April 29, 2012


The performers in Ghostbusters (1984) are better than the material. Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver have a fabulous chemistry, especially in the scenes where she's possessed by a centuries-old spirit, making advances toward Murray, who reacts with a wonderfully sarcastic indifference. Murray's natural comic abilities are the anchor of Ghostbusters. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are constantly trying to catch up with him, but it's not because they aren't talented. Aykroyd plays the easily excitable Raymond, and Ramis is the uber-scientific, stiff, humorless Egon. The three of them are paranormal investigators who, after being ousted from a cushy research post at New York University, set up operations in an abandoned fire station. They're a sort of 911 service for supernatural emergencies. They have bizarre-looking paraphernalia: lasers that somehow trap the ghosts with their beams and confine them in an airtight box. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but then again, how could it?

The film relies on at least two montages to carry its story, which is never a good sign. (It was a common tack of comedy films of the 80s and 90s, and has become a cliche.) Much like in Caddyshack, which Harold Ramis co-wrote and directed, and Murray co-starred in, you get the feeling that the filmmakers didn't have enough form to their ideas. And while Caddyshack has the mark of improvisational comedy that works for it, Ghostbusters could have used a little more structure to tighten some of the loose ends. It doesn't have the right build-up to it that it should have as a strong comic-horror film. Instead, there are grabs at ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don't. Fortunately, the cast lifts the material up.

Sigourney Weaver is a standout because she's such an imposing force as an actress. The crime of this movie is that so many great actors are short-changed. Annie Potts, as the blase secretary, injects her own brand of droll humor in her scenes, but they aren't as many as you'd like them to be. And Rick Moranis plays a likeable chump, an accountant who's got the hots for Weaver's character, his neighbor. When he becomes possessed by a spirit, he's absolutely terrific, acting like a stoned klutz. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Aykroyd and Ramis. The idea was apparently conceived by Aykroyd to be a vehicle for he and Saturday Night Live co-star John Belushi.

As a movie, Ghostbusters is uneven. There are some wonderful comic moments, such as a scene where Murray conducts a test on two college students to determine if they have psychic abilities, and uses it to hit on one of them, an attractive blonde co-ed. One of the other stand-out moments is the afore-mentioned encounter between Murray and the possessed Weaver, who's loose and wickedly funny because she's finally allowed to do something than play the straight woman. At other times, the jokes are hopelessly juvenile and detract from the stronger parts of the movie.

Also starring Ernie Hudson and William Atherton.

Atlantic City

A flunky named Lou (Burt Lancaster) who works for a rich old widow accidentally comes into possession of some cocaine when he meets the ne'er-do-well brother, Dave (Robert Joy), of a casino dealer-in-training, Sally (Susan Sarandon). Lou sees this as one final opportunity to become the sexy tough guy he never was. He becomes drunk on the perceived power of being an effective criminal. But he's a high-functioning drunk who's too old and too careful to make the stupid mistakes of someone young like Dave, whose dearth of caution does him in.

Atlantic City (1981) is one of those movies that leaves you feeling unmoved, unless you find its characters appealing. Lancaster is much like Art Carney's character in The Late Show: a has-been whose power lies chiefly in the fact that nobody takes him seriously anymore. Lancaster is confident and still a convincing lead even in his mid-sixties.

Kate Reid also turns in a strong performance as Grace, the crotchety but still sexual old broad he takes care of. She's given moments of grace and subtlety that elevate her character from the cartoonish way she's presented at first. We see a softer side, a manipulative side, a needy side, a bitchy side, a humorous side, and a tough side. In fact, this may be the reason Atlantic City has been considered something of a great movie by some people.

The director, Louis Malle, and the writer, John Guare, manage to show us different sides, different angles, of their characters, in their relationships with each other. Like Grace, we get a different Lou when he's with her, with Sally, with Sally's brother, with the career criminals in Atlantic City, and with the old chum he runs into giving shoeshines in the hotel washroom. And it's easy to see how this film helped Susan Sarandon's career take off. Sarandon possesses a radiant confidence mixed with tender vulnerability. She's a fiery actress who you believe totally, and who you can like almost immediately. She's soft without being weak, and tough without coming off as as drag.

But the movie itself feels a bit like a tease. My sensibilities and the movie's sensibilities are both trashy but in different ways. I can revel in the pulpy deviousness of film noir, but the world of Atlantic City casinos and drugs and old flunkies high on the allure of their own streaks of good luck leaves me feeling disinterested. And the setting is grim: Atlantic City doesn't seem like a place anybody would ever want to live in, let alone visit. I suppose that was the film's purpose: showing us why people would see Atlantic City as their version of a silver lining, just as faded and fleeting as all the other silver linings. This movie combines the Hollywood dreams of the 40s and 50s with the feeling of waking up to the cold hard world of economic decline in the 70s and early 80s. Atlantic City hasn't the allure of Las Vegas, which is just as artificial but a lot more glamorous. By the end, you don't even worry much about what will happen to Lancaster's character, although the ending is still pleasing.

April 28, 2012

Friday the 13th Part 3

The good thing about watching any of the Friday the 13th films is that you can clean your house while the movie's on, come back to the movie intermittently, and not feel like you've missed anything crucial.

In Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), which was originally released in 3-D, the name of the game is delayed gratification. The writers (Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson), apparently feeling no obligation to use their imaginations, decided instead to protract every murder sequence to the point of insufferable tedium. Like Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), this one begins with footage from its predecessor, just in case we had absolutely no idea what was going on. Afterwards, the movie opens with the butchering of a cartoonish slob and his nagging wife. Not only are these unappealing, uninteresting characters, but we are forced to spend an unbearable ten minutes (which seem much longer) watching them wander around their dilapidated house and its attached grocery store as Jason waits for the right moment (and means) for a gruesome double-slaying.

Finally, the real story starts, but by then you feel impatient and annoyed, and the bad acting and bad dialogue of the group of adolescents en route to Crystal Lake for a nice long weekend fails to alleviate either of these sentiments.

What is always so disappointing about this series is its lack of imagination and moreover its refusal to be fun. Horror movies must have both of these ingredients to be successful, and for some reason no one ever felt them necessary to the success of the Friday films. Everything about this movie cinematically is a tease. The cinematographer (Gerald Feil, who worked on several other slasher films), relies on his knowledge of previous horror movies: lots of shots from the killer's point-of-view, lots of long pans toward the intended victims, lots of false alarms. But there's no suspense. No one has bothered to pull us into this story because no one cares about there being a story. And I suppose the only reason people see these movies is because they know what they're getting.

It would have been financially imprudent to offer up something new when it had worked, financially, twice before. This also explains why the acting is so bad. Amy Steel, the heroine of Friday the 13th Part 2, was at least a passable lead, and far more convincing than Dana Kimmell, our current heroine, or Adrienne King, the survivor of the first Friday. The supporting cast is mostly equally embarrassing, although the playful banter between one of the couples is occasionally funny (mostly it's forced and idiotic). Steve Miner, who directed the previous entry, must have run out of ideas somewhere before finishing Part 2, because Part 3 makes the others look better by comparison.

The ideas Miner and the writers do try fall flat because they haven't been thought through enough. They're clumsily constructed imitations of scenes from better movies. It's as though the filmmakers have seen the best films about young people from this era (Breaking Away, The Warriors, Rock 'n Roll High School, etc) and tried to conjure up a fraction of their charm or passion. One example is the scene where a motorcycle "gang" accosts two of the adolescents at a grocery store. The female biker initiates the conflict by snatching their money, and the two male bikers physically threaten the boy, whose spine is made of jelly, making him an easy target. When he and his friend get back to their car, he accidentally backs over the motorcycles, inciting an unintentionally comical outburst of rage from one of the gang members. The scene has no credibility. The bikers are thugs for no other reason than to stir up a little manufactured conflict. (This scene is also a poorly contrived way to further the body count, because you know the bikers are going to get it when they pursue the teens back to the lake.) The kids feel heroic for backing over the bikes, and this little scene is supposed to win us over. Even if it had worked, it would have been a brief hiatus from this movie's 90-minute-long career of boring its audience to death.

The bad performances would be funny if this movie were going for a campy feel, but because the movie takes itself so seriously, the acting registers as simply uninteresting. I think dullness is the real offense of these movies, much more than their objectification of people as bodies to be slaughtered. How can boredom be so successful at the box office?

Betsy Palmer and Amy Steel appear in footage from the previous film. With Paul Kratka, Tracie Savage, Jeffrey Rogers and Richard Brooker as Jason.

April 24, 2012

The Howling

One of three werewolf movies to come out in 1981, The Howling has all the visual qualities of a vividly remembered nightmare, but it never lets horror get in the way of its canny sense of humor. It has all the makings of a good late-night horror flick--replete with scenes of ghastly werewolf transformations that are still pretty impressive. Like An American Werewolf in London, which came out the same year, the physical special effects leave a brazen impression much more so than computer-generated effects. Half the fun comes in watching how the filmmakers manage to manipulate the scene to convince us we're watching a human undergo a horrifying mutation.

However, as clever-looking as the movie is, and as amusing and pulpy as it tries to be, it never builds up to a strong finish. Its attempt to critique the sensationalism of television journalism is unfocused because it's trying its level best to be a werewolf movie at the same time.
And moreover, The Howling is never as exciting or thrilling as you'd like it to be. There's a great deal of "atmosphere," but something about it feels artificial, and in the end you feel like you're trekking into the territory of a filmmaker who isn't all that attuned to how to make a horror movie tick. The film's sense of humor is obvious and at the same time very niche, so only devoted horror movie fans are likely to get all the genre references (half the characters' names pay homage to 1950s horror film directors).

Dee Wallace (E.T.) heads the cast as Karen White, an L.A. reporter who witnesses a traumatic encounter with a serial killer, and heads to a secluded therapy retreat with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to try and recover. Of course--and we saw this coming--the place is overrun with werewolves. (We've seen this before: they were witches in Rosemary's Baby and robots in The Stepford Wives, etc.). Dee Wallace is an interesting case: she's worked most memorably in the horror and scifi genres, usually playing somebody's mother (as in E.T. and Cujo). But she isn't being used to her full potential in this movie. Director Joe Dante doesn't let her fall back on her natural comic abilities as much as other directors have, and he seems determined to present her as a drag, and the least interesting woman in the film. The bewitching werewolf queen Elisabeth Brooks seduces her husband, presumably because he's tired of her being a drag. And her newsroom pal, played by Belinda Balaski, is far more energetic and loose in front of a camera. Of course, Wallace's character is overcoming the traumatic experience of encountering a serial killer/stalker/sexual predator at a dirty movie theater, so she's understandably rattled. But this was an unappealing characterological move, especially for an actress like Dee Wallace, who's normally plucky and fun to watch: instead of making her strong, she's a blank canvass. Sigourney Weaver raised our expectations for what a woman could do in a horror movie situation, and Wallace's character is sort of channeling Mary Richards, the newsroom gal from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Weaver would have kicked werewolf ass, severely, and even Mary Richards would have been smart enough to get the hell out of there sooner. Dante keeps a tight reign on this woman in order to keep his movie on his track. Everything happens to Karen White. She is a totally reactionary heroine. Her character never develops or grows, and the result is a stilted performance from an actress who's capable of much more than that.

Written by John Sayles and Terence Winkless, from the 1977 novel by Gary Brandner. With Patrick Macnee as the fatherly psychiatrist who heads the retreat known as "The Colony," Dennis Dugan, and Robert Picardo.

April 21, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

The rumors are true. The Cabin in the Woods is a new horror film that doesn't suck. It's the movie equivalent of a haunted house at a sleazy traveling carnival. We expect a thinly plotted slasher film about dumb adolescents perishing in some kind of Evil Dead-Friday the 13th mash-up. Instead, we get a slick, clever horror-comedy that avoids the pitfalls of being too self-referential for its own good (like Scream 4, and possibly all the other Screams). It's a little uneven at times, and it has moments that resemble the kind of bad horror movie we're all tired of, but The Cabin in the Woods has enough going on in it that you'll have a good time watching it all unfold.


The setup resembles the familiar: five college students, isolated cabin, creepy cellar, supernatural shit gets awakened. But the whole time a parallel story thread runs through the movie in which a mysterious corporation monitors the every move of the people in the cabin, and apparently is running the show, too, in terms of the spooky goings-on.

The movie uses the dumb things about horror movies (characters not staying together, making bad choices like going outside, standing too close to open windows, etc.) as a commentary not just on the genre itself but on the contempt for youth that seems to fascinate the company that's manufacturing this ultra scare-job.

With Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and Amy Acker, and in a surprise cameo, Sigourney Weaver. Everyone in the cast makes a good impression, but when the movie turns "serious," the cabin-dwellers become less interesting. (They're "forced" into it by the company that's trying to get them killed, true, but it's still disappointing to see some interesting, funny characters devolve into boring slasher-film caricatures.) Directed by Drew Goddard.

April 19, 2012

The Hunger Games

In The Hunger Games, there are 12 districts of a larger country which must endure a yearly punishment where their rebellious deeds are "remembered" (so they will never rebel again) in a contest called "The Hunger Games." A boy and a girl from each district (that's 24 adolescents) must fight to the death in the wilderness. That means one winner, and 23 dead. Enter our heroine, Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence (not so far from the character she played in Winter's Bone).

I haven't read the books. Not planning to read the books. In fact, I felt predisposed to dislike The Hunger Games, because it's the latest book-to-movie series obsession. But, to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  It's an engrossing adventure, with a good adult supporting cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks (barely recognizable under piles of make-up and gaudy-looking attire), and Donald Sutherland.

People will likely be scratching their heads about a story in which children are pitted against one another and turned into beasts, but the movie shies away, perhaps a little too much, from the dehumanizing effects of the Hunger Games. They were trying desperately to ensure a PG-13 rating, I'm sure, but in the process I think the point of the story is rendered more than a bit murky. We, the audience, are supposed to be indicted for our role as spectators getting our kicks out of violence. This is merely an amped-up version of those Gladiator fights from the Roman days, you see. The Hunger Games are telecast for all to watch (there are cameras everywhere, hidden even within the trees), and each player receives a tracking implant that lets the government monitor his or her every move.

It's much more rewarding to think of this movie as mindless entertainment than to try and tease out a moral message or some kind of Orwellian warning about the future. All of its ideas are rehashes of other people's ideas, simply put into the world of juvenile fiction, a world which is highly profitable, as even adults are getting into these books. The movies themselves will serve as a nice summing up for those of us who aren't planning to read them.

The Hunger Games's futuristic leanings may be designed to elicit deep contemplation, but they don't. The movie's too tame for that. While I wasn't exactly drooling for more violence (there was certainly a lot implied, so they could have turned this into a real bloodbath had they wanted to), the tameness has a way of luring you back into the complacency which the movie is, I think, trying to rail against. The future is for the spectators. They don't care about kids turning into monsters, killing each other. They want only to be entertained. Oh, but it comes at a price, a high, high price! This is the inner-monologue we're supposed to be having as we watch The Hunger Games, and then I suppose we're supposed to walk out of the theater with the realization that the future is now.

It was interesting to see how the movie (and presumably the book as well) recycled the decadent fashions of years past. You see spectators sporting colorful hair, done up in elaborate and unique fashions, and the clothes are equally loud and garish looking. Apparently everyone in the future (at least, in the big cities), is going to be a metrosexual. The poor folks still look like good old-fashioned working class, adorned in drab-looking, practical clothes. The Proletariat never get the fashion forward. They feel all too real and of the moment, which was probably the intention.

Also, the technology is fun to think about--lots of fancy computer screens flashing everywhere, and some impressive developments in the genetic manipulation of the natural world (often used to give the government a more active role in the creepy fight-to-the-death game that ensues for most of the movie).

The world of futuristic fiction is a strange one. There are so many ways an idea can go wrong when one is trying to depict the future. You look at 2001: A Space Odyssey and you see how inaccurate were their imaginings of what technology would be like in 2001. In fact, the set-up to this kind of movie can really kill it. You might start to giggle or possibly frown if you think too much into the futuristic world carved out for the drama of The Hunger Games. But it delivers enough suspense to be a fun movie, and there are enough moments of drama to make the main characters real and sympathetic, despite the situation that continues to dehumanize them.

Also starring Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and Lenny Kravitz. Written by Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross.

April 11, 2012

Cassandra's Dream

In Cassandra's Dream (2007) writer-director Woody Allen aims for something along the lines of Greek tragedy in the modern world: Two brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) are hired by their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson) to rub out one of his business associates who's going to testify in court against some apparently damning illegal activity. But the consequences are far graver than they imagined.

A feeling of dread comes over you about midway, when the brothers' choices start to develop into their repercussions. McGregor's character, Ian, becomes corrupted (almost entirely but not quite) by his own ambitions, and Farrell's, Terry, begins to fall apart because he can't live with the guilt, and moreover, the sense that he has upset some kind of moral balance for which he must atone.

Cassandra's Dream makes a point of giving us an insightful look into human drama, the irony of life. Ian's girlfriend (Hayley Atwell) is an actress, and once while she's performing on stage, her character says this, that life is ironic. Of course the play is not accidentally talking about the theme which runs throughout this movie, and of course the reference to the Greek character Cassandra is important as well. But I'm wondering at what cost.

This movie was just depressing. The performances are all delivered by competent, effective actors. Sally Hawkins is remarkable as Farrell's girlfriend Kate. Farrel; may resort to the same tricks to convey his angst (twisting his face, raising his voice up an octive, all the things that made him really stand out in In Bruges), but he's good. Surely no actor was better when looking panicked and guilty.
 You feel for Terry much more than Ian, McGregor's character.

McGregor maintains his usual level of poise and self-assurance. I'm not sure exactly, but I believe one of the reasons I enjoy Ewan McGregor is for his banality. There's something consistently measured, controlled, calculated, in his performances. He's always a calming agent, and this makes for a contrast and a foil to Terry's weak, unstable constitution.

But the movie doesn't give you much enjoyment for all its important-ness and its references to stock literary conceits and characters. It's too much like life to be an entertainment. How long can you admire good acting when you're depressed, and part of you regrets starting the movie in the first place because you were in the mood for something else? Woody Allen is certainly not expected to confine himself to romantic comedies (his comedies have always been so much darker anyway, dwelling on the ironies of life as they do), but in the case of Cassandra's Dream, I felt ready for it to be over well before it was.

April 07, 2012

In Bruges

Two hit men await orders from their boss about their next job, in Bruges, Belgium. Writer-director Martin McDonagh maintains a droll sense of humor that sustains the movie through its dark subject matter, and turns it into something remarkably like Shakespeare. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play the hit men. Gleeson is cultured, wise, measured, and careful, and Farrell is cocky, questioning, and bored with the sights of Bruges. In fact, it becomes a running joke that he will be stuck in Bruges forever.

The supporting cast is eclectic and gives the movie a trippy other-worldliness: there's the live-wire of a boss, played by Ralph Fiennes, who turns swearing into art. There's an American dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) who's filming a movie there, as well as a duo of crooks (Clemence Poesy and Jeremie Renier) who specialize in stealing money from tourists after luring them into their apartment.

Farrell has perhaps never been more appealing than in this role, because his cocky facade is easily shattered to reveal a weak, scared man who isn't really up to the line of work he's chosen. And Gleeson becomes oddly philosophical as events turn toward the fatalistic. But it's the humor that really works for In Bruges. It would have been a maudlin piece of camp otherwise. Instead, we get something really quite stunning; a smashingly twisted crime serio-comedy that refuses to stay within the boundaries of clearly defined genres.

Winter's Bone

Ozark noir. Jennifer Lawrence plays 17-year-old Rhee, who's forced to look after her kid brother and sister because her father is a convicted meth maker, and her mom is "sick." (She doesn't talk, for reasons we don't know.) When a bail bondsman informs Rhee that their house will be taken from them if her father doesn't show for his upcoming court appearance, she resolves to track him down. For just about the rest of the movie she visits a string of cousins and half-cousins and other distant relatives (she half-jokes, "we all share blood one way or another") who are all pretty much devoted to the lofty career opportunities provided by making, selling, and taking Methamphetamines.

I suppose the reason I was dissatisfied with this film is because I expected it to be a more absorbing mystery, something spellbinding. Winter's Bone is a much more deliberately paced thriller. It offers subtle enjoyments. The characters are imbued with a gritty, weather-worn rural quality. The actors seem plucked from the Arkansas mountains to perform their parts. Very few people are painted in black and white colors. Because everyone is so morally ambiguous, you're never sure who to trust or to root for, except the girl. Lawrence carries the picture mightily well. She's easy to root for, being the plucky, resourceful type, and possibly the only non-drug addict in the movie.

Winter's Bone has a rustic gloominess which gives the viewer a sense of dread and foreboding. We don't ever know what to expect. However, I found a lot of the searching for clues repetitive, and only minimally rewarding. There's a lot of build up to a climax that somehow feels anti-climactic. Perhaps it was the trash junkie in me that was waiting for a shootout ala L.A. Confidential or something as terrifically suspenseful as last year's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Winter's Bone is hard and realistic, but a bit too measured and stable, especially considering the instability of the characters' myriad situations.

Directed by Debra Granik. With John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt, Dale Dickey,  Isaiah Stone, Ashlee Thompson, Tate Taylor, and Sheryl Lee.

April 06, 2012

Day of the Dead

The third zombie flick from Pittsburgh writer-director George A. Romero (following 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1979's Dawn of the Dead), Day of the Dead (1985) takes place in an underground military base where a handful of scientists lock horns with a band of macho army thugs. The world has been overtaken by flesh-chomping ghouls, and these are the only living members of society left, as far as we know. One scientist, nicknamed "Frankenstein," has tamed one of the ghouls. Frankenstein believes that wiping out the zombie population is impossible, so the next best thing (and the more scientifically appealing, perhaps) is  figuring out a way to domesticate the walking dead.

Day has some wonderfully freaky moments (especially at the end), and Romero captures a richly ominous mood (with the help of its authentic set, which is a network of underground caves that the government uses to store a menagerie of valuables) and the music of John Harrison.

Romero's penchant for inserting contrived conflict is glaring: Why is everyone so concerned with staying in this gloomy bunker, anyway? And there are moments when the dialogue gets away from him. Some scenes should have been shortened slightly to keep the film from going too far over the top. But it's also a wonderfully apt finale (or at least, it was the final Romero zombie film for a good while), once again bucking the tropes of the genre by avoiding any kind of resolution to the zombie problem. Also, Day features some of make-up master Tom Savini's most impressive (and hideous) effects (just don't watch this if you're turned off by excessive amounts of gore).

Much has been said of Day of the Dead's unfair treatment. It flopped at the box office (competing against the funnier, slicker Return of the Living Dead, a semi-spoof and not a direct sequel to the Dead films), was almost universally reviled by critics who had raved about Dawn, and seemed to usher in a new period of disinterest in zombie movies. In fact, there weren't many noteworthy zombie films after 1985. Romero later worked on a remake of Night (released in 1990) but by the end of the 80s, zombies were largely out of fashion at the movies (having been replaced by slashers a la Jason Voorhies). Now that zombies are in vogue again, it's worth noting that Day of the Dead is far more interesting a film than most of what has been released over the last few years of the zombie craze that has swallowed pop culture. Indeed, the zombies continue to be disturbing commentary on society. And the zombies in Day are perhaps the scariest looking (they've been rotting for quite some time by now).

Featuring a strong lead performance by Lori Cardille as one of the scientists, and the only woman in the cast (she reminds you of Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien). With Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Richard Liberty, and Howard Sherman.