual style feels complimentary and not overwhelming. The animation is like nothing I've ever experienced; it's like an Alex Ross painting come to glorious life. I'd go so far as to say that this is the most "comic booky" film I've even seen, right down to written sound effects appearing on screen. The film's audio palette is just as immersive. Beyond the ambitious sound design, the musical score is absolutely incredible. Witness the distinctive, spine-jangling cue that accompanies the appearance of new Spider-foe The Prowler whenever he pops up.       

One admitted negative is in the depiction of The Kingpin. Liev Schreiber does a fantastic job, but I've never really viewed Wilson Fisk as a Tony Saprano-style mob boss. After Vincent D'Onofrio gave us the definitive final word on the character in the Netflix Daredevil show, I suppose the writers wanted to do something in contrast. That's all well and good, but we spend so little time with Fisk that this version doesn't hold a candle to D'Onofrio's.

Sure, the wonky particle accelerator is an easy way to dismiss the script's many vagaries, but who cares? Besides being tightly-plotted and well-voiced, the film's revolutionary visual flair never threatens to eclipse Miles or the other characters because they're so well defined. I urge you to see this one on the big screen, or at the very least, consider upgrading your home theaters so you can fully appreciate the spectacle in 4K.

   
Tilt: up.