ZEROVILLE (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this age of comic book movies and remakes, creative and artistic filmmakers are to be commended for sticking to their vision, no matter how cloudy. James Franco has put together a most unusual career as both actor and director. Here he takes on both in this adaptation of Steve Erickson’s novel, with a screenplay by Paul Felten and Ian Olds. It’s a movie seemingly made for movie nerds, but this particular movie nerd, while enjoying some of the homages, mostly found this to be too messy to recommend.

James Franco plays Vikar, a socially inept loner with a shaved head and permanent scowl. On that head is a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from A PLACE IN THE SUN, the first movie the sheltered Vikar ever saw (11 months ago), and the one that initiated his obsession with movies. Vikar finagles his way into the industry – first as a set builder, and then under the tutelage of veteran film editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver) – reaching award winning status as a filmmaker. Along the way, the character of Vikar recalls Chauncey Gardner in BEING THERE. Is he a genius, or so simple-minded that his thoughts are accepted as brilliant?

It’s 1969, and in an early scene, Vikar is interrogated by police regarding the murder of Sharon Tate. This is our first indication that fact and fiction will be blended here to make whatever points the film is trying to make. Vikar befriends Viking Man on the set of LOVE STORY, and we soon realize John Ford wannabe Viking Man (played by Seth Rogen) is a stand-in for John Milius … a Hollywood legend worthy of his own film. The two new friends attend a beach house party where a group of up-and-coming filmmakers are brainstorming in the living room. Represented are Steven Spielberg, spit-balling a shark movie; George Lucas, yammering about robots; and a young Scorsese and Coppola.

Vikar is soon attracted to and dreaming of a beautiful actress named Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox). This shift of gears to romance from industry commentary does the film no favors. The film is at its best when Vikar is navigating the waters of a Hollywood in transition, including an old school power producer played by Will Ferrell. One of his scenes has him singing “Lum-de-lum-de-lai” in an odd show of power as he attempts to win the girl. Others making an appearance include Danny McBride, Dave Franco, and Craig Robinson – as a burglar who educates Vikar on the nuances of SUNSET BOULEVARD, Erich Von Stroheim, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Joey King has a key role as Soledad’s daughter Zazi, and she even sings on stage.

There are so many nods to Hollywood, that the film plays more like an experimental art project or trivia game than an actual story. The famed Roosevelt Hotel is featured, as is Frances Ford Coppola’s (played by Horatio Sanz) out-of-control film set of APOCALYPSE NOW. A quite colorful description of John Wayne is offered up, and the silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC takes center stage. We even get Iggy Pop and The Stooges at CBGB, and the first song we hear is “It’s My Life” by Eric Burdon and The Animals.

A key note here is that this was filmed in 2014, and has been caught up in a quagmire of bankrupt distributors ever since. That could explain the questionable flow and editing, but we can assume the wild camera angles were all part of Franco’s plan. It really plays like an experimental film and it covers a few years, though we are never really sure how many. The twist at the end is pretty easy to predict, and unfortunately, it leaves us wondering where an obsession with cinema is likely to lead us.

watch the trailer:


STONEWALL (2015)

September 24, 2015

stonewall Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatized versions of real life events are always a bit tricky, and hindsight often proves it’s best left to the documentary format. However, sometimes, a dramatized version helps us more easily relate to, and empathize with, those who were involved. That seems to be the approach taken by director Roland Emmerich in his re-telling of events so important to him and the LGBT movement … the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are often cited as the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. Of course, there had been many previous clashes between gays and police, as discrimination was so extreme that these folks were labeled as mentally ill, and it was actually unlawful for gays to be hired for many jobs. On the streets of many big cities there existed a melting pot of minorities and the LGBT community. Many were young and homeless, and did whatever necessary to survive. So how best to tell this story?  Director Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz put blonde, white, Midwestern, pretty boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) front and center.  How insulting to those involved.

To his credit, Emmerich does cast actors of various races in many roles, and he does seem to treat this as a sincere tribute or homage to those street kids who finally pushed back. Unfortunately, it’s these characters that seem to be the drag on the story. Despite such names as Queen Cong, Little Orphan Annie, Quiet Paul, and the inclusion of real life activists as Marsha P Johnson (Otoja Abit), Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) … and other key players like Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) and Deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) … the film comes off more like a staged musical sans music. Street life here is more gloss than grit, and the closest thing to a developed character is Ray, played with aplomb by Jonny Beauchamp (“Penny Dreadful”).

Having the Columbia University-bound pretty white boy as the focus might make it easier for mainstream audiences to connect, but it skims over the real struggles going on at the time. We see Danny at home with his worried mother, observant little sister (Joey King), and macho football coach/father (David Gubitt). Everyone is uncomfortable over what is not being said, and the breaking point occurs when a tryst with the star quarterback becomes public knowledge. Just like that, Danny is booted from home (Indiana, not Kansas) and lands on the streets of New York. The comparisons to Dorothy (gay icon Judy Garland) and the Land of Oz are obvious, and repeated numerous times for those a bit slow on the take.

Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn are the main settings. The mob involvement is noted, as is the desperation of the community, the use of flop houses, and the long-standing “quiet” demonstrations. Even the practice of gays trying to “fit in” to society – to prove they belong – by wearing suits and acting “normal” is addressed. The riots are reduced to a single evening in the movie, and of course, the pretty white boy gets to heave the first brick. As a ‘roots of the movement’ film, it’s hard to believe this film won’t create more anger and frustration than thanks and awareness. Fortunately, there are many exceptional books and yes, documentaries that provide a better perspective on the events that occurred more than 45 years ago. We do see the first Gay Liberation Parade held the following year in honor of the riots – a tradition that continues today. The closing credit sequence catches us up on the key activists, and even provides a startling statistic: 40% of today’s homeless youth are LGBT.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE CONJURING (2013)

July 22, 2013

conjuring Greetings again from the darkness. The overdose and saturation of reality TV the past decade has resulted in at least a couple of Ghost Hunter type shows. Surely you have stumbled on at least one of these. Director James Wan kicks off this latest haunted house adventure with the all-too-familiar “Based on a True Story” and then proceeds to fill the next couple of hours with scene after scene of horror film staples … things we have jumped at many times over the years. However, this one is bumped up a notch thanks to atmosphere, direction and acting ability, and the fact that yes, the ghost hunters are/were REAL.
The Perron family has moved to the country for a “fresh start” and here is what we learn:

1. If the family dog won’t enter the new house, then neither should you or your kids. It’s time to move out. How many dogs aren’t dog-wagging thrilled to follow the kids right in through the front door?

2. If all the clocks (electric and wind-up) stop at exactly the same time, it’s time to move out.

3. If you stumble on a boarded up cellar/basement, just leave it boarded up … and it’s time to move out.

4. If multiple birds fly full speed into your house, breaking their necks, it’s time to move out.

5. If your daughter discovers an antique toy that she carries around while talking to her new imaginary friend … it’s time to move out.  If she brings her “old” imaginary friend with her to the new house … see The Shining.

6. If, over two consecutive evenings, your sleepwalking daughter bangs her head into the armoire left by the previous owners, it’s time to move out.

7. Having 5 daughters seems to make parenting exceptionally difficult, but this in itself is no reason to move out of the house.

8. Playing blindfolded ‘Hide and Clap’ is not an appropriate game when you live in a 3 level home. This is no reason to move out, just find a game that doesn’t require a blindfold … or an Ouija board.

9. If you ever have to call demonologists to your home, don’t get defensive about not being a religious family. Just move out of the house.

conjuring3 Director Wan gives us tastes of the haunted house/possession Big 3: The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. It’s not at the level of these, but it’s certainly better than most horror films of the past two decades … at least we don’t get any stupid teenagers wandering through the woods. In fact, this one plays right off our natural tendency to feel safe and secure while surrounded by our family within the confines of our own home. The biggest scares come from the moments we are most relaxed.

It’s Rated R for being frightening.  There are no spinning heads or pea soup, and the gore factor is exceptionally low considering Mr. Wan directed Saw, the film that kicked off torture-fest movie genre. The acting here is really good for a horror film. Patrick conjuring4Wilson also starred in Wan’s Insidious, and here he plays Ed Warren. With his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the Warrens are well known ghostbusters, ghost hunters, demonologists, or whatever label you care to apply. We learn about their most famous case regarding Annaelle the creepy as heck doll, and we also see how they save a trophy from each of their cases … and store it in their home (a seemingly dumb move). Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are also strong in their roles as the Perron parents. Another thing I liked was that the kids seem like real kids … especially the recognizable Joey King and MacKenzie Foy.

conjuring2 Horror and Comedy are both at the mercy of personal taste.  What makes you laugh and what makes you jump is probably different from others, so these two genres are difficult to recommend.  Still, it takes talent to direct a horror movie and not really introduce any new “gotcha’s”, while still keeping the viewers grabbing the armrests. So enjoy the jumps, cover your eyes, and keep in mind … if your dog won’t enter your new house, it’s time to move out!

**NOTE: an interesting side note … Ryan Gosling co-wrote the song that plays over the closing credits

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your favorite horror films are the haunted house types

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have 5 daughters and think moving to the country is a good idea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejMMn0t58Lc


WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

June 30, 2013

WHD1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Roland Emmerich loves destroying buildings. In Godzilla, he crushed Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty was trashed in The Day After Tomorrow. Independence Day saw The White House explode, and, as you would expect by the title, The White House gets pretty banged up again in his latest. We have come to expect summertime big, slightly dumb, action-packed popcorn movies, and this one certainly fits the bill (emphasis on dumb).

Relased just 3 months after Olympus Has Fallen, the plot is similar, but the approach is diametrically opposite. Emmerich seems to think he gets a free pass thanks to a steady stream of punchlines … spread amongst most every character. Hey, it’s a parody of action films so if you don’t like it, you must not “get it”. Unfortunately, we do get it and it’s just not that funny … the action is weak … the CGI appears shortcut … and the characters ring hollow. Through it’s numerous similarities and tips of the cap, Emmerich seems to beg us to compare it to the class of this genre … Die Hard (1988). WHD2We’ve all seen Die Hard, and sir, this is no Die Hard.

Channing Tatum takes on the lead action role, though he is working with a safety net … the buddy picture element supplied by Jamie Foxx. Unfortunately Tatum has neither the acting chops or the screen presence to pull off the lead, and Foxx’s President Sawyer is simply a poorly conceived character. Tatum’s daughter is played by Joey King, who was so good in Crazy Stupid Love.  Here she plays the role of smarter-than-adults kid and is clearly designed to be the patriotic heart of the film.

For these type of films to work, we need a nasty bad guy. James Woods is fun to watch as he chews scenery as the Secret Service Director. He holds one of the numerous personal grudges against the government and the faceless “Military WHD3Industrial Complex”. Woods’ number one guy on the assault team is Jason Clarke, who was last seen in a key role in Zero Dark Thirty (no coincidence, I’m sure). The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much wasted, including a miscast Maggie Gylenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and the always fun Michael Murphy (where has he been?).

There is nothing wrong with pure escapism, but rather than compare this to the classic 1988 Die Hard, it really has more in common with this year’s mediocre A Good Day to Die Hard. If you prefer your White House terrorist attack movies to be serious and full out action, then Olympus Has Fallen is the better call. Instead, if your preference is strained one-liners, an awkward buddy-film and hazy bad guy motivation, then White House Down might do it for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: three months is the maximum amount of time you can go without a new attack on the White House action flick OR you just need some pure escapism with a stream of punchlines during what should be a high-tension event

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action flicks to focus on action and not slapstick comedy OR you are already convinced Channing Tatum is less talented than Jason Statham despite his appearance in most movies these days (admitted exaggeration)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AXbiCdmXgw


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog