Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes In Peace

I'm a lucky guy. It's not often that you get to meet your role models. It's not often that they turn out to be just as incredible as you imagined them to be. It's not often that they lived long enough to work for four decades, changing the genre you live and breathe irrevocably three distinct times in three separate decades.

Wes Craven was all that and more. He was a visionary, a teacher, a kind, generous, funny man. And he passed away this week at the ripe old age of 76. His loss is a devastating blow to the horror community, and to cinema at large. Without him, postmodernism would never have found its way to the silver screen. Without him, New Line Cinema  - the company that made Lord of the Rings - would be just another footnote in the annals of of failed distribution companies. Without him, 80's horror cinema would never have found its brain. 

And without him, I would absolutely not be the person that I am today. Scream was the film that ignited my passion for the genre that I work in, and I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wes Craven, a debt which I repaid only a meager sliver of with my heartbroken obituary on Arrow in the Head. If you like, please feel free to explore my previous reviews and articles about the man who shaped my work and try to remember him any way you can. Through the good films and the bad, his world, his creativity, and his genius mean the world to me and I hope my massive, still growing oeuvre of admiration can speak that to you more than these simple paragraphs can.

Word Count: 340

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Two Buck Chuck

Year: 1990
Director: John Lafia
Cast: Alex Vincent, Christine Elise, Jenny Agutter
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Horror sequels get a bad rap. They may be tawdry, craven, or eccentric, but that’s hardly a reason to love them any less. And out of the crop of sequels in a franchise (there’s almost always a franchise, if the first film earned a dime – sometimes even if it didn’t), part twos tend to be the most interesting. A part two is the horror sequel in its purest, most unrefined state. The original actors might still be hanging around (if they haven’t gotten famous, left Hollywood, or found religion) to make return appearances, there’s plenty of money in the coffer, and there’s almost total creative freedom – with only one prior, it’s harder to pick out a pattern to follow.

A first sequel can decide the course of an entire franchise. Friday the 13th Part 2 made the drowned child Jason Voorhees the villain, a putrescently awful idea that went on to make untold millions. Halloween II guaranteed that any attempt to anthologize the franchise without its trademark Boogeyman would be a non-starter. Saw II began the tradition of Jigsaw expanding his torture empire like a less morally bankrupt McDonald’s (zing!), Hatchet II introduced the use of cameras that cost more than five dollars (double zing!), and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge… Well, people like to pretend that that one never happened.

Probe won me a point in horror trivia one month, though. #neverforget

So when it came time for Child’s Play to wrangle itself a part two (two years after its release – a little late for an 80’s horror sequel but these were the waning years of the age of slasher decadence), there was a whole horizon of hope and wonder spread in front of it. What Child’s Play captain Don Mancini (who has penned the script for every single film in the franchise and directed the most recent two films) elected to do was set his killer doll slowly down the path set by Freddy Krueger: from genuine menace to quipping prankster. Because the initial pedestal he had to fall from wasn’t quite so high, this transition was much smoother, but that’s a story for another time. For now, what we’re faced with is the new Chucky’s cocoon, a still horrific tale that’s certainly more vulgar and crass than its predecessor but equally more focused and thrilling.

In Child’s Play 2, young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) has been committed to the foster system following the institutionalization of his mother. The business with the killer doll Chucky (Brad Dourif) – who was possessed with the soul of the Lakeshore Strangler Charles Lee Ray – has been written off as a flight of childish fancy, nevermind the four corpses left in his wake. Andy has been taken in by Joanne (Jenny Agutter of An American Werewolf in London) and Phil Simpson (Gerrit Graham) as well as their teen foster daughter Kyle (Christine Elise), winner of this film’s Spirit of the 90’s ribbon with her leather hat thick gold chain, and cherry red lippy.

When executives of the Play Pals corporations rebuild the Chucky doll to dispel those hurtful rumors about his nasty habit of attempting to dismember loyal customers, things go about as well as you might expect. Chucky discovers Andy’s whereabouts and takes the place of Tommy – the Good Guy doll Andy has been using to get over his trauma – to infiltrate the house and find a quiet moment to play a round or two of Hide the Soul.

I mean, at least it’s better than Monopoly.

The most important topic when discussing Child’s Play 2 (as it is I suppose, with any of its sequels) is the film’s treatment of Chucky. A serial killing doll is a tough character to pull off at the best of times (why don’t people just set up a child gate or something? He’s two freaking feet tall!), and the turning point of the Chucky films was when they embraced their inherent camp value. However, this film struck a curiously perfect alchemical balance. Now that viewers already knew the extent of Chucky’s supernatural prowess thanks to the mostly played-straight Child’s Play, the doll was free to interact openly with his environment from square one. He still lurked in the shadows whens talking his prey, but this Chucky is a more mobile, active man about town.

Many horror enthusiasts would argue that bringing the villain out into the open dampens the cerebral chill of the unknown, that imagination is always worse than what we can see. They’re partially right. And in scenes like, say, Chucky spanking a teacher with a yardstick, it’s a little harder to take him seriously. But this film’s forays into camp territory are relatively infrequent, and the increased face time with Chucky also maximizes exposure to Brad Dourif’s paint-peeling performance of raw, unfettered malice. Chucky’s slightly improved animation effects also serve to make him a more credible menace, and when that doll roars with anger it will electrify your nerve endings like taking a dip with a toaster.

Don’t try this at home: professional blogger working in controlled conditions.

While Child’s Play 2 may lack Tom Holland’s flair for stacking a scene with gag after gag, it’s also the film in the franchise that most frequently and consistently wrings tension out of its scenario, losing the muddy mystery elements that bogged down the original script like a pair of concrete booties. Whether it’s a switcheroo kill where a weapon turns out to be harmless before Chucky strikes for real, the unendurably slow unveiling of Tommy’s deposed corpse (which was buried under the swing and gets revealed a little more with each kick), or just the world’s creepiest basement, this is an astonishingly well put-together work of early 90’s horror cinema. Mind you, that company includes Leprechaun, Dr. Giggles, and The Ice Cream Man, but I’m not kidding around here. This movie’s got legs.

The script also serves the tone well by consolidating the horror around a single-family home rather than a gritty urban crimescape. It allows for more interpersonal dynamics to flourish as the plot thickens (dad thinks Andy’s crazy and wants to return him like he’s a faulty vacuum, mom is struggling with the fact that she’s barren, etc.), and Andy and Kyle develop a very genuine sibling bond that benefits the emotional impact enormously. Kyle also provides the franchise with its first real crack at a bona fide Final Girl, rising to the challenge with vim, vigor, and punk rock attitude.

When the finale rolls around, just Kyle, Andy, Chucky, and an endless Mary Poppins grab bag of lovely, gooey special effects, it’s tremendously difficult not to have fallen head over heels for Child’s Play 2. Chucky has found his way six feet under once more (this guy has more lives than a cat, and they’re all shockingly gory considering that his only health care option is plastic surgery), but his brief new lease on life has reminded us that yes, killer dolls can be scary, yes, sequels can be great, and no, they don’t have to win Oscars to prove it

Child’s Play 2 isn’t the best film to ever happen to me, far from it. But it’s delightfully easy to enjoy, and that’s an astonishingly rare occurrence in the dark and divisive forest of endless horror franchise. I cherish what I can, and Child’s Play 2 is like finding a forgotten reassure in a dusty old toy box, just begging to be played with all over again.

Killer: Chucky (Brad Dourif)
Final Girl: Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) feat. Kyle (Christine Elise)
Best Kill: After Grace Poole is stabbed, she lands on a photocopier which starts printing copies of her bloody face.
Sign of the Times: Kyle for President

Scariest Moment: Kyle slowly walks down the hall while the sewing machine furiously rattles.
Weirdest Moment: Kyle doesn’t bat an eye when she finds Andy tied to his bed.
Champion Dialogue: You’ve seen dolls that pee? This one bleeds.”
Body Count: 8
  1. Worker #1 is electrocuted.
  2. Mattson is smothered with a plastic bag.
  3. Miss Kettlewell is stabbed with a basketball pump.
  4. Phil has his neck broken in a fall.
  5. Joanne is killed with her sewing machine offscreen.
  6. Grace Poole is stabbed in the chest.
  7. Worker #2 has his eyes gouged out by an assembly line machine.
  8. Chucky is pelted with malfunctioning doll parts, melted, and exploded.
TL;DR: Child's Play 2 might not be high art, but it's a surprisingly tight and tense entry in the early 90's horror scene.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1446
Reviews In This Series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Brief Note From The Stone Age

Howdy, y’all!

Don’t ask me why I wrote that. It’s been a weird week, I don’t know. As you may or may not have noticed, things have been a teensy bit slower than usual over here at Popcorn Culture. With my apologies, please allow me to lapse into a brief personal note of explanation.

First off, I just moved into a new, much larger apartment, so all the time I spend unpacking and merrily spinning in open spaces eats into my writing time. (My good friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue has also recently upped sticks – he’ll be copying my outfits next, just you wait. Why not head over there and wish him congratulations?)

Second, I’ve been dealing with a mighty unfortunate photosensitivity/migraine disorder that prevents me from looking at the computer for more than about twenty minutes at a time. While myself and a team of trained tortoises specialists are working this problem out, I’ve been dealing with a lot of pain. Especially considering the fact that I already work on the computer quite a bit for Arrow in the Head, I’ve been finding other methods to write reviews: namely, writing them freehand in a notebook, then transferring them into my blog when it is safe to do so.

Obviously, this is a huge boon for future historians who will be putting together Brennan-related museum exhibits, but it’s hell on my productivity. I assure you I’m working hard (both for my own well-being and for yours) to see to it that neither my health nor my posting pace flags, but I beg of you. Give a guy a break.

I’ve watched way too many films recently for a single human being to process, even a healthy one, so as a peace offering, here is another slate of delectable mini-reviews for you to pursue at your leisure:


Year: 2009
Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An ex-military operative turned overprotective father must tap into his old skills when his daughter is kidnapped on a European vacation.

Would you look at that, it’s another generally accepted modern classic that I’m late to, what with being far too busy mucking around in the tar pits of the early 80’s for something as low profile as the best American action flick of the year. Taken was a big surprise for everyone, most likely even Liam Neeson himself. A vehicle for an aging star that kept its hot young actress (Maggie Grace, fresh from Lost fame) offscreen for the bulk of its run time? By Hollywood’s myopic standards, this film should have been dead as one of Henry VIII’s ex-wives, but it takes a chance and owns it, crackling like a live wire.

The action itself is sublime, ushered to the screen by Luc Besson apprentice Pierre Morel. While every scene is guerrilla, MacGyver-esque thriller improvisation at its finest as Neeson takes every step possible to prevent his daughter from disappearing into a human trafficking ring within an estimated three-day time limit, there’s typically an additional frisson of tension layered on top of whatever Cool Thing he happens to be doing at the moment. His genuinely fleshed-out relationship with his daughter provides an emotional centerpoint for many high-octane moments, and in addition to that the sheer fearless audacity with which he charges into dangerous, unknown situations sends a tingle up the spine.

The key to this film is that Liam Neeson isn’t a beefed up superman. He is very skilled and utterly capable, but a fallible human being just like you and me. And Donald Trump. His age is hardly a factor in that (actually it just adds to how much of a badass he is). He’s just a regular father doing what any father would in his situation. He just happens to have a more suitable background for it than the average Joe Plumber.

This all works thanks to a sleek, punchy script by Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen. It’s the perfect action set-up: tight, to the point, painted in clean, efficient, broad stokes that don’t forget to highlight each character’s individual attributes, interactions, dynamics, and contributions to the screenplay. Each story beat has an emotion attached to it, which is something that far too may slick action scenarists tend to forget.

The filmmaking itself has inherited a little too much of Jason Bourne’s handheld attention deficit disorder for its own good, but for the most part the action sequences accomplish what they set out to achieve: a gritty, realistic aesthetic without (mostly) sacrificing visual logic. 

The only true faults Taken has are minor quibbles. First, the actor playing Neeson’s liaison, who looks like a French Kevin Spacey, is more wooden than a Venetian gondola. Second, in several scenes (especially in the unrated cut), the film parlays a little too heavily with rah-rah militaristic jingoism. Action films have always been a haven for the politically conservative and I should hardly dream of taking that away from anybody, but whenever one gets a whiff of Eau de Guantanamo Bay, let’s just say it’s not a pleasant one.

But all that easily fades into the background of what is a just plain terrific action flick. It’s unflagging, unforgettable, and unmatched in the annals of modern American cinema. You could say I’m quite taken with it.

Rating: 8/10

Up in the Air

Year: 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Ryan Bingman’s job is flying around the country firing people, but he faces a big change when a young corporate hotshot attempts to centralize his operation, cutting costs and ending his beloved jet-setting, companionless lifestyle.

I think the theme of all my mini-review sessions is “Brennan ignores important movies until the last possible second.” To review Up in the Air, we need to travel back to a very specific moment in time: Back before the Oscar buzz and eventual backlash, back to the middle of our nation’s period of economic turmoil, back to when Anna Kendrick was just that chick from Twilight. Alright, are we there? Let’s go.

Up in the Air tells a tale as old as time. Young idealism vs. old cynicism, single swinging vs. family values, George Clooney vs. commitment. You know, the classics. However, by setting its story smack dab in the middle of the most financially and emotionally unstable period of contemporary American history, the film finds a fresh take. Not only does George Clooney’s character constantly travel, separate from the ties of human connection, he makes his living off the backs of the fragile people he is casting carelessly off into the void. When he is forced to show Anna Kendrick’s Natalie the ropes, her ruthlessly pragmatic working style collides with his carefully curated “empathy.” They both begin to realize that everything they thought they knew about the world is completely wrong.

That meeting in the middle – a moral grey area – is another relatively unique perspective that Up in the Air brings to the table, all wrapped up in a thrilling, emotional comedy of errors about the trials and tribulation of the many different paths one can take to be a human being. Up in the Air is an upbeat, downtrodden look at how disparate lifestyles collide, how we all react to change, and how we can learn to pick ourselves up again. It’s perhaps less concerned with the plights of the laid-off workers than it claims to be, but as a backdrop of human self-doubt and upheaval, it’s certainly affecting. It might not be powerful enough to ruffle the hair of someone like Donald Trump (I’m sure he’s hiding one somewhere), but as a working-class American citizen, it’s eye-opening.

As a work of cinema, it’s rather stunning as well. The cinematography is sleek, stylish and weightless, rhythmically pattering through Ryan’s routines, ruthlessly emphasizing the chasm between Natalie’s job and her humanity with cavernous negative space. And following a fresh atypical beat from city to endless city, announced with relentlessly cheery block letters. It’s a fun, sprightly piece of comedy that’s pliable enough to hold the weight of the intense emotion it’s called upon to bear.

It could hardly be so successful without its cast, a carefully selected slate of A–grade veterans and newcomers alike. Anna Kendrick manages the woefully unenviable tasks of holding her own against George Clooney and, in fact, performs the most memorably powerful scene in the film, Vera Farmiga shines as Bingman’s coldly powerful female counterpart – exuding a sort of clockwork inhumanity masquerading as warmth, showing what he could become should he venture further down the rabbit hole - and of course Clooney himself is a godsend, full of cocksure braggadocio that slowly crumbles and twists away into he wind. Only a man as handsome and untouchable as Clooney could have pulled that part off in its beginning stages, but he knocks it out of the park when it comes time to show his vulnerable side, too

Up in the Air’s conclusion is a little rushed and sloppy, but all in all it’s a wonderful little film about people, work, and love. Oscarbait has never been more approachable.

Rating: 8/10

My Best Friend's Wedding

Year: 1997
Director:  P. J. Hogan
Cast: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A prominent food critic realizes that she’s in love with her best friend of ten years… four days before his wedding.

Doesn’t that just sound like the plot of every single romantic comedy you’ve ever been shackled by the wrist to watch with a doe-eyed significant other? Now, it might be surprising considering my horror pedigree, but I’m far from averse to the sugary sweet romance genre. It’s not a huge leap from Karo syrup to corn. However, a log line like that doesn’t exactly inspire soaring confidence in a film.

So Imagine my surprise when My Best Friend’s Wedding turned out to be kind of delightful. From the old-fashioned opening credits (which featured a full, non-diegetic, choreographed doo-wop performance of “Wishin’ and Hopin’”) on, the film captures you with its charming flair, drawing you in before slipping in a subversive spin on the genre, slowly pulling you back into stark reality. Honestly, it’s a remarkable achievement in genre filmmaking, and it’s devilishly, almost terrifyingly sneaky in its second act, as Julia Roberts’ Julianne performs a series of increasingly despicable acts and descends into full-on Cruella DeVille territory.

Along with an inexplicable profusion of musical numbers (to the point that I half expected Julie Andrews to appear and sing some cheerful lessons – Lord knows Julia Roberts could have used some), My Best Friend’s Wedding also boasts a gay character that avoids over-the-top stereotyping, a veritable parade of delicious 90’s fashions, and a downright stunning performance from Cameron Diaz as the naïve, privileged fiancée. Diaz is utterly phenomenal in this film, exuding the exact kind of facile purity that Julianne expects from her one minute, then digging deep inside to reveal an unseen strength of character the next. A karaoke scene where she transforms from shy croaker to reluctant star of the show is possibly the finest work of her career, exposing a simultaneous vulnerability and lust for life that betrays just how much competition she’ll prove to be for poor, bitter Julia Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is also fantastic waggling her annoyingly perfect face at the camera like she owns the world. The amount to which she’s willing to concede to the amorality of Julianne is truly refreshing, especially buried as it is under all the typical Roberts-isms: her dazzling smile, her ludicrously curly hair, her disarmingly un-sophisticated laugh. The only weak link in the cast is Dermot Mulroney (of Insidious: Chapter 3) as the man of the hour, the titular Best Friend himself. Mulroney’s Michael is alarmingly devoid of inner life: it’s just cream filling beneath his white smile and toothbrush hair. This is partially the fault of the writing, but when he and Roberts are together, the film drags like a West Hollywood brunch.

There’s just no spark there. It’s hard enough the believe that these two have known each other for a decade (an issue the script attempts to address by having them remind each other of this fact every 2.5 minutes), let alone actually genuinely love another. She’s crème brûlée and he’s a slice of cheesecake without the graham cracker crust. Because of this, the third act sinks like a stone once the other, funnier character take on more secondary roles.

But until that point, My Best Friend’s Wedding is a charmingly witty, daringly different beast. I’m glad I was forced to watch it (for a podcast called Now Streaming, up this Wednesday!), and it’s a vital cornerstone in any romantic comedy education. Now if only they could dump Mulroney and make a movie where Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz have wacky wedding hijinks, then we’d be talking.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 2175

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Valley Of The Dolls

Year: 1988
Director: Tom Holland
Cast: Catherine Hicks, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In what is shaping up to be a summer’s end tradition (thanks to the close proximity of my birthday), I am once again finding myself exploring a horror franchise that’s totally new to me. Last year, it was Saw, an agreeably unpleasant marathon that led to some of my most hilariously sardonic reviews, if I do say so myself. This year is much more enjoyable for me, though the jury’s still out for you guys: the Child’s Play franchise.

Chucky the serial-killing doll isn’t quite as iconic a presence in the horror market as your Freddys or your Jasons (hence his not unrespectable 6 films as opposed to the Big League numbers like 9, 10, and –shudder – 12), but considering the context, he’s lucky to be alive at all, let alone a considerably well-respected member of the second-tier horror pantheon. Tom Holland’s Child’s Play came out in 1988, long after the slasher dynasty had begun to flake and crumble. The subgenre still had some juice during that year (in fact, its most profitable film – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master – came out in ’88), but that well quickly dried up by 1989, long before Chucky could even squeeze out a measly sequel. 

He was abandoned to the cinematic wasteland of the early 90’s after just one entry, an entry that came out in a year by which the MPAA had already picked every scrap of meat clean off the carcass of the slasher, leaving it a clean, toothless version of what it once as. Without the genre staples of boobs and gore, filmmakers had to get creative, and by nothing short of a miracle, that’s exactly what Child’s Play did.

The secret is that literally nobody in the world likes dolls.

Child’s Play is set in an alternate universe where large talking plasticine dolls known as “Good Guys are incredibly popular. I know it’s an alternate universe, because in the one I live in, any sane person who happened upon one of these dolls in the Target toy aisle would immediately call the cops and try to light it on fire. Young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) reeeally wants one of these dolls for his birthday because maybe he’s a sociopath, but his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) can’t afford it. In an effort to appease him, she buys a doll from a vagrant in an alley, not realizing that just last night the notorious serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) used a voodoo curse to pass his soul into the doll after being gunned down at a toy store by Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon).

After a few select murders (including his ex-partner, who abandoned him), Chucky learns that in order to regain human form, he must possess the body of the first person he revealed his secret to – Andy. Of course, by this point Andy has been blamed for the killings because nobody believes his story that “the creepy doll did it.” Alternate universe, remember? Karen and Detective Norris must team up to stop Chucky from reaching Andy in his room at the psych ward… before it’s too late.

And because this is 1988, they don’t get to bang. Disappointing.

The reason Child’s Play was such a relatively resounding success was that it worked around its limitations to bring something new to the table. Not allowed to show boobs? Bam! Set it in a family. MPAA is cracking down on gore? Kazaam! Creative kills don’t have to be bloody. World getting tired of an endless rigmarole of silent, masked killers? Kalamazoo! Killer dolls had been seen before (Talking Tina anyone? If you know what I’m referring to, I’ll give you a moment to unclench your buttocks), but effects had advanced to a point that Chucky was able to gain an autonomy that couldn’t have been dreamt of a decade before.

Mind you, these are the reasons why Child’s Play is a successful and clever slasher film. The question of whether it’s a particularly good slasher film is another story. There’s a reason that the name “Chucky” has gained pop culture longevity, but the title itself has faded into the four winds. You’re not exactly hearing people go, “Now who was that short ginger from the Child’s Play movie?” While I’m legally obligated as a horror fan not to speak ill against any Tom Holland project, Child’s Play is good more in terms of how it was created and the legacy it inspired than its actual content.

In the manner of nearly all slashers with a heavy urban crime element, Child’s Play is somewhat of a letdown when it comes to the scare department. If I wanted to see hardnosed criminals hanging around police substations and wasting guys named Eddie, I’d rent a Scorsese movie. Or My Cousin Vinny. And while, yes, creepy dolls are creepy, Chucky hadn’t quite come into his own yet.

With so many of the early intrigue scenes committed to prolonging the mystery of whether or not he’s a real doll, they forget to provide a genuine sense of danger and he ends up looking rather silly as he toddles around in his chubby little booties. A moment where he threatens the Detective in his car with a knife is terrifically menacing, but there’s so many moving parts at work in that scene, it’s hard to give him full credit. There are scraps of tension scattered throughout the film, but they’re mostly thanks to Holland’s reliable atmosphere rather than (save one instance) Chucky himself.

Frankly, he’s scarier when he’s not moving at all.

When the film finally does slam full tilt into things, it’s a healthy helping of late 80’s fun. And the effects extravaganza of the final 20 minutes is pretty much beyond compare, though they never do figure out how to fit Dourif’s dialogue into Chucky’s stiff little mouth, bless their hearts. The kills (sparse as they are, this being a “story slasher” – gag me with a spoon, right?) are so unique that it’s hard to notice they’re completely ungory – hammers, ovens, electroshock machines… It’s like the Fisher Price playset from Hell. Chucky’s doll identity is only incorporated into one of the kills, which is a real missed opportunity, but the wicked gusto with which he dispatches his victims is captivating enough.

I could do without the vicious underacting from Sarandon and human Brad Dourif (“Oh God… I’m dying.”), both of whom are outpaced by even Alex Vincent, who’s a pretty credible kid lead but does have that child actor habit of sounding like he’s on sedatives half the times. However, once Dourif is wrested from his corporeal form, he Emerils it up a notch and effortlessly reaches his pernicious peak.

At the end of the day, you’ll never waste your time or money by sitting down for a screening of Child’s Play. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t find it to be everything you dreamed it would be, especially if you didn’t grow up with Chucky. Nostalgia is an important factor with this one. In fact, if possible, get in a time machine and show this movie to yourself at six years old, then get back to me. I’ll wait.

Killer: Chucky (Brad Dourif)
Final Girl: Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) feat. Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks)
Best Kill: A doctor’s brain is fried with an electroshock helmet. This effect can also be achieved by marathoning both seasons of Twin Peaks back to back.
Sign of the Times: Nobody bats an eye wen a six-year-old rides the train alone.
Scariest Moment: A six-year-old rides the train alone.
Weirdest Moment: The fact that anybody could possibly think Chucky is cute, even before he tries to stab them.
Champion Dialogue: “I gotta go. I have a date with a six-year-old boy.”
Body Count: 5; including Chucky, because why the hell not – they didn’t know there’d be sequels yet.
  1. Maggie is hit in the face with a toy hammer and falls out a window.
  2. Eddie perishes in a gas explosion.
  3. John is stabbed in the heart via a voodoo doll.
  4. Doctor is electrocuted via an electroshock therapy helmet.
  5. Chucky is shot in the heart.
TL;DR: Child's Play is an underwhelming beginning to a semi-classic franchise.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1396
Reviews In This Series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When Phoenixes Cry

Year: 2009
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The Harry Potter film franchise is a lot like a series of Craigslist missed connections: “I caught a glimpse of a decent subplot but it vanished when I turned back.” I was excited to spend time with a good director, but I hardly saw you at all.” “You farted on my hand and I loved it.”

Even with Order of the Phoenix, a movie I truly admired, there was always something incomplete about the Potter films, as opposed to the thrumming, fleshed-out universe of J. K. Rowling’s novels. But Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in the series, is something special. It’s the second longest flick in the flock, which doesn’t do it any favors, but it’s also the second film to have a director return to the world of Potter, allowing him to settle into and expand upon his original vision. The first time this happened, that director was Chris Columbus, and his reaction was to further embalm his mummified and dissected material so it would stay safe and dry forever and ever.

But this time we have David Yates, a man who isn’t exactly Orson Welles, but who is just as far from Ed Wood. His Phoenix is a perfectly adept, streamlined narrative with a keen creative eye and, allowed time to explore, his Potter explodes with distinctive vision. Whether that’s entirely his doing or the ministrations of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (the man behind Amélie) is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that Half-Blood Prince is aesthetically stunning, narratively secure, and emotionally vibrant like no Harry Potter film before or since.

This may have been rectified if they hadn’t cut Pigwidgeon out of Goblet of Fire.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in case you have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minded yourself and a portion of the relationship memories you erased included reading the Harry Potter books, is about the sixteen-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). After the events of Phoenix, the entire wizarding world knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort has risen again and his followers the Death Eaters are bent on destroying wizards and witches of impure blood and enslaving or killing the nonmagic folk known as Muggles. People are dying and disappearing, yet Harry – despite possibly being the only one who can stop Voldemort according to a prophecy – s only a boy and as such must return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and at least attempt to lead a normal life.

Over the course of the year, the Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) gives him a series of lessons on the history of Voldemort’s youth, mostly centering on a pivotal memory that he must collect from the sycophantic Potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). This memory may be key to destroying Voldemort and, luckily, a secondhand Potions book – property of the Half-Blood Prince – has scribbled hints in the margins that help Harry ace his class and get into Slughorn’s good graces.

Oh, and dare I mention… Hormones have cast their spell over Hogwarts. Cormac (Freddie Stroma) wants to get with Hermione, except she has unrequited feelings for Ron, who spends all his time snogging Lavender (Jessie Cave), who gets upset when a misapplied love potion causes him to fall for Romilda (Anna Shaffer), who desperately wants to get it in with Harry, who has to surgically reattach his lower jaw ever time he sees Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and I have a crush on Neville (Matthew Lewis), but not until his Attitude photo spread.

It’s like American Pie but with an easier entry point for wand puns.

I’m gonna cut right to the chase. Half-Blood Prince is the only Harry Potter flick to be a truly great movie. As it deftly splits its attention between comic teenybopper romp and an out-and-out siege movie, it actually becomes the only film to actively improve upon the source material in any respect. The less constricted perspective of the cinema frees it to more effortlessly juggle those wildly disparate tones, allowing the bright glow of youth to contrast sharply with the constant, imminent cloud of danger outside threatening to snuff it out.

Every aspect of the film is in service to this oh so delicate balance. It’s a good thing too, considering the gargantuan tonal lurches the script asks the film to make, sometimes in the space of a single cut. Without Delbonnel’s master class sharp-shooting, the entire performing arts sector of the British Isles pulling out all the stops (and pushing in a couple gos for good measure), and David Yates allowing his taps-running Britishisms to fill in the cracks with a sly sense of humor, Half-Blood Prince could very easily have collapsed under its own weight like a house of cards that dedicates its third season to nuts and bolts policy-making instead of sexy Kevin Spacey murder.

But we’ll get into that in a second. What I’m really dying to bring up is the screenplay, the fifth to e written by Potter squatter Steve Kloves. I suppose that after four tries, you’re bound to get in a good one eventually. If an infinite number of Steve Kloveses hacked randomly at an infinite number of J. K. Rowling novels, eventually one would produce a coherent, self-contained script. But boy is it a good’un, an entirely legible narrative with hardly a kink. Voldemort’s backstory is the only cut bit that suffers in any way, rendering a key scene in the third act a little logically muddy, but third acts were hardly Rowling’s strong suit to begin with. As an act of adaptation, Half-Blood Prince is a pristine piece of work chock full of logical character progressions, recognizable story arcs, and a more purposeful forward momentum than even the novel can boast.

Enjoy the book as I do, it’s mostly just Harry reading in bed and trying to hide his boners.

Perhaps the most striking element of Half-Blood Prince is its aesthetic, which relies heavily on an autumnal scheme, all earth tones and scattered leave, to really drive home the point that the lives Harry and his friends used to lead are drawing to a close, one way or another. The end of school is drawing near, and the big bad world (which is now more than ever trafficking in horror imagery) is waiting to swallow them up. It’s a fantasy nightmare vision of senior year, really, and when it’s not being meaningful it’s content to be just plumb breathtaking. There are no single shots in the entire franchise more staggeringly beautiful than Aragog’s funeral, the confrontation on the hill, or Dumbledore’s whirling inferno of flames (also a fabulous integration of CGI), which combine wide framing and dazzling bursts of color to pants-soiling effect.

The cinematography is endlessly adaptable, ranging from the minutely playful (Dumbledore’s winking entrance) to the operatically grandiose and gorgeous [SPOILERS One of the final shots of the film – in tribute after Dumbledore’s death, the students and staff raises their wands into the air, blasting apart Voldemort’s Dark mark with beacons of light. It is the dawn of a new era of Harry Potter, both in terms of visceral emotion and visual abandon]. If I could elope to Vegas with any movie’s mise-en-scene and have a brief but fiery love affair, it would definitely be Half-Blood Prince.

Our registry can be found at

Second in command is the acting. Of course, by this point, you already know that the massive stable of adult actors that frequently waste their talent on fifteen-second scenes of eating dinner while wearing funny hats are pretty much unimpeachable, so I shall only highlight one key performer: Michael Gambon. The role of Dumbledore has been quite a journey for him, having taken over following the untimely death of Richard Harris after Chamber of Secrets. After three years of worrying at the part like a dog with a bone, he is finally in command, following his own inscrutable, tweaky path as the immeasurably harming, incredibly baffling headmaster.

And after a veritable Black Diamond slope of peaks and valleys, our three child performers (by this point all full-grown adults) have all finally outdone themselves, turning in their absolute best work. Their chemistry is warm and lived-in (as well it should be, after eight years of this nonsense), their lines readings are reeled back from the heady brinks of shrilldom, and their eyebrows are safely locked away where they can’t cause any more harm. Just like the human body, a film with a strong core helps everything else grow stronger, and Half-Blood Prince is an all-around beefcake.

With the franchise’s two characteristically weak elements (child acting and storytelling) finally firmly in place, this allows the film to go places none of its predecessors have before. When it’s funny, it’s laugh out loud hilarious, and when it’s serious, it bludgeons you with the force of a troll’s cudgel. This is the first Harry Potter that can outright be called a comedy without a whiff of fine print, but it also has the power to get you cowering behind your couch cushions in terror. 

It’s that good.

Now obviously, it ain’t perfection on a stick. The next movies are gonna have to do some real legwork to make up for lost narrative ground (we’re talking large scale here, the movie is still perfectly self-contained as hell), and a couple late reveals are about as tense as announcing what restaurant will be catering your bar mitzvah. Oh, and there’s one truly egregious editing trick that tries to drive in the horror of a situation by making sure you can only see it in millisecond chunks. 

But what the hey, this is the movie business. If you want perfect product, just rewatch Airplane!. Half-Blood Prince is an impeccable Harry Potter movie, it is my favorite Harry Potter movie, and if you had to pick out only a single DVD from the towering HP stack, do yourself a favor and grab this one. Thank me later.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a wonderfully crafted teen fantasy, delicately combining teen hijinks and tense siege drama.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1714
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Do We Know She Is Alive?

Year: 2009
Director: Stewart Hendler
Cast: Briana Evigan, Rumer Willis, Carrie Fisher
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Slasher remakes are a much maligned bunch. When you earn the disrespect of fans of a genre as notoriously disreputable as the slasher movie, there's pretty much nowhere left to turn, artistically speaking. But still the wheels of the remake machine kept spinning, chewing up and spitting out properties like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Hitcher, and even poor April Fool's Day, polluting cinemas with its noxious cloud. Notable exceptions like Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would crop up time and again, mostly to be ignored by genre purists, but for the most part it's an anemic crop.

Then there’s Sorority Row. It’s not the best of the late 2000’s remakes (for my money that would be The Wizard of Gore, which converts H. G. Lewis’ unwatchable smear of a film into a twisted splatterpunk fairy tale), but it takes after its source material in the best possible way. You see, its forebear, 1983s The House on Sorority Row, is also a true gem among a diseased crop – the ebbing dregs of the first wave of slasher films. While the remake can hardly reach its giddy heights, it certainly manages to do it proud by at least being a successful conveyor of popcorn thrills, which is more than can be said for the bulk of its contemptible contemporaries.

I still have stress dreams about the fact that I spent money n Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.

Sorority Row hews closer to the original’s plot than most in-name–only remakes, but it makes sure to leave plenty of room for the classic reboot standbys: actresses so sexy there’s a team of airbrushers listed in the credits, a script populated exclusively with outrageously privileged douchebags, and a half-dozen lines that name drop Facebook or whatever it is the kids are using to send nudes to each other these days. 

When the Theta Pi sorority sisters, led by Queen Bee Jessica (Leah Pipes) – play a prank on a man wut done them wrong, convincing him that the “roofies” he gave to Megan (Audrina Patridge of the seminal drama The Hills) have killed her, the last thing they expect is for him to actually attempt to dismember her totally just kidding body. Now that they’ve actually got a corpse on their hands, the girls dump the body at the bottom of a mine shaft, against the protestations of goody goody Cassidy (Briana Evigan) and to the gentle whimperings of Ellie (Rumer Willis, who is an anthropomorphic spaghetti noodle.

At their end of the year graduation party, the girls find themselves being menaced and killed by somebody using Megan’s phone (which had kept its charge all this time – evidently she hadn’t switched to Apple yet). Is it their friend, back from the grave and ready to part? Is it the boy who killed her, finally having snapped? Or is it somebody else entirely, who found out about the cover-up and want these girls dead? Also Carrie Fisher plays the house mother, so that’s happening.

Help me, Xanax Extra Strength, you’re my only hope.

Perhaps the single best decision made during the production of Sorority Row was to keep it R-rated, especially considering that it meant pushing against the tide of the unforgivably successful PG-13 dribble of cinematic santorum masquerading as a remake of Prom Night. That rush of producer bravery gave the film a lot of freedom, and though it mostly restrains itself to typical slick, slack remake shenanigans, there are moments where it throws caution to the wind and embraces its exploitation pedigree.

There’s an almost shocking (for the time) amount of nudity in the film, rivaled only by Friday the 13th 2009’s gleeful excess, and while it can hardly be considered “edgy,” it at least comes close to considering attempting to be. There’s more nipples than a dinner rush at Applebee’s. less than a Grateful Dead concert, I’ll leave it at that. And while the gore is largely content to putter around offscreen, the kills themselves are creative and brutal. The quick flashes of implied violence have been done better (I mean, obviously), but the setpieces are clever, the results are messy, and the weapon of choice (a wickedly modified tire iron, - the tool used to kill Megan) is – in a word - radical.

Sometimes a movie reviewer must toe the line between objective observer and twelve-year-old. “Knifey tire iron” is, evidently, my line.

I daresay I doubt that anybody will fall out of their chair in shock if I say that, in spite of its very real successes as a remake, Sorority Row is not in the least bit scary. If I did shock you, please accept my humblest apologies, send me the dry-cleaning bill for your soiled PJ pants, and feel free to follow this link to the index of my blog. I suggest you start at the A’s and work your way down. By the time you get to The Gallows at least, I think we’ll understand each other a bit better.

For the rest of you, suffice it to say that Sorority Row favors quippiness over frights and portentous whooshing transitions over legible cinematic style. The spasmodic seizings of the camera are a little too close to found footage for comfort, but I’ll be damned if that quipping doesn’t pass the time with flying colors. Sorority Row is blessed with a surprisingly credible cast for a film of its caliber, and Leah Pipes especially delivers her lines with a held-back cattiness that’s so wildly out of proportion with the horrific circumstances that surround her, you can’t help but feel a chuckle soldier its way out of your windpipe.

Its irreverent humor is perhaps its most prominent attribute, but an enthusiastically bonkers (if mildly misogynistic) third act is the savory whipped cream on top of a surprisingly tasty vanilla shake.

You know, one of those that looks uniform and bland but has flecks of sprinkles of something providing enticing bursts of colorful flavor in your straw… I’ve eaten nothing but quesadillas and boxed cereal for three days, does it show?

All in all, Sorority Row is a keeper. It pales in comparison to the original material, but it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had revisiting an iconic horror property. And any remake that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out then light that hair on fire is a plus in my book.

Body Count: 10
  1. Megan is stabbed in the throat with a tire iron.
  2. Dr. Rosenburg has a tire iron thrown through his face.
  3. Chugs has a bottle shoved into her throat, which is slit.
  4. Shower Girl is stabbed through the bottom of the chin.
  5. Mickey is impaled in the gut.
  6. Garrett is run over with a car.
  7. Claire has a flare shoved in her mouth.
  8. Mrs. Crenshaw is impaled through the back.
  9. Lyle is slashed in the back of the head.
  10. Jessica is stabbed through the mouth.

TL;DR: Sorority Row is a totally acceptable remake of a bona fide slasher classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1193
Reviews In This Series
Sorority Row (Hendler, 2009)