Month: October 2012

Under The Cherry Moon

1986

Warner Bros.

Directed by Prince

Produced by Robert Cavallo, Stephen Fargnoli and Joseph Ruffalo

Written by Becky Johnston

As long as UNDER THE CHERRY MOON stays with being a playful, goofy romantic musical set in the south of France and doesn’t take itself seriously at all, it’s actually a fun movie to watch. Sure, the acting of Prince and Kristin Scott Thomas is atrocious (she has disavowed this movie totally) and the whole thing is obviously a vanity project for Prince as I don’t recall offhand any movie where the leading man is prettier and has more costume changes than any of the women in the same movie. Prince took over directing the movie from Mary Lambert, who had distinguished herself directing music videos for Madonna, Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston, Tom Tom Club and many other artists. This was his first and as far as I know his only directing effort. Let’s just say that as a director and actor, Prince is a brilliant musician. He so obviously was attempting to do a Fellini flavored French comedy and I give him points for his ambition. And there are scenes in UNDER THE CHERRY MOON where you can see that there’s a really good movie trying to fight it’s way past Prince’s ego and be seen. Unfortunately  somewhere along the way Prince decided that what he really was doing was A Tragic Love Poem About Doomed Lovers and that’s where the movie nose dives into oblivion.

Christopher Tracy (Prince) and his sidekick/wingman/cousin Tricky (Jerome Benton) are professional gigolos swindling money out of wealthy French women. Just from their wardrobe I’d say they’re obviously highly successful at it. By day Christopher Tracy plays piano at a posh restaurant while Tricky lines up his victims for the night, including Mrs. Wellington (Francesca Annis) who seems to have honest feelings for Christopher.

Tricky sees a big payday in Mary Sharon, heiress to a shipping empire owned by her father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) who is also sleeping with Mrs. Wellington. Mary will inherit $50 million on her 21st birthday and so Christopher sets out to seduce and marry her. Naturally this does not set too well with Isaac or even Tricky who discovers that he has feelings for Mary himself. The situation is further complicated by Christopher forgetting what he’s supposed to be doing and hopelessly falls in love with Mary.

There are scenes early on in UNDER THE CHERRY MOON that truly make me smile, such as Mary’s 21st birthday party where she shows off her birthday suit. The “Wrecka Stow” scene which actually is an inspired comedy bit. The scene where Christopher sings and dances on top of a piano and has an entire restaurant jamming to “Girls & Boys” and reminds us of why when this movie was made there wasn’t a musical artist working (no, not even Michael Jackson) who could touch Prince.

And the absolute best thing about this movie? Jerome Benton, of course, who along with Morris Day in “Purple Rain” provides the two best reasons to watch that classic movie. I’d bet next month’s rent that Prince cast Jerome as his sidekick in this movie hoping that together they’d have the same magic. They don’t. But that doesn’t mean that Jerome isn’t his usual hilarious self and he makes every scene he’s in better. It also tickles the hell out of me that he and Kristin Scott Thomas have far better chemistry than she does with Prince.

I also like how the movie exists in its own fantasy/fairy tale universe where people dress like it’s the 1920’s, talk like it’s the 1940’s, with the exception of Christopher and Tricky who speak in 1980’s vernacular and drive cars from the 1950’s/’60’s.

What else can I recommend about UNDER THE CHERRY MOON? The terrific Prince soundtrack, of course. Except for “Girls & Boys” and “Mountains” which he performs with The Revolution during the movie’s end credits, Prince does not perform any musical numbers and the songs are used as background music. “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” and “Do U Lie” are delightfully playful and light, excellent fitting the tone of the early parts of the movie and Prince is helped tremendously having Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman singing backup. “Under The Cherry Moon” is appropriately dreamy and romantic. “Girls & Boys” and “Mountains” are both jazzy, funky numbers that are just plain flat out fun. And do I need to say anything about “Kiss” you don’t already know?

But an hour into the movie that all changes and as I said earlier, the movie turns into A Tragic Love Poem About Doomed Lovers that has an ending that comes outta nowhere and just would really spoil the whole thing if we didn’t have an epilogue with the dependable Jerome Benton to leave us with a smile on our face.

So should you see UNDER THE CHERRY MOON? Absolutely. Is it a good movie? Hell, no. In terms of acting it’s downright laughable. And the sudden shift in tone is jarring and confusing. It shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath with the masterpiece that is “Purple Rain” and it’s an insult to compare it with “Graffiti Bridge,” a movie that is truly horrendous and deserves to be forgotten.  But not UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. It is an awfully goofy movie that you can watch with fellow Prince fans on a Friday or Saturday night and have a good time with its unashamed silliness. And here’s a drinking game to go along with it: everybody takes a shot every time the name ‘Tricky’ is said as it seems as if every other character in the movie is afraid that we’ll forget his name, they use it so much and so often. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Enjoy.

98 minutes

PG-13

Alex Cross

2012

James Patterson Entertainment/Summit Entertainment

Directed by Rob Cohen

Produced by James Patterson and Leopoldo Gout

Screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson

Based on the novel “Cross” by James Patterson

Depending on who you talk to, get ready to either get kissed on the lips or kicked in the ass when you bring up the subject of Tyler Perry. Seriously. I’m not joking. He’s a topic of conversation that has no in between. Most people I know either love his work or detest it. His career began with stage productions he wrote and directed, mostly focusing on dysfunctional families in stories that were just as much tragedies as they were comedies. Touring the country with these productions on the Urban Theater Circuit, also known as “The Chitlin’ Circuit” developed Tyler Perry’s enormous success with black audiences that are devoted to him.

And when he put on a dress and starred in movies as his signature character, Mabel ‘Madea’ Simmons he really struck pay dirt. The profane, loud-talking, pistol-packing massive elderly woman who can still open a can of Whoopass at the drop of a cigarette has been a source of much controversy. Spike Lee has said that Tyler Perry’s Madea movies are nothing but modern-day minstrel shows while Perry counters that they are simply entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Professional movie critics gave Perry’s movies such a smacking around that he stopped screening them for the press, saying that he made his movies for his audience and not for critics.

Whatever you want to say about him, there’s no doubt that he’s a powerhouse in both film and on television as he produces three sitcoms for TBS and has entered into an agreement with Oprah Winfrey to produce content for her OWN network. And his films have grossed a half billion dollars worldwide. So why then would he now decide to jump into a completely different genre, one he’s never so much as shown an interest in and take on the role of homicide detective/psychologist ALEX CROSS in an action/crime thriller?

Maybe he’s bored with what he’s been doing. I know I saw an interview with him once where he said that he wanted to do a movie where he kills Madea off so he doesn’t have to get into that dress one more time. I dunno. I applaud him for stepping waaaaayyyy out of his comfort zone to attack this role with such gusto. I don’t believe that he’s going to be treated fairly and that’s a shame because even though I wasn’t jumping up and down in my seat with excitement I also didn’t feel that my time was wasted watching him play action hero.

Detroit homicide detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) is summoned in the middle of the night by his superior Captain Brookwell (John C. McGinley) to report with his team to a murder scene. Cross gathers up his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) who is having a hot and heavy relationship with his teammate Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) and the two of them report to a mansion that is full of dead bodies, one of them gruesomely tortured. Due to a bizarre drawing left at the scene, Tommy nicknames the killer Picasso and it sticks.

Picasso (Matthew Fox) is one of those serial killers that movies loves. He’s hyper-intelligent and apparently psychic since he can extrapolate any and every move the police are going to do days before they themselves even think of it. He’s in Detroit to murder a number of businessmen and he goes about it in the way that only assassins in movies can do seemingly by magic; tapping into and bypassing security systems with ridiculous ease and slipping by squads of armed men as if invisible. And naturally he kills everything he aims at with one shot while dodging blizzards of automatic fire thrown his way.

It’s during the pursuit of Picasso that Alex Cross and his team are soon turned from hunters to the hunted as Picasso seeks to revenge himself on them for their interference in one of his carefully planned assassinations and it’s here that the movie kicks it up a notch. The intellectually composed Alex Cross gives into his dark side and forsakes all in the quest for vengeance. But as his beloved Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson) asks him “If you do this, how will you face your children?”

Okay, let’s get to where the rubber meets the road: you want to know if Tyler Perry nailed it to the wall or did he stink like a houseguest that don’t know when to leave. I’ll give you the opinion of my wife Patricia to answer that. Patricia is the Alex Cross expert in our house having read most of the books or listened to them on audio. She felt that Perry wasn’t sexy enough to be Alex Cross but she freely admits there there is no man alive as sexy as the Alex Cross in her imagination. She did like to see a movie where a black man was presented as a family man enjoying a healthy relationship with his wife, children and colleagues as well as being a respected professional and not the sidekick to the hero. The movie didn’t live up to her expectations but if there’s a sequel made, she’s all for it.

ALEX CROSS is pretty much an origin story to explain his background to those who have never read one of James Patterson’s novels and as such, it works. Tyler Perry does a honest job as action hero and he certainly has the physicality for such a role but he just couldn’t convince me this Alex Cross on the screen has the same formidable intellectual power and laser-beam psychological insight the Alex Cross of the books I have read has. He takes what he’s doing seriously and he respects the character and I do think that in many ways he did capture the spirit of the character.

Fortunately he’s backed up by some truly solid supporting players. Cicely Tyson, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito and Edward Burns do their jobs admirably and are generous in stepping aside and giving Tyler Perry his moments to do his thing when the script calls for it. There are no outstanding performances from any of them but I do so enjoy seeing professional work from actors where they do what they do and make it look easy. Matthew Fox is plainly having a ball playing the brilliantly deranged Picasso and I really hope he gets a chance to play another villain as he really didn’t have a chance to build a satisfying character in this one.

So should you see ALEX CROSS? There are some of you reading this who wouldn’t go see a Tyler Perry movie if you were paid to do so. And there are some of you reading this who probably already have seen it and will probably see it again. For those of you who are undecided, I’ll have to leave it up to your conscience. I myself didn’t feel that ALEX CROSS wasted my time but neither was it a superior movie in this genre. It’s way better and far more faithful to the character than the two Alex Cross movies made in the 1990’s starring Morgan Freeman but not as good as I feel it could have been. The fight sequences were a letdown for me as Rob Cohen succumbed to using that fargin’ shaky-cam again and as a result the fight scenes are a blur of arms and legs where it’s difficult to tell who’s hitting who.

Bottom line: it’s an interesting acting experiment for Tyler Perry. If you don’t want to spend your money on a DVD or Blu-ray for an experiment but are still curious, wait for it to show up on Netflix.

101 minutes

PG-13

The Innkeepers

2011

Glass Eye Pix/Magnet Releasing

Directed and Written by Ti West

Produced by Larry Fessenden

There’s a lot of folks who are horror fans who are not going to like THE INNKEEPERS. And that’s okay. I fully understand that there’s an entire generation that has been brought up on horror film franchises such as “Saw” “Final Destination” “Wrong Turn” and “Paranormal Activity” and while those movies aren’t exactly what I consider horror, I recognize that they have entertained a whole lotta folks. That’s why they’re franchises. And when I’m in the mood I even enjoy watching a “Final Destination” movie myself. Those things are the best live-action Looney Tunes cartoons ever made.

But there’s a genre of horror movie that I don’t see much of today that I love and that’s The Ghost Story. Most of them are also Haunted House movies as well since it’s usually a house that the ghosts are haunting. I’m thinking of movies such as “The Innocents” “Poltergeist” “The Shining” “Stir of Echoes” “The Legend of Hell House” “The Haunting” and “The Others.” And now I can add a new one to that list: THE INNKEEPERS.

The Yankee Pedlar Inn is going to close in a few days and the owner is soaking up the sun in Barbados, leaving his last two employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) to work the place during the final weekend of operation. Both Claire and Luke are amateur ghost hunters and Luke even has a website detailing the history of the hotel’s history of ghost sightings and hauntings. The hotel’s most prominent ghost legend is the one of Madeline O’Malley. She was abandoned in the hotel by a husband who suddenly decided he didn’t want to be married and ran off. Consumed with grief, Madeline hung herself and the hotel owners buried her body in the basement to avoid scandal. Claire and Luke both hope that sometime during this final weekend they’ll be able to make contact with Madeline’s spirit or record her voice.

The hotel’s few guests are an odd bunch. Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) is a former actress who has given up that career to become a professional medium. She’s in town for a psychics’ convention and despite her abrasive personality seems to be the real deal. Or is she just that good of an actress still? There’s a perpetually pissed off woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) who has left her husband and is apparently intending to dump her anger on poor Claire and Luke with ceaseless demands for more towels. And the oddest of the lot is an old man (George Riddle) who insists that he must stay in a room on the third floor.

Claire and Luke take turns manning the front desk and looking out for ghosts. Both of them believe in ghosts and desperately want to see one. And as my grandfather used to say: God answers all prayers so it’s on us to be very careful about what it is that we pray for.

I really enjoyed how THE INNKEEPERS takes it’s time slowly putting together it’s story. The first half of the movie is mostly Claire and Luke doing their jobs and talking about what they’re going to do when they’re unemployed. Through some really clever dialog and the likeability of the two actors they had me convinced that Claire and Luke are co-workers who have known each for a long time, possibly even grew up on the same street and went to school together. Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy are really good at helping to establish the mood and pace of the movie and in the second half where things start to go wrong I found myself really concerned and worried about what would happen to them.

Kelly McGillis was a real surprise for me as I totally did not recognize her and it wasn’t until I was doing research for this review that I found out who she was. The only movie I’ve ever seen her in was “Witness” and before you ask; no, I have never seen “Top Gun” which is the movie she’s best known for. Just based on her performance in this movie I’d really wish she’d do more work in film. Lena Dunham shows up in an amusing scene as a barista who wants to confide in Claire about her love life. In fact, there’s quite a bit of humor in the first half of the movie which makes it all the more horrifying when the haunting begins as I had really grown to like the happy-go-lucky Claire and Luke by that point.

Like any good ghost story, THE INNKEEPERS leaves the ending open to the individual’s interpretation of the events they have just witnessed. Is the hotel actually haunted or was everything in Claire’s mind? Is Leanne actually psychic? What did she see in the basement? THE INNKEEPERS succeeds enormously at creating suspense and a feeling of dread without ever showing you anything for much of the movie’s running time. It saves it’s real horrors for when they’ll count the most, as any good horror movie should.

So should you see THE INNKEEPERS? If you’re a movie goer who demands buckets of blood and decapitated heads flying at you, or tons of gory CGI effects then I recommend you stay away. This isn’t your movie. And for those of you who demand your movies move at Warp Factor Five with quick cuts every thirty seconds, this isn’t your movie.

But for those of you who don’t mind chewing on your horror slowly, savoring a natural escalation of atmosphere and the ambiguity of wondering if what is happening is real or just the result of overworked imagination, combined with some really fine acting, then yes, see THE INNKEEPERS and enjoy.

Rated R

101 Minutes

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

1979

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Robert Wise

Produced by Gene Roddenberry

Screenplay by Harold Livingston

Based on STAR TREK by Gene Roddenberry

First of all, let me say five things before I begin this review:

#1: I come by my status as a Trekkie honestly. I remember begging my parents to let me stay up Friday nights to watch Star Trek (to be referred from now on as TOS=The Original Series) during its original run. And yes, I am that old. And like most folks during the 70’s and 80’s I stayed up late weeknights here in New York, as Channel 11 faithfully reran TOS Monday to Friday back to back with Honeymooners reruns.

#2: I have seen every episode of TOS as well as STAR TREK: The Next Generation, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, STAR TREK: VOYAGER and  STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE multiple times. Do not even seek to dispute me on this.

#3: My favorite Star Trek is STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. It’s my favorite because like Sean Connery’s James Bond, TOS is so iconic it should be put on a shelf by itself and not compared with the various series that followed.

#4: At a conservative estimate I would say I’ve read in the neighborhood of 100 Star Trek novels.

#5: STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE is the last movie I would give to somebody who knows nothing about Star Trek and wants to understand what it is that their Trekkie friends find so fantastic about Star Trek that they just don’t understand.

I know it’s hard for those of you Star Trek fans today to understand now that you have five Star Trek series, eleven movies and Sarek only knows how many comic book series and mini-series and novelizations and original novels and fan fiction, some of which I myself have written. But for us back in 1979 this is all we had. Word. I wouldn’t lie to you. Is STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE the best Star Trek movie? Absolutely not. That title has to go to “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” which even after 30 years is still the best Star Trek movie made to date. But for those of us who had gone without any new Star Trek on television for 10 years, a feature film version of our beloved TV show was akin to an affirmation that a God did indeed exist. And maybe you don’t think we got the Star Trek movie we deserved back in 1979 but we thought we did and for a lot of us that’s all that matters, even today.

An incredibly powerful alien entity is heading directly toward Earth. It’s already encountered the Klingons and kicked their asses back to Qo’nos without breaking a sweat. The entity calls itself V’ger and says it has one mission: “To learn all that is learnable and transmit that information to The Creator.” V’ger insists that The Creator is on Earth. But nobody on Earth has the intelligence or knowledge to have created something like V’ger. It’s a frighteningly huge bio-organic machine that has actually digitized whole star systems to contain within its cosmic data base to enhance its already universal knowledge. Nobody knows what it’s intentions are once it reaches Earth.

The only starship that can intercept V’ger before it reaches Earth is The Enterprise. Now, right here I could go into a whole 10K word dissertation about how Starfleet must be really low on starships since just about every plot of a Star Trek movie hinges on the Enterprise being the only starship within range of whatever threat is going to destroy Earth but I won’t. Just go with it.

Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) does some back door maneuvering to screw his protégé Captain William Deckard (Stephen Collins) out of command of The Enterprise. Kirk claims his expertise in handling alien intelligences during the five-year mission of The Enterprise qualifies him to deal with V’ger. It also helps that most of his former crew such as Chief of Engineering/ Commander Scott (James Doohan)  Commander Uhura ( Nichelle Nichols) Chief of Security/Operations Chevok (Walter Konig) Nurse and now Dr. Chapel (Majel Barrett) as well as Helmsman Sulu (George Takei) are still assigned to The Enterprise. But still Kirk can’t undertake this mission without his conscience Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and his spare brain Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) Along the way they all grapple with Existential  Issues such as what is the Nature of Existence? and Is This All That I Am, Is There Nothing More? And yeah, they have to figure out how this all relates to V’ger before it destroys Earth.

The whole movie boils down to a battle not between laser blasts and planet-destroying Death Stars but between Ideas. Ideas such as what it means to transcend the concepts of what we are what we can be. On the other hand, it’s a lot of what we watch the folks on the screen we’re watching telling us what the stuff they’re watching means.

To be bluntly honest, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE is the two-hour series finale to TOS that we never got on TV. But I like it a lot. In fact, I love it.  But I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody except long-term Star Trek fans. It is a ponderous movie that needs to have a knowledge of Star Trek history and a reverence for the time honored characters in order to enjoy it. And you’re not going to be able to do that unless you know the characters as well or as better as you know your beloved relatives. If you have any.

When I talk about STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE I tend to talk about moments like when Kirk has to tell Starfleet Command he’s lost two crewmen in a transporter malfunction. Or when Kirk and Scotty share a laugh during the infamous fly-by scene. Or when a crewman slips between a pair of closing doors on his way to do whatever. Or when Dr. McCoy refuses to beam up. Or when after The Enterprise has successfully achieved warp drive Kirk give Chekov a secret wink. Or how amazing Nichelle Nichols looks even that terrible costume. When Dr. McCoy in a crucial moment refers to an Enterprise security officer by name and not his rank.

Bottom line: I like STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. It’s in my Home Movie Library and I watch it regularly. It gave me exactly what I wanted at the time I saw it. Which is to see all these characters I love back again in a brand new adventure in the medium in which I first saw them.

That’s not to say the movie has its flaws. Oh, yeah…it’s slow. It’s slow even by the standards of Star Trek fans. It’s become renowned by its nickname of “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”

Know what? I don’t care. It’s STAR TREK and that’s good enough for me.

132 minutes

Rated G

 

Taken 2

2012

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

It would be difficult for TAKEN 2 to top 2008’s “Taken” and I think it’s a smart move on the part of all concerned that they don’t even try. Let’s take the “Die Hard” movies for an example. Each “Die Hard” is more expensive and bigger than the one before it, coming up with even more fantastic action sequences until we wind up with Bruce Willis outrunning a F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. But TAKEN 2 stays at the same level of the first movie and because it remains at that level we get action scenes that actually seem plausible. Liam Neeson, as in the first one is such a terrific action hero because he actually can act and so projects not only toughness but intelligence as well.

We pick up on Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) back in L.A. helping his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) learn how to drive and comforting his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who is going through changes with her current husband. The husband cancels a family trip to China and Bryan offers to holiday with Lenore and Kim in Istanbul (not Constantinople) after he finishes up a job there. They take him up on his generous offer. Also in Istanbul (not Constantinople) is Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija) the father of one of the men Bryan killed during the events of the first movie. He hasn’t come alone. He’s got a lot of help. A whole lot. And their intention is simple: kidnap Bryan and take him back to their hometown in Albania so that the families of the men he killed can watch him die. It’s a bonus that Kim and Lenore are there as Murad has plans in mind for them as well. Pretty soon it’s Bryan and Lenore who have been taken and have to rely on Kim to rescue them.

Now, don’t worry…Kim doesn’t pick up a pair of guns and start blazing away at the bad guys. But she does play a pivotal part in helping her dad get away from the bad guys in what I thought was a pretty ingenious sequence. And she does get to take part in a car chase that I thought was as funny as it was thrilling since it played out as a screwed up version of an earlier driving lesson Bryan and Kim had before everything went to hell.

And as in the first one, Liam Neeson is solidly at the center. Even though I didn’t enjoy this as much as “Taken” I liked it a lot more than “Unknown.” But you know what? I’d be perfectly happy seeing Liam Neeson doing these European based thrillers for Luc Besson and young hungry directors every two or three years because they’re so dependably entertaining. They’re pulpy action adventures with just enough characterization so that we care about the people on the screen but not so much that it gets in the way of the punchy punchy run run.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The bit with the world’s smallest cell phone had me rolling my eyes and the hyper quick editing during the fight scenes made me groan. Especially since it looked like Liam Neeson was pulling off some pretty good moves there. The two editors on this movie get no points from me.

And as the leader of the Albanian kidnappers Rade Serbedzija isn’t much of a fearsome evil criminal mastermind. It apparently doesn’t matter to him in the least that his son kidnapped and tortured underage girl, hooking them on drugs and selling them to pervy old men. All he cares about is that his son was killed and he wants revenge.

Famke Janssen does solid supporting work here as does Maggie Grace. TAKEN 2 isn’t as surprising or on the same blow-your-mind level as “Taken.” And it doesn’t have a badass speech like the now classic “I don’t know who you are” and you know something? I’m glad the writers didn’t even try. TAKEN 2 is a cheeseburger-and-fries action thriller as professionally efficient in its storytelling as Bryan Mills is at looking for, finding and killing bad guys.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

http://youtu.be/VpaT8NzkLgE

Taken

2008

EuropaCorp/Canal+

Directed by Pierre Morel

Produced by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

We really shouldn’t have been surprised that Liam Neeson emerged in 2008 as an authentic action hero in TAKEN. After all, he’s been playing badasses since 1981’s “Excalibur” where he was Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of The Round Table and you don’t get much more badass than that. But he played other badass characters in movies such as “The Mission” “Next of Kin” “Rob Roy” and “Gangs of New York” He’s been a superhero in 1990’s “Darkman,”  trained Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins,” a Jedi Master in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and put plans together as Hannibal Smith in the movie version of “The A-Team.” So Liam Neeson has earned his badass credentials legitimately. But he’s earned his reputation as an actor in more…shall we say, prestigious roles such as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List” Michael Collins in “Michael Collins” Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey” “Les Miserables” and a number of well-received and well-reviewed arthouse movies.

But I think what surprised all of us is how damned good Liam Neeson is as an action hero. This is a role that Bruce Willis, Jason Statham or Samuel L. Jackson could have done in their sleep. But because Liam Neeson is doing it and treats this role with the same professionalism and talent he brought to one of his more prestigious films he elevates the entire movie. The plot is pure 1980’s action but due to Mr. Neeson’s acting choices to play his character as a man of intelligence whose near obsessive attention to detail is just as much the key to him staying alive as his lethal set of destructive talents, TAKEN gets bumped up a number of considerable notches. In its own way it’s as remarkable an action movie as the first “Die Hard” “Lethal Weapon” “The Transporter” or the movie with which it shares a somewhat similar plot: “Commando”

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA’s Special Operations Group so that he can rebuild his relationship with his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) after having missed so many years away from home protecting his country. It’s not easy when Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) plainly would prefer it if he stays away. And Bryan can’t compete on a monetary level since Lenore’s new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley) is obscenely wealthy. All Bryan has to offer is his time but he’s not going to be able to give her that as Kim wants go to Paris for the summer with her BFF Amanda. Supposedly the girls are going on a cultural tour of French museums but actually they’re going to be following U2 on their European tour.

Well, we all know what happens to good Caucasian American girls who don’t do what their parents say and go to foreign countries looking to drink and party and fool around with foreign boys, don’t we? They get kidnapped, of course. In the case of Kim and Amanda they’re taken by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Bryan hears the kidnapping while talking to Kim on her phone which is picked up by one of the kidnappers. Bryan tries to negotiate with the man in which Liam Neeson delivers what has to be one of The Top Ten Best Bad Ass Speeches in movie history. The man isn’t impressed and that sets up the rest of the movie which has Bryan go to Paris and with the single-minded relentlessness of a Terminator T-800 proceeds to do exactly what he told the kidnappers he was going to do: he looks for them. He finds them. And he kills them.

TAKEN became one of the surprise hits of 2008 as word-of-mouth spread and the movie got great reviews. And it’s all well deserved. I love thrillers like this that are set in Europe as the exotic, unfamiliar locations give added weight to the movie. I dunno, it’s just me but I take thrillers and spy movies more seriously when they’re set in Europe. Maybe I just like the locations. But that, along with the solid performances from all concerned adds up to one of the most exciting and entertaining action movies I’ve seen in recent years. TAKEN is an excellent example of a movie that takes something we’ve seen plenty of times in other action movies but makes it seem fresh, as if we’re seeing it for the first time and again, most of that credit goes to Liam Neeson. He’s not playing an invincible superman who walks through tons of disposable bodies to achieve his goals. We see as he methodically and ruthlessly works his way up the human trafficking food chain like the professional he is. And I really like the way he moves in the fight scenes. Neeson is no Jason Statham and wisely doesn’t try to be. I liked the effective and powerful economy of movement in his punches and blocks. It’s rare in action movies that we get heroes as smart with their heads as they are deadly with their hands and that’s the thing that makes Bryan Mills stand out.

So should you see TAKEN? What, are you kidding me? Chances are you’ve seen it already but if you haven’t then your homework assignment is to do so at your earliest opportunity. TAKEN deserves a permanent place in your home action movie library.

96 minutes

Rated PG-13

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

1968

Image Ten

Directed by George A. Romero

Produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner

Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo

It’s not given to many men or women in the entertainment field to say that they created a genre and even George A. Romero himself would resist being labeled as such. He freely admits in interviews that he “ripped-off” Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in his creation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Me, I think he’s way too hard on himself. Sure, he may have used Mr. Matheson’s brilliant horror/science fiction concept as the springboard for his own now classic horror masterpiece.  But I believe that Mr. Romero brought enough of his own ideas to this interpretation of Mr. Matheson’s book that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD does indeed qualify as a brilliant work of cinematic art in its own right. And besides all that, it’s simply a damn good movie whose main desire is to keep us on the edge of our seats, biting our nails for 96 minutes and it succeeds.

And besides, considering the hordes of zombie movies that came after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, many of them true rip-offs, remakes, imitators, reworkings, parodies and the like, if Romero feels any guilt about ripping-off Matheson, then being ripped-off in return must soothe his conscience. Even video games such as  House of The Dead and Dead Rising owe their creation to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

It’s the day when Daylight Savings Time goes into effect when we meet sister and brother Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) who are visiting their father’s grave in a rural region of Pennsylvania. It’s in the graveyard that we get the now famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” scene as Johnny teases her in that truly annoying way brothers tease their sisters. Having two sisters myself I am quite familiar with this technique. Barbra is creeped out by a strangely behaving man coming towards them and doesn’t think that Johnny’s “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” is very funny and pretty soon Johnny doesn’t think it’s funny either as the man attacks them both.

Barbra gets away and with the zombie in pursuit manages to find refuge in a farmhouse. Also taking refuge in the farmhouse is Ben (Duane Jones) who has to take charge of the situation as the shock of her experience is catching up to Barbra. They soon find they’re not alone. Hiding in the basement is the married couple Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman) who barely escaped from a gang of zombies that overturned their car. Their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) has been unconscious ever since she was bitten by a zombie. Teenage sweethearts Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley)likewise sought safety in the farmhouse after hearing an emergency broadcast.

Harry and Ben immediately start doing the alpha male dance, each insisting their plan for survival is best. Harry wants to stay down in the basement and keep quiet. Ben’s plan is to turn on every light in the house, make as much noise as he can boarding up the windows and doors and playing the radio as loudly as possible. Remember this because I’ll come back to it soon.

While the radio reports that all over the United States the dead are coming back to life and eating the living, the small group attempts to survive the night against the growing number of zombies attacking the lonely farmhouse. That’s if they don’t kill each other due to their constant bickering and inability to work together.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD always gets praised for having as its hero a black man. And as Ben, Duane Jones is certainly heroic looking and heroic sounding. He takes charge. He’s resourceful and courageous. He offers hope to the others that they will survive the night. He makes plans. Unfortunately those plans also get everybody killed. Next time you watch the movie, watch it a little more carefully. Each and every thing that Ben does ends up getting somebody killed. Ironically, Ben survives the attack of the zombies by doing what Harry said right from the start: go in the basement and be quiet. Ben’s turning on all the lights and making all that noise is what draws all the zombies to the farmhouse in the first place. Makes me wonder if the statement the movie is making about having a black man as the hero isn’t the one that everybody praises it for.

But that’s a conversation for another time. Taken as pure entertainment, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD still holds up for me. It’s filmed in a documentary-like manner that should be studied by those filmmakers who are so in love with shaky-cam. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a perfect example of how to make your audience feel like they’re in the middle of the action without giving them motion sickness. Supposedly the cast improvised much of their dialog and I believe it. There’s a real heat in the scenes between Harry and Ben as they’re struggling for control of the farmhouse’s resources and the group. For me, a lot of what makes this movie still effective is that nobody looks or acts like a movie star. For better or for worse they act like regular people caught up in a really terrifying predicament.

So should you see NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? Without a doubt. It’s one of the greatest and most influential horror movies ever made. You’ve probably seen one of the two remakes (1990 and 2006) or the six sequels that were made. If not, it’s a sure bet you’ve seen one of the many zombie movies influenced by the original. Somewhere in your personal movie watching history you’ve seen a zombie movie, I’m sure. So why not take a look at the classic that started it all?

96 minutes

Better In The Dark #138

 

 

Episode 138: AND SOON MAY THE HEADER MAN SKIN? (Special Guest Des Reddick)

It’s time for one of the highlights of the BiTD calender year, The Obscure Horror Episode, where Tom and Derrick once more team up with Dread Media’s own Des Reddick to pick a bunch of horror films you may not have heard of! From the bleak coming of (twisted) age story The Reflecting Skin to the disquieting snuff mockumentary S&Man to not one but two iterations of the atmospheric psychological thriller And Soon The Darkness, the Guys Outta Brooklyn–and Vancouver–serves up an hour and a half of conversation and movie recommendations for your Halloween festivals. Plus the debut of Clemens’ Peelers and the new film rating Ebola! There are too many pretty parts, so get to clicking!

BETTER IN THE DARK
Two Guys Outta Brooklyn Talk Movies
DJ COMICS CAVALCADE
Silver Age Comics Through Modern Eyes
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Nocturne, The City That Lives By Night….needs a darker shade of protector
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The Shining

1980

Warner Bros.

Directed and Produced by Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson

Based on the novel “The Shining” by Stephen King

Hard as it to believe nowadays when THE SHINING is considered to be a horror masterpiece and one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films that it really wasn’t all that well received when it had its original theatrical run. Don’t get me wrong, it made its money back and in fact did quite well at the box office. But Stephen King said that Stanley Kubrick had taken all the bite out of his story, deliberately downplaying the supernatural elements of the book and the theme of family disintegration caused by alcoholism that were so important and central to the book King wrote. Some critics said the movie’s pace was too slow. Others said that Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall were too eccentric and quirky as actors for the roles of Jack and Wendy Torrance. And African-Americans groups called for a boycott of the movie seeing as how the only character to be killed onscreen is Dick Hallorann, played wonderfully by Scatman Crothers.

But over the years THE SHINING has been re-watched, discussed, debated and has emerged a winner.  I don’t think it’s far off the mark for me to say that it’s become to Halloween what “It’s A Wonderful Life” is to Christmas. And whenever lists of The Scariest Movies Of All Time are made, THE SHINING definitely is in the top ten and quite often in the top five.

Mind you, we’re talking about a movie that has no CGI monsters, no gore and no graphically gratuitous violence. But it’s a movie that has been consistently described as downright terrifying. It’s also sparked an immense amount of speculation as to what it’s really about. Don’t believe me? Just for one example check out Rob Ager’s insanely in-depth analysis of THE SHINING. Just make sure you eat something and go to bathroom before you do so. You’ll be awhile reading that sucker, trust me.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, an isolated mountain resort located in Colorado. Jack hopes that the isolation of being stuck in the hotel for the winter will help him reconnect with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) his five year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and help him battle his alcoholism which has led to physical abuse of his son and emotional abuse of his wife.

Danny possesses psychic abilities and is able to see visions of the past and future. It is through these terrifying visions that Danny knows that The Overlook Hotel is haunted. This is confirmed when during a tour of the hotel,  Danny meets Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) who has powerful psychic powers of his own. Dick calls it “The Shining” and informs Danny that he’s going to see things in the hotel but that they can’t hurt him. Boy, did he call that one wrong.

In the novel version it’s made clear by Stephen King that The Overlook Hotel has achieved some kind of malevolent sentience and lusts after Danny’s power to enhance its own. The Overlook uses Jack to get to his son but in the movie version, it’s clearly Jack that the hotel wants. Danny’s just an afterthought. This gives the movie a whole new slant since it’s not long after the Torrance family arrives at The Overlook that Jack promptly goes crazy.

And it’s here where I can understand the grumbles over Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrance since the guy looks kinda wacky even before The Overlook starts playing mindgames with him. Even though he’s supposed to be the caretaker we never see him doing any of the maintenance work he’s supposed to be doing. It’s Wendy who does all of that while Jack is having conversations with a ghostly bartender (Joe Turkel) and long talks in the men’s room with the ghost of the hotel’s previous caretaker, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) who chopped up his wife and two daughters with a fire ax then stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head to pieces.

But let’s face it, you want to get somebody to play crazy in your movie, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s you get Jack Nicholson. Nobody could play crazy so convincingly and yet be so entertaining. There are moments in THE SHINING that are horrifying yet hilarious and Jack Nicholson is firmly at the center of those scenes. Shelley Duvall really doesn’t have much to do but be terrified by her husband for most of the movie and then by The Overlook itself at the conclusion but she gets to have what is without a doubt for me the most blood-freezing moment of the movie when she discovers what her husband has been writing all day long, every day for weeks.

Scatman Crothers has a really nice scene with Danny Lloyd where they talk about their shared ability but let’s be real, in this movie Dick Hallorann’s only purpose is to provide an escape vehicle for Wendy and Danny at the movie’s end.

But outside of Jack Nicholson’s performance, nobody ever really talks about the acting in THE SHINING, good as it is. No, people talk about images that now have become iconic horror classics: the elevator doors that slowly open to release a tidal wave of blood into a hotel corridor. Danny riding his Big Wheel through the hotel. The half-open door of Room 237. Jack sticking his face in the hole he’s just chopped in a locked door and squealing with manic delight, “Here’s Johnny!” Danny running through the hedge maze in the middle of a snowstorm trying to escape his deranged father who is chasing him with a bloody axe. The man in the bear costume. Danny with a huge knife in his hand, writing ‘Redrum’ on a door. The Grady twins who invite Danny to come play with them. The photograph of the 1921 July 4th Overlook Ball.

I love haunted house stories and I consider both the book and movie versions of THE SHINING to be right up there with the best of haunted house stories. It couldn’t have a better pedigree than to be directed by Stanley Kubrick who is the last person I would have picked to direct THE SHINING but damn if he didn’t do an excellent job. No, it’s not the book. There’s a tremendous amount of material that Kubrick and his co-screenplay writer stripped away but I didn’t mind. THE SHINING is one of those odd movie adaptations where even though most of the subplots and character exposition is gone, the core of what makes the story work is still there.

So should you see THE SHINING? Chances are you’ve seen it already. I don’t think I know anybody who hasn’t seen it at least once. But if by some chance you haven’t then you’ve picked the best time of the year to catch up. Trust me on this, THE SHINING is a movie that truly deserves its reputation as a horror masterpiece.

142 minutes

Rated R

 

Looper

2012

Film District/TriStar Pictures

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson

Produced by Ram Bergman and James D. Stern

It wasn’t until I got back home and was able to look up information on LOOPER that I realized that the director of this movie also wrote and directed “Brick.” Now that really threw me for a loop (sorry, couldn’t resist) because I loved “Brick” and thought it highly original and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen while watching it. But in the case of LOOPER I kept thinking of other movies such as “The Terminator” and “The Fury”and looking at my watch wondering when it was going to be over with.

Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper in the year 2044. His job is a simple and extremely lucrative one. In the year 2074 time travel has been invented and then promptly outlawed. Organized crime bosses get hold of the technology and use it to send people they want killed back in time to 2044 where a Looper waits to dispose of them. The job comes with one hell of a retirement clause. When a Looper’s time is up in 2074 he’s sent back in time to be killed by his younger self in 2044.

This is the dilemma that faces Joe when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time. But Old Joe manages to escape being killed at the hands of his younger self. He explains to Young Joe that in 2074 there’s a criminal mastermind called The Rainmaker who is closing all Looper contracts. Old Joe sent himself back in time and intends to find The Rainmaker who in 2044 is a ten year old child. Old Joe intends to kill him, thereby changing the future and preventing the murder of Old Joe’s wife.  Young Joe really doesn’t care. He’s happy with his life the way it is and as long as Old Joe is still alive he’s on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) who himself is from future and manages the Loopers. Abe has his elite crew of enforcers, The Gat Men who are hunting both Young and Old Joe.

Thanks to a piece of a map he manages to get from Old Joe, Joe has the location of one of Old Joe’s targets, a boy named Cid (Pierce Gagnon) who lives on a farm with his mother Sara (Emily Blunt.) Sara isn’t inclined to let Joe stay at all but he’s able to persuade her that they need his protection. Turns out that they may all need protection from Cid who possesses incredibly powerful telekinetic powers that enable him to strip flesh from bone with just a thought.  Will Cid’s power tip the scales in Joe’s favor when it comes time for the showdown between Old Joe and Young Joe? And can Cid’s power protect him from Old Joe who is convinced he will grow up to become The Rainmaker?

LOOPER has gotten wonderful reviews and I can’t help but think that maybe it’s me that’s got it wrong as plenty of reviewers see something in the movie that simply escapes me. The movie takes itself far too seriously for my taste. It sets up a wonderful situation but takes it into a dour and dark direction that I really didn’t like. I was looking forward to a lot more between Old and Young Joe and didn’t get it. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have a surprisingly short amount of screen time together.

And maybe it’s just me but it seemed to me that certainly there must be more efficient ways of killing people and disposing of their bodies than sending them back in time. I also didn’t like how the movie abruptly changes gears halfway through and almost becomes a brand new movie with all new characters by the time we get to the farmhouse. Then we have to be dragged back to the movie that we started watching forty-five minutes ago so that everything can be rushed to the conclusion. It’s not even exhilarating to see Bruce Willis mowing down hoards of Gat Men with a pair of machine guns as you would think it would be. And that’s because I got the impression that somebody just up and thought there should be a scene of Bruce Willis with machine guns in each hand because it’s expected. And don’t get me started on the ‘romance’ between Joe and Sara which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

As does the whole subplot of Cid having telekinetic abilities. Early on in the movie we’re told that due to some random mutation, 10% of the population has telekinetic powers. Most people can barely lift a quarter or a Zippo lighter but Cid can destroy whole houses if he gets pissed off enough.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt I’m willing to give a pass on this one because I’ve enjoyed their work so much in past movies. But I’m still disappointed in both of their performances. The wonderfully named Piper Perabo is wasted in her miniscule role as Young Joe’s showgirl girlfriend. Pierce Gagnan is actually quite good as Cid and he’s got a really nice scene with Gordon-Levitt where he explains his family background while tinkering with electronic gizmos he’s built himself. What little humor there is in the movie comes from Jeff Daniels. He kept me chuckling with his sly hints to people on a course of action that they should take and when they question him on why they should do that, he sighs wearily and says, “I’m from the future, remember?”

So should you see LOOPER? I’m going to give it a grudging recommendation. It could just be that I was looking for a different type of movie and didn’t get it which accounts for my disappointment. I will say that this isn’t simply an action movie in sci-fi drag so if you are in the mood for a serious piece of science fiction in your current movie diet then LOOPER may be just your main course.

118 minutes

Rated R