June 30, 2013


Starring Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Billy Curtis. Directed by Jack Arnold. (1957, 81 min).

I’ve been around cats my entire life. Growing up, there were always at least two living with us at any given time. We once had as many as five, mainly because my sister kept bringing them home, and we went through at least two bags of kitty litter a week (I know, because guess whose job it was to clean the goddamn box?).

Cats regularly moved in and out of our lives…some died of old age, some were given away because they kept spraying, a few simply decided to leave because they didn't care for the accommodations. And one met an unfortunate end in our washing machine when the dumb little beast climbed inside the second before Mom tossed in a load. It wasn’t until well-into the wash cycle that Mom noticed the thump-thump-thump erupting from the laundry room, a sound you don’t normally associate with a load of underwear. But lost cats would always be replaced by new cats, the same way one replaces a light bulb when the old one burns out.

I carried on the same tradition after I moved out on my own and got married. With the exception of a few short months in my mid-20s when I was living in a college dorm, there’s always been a cat in my house. They’ve come and gone fairly regularly, though our current two, Josey and Stinky, hold the record for the longest tenure in our household of any previous cat (10 years and counting). But I’ve never consciously ventured out to acquire a cat. They simply ended up living with us, often because, like my little sister years ago, my daughters brought them home.

Few people actually buy a cat. Unlike dogs, which require a significant financial investment and personal attention, people give cats away as casually as dumping off clothes at Goodwill. And because cats are the easily the most low-maintenance creatures ever to walk the Earth (show it the litter box once and…BOOM…instantly house-broken), it’s easy to see why lazy people like me are so willing to take them in, and why potential hoarders can amass dozens of them. Not only that, you can leave them alone for days as long as their bowl is full. On paper, they are the ultimate house pet.

But cats have a dark side, which is maybe why so many people profess to hate them. They are moody and unafraid to let you know when they’re mad (sometimes by pissing on something). Unlike dogs, your cat will never return the same level of love you give. Sure, they may like you, but you can’t mistake that affection for love or loyalty. If you were suddenly rendered homeless and forced to stand at a freeway on-ramp for handouts, your dumb dog will faithfully stay by your side…your cat will take off faster than a trophy wife whose Sugar Daddy just went bankrupt.

Then there’s the more disturbing part of their personalities…the fact that, even though they are domesticated housepets, cats have retained many of the same instincts as their much-larger counterparts in the wild. Since you provide all their nutritional needs, this means when they go outside to hunt, they are doing it for the sheer thrill of the kill.

I once owned a cat named Pony, who used to bring animals home and leave select pieces of them on the porch (always the head, along with an occasional tiny pile of entrails). Ask any cat lover and they’ll joyously claim your pet is simply showing their love for you with a gift. I’ve also read conflicting theories which claim cats bring home dead shit because they think you are too stupid to feed yourself. Whatever the motive, the fact Pony repeatedly chose to leave only the head was as disturbing as learning your quiet neighbor is a serial killer.

Dogs don’t have a dark side. Dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves 24/7. They are blindly loyal, even if you're the biggest dickhead to ever walk the planet. If you ever wanted to know what it was like being one of The Beatles, simply get yourself a few dozen dogs, spend a few days paying attention to them, then leave the house for a few hours. Upon your return, you’ll know exactly what Paul McCartney endured at the height of Beatlemania. One of the reasons I love my dog so much is because, in his eyes, I’m a rock star.

I love my cats too, but I’m realistic about our relationship. I know I’m not the most important thing in their lives…they are. To them, I’m not-so-much a companion as a commodity. If someone were to break into my house and attack my family, I’m sure my dog would defend us to the death. My cats would scamper to safety because we aren’t worth dying for. I don’t hold this against them. It’s just how they’re wired. Most of us are wired the same way. If you were being carjacked at gunpoint, would you risk your very life to defend your vehicle (even if you valued it above everything else you owned), or would you step aside and let them have it in order to breathe another day?

"I came here to eat cat nip and kick ass...
and I'm all out of cat nip!"
A cat’s loyalty has its limits, especially when it comes to giving-in to the animal side we’ve mostly bred out of dogs. The instinct to bury their shit, save their own ass or kill anything small is simply part of their DNA and can't be overwritten. If I suddenly woke up three inches tall, I’m positive one of my cats would forego any feelings of affection and see me as a plaything to be taunted, batted around and slowly killed for their own amusement. Like the hapless rodents unfortunate enough to venture onto our property, I can imagine my bloody carcass, appendages twisted in impossible directions, lying dead on the patio while Josey or Stinky lazed nearby, purring contently after another sporting kill. Sure, they liked me once, but wasn’t my agonizing death a shitload of fun?

This is why 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man is arguably the most realistic depiction of the common housecat ever presented in cinema. Movie history is rife with iconic cats. There’s Art Carney’s loving companion in Harry and Tonto, and Blofeld’s symbol of pure evil in early Bond films, not to mention the douchebag cat in Alien, who idly watches as the title creature rips-apart a crew member who was trying to save his fuzzy ass. And once you throw out every unrealistic Disney depiction of our furry friends, you’re left with one film which presents a cat simply acting like a cat.

The Incredible Shrinking Man was the first movie I remember scaring the hell out of me, mainly for the scene where our hero battles a spider. Spiders are scary because…well, they’re spiders. Bugs never bothered me, but even today, add two legs & body hair and I’m ready to crap myself. As a child, watching this scene one Saturday afternoon on my parents’ black and white bedroom TV was nothing less than nightmare fuel.

Anyone watching the movie today, even with the dated special effects, will still find a lot to love, which is probably why it was named to the National Film Registry in 2009 as being “culturally, historically and aesthetically” significant. Even now, it’s an incredibly smart and introspective movie with a script by Richard Matheson (RIP), adapted from his own story. Considering it’s over fifty years old and hailing from a genre that was never monumentally respected, The Incredible Shrinking Man is an under-appreciated sci-fi gem.

But what no one seems to mention in their praise is the film’s incredibly accurate depiction of cats. After all, the main character (Grant Williams) is forced to face-off with same animal he once scratched behind the ears. Sure, the cat is suddenly a villain, but only because he’s behaving like all cats do when confronting a smaller & weaker creature.

It makes me wonder which would be worse, death by an arrant arachnid or death by a cute critter with whom I once shared my pillow.

Okay...spiders would probably still be worse...because they're fucking spiders.

Watching the movie today, I find myself wondering if my own cats, Josey or Stinky, would so-cruelly toy with me if I were suddenly that small, even though I’m the sole reason they have food & shelter. I’m sad to say the answer is yes. Sure, they like me, but they’d probably like me more (and for different reasons) if I were a fraction of their size.

June 27, 2013

MAMA and an Unexpected Bit of Symmetry

Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikoaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Carpenter, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash. Directed by Andy Muschietti. (2013, 100 min).

As I’ve documented numerous times, my youngest daughter, Lucy, is my little Friday night horror buddy. We’ve been watching all kinds of scarefests since she was about 7, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife. Even though Lucy is now nine years old and fairly seasoned in many sorts of cinematic mayhem, Francie still expresses occasional concern over what we watch, and usually insists I preview anything I plan on subjecting our child to in advance. I comply most of the time, but usually only if said-movie is R-rated. That policy has occasionally come back to bite me in the ass, since a movie’s rating generally has little to do with how scary it is, especially to a kid. I brought home Insidious one time and, though the movie is bloodless and sex-free, it scared the living shit out of Lucy. While that movie resulted in me spending several nights on the living room sofa because she wanted to sleep with Mom, Lucy loved Insidious and is now fully-expecting me to take her to the theater to see the sequel this fall.

Anyway, about once a week I venture down the road to a tiny store that sells used video games and movies. Sometimes I find good discs really cheap. One of those was Mama, which Lucy was actually more excited about than the movie I brought back especially for her, Brave (after watching it myself, I can kind-of understand. It’s good, but doesn’t hold a candle to Pixar’s greatest films).

Lucy had seen the trailers for Mama on TV a few months before and really wanted to check it out. So did I. Did I expect something as terrifying as The Exorcist or The Descent (the last movie to truly scare me)? No, but since Mama was getting decent reviews above and beyond the typical horror fare that’s usually dumped into theaters in January, my interest was piqued. Still, catching horror films during their theatrical runs is a dicey endeavor, so it wasn’t worth the risk (there’s nothing worse than paying 12 bucks each for a horror movie that isn’t scary). But for an eight dollar Blu-Ray…why not?

Once again, Francie was concerned that we were gonna watch it sight-unseen. I assured her I’d shut it off if it started freaking Lucy out the way Insidious did. Lucy even promised she’d sleep in her own bed afterwards, no matter what.

"Ahhhh! Homework!"
Mama surprised both of us. We were expecting the usual jump-scares and ominous signs & symbols which come with modern supernatural fare. And indeed, this tale of a psychotic spirit who saves two abandoned toddlers from starvation, then becomes murderously overprotective once they are rescued and brought back to civilization five years later, serves up all the usual horror trappings. We didn’t expect the melancholy tone permeating the entire film. Yeah, the ‘Mama’ character is scary, but we also kinda sympathize with her, as well as the two misguided children she’s trying to ‘nurture.’

The film comes to an inevitable-but-sad conclusion (which I won‘t reveal) that ultimately raises Mama above the fray, and when I looked over at Lucy, tears were running down her little cheeks. The movie has more than its share of jolts, but packs an unexpected emotional wallop at the end, which Lucy found harder to deal with than the scares. I wasn’t prepared for watching the first movie which truly made my daughter cry.

I remember the first movie that made me cry. It was called Silent Running, a sci-fi film about a lone conservationist (Bruce Dern) onboard a spaceship housing what’s left of the world’s wildlife. Only he understood the enormity of his moral task, forced to kill his shipmates in order to save what could not be replaced, with only the help of a few robots (two of whom develop such endearing personalities that their fates are heartbreaking). His last suicidal act of conservation made me feel the same way Lucy did at the end of Mama…logical, yet hard-to-handle without bursting into tears.

Here’s the really weird part…while Lucy and I were watching Mama, there’s a scene where the main character, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), is lying in bed watching a movie. That movie is none other than Silent Running. I don’t claim to know the filmmakers' agenda in choosing this particular title (other than it’s also a Universal Picture), but it does seem like more than a coincidence they’d choose a tearjerker disguised as sci-fi to be featured in a tearjerker disguised as horror. Whatever the case may be, the fact that the first film to make Lucy cry features the first movie to make Dad cry has an interesting bit of symmetry.

The next day, Lucy went to her mom to reassure her that Mama was rated PG-13 because of, and I quote, “ultimate sadness.”

June 24, 2013

MAN OF STEEL: Better Than NyQuil

Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe. Directed by Zack Synder. (2013, 143 min).

Hands down, Man of Steel is the most disappointing movie I've seen in a theater in years. I had extremely high expectations for this one, which I usually try never to do. I don't even get my hopes this lofty for Quentin Tarantino movies, because while he's the only director left who's never let me down, odds are he'll eventually pump out a turkey.

I couldn't help it this time. Lately, superhero movies have mostly been sure bets when it comes to opening my wallet. Plus, Man of Steel is directed by Zack Snyder, whose Dawn of the Dead remake was better than it ever had the right to be, and his 300 was the greatest guilty pleasure of 2007. Snyder always seems to have great respect for the source material of his movies. Then when you throw in Christopher Nolan (credited as producer and co-story creator), not to mention an absolutely awesome teaser trailer, how could I not get my hopes up? Hell, even my cynical older daughter wanted to check it out (mainly because she thinks Nolan's Batman films are the be-all-end-all of superhero action). Surely this was gonna be the Superman movie.

It isn't, and what makes this ultimately disappointing is Man of Steel isn't a bad movie. But I felt something amiss within the first twenty minutes, when we witness the destruction of Krypton and Jor-El's decision to send his only son to Earth. We've seen this before in the 1978 film, but while the special effects in that one seem quaint today, I was still moved by the emotional weight of Jor-El's resignation that everyone on Krypton was doomed and his son would be the sole survivor. This time I felt nothing, even though what I was watching was supposed to knock my socks off. It was all CGI spectacle, similar to the expensive-but-boring Necromonger invasion in The Chronicles of Riddick.

But hey, lots of great films begin inauspiciously (Revenge of the Sith, for instance), so I still kept my hopes up. And indeed, for yet-another origin story, Man of Steel starts off okay, with Clark attempting to keep a low profile, based on the advice of his adopting father, Pa Kent (Kevin Costner, in his best performance in years). While I do not agree with the decision to present these important father-son scenes as flashbacks, they are the best ones in the entire film.

Then once Clark throws on the cape and Zod shows up to wreak havoc on the world, I kinda checked-out. I know because there were a couple of occasions when I actually nodded off, only to be jarred back to life by my daughter or wife, both incredulous I could drift off during the spectacle we were witnessing.

Let me tell you something...I’ve watched many movies during my life under of variety of physical conditions (including being too stoned, drunk or sleep-deprived to know what was going on), but I can count on two fingers the number of movies which actually made my eyelids too heavy to keep open. The other one was Jurassic Park III.

Zod bowls a perfect game.

Why? Because, I’m sad to say, both Jurassic Park III & Man of Steel are boring...for the same exact reasons. Neither of them are terrible, but they come across as checklists of everything we’ve come to expect from their perspective genres, without a single surprise, plot-twist or curveball. However, what makes Man of Steel even worse is, unlike Jurassic Park III, which I knew would be more of the same, this was supposed to be an in-depth look into the psyche of Clark Kent/Superman, a film more concerned with his personality, his internal conflicts and the consequences of his actions (like Nolan’s Batman series).

While we do get a taste of that, the movie ultimately degenerates into a third act reminiscent of a Transformers movie...a shitload of urban destruction augmented by CGI effects which are so over-the-top that they suck out any perception of reality, not to mention it's like watching someone else play a video game, only you never get a turn. At least in the Christopher Reeve movies, we felt like we were watching flesh & blood people fighting it out. Personally, CGI ceased making my jaw drop after Lord of the Rings...piling on more doesn't make everything better. On a related note, considering the amount of damage inflicted on Metropolis, the death toll would realistically be in the millions, something a classic Superman would never allow to happen. Yeah, yeah, I know...this is a brooding Superman for the 21st Century and all that...but that doesn't mean he should suddenly become The Dark Knight.

Worse yet, although the overall performances are great, I didn't really care about any of these characters. At least The Avengers gave us interesting characters before lighting the CGI fireworks. Even Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has nothing important to do or say. She seems like an afterthought, shoehorned in simply because the character is iconic, not because she’s important to the story. Amy Adams may be the Care Bear-cutest movie star in the world, but I think introducing her character in a second film would have been better.

I might be nitpicking. After all, this is a rebooted Superman for a new generation, and maybe this is exactly what people wanted. My wife loved the film. In fact, she seemed a bit concerned over my blah assessment when we walked out of the theater. Because she had to nudge me awake once, she claimed I slept through the whole thing. That’s not true. Sure, I nodded off a few times because Man of Steel is ultimately a road already well-traveled.

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it's my fault for assuming Man of Steel would be something more than it turned out to be. Maybe I'll like it better the second time around, without the high-expectation baggage and hidden box of Goobers I brought into the theater. Or maybe it'll someday join that small selection of movies on my office shelf - which includes Dune, Jurassic Park III and every Pirates of the Caribbean sequel - the ones I pull out late at night when I can't fall asleep and don't have any NyQuil in the house.

June 20, 2013

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the MAD Renaissance

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. (1971, 137 min).

For many of us boys coming-of-age during the mid-seventies, traditional comic books were considered kids’ stuff, so as we hit our early teens, MAD Magazine became sort of a rite of passage into young adulthood. While never as cutting-edge or vicious as National Lampoon, it was just subversive enough that when we grabbed the latest issue off the shelf and threw it into Mom’s shopping cart, part of us felt like we were getting away with something. MAD was more than just a comic book. It was sometimes racy, threw in the occasional mild expletive and simply seemed more adult. Though good-natured and essentially harmless, MAD was a baby step into a more grown-up world. It was also our first introduction to the concept of satire, ridiculing trends, TV, movies, people, pop culture and politics.

As adolescents, we didn't always "get" what they were poking fun at, but that was part of its appeal. MAD was a kids' magazine that never felt like a kids' magazine. Each issue was bookended by satires of popular movies and TV shows of the time, even if said-movies were often those which the average teen reader would not likely be allowed to see. My first introduction to such classics as Death Wish, The Godfather and The French Connection was through MAD Magazine. As an avid monthly reader from age 12 to maybe 17, I sometimes judged the overall importance of a film based on whether or not it was satirized by the artists and writers of MAD.

One such film was A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's scathing satire of the state of England at the time, presented as a dystopian view of its future. No parent in their right mind would ever allow their kids to see such a controversial film, but there it was in MAD Magazine, parodied in a 1973 issue as "A Crockwork Lemon" for those same kids to enjoy. I'd be willing to bet 90% of younger readers had never even heard of the movie, but what always made MAD's satires so cool was prior knowledge of a movie wasn't a prerequisite...they were still funny as hell (at least to a 12 year old)...

...maybe even a bit educational, too. MAD skewered the self-important cynicism of A Clockwork Orange, that its gratuitous mayhem, sex and immorality was gift-wrapped in pretentious social commentary, metaphor and symbolism (MAD would later give the same treatment to Rollerball, another violent spectacle oozing with self-importance). It was through MAD Magazine that I first learned some movies were trying to accomplish more than simply telling a story.

When I finally did see A Clockwork Orange (I think I was 16 or 17), I found myself looking for the imagery and symbolism MAD originally ridiculed, which made the movie more interesting. Despite the film's notorious reputation at the time (it was originally X-rated and banned in a lot of places), it was a bit pretentious and "arty" for a teenager weaned on a steady diet of Alien and Star Wars. If I didn't have the MAD satire as a frame of reference, I doubt I'd have seen it through to the end. It wasn't until much later that I grew to appreciate A Clockwork Orange for the psychotic masterpiece it really is. In my opinion, it is Stanley Kubrick's second greatest film (Dr. Strangelove will always be my personal favorite).

It's a polarizing movie even today, in my own house, no less. My wife considers it pornography and absolutely hates its deceptively misogynistic, light-hearted depiction of rape and degradation of women, which is a totally valid opinion (as I get older, I admit those scenes are tough to sit through). A Clockwork Orange is the only movie she ever seemed upset that I liked. Just the other day, when I found a Blu-Ray copy in a Best Buy budget bin for eight bucks, my wife rolled her eyes and quipped, “You’re buying that movie again?” (though I never actually bought the movie until then...I previously had a VHS copy recorded off of HBO).

A Clockwork Orange has aged fairly well considering its post-mod, pre-punk look. It’s still just as brutal, just as polarizing (any movie which still provokes love-it or hate-it debates forty years later can never be entirely dismissed).

It wish I could say the same for MAD Magazine. It’s still around today, but a shadow of its former self and not nearly as subversive as it was during its golden age, when its circulation was in the millions. It’s published irregularly now, and most of those wonderful writers and artists from the 70s who made it so great are now retired or dead, replaced by less-subtle folks who appear content to dumb-it-down for what’s left of its tween crowd. MAD is no longer the rite of passage to used to be, no longer that first step into a larger world for impressionable young boys, most of whom are now more enamored with their XBox than the black and white pages which so-amused their dads on a monthly basis.

It’ll be a sad day indeed when MAD is gone for good.

June 18, 2013

New Disc Review: 21 & OVER (Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy)

Starring Miles Teller, Skylar Astin, Justin Chon, Sarah Wright, Francois Chau. Directed by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. (2013, 93 min).
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Is your idea of a good time watching three idiots drink enough to booze kill the world's largest mammals? Does the thought of watching one of those guys jump onto a bar and pee all over other customers sound totally awesome? Have you ever wanted to see someone vomit in slow motion? Are your favorite characters in movies totally selfish douchebags? Do you automatically giggle at the sight of boobies? Or a sorority of Latin lesbians? Or grown men walking naked in public with gym socks covering their Johnsons?

Then 21 & Over is the movie you've been waiting for. Maybe someone will buy it for your fifteenth birthday. As for the rest of you, you're better off watching The Hangover again...or even The Hangover Part II.

Long-time buddies Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) surprise their close friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chan) at his college residence on his 21st birthday. They plan to take him out to get completely hammered, but the problem is Jeff Chang has an important appointment the next morning (arranged by his domineering dad) that'll have a huge impact on his future. He can't afford to get knock-down drunk. Miller and Casey promise they'll simply go out for a few drinks and bring him home at decent hour so he'll be ready for tomorrow. Of course, that doesn't happen. During a montage of barhopping Jeff Chang (which is how he's addressed throughout the film as a running gag, though I'm not sure how that's funny) ends up so shitfaced he passes out. The problem is neither Miller or Casey remember where he lives, and the rest of the story involves these two trying to get him back home and ready for his appointment, running into all sorts of obstacles along the way, where hilarity is supposed to ensue.

Three guys having a lot more fun than you'll
have watching them.
The premise isn't all that original, but there's still the potential for a lot of laughs, which we'd understandably expect since this is the directorial debut of Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, who wrote The Hangover. While 21 & Over is very similar in structure, it's seldom funny at all. The Hangover surprised a lot of people...a raunchy comedy that was clever, funny, had likeable characters and an ingenious plot. But 21 & Over is raunchy, explicit and crude simply for the sake of being raunchy, explicit and crude. And even that's OK if we like the characters, but Miller (the movie's ringleader) is an obnoxious, self-centered asshole who treats his friends like shit.

To make things worse, 21 & Over has the nerve to turn serious on occasion, with a needless romantic subplot and some epiphanies by the main characters. At this point, that's like Bluto from Animal House pausing mid-film to ponder whether or not he's drinking too much.

But even with those 'serious' moments shoehorned in, it's almost as though Lucas & Moore went out of their way to appeal to ninth grade boys, and assumed all they needed was an abundance of drunk dudes and dick jokes. Hell, maybe they're right...I can imagine a lot of teenage boys enjoying this (laughing uncontrollably at the site of Jeff Chang drunkenly eating a tampon). But for the rest of us who grew up on classics like Animal House, There's Something About Mary and The Hangover (even Jackass)...we know raunchy doesn't necessarily mean stupid.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Featurettes: Tower of Power, Levels of Intoxication; Gag Reel; Theatrical Trailer.

(Out of 5)

June 17, 2013

New Disc Review: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy)

Starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Culiya Snigir, Cole Hauser. Directed by John Moore. (2013, 97 min).
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

First of all, there will never be another Die Hard. What Star Wars is to sci-fi, Die Hard is to the action genre. It'll never be topped, and the sooner we can all get over it, the better off we'll be.

Now that the dust has settled, after every hand-wringing critic, internet troll and vengeful fanboy has had their say, maybe we can look at A Good Day to Die Hard a bit more objectively and realize the main thing wrong with this film...it has Die Hard in the title. Had it been called anything else, and Bruce Willis' character given a different name, I'm convinced it would not be such a critical pariah.

But once you stick Die Hard in the title, you automatically raise audience expectations to unreasonable levels. Of course this film doesn't hold a candle to the original, but since no other action film released since 1988 has either, did we really expect it to? Yeah, it's Die Hard in name only, but so were the previous two installments, yet neither Die Hard with a Vengeance nor Live Free or Die Hard have incurred the same level of wrath as this one. Really, the only sequel in the whole franchise that even attempts to replicate the same formula as the original is Die Hard 2, which is arguably the most contrived. But what saved it from universal ridicule was it featured most of the original cast, another villain with an insanely-elaborate plan, and John McClane was still a vulnerable everyman, not an indestructible killing machine.

"My gun's bigger."

All those elements are gone now, and even though I'm a huge fan of the entire franchise (yes, I even loved Live Free or Die Hard), I'll be the first to admit the Die Hard moniker is used here for brand-name recognition. As a sequel, this is the worst of the franchise. It has the weakest plot, the least-intriguing villain and the lamest dialogue. However, if one is able to look at it as something outside the franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard is no worse than anything else passing itself off as action these days. There are some big-ass set-pieces, including an early chase through Moscow which is so massively destructive that everything else seems anti-climactic. Sure, much of the action is ridiculous, but no more than what we see in The Fast and the Furious franchise, which ironically gets increasing praise. The performances are serviceable, and Willis does what he does best, which is essentially be Bruce Willis. As such, he's just as effective as he was in films like 16 Blocks and Striking Distance.

A lot of people are making A Good Day to Die Hard sound like the Jaws: The Revenge of the 21st Century, which isn't really fair. Jaws: The Revenge is a bad movie by any standard. This installment is simply a big & loud action film on par with everything else out there. There's nothing distinctive about it, which is a huge comedown from the iconic original. However, for a cynically-produced product, there are far worse movies extending their franchises well-beyond their expiration date. It's just too damned bad they stuck Die Hard in the title.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Featurettes: The New Face of Evil, Two of a Kind, Back in Action, Anatomy of a Car Chase, VFX Sequences; storyboards; animatics; theatrical trailers; concept art; deleted scenes; Audio commentary (extended cut only); Making it Hard to Die (documentary)

(Out of 5)

June 15, 2013

FALLING DOWN: A Missed Opportunity

Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Rachel Ticotin, Barbara Hershey, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest. Directed by Joel Schumacher. (1993, 113 min).

Most of us are shocked when someone suddenly snaps and goes ballistic in public. We're outwardly stunned because we're more-or-less normal. When we see someone venting their rage in public, we stop and gawk at the spectacle, mainly because we don't see this shit every day. We pass judgment on them without knowing what triggered their tirade in the first place. But the thing is, unless that individual is already as crazy as a shithouse rat, something has to ignite such rage...and it's almost always other people.

I think people are generally good-hearted by-nature. I don't believe too many of them are going out of their way to be assholes. But I do believe most are often clueless to how even their smallest actions affect those around them. They don't consider others waiting in the check-out line behind them as they pull out an overstuffed envelope of coupons. They never worry about the driver they just cut off without signaling because they're busy texting. When they do a half-assed job at work, they seldom stop to think of who has to pick up the slack.

Why? Because we don't take time to inform people when they’re being jerks. Most of us bottle-up our disapproval, stewing in silence as these self-centered douches inadvertently make life more difficult (if even for a moment). But that doesn't mean we never entertain the thought of grabbing Coupon Lady's envelope and hurling it across the store, or owning a car armed with machine-gun turrets to take out the cell-phone shitstain driving 10 miles under the speed limit. I can’t count how many times I’ve wished my car was equipped with a giant spatula which could slide under the idiot ahead and flip his car into oblivion behind me. While I do not condone road rage, I sure as hell understand it. 

Michael Douglas confronts the inidividual who gave him this haircut.
But confrontation, especially with strangers, is hard. Sure, convenience stores need to know charging a buck to use a credit card is a fucked-up policy, but most of us bite the bullet and grudgingly comply, because all making a scene would accomplish is making us look like even bigger assholes than those we're pissed at. Besides, it's probably not the clerk's fault anyway. We're so conditioned to suffer in silence that when we go to McDonald's, even though we know damn well our Quarter Pounder won't look even remotely like the picture on the menu, most of us will accept what we're handed...probably because we aren't clutching an Uzi while we order.

But wouldn't it be great to give-in to our Id on occasion, to be brave enough to say or do something extreme at just the right moment which makes those around us cheer? Hell yeah, it would, which is what I thought Falling Down would be, the ultimate revenge fantasy for everyone lacking the balls to call bullshit on the people who seemingly exist just to make life harder. Trailers made it look like a black comedy, a disreputable guilty pleasure where we root for William "D-Fens" Foster (Michael Douglas), a disgruntled everyman who's simply had enough and is willing to do something about it, sometimes violently. For those of us too inhibited to act on our impulses, yet supremely frustrated by the world around us, who wouldn't love a movie like this? I remember thinking Falling Down just had to be the singular voice of my overall dissatisfaction with my life at the time.

But Falling Down is not the cathartic, audience-rousing guilty pleasure it should have been. Sure, there are some terrific moments of dark humor, such as the fast food scene were D-Fens uses an Uzi to get his order right. But most of these confrontations are defused by the filmmakers' desire to make us aware D-Fens is already psychologically unstable, not the disgruntled everyman acting on behalf of the masses. Even though his actions are something we've all entertained at one point or another, we're ultimately made to feel guilty for having such thoughts because that would mean we’re as maladjusted as D-Fens.

A perfect example is an early scene where D-Fens confronts a Korean convenience store owner over the prices of his inventory, using a baseball bat to trash the place. That alone would have been a terrifically cathartic release for the audience. After all, who hasn't gone into 7-Eleven and balked at the price of a soda? Instead, D-Fens verbally rips into him for being an ungrateful Korean, rendering his legitimate argument moot because it's now a racist tirade. This single scene made Falling Down controversial at the time, but for all the wrong reasons. A movie like this should be controversial for its supposed solution to society's ills, not a simple-minded portrayal of a particular race.

Despite its amusing moments, Falling Down is ultimately a simple tragedy of one man's descent into madness, which is too bad. Anyone whose job has become obsolete may initially identify with him, but the more we learn about D-Fens, the less rousing his actions are. He's watching the world pass him by and is powerless to do anything about it, but the fact he's crazy from the get-go defuses any true message the movie may have had on the subject. In the long run, his violent rebellion ends up being disturbing.

If D-Fens was initially portrayed as sane, Falling Down could have been the most effectively-nihilistic film of the 90s, an infinitely-quotable cult flick with a truly potent message underlying the fun. Instead, it’s just another guy going crazy. It's still a great movie, easily the best a hack like Joel Schumacher ever attached his name to, just not the one we were expecting in 1993. A shame, really,  because with a bit of tweaking, Falling Down could have been a movie we'd still be talking about to this day.

June 13, 2013

New Disc Review: THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet)

Starring Ashley Bell, Julia Gerner, Spencer Treat Clark, Muse Watson, Louis Herthum. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. (2013, 89 min).

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Turns out the previous exorcism wasn't the last one after all, which is probably to be expected, since the original raked in a ton of cash on a miniscule budget. I don't think too many people were pining for a sequel, but oxymoronic title notwithstanding, The Last Exorcism Part II is a better film than it had a right to be.

Ashley Bell returns as Nell, living in a wayward teen shelter while she recovers from her possession & exorcism. She has no memory of what happened at first, but soon bizarre things once again start happening...horrific dreams, hallucinations of her dead father, masked strangers watching from afar. Pretty soon, he finds she cannot entirely trust all of her new acquaintances either, some of whom are in league with the cult from the first film.

It turns out that nasty ol' demon, Abalam, still has the hots for Nell and hasn't been entirely exorcised from her body. A strange little group called the Order of the Right come to her aid, ominously informing her Abalam is trying to seduce her, because she must willingly give herself to him. If that happens, it will bring about the end of the world.

Constipation sucks.
This is standard horror stuff. For the most part, director/co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly seems comfortable earning his paycheck by feeding undemanding fans (most of whom were not even born when The Exorcist came out) the usual menu of possession cliches (levitation, inexplicable bleeding, cryptic markings, etc.). But The Last Exorcism Part II does have some things going for it which are worth checking out. First, Ashley Bell is once-again outstanding in the lead role. She reminds me of Sissy Spacek in Carrie, vulnerable yet menacing. Second, after a rather slow start, the film picks up steam during the third act, culminating in an exciting climax and wickedly-amusing  resolution.

But most importantly, unlike the original Last Exorcism, this one is not presented as found footage, a truly-obnoxious gimmick which became cliche roughly ten minutes after every light-in-the-wallet wannabe filmmaker saw The Blair Witch Project. This change might bother some fans of the first film, but I appreciated the attempt at doing something different with the material, even if the results still aren't all that original.

As a sequel no one really asked for, The Last Exorcism Part II isn't bad at all. It doesn't offer a lot of surprises, isn't really all that scary and sure as hell won't make anyone forget The Exorcist, but it certainly didn't deserve the critical lambasting it got during its theatrical release.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Ed Gass-Donnelly and producer Eli Roth; Featurettes: Shooting in New Orleans, Hair Salon Scare (which is kind of funny), Nell's Story.

(Out of 5)

New Disc Review: 6 SOULS [aka SHELTER] (Blu-Ray)

Starring Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Conroy, Nathan Corddy, Brooklynn Proulx. Directed by Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein. (2010, 112 min).

Anchor Bay Entertainment

This supernatural horror film is cut from the same cloth as The Ring and similar Japanese-inspired ghost stories, but with middling results. Part of the reason is this once-intriguing subgenre has probably run its course and 6 Souls is too little, too late, offering nothing we haven't seen before. Had this film been made ten years ago, it may have seemed a little more fresh.

However, a horror film doesn't necessarily need to be original to be effective, if done with a lot of flair (Insidious is a great example). This is where 6 Souls really fails. It isn't badly made or anything, but there's nothing distinctive about it, either.

Julianne Moore plays Cara Harding, a criminal psychologist who's become hardened and cynical since the murder of her husband. When her father, Jeffrey DeMunn, introduces her to a schizophrenic new patient, Adam (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), she initially balks at any idea of multiple-personality disorder. But Adam isn't actually nuts...the alternate personalities he assumes are the souls of selected people who have died horribly over the course of decades. Upon further investigation, Cara learns about the victims and their history, leading her to a small mystical cult whose origins go back to the early 20th Century, and whose actions may have triggered the inexplicable events she's witnessing now, some of which threaten her own family. Ultimately, it turns out Adam is something much worse then she ever imagined.

Kicked in the balls.

The film is atmospheric and the performances are good (especially Moore and Rhys Meyers), two elements which certainly hold our interest. But the story itself is little more than a checklist of genre conventions (ambiguous symbolism, personal threat to the protagonist's family, occasional jump-scares, etc) with an unsatisfying climax and resolution which results in a feeling of "So what?". Then there's the one gigantic plot hole I was unable to get over...If Adam is indeed this dangerous, and everyone in the movie knows it, why is he continuously able to wander wherever he wants?

Ultimately, 6 Souls is the kind of film that might appeal to fans of supernatural horror, but one they'll likely forget about soon after. It isn't awful (it probably would have been more fun if it was). It's just nothing special. Other films have covered the same ground, only better.

(Out of 5)

June 9, 2013

PORKY'S: A Gauge of Intelligence

Starring Dan Monahan, Mark Herrier, Wyatt Knight, Roger Wilson, Kim Cattrall, Alex Karras, Susan Clark. Directed by Bob Clark. (1982, 94 min).

Porky's is a leering, voyeuristic and utterly stupid sex comedy that was hugely popular during my senior year of high school. I didn‘t see it on its opening weekend, but I remember sitting in class near fellow students (all guys), sporting shit-eating grins, stupidly snickering as they talked about how awesome it was. They made it sound like the funniest movie since Animal House, a film I still consider the greatest comedy ever made, so I was intrigued enough to check it out the following weekend. However, I made the mistake of bringing a date.

Although it could never have existed without Animal House, Porky’s is not even in the same league. Sure, Animal House is raunchy, but also witty, clever, satiric and loaded with infinitely-quotable dialogue. Porky’s is simply crude and misogynistic, appealing to the dumbest boobs in the audience who think anything related to genitals is inherently funny. I was embarrassed for both me & my date, and truly could not fathom why everyone I knew thought it was so amusing.

Well, not everyone I knew. It was mostly the football jocks (the biggest collective of douchebags at any school), and I can still envision the entire offensive line of our team sitting in the front row, all wearing their letterman jackets, cackling uncontrollably and high-fiving each other after every tit and dick joke thrown at them. Porky’s was not a date movie...it was the teenage equivalent of bachelor party porn, something to watch with your buddies while shot-gunning beers.

Of course, nobody should be judged on their personal tastes in entertainment, but sometimes I can’t help it. I enjoy the occasional dumbass flick as well, but one difference is I like those movies because they're shitty and would never confuse them for great films. Today, whenever someone seriously argues the merits of a piece of celluloid shit like Eddie Murphy's Norbit, my first urge is to shove a DVD copy of 48Hrs up their ass.

Porky’s was the first movie which made me question other people’s taste and intelligence. I immediately tended to assume any classmate who loved it might be an idiot.
Like a lot of movies from the 1980s, Porky’s has not aged well. It’s even stupider now than it was three decades ago, so I’d be willing to bet anyone who still enjoys it are either former jocks whose high school years were the best of their lives, or is someone whose cranial development ceased at age 17 (or, most likely, both).

June 8, 2013

New Disc Review: KILLING LINCOLN (Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet)

Starring Billy Campbell, Jesse Johnson; Narrated by Tom Hanks. Directed by Adrian Moat. (2013, 96 min).

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Since it's based on a book co-authored by Bill O'Reilly, one might be tempted to view Killing Lincoln with a fair amount of skepticism. He's not in the same league as right-wing loonies like Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck, but as FOX News' defacto ringleader, his blow-hard onscreen antics will have some folks laughing at the very idea he'd consider himself an expert on the Lincoln assassination. But although I've never read his books, after watching this film, I suspect that O’Reilly the author and O’Reilly the TV personality (I hesitate to call him a journalist) are two different people. I don’t know (or care) how accurate the details presented in Killing Lincoln are, but it is a compelling story nonetheless.

Narrated by Tom Hanks, Killing Lincoln uses dramatic re-enactments to chronicle the events before and after the assassination, moving back and forth between Lincoln (Billy Campbell) and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson). Much of it plays like the final act of Oliver Stone’s JFK, only with far less unsubstantiated speculation on the director’s part. Taken at face value, this unfolding conspiracy is intriguing, and even though the ultimate outcome is common knowledge, the film manages to build a fair amount of suspense. Tom Hank's onscreen narrative adds weight and authority to the proceedings, so while we're watching, we seldom wonder whether or not the details presented are accurate.

John Wilkes Booth?
The re-enactment scenes are very well done, and with one notable exception, so are the performances. The only issue I have is the film's tendency to paint its two primary characters in one dimensional strokes. Although Killing Lincoln does an admirable job presenting the politics and motives behind this conspiracy, Lincoln is depicted as nothing less than saintly, virtually every word from his mouth sounding like something etched on a memorial statue. Booth is the polar opposite, coming across like a demented James Bond villain basking in how deliciously evil he is. Johnson's performance is sometimes so over-the-top that we almost expect him to cackle and wring his hands like Snidely Whiplash.

That aside, Killing Lincoln is a consistently interesting depiction of the events surrounding the assassination. Bill O'Reilly detractors should not be dissuaded from checking it out. Regardless of what you think of the man, in print or on television, this is fascinating stuff.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with executive producer/screenwriter Erik Jendresen; Interview with Bill O'Reilly; Uncovering the Truth: The Making of Killing Lincoln; Promotional Features: Becoming Booth, Becoming Lincoln, Playing Mary Todd, Directing a New Lincoln Story.

(Out of 5)

June 5, 2013


Starring the voices of Michael Villar, Ryan McGivern, Lee Perkins, Maria Olsen, Marshal Hilton. Directed by Justin Paul Ritter. (2012, 88 min).

This CG animated horror/fantasy is adapted from a comic book by Dynamite Publishing. I know almost nothing about the comic, but as a film, The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse is a real hit-or-miss affair. It begins promisingly, but becomes increasingly disjointed, confusing and repetitive.

The concept is actually pretty cool…a corpse with a conscience, a trait which comes out after he kills his wife and daughter during a zombie outbreak, ends up sparing his remaining son, Taylor. After the attack, Taylor is sent to a boarding school, while The Living Corpse (he’s never named) ends up in some kind of gothic underworld, where’s he’s given guidance and advice from Asteroth, a fallen angel, and a cheerfully-repulsive critter named Worthless Merk (the closest thing we get to comic relief). This place has many doors leading back up to the real world, and The Living Corpse uses them to try and save his son.

Lindsay Lohan in five years
At this point, however, the film starts to turn schizoid. Monstrous new characters are introduced with nearly no explanation, as are several out-of-the-blue plot developments (mostly involving the increasingly loony Dr. Brainchild). The story begins to jump all over the place, and I felt like a lot of what I was watching probably made a lot more sense within the context of the comic. Here, it looks like writer/director Justin Paul Ritter was content to touch on the highlights and leave it to the comic’s fans to fill in the blanks.

The CG animation, which mostly resembles a video game, runs hot & cold and takes some getting used to. The various creatures are imaginatively rendered, but the human characters are robotic & bland, like those from a Barbie video. The action scenes are often impressive (it’s fun watching Living Corpse kick ass), though the fighting becomes a tad repetitive after awhile.

The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse isn’t a bad film, but fans of the comic are likely to get more out of it than someone coming in cold. Contrary to its R rating (and its brain-munching protagonist), the violence and language are fairly tame for the genre, though the film is definitely not family viewing.

 (OUT OF 5)

June 3, 2013

Top 10 Meaningless Movie Titles

1. RESERVOIR DOGS - Quentin Tarantino himself has said the title is meaningless. He just thought it sounded cool. And it does.

2. THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN - In the original film (as well as Return of the Pink Panther), the Pink Panther is the name a precious diamond stolen by a jewel thief. The plot of this installment has Clouseau's superior, Dreyfus, going insane and threatening the world if Clouseau isn't assassinated. The title is simply a brand name at this point, but it is one of the funniest films in the series.

Mark Wahlberg must have taken a wrong turn
at Albuquerque.
3. THE ITALIAN JOB (remake) - Unlike the original, aside from the opening scene, the entire film takes place in Los Angeles.

4. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS - Great movie, stupid title, making it sound like an intergalactic Joseph Conrad novel. Since the subtitle, Into Darkness, has nothing to do with the story, one might understandably assume it's related to the film's tone. But that would be wrong, too, since this is the most rollicking film in the franchise since The Wrath of Khan (and verrrrry similar).

5. THE NEVER-ENDING STORY - It ended, didn't it?

"I could sure use Harry's wand right about now."
6. SORCERER - This remake of The Wages of Fear is about a group of desperate lowlifes accepting a suicide mission to deliver unstable explosives through the South American jungle in hopes of a big payday. The movie's misleading title is taken from one of the battered old trucks they use, its name glimpsed onscreen for a second or two.

7. I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER - The original film took place a year after a group of teenagers covered up a death they were responsible for. This idiotic sequel takes place a year after that, meaning the correct title should have been I Know What You Did Two Summers Ago.

8. THE LAST EXORCISM 2 - I guess the exorcism in the last film wasn't the last. Maybe that one should have been titled The Exorcism. This one could be called The Second Exorcism. The next one could be called The Third Exorcism, saving the 'last' moniker for the inevitable straight-to-DVD 'final chapter.'

"Wait a sec...I've never been to China!"
9. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (remake) - The original 1962 film had American POWs being brainwashed into becoming assassins by communists in Manchuria, China. The soldiers in the 2004 remake are captured during Persian Gulf war, and their isn't a single Asian to be seen.

10. LAKE PLACID - The lake featured in this movie is not the real Lake Placid, and one of the characters even tells us so.

June 2, 2013

New Disc Review: PHANTOM (Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet)

Starring Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech. Directed by Todd Robinson. (2013, 97 min).

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

I love submarine movies, maybe because such vessels are inherently scary to me. Of all the ways to die in service of one's country, perishing onboard a tin can under hundreds of feet of ocean seems like the most horrible. Even a near-hit by an enemy torpedo means you're pretty-much toast. You're trapped in extremely close quarters with almost zero chance of being rescued; if the hull pressure doesn't crush you like a grape, then the lack of breathable air eventually will. It's that lingering air of oppressive doom which makes submarine thrillers intriguing. That awful feeling is what I liked about Phantom, an unjustly-ignored movie which deserves a second look on Blu-Ray.

Storywise, Phantom is sort of a cross between The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide (two of the best submarine thrillers in recent memory). Ed Harris plays a disgraced Soviet captain who's offered one last command before being forced to retire, to take an aging sub out to test a new device (dubbed Phantom) which makes the vessel appear to enemy sonar as a harmless fishing boat. In charge of this new weapon is an obsessive KGB agent (David Duchovny), who may or may not be acting under orders as he uses Phantom to try and start a war between the U.S. and China. This leads to some suspenseful conflict as the two fight for control of the sub.

"I'm gonna ask this more more time...who the hell stole all my Pokemon cards?"

While Phantom is not in the same league as Red October or Crimson Tide, one thing it does better than any film since Das Boot is make submarine life look truly shitty. This isn't a glamorous 'Hollywood' sub with shiny chrome and plenty of room for the camera crew. We really feel like we're stuck deep underwater in claustrophobically-cramped confines.

Overall, the cast is impressive, especially Harris (as usual), who effectively conveys the quiet desperation of his character. The story itself is intriguing enough to maintain interest, though I do take some issue with the ending, even though the prologue renders it inevitable. How writer/director Todd Robinson chooses to cap things off seems anti-climactic and out-of-place in a movie like this.

Still, Phantom deserves a bigger audience than it got in theaters (it came-and-went in the blink of an eye). This moderately-budgeted film won't make anyone forget such classics as Run Silent Run Deep, Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October, but it's a tidy little thriller in its own right, definitely worth checking out on home video.

(OUT OF 5)