Monday, June 15, 2009

The dead will rise again.

Breaking news... After being out of print for a few years now, Hide and Creep will return to DVD! And soon, maybe as soon as September. Chuck and I just signed a deal with a new distributor. More info as it is available...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One sequel, one remake.

Given the convoluted timeline of the Terminator movies, I'm not sure if Terminator Salvation is a sequel or a prequel. I'm also not sure if "prequel" is even a real word. And why doesn't Terminator Salvation have a number and a colon in the title?

Oh. I just looked it up. According to, "prequel" is a real word, coined in the 1970s. One mystery solved.

In the past few years, I've noticed an increased obsession with backstory in popular movies. It's like, if we aren't told every last detail about the characters, we won't be able to relate to them or understand them. Never mind that The Dark Knight made tons of money, despite the fact that the Joker just shows up out of nowhere in that movie and starts wreaking havoc.

So it's no surprise that Terminator Salvation explains some of the backstory for characters that we've seen in previous Terminator movies, like John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the movie opens with a chunk of backstory for a new character, "Marcus," which I guess would be okay, except that it kind of gives away a big plot twist involving Marcus. The screenplay has some problems, and I'm not sure if all the problems are solvable, but lopping off the first five pages would be a good start.

Make that five and a half pages. After the unnecessary opening, we get one of those text crawls that explains more backstory, but it's redundant as the same information is revealed later the old-fashioned way. You know, through action and dialog.

The action tends to be better than the dialog. And there's too much dialog during the action. Somebody yells "hang on" in the middle of a crazy car chase. Really? Dude, if the passengers hadn't been hanging on for the duration of the chase, they wouldn't be in the car at this point.

The dialog also serves as an obvious reminder that this is the fourth Terminator movie. Callbacks to lines from previous movies wouldn't bug me so much if they didn't seem shoehorned in. When a character answers a question with "I'll be back," Stacey and I laughed out loud. That's laughing at the movie, not with it. Then, in the next scene, we hear "You Could Be Mine" (the Guns 'n Roses song from Terminator 2: Judgement Day) playing from a jam box.

At that point, I almost expected Linda Hamilton to show up and ask the Kyle character, "Hey, remember in that first Terminator movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger chased us around?"

Speaking of Arnie, he makes a cameo of sorts in one of the movie's cooler scenes. Yeah, I've been complaining for the majority of this review, but Terminator Salvation does have some cool bits. There's also a helicopter crash filmed from inside the copter--still haven't quite figured out how the filmmakers pulled off that one.

And the movie looks and sounds terrific. The cinematography, effects, and sound design are top-notch, even if they're not quite up to Star Trek standards. And there are some excellent practical effects courtesy of the late, great Stan Winston. From a craft standpoint, the summer was off to a shaky start with Wolverine, but that's looking to be the exception and not the rule. So far. Hope I didn't just jinx it.

I realize that this review isn't exactly focused. In my defense, neither is Terminator Salvation. Director McG (insert wow-that-is-a-stupid-name joke here) does a pretty good job managing the big chaotic action scenes, but the quieter parts seem tossed off. I noticed accents slipping in and out, actors who look like they're thinking about lunch plans instead of the scene at hand, flat line readings--stuff you shouldn't let slide when you're making a movie about what it means to be human.

I've never seen the original version of The Taking Of Pelham 123, but I enjoyed the heck out of Tony Scott's remake that hit theaters Friday. The story, like Die Hard, is of the "dude with a problem" variety. Denzel Washington plays an average joe transit authority worker who ends up as a hostage negotiator when some bad guys, led by John Travolta's "Ryder," hijack a New York City subway car and its passengers.

Watching Pelham, I was reminded why Washington is a movie star. He has charisma to spare, even when playing a slightly pudgy (prosthetic gut, or did he put on some weight, DeNiro-style?) everyman. Actually his character isn't quite an everyman (the part was written for a movie star, not a character actor), but I don't want to ruin the details of that reveal, which is one of the movie's many nice surprises.

Another surprise--this is a big summer movie that spends the majority of its running time in everyday locations (transit authority office, subway car) without a lot of action. The hostage situation creates plenty of tension, as does the over-the-radio sparring between Washington's and Travolta's characters. The action we do get tends to be of the fast and ugly variety, as, in the tradition of my favorite Sidney Lumet movies, nothing much goes according to plan for anybody, no matter which side of the law they're on.

Tony Scott is no Sidney Lumet--sometimes he seems to forget he's making a feature film and slips into over-the-top-music-video-director mode. But the solid cast (I haven't mentioned John Turturro yet--nice to see him in a big movie not directed by Michael Bay) and clever screenplay keep the movie grounded, regardless of any directorial indiscretions.

The Taking Of Pelham 123 ain't high art, but it is highly entertaining--a fine way to spend a summer afternoon at the multiplex.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The lost hangover.

Land Of the Lost starts promisingly enough. An astronaut runs through a swamp. He's scared, trying to raise someone on his radio. He's supposed to be on Earth, but the three moons glowing in the night sky tell us he's not. He realizes he's being followed. He stops running, turns. We see something terrible reflected in the visor of the astronaut's helmet. Hard cut to the "Land Of the Lost" title card, along with a dissonant music cue that would be right at home in Jerry Goldsmith's Planet Of the Apes score.

This is a lot more awesome than the Will-Ferrell-plus-dinosaurs comedy I was expecting. I say this as a guy who likes Will Ferrell and dinosaurs. And comedy.

After that title card, Will Ferrell shows up. And the movie starts getting less awesome. Ferrell is playing Dr. Rick Marshall, the latest in a long line of Ferrell's over-confident buffoons. This is a character Ferrell does well--I'm especially fond of the Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby iterations. But something seems tired this time around, despite the efforts of Ferrell and Matt Laurer (playing himself).

Dr. Marshall picks up a couple of sidekicks, one a pretty girl (Anna Friel), one a dumb dude (Danny McBride), and the three accidentally take a trip to a strange alternate dimension, a "land of the lost" as it were. (Matt Laurer stays home.)

I'm leaving out a lot of details here, but, even this early in the movie, the tone is all over the place. Is it a Will-Ferrell-as-buffoon comedy? Is it a sci-fi adventure? Is it a send-up of overly earnest sci-fi adventures (like the Land Of the Lost television show, on which this movie is based)?

Unfortunately, the tone never evens out. Which is a shame, because the tone thing should, and could, have been addressed by the screenplay. Here's a movie with a solid cast, excellent cinematography and production design, groovy practical effects (lizard men!), and decent dinosaurs (to this day, I don't think anyone has topped the original Jurassic Park dinos). But the screenwriters don't know what kind of story they want to tell, and there's no way the movie can overcome that lack of direction.

Even the music seems confused. Michael Giacchino, who wrote one of my favorite scores of recent years (The Incredibles), can't decide whether he wants to be Jerry Goldsmith in weird, unsettling mode or John Williams in stirring, uplifting mode. (Note to Giacchino: you should have stuck with the Goldsmith-y stuff.)

When Jon Lucas and Scott Moore wrote The Hangover, they knew exactly what kind of story they wanted to tell. A funny story. A no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners funny story.

The plot couldn't be simpler. Four friends hit Vegas for a night of partying. Three wake up the next morning, unable to remember the party night or the whereabouts of friend number four. They embark on a mission to find their missing comrade, and (I say this in all seriousness) hilarity ensues.

I shouldn't give Lucas and Moore all the credit for that hilarity. While they devise a plethora of absurd situations for our protagonists, the director (Old School alum Todd Phillips) and actors (especially Zach Galifianakis, turning awkwardness into high art) work hard to wring every possible laugh from each scene.

I'm not sure what else I can say about The Hangover without starting to list details of all the funny stuff that happens in the movie. And that's no good. So I'll just wholeheartedly recommend the flick to any not-easily-offended folks (the movie earns its "R" rating) looking for a good time at the multiplex.

Oh, and now that I think about it, that simple plot I mentioned earlier is actually kind of elegant. Most, if not all, of the bizarre events in the first half of the movie pay off in unexpected, yet logical, ways in the movie's second half. If there's some kind of "most laughs/fewest plot holes" award for this summer's movies, The Hangover is gonna be tough to beat.

Friday, June 5, 2009

If adventure has a name... must be Carl Fredricksen.

There are two kinds of Pixar movies--the pretty good ones (Cars) and the great ones (everything else). Instead of writing a review of Pixar's latest, Up, I thought about just coining a new acronym to save us all time when reviewing or discussing Pixar movies in the future...

APM (another Pixar masterpiece).

Because Up, like WALL-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and all the non-Cars Pixar movies going all the way back to 1995's Toy Story, is a wonderful, near-perfect movie. By my estimate, Pixar's batting average is something like .975. Think about how hit-and-miss most of the big studios are with their movies, then think about that Pixar number. Impressive, to say the least. In fairness, Pixar doesn't release nearly as many flicks per year as the other studios, so maybe they have more time for quality control.

If you've seen the Up trailers or the poster, you know the movie is about an older gentleman, Carl Fredricksen, who uses a few hundred helium balloons to turn his house into a makeshift airship. The movie actually begins with Carl as a young boy, then explores the next 50 or so years of his life in an amazing montage that tells us everything we need to know about Carl in just a few minutes. Without a word of dialog.

The Angels and Demons guys should all watch this montage before they make another movie.

The balloon house thing is just the first imaginative element in a movie that proves almost endlessly inventive. And pulpy. For example, Up gives us talking dogs, but they're not of the usual talking-cartoon-animal variety. There is a science fiction explanation for the verbose canines that would make Kurt Vonnegut proud.

With a story this fun, it might be possible to overlook the quality of the animation, which is top-notch. Beyond top-notch, actually. The Pixar guys invented the computer-animated feature film and then continued to innovate, year after year, movie after movie. Dreamworks and Fox have their Shrek and Ice Age franchises, respectively, but none of those flicks can hold a candle to WALL-E or Up from a craft standpoint. It's not just that Pixar is in a league of its own, it's that nobody else is even playing the same sport.

Speaking of innovation, Up is the first Pixar movie in 3D. And the 3D is nicely done. I especially like a gag that opens the movie. We're watching what looks like old black and white newsreel footage. It is, appropriately, 2D. Then the camera--virtual camera, sorry--pulls back and we see we're in a movie theater, sitting behind the 3D audience, watching the newsreel with them. It's a neat little movie-inside-the-movie bit, and it's really enhanced by the 3D.

Even with the new and improved digital 3D we're getting these days, it's not perfect. The colors just don't pop quite as much when they're filtered through those polarized 3D glasses. As my friend Kyle McKinnon asked, "Are you going to see Up in 3D or in color?" I'm glad I got to see the 3D version, but I look forward to seeing it in full color on the eventual Blu-ray disc.

When Stacey and I saw Up at the Vestavia Rave theater, it screened with a lead-in short (I love that Pixar has brought short films to the cineplex--hey, Warner, how about a Bugs Bunny short before the new Harry Potter flick?) and a 3D preview for Toy Story 3. It's easy to be cynical about all the sequels, remakes, and reboots we're getting these days, but I'm excited about the prospect of another romp with Woody, Buzz, and the gang. Heck, if the Pixar streak continues, the Toy Story series will end up as one of those rare trilogies where the last movie is better than the first.

Blockbuster summer.

I decided I'm going to watch and write about all of the big summer movies this year. Because I figure, after sitting through Wolverine, I got nothing to lose. And there aren't enough movie critics on the Internet.

I'll post my thoughts on Up in a bit.