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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Title: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: November 17th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Nicolas Cage had to face wide lampooning in recent years due to his tendency to overact his film roles, resulting in unexpected laughs that overshadow the drama. For The Bad Lieutenant, Cage appears to have been encouraged to bring his over-the-top shtick to new heights.

Here he plays rugged New Orleans policeman Terrence McDonagh in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He's an unapologetic loudmouth with a sick sense of humor, but can be counted on to get jobs done. He acquires the rank of Lieutenant after saving the life of a prisoner but consequently suffers a serious back injury.

Terrence is prescribed Vicodin as a way to cope with his new pain. The drugs have become addictive and his new obsession seems to have set off a time bomb inside of him. Terrence now places his desire for drugs first in his life and performing his policeman duties second.

Meanwhile, a new murder case has become the police department's center of attention. Terrence, now a loose cannon, is assigned to the investigation of discovering who was responsible for the slaying of five immigrants residing in the area. It is at this point where his fellow comrades begin to question Terrence's ability to stay focused on the job. The line between duty and personal desire is blurred and nobody knows what to make of this Lieutenant, especially the witnesses that have to answer to him.

As I explained before, Cage cranks his "insanity" lever into maximum power here. One minute he's patrolling the neighborhood in a perfectly conspicuous manner. The next minute, he's screaming his lungs out and threatening anyone that stands in the way of what he wants. Usually, the thing he wants is cocaine. Terrence probably takes more cocaine hits in this movie than all of the after school specials from the 1970s combined.

Sometimes, we get to see events from Terrence's distorted view of the world. For a non-comedy, this movie has a lot of running jokes. Probably the most memorable one is Terrence's recurring hallucinations of iguanas and other exotic wildlife. Another is his slow descent into total madness. At one point, his speech degrades into sounding like Jimmy Stewart with a mouth full of water.

I don't know how close to reality the often-seen "Good cop, Bad cop" routine is to real police work. If it's used at all, Nicolas Cage would be one of the most convincing bad cops to ever walk the Earth. His slick way of presenting himself as a lost pathetic soul only to transform into a monster is a work of genius. Proudly serving the city of New Orleans or exhibiting pure sadism seems interchangeable. Forget Harvey Two-Face. Terrence McDonagh has five faces. And any one of them could show up at any moment.

Yet in spite of the praise I'm lending out, I found myself not caring at all about what I was watching. Whatever this movie was trying to prove was lost on me. Was Cage trying to impress people with his sense of dramatic timing and unpredictable behavior? He may have, but it wasn't any surprise to me. I had seen Cage act crazy in the movies plenty of times and needed no convincing that he still had the touch.

Was the story trying to expose how policemen can abuse their power and its impact on the vulnerable oblivious people of broken down America? I think enough citizens are already well aware of actions that betray the public trust. Was Hurricane Katrina supposed to be a metaphor for Terrence's broken body in need of healing? If so, it wasn't a very clever one.

Perhaps it was a simple character study. Never mind the plot. Just watch this guy at work and enjoy the dark beauty behind it. That seems to be the most likely scenario. But then why do I still not understand Terrence McDonagh? I only felt like I was watching Nicolas Cage acting this entire time. It wasn't his fault. It was the fault of a pretentious movie trying to be something that it's not. It tried to amuse audiences by acting fearless and prying for laughs toward a serious tale. It doesn't work because fearlessness alone doesn't make the movie. A coherent direction is all that's needed and this movie doesn't have one. Or maybe it does and I just missed it. Either way, I don't care enough to find out.

Rating: 3

The Six Wives of Henry Lefay

Title: The Six Wives of Henry Lefay

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: November 14th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

The aforementioned six wives of the title character serve to be more like data rather than co-stars. Much like the legend of Bill Brasky made famous on Saturday Night Live, several people that have encountered Henry Lefay during the course of life have come together to share their favorite and least favorite stories about him.

Tim Allen plays Henry Lefay and gets to depart the picture rather early thanks to his character kicking the bucket in the first scene due to a fatal parasailing accident in Mexico. News of his death reach his daughter Barbara (Elisha Cuthbert). Barbara had been fed up with bailing out her father through countless occasions of carelessness and misfortune. She initially blows off the news as just another one of his desperate grabs for attention, but becomes distraught when she realizes that the tragedy is legit. The last conversation between Barbara and Henry ended with the former insisting to the latter that she never wanted to see him again. The movie enters flashback mode after the opening scene where the dissension is examined more closely before returning to present time.

Feeling remorse over their troubled relationship, Barbara takes upon herself the task of arranging her father's funeral. That also means meeting all of Henry's ex-wives face to face. Despite having the perfect ladies man charm, Henry was constantly convinced that he had found the perfect soul mate only to change his mind later. The ex-wives all come from different backgrounds and can't seem to find enough common ground to get through the funeral without something getting damaged. Most of the hostility comes from the last will and testament situation. Henry relayed a different message to each wife over how he wanted his death to be handled. No one can agree on how to best honor his memory.

Frustrated over being forced to clean up yet another mess, Barbara has to keep everyone's sanity under control long enough to bring closure to her father's wife-jumping legacy.

Tim Allen is a good choice for the role of Henry since he is written very closely to Allen's "Men are Pigs" signature character that made him a star all those years ago. Beyond that though, Henry isn't colorful enough for me to understand why he is such a charmer. The movie always shows him with someone but never shows how they met. We are just expected to believe he is a magician. As a result, Allen didn't have much to work with and had no choice but to play the role on auto-pilot.

Elisha Cuthbert has already proved herself to be a versatile enough actress for the Hollywood big leagues. However, she is terribly miscast here. Her role demanded someone that had the credible aura of an authority figure. Trapped with inmates running the asylum, Barbara has to act as the voice of reason in these situations. Cuthbert does not have the voice nor the presence to act intimidating enough for things to progress past the bickering stage. Too many of her scenes fail to look convincing because of this glaring shortcoming that was far too important to get wrong.

It's difficult for me to describe why so many gags do not work outside of saying that they just weren't funny. A lot of it may have to do with how "forced" the delivery was. The few moments of cleverness are easier to spot because the actresses don't have to try so hard to sell it. Comedy works in a strange way. Even if the situation is completely absurd, it still has to be remotely believable to be effective. The talent among the cast was there. It was the passion that was missing.

In the end, The Six Wives of Henry Lefay turns out to be a project that had promise but finished as an amateur imitation of a Neil Simon play. Due to the quiet release and being devoid of any real embarrassing material, it's unlikely any careers will suffer positive or negative consequences.

Rating: 4

Monday, November 15, 2010

North by Northwest

Title: North by Northwest

Year of Release: 1959

Date Viewed: November 7th, 2010

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

When this blog was first developed, I wasn't expecting to study many "classic" films. The reason was that I felt very out of touch with the entertainment eras that I had not lived through. Therefore I wouldn't be able to offer a fair opinion or understand director's motives. It's like asking an orange expert to write a report on apples.

So it was to my relief that I was able to enjoy North by Northwest and also explain why. It also persuaded me to re-evaluate my prior reservations about exploring early Hollywood. Before I became a serious reviewer, I wasn't interested in movies as art. I was a bored young kid searching for escapism from this boring world of ours. North by Northwest reminded me of several action/adventure movies that I had grown to enjoy during my youth. Perhaps these vintage classics weren't so different after all. Ideas have to be drawn from somewhere. So it should have been no surprise to find familiarity here. Many directors claim to draw inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and I used to think they only said that because they wanted to sound professional. North by Northwest was a nice way to be enlightened to the truth behind those statements.

Cary Grant plays an average man from Manhattan named Roger Thornhill. After finishing an ordinary day of work, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A passing telegram representative calls for a "George Kaplan." Roger flags down the messenger so he can send a telegram to his mother. This draws the attention of two henchman who believe Roger was actually Kaplan answering the call. Roger is abducted and brought to a man named Lestor Townsend (James Mason) for questioning.

We learn that Townsend is in charge of a corrupt organization. He had been tracking the whereabouts of a George Kaplan; a secret agent believed to be following him. Roger tries to expose the mistake and offers up every visual piece of evidence on hand to prove his identity. Townsend doesn't buy any of it.

After surviving interrogation and escaping death, Roger's life turns from dull to overly intense. Townsend's men pull out all the stops to get their revenge by framing him for murder and covering up all the trails. Via quick wits and sheer luck, Roger manages to barely escape one sticky situation after another, always staying one step ahead of his stalkers. He's a man on the run with no one to trust. That is, until he meets the mysterious and gorgeous Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) onboard a train to Chicago. She helps him elude the authorities, but also seems to know too much about the situation. Is Eve the answer to Roger's problem or is she part of it?

This movie never stops being entertaining. Within five minutes, the storyline is already revved up for the journey, the chaos is foreshadowed (part can be owed to an epic score by longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann), Cary Grant's character is set up and it is impossible to tell what is going to happen next. Despite existing for over fifty years, the movie feels as refreshing as the day it was born, even if it doesn't look as fresh.

But hey, it does look fresh! Whadya know? Whoever was in charge of restoring the movie for the DVD format deserved a raise. Not a speck of graininess in sight save for some outdated special effects that couldn't be helped. It looked even better than most Turner Classic Movie broadcasts I've seen.

As I was saying though, the movie never stops being entertaining. It doesn't rely on dragging out events until they wear out their welcome. The story keeps on moving and doesn't stop until it needs to catch its breath. Hitchcock should have directed a movie about auto racing. He's probably the only person that can make a pit stop dramatic enough to be worth watching. Almost as if on cue, the action starts going when I desired it to and I was given enough ample time to take in the background scenery when the situation demanded it. Is it a mind reading movie or simply my kind of movie?

All of that was expected though. I knew enough about Hitchcock to recognize that he had a talent for keeping audiences in suspense. What I wasn't anticipating was how funny the movie was at times. Cary Grant plays his role like he is a distant cousin to Sean Connery's James Bond. Always trying to stay prim and proper no matter how much danger is staring at him in the face. It can almost be considered parody except that Dr. No wasn't released until three years later. Hitchcock ahead of his time again.

The movie is not afraid to be silly and proud of itself for that. Several moments, usually a key decision made by a character to escape danger, left me scratching my head and wondering if that was really the best course of action. Staunch Hitchcock devotees seem to insist that it was done intentionally as a way of livening up the fun factor. That's always okay in my book, unless reasonable alternative set-ups were available. That's the only glaring flaw in this otherwise fine product. To use one example, Roger and his love interest try to elude danger once again by climbing down the unstable terrain of Mount Rushmore. "Do we have any other choice?," he asks. Um, yes. I think you do have another choice. Run sideways around the mountain. They weren't following THAT close behind you.

That criticism is only there for the sake of objectivity. It really didn't affect my enjoyment nor did it ruin my suspension of disbelief. It's a crazy ride and one that I was happy to climb aboard for. I'll even pay for extra tickets.

It may be safe to hypothesize that all other movies that borrow the "unsuspecting ordinary man falls into a mess" storyline can owe a bit of their success to North by Northwest. Audiences eat up these sort of movies because it's all about them. For many including myself, movies are loved because they allow the willing participant to be somewhere that they're really not. On the same token, videogames allow the participant to become someone that they're not. North by Northwest offers the best of both worlds. We get to watch Roger Thornhill become someone he is not and stay right beside him the whole way through. If that's not know the rest.

Rating: 8


Title: Evolution

Year of Release: 2001

Date Viewed: November 3rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Evolution is about a primitive alien species that quickly evolve into intelligent advanced creatures. It's too bad the same can't be said for the humans that worked on this movie.

Set outside a college community in Arizona, Ira Kane (David Duchovny) and Harry Block (Orlando Jones) are two professors that investigate a fallen meteor that crashed in the desert. Kane takes home a sample of unknown specimen and is astonished at how fast they change. These organisms are separating and growing at a rate that even the naked eye can witness in progress.

Convinced that a Nobel Prize is within their grasp, Kane and Block return to the crash site for more research only to discover that the area is now under military control. Evidently, the professors' data research had been hacked into and reported as a possible national threat. Sensing that he wouldn't be receiving due credit for the discovery, Kane disobeys orders to stay away and infiltrates the guarded area, putting him at odds with attractive scientist Allison Reed (Julianne Moore).

Before anyone knows what hit them, the alien beings have grown more hostile and are now the size of the dangerous kind of zoo animals. An all-out military assault appears to be the only plausible option to save the human race from being devoured by these new visitors. But Kane soon realizes that nuclear warfare will only add to the problem. A new solution needs to be implemented if he can only convince the arrogant General Russell Woodman (Ted Levine) to listen to him.

Playing the role of sideshow clown is Seann William Scott. He plays the useless sidekick character that only exists so the audience can laugh at his stupidity, clumsiness and annoying animal calls. The real reason he was casted was because the American Pie movies were popular in 2001. America loved watching Seann William Scott but realized too late that he was only funny when playing Stifler.

David Duchovny and Julianne Moore are not known for their comedic timing yet were expected to perform at the same level as Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. How can I tell, you ask? Because the entire storyline is an obvious nod to the Ghostbusters franchise and it even has Ivan Reitman as the director. But whereas Ghostbusters was charming and fresh, Evolution is as stale as the cereal in my cupboard. The much needed chemistry among the cast was not there. Yet the script still forces a romantic relationship between Kane and Reed using the same circumstances that we've seen in the movies a billion times before. Guy and girl come from different backgrounds and disagree over a matter. They can't stand each other. The guy then does something cool that the girl admires. Then they both kiss and act as if they were made for each other all along. That's the way the cookie cutter crumbles.

What's most baffling to me is the way the human characters respond to these alien beings. Their impressions have an irrational transition from wonderment to panic. Sure, the creatures are getting larger. But what real harm have they done? You would think that these scientists would have a better solution than simple termination unless they were the crazy comic book mad scientists. But there is no reason to believe there was ever a real danger outside of character dialogue explaining hypothetical situations.

A few highlights exist. One standout moment involves Professor Block in a scene that parodies the chest bursting scene from Alien. A small creature invades his body, leaving the doctors with no choice but to remove it by digging into his rectum.

The creatures in question are digitally animated. They look cute and grotesque at the same time. Probably the perfect design to compliment the movie's zany tone.

The idea behind Evolution is not bad. It just failed to evolve into a good result. Ivan Reitman may have an eye for effective comedy, but nobody is perfect and even a veteran like him can be stumped on how to present what's pitched to him. He tried to re-use the same formula that has worked for him in the past to no avail. When the scientists in the movie found out that the end would be disastrous, they went back to the drawing board. The screenwriters would have been wise to follow suit.

Rating: 3

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lost Boys: The Thirst

Title: Lost Boys: The Thirst

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: November 3rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

You know those low budget made-for-television movies that air on basic cable and end up becoming far better than anticipated? Well, this isn't one of those movies but it very well could have been one. Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander reprise their roles as the vampire hunting team known as The Frog Brothers in this third installment of the Lost Boys franchise.

Edgar Frog (Feldman) is going through some very tough times. His lifelong mission to destroy the undead has taken a harsh emotional and financial toll. No matter how much success he has in neutralizing vampire threats, evil always finds a way to return. He's falling behind on rent for his trailer park home and faces an eviction if the money is not paid in a week. Convinced that it may be time to retire from this unrewarding lifestyle, Edgar resorts to selling his beloved comic book collection to help keep the landlord off his back.

Days later, he receives an unexpected visit from famed author Gwen Lieber (Tanit Phoenix), who has a proposition for a new assignment. Her brother Peter (Felix Mosse) had been kidnapped by a cult of vampires at an underground rave. He was drugged with an ecstasy mix containing vampire blood known as The Thirst. If enough humans fall under control of the thirst, a new undead army will be under the command of a head vampire, perhaps the ultimate one that Edgar had been searching for all his life. Edgar accepts the mission when he realizes that this may be his only chance to save his brother Alan, who had succumbed to the darkness during a recent expedition in Washington D.C.

Edgar was too late to save his friend Sam Emerson (played by Corey Haim in the original Lost Boys and seen here in flashbacks), who suffered the same fate as Alan. Edgar's visit to Sam's grave operates as a way to swing his character's decision in avenging Sam's death and to bid a tribute farewell to Corey Haim, who passed away earlier this year. Edgar's sleep is haunted by nostalgic dreams of Alan and Sam. His Batman #14 comic book that Sam had a fondness for remains in his possession for its sentimental value. Edgar's life is actually very closely related to Batman's. He works nights, keeps to himself most of the time and speaks in a comically raspy voice.

The Thirst is a return to form for how the masses prefer vampire flicks to be presented. The supernatural elements tie to various legends, most of which Edgar has encyclopedias for. The vampires are bloodthirsty savages without any concern for the survival of the human race. They could be anywhere disguised as anybody. That's the spirit that drives the franchise.

The movie dishes out a few jabs toward the Twilight book series, no doubt pleasing the crowd that prefers their beloved demons to drool blood instead of sparkle. The character of Gwen has made a fortune from writing romantic vampire novels aimed for teens. You can see the disgust in Edgar's eyes as he wonders how someone could have the audacity to portray his enemies as sexy.

The Thirst's main weakness is that the direct-to-video smudges are clearly visible. The acting is not bad but nobody climbs above the call of duty for a B-flick. The direction has enough inspiration but not enough flare. It's sorely missing the experience of a seasoned director that can better establish the atmosphere that a vampire tale demands. And while it's nice to hear the new cover of "Cry Little Sister" used once again for dramatic effect, the rest of the music seemed like it was lazily composed in someone's basement with a modern synthesizer.

What The Thirst can be proud to show for is the script. It's mostly smart and extremely fun. The earlier films had a larger main character cast, thereby suffering from shadowy glimpses of promising stories. This movie is all about Edgar. Corey Feldman's performance is like a melodramatic version of John Rambo. The first meeting between him and Gwen is nearly a line by line reenactment of Rambo reluctantly returning to war after vowing to never go back to that world again. Not original, but amusing to see here.

There is a lot to like in this film. It kept me smiling even through its not-so-bright moments. Most of that credit can probably go to Corey Feldman who took on a producer job and vowed to listen to the feedback for the previous movie and make this one for the fans. The ending leaves a door wide open. So if enough reviews turn up positive, a fourth film is very likely to be made. The Thirst is entertaining enough to be considered for a weekend rental and I think most longtime fans will appreciate it enough to add it to their home collection.

Rating: 6

Army of Darkness

Title: Army of Darkness

Year of Release: 1992

Date Viewed: October 30th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

My friends like to reference my love for Army of Darkness as proof that I am a very strange human being. This is the only film from my guilty pleasure collection that I do not feel the least bit guilty about. Packaged in this twisted narrative is a story that doesn't make any sense, characters that do not act realistic, dialogue that nobody would ever dare to use in real life and special effects that aged worse than milk. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Army of Darkness is the third installment in director Sam Raimi's cult-popular Evil Dead trilogy. Picking up almost precisely where Evil Dead II left off, Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) continues the worst weekend of his life by accidentally transporting himself and his Oldsmobile back to England's Medieval age. The evil spirits known as "deadites" that have been haunting Ash back in the present time seem to be running rampant in this timeline as well.

Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) initially mistakes Ash as a soldier serving under rival Duke Henry (Richard Grove). Ash escapes captivity by defeating a pit monster and then impresses the locals by easily thwarting a possessed witch. The castle's Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) informsAsh that his only hope for returning home is to venture off in a quest to find the Necronomicon a.k.a. The Book of the Dead. Located in its pages is a time-traveling spell and enough supernatural power to deflect future evil from Arthur's castle. But due to an error in judgment, a massive army of deadites awaken in the woods. They are hellbent on getting the book for themselves, jeopardizing the future of mankind. Ash has no interest in playing hero until things get personal. An evil clone of himself kidnaps Shelia (Embeth Davidtz), his romantic interest. An epic battle commences between humans and deadites to determine the fate of the world.

Just as it was with Evil Dead II, Bruce Campbell is practically a one man show. The supporting characters are really just cannon fodder for Ash's ridicule. Campbell is one of those actors that can probably read a phone book and still manage to be funny. And he's the only actor I can think of that can rival Jim Carrey and Jim Varney in a funniest facial expression contest.

But even with Campbell's charisma and the movie's self awareness of the ridiculous, there are some lines of dialogue that are cringe worthy and probably sounded better on paper. When Shelia is possessed by the deadites, the first line spoken by her evil persona is "I may be bad but I feel good." For every person that laughs at that statement, there is someone who facepalms.

Sam Raimi isn't exactly one of the most innovative directors. But he has a style of his own and it's easy to recognize here. Camera shots pan back, forth and sideways for comedic effect. Homage is paid to his low budget roots by continuing a running gag where Ash is chased through the woods by an unidentifiable creature or spirit. We only know the creature is where when the movie switches to its point of view, so we are left to our own conclusions. Raimi's sense of humor is a bit self-depreciating and doesn't ever attempt to be high class. Each situation that Ash finds himself in is more bizarre than the last. Just when you think you've seen it all, the movie dares to reach inside its bag again for another twisted imaginative joke, usually at the expense of Ash's pain.

Declaring a favorite among the three Evil Dead films is a good test for discovering what your tastes most appreciate. Each one has vastly different attributes and its own identity. The first movie is straight up horror. The second movie blends horror and comedy. This third movie doesn't try to scare anyone and only goes for the laughs. Ironically, it's the laughs that will scare away a crowd that comes in unprepared. Watching Army of Darkness is a Halloween tradition in my household and I decided this was the year to introduce it to my mother. She can appreciate ridiculous humor as much as I can but we were divided over this one. While I was laughing and pointing at the screen, she sat silently and had the look of someone that wanted to say "This is too weird for me." There is no definitive test for finding out if the movie works for you or not. You just have to experience it for yourself. At the very worst, it's only eighty minutes of time risked to lose. At the very best, it'll be the most fun eighty minutes of your day.

Rating: 8

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Runaways

Title: The Runaways

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 27th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

This movie takes us to a world that's reserved for the few, the talented and the sometimes unfortunate. Music show business. It's the mostly true-to-life story of the popular 1970's all female rock band, The Runaways.

The first act kicks things off with the "gathering the cast together" formula. Kristen Stewart trims away her Bella Swan hairstyle to match the short-haired rocker look of Joan Jett, one of the founding members of the band. The formation plan goes into motion beginning with a chance meeting with famed record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). The initially reluctant Fowley agrees to give Jett the opportunity of a lifetime only after deducing that she could blend well with another client of his; drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve).

The pair begin the creative process leaving Fowley to invent the band's identity. He comes to the conclusion that an attractive blonde, preferably one that could sing is needed to complete the image. He and Jett cruise around different night spots before discovering their missing link. Fifteen year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) has the right amount of attributes that meets the band's outcast image. After a few adjustments to Cherie's novice singing voice and adding some additional musicians, the band comes full circle and is ready to mark their prints on the music world.

The road to perfection isn't easy. But once they reach it, there doesn't seem to be a bar too high to jump over. The Runaways' rough n' tough music style garnered mainstream attention, including an enormous cult following in Japan. But with every goal, there is a price. The Runaways' journey separates those who can take the heat from those that need to stay out of the kitchen. And in a twisted fate of irony, the band's worst enemy may be the same person responsible for their existence.

Kim Fowley is portrayed like a real life cartoon character. Never at a loss for words and hellbent on always doing things his way, Fowley is not intimidated by obstacles. He will step over or bring down whoever or whatever when necessary. The girls' are led through his own version of boot camp where they are instructed how to deal with unruly crowds and taking advantage of their mental toughness. To these teenage outcasts, Fowley is the closest thing they have to a father. It's too bad the family is often dysfunctional. There are many situations in the movie that were exaggerated for dramatic effect. I was surprised to learn that Fowley's behavior was not one of them. If anything, it was too mild. Money and fame are more important to him than basic needs. His slaveholder personality was enough to leave me in a state of disgust. So imagine how I would have reacted had I actually witnessed his real life madness.

Beneath their tough image lies vulnerability among the Runaways' band members. Since the movie was mainly adapted through Cherie Currie's autobiography, most of what is seen focuses on her turmoil. She was born into a neglectful household. Her mother moved away to Indonesia under questionable circumstances, leaving her and older sister Marie (Riley Keough) under the care of their Aunt. The Curries' divorced father is an alcoholic in denial, unknowingly setting the tone for his daughter's reckless behavior that is considered normal socializing by her band mates.

Cherie and the band are living the life of stars like Ozzy Osbourne or Joe Walsh in their prime. All concern for their own health is set aside for the sake of the image. The band spends their nights smoking and drinking until they faint into sleep. All of the natural changes that their bodies go through during adolescence occur during their time on the road without any mentors around to help them cope. Cherie initially insists that this is the only right way to live. Despite her sister's requests to play a bigger role in her young adult life, Cherie presses on with giving all her will to the music and unwinding with the drugs, only to do it all over again the next day. While this goes on, Fowley is always envisioning the next step, counting his money and cracking his whip along the way.

Since I'm a straight-edge square that has spent 99.8% of my life sober, I can't say that I can relate very much to what these kids go through. It was heartbreaking to watch this self-destruction unfold. It's no secret that sex, drugs and rock n' roll is more than just a slogan. It was a real way of life......for adult artists. These young artists had their innocence taken away at the not so even trade-off of fame and acceptance among peers. The risk is failing to realize that fan embrace is fragile. Unconditional love is there to stay. In a moment of pretentious visual art direction, one of these girls "sees the light" just soon enough to save herself. But the damage is done and life will never be the same.

There is a gritty overtone behind the film's direction. It showcases how far some will go for the attention that is perceived to be deserved. This movie will bring some much needed diversity to Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning's careers. They are so convincing that it made me wonder if somewhere a real Kim Fowley had persuaded them to take these roles in order to shake up their own images. I understand that they are only actresses and were probably never in any real danger. But I sincerely hope the lessons that can be learned from this movie are as obvious to the artists as they should be to the audience. As the E! True Hollywood Stories have taught, Hollywood can be a very dangerous battleground.

So far, I've been painting this movie as a tragedy. It needs to be said that the Runaways' journey has also done a lot of good for them. In a scene where Joan Jett is interviewed by a radio DJ, she declares that if rock music was absent in her life, she probably would have been dead already. And as crazy as Kim Fowley may have been, he deserves some credit for realizing the "it" factor that every group needs to establish themselves to consumers. Some of The Runaways' hit singles are still played on the mainstream radio waves, several of which Fowley had major influences.

The movie doesn't discourage anyone from dreaming big. It's made to challenge people's ideas over how much is willing to be sacrificed to realize those dreams. Hanging out with a group like The Runaways is a surefire way to separate the men from the boys. Or in this case, the women from the girls. Or in deeper terms, the consumed from the unconsumed.

Rating: 8

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back to the Future

Title: Back to the Future

Year of Release: 1985

Date Viewed: October 25th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

Many consider Back to the Future to be the definitive time travel movie. I find that hard to argue with. Few movies can compare to the amount of talent and effort that went into this production. It triumpths in excitement and provoking your critical thinking skills (in a fun way, mind you) not just on the first viewing, but every viewing.

Walking into a packed theater at my local multiplex to see this film again felt like a real life time travel experiment. It's always a treat to see classic films on the big screen, especially those that I wasn't around to see during its initial release. This day was extra special because of both the personal company that tagged along and the entire crowd having the same level of high excitement, ready to laugh together at our favorite moments and introduce some of our peers to this classic that stands the test of time. (Pun not intended but I couldn't resist using it.) For a good two hours (probably the fastest two hours of my year so far), everything old felt new again. That's the power of love.....for cinema.

High school teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has a pretty decent life but recent troubles are starting to get him down. He appears to be the only member of his personal family with any self esteem. Marty's father George (Crispin Glover) is an overly mild-mannered office employee who constantly takes abuse from his bully supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an overprotective square that can't stay away from the liquor bottles. And his brother and sister have little ambition for themselves.

Marty does however have two close friends to confide in. His girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and the eccentric scientist Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The Doc calls Marty in the middle of the night to summon him to the shopping mall parking lot to document his new breakthrough experiment. A DeLorean vehicle is modified with a flux capacitor device, which makes time travel possible. Doc plans to use the vehicle as a way to explore mankind's progress and possibly prevent future disasters. Before he is able to begin the historic journey, something goes wrong. The Libyan terrorists that Doc negotiated with to acquire the time travel fuel have discovered that the goods they recieved in return were phony. They interrupt Doc's preparation tasks and gun him down in the parking lot. Marty uses the DeLorean to escape from being killed too. But he accidentally uses the car's time travel fuel to transport himself thirty years into the past to 1955.

With no fuel left for a return trip, Marty does not have a way to get home. Desperate, he seeks the help of a younger Doc Brown in the hopes that he can find a solution to get the flux capacitor operational again. But before they reunite, Marty accidentally intervenes with his mother and father, now of high school age. The event that was supposed to bring his parents together fails to take place and now Marty finds himself as the object of affection to his own mother.

Doc discovers a way to take advantage of a future event that can offer one single chance to return Marty to his present time. But for that to happen, Marty has to first clean up the mess that jeopardizes his existence. His parents have to fall in love for things to get back on course and Doc needs to learn his future destiny in order for his own life to be saved, if he has the courage to change the timeline and risk further disastrous consequences.

Talk about a stressful situation. As cool as it would be to visit the past, I wouldn't want to be in Marty's shoes. My early memories of watching this for the first time on cable television were some of the fondest memories of my grade school era. I remember experiencing frustration over network advertisements. How dare they interrupt this addictive movie to get me to try their new Pepsi brand. With each coming roadblock to Marty's path back to present day Hill Valley came gasps of horror. His character is young and naive enough to make unacceptable errors in common sense. And boy does he pay for them.

Time travel storytelling simply doesn't get any better than this. Any contradiction that may draw concern from the viewer can be debunked with the right explanation. Some of the most intelligent movie-related discussions I've ever had the pleasure of listening to involved Back to the Future, mainly because there is so much to talk about. The story is complex enough to reward audiences that watch the movie multiple times. There is usually something new that isn't noticed from the previous viewing. For example, the shopping mall where Marty first begins his journey is initially named Twin Pines Mall. In a later scene that revisits an alternate present time, it is named Lone Pine Mall due to Marty knocking over one of two trees that stood in the area during his visit to 1955.

There are so many humorous moments planted throughout the movie, most of them subtle. The audience that gathered for this 25th anniversary screening seemed to know the film rather well. An average of every thirty seconds drew chuckles or loud laughter from the crowd. All gags involving George McFly's unusual mannerisms, Doc Brown's facial expressions, hints of foreshadowing and slapstick were met with unanimous approval. It didn't matter that we had already seen them dozens of times before. This was more than just a movie experience. It was a celebration of a landmark picture.

Alan Silvestri's musical score is almost more memorable than the story itself, which says an awful lot. Assembling one of the largest music orchestras ever for a movie in that era, Silvestri wrote a theme that defines adventure. Variations of the melody are played at every moment of character peril and bravery before exploding into an all out ear blasting rush for the movie's climax. Creating an art that usually goes unnoticed, Silvestri can boast having written a theme that even individuals with no appreciation for original scores found themselves humming on their way back to the theater parking lot.

Among the many things that were overheard during the screening was one individual declaring that "they haven't made movies like this in a long time." How wise he was. We live in an age where most ideas are only variations of older ideas and the best movies are adapted from original novels. Back to the Future stands as a true diamond in the rough both in its own era and the present era. Time traveling was not an original concept but the direction that was taken with the plot device was something that hadn't been seen before. What would it be like to visit your parents before you were born? How would it match up to your expectations? The possibilities to this answer contain the kind of wonder that is bestowed on me with every viewing. How could you not admire a film that fuels the imagination this strongly?

If you need further evidence as to the movie's cultural impact, read up on any of the recent cast interviews that were conducted for the 25th anniversary media hype. Michael J. Fox recently spoke of how he still gets recognized not as himself but as Marty McFly even on foreign continents. Reunion conventions still take place on a regular basis for fans to celebrate the memories. Even actors who only had a few minutes of screen time appear at these conventions to show their appreciation for being involved with the project. Back to the Future has earned the right to be proud of itself and needs no support from me.

Rating: 10

Paranormal Activity

Title: Paranormal Activity

Year of Release: 2007

Date Viewed: October 20th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Audiences have seen it all. How else can you explain why horror films draw such rabid crowds on opening night only to fade into its own darkness in the bottom dusty shelves? Audiences crave to be thrilled. To have goosebumps on their bodies and the gift of being kept on the edge of their seats. They relish these feelings so much that it has become awfully hard to impress. Unlike other genres, you can't really get away with borrowing old ideas and presenting them in a new package. Drama and action fans take comfort in knowing what to expect. Horror is only effective when it's unpredictable. Movies that telegraph its scares can still be entertaining if you're watching with a group of smart-alec friends that enjoy pointing out the shortcomings.

That is why marketing plays such an important role in drawing interest to your scarefest. Too much ticket money has been spent on blind faith. Now only movies with strong positive word-of-mouth press have any hope of raking in box office dough. If the newspaper critics give it approval, then it's a sure guarantee.

No other movie was marketed better last year than Paranormal Activity, the low budget "home camera POV" film that released in limited markets and expanded via fan demand. Indie film buffs became curious due to rave reviews and were intrigued by video footage of test audiences sitting on the edge of their seats and screaming out loud. That is exactly the sort of thing horror fans want to see. Strong early feedback and the knowledge that they will experience something unlike they have ever seen before. That's what the marketing claims, so it must be true. Right?

Paranormal Activity baits you in with an unusual concept. But its scares are as uninspired as Michael Jordan's halftime speech in Space Jam. It is smart enough to realize that fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known. However, you can only test the audience's patience for so long until they grow restless, as was the case with me.

Like The Blair Witch Project and many others before it, Paranormal Activity tries to sell you on the idea that what you are about to see is real. A dedication message takes the place of a traditional prologue. The message thanks the family of the people documented in this movie and the local police department for their cooperation. The movie even names the characters after the actors that play them. Was that an extra selling technique or was the writer just feeling extra lazy that day?

The characters are Micah and his girlfriend Katie. They recently moved into a middle class neighborhood that will hopefully give Katie some much needed peace. She had been haunted by what she believes to be demonic spirits all of her life. Micah is more amused than concerned by her predicament and convinces her to let him buy a new video camera to try capturing some of this paranormal activity on film and share it with the world.

The entire movie is seen through the camera's perspective. It is placed on their bedroom dresser and set up to record all night while the couple sleeps. Each following morning, Micah and Katie review the footage and take note of any unusual happenings. The events start off minor. A loud crashing noise is heard from downstairs. The door slams shut on its own. These events are unusual but not outside of rational reasoning. But then things start to get less and less explainable; such as how someone could sneak past their night security system, leave footprints on a pile of salt and vanish without any other trace. Is the couple's hired psychic just another cold reading nutjob or is there something going on that he is reluctant to fill them in on? Be prepared to ask a lot of questions and to use your imagination for the answers.

There is a specific resting point for the video camera that writer/director Oren Peli depends heavily on. He deserves credit for choosing the perfect location. Within its range, we have a stationary view of the entire bedroom and the open door to the hallway. My eyes darted back and forth across the room in a frantic way. There was so much to keep track of and I couldn't decide where to place most of my focus. Then I felt really silly when the realization hit that nothing had happened yet. It was possibilities that had me on edge.

The feeling of amusement didn't last very long. Like the villagers that heard the boy who cried wolf, I was tricked into believing that something was demanding my attention when it was really just a cheap ploy. If these ghosts that haunted the residence were serious about sending a message, they were doing a lousy job. Making noises around the house and knocking things off a kitchen counter is something a cat, a burglar or a cat burglar would do. It rivals the silliness from those reality television shows that follow ghost hunters at supposed haunted locations. The story is all in your mind. Paranormal Activity seems to take that motto to heart judging from its poor script.

Someone or something is trying to make Katie's life a living hell. We don't know why and the movie doesn't really care why. That would be okay if we were given a decent set of puzzle pieces to put together so that coherent story could exist. The movie offers about four pieces. So much for a challenge.

The finale delivers the real scares that everyone has to wait for. And to Oren Peli's credit, it's done very effectively. But it's not worth waiting through over an hour of uneventful "paranormal" activity, Katie and Micah bickering over whether or not filming the ghosts was a good idea or baring witness to some mind boggling actions from the two main characters. Why are they filming someone watching the footage from the previous night's events? The footage is already on that same camera!

It's ironic that the marketing that drove this movie to success depended on the same kind of misguided faith that makes these ghost spirits very real in the eyes of believers. Enough self-talk will convince you of anything. "I'm being followed." "I look too fat." "Paranormal Activity will be a frightening movie." Just keep telling yourself these things and they will all come true eventually.

Rating: 4